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Wednesday, 7 September 1983
Page: 486

Mr DAWKINS (Minister for Finance)(3.21) —At last the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) has found something on which to disagree with this Government. He has decided to choose education policy as an attempt, presumably, to present himself as the new ideologue of the Liberal Party, the one who not only is able to express rather silly ideas on economic policy in many respects, but also is now trying to develop a facility for commenting on and speaking with great passion on matters of general social policy. However, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has done something which is to some extent uncharacteristic, that is, he has paid little if any regard to the facts, to the intent of the Government's policy and to the very important goal which I thought Liberals believed in-I certainly thought that that strand of liberalism which he seeks to represent believed in-that is, equality of opportunity.

It is all very well to talk about freedom of choice when we are talking about a small number of very privileged schools, the entrance price of which is over $3, 000 a year. Who has freedom of choice to enter those schools? Who has freedom of choice to find the $3,000 a year in order to send their children to schools which is some cases have resources vastly in excess not only of government schools but also of the huge majority of other non-government schools. The Liberal Party has become completely strung up on the interests of the small minority of privileged schools which has always been able to offer higher resources, smaller class sizes, better conditions for their students and has paid very little regard to the glaring inadequacies not only of the government school system-we will leave that to one side-but, more importantly, to the over 80 per cent of non-government schools which exist within group three.

When the Karmel Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission reported that there was a resource gap of about 25 per cent between the poorest of the non-government schools and the standard of government schools, it was the intention of the then Labor Government, in establishing the Schools Commission and commencing a needs-based funding program for non-government and government schools, to close that gap. Regrettably, after nearly 10 years of the operation of the Schools Commission, seven years of which operated under the former Liberal-National Party Government, that gap still persists. It is that gap that we are concerned about together with the fact that over 80 per cent of non- government schools still operate with a resource level 25 per cent below that which exists within the government system. Where is the freedom of choice in that regard? Indeed, more importantly, where is the equality of opportunity? If somebody chooses to go to a non-government school, I would have thought that the most important consideration was whether the child who was to be sent to a non- government school would be confronted with a standard of education which was remotely comparable with that which was available to the comunity as a whole through the government school system.

The Opposition is not concerned about that gap. The gap which it is concerned about, which its policy was determined not only to maintain but to increase, is the gap between the government school standard and that standard which operated in a small minority of very privileged schools. That gap, on average, was about 63 per cent; that small minority of non-government schools had resources at a level 63 per cent higher than those which were available to the community as a whole through the government school system. The obsession with continuing an education system which maintained a privileged and restricted access to the ruling classes within this country was the death knell of Liberal Party policies , particularly in education.

It is nonsense to suggest that the Labor Party is embarking on a policy which will divide the community over this very sensitive issue. By last year we had reached a stage where the education debate had become so heated, so controversial and so divisive that it was necessary for some political party to show the courage and, indeed, the foresight to develop policies which would heal the rift which was so delicately and deliberately created by the policies of our predecessors. We set about ensuring that there would be opportunities for non- government schools not only to continue but to expand. More importantly, there would be opportunities for non-government schools, when they were operating below levels considered appropriate for government schools, to improve. We said that we had to return to a strict needs-based funding program whereby the over 80 per cent of non-government schools, many of which operate under appalling conditions and with appalling levels of resources, would be the ones on which we would concentrate and we would work towards improving the circumstances within these schools.

Mr Howard —Why were you dropped as shadow Minister for Education? Was it because of your negotiations with the Catholic Education Commission?

Mr DAWKINS —That issue was already settled before I left that position.

Mr Howard —It was an issue, wasn't it?

Mr DAWKINS —The former Government tried to make it an issue in the election and failed because people realised that we needed a new approach, an approach which would do something to quell the divisions on this issue rather than exciting them, which had been the quite deliberate attempt of our predecesors.

