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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10298

Mr BRIGGS (4:34 PM) —I rise to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008, the thrust of which I support. This is a bill which comes out of a promise made during the last year’s election campaign and what was a battle of tit-for-tat on several major policy areas. It amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 by introducing a 50 per cent refundable tax offset for eligible education expenses, the education tax refund, up to a maximum of $750 for children undertaking primary studies and $1,500 for children undertaking secondary studies. As I understand it, it is for families who get family tax benefit A.

The bill limits eligible education expenses to laptops, home computers and associated costs, computer related equipment such as printers and disability aids, home internet connections, computer software, school textbooks and other paper based school learning material and tools of trade as prescribed by the course. It is a promise which does go a long way to helping those Australians who want to give their children the best chance at the start of their lives.

Of course, in our country we are very fortunate to have a very strong education system. It is something our country should be very proud of. It gives people an opportunity to do better, to grow, and to make the dream of their parents for them to live a better quality life than theirs come true. It is something that I think both sides of this House support. I listened earlier to the member for Blair, who talked about the importance of education, and I support his comments absolutely.

But I think we need to look at the history of how this bill has come into being, and to do that we need to go back to 1996. We hear a lot from the other side about what we allegedly did or did not do for education when this side of the House was in government. We must understand that this $4.4 billion over four years could not have been delivered in 1996 because on coming to government in 1996 we found that there was $96 billion of debt. There was a $10 billion budget deficit. The hard work that was done between 1996 and 2007 has allowed a promise like this to be made, which is a good thing for our country. It is a good thing for Australian families that the government can assist with education expenses, and it is something I support. But it is based on the legacy of the hard economic decisions that were made in 1996 and the years that followed. If those hard decisions had not been made, this bill could not have been implemented. That is just a simple fact. Balanced budgets with surpluses and $60 billion in savings in the Future Fund is a legacy which has allowed these types of investments to be made. So it is really to the credit of the former government, the former Prime Minister and the former Treasurer, that we are in the position that we can have a bill such as this today.

This bill came out of the last election campaign, as I mentioned earlier. It was a version of a policy that was announced by the coalition. Unfortunately it is an inferior version of a policy that was announced by the coalition. Our policy was universal; it was not limited. Our policy also included—and this is a very important point—government and non-government school fees, preschool fees and expenses. Preschool is often forgotten in the education debate. We focus much in this place on university education, and the Labor Party focuses very much on school retention rates because it suits their state premiers to have that debate. But we do not focus on the building blocks of education, those early years. I have a very strong view that we need to do more as a federal parliament in this space. It is an area that has been neglected by state governments for years. It is an area which has suffered under the maladministration which is occurring in many of our states today. It is an area where increasingly the federal government will have to step up to the plate.

Our policy also included important items such as school uniforms, textbooks, stationery, calculators, and camps and excursions—camps like the school from my electorate which came to visit Parliament House today to enjoy and understand what we do here, a great opportunity for young people to understand how our democracy works. Camps and excursions can teach much more than can be learned in the classroom. Being in this place, being in the Senate and doing a tour of this place is much better than reading about it in a classroom or being told about it by a teacher or, indeed, a politician. Being in this place can teach so much more. So our policy included camps and excursions. It also included laptops, broadband and software, and extracurricular school activities such as sport, music, dance and drama.

I am on the Standing Committee on Health and Ageing in this place and we are looking at obesity at the present time. One of the things that has struck me in this committee inquiry is the lack of opportunity for school kids now—and primary school kids in particular—to do physical education, to get outside the classroom and to have a run around like we enjoyed when we were kids. There are many reasons for that. I think that largely there have been mistakes of policy in the past, that a focus has been taken off these extracurricular activities encouraging kids to get outside, to get away from the TV and, dare I say, the internet and to actually undertake a game of footy or netball or some other sort of physical activity and run around each day so they can get enjoyment out of being outside. Equally, it is the case with other important things like dance, music and drama.

Our policy had a slightly smaller amount of $800 annually for each student but it covered a broader field. It was not restricted to those on family tax benefit A. Where we are critical of Labor’s policy in this respect or in this bill is that it only covers a small cost of a computer. It does nothing to address the basics of a good education to support families with the real day-to-day costs of schooling, such as school fees and those camps and excursions that too many kids have to miss out on because they cannot afford to pay for them. I think that school fees is the biggest area of mistake in this bill. School fees are so important not just in the non-government sector but also in the government sector. I spoke to a couple of principals of public schools, not of private schools, in my electorate last week. I will not name them for fear of reprisal from the state education minister.

Dr Emerson —Grow up!

Mr BRIGGS —Sorry, Dr Emerson, the schools are extraordinarily concerned about the treatment they are getting from the state education departments.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Order! I would just like to remind the honourable member that he ought to refer to the minister by his title and not by his name.

Mr BRIGGS —Quite correct, Mr Deputy Speaker. School fees are an important part of the funds. For instance, one of the schools, a public school, I spoke to has had to write off $30,000 of school fee debt because it has got no capacity to get the parents to pay. In the past public schools were able to keep any surplus funds they had and earn the interest off those surplus funds. The state Treasurer has decided in South Australia to take all those funds back into recurrent funding. That is a disgrace. That is penny-pinching at its worst and it is mean. It does not do our education system any good at all. So I think that a mistake in this bill is in the fact that it leaves out school fees. That extra $30,000 in this small school in my electorate could do so much more. It could do so much for these young kids to give them a chance and a better education. It could give them so much more one-on-one learning time with their teachers and more access to an opportunity in life, and that is of course what Australia stands for. The great ideal of Australia is that you get as much opportunity as presents.

