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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12327

Mr PYNE (11:40 AM) —The Schools Assistance Bill 2008, which we debated in this House in October, was opposed by the opposition as it stood, without amendment, for very strong and very important reasons. We are glad that the government, although they have been dragged kicking and screaming to this position, have backed down in two out of the three areas of the opposition’s concerns. They are yet to do so in the area of the national curriculum, which we will debate later on this morning. In two out of the three areas that I outlined in my speech on the second reading and that I have repeated, some would say ad nauseam, since 16 October when we had that debate, the government have finally seen reason and common sense has prevailed. While they are hiding behind the fig leaf of Senator Xenophon on these amendments, these are essentially the amendments that we proposed for the qualified audit and funding disclosure. I do not mind if the government feel that they cannot own up to the fact that they have adopted the opposition’s amendments. I am sure Senator Xenophon does not mind being used as a fig leaf if the outcome is better for schools.

We said in October that the powers that the bill gave the Minister for Education over audit provisions were too broad. We said that when an audit of a school was returned that was qualified for financial viability reasons then the minister should have the power to delay or stop funding to that school. That has always been the situation; it was in the previous government and we believed it should continue. The bill said that, for any reason, any qualified audit could give the minister that power to delay or end funding. We took the view that that meant that, if, for example, an auditor was unfamiliar with the set-up of a governing council of a school and said in their audit that while the school was financially viable they had concerns that perhaps the governing council was too large or too small or whatever, that would in effect be a qualified audit—and our advice was that that was the case—and, for non-financial reasons, the minister would have the power to delay or end funding. I am quite sure that the minister would not do that for any nefarious reasons. The government certainly would not. We did not think it was a good idea to have that in the bill and we moved to amend it in the House of Representatives. The government defeated our amendments in October and the amendments then went to the Senate. Yesterday, hiding behind Senator Xenophon, the government backed down on their opposition to our amendments, which we are debating today. The opposition will definitely agree to those—it would be a bit unusual for us to oppose our own amendments.

The second area that the government has backed down on, which is even more important—certainly very important for the schools sector—is the whole issue of funding disclosure. The opposition have no difficulty with transparency; we never have. The financial records that the previous government collected from schools as part of their report to the government about their financial affairs were always collected by the government and held by the government and used for useful reasons. But they were never to be published.

The previous government’s view was that non-government schools, and government schools—but we are debating non-government schools in this bill—had a right to be able to receive funds and revenue from sources and that those sources should not be made public. The fact that they receive federal government resources, or taxpayers’ money, means that there is a certain level of necessity to justify what they are doing. An individual taxpayer provides their information to the Australian Taxation Office and hence the government, and they are of course prepared to do so, but they would not expect to see that information published on the front page of the newspaper or broadcast on the nightly television news—and neither should the non-government school sector, or for that matter the government school sector, have to do so.

Therefore in October we moved amendments to the bill that would not allow that information to be published. The amendments would allow the information to be collected but we did not believe that it should be possible for that to be disclosed. The government said at that time that they would essentially fight us on the beaches with respect to the funding disclosure aspects of this bill. (Extension of time granted) We sought to amend the funding disclosure aspects of the bill in October. The government opposed those amendments in the House of Representatives. Again they went to the Senate. Again, the intervention of Senator Xenophon assured the opposition that these amendments would be adopted because the government simply did not have the numbers if it did not adopt Senator Xenophon’s proposals, which essentially are amendments. We will not be opposing them.

The minister said that it was always the intention of the government not to publish the individual sources of funding to the non-government school sector. It is unusual, because what the minister has said in this place is on the record in Hansard. During the debate on 21 October, when I interjected across the House, I said to her that when we were in government they were not to be disclosed. I asked, ‘Are they going to be disclosed?’ The minister responded:

The shadow minister for education is inquiring of me by way of interjection whether we will commit to not publishing it. The government is committed to transparency. We believe that transparency is important.

How on earth could anybody take those comments to mean anything other than the fact that this information was going to be published? If it was not going to be published, why didn’t the minister say, ‘I will commit to not publishing it’? She could have said that instead of:

The shadow minister for education is inquiring of me by way of interjection whether we will commit to not publishing it.

Dr Southcott —She was just going to keep it in her top drawer.

Mr PYNE —She was just going to keep it in the top drawer, as the member for Boothby says. She could have said on 21 October, ‘I will commit to not publishing it.’ Instead she said:

The government is committed to transparency.

So every person in the school sector and everybody in the House—not that it was packed on that day; I think it was the minister, me and maybe one other in the House—would have taken from that comment that the government were going to publish it. Yet the minister now says, hand on heart, over and over again, that it was always their intention to not publish it. It is not important to us whether the minister can admit to backing down. That is not important to us. What is important is that the school sector has certainty that their sources of funding are not going to be on the front pages of the newspaper or on the television news at night. It is important to them, and I am glad that the government has adopted the opposition’s amendments in relation to funding disclosure. I welcome it.

We are delighted, and we do not mind at all that the minister cannot admit that she has adopted the opposition’s position and that, again, she has to hide behind the fig leaf of Senator Xenophon in her embarrassment. But we will support those amendments because, as I said, they are our amendments. We will get to the debate, of course, about the issue of the national curriculum shortly—after these debates are concluded. I thank the House.