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Friday, 2 December 1983
Page: 3252

Senator MACKLIN(3.03) —We are debating cognately the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Bill 1983, the States Grants ( Schools Assistance) Bill 1983 and the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1983. I wish to make a number of comments on all three Bills. Probably more detailed comments can be made on the clauses of these Bills during the Committee stage. I think it would be better to deal with the Bills in detail at that stage.

In general, I support the Staes Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Bill 1983. The Australian Democrats welcome the initiatives taken by the Government in relation to this Bill. The objective, as stated by the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) during her second reading speech, of encouraging a significant increase of participation by young people in education and training, to provide a useful and fulfilling education and to encourage the achievements of more equal educational outcomes is a magnificent objective. Oh, that we could reach that! Unfortunately, this Bill falls short of this aim; but that is to be expected. Hopefully, over the years we will move in that direction and achieve more and more of those well worthwhile aims.

This Bill appears to be a major attempt to do something about the issues of equal opportunity that were raised in the fifth and main report of the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty entitled 'Poverty and Education in Australia' . Nevertheless, quite a number of items still concern us. For example, the Poverty Commission stressed in its report at the very outset that the unequal outcomes of schooling cannot be fixed by simply tinkering. I think that yet again we may have fallen for the educational equivalent of a three-card trick. The previous Government sought a way out, which was referred to by Senator Peter Baume, in terms of a variety of programs, the transition programs. I have spoken before in this chamber about those programs, most of which, I feel, were probably not worth the money spent on them. I am quite happy to say that. The alternative use of that money, I believe, could have achieved more in terms of equality of opportunity.

I believe that the major reason for our failure to solve our problems in this area is that we keep believing for some reason or another that educational disadvantage is an educational problem. Educational disadvantage is a social problem and will only eventually be solved by social policies, not by educational policies. A simple illustration of that would be two children sitting behind the same desk in a classroom anywhere in Australia. One of those children could be the child of a surgeon at a hospital; the child sitting next to him could be the child of a person who is unemployed. Regardless of the resources that we pour into the institution, the comparative educational opportunity of those children will never be changed. Essentially, the major contribution that is made in that classroom is made by the teacher. But the teacher can provide only roughly the same support to both of those children. Any other resources, whether they be library, audio-visual, science laboratories or whatever, again will provide only equal opportunities to each of those children. Yet each of those children approaches the educational task with quite unequal backgrounds in terms of the resources that their parents can supply. Until we tackle that social problem we will not affect in any material way the problem of equality of educational opportunity in this country.

The report of the Poverty Commission states:

Factors such as social class, sex, geographical location, ethnicity and age all play a part. Those who gain least from the schooling system tend to be at the bottom of the social scale where lack of post school qualifications perpetuates their position. The outcomes of schooling are most favourable for those at the top of the social scale though their position tends to be less dependent on educational factors.

It seems to me that a brave attempt is being made through the introduction of this Bill; it certainly is an attempt which must be made. But again I reiterate that I believe that the money we are spending through this Bill could probably be better spent and achieve those objectives more closely through a different portfolio. So I am not worried about the fact that Senator Baume made great play in the beginning of his speech of the percentage which is spent within the educational portfolio. I believe that the money ought to be spent where it can best achieve the objectives. I do not believe that it is always best spent in the education budget.

In the first recommendation of the report of the Poverty Commission much stress was put on the need for collecting and monitoring data on a national basis relating the level of schooling and qualifications for specific groups to such outcomes of schooling as power within the community and occupation, which is basically equivalent to income levels. Without this information, I believe that it is virtually impossible to draw up a participation and equity program that has any real meaning or that will have any chance of lasting effect.

