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Wednesday, 7 November 1973

Senator RAE (Tasmania) -The Bill with which we are now concerned is a Bill to create a Schools Commission. It is a matter which has engendered very considerable publicinterest, and I have no doubt that every member of this Parliament will be aware of the extent to which public interest has been created- if one can use that word. The extent of public interest has been so great that I have a huge bundle of telegrams which I have received over the past few weeks. It will not be possible to acknowledge some of them because the senders have not given sufficient address to enable them to be acknowledged, and I make that point here and now. However, I shall endeavour to acknowledge the others.

The Bill concerns a matter which has been the subject of very considerable debate in the past few years. I refer to the question of whether in Australia we should have a Schools Commission which should be a national or a nationwide body- a body created so that it is able to play,u part in the development and co-ordination Of education in Australia. We as an Opposition Party accept that last year that debate was concluded. It was one of the debates which took place in particular during the election campaign. This question was one of the very important and foremost matters put by the present Government during that election campaign. We accept that the Government has a mandate. We accept that in the view of the majority of Australians there is to be a Schools Commission. Although we had fears as to what might happen, because of some of the things that had been said by various spokesmen on behalf of the Australian Labor Party as to what they conceived a Schools Commission to be, the Minister for Education (Mr Beazley) in his second reading speech in the House of Representatives made it quite clear that our fears are no longer well founded. The Minister has made it quite clear that the Government has no intention whatsoever of using the creation of the Schools Commission as a centralising body in the administration of education in Australia. The Opposition wishes to see the Schools Commission work. We wish to see it work successfully in the interests of school students in Australia.

I believe that the title of this body is somewhat unfortunate. I believe that it is unfortunate to call it a schools commission rather than perhaps an education commission or even a students commission. The question of emphasis upon schools as opposed to an emphasis upon students is one of the matters which will arise in the course of this debate and later in the Committee stage. The Opposition is firm in its view that a schools commission should have primary regard to the interests of students and not the interests of schools.

The questions that the Schools Commission will be concerned with are primary and secondary education and not pre-school education or any of the other numerous areas in which the Commonwealth is to a greater or a lesser extent involved. There are in Australia slightly fewer than 10,000 schools at which nearly 80 per cent of the students are those attending government operated schools while slightly more than 20 per cent of students are attending non-government schools.

One of the matters which have been of considerable concern to a large number of people in Australia has been the future of non-government or independent schools. We were pleased to see that, by amendment in the lower House, the Minister recognised that there was perhaps an omission in the Bill as drafted. He proposed an amendment, which was carried in the House of Representatives, making it quite clear that all sections of the Bill dealt with both government and non-government schools. He has expressed his personal view on behalf of his Party that the future of non-government schools is to be assured.

I emphasise that we are not concerned in this Bill with pre-school education which, again, is a matter of considerable public interest and a matter in which the Government has taken other action, as would we have taken action had we continued in government. Pre-school education is a matter that was referred to in both of the policy speeches before the last House of Representatives election.

The general position is that the principles with which we are concerned in the Schools Commission Bill were explained by the Minister for Education in his second reading speech. I wish to quote certain parts of that speech because these aspects are a recognition of the realities of the situation in relation to primary and secondary education in Australia. The Minister for Education said:

Our approach is to establish Commissions of expert advisers rather than a vast centralised administrative machine. Diversity and innovation in education at the school level are desirable. 1 think the reference should be to a commission rather than Commissions. Later, the Minister said:

The States will retain responsibility for administering their own educational programs but will have available to them greatly increased funds for the purpose.

A further quotation to which I wish to refer is his emphasis on the fact that:

The role of the Australian Government in schools conducted by State governments or by non-government authorities is not a primary role but it is a vital role. The States establish state schools and register non-government schools.

In those quotations we see a clear recognition by the Minister on behalf of the Government of the twofold role in education- the role of government schools and the role of the States in relation to the conduct of those schools. We see that the Government is recognising what was put to it very strongly and firmly by the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission, commonly known as the Karmel Committee, that there should not be a centralisation of the administration of education in Australia.

It is interesting to note that the Karmel Committee was quite firm in the recommendations which it made in that respect. The Karmel Committee made it quite clear that, so far as it was concerned, it regarded diversity, innovation and decentralisation as important. I wish to quote 2 parts from chapter 1 3 of the report of the Karmel Committee. The Committee states in paragraph 2 of that chapter:

The constitutional responsibility for the provision of public education rests primarily with the States, as at present does the major financial commitment. The Committee believes that the Commission's influence should be of a general kind and that it should not intervene in or interfere with the management of schools or school systems.

Later, in the same paragraph, it states:

Moreover, the Committee's attachment to diversity is an argument against a centralist approach to educational matters.

It states further, in the same paragraph:

In the light of these considerations, the Committee has formed the opinion that the Commission should concern itself more with providing incentives for the schools to move in one direction or another, than with delineating a particular mode! of. precise development.

