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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2767

Mr WRIGHT(10.27) —Prior to the adjournment last night, I referred to a speech that was made by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) when she opened a Catholic school in the south. She said: `When we in the Hawke Labor Government talk of education in Australia, we talk of a partnership'. She went on to explain this by saying it was a partnership between the Commonwealth Government, State governments, non-government and State school authorities, between parents and teachers, and between schools and the communities they serve. She said further that that partnership is the way that the Hawke Labor Government does business and that we as a government are a very active partner in education activity in this nation. Regardless of people's political attitudes, they would accept that Labor governments have always had a special commitment to education, for we in the Australian Labor Party realise that education is essential to national development and economic growth. That is because the skills, the capabilities, the flexibility and the experience of the nation's work force depends on the quality of the education and the training that that work force receives. It is no wonder that education is an essential element in the Hawke Labor Government's strategy for economic development and social progress. In turn, it is an essential element of this Government's education strategy to raise standards and expand the opportunities for young people.

The Hawke Government, unlike our opponents in the Liberal and National Parties, has established very basic but important objectives in education-objectives that in the short and long terms are in the interests of every Australian. The first objective is to increase participation in post-compulsory schooling; in other words, to get young people to stay on at school after they are no longer legally required to do so. When we came to government in 1983 the retention rate-that is, the number of students who continue their education after that compulsory cut-off age-was a very low 36 per cent. So out of every 100 students in Queensland, for instance, who were finishing school at 15 years of age, or could finish then, only 36 were staying on to go into grade 11 and grade 12. In Japan at that time the figure was about 70 per cent, and in America it was about the same sort of figure.

The Hawke Government immediately acted on this issue and introduced programs such as the participation and equity program, known as PEP. It has been extremely successful, regardless of the criticism from the other side. It is successful in a way that we can measure. We have seen that that figure of 36 per cent-36 out of every 100 students-has now risen to over 50 per cent. In my State of Queensland the figure is as high as 55 per cent. The Government does not believe that is acceptable. Even though we have improved so well, we want a better result than that. We have now set a target of 65 per cent retention by the early 1990s. This is going to benefit tens of thousands of young Australians. It will benefit not only those who have benefited already but those others who stay on at school will benefit greatly. We have spent tens of millions of dollars on PEP. We have given greater financial assistance to students, particularly at the secondary level, under Austudy.

I pulled out some figures the other day and found that the Hawke Government has spent in this financial year some 200 per cent more on financial assistance to secondary school students than was spent in 1982-83 under the Fraser Liberal-National Government. PEP has meant longer schooling, improved skills and better preparation for the work force. I think it has also meant better preparation for citizenship. It is therefore amazing that the Liberals and Nationals intend to scrap the participation and equity program if they ever gain government again. They have no concern for students, they have no concern for the future of these young people, they are oblivious to the negative aspects of low retention rates and they have no real commitment to education for those who need to be involved in broader non-academic activities. It will be up to the electorate to decide who is right in this issue. I believe that people will stick by us. The parents of the thousands of young people who have stayed on at school instead of going on the dole will stand by the Labor Government for its attitude. They will oppose the Liberals and the Nationals for what they are about.

It seems that some very negative vibes, all aimed at education, are coming through from the other side, particularly in the market-place and from business, the Liberals, the Nationals and the National Farmers Federation. We find in today's Australian newspaper the headline: `Business backs $12bn welfare, education cuts'. That is, cuts of $12,000m. It is an amazing idea to suggest that education should be cut back to the tune, in one instance, of some $2,500m. Business wants a cut of $1,000m in respect of independent schools. This is the amount that will be taken away from the schools that we are already helping. Can one imagine the plight of the Catholic schools in particular, the schools in the areas in which disadvantaged children live, if this happens? Yet business people are saying in their special program-what they call the national priorities project-that they want to cut $1,000m off the assistance given by the Federal Government to schools. I would like to think that all Catholic parents would speak out and say what they really think about these propositions which are coming from the business world, the National Farmers Federation and the Liberals and Nationals.

We know that some of these business people would spend more money on one restaurant dinner and a bottle of wine than most of the low income families, and especially pensioners, spend on food in a whole week. Yet, they have the audacity to propose a $1,000m cutback in the funding to disadvantaged schools alone. They are also suggesting a 50 per cent cut to universities. We heard the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Slipper) say yesterday that he is concerned about the lack of university places in Queensland. Yet, business people, whom the Liberals and Nationals stand by, are saying that they want to cut back university and colleges of advanced education contributions from the Federal Government by $1,192m. I ask the honourable member what that will do to Queensland, what will that do to his area and my area if that happens? It will slash the places that already exist. We have been trying hard since the Fraser Government times to build up those places.

We see that the business people want to cut student assistance by $308m. Student assistance only goes to those families who need it. It is not given to the rich. It is given to those who, based on a means test, deserve or need that money. These business people, backed by the National Farmers Federation, the Liberals and the Nationals, want to cut assistance to students-including secondary school kids as well-by $308m. It is no wonder that Government members are concerned with the threat to education that are coming from the business areas, from our opponents in the Liberal and National parties and from the National Farmers Federation. They oppose the participation and equity program. They want to abolish the Australian Schools Commission. They want to abolish or get rid of any equal opportunity moves for girls and women. They want to abolish the Commonwealth Education Department. They support the National Farmers Federation scheme to introduce a $5,000 university fee.

Can honourable members imagine for just one moment what that will mean? As it is, we have students growling about a miserable $250 fee, or $5 a week, that this Government has put on. But the Liberals and Nationals and their own supporters in the National Farmers Federation and in business are saying that students at university level should pay a fee of $100 a week or $5,000 a year. Yet we here nothing from the Liberals or the Nationals opposing these proposals. We even have some opposition coming from Queensland.

I mentioned before the problems that independent schools face. We now have a State government decision in Queensland that will also threaten the assistance given by this Government to private schools. I note that the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) points out in a release that she put out: that the Minister for Education, Lin Powell, intends to withdraw the services of the State Advisory Committee from the process of establishing priorities for Commonwealth funding of new non-government schools. That will mean the end of that funding. It will just delay it and put it back into some sort of pigeon hole; it means that the funds will not be forthcoming.

The Federal Government and Labor members of parliament will not get hurt; the independent schools, the Catholic schools and those schools that have been waiting on these programs to extend their schools and to build new schools in populated areas will not get the money. Why? It is not because the money is not available but because a National Party Minister, a man whom I respect but a man who has been wrongly advised, has decided not to participate with the Commonwealth in setting down or being part of this priorities committee.

It is time that the people of Australia realised that there is an attack on education in this country. There is an attack on our universities, there is an attack on our disadvantaged schools, and there is an attack on our independent schools. Every sort of move is coming from the Liberal Opposition to destroy education in this nation. I am pleased that the Labor Government is standing by its commitment to the people of Australia for the education of Australians.