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Tuesday, 29 November 1983
Page: 3014

Mr CONNOLLY(10.08) —The Government's activities in the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill can only be described as reprehensible. They are effectively undoing the progress which took the last 20 years to put in place, a system of dual education in Australia by which all Australian parents and their children have the right to choose the form of education they wish. We see in this legislation the first step to cut back by a cunning manoeuvre, to restrict the freedom of choice and thus slowly to throttle the rights of all Australian parents to decide on the education they want for their children. If we were dealing with a government which was responsible, if we were dealing with a government that believed in the rights of every Australian citizen to make these choices for their children, this Government would be asking us to debate legislation which gave universal family support based on the principle that the future strength of Australia must be based on economic and social stability which can only be given by our families. A key element of such a policy must always be that parents be given reasonable freedom of choice in the education of their children. This is not a privilege but a right enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations on Human Rights.

It was the Liberal Party of Australia at both the State and the Federal levels during the 1960s which recognised that if the law required that all children should be educated it was the state's responsibility to ensure that this objective was met, not solely by the provision of government schools, but through allowing parents in the community to assert their right also to choose a non-government system of education if they so wished. We believed then and we still believe now that freedom of choice in education is not an attainable option for many thousands of parents and their children when they are expected to contribute through their taxes for the education of other people's children but have to pay the full load and more to assert their independent rights. Clauses 23 and 24 of this Bill quite clearly put in legislative form the provisions which will undercut once and for all the traditional rights and responsibilities which we believe that all parties in this chamber and elsewhere throughout Australia accepted; namely, that the state has the responsibility to give to the individual citizen the right of freedom of choice. That is what we are seeing taken away tonight. How is that being achieved?

The Government has broken the nexus or the link between per pupil grants for non-government school children and the cost of educating children in government schools. That link was the result of a bitter state aid debate in the 1960s, a debate from which the Government of this country has made a fundamental step back. It is encouraging people once again to have those divisions in our society for which there should be no place in the Australia of the late 1980s. All the political parties over the years recognised that parents had that right yet today the Australian Labor Party, the Government of this country, wants to turn back the clock. It will live to regret this move because so many people, both in the private and the public system, believe fundamentally that the people of this country should have that right of choice. They believe that the right of choice should not be locked out to them by cost, especially when the element of cost to such a large degree depends on the parents who send their children to the non- state system rather than the state system, a choice for which they have had to pay heavily for many years, ever since the 1880s.

As I said, the nexus no longer exists. The key link has been broken. Grants from 1984 onwards will be made on a completely arbitrary government decision, disguised by the principle of 'needs basis'. The annual haggle over funds which we will see from now on will be yet another element which will destabilise the non-state school system. One could well ask of this Government, which received such a vast amount of money, $750,000, from the Teachers Federation during the last election campaign: Is this the pay off which now has to be paid for by 25 per cent of Australia's citizens who have done nothing more than exercise their right to send their children to the school of their choice? We have been told by the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan), who has been unable to give a definition of the concept of needs based school funding, that all the children who go to the 41 schools which are the edge of this bayonet which has been thrust at the heart of the education system of Australia are children of the rich.

The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of those children attend those schools because their mothers and their fathers have gone out into the work place to earn an income sufficient to keep their children at schools of their choice. In addition to that they have, through their taxes-many of them are major taxpayers-also contributed to the school funding of the children of honourable members opposite and everybody else in this chamber and throughout Australia. That is not something that has been denied them in the past; that has been a right which the Liberal Party in government believed was fundamental. Suddenly thousands of parents throughout this land are now wondering what they can expect next. Forty-one schools have been affected this financial year. How many schools will be affected next year? Where will it stop? Is there a Catholic school, a systemic school or a private school belonging to any church or denomination in Australia that can look to this Government with trust and confidence that it will live by its policies?

In this debate tonight one thing has come through quite clearly. When the shibboleths have been removed from the arguments of members of the Government one cannot but conclude that what we are seeing tonight is simply a niggardly, small-minded approach because some people who support the Labor Party believe that one can buy a standard of education simply by spending more and more money. If hundreds of thousands of Australian parents have voted with their feet to take their children out of the public school system, I think one has a reason to say that they must have some difficulty with the system as it currently stands. It is not my role to attack the public system, it is not my intention to attack the thousands of excellent teachers who work in the public system. It is certainly my role to attack that Marxist controlled element of the Australian Teachers Federation which has had for many years as its principal objective the destruction of the right of freedom of choice which has been given to the Australian people. When my constituents want to know why next year they will have to take their children away from the schools of their choice I will tell them, as my colleagues on this side of the chamber will tell their constituents, that members of the Government, unaided except for the financial support of a certain militant group of Marxist controlled trade unionists in the guise of teachers who have insulted their profession, are setting themselves up as the arbiters of standards of education in this country.

Unlike the Government, we believe not only in freedom of choice but also that freedom of choice carries with it responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is that when people go to the trouble of sending their children to a school, whether it be a public or a private school, they expect from that school a standard of education which will help their children throughout their lives and enable them to become fearless and decent Australian citizens and to carry their full responsibilities as citizens. Tonight we are seeing the first step forward in destroying that right which means that the Australian education system will ultimately be the loser. When we finally get back into government we will have to unscramble the eggs that honourable members opposite have broken. It will be at a cost which all Australians will have to carry. We will let them know the reason why.

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