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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10257

Mrs MOYLAN (1:48 PM) —I am pleased to rise in this House to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008. The bill amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to introduce the education tax refund or the ETR, as it is commonly known. The ETR will provide a 50 per cent refundable tax offset for eligible education expenses up to a maximum of $750 for children undertaking primary education study and $1,500 for children undertaking secondary education studies.

Education is the key, as the member for Oxley said, to many things. It is certainly the key to improving the quality of life for all people. Education enhances a person’s fulfilment in work, personal relations, social development and the pursuit of interests outside the workplace. Education has a profound impact on all aspects of a person’s life and on social cohesion within our communities. It is always very good to see in this place the many schools that come to visit. These kinds of bills have a great impact on those schools and those students—and there are many in the gallery today.

The fact that education is so profoundly important is why whenever we ask people in the electorate of Pearce to tell us what their main priorities are, the availability and quality of education always feature very prominently. They are always up there in the top three issues nominated as priority issues for the federal government. Any increase in funding to assist parents to ensure the best possible education for their children is very welcome.

In the lead-up to the last election—almost 12 months ago—the Prime Minister and his government promised an education revolution in Australia. However, every policy they have come up with in the last 11 months is defined by what it lacks rather than by what it offers, so it is little wonder that even the government’s own backbenchers are becoming frustrated at the lack of real action to deliver that promise. I am sorry to see that the member for Fowler has departed the chamber because speaking on this bill in the last sitting the member for Fowler let her frustration spill over when making the telling comment that while these measures ‘are welcome ... they are hardly a revolution’. Later in that speech she said:

It is not hard to see why there is some confusion about the so-called education revolution.

One only has to wonder about the adequacy of the government’s response when their own members are questioning it.

The revolution involves the government going round and round in circles without actually delivering the outcomes that families should rightly expect given the promises made prior to the election. First the Prime Minister promised each high school student between grades 9 and 12 access to a computer at school. The reality is that some schools now have to borrow money—in some cases up to $100,000—to bridge the gap between what it actually costs to run programs and the underfunded promises of the government.

The Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 is yet another example of the Prime Minister and this government falling short of what they have promised Australian families. The announcement of the education tax refund comes in the wake of reports over several years that highlight the difficulties many parents experience in meeting a variety of schooling costs. This is particularly so for low-income families and, while this money will be welcomed by parents, the difference between the Rudd government’s policy and the coalition’s policy is quite stark. The coalition policy in 2007 was comprehensive in its delivery and administration of new refundable tax rebates to provide additional assistance to parents for school costs. Further, it was flexible in letting parents decide to what aspects the additional education expenses rebate would be applied. Conversely, the government’s ETR policy falls short of what is really needed—and falling short in this legislation on education is characteristic of much of what the Rudd government is doing in other areas. To date there have been plenty of talkfests, reviews, inquiries and roundtables—all code for stalling and doing little of consequence. It is the oldest trick in the book. But to remain credible any government must very soon start making the hard decisions, implementing real legislation and delivering real policy outcomes for those that they are elected to serve.

When I first came into this place I observed the amounts of reports, inquiries and reviews which lined the walls of this place and which were not acted on. The public were not fooled: they were well aware that much was talked about but that there was little observable action on those issues which addressed their priorities and the quality of life expectations. On reflection, most of us would agree that was, in part, one of the reasons we saw the demise of the Hawke-Keating Labor government.

In the specifics of this bill, eligible expenses for the ETR focus mainly on information, communications and technology. I agree that all young people need to be able to use modern communication technology. We have seen a great example of this today with the launch of the Australian Diabetes Map by Diabetes Australia, aided by Microsoft and by Associate Professor Jonathan Shaw from the Baker IDI. This is a great use of technology and all young people should know how to make the most of it. The Rudd government did make this core promise without thinking through the whole policy. They need to complete the funding of that program by giving money to parents and then placing strict boundaries around what parents can apply the money to. Thus, they rather sneakily roll out their computer for every student program—clever but disingenuous. In truth, parents are missing out on being able to spend that money in the way that best suits the educational needs of their children.

One of the significant exclusions of what the money can be spent on is school based extracurricular activities. I think that everyone, regardless of what side of politics they sit on, would agree on the importance of regular physical activity to children’s growth and development. However, the high cost of organised sport often serves as a barrier to participation and social inclusion—an integral part of any child’s education. As Chair of the Parliamentary Diabetes Support Group, I have witnessed firsthand the impact of the obesity epidemic and its relationship to the growing and debilitating effects of type 2 diabetes and the increasing number of children who have been diagnosed with this disease—a disease formerly seen only in the elderly. In fact, the Australian Diabetes Map that was launched in this place this morning shows that there are now 350 children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. As I said, this was formerly a disease of the aged.

We should be doing everything we can to encourage our young people to undertake some form of activity, some form of informal sport, to maintain good health. These activities are excluded from this tax rebate. The diabetes issue should be evidence enough for the government to allow the use of the rebate for school based extracurricular activities. The need for greater flexibility in the use of the rebate was further highlighted in a survey by the Brotherhood of St Laurence which found that 69 per cent of parents reported difficulty paying for sport and recreation and that 62 per cent of people reported difficulty in paying for school camps and 47 per cent for excursions; yet the government has chosen to ignore them in this bill. When you have up to 39 per cent of those surveyed admitting that their children have missed school because they cannot afford to pay the extra cost of excursions, sports days, school camps, uniforms and equipment, and when the government is being so rigid, you have to ask yourself whether we are really in an education revolution or whether this is just an education devolution. It is a challenge to maximise children’s learning if they feel left out and excluded from extra activities. There are often ways to engage children’s imagination and to inspire and motivate them to learn. Not all of these things take place in a classroom. Parents need all the help they can get to encourage their children to fully participate. In the words of the French novelist Anatole France, ‘Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.’

As for the government’s stated commitment to early childhood education, words are definitely much louder than action, because preschool education is not eligible for ETR. Some consideration might also have been given to families in situations of financial hardship who would struggle to meet the upfront costs and then have to wait until the next tax return before being able to claim. By contrast, the coalition’s policy Helping Families to Provide More Education Opportunities for Their Children proposed to introduce a new refundable tax rebate of 40 per cent for education expenses—which included school fees—for every student from preschool until the end of secondary school. The coalition policy recognised that it was better to enable parents to choose the best education for their children and to make the rebate available for a wide range of education costs. The scheme included government and non-government school fees, school uniforms, preschool fees and expenses, textbooks, stationery, calculators, camps and excursions, laptops, broadband, software and extracurricular school activities such as sport, music, dance and drama. More than 2.1 million families would have been eligible to claim education expenses for 3.6 million Australian children under the coalition’s policy. I have listened to the criticisms of the coalition’s record on education from the member for Fowler and the Minister for Education when she introduced the Australian curriculum assessment.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member for Pearce will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.