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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4812

Mr LAMING (Bowman) (16:12): It has come to this: our national parliament debating a 1,400-word pamphlet at five minutes to midnight. The government has had six years to get this right, and we find that at the last minute we are presented with figures that nobody believes—not state governments, not the school sector and not my constituents. Masquerading as an education bill is a pamphlet that pretends to set out a plan for education for all children, pretends to make schooling more equitable—whatever that should mean—and pretends to return Australia to the top five nations in the world while, under the watch of this government, it has actually gone the other way. At five minutes to midnight, we are being asked to believe a federal government that has run out of ideas on every other policy front and, in this parliament today, sets out what purports to be a plan for the future of Australia's education. It is a government that has failed to index early childhood education and ripped billions out of university education yet, straight-faced, talks to the Australian people and complains that it cannot get a bill through that can guarantee the educational future of this country.

The Australian Education Bill 2012 is a pamphlet devoid of any detail. It is a pamphlet claiming that it can make Australia the world's best, from a government that does not have a plan for five minutes from now, let alone five years or a decade. We in this great country always wanted a government that planned for the future, but never at any moment did we want a government that abdicated the more important role of governing for today at the same time. We have a government quite capable of reeling off massive figures in the billions of dollars on the pretext that first you need to vote for it again both this year and in three years time. But what is its plan for the next three years? Well, you need to go to the budget papers and see that all of the estimates that were accurate last year about indexation of education have been quickly Tipp-Exed out and replaced with new estimates for what the average government increase in recurrent education will be. It used to be much higher than it is now claimed to be. We cannot find where those numbers come from. No, they are simply new numbers, designed to make the Gonski plan on offer better than it actually is.

All the money that is promised around the country of $16.2 billion is derived from three basic facts. First, they assume that everyone signs up and the states—who already have stressed budgets with no chance to increase their tax base—will put in a two for one offer which states are saying is nigh impossible. Second, we know overall that there is a $4.7 billion cut through clever budget manipulation of the indexation of education funding. It was all happening until the most recent budget when that was basically expropriated away. Then, third, there is a vague promise of $9.8 billion—more money than anyone in this gallery can even dream of—flowing into education, not this term and not the next election term but the term after that. We are wondering who in this chamber will even be here to keep those promises.

What we need is a government so committed to education that they can save, get their budget spending under control and run the economy so that, like every government before them, they can save the money to invest in education. But that concept is long gone. The notion that one saves in order to spend has long been destroyed and now we have vague and mostly irrelevant promises. The $2.8 billion that is even meant to go into schools in the next four years sounds like a reasonable figure until you take out the $2.1 billion that has been removed. The discontinued national partnerships are gone, the reward payments for teachers are gone, the cash bonuses for schools are gone, literacy and numeracy funding are gone. That is all removed with the other hand as Peter is busily robbing Paul. These are all discontinued programs which have not in any way been explained by the government and there is simply no detail on what this fund really sets out to do.

It is a good time to read out the 10 essential principles that the coalition commits to in running an education system and which every Australian deserves to know. Families must have a right to choose where and how they meet their education needs, values and beliefs. All children must have the opportunity to secure a quality education wherever they are. Student funding must be based on fair, objective and, most importantly, transparent criteria. Every school deserves to know if it is better or worse off. Students with similar needs must be treated comparably wherever they are and never should we be satisfied that large numbers of students do not attend school in this great nation. Decisions, wherever possible, must be made by local parents and school communities wherever that can be achieved and every Australian student is absolutely entitled to a basic grant for their education from the Commonwealth, after all the Commonwealth is the main collector of a range of national taxes. Schools and parents need a high degree of certainty. After six years and for all the claims from the government—and people have not yet seen a coalition policy—this Labor government now, and even before in opposition, has never given a clear signal that it will protect schools and that no school will be worse off. We are yet to hear that commitment made. Schools should not be penalised, not for their efforts in fund raising nor for encouraging private investment in education. Lastly, funding arrangements must be simple enough so that schools can direct that funding where they wish to education outcomes or to increase productivity and quality in their schools.

What we have in this pamphlet before us is a definitional problem because still while it is being debated in this chamber there is not a clear supplemental definition about what comprises a systemic or a non-systemic school. We know that Catholic education sits in the systemic column but there clearly is not information about how that funding can flow from a Commonwealth to non-government systems. I can understand that is a massive concern for schools in my electorate, many of whom are highly efficient, highly successful, low-fee independent schools.

Everyone in Australia does know there is now a 30 June deadline, but states are increasingly finding it a highly unsatisfactory arrangement dealing with this Prime Minister: (a) because the numbers do not add up, (b) because she is not negotiating constructively, (c) because there is a sense of panic in this government and we are not quite sure what they are going to do next and (d) because in my great state alone, where there are 2,000 schools across that largely decentralised population, up to 300 schools have no idea if they will be better or worse off. There is no commitment to those 300 schools and I would argue that any reform of education begins from the simple proposition that the current funding enjoyed by every school is secured and any of the indexation is guaranteed. But in fact that is not the case at the moment.

In my electorate I have some of the largest and finest state schools and also, as I have said, some great low-fee independent schools. Not one of those school communities would brook a cut to their funding but, as long as there are 300 schools in Queensland, it is a reasonable proposition—given that I cover about one-thirtieth of Queensland—that a number of schools in the electorate of Bowman are under threat. I am not being histrionic or alarmist, but until you can rule it out we cannot have a basic and honest conversation about how we can index and increase funding. That basic starting point must be absolutely settled and that the funding they currently enjoy will not be cut.

If you look at the debate that is occurring at the moment and the increasing sense of panic from a Commonwealth government that effectively at five minutes to midnight is trying to strike an education deal that they have had six months to put together, it is quite clear that there is very little bargaining in good faith. I know that we have seen a majority of mainland states still not agreeing. There are three basic numbers that we cannot get an answer on from this government. This debate is the right time to come forward and be completely frank about three things. The first one is that despite the claims in the next budget estimates—this is where a government puts skin in the game and promises what they commit to for the next four years—precisely what is the state of education investment? On our side of politics we claim a $325 million cut. That is because of all of the changes to national partnership agreements and the backloading by a government that up until 12 months ago actually held onto that almost ephemeral dream that they could still create a budget surplus. But no, it is a government that after five attempts has had five failures. You would have to go back decades to find a Labor government that can actually raise the money that they also promise with the other hand.

With that in mind, there is absolutely no sign of where this money will come from. So when you hear a Labor politician around the country promising money that ends in the word 'billions' you have to ask this very simple question: from where does the money come? It is a government that is quite prepared to backload its promises so that most of the money you will hear them promising is appearing not after this election but after the next one. This is a government that has barely been able to predict exactly what is going to happen with terms of trade, the mining boom and the costs of their own programs, but again at five minutes to midnight they want us to believe their education promises for 2017.

I for one—and I know there are many people out there listening—would just ask a simple question of this government: can you balance a budget? No. Do you have fiscal spending under control? No. There is very little disagreement from any economic analyst about those factors. So long as those basic antecedents cannot be mastered by this government, nothing they promise about education can work. It is a government fighting over the crumbs. It is a government unable to grow the cake. It is a government unable to budget for the future. It is a government that fundamentally cannot be trusted on education.