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Wednesday, 20 August 1980
Page: 508

Dr BLEWETT (Bonython) - The Budget statements and the statement just made by the Minister for Education (Mr Fife) are clearly a confession of a declining significance given to education in the perspectives of the Fraser Government. For instance, over the last three years education expenditure, as a percentage of total outlays in the Budget, has fallen each year. It was 8.7 per cent in 1978-79, 8.2 per cent in 1979-80 and in 1980-81 it is 8 per cent of total Budget outlays. It is typical, when we look at the Budget, that the only other major functional areas to show this kind of decline are social security and welfare. Indeed, I think it illustrates the basic values which underlie the economic policy of this Government. It is, of course, extremely important that we do not allow the education system of this country slowly to run down in this manner if we are to cope with the industry and employment changes of the 1980s.

Any discussion of this Government's education policies and any consideration of this year's expenditure on education must be viewed against the transformation of the Commonwealth commitment to education which was one of the great achievements of the Whitlam Government. Any analysis of contemporary education and, as I say, any judgment on this Government's achievement on education this year or in its five years of office must start with the achievement of the Labor Government. I want to outline very briefly the major achievements of that Government to see what has happened in. the last five years, culminating in the decisions in the Budget of yesterday.

Between 1972 and 1975 the Commonwealth accepted for the first time complete responsibility for the funding of all universities and colleges of advanced education. The Whitlam Government introduced the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme, which I will return to in a moment. The Whitlam Government established technical and further education on a proper national footing. The Whitlam Government created the Schools Commission and established a Commonwealth provision for all Australian schools on a needs basis. It introduced a wide range of Schools Commission programs which were designed to encourage innovation, community involvement in education, teacher development and attention to deprived areas.

By contrast in the past five years - this year is very much a culmination, with one set of exceptions which I will talk about - we have had a falling away from that kind of commitment. For instance, the guidelines which have been given to the Schools Commission and the Tertiary Education Commission have become increasingly restrictive and pre-emptive of their independence. Secondly, there has been a gradual erosion of the basis of funding in relation to schools. There has been a shift in emphasis if one examines the figures, so that increasingly funding allocations have favoured the wealthier independent schools as against both state schools and the poorer parish, parochial schools. There have been significant cuts in the level of funding in real terms since 1975 right across the educational board, particularly in the more imaginative fields established in the period from 1972 to 1975.

One of the few allegedly imaginative efforts is this cosmetic School to Work Program which the Minister has talked about today. Quite clearly that scheme, which was set up in a hurry and a flurry of advertisements towards the end of last year, has simply produced a series of ad hoc, largely ineffective and hastily drawn up arrangements.

Mr Kerin - A mail order scheme.

Dr BLEWETT - Yes. Honourable members do not have to take my word. They can take the word of the Victorian Government on this matter as set out in a document which the Opposition has secured. In it, the Victorian Government describes the School to Work Program as it stands as ill-defined and directionless. It said the program would tie up the State in terms of educational priorities and funding even more than other such programs. So we have here a cosmetic scheme. I noticed that one of the best passages of flannelling in the Minister's statement referred to those schemes for which it is already clear that at this stage of the year the allocation made in November last year is not yet spent and is unlikely to be spent because of all the problems and complexities resulting from what is an ill thoughtout, hastily prepared, ad hoc type of scheme.

I now want to turn to what might be called the innovations in this statement and in the Budget presented last night. It is characteristic of this Budget that in the education field and most other fields there are a whole series of dollops- little bits of money to keep people happy. It seems almost as though the basic principle was: Do not spend too much on any of these people; do not re- spond logically in any way to their problems; just give them enough to keep them happy in an election year. It is interesting to note that most of these dollops last occurred in the Budget of 1977- that is before the last election. The education budget is very typical of this - a whole series of sweeteners for the electorate and small dollops handed out.

I want to refer to what the ALP has promised the electorate we will do in education and to the logical and rational basis of each of our commitments and compare those changes to the dollops in the same field that have been provided by this Government without in fact very much thought behind them. I want to take first of all that area which relates to general student assistance because this is one of the areas in which there are some signs of expansion in this Government's Budget. I am happy to acknowledge that the Government's overall spending in this field is to increase by $38m in a full year. I am prepared to state that the Labor Party will increase spending by $100m in the education field which is some $62m more than is being spent by the Government. Our commitment has been very carefully costed in relation to our total program. Again, I am happy to discover that a document which somehow emerged from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet describes our education proposals in this way: 'It's additional expenditure proposals are comparatively modest'. That is, they are modest and reasonable proposals. I might explain that each of those proposals is based on considerations of equity and fairness in accordance with cost of living increases since we were in government in 1975.

