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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10323

Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Northern Australia) (6:30 PM) —On Tuesday last week I visited a school in my electorate, Mandurah High School, to officiate at the opening of an Investing in Our Schools project. It is an excellent project. It was the construction of a sporting oval and also included funding for facilities in the canteen. When the principal, Alfred King, pointed out to me that in my speech I had given praise to the former government for the Investing in Our Schools Program, I also pointed out that in fact the former government had closed that program in January 2007. Long before the federal election, the money had run out, the program had ended and it was time to move on. A good program had served its purpose and, as we say, it was time to move on. But what do we then move on to? Investing in education is important for many reasons. It empowers those who are going through the education process. It enables our kids to grow. It gives them opportunities. Education is so fundamental to the lives of young Australians—and older Australians too—and it is important to the young people in my electorate as they go about preparing for their way in life.

It was instructive that in 2006-07, when many of the debates were taking place in the House and throughout the country in the run-up to our election, the funding of education became an issue of great importance, not just because it was about how much money each side was putting into education but because of what it was about. It became apparent in 2006 that Australia was not slowly but rapidly slipping down the OECD tables for attainment, achievement and spending in education. We have had noted in this place that in pre-primary education funding we had slipped from a respectable position in the OECD to 25th out of the 26 countries that were surveyed.

We know that education relates to opportunity. We know that education relates to how prepared for work our kids and our young adults will be. We know that education relates to how productive our economy will be and how productive our workplaces will be. But we also know that over the last decade national investment in education has been falling. It has been falling both as a proportion of GDP and when measured against those countries with which we like to compare ourselves. We would never say that the former government did not spend on education, but we would say they did not spend enough and we would say that on many occasions the programs that were in place were spending 25c or 26c rather than fixing real problems.

The Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 is not just about education but about families. It is a bill about supporting education and supporting parents. It is a $4.4 billion education tax refund. It joins key elements of our tax system with the education needs of young families. It is targeted at those families who are in receipt of family tax benefit part A and who have kids in primary school or secondary school. It is estimated, as we have been told, that over 1.3 million families with 2.7 million children or students will receive this benefit. As we have heard many times, it is to cover eligible expenses such as laptops, home computers, printers, paper, internet access and the rest.

It is a good initiative—it is an excellent initiative—but it is an initiative that comes in the context of a range of other measures taken by the government, and the former government, to improve school performance. An important initiative in this area is to properly assess school performance, to look at the indicators that allow parents to understand how well their schools are performing and therefore to understand within the assessment process how well their children are doing in reference to not just their own school population but the school population of the state. The WALNA test in Western Australia and the national school testing processes are simply invaluable. My own children have been subject to these tests, and when we get the results back they form an illuminating view of not just how well our children are doing but also how well our public education system is performing. It performs because we have quality teachers. It performs because we have people who dedicate their lives to teaching and to ensuring that our children are given the best possible start.

In my own life, the teachers who made the biggest impact on me throughout my primary and high school years, as I have said on many occasions in this place, are Bruce Wilton, Dale Doderidge, Miss Knight—the headmistress of my school, Whyalla High School—and Ken Harrington. They all had a big impact on me as I grew up.

When I look at the teachers and the schools in my electorate of Brand, I see some truly outstanding examples of educators working with tremendous skill to perform the task of bringing our kids on in life. We have in the middle of my electorate a language development centre. It is almost unique. It allows the teachers to have optimal resources to both understand and provide education for kids with various disadvantages—often a speech delay, sometimes a central processing difficulty. Sometimes the kids are autistic. Sometimes the kids come into that school with parents so frustrated at not being able to teach their children. A wonderful atmosphere has been established by principal Judy Smailes and Fiona Forbes, her assistant, in putting together an education program for kids who otherwise would face the most crushing educational hurdles. They would certainly not be able to obtain the benefit of education were it not for the great effort put in by the teachers at the Fremantle learning centre in my electorate.

