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Thursday, 10 November 1983
Page: 2595

Mr HOWARD(3.27) —There can be no doubt at all that in the past two weeks the issue of government assistance to non-government schools has become a major political issue in this country. There can be no doubt that the reaction of the Government over the past week indicates its concern about its handling of this issue. It is not surprising that this question should have become a major political issue in Australia. Not only has the Government fundamentally changed bipartisan support for government and non-government schools by the funding decisions it announced some three months ago, but its arrogant, inept, indifferent handling of proper criticism of those decisions has aggravated the very nature of those decisions.

Fundamentally, there are two areas of great concern. Firstly, the Government has abolished the percentage link which was the lifeblood of Commonwealth Government support for independent schools, a link seen by the independent sector as being the very basis, the very guarantee and the very essence of good faith so far as continued government assistance was concerned. Most importantly, what the abolition of that link has done is to remove into the annual whim of the education Minister of the day the question of funding levels for independent schools throughout Australia. No longer is it possible for all independent schools to know that without qualification, without question, they all have a basic level of per capita support irrespective of the nature of the school or the nature of the pupils or the parents of those pupils. That guarantee has now been removed. What will happen is that the level of government funding for independent schools, whatever their alleged wealth or lack of wealth, will be resting in the hands of an annual bargaining session between the Minister for Education and the rest of the Government. Included in that bargaining session will be the claims of the most militant elements of the Australian Teachers Federation whose President, Mr Van Davy, who is a member of the Schools Commission, believes that the zero option of funding for non-government schools must be part of the Schools Commission's consideration. I hope the Minister for Finance (Mr Dawkins), who represents the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan), will have something to say about that.

The second area of concern is the decision by the Government that, in future, Commonwealth capital funding will not automatically be available for new independent schools if there is a possibility that those schools may take pupils away from existing government schools. On the surface, that sounds sugar coated and reasonable. But in reality it has the potential to restrict the growth of the non-government sector. When I asked the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) yesterday whether that decision would have the same impact on the poorer non-government schools as it would have on other non-government schools, not only did he fail to answer the question but it was perfectly apparent from his response that he did not even understand the import of his guidelines. I believe that many honourable members on the other side do not really understand what Senator Ryan is about.

I believe that many members of the Australian Labor Party are concerned about the bushfire that has been lit on this particular issue. They know how bitter and divisive was the debate on aid to independent schools for many decades. They know, as well as honourable members on this side of the House that Australian parents, in their tens of thousands, are voting with their feet for the independent sector. They are doing so not because they are wealthy, not because they are elitist, not because they are privileged, but because they are concerned-and rightly concerned-about some of the trends in the government school sector. Why else would we have the spectacle during an economic recession of an absolute surge in applications for non-government schools? That has occurred in the face of record levels of funding for government schools by Commonwealth governments over the past seven years.

I take the opportunity to give the lie to the charge made by the Labor Party that the former Federal Liberal Government neglected the government sector. In fact, on a per capita basis, Federal Government support for government schools under the Fraser Government increased in real terms during its seven years in office. More and more Australian parents want the freedom to choose to send their children to non-government schools because they believe that certain advantages, certain values and certain assistance are provided to children in non-government schools that are not available in the government system. The Government, by this decision, is making it harder, not easier, for Australian parents to exercise that right and that freedom of choice. The Government is not really applying a needs principle. If the Government really believed in a needs principle, it would argue in favour of charging enrolment fees to wealthy people who send their children to government schools. But of course nobody argues in favour of that proposition; it would be absurd. So Senator Ryan in the other place and the Prime Minister in the House should not say: 'It is all a question of need; it has nothing to do with anything else other than need'. It has nothing to do with need. It has to do with the prejudice of Senator Ryan and many people in the left wing of the Labor Party about the nature and the quality of independent schooling in this country.

Australian parents, in their tens of thousands, are voting with their feet against the militancy of the teachers unions of this country. Unfortunately, teachers unions in this country do not fairly represent the great rank and file of teachers, who do a very conscientious and committed job and have delivered a high quality of public education to Australian children over the years. There can be no argument that the leadership of teachers unions in this country is in the grip of militant elements. There can be no argument that the Labor Government is paying back the Australian Teachers Federation for the financial support given to it during the last Federal election campaign. No less than $750 ,000 was donated by the teachers unions of Australia to the Labor Party's election campaign. As I have said before, one would have to be enormously charitable to believe that the Labor Government would not be influenced by the size of that donation when it came to make its funding decisions on education. One would have to be enormously charitable to believe that that was not the situation.

