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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1600

Senator WEST (12.57 p.m.) —I do not intend to rake around in the muck and the swill today. I want to talk about a number of issues that are of interest and concern to many people in the community. First of all, I want to canvass the issues relating to mobility and education problems. It is an area that I have spoken about before and it is one that I will continue to talk about whilst ever we do not have a national curricula and whilst ever we have differences between states on things such as student commencement ages, including the age and year that students enter high school.

  In this country, which has now been a federation for 93 years, whilst we have a standard national railway gauge, we are still unable to agree that we could have a national handwriting style. It was only in 1988-89 that we got the states to agree to the different handwriting styles for our students. We have not yet got to the stage of having a national handwriting style. It is a pretty simple, elementary and fundamental thing that people should be able to read what others write.

  Prior to that stage, schools made students change their styles of handwriting. I notice that some people are laughing about that. Yes, there are a number of us who do not write well. I would say that I do not write very clearly because I was one of those students who were forced to change handwriting style. When I did correspondence, we learnt how to do running writing. Then I went to a primary school, into third grade when I should have gone into fourth grade—but that is beside the point, although it proves that schools do not understand the different systems—and I was made to do printing, which I had never been taught. Those are the sorts of problems that students of defence families and mobile families who move interstate are forced to face each year.

  The starting age is one that has only recently been fixed. We had a ludicrous situation in 1988-89. There was a well publicised case of twins who started school at four years and nine months in Victoria and, in the middle of the year, their parents were posted to Queensland. Even though they had spent five months at school, they could not continue their school education. They had to go back to preschool. We have moved past that slightly, but it is still a problem and an issue that parents are having to argue out every time they move state.

  There is also the issue of the differing curricula. When I talk about national curricula, I am not suggesting that, at 3 o'clock on Tuesday afternoons, all the children doing a particular curricula should be learning the same thing. What we need are the same outcomes so that, when students move from school to school, they can do so with the least disruption to their studies. There is no point in calling a subject economics when what is taught in each economic strand across each state, and sometimes within the states, varies and often is totally different.

  There is no point in saying that a student is doing economics when it has no relevance, no meaning—there is nothing to compare it with. It is just an individual subject. For these students we have to have a national curriculum. I thought, as many people thought, that we had actually got to the stage of agreement with the states on a national curriculum a number of years ago. But what we have seen of the last several council meetings of Australian education ministers is that they have not been able to agree on a national curriculum. The states are each still arguing that their curriculum is the best one and therefore they are not going to change. The other states' curricula are inadequate.

  However, each state still manages to produce about the same number of students who go to university and about the same number of students who end up getting PhDs. We do not see at the end of their education any major differences. Yet the states are still clinging like mad, like limpets to rocks, to the idea that their curricula are the best. They ignore the fact that, in 1987, some 70,000 students moved interstate. I do not know what the latest figure is but we are talking about approximately 70,000 students each year who move interstate and have to subject their education to disruption.

  Anybody whose education has been subjected to disruption understands the problems that that can bring. For students who are very bright that is not a problem; it is something that they can cope with and learn from. Moving can be a very positive and valuable experience. But the students have the right to be able to move without maximum disruption such as appears to be occurring at present. I would be very critical of the state ministers for their intransigent approach, for their lack of care, consideration and concern for the education needs of mobile children in our community.

  A number of them, when I was working for the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, would use the throwaway line, `It is only defence children that are affected'. That is a load of rubbish, the greatest piece of hogwash that one could ever see. Certainly, a number of defence families are involved. They are the most articulate and the best organised, and they are talking on behalf of every child in this country who moves state for education. There are also a number of people who follow the horticultural industries around. They move around, following the crops that have to be picked or to be harvested. Their children are affected. It is across the board. Industry, these days as it becomes more mobile, moves its executives, its workers across state borders.

  This is a federation. This is the country of Australia, for God's sake. We are not six different countries. I get so annoyed about the matter that I cannot find the words to describe it, but it is a major issue to those people who are concerned and who are involved. The states keep ignoring the needs of these people. I make sure that I keep raising the issue for people to go and debate, for the media to go and ask the states and to say to the people from the NCGSF, the National Consultative Group of Service Families, that what they are aiming to achieve is highly commendable. More strength to their arm.

