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Thursday, 8 February 2007
Page: 8

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Minister for Education, Science and Training and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues) (3:34 PM) —The Howard government believes that there must be choice, there must be values, there must be standards and there must be greater national consistency in education in this country. Education is the fundamental, essential and enduring building block upon which to build a prosperous economy and social cohesiveness. We must strive for higher standards in our schools. We must ensure that school students are given the best possible opportunities in life. We need to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality education from high-quality teachers in a high-quality environment. This requires a greater focus on higher standards in curriculum, greater national consistency, rewards and incentives for teachers and more autonomy for school principals. The Australian government will continue to show leadership in this regard. Australian parents do not want a revolution. They do not want all these rhetorical words that mean nothing. They want their children to have access to a quality education.

Let me first talk about the funding facts, and focus on why increased funding has not necessarily meant that standards are increasing. This is where the difference between the coalition and Labor is so stark. Labor just throw money at problems; we find solutions. We know that increased taxpayer investment has led to higher standards and greater quality in our schools, in our universities and in vocational and technical education. We have provided record funding to state government schools every year since 1996. It has increased every year, and that is a fact. Australian government funding to state government schools has increased by almost 120 per cent since 1996. In the same period, state government school enrolments have increased at just over one per cent. We are investing a record $33 billion in school education over four years, between 2005 and 2008.

It is a fact that Labor cannot ignore: state governments, of whatever persuasion, own, run and provide most of the funding for state government schools, and the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding. The opposition continue to ignore the fact that federal funding for state government schools is calculated as a percentage of the state’s investment, and it has been for decades. So if the state governments increase their investment, the federal investment increases automatically. I am going to come back to that.

The Australian government is also providing record increases in funding in the area of higher education. In fact, this year there is over a 26 per cent real increase on 1995. We have increased taxpayer subsidised places to record levels and we have more Australian undergraduates at university than at any time in our history. Almost a million students are now at university.

You want to quote OECD figures. Why don’t you quote the figure that 35 per cent of Australian 19-year-olds are engaged in tertiary education? That is seven per cent higher than the OECD average. Why don’t you quote the statistic that 31 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 64 have tertiary qualifications? Compare that with the OECD average of 25 per cent—seven or eight per cent more. Labor have been peddling a myth; they have been selectively quoting OECD data that tertiary education funding fell by seven per cent between 1995 and 2003. That is not true, and Labor know it.

The member for Perth has form in quoting selectively, and he is doing it again. The OECD figures that Labor are quoting exclude three-quarters of our funding for vocational education and training, and ignore taxpayer subsidies for students. And, even if we use their own figures, Australia’s tertiary expenditure increased by 25 per cent in real terms between 1995 and 2003. But these are out-of-date figures; they only go to 2003. Labor is excluding the Backing Australia’s Future reforms in 2004, which will see the sector $11 billion better off over the decade. They are ignoring the $560 million in last year’s budget and the $837 million in the Skills for the Future package.

Our universities, consequently, are in a strong financial position. In 2004-05 we saw our universities’ total revenue increasing by over eight per cent to almost $14 billion and their operating result increasing by 36 per cent to almost $838 million. Total federal government funding increased by over nine per cent and net assets increased by over seven per cent to over $25 billion. I am talking about our universities. Our universities’ cash and investments grew by almost 18 per cent to $7 billion. That is what our universities have, today, in cash and investments. Yet state Labor governments have ripped out more than $150 million in payroll tax—more than they provide in support to the universities. Has the member for Perth ever called on his mates in state Labor governments to abolish the payroll tax that they impose on universities and stop ripping off the universities to the tune of $150 million? They are taking out more from universities than they put in. I want to see the member for Perth stand up and take on state Labor governments and tell them to stop ripping off our universities.

In the vocational and technical education area Australian government funding has increased by 88 per cent in real terms since 1996, and this year we are providing over $2.6 billion. There are more than 400,000 apprentices in training today. That is an almost 160 per cent increase since we came to government. Now, 400,000 Australians are getting the opportunity to get a trade so that they can get work and have a career. We have heard the Minister for Vocational and Further Education today say that we are setting up 25 Australian technical colleges with strong industry linkages. These colleges are going to have greater autonomy to drive up standards. We have practical solutions and we are working with business and industry, and parents, students and teachers to drive up standards.

If the member for Perth wants to have a debate about funding, let us look at the funding that state Labor governments are providing for their schools. I ask the member for Perth to take these figures into account during his fireside chats when he sits around with his mates from state Labor governments. I think he will be interested to know that in 2006-07 the New South Wales state government increased funding for their schools by 3.9 per cent. The Australian government’s increase in funding for New South Wales schools was 10.7 per cent.

Ms Plibersek —What are the dollar figures?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The member for Sydney!

Ms JULIE BISHOP —If the states had increased the funding at the rate of the Australian government there would be an extra $492 million in New South Wales government schools. Let us take the state of Victoria. If Victoria had increased funding at the same rate as the Australian government there would be an extra $403 million in Victorian government schools. Let us take Queensland. There was an increase in the 2006-07 Queensland government’s budget of six per cent for Queensland government schools.

