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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 29761

Mr ZAHRA (8:20 PM) —In rising to speak on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001, I point out that you would find it hard to come across someone in our society who says that they are against education. You would find it hard to come across someone who would say, `No, I'm not going to support education. I don't think that's a good idea. It's not something I'm going to get behind or support as a philosophy or an idea within a political party.' You will not find anyone who says that because of course everyone in our community is concerned about education. The real test in this debate is what you are prepared to give up when you say that you are in favour of education. It is when you actually say, `I'm prepared not to have this in order to provide education.'

In the Labor Party, we take education seriously enough to say frankly and openly to people that, if it comes down to tax cuts versus spending on education and health, we are prepared to be the one political party in this country which has the courage to stand up and say what everyone knows should be said, and that is that we need to do more when it comes to education. Education is not a small thing in the lives of working people; it is everything. It is the way out of the circumstances which many of our families find themselves in, and it is the way to break out of that cycle of poverty that entraps so many working people in this country. On this side of the House, we understand that. However, a lot of the people on the other side of the House have never properly grasped just how important education is to ordinary working people.

We should not be surprised about that, because we understand the make-up of the Liberal and National parties. It came as no surprise on this side of the House when it was revealed that about 85 per cent of people on the front bench of the Howard government had gone to category 1 schools—elite schools. Those schools do not have small attendance fees. They are not like the parish school that I attended in the Latrobe Valley. They are not run by the Marist Brothers or the Christian Brothers in some of the tougher regional districts of this country. Those elite schools are all run by organisations that charge parents substantial fees to send their children to them. That is how representative the Liberal and National parties are. They come into this place time and again and talk about ordinary Australians and about how they represent that great group of Australians with whom they say they can empathise. In truth, they are completely unrepresentative of the people who make up middle Australia, and that is demonstrated by the fact that they have so many people from those elite, rich schools on the government front bench. The situation was very different when the front bench of the Labor Party was examined. Two-thirds had gone to public schools, about 25 per cent had gone to parish schools like mine, and a couple had gone to grammar schools. That is a reflective make-up of the Australian community, and that is why we on this side of the House have a better understanding of what education means to working people.

When you consider the circumstances in which we in the electoral district of McMillan find ourselves, you can understand why we take education so seriously. If it had not been for the wonderful educational institutions that we have in the Latrobe Valley in particular, but in West Gippsland and Pakenham as well, we would have found ourselves in awful circumstances—far worse even than the very high unemployment and difficult social circumstances associated with many parts of my electorate. Our schools have stood between us and complete desperation. When people in our community needed them to lift, to do more and to take on more responsibility for giving people a hand up and for giving people a hand out of the difficult circumstances that they and their families were in, all our schools in the electoral district of McMillan lifted and did more to support our community. We have a saying that I am sure is not unique to the Latrobe Valley, and that is that education is the tool of empowerment; it is the way to change the circumstances that you or your family are in.

As young people in the Latrobe Valley, we were inspired to believe that we could do anything. We were inspired to believe that what would set us apart were how smart we were and how hard we worked, not how rich we were or how rich mum and dad were. That is the basic principle that we in the Labor Party believe in. We believe in a meritocratic system. We believe that people who can succeed in education should be encouraged to succeed and that it should not be based on how rich their mum and dad are or whether mum and dad drive a Mercedes, a Rolls Royce or a BMW. We do not believe that that should be the criterion for whether you go to university or get into a certain course. We believe that it should be based on how hard you are prepared to work and how good your results are. That is the heart and soul of Labor's approach to education. We understand how important it is to working people, and that is why we are prepared to stand up and be counted and say, `When it comes to a choice between tax cuts for high income earners and providing education to all Australians, we are going to go for providing education to all Australians. We are going to resist the cheap political opportunism in trying to offer tax cuts to high income earners.' That is not our way; that is not what we are about.

In the educational infrastructure in McMillan we have some wonderful schools in the government and non-government sectors doing a lot of good things. We also have a fantastic university, Monash University Gippsland, which is based at Churchill in the Latrobe Valley. We also have perhaps the best group training company in Australia in Gippsland Group Training, along with the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE, which has gone from strength to strength in the last seven or eight years. We are fortunate to have those educational institutions. But, as traditional industries associated with the Latrobe Valley have gone through radical changes over the past 10 years, so too our educational institutions need to go through those changes and make the change from the old economy to the new economy. We want our schools, our TAFE, our university and our Gippsland Group Training company to be associated with those new industries, to be part of the new economy and the sector of the economy that is growing and generating the new high-skill, high-wage jobs that people in future will see as their way to greater prosperity and greater opportunity. We do not want to become a backwater in the Latrobe Valley.

We do not want to be left behind when places like Melbourne and Sydney are taking advantage of the new economy and the jobs associated with that fast-growing sector. For places like the Latrobe Valley not to be left behind, you need a government that cares and says, `We're not prepared to let places like the Latrobe Valley get further behind. We're not prepared to let those people be subjected to higher levels of unemployment and low levels of year 12 retention. We want you to share in this world prosperity. We want you to share in the new economy, the high wages and the high-skill jobs associated with that growing part of the economy.' That is why we in the Labor Party have adopted the idea of education priority zones.

