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Wednesday, 7 November 1973
Page: 1619

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - With complete sincerity I commend Senator Rae and Senator DrakeBrockman for the temperate tone that they brought to this very serious debate. I think it heralds a welcome return to civility in the discussion of serious matters in this chamber. Of course, we fully recognise the claim which Senator DrakeBrockman advanced for the Opposition parties to be able to criticise in this chamber, traditionally the House of review, propositions that come from the other place. I suggest, however, that it might be wise for both Senator Drake-Brockman and the members of the Liberal Party to await a full debate here before committing themselves irrevocably to the amendments that have been circulated. Both Senator Drake-Brockman and Senator Rae have acknowledged that it is indisputable that the Government has a mandate to introduce a Bill to establish an Australian Schools Commission. It was highlighted in the election speech of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) and it was something about which the Labor Party, while in Opposition, talked for many years. There can be no suggestion that we ambushed the public and have sprung anything on them. That is fully acknowledged by both Senator Rae and Senator Drake-Brockman.

I am not going to anticipate the Committee debate by delving in too much particularity into the amendments that have been circulated, but it is clear from those amendments and from the tone of the temperate speeches of both honourable senators that both the Liberal Party and the Australian Country Party are unreconciled to the philosophy of an Australian Schools Commission which has been so elaborately and fully ventilated by the Australian Labor Party, both in Opposition and in Government. I suggest that the real purpose of the amendments is to so change the structure and composition of the Commission as to turn it into a quite different body from that envisaged by the Government.

The type of Commission we envisage is set out briefly in clause 4 of the Bill which states that there will be a Commission consisting of a chairman and such other members, being not more than eleven, as are prescribed, and that they shall be appointed by the Governor-General. This means, as we all know, that they will be appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Government. The function of this Commission is best described in the words of the Minister for Education (Mr Beazley) during the debate in the other place. He said:

We therefore seek in this legislation to set up an efficient, impartial body to examine, identify and determine needs of students in government and non-government schools at the primary and secondary levels in Australia.

The role of the Commission, as he stated it and as spelled out in the Bill, is as follows:

The Commission will advise the Government on the best means of meeting those needs and on the resources which will be required to achieve desired ends.

We make no apology for the fact that we see as the best means of achieving this end a small commission of 12 people, including the chairman, four of whom, including the chairman, shall be full time appointments, being appointed by the Minister. It would ill-behove the Opposition to suggest that there is no precedent for this sort of approach. After all, we acknowledge that one of the great trail blazing achievements of the Menzies era- some are so unkind as to say the only one- was the setting up of the Australian Universities Commission. It is well known that there was no hesitation about how it should be constituted. The Government of the day appointed the members of the Australian Universities Commission. In more recent memory, as recently as last year or maybe the year before when the Commission on Advanced Education was set up, once again the Liberal-Country Party Coalition Government did not hesitate to appoint the members of that Commission. We not only rely on that precedent, we think it is also a matter of elementary common sense that a body as important as this should be an appointed body.

Of course, when we do this we will not by any means exclude the representation of different schools of thought, different tendencies, different philosophies, different interests in the community in the matter of education. It is necessary only to look at the composition of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission, which I am assured by the Minister for Education will constitute the personnel of the Australian Schools Commission if this Bill is passed, to see that the Government has gone right across the spectrum in constituting its Committee. The Government has not bound itself to any flexible structure in the Bill, as is suggested by Senator Rae's proposed amendments. That does not mean that the Government proposes to set up a monolithic body which will represent only one point of view, which will be biased towards the governmental structure and which will take no account of the interests of independent or religious schools. 1 draw attention to the fact that the Government has as chairman of the present Committee Dr Kenneth McKinnon. He was DirectorGeneral of Education in Papua New Guinea from 1966 to 1973, is 42 years of age and has a great past and a promising future in education. Other members are Dr Gregory Hancock, 31 years of age, who was Associate Chief of the New South Wales Education Department's Division of Planning; Mr David Bennett, who was a lecturer in Education at Monash University; Mr Peter Moyes, Headmaster of Christchurch Grammar School in Western Australiaprobably the leading Anglican school in that State; Mr A. D. J. Wood, Principal of St Michael's School for the Handicapped just outside Launceston; Mr McNamara, President of the Sydney Federation of Catholic Parents and Friends Associations; Father F. Martin, Director of Catholic Education in Victoria; Mrs J. Kirner, who was selected from a panel of names presented by the Australian Council of State School Organisations; Mr Ray Costello, President of the Queensland Teachers Union; Mr Albert Jones, Director of Education in South Australia; Dr Peter Tannock, a young man who is Dean of the Faculty of Education in the University of Western Australia; and Mrs J. Blackburn, who has been an outstanding member of teachers college staffs in South Australia.