Our policy starts on the basis that in the first place we believe that all children in Australia, wherever they live and whatever might be the circumstances of their parents, should have equal access to the highest quality of education available. It should not be a two-class system in which a small group of schools have very lavish circumstances and charge high fees. The former Government believed that that group of schools should be available to those people who can afford it and the rest of the community could take whatever was left. We have abandoned that approach. We have said that if a school has, demonstrably, the ability to provide circumstances through its own resources from private sources which are at least as good as those which exist in the government system, they are in a position to look after themselves. The Government should be intent on improving not only the circumstances within the government school system but also, just as importantly, the circumstances in the 80 per cent of schools which operate well below conditions within the government system.

That is why in the Budget and in the guidelines that preceded it we have determined that there will be a substantial real increase in relation to the schools in group three-a 3 per cent real increase under difficult budgetary circumstances-and those schools will receive the benefit of that real increase. Even group two, which admittedly is a small group, but a group whose circumstances are roughly comparable with those in the government school system, will receive a real increase of one per cent in the forthcoming school year. That may not please the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party may be upset about the fact that there will be a zero improvement in relation to group one as a whole. Indeed, some schools in group one will in fact lose a portion of their Commonwealth funding. That may be a matter of great concern to them, but it is not a matter of concern to us because we are concerned about improving the circumstances of those schools in greatest need and letting those schools that can look after themselves get on with the job. There is no diminution of freedom of choice. Indeed, we are ensuring that those people who exercise freedom of choice do not have their children confronted by inferior circumstances within some non-government schools.

There is a list of new schools which I can read out if the Deputy Leader of the Opposition likes-new schools which have been offered capital grants since March of this year. We have indicated that the program of new non-government schools will continue, but we will introduce new guidelines in respect of which schools will qualify for those grants. It is not and it never should have been a question that anybody who had any old proposition to start a school should be able to do so at Commonwealth expense.

Mr Cadman —State governments have the responsibility, and you know it.

Mr DAWKINS —Why do you not be quiet, you great goat! We have to remember that in the capital area it is the Commonwealth which provides the bulk of the public assistance to new schools. The States have a very minor role in that area; they have the job of licensing new schools. The old practice was that, so long as one could get a licence from the State authorities-and all one needed was 15 kids- one would be automatically entitled, as money became available, to a capital grant from the Commonwealth. We believe that led to a greatly inefficient use of the Commonwealth's capital resources because at the same time as we were providing capital assistance to State governments to build new schools we were handing out great dollops of capital money willy nilly to non-government schools .

Mr Howard —You are going to make it grim. You are going to make it harder.

Mr DAWKINS —Just listen. We are not going to make it harder. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the great hero of government efficiency, the person who says that he is interested in ensuring that government dollars are well spent, of all people should be enthusiastic about this because we are saying that there ought to be a study of the impact of a new non-government school on existing and planned government school resources. That is only sensible. Why should the Commonwealth be put in a position of providing vast amounts of capital for a new non-government school simply to empty a nearby government school? What sort of nonsense is that? What sort of efficiency is that? We are not preventing people from starting schools. They can start schools wherever they jolly well like, but they are not going to do it with our money if, as a result, they simply duplicate already adequate, or in some cases inadequate, facilities. This was a concern to not only the government school system; it was a very real matter of concern to the non-government school system. The non-government school system has become increasingly alarmed at the unplanned proliferation of non-government schools in areas which are already adequately served by government and non- government schools. Therefore, we have introduced an element of sanity into the provision of capital funding to ensure that that sort of duplication does not continue in the future.

It is interesting that in the Deputy Leader of the Opposition's speech on education there was absolutely no word about quality in education, not a word about what schools were on about; there was only this question of maintaining and enhancing privilege. We are concerned about improving the educational opportunities of all kids. We are concerned that only half as many kids who start in government schools finish up in year 12 compared with those in non- government schools. We are concerned about the resource levies in government schools. We are concerned about the adequacy of the curriculum in government schools. We are concerned that so many kids and so many parents decide to desert schooling at a crucial stage. Of course, it is all right for the schools that honourable members opposite went to and indeed the school I went to where there is a capacity to look after the individual circumstances; but that is because they are so well off. We want to ensure that government schools are in an equal position to provide the same range of opportunities and the same richness of educational experience which will encourage more children to stay on at school for longer and, therefore, have a better chance of getting a job.