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Thursday, 8 February 2007
Page: 8

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (3:19 PM) —I might be old-fashioned but it remains the case today that the single most important thing you can do for a young Australian is to give them a quality education. That maximises the potential in an individual and it also gives them the best chance to get ahead. That chance to get ahead particularly applies to the sons and daughters of working families. That chance for a quality education has to be a quality education at every level—early education, pre-primary, primary, secondary, vocational and technical education, and universities. The notion of opportunity that comes from a good education and a strong commitment to equity of access to education has been one of Labor’s longstanding, fundamental, passionate commitments.

Labor’s historical mission has often been centred on the need to raise the educational standards and qualifications of Australia’s people and its workforce. Very many of my generation, very many of the sons and daughters of that immediate post World War II generation, have been the beneficiaries of that attitude and that commitment—that attitude that a good education is the chance the maximise potential and get ahead and Labor’s commitment to that cause.

That immediate post World War II generation, that great generation of Australians, had a couple of things uppermost in their minds when they looked at their family life and their children: pay off the mortgage on the day that the last pay cheque came in to dad when he turned 65; and, secondly, round up every last red cent you can and try to make sure the kids get a better education than we did. If we went to grade 7, get the kids into secondary school. If we did junior, get the kids into leaving with matriculation. If we went to leaving with matriculation, get the kids into a technical college or a university. That great aspiration, giving your kids a better education than the one you had, was fundamental to that generation and fundamental to Labor’s approach. On this side we do not forget the great Chifley government’s creation of the Commonwealth scholarships scheme nor the benefit that very many of us personally had from Whitlam’s free tertiary education. That passion, that commitment, that attitude rings true today so far as Labor is concerned.

There is another great reason today why, in modern Australia, it is absolutely essential that we invest in education at every level. These days, it is not just about an individual maximising his or her potential or about the chance to get ahead; it is also about our nation’s prosperity. It is also about the long-term, productive capacity of our nation to secure itself in the world and to ensure that as a nation our prosperity continues. These days, education is not just a social issue; it is an economic issue. It is fundamental to the ongoing capacity of our nation to remain internationally competitive and prosperous.

Investing in education, skills and training of our people in the workforce is the single most important thing we can do to lift our productivity to the next level. In the past we have seen an industrial revolution, which transformed the nature of nation-states’ economies, including our own. We have seen an IT revolution, which has transformed the nature of national economies, including our own. And, now, as the Leader of the Opposition puts it, we need an education revolution to transform the productive capacity of the Australian economy.

The last federal Labor government in office transformed the nature of our economy. It internationalised it, ensured that it was open and competitive. It dragged down tariff walls, floated the dollar, ensured that we could be internationally competitive and introduced a commitment to competition. As a consequence of that, as the Prime Minister, in a weak moment in 1996, said, he inherited an economy better than good in most parts. As a consequence of that, we have seen 16 years of continuous economic growth, set up largely by the structural reforms of the previous Labor government. Our nation has had the benefit of that in terms of prosperity, and the government has had the benefit of that in terms of political outcomes.

When we have a strong economy, particularly the benefit of a minerals and petroleum resources boom to China, that is the time to make the next investment for our future. The great neglect, the great complacency, the great squandering of opportunity by this government over 10 long years has not been moving to the next level of productive capacity, as far as our economy is concerned. What we urgently need to do is invest in education at every level to maximise the quantity and quality of investment in education at every level, from pre-primary through to university and beyond to ensure that that productive capacity comes to the fore.

When you look at our productivity growth, compared to that of the United States, under the 10 long years of John Howard, you will see that, from 1998 to 2005, our productivity fell from 85 per cent to 79 per cent.

What do we know from significant OECD research? If the average level of the education of your working age population is increased by one year—in other words, if you get your working age population and you increase, on average, that education level from year 11 to year 12, or from year 12 to first year at university or a technical college, OECD research says that you can increase your economy by anywhere from three to six per cent and that you can have one per cent higher annual growth. That is the link between investing in education and productivity growth, and it is the link between the government’s complacency, neglect and squandering in this area and the falling of our productivity growth.

Let us go through some of the damning indictments, damning analyses and damning statistics of this government over 10 long years in education at every level. Our overall investment in education in Australia is now 5.8 per cent of GDP. We are 18th in the OECD. Our public investment in tertiary education, in universities and in TAFE has declined by seven per cent over the government’s period in office, compared to an increase of 48 per cent by our OECD competitors.

Between 1995 and 2003 our expenditure per university student was reduced by six per cent. We were one of only five OECD countries—we were in a group with Portugal, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic and Poland—whose expenditure per student was reduced over that period. Our economy is either 50 per cent or 30 per cent greater than those smaller economies. Our expenditure per student fell over that period, along with that of those four other OECD countries.

