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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10329

Mr MARLES (7:00 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 but before I get into the substance of the bill I would like to welcome a number of people from my electorate who are in the building tonight to attend the inaugural FedCats annual dinner. FedCats is, of course, the parliamentary support group for the Geelong Football Club. It is very appropriate that I am making this statement, with the Minister for Sport in the chamber. Of course, the Minister for Sport supports a club of different coloured hoops, being the member for Adelaide, but she is, as the Minister for Sport, an honorary FedCat and we very much welcome that.

We have tonight Frank Costa, the President of the Geelong Football Club, Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson, the Coach of the Geelong Football Club, and Brian Cook, the CEO of the Geelong Football Club, all attending the annual dinner. I remember my time at the ACTU and talking to Bill Kelty, the former Secretary of the ACTU who himself is an AFL commissioner. He said to me back in 2000 that those three people represented the strongest leadership trio of any team within the AFL, and he was absolutely right. As difficult as the event six weeks ago was, which we shall not mention, we will have a great night tonight with all those people here. They are very much welcome to this House. I should also say that attending the dinner tonight are a number of civic leaders from Geelong who will be in the parliament over the next few days raising a number of serious issues concerning the Geelong region with a number of ministers, and I very much welcome them here as well.

The Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 is a bill to amend the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 with consequential amendments to the Taxation Administration Act 1953, A New Tax System (Family Assistance Administration) Act 1999, the Social Security Administration Act 1999 and the Student Assistance Act 1973. It is a bill for the purpose of introducing the education tax refund, which will assist eligible families with children enrolled in both primary and secondary schools in meeting the schooling costs and other related educational expenses associated with their children’s education. It does this simply by providing a 50 per cent refundable tax offset for eligible education expenses up to a maximum of $1,500 for each secondary school child and $750 for each enrolled primary school child. As the Treasurer noted in his second reading speech in relation to this bill, that covers about 1.3 million families and 2.7 million students who will be eligible for this fund.

The bill and the associated fund is another instance of the Rudd government meeting the commitments and the promises it made in the election which has given rise to this term of parliament, and it contributes to the government’s overall education revolution policy agenda where government does mean, step by step and in a steady progressive way, to completely change our education system and to inject some robustness into it. The Rudd government sees that education is the cornerstone of social cohesion and that a strong education system lifts our national prosperity. Education assists our nation by increasing workplace participation, productivity and our nation’s wealth, and for every individual it also offers the ability to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It is the single most important aspect of creating opportunity within our society. As I said, the Rudd government has a plan to improve the state of our nation’s education system and step by step, very steadily, we are working towards that.

That stands in stark contrast to the efforts of the former, Howard government. Their efforts were defined by a litany of counterproductive policy measures and ineptitude, both in power and now in opposition. We can see this through a range of OECD statistics about education and the place where Australia stands, if you like, on the international league tables in a number of respects in relation to education. Recent OECD education reports spanning the final years of the Howard government ranked Australia 19 out of 28 developed nations on overall education spending, and second last only to Belgium on investment in public education institutions. Just 0.1 per cent of GDP was being spent on pre-primary institutions. That compared to an OECD average of 0.4 per cent. Indeed there were some countries, such as Israel, Denmark and Hungary, spending around 0.8 per cent of their GDP on pre-primary institutions.

Ours were the most crowded classrooms. Whereas you had countries like Hungary with on average 20 students per classroom, the Slovak Republic with 20 students per classroom, Estonia with 19, Slovenia with 18 and the Russian Federation with 16, Australia had on average 24 students per classroom. The effects of this neglect could be seen in a range of test results which showed an adverse result in terms of our educational system. For example, a 2005 study indicated that one in five children in year 7 were not meeting the benchmarks for numeracy and around one in 10 were not meeting reading and writing benchmarks. That was a national disgrace. That is exactly the reason why we need to have an education revolution in this country.

The tertiary sector fared little better. Again according to the OECD, the Howard government spend in this area towards the end of its term was only 1.1 per cent of GDP—again well below the OECD average. Australia ranked on the lower rungs of the OECD in terms of its spend on tertiary education. Only Russia, Brazil, Japan, Italy, Korea and Chile were spending less public money on their tertiary education as a proportion of GDP. Throughout the entirety of the Howard government, Australia was the only country in the OECD that reduced its spending as a proportion of GDP on tertiary education during those years. That is as appalling a legacy as exists of the Howard years.

In 1999 the former Prime Minister promised that there would never be $100,000 university fees under his government, and yet the Good Universities Guide 2008 notes that there are more than 100 degrees listed by public universities that cost in excess of $100,000. Now that they are in opposition, we see this same policy of ineptitude continuing and a continued policy of getting it wrong in relation to education.

