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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 45

Senator MARSHALL (12:06 PM) —Labor welcomed this inquiry when it was first proposed by the government, even though we were a little bit sceptical about the motivations of the government when initiating it. We understand how important education is. It is what underpins our civilisation. It is what underpins our economic prosperity. It is what underpins our democracy. It is what underpins all innovation. It is fundamental in every aspect of our way of life. We do not underestimate the importance of it.

What we have just heard from Senator Troeth brings an element of truth to the concerns that we had at the time—that this was more about politics than good policy. I will talk in some detail about some of the issues that Senator Troeth raised. I was not going to but, now that she has drawn the Senate’s attention to the fact that not all senators attended some of the hearings—even though she only talked about the inability of some Labor senators to attend some hearings—I will talk about it. If she were going to be a bit more fair dinkum maybe she would have provided the attendance list of all senators and all members for all of the hearings.

It is difficult, from time to time, when the government simply determines that hearings will be held in different cities on particular dates and not all senators can actually attend. It is difficult when the government has the numbers and goes ahead with those hearings, regardless of opposition senators saying that they are unable, for various reasons, to attend on those days. The committee simply goes ahead anyway.

If we want to talk about some examples of other inquiries where opposition senators were able to attend, I can mention a very recent inquiry where not a single government member was able to attend. This was an inquiry that was referred to a committee by the government. But not a single government member made themselves available—an inquiry on a bill that was referred by the government. I think it was a little bit silly—quite frankly, stupid—of Senator Troeth to raise this as an issue, just reaffirming our view that this inquiry was probably more to do with politics than good policy.

The other issue referred to was Mr Ken Wiltshire’s contribution to the committee. His sole contribution in terms of the submission was a copy of an opinion piece he wrote for the Australian some time before. His sole academic contribution to our inquiry was an opinion piece he wrote in a newspaper. We get to the inquiry, and what is the line of questioning from the government senators? They run an argument like this: ‘Education in Queensland has failed. Mr Rudd used to be the chief of staff to a former premier of Queensland; therefore, Mr Rudd now, as opposition leader, is responsible for the failure of Queensland education.’

Of course, there was no evidence that the Queensland education system has failed—none whatsoever. It was an enormously long bow to draw. Then what happened? At the end of Mr Wiltshire’s submission to the inquiry, he went out to a pre-organised press conference and talked about how Mr Rudd is responsible for the failure of education in Queensland. What a set-up! What an absolute set-up by Liberal members of this committee, questioning a witness about a subject that he had already organised to talk to the press about afterwards. If we wanted an example of the politicisation of this issue—instead of looking at good policy, which is what this committee was supposed to do—there is another example.

Senator Troeth talked about attention spans. I did not want to go hard on that issue in the report, but now I am sorry that I did not. That referred to a written complaint from one of the witnesses about a Liberal member of this committee who mocked her evidence during the committee and attacked the issues that she was trying to portray and then went off and read a magazine for the rest of her contribution. The witness felt she had to complain formally in writing to the committee about the attention span of the particular senator. I was not going to talk about that. Senator Troeth introduced it, as if to turn it back on the opposition. We will be talking more about this report in days to come, when I will go into more detail about those matters, given that Senator Troeth wanted to introduce those issues.

This inquiry had very broad terms of reference. In their efforts to politicise this as an issue, instead of coming to a process where we hear from witnesses, we take the evidence, we consider that evidence and we come to considered conclusions, the government members seem to have, all of a sudden, become experts on the education system. Education is something that has billions of dollars every year spent on it. Curriculum development, process and teaching methods employ thousands and thousands of people with enormous expertise who have been working on these issues—as their life’s work, in most cases. That has been going on for generation after generation.

Then we have a couple of government senators, over four or five days of inquiry, hearing from witnesses, who spend 30 or maybe 45 minutes talking to the committee. Some, but not all, of them have put in written submissions. As a result, the government senators suddenly become absolute experts on everything to do with education. In the Labor Party, we tend not to do that; we tend not to overstep our ability or our area of expertise.

It is one thing to collate the evidence, talk about it and put it forward as a policy direction to try assist the parliament in directing where the money should go, assisting the government, bringing these issues to the table and getting all sorts of different people together so that we can talk about the evidence. But here we have a government that all of a sudden comes to all these conclusions and, if anyone takes the time to read this very lengthy report, they will see that on page after page the government has come to all of these conclusions—not all of those have become recommendations, but they are conclusions. When we went through the government’s report, we just could not sign on to that, because, quite frankly, we have no idea how they could come to most of those conclusions. Well, that is probably not quite right. They could not have come to those conclusions based on the evidence that was presented to the committee. They could come to those conclusions based on the politics that they wanted to drive.

Shall we talk about what happened today? If we want to talk about politicisation of this report, we only have to look at the headlines in the Age. Obviously somebody has talked to the press about this. “Schools produce ‘illiterate’ students” is what it says. What an unfortunate headline about the politicisation of this particular government report. Quite frankly it is an abuse of Senate process—an absolute abuse. What they have done with this report is to try to grab a cheap headline and have people believe that education in this country is failing this country, when all the evidence that was presented to the committee says that the education system in this country is amongst the best in the OECD.

We do have a serious problem of equity, and not all students come out with the results that we would expect. Our recommendations go to those very equity issues. In its report the government should have talked about the broad policy framework and identified areas where a good education system has not been good enough, and it should have pointed to the policy areas that need to be addressed. That is what Labor has done, and that is what the government should have done rather than politicising this report for cheap headlines.

This is yet another report—dozens and dozens of reports have been tabled in this place and in the other place but the government has paid little or no regard to them. Often, the government pays them lip-service; it has never resourced any of the programs. This is just another education-bashing political exercise by this government. It is time the government seriously looked at education in this country—at how to make it work across the board for all our citizens in the best possible way—instead of going for cheap political shots.