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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6083

Senator ABETZ(10.12 a.m.) —I am delighted to be able to continue some remarks in relation to the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Bill 1996. I confess that my brief contribution yesterday evening was made somewhat out of anger in response to the comments made by the Australian Democrats' spokeswoman on the matter. This morning I engage in the debate more with a degree of sorrow after having had the opportunity to read Hansard and see exactly what was said by the Democrats. Allow me to quote from yesterday's Hansard to put some of my comments into context. The Australian Democrats' spokeswoman told us:

Apart from a government ideologically bound to private education, who else came forward to support this bill? The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Day Schools said:

We would believe that any group in the community who wishes to operate a school and to meet appropriate criteria, should be permitted to do so.

This was the general tenor of submissions by the Australian Association of Christian Schools, the Anglican Schools Commission, the Christian parent controlled schools and the Lutheran schools.

We were then later told in the debate—and these comments were addressed to government senators, I assume, as well as to other senators:

If you want to go down in history as being part of a government which places the interests of small, fundamentalist and extreme schools at the expense of Australia's public schooling system, then by all means vote for this bill.

In other words, we had some very divisive—nearly spiteful—language towards, and stereotyping and vilifying of, the Jewish day schools, Christian parent controlled schools, Anglican schools and Lutheran schools.

As I went for my walk this morning I could not help but think how would the parents react as they were dropping their children off at school, and how would the children themselves feel being dropped off at those schools—thousands of schools around the country—knowing there are people in this place willing to describe Jewish day schools and Christian parent controlled schools as extreme and fundamentalist? Of course, we were never told what was meant by the term `extreme'. It was just a throw away line, a put-down, of those types of schools. But I wonder what sort of reaction would those people have. How would they feel?

If you listened to the Democrat contribution, we were asked somewhat rhetorically whether this bill would reopen the divisive state aid debate. I ask rhetorically: who is being divisive by describing Jewish day schools and Christian parent controlled schools, Anglican schools and Lutheran schools as being extreme and fundamentalist? Who is the one being divisive?

After that pejorative and hurtful description, Senator Allison has the audacity to walk away from the consequences of her comments with all the finesse of Pontius Pilate and say, `Any of the consequences do not visit upon me.' But those words were spoken by her and she is the one who I submit is being very divisive in this debate. I wonder what she meant by `extreme'. What did she mean by being fundamentalist? Is it that they start school with prayer of a morning because they honour God in what they do? If that is what you mean, have you ever thought that this parliament starts every morning with a prayer and has done so for 95 years? Does that somehow make this Senate extremist, fundamentalist, not representative of the Australian community?

I would really urge the Democrats and other honourable senators to give serious consideration to the sort of division that will be occasioned in the Australian community if this bill is not passed. If it is not passed, it will be seen as being defeated on the basis of the sort of pejorative language and put-downs employed by the Democrats spokeswoman. I just remind this Senate that it was only some 27 days ago that we unanimously passed in this place a motion which, in part, read:

That the Senate:

(a) reaffirms:

(i)   its commitment to the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights and be treated with equal respect regardless of . . . creed

I have left a few other words like race, colour and origin out. What do you think the Jewish day school parents and the Christian parents feel who want to be treated with equal rights and equal respect? Do you know what the Democrat contribution to that motion said? This was submitted by their leader, Senator Kernot:

I am reminded that, in 1977, the Democrats were founded on the slogan of tolerance . . .

I ask you: Jewish day schools extreme, Christian parent controlled schools extreme, Anglican schools extreme, Lutheran schools extreme? That is the language of tolerance courtesy of the Australian Democrats. That is the sort of language that they always mouth but when it comes down to the nitty gritty they can be as vilifying as any of the worst elements in our community.

I just found that contribution by the Australian Democrats very sad because I think it causes deep hurt. Allow me to quote Senator Kernot again from that speech. Those comments that were made yesterday have caused `deep hurt and offence that has been given to many decent Australians who are simply going about their business of living and making their own contribution to this nation'.