For someone who represents an area which is acknowledged as being one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, I understand that we need to make sure that we do something in a very direct and deliberate way to change the circumstances that we are in. You will not get the improvement in year 12 retention rates and you will not get the improvement in year 12 marks by tinkering around at the edges. You will not get the substantial improvement that we need to see in terms of those two indicators by getting the national settings right. What you need to do is to be prepared to intervene: to change those circumstances, to acknowledge that the way it is right now is not right and to do something about it. The education priority zones idea is Labor's way of doing just that. It will mean more resources in these regions. It will mean more support for teachers and more support and encouragement for education professionals, and it will mean working with local educational institutions like the TAFE, the university and the Gippsland Group Training and with other local professional people and industry to come up with a partnership approach to improve year 12 retention rates and also to improve the marks that our students get in their VCEs. From the point of view of the families in my electorate who are looking to Labor to change the circumstances that the Latrobe Valley is in, this is exactly the type of approach they want. People know that this is the only way to change the circumstances that we are in.

Every time something closes in the Latrobe Valley or the federal government close services in our district, they always tell us how much money they have spent on a program nationally. They tried to close the Good Beginnings program, which was a great program put in place to support families in the Latrobe Valley. We said, `You cannot do that because we need it here. We need this support for our families. It costs hardly anything, but we need you to do this.' Back came the government media release, which said, `We are spending X number of millions of dollars every year on children's services nationally.' Our response to that is, `What about us in the Latrobe Valley?' All we want is for people to focus more just for a little while on the circumstances that we find ourselves in. If people brought to bear on these problems the will and determination that the national government is able to, the circumstances that we find ourselves in would improve and change, and we would start to see some of that change take place in our community. Marks would improve and year 12 retention rates would improve. People would feel better about the education which they are getting and would see that there is opportunity to be had.

The education priority zones idea is our way to make sure that more federal government resources come to places like the Latrobe Valley and to make sure that we get the most help, because right now we need the most help because we need to make the most improvement. Similarly, we know, and families in my electorate know, that it is no good just having a good primary and secondary school system. It is not enough any more. With the focus now being more and more on tertiary qualifications, we need to make sure that our region shares in that prosperity. We are fortunate to have a first-class institution in the Monash University Gippsland. It is a first-class institution and probably one of the best regional campuses in the country.

Mr Sidebottom —Is it as good as Burnie?

Mr ZAHRA —My colleague and friend the member for Braddon asked me if it is as good as Burnie. I would not want to compare it with the university in his electorate, because I know he will get very parochial on me, but it would be widely accepted that our university would be one of the very best regional campuses of a major university in the country. We are, of course, very proud of that, and we are very fortunate as well to have a great leader at the university in Gippsland in Professor Brian Mackenzie, who has done a fantastic job in heading that university in the direction of more support for the Gippsland campus, a greater range of courses and of an increased number of student places. He has done a fantastic job for us.

We want to see an expansion of our university. We want to see a broader range of courses. We want to see more people come to Gippsland for their higher education, so that we do not see the Latrobe Valley and greater Gippsland becoming an area where there are skills shortages, but rather as a place which produces skilled people. Increasingly, industries are becoming more and more footloose. The thing that defines where they are is increasingly the transport and communications infrastructure in those regions and the skills of the people who live there. That presents for us in Gippsland, with our beautiful landscape, our great natural resources and our wonderful infrastructure, an opportunity to become a real knowledge centre not just in regional Victoria but in regional Australia.

We need the combined resources and will of the federal government to help us do that. In Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, we have a man who has embraced a vision of making sure that regional Australia is not left behind and of making sure that our country is not left behind on a global scale. The idea and concept of the Knowledge Nation is something which we will benefit from in Gippsland, and all parts of regional Victoria and regional Australia will benefit from it as well.

We do not want to be left behind. We have been left behind so often by actions and initiatives taken by the federal government, and the people of Gippsland, regional Australia, and regional Victoria more specifically, will have a real clear choice when it comes to the federal election. They will have the choice of short-term political opportunism and promises made but never honoured in terms of tax cuts for wealthy people, or the alternative of embracing a vision which will make sure that all people in this country—irrespective of how wealthy they are, how wealthy their parents are or whether they live in Traralgon or in South Yarra—will have access to educational opportunity.

It is my view, and I am sure that this view is shared by all of my colleagues, that the people of Australia will decide that they need to get behind the idea of making Australia a knowledge nation, the idea of Australia asserting itself as a country which can find its own way in the world and a vision of a national government that cares enough about regional Australia to make sure that places do not get left behind by ensuring that educational priority zones are put in place to bring those regions up to speed with the rest of our country. It is a clear choice, and probably one of the clearest choices which voters will have to make when we go to the polls in just a few months time.

We have heard a lot of talk about private schools and a lot of talk about category 1 schools. I quite enjoy talking about category 1 schools, and when it comes to taking money away from category 1 schools I am quite happy to talk about that as well. I think is a good thing that we take the extra money that Dr David Kemp has given to these schools away from these institutions, because they are not hard up for a quid—they are not short on dough, these people. They have got plenty of money, and the people who send their children to those schools have got plenty of money as well.

In my electoral district we do not have a single category 1 school, so the people of my electorate, I have to say, are pretty happy about the idea of taking money away from Scots College; they are pretty happy about the idea of taking money away from those poor people who send their children to Geelong Grammar. I know there are a lot of battlers who send their kids there and pay the $15,000 or $20,000 a year. To the Howard government, these people are battlers. I say to them that the people in the Latrobe Valley who send their kids to Traralgon Secondary College or the Catholic regional college are the real battlers. They are the people who should get the support that taxpayers can provide to educational institutions.

So we are going to take the $105 million over three years away from these rich, elite category 1 schools and we are going to put it into things that people want to see: teacher development partnerships and teacher excellence scholarships. We are going to put some of that money into public schools to make sure that they do not get left behind in terms of capital works. We will make a difference to the schools where most people send their children, rather than just putting more public money into these already very rich institutions.

The choice is very clear: putting money into education and supporting those schools and institutions where a vast majority of parents send their children or giving more money to elite, category 1 schools. (Time expired)