So I think that this is a good bill because it does do something about helping families, and it does so because the federal government is in the position to be able to do so as it has inherited a very strong budget position. It has inherited a surplus. It has inherited massive savings in the Future Fund. This is a situation we did not have 12 years ago. This bill could never have been implemented 12 years ago. We should never forget the legacy that has come about for this bill. But it has some flaws, and they are flaws that I urge the other side to consider, including school fees. They are an important aspect. They will give an extra funding boost for those schools, particularly public schools, that need that extra assistance.

The other thing I will say about those struggling state schools is that one of the programs in the Howard government which helped those state schools enormously was the Investing in Our Schools Program. So many schools have made this point to me: those small capital grants help because they build the next bit of infrastructure—the new classroom, the installation of the air conditioning. Last year a small school in my electorate received $128 in capital funding from the state government. That is probably three chairs or a desk; it is not good enough. The Investing in Our Schools Program gave those small schools the opportunity to apply for capital grants which allowed them to build new buildings or put in air-conditioning or heating systems; they allowed the school to progress. One of the schools I visited last week would not show me the back of their school because it is all made up of temporary buildings. The principal described the science lab as something ‘out of the 1960s’. That is not helping our country become smarter or to do better.

I genuinely think we need to look at the funding structure of both private and public schools in our country. We have a significant problem at the state level with the amount of money that is being put into public schools. Those on the other side will view that as a partisan comment—it is not designed to be. The federal government may have to do more to step up to this plate and the Investing in Our Schools Program was an example of that. Funding has just not been handed over to these small schools—or to larger public schools, for that matter. They are getting their recurrent funding—arguably not enough—to do what they need to do but they are not getting the one-offs to rebuild buildings, to install the new infrastructure, to make the investment for the future so the learning facilities are high class. That is where we have a problem in our country with education.

As I said earlier, I also think that we need to do more for preschools and early childhood education. I declare a conflict in this matter: I have two young children under three who are coming into this age group. The amount our two-year-old grows and learns every day is something to behold. Clearly, that is when the best education can occur. Clearly, that is when kids pick up the most and where the foundation of their educational life begins. We focus very much on the higher end, the university sector, in this place. We heard an answer to a question today about a university amenities fee and so forth, but where we err is that as a country we do not focus enough on early childhood education. I am sure the other side will jump up and say: ‘You didn’t do anything in 12 years. The Howard government just ignored education. We have dropped down in all the statistics.’ I can rebut and say, ‘Well, the state governments have not done enough,’ but that is not getting the problem fixed. We genuinely need to look at this area because this will help our country grow. This will help our country get smarter and our kids to do better.

Not every child going through school will end up in university—indeed we do not want that. But we need to identify those kids early and give them a better chance, and we can only do that by increasing the funding base. We can only do that by investing in the skills of those people who care for our children in those early years of life. We know by legend that the best time to teach a child a second language is in their early years. It makes complete sense that they learn the most in those early years.

I urge the federal government to consider including in this bill preschool fees as well as government and non-government school fees. I think it would make a huge difference, particularly to those parents on the edge, particularly those parents who live in socioeconomic areas where they just cannot afford to pay the public school fees. That of course has a flow-on effect to the public schools because they do not have that revenue stream. That is an important aspect. Sure, internet and broadband are very important, and having computers is very important, but we can do more with this money. We can give parents that choice. It should not just be focused on one small area of education.

Education is not all about laptops and broadband connections. I am sure that those on the other side will agree with that, and I do not think for a moment that they are suggesting it is. A broad education is about so much more. It is about learning our history, which we should do in this country—and tomorrow is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our history. It is about coming to Canberra and seeing our parliament at work. It is about respecting our institutions and so forth. And these are things that you cannot do just by having a laptop computer or a broadband connection at home. These are things that families struggle to pay for these days. In the coming six months, 12 months or two years as our economy slows and we have fewer jobs, higher unemployment and more people in small business who are struggling—as I am sure the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy understands—and as the financial crisis has its effect on the real economy, we should do more for those families to help them give their children the best opportunity in education that we can.

We should be very proud of our country and the opportunities that young people get but we can always do more. We should do more. I said in my maiden speech that I thought the area of education would be a challenging one going forward into the future. Those countries that we have always had an advantage over, those countries that are developing, have learnt from us. One of the great books of all time, I think, is Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. He talks in there about the power of education and how the developing countries, particularly India and China, have learnt so much about our education systems in the past and have adapted to our ways and are now arguably ahead of us. So one of our great challenges as a nation is to get our education system right. We need to do that through looking at the base or the building block, which is early childhood, and fund that properly. We need to have a properly funded primary education system as well. Of course, we need to have good and strong learning institutions at the tertiary level.

Where I think government has failed over the last 10 or 20 years—and I include both sides of politics in this—is that not enough focus has been put on those in the preschool area. We need to do more in that area for the building blocks of our education system. This bill would be a good way to start that. This bill would be a good opportunity for those parents who choose to use it to send their kids to the preschool that might just be out of reach at the moment—the preschool that will give them that extra chance, that extra step. I do urge the government to consider those comments.

I largely support the aims of this bill, with those criticisms that I have made. I also urge the government to rethink the Investing in Our Schools Program, simply because the capital investments that particularly those small primary schools get make a real and genuine difference to the learning outcomes of those young Australians that we seek to help and to give an opportunity in life.