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Tuesday, 29 November 1983
Page: 2983

Mr PEACOCK (Leader of the Opposition)(5.29) —I support the amendment foreshadowed by my colleague the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Fife) and endorse the remarks he made. In this cognate debate on three education Bills we are in essence debating this Government's education policy. What a sorry policy it is. Instead of having before us a package of Bills aimed at lifting the standard of education available to all Australian children, we are debating three Bills which continue Labor's typical trail of broken promises, tokenism and a blind commitment to ideology. The education of our children is vitally important; indeed, it is fundamental to the future of this country. But there is precious little in these Bills to raise the standard of education and much to cause hardship and anxiety to thousands of Australian parents.

I will not dwell on the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill except to note that in this area Labor has failed to honour any of its pre- election commitments. It promised to increase the tertiary education assistance scheme until it equalled the single unemployment benefit and to maintain that nexus-not done. It promised to raise the tertiary education assistance scheme means test until it equalled average weekly earnings-not done. It promised to provide 300 post-doctoral fellowships-not done. It promised to establish an emergency student loans scheme to replace the previous Government's student loans scheme-not done. It promised to assist student parents with the provision of child care on campus-not done. It promised to improve access for disadvantaged groups, particularly those rural students who will be further penalised by a 25 per cent reduction in the accommodation subsidy paid to residential colleges. That is a long list, but typical of this Government in so many areas.

Nor do I wish to speak at length on the States Grants (Education Assistance- Participation and Equity) Bill which replaces the previous Government's school to work transition program. I note only that the Bill before us smacks absolutely of tokenism. It tosses up a small sum of money aimed at improving the attractiveness of further study but far too little to cause any significant qualitative improvement. It does nothing at all to correct the current absurd situation in which unemployment is a better paid option than further study.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill because it is in this Bill that this Government reveals its true colours. This Bill exposes the Labor Government as one intent upon creating conflict by destroying long-established agreement, reducing freedom of individual choice, breaking fundamental commitments it has made to the Australian people and disguising its actions in high-sounding rhetoric. By abolishing the percentage link between the cost of educating the child in a government school and the grant paid to children at non-government schools and by reducing the basic grant to children at the 41 schools on the so-called Government hit list, the Government has dealt a devastating blow to our dual educational system. The percentage link was more than a financial formula. It was an expression of faith in a strong independent school system. It was a commitment on the part of the Government that it would not arbitrarily alter the whole basis of government assistance and that it would not allow short term political considerations to intrude into the long term planning decision of independent schools. This formula permitted independent schools to make rational long term decisions on the basis of the amount of future help they may expect from the Government. Now this certainly has gone. Long term decision making will be paralysed as schools are left in doubt as to their future financial position. They will instead have to await the outcome of the annual bargaining session, not knowing whether they will that year be classified as a 'wealthy' school whose assistance can now arbitrarily be cut back.

As they await the outcome of each year's Budget bargaining, supporters of independent schools will know also that Labor is $750,000 in debt to the Australian Teachers Federation whose more militant members believe in zero government funding for non-government schools and who want to see the closure of independent schools because they prefer a uniform State system promulgating values more in line with their own collectivist view of the world. Egalitarian rhetoric about 'need' and 'redistribution from wealthy to poor' should not conceal the extent to which this Government has destructively rekindled the divisive State-aid debate. Nor should the rhetoric conceal the dishonesty behind Labor's egalitarian claims. Labor says that it is diverting the resources from the wealthy to the poor, but that argument is patently false. Taxing so-called wealthy schools to assist relatively poor people is just like using a sledge hammer to squash a fly: It will not likely miss the target and will do a hell of a lot of damage in the process.

To suggest that so-called wealthy schools cater only for so-called wealth parents is absurd and the correlation between parental income and the so-called wealth of schools is, to put it mildly, extremely weak. Many parents who send their children to independent schools do so at considerable personal sacrifice to themselves, often including the need for a parent to take on a second job just to keep that child or those children at independent schools. For many parents with two or more children the expenditure on private school education is the largest single expenditure they ever make, in many instances even more than what they spend on housing. Clearly if they did not want to make this choice, if they were happy to rely on total State support, they would have many thousands of additional dollars to spend on their material standards of living. But they choose a contrary system. They exercise their freedom of choice to send their children to an independent school at considerable financial sacrifice. Many of these people are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but they happily and willingly choose a significantly lower material standard of living because they are utterly convinced about the intrinsic value of an independent education .

The fact that there is a surge in applications for non-government schools in the midst of an economic recession and that this has happened while the former Government increased real support on a per capita basis for government schools shows that thousands of Australians are exercising their fundamental right to choose the type of education and the type of school most suited to their children. These are the people who stand to lose from Labor's punitive treatment of individual schools. These are the people who in their thousands are attending protest meetings, for they realise--

Mr Hodgman —And they will continue.

Mr PEACOCK —They certainly will continue while this Government seeks to eradicate freedom of choice and-implicit in the program and in the minds of some opposite-eventually to eradicate the independent system itself. These people, who in their thousands are attending protest meetings, realise that this Government's actions are threatening their fundamental freedom of choice. They realise that not only has Labor broken the percentage link and selected a hit list of schools which, according to the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan), could well increase in future years, but also that it has increased funding to non-government schools this year by less than one-third of the percentage increased granted to the government sector.

