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Thursday, 8 December 1983
Page: 3540

Senator HARRADINE(5.49) —Mr President, I understand the wish of the Government at least that we reduce the length of our speeches on these matters because of the Government's program. It is unfortunate that measures of such importance as the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Bill, the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill and the States Grants ( Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill have come before the Senate in the last couple of weeks of parliament. Of course, the measures deal with a wide range of educational matters, some of which I am the first to acknowledge are welcome initiatives or improvements, although if time permitted I would have liked to have made some substantial comment on the participation and equity program. Nevertheless, because of those circumstances I will concentrate briefly on those areas in the legislation which implement the Government's guidelines in respect of the funding of non-government schools; in other words the matters of real contention which, as the previous speaker has said, have overshadowed other areas of educational interest which are of real importance to the whole of the community. In my view it was totally unnecessary for the Government to bring down these guidelines to break the nexus, abolish the basis grant and insist upon a type of impact study before new schools are funded. It was unnecessary for the Government to do what it did in those three areas, as I will point out during the debate.

I do not intend to argue the way I did in previous debates on these matters because I think the atmosphere has slightly changed since then. I hope that it has because at that stage-I am referring to the stage until about a fornight ago -the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) was accusing persons who were concerned about these educational issues variously of being anti-Labor, of stirring the pot or of having some ulterior motive. Just to give honourable senators an example of that, on 9 November, when replying to the matter of public importance that I raised in the Senate, the Minister said:

We know Senator Harradine's motives. They are what they have been for a very long time. They are aimed at eroding the Labor forces in this country and the Labor Government.

Of course, it is of great concern to Senator Harradine and his echo in News Weekly, Santamaria, that the catholic education commissions are, in fact, extremely supportive of our needs-based approach to education.

She went on to say:

One could find almost word for word what Senator Harradine has just said in this article by B. A. Santamaria in News Weekly. That would not surprise anybody in this place.

They are extraordinary statements from a Minister who should know better. They indicate not only her lack of grasp of the real educational concerns of people but also her lack of knowledge of the political circumstances of the nation. Of course not only had I not even read what News Weekly had said about this matter- although if it agreed with what I was saying it was obviously on the right track -but also, and this was the most disconcerting aspect of the Minister's observation, she failed to understand that at that time there were people like me who were genuinely concerned about education. After all, I have some reason to be concerned about the issue. I have thirteen reasons to be concerned about it. I was concerned also about the fact that the Minister was engaging in what appeared to be, on the face of it, a deliberate tactic of intimidation towards non-government school parents and their principals in the non-government school area.

I hope to be able to acknowledge that the Minister has changed her attitude in that respect. Having gone to some of these meetings I think she now realises-I hope she does-that this is a matter of genuine concern. To me and to many of the parents who have gone to these meetings it has nothing to do with party politics . After all there is no election in the offing for another two years, and these people are concerned.

At a meeting in Ballarat the Minister acknowledged that the nexus gave some security in planning to the non-government school sector. She said that the advantage of the nexus was that it gave confidence for the future and that it gave some security in educational planning in the non-government sector. She said that the disadvantage was that the nexus was not flexible enough that the Government had decided to abolish it, that it would attempt to rearrange the amount of money that was available from Commonwealth funds within the non- government school sector and that it would increase the grants to non-government group 3 schools; the most needy schools. As I said on that occasion, we would have all gone home happy if the Minister, who is proposing a 3 per cent increase for non-government group 3 schools, had simply said: 'For the time being we will make that 43 per cent-and keep the nexus'. We would also be happy if she withdrew her comment, which is on the record, relating to the basic grant. I hope the Minister will see her way clear today either to say that the comment was not adequately detailed in the Press or at least that she now rejects it. In the Canberra Times of 26 September 1983 the Minister is reported as saying:

The view that parents who choose non-government schooling for their children had a right or entitlement to government funding of that choice because they were taxpayers was a specious argument.

Senator Sir John Carrick —When did she say that?

Senator HARRADINE —It is reported in the Canberra Times of 26 September 1983. I would say that very few Government members would adopt that point of view. I am just wondering whether the Minister will take the opportunity that is now available to refute that statement and say that in fact there is a prior right for parents to choose the education best suited to their child or children.

It may be, as is very often the case, that because of certain circumstances parents choose a state school for one child-say, a child attending primary school-and a non-government school for another child. But if the Minister is able to see her way clear to refute that statement, so much the better.

Senator Tate —But, Senator, you do not get the right as a taxpayer; you get the right as a person sending your child to a school.