Seriously I say to honourable senators opposite and to anybody who is interested- that must include most serious people in this countrythat surely the selections that the Government has made already for its Interim Committee, which will ultimately become the permanent Australian Schools Commission, show a most responsible, ecumenical and, I would say, scholarly interest in the subject disclosed by the Minister for Education. I suggest that he has sought far and wide to find not only in terms of qualification but also geographically a wide and representative selection of people to set in motion this new philosophy that we have about how education can be stimulated and set on a new road in this country. If one examines the amendments proposed by the Opposition- and I do not propose to examine them in detail because they will come up for examination at the Committee stage- it will be seen that what the Opposition is seeking to impose- and I am not questioning its sincerity- is an inflexible, schematic arrangement which would certainly not bring any improvement and which I suggest would bring a worsening in the functioning of this overriding supervising body that we have in mind. The Opposition has in mind a Chairman appointed on the recommendation of the Minister, and 5 other members of a 1 5 member body, as against our total of 12 members, appointed by the Minister.

Senator Drake-Brockman - Four or eleven. ,

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - If we include the Chairman there will be 15 members. As I read the amendments, the Opposition proposes to enlarge the body that we are suggesting by a total of 3 members.

Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson - Fourteen other members.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) -Fourteen other members apart from the Chairman.

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Which is different from what they proposed in the House of Representatives.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I suppose that we can allow them the benefit of afterthought. In fact, it is encouraging to think that their minds move from the stage when a Bill is in another place to the stage when it reaches here. In any event, we must not get bogged down in this mathematical debate. I think it is common ground that the Opposition wants three more members on the Commission than we are suggesting. But apart from the appointment of the Chairman, which honourable senators opposite are prepared to concede to the Government, they are prepared to concede, on the recommendation of the Minister, the appointment of only 5 other members and of those two are to come from a panel submitted by the Australian Teachers Federation. So in reality the Opposition concedes to the Minister the unfettered right to appoint only the Chairman and 3 other members of the Commission. Six members are to come from the Australian Education Council, which is a sort of attempt by the Opposition to assert some suzerainty of the States because the Australian Educational Council is really a body which, as envisaged by the Opposition, is to be dominated by the State Education Ministers. So, in effect, these 6 nominees would be the nominees of the States.

Then there are to be 3 other members of whom one shall be appointed by the Episcopal Conference, which was adverted to by Senator Wheeldon and in respect of which there would be very grave constitutional doubt because, as he has pointed out, it has not been approved by Archbishop Cahill, I think it is, who is the man most qualified to speak in this area. Another member shall be appointed by the National Council of Independent Schools, and another by the Australian Parents Council. In other words, I submit that what is proposed by the Opposition in the place of the Commission that we envisage is an inflexible format guaranteeing, despite the pious words of the proposed amendment which refers to new clause 4B which says that the members are not to be accountable to the bodies which nominated them, that this body will be a warring body of representatives of pressure groups.

It would be totally unreal to suggest that in the sphere of education there are not pressure groups and that any government which was hoping to be realistic in this field could turn a deaf ear to pressure groups. But that is not suggested in our legislation. We take note of the need for pressure groups to be heard, and in this regard I commend the Opposition to the terms of clauses 16 and 17 of the Bill which provide for advisory boards and committees which would be the sounding boards for the pressure groups. I am not suggesting that 'pressure group' is an evil term or that independent schools, Catholic schools, Quaker schools and calithumpian schools should not have their voices heard by people who are seeking to provide the best educational service. What I am suggesting is that the governing advisory body, the Schools Commission, should not be composed of direct representatives of these pressure groups.

