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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10332

Ms OWENS (7:16 PM) —Before I speak to the bill, I too welcome the Bay Cats to parliament, but point out to the member for Corio while the Minister for Sport is in the House that everybody knows that the most significant sporting event in Geelong is in fact the Bay Crit—five days of elite cycling which takes place in early January. I look forward to spending seven days in your electorate in a couple of months time.

I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008. It is strongly supported by the people of my electorate. I am not surprised by how incredibly welcome it is. Education is an area that is close to my heart and to that of my electorate. Education stands at the very core of a fair society. Labor believes that education is the cornerstone of opportunity. It increases productivity and participation, it builds prosperity and it goes a long way to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and hardship. More than the productivity of the nation and more than the earning capacity of an individual, education opens up the world, improves the ability to relate to a broad range of people and circumstances and allows us to experience the joy in understanding and the awe in things incomprehensible. It is very much about quality of life, quality of relationships and the very quality of our life experiences. I, like so many people in my community, am the first in my family to get a university education. Quite frankly, I cannot imagine what my life would be like if that were not the case.

In my new redistributed electorate of Parramatta, the bell curve of average household income is quite flat. We have large group of people who are quite comfortable. We have a very large group of people who live with significant disadvantage. I see far too many people disadvantaged at the youngest of ages—at the very beginning of their lives—because the natural curiosity of the child and the incessant concentration that supports the rapid learning curve of the infant have not been converted into a love of learning. We are not doing as well as a nation as we should when it comes to education.

I would like to make it quite clear here that I am not criticising schools or teachers, particularly those in my electorate. We have great teachers, great parents and some extraordinary schools. Schools such as Westmead Public, Lynwood Park and Wentworthville Public are extraordinary examples of schools doing remarkable jobs in areas of relative disadvantage. While as a nation we have been reducing our expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP, the teachers in these schools have been holding our systems together. We have not been doing well as a nation and we have not been doing well for quite a while.

In Western Sydney, that poor record as a nation is showing. For me, one of the starkest indicators of that neglect over at least a decade is that university enrolment rates are significantly lower in Western Sydney than they are Sydney wide. In fact, about three per cent of our people enrol in university, whereas Sydney wide the figure is 5.2 per cent. And that difference has widened over the last 10 years. Nationwide, retention rates have stagnated over the last decade and around one in five teenagers are not finishing high school. At a time when everybody knows that competing globally means improving our skills, one in five of our teenagers are not finishing high school. And that figure has stagnated for over a decade.

When capacity constraints were putting upward pressure on inflation, we still did not invest in education as a nation. In economic terms, that is hard to believe; in social terms, it is quite shameful. We think of ourselves as an egalitarian society, but there is still far too much correlation between income of parents and the education level of their children. That is not the case in all countries of the world but it is in ours. I know that for many of the little kids that I see down at the shopping centres with their mums the only way out of poverty is education. That is why we committed prior to the last election to an education revolution.

After so many years of neglect, it is a hard thing to change a nation and bring about an education revolution. But our teachers have been carrying far more of the weight of education than they should. Families have been wearing the increased costs of providing education for their children, not just at school through excursion fees and other extras but in providing a learning environment for their children at home. It is that particular area—the providing of a learning environment at home—that this bill is aimed at.

The bill is another example of Labor delivering on its election commitments. This bill and a range of other policies will move this nation from a paper world to the digital one, preparing our children for a world of technology that we cannot even imagine. In this day and age, that means access to computers and the internet. We all know that children who have access to computers at a young age learn very quickly. We probably all have nieces, children and neighbours who, even at the age of four and five, can find their way around a computer far better than we can as adults. I was down at Pendle Hill Public School last week for one of their open days and I watched children in the very early years of primary school making computer animation which was quite sophisticated and very clever, working with quite sophisticated PowerPoint presentations and using interactive whiteboards quite comfortably in the classroom.

It is astonishing what an advantage it is for children to have access to computers at a very young age. It is well overdue that we equip with computer technology both our schools and, where possible, children’s homes for the future. We have the computers in schools program and we have a commitment to a national broadband to increase the speed of access around the nation. This bill is about helping parents meet the cost of educating their children in that world of computers. This bill is about setting up the home as a place where a child’s school education can be supported.

We would all know of children who do not have that kind of environment at home, who have a computer but no internet connection or who do not have access to computers at all. So let us look at who is eligible for this tax refund. Parents and others who are entitled to family tax benefit part A and who have children at either primary or secondary school will be eligible to claim this refund. In addition, those who would be eligible for family tax benefit part A but for the fact that they or their child is in receipt of other payments such as youth allowance, the disability support pension or an Abstudy living allowance will also be eligible. Students who are living independently of their parents may also be eligible to receive the education tax refund for their own expenses. When a student moves between primary school and high school during the financial year, their parents will be able to claim expenses at the secondary school rate of up to $1,500.

About 1.3 million families, with about 2.7 million students, will be eligible for the refund. In the Parramatta electorate there are over 12,000 families receiving family tax benefit part A and, again, I know how welcome this refund is for them. For those eligible families, the education tax refund will provide a 50 per cent refundable tax offset for eligible education expenses up to a maximum of $750 for children at primary school and $1,500 for children at secondary school. This means that parents will be able to recoup up to $375 of the costs incurred on eligible items for each primary school student and up to $750 for each high school student. Because it is a tax offset, those without a tax liability will also be able to claim that amount.

Eligible expenses under this bill include: the purchase, lease or hire purchase of computers and computer related equipment such as printers and disability aids and their associated costs, a home internet connection, computer software, school textbooks and other paper based material such as stationary, and course prescribed tools of trade. I was talking to some parents about this the other week and they related to me the cost of their internet connection and the computers which they had bought specifically for their children. Of course, they will be looking to upgrade them shortly as their children get older. For many parents in my electorate this refund will be extremely welcome. I am incredibly pleased to see that purchase, lease and hire purchase of such equipment is included. This is a substantial contribution to the education of our children and a very welcome offset for working families that need it most. This bill helps parents meet the costs of giving their children the best education possible.

The opposition has made the claim that the bill does not cover a range of things such as fees, uniforms and extracurricular activities—and it does not. It covers specifically the items that I have referred to. In 12 years the now opposition had the opportunity to introduce tax refunds for those items and did not. They were apparently going to do it in their 13th year. In Julie Bishop’s speech in the second reading debate she said:

This bill reveals the government’s true colours, because it takes away choice from parents. It is dictating to parents what they must spend their money on.

This is nice emotive language but it gives far too much power to government and is, of course, laughable. People all over the country spend money on things that are not tax deductible. Holidays are not tax deductible; people still spend money on them. Tax law does not dictate what people must spend money on. We are really just not that powerful. But in helping parents meet the costs of textbooks, stationery and computer equipment there will be a flow-on effect in the family budget which may free up money for other items, such as those that the opposition is so concerned about.

This is a good, strong initiative. It has been warmly welcomed by the people in my electorate. I, like so many other members in the House, urge everybody who is eligible for this tax offset to keep their receipts this financial year so that they can make their claim after June next year.