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Wednesday, 13 May 1987
Page: 3111

Mr PRICE(4.46) —Mr Deputy Speaker-(Quorum formed) I indicate to the House that I support the Supply Bill (No. 1) 1987-88, the Supply Bill (No. 2) 1987-88 and the Supply (Parliamentary Departments) Bill 1987-88. A considerable amount of money has been allocated to education. This provides me with an excellent opportunity to bring the House up to date on what has been perhaps one of the most momentous decisions of any government, affecting 1 1/2 million people who reside in the western suburbs of Sydney. Agreement has been reached between the Federal Government and the State Government to establish the Chifley University. Agreement has been reached that it should be given full autonomy status.

I speak on this issue not to seek any credit but to indicate that I believe it is important that the people of Australia, including members of this House, understand the important role that a collective group of Federal Labor members played throughout the campaign to establish the university. Of course, we were very fortunate in having as chairman of the group, my colleague the learned member for Lindsay (Mr Free), whose interest in education is long standing. I was pleased to act as convener, and we had a number of Ministers. In particular today, I wish to pay tribute to two honourable members who I feel played a most important role. One is a colleague of mine, the honourable member for Greenway (Mr Gorman) and the other is the honourable member for Fowler (Mr Grace). Their contribution was significant and vital, and without the collective spirit and determination that they provided, we would not have succeeded. Therefore, I particularly wished to mention them.

Of course, we could not achieve these sorts of results without co-operation across a great and wide field. It is true to say that State members worked closely with us-they were led by the Deputy Premier, Ron Mulock-as did local government bodies such as both Penrith Council and Blacktown City Council. Each organisation has made a unique contribution to, if I can say so, a decision of fundamental importance to 1.5 million residents of the western suburbs of Sydney. I am sure that the illustrious bearer of the name of my seat, the right honourable former Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley, would derive a great deal of pride from the fact that, in a predominantly and overwhelmingly working class area of the western suburbs, we will create Chifley University.

It is fair to say that some Opposition members lent their support. However, they have been placed in a most invidious position because the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard), has, on each and every occasion, failed to say that he supports the establishment of the university. It is not stretching the imagination to say that if Australia were to change government, one of the first things to go would be Chifley University. While I and others have appreciated the support of a very small number of Opposition members in the campaign, they have been placed in the contradictory position of their leader denying them. Perhaps the honourable member for Mitchell (Mr Cadman) will come into the House at some date and explain his position. Does he agree with the Leader of the Opposition that the Chifley University should not be supported? Does he agree with him that it should be one of the first things to go?

Australian Labor Party members in the western suburbs have a reputation for being very active and diligent in the pursuit of the interests of their electorates. Of course, this is not the only educational issue that we have been pursuing. An equally important issue that has been as vigorously pursued is the establishment of pilot senior high schools in the western suburbs of Sydney and, perhaps, even in a country area. I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) that there will be a national goal to achieve a 65 per cent retention rate for year 12. I support that 100 per cent.

However, I have high schools in my electorate with retention rates of 14 per cent, and that is unacceptable. No matter on which side of the education debate one sits, I tell the House that that is unacceptable. I regret that the Australian Teachers Federation has singled out not only me, but also the State member for Riverstone, Richard Amery who has had the temerity, and the courage, to raise this issue-and the Deputy Premier, Ron Mulock. We have been attacked in the local papers and in the union journals for supporting the concept of a senior high school. For those who do not understand what a senior high school is, I can tell them that it is a high school exclusively devoted to years 11 and 12.

In supporting the concept of a senior high school, it has never been our position that where comprehensive high schools are working successfully they should be changed. All we say is that we accept and acknowledge the fact that comprehensive high schools are not working successfully in many parts of the western suburbs. Given the leaked figures on retention rates-and I regret that they are not published automatically in New South Wales-there are other areas with equally strong claims to a senior high school. Wollongong would be one area, and Newcastle another. I say to my National Party of Australia colleagues that, indeed, certain provincial cities and country areas would benefit from an approach other than the comprehensive high school.

I am wedded, as are all of my colleagues on the Government benches, to the idea that the children of Australia have a fundamental right to equality of opportunity, and an important aspect of that is equality of educational opportunity. That is not the case in my area. In my electorate, the average number of students in year 12 is about 30. It is very difficult for the teachers to provide a comprehensive choice of subjects, let alone subjects of different degrees of difficulty. It sounds very logical to want to amalgamate all those students in one high school and provide a much greater variety of subjects and also a choice of subjects of different degrees of difficulty. That is one of the reasons why we support the concept of senior high schools.

Let us examine what we are being accused of in supporting that. Firstly, we are accused of being elitist. People say that we want to set up elitist senior high school. Frankly, I think that it is far more elitist to allow a working class electorate in a working class suburb to have only 14 per cent of its students staying until year 12. That is the height of elitism, and I reject it. I will oppose it and fight it at every opportunity.

The other suggestion is that we should not try out the high schools in a working class area. It is said that the concept has some merit, but let it be tried in the North Shore and the eastern suburbs because they are more academically inclined. Indeed, if we look at performance, perhaps they are more academically inclined. However there is one thing on which I would not backtrack as long as I am in this Parliament, and that is that there is anything inferior about the young people of my electorate or neighbouring electorates. When we talk about skills, ability, intelligence and what the students are capable of doing, I will take no backward steps. I will have no government trying to entrench the view that there is something different about those students. As I said earlier, the North Shore and the eastern suburbs are doing very well, so why change them? We should be looking for changes in areas where the system is not working.

I would have liked to have raised other matters in my modest contribution, but time will not allow that. Therefore, I shall end by saying that I, nor anyone on the platform for a senior high school, have never ever suggested that there are single shot solutions to the problem. What we have said is that we must start somewhere, and this appears to be the most important and radical first step that needs to be taken. There will be other issues and other problems that we will need to work through with the parents, students and, most importantly, the teachers. I look forward to that co-operation; I look forward to working through the problems. However, if we are opposed on the concept of a senior high school, that is fair enough and we will fight it out in the forum of public opinion and decision making. I am encouraged to think that some of those forums might be the annual conference of the Australian Labor Party and New South Wales in June and the parliamentary Caucus in Macquarie Street. I have every confidence that Labor members whether members of parliament, members of the party or members of trade unions-will be as equally concerned and compassionate as are my colleagues and I on this side of the House, and I predict that we will be successful in the fight.