In the course of the past few weeks, I have had cause to attend half a dozen end-of-school functions, including ones at Gilmore College, Safety Bay Senior High School and Hillman Primary School. They are functions which allow you to see the kids in their own environment and, even more important than that, the pride on the face of the teachers as they watch their kids graduate from school. In my electorate I have some outstanding schools and some outstanding teachers. At Charthouse Primary School there is Stephen Yates. At Baldivis Primary School, John Worthy is working in a small community developing wonderful programs that cover a broad spectrum of education but with a particular focus on the kind of cultural environment that is best suited to the children from the Baldivis area. John does a wonderful job. At Kolbe Catholic College a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the first handover of computers under the computers in schools program, which we have had quite a bit of a discussion on in the course of this debate. The computers in schools program at Kolbe Catholic College is something that Caroline Payne, the principal, had been enthusiastic about. When I looked at the children logging on to their computers and engaging in education and learning through computer technology, I knew that the government’s initiative was not just at the right time: it was the right initiative with the right amount of financial resources behind it to make it work.

At Hillman Primary School, Wayne McKay runs an excellent school in a pretty tough part of town, where the kids are enthusiastic and the teachers are even more enthusiastic. Up at the Peter Carnley Anglican College, Peter Martin runs a school which is brand new. He struggles often because the school is so new, but the wonderful facilities that are there and which are working create the best possible environment for those children as they go through their primary and secondary school education. Down at Mandurah Senior College last Friday week I opened the school oval and the new facilities in the canteen. Again, it gave me exposure to the good things that are happening not only in the education system in Western Australia but also in Australia. At Gilmore College, we saw the opening just a few weeks ago of a $65 million brand new high school, primary school and preschool—an integrated facility that will be working to bring the children of Kwinana through an education process that is not just the best available in Kwinana but the best available in the most modern school.

At Calista Primary School in Kwinana, which I visited just a few weeks ago, Glenn Edwards has been working on his teaching programs and taking such care of his children as they get to the end of the current school year. He enthusiastically attended the graduation ceremony at Gilmore College which his primary school kids will attend next year. You see teachers all the time—and principals in particular—working above and beyond the call of duty. They are working not just at a job; they are working at a calling that they enjoy and which has a massive and positive impact on the children whose lives they affect.

I come back to the core of the bill that we are debating here today. It delivers on a pre-election promise. It acknowledges the costs of living that families face and it acknowledges that technology and education play a role together in the lives of our children in schools and at home. It takes action to respond to the community need to ensure that our children can, at home, get access to the same excellent technology that now they will get access to at school. We know that this new initiative is one that sets our government apart from all predecessors and sets our children up in their schools for the most wonderful education experience.

We have heard much about the former government’s programs. I am the first to acknowledge there was much good that they did. But I do point out that the Investing in Our Schools Program was wound up in January 2007. I would also point out that in my electorate of Brand, throughout 2007, many former government ministers, including the former Prime Minister, campaigned to establish an ATC in Rockingham—not because there was an educational need for an ATC in Rockingham but because the school was to be the beneficiary of pork-barrelling in the seat of Brand in order to target the former member, Kim Beazley. When the current government refused to fund that ATC—I had campaigned against the funding of that ATC—it seemed to come as some surprise to people that the best teaching system throughout the southern suburbs of Perth was already there. It is a TAFE system, the Challenger TAFE system, which is an outstanding system for trades training and apprenticeships throughout Western Australia. It seemed to be not just a waste of taxpayers’ money to put $20 million into an ATC but also an affront to the outstanding teaching and the resources that have been put into TAFE teaching in Western Australia.

What we have here today is an Australian government using not just the instruments of government to fund computers in schools; this bill brings together both instruments available to government and the parliament to help families. It is where tax rebates and education policy meet. It amends the Income Tax Assessment Act and allows it to be used for educational purposes. We have talked in this place about how the computers in schools are such an effective initiative and how additional funding for technical training in our high schools is so critically important. We have also come to the conclusion that the education refund bill will not only positively affect the ability of all families who are the recipients of family tax benefit part A to ensure that their children have excellent computing capacity at home to match the excellent computing capacity that we will be putting into schools but also recognise the costs that families face and goes some way to assisting in ensuring that all children get the best possible opportunity from our education system. I commend the bill to the House.