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Monday, 20 October 2008
Page: 9605

Mr BRIGGS (8:14 PM) —This is my first opportunity to speak on legislation following my maiden speech. I thank you for the opportunity to speak on important bills. As these are joint bills being discussed, I will start with the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008, which I welcome. I think the minister and the government are doing the right thing in providing additional funding for Indigenous education. I think one of the great legacies of the Howard government was the intervention in the Northern Territory last year because it finally recognised that what we need to get right in the Indigenous communities in our country is, first of all, law and order and then educating the young kids—because, as we all know in this place, education empowers people to build a better and brighter future for themselves. I think that intervention is a generational battle, and the generational battle will be won in the field of education, so I support the move of the Education Legislation Amendment Bill.

On the other hand, the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 does worry me to a degree. There are four parts of it which concern me, and some of my colleagues have raised issues, not least the shadow minister for education, the member for Sturt, who has raised these arguments in this place. The four changes that I think are most concerning are the changes to the grounds upon which the minister can elect to refuse or delay payment under clause 15, which make it easier for the minister to do so; the new requirements in school funding agreements to comply with the national curriculum by 2012, as specified in regulations, which are in clause 22; alterations to the reporting requirements for schools, particularly new requirements relating to information about financial viability and funding sources under clause 24, which are probably the most concerning aspect of this bill and which I will touch on a little bit later; and removal of the previous government’s new non-government schools establishment grants under clause 100, which again troubles me.

Of course, the SES funding method, which is the fairest method for funding private schools, was introduced by the previous government. It was never one that was liked by the other side of the House, it would be fair to say. In 2004, when the previous leader of the Labor Party and the Deputy Prime Minister’s political hero—at that stage—was the leader of the Labor Party, we had the famous private schools hit list, which probably reflected the true views of those on the other side at the time. What they did last year, of course, was to cover up some of those true views very well and introduce policies which appealed to middle Australia, making it look as if they had changed their tune on this issue. However, what this bill does is to start to build the case to reintroduce the private schools hit list.

Mr Perrett —The old dog whistle!

Mr BRIGGS —Well, you’d know about it! It does so as I described in the third point that I made, on the alterations to the reporting requirements for schools, particularly new requirements relating to information about financial viability and funding sources. The previous government received this information. I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Library for the Bills Digest they released on this, which says:

Previously, the financial information that was collected was treated as commercial-in-confidence and, therefore, individual school financial information was not released. However, the Bill—

this bill—

contains another new provision which empowers the Minister to ask for reports about individual school information in a way determined by the Minister. Potentially, under this provision, the Minister could make these reports publicly available.

We all see the game being played here by the Deputy Prime Minister, which is, of course, to get the information from King’s College—which is the Labor Party’s favourite attack point on this issue—and release it publicly as part of an argument to say, ‘You’ve got to reduce the funding for these schools; you can see King’s College have this massive benefactor,’ when we know that what they are really trying to do is to undermine the choice in the Australian school system. They are trying to undermine the private school system, which has always been the Labor Party view.

Mr Perrett —Didn’t Whitlam bring in funding for private schools?

Mr BRIGGS —Well, we will go back to 2004 and the Deputy Prime Minister’s former political hero.

Mr Sidebottom interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Order! The member for Mayo has the call.

Mr BRIGGS —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your protection. Back in 2004 we had a true Labor policy, and I think Mark Latham represented those true Labor principles. Certainly the Deputy Prime Minister thought so at the time; she was quite enamoured of the former member for Werriwa at that point. Let us remember what that policy did. It changed the SES funding model.

Mr Perrett —You’re the voice of the future, are you? You’re the visionary?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Moreton will desist from interjecting.

Mr BRIGGS —Again, thank you for your protection, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think it is important that the Australian people see where we are going with this bill, because what we are seeing here is a very clever lawyer tactic. I give the Deputy Prime Minister credit; she is a very good performer in this House. I must say that in this House I have had the opportunity to see her acting as the Prime Minister for a couple of days in question time, and she certainly does a much better job than the incumbent. She is very good at building a case, and I think that in this case that is what she is doing: she is building the case and getting the information there so that, at a later stage when it is more convenient or there is a big enough case for her to drop that out there, that is what she will do. It gets back to what the Labor view on public versus private is. The Labor Party do not like the private choice; they are not interested in the private school system. They want to make it as hard as they can for parents to send children to private schools. I think that that is what that clause is largely about.

The other section which concerns me greatly is the removal of the previous government’s position on new non-government schools establishment grants, which of course gets to the same point—that they are not keen on these private schools being built and developed. That gets back to the true colours of the Labor Party. I think nothing reflects it better than a couple of key quotes from the Deputy Prime Minister. On 4 September 2000, before her time on the frontbench and when she was trying to reinvent herself for government and so forth, she said in this House—I think you were here at the time, Member for Braddon:

The last objection to the SES model is more philosophical, that the model makes no allowance for the amassed resources of any particular school. As we are all aware, over the years many prestige schools have amassed wealth—wealth in terms of buildings and facilities, wealth in terms of the equipment available, wealth in terms of alumni funding raising, trust funds, endowment funds and the like.

So this is what this is all about.

