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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6088

Senator CARR(10.39 a.m.) —I think a lot of senators will be asking why the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Bill 1996 is so important. I trust that senators are asking that question and I ask them to give very serious thought to the answer. This is a bill that involves the expenditure of some $14 billion. This is a bill that represents a major shift in the arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states with respect to the funding of education. It heralds the very first moves that this government is making in terms of abrogation of its key responsibilities for ensuring an equitable and high quality schooling system within this country.

For the better part of a generation Commonwealth governments of all parties have assumed, for very good reasons, an important leadership role in promoting and advancing the curriculum for Australian schools, for teaching in Australian schools and for infrastructure in Australian schools. They have done that both for the government sector and the non-government sector. Governments of both political persuasions, but especially the Labor government, have presided over a continuing and unprecedented rise in the number of students actually staying on at school.

We have seen quite dramatic improvements in retention rates. We have seen quite extraordinary moves in the development of national goals for schooling and we have seen dramatic and very worthwhile developments in terms of professional development opportunities for teachers. In fact, the Commonwealth has funded the majority of professional development for a number of states in this Commonwealth. In recent years in Victoria the overwhelming bulk of funding for professional development came out of Commonwealth government sources. Probably as a result of these various policies, they have produced the most equitable schooling system that this country has ever seen.

All of this is put at risk by this government's action in this bill. This is simply because this government is unwilling to bear its responsibilities for the promotion of the national interest. This is particularly important in this area where we see that there is a universal understanding outside of this government of the importance of education in ensuring this country's future, particularly this country's future prosperity. Education and training is understood to provide the single most important long-term leverage point that is available for all levels of government for improving the quality of life and the general prosperity of this country. It is an essential priority of government for economic reasons but also for social reasons, particularly if you are actually interested in ensuring the promotion of a just society.

Contrary to the election promises and with no effective consultation with the Australian people or, for that matter, state governments—I say that given that I am a longstanding critic of the way in which state governments have undermined education in this country—this government has clearly ignored governments, even of their own persuasion. Universally they have said—not quite universally; all except Victoria—that these proposals are wrong and that these are the most radical shifts in Commonwealth funding policy they have seen in the better part of 30 years. This is a program that outlines a public policy option which will see the most dramatic change in the way in which the Commonwealth faces its responsibility—and, ultimately, will have an impact on the way state governments face their responsibility—since the introduction of public instruction acts in the 1860s.

While successive Commonwealth governments have sought to recognise the importance of the non-government sector and they have contributed support on the basis of need, this bill is framed on a policy base designed to deregulate—that is, to destroy any notion of planned educational provision—and to replace it with the introduction of a concept of market rules in education, to turn education into a commodity like so many packets of cornflakes, and to subsequently rapidly increase the rate of privatisation for public education in this society.

What do we hear from this government? Contempt. We hear a minister who states publicly in his own second reading speech that this government has no preconceived ideas about the size of either sector. This is the point of choice as he sees it in terms of one group of students' responsibility for the decimation of the choice for other students who do not have the capacity to pay.

Clearly that is the public position of this government. Its private position is spelt out equally clearly in the minutes of the Expenditure Review Committee of 3 and 4 June which noted that the coalition has sought to encourage students to move from government to non-government schools. That is what this bill is all about. It is providing the financial incentive to underwrite the decimation of public education in this country.

If this bill is passed unamended it will allow the Howard government to promote its ideological view of education as a private benefit rather than a public right. Under the banner of choice it will encourage those who can afford to pay to separate their children from the children of those who cannot. Free, universal, quality schooling—which are the hallmarks of public education in this country and which are understood to be important in underlying any democratic society—will be in decline. A democracy which once prided itself on the concept of a fair go for all and could hold its head high in terms of the aspirations of ordinary Australians to build a genuine, tolerant, egalitarian society, will be equally undermined. The democratic ideals that go towards the notion of a universal, comprehensive public education system will also be undermined directly as a result of the actions of this government. When honourable senators are asked why this bill is so important, they should consider what their role is in ensuring or otherwise the protection of those ideals that underwrite a democratic society.

