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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 113

Mr HATTON (5:09 PM) —It is interesting to speak on this education bill, the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2007, in what has been agreed will be a valedictory speech. In starting, I want to talk a little bit about this bill because it really exemplifies the government’s approach to a range of things. This is about adding a few extra technical colleges to the original 24 that the government proposed as an election promise. They tacked on another three or so. This bill gives us, I think, another four technical colleges, spread around Australia, as an attempt to say, ‘This is the way you fix the skills crisis in Australia.’ I do not think that is so. I think it is demonstrable that the government does not really understand the dimensions of the skills crisis Australia faces. It does not understand what needs to be done in order to fix that crisis, except for pulling in hundreds of thousands of people on 457 visas and displacing Australians and all of those young people—up to 300,000 of them—who could have had better, more regularised trade training and full apprenticeship training if the government had had the will. The reality is that this is posturing and filling gaps. It is not getting to the core of the problems.

This incremental approach, this ad hoc approach, should be entirely condemned because it does not address the fundamental problems. You can understand. This tells you a great deal about a government that have spent more than a decade—11 full years—posturing. In 1995-96, when they were running for election, they did not attack the federal government’s policies, the then Labor government’s policies; they only attacked local councils and state governments. Guess what? Nothing much has happened in the last 11 years to change their approach. In government they have been like an opposition. They have continued to campaign against councils or state governments when it suits them and have not addressed their fundamental responsibilities. Regarding the real key issues that should have been faced by this government, they have either walked away or offloaded them to the states and have kept politicking rather than trying to do something significant and real.

I support the opposition’s amendments with regard to this bill, which go to the government’s continued failure to ensure that Australians get the training they need for a skilled job and meet the skills needs of the economy; their failure to make the necessary investments in existing vocational education and training infrastructure to create opportunities for young Australians to access high-quality vocational education and training in all our secondary schools and in the TAFE system; and their creation of an expensive, inefficient and duplicate network of stand-alone Australian technical colleges, without cooperation or consultation with the states within the existing vocational education and training framework. All of these points are true and valid. All of them go to the core of a government intent on politicking rather than addressing real problems.

We have seen this as well in the area of literacy and numeracy. For 11 full years we have had a federal government that has campaigned against the states in relation to literacy and numeracy, has taken some small steps to address the fundamental problems, but has never really grappled with them. From Dr Kemp to now, the key, fundamental problem in Australian education—literacy and numeracy at the very start of schooling—has been so apparent over three decades. It is because of an ideological approach taken to teaching methods, against teaching reading and phonics. This government has not fronted up to that, except to undertake to get a report done in 2005, entitled Teaching reading. What has been done with that report 18 months on? Not much at all. It has been flick-passed to COAG. Out of all of the recommendations that have been given to the government, two tiny recommendations have been implemented, but the rest have been flick-passed. The attitude is: ‘We’ll leave that up to the state governments, and we can continue the blame game.’

I estimated when I came into this parliament 11 years ago that it would have cost in the order of $600 million to properly address the fundamental problems of literacy and numeracy in Australia. To really address the problem, you have to change teacher education across Australia. You have to go to the core of the problem, which is the manner in which people are taught to teach and the way in which phonics has been thrown out the window—and it has gone on for three decades. That has meant that we have gone from being a country which used to have one of the proudest education records possible and one of the strongest education systems in the world to being one with a system that is progressively weakening. Our capacity to compete with the world has been slowly whittled away, step by step, because that tremendous capacity that we had has been allowed to wither.

All you need at base when you start your education in Australia is an efficient and effective tool kit, a way to unlock learning and a way to unlock how to read, how to write and how to count. But for decades now that tool kit has not been properly given to Australian students. The fundamental method of learning now is to bump up against things, a bit like a pinball game. You shoot the pinball out and, as it bumps up against things, if you are lucky it might make a few strikes, some lights will go off and the student may be able—because they have been able to solve the problem for themselves—to learn something. I think that approach has been fundamentally wrong. We need to address it. We need to face up to it. We need to say that the mode of instruction in Australia for a long period of time now has been wrong.

