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Tuesday, 3 December 1985
Page: 2814

Senator ZAKHAROV(6.03) —I will speak very briefly in this cognate debate, not because there is not a great deal that I would like to say in support of these Bills but because time is very short and the listening public should be aware of this. The lack of speeches from Government senators on this and many other Bills that we have before us this week in no way indicates a lack of or even lukewarm support for those Bills.

I therefore intend to confine my remarks to one of the Bills, the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Amendment Bill, about which Senator Teague has been speaking at some length. This Bill covers four matters: Adjustments to funding to allow for increases in price levels, provision for the extension of annual program allocations to 1986, provision for the transfer of certain special education responsibilities from the Department of Community Services to the Commonwealth Schools Commission-that is something that meets a long-felt need-and provision for the implementation of the Government's policy on new non-government schools.

I wish to address my remarks mainly to the last aspect and the response it has brought from some quarters and groups in the community representing some sections of the non-government school sector which have vehemently opposed the Government's policy in this sector from the outset and which continue to oppose it against all ideals of equity. The funding policy now being implemented was developed in full consultation with both the government and the non-government sector. In fact, some of us on the Government side were critical of the Schools Commission consultation process in early 1984, when the Commission travelled around the States, because it seemed to give more time listening to the non-government sector than to the government sector. Those consultations have continued and I understand are continuing.

The recommendations of the Schools Commission and the Government's response to them have been available for some months. During that time I have certainly received material from the same bodies as has Senator Teague-the Australian Parents Council and the Victorian Parents Council-often misrepresenting the historical facts of the case and the Government's position on the proposals embodied in this legislation. But I have not been approached, and I think this is significant, by individual schools or parents in my State, which I would have expected had there been widespread dissatisfaction as my interest in and experience in education is well known. I think I am the only Victorian senator who has a professional background in education. So I would have thought that, had there been dissatisfaction, as there has been sometimes on previous occasions, I would have heard about it.

Senator Teague —But even those representations came on 28 November. The Australian Parents Council was only as recent as 28 November.

Senator ZAKHAROV —Certainly, I agree, but I have read the material and I do not give it any credence. I believe that some staff bodies in the non-government sector have in fact welcomed increased accountability, as indeed have some parents who are well aware that in some non-government schools there has been in the past little accountability for spending, even to their own school communities.

Before going on to discuss the need for accountability in this as in all areas of government spending, I make the point that the non-government sector also benefits from funding on special programs, including programs to meet special needs. I remember that in the debate in the House of Representatives that was a point which was certainly distorted by the Opposition. Indeed, this very legislation provides for funding for special education projects in non-government as well as government schools. That is set out in the Schedule at the back of the Bill.

I am genuinely surprised, although I have grown more cynical over the last three years that I have been in the Senate, that the Opposition is so upset about accountability in this area of government expenditure when it is so anxious to track down what it sees as misspent expenditure on social security or even, as was the case last week, on the printing of a government report. As the Minister, Senator Ryan, noted in Question Time yesterday, the same senators who spend days assiduously seeking accountability from departments and from the Government during the examination of the Estimates are now complaining that the Government is asking the non-government schools to account for their large sums of taxpayers' money-an increase this year alone of $12m.

I do not believe that the information being sought is intrusive. Indeed, it is much less intrusive than information sought, for example, about the living arrangements of a supporting parent beneficiary. I would expect that most schools would be perfectly willing to supply this information, which should be readily available if the school is accountable to its own community, including its parents and its staff, as it surely should be. Accountability is not just an end in itself. It is also a check on how public money is spent. But it is essential also to proper educational planning.

Schools have been established in the years since the Schools Commission was set up, schools which clearly were not viable. An example, and there are many of them, in my State is a relatively new school whose total enrolments rapidly fell below 20 before it finally closed. When this happens there is a loss to the parents as well as to the Government but, more importantly, there is disruption to the education of the students concerned, particularly as in this case they were primary school students in a country area. In other cases new schools have threatened the viablity of existing schools in their area. There needs to be greater accountability than this legislation provides and in broader areas than the financial one.

I find it anomalous at the very least that the Government is providing funds in some cases to schools whose educational practices are working against the achievement of Government policies. For example, schools which teach, supposedly with a biblical justification, that females are necessarily subordinate to males must surely run counter to the aims of equal opportunity and anti-sex discrimination policies. I have said it before in debates on education, and I will continue to say it while there is a need, that the States have a responsibility in the area of quality of education which they are not always meeting. The Government is funding schools which I believe carry out an educational program and use educational practices which are in fact anti-educational. At some of these are schools which include the word `Christian' in their name-this should concern all Christians-children spend long periods of the day receiving programmed instruction of very doubtful value based on literal interpretation of the Bible, often supervised by untrained staff, with little opportunity for discussion and none for the development of a critical attitude to what is presented to them.

This is not education as it should be available in a democratic society. I urge registration authorities in the States to look more closely at educational accountability. I have concentrated on one part of one Bill because this is the one that the Opposition seeks to change. But I certainly commend all the Bills for their contribution to quality and equity in education at all levels.