Under international law Australians do have commitments through their government under various treaty organisations to public education. There is Australia's commitment to international conventions such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. These treaties establish that education is a right which must be universally available to all; that primary education must be free and compulsory; that secondary education must be equally available to all on the grounds of ability and merit and must be made progressively free; and that there should be no differential in the quality of education allowed on the grounds of socioeconomic class or income of students. Quite clearly this bill will entrench Australia's failure to comply with these four basic principles.

By and large Australians are not yet aware of this government's actions because it has been too cowardly to outline its real policies to the electorate. During the election it said:

At the first meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) after the election we will take up the issue of Australia's low OECD ranking.

It has failed to do this in the context of promising fairer progress that is less obstructive and more responsive to community and parental need. The only parental need con sidered in the legislation which has been introduced into this parliament is in the government's attack on public schools where those parents who can afford to pay will have their children schooled separately.

When the government talks about low fee paying schools, many of the schools it is talking about are schools which charge a minimum fee of $2,000, which is far beyond the means of many families in this country. Surely the life opportunities that education provides must be a social investment for all our children and should be guaranteed in a democratic society which considers itself to be free.

As a result of the budget and this bill this government is about changing the face of schooling in this country. Firstly, it seeks to abolish the planned education provision, previously known as the new schools policy, and intends that new private schools will no longer have to demonstrate that they are needed, that they can enrol viable numbers of students, that they have a viable financial plan or that they will have no adverse effect on the quality of schooling provided by existing schools in their chosen locality. Secondly, in a country which has one of the largest publicly supported private school sectors in the world, the federal government has set about increasing funding for private schools to levels greater than at any time in our history.

Thirdly, through the enrolment benchmark adjustments the federal government is intending to pay for the expansion of private schooling that will occur in the new deregulated and generously funded environment by taking the money from state schools. This government is deliberately setting about forcing government schools to pay for their own demise. Fourthly, through the broadbanding of equity programs, this government abdicates all responsibility for directly targeting communities in poverty or other significant areas of disadvantage, an important flagship of commitment to social justice under the previous government.

This has been established through Commonwealth responsibility for 20 years and now, with more than 10 per cent of children actually living in poverty—second only to the US in terms of developed countries—it is a national, social and economic disgrace which has been perpetrated and encouraged by this government's actions through its failure to recognise its responsibilities in education. This government will decide sector enrolment share only on a socioeconomic index and then allow the states to disburse the money as thinly as they please. Under these arrangements premiers can quite easily wallpaper the walls of their offices with Commonwealth dollars, as has happened in Victoria, and there are no effective accountability mechanisms within this legislation. This is a disgrace, an appalling disgrace which is being perpetrated upon the people of this country. The inadequacies of those accountability mechanisms have been established time and time again through the estimates committees and through the inquiries of the Senate education committee.

If this bill is unamended, the Prime Minister, John Howard, with the help of the education ministers, Senator Vanstone and David Kemp, will be remembered for selling out the rights of future generations of Australians. In particular they are selling out the rights of future generations of Australians to the concept of a comprehensive, universal, quality public education system. In that process they will be responsible for reigniting the state aid debate which we all remember as one of the most divisive in this country's history. According to this bill, the unrestrained power of the market is being encouraged and equity is being outlawed. The principle of comprehensive, universal public education is being abandoned and our public schools are being left to die the death of a thousand cuts.

The withdrawal of Commonwealth funding to the states for schooling was a recommendation of the commission of audit employed by this government to develop funding policy. While Dr Kemp has denied that he will accept the advice of this body, clearly he has set upon action which is quite complementary to the advice of that commission. He is only telling part of the truth. This is, of course, the pattern of this government in its administration of education in this country; you only tell part of the truth. In the public debate you are quite sloppy with the presentation of facts about the levels of funding that you are administering and, of course, the way in which that funding is being administered.

