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Wednesday, 27 November 1996
Page: 6160

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs)(4.55 p.m.) —In closing this debate, I would like to respond to some comments that have been made by senators who have participated. I thank all senators for their contribution, even if I have not always agreed with what they have said.

Let me first refer to the last issue raised by Senator Harradine, which is the provision for children and students with disabilities. I would like to draw attention to the provision in the legislation for students with special learning needs. The government has recognised that there are students with particular needs and that that means they require additional help and resources to realise their full potential. This legislation ensures that the needs of these children will continue to be addressed through the special learning needs program.

In particular, students with disabilities continue to be a high priority for the government. This legislation will provide $92 million in 1997 specifically to assist students with disabilities. Changes to programs for students with disabilities in the non-government sector, undertaken through the broadbanding exercise, has meant that states and sectors have more flexibility to address the needs of those students with disabilities who are most in need.

It has also meant that the majority of non-government sectors across Australia have had an increase in special education assistance. I refer to those increases by state and sector: Queensland, $395,800 in the Catholic sector and $154,700 in the independent sector; Western Australia, $215,200 in the Catholic sector and $72,100 in the independent sector; in my own state of South Australia, $154,300 in the Catholic sector and $88,200 in the independent sector; and in Senator Harradine's state of Tasmania, $54,300 in the Catholic sector and $23,900 in the independent sector.

I move to some of the remarks made in this debate. I would like to turn first to some of the remarks of Senator Margetts. I believe that this matter does need to be cleared up, and Senator Margetts might like to come in during the committee stage and give us all an explanation. In the Hansard, her contribution reads:

My office has received a call from the Emmaus Primary School here in Canberra, which has been encouraged and facilitated by the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs and the office of the Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training (Dr Kemp) to go ahead with their school plans as if the new schools policy was not in place.

She went on to say a few other things and then came to the point:

This school I refer to sees the importance of the retention of the new schools policy and is not anti-NSP.

That is allegedly a fairly direct statement by Senator Margetts. I would now like to read a letter addressed to me from the Emmaus Christian School, signed by Mr Kim Gillis, the chairman. It says:

Dear Senator,

I would like to correct the statement made in the Senate this morning by Senator Dee Margetts of the Greens during the debate on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Bill.

Emmaus Christian School fully supports the government on this bill. Emmaus does not agree that the new schools policy should be continued, but rather that the respective state governments should provide mechanisms to ensure that new schools are both viable and educationally sound. You may wish to refer to our situation as being fairly representative of the sort of school that will be able to commence in 1997 if this bill is passed.

I do not need to read the rest of the letter; the point made is perfectly clear. Senator Margetts this morning referred to this school, told the Senate that the school sees the importance of the retention of the new schools policy and is not anti the new schools policy. I have a letter from the chairman of the school, who happened to be listening to the debate this morning, saying that the school completely supports the government and it does not agree that the new schools policy should be continued. I look forward to Senator Margetts's contribution later in the debate indicating how it is she came to an erroneous conclusion or deliberately misled the Senate—one or other is the case. She may have misunderstood. I do not assert that without hearing what she has to say.

Let me turn to some remarks made by Senator Carr, who claimed that the bill would abolish planned education provision, as I am advised. That is wrong. The responsibility for the planning of schools rests with state governments. It is the state governments which plan where government schools are placed. It is appropriate that they should have the responsibility for the regulation of non-government schools.

I understand he further claimed that broadbanding of targeted programs would reduce the focus on the specific needs of individual students. Perhaps he does not understand that the government is concerned about the educational outcomes of students, not just the monetary inputs that he talks about. Broadbanding will provide not only more flexibility but more equitable funding because the states will not be bound by endless red tape.

He claimed there was no accountability for Commonwealth money, as I am advised. For the first time the bill includes specific provisions for educational accountability, in clause 12. This government is committed to pressing both the government and the non-government sector to ensure that educational accountability is paramount.

Senator Carr, I understand, chose to quote from the UN Declaration of Human Rights, pointing out that everyone has the right to education—which is, of course, true. But he did not go on and quote the rest, which is that parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. It perhaps says something about Senator Carr that he chose to leave that aspect out.

A number of assertions have been made with respect to the bill. One is that the government favours non-government schools. This is simply wrong. Taking into account both specific purpose payments and financial assistance grants, support for government school students, per capita, is increasing more rapidly than for non-government school students.

