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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23458

Ms MACKLIN (4:39 PM) —The response of the Minister for Education, Science and Training to what he has rightly said is a relatively straightforward bill has been pretty revealing. The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2003 has shown up for all to see what the government's `arms-length' approach to its responsibilities for schools really is. The minister has in fact refused to even talk about what might be done to improve the way in which federal funding for schools is allocated. As I have said to the minister before, our amendments were put forward in good faith. They were designed to enhance the integrity of the capital grants program and to position that program for the future—a future where there will be a school-aged population that overall is relatively stable, where any new school developments are more likely to be at the expense of existing government and non-government schools, where the public interest in capital facilities purchased with the support of public funds will increasingly be open to question, where the differences in the quality of capital facilities in schools will become increasingly apparent and where transparency in the way in which the program is administered will be demanded. These were the issues that the opposition put on the table, as I might reiterate, for genuine debate. Unfortunately, the minister has refused to engage with us in this debate. The response has been disappointing to say the least.

I want to comment on a couple of the things the minister has said. In his response to the debate he trotted out the old argument that non-government schools save public money—as if this was the purpose of the government's role in schooling. Labor reject this rationale for federal support of schools. We believe in supporting schools for the achievement of educational goals, for students and their families—in fact, for society as a whole. We do not accept spurious arguments about cost saving and cost shifting as the basis for Commonwealth programs for schools.

But even here the minister misleads. He has repeated his oft-quoted statistic that `the kids from the wealthiest families attract 87 per cent less public funding'. This figure appears to be based on the fact that the minimum federal per capita grant for a student in a non-government school under the government's SES scheme is 13.7 per cent of average government school recurrent costs. Leave aside for the minute that only two schools across Australia receive this minimum grant—that is, two out of more than 2,650 non-government schools. Non-government schools also receive funding from state and territory governments. The level of this does vary across the nation, but at the very minimum it brings the level of total public funding to over 20 per cent of the average costs of education in a government school.

The minister also omits to mention that his government has increased funding to some of the best-resourced schools in the country, so that those schools are able to operate from all sources at more than twice the resources available in public schools and the great majority of non-government schools. No wonder the minister was reluctant to include the needs principle in the legislation. The opposition accept that all schools should receive some public funding in recognition of the contribution they make to education generally. But we need to be clear about priorities and about the criteria we use to allocate public funds according to need.

The minister also recited his comparisons of federal and state funding of government schools. There is a bit of a danger that the minister might start to believe his rhetoric. For the record, federal funding of government schools since 1996 has generally increased in line with indexation of the costs of government schooling. That indexation is based on reporting by state and territory governments of the expenditure on government schools. Of course, there are various technical issues about cash and accrual accounting, the difference between expenditure and income and the fact that the indexation is lagged by around 18 months. But, when all is said and done, the truth is that federal funding for government schools has generally only increased in line with indexation.

The minister's arguments against the opposition's amendments have been curious. (Extension of time granted) He has rightly pointed out—and he repeated this today—the way in which block grant authorities are required to develop their advice against `... generally applied indices and (other) information, which is applied in a consistent way and ... is supported by evidence'. The methodology used by the block grant authorities enables them to justify their recommendations to an independent appeals body or a departmental audit. I made it quite clear in my speech during the second reading debate—and I will make it clear again because the minister has repeated his criticism of Labor's amendments and he is incorrect—that Labor's amendments would not require any additional processes for approval or auditing. The needs principle would be required by the legislation, just as they are now by the minister's program guidelines. Labor is seeking to have that principle in the legislation.

The point of the block grant authorities of course was to devolve the administrative responsibility to school authorities and to clarify the government's role in setting policy goals and accountability requirements. This is patently clear from the statement of the then minister, Susan Ryan, when she established the block grant authority arrangements in 1987. Her statement made it clear that the reason for the arrangement was:

... to ease the administrative burden on the Australian government.

She went on to say—as the minister correctly reported:

The Australian government will continue to set priorities for the use of its funds, and distribution proposals will require my approval.

that is, the approval of the minister—

Funds will continue to be directed to the most disadvantaged schools and the most needy groups.

How perverse is it for the minister to quote these words in defence of his refusal to be explicit about the needs principle in the legislation and in reporting to the public on how these criteria have been met? The minister's way of dealing with all of this was to fall back on accusations of Labor being ideologically opposed to non-government schools. As I said when we were debating the bill, Labor has supported funding for non-government schools for over 30 years. Labor has been party to initiating and supporting billions of dollars of funding on the basis of meeting educational and financial need. Labor is entitled to ask that the integrity of the needs principle is protected by the legislation. In the light of this record, the minister's extraordinary claim that Labor is ideal logically opposed to non-government schools is frankly nothing more than laughable.

Labor asks the government to move on from what are, I have to say, very silly claims, and to engage constructively with these issues. What is clear is that the issues raised by this bill will not go away. I can assure the House that Labor will renew its efforts to develop legislation that affirms the provision of federal funding for government and non-government schools on the basis of the educational and financial needs of school communities, and that provides a more explicit link between policy goals, program administration and the reporting of program outcomes. Because of the government's response to these amendments, of course we will continue to press for them when the legislation for the next quadrennium is introduced in 2004. In the meantime, Labor will support this bill. As I said earlier, Labor will not stand in the way of this money going to the schools that need it. Labor knows that that is in the best interests of the students and schools that stand to benefit from the educational resources that it provides. But I am very disappointed in the minister being unwilling to sit down and discuss the issue.