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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 2

Senator CARR (9:32 AM) —Last night when I spoke to this bill I made the point that, while I support the government’s introduction of new standards and its taking the lead in that regard, I express profound disappointment that it has taken so long for an agreement to have been reached between the Commonwealth and the states on this issue. It is a dispute that I note is now well over 10 years old, and it is yet another example of the difficulties that we face in building an education system based on equality and justice. Nonetheless, I strongly take exception to the proposition that the Commonwealth has now put to this parliament. I support the measure, but it has not provided the resources to back up the changes that it is now proposing to introduce.

As a consequence, the simple proposition is advanced by the opposition that the Commonwealth ought to put their money where their mouth is. They ought to be saying, ‘Yes, we support justice for all our citizens, particularly with regard to their educational opportunities.’ We ought to be able to provide opportunities for all students in this country to maximise their skills and to make sure that they take full advantage of all of their capacities. On the other hand, we should not say that this is entirely a matter for the states to deal with and that the cost should be shared for these high standards. With that in mind, I argued last night that the Commonwealth ought to put their money where their mouth is.

The other proposition that needs to be highlighted in this debate is that, while it is all very well for the Commonwealth to move advances in setting a framework for higher standards and definitions—something I strongly support—the fundamental problem comes back to attitude. It is not just a question of money; it is also a question of attitude. The principal source of discrimination in education is often attitude. It is the view that some people are not entitled to equal treatment, are not entitled to enjoy the full benefits of the education system. So, with that in mind, I am very concerned that some of the measures in this bill to extend the principles of undue hardship may well be taken advantage of by some education authorities where they have failed to meet their commitments in the past. We know that is the case because there are legal precedents for it, whereby some particular school authorities have taken the view that some students should not be enrolled in a school because it would place an undue hardship on that school. The measures in this bill extend the right of schools to take an attitude that says that undue hardship may be inflicted after a student is enrolled. I am concerned that that may cause a problem where the attitude of some school authorities is fundamentally based on discrimination.

This is particularly important, given that the state education systems are obliged to take all comers. That is one of the fundamental principles of our public education system in this country. That is not to say that some school authorities are without blame in this matter. I know that some state authorities have sought in the past to avoid their responsibilities. Nonetheless, the fundamental principle remains that it is more difficult for public education authorities to deny enrolment opportunities to students with disabilities. The same cannot be said for the private system, which is much more able to act in a discriminatory way in its new enrolments and continuing enrolments of students with disabilities. With that in mind, I strongly urge the Commonwealth to take the opportunity with this particular disability standard to develop a new, enlightened approach to professional development for teachers, lecturers, school principals and those who make decisions with regard to the requirements placed on them by these new standards. It is important that the theory of educational equality is matched with the practice of educational equality.

There could be no more fundamental human right with regard to a social democratic society than the capacity of each and every citizen to share in the resources of that society, particularly when it comes to education. So I take the view that if we are to be serious about removing discrimination towards people with disabilities then we have to make sure that the education system is genuinely inclusive. In that context we take the view that the government have a particular responsibility at the Commonwealth level to support professional development, and I am disappointed that that opportunity has not been seized by the government. I urge them to change their attitude in that regard and to make it the case that this government are able to ensure that human rights and equality of opportunity for all Australians, particularly our disadvantaged citizens, are able to be exercised. Labor support the Disability Discrimination Amendment (Education Standards) Bill 2004 [2005]. We strongly believe that the Commonwealth must immediately undertake negotiations with the states, territories and education authorities about improving the resource base to support these new standards. (Time expired)