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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19513

Mr LEE (2:58 PM) —My question without notice is addressed to the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister stand by his claims last Friday that his new schools funding formula was fairer and `would advantage the more poorly resourced independent schools, not the reverse'? Is the Prime Minister aware that his own education department officials confirmed last week that the 62 richest schools will, on average, have their funding doubled and get an extra $50 million between them? Will any of the more poorly resourced independent schools that the Prime Minister referred to get a doubling of their funding? Prime Minister, how can you claim that your new formula is fair when the greatest gains go to the richest schools?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —This attempt by the Labor Party to open up some kind of `envy' campaign in relation to independent schools ought to be very strongly condemned. I stand by the statements that I made last week and remind the member for Dobell that the new schools policy of the government has been endorsed not only by bodies such as the Australian Parents Council and the National Association of Independent Schools but also by the National Catholic Education Commission, which represents all of the systemic schools within the Catholic system. The reason that the policy has been endorsed by all of those bodies is that, over the time we have been in government, we have acted to bring in the new SES system for calculating the entitlement of independent schools. The new SES system takes greater account of the socioeconomic capacity of parents and is not as hidebound by historic factors that have worked against many independent schools, particularly those in rural and regional areas which at one stage of their history may have been better endowed, and their parents may have been better endowed, than the ravages of changes in economic circumstances have now produced. It is also supported by those bodies because one of the very important undertakings that I made on behalf of the coalition to the National Catholic Education Commission before the 1998 election was in relation to raising all Catholic schools in the systemic system to category 11. That was very widely welcomed by the Catholic education system.

The member for Dobell will know that among the poorer resourced independent schools within the Australian education system are, in fact, many of the Catholic systemic schools. The member for Dobell does not seek to have this debate across the totality of what the government has done in relation to independent schools but seeks to rely upon one narrow aspect of what the government has done. I am unconditionally proud of what the government has done to advance freedom of choice and, in the words of the head of the independent Christian schools association, `freedom of choice to send your child to an independent school is now a reality for working-class people in Australia'. That has been made possible by the policies of this government. The member for Dobell—no doubt getting his riding instructions from the Australian Education Union—has attempted to introduce the sort of divisive argument which I thought we had put behind us. The reality is that, as is their right, there are many well-off parents in Australia who choose to send their children to government schools. One of the more irrelevant and I thought foolish interventions in this debate was made by the headmaster of an independent school in Victoria who suggested that those people should be charged fees. Just as well-off people have a right to send their children to government schools, it is equally the case that not so well-off people should be able to aspire to send their children to independent schools.

The thing that has made that possible, far more than anything else, has been the abolition of the new schools policy retained by the Australian Labor Party. What the abolition of the new schools policy has produced is a capacity on the part of, say, the Sydney Anglican community to begin building an Anglican system in the western suburbs of Sydney where they will offer parents the opportunity of sending their children to independent schools for fees of $2,000, $3,000 and $4,000 a year. It was only possible to bring in that new policy because we got the legislation through the Senate with the help of Senator Harradine. It was voted against by the Australian Labor Party. The Australian Labor Party voted to stop the expansion of the Anglican system and systems like it within the western suburbs of Sydney. Their blind ideology on this would seek to preserve an education system essentially built around the government structure, which has made a great contribution to the education of Australian children, and what you might loosely call the established or traditional independent structure and the Catholic systemic system, without allowing for the expansion of a new stream in the independent school area which increasingly is available to parents on more modest incomes.

We stand unarguably for freedom of choice. We reject the old shibboleths in this debate. We want working-class families to have the opportunity to send their children to independent schools and we also recognise the sacrifices that many Australian parents make to send their children to independent schools. I am proud of our education policies in this area and I totally reject the old-fashioned class humbug of the Australian Education Union.

Honourable members interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —The Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs are not assisting the House in coming to order.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Prospect is now warned!