Senator HARRADINE —Yes, one gets the right as a person. A parent has the prior right to choose the education that is best suited to his children. In Australia, for example, we have compulsory education. We have no choice about that. However , a parent has the right to choose freely the type of education best suited to his child and that right should not be qualified by overburdensome fiscal pressures. The fact is that parents who choose to send their children to non- government schools are taxpayers. Part of their taxes is earmarked for education . That is another reason why the Minister ought to retract her statement. That is the basic reason for the establishment of the basic grant. In my book it was too low, but it has been taken away from 41 schools and naturally the parents of children who attend those schools are concerned.

I make the point that some people are saying: 'You are going to bet for these 41 elitist schools'. I am not going to bet for any school. I am going to bet for the right of the parents to choose the form of education best suited for their children and their right to have a portion of the educational expenditure from government sources-in other words, taxpayers' sources-directed to their children . I would like to read a letter from a parent of a child who attends one of the schools that has been hit. This parent is either a deserted wife or divorcee. I think honourable senators should listen carefully to the letter. She states:

Dear Senator Harradine,

I am a sole parent with two children, both boys. My elder boy is at an Independent School, although he attended his local State School until Grade 6. I was forced (although I knew it would be a shocking financial strain) to change his school because of behavioural problems due to the breakdown of the marriage and complete rejection by his father. I am hoping I can keep my second boy at the State School.

The stress of bringing up two boys, working full-time and caring for an ailing father is enourmous and we are forced to lead a very spartan existence. At the time I decided to change my elder boy's school, I thought I could handle the financial strain whereas I could not handle two delinquent teenage boys.

Now, what do I do? Do I unsettle my boy even more by changing his school when he has settled in (he is now in Year 7), formed friendships, is very happy, working well and receiving the extra care and attention he so badly needs?

I am writing to you as a concerned parent. I pay taxes, part of which are set aside by Government for education of my children. I feel strongly that it is discriminatory to give my elder boy less grant because he attends a private school when my tax grant alone would fully fund him if he attended a State School. He should at least get the same grant as the school of my choice as he would if he attended a State School, because I pay the same tax levy. Why should the State Schools get my share of my elder boy's grant when he does not attend a State School?

The logic is unanswerable. Yet this right is being undermined by the Government' s guidelines. This lady's child attends one of the 41 schools which have had their grants reduced. This letter indicates that it is not so much a matter of wealthy schools as a matter of wealthy or poor parents. Many wealthy parents send their children to government schools. Therefore, in that sense, this is not a social justice issue. The burden placed on this single parent is quite enormous. What does she do in a situation in which although her child is happy at the school she may well have to take him away and thus create real problems for him? What happens when people go to bat for these 41 schools? I am disturbed and sad to say this, because I respect many of the things that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is doing, but I am concerned that, presumably on very bad advice, he said recently that there was an unholy alliance between the 41 schools and some Catholic schools. I do not know to whom he was referring or where this unholy alliance is. As far as I am aware all of the Catholic authorities, including the National Commission of Bishops and the National Catholic Education Commission, have expressed grave concern about these aspects of the Government's guidelines. They have done so in statements that have been made after conducting a very rigorous examination of them. It has been put to me that these 41 schools should not be supported because most of their students go on to universities and there hit the taxpayer jackpot. That is no argument for the guidelines. It is an argument for the reintroduction of tertiary fees. If the Government wants to bite that bullet, I invite it to do so. It might be get more support than it expects.

In what I hope is a more conciliatory atmosphere that is developing, I wish to ask that the Minister bear certain things in mind. I ask her, first of all, to acknowledge that there is real, genuine concern amongst many parents. They are concerned about the future. They are concerned also that the future is being designed by the Commonwealth Schools Commission whose membership is now influenced by appointees of the Minister, three of these having a long track record of anti-State aid campaigning. Non-government school parents are concerned that their representative was not reappointed to the Schools Commission. I am not talking about education officers. I am talking about a parent representing non-government school parents. The Schools Commission is, of course, now deeply involved in the study, as directed by the Minister, of a number of areas including the target recurrent resource standard study. It is most unfortunate that there is such a weight of anti-State aid people on the Commission when considerations of the future of non-government schooling are being undertaken. It is probably too late now totally to reverse the situation just by filling vacancies with people but at least that would be a start. Let us at least now approach this matter recognising that there is very deep concern throughout the community. If the Minister does that, I am sure that she will be surprised at the co-operative attitude that may develop. But how can the Minister get a co-operative attitude when she has pulled the rug from under the parents of the children attending these 41 schools-children who have had their just rights denied to them.

My suggestion to the Minister is that she withdraw this legislation; that she tie the level 3 schools, for the time being, to 43 per cent, of the nexus; that she restore the basic grant to the 41 schools and withdraw the forthrightness, if that is the word, of her guideline relating to the establishment of new schools. Then she will certainly open the door to co-operation on the part of concerned parents.