We spend just 0.1 per cent of GDP on preschool education, compared with half a per cent, the OECD average of five times that. Recently, the World Economic Forum ranked our maths and science education levels as 29th in the world, behind France, India, the Czech Republic and Tunisia. When you look at the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement 2002 International Maths and Science Study, which did a comparison of results for Australian students between 1994-95 and 2002, you will see that the performance of Australian children fell against our international competitors in the following ways: in year 4 maths, our ranking dropped from seventh to 14th; in year 4 science, our ranking dropped from third to eighth; in year 8 maths, our ranking dropped from ninth to 10th; and in year 8 science, our ranking dropped from fifth to ninth.

Looking at some of the reasons for that, around 25 per cent of senior chemistry teachers do not have a major degree in chemistry, over 40 per cent of senior school physics teachers lack a physics major, 25 per cent of science teachers do not have a science qualification, 25 per cent of maths teachers do not have a major in maths and one in 12 maths teachers studied no maths at university.

Mr Brough —It has nothing to do with us.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH — Compared to the year 2000, 40,000 fewer students were enrolled in tertiary accredited science subjects in 2005, and 17,000 students were enrolled in tertiary accredited maths subjects. What does the Howard government say when it is confronted with that? It says precisely what the two ministers at the table said just then: ‘It has nothing to do with us. We’re just the government of the nation. We’ve just been the government of the nation for 10 long years. It has nothing to do with us. There must be someone else that we can blame. There must be someone else who can take the responsibility.’

These are damning indictments. There is a lack of investment in education at every level: early childhood, primary and secondary schools, universities, and technical education. And their response? It is: ‘Nothing to do with us. We just happen to have been the government of the nation for the last 10 years.’ And what do we find now? We find that Labor stands up and says, ‘The most important thing we can do for the productive capacity of our economy and the most important thing we can do for the future prosperity of the Australian people is to invest in education.’ And what does the government do?

Mr Adams interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The member for Lyons, as a member of the club, knows better.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —The government had a chance yesterday, when the minister turned up to the Press Club. Did we find a concrete policy proposal? Did we find a fully costed Commonwealth commitment to invest in education? No, we found three wafted-out thought bubbles. And one of those thought bubbles was that we should invest principals with more capacity to determine the staff in schools. I just said to myself, ‘I wonder where I have seen that before?’ On 13 November 2003, the minister’s predecessor said:

... principals need more autonomy for the planning and administration of their schools ... Critically important is control over staffing.

There is only one problem: what happened over the three years? There was a massive decline in maths and science teachers and students.

Ms Julie Bishop interjecting

Mr STEPHEN SMITH —You have done nothing. When Labor says education investment is the hallmark of our future prosperity, you turn up to the Press Club and you waft out three ideas. What you will not do is what Labor has done: in very short order, developed positive, concrete policy proposals funded to show an investment in early childhood education. The universal right to early learning for all four-year-olds will be enshrined under a new Commonwealth early childhood education act. They will be entitled to receive 15 hours of learning per week, for a minimum of 40 weeks per year. There will be 1,500 new, fully funded university places for early childhood education, 50 per cent HECS remission for 10,000 early childhood graduates working in areas of need and no TAFE fees for childcare trainees.

Why do we say that? It is because we know: all the modern evidence and research tell us that, particularly for those kids who come from disadvantaged families, an early intervention is the most important thing that you can do for their chances to get a decent education.

The crisis in our maths and science—in the core disciplines that give us a productive capacity in physics, engineering, other science and research—was underlined by a seminar we saw yesterday at the ANU, with mathematicians, scientists and academics again drawing attention to this. And when Labor comes out with a positive policy proposal to encourage young Australians to study and teach maths and science with a HECS reduction upfront and a HECS remission later on if you work in a relevant occupation, particularly teaching, the minister says: ‘That won’t have any impact. That won’t have any effect.’

If that will not have any effect or impact and if that will not encourage young Australians to teach and study maths and science, I wonder why her predecessor said in August 2004, when he said that HECS increases would not apply to teaching and nursing:

... part of the Higher Education reform package is a measure which quarantines teaching from any HECS increases, but [allows] HECS to be lowered. The deliberate aim of this measure is to make teaching more attractive relative to other courses.

We send a signal to Australians: teaching, learning and studying maths and science is important to the productive capacity of our nation; it should be done, and we encourage you to do it.

Labor is absolutely committed to it at every level: investment in education for the future of our productive capacity and for the future of our prosperity. After 10 years of neglect, arrogance, complacency and squandering of opportunities, there is only one way that our future prosperity will be ensured: the election of a Labor government to invest in education, to uplift the lives of Australian families, to lift our productive capacity and to lift the spirit of our nation. (Time expired)