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Thursday, 7 May 1987
Page: 2786

Mr DAWKINS (Minister for Trade)(12.31) —Naturally, the Government does not approve of this amendment. I find the contributions from the Opposition in this debate utterly fantastic. There is a very important principle that the state should not get involved in the business of practising religions. We should not support nor should we prevent the practice of religions.

Mr Price —Nor should we fund it.

Mr DAWKINS —That is precisely the point. As soon as we allow governments to get into the business of supporting--

Mr Peacock —Are you saying we should not fund religious schools?

Mr DAWKINS —No; that we should not fund the practice of religion; of course we should fund religious schools. But this measure would have us getting involved in the observance of religions, not in the conduct of the quite proper business of religious schools. The provisions in this Bill has been in legislation since at least 1984 and on no other occasion has this Opposition raised any objections to it.

There are really three issues involved. The first with which I am dealing is whether the Government should subsidise buildings for the observance of religious activities. Of course we provide funds for the proper conduct of education within religious schools, but it is an entirely different matter to fund chapels or other kinds of buildings which are predominantly for the observance of religious activities. That is not a proper thing for the state or governments to get involved in. I would have thought that those on the other side would have perceived the very great danger of governments ever getting involved in that kind of activity. There is nothing to prevent the parents of students at any particular school deciding to build a chapel of their own or to conduct their religious observance in any way they like. To suggest that because we do not fund it, we are therefore preventing religious observance at schools is a total absurdity, and it should be perfectly clear to the Opposition that that is the case. This provision says that the funds which the Commonwealth provides for capital expenditure within schools should not be used for projects or for buildings which are predominantly for the observance of religious activities.

Mr Shack —That is not what it says. It is `wholly or partly'. It does not say `predominantly'.

Mr DAWKINS —All right-wholly or partly. I think it is a very important principle that the clear, unambiguous observance of religious functions should be a matter for the schools, not something for the Government to dabble in, in any way. Indeed, it is a principle which is more or less enshrined within the Australian Constitution, and I am very surprised that the Opposition would now seek to interfere in religious activities in the way in which it is now proposing that we should do. That matter should be kept quite distinct from what governments do in relation to the support of schools conducted by religious authorities or by churches.

The other matter which is talked about here is that somehow we should be running around using funds that are intended for schools to provide housing for teachers and other people involved with those schools. Of course, that is a nonsense as well. We want to ensure that the funds that we provide are for the proper purpose of looking after the students within those schools, not for providing housing or residential accommodation within or attached to those schools. I would have thought that particularly the honourable member for Tangney (Mr Shack), who makes at least some claim to fiscal responsibility, would not want to see this kind of runaway new opportunity for new expenditure proposals to come forward. We are trying to ensure that the funds go for the proper purpose of providing facilities for students, and that, of course, is where the matter should rest. That is not to say that a school or school authority cannot provide housing for its teachers or administrators, but that again is entirely a matter for the school, not for us.

Then we get to the other issue, this thorny old issue of equal employment opportunity or equal opportunity between the sexes, which has split the Opposition between the parties and within the parties as well. This simple proposition says that in respect of any co-educational school, any project should be available equally to both the boys and the girls within that school. Of course, the Opposition has some kind of real hang-up about any equal opportunity between the sexes. We have seen what happened in the Senate recently. We will see later today that the Opposition will be hopelessly divided about an equal employment opportunity provision in another measure. Here again we see the Opposition unable to make up its mind about this important issue. At least, if it is voting as a block on this issue, we will see the Opposition standing up against equal opportunity for boys and girls within schools. This is a fantastic proposition for the Opposition to maintain-that it is against the equal provision of opportunities within schools for both boys and girls. This is a very simple proposition that any project put forward by a co-educational school should provide equally for the boys and girls within those schools.

We understand the dilemma of the Opposition on this question. The Government has a very clear view that there ought to be equal opportunities for both boys and girls within those schools, and therefore we will not be supporting this amendment-which I find an outrageous suggestion-by which Opposition would be seeking to eliminate this quite proper clause from the Bill. As I said, it has existed since at least 1984, apparently without objection from the Opposition. Now it raises these spurious arguments in an attempt to make some feeble points.

I want to make another point, and that is that in the provision of funds to schools there is a quite proper function for the Government to ensure that projects meet the guidelines established for the funding of non-government schools. The fact that we want to ensure that they fit within the guidelines is somehow construed by the Opposition as massive intrusion into the conduct of those schools. There is no clear right, an open-ended right, for anyone to have access to the taxpayers' funds. All schools and all those who would seek financial support obviously have to put forward their proposals, which have to be measured against some agreed guidelines. This kind of open-ended approach of the Opposition-it is as if it would gaily throw money at schools for any particular purpose-seems to be quite at odds with what it contends to be its view on responsibility as far as the expenditure of public funds is concerned.

It is a very confused Opposition on all these issues. The Government, on the other hand, is quite clear about what it believes is the proper way to fund non-government schools. As I said, we have been very generous in the way in which we have supported them. There are no complaints from them about the way in which we have been funding them and that, I regret to say, is the dilemma confronting the Opposition. Whilst it would like to be able to beat up the controversy that used to rage around government support for non-government schools, whilst it would like to beat up the State aid debate, it is finding it impossible, despite frantic attempts such as this one.

Question put:

That the amendment (Mr Shack's) be agreed to.