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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4938

Mr FRYDENBERG (Kooyong) (18:30): Of the many issues and topics we debate in this chamber, there are few more important than education. It is, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the first defence of the nation. As I said to the House in my maiden speech nearly two years ago, there is bipartisan agreement with Menzies' proposition that 'lack of money must be no impediment to bright minds', but it is at this point that the ideological battleground begins.

We on this side of the political divide believe that parents have a fundamental right to choose the type of school they send their child to. Be it government or nongovernment, this individual choice should be supported and encouraged, representing as it does a central tenet of liberal philosophy. In contrast, for many of our opponents on the other side, non-government schools are simple 'necessary evils' that they must live with but never accommodate. Such a view not only leads to counterproductive educational outcomes but by definition is inequitable, denying parents as taxpayers equal government support for their choice of non-government schools to educate their children. This inequitable outcome is a bitter irony given that the central motivation for those on the left, who seek to reduce funding for non government schools, is their innate but misguided desire to produce a more equitable distribution of government monies.

So what do the Greens—the party who hold the balance of power in the Senate and who are in coalition with the Labor Party in government and received nearly 1.5 million first preference votes at the last election, including 18.5 per cent of votes in Kooyong—propose for non-government schools in their education policy? The answer is twofold: significantly less funding equivalent to billions of dollars per year and substantially more regulation of an intrusive and discriminatory kind. If you thought Mark Latham's 2004 hit list of private schools was bad, the Greens' policy takes this sentiment much further. In the words of Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green, it represents 'Latham on steroids'. It would, in the words of the Victorian Director of Catholic Education, Stephen Elder, 'force school closures, increase fees, and change the ability of Catholic schools to be genuinely Catholic'.

So let us take a closer look at their current policy document, first issued in March 2010 and now available on the Greens website. Paragraph 65 commits the Greens to reduce funding for private schools to 2003-04 levels. In that year, according to data from the report on government services, non-government schools were responsible for educating 1.04 million students and received in recurrent expenditure $6,621 per student, and government schools, who were responsible for educating 2.25 million students, received $11,866 per student. Roll those numbers a few years forward and, based on 2009-10 data, recurrent expenditure per student is $14,380 for government schools and $7,427 for non-government schools. It is easy to see that, in real terms, public funding to government schools has increased at a far greater rate than it has for non government schools.

Based on these numbers, should the Greens get their way and go back to 2003-04 levels, funding for non-government schools will significantly decrease, opening up the door to higher school fees, worsening teacher-student ratios and less funding for capital works. The Greens simply fail to understand that many parents who send their children to non-government schools do so at great personal expense. They are forced to prioritise already tight budgets to choose a school with the right culture and values to suit their child. It is a choice that now sees 34 per cent of all students attending non-government schools, reaching 42 per cent at years 11 and 12. What is more, between 2004 and 2007 enrolments in non-government schools grew by 21.9 per cent compared to only 1.1 per cent at government schools. By sending their kids to non-government schools, parents are cross-subsidising the public education system to the tune of, on average, $6,000 per child per year. When it comes to the Greens policy it is not just this adjustment to the 2003-04 funding levels that they propose that causes concern; it is a host of other policy pronouncements too.

In paragraph 62, the Greens want 'proper consideration of the resource levels of non-government schools and their financial capacity, including fees and other parent contributions'. This opens a Pandora's box of issues, for currently under the SES funding model moneys raised by schools through philanthropic efforts or fees do not impact their government funding. But the Greens would dispense with this and, by making the connection with federal funding, would put in place invidious disincentives for schools to raise more funds from their own parent body. So too in paragraph 62, the Greens want 'non-government schools to be fully accountable to the parliament and therefore transparent to the public on their use of government funds and their financial situation, including all income and assets'. One could envisage each school principal and parent body chairperson being hauled before Senate estimate type committees to expound on the 'true state' of their balance sheet and all manner of expenditures. In paragraph 64, the Greens say they want to 'end public subsidies to the very wealthiest private schools'. What constitutes in their eyes a very wealthy private school could be the antithesis of what it is in reality.

In paragraph 63, the Greens say they want to 'ensure that non-government schools in receipt of government funding do not discriminate in hiring of staff or selection of students' and 'have an admissions and expulsion policy similar to public schools'. This is Orwellian in the extreme. Who would administer such a policy? And who would adjudicate in the event of a dispute? This very idea of dictating to non-government schools removes exactly the independence and autonomy that has made these schools so effective.

I could go on. In paragraph 18, the Greens seek to reverse 'excessive increases in Commonwealth funding to non-government schools in recent years'. But, as has been pointed out, schools have not received excessive increases at all, either in absolute or real terms. One has only to look at each of these Green policies to see that they are of concern. When you look at them in total they are really alarming. What this motion today seeks to do is to hold the Greens to account for their policies and to make clear to their fellow travellers in the Labor Party that funding for non-government schools must not be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. In responding to the Gonski review the government and the Greens have an opportunity to affirm their commitment to the non-government school sector. This is what I and the coalition will be looking for.

I understand that a lot of work was put into the Gonski review, with over 7,000 written submissions, hundreds of meetings, 26 findings and 41 recommendations to show for it. But there are real questions that remain unanswered. What would a new, bigger bureaucracy, in particular school planning authorities and national resourcing bodies, do? Will indexation to non-government schools be maintained? If it does not, it could cost the non-government school sector up to $4.2 billion over four years. Is NAPLAN, which is a diagnostic tool, truly appropriate to determine funding as is being proposed? And what does the 'anticipated capacity of parents' really mean for the new resource standard? Ultimately, where will the money come from, because the Gonski review has recommended that at least $5 billion annually should be found, but this government in its recent budget allocated only $5 million to take this review a step further. These are the questions that we should be looking at. In my electorate of Kooyong the one big industry is our schools. I have over 52 schools, of which 30 are non-government, 13 are Catholic and 17 are independent. There are more than 30,000 school students in my electorate. This is the No. 1 issue. Parents send their kids to these independent and Catholic schools because they are aspirational, because it is a religious choice and because they are seeking a school that is consistent with their values and the educational outcomes that they seek. This is why I support the motion and this is why it deserves to be supported by this chamber.