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Thursday, 8 February 2007
Page: 8

Ms LIVERMORE (3:49 PM) —Day by day, the evidence of the Howard government’s neglect of Australia’s education and training system piles up. Yesterday, as the Minister for Education, Science and Training tossed out some more thought-bubbles at the National Press Club, down the road at the Australian National University mathematicians and scientists were meeting to consider the report entitled Mathematics and statistics: critical skills for Australia’s future. This report, released in December, analyses the crisis in maths and science teaching in our schools and universities and concludes that the number of mathematics and statistics students and lecturers at Australia’s universities is critically low. Further evidence of the crisis in maths and science appeared in the report by the Australian Academy of Science, also in December last year, which found that maths departments in Australia’s top eight universities had lost almost a third of their permanent academics. Perhaps that explains in part the reason for this government’s apparent difficulty with numbers.

When you look at the Howard government’s performance, you would have to say that it does not have a good grasp of figures and what they mean. For example, here is a figure: 18. That is Australia’s ranking in the OECD’s measure of investment in education, published in the OECD Education Outlook 2006. Australia’s overall investment in education as a share of GDP is 5.8 per cent, which puts us behind 17 other OECD economies—in other words, behind 17 of the world’s leading economies, including many of our major competitors. Here is another scary figure from the OECD research: Australia is the one and only country since 1995 to cut its public investment in tertiary education. In that time, John Howard has presided over a seven per cent reduction in investment in tertiary education, starting with a cut of $1.8 billion in the government’s first budget in 1996. That cut of seven per cent compares with an average increase of 48 per cent in spending by other OECD countries. Minus seven compared with 48 adds up to monumental neglect by this government.

At the other end of the spectrum is a huge number: 270,000. That is the estimate of the Australian Industry Group, among others, of the additional skilled workers this country will need over the next 10 years. In the meantime, as we know, 300,000 people have been turned away from TAFE colleges around the country since 1998, thanks to an early Howard government decision to reduce funding to this vital area. VET funding is lower in real terms now than it was in Labor’s last year in office in 1996.

I have one more figure: 11 years. That is how long the Howard government has been in office. That is how long this government has been running our education system. Eleven years is a long time by anyone’s calculation, but apparently it is not for John Howard and his education minister, because even though they have had 11 years of running the education system, according to them, any failings or deficiencies are someone else’s fault. That is a hard argument to sustain after 11 years of running the show, and we think that 11 years is more than long enough for the Prime Minister to be judged on his record in education.

On this side of the House, Labor are more than ready to be judged on what we have to offer in this area of policy that is so vital to our nation’s prosperity, its cohesion and the opportunities that it offers to each and every Australian. The coming battle over our competing ideas for education is about much more than the question of funding, as important as that is. It is also about the fundamental difference between the conservatives’ view of education as an individual commodity and Labor’s view of education as an essential pillar supporting the economy and building our society.

The Howard government’s failure to invest in education betrays its lack of commitment to education as a key component of equity and cohesion in our society. It also demonstrates its failure to understand the role of education in driving the improvements in productivity that we need to maintain our global competitiveness and uphold our standard of living. The legacy of the Howard government in this area is absolutely damning. And all the more so when one considers that it inherited the dividends of the Hawke and Keating reforms.

The Howard government has been able to coast along on the back of the hard work of those Labor governments in restructuring the Australian economy and, of course, the resources boom that has filled its coffers at regular intervals. This has been exactly the time when we should have been setting ourselves up for the future, locking in our prosperity and preparing for any challenges that might be around the corner. Resources booms do not last forever. Instead of riding the boom and squandering the dividends, as this government has done for the last 11 years, we should have been making the investments that need to be made to improve our skill base and our productivity.

How do we do that? We do it by investing in people—in their education, in their training and in their skills. But, under John Howard, at the same time as investment in education and training has fallen, productivity in Australia has been going backwards. Labour productivity growth fell from an average annual 3.2 per cent to 2.2 per cent in the latest five-year period, compared with the previous five-year period. That is what you get when you take your eye off the ball. That is what you get when you fail to invest in education and training, and that is what you get when you fail to invest in people—in the human capital that is universally recognised as the key to economic prosperity and social cohesion.

The Howard government has no excuse for its failure to invest in education. There is no excuse for its failures, but I can suggest a few of the reasons: incompetence, short-sightedness and, of course, blind adherence to ideology and political self-interest. For a Labor member—and I know that I speak for all of my colleagues here today—that is arguably the greatest crime of this Howard government: the fact that it never sees education as anything more than just another political plaything.

At least for the Labor Party, education is seen as a crucial portfolio, one that brings with it an enormous responsibility to develop policies to ensure that our education system gives everyone the opportunity to reach their full potential. Education creates opportunities for individuals and secures our future as a nation. So the education portfolio can be seen and should be seen as an opportunity to change lives and to build the nation. But, sadly, like every other portfolio in this government, education is seen as nothing more than another opportunity for grandstanding and cheap political point-scoring.

My colleagues and I all know the usual targets from this government. I am sure we could all recite them, because we hear them in question time every day. First, there are the states. They are usually to blame for just about anything the government finds inconvenient. Then there are the education unions and, the cheapest shot of them all, teachers—those professional and dedicated people who do no more to aggravate the government than just get out there in schools every day and teach our kids.

The Minister for Education, Science and Training might capture the odd headline with her thought-bubbles and attacks on the states, but 11 long years of this blame shifting and grandstanding in the education sector has left Australia dangerously ill equipped to seize the opportunities and to meet the challenges of the future. As the Leader of the Opposition identified in the directions paper released a few weeks ago, those challenges demand a substantial and sustained increase in the quantity of our investment and the quality of our education. That is why a Labor government will deliver a revolution in education in this country.

This revolution calls for increased investment throughout the education sector—from early childhood, through our schools and through to vocational education, universities and research institutions. We are prepared to make that investment, and we have already shown our preparedness to do that with our plan to give every four-year-old the opportunity to get the best possible start to their education through access to play based learning delivered by qualified early childhood teachers in those crucial years before they begin formal schooling. That is just the first step in achieving the education revolution that this country needs and that a Labor government will deliver.

It will be an education revolution to achieve our goal of making Australia the most educated country, the most skilled economy and the best-trained workforce in the world. That is what we want for this country, and the Howard government is to be condemned for settling for anything less. It is to be condemned for 11 years of inaction and 11 years of playing politics with education. A Labor government will take the politics out of education and put the equity and the quality back in— (Time expired)