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Tuesday, 13 September 1983
Page: 714


Mr COLEMAN(10.40) —Last week the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) published letters in at least two newspapers-the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald-in which she complained that a paragraph in an article which she wrote a couple of years ago, in which she expressed opposition to parental freedom of choice in education, contained an editing error. Some people have taken this letter to imply that there was a fundamental error and that she is not opposed to parental freedom of choice in education. I am not surprised that the Minister is touchy on the matter since the paragraph in question has explosive implications and has been frequently quoted back to the Minister as further evidence of her dogmatic hostility to non-government schools.

Let me quote the paragraph of the letter which appeared on page 46 of the Sydney Morning Herald dated 10 October 1981 over the name of Susan Ryan. This was in a review of the book Politics is for People by the British member of Parliament, Shirley Williams. The paragraph reads:

It is with reluctance that I for one conclude, after reading this book, that the freedom to send one's children to an independent school, is bought at too high a price for the rest of society.

The Minister for Education and Youth Affairs now tells us in her letters to the Press that she did not write this paragraph which in fact is a quotation from Shirley Williams's book. Her letter says:

Unfortunately, an editing error resulted in this comment being attributed to me .

Of course, all honourable members will accept what the Minister now says. In saying this, I am a little more charitable, incidentally, than the honourable member for Chisholm (Ms Mayer) who last week, without consulting me, said that I had made 'a knowing misquotation' from the Minister's book review in my speech in this chamber on the Government's cuts in grants to non-government schools in my electorate. In fact, at the time I spoke, I did not know of the Minister's letter to the Canberra Times that morning. If I had, I would have then made the comments I propose to make now.

As I said, all honourable members will accept what the Minister now says. It can, in any case, be easily confirmed by referring to Shirley Williams's book where, at page 158, the sentence in question appears with one qualification. The editing error was quite a big one since, as well as leaving out quotation marks, it involved adding the new words 'after reading this book', which of course do not appear in the book. It ties the conclusion drawn more closely to the book reviewer, Susan Ryan. It is presented as her conclusion 'after reading the book' . However, the correction does not bear the implication that the conclusion against parental freedom of choice is not the Minister's.

What is more interesting about the letter is not what it says but what it does not say. A sentence from Shirley Williams's book was wrongly attributed to the Minister but it still clearly expresses the Minister's view. The letters to the Press gave the Minister a fine opportunity to say publicly-certainly to a wider public than reads Hansard-that she rejects Shirley Williams's view and that she is in favour of maximising parental freedom of choice in education. But, of course, she does not say that because she does not believe in it and she is in favour of reducing, if not eliminating, freedom of choice in education. That is why she has been a member of the Australian Council of State School Organisations which wanted State aid abolished. That is why she has appointed to the Australian Schools Commission two men who are opposed to State aid. That is why there is now, for the first time, no representative of any non-government school on the Australian Schools Commission. The fact is that Shirley Williams's view that 'the freedom to send one's children to an independent school is bought at too high a price for the rest of society' is also the Minister's view. The Minister has had ample opportunity to deny this and she will not, apart from quibbles about the difference between Australian and British systems. On the fundamental question she is silent and her silence is deafening.

In the remaining moments I wish to refer to one of the absurdities that characterises discussions of non-government schools of level 1, including those in my electorate. Government members say that because the schools charge fees of about $3,000 a year they are wealthy or privileged schools. The basic fact is that most of the parents who prefer these schools endure financial hardship to send their children to them. Most of the mothers go to work purely to pay the fees. They do not complain about this because they are exercising freedom of choice and do not expect that to be easy. But they do expect to be treated fairly by the Government and to be helped by a basic grant for every Australian child, while agreeing that quite obviously schools in special need should receive more than the basic grant. This the Government and the Minister deny. The people who will most suffer are those who are already enduring hardship in order to meet the fees. They will face greater hardship when fees go up, which they will after these cuts. I believe this decision is one which, like the tax on superannuation lump sum payments and its assets test for pensioners, the Government will come to regret.