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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10237

Ms McKEW (Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) (12:20 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008, because the Rudd Labor government is committed to supporting families and supporting Australians of all ages to get a quality education. This bill provides financial assistance for families with primary and secondary schoolchildren to offset the costs of their children’s education. The government has allocated $4.4 billion to deliver this promise for Australian families through the new education tax refund. As opposed to the fantasies and insults we have just heard from the member for Paterson, the Rudd government is committed to an education revolution. First of all, you have to imagine the future. Then you map the future and fund the future, and indeed that is what we are doing with our education revolution. We believe that investing in education is crucial to driving productivity growth and to building a modern and prosperous economy.

We believe that education has the potential to not only drive productivity but also empower individuals to help overcome disadvantage. We are backing our beliefs and our pre-election commitment to the Australian people with funding to drive the education revolution on multiple levels, and this is what the member for Paterson in his previous comments simply ignored. Our entire focus, let me stress, is revolutionary because it starts with very young children. If we want to look for the areas of greatest neglect by education ministers during the Howard years, I suggest that this is where we need to shed a light—because one OECD survey after another has pointed to the shameful underperformance of Australia when it comes to investing in the early years of education. For instance, in 2006 Australia was ranked 25th out of 26 countries on the OECD indicator looking at the proportion of students enrolled in preprimary education—so much for the choices of the Howard years.

There was also a complete failure by the previous government to invest in the professional training of those who care for very young children. The fact is that 40 per cent of those who care for our very young children have no qualifications whatsoever. That is where the education revolution is being focused: on investing in the qualifications of those who care for our very important young people. What an indictment this is when all of the scientific research points to the critical importance of an appropriate learning environment for very young children. The Rudd government has committed to ensuring that all Australian children have the best start in life, long before a child even arrives at school. We have an investment and a policy commitment to a $2.4 billion package over the next five years aimed at turning around the kinds of statistics revealed a couple of weeks ago by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth in their Report card on the wellbeing of young Australians.

The government is taking action, as I said, on a number of fronts. I would like to note just two of the initiatives that are being implemented as part of the education revolution in support of our youngest Australians. The first is the investment of $533 million—that is, half a billion dollars—over the next five years to ensure that by 2013 all Australian children have access to a quality, affordable early childhood learning program delivered by a university trained teacher in the year before formal schooling. We have given a commitment to recurrent funding after 2013 to the states and territories so that early childhood learning programs continue to be an expected and normal part of every child’s educational experience. Again I would like to draw the attention of all members, and particularly the member for Paterson, to the fact that in many parts of Australia 20 per cent of children do not get access to a preschool education. The children in his electorate of Paterson are undoubtedly going to benefit from the amount of funding that we are putting into preschool.

In Indigenous communities the figures are far worse—something like 50 per cent of Indigenous children do not get access to preschool. COAG has signed off on $564 million of joint funding over six years, therefore, to address the needs of Indigenous children in their early years. As part of this, 35 children and family centres are to be established across Australia to deliver integrated services that offer early learning, child care and family support programs.

The government has high ambitions for our schools and for what they can deliver for all of our students. Our stated ambition is that all Australian school students acquire the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in society and employment in a globalised economy. We are working to meet this ambition by stating our clear expectations around several things—quality teaching, strong outcomes for students, improved student retention, importantly, and good parental engagement. It is a highly collaborative approach.

The government has also taken unambiguous steps to support all of these ambitions. I refer to two practical examples of how the government has acted to support the education revolution in our schools. I point first of all to the $116 million in funding to nearly 900 secondary schools across Australia for the first rollout of new computers in schools. This is part of the $1.2 billion funding commitment for the digital education revolution. In my own electorate of Bennelong, the first rollout of computers in schools has seen computers delivered to Holy Cross College, Marist College, Carlingford High School and Ryde Secondary College. These schools are very grateful for the improvement that that has made to their ICT departments. In addition, there is the allocation of $90 million of funding involving almost 100 secondary schools for the first phase of the trade training centres. Again, this is part of a much bigger commitment, a $2½ billion commitment. In my area, the electorate of Bennelong, this initiative is going to deliver hospitality training resources and a commercial kitchen at the outstanding Epping Boys High School. They put in a terrific submission. This facility is going to used by not only students at that school but also students attending neighbouring Carlingford High School and Cheltenham Girls High School.

I come precisely to the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008. This bill will expand on all of the initiatives—and they need to be seen as a whole—that support Australia’s education system. This will help parents meet the everyday costs of their children’s education. The third part of the government’s education revolution is about our ambitions for working-age Australians. Our goal here is that everyone has the opportunity to develop the skills and qualifications needed to enable them to be effective participants in a modern economy. Again, on this issue I point to the actions already underway by the Rudd government. There is the $2 billion Productivity Places Program, which is already offering training places to over 53,000 job seekers in this financial year. Indeed, more than 12,000 people have already completed training courses, and last week the government announced an additional $187 million for this Productivity Places Program. It will translate overall to an extra 56,000 places. In all, the government will be offering training places to 700,000 people over the next five years.

