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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10306

Mr ZAPPIA (5:11 PM) —I too rise to speak in support of the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008. As other speakers have quite rightly said, this bill introduces a 50 per cent education tax refund aimed at assisting families with children undertaking primary or secondary school studies to meet the costs of school education through assistance with certain education expenses. This side of the House understands that one of the most important investments we can make in a child is to ensure the child is provided with a good education. It is something that I alluded to in the first speech I made in this place—the importance of education in making a difference not only to a child but to changing society generally.

The education providers understand that principle, the business sector understands that, the Rudd government understands that, parents understand that and other governments around the world understand that. The only ones who do not seem to understand that education underpins opportunity are members opposite, because under their watch education standards in Australia slipped substantially when compared with other OECD countries. Study after study has confirmed that. I just want to quote from one of the most recent studies, entitled How young people are faring, which was only released a month or two ago, I believe, and was put together by Jack Dusseldorp of the Dusseldorp Skills Forum. He said:

  • Australia is below many other OECD countries in terms of levels of participation in education, suggesting there is room for improvement.

I quote that study because it is all about young people and is the most recent that I have been able to get my hands on. Within that report that was prepared by Jack Dusseldorp there are a series of graphs, which others may wish to refer to, which simply confirm our position in the international sense when it comes to education.

Furthermore, one has only to look at the run-down condition of public schools throughout Australia to see just how little importance members opposite placed on education when they were in office. They offloaded their responsibility onto the private schools sector and onto the state governments. It was typical of the Howard government to starve the states of funds and then blame the states for not delivering the services or the facilities that communities needed. We saw it in the critical areas of education, health services and housing. In listening to the member for Mayo earlier on today it was interesting that we heard the same rhetoric from him in his contribution to this matter. Again, he blamed the states for any problems when it came to our education services in this country. The Howard government’s idea of funding schools, I might add, was to provide them with flagpoles. In contrast, the Rudd government fully understands that education underpins a child’s future prospects in life and also underpins the nation’s future prosperity.

Governments also have a social responsibility to bridge the gap between those in low socioeconomic sectors of society and the rest of society. Education is certainly the key to doing that. Again, if I can refer to the report How young people are faring, I will quote from some of the comments made in that report about people in low socioeconomic areas. It says:

… about one third of young adults who have completed year 12 were in full-time education. This was over five times the rate for those who were early school leavers.

That is the first critical point: if you were an early school leaver, you will likely not go on to full-time education.

While almost 46 per cent of those from high SES backgrounds engage in full-time education, less than one-fifth from low SES origins do.

Again it highlights the contrast. Furthermore, the report goes on to say:

Year 12 attainment among 19 year-olds varies substantially by social background. Young people from low SES backgrounds attain Year 12 or its equivalent at a rate 26.1 percentage points lower than that of those from high SES origins.

At age 24, well over one-third of those from low SES backgrounds have not completed Year 12 or equivalent, compared to about one in seven of those from high SES backgrounds.

Achievement levels in school also affect attainment, and since school achievement is highly correlated with social background, policies developed to target improvements in Year 12 completion will need to address the issue of social disadvantage.

Governments have a responsibility to bridge that gap between those that are in low socioeconomic sectors and the rest of our society, and the Rudd government is doing that. That is why at the last election the Rudd government made education a priority in the policy announcements that were made. That is why the Rudd government committed to a number of important education policy initiatives for all of Australia.

This bill provides for a 50 per cent tax refund for certain primary and secondary school expenses and is a key plank in the Rudd government’s education policy reform agenda. Importantly, this bill guarantees that the children are the direct beneficiaries of the tax refund because the refund is only provided after the money has been spent on the child’s education needs. Under this $4.4 million proposal, as from 1 July 2008 about 1.3 million Australian families will be able to claim up to $375 for each primary school child’s eligible school expenses and up to $750 for each secondary school child’s eligible school expenses. These rebates will be very welcome by families around Australia, and I have no doubt that it will now make it possible for many parents to buy education resources for their children which they may have wanted to provide but did not because they could not afford the outlay. It also means that children will be more likely to have better education resources and that can only lead to better education outcomes.

For students today, IT equipment has become essential to their learning and essential to the preparation of their schoolwork. It was interesting to hear the member for Flynn quote some statistics on that. For families that come from low socioeconomic areas, only 50 per cent of households have a computer or access to a computer; in the high socioeconomic areas, the figures for computer ownership are much higher. The Rudd government recognises that it is important to have IT equipment for children and has committed $1.2 billion over five years to provide schools with computers. But we all know that students do much of their learning and much of their schoolwork from home after hours as part of their homework, so it is just as important that parents can provide children with home computers. This bill will help parents do that.

Almost without exception, the parents I speak to want the best education possible for their children. They understand just how important a good education is for their children’s future. That is why so many parents that I know take on additional jobs and sacrifice their own time to ensure their children are given a good education and are able to participate in other school activities. No parent wants to see their children miss out on what their school has to offer and no parent wants to see their children do poorly because they do not have the necessary resources.

I said earlier that education is the most effective way of bridging the gap between the socially disadvantaged and the rest of society and of breaking the cycle of poverty. One of the unfortunate outcomes of social inequality for all of us is that often some of our brightest and most talented children do not complete secondary education or embark on any kind of further education. Their natural ability is left untapped. Sadly, in those cases, it is not only the child but also the rest of society that misses out, because that child’s intellectual talents could have been used for the benefit of others if the child had been given the educational opportunity needed. With respect to those children, I commend the schools and the teachers who, when they recognise a gifted child, do all they can to assist the child in furthering their education.