We want to ensure that all Australian children have the best possible chance of learning, whatever the subject is, whatever the mode, whether it is in a technical college or a comprehensive high school. But unless you can read, write and count, you are really up against it. It is out of fashion to get young kids in primary school to do what they are tremendously good at: rote learning. That went out decades ago. It is not fashionable to do it. But you have a look at any small child and the way in which they take a DVD and watch it 4,000 times. They learn by repetition. They learn by playing. They learn by gaining experience of the world. Yet our education system has put that aside, and it is to the detriment of children right throughout their education.

I taught for just on 10 years. I was an English and history teacher. I am probably one of the most pedantic people in this parliament. I cannot get out of it; I have to confess to it. The fundamental reality is that, whatever level of government is dealing with this, not only do we have a skills crisis in Australia but we have an education crisis. That has run for a very long period of time. You need to break the ideological approach to the mode of instruction. Just recently there have been two major pieces in the paper on the issue of teaching mathematics and English. These have come from people who were involved in the government study. The person who ran the government study in 2005, Dr Ken Rowe, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, is one of them. They are disappointed that, 18 months on, so little has been done to implement the clear outline of what the government was told needed to happen to address this problem.

On this issue, this government has chosen not to follow President Bush. The only decent thing this bloke has done in eight years as the President of the United States of America is to follow his librarian wife’s advice. Laura said, ‘You need to mandate phonics.’ His decision to do that was based not just on her advice but on 500,000 evidence based studies throughout the world about how you effectively teach. They found that the key thing in teaching reading is associating sounds and letters. It is very simple but it has not been done properly in this country for 30 years. It has to be done.

The teachers in our system are victims of what has happened in that period of time. They are not as competent as they should be in not only reading and writing themselves but communicating that and teaching it. We need a big program to address that. The productivity of Australia as a whole is dramatically lessened not just in our classrooms but through every part of the Australian workforce. We are in a situation where we have hampered ourselves. If you look at any other country in the world, you will find that they are determined to ensure that their education system mirrors the best that is possible. In productivity terms, we have fallen back and back. If Australia is going to serve its people well and compete properly in the world, we need to advance that dramatically.

That is a hobbyhorse I have not run for the past 11 years because I have had a much broader scope in terms of what I have been able to do in this parliament. When I was elected 11 years ago, having taught for just on 10 years and then having run Paul Keating’s electorate office for 11¼ years, I was able to come into this parliament and speak with my own voice. I also had the immense privilege of being put in a position where I could travel from one end of the joint to the other, to see every Australian state and territory and see what the problems were in situ. It is only when you travel to see the problems in practice, as I did on the public works committee, where I started off; on the industry and resources committee, which I am deputy chair of now; on the defence committee; and on the regional and rural committee, as I did for six years as chair, that you get a real appreciation of what it is all about. There is a difference between that and being a staffer. When I was working for the Treasurer and Prime Minister that was a much tougher job than the one I have had for the last 11 years, let me tell you, because in government you are responsible. Working in the Treasurer’s and Prime Minister’s office, you are responsible for what a government that is active and real does. You have to front up.

But having the great opportunity to see problems directly dramatically expands your capacity as a member of parliament. I am immensely grateful to the people of Blaxland, who gave me not only the opportunity to follow Paul Keating in the seat of Blaxland but the opportunity and the support for the last 11¼ years or so to do this job to the best of my ability and to do it in an enlarged manner. For all of us, my colleagues here today and my wife and family, the reality is that parliamentary life is not only a great and high calling but a very tough one as well, as we know. It is one that is crucial and essential to the good and wellbeing of the country and to the future of the whole Commonwealth of Australia.

We have to play our part in working as hard as we can across a whole range of fields. I tried very deliberately to move away from my areas of expertise, gained either as a teacher or in working for Mr Keating, to go into areas that I did not have any experience in at all. They had been of interest, certainly, but I did not have practical working experience of them. That is the great advantage one has in this place: one is able to speak broadly on a whole range of issues and hopefully affect and advance not only the party’s cause but the cause of the people you represent and the cause of the country as a whole.

