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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30501


Mr LEE (12:46 PM) —You could almost think my last comments were foreshadowing this debate on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001, which is about school funding. While I will be outlining the opposition's position on this legislation, members would be aware that we have discussed these measures previously when they were part of another bill.

I think that the first thing we have to do is to discuss why we are dealing with this bill today, in its current form. There are basically three reasons. First of all, the government inappropriately packaged up these measures with two other matters that dealt with higher education. The bill that we have just dealt with provided for the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme for postgraduate university students and also the government's proposals implementing the commitments that were made in the innovation statement in January. There has never before been a bill which has sought to allocate funding for both school education and higher education in the one bill.

We are very suspicious as to the reasons for the government packaging up this $10 million increase in establishment grants for non-government schools with the measures that provided innovation funds and the establishment of the PELS scheme. I remain suspicious that the current Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr David Kemp, was keen to try to use the establishment increase of $10 million to hold up those other measures. That is why the opposition argued for the bill to be split—not just because it set a new precedent of combining school education and higher education, but because we were suspicious about the minister's motives in packaging them together. That is the first reason why we are dealing with this today. We have forced the government to split the previous bill.

The second reason we are dealing with this today is that last October the minister and his department failed to fix a problem that became quite evident at that time. We have now had an admission from the minister's department in Senate hearings that his department was aware that the financial provision for establishment grants for non-government schools would be inadequate to fund the number of applications that had been received from new schools. You will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there was a lot of controversy about the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Bill 2000 last year. It did not finally pass the Senate until it had been sent back to this House a record number of times. I think that request for an increase in funding for government schools, moved and supported by the Labor senators, the Democrats senators and Senator Brown, was sent back more times than any bill since the First World War. It was a series of requests that were ignored by the government in the House of Representatives. It was a bill of great controversy and it passed the Senate only on the last sitting day of the parliament in 2000.

As I said before, the government has now admitted that the department of education knew as early as October that there was insufficient funding to pay all of the establishment grants to new non-government schools, yet the minister sat on his hands—knowing in October, knowing in November—and took no action to amend the states grants bill last year to fix up this problem. We can only speculate as to why the minister chose not to rectify the problem last year. I suspect that he would have found it too embarrassing to ask for the parliament to allocate an extra $10 million for non-government schools, in a bill that was already providing $800 million in funding increases for non-government schools, without any balancing increase in funding for local public schools right across the country. That is the second reason we are dealing with this issue today: the minister sat on his hands and failed to deal with the matter last October.

The third reason is largely the result, if you can believe the newspapers, of the ineptitude of the government and the way they have implemented this series of measures. As I said, last year's states grants legislation allocated an extra $800 million for non-government schools, and all that the public schools received was the automatic indexation that is required by law—a very minor top-up that equates to, on average, about $4,000 for every public school in Australia. That is apart from the indexation for cost increases. So, while schools like King's and Geelong Grammar are receiving $1 million a year increases for their students, public schools in every state and territory receive an average of only $4,000 per year. It is not only unbalanced; it is unfair. When you look at the terrific resources and facilities that the category 1 wealthy schools already have, it is certainly bad priorities, because it means that scarce education dollars are being directed to wealthy category 1 schools rather than to needy government and non-government schools.

The Leader of the Opposition has already outlined Labor's plan to reallocate the $105 million that this government proposes to direct in funding increases to those 58 wealthy category 1 schools. We will spend half of that money on providing for urgent capital works in public schools, and we will spend the rest on funding 1,000 new teacher scholarships to encourage the best year 12 students to go into the vocation of teaching. We want to encourage more of the best year 12 students to become maths, science and IT teachers so we can improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms. We will redirect part of the category 1 school funding increases into funding teacher development partnerships that will help to improve the quality of teaching for our existing teaching work force. The scholarships will help to improve the new teachers, and the partnerships will provide extra federal funding for more professional development for our existing teaching work force.

Labor will pay for the cost of extra professional development for teachers. We will also provide a $2,000 completion bonus for those teachers who are willing to undertake that professional development in their own time. We will ask them to make a contribution by studying in their own time, and our contribution, at the federal level from a Beazley government, will be to pay for the cost of that professional development and to give teachers a $2,000 completion bonus. However, the Howard government does not intend to follow any of that. We certainly know that the Howard government has directed more and more of the Commonwealth's schools funding into non-government schools and has provided a pittance not only to public schools but also to many needy non-government schools. Since 1996, the percentage of direct Commonwealth schools funding for government schools has fallen from 41.5 per cent, to 35.7 per cent this year. By the year 2004, it will have fallen to 33.6 per cent.

The Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, has committed that a government that he leads will reverse that trend of the falling percentage of Commonwealth schools funding going to public schools. We need to ensure that every Australian child, whatever school they go to, gets the best possible education. We cannot expect young kids in needy public schools and non-government schools to get the education they deserve when such a lopsided system of funding for schools has been implemented by the Howard government.

The Labor Party have made it clear that we will support the provision of establishment grants to new non-government schools on the condition that there is a proportionate increase in Commonwealth funding for government schools. The one amendment that Labor will move in the Senate, which is dealt with in my second reading amendment, is a provision to request the government to provide an extra $30 million for capital works in public schools. The government wants the extra $10 million in establishment grants for non-government schools, and we will support that as soon as the government provides an extra $30 million for public schools. Seventy per cent of Australian students attend public schools; therefore it is only reasonable to provide a balancing increase in funding for capital works for public schools. The government has introduced this system of establishment grants for new non-government schools on the basis that these schools are faced with unexpected costs when they are first established. That is why there is provision under this program for a payment in the first and second years for each student at a new non-government school.

Madam Deputy Speaker Crosio, there is no reason in the world that the same argument should not apply to local government schools. I am sure that, as an assiduous local member in the growth area of Western Sydney, you would be aware of the pressures that are faced by new schools in some of the fastest growing parts of our country. Extra books need to be purchased for new libraries, works need to be carried out to ensure that schools have decent sporting facilities and sometimes you even need to provide a bit of shade at the bus stop of a new school. While it would be great for us to expect that the capital expenditure always plans for these things, we know that at new government schools and new non-government schools there are often unexpected expenditures both for capital works and recurrent works that require looking after.

Labor's point is this: if it is good enough to have an extra $10 million for establishment grants for non-government schools, why can't the government agree to an extra $30 million in payments to public schools to provide a balancing increase? The government could hardly argue that it cannot afford to provide this extra $30 million, when it has blown $20 billion since last November in the Prime Minister's desperate attempts to recover the political ground he has lost since the introduction of the goods and services tax. All the opposition is saying is that the government should provide an extra $30 million for the 7,000 government schools when it intends to provide $145 million for 58 wealthy category 1 schools between now and 2004.

The minister wrote to schools in mid-August saying that the government will not agree to Labor's amendments. That is a great tragedy because it means that this measure that provides the $10 million extra for non-government schools establishment grants will be held up until after the election. The minister has already sought to argue that the Labor Party is in some way responsible for the delays in payments to certain schools. This measure could be passed before the end of this week if the government would simply agree to provide an extra $30 million for public schools. If the minister had fixed the problem last October—if the minister had not tried to package this measure improperly with higher education funding—and if the minister had administered his department in the way he should have, we would not be facing this delay today.

The commitment that Labor have given to schools that are affected by any possible delay is this: either the measure will be passed before the election, because the government will agree to our amendments or, if not, after the election. If a Beazley government is elected, we will provide not only the $10 million extra for establishment grants for non-government schools but also at least an extra $30 million for public schools across the country. We certainly intend to comply with this amendment in government. We challenge the Howard government to match us by allowing this measure to pass before the end of the week by agreeing to an extra $30 million for public schools. That is the least the government can do.

The point we make is that this is a program that was meant to provide assistance to genuinely new schools to help them with additional recurrent costs in their first two years. I note that there have been a number of articles in the newspapers in recent days alleging that some payments have gone to schools that were already established—perhaps different campuses of existing schools—and other questions have been raised. When this bill goes before the other house we will have an opportunity to explore those issues in more detail. The point we make to the government is that, if there is an argument for establishment grants to be topped up for non-government schools by $10 million, we would simply ask the government to provide a balancing increase of $30 million for public schools to ensure that the needs of students at public schools are looked after. For those reasons, I move:

That all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

`the Bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for an additional $30 million in capital works grants to government schools, to match the extra funding being provided for establishment grants to non-government schools.'


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. J.A. Crosio)—Is the amendment seconded?


Mr Tanner —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.