I said earlier that the rundown state of our public schools is largely the result of neglect by the last coalition government. Our schools, TAFEs and universities were underfunded and underresourced by the previous federal government. It is my view that federal governments do have a national interest and a shared responsibility in all levels of education. The Rudd government understands that and the Australian people understand that. That is why they elected the Rudd government last November, knowing full well that education was going to be one of the areas of expenditure and key policy areas of this government. The Rudd government went to the election last year talking about an education revolution, highlighting the importance of education, highlighting how Australia’s education standards had slipped compared with the rest of the world and highlighting how important education is to the future prosperity of children and to the nation. Voters voted in that election knowing full well the importance that the Rudd government would place on education if it was elected. And, as we saw, voters did elect a Rudd Labor government in that election.

Sadly, one of the outcomes of the coalition government’s neglect of education is that parents are continually having to contribute funding for the most basic of school resources in both public and private schools. So when we talk about parents having to pay for their children’s education it does not apply solely to those who send their children to private schools; today it applies as much to parents who send their children to public schools. School fundraising has become essential for schools, and inevitably that fundraising primarily comes from parents and adds to education costs.

Mr Baldwin —That’s why you are being real smart and cutting out the Investing in Our Schools Program!

Mr ZAPPIA —The member opposite refers to the Investing in Our Schools Program. If he is patient I intend to come to that. I said earlier that the run-down state of many of our public schools is the result of years of neglect, particularly during the Howard government’s years in office. Sadly, one of the outcomes of that neglect, as I pointed out a moment ago, is that parents continually have to contribute funding for the most basic of school resources. I will give a couple of examples of where I have seen parents do exactly that in public schools.

I will come back to talking about some schools in Makin in just a moment. I first want to refer to something that was published in the Australian by reporter Matthew Knott on 13 October 2008, when he wrote about the issue of parents having to pay to send their children to school. The article was headlined, ‘Cash-poor schools “running raffles to pay for textbooks”’. The headline exposes the shocking truth of how our schools have been neglected. It is a sad indictment of a country like Australia, which is generally affluent.

I said earlier that I wanted to allude to some of the schools that I have visited recently in my area. I visit schools in the electorate of Makin whenever I can. I speak to teachers and parents and I see the needs of individual families and schools. Only last Friday—7 November—I attended the Modbury West Primary School, which is in the Makin electorate, for the official opening of the school’s new landscaped frontage, which the students have appropriately named the Garden of Dreams. The entire funding for the project—this is a public school—which amounted to about $15,000, came from the school community, and the work was then carried out by volunteers. The net result was a beautifully landscaped garden which lifts the appearance of the school and lifts the pride of the students. If the work had been outsourced it would have cost around $50,000, but thanks to the school community they were able to do it for around $15,000. What the school community have achieved in the garden is a credit to the whole of the Modbury West Primary School community.

It is also typical of what I see at so many other schools. In the same week I also attended Para Vista Primary School, Modbury Primary School and The Heights School—a reception-to-year-12 school—when these schools also officially opened improvements to their schools. Like Modbury West Primary School, Para Vista Primary School, Modbury Primary School and The Heights School have a committed staff team and a supportive school community. Each of these school communities contributed thousands of dollars of funds that they had raised towards their own school projects. Certainly in those cases the projects were assisted by funding from the federal government and other sources, but the school communities had to raise a substantial amount of the funds themselves in order to ensure that those projects became a reality. Again, the fundraising primarily came from the parents of the schoolchildren.

This highlights the costs that are being faced by parents when they send their children to school. The Rudd government understands that, and that is why this measure has been put in place. That is why the Rudd government announced, in December, a $1,000 payment for each child of parents who come under family tax benefit A. That is why the Rudd government introduced tax cuts in July and why the Rudd government has committed to a range of education expenditure measures which will ultimately give children their best chance in life.

I want to come back to a couple of comments that have been made by members opposite. I will address the question of Investing in Our Schools, which most of them seem to want to allude to. It is interesting that members opposite support that program—and rightly so, because it was money that was used to assist schools—but why did the Howard government ever have to establish that program? It was because, after 12 years of being in government, the schools had become run-down to such a state that they needed every penny that they could get in order to get improvements just to provide basic education services. If the federal government had provided the states and the schools with the appropriate level of funding the schools would never have got to that state in the first place. When I walk through those schools and I see some of the conditions that they are in, I believe that it is a sad indictment of the previous government that they were allowed to deteriorate to that level. The program was simply a bandaid measure to pretend that the previous government cared about schools when the reality is that they could have done much, much more.

It is interesting that those opposite come into this place and talk about how this government is now doing all of this because it is possible as a result of the good economic management of the previous government. If the previous government was managing the economy so well why didn’t it invest in education and end up with a much stronger economy than we have? And why didn’t the previous government, when they had a surplus in their budget, commit to these projects? Why didn’t the previous government, when they had the funds, go into an election and commit to any of the measures that the Labor Party did?

The previous government had the same opportunities, but they were not prepared to give education the priority it deserved and they were not prepared to give education the priority that the Rudd government does.

Mr Baldwin interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Order! There is too much audible interjection across the chamber.

Mr ZAPPIA —Now they are trying to simply take credit for the policies which are being well received by the community out there. These policies were put together by the Rudd Labor government and will ultimately ensure that every child in this country will have a fair opportunity of getting a good education. A good education provides not only opportunity for the child as an individual but opportunity and prosperity for our nation as a whole.

This is just one of many measures that the Rudd government has announced, as I said earlier, but it is an important measure because it does put money directly back into the pockets of the mums and dads who are doing the best they can to ensure that their children get a good education. I commend the bill of the House, I congratulate the minister for introducing it and I look forward to working with the Rudd Labor government on rolling out a number of other education initiatives and policies that will complete the package of delivering a good education system in Australia.