If you look at the first speech I gave—born out of a by-election campaign—and this speech, they are pretty much book ended. It is all about campaigning and it is about a contrast between us and them—between the Labor Party and the government. It is a contest of ideas; it is a contest of attitude and philosophy. In the Labor Party, we have always believed that our core mission and fundamental goal was to make life better, richer and fuller for ordinary working Australians. That sums it up; that is what it is all about. That is why 40 years ago I joined the Australian Labor Party, because that is as complete an idea of what we have been about as you need.

It is quite true that the conservatives have a much narrower vision. It is about getting into power, staying there and not doing all that much while you are there. It is about weighing off the problems to someone else, whether it is local governments or state governments. The Labor Party did grapple with the big issues and the major problems when we were last in government. Over the last 11 years I have had the privilege to serve with my colleagues, particularly the brave group of 49 in the 1996 parliament, those who hung in hard and tight. To have spent our time in opposition for more than a decade now is a very difficult thing.

Not having had the opportunity to be in government except as a staffer—and now I will not have the opportunity—I can understand how brutal and difficult it was for people in the 23 years before the Whitlam government came to power. They had such an extended period of time in opposition but still had to work at the job and continue to believe in constructing themselves in such a way that they could do their proper job of running the country and delivering for all of those people in Australia left out by coalition governments.

So it is very important for anyone who is leaving, I think, to understand that the job that we have done in the past 11 years has been enormously important, because in opposition it is not easy. It never will be. I trust and hope—being the pessimist that I always am; it saves time—that we have some chance of getting up at this election and that we will be able to bring to an end more than a decade’s worth of a closed Australia. The last decade has been without much vision at all except how you stay in power and how you use every device possible in order to do so. That kind of closed Australia is not the one that I want to live in; it is not the one the members of the Labor Party want to live in. We want a broader, stronger, more open society; we want a government that actually confronts problems and fixes them to the benefit of everyone in Australia.

I took so much time on the educational aspects that I no longer have much time left, but I did give a speech on 27 May in which I covered a whole range of areas. In the short period of time I have to give thanks for an 11-year period in which I have been immensely proud to have served the Labor Party, the first vote of thanks goes to Shirley Hatton. She has done it hard, as all spouses do, and has done it in adverse circumstances. She has had to put up with me as part of the Labor team in opposition, carting ourselves from one end of the country to the other, working on delegations and doing all of the things that are available to a federal member of parliament. It is critical that you have support, and I simply could not have done it as well without Shirley, without her love, her affection and the enormous amount of work she did to keep me there. She gets the bonus that we will be out of the joint.

My family will get some bonus as well—maybe it will be a negative; I am not sure. I want to thank my mother, my brothers, the rest of my family and everyone who has worked in my office—in particular, Veronica, my electorate secretary, who is the best electorate secretary in Australia. She spent 13 years running Neville Wran’s office and has been with Paul and me since 1987. She has been a tremendous backup for me, as have been all of the loyal members of the Australian Labor Party in Blaxland, who elected me in the first place with an overwhelming majority. They put their trust in me to be their voice, the tongue in this federal parliament, and to do the best I could to advance their cause and the cause of ordinary Australian people.

I have cherished the fact that I was put in a position to do it. I would like to do it for a longer period of time, but that is not the case. Be warned: I am not really going away. I have worked out a way to keep campaigning and to keep on with what I am really interested in, very much so, apart from the other panoply of things that there are to do. But I am interested in the political process itself and, as I have pointed out in my previous speech, the tremendous work that the committees do in this parliament and the way in which we are able to do it on a cross-party basis. You can do things as a parliamentarian that you can immensely proud of.

Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, having been on the speakers panel as well, I want to thank you, particularly for your indulgence in letting me go 20 seconds over. I want to thank all of my colleagues for their great friendship and support. I have enjoyed this immensely; it was something that I always wanted to do. Thank you to all of those people, both Labor and in the coalition, who have extended friendship, help and assistance over those years. I thank the House for its indulgence.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! This occupant of the chair, without passing judgement on any comments the member made about the question before the chair, congratulates the member for Blaxland and wishes him well in his future endeavours.