A further suggestion is that the states are somehow going to reduce their funding to education as a result of the Premiers Conference. But, on the best available estimates we have, spending by states and territories for education through their budgets for 1996-97 is estimated to increase by an average of about 6.4 per cent compared with 1995-96. Far from the changes leading to a reduction and showing a lack of faith in the states, the information we have is that education spending by the states is increasing.

In the debate earlier today, Senator Bolkus claimed that $1.5 billion represented the total increase in Commonwealth schools funding from all sources, including FAGs, for the four years to 2000. I am advised that that is incorrect. The $1.5 billion is the increase in funding provided under this bill alone, even after the enrolment benchmark adjustment has been netted off.

I am told that Senator Bolkus further claimed that nothing was known about the EBA until some considerable time after the budget. That may be so for people who did not bother to read the budget papers, but it is not true for those who did, and it is certainly not true for state and territory ministers, because information about the EBA was contained in Budget Paper No. 1 and, as I understand it, in DEETYA's portfolio budget statements. Indeed, my colleague Dr Kemp wrote to all state and territory ministers on 20 August, the day of the budget, setting out the budget outcomes for schools, including the introduction of the EBA.

Senator Allison made a number of references to Jewish day schools and some other religious denominations as being, as I understand it, fundamentalist and extremist.

Senator Allison —No, I didn't.

Senator VANSTONE —Senator, you will have the opportunity to say that that is not the case. I am advised that those were the references. I am very pleased to see that you are nodding your head. If that is not the case, let me unreservedly and in advance apologise. I will take the opportunity to check the Hansard record myself. But that is what I am advised, and I am further advised that some of my colleagues clearly thought that and have made remarks about your contribution as being inappropriate. I am pleased that you think that is a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of what you said—not because I am pleased to see a misunderstanding or misrepresentation, but I am pleased that you do not welcome that interpretation of your remarks. I think it is important to state emphatically that prejudice towards groups who have particular religious views should play no part in parliamentary debate, particularly on education. I would take it, Senator Allison, that I have got it right—that you agree with that?

Senator Allison —Totally agree.

Senator VANSTONE —Senator Margetts stated that the broadbanding arrangements would allow states to move funds as they saw fit between the programs included in the bill. That is simply not so. Funds for the literacy program must be spent on literacy and funds for the languages program must be spent on languages. Funds for students with disabilities, newly arrived migrants requiring ESL instruction and students in country areas will continue to have identified allocations and those allocations must be spent in accordance with what they are intended to be spent on.

Senator Crowley, I understand, made a contribution indicating there was no evidence that people suffered under the new schools policy. This is clearly a misunderstanding on her part or a failure to look reality in the face. The new schools policy was unfair and discriminatory, and particularly so to poorer schools.

There are currently 52 schools operating without any Commonwealth funding at all for their students and 38 schools caught by the category 6 funding restriction. That is, because of the new schools policy, 52 schools, so desperate were they to follow the choices of the parents, decided in any event that they would operate without Commonwealth funding.

I understand that Senator Allison expressed concern that targeting for students with special needs would somehow become blurred under this legislation. As I think it has been indicated, the broadbanding provisions will not preclude specific targeting by sectors for those students with special needs. They provide greater flexibility for sectors to provide for those students most in need and address issues such as intersecting disadvantage.

Senator Carr in his contribution, I understand, quoted a leaked document from what was referred to as a June ERC meeting, which was purported to represent the government's view on non-government schools. What Senator Carr did not mention was that this meeting took place in June 1991. Anything discussed at that meeting does not in any way represent the policy of the Howard government. I look forward to Senator Carr perhaps making some remarks about that when he comes to make a later contribution.

Senator Brown, in his contribution, implied that the main reason parents sent their children to non-government schools was more favourable pupil-teacher ratios. This just does not fit the facts. The vast majority of non-government schools have a higher pupil-teacher ratio than government schools. In 1994, the last year for which final figures are available, Catholic schools had an average of 20.3 to one for primary and 13.7 to one for secondary, while the government figures were less than that—18.3 students to one and 12.4 to one, respectively. Indeed, Catholic schools at best operate at 80 per cent of the resource levels available to government schools.

I have not been able to address all the comments made in the debate. I think the ones I have referred to are ones that perhaps deserve some response and should be specifically referred to. As I say, I look forward to Senator Margetts coming in and giving an indication of where she went wrong with the Emmaus Christian School. In conclusion, I thank all senators for their contribution to the debate.

   Question put:

   That the amendment (Senator Allison 's) be agreed to.