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Tuesday, 29 November 1983
Page: 3003

Mr COLEMAN(8.54) —The States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill is of historic importance. It marks a new stage in Australian education-a new and, in my view, worrying stage. It is a legislative declaration of war by the Government against parent's freedom of choice in the education of their children , against an educational system which encourages diversity and standards, and against the independent school system with which one million Australian families are associated. It is a declaration of war and the first shots in the war, but only the first shots. The strategy is clear and the objective of destroying the non-government school sector as we know it, of destroying its independence, its control over curriculum and teaching methods, and its growing appeal to the public, is still some way off, but the first steps have been taken.

This Bill does three very grave and very objectionable things in clauses 23 and 24. Firstly, it breaks the automatic nexus, the percentage link, between the government school recurrent costs and the per capita subsidy to non-government schools. From now on funding is to be the subject of political uncertainty each year, subject to the whims of the Minister. Planning ahead will now become impossible. This applies as much to, say, Cranbrook in my electorate, which the honourable member for Lowe (Mr Maher) just mentioned, as it does to, say, Saint Peter's, a school in Surry Hills, which has a wonderful spirit and drive but by normal standards is a disadvantaged school and is also in the Wentworth electorate. Secondly, the Bill implements the decision to cut funds to 41 non- government schools by 25 per cent. The Government and the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) say that they are wealthy schools, but it is parents who pay the fees. All the evidence indicates that many of the parents who use these schools are not wealthy. They make real personal sacrifices to be able to send their children to the schools of their choice. A majority of the families involved have both parents working or one parent doing two jobs to raise the fees. These are the people who will suffer when the fees go up. The very people who are already making the greatest sacrifices will be the hardest hit.

Thirdly, the Bill removes the automatic eligibility of a school for a Commonwealth grant once it is registered by the State or Territory authority. Now it will have to show, to quote the provisions of the Bill, that it 'is not likely to have a significant adverse effect upon the viability' of any other school in the area. In other words, existing schools, however bad in the eyes of parents, will have a right of veto over the establishment of a new or better school which is perhaps planned to be opened purely because of the believed badness of the school which has the right of veto. Really, this is a form of madness. Why is the Government doing this when so many people are showing a preference for non-government schools? Incidentally, this preference for non- government schools is not a development I welcome. The country needs a respected government school system. We can take no comfort from its fall in public regard. But the figures are there. Government primary schools face a 12 per cent drop of 175,000 in the number of pupils between 1983 and 1987, or a number equal to about 500 average-sized primary schools. At the same time, the numbers in non- government schools are expected to rise by 17,000 or 4 per cent.

Why this is so is a good subject for debate, but obviously it has something to do with what are seen as higher standards of teaching and discipline in non- government schools. The terrible record of strikes and demonstrations in government schools is also a factor. As I have said before, the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs talks about restoring the prestige of government schools, which would be a good thing. If she is serious about it, she should have been using her influence, which must be powerful, in New South Wales to stop the Teachers Federation strikes which destroy the prestige of government schools. In my electorate, for example, we saw the shocking Teachers Federation- organised picket lines and sit-ins at Dover Heights Boys School, which the Labor Government agreed to lease to Moriah War Memorial College. In the end the Labor Government gave in to the Teachers Federation. The Australian newspaper in an editorial last week referring to the Teachers Federation officials stated:

They encouraged the students of the school involved to take part in them-

That is, the picket lines and sit-ins-

thus helping to indoctrinate children in its members' care with the belief that a dissatisfied minority is right when it acts outside the law to prevent the functioning of a democratically-elected government.

The editorial concluded:

The Teachers Federation leadership can justly boast that its tactics have worked. But those who believe in our democratic values have been left with nothing whatsoever to console them.

Is it any wonder that parents increasingly send their children to non-government schools? They do not want their children under the influence of the leadership of the Teachers Federation, and that feeling is very strong. Fortunately in New South Wales the teachers have acted in this respect and have elected a new leader who is drawn, according to what I read in the Press, from the Centre Unity of the Australian Labor Party. We can only hope that the tide is turning. Nevertheless, the teachers' unions have a record of advocating the phasing out of state aid and have policies, State and Federal, to achieve this-to limit registration of new schools and the expansion of existing ones, to deprive them of their charitable status for taxation purposes, to restrict transport concessions, to improve new taxes and so on. I am referring, for example, to the 9 August issue of the Victorian newspaper Teachers Journal. No doubt these unions, which make such large donations to the ALP, expect concessions in the policy field from the Government. This Bill is one of them. However, it would be unfair to the Minister, in my opinion, to imply that she takes orders from the Teachers Federation. The record shows that she honestly opposes non-government schools. She does not need to be prodded into it by the Teachers Federation. She was an employee of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, pledged to abolish state aid. She does not believe in helping parents to have freedom of choice in education. In a speech she made in Sydney at the Danebank Church of England Girls School on 24 September she said that it is a specious view-' specious' is her word-that:

parents who choose non-government schooling for their children have a 'right' or entitlement to government funding of that choice because they are taxpayers.