What we are really debating with this legislation is whether or not people who have the right to establish a school, who have all the necessary state criteria to establish a school, are then entitled to some degree of funding. What we have here in this debate is double taxation. These people have made a contribution to the tax system for the free education in the state system. I have no concerns about that.

That is fine and that is the way it ought to be. But each time a parent makes a decision to send their child to a private school they save the Australian taxpayer about $2,000 per annum. Just keep in mind that if there were no private schools in this country the burden on the Australian taxpayer would be huge. Some have estimated it would require about another $1 billion from our taxes to fund the education system if there were not the private school sector.

As I said yesterday evening, rich people do not mind this new schools policy. It does not impact upon them. They have the money anyway. It impacts upon those smaller groups within the community and those groups that do not necessarily have sufficient funds to fund the totality of their child's education on a private basis. So all we are doing as a government is sticking by one of our election promises, a very up-front election promise, that we would abolish the new schools policy because we thought it was discriminatory, that it was unfair.

Basically, we are told by the Democrats and those opposite that we ought to celebrate diversity, that we ought to celebrate differing views but not if you happen to be Jewish or Christian or Anglican or Lutheran. They say that we should not fund those elements within the community because they are extreme. But we are never given an explanation as to what extreme actually means in those circumstances.

This bill will give the opportunity to ensure proper funding to numerous community groups and parents right around this country to get a fair deal from the education system. Why is it that somehow the state government is allowed to run a school that only has 40 pupils or 27 pupils? When I mention those figures I think of specific examples in my home state of Tasmania. Yet if a Christian group or another group wanted to set up a school with just 40 pupils or 27 pupils under the current Labor policy they would be denied funding.

Let us keep in mind, when people say that this funding for the private schools will somehow be at the cost of public schools, that the reality is that over the next four years funding from Commonwealth government sources is estimated to increase funding per student in a government school by 17.9 per cent and for a student in a non-government school by only 14.92 per cent. In other words, there will be a lesser increase for private school students than there will be for the public sector.

There are a huge number of provisions in this legislation that will allow for a fairer and more competitive system. To those who support the state system, I say, `Good on you, I support it as well.' I went right through the state school system for my education and I think that it was a pretty good system. I do not mind the thought of competition and of parents being given a real choice and not being told, `Your taxes can pay for the public sector but, if you want to send your child to a private school that happens to have a few lower numbers, we will deny funding to that school.' I think that is unfair. It is grossly unfair.

I can see that there will a contribution from Senator O'Brien, a senator from Tasmania, later on. He might like to give some thought to the Kingston Christian Community School, for example, that does not get any funding for its secondary school. It has the numbers in the primary school, so it gets Commonwealth funding. It is slightly short in its secondary school, so it does not get Commonwealth funding, but kids have gone, and will continue to go, through that school at great sacrifice to their parents.

Senator O'Brien might like to give some thought to the Circular Head Christian parent-controlled school, which is still battling to get federal government funding. The reason it is denied funding is not—as Senator Allison would suggest—that it is extreme or fundamentalist, or some other reason. The only reason is that it falls short of the threshold of numbers. If a state government is entitled to run a school with Commonwealth assistance with only 40 pupils, why should a private school not be given the same sort of funding?

In short, the question has to be asked: what message will be sent out to the Australian community if this bill is defeated? Everybody will read the commentary, especially from the Australian Democrats, and they will say that there is a view in this parliament that if you are a Jewish day school you are extreme, if you are Lutheran school you are extreme and you be can be discounted and we do not have to worry about you at all, unless you have a huge number. Of course, the more numbers there are, the more wealth there is. Is that fair? Is that really looking after the people who need the assistance?

I am very pleased to be associated with this bill. It is my genuine hope for those hundreds, indeed thousands, of parents right around this country who are making huge personal sacrifices that this bill gets through—for their benefit and the benefit of their children.