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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4087


Senator KROGER (VictoriaChief Opposition Whip in the Senate) (11:46): I too rise to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2013 and the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. But before I do that, Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin, can I firstly just acknowledge, as you are in the chair this morning, the enormous contribution that you have made to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): Thank you.

Senator KROGER: This is your third-last day in the Commonwealth parliament. Those of us who have worked with you on committees and have been working with you in this chamber have high regard for your professionalism, the depth of your appreciation of so many issues, the breadth of your knowledge in relation to the processes of this place and particularly, may I say, your respect for and empathy with so many communities, particularly the Indigenous community. I know that you have taken the opportunity—probably rightfully so—at times to educate me on your perspectives on that. Congratulations for your time and your contributions, and all the best following the end of this 43rd Parliament.

Senator Mason: Hear, hear!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Senator KROGER: I turn to the bills. It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on these bills, because education is an issue that I have had a lifelong passion for. In fact, it was an issue that I raised in my first speech in this place. I spoke at length about my particular personal passion in relation to education and what we provide for all those young people coming through the school system and on to tertiary education. Not only do I speak in terms of the coalition's perspective and my personal perspective on this but I would also like to be a voice for the people—I was trying to think whether I should term it as hundreds or thousands; like so many, I have been contacted by probably now thousands who are either principals or schoolteachers, and certainly parents—who have all expressed their enormous concern about these education bills. They have written to us, called and actually visited me in my electorate office. We have spent considerable time listening to the concerns of those who are caught up in the education process, whether that is as a stakeholder—that is, as a family, as parents who have children going through the system—or as those who seek to pursue a career in the education sector. So many have expressed their concerns, and it is as much for them that I speak today as their voice in expressing their concerns on these bills.

In my first speech in this place, I reflected on my parents' interest in and passion for education and how they taught me that education is the No. 1 equaliser in society. It is actually access to education and choice of education that provide an opportunity to give people a hand up in life, not a handout. That is why it is of such critical concern to us in the coalition, and it is why we have been so consistent over the years—and I refer to the former Howard government period. It is why we spent so much time and had such a priority in this area to ensure that strong education standards applied to all within Australia.

I have to say that on a personal basis I think that one of the great things that we should be considering is having a system whereby a fiscal amount, if you like, is applied and assigned to an individual child regardless of where that child is educated so that the parents themselves have the opportunity to choose which school is in the best interest of their children and, more importantly, which schools reflect the values and principles of the way in which those families wish to raise their children. But that is an argument for another day.

I will briefly reflect on my parents, though, because I think this is a great example. My brother and sister and I were the first in our family who were offered private education. We were the first in our extended family who went to private schools. Interestingly, though, the three of us did not go to the same school. My parents determined that each of us had different requirements and different needs, and they determined that different schools would bring out the best in us and suit us in very different ways. That is a very relevant example, certainly for me, of where different schools and the different principles applied at those schools supported individuals in different ways. It is the parents—only the parents—who can determine what education system best suits their own children. So any education public policy introduced or mandated by a government should be very cognisant of that fact.

It is a crying shame that, on the third last day of the 43rd Parliament, these bills are numbered 23rd and 24th of 55 bills to be guillotined. It is an absolute crying shame, as Senator Mason alluded to when he sought to suspend standing orders so that we could debate this longer. It is an absolute travesty for us all that in the House they only had two hours to look at, scrutinise and deal with these bills. We just heard from Senator Pratt. These are bills that the government themselves believe are absolutely critical to the long-term future of all Australians. Why are the government only allowing two hours in the House and less time here in the Senate for us to debate a public policy which they have proposed and which they, the government, have suggested is so important to them? Without wanting to influence those who might be listening to this broadcast and without wanting to influence those who would make their own minds up on this, I think the facts stand for themselves.

It is an absolute tragedy that the committee inquiry into this only went for three days. For something as significant and as comprehensive as this, only three days were allowed to examine the implications of the introduction of the Australian Education Bill 2013 and the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. This is just too serious to play politics with. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of a rushed public policy, rushed politics, serving an agenda other than the one we should be critically concerned about: the future of our youth in Australia.