In this regard we have seen recent Liberal Party press releases from the new shadow education minister, the member for Sturt, which make very interesting reading. For example, on Sunday, 5 October he said:

If Labor’s figures of 116,000 new computers being delivered Australia-wide are to be believed, then just this first round could cost taxpayers as much as $600 million.

When those of us on this side of the House first heard this figure, there were many raised eyebrows indeed. But what came next was completely unbelievable. On Tuesday, 21 October the shadow minister for education said:

116,000 new computers mean a potential $3 to 4 billion out of the states bottom line.

This is hyperbole spiralling out of control. We have extravagant rhetoric which is inversely proportional to the efficacy of the coalition’s action on this area of policy.

By contrast, the Labor Party has a very proud and strong history when it comes to education policy in this country. We on this side of the House actually do know how our sums add up and we know how to apply that to the public purse. Through this bill we are building on a very strong Labor Party legacy in relation to education. It was the Chifley government that introduced university scholarships, established the Australian National University and reorganised the nation’s science research institutions into the CSIRO. It was the Whitlam government that increased education funding, abolished university fees and established the Schools Commission to oversee educational expenditure. It was the Hawke-Keating government which boosted recurrent funding for schools, expanded university places through the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, upgraded the national traineeship and apprenticeship scheme and raised school retention rates to their highest ever levels, with almost eight in 10 students at that time completing their secondary studies. Now it is the Rudd government building on that legacy, working to correct the failings of the Howard years and advance our nation’s education system.

In doing that, we are committed to providing our nation with an education revolution. We have budgeted for this, and the centrepiece is, of course, the government’s $11 billion Education Investment Fund, the key priority of which is capital works expenditure. But we see in a range of other areas within education as well: $533 million over five years for universal access to early childhood education; $1.6 billion over four years to raise the childcare tax rebate; and $126 million over four years for early educator training. In relation to schools there is $2.5 billion over 10 years for the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program, $1.2 billion over five years to provide for the digital education revolution component of the government’s policy agenda and $577 million over four years for literacy and numeracy support. In tertiary education there is $238 million over four years for new scholarship programs, $562 million to encourage students to study in the fields of mathematics and science, $99 million to fund new nursing places and $249 million to compensate universities and replace full-fee-paying courses with Commonwealth supported courses. In addition to that is specific funding for the advancement of Indigenous education and other specialised capital works. And on top of all that is $4.4 billion in funding that will create the new education tax refund, which is the subject of this bill.

As I said at the outset, the education tax refund will provide eligible families with a 50 per cent refundable tax offset per year in relation to primary age children for up to $750 per child—that represents a $375 refund—and a 50 per cent refundable tax offset per year for every secondary school age child for up to $1,500 per child, which represents a $750 refund. Eligible families are those in receipt of family tax benefit A and those who would be eligible to receive family tax benefit A were their child not already in receipt of other payments such as the youth allowance, disability support pension or Abstudy. Enrolled students directly receiving an independent rate of income support payment may also be eligible.

There are other provisions associated with this bill: for those parents who are in shared arrangements for the raising of their child, the education tax refund will be shared between the parents according to the applicable division of the family tax benefit A; students who are enrolled for only part of a year will be eligible for half the applicable payment; those students who are transitioning between primary and secondary school in the same financial year will be eligible for the secondary school rate of the refund; and home schooled students will also be eligible if they are registered with the relevant state or territory authority. The eligible expenses that can be claimed under the refund include the purchase, lease or hire-purchase of computers or computer related equipment, internet connections, computer software, text books and stationery and course prescribed tools of trade. Those eligible for the refund will be able to claim it in their 2008-09 income tax return. I, along with many of my colleagues who have spoken in this debate, would encourage parents in my electorate to make sure that they hold on to their receipts so that they can claim all of these benefits come tax time next year.

In my electorate, there are currently 11,478 families receiving family tax benefit A. That means over 20,000 children in the electorate of Corio stand to benefit as a result of this bill. I know that these funds will assist the people of my electorate, ensuring that their children receive the tools they need to engage successfully in the education process. I am absolutely sure they will welcome the government’s approach to reforming our nation’s educational system. Labor in government, both past and present, is proud of its policies and achievements in the field of education. We have always been about serving the national interest. We have been driven by a desire to increase social cohesion and productivity in our nation through educating our people. That is very much at the heart of the bill which is before the House this evening.

Conversely, those opposite have a legacy when it comes to education of ineptitude. They seem determined to maintain the approach that they had in government in opposition as well. The Rudd government has a nation-building agenda. Ensuring a well-maintained and functioning education system is absolutely at the centre of that nation-building agenda. We are working to bring to this country an education revolution to arrest the years of decline in education standards and funding that were endured under the Howard government. This bill is an important part of building that and I very much commend it to the House.