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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4091


Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (12:12): I rise to make some comments on the legislation before us today. The amended Australian Education Bill 2013 and related bills establish a new federal funding model formula for non-government schools. The legislation has also been amended to include different funding arrangements for government schools dependent on whether their state government has agreed to the changes. The states and territories, as we all know, have until 30 June to agree to the new school funding model. Only New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia have entered into an agreement with the federal government to date.

Under the schooling resource standard, all participating schools—and all non-government schools are deemed to be participating schools—are entitled to a base amount of funding for every student. The base amount of funding per primary student is $9,271 and per secondary student is $12,193. The SRS amount is indexed annually by three per cent.

I will confine my remarks to a shorter period of time today to leave as much time as possible for other colleagues to make contributions, given that we are being guillotined and are ceasing this debate at one o'clock. The fact that we have such a limited time—as other colleagues have said—to debate these bills is absolutely deplorable. It comes back to the fact that this government has no ability not only to run the country properly but to run the chamber and the process of parliament properly. This does an absolute disservice to particularly our families and students around this nation, who deserve to have the parliament be given the opportunity to properly scrutinise this legislation.

And it has indeed been a shambolic process. In 2012, the original Australian Education Bill was just nine pages long. It contained myriad motherhood statements. The amended legislation being rushed through the parliament is now 129 pages long. We simply cannot give this new legislation that is before us an appropriate level of scrutiny in the short amount of time available.

And it is a shambolic process. We have only three of the states lined up, as I said. They have until 30 June to agree or disagree with the federal government about whether or not they are going to sign up. Yet we see the legislation coming before the parliament today to be finalised. It is a completely shambolic process. And Western Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory still have real concerns. I understand that Tasmania has concerns about the power that is going to sit with the federal minister, and I understand that is on the record. I will make some brief comment on the position of New South Wales. My good friend the minister in New South Wales, Adrian Piccoli, has indeed signed up—in good faith, from his New South Wales perspective. But from my perspective as a federal senator I have to look at the entire nation and how this piece of legislation is going to affect all states and territories.

This is all far too late—this last-minute rush. We are talking about an incredibly and complicated new process to be applied to our schools through this piece of legislation, and this model is to begin on 1 January 2014. That is an extraordinary ask on those schools, and on those who run the schools—who, as I understand it, say that this type of process normally takes 12 to 18 months to bed down. Yet, because of the shambolic nature of this government, we are now looking at a mere few months by which this model is supposed to be in place. But look at this government's history of implementing policy. Perhaps if it had been a government—as my good colleague the shadow minister, the member for Sturt in the other place, said—that had a track record of good delivery of good policy, we might perhaps not be quite so concerned about the short time frame. But think about this government's history—and I keep using the word 'shambolic', because it is the one I find most appropriate—of policy implementation, such as the pink batts debacle, the absolute disaster of the overpriced school halls and the snap ban of the live export trade; in terms of a policy disaster, that one has to be one of the worst we have seen from this government—but that is a discussion for another day.

So on this side of the chamber we certainly do not have any confidence that this government can have this model implemented, have this policy properly run through by the due date of 1 January. Interestingly, in the Gonski report we saw that $6½ billion was supposed to go to this. Over the forward estimates, over the four years, the expectation then would be $26 billion. But what we have actually seen from this government over the forward estimates is a $325 million cut. Then we are supposed to believe that this is going to turn into some sort of river of gold—$7.8 billion—in years 5 and 6. Again, on this side of the chamber we just have no confidence in this government that they will be able to either (a) deliver the model in time or (b) deliver the funding that is indeed necessary.

And the lack of clarity that we have seen continues. There has been a lot of confusion and concern in the community. Through the Senate estimates process I have tried over a long period of time now, as has my very good colleague Senator Mason, to ascertain some detail as to how this model is going to work. And I have to say, until very recently there was very, very little information. There is now, of course, some information in the amendments—on the loadings and the relevant definitions for regional and remote schools—and also information available on the Better Schools website. But there is still a real difficulty in deciphering how the new funding system will actually operate—how it is going to translate into dollar terms for individual schools. And there is still a lot of confusion in the school sector as to what the funding changes actually mean.

In the recent budget estimates I asked where I personally could go to see the actual impact on regional schools—my specific area of interest—and was told that anyone trying to decipher the impact of the changes would have to know the school's current finances, size, location and so on and then refer to the complex amendments to the bill and apply some very confusing formulas. So it is not at all surprising that there is a pervasive belief out there in the community that there is still such a lack of clarity around this.

The Council of Catholic School Parents and the NSW Parents' Council indicated earlier in June that it is an overly complex, convoluted model that lacks transparency, that they cannot see what the school's actual funding is. The president of the NSW Parents' Council, Stephen Grieve, said:

If a doctor of mathematics cannot understand the model and what funding our children will get next year, how are parents meant to comprehend the bill?

I think that is one of the real flaws: we do not have the transparency necessary to see how this is going to operate. Unfortunately, words of comfort and surety from the government just do not cut it on this side of the chamber, because we simply do not have the confidence in this government that what they are saying will actually happen.

We also have some concerns around the new tool that is apparently coming in in 2017, around the individual parental capacity to pay. Now the minister has said that what he actually meant was the aggregate parental capacity to pay. But the legislation still says 'individual'. How is this going to play out for those parents and families out in our communities? Is this going to be a means test? And how is it going to work? We have no problem, on this side of the chamber, with improving outcomes in education for students. But we do not want to see this lack of clarity resulting in negative impacts on those families and students in the school sector—particularly, from my point of view and from that of many of my colleagues, those in the regional school sector.

Money itself is not going to solve these problems. As my very good colleague Senator Mason said earlier, a bucket of money is not going to solve this. And unfortunately this government relies all too often on a bucket of money, thinking it is going to solve a problem. Indeed, we only have to look at the NBN to see that this is a principle that this government has tried time and time again. Money itself is not going to solve these problems.

While I understand that a lot of the schools realise, as we do, that financial assistance is going to be necessary for some of this improvement, we actually need to look at and focus on things like principal autonomy, parental engagement, a strong and robust curriculum and teacher quality. If those things are not improved, no amount of money thrown into the system is going to make the slightest bit of difference, unless attached to that is the deliberative and proper assessment of how we actually improve those things for students in those schools.

I was going to go on with a number of other areas but, as I say, in deference to other colleagues who I know want to speak, I will cut my comments short. But I do have to say that I believe that there has been a real lack of consultation with and information provision to, in particular, the regional communities, in terms of this government getting out there and communicating and properly consulting with regional communities. The information that has come through to us in the Senate estimates process has been very weighted to the city areas, and that is absolutely not acceptable.

The other thing that is not acceptable is the $2.8 billion worth of cuts that the government has put in place, hitting the university sector and our students, to try and pay for this. If this government had not racked up around $256 billion worth of debt, now heading towards $370 billion, we would not be looking at the funding cuts that we are seeing in the university sector and for those students. That is simply wrong and just shows that this government has absolutely no ability to manage money. Our students should not have to be cash cows for this Labor government to pay for a policy that it wants to put in place.

On this side of the chamber, as I say, we are absolutely supportive of making sure that our students get the best opportunities they possibly can through their schooling life—particularly those students in regional schools, right across those regional areas. That is my particular focus. We will continue to support those students and families to ensure that they have better outcomes in the future.