I heard the member for Moreton in his previous remarks mention he went to a regional Catholic school, I think he said, or a regional private school. I did too. I went to St Joseph’s College in Mildura. I think we should protect that choice. My parents sacrificed a lot to be able to send me to that school, which you would never class as having King’s School type costs.

Further, the Deputy Prime Minister went on:

… it must follow as a matter of logic that the economic capacity of a school is affected by both its income generation potential—from the current class of parents whose kids are enrolled in the school—and the assets of the school. The SES funding system makes some attempt to measure the income generation potential of the parents of the kids in the school but absolutely no attempt to measure the latter, the assets of the school. This is a gaping flaw …

This was the flaw that the schools hit list attempted to address in 2004. It is where the Labor Party will go back to. This is the step along the way. This bill is part of the case building up to when they want to re-introduce the schools hit list. The Assistant Treasurer, on 1 December 2004, again on the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004, said:

The regime established by this government and continued under these bills for determining the funding arrangements for schools is the socioeconomic status index—the SES index. This is a fundamentally flawed index. It replaces the Education Resources Index, which was much more based on the needs of the school and the capacity of the school to reach educational standards.

That was the old system, based on attacking private schools. Colonel Mike Kelly, the new rising star on the Labor side who won the seat of Eden-Monaro last year—and I congratulate him on that—in the Australian in November last year referred to this ‘ridiculous postcode system’ for funding schools that is ‘totally crazy’. He went on to say:

So it’s a ridiculous approach to looking at the needs of schools and we’ll move away from that and get down eventually to a proper needs based approach …

We have a case building on the other side—

Mr Perrett —Eighty per cent of schools are funding maintained.

Mr BRIGGS —That is right. In this bill, they are maintaining funding. And I pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister for doing that, but what she is doing is building the case for when it is more politically convenient to reintroduce the schools hit list. That is where they want to go. That is the Labor Party’s intention and that is where we will go.

We are 12 months into the so-called education revolution. In October it seems appropriate to talk about the education revolution. This is the revolution that replaces computers in schools—the second-hand computer scheme in South Australia—but then does not actually keep up with them. It is little wonder that even the New South Wales government saw through that one. The education revolution has failed without firing a shot—as the member for Sturt said today. This is all part of getting back to the old Labor beliefs that Mark Latham outlined so convincingly in 2004. We should not forget what the member for Kingsford Smith, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, said during last year’s election. He said that when they got in they would just change it all. This is what it is part of: ‘We will just change it all. We will get back to what we really wanted to do.’ This is part of the guise that the Australian public saw last year from Kevin 07—

Mr Perrett —He really enjoyed the 2004 election campaign. He’s reliving it in his speech.

Mr BRIGGS —Well, it is part of a case. Member for Moreton, you might be embarrassed by it. I understand. But this is part of the case. We are back to building part of the case which is back to the attack on private schools. This legislation is about reducing choice. Otherwise, what is the point of the provision for asking for schools to report financial information to the minister? More importantly, what is the point of the provision to allow the minister to release this publicly? Maybe the minister in her final remarks can answer that question, because it seems to me a very strange provision to have in the bill, unless you intend to release that information publicly. And, if you are intending to release that information publicly, what is the point? I ask the member for Braddon to ask the Deputy Prime Minister that question.

I imagine this will elicit a response from those on the other side. We all know what this is about: it is about supporting their friends and allies at the teachers union. Ultimately that is what we are getting back to. This is what we are building to. The education union certainly does not like private schools.

This brings me to standards. Standards are something I think are extraordinarily important in the education system that we are building. I have two young children and I certainly want them to go to schools where they report on a basic A to E report card and where the parents are able to glean from the reports basic information about how they are going, not political correct mumbo jumbo where eight criteria are ticked and the students are asked to self-assess. I think what the education system needs is good, strong competition where kids who do well are rewarded; and kids who decide that they want to go off into trades and so forth also have the ability to do so. We need an education system based largely on choice and reward for effort. This bill does not do that.

While I support the bill’s intent of providing the funding to the private education sector—because, of course, this is dealing largely with the private education sector—I do not support the provisions which allow the minister to report on the additional fundraising sources that private schools are able to use. I think it is important that the minister address those questions in her final remarks.

The bill also makes some changes to the grounds upon which the minister can elect to refuse or delay payment, making it easier for the minister to do so. It might be reasonable to introduce this clause to ensure the financial viability of the school, but this subsection appears to presume that, if an audit statement is qualified, it necessarily signals that the school’s financial situation is precarious enough to warrant the minister refusing or delaying payment. That raises questions about the need for that provision.

The new requirement that schools comply with the national curriculum raises questions in my electorate with schools such as the Montessori school at Aldgate, which will have trouble complying with the section which requires that the five areas of statements of learning are met: English, mathematics, science, civics and citizenship education, and information and communications technology. I think it is very important that that issue be dealt with, because it raises some questions from some of the schools in my electorate.

In summing up, I think this bill has some fundamental flaws, particularly the section which relates to reporting on funding sources. It raises questions about why the minister is undertaking to do so. I think this is getting back to the old Labor days of 2004 with the Latham-Gillard combination back again. I support the member for Sturt’s amendments to the bill.

Debate interrupted.