  Back in 1989 there was a committee set up by ministers in the Australian Education Council to look at the issue of mobility and education. It came up with a very good report. It had four books in a mobility package. Two of those were aimed at providing teachers with information about the differences between the state systems and about how they can reduce that difference. One package provided information for parents on how they can minimise the trauma to children as they move from state to state. It gave the parents hints on the type of material to collect for their children to take to the school that they were going to so that they could show the school what level the students were at. There was also a book in that package from the employer.

  The ADF has taken this on board and many defence families do have their mobility packages. But when I go around some of the regional areas of New South Wales and ask teachers whether they know anything about these packages, anything about mobility for children—I have asked regional officers as well—I get a blank look on people's faces. Nobody knows anything about it. It has not, at the state level, been disseminated to the grassroots teachers. That is the problem. It has not been disseminated to the principals of schools. I have asked principals and they do not know what I am talking about, unless they are among the small number of principals in schools who are very directly involved and have large numbers of defence family children. But for the rest of the schools in New South Wales—I can speak only for New South Wales—we have principals and teachers who do not quite understand as well as they would like to understand. It is not as well as they should understand; it is as well as they would like to. They want to give their students the best assistance they can but they are not being allowed to do this because the state of New South Wales did not disseminate that information.

  A lot of hard work was done by representatives of all the states on this issue and nothing has come of it at a state level. I think the states are to be condemned for this, particularly New South Wales. Mrs Chadwick has had six years to do something about this and she has done nothing. For that I would condemn her most strongly. I would condemn the New South Wales state government most strongly for its lack of care and concern about that particular group of students in its care—the mobile students. As I say, 70,000 of them moved around this country in 1987. It is an issue that I hope keeps being pursued. I will certainly keep pursuing the ministers over it. I know that the federal minister will and I know that the service spouses and families will. I know that there are a number of other groups which will keep doing so.

  I want to put the state governments on notice because this is an issue which is fundamental to the well-being of this country and to the maximisation of our youth potential. We hear much talk here about the maximisation of youth potential but we have the states forgetting about maximising 70,000 students in their potential and giving them a fair go and a good go.

  The other thing we see happening in New South Wales is that it is becoming more regionalised and schools are getting more local say as to what should be in the curriculum. In some cases, one cannot even move within the state without facing the same problems as those students face when they move across the state borders. This is an issue that has to be addressed. Another issue in relation to mobile students coming into areas in New South Wales is that the catchment boundary programs that used to be in operation have been done away with or relaxed. They meant that if students lived in a certain area they had to go to a school in a certain area and they had to seek permission to move outside that area.

  I have had complaints from defence families that, if they get a late posting or a transfer, if they do not know about that posting or transfer until October of the previous year and it is a week or two or even a month before they can go and visit where they are going to be posted to look at the schools, there are no places left. Those people who are outside the area have filled it up because they may perceive this to be a good school. The defence families and those people moving into the area are having to educate their children away from where they live. So not only do they have the problem of having to get used to difficult curricula and different schools, they have the problem that they cannot even have their own school friends come and visit them at home because they could be two or three suburbs away. For small children, this is discrimination. The states have to do something about it.

  Whilst I am talking about New South Wales, I would like to remind people here that I frequently get complaints about road funding—not enough money is being spent on roads. The opposition has frequently come up with that criticism. The week before last we saw the shires association president, Wally Mitchell, disclose that somewhere in the vicinity of $60 million of funding to roads in New South Wales got returned to consolidated revenue. Something like half the New South Wales roads budget went back to consolidated revenue.

  Senator Tierney is not here but I would challenge him to go and talk to his friends in the government in New South Wales, not come complaining here about road funding. I would encourage him to go and give Bruce Baird a shake in the leg and say, `Hey, come on, you have put money back into consolidated revenue. You should be expending that on roads.' It becomes even more horrific in New South Wales when we consider that in the last 18 months or so we have actually taken about 1,500 kilometres of road care, control and work from New South Wales because we have increased the national highway system. The Newell Highway and the Sturt Highway are now Commonwealth responsibilities and are therefore for us to fund. So there are fewer roads for New South Wales to fund but in fact it is returning something like $60-odd million to consolidated revenue. The area that is being discriminated against most there is definitely the bush.