You work on one simple premise: the bigger the lie, the more people are likely to believe it. Nothing more clearly demonstrates this than the claims that are being made that there are increasing resources going to public education as a result of this budget. The department has clearly indicated in answers to questions that that is not the case. You rely upon a mythical notion that somehow the states have been spending more on education. The evidence in recent years is quite clearly to the contrary.

The government also seeks to introduce through this enrolment benchmark adjustment process a device whereby you will actually see cost shifting of resources from the Commonwealth to the states. In recent times I have complained bitterly about the way in which the states have used education funding to cost shift from the states to the Commonwealth. This government has reversed that process as part of its policy of undermining the commitment of national leadership in terms of education. I spoke to the Government Whip yesterday and I understand that agreement has been reached for me to incorporate a table in Hansard. I seek leave to incorporate this table in Hansard to supplement the points I am about to make.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows—

Effect of Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment on Commonwealth Recurrent Grants for Each Per Cent of Transfer

Per Cent Transfer1996 ($000) EBAActual PC GSPC RG perTransferGS as a %of NGS

Senator CARR —For every percentage transfer of students from government schools, the actual amount of direct or general recurrent funding from the Commonwealth for state school students declines. Currently, the amount for a state school student is $420, compared with $2,019 for a private school student. With a two per cent enrolment shift, the Commonwealth contribution declines to $370. With a five per cent enrolment shift it declines to $289. With a 10 per cent shift, the contribution for every child in a government school is a mere $137. With a 13 per cent shift it all but cuts out entirely. If this policy is not changed, the federal government could effectively withdraw all Commonwealth funding to state schools within 10 to 15 years. This is unprecedented.

This government is quite clearly demonstrating its bias to private schools. It is doing so in a manner which will ensure that the public sector is forced to pay for its own demise. In terms of social justice and democratic rights, this is intolerable. For this reason, I ask senators to consider this bill very carefully.

The abolition of the new schools policy and the end of planning provisions for the growth of private schools will, through the proposed enrolment benchmarks and the cuts to financial assistance grants, see hundreds of millions of dollars shifted from the public to the private sector. It will place an enormous strain on those state governments which seek to nurture public schools. It will provide enormous encouragement to governments such as those in Victoria which seek to undermine public education. It will provide a model which all state governments may well be forced to follow. Of course, it is clearly the intention of this government to fundamentally undermine public education in this society.

Enrolment benchmark adjustments are a fundamental issue. They are the vehicle by which this government seeks to deliver the demise of public education in this country. State governments consider that they are being disenfranchised by the Commonwealth's failure to consult them on this extraordinarily radical proposal—this bizarre experiment that is being undertaken by this government. Many witnesses at the committee hearings that we have held argued that the use of average cost as opposed to marginal cost in calculated savings arising from student transfers will mean that there are no real savings to the states. This is transparently a blatantly misleading device by which the Commonwealth government seeks to shift costs to the states. Quite clearly, we are looking forward to the minister explaining in the committee stage why it is that this government has embarked upon this course of action, and why it is that this particular mechanism has been followed.

The decision to recoup some 50 per cent of the alleged savings to the states was based on the notion of marginal cost versus average cost. The major criticism of the enrolment benchmark adjustments is that the transfer of students out of the government system will be manifested at the individual school level, often with only very minor changes in the number of students per class. The schools will still be required to provide teachers and all the other running costs of the schools; therefore, those costs will not be a saving for any particular government.

The state governments have made it clear that the figure suggested by DEETYA for attributed savings arising from this enrolment benchmark adjustment will not be realised, and that they regard the methodology employed as being totally inappropriate. The New South Wales government in particular highlighted that it would cost between $20 million and $30 million. The Queensland government indicated that it supported the concern of the New South Wales government. The Tasmanian government indicated this proposal is based on a misconception that there will be savings to the states in the enrolment mix changes. There were similar expressions of concern in Western Australia and in other states.

Finally, I would like to turn to the issue of choice. This government's only rationale for this proposition—this propaganda device that they are employing—is to argue that this is a question of choice. I ask: what is the choice for government sector parents? The choice of one seriously undermines the choice of many.