Further, the government has acted to bolster the investment available for Australia’s training and academic institutions through the creation of an $11 billion Education Investment Fund. The key priorities of this fund will be capital expenditure and renewal and refurbishment in universities and in vocational institutions as well as in research facilities and major research institutions. As the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Education, said in the House a fortnight ago, she has invited 14 universities from around the country to bid for government funding worth nearly $700 million for strategic investment in capital and research facilities. I was delighted to see that Macquarie University, situated in the north-west of the electorate of Bennelong, has been invited to put forward a proposal in this round.

I have taken the time today to describe the government’s ambitions and multiple actions in enacting an education revolution. This bill forms one of a number of elements that the government are putting in place in support of the changes that we are driving across all sectors, starting with early education, going through to school education and then to the important area of training. It is a revolution that starts by giving our youngest children the best start in life. It aims to embed high expectation of our schools in preparing our young people to further their careers, and it encourages working-age Australians to engage in ongoing training.

The Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 will play a key role in delivering up to $4.4 billion in financial support for schooling costs. Around 1.3 million Australian families will be eligible for this assistance, which is expected to support around 2.7 million primary and secondary school students. The refund is a tax offset for 50 per cent of eligible education expenses for children undertaking primary and secondary schooling. Under this initiative, eligible families will be able to claim 50 per cent of education expenses—up to $750 for each child undertaking primary school, giving parents a refund of up to $375 per year; and up to $1,500 for each child undertaking secondary school, providing parents with a refund of up to $750 per child per year. Thus a family with, say, one primary school student and one secondary school student—not an unusual combination—can receive up to $1,125 per year.

The education tax refund bill sets out the expenses that are eligible for the refund and they include laptops, computers—and the associated costs of repairing and running them—as well as printers and paper. They include home internet connections, education software, school textbooks and other materials, including study guides and stationery, and also prescribed trade tools. So there are a range of things that can be claimed by parents.

The refund bill also sets out the characteristics of the families who are eligible to receive the financial assistance available under this bill. In defining family eligibility, the bill recognises there are a wide range of different family circumstances. Families that are eligible are in receipt of family tax benefit A and have children undertaking primary or secondary school studies. For those school students who enter or leave in any one school year, a claim of half the amount of the refund attributable to the half of the financial year that they attended school will be allowed. Parents can claim the refund against eligible expenses incurred from 1 July 2008 when they complete their 2008-09 income tax return. Parents who do not pay tax and are not required to complete a tax return will still benefit from the tax refund. Importantly, this financial assistance is available for eligible education expenses incurred from 1 July 2008.

The bill is part of building a stronger and fairer Australia by funding parents with real support regardless of their location or the schools that their children attend. In my own area of Bennelong there are 44 primary, secondary and special schools—government, Catholic and independent. I know the parents of children at all of those schools and indeed across Australia will be able to make choices with regard to what they purchase to assist their children in achieving their educational goals. I know that families such as those in my electorate value education highly. They are going to welcome this substantial contribution to their children’s educational expenses.

In this country we need dedicated efforts to ensure that every child has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential. The Rudd government’s commitment to the education revolution is aimed at a more equitable distribution of resources for those in lower- and middle-income brackets, as it is without a doubt that by increasing the participation of young Australians in early learning environments and providing financial assistance to struggling families we build a better society with skilled and productive members in the community.

Earlier I mentioned the recently released Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth Report card on the wellbeing of young Australians. Against the measure of reported deprivation, ARACY noted that lack of educational resources is one way that poverty may be linked to poor educational achievement. In comparison to OECD countries, Australia ranked only 10th in a ranking of 30 countries on this measure. Indigenous Australia ranked a dismal 29th in a ranking of 31. These are awful figures, but I also noted one other—that is, in 2006, the ARACY report said, seven per cent of children reported having fewer than 11 books in their home. This bill, a very practical measure, offers families financial assistance by reducing the effective cost to families of practical educational resources.

To sum up, this education tax refund bill is a concrete, practical example of how the Rudd government’s education revolution is an agenda based on actions and not just on words. It demonstrates the renewed valuing of and commitment to education, to Australia’s students and educators and to parents as the first educators of the future generations. Those who diminish this notion simply do not understand or have not bothered to inform themselves of the very wide range of policies that the Rudd government is committed to. As I have said on many occasions before, I want to see the kind of early learning and educational system that will ensure that every Australian child can reach for the stars. It will certainly be a revolutionary act when we eliminate the current long tail of educational underachievement and when Australia meets the Prime Minister’s goal of lifting school retention rates from an abysmal 75 per cent to something like 90 or 95 per cent by 2020. Equally, we will know that the barricades have been breached when every Indigenous child in the Northern Territory and in remote areas of Western Australia and Queensland graduates from school and has exactly the same set of opportunities and choices as the school graduates who live in my electorate in suburbs like Denistone, Eastwood and Epping. If we do that, the report cards on Australia’s future will be looking a lot more optimistic than the one that was released just a few weeks ago. I commend the bill to the House.