That, she says, is a specious argument. In other words, she conscientiously rejects the view that every Australian child has a right-I emphasise a right-to some basic assistance with schooling. There is no right, in her view, to a basic grant. We had quite a kerfuffle in September in the media and in the Senate about a book review the Minister wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of years ago. One sentence in the review was this:

It is with reluctance that I for one conclude, after reading this book, that the freedom to send one's children to an independent school, is bought at too high a price for the rest of society.

Of course, when she became the Minister for Education, people naturally paid particular attention to that sentence. It was frequently quoted in the Press and in Parliament. In the end the Minister had to correct the review in the Senate and in the Press. She wrote to the Press pointing out: 'Unfortunately, an editing error resulted in this comment being attributed to me'. In fact, she was quoting Shirley Williams, the British parliamentarian. By some editing error the quotation was attributed to her. Naturally, everyone accepts the correction, which in any case can be confirmed by referring to the book being reviewed, by Shirley Williams, which contains more or less the sentence attributed to the Minister in the review. The Minister was simply quoting Shirley Williams. We agree with all that. But the point is that she made no public statement or parliamentary statement two years ago to correct the editing error. Even in her letter to the Press in September she did not repudiate the Shirley Williams point of view. She simply corrected an editing error. She agrees with the Shirley Williams point of view. She accepts it. She repeated it more or less in Hurstville on 24 September, a matter of days after her letter to the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. It is specious, in her view, to believe that every Australian child has a right to a basic education grant. She rejects that view; it is specious. The plain fact is that she wants to phase out state aid and independent schools. Today, the first steps have been taken.

Indeed, the Bills before us even go beyond schools and deliver a blow to independent residential colleges at tertiary levels. Clause 6 of the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill reduces operating subsidies to colleges by 25 per cent in 1984. This is of a piece with other anti -student policies of this Government. The Government broke its promise to bring the tertiary education assistance scheme to the level of the unemployment benefit; in fact, the gap has widened. It broke its promise to establish an emergency student loans scheme and its promise to assist student parents with the provision of child care on campus. The Government has certainly given the students a very raw deal. This Bill today adds to that record by, in effect, putting up college fees around Australia. But the point I am making at the moment is that it is further evidence of the Government's animus against the whole non-government sector in education, whether it be schools or residential tertiary colleges.

I repeat that everyone on this side of the House supports the idea of restoring the prestige of government schools. I am very proud of the fact that my electorate has in it such distinguished schools as Sydney Boys High School, Sydney Girls High School and Vaucluse Boys High School. Restoring the prestige of government schools must have a very high priority. May I say in passing, with reference to the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Bill, that the best way to keep students at school and to increase their participation would be to raise the standard and quality of schooling. Yet the Bill unfortunately does very little about that indeed. Nevertheless, the object is good. But restoring the prestige of government schools does not conflict with preserving freedom of choice in education, diversity in schooling and a strong non-government school sector. The Government is damaging education as a whole by trying to undermine the non-government sector, as it does in these Bills.

The Government has aroused tremendous opposition with these measures. Protest meetings have been called around the country. I convened such a meeting in August in my electorate where some 6,000 boys and girls are affected and where cuts of some three-quarters of a million dollars in funding are involved. It was a crowded and lively meeting and involved all non-government schools in the electorate-the so-called wealthy schools as well as the disadvantaged schools; not just the six on the hit list. They all saw the threat to the non-government school sector as a whole. Similar meetings have taken place in most electorates. They culminated in a meeting of 7,000 people in New South Wales in the Sydney Town Hall--

Mr Hollis —Hey, hey; 5,000.

Mr COLEMAN —There were 5,000 inside and 2,000 outside.

Mr Hollis —You were not there.

Mr COLEMAN —Nor did the Minister bother to send a representative. As well as meetings, there have been petition after petition and many thousands of letters to all members of this Parliament. Public opinion has been aroused, but the Government has ignored it and pushed ahead with its campaign to destroy freedom of choice in education and the non-government schools. I believe that it will live to regret these Bills.