There is a widespread belief in the community that this is only the start of things to come. Why else would the very people the Government claims to support have made it quite clear that they do not accept its reasoning? On 1 September this year the Central Commissioner of Catholic Bishops of Australia released a statement in Canberra assessing some aspects of the Government's policies. These bishops were speaking for the 45 Catholic bishops in Australia. They were speaking for Catholic education in Australia. Their assessment of what has happened was quite unambiguous. They reasserted their belief in a basic grant for all children as the only way of protecting the rights of Catholics to send their children to schools which reflect their religious values. The bishops described the abolition of the percentage link as 'potentially destructive of non-government schooling'. The Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, Bishop Kelly, wrote to the Age newspaper stating:

It has been announced that cuts will be made from the so-called 'wealthy' independent schools. But note the cunning inbuilt contradiction, the money from these cuts will not be given to indigent government schools, rather it will go to 'poorer' independent schools, i.e. mainly Catholic schools.

He went on to state:

In the face of that blatant sectarian tactic, I challenge any Catholic indepenent school to accept this judas money.

They are not my words but the words of Bishop Kelly. Labor's attempt to buy acceptance of its proposals by the Catholic Church was undoubtedly dramatically unsuccessful. Sectarianism is an irresponsible way, to put it mildly, of handling any issue, particularly education. The Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little, recognised this when he referred to what he saw as a bitter sectarianism 'running riot'. It has to be said that Labor's education policy is obviously the reverse of any kind of long term commitment to the protection, still less the expansion, of the independent schools system. Labor's ultimate aim is the integration of private schools into the public sector, as recommended by its hand-picked Radford Committee.

In a whole string of broken promises education stands out as the most inhumane in its implications, together with the iniquitious attack on the elderly which is continuing today. Children at one end of the age spectrum and the elderly at the other are the two most vulnerable groups in the community. Yet Labor has threatened the need for children to move from independent to state schools in the middle of their school careers, as casually as if it were simply the same as changing brand names in a supermarket. Labor's education policies are playing quite irresponsibly with the lives of Australian children. Before the election in March Labor indicated quite clearly that funding to non-government schools would be maintained at present levels until a community standard had been determined by the Schools Commission. It also clearly stated that adjustment assistance would be provided for at least two years to ensure there was no disruption to the learning program.

What must the 41 schools feel about the worth of Labor's promises? I know only too well not just what the schools think but also what the parents think as they write to us in their thousands and as they attend protest meetings in their thousands. The Government should mark this: They will not stop simply at attending meetings in their thousands. They will continue to call for a reversal of this program the Government has embarked upon. What schools will be hit next and what additional costs will they be burdened with? One of the worst aspects of Labor's education policy is the way it claims that it is not trying to level down standards, at the same time as it condemns excellence as being 'elitist'. As the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, said:

I don't like the pursuit of excellence, it has elitist overtones which I really dislike.

Mr Howard —Was that Senator Ryan?

Mr PEACOCK —It was Senator Ryan, the Labor Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, levelling down and being anti-elitist. There is no opportunity for levelling up. When Labor's Minister for Education and Youth Affairs says such things as that how can Labor validly claim that it is not advocating the levelling down of achievement or, indeed, the suppression of excellence? Levelling up by levelling down is a totally misguided way of achieving anything requiring a commitment to quality. As Abraham Lincoln so aptly expressed the idea:

You cannot strengthen the weak, by weakening the strong.

We may achieve mediocrity in this way but mediocrity will not help people get jobs in a competitive job market, nor sell products in a competitive trading market. Education should not be concerned with a notion of social equality as the lowest common denominator. This kind of notion is absolutely in direct conflict with the fundamental sources of progress in our rapidly changing society. Education is only one of the increasing number of policy areas in which this Labor Government is dividing Australian society in the name of so-called consensus, so-called social justice and so-called equity. What do these rhetorical terms really mean? In practice they mean the reverse of what they say .

The higher fees which Labor's approach will inevitably bring about will make non-government schools more elitist and less accessible. This is just the result which Labor professes to oppose. It is certainly not a result which the Opposition favours. Because of these higher fees many children will be forced to switch, at great cost to their personal and education development, but Labor does not care. To Labor these children are just necessary sacrifices to its long term desire to transform our education system. We believe that our independent schools play a vital role by encouraging those traditional Australian values which hold our society together. All right, Labor wants to change these values. Why not be more up front and say so? Time and again we have seen that that is what the Government is at, what it is about. It should come forward and proclaim it. As the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs-this time she has admitted it-has said, it wants to use education to enable people 'to resist manipulation by the massive institutions of capitalism'. I repeat the words of Senator Ryan:

To resist manipulation by the massive institutions of capitalism.

This is the woman I quoted earlier, who said:

I don't like the pursuit of excellence, it has elitist overtones which I really dislike.

Many people dislike what she is propagating, what she is about, what she is doing to the education system of this country. I do not want our education system to become a vehicle in some ideologue's class struggle. The widespread community support for independent schools suggests that I am far from alone in this view and that the Opposition's view is shared by the overwhelming majority of Australians, who want to retain their freedom of choice in education.

I have said on many occasions that I do not believe and the Opposition does not believe in opposing just for the sake of opposing. I welcome Government decisions that I believe are in the best interests of this nation, but in the case of the Government's approach to education I have absolutely no doubt where my duty or the duty of the Opposition lies.

The Government is engaged in an ill-conceived attack on some of our most important education institutions. It is an attack which will set religion against religion, and school against school, which will restrict the basic freedom of choice to which our citizens are entitled and which will place under threat some of our most important values. I think that the Government is making an appalling mistake, a dreadful mistake. I have no hesitation in joining that very large and growing number of Australians who reject its approach in its entirety.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Darling) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.