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Tuesday, 15 October 1985
Page: 1227

Senator RYAN (Minister for Education) —by leave-I had anticipated that a full debate regarding the Government's response to the School Commission report of 1986 would take place when the legislation was introduced into this place. However, I have had to take the unusual step of seeking leave to respond to some of the matters that were raised because they were so outrageously wrong and misrepresented so grossly the facts about government policy and the facts about decisions recently taken. For the sake of those members of the public who may have been listening, I feel it is only my responsibility to correct some of the gross errors that have just been made by two sacked education spokespersons for the Liberal Party of Australia.

A statement was made by Senator Peter Baume in relation to the new non-government schools policy-it was reiterated in an equally erroneous fashion by Senator Sir John Carrick-that there was some attempt to curtail the development of new non-government schools and that that was based on some sort of religious or race bias. I am very offended. The remarks of Senator Sir John Carrick could be interpreted only as meaning that I was acting out of some sort of prejudice against people of the Christian faith. His remarks suggested that I had some sort of Opposition to Christian education and that this philosophy was being implemented in this policy. Because such a gross insult has been perpetrated just recently in the Senate I will have to take the time of the Senate to point to the schools that were funded and, before I do that, to explain how some schools came to be funded under this category and how others did not.

As honourable senators ought to be very well aware, although some pretend to be otherwise, a new non-government schools policy was developed by the Schools Commission and accepted by the Government. The policy which is now being implemented was accepted in its entirety by the Government from the Schools Commission and that policy in turn was developed by a panel of Schools Commission commissioners, a majority of whom were representatives of the non-government sector.

Senator Peter Baume —It was a Government decision in the end.

Senator RYAN —It was a Government decision in the end, as indeed it ought to be a Government decision in the end. But that Government decision happened to be a decision which accepted the recommendation of the Schools Commission. In brief, that recommendation was that the approval of new non-government schools should take place after appropriate planning procedures had been gone through. The reason was this: It is true, as both Senator Baume and Senator Sir John Carrick claim, that while they prevailed as Education Ministers there was a totally libertarian approach to the funding of new non-government schools. That is absolutely true. It is true that any school that was able to acquire registration, and in some States registration procedures were so lax as not to exist at all, could attract Commonwealth funding. The upshot of that was that many schools that received funding collapsed and the children who were enrolled by their parents in good faith were left stranded. Other schools suddenly had to accommodate those children. That was not a policy that we regarded as being in the interests of those children or any of the other children who were affected by such decisions.

It was also the case that as a result of a totally unplanned development and proliferation of new non-government schools in areas where there was already a more than adequate supply of places, including places in the non-government sector, existing investments in government and non-government schools were seriously undermined by new schools springing up and attracting students away, at least for a period of time, and thus undermining the resources which parents had already contributed to existing non-government and government schools. As a result of these unhappy episodes, our Government decided, in consultation with the Schools Commission and all of the interests with which the Schools Commission constantly consults, to have a much more thorough planned approach to the development of new non-government schools. Under that planned approach, no school which has adequately consulted and has planned in co-operation with State and non-government school authorities will not be funded.

The list of schools to which both Senator Baume and Senator Sir John Carrick referred in the most unbalanced and misleading fashion was actually a list of schools brought before me as Minister by the Schools Commission after decisions had been made at State level by State planning committees on which non-government school representatives have, I think, majority representation; certainly in some States they do. Each of those State committees assessed applications. They then afforded a priority category to those representations. They had high and medium priorities, both of which were consistent with planned educational provision. They then had low and lowest, which were proposals that were not consistent with planned educational provision. This meant, in lay persons' talk, that those schools would be taking students away from schools which were already adequately supplied with places. Those judgments were by and large accepted by our Government and by me as Minister. There were two cases of schools which were not given a high priority funding and to which, after I sought further information, I decided to give funding.

Senator Peter Baume —Which were they?

Senator RYAN —I will not answer that interjection. So, as a result of this process and to be consistent with the planned educational provision policy endorsed by the Schools Commission, all of the schools that were recommended by the State committees were in fact funded. For the benefit of honourable senators and in face of the implied religious or race bias that I was subjected to recently let me read out a range of schools-I will not read out all 68 of them. Honest people listening to this debate can then make their own assessment about whether our Government is in any way hostile to Christian education, as was implied by Senator Sir John Carrick. In New South Wales, the State from which both honourable senators come, new schools approved for funding include the Broughton Anglican College; Catherine McAuley Girls School, Westmead; Domremy College, Five Dock; Dubbo Christian School-which was commented on by Senator Baume; Eaglevale Catholic Primary; Eukarima School; Gateway Christian School; Heritage Christian School; Illawarra Christian School; John Paul College; Masada College; Menai Catholic Primary; Mount Carmel High School, Varroville; Mullumbimby Community School; Newcastle Christian Life Academy; Our Lady of the Rosary, Waitara; Redfield College, Cherrybrook; Southern Highlands Christian School, Bowral; Special School for Autistic Children, Cringila; St Mary's Primary School, East Orange; St Mary's Rosebank College, Five Dock; St Michael's Primary School, Booragul; Sutherland Shire Christian School; Taree Catholic High School; and Windsor Catholic Secondary School, South Windsor. That is only one State. I could go on State by State.

