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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2781

Mr SHACK(11.48) —I wish to move an in-principle second reading amendment, which was circulated in this House as early as yesterday by the Clerks, to the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Amendment Bill 1987. I move:

That all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

`the Bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for the removal of constraints imposed on non-government schools, or on non-government school communities, which will in any way destroy their independence and opportunities for expansion or interfere with the special character of non-government schools'.

The Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins) was able to comment on this in-principle amendment before I actually moved it, because it was circulated yesterday. In fact, it will come as no surprise to the Government, or indeed the House, because this is the fourth occasion that we have moved a similar amendment in these terms. The Minister at the table may describe the amendment as absurd, he may charge us with attempting to make a cheap political point and he may point to the fact that when in government we can legislate as we like. Certainly, when in government we can legislate as we like if we have the support both in this House and in the other place. But when in opposition one has only a few opportunities--

Mr Dawkins —I rise on a point of order. I do not want to constrain the honourable member for Tangney but the normal convention in relation to these cognate debates is that the debate ranges quite freely across the measures that are before the House and then there is the opportunity formally to move any amendments to the second reading. However, the debate on this matter has already taken place. The normal convention is that any second reading amendments are moved formally without there being a repetition of the debate that has already occurred under the cognate arrangements.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! I ask the honourable member for Tangney to draw his comments to a close.

Mr SHACK —Mr Deputy Speaker, you did not rule on the point of order. I would like to say something about the convention. The Minister has not been in the House on previous occasions when we have debated this legislation because of his quite proper responsibilities overseas as Minister for Trade. But if he reads the Hansard he will see that last year and the year before, I had the opportunity to speak in the second reading stage of the debate and I foreshadowed that I would be moving an in-principle amendment like this, and I want to speak at this final second reading stage of the debate, but not for the full half hour. It is not my intention today to take up all that time; I simply seek to put this in-principle motion in context.

It is important from the Opposition's perspective that we move this in-principle amendment because, as I was saying before the point of order was taken, we have limited opportunities to make particular points. The purpose of this in-principle amendment, while it is moved in the context of this legislation, really relates to the substantive Act itself. Over the years since this Government has been in power, it has amended the substantive Act to the point where there are now significant restraints on non-government schools and non-government schools communities which have impacted on their independence, which have restricted their opportunities for expansion, and which interfere with the special character of non-government schools. The importance of moving such an in-principle amendment is that it sets out, very clearly, the differences in attitude between ourselves and the Government in respect of non-government schools.

I want briefly now to put that difference in attitude in context. There should be no debate in this chamber or in the other place about the importance of school education not only for the current generation of Australians in terms of their individual futures and in terms of the advancement of our society in the community, but also for Australia's economic future. So there is no debate between us about the importance of education at the school level, and there is probably no debate between us about the importance of education at higher levels.

The majority of Australian school children are educated at government schools and probably for my lifetime and beyond, the majority of Australian school children will continue to be educated at government schools. The Minister was right when he said a few minutes ago that the responsibility for government school education constitutionally, legislatively and, in the main, financially, rests with State governments. Commonwealth governments have a fundamental responsibility. In partnership with the States they have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that, through the financial arrangements, Commonwealth to State, State governments have sufficient resources to run strong and viable State school systems. That is principle No. 1 that the Opposition brings to bear on this entire question. Commonwealth governments have a fundamental responsibility, in partnership with the States, to ensure that the States have sufficient resources to run strong and viable State school systems, because that is where the majority of our kids are educated and will be educated in the future. If we are concerned about Australia's future, we must be concerned about State school systems.

But we also bring to bear another complementary principle on this whole question of school education. We believe in the fundamental right of parents to choose freely which school and which school system they send their children to. This second principle is alongside the first principle; it is not in conflict with it or in contradiction to it. This is where we begin to depart from the Government, because it has a range of views within its ranks. Some would hold the same view that we hold about the right of parents to choose freely which school and which school system they send their children to. But there are others who have an ideological hostility towards non-government schools, and it is in that vein that we seek to move this in-principle amendment.

If we look at some of the changes to the substantive Act that have been brought to bear over recent years, we see that they reflect, in part, the ideological hostility that the Minister especially brings to bear on non-government schools. Increasingly, it is the case that children in Australia attending non-government schools are not receiving Commonwealth funding. At the last allocation another 40 schools which were registered by State authorities did not receive Commonwealth funding. It is the case that it is harder and harder to open new non-government schools. It is harder and harder to expand non-government schools and it is harder and harder, more difficult, more costly and more complex, under the accountability provisions, to run non-government schools.

These accountability provisions are not in the name of audit; they are accountability provisions in the name of intrusive control. That is why I take these few minutes, time and again, and I will continue to take a few minutes every time this legislation comes before the House, as it does twice a year, to flesh out and spell out the differences in attitude that we have towards non-government schools. Not only are they important because of the right of parents to choose freely which school or which school system they send their children to, but also they are cheaper than government schools, and it would be an absurd proposition if anybody were to suggest that we should rule out in future years the expansion of non-government schools. As a recent study by the Centre of Policy Studies demonstrated-as if we needed it-it is cheaper from the taxpayers' point of view for Australian children to be educated at non-government schools-not that I diminish in any way our commitment to government schools. Recognising the Minister's own remarks that we can have little to do with the curricula of non-government schools and the way that they are run, their very existence provides a competitive comparison for government schools. In the absence of non-government schools we would be operating in an environment where there would be no external bench-mark by which one could assess the relative strengths, merits and weaknesses of both systems. Parents are making those sorts of assessments. Twenty-five per cent of Australian children are educated at non-government schools. Surveys suggest that more parents would send their children to non-government schools if they had the financial means to do so. So they are important for a whole range of reasons.

Let me say this to those who occupy the extreme ideological position on the Government benches: It is a fundamental mistake if they assume that non-government school education is the province of the rich. It is simply not so. Thousands of Australian families are denying themselves a whole range of discretionary expenditure in order to be able to afford to send their children to the school or school system of their choice. Honourable members opposite are making a fundamental mistake if they believe, in some ideological way, that non-government education is the province of the rich, and, on those grounds alone, they should be criticised and attacked.

I conclude my support for this in-principle amendment by saying that as long as the Government and especially the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) have this hostility towards non-government schools which is expressed in successive changes to the substantive Act, we will not tire in standing up in this place and elsewhere to move such an in-principle amendment to lay down our very clear commitment to both government and non-government education in Australia.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Carlton —I second the amendment.