In the introduction to the report, the Commission produced a table which illustrates that of those children who are living under the poverty line, more than 20 per cent come from large, intact families and 28 per cent come from families with no disability other than a very low income. These percentages increase amongst children who live in the 100 to 120 per cent of the poverty line category whereas as much as 73 per cent of the children come within these two disability groupings. We think that it is extremely important that people involved in the administration of that education program look closely at this report. It is very interesting to note that children in the traditional categories of single parent families, sick and invalid families, unemployed people and recent immigrants, form a relatively small proportion of the overall numbers. By comparison, over 35 per cent of these poor children come from the more sparsely populated rural areas. So the emphasis which is tending to emerge is an emphasis on what we might call traditional disadvantage, whereas in the education field the real disadvantage lies in two other groups, not the groups which are highlighted in most of what goes on at the moment.

I wish to emphasise the last point I made that over 35 per cent of poor children-and that is one of the major groups-come from the sparsely populated rural areas. I mention the plight of rural children not only because of the vast number of these children in my State of Queensland and because of my very deep concern for the multiple disadvantages facing children in remote areas in their attempt to obtain a decent level of education, but also because it concerns me that the Minister has not reacted more quickly in regard to the sale of student hostels in Melbourne. I have linked these two items and I will raise that matter at a more appropriate time when making my comments in relation to the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill.

I pass now to the second of these three Bills, the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill. I have said many times before that I think that we have spent far too much time quarrelling about the implications of this Bill, both in this place, in various town halls and in other parts of Australia. It seems that quite a number of people in the community might prefer that Senator Ryan, Senator Peter Baume and perhaps I should be put into a carriage and trundled round the countryside as part of a continuing sideshow, rehearsing time and time again the debates which go on in this place. Quite frankly, I really do not believe that such debates really help the educational cause in this country.

The Australian Democrats were dragged rather brutally into this rather unhelpful debate by very expensive advertisements which appeared in various newspapers this week. Senator Chipp has already referred to the blatantly misleading nature of these advertisements. It has led to the rather ridiculous situation whereby my office has received an enormous number of telegrams. I will quote from some of these telegrams to give an idea of what people think we will do in relation to this Bill. The telegrams state:

We urge Democrats to uphold democracy in Australia. Reject Senator Ryan's discriminatory Bill on education.

Every child in Australia has a right to an education subsidy. Reject Senator Ryan's Bill.

Strongly urge you vote against funding Bill which discriminates against non- Government schools.

Quite frankly, I think that if people really have been led to believe that the best course of action would be to vote against these Bills, then someone or other around the country has been engaging in a gross and, I would suggest, rather unfair campaign to promote the idea to the people that if we vote against these Bills, somehow or other private schools will benefit. The reality is that the money provided by these Bills will support government and non-government schools next year, and anybody who votes against these Bills needs his head read . We have been down this path on a number of occasions. Senator Baume, the previous Minister for Education, said similar things about the States Grants ( Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill last year when Senator Ryan, the then Opposition spokesman on education, and I were making vague noises about amalgamations occurring at that time. Senator Baume quite correctly said that after 1 January those institutions would run out of money. That is true, and a very telling argument. I spoke to those people as late as a couple of hours ago. Are they saying to me and to the Opposition that schools in Australia will be quite happy to go without funding until this matter is resolved? It may be all right for those schools which have vast resources. It would be absolutely disastrous for most schools in Australia. Therefore, we have no intention of doing what the Opposition asks.

However, at the Committee stage we will be raising a matter we have raised on many occasions not only on these types of Bills but also on other Bills; that is , the right of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and then to the Federal Court, if necessary, of people with a great concern about areas in which judgments are made based on evaluative criteria. When the Minister makes a determination in relation to an amount of money, it is not an evaluative criterion; it is not appropriate that such a determination be appealable. The amounts are determined by the Parliament. The Democrats have maintained that, where evaluative criteria are built into all such Bills of a serious nature, such determinations ought to be appealable to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. We will be seeking to have an appeals procedure against such decisions as are built into this Bill. We have been unsuccessful in this respect on previous occasions, but that has not stopped us trying.

We have received from the Australian Parents Council, as have probably quite a number of other people, a range of amendments, which I will discuss at the appropriate time. However, if we adopted a number of the amendments suggested by the Australian Parents Council private schools would be worse off than they are now. I am sure that is not the intent.

Senator Peter Baume —We have a few days though.

