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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 17308

Mr BARTLETT (4:13 PM) —It is becoming quite easy to predict the opposition's MPI for the day simply by glancing at the front pages of the morning's newspapers. There is nothing remotely proactive in their approach, no initiative on the policy front—just a transparent attempt to try and find any angle, no matter how distorted, to score a political point and to try and get some traction at last.

Let me focus on the facts of private school funding, contrary to the distortion in this motion and contrary to the comments that we have had from the speakers opposite. There is nothing in the recent increases to funding for non-government schools in the way of discretionary funding. The increases have come out of three sources. The first is an indexation factor because of the increased cost of education, the second is an increase due to increased enrolments in non-government schools, and the third is the continued phase-in of the SES based model approach to school funding.

The important point is this: Labor supported that bill. The states grants bill in 2000 that allowed for this increased funding was supported by the Labor Party. We have had speakers opposite proclaiming that there is something wrong with it, but they supported this bill. They supported it then but apparently not now. That makes one ask: why not now? Why have they changed their minds? Is it that they did not understand the bill three years ago and now they somehow understand it? Is it that they have just changed their minds—another typical Labor Party policy flip-flop? Is it that they have had another look at the opinion polls and are now even more desperate to try to grab some attention, no matter how much they have to distort the issues and even at the risk of creating further division between the public school system and the non-government school system.

The federal government's involvement in school funding is fundamentally fair. Private schools are funded only as a percentage of the funding that public schools get, as a percentage of the AGSRC—the average government school recurrent cost. In 2001, that cost for a primary school was $6,841 per student per year, and for a secondary school it was $8,889 per student per year. That is the taxpayer funding for a student in a public school. Students in private schools, in non-government schools, at the maximum—so even the poorest and neediest non-government schools—get only 70 per cent of that level of funding. Schools that are better off, schools that have parents who are perhaps on higher incomes, receive only 13.7 per cent of that public school funding level. In other words, students in non-government schools are funded really at 30 per cent less, down to 86.3 per cent less, than students in public schools. This cannot be said to be unfair. They are funded according to the level of income of those schools, to the level of need of those schools, as based on the socioeconomic status measurement.

The second point that needs to be made is that parents who work hard, who pay their taxes, who sacrifice to get together the fees to send their children to a non-government school, deserve some assistance from the government to support that choice of education for their children. At the maximum, it is 70 per cent. They deserve some assistance from the government and it is quite reasonable that that happens.

The third point is that these schools, contrary to the nonsense we hear from the other side, are not all elite schools. Two-thirds of the non-government schools that have opened in the last six years in Australia are in the poorer areas. Two-thirds are schools with an SES indicator of less than 100. Many of them are in areas such as the western suburbs of Sydney. One in five students from families on low incomes below $20,800 attend a non-government school. They are not elite and they are not all wealthy, as the opposition would have us believe. The parents are battling to try to get money to send their children there.

The fourth point is that funding for non-government schools is not at the expense of funding for public schools, which by the way are the responsibility of state governments. State schools are fundamentally the responsibility of the state governments. They are assisted with funding by the federal government, but the education of children in these schools is heavily subsidised by their parents—at an average of some $2,200 per student per year. One million students in this country attend non-government schools, so that is saving state education authorities some $2.2 billion a year in funding for public schools. That is, $2.2 billion worth of education is being subsidised by the parents of these children, which means that $2.2 billion does not have to come out of government funding for public schools. So any funding for non-government schools is not at the expense of funding for public schools; it is heavily subsidised by parents.

There are two aspects of federal government assistance to state governments to help them with their funding for state schools. The first is direct federal funding. Direct federal funding for state schools has increased over the past seven years by 52 per cent—that is, the federal government has increased direct funding for state schools in this country by 52 per cent.

The second aspect of funding is indirect funding—that massive amount of general revenue that the federal government gives each year to the state governments, out of which they then fund their core responsibilities, such as education. This funding has also been increasing by five to six per cent a year over the past seven years—first of all in financial assistance grants and then in GST revenue. Just in the last year, revenue to New South Wales under the GST has risen by six per cent; from $8.2 billion to $8.7 billion. So there is an increase in general funding going to state governments of five to six per cent a year to help them fund their public schools.

What response do we get from the state government? What does the New South Wales government, for instance, do with that funding? Does it match the federal government's five to six per cent increase? No. Last year it gave a miserable 2½ per cent increase in funding to public schools. The fact is that the New South Wales government is siphoning off federal government general revenue that ought to be going into schools and using it for other areas of expenditure. If you look at its overall education budget, this becomes quite obvious. In the last six years, the percentage of the state budget going to education has dropped from 26 per cent to 23 per cent. Let us hope that in today's budget the New South Wales government finally decides to take seriously its responsibility to fund its public schools. This government is strongly increasing direct funding to state schools and indirect funding to state governments to help them fund those schools. This government supports parental choice as to where parents send their children, and it does so in a transparent and objective way.

Labor's approach should be a real concern to parents. If Labor are not just playing political games with this motion and if they are serious about their criticisms of federal funding for schools, the message is this: the families of the one million children who attend non-government schools should watch out, because their funding will be under threat if Labor ever get back into office. Their policy would be driven not by supporting the choice of parents but by the orders of the teachers unions. Non-government schools would be under serious threat under a Labor government.

My time is nearly gone; let me make just a couple of comments about the second part of this MPI, about university funding. Contrary to the distorted statement in the MPI, the government is not increasing university fees by 30 per cent. This is misleading and dishonest. Firstly, that is the maximum that is allowable. The choice is left to individual universities. Many universities have said they will not raise fees at all and most have said they will not do so by anywhere near 30 per cent. The University of Tasmania, the University of Wollongong, the University of Western Sydney—my own university—the University of New England, the University of Ballarat and Macquarie University have all said they will perhaps not raise fees at all; that, if they raise them at all, they will do so in only a very small number of courses; and that in teaching and nursing there will be no increase at all in fees. It is simply a distortion by the Labor Party.

It is worth pointing out this: the $1.5 billion increase in funding under this government's package for universities for the next four years is double that of the much trumpeted Knowledge Nation of Labor. They were bragging about how they were going to increase funding for universities; we are giving double what Knowledge Nation was going to, and all of a sudden that is somehow not nearly enough for Labor. This MPI is a nonsense, it is a total distortion of the facts, it is a cheap appeal to envy and it is a desperate attempt by the Labor Party to get some traction. Worse, it is a divisive and harmful exploitation of the school funding debate. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Order! The discussion is now concluded.