In the past few days the Prime Minister has defended the Government's decisions . He sought to give the impression that the last funding guidelines in reality gave the greatest level of increase to the poorer non-government schools. The reality, of course, is that in the last decision announced by the Government the increase in funding to the government sector was between 5 and 6 per cent and the increase that went to the non-government sector was only 1.5 per cent. In the face of that, the Prime Minister would assert that in reality he is trying to give greater help to the poorer non-government sector. I believe that these funding decisions reflect the outdated prejudice of many people in the Labor Party about the role of independent schools in our system. Perhaps the Prime Minister, Senator Ryan and other members of the Labor Party would do well to read an editorial in the Sydney Sun of 8 November. I refer to part of that editorial because it sums up much of the misguided thinking of the Labor Party and others on this subject. The editorial reads:

Private schooling has long since outlived any reputation it has for harbouring silvertails.

Too many working mothers and two-job fathers have seen to that.

They are prepared to work and sacrifice for a private education, which is just as deserving of their tax dollars as public education.

The trouble is that Labor governments make no secret of their intentions. Their first financial sqeeze on private schools will not be the last.

If we needed any confirmation of that view, we got it from the Minister this morning on the Today program. When she was interviewed on this subject she was asked this simple question: 'Will more schools be put on the hit list of 41?'. She made it perfectly clear in her answer that more schools would be. After a lot of gobbledegook about a new formula or a new system being introduced, she said: 'However it comes out, if more than 41 schools fulfil the criteria, that number will be increased'. It is perfectly clear from that answer, as I said in this House about two months ago, that what was announced by Senator Ryan in her education guidelines was the thin end of a very large wedge. It was the beginning of a process of destroying the bipartisan guarantee available to non- government education which many hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Australians had taken for granted.

I think it was a very retrograde decision by the Government. It is a decision that it will live to regret. The Prime Minister is whistling through the electoral graveyard when he says that his policies have the overwhelming support of the Australian people. Has he not read the gallup poll on this subject taken only a few weeks ago, which showed that 52 per cent of people asked were against the decisions of his Government? It demonstrated that something like 65 per cent of people who sent their children to government schools were also opposed to the policies that had been announced by Senator Ryan. Of course, that illustrates that there are large numbers of people locked up in the state system who would like the opportunity to send their children to independent schools. We on this side of the House believe that we should encourage and multiply the choices that are available to Australian parents. We believe that the quality of Australian education can best be improved by competition. We are opposed to a monopoly of public education. We believe that greater diversity and greater plurality of education ought to be the goal. The goal ought not to be to level people, to abhor and to shun excellence, which appears to be implied in so many of the policies advocated by the Government and advocated in particular by Senator Ryan .

There can be no doubt that these decisions have disturbed a very large number of people. We are not dealing with just people who for generations have traditionally sent their families to independent schools. We are dealing with a whole new generation of Australian parents, most of whom went through the state school system, but who, for a combination of reasons, are no longer as happy with that system as they once were. They want the freedom of choice. They need government assistance. They are not elitist. They are prepared to make sacrifices. They are prepared to work hard to fulfill the goal of sending their children to independent schools and they are entitled to be recognised and not to be undermined by this Government. The Government has failed, over the last few days, to answer properly the concerns of those 7,000 people who attended that overflowed meeting in Sydney. First of all, the Government has tried to ignore the criticism. Senator Ryan ignores invitations to attend meetings. When the Government realises that the issue is taking off, what does it do? It hurriedly organises a series of dorothy dix questions, in the week it was supposed to have sent dorothy dix on holidays, and quite inadequately responds to the concerns that have been raised by the people who attended that meeting and by many tens of thousands of people throughout Australia.

At no stage has the Government satisfactorily answered the charge that under its new restriction on the provision of Commonwealth capital funding poorer systemic schools which might be opened in new areas of Australia will be just as disadvantaged and just as much at risk as other schools. That particular proposition gives the lie to what the Prime Minister said the other day when he claimed that the poorer schools would not be disadvantaged. How else can we possibly interpret that particular guideline which will have the practical effect of stopping the expansion of the non-government sector? To stop the expansion of the non-government sector at a time when more and more people want that sector to expand is not only unfair; it also goes against the wishes of a very significant and growing number of people in the Australian community. The Government has, most seriously of all, re-ignited a divisive debate which many people in this community thought was, once and for all, behind us.

I think the Government's decisions are tragic. I believe they are misguided. I believe that the Government will live to regret them electorally. I believe it has misunderstood the temper and the attitude of hundreds of thousands of Australian men and women in the middle ground of Australian politics who do not want discrimination or broken promises from the Government; what they want is an earnest of the Government's good intentions and good faith in supporting their fundamental right, their inalienable right of freedom of choice for the education of their children.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) — Order! The honourable member's time has expired.