Senator MACKLIN —Yes, we do. Hopefully we will be able to discuss a number of these matters at the Committee stage. I point out yet again, as I am sure the Minister also will be very quick to point out yet again, that two principles operate in this area; one concerning the right of each child to support for its education, and the second concerning those who need more support than others. I put to the Catholic bishops by way of letter the argument that it is inevitable that those principles will come into conflict when one is faced with a cake the size of which one has no control over. I asked them to tell me what their approach would be when those principles conflicted. Unfortunately I have not had very many responses. I have received some letters, and I will be happy at a later stage to read the text into Hansard, the gist of which is yes, it is a very difficult problem. I knew that it was a very difficult problem. I was posing a very difficult problem. I was posing the problem of conflicting principles.

While it is all right in the community to keep maintaining that both principles ought to be upheld, when they are in conflict one has to resolve that conflict in favour of one principle rather than the other. That is a necessary factor that resolves in government and resolves in parliament. We would like to be able to uphold both principles by endless amounts of money, but that is just not feasible. The Australian Democrats have made it very clear where we stand when those principles conflict. We will prefer, every time, to give that money to those who are in most need. I do not really believe that anybody could, when confronted with that unenviable choice, do other than that. I say to Senator Baume, in support of his past actions, that he had a number of these things and the same decisions were made. This did not happen on every occasion and I have criticised those actions, but, on the bulk of occasions it did. If one looks at the Act one finds that the only criterion to which the Minister had to have regard was the need of the schooling systems. That was the Act that Senator Baume argued through this place last year. That was the principle to which he believed, in legislative reform, he should have regard.

I turn now to the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill. We welcome this Bill and are particularly pleased to see an end to the enforced amalgamations. We have been particularly vocal about that. I believe that consultation in this area is always far better than plucking a list out of the air which is meant for something else. One should not make decisions in relation to expenditure when a decision ought to be made in relation to education. However, we are over that hurdle now. In the future we hope that any such amalgamations which may occur-I believe they may occur from time to time-will be done in full and extensive consultations with the various bodies concerned.

The only area of complaint that we have relates to the item that I raised before and that is the 25 per cent reduction in grants for collegiate residences in 1984 and especially to the fact that this will be applied pro rata to all residences currently in receipt of Commonwealth grants.

We appreciate that the Commission will be reviewing future arrangements for support for student accommodation and we have sufficient trust in the Commission to believe that they will look at the real disadvantages facing rural students. I think everybody is aware that rural parents are very concerned-it is an understandable concern-about their children when they leave home and go off to the big smoke, as it is still called in many parts and certainly in my State, for their tertiary education. They are concerned about their children despite the fact that they are 18 or 19 years of age. I think that is a legitimate concern. Many of them express very strongly, when one talks to them, that they would prefer their children to be in a campus residence where there is, at least , some watchful eye in that first year of two. That really calms many fears that parents quite legitimately express. But over and beyond that, if one looks at the major accommodation in universities around Australia, one sees the rents are extremely high.

Senator Peter Baume —The quality is low.

Senator MACKLIN —The quality is low in most places and rents are high. I would have hoped that, in terms of the capital works programs that the Government had chosen to carry out to get the economy moving again, we might have seen a major part of that money expended not on footpaths. One gets exasperated by this. We are still building footpaths which will not in any way contribute to our economic growth in this country. If the same amount of money were spent and if the same amount of cement were used on colleges or campus accommodation it would be an asset well into the future and would be marvellous for economic growth.

I think it would be very difficult to go past any capital works program such as this for long term economic benefit. I would be very interested if anybody could put up a capital works program that has to be funded by the Government which could get a better return. The submission of the Student Housing Officers Association entitled 'Student Housing: An Issue of Access to Tertiary Education for Country Students', which the Minister certainly has, contains many worthwhile recommendations. It is part of the participation and equity program at the tertiary level. People and students have to live somewhere.

