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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 25005

Mr SAWFORD (10:51 PM) —One of the most unflattering and inevitable legacies of the current Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs will be his reignition of the state aid debate. As were the preceding state aid debates in this country, it will be most unedifying. The minister for education has kicked dirt into the faces of the 70 per cent of Australian families who send their children to government schools. The minister has even conned the overwhelming majority of private schools, rewarding the already privileged schools representing just one per cent of the school population. Funding by the taxpayer of religion, race or ethnicity in the guise of education is highly questionable at any level. At the level the minister has provided for the most privileged families in Australia, it is highly divisive and dangerous.

However, public education in Australia has proved to be a most hardy creature. Granted, it is terribly slow moving, difficult to coordinate and many of its practitioners suffer wrongly placed guilt over political action. But, as certain as night follows day, public education will fight back. At first the fight will be in any way it can, and it will not necessarily be a pretty sight or coordinated, but eventually public education will get its act together; it will fight back. But what a wholesale waste of energy, energy that could be so much more positively directed for children's benefit rather than political action. It did not have to be and it does not have to be. But the supporters of public education will have no choice: its funding base has been so seriously eroded for there to be any other way. The government's and in particular the minister's spin on so-called openness, choice, transparency and equity is nothing but that: spin and yet more spin.

The States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education) Assistance Act 2000 stinks. It reflects nothing but greed, greed and more greed. It is more in tune with those pathetic reality television shows such as Survivor, Temptation, TheWeakestLink and WhoWantsToBe A Millionaire? Rewarding the privileged at the expense of the struggling is just abysmal policy. Sane, sensible people would expect Commonwealth funding to schools, in an increasingly competitive and globalised economy, to be steadily increasing or, at the very minimum, remaining static with increased efficiencies being built in. Not so, I am afraid. Up until the mid-1990s government schools received the major share of Commonwealth funding—but not any more. In 1996 58 per cent of Commonwealth funding went to private schools. In 2004 it will be 67 per cent.

But the situation is far worse than that for all schools, public and private. Let us not forget that private schools are being harmed by this as well. The only real measure of education expenditure, the percentage of GDP spent on schools, has been falling dramatically. In 1983-84, 3.3 per cent of Australia's GDP was spent on schools. By 1997-98 that figure had fallen to 2.6 per cent; that is, $5 billion less funding in real terms than was available in 1983. That is a lot of money. That in those circumstances a federal minister for education would, from a smaller base of money for schools, shift significant increases to the most privileged schools in Australia is nothing short of criminal. Basically, this government wants to shift the significant costs of schooling on to parents. The propaganda—that increased funding to already privileged schools would enable parents on average incomes to access choice, which was never a reality—was killed, within days of the bill passing, by the privileged schools themselves increasing their fees despite the government windfall.

To alienate the votes of 70 per cent of the population to satisfy in theory 30 per cent—but in reality one per cent—is an incredible political strategy. To ignore economic fundamentalism to assist the most privileged in Australia is also a remarkable political strategy. But more embarrassing and awkward than all of that is the deafening silence and the unwillingness to make public statements by so many so-called leaders in this country who so often want to lecture the population on moral issues, such as the increasing rich-poor divide and greed, but are revealed on these matters as nothing more than very less than ordinary individuals content with just their own hypocritical self-interest. But, as so many of them are wont to say to other people over and over again, there will be a judgment day. Bring it on! (Time expired)