If honourable senators were counting they would have noted a preponderance of schools established precisely on the Christian philosophy and calling themselves Christian schools that have been funded, as have Jewish schools and Christian orthodox schools. A further list contains the Oakleigh Greek Orthodox College and an Islamic primary and secondary school. So the list goes on. The list also contains the Clontarf Aboriginal School, Seventh Day Adventist schools and so on. Both honourable senators have seen this list. Both know that the 68 schools that I announced as being approved for funding included a preponderance, I would say, of Christian schools and a very broad diversity of schools based on other religious philosophies as well as some schools which are based on philosophies which are not connected with any particular religion.

How any honest senator, reading that list, could get up in this place and accuse me and, by implication, our Government of having some sort of hostility to Christian schools is a matter of great concern and almost incomprehension by me. Both of the honourable senators who made these disgraceful imputations have been Education Ministers. They know that the Commonwealth does not involve itself in concern about the religious or other philosophy of a school. They know that the matter of the registration of schools is a matter of State responsibility with which we do not seek to interfere. It is at that point the curriculum of the school, including what will be offered in terms of religious or any other philosophical instruction, is assessed. That is not a matter in which the Commonwealth Schools Commission or the Commonwealth Government involves itself in any way.

What the Commonwealth has to do is to make sure that scarce resources are spread fairly throughout the community and I believe that the list that I have just read out gives some indication of the diversity of schools which are being funded under our policy. At the same time, we have to ensure that schools which we fund are economically viable, that they are not going to collapse a few months after children are enrolled and that they are not being developed in areas where other non-government schools or government schools will be seriously--

Senator Sir John Carrick —Or government schools?

Senator RYAN —Or government schools will be seriously affected by their development. These are reasonable planning procedures which do not in any way involve any judgments about the religious philosophy of the community organising the school. I think it is very unfortunate that such accusations have been made. The only thing I can say is that, as the schools community is an increasingly well informed community, it will have no truck with suggestions of this kind.

In relation to other points made by Senator Baume in regard to the Schools Commission report, of course not every recommendation for funding was accepted. Of course in a budgetary situation like ours, we do not achieve the ideal in terms of funding. Of course we would like to be able to spend more money in special education and in the disadvantaged schools program and many others. The Commission rightly makes recommendations for funding. We assess those. We are not able to meet all of those recommendations. Senator Sir John Carrick and Senator Baume would know that when they were Ministers for Education the Fraser Government similarly did not fund to the level of every recommendation of the Schools Commission. In fact, the last time I made an assessment of the success of the Schools Commission recommendations under the Fraser Government compared with the recommendations under the Hawke Government I think we were ahead on accepting recommendations. Be that as it may, Senator Sir John Carrick and Senator Baume will know that when they were Ministers for Education no report of the Schools Commission had every recommendation for funding met fully by the government of the day because governments have budgetary constraints upon them and they also make judgments. It is true, as both honourable senators suggested, that in the end these decisions are government decisions, and properly so, but they are decisions taken in the light of public advice given by the Schools Commission-advice which is derived from extensive consultations with all interested parties; advice which is made available in this place for debate. The public can judge the Government's performance in relation to that advice. That situation will continue to prevail because the Schools Commission will continue to do what it has done today-bring reports to the Government, have those reports tabled and have Government responses tabled so that senators and anyone else interested can make up their minds about what the Government has decided to do in relation to recommendations. That is a proper procedure and one with which we will certainly continue. Any suggestion that there is something improper or outside the Westminster system in our not funding every single recommendation of the Schools Commission is absolutely absurd.

I do not propose to keep the Senate at this stage because, as I have said, the matters that I outlined in my ministerial statement will require that legislation be passed through this place and there will then be ample opportunity for further debate. I simply conclude by saying that I cannot understand why senators who claim to be concerned about education and educational opportunities find it useful to misrepresent what has actually happened. I understand that senators with a different philosophy may be critical of decisions we make but I cannot understand why they choose not simply to criticise the decisions we have made but to misrepresent wildly those decisions. Let us agree on the facts and then let us have a debate on them. I express the hope that erroneous interpretations and untruthful claims and assertions can be left aside. We are quite prepared to defend the decisions we have made and the reasons for which we made them.