How does the Government plan to spend the money? First of all, as the Minister has told us, the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme allowance has been increased by 10 per cent or $4.51 a week which brings it to $49.66 a week. Therefore, the TEAS allowance is less than the new dole level of $53.45 a week; it is less than the value in real terms of the TEAS allowance in 1974. No review has been promised of the anomalies which are increasingly apparent in that scheme. We are also told that the cut-off level for the means test has been increased and that the level is based on the increase in average weekly earnings in the last year. Therefore, not many additional people will be brought within the scope of this scheme. If we simply up the means test level in accordance with the increase in average weekly earnings last year, we will do very little to expand the scope of that scheme.

In contrast with these increases, the Labor Party is committed to a 19.6 per cent increase which will raise the value of the allowance by $8 to $54 a week. This is simply based on the value of the TEAS allowance in 1974 adjusted for the consumer price index increases over the six years since. That seems to us to be a sensible basis for an appropriate and equitable payment. If it was the right and appropriate payment in 1974 it seems proper that the allowance should be raised by $8 to $54 - based on increases in the CPI since 1 974. This adjustment would take the value of the TEAS allowance to just above the present dole level. We are also committed to a review of the means test and its anomalies. There is no doubt that an enormous amount of dissatisfaction exists at present with the TEAS provision. We need a review of those anomalies before we commit ourselves to the types of changes that would be necessary.

I would now like to refer to the second part of the Government's education proposals set out in the Budget. Post-graduate awards are to be increased by $420 a year, that is from $4,200 to $4,620. The Government introduced this provision in 1977 which was another election year. At that time the benefit was valued at $4,200 and, of course, it has not been raised since. This benefit would have to be raised to $6,500 a year if we were to maintain its value at 1 977 levels, given the fact that a decision was made to tax the benefit in 1978. We are committed to returning this benefit to what the Government thought in 1977 was a fair level. Allowing for the tax and allowing for cost of living increases, the value of the benefit should be $6,500.

Secondary allowance scheme payments have been increased in the Budget by 20 per cent from $550 to $660. All we have done on this issue has been to promise to review this scheme because we regard the whole provision of support for students in secondary schools at this stage of this country's development as something which requires a much greater review than anything suggested by the Government. As I have said, the Government has raised the payment by 20 per cent - from $550 to $660. This is another of those payments which was last increased in the last election year - that is, 1977. If this payment were to be increased in line with changes in the cost of living since 1977 the amount of money promised by the Government in this year's Budget would have to be nearly doubled.

Finally, the isolated children's allowance, which is a basic boarding allowance, is now to be increased by 20 per cent to $600. The total additional spending involved is $2.1m. We have promised a basic allowance of $700 based again on cost of living increases in the period since it was first introduced. Our expenditure on this item, of course, will be somewhat greater.

I have gone through these items in some detail to suggest that there are two sets of proposals. The set of increases in this Budget seems to be fairly arbitrary. There are certainly some increases but it is very difficult to see on what those increases are based. On the other hand in our proposals we have looked at each of these student allowances and tried to relate them either to the value they held under the Labor Government, because some have not been changed since the time of Labor Government, or in other cases to their value in 1977- that is, three years ago when a number of changes were made in these fields. That is the basis of our proposals as against the proposals that have been offered by the Government.

I think what I have said in detail today is typical of the Labor Party's approach right across the education, health and social welfare fields. We are not committing ourselves, as is sometimes presented, to a whole range of extravagant proposals. What we are doing is looking carefully at cost of living changes that have occurred in the five or six years since changes were made in many of these provisions. We are trying to make adjustments so that people's living standards are maintained. In addition, there are certain schemes such as the secondary allowance scheme which require wider appraisal. Serious problems have been produced by changes in the last five or six years. Also, changes will clearly occur in the 1980s that demand some expansion of services. Here we may need wider reforms. Let me say again that all of these things have been done cautiously and carefully. They have been costed cautiously and in logical and rational terms.

Debate (on motion by Mr Graham) adjourned.

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