Ms Plibersek —From what to what?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Sydney has not got the floor.

Ms JULIE BISHOP —The Australian government increased the budget 10.9 per cent. That means $218 million more would have been invested in Queensland schools if the Queensland government increased funding at the same rate as the Australian government. It goes on—South Australia is a disgrace. The South Australian government increased funding for its schools—the schools it owns and operates—by 2.1 per cent. The Australian government’s increase in funding for South Australian government schools was 11.3 per cent. If the South Australian government had increased funding at the rate of the Australian government there would be an extra $167 million in South Australian government schools.

That is the picture across the country. Overall, the state and territory government increased school funding by 4.9 per cent; the Australian government, in 2006, increased our schools funding by over 11 per cent. If the states had increased at the same rate as the Commonwealth there would be $1.4 billion more in state government schools. I have not heard a peep out of Labor over the state Labor governments’ failure to match the federal government increases in funding state government schools. I think that is a disgrace.

We hear squeaks from the member for Perth over reforms and revolutions and then he is pulled back into line by the unions and the state Labor governments. Here is a chance for him to show his true colours. If he wants to talk about reforms and increased funding, let him take up with state Labor governments why they are failing to invest the $1.4 billion that would go into their schools if they were to match the funding increases that the Commonwealth provides for government schools.

We have to drive higher standards through our education sector. We do not want to just throw money at issues. That is Labor’s only answer to anything. If they have an issue they throw money at it; they do not look at the root cause, expose the inefficiencies, look at the incompetencies, improve the fundamentals or raise standards by raising the bar. They just throw money. That is typical of Labor—spend, spend, spend! And the shadow minister has strong experience in this regard. He was part of the Labor government that racked up almost $100 billion in Australian government debt by the time the Australian people threw them out of office. That is a debt that has taken 10 years of hard work by the Howard government to pay off. That was Labor’s solution to every problem they had while they were in office.

What was the legacy of Labor’s economic vandalism? Under Labor, interest rates peaked at 17 per cent and averaged 12 per cent for homeowners. Unemployment reached 11 per cent. That was almost a million Australians unemployed. When unemployment was almost a million people, we also had the highest number of eligible applicants for university missing out on a place. Under Labor, you could not get a job and you could not get a place at university. If you had a home, you had to pay 17 per cent in interest rates. Under Labor, real wages fell by 1.7 per cent. Now the member for Perth wants to return to his glory days as an economic adviser to Paul Keating and destroy the nation’s finances. This was a shameful period in the record of the Labor government over those 13 years. It hit average Australians hard. It damaged small business. It destroyed the confidence of the nation—and that is what Labor want to go back to.

Our focus is on quality. Australia invests billions of dollars in education, yet higher standards will only be achieved through reforms that address the key issues. In schools, those issues are quality of curriculum, quality of teachers and national consistency. That is why we are continuing to press for issues such as greater autonomy for school principals. The member for Perth does not realise that a bill was passed in this House in 2005 in which we gave state governments the responsibility to consult with principals over the hiring of staff. We had to force them to do it. The member for Perth does not realise that this is in legislation. We are saying in this legislation: not only consult school principals over the hiring of staff but also give them autonomy, the power, to hire and fire.

The member for Perth knows that this is what school principals want, what parents want, what teachers want and what students need. But he cannot deliver on it because federal Labor is captive to the unions and the unions are going to withhold campaign funding if he steps out of line. It is like bungee jumping for the member for Perth. Down he goes—we have reforms and revolutions—and then he is back up again as soon as the unions pull on the bungee rope. He will not be able to deliver.

We have to focus on the quality of teachers. They are a precious national resource. After parents, teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s educational outcomes. Teachers should be recognised and rewarded on merit like other professionals. I am working with state governments to ensure that we can reward teachers through a performance element in their salary packages that focuses particularly on teachers in disadvantaged areas who are making a significant difference to their students’ achievements. Teachers also need greater support in professional development.

As I said in question time today, there also has to be greater accountability to parents at the individual school level. The states have a wealth of data about individual schools, yet they are keeping it secret. They are not telling parents, they are not telling teachers and they are not telling schools. The reason they do it is that it would expose the truth that not all teachers are equal and not all schools are equal. There are vast variations in how state schools are being funded. This is not good enough. The community has a right to know how individual schools are performing and whether their school is receiving a fair share of funding. We are going to ensure that the reporting requirements that are already in legislation are expanded so that the parents, the public and the community get a real idea, a real picture, of what is going on in our schools.

I am regularly approached by employers who complain about young people lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. We are going to focus on that. We are going to ensure that young Australians reach the highest standards that they can in literacy and numeracy. Currently, they are being assessed only at a minimum standard, below which a child would fail. They are tested only at a minimum standard. We are going to undertake national assessments across the board to ensure that young people reach higher standards.

We believe in choice for young people. We believe that they should have choice in the school they attend, but that choice is being denied to them by Labor. Australian families will not and cannot trust Labor to deliver on education, as they are beholden to the unions. (Time expired)