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Tuesday, 21 December 1993
Page: 5512

Senator ROBERT RAY (Minister for Defence) (12.52 a.m.) —I move:

  That the committee does not insist upon its amendments Nos 2 to 18 disagreed by the House of Representatives.

The government wishes to persist with its position and resist the amendments previously passed by this place which were rejected by another place. The government is somewhat puzzled by the National Party of Australia, which sponsored these amendments, because it is usually a party of states rights and often says that centralised bureaucracies are not close enough to the needs of the people on the ground.

  In this case, the government agrees that local decision making is more effective. This is the basis for these reforms. The country areas program money is of course secure. All that will change is that there will be increased flexibility to ensure that it goes to the young people it is meant to help. There is enough in the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill to allay the fears even of the Nationals—the party of states rights until this piece of legislation—who have said that, in this case, they do not trust their state colleagues.

  The accountability provisions of broadbanding are there to ensure that the money goes where it is intended to go and that it helps the country students whom it is intended to help. Broadbanding is intended to help students who are doubly disadvantaged by their isolation and disadvantage. As the opposition has said repeatedly, the country areas program is a good program. The government thinks so too. Its funding base in 1994 is secure and it will continue to provide school children with much needed education, social and cultural experiences.

  But there is always room for improvement in any program. In this case, the improvement should focus on public scrutiny and achieving educational outcomes for the students, rather than on cultural and social facilities for the whole community. The onus will now be on education authorities to achieve the stated objectives and to report to the parents and the community through equity agreements. This will make it much easier for the Australian public to assess whether the funds and the effort are being targeted in the most effective way.  For example, it will be open to public scrutiny as to whether it is worth while for students to be funded for holidays to New Zealand; or whether in country areas program funds should be used for floodlights for polo fields and swimming pools.

  When we come to the question of better targeting, these provisions will allow the movement of funds between the disadvantaged schools program and the country areas program in either direction and achieve the exact opposite of what the opposition is claiming. Broadbanding allows teachers and parents to develop better programs for their students because it makes it possible for decisions to be made much closer to the school. It allows those who really know the disadvantages and needs of students to do more to address them.

  It is ridiculous to suggest, as the opposition has, that being poor and from a low socioeconomic background is exclusively an urban experience. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are found throughout the country, including in rural and isolated areas. However, the opposition would have us believe that those who are poor live in the city. In opposing this simple fact, the opposition is trying to stop us funding the educational needs of poor students in the country. These are the students most in need of our assistance. The opposition is trying to stop real and positive improvements for the students.

  On the question of accountability, one important consequence of the broadbanding is that it will deliver the most progressive education agreements that the Commonwealth has ever had with states, territories and non-government authorities. These agreements, which will be public, commit all education authorities to stated goals and objectives and outcomes for each group of disadvantaged students. This is a major step forward for education in the country. The agreements also commit education authorities to account publicly for their progress in terms not just of the money spent but, more importantly, of what they achieve with it.

  We make no apologies that these agreements require authorities to identify what resources they are putting into equity. The Commonwealth funds are supposed to be supplementary. We know that real improvements in the education of these students will require an effort from us all. Almost all the agreements are ready for signature after six months of detailed negotiations with the authorities, parents, teachers and interest groups. Some have already been signed.

  There will be little change of these agreements going ahead if broadbanding disappears. Broadbanding is the main incentive for systems to sign up for much greater public accountability. Broadbanding reflects the reality with which school systems have been grappling for some time that disadvantages such as poverty, Aboriginality and isolation often overlap. Resources have to be targeted properly to do anything really positive about these disadvantages.

  Let me move to the second broad area of amendment as to whether non-government schools should have direct access to national equity program funds. The government is astounded that the independent sector is asking for such close ministerial involvement in its operations. It is much more common for it to be telling us to go away. Why has there been such a turnaround? The answer is obvious. It does not want to be accountable for the funds it receives. It does not want to take the equity seriously in its sector. This should not be acceptable to anyone on either side of this chamber.

  When the national equity program was being developed, the independent sector put up a strong fight to get its own funding allocation. The argument those in that sector used was that they were big people now and they wanted to be able to run their own programs in a way that best suited their own students and their own style of operation. So the government identified the independent sector's allocation across all equity funding.

  The independent sector in each state and territory now has its own allocation of students with disabilities, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, rural and isolated students, non-English speaking background students and students at risk. They have the power to organise themselves in the best way to allocate and deliver those funds. This puts them on the same footing as the government and Catholic sectors. This is only fair and equitable.

  Only last year, when the funds for the students at risk program were extended to the non-government sector, the independents were furious when the government suggested that their funds would be best administered from a national pool. They would not have a bar of it. They insisted on each state and territory getting its own allocation and administering it through the Association of Independent Schools. We are intending nothing more or less for the rest of the equity program. They obviously cannot make up their minds.

  The equity implications of allowing non-government schools to apply for funds and run programs on their own are very serious. It will not be possible to allocate the funds to an independent sector in a state and then calculate what amount to retain in Canberra for those schools which may want to go it alone. For example, how would it be possible to assess whether these schools are more or less needy than those receiving funding from aggregation? The answer is that it would not be possible to do this in a way which is fair and equitable. The only way in which the government will be able to handle the complicated backflip by the independent sector is to put all equity funding back to Canberra and administer it from there.

  That will cost a lot in administrative resources, and that will have to be met from the independent sector's share of the funds. It would also cost time and be less effective. The only way in which these funds could be distributed equitably is by the Commonwealth establishing a national independent equity authority. This body would be appointed by the minister to