  Down on the south coast there are councils that have to rip up their sealed roads and return them to gravel because they cannot afford the upkeep on them. They cannot afford the upkeep because the New South Wales government will not give them the funding that they are entitled to. The New South Wales government has basically taken the money given to it by the Commonwealth and whacked a whole lot of it into its consolidated revenue to help it with its debts. That is not fair on the citizens of New South Wales. Every time I have someone complain about road funding in my state, I intend to make sure that the blame is sheeted home to where it should go: the Fahey-Armstrong government is the body responsible. It is not spending all of the money that it has been given for road funding.

  I also wish to address an issue that we have heard the opposition canvass with a great deal of heat and vitriol, but not a great deal of light. The issue relates to sports funding, and to cheques to sporting and community organisations. Let me relate an experience that happened to me recently and one that I saw happening on the media. It happened at the opening of two police-citizens youth clubs in New South Wales—one in Orange and one in Wellington.

  At the opening of the club in Orange, we had the situation where—the Commonwealth had given money, but that is beside the point—the local state member was able to present a cheque, and this was on television. He pulled a cheque from his pocket for about $2,000. I would have loved Senator Ian Macdonald to have been there, having sat through the last lot of estimates where he was critical about cheque presentations, because these ones really took the cake.

  There appears to be some discrepancy in New South Wales about the allocation of funding under these mechanisms, and one has to wonder about that. Nothing was heard about this from the opposition in this place. However, when the opposition members did not like what Mrs Kelly was doing—when she was caught providing a lot of facilities—they were on their hind legs protesting most loudly.

  Mr West presented a cheque for $2,000. That was very nice. I thought it was good. I know it is a worthy organisation and that they deserve it. The police minister for New South Wales was also there. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cheque for about $1,000—I am not sure of the exact amount—and presented it. I do not know from what fund that one came—it certainly looked like a slush fund of some sort to me.

  We then went to Wellington for the opening of the police-citizens youth club there. This is a small community and they have struggled hard for this club. About $50,000 was raised locally in both the black and the white communities. The people who have raised the funds are to be congratulated. Those two communities are to be congratulated. They are working very hard together, and very well, to improve the facilities for the students and children of their town. The Commonwealth gave $150,000 for this. It was one of Mrs Kelly's grants.

  We were told by the opposition in here that all of those grants went to safe or marginal Labor seats. Wellington has not been a marginal or safe Labor seat since the 1984 redistribution. It is a very safe National Party seat. It got $150,000 from the Commonwealth because it was a worthwhile project. It got $100,000 from the Police-Citizens Youth Clubs and the local community. The Wellington community has been able to build a very good facility with the funds.

  At that opening, I was present when a conversation took place between two people involved in the proceedings, one of whom was from Minister Griffiths's staff. I will comment on that later. The state member again stood up and pulled a cheque out of his pocket. Good stuff! They deserve it. The club needs more than $2,000; it needs about $40,000 from the state government so that a sprung floor can be put in, but that is beside the point. The conversation went something along the lines of, `The minister has the cheque to present, does he not?' at which the staffer looked a little sheepish and embarrassed and made the comment that the minister would be playing it by ear. No cheque was presented by the minister.

  There was a very disappointed community. They had thought they were going to get the same treatment as Orange, which would have meant a $1,000 cheque. Although they needed over $40,000 they would not be upset only receiving $1,000, because $1,000 is better than nothing. But they did not get a cheque from the minister.

  I would really like the minister to be able to tell me what his staffer meant when he said the minister was going to `play it by ear'. Do ministers of the Crown in New South Wales wander around with blank cheques in their pockets deciding when and where they will or will not present them, as the mood suits them at the function? To me, that seems a very bad method of accounting for how they are going to decide.

  I do not know the guidelines or the criteria for that sort of cheque presentation, but to me that was the most disgusting thing I have seen. To me, it certainly smacked of the favouritism and everything else one might want to name that we got accused of—which we were not guilty of, but they appear to be. It is a question that needs to be answered by the New South Wales state minister, and I intend to make sure that that is taken up with the minister's office. I do not care how it is taken up, but it needs to be answered. Why was the minister going to play it by ear, whether he gave a cheque to an organisation or not?