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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4835

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (17:49): I had taken down my posters campaigning for equity in education, particularly in regional education. I thought, certainly from a New South Wales representative's perspective, that this issue was over and that we had been successful in getting a sensible funding agreement for the future that recognises the problem and finds a shared solution between the state and the Commonwealth, across party lines, to the benefit of students and schools, where the particular loadings of regionality, rurality, Aboriginality and low SES were directly funded in the new five-year funding formula.

But that was only the battle; we still look to have the war. It is with an element of sadness that I record that there are members in this chamber who, at so many levels, say so many things and say they believe in so many things—including that education is important, that regional Australia is important and that state sovereignty is important—who now want to get in the way of all three. I will be damned if my children are going to be left with a funding model that has been clearly proven to lead to intolerable outcomes in the education data, which show about a 30 per cent gap. I will be damned as a parent, let alone as an MP, that, as a collective, the students of my communities are being told that it is some kind of normality that there is a 30 per cent gap in education data and that there is an intolerable link between that education data and the funding formula itself.

If we, as a chamber, are to accept that business as usual in the funding formula is the future then we are also accepting the education data that says Aboriginal students are coming in 30 per cent lower in performance, that rural and regional students are coming in 30 per cent lower in performance and that low-SES families—poorer families—are coming in 30 per cent lower in performance. This chamber should not accept that as some kind of normality, yet that is the position we are now seeing from the shadow education minister, from the Leader of the Opposition, from the National Party and from those who say, over and over again, that they believe in regional Australia and that they believe in education as part of the answer.

When it comes to the crunch on the principle of equity and when it comes to the crunch on exposing either a link that exists or one that is intolerable—and that is what we have got to get to the bottom of—some people are folding their tents behind political expedience and just wanting to take out a Prime Minister and a government and build some sort of campaign that this is waste and mismanagement.

What rot! We have data from the New South Wales education department and the federal education department that is clear. The education data shows that we are failing students in regional New South Wales and Australia, that we are failing Aboriginal students and that we are failing students from lower SES families. The crisis is not in education. The crisis is not in regional Australia, Aboriginal Australia or poor Australia. The crisis is in this chamber—that we are even having a political fight over this.

I plead: where are the shared solutions to the shared and clear problems that have been identified? An argument and a threat are being presented politically—despite state colleagues getting the issue; despite state colleagues in New South Wales signing up to it—that we have to accept as normal that collectively the performance of regional kids is about 30 per cent less than metropolitan kids, for no other reason—it is an apples with apples comparison—than that they are regional kids as compared to metropolitan kids.

So, yes, we can all fire up the barbecues and have lots of beers while talking about teacher performance. Yes, we can all say that students should turn up. Yes, we can all say, 'In my day kids got grazes on their knees,' as the earlier speaker contributed. Yes, we can all muse about the failings of the moment across Australia in education. But when we compare apples with apples, when we segregate this issue, why would anyone sit around a barbecue and say that, based purely on location—a student in one school in a metropolitan area versus a student in a school in a regional area—there should be a 30 per cent difference in education outcomes? You cannot win that argument around a barbecue and you should not be allowed to get away with that argument in this chamber.

It is a disgrace that we are even debating this as some sort of controversy when the data is clear. The whole point of the expert panel led by David Gonski, but also with people like Ken Boston who worked with both sides of politics, and the Kathryn Greiners of the world who are hardly aligned to the hip of Julia Gillard—these are people who say, 'We've got a problem'—was that we have got an incredibly segregated outcome in certain categories that needs to be addressed. The way to address it is to put in place specific loadings where that segregation exists: loadings for regional students; loadings for Aboriginal students; loadings for low SES students. It ain't hard. We either accept it or we accept the normal that we are going to have arguably the most segregated education data around the world, let alone in Australia and in Australian history. We will arguably entrench an education system that favours some and not others.

This chamber is not about that. No political party that I am aware of is about that. Yet I am floored that my colleagues from the Nationals in particular—those who advocate for regional Australia, supposedly—are now taking a position of arguing against regional and remote students. That is the only logical position they can take. They are arguing a case that they feel comfortable with. They think it is normal. They think it is all okay that regional and rural students and their schools are going to come in roughly 30 per cent less as per the education data.

I am somewhat saddened that this is not a bill that has the broad support of all sides in this House as it does have the broad support of the Commonwealth and certainly the state of New South Wales. I am also disappointed that more effort has not been made by some to recognise that there are one-offs in national partnership agreements, that this debate has been very cleverly reframed as one around 'the Prime Minister's got to get the majority of states in the bag or the whole thing goes boom!'

There are one-offs in national partnership agreements. Anyone from Queensland who has dealt with floods knows that, so why cannot New South Wales be protected by those who in their budget-in-reply talked about the importance of state sovereignty? Why cannot we just be left alone to actually get on with what the New South Wales National Party education minister and the New South Wales Liberal Party Premier understand—that is, the failing in the education data and the right course of action to address it? That, if it comes to that, is certainly all I request. Sure, it would make a lot of sense for other states to sign up for logic, common sense and student interests, but if they want to play their politics first, or if they find some other reason, they can knock themselves out. But this national partnership agreement between the Commonwealth and New South Wales must stand. It must be left alone because this matters to many schools that I represent. If there is honour in the words about state sovereignty from the Leader of the Opposition, then this is his first and greatest test at the moment.

I strongly support this legislation. I support it based on the evidence provided by the New South Wales government. I support it based on the word of the New South Wales education minister who said:

It is extremely clear that what we signed up to is better than the existing model and better than what the federal opposition is suggesting.

That is the New South Wales National Party education minister. He is not playing politics; he is looking after students and kids. He gets the shared problem, the failure in certain categories and that there needs to be a particular loading built into the funding model to address that. If we do not, we assign failure as normal. I would hope Chris Pyne, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Peter Garrett are not wanting to assign failure as normal.

Therefore, it is not up to government to explain why they are going down this path of particular loadings based on the education data that has come from the education departments state and federal and of following the expert panel report. It is up to the opposition to say why they are ignoring all that and why for some unknown reason they are choosing to assign regional students to education data that proves failure. Why do they accept as some sort of normal a message that says regional students are 30 per cent dumber than those from metropolitan areas? Because that is what you are saying by saying 'business as usual' in the funding formula. I disagree with that strongly. I think it is disgusting that we are actually having this debate in the parliament. I congratulate both Barry O'Farrell and Julia Gillard for getting on with the job based on the evidence and based on the facts. I hope this legislation can get through.