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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 857

Ms O’NEILL (9:39 PM) —I rise today on a matter that is close to my heart and important to the region I represent. I will speak on the structural change necessary to advance the interests of students, teachers, the community and employers on the Central Coast. With regard to the development of education initiatives on the Central Coast, we have reached a historic moment. I want to put on the record what I believe is a pressing need for change to the governance structure of school and vocational education in my region. At present, Central Coast schools and TAFES are part of the New South Wales Department of Education and Training’s Hunter-Central Coast region. As a teacher and lecturer with 25 years experience on the Central Coast, I would like to say emphatically that the time has come for us to have an education region of our own. There are a number of reasons for this, on which I will shortly expand, but first let me establish the context in which I make this claim.

In June last year the NSW Minister for Planning, Tony Kelly, announced that the Central Coast was, for the first time, being recognised as a region under state environmental-planning legislation. By the end of June this year, thanks to federal Labor, we will have a Central Coast Local Health Network. We have our own A-League team, the Central Coast Mariners, who played such a brilliant first half last Saturday evening at Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford. Although we lost the match, the Mariners are winning the hearts of the people of the Central Coast and confirming the reality that we exist as an autonomous region. I will take this opportunity to wish the Mariners success in their attempt to reverse that result in the second leg of their tussle with Brisbane on Saturday night. If our local team can stand on the national stage at a sporting level, we can and we should stand on our own two feet when it comes to education.

Now our growing region of 300,000-plus people needs the agency and the autonomy to allocate and prioritise our education resources. The population of the Central Coast region on the night of the census in 1996 was 263,000. By 2006 that number had increased to 297,000. The results of this year’s census will confirm for us next year that we are still growing. Once it was a natural fit for us to look to Newcastle as an older and more established region with a large population to offer some support to our fledgling community. That is no longer the case. While we certainly need to work with our neighbours, we need to do so as ultimate decision makers keenly attuned to and responsible for our area.

In times of competitive grant applications and decision making about what is advanced by each region, it is no longer in our interests to be subsumed by a region that is geographically, demographically and sociologically quite different from the more recently established Central Coast. It is not in the interests of the educational participants on the Central Coast to be voiceless. We need our own voice, our own narrative and our own accountability to our own community. Without our own educational regional identity, we are at the whim of education bureaucrats in Newcastle, Sydney or Canberra. Recognition of our education region is a natural progression from recognition of our health region and our recognition as a region for planning purposes.

Engagement of our youth in schooling is a critical challenge for our area. Our retention rates are less than desirable, with the last figure I saw from the Hunter-Central Coast region resting at about 60 per cent. We know that failure to engage young people in education has long-term impacts on their life outcomes across a range of metrics including health, employment, income levels and general wellbeing. If we want to reach our goal of raising school retention rates to 90 per cent by 2020, something needs to change. Certainly we need to develop innovative and locally relevant programs, responses and community partnerships with social, health and other local agencies as well as local businesses to find ways of connecting our kids with school and with our very particular community.

I have certainly come to the view that an educational region of our own is a critical element in us advancing towards better retention and happier educational outcomes for all. So there is a lot of work to do. We can pause for a reflection here on the failure to localise programs. The remains of the Howard government’s misguided attempt to impose its extremist ideology on the Australian vocational education sector can still be seen in the main street of Gosford. The ‘For Lease’ sign still hangs in the window on the former shopfront of the Australian technical college in Mann Street. The very concept that there should be competition in the vocational sector was one of the more febrile ideas in the overheated free-market craziness of the Howard government. Naturally all those who taught there had to sign AWAs. The real agenda of the Australian technical college, as many noted at the time, was to transplant a conservative industrial relations agenda into the schooling sector. This kind of scenario might not have eventuated had there been more robust local autonomy.

In the year 2011, following many discussions with educators and parents, I have come to the opinion that it is not possible for a governance framework centred on Greater Newcastle to effectively represent our interests. Autonomy for the region is an agenda I will do my best to advance with my Labor colleagues on the Central Coast. I do not put this argument for a separate Central Coast educational region lightly. I have made a number of claims already about a rationale for advancing this idea to reality. To this argument I want to add the weight of dozens of private conversations that teachers and other school staff have had with me about their experiences under the current structure. Their stories of the marginalisation of their voice are such that I feel impelled to put their reality on the record in this place.

Teachers, parents and friends of learning on the Central Coast are experts in our area. They understand from their everyday encounters with students, parents, community members and employers the very particular needs and strengths of education in our region. We have our own community, rich in insights into the strengths and deficits of the Central Coast. What we need is our own region, to localise the national, to engage with one another and to invite those around us to share perspectives at our request rather than to deliver decisions without sufficient attention to our distinct and pressing realities.

As time permits, I will also touch on a second grievance, and that is the abysmal failure by the New South Wales Liberal Party to consider the infrastructure needs of the Central Coast—in particular, New South Wales opposition leader, Barry O’Farrell, and his cowardly failure to go into next month’s New South Wales election with the kind of infrastructure policies that will make a difference to the lives of people on the Central Coast. I am very proud that today the Gillard government and the Keneally government have signed an intergovernmental agreement for the Parramatta to Epping rail link. This rail project is part of the Gillard Labor government’s plan to build a modern economy and match government services with population growth. We are putting $2.1 billion towards the construction of this project, with the New South Wales government raising $520 million to finalise planning and early construction work.

The Parramatta to Epping rail link would cut travel time between Chatswood and Parramatta by an amazing 25 minutes. Given the chance, it would open up the huge expanse of Greater Western Sydney to Central Coast commuters. It would provide a subset of commuters with the option of rail rather than Pennant Hills Road. Planning in this important project is already underway, with preconstruction activities starting this year. The acid test is now on Mr O’Farrell. If, as everyone seems to think, it is a foregone conclusion that he will be the next Premier of New South Wales, will he become the man who denies people of the Central Coast the hope of better public transport infrastructure? In this House, how will the members for Bennelong, for Berowra and for Mitchell face their constituents and explain why they will not stand up for this important piece of infrastructure? If they had the guts they would pull Mr O’Farrell into line and tell him that he has to deliver the Parramatta to Epping rail link.

The Liberal candidates on the Central Coast are in the same boat: not one nation builder among them. Actually, there is one nation builder. He is the Liberal candidate for The Entrance, who, as members would know, has an extensive history with the One Nation Party. As we have all seen over the past week, the poisonous ideas of One Nation live on in the Liberal Party. A long-term media observer of local politics told me the other day that the Liberal candidates on the Central Coast at this election are the worst bunch of misfits, failures and reprobates he has seen present themselves for election. Our residents and our businesses deserve better. They deserve better than retrograde, knee-jerk politics that will alienate and disable the people of the Central Coast who commute to Sydney on the Northern Line.