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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 29687

Mr EMERSON (1:10 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1) acknowledges that equality of opportunity is fundamental to a fair society and that a high-quality education for all young people is necessary for achieving equality of opportunity;

(2) agrees that many young people in disadvantaged communities are being denied a high-quality education and therefore an equal opportunity in life;

(3) calls on the Government to implement needs-based funding policies for government and non-government schools;

(4) endorses early intervention, including reading recovery programs, in remedying educational disadvantage;

(5) supports government and non-government schools in disadvantaged communities achieving educational excellence; and

(6) expresses its alarm that Federal Government spending on education as a proportion of GDP is no higher than in the early 1990s.

How can we say we live in a civilised society when the children in this country who most need education resources get the least? When I talk about education resources, I talk about not only government funds but also the support from parents and citizens and parents and friends associations. When you add those funds together with donations to schools, it is very clear that the children in disadvantaged areas receive the least support from the community in terms of their educational opportunity.

Back in 1891 when the striking shearers decided to establish a political wing of the labour movement, they said that a fundamental reason for that decision was that they wanted to ensure that their children got a decent education. At that time, the children of the squattocracy got a decent education but the children of the shearers and the other working men and women of Australia tended to miss out.

Gough Whitlam's program in the lead-up to the 1972 election was built on the foundation of `positive equality'. It was built on the foundation of equal opportunity through a decent education for all children, regardless of the incomes of their parents. Indeed, under the previous Labor governments, the Hawke and Keating governments, the year 12 retention rate doubled from 36 per cent to 72 per cent in the period 1983 to 1996. Unfortunately, under the present coalition government, the year 12 retention rate is no higher now than it was in the early 1990s. In other words, progress has stalled. There are a number of reasons for that, but one of the reasons for it is that the effort being made by this government to provide decent, interesting and challenging schooling for children has fallen short of the mark. But of most concern is the inadequate attention being paid to the education of children in disadvantaged areas. I acknowledge that some progress has been made in some Aboriginal communities under special programs, but the federal government's efforts in literacy and numeracy in disadvantaged areas generally has been weak. It is fine to fund the testing for literacy and numeracy of children in the early years but it is vitally important that funding also flows to remedy the problems identified by that testing, and that is where the weakness exists.

In terms of policy, we need to reach back to the very early years if we are going to make sure that children in disadvantaged communities get a decent education. A lot of it is related to their home environment. There are, in fact, cases where the only book in the homes of children from disadvantaged areas is a telephone book. We need to enrich the experience of children from the very early years until they get to school—and then beyond—so that they arrive at school ready to learn. That brings forward the issue of preschool education. Our preschool education system in Australia is way below that of other comparable countries in the OECD. And it is the children in disadvantaged areas, not the children in the more affluent areas, who miss out on the preschool education. So extra effort is needed in preschools. But, if we are going to get real results, we need to go back even further to such programs as home visiting and parenting programs—the sorts of programs that have been articulated and advocated by the member for Lilley.

If students miss out early on reading, it is a matter of commonsense—but also a matter of research findings—that they then become disengaged because they cannot participate in the classes. They either drop out, effectively, or they engage in bullying. Professor Peter Hill's work has shown that children who do not get good literacy education early on are very hard to help in the subsequent middle years. So there must be a fresh and strong emphasis on needs based funding. In this area money is the answer, together with the professional development of teachers and innovative teaching methods.

As part of an inquiry, of which I think all speakers in this particular debate are members, we visited schools just outside of Hobart. Those schools are in very disadvantaged areas, yet for $6,500 they are achieving tremendous results—empirically testable results that are showing that the kids are really learning. I asked what schools like that could do for $50,000, and they nearly fell out of their chairs to imagine a school getting $50,000. That cannot be seen to be a large amount of money in terms of the good things that can be done for $50,000.

Instead of having that sort of debate, we are locked in a puerile debate about the advantages of cutting the top marginal rate of income tax. Having successfully achieved a reduction in the company tax rate—something that Labor supported—we now have business leaders and high income earners saying, `Now that we have this big gap between the top marginal rate of income tax that we pay and the company tax rate, you have got to close that gap by dropping the top marginal rate to save us from ourselves, to save us from engaging in tax avoidance by incorporating.' That is what they want; that is the priority not only of a very large segment of the business community but also of many members of the government, including the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and, most recently, the member for Curtin. That is where they think priorities ought to be. But the fact is that, without investing in the nation's future, companies and industries will face dramatic skill shortages in the future.

Wages will go up and they will say that they must have more industrial relations reform to stop wages going up in the face of the skills shortages that they presided over by insisting that the priority be to cut the top marginal rate. Without investing in the nation's future there will be increasing divisions in the Australian society, and a fractured society is an unsafe society. Without investing in the nation's future through education, there will be increasing drug abuse, increasing crime, increasing child abuse and increasing youth suicide. This is a very high price to pay. To neglect investment in the nation's future and, in particular, in a better education for the disadvantaged communities of Australia, all for the benefit of cuts to the top marginal tax rate, is short-sighted in the extreme. And yet that seems to be the priority of the coalition government and many of the coalition backers in big business, including those associated with the recent tax reform process.

I think of the words of Barry Jones at the launch of the Knowledge Nation task force report when he said, `If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.' And that is right. What about the cost of increasing drug abuse, increasing crime, increasing child abuse, increasing youth suicide and a more fractured society? Labor is supporting education priority zones in disadvantaged areas specifically to deal with disadvantage in educational opportunities. Labor is supporting professional development of teachers. We are not supporting million-dollar increases in funding for the wealthiest non-government schools. They are Labor's priorities as set against the coalition priority.

The coalition's education philosophy is choice, not need. Instead of cutting the top marginal tax rate and spending millions of dollars on the wealthiest non-government schools, the government must recognise its moral responsibility to ensure that children from disadvantaged communities receive a high-quality education, and if this government cannot accept that moral responsibility, the Labor Party certainly does.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Is the motion seconded?

Mr Sawford —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak at a later time.