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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6109

Senator BROWN(12.31 p.m.) —The Greens strongly oppose this legislation for the reasons given my colleague Senator Margetts from the Greens (WA) and reasons given by many other speakers, including Senator Forshaw, who just preceded me. We stand very strongly for an enhanced public education system in this country. We stand very strongly for equal access to an excellent education system for all Australians, because fundamental to a fair go in an egalitarian society is the access to all levels of education by the citizens of that society. We are talking in particular about children who are being schooled to not only gain work when they leave the schooling system but also find fulfilment in life. If the education system fails them there, their prospects are blighted for the rest of their lives.

Australia has a remarkably good education system, for all its faults and for all the criticism we might aim at it. We only have to measure it up against education systems elsewhere to see that. I will not canvass the litany of faults with this legislation but sum marise it in sheer economic terms. What the government is doing is cutting funding to public education.

If you look at spending in Australia on education, you will find that we are at the bottom rung amongst OECD nations. That will come as a shock to many Australians who believe that we are amongst the top spenders. Wrong; we are amongst the bottom spenders in OECD nations. We are down with Portugal and other countries at the bottom level.

In the run-up to the last election, we Greens made a commitment to people concerned about education that we would fight during this period of parliament to increase spending over the triennium by a billion dollars to at least bring us into the mid range of spending on education per capita with other OECD nations. Here we have legislation going in exactly the opposite direction. It is pulling money out of the public education system.

Senator Vanstone —No, it's not.

Senator BROWN —Of course the minister is going to say, `No, it's not.' Of course she is going to argue that it is doing wonders for education. The reality is that this bill is part of the government's economic fundamentalist policy which says, `Put it across to the private sector.' The minister can roll her eyes, but that is what this legislation is about.

Senator Vanstone —Choice to parents.

Senator BROWN —Absolutely. Give choice to the stock exchange, give choice to parents, but take choice from other children while you are doing it. Give choice to those who are most advantaged and have the best wherewithal, but take it away from those who are least advantaged and have the least wherewithal. That is what it is about.

The cut will be of the order of $158 million a year on top of the cut already in untied grants to the states, which means education in the public sector will be cut by somewhere between $250 and $400 million a year. So we are moving towards half a billion dollars per annum being cut from education, when the Greens are saying that we should be going in exactly the opposite direction by exactly the opposite amount.

What is it that determines whether a parent sends her or his child to a public or a private school? The single biggest factor is pupil-teacher ratio. The single biggest disadvantage to the public sector from this cut in funding is that, because they do not have the money, they cannot match the ability of private schools, particularly smaller private schools, to have a better teacher-pupil ratio. Never mind the fact that the government loses its ability to ensure that schools are presenting an equal education opportunity in the private sector to the public sector.

The fact is that the public sector is having the rug pulled from under it by this legislation. Every time the parents of a student choose to take their child out of the public sector and put them into a private school, the government will cut $1,000 to $2,000 out of the public school system. It will transfer some of that money across to the private school system.

So you have a treadmill or a self-enhancing system which is going to inexorably, over coming years, favour the private sector at the disadvantage of the public sector. There are figures bandied about—we have heard them in this debate—as to how many tens of thousands of students are going to leave the public sector and go across to the private sector in the next few years. What we do know is that process is being enhanced by this government legislation to the detriment of one of the fundamental institutions of a liberal democratic society, which is an excellent public school system.

The Greens stand against this legislation. We will vote against this legislation—notwithstanding the fact that there has been some very heartfelt lobbying. In particular, I can draw attention to the Steiner schools which favour this legislation. It will enable them to be able to get up and running in smaller communities around Australia where, arguably, they are in the private sector producing excellence in education.

The overall impact will be to the detriment of the public school system—the fair go system; the system upon which we rely in ensuring that every child has access to good education in this country. That is why the Greens are opposed to the legislation. That is why the Greens will be supporting amendments from the Labor Party which do the best they can to remove some of the worst aspects of this legislation and its impact against the interest of an excellent public school system in Australia.