In summary, we support the three Bills and, in general, see them as a progressive step-certainly a step in the right direction. However, we still raise problems. No Bill will ever satisfy the people who are concerned with education and neither should any Bill ever satisfy them. There is always more to be done, but one despairs sometimes at the priorities which we place on other areas and at the increasing lack of concern for the well argued premise that money spent on education is, at least in 1983, the best investment for the dollar that anybody can make. I refer briefly to the second reading amendment which was moved by the Opposition. It would be very difficult for the Democrats to support this amendment, for a number of reasons. Since I have very little time left I simply refer to paragraph (d), which states:

(d) supports the principle of absolute freedom of choice in education . . .

The Democrats do not support an absolute freedom of choice in education. I will raise at least one issue on which I think the Opposition would not support the absolute freedom of choice in education. Children in the country have rights. Children in any democracy must have rights. Parents do not have an untrammelled right under the laws of this country to do what they will with children. We are very clear in a whole range of areas on limiting the rights of parents because of the rights of children.

Senator Peter Baume —It means within the law.

Senator MACKLIN —The amendment states 'absolute freedom of choice'. I am taking it to task. The Democrats cannot support absolute freedom of choice. We support freedom of choice in education. I will give Senator Baume an educational example . Some schools in this country are giving an education which is detrimental to children. Many parents are now coming to me because they have found out, too late, that their children do not have the chance of even earning a living as a result of the education being given in some schools. Those children's rights to their life, to their enjoyment of their skills and to the contribution they can make to this country have been blighted by the choices made by parents. That to me is as bad as giving a right to a parent to abuse a child either physically or psychologically. They have blighted those children in their life chances. We support freedom of choice but it is never an absolute freedom. There are no absolute freedoms in a democracy. Every individual has rights. Where the rights of the child conflict with the rights of the parents it is not an easy choice. But the rights of the parents in education are not absolute. I have never held them to be absolute and I doubt very much whether anybody in this chamber holds them to be absolute.

Senator Peter Baume —Without that word what would your view be?

Senator MACKLIN —We can support freedom of choice but we find it very difficult to support amendments which have such wording in them.

Senator Peter Baume —It has not been moved. It has only been foreshadowed.

Senator MACKLIN —In that case I should not be speaking to it. I thought it had been moved. Paragraph (b) of the amendment which has been foreshadowed states:

(b) calls for the restoration of the right of all children to receive guaranteed government support for their education.

I suggest that children, under this Bill-this is what the attachment is-have a guaranteed right of support for their education. It is contained in the Bill. This Bill differs little from the Bill introduced last year. I am quite sure the Opposition felt then that it contained within it the right of all children to receive guaranteed government support. That is what this Bill does. That is what this Parliament, when it supports the second reading, will be guaranteeing to all children in this country-government support. We do not have to call for restoration; it has not been taken away. It is there. The Government supports it , and in fact the Australian Labor Party will be insane not to support it. The political situation in this country is such that any party which does not support the continuation of the private education system would not sit on the government benches after an election. So the Government, as is evident from the schedules, has increased the amount of money. Indeed, if one reads the teachers union journals one discovers that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, is no longer the darling of the teachers unions and that she is now almost on a par with the Education Minister from New South Wales. It is pretty difficult to get down quite that low, and she still has a slightly higher rating than he does.

Senator Teague —I thought the elections tossed out the leaders of the Teachers Federation?

Senator MACKLIN —Yes, and I think what is sometimes attributed to the Teachers Federation is not always the view of the Federation, to be quite fair.

Senator Crichton-Browne —Certainly not of the members.

Senator MACKLIN —Not even of the presidents of the union, either. That is easily demonstrated-it is on the record-by looking at the speeches that they tend to deliver in places other than annual conferences. So what we ought to be doing with this Bill is attempting, as far as we can, to fix any formal defects, and we certainly will be trying to do that. I believe a range of new items in this legislation ought to be appealable. They are matters of evaluation and they ought to be able to go into court if people feel that strongly about them. I foreshadow that we will be pursuing that in the Committee stage. As for the second reading attachment of the Opposition-

Senator Peter Baume —In its present form.

Senator MACKLIN —Yes, in its present form, I do not feel that the Democrats could support it.