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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2089

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (3:46 PM) —Firstly, I say to the parents of Australia that I am sorry; I am sorry that they are going to have to endure for the next few months what will pass for a debate on school funding in Australia, and it is going to occur for the very reasons we have just heard. The Leader of the Opposition goes out publicly and says, `Oh, there shouldn't be any divide in relation to public and non-government schools in Australia,' and then the Deputy Leader of the Opposition spends the rest of her time fuelling that divide and demonising not only some schools but parents who make sacrifices to send their children to them.

The reality, firstly, is that, every time in Australia a parent chooses to send his or her child to a Catholic or independent school, that parent forgoes a larger public subsidy, federal and state, to make sacrifices to send their child to that Catholic or independent school. All Australians know a number of truisms in relation to schools. The first is that state schools are owned, managed and primarily funded and run by state governments—and that is why they are called state schools. The second is that they know, if they choose to send their child to any one of the 2,600 Catholic and independent schools throughout Australia, they will have to pay fees. They know that the average fee paid is about $2,800 and they know the reason they will have to pay fees is that they are going to get a lower level of government assistance by sending their child to that Catholic or independent school. The average Australian may not understand the intricacies of school funding but they do know that, if all the kids in Catholic and independent schools throughout Australia suddenly went back to the public system, the taxpayer would have to find another $4 billion to educate the same children.

The third truism that certainly has taken root in Australia is that the Labor Party is against you sending your child to a private school. In fact, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article on 26 November 2001, a couple of weeks after the last federal election, in which a journalist went out to the Bird in Hand Inn in the electorate of Macquarie and interviewed husband and wife Greg and Gina Fletcher. Greg, a factory worker, said:

... the Labor Party's pledge to take money away from private schools had not been popular.

He continued:

People around here don't have much money, but they save and save so they can send their kids to a private school and get a good education and then Labor says you shouldn't try to do this.

It would appear that nothing has changed since. There are the forward markers. You can look firstly at what the Labor Party has done in Australia over the last three years to the parents of the 1.1 million children in Catholic and independent schools—and it has done a number of things. The first is, around the states and territories, all the Labor governments have been withdrawing support for Catholic and independent schools. The Western Australian government has frozen funding to former categories 1 to 6 non-government schools, which relates to a three per cent reduction in funding by a Western Australian Labor government. The Northern Territory Labor government reduced its funding by four per cent last year. Also, in the ACT there has been a withdrawal of capital works assistance for parents who send their kids to Catholic and independent schools. The New South Wales government has withdrawn all support for Catholic and independent capital works programs for those schools that were former categories 3 to 1 and it has capped it for the others. We also know that the Tasmanian Labor government actually uses this socioeconomic status system—this system which we have just heard the Deputy Leader of the Opposition demonise and which she and every member of the Labor Party voted for and is about to vote for again; however, when that government introduced that system, it actually cut the funding to schools whose scores may have increased.

The member for Jagajaga referred to Monsignor Tom Doyle, who heads the National Catholic Education Commission. As His Eminence Cardinal George Pell made clear on 29 February 2004:

The bulk of government funding for Catholic schools comes from the Federal government, although state governments also make a significant contribution. For government schools the opposite is the case, with the bulk of funding coming from state governments. Recognising the importance of parental choice in education means that we all need to work for the best possible government and non-government schools, all well-resourced, especially in areas which are socially and economically disadvantaged.

It was announced on that day that the Catholic schools throughout Australia were joining the socioeconomic status, or SES, funding system. That meant that all of the 2,652 Catholic and independent schools throughout Australia were joining the socioeconomic status funding model.

If the Labor Party had had its way—we have seen crocodile tears about a Christian school, for example, today—and this government had not come to office in 1996, there are 200 independent schools in Australia that would not exist and be funded today. Forty-nine of them are Christian schools. This government and I had to fight tooth and nail to get establishment grants for these small schools that are starting up throughout Australia; the Labor Party was resistant to that.

The next thing is the mechanism of indexation to the funding itself of the non-government schools, which we heard today has been opposed by the Labor Party. It is delivering to independent schools $300 million more than under the previous system. If the Labor Party had its way, there would be even more bureaucracy being placed on independent and Catholic schools throughout Australia in relation to their funding.

The member for Jagajaga mentioned a radio caller who said he had children going to Geelong Grammar. She should have mentioned the next caller. The next caller, Alistair, said: `I have real problems with what Jenny Macklin says. I have three of my children. The three eldest boys went to this so-called elitist school. Both my wife and I were working full time with the express intention of sending the boys there, and they did a survey through all the parents and found 75 per cent were in the same category. So there's just no way that that was an elitist school.'

The reality here is that, as the Prime Minister said, this government believes that all Australians through their state and federal taxes should pay for what should be well-resourced government schools. Having done that, all parents in this country will be supported politically and financially according to the means of those families if they choose to send their child to a Catholic, Anglican, Jewish, Islamic community, Lutheran, Adventist or Christian school, or any other religious school—and parents make enormous sacrifices to send their children to those schools.