I also suggest that the government are being quite misleading when they keep on referring to these measures, loosely—I do say loosely—as being part of the Gonski recommendations. The one person we have not heard from since these bills have been formulated for us to consider is the esteemed David Gonski himself. He is not associating himself with these bills. What he did was undertake a very comprehensive review and make a number of recommendations, and the government have cherry-picked aspects of that review and incorporated them in these bills. It is very deceptive to suggest that this is the conclusion of all the recommendations made in the review, because that is far from the truth.

We know that because the Gonski review called for no less than $6.5 billion in new funding each and every year. That is $6½ billion in each and every year, to a total of over $39 billion. Let's put that into some sort of context. What are we looking at here? Labor has promised $9 billion by 2019, which is six years away. There is a dramatic difference between what Mr David Gonski recommended by way of an injection of funds towards the restructure of the education sector and what we see before us.

As Senator Mason commented earlier, the issue here—and this applies to absolutely every issue that the government touch—is that they think, if you throw a bucketload of cash at something and make a huge injection of cash, that will produce the best outcome for whatever area it is. It is such a typically Labor and Greens' view that the solution for absolutely everything put before us is to throw money at it. I would proffer that that is not the solution. Whether under the former Rudd government or under the current Gillard government, there is example after example where throwing good money after bad did not return good public policy. It did not come up with the outcome. We only have to go back and look at the school halls that were built across the country in a flurry. Some $14.5 billion was thrown at building new school halls.

In fact, I visited a number of schools during the construction program. One small school in a small country town in northern Victoria that had fewer than 200 students had $1 million directed to building a new edifice for the Gillard government. They said that in the history of the town they had never seen such a cash flow into their small country town—this was $1 million. If you translate that across fewer than 200 students it does not take much to work out whether or not that was an effective way to increase the education outcomes for each of those children. I have to say that the parents I met at the school on that day were highly questioning of the appropriateness of the way in which that was being delivered. They said, 'If the government wants to throw $1 million at us we are hardly going to say no to it.' The point was that there was no real belief that it was going to change the education outcomes.

That is just one example. Look at the computers in schools program. Every student would have a computer on their desk. When Prime Minister Gillard was education minister, we remember that. It changed over time. How did that improve the standards of the kids? Not one person on the other side of the chamber could attest to the fact that this program in any way demonstrably increased the education outcomes for those students. We have already seen $14.5 billion—we are talking here about $9 billion by 2019—spent in building structures with no suggestion that this has in any way improved the education outcome of a single student. If the government is serious about increasing education outcomes for all Australian students they would have had a far more comprehensive and appropriate look at the way in which they do it. History suggests that this is not going to be the case.

The federal budget impact shows that we are actually looking at a $315 million reduction in school funding over the forward estimates for the next four years. I have with me some four pages listing Victorian schools and the way they will be affected by this funding decision. They will be dramatically affected by this funding arrangement.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Senator KROGER: I would be delighted to take the interjection I have just heard across the chamber, because I would like to ask why it is that small Catholic schools with very low funding thresholds are able to deliver higher education standards than so many other schools that have a higher and stronger funding model. There are many Catholic schools and independent schools operating on small and tight budgets that successfully come up with good education outcomes. In my mind there is one real reason for that: it is to do with teacher quality. During the recently concluded 'Teaching and learning—maximising our investment in Australian schools' Senate inquiry—and, Madam Acting Deputy President, you participated in this inquiry—we heard about the critical role of the teachers in terms of the education outcomes of the kids; it is by raising the standard of the teachers and actually rewarding them and rewarding the very good, effective and committed teachers who have the greatest impact on the students. During the inquiry you will recall a young man, a refugee, who I think was from a school in Cranbourne, Victoria, who was so concerned about marginalisation within the school that he took it upon himself, with the support of teachers, to run programs within the school. This was out of left field. It was the teachers themselves who identified the strength of what he was doing and supported him. It has made a difference to that school today.

I hate to say it, but this policy is not worth the paper it is printed on. The government is a disgrace. This is another public policy that should be tossed out the door. (Time expired)