Senator Rae - You disagree with the Prime Minister's policy speech?

Senator JAMESMCCLELLAND No, not at all. With respect, I suggest that Senator Rae is taking a very simplistic view of what the Prime Minister said. What we envisage in our Schools Commission is a body of independent experts objectively studying the needs of Australian schools, listening to the pressure groups, being sensitive to the pressure groups, weighing what they get from the pressure groups, but not being accountable to the pressure groups. I suggest, with respect to Senator Rae, that he has shown some sort of a suspicion that, despite what he is suggesting by way of amendment, the people who were appointed or elected to the Schools Commission, according to his program, would be in grave danger of being a warring body of representatives of pressure groups who would be constantly going back and feeling accountable to those pressure groups. I think that is acknowledged in what I call, without disrespect, this pious caveat on his amendments. I refer to the proposed amendment which seeks to insert proposed new clause 4B which states:

A member shall not be responsible to the body or organisation which recommended the member or submitted the member's name in a panel of names.

I suggest with respect that the insertion of that caveat shows a fairly shrewd recognition by Senator Rae or the framers of these amendments that, in effect, that is what these people would be. I suggest that the danger of that is minimised under our scheme. It is not totally eliminated because in this field I do not think it would be possible to claim that anybody could come up with a perfect solution.

The other respect in which I believe the amendments proposed by the Opposition fall short of achievement what we set out to achieve is in regard to clause 13 (3) (a). Senator Wheeldon already has referred in general terms to the shortcomings revealed in the proposed amendment to clause 13 (l)(b), but I should like to advert briefly and without pre-empting the debate on the details at the Committee stage, to the proposed amendment to clause 13 (3) (a) which, I submit, is designed primarily to water down the needs concept which is at the heart of our philosophy in introducing this Bill. With the indulgence of the Senate, I should like to refer in some small detail to this amendment. The amendment foreshadowed by Senator Rae is to clause 13 (3). He seeks to omit clause 13 (3) (a) which provides:

In the exercise of its functions, the Commission shall have regard to such matters as are relevant, including the need for improving primary and secondary educational facilities in Australia and of providing increased and equal opportunities for education in government and non-government schools in Australia, and, in particular, shall have regard to-

(a)   the primary obligation, in relation to education, for governments to provide and maintain government school systems that are of the highest standard and are open, without fees or religious tests, to all children;

For that provision, Senator Rae proposes that we should substitute this proposition:

(a)   Article 26 of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and in particular the prior right of parents to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children;

That may seem like a rather over-subtle difference of emphasis. But what is primary in our philosophy and in the philosophy of this Bill is the obligation of governments to provide educational facilities for all people. After that we believe comes the right of parents not to choose those schools but to send their children to other schools. This is not in our view any sort of discrimination based on religious or any other prejudices. We believe that a government has this primary obligation to provide for schools as set out in clause 13 (3) (a)of our Bill.

If honourable senators look at the moneys that we are distributing, they will see that it cannot be seriously maintained that we are short changing or discriminating against non-government schools. I point out that the interim body has recommended that the Government spend about $700m on schools in Australia in the 1974-75 period- $201 m for non-government schools and $495m for government schools. Anybody who analyses the distribution of the school population between government and non-government schools, I suggest in all sincerity, cannot complain that there is any discrimination implicit in those figures against non-government schools. Nonetheless, we insist that we have a mandate to allege and to support the primary obligation for governments to provide and to maintain government school systems that are of the highest standard and that are open without fees or religious tests to all children. I submit quite seriously that the amendment to clause 13 (3) (a) foreshadowed by the Opposition is an attempt to water down that obligation. As that provision is central to our philosophy, this is an amendment which we must resist.

That is as much as I wish to say at this stage. I reiterate in closing that I am very pleased at the civility with which the debate has been conducted up to now. I trust that, as this is a matter which is as important as any other matter to the Australian electorate, the debate will continue to be conducted in this spirit.

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