The member for Jagajaga mentioned Monsignor Doyle. One of the things that neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the member for Jagajaga have said a single word about is that the New South Wales teachers union is proposing to go to the High Court to challenge federal government funding to religious schools. That means that, for parents of children in Catholic schools, Jewish schools, Christian schools, Anglican schools and Islamic schools, the funding to their schools and their children is threatened. What is needed is earnest, stable leadership from the Leader of the Australian Labor Party and for him to join the Prime Minister and say that the Labor Party do not support this High Court challenge. Instead they have all gone to hide under a rock.

In fact the Labor Party has made it very clear what it intends to do—although we have not seen any policy yet, and that is what Australian parents need. The Labor Party made it clear through the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition on 26 March this year, when the member for Jagajaga was asked by a journalist, `Well, what is the basis of Labor's policy?' She said:

Well, as I was just mentioning, the number one issue is fees. There's a massive difference between the level of fees paid by parents at this school compared to the fees paid at the King's school.

She was then asked:

Is it just a handful of schools such as Kings and Trinity that will be affected?

She said:

It's more than a handful because once you go into Melbourne as well as Sydney, there's many ... there are a number of schools that are very wealthy. King's school, Trinity Grammar in Melbourne, of course, Geelong Grammar ... Scotch College, those sort of schools. They are very, very wealthy.

The next day, reporting on this, the Australian Financial Review listed a number of schools that had been nominated by Labor, and one of them was the Bunbury Cathedral Grammar School in Western Australia. The Bunbury Cathedral Grammar School charges $9,200 per child, so is it not a reasonable deduction to say, `Right, every school that charges more than $9,200 a year will have its funding cut'? If they do that, at least 127 independent schools, educating 123,000 Australian children, will have their funding cut under a Labor government.

If you do go into the Melbourne schools, it is very interesting. Let us firstly go to Mount Scopus Memorial College in Caulfield South, in the electorate of Chisholm. There are 1,300 children at that school. They will have their money cut under a Labor government; they charge fees higher than $9,200. The Gandel Besen House in East St Kilda, in the electorate of Melbourne Ports—again a Mount Scopus school—educates 255 children from Jewish families. They charge fees higher than the King's School in Sydney, so their funding must surely be cut. Yet the member for Melbourne Ports has gone to the school and reassured them that Gandel Besen House in the Melbourne Ports electorate will not have their funding cut. So who is misleading whom?

The reality is the Labor Party has demonised one school and said that, whatever the Labor Party does, it is going to cut the money going to the King's School. Now it is tying itself up in knots because it has discovered there are at least another 126 schools it has to cut funding to—and the member for Melbourne Ports has gone to one of those schools and reassured them they will not have their funding cut. What the Labor Party is saying here is: the greater the sacrifices you make for your children, the less support you are going to get from the government.

Another school in Melbourne is Ivanhoe Girls' Grammar School, in the electorate of Jagajaga. I challenge the member for Jagajaga to bring the Leader of the Opposition to Ivanhoe Girls' Grammar School during the electorate campaign. You should both stand in front of the school assembly and explain to the 1,000 children before you, and to their parents and teachers, why the sacrifices being made by those parents are of lesser value to a Latham Labor government and why they are worthy of having their funding cut. Then the principal can take the children who will be forced to leave the school because their parents will be at financial breaking point to personally meet the Leader of the Opposition, and he can explain to them why they are going to have their funding cut. He can then explain to the Australian taxpayer why, when those girls have to go back to the public education system, the taxpayer will then have to pay four times more to educate the same children.

I do not know if anyone on the other side has ever had this experience, but there are two bedrocks in the life of any child—two bedrocks. The first is family and the second is school. Children go through enormous pain when they have to leave a school. It is hard enough when your family is transferred interstate but when you have been at a school for four, five or six years, you have a network of friends and are understood in that community. Parents may have three jobs and may be making enormous sacrifices to keep their child at a particular school—they may never have a holiday and they may be driving a 15-year-old car. I would like the Labor Party to understand how those parents will feel if they then, as a result of a Labor government, have to explain to the child they so love that they have to leave that school. I would like the Labor Party to understand that.

When parents make decisions to send their children to Catholic and independent schools, they make long-term budgeting decisions. They have to take into account their mortgages and car loans. They work out their credit card debts and when they might be able to get a new car. They give up their holidays. They make long-term commitments to the education of their children. The last thing they need is a government that comes in and says, `Right, we're going to pull the rug out from under your children and decrease the funding for those schools.'

The reality that needs to be faced in this country is that every single time a child goes to a Catholic or independent school, they are receiving less public funding for their education than if they attended a public school. The kids from the poorest families get 30 per cent less; the kids from the wealthiest get 87 per cent less—but they all get something. Australian parents have seen in the last few days what happens when a Whitlam protege gets into Government House. Imagine what will happen when one gets into the Lodge. What is going to happen with school funding in Australia is just a taste of what is to come. The kids at the King's School are getting a quarter of what they would get were they to go to a local public school and half of what they would get if they were at the Bethel Christian School. It is time that the Labor Party realised that the class wars in education are long gone and that if they defunded every one of those schools, they would deliver $93 to every child in the rest of the non-government sector. (Time expired)