These are all principles to which the Opposition not only has no objection but also gives wholehearted support.

It is unfortunate, 1 believe, that the Government has not to date given us an opportunity to debate the report of the Karmel Committee in the Senate and, in particular, has not given us an opportunity to debate heretofore chapter 13 of that report which is that part relating to the Schools Commission and the questions of administration and accountability generally. I believe that there would be considerable advantage to the Government, to those interested in education and to the final result which could be achieved in the interests of education in Australia had it been possible to have a debate in this chamber on that report before the legislation was introduced. I believe that the Government might have received considerable advantage from taking that course. I draw attention to the fact that it is the Government which is responsible for the Karmel Committee report not being debated in this chamber before this date. This is not a debate on the Karmel Committee report; it is a debate on the Schools Commission Bill. We are still awaiting the opportunity to debate that report in general terms.

The other point which I make at this stage is that the Government has not yet even announced its attitude in relation to the general matters referred to in chapter 13 of that report. It announced earlier that it accepted the remainder of the report with the exception of certain aspects of the phasing out of aid to categorised schools. It has accepted the remainder of the report but it has not announced its intentions with regard to chapter 1 3, unless we can take the presentation of the Schools Commission Bill as the announcement by the Government of at least one part of its attitude in that respect. I believe that it is of the utmost importance that the wide and divergent views of people greatly concerned with education, many of whom are expert in educational matters, should be able to be taken into account and considered by this Parliament before the legislation is passed. I refer again to the fact that the debate which can take place in this chamber is a matter upon which people can comment. It can give a feedback to members of Parliament and can provide information to members of Parliament which is likely to lead in the long run to better legislation and better education.

The Karmel Committee did expound a number of principles to which I wish to refer. One is that it endorsed federalism in relation to education. It would be hard not to do so because the constitutional realities in Australia, whether people like it or not, are that the States have been given the power by the Constitution in relation to education. The Commonwealth has not the power and it is only by the use or, as some people would claim, the misuse of section 96 that it is able to take action in relation to education outside the Territories.

The cost of education and the needs of education are sufficiently great to involve the Commonwealth Government of necessity. What has happened with the Schools Commission is a recognition that there is clearly a role to be played on a national basis but that the constitutional realities are that the day to day administration of education in the States is a State function carried out by the State departments of education, with the exception of the nongovernment sector which, again, is not a direct administrative responsibility of the Commonwealth. The Karmel Committee also endorsed its belief in non-government and government school systems and individual schools. That is an important matter to many people in Australia who were afraid that perhaps there was a move to limit in some way or to curtail the right of people to choose the type of education which was to be given to their children.

The Karmel Committee also emphasised the need for greater independence within the government school system. This is a matter which the Opposition would emphasise and emphasise again, as a fundamental belief, as being one of the important developments which is taking place in Australia and which must be encouraged to continue to take place in Australia. It is necessary that, far from centralising education, in the interests of diversity and in the interests of innovation we should be able to have a greater degree of independence within those education systems which exist. The Karmel Committee made it quite clear that it was opposed to a centralised bureaucracy. It made it quite clear that it recognised the need for diversity, for innovation and for local involvement and participation in education- all matters which have of late in a number of countries, in particular Australia, received the support of a large number of people who are concerned with and are active in questions related to education.

The Committee acknowledged research and the necessity for vastly increased research activity in relation to education.

I repeat that these are matters which the Opposition would emphasise. I take this opportunity to refer to a publication of last year entitled 'Education in Australia: The Liberal Party's Objectives and Achievements'. There are some who would claim that it has been the new Government which has done all these magnificent things in education which the former Government did not. I refute that suggestion. I suggest that some of the developments in education which have taken place this year were very largely in the pipeline under the former Government. I suggest further that a number of things would have been done by the former Government which have not been done by the present Government. But this is not the time to develop an argument in relation to this issue. So I simply refer to the booklet of which I made mention a moment ago.

Senator Young - What booklet is that?

Senator RAE - 'Education in Australia: The Liberal Party's Objectives and Achievements'. It was published last year. I mention 2 overriding objectives which are referred to- encouraging a variety of educational institutions and encouraging local educational research programs to identify the major educational needs and problems and to ensure that Australian solutions are developed on soundly based analytical work. I have mentioned but two of the numerous objectives which are set out. The passage continues:

Our role is to provide the leadership necessary to develop programs directed towards these ends by:

Working in co-operation with the States and other authorities; encouraging greater local contribution and interest in the day to day running of the educational institutions and avoiding the centralised control.

The Liberal approach is aimed at releasing energies, removing obstacles and encouraging innovation.

The Karmel Committee must have used our publication as a basis for its report. It is surprising to find how things which it emphasised and the matters which it found so important were published last year in the document 'Education in Australia: The Liberal Party's Objectives and Achievements'. I take this opportunity to mention that fact because there are many people in Australia who tend to be snowed under by the weight of public relations work which has been poured out by this Government in relation to education- not all of it accurate, and some of it grossly misrepresenting the true situation.

I refer also to the speech made by the Minister for Education in the House of Representatives. He said:

I regard clause 13 sub-clause (3) (d) as vital. The Commission is to have regard to 'the needs of disadvantaged schools and of students at disadvantaged schools, and of other students suffering disadvantages in relation to education for social, economic ethnic, geographic, cultural, lingual or similar reasons'. Here is a fruitful field of advice as to how the Australian Government may exercise its power to grant benefits to students. The Commission is likewise empowered to give similar advice in relation to the academically, scientifically, artistically or musically gifted students.

Those sentiments, those principles and those expressions of attitude have the total support of the Opposition.

I pass to another aspect of the Minister's second reading speech which is important. It is important in relation to the debate on education which has taken place in Australia. I refer to what is often termed 'the needs principle' or adopting the needs principle' in relation to education. I regard this issue as one of the most confused issues- and deliberately confused in some respects- that can be identified in education. It is unfortunate that there has been confusion, but the fact is that the previous Government had adopted a needs approach which was fulfilled in a variety of ways and which was described as being integral to the whole of its program in relation to education. All that has happened is that a new phrase has been coined by the present Government, which has said: 'We have adopted a needs approach'. That statement makes the approach sound as though it was new and interesting. It is old hat. All that has happened is that there has been a variation of the approach, a further development of it, and some tremendous disadvantages in the way in which it is implemented.

There are different ways of approaching the question of needs. What is certain is that in education there needs to be, because of the cost involved and because of the long term involved in changing programs, in developing physical facilities, in training teachers and in all the rest of the matters which are involved, a degree of certainty and a degree of planning. We hope that we will be able to get this from the Schools Commission. We will not get it if we get the sort of nonsense that we have had in relation to the categorisation of non-government schools. I take the opportunity to mention but one aspect as a bad example of what can happen to planning as a result of what may be regarded as somewhat ill-considered developments. In relation to the categorisation of schools the most recent report from the Interim Committee, when it gave the result of the appeals, stated:

The Committee wishes to reaffirm that following the appeals categories are fixed for the years 1974 and 1975. It stresses that schools should not attempt to anticipate subsequent bases for assessment of need. The Committee wishes to emphasise that future financial assistance will be dependent upon maintenance of standards as reflected in resource usage and continuing reasonable effort on the part of non-government school authorities.

Interpreted, that means that if, as a result of a reduction in the grant which was formerly received by a school, it has to reduce the number of teachers and thereby increase the pupilteacher ratio or go broke, the school must go broke. I have not the slightest doubt that this is the sort of thing which the Committee did not intend.

I suggest to the Minister for the Media (Senator Douglas McClelland) that it is something which needs explanation, for the sake of the schools which are concerned, so that we do not get the confusion which is reigning in Australia at the moment. There has been considerable confusion in that area which is the major area which has been actually put into effect in relation to individual schools in Australia. If that is any indication of what will come in the future, we have created a monster. I trust that it is no indication of what will come in the future. I trust that it is a result only of work which was hurried because the Government insisted that it be hurried and because there was not time to think through fully and carefully the natural results of some of the things which were being recommended. I raise the matter as a warning. It is important in education in Australia that there be long term planning and that there be the opportunity for some co-ordination and co-operation between the various authorities in education and administration. Let us hope that we do not have any more examples of that sort of problem in relation to education where, rather than solving problems, they are being created.

I deal now with the general structure of the Schools Commission. We have the promise which was made by Mr Whitlam. I have already referred to the fact that the Opposition, in approaching this matter, whatever its attitudes may have been in the past, recognises that the Australian situation now is that people have indicated that they wish to have a Schools Commission approach. If they indicated that and if there is a mandate it is upon the basis of the promise that was made by the present Government when in Opposition. One of the important aspects of that promise is contained in what Mr Whitlam said. He said:

A Federal Labor Government will . . .

I will leave out some of the things which are promises that have been broken already. He went on:

.   . allocate increased grants for 1974 and subsequent years on the basis of recommendations prepared and published by the Expert Schools Commission which will include persons familiar with and representative of the State departments, the catholic system and the teaching profession.

That is a quote from a promise which was made and which constitutes, if one accepts the mandate theory, the mandate which the Government has to set up the Schools Commission. It is interesting that if one notes the aspect of the Labor Party's policy which was settled at the Launceston Conference and which was unaltered at the Brisbane or Gold Coast Conference -

Senator Wheeldon - Surfers Paradise.

Senator RAE - Thank you. Someone more expert than I in the affairs of the Labor Party is able to correct me and I thank him. The Surfers Paradise Conference -

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - It was favoured by a former Prime Minister as a venue of his discussions.

Senator McManus - The bikini conference.

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