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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4094

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:24): It was the Chinese philosopher Confucius who said this: 'If your plan is for one year, plant rice; if your plan is for 10 years, plant trees; if your plan is for 100 years, educate your children.' Nobody in this chamber would argue with the point on which Senator Nash concluded: that all of us have a very keen interest, obviously, in the best education for our children.

It is with great disappointment that I rise to oppose the Australian Education Bill 2013 and its associated legislation. As the deputy chair of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee, it is a great disappointment to me that a circumstance developed that in the other place there was less than two hours debate on 70 pages of amendments associated with the legislation. It was only last week, on 18 June, that the Senate referred the bills to the committee of which I am the deputy chairman, with the need for an inquiry and a report by 20 August 2013—an entirely reasonable time. Unfortunately, that was cut short by the majority members from the Labor government, to the extent that there would then be only three days—three days!—of opportunity for parties to make a submission, which concluded on Friday, 21 June, for a report on Monday, 24 June. In other words, there was to be expenditure by state and federal governments—in other words, taxpayers—of some $100 billion over the forward estimates, and there was only three days' opportunity for people to place submissions, and no time at all for there to be a hearing or hearings held. That is the disdain in which this government holds the people and the parliament and, more particularly, this Senate.

People might say, 'Look, there've been plenty of opportunities to debate the issues over time.' But there simply has not been put before interested parties and those vitally affected by this legislation anywhere near the documentation necessary for them to become informed and to advise their own constituents. So we have had a totally and utterly limited period of time. We have had no chance to scrutinise the submissions. We have had no chance to test the witnesses. And we are now being asked to approve this legislation. This is just totally and utterly unacceptable.

I will go very briefly to some of the submissions placed in those 72 hours. The themes of the complexity of the legislation and the lack of clarity ran through nearly all of them. The Independent Schools Council of Australia said:

The timing of the passage of these pieces of legislation is critical for non-government schools, as current Commonwealth Government funding arrangements expire at the end of 2013.

That is a mere six months away. The complexity of the legislation, particularly as it related to indexation, was a matter of enormous concern, and still has not been answered. Criticism of the lack of clarity also came from state governments, the Queensland government pointing out the plethora of detailed examples of the lack of clarity, the following being just one of them:

The Bill sets out a complex set of authorities and relationships, which is compounded when overlaid with participating and non-participating status. In parts, the Bill switches between concepts of 'participating schools' and 'participating states and territories'.

And on it goes. There were also pleas that the government would release the year-by-year figures for the next three years, where Commonwealth education funding goes backwards in each state and territory; they were unaddressed.

Submissions also mentioned the lack of consultation. I will illustrate the way in which this government consults with some newspaper headlines. For example, under the headline 'Gillard to punish Gonski hold-outs' we read:

JULIA Gillard will punish recalcitrant states that refuse to sign up to the government's education reforms with lower funding for their schools.

In a Victorian paper, under the headline 'Schools face burdens irrespective of the Gonski deal,' we read:

Brighton Secondary College principal Julie Podbury said state schools already wrote plans for improvement.

So why is there the necessity for a Canberra bureaucrat or a plethora of Canberra bureaucrats? As to the Northern Territory, Prime Minister Gillard not only threatened to impose difficulties for the Northern Territory government in the education space, but also made it very clear that other funding from the federal government to the Northern Territory may be adversely affected. As to Queensland, under the headline 'Gonski gets zilch, state goes local', we read that:

THE Newman government will forge ahead with its own education reforms, refusing to allocate funds to support the commonwealth's Gonski blueprint …

This is the way in which this federal government consults. 'Private schools tucked into Gonski'—Catholic and independent schools will be locked into the Gonski funding model regardless of whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard can convince more states and territories to sign up.

I come to my own state of Western Australia, which was offered a paltry $138 million over six years to sign away its schools to federal control in Canberra at a time when the New South Wales government was offered $5 billion. When I asked in estimates how this could be, do you know what the answer was? The answer was that because, over time, failed Labor governments in New South Wales, some of them led by now Senator Bob Carr, had failed to invest in state education in New South Wales and therefore they needed extra funding to bring them up to a standard at which they should always have been. In our state of Western Australia, under Premier Barnett and premiers before him, including Labor and the Liberal coalition, there was heavy investment.

In estimates I challenged the minister about how it could be that one state could get $5 billion and the other $138 million. Prime Minister Gillard rushed over to WA and she would appear to have increased the $138 million to $900 million. We have no idea where the money is coming from, but who cares with this mob when we have $300 billion of debt and we are paying a billion dollars a month interest on the debt at the moment. It turns out that the $900 million was actually $300 million of state money. Take that away, Senator Mason, and there is $600 million left. It sounds wonderful, doesn't it? How many years was it over? Six years. Premier Barnett told us the other day that the Western Australian budget for running the state schools is $4 billion a year, and Prime Minister Gillard, in return for the states handing over control, was throwing around $600 million of money she did not have and certainly gave no indication of where it was coming from.

'Review for rebel state schools'—the list goes on. This is how this government consults with its stakeholders. Breaches in previous undertakings by the Commonwealth was evident in submissions from witnesses to this particular inquiry who could not appear at a hearing because one was not permitted. The Tasmanian government, a Labor government, submitted that the bill as drafted ignores the roles and responsibilities as agreed, providing the Commonwealth with the ability to impose prescriptive policy and operational requirements on school systems and schools, both government and non-government.

I propose to conclude on this matter, if I may, to allow others to speak, by drawing attention to an inquiry which you, Madam Acting Deputy President McKenzie, were a participant in recently: the teaching and learning inquiry of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee. I am proud to say that the report and recommendations were unanimous from everybody who participated. These were the principles that we considered were necessary to improve teaching and learning in this country. The first: active involvement by parents from the youngest age of their children. That is not a high-cost factor; it does not get a guernsey in this funding. The second: the need for school autonomy, as exhibited, for example, in Finland. What does this legislation do? It takes school autonomy away. A principal cannot employ a teacher or sack a teacher; they have to put a plan to a bureaucrat in Canberra. Where would decisions be best made for the Turkey Creek school in the Kimberley? Where would decisions best be made for the Mukinbudin Primary School in the wheat belt? Not here in Canberra. The committee rejected the concept that, by definition, low socioeconomic students must be automatically disadvantaged in their education outcomes. That is something that our committee came up with. I must say, in deference to the recommendations of Gonski and his colleagues, that was a matter that they picked up.

Other principles included: professional learning by teachers practically in the schools, day to day; and curriculum and curriculum development devolved down to the level where the principal and the staff are best equipped. Senator Mason, through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, the unfortunate thing is that, once again, an opportunity has been missed, money has been grossly wasted, and there has been a lack of consultation with the stakeholders, be they state, Catholic or independent schools, and there is a circumstance where we will not receive the outcomes. We will have growth management by Canberra and a waste of taxpayers' money.