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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4772

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (13:37): This bill, the Australian Education Bill 2012, is a very brief document. At 1,400 words, it contains fewer words than were contained in the honourable member's speech or will likely be contained in my remarks. It sets out some worthy objectives, acknowledging that all students should be entitled to an excellent education regardless of where they live or their income. It notes that, if Australia is to be a prosperous nation with a high standard of living, the performance of our schools must continuously improve and so forth. All of those are worthy goals.

But it does not have a number in it; it does not set out a plan; and it finally says, in proposed section 10—which, I guess, summarises this or discloses that it is essentially a political document—that this act does not create rights or duties that are legally enforceable in judicial proceedings, and a failure to comply with this act does not affect the validity of any decision. It is at best a statement of intent so general as to be barely worth debating, but nonetheless we are here discussing education. I think we should be focusing on the real issues in education as opposed to the warm words and noble goals of this bill which are expressed, as I said, in such general terms that it is very difficult to have a debate about them.

A lot of this debate has been going on in the context of the so-called Gonski reforms. I have to say that it is a matter of some concern to me that my old friend David Gonski has become not simply a leading business figure and great lawyer, but also now a proper noun. Indeed, on occasions he has become a verb. It is a very disturbing development for a gentleman of his standing. Whether he is going to be decapitalised as the next step in his grammatical progression is yet to be seen. But the point about the Gonski review and the Gonski report is that it essentially identified—fairly, I think—the need for additional financial resources to be made available for schools and students who are getting inadequate resources given their particular needs, whether that be not coming from an English-speaking household, poverty, an Indigenous background or so forth. Again, in general terms, who would argue with that?

But the government has gone from taking these valuable insights from the Gonski review to claiming it is implementing them, when what Gonski was saying was that there should be more money invested in education. And yet the government seems now to be employing—this is a government which has promised and failed to deliver many surpluses—what can only be described as accounting tricks to make it appear as if there is more money going into the education system, when there is not. The fact is, over the forward estimates, the government is removing nearly $3.1 billion from education funding through various redirections of national partnership arrangements and reductions in recurrent funding for non-government schools, while only returning roughly $2.8 billion in new spending over the same period. That is giving with one hand and taking with the other, and we have heard Mr Gonski himself lamenting the way in which the government is cutting funding for higher education as part of this shuffling of money from one pocket into another.

Spending money on education is one thing, but it is not enough to simply spend the money without looking for outcomes. The critical issue, if you look at the big picture for Australia, is this: we are moving into a vastly more competitive world than ever before. We are no longer competing with low-wage economies doing low-skill jobs. We now have low-wage economies doing very high-skill jobs and developing very sophisticated products. The internet has made more and more of our economy trade exposed, so not only are higher-skill occupations in Australia being competed against by a broader range of countries—many of them with a lower wage regime and lower incomes than Australia—but the internet has also made many businesses, industries and jobs, which used not to be trade exposed, trade exposed. Think of the retail sector. Ten years ago it would not have occurred to us that retail was competing in a global market, yet virtually every category of retail is now competing globally. So how do we maintain a high-income, developed economy in Australia, with a generous social welfare safety net?

We can only do that by raising our productivity and competitiveness, and that means better and better education and higher and higher levels of skills. But it is not enough merely to throw money at the problem and hope that will solve it. We have tried that and it has failed. The reality is this: under Labor, all we have seen is a decline in Australia's educational outcomes. In Australia, educational spending per student has already risen, in real terms, over 40 per cent in the past decade; yet according to the OECD PISA rankings, our outcomes have declined from among the strongest in the world in 2000 to still fairly good in 2009, but well behind a leading group of five school systems—four of them in East Asia. Under this government's watch, therefore, we have seen education spending increase and student performance fall.

Where Labor thinks it can just throw money at education, cross its fingers and hope it can improve, the coalition knows we can do better. We do better by focusing on the teacher, on choice, on incentivising and on rewarding teachers. I refer to a paper, published in October 2003—so it is almost 10 years old—on this topic by John Hattie, from the University of Auckland. It makes a very powerful point: 'The greatest source of variance in terms of the performance of any student is the teacher.'

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate will be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.