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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 6320

Senator MASON (Queensland) (10:57): The September 2011 issue of the Institute of Public Affairs Review asked the question we have all been increasingly asking ourselves about the Gillard government: is this government worse than Whitlam? I come back to this question again today as the Senate debates the Schools Assistance Amendment Bill 2011, which seeks to postpone the implementation of the national curriculum for another year.

Is there a policy—is there perhaps one policy—where this government has not either broken its promise and then not bothered to implement it or, if it has commenced implementation, not made a complete shambles of it, gone over budget and completed behind schedule? Is there just one of those policies? Some years ago I argued in this chamber that debt is part of Labor's DNA. I noted that every Labor government since Federation, since 1901, for 110 years, has left Australia with more debt than when it first took office. All 10 Labor prime ministers since 1901 have left this country in more debt than when they came into office—every one since 1901. But over the four years of the Rudd-Gillard fiasco—or maybe, time will tell, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd fiasco; who knows—it has become apparent that there has been another rather malignant mutation to the Australian Labor Party's genetic code; it is Labor's complete and utter incompetence. It is not just the usual generic problems we have come to expect of Labor governments, but a total, self-destructive inability to successfully implement any policy in a professional, or cost-effective or timely manner—not one policy.

Saddling future generations of taxpayers with tens of billions of dollars of debt is bad enough, but doing it in such a way that there is precious little to actually show for it is absolutely unforgiveable. As Talleyrand once said, 'It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.' And herein lies the tragedy. The coalition actually supports a national curriculum for Australia's schools. Uniformity of school curricula throughout our nation brings advantages with it. The opposition supports it in principle. Our concerns are not with the concept, not at all, but rather with the direction the national curriculum is heading under Labor. Ms Gillard said in 2008 that the curriculum would take three years to develop and 'can start to be delivered in all jurisdictions from January 2011'.

Under this bill, non-government schools are required to implement the national curriculum by 31 January 2012. This is one year later than originally promised, all due to the government's bungling of this, yet another landmark commitment. They bungle even landmark commitments. Schools cannot implement a curriculum that is simply not ready. For this reason the coalition will not be opposing the bill. We can also note that the final version has not yet been approved, and most states will not begin imple­mentation of the national curriculum until 2013 or indeed 2014.

The national curriculum has of course been plagued by problems right from the very outset. Perhaps the root problem with the draft curriculum is the decision by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, ACARA, which has been tasked with developing and drafting the national curriculum, to weave three so-called 'cross-curriculum perspectives' through all the subject areas and all the national curricula no matter how much these pers­pectives and overarching themes are relevant to each subject. These cross-curriculum perspectives are: the Indigenous perspective, a commitment to sustainable patterns of living, and an emphasis on Asia and Australia's engagement with the region. These are the so-called cross-curriculum perspectives that weave their way through the national curriculum.

It is important that students learn about Aboriginal culture, their way of life and their impact on Australia's history. It is also important that students learn about the contribution of non-Western science towards the building of the body of modern knowledge. However, it is a matter of emphasis and a matter of priority. The coalition's initial reaction to the national curriculum is that once again the importance of the basics in education are downplayed in favour of the more trendy elements favoured by our educational and cultural estab­lishment. Why not a cross-curriculum per­spective that teaches students about the role and importance of liberal democratic institutions in shaping the society they live in? What about that perspective? Isn't that more relevant? I would have thought so. Or perhaps the heritage of the impact of the Judeo-Christian Western tradition, which touches on every aspect of life in a modern Western country like Australia, from arts and literature to philosophy and to science. What about that as a cross-curriculum perspective? I would have thought that was pretty relevant, as well. But, no, it is not included. Or what about the role of science and technology in the material progress of humankind, including its contribution to both creating and solving problems inherent in such progress? Wouldn't you think that was pretty important? Many of us think that is important, but, no, that is not included.

If—and it is a big if—the national curriculum is to have any cross-curriculum perspectives, such overarching themes that seek to provide a scholastic skeleton and superstructure for the curriculum, perhaps they should be even more practical rather than theoretical in nature. What about something more practical than theoretical in nature, if we have to have these cross-curriculum perspectives at all. So, instead of, for example, a 'commitment to sustainable patterns of living', which will be reflected where appropriate in national curriculum documents, why not—and this is the coalition's idea; a terrible idea, apparently!—have the national curriculum say: 'The contents of all the individual subject streams of the national curriculum should be seen against the background of preparing students to face the challenges of life and work in the 21st century.' Don't you think that is pretty practical? I would have thought so, but that is not included, either.

Putting ideological issues aside—who am I to be ideological; when would I be so crass as to be ideological—let's look at some technical criticisms. They have been even more pronounced. And there are several technical criticisms. The national curriculum is too prescriptive, reducing individual schools' flexibility and crowding out other subjects. Not enough resources have been provided for teacher training or, indeed, for professional development. There are problems with standardising school starting ages, the transition from primary to secondary school and consistency of final leaving exams, my state of Queensland being a classic example: we have continuous assessment whereas in New South Wales they have final examinations. There are quite different forms of assessment throughout the nation. The national curriculum does not sufficiently recognise the diversity of students, including gifted and talented students, those with special needs or students who have English as a second language. It is ambiguous about whether the material within the national curriculum is meant to be mandatory or designed to be a core around which jurisdictions and schools may add a little 'local flavour'. These concerns are shared amongst key stakeholder groups, including teacher representatives and professional associations.

For these reasons I, on behalf of the coalition, will be moving two amendments in committee. The first relates to the importance of ensuring that schools are provided with appropriate support and assistance to implement the national curriculum. Currently, there is no nationally agreed or consistent approach across jurisdictions to ensure that all schools are receiving adequate support in the area of the professional development of teachers to be able to effectively implement the national school curriculum.

Our second amendment seeks to include specific representation of the non-government school sector, an increasingly large sector, on bodies charged with developing timelines for implementation of the national curriculum. Currently there is no requirement for representation of non-government schools on the Council of Australian Governments' Standing Council for School Education and Early Childhood, or on its advisory officials' committee, the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs Senior Officials Committee.

Having adequate representation would add a safeguard that non-government schools would be adequately and appropriately consulted in the lead-up to decisions regarding the implementation time frames for the national curriculum. If a national curriculum is to serve the learning needs of Australia's children, the implementation process must not be hurried in the manner of Mr Garrett's Home Insulation Program or Ms Gillard's bungled school halls program. This is just too important to get wrong.

These two modest amendments would go a long way to alleviating some of the recurring concerns about the curriculum process. When the then education minister, Ms Gillard, promised 'A national curriculum publicly available and which can start to be delivered in all jurisdictions from January 2011', her press release of 15 April 2008 was titled, 'Delivering Australia's First National Curriculum.' Three and a half years later, Ms Gillard is still delivering, but the national curriculum is stillborn. Those of us who have watched this saga unfolding, not to mention the fiascos of computers in schools and the school halls program, were not surprised that Ms Gillard's record as minister for education proved to be a very accurate foretaste of her tenure as Prime Minister—sad, but not surprised.

Senator Sterle: You know that is rubbish, mate! Tell me what school in Queensland does not deserve a school hall?

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Parry ): Order! Senator Mason, have you completed your remarks?

Senator Sterle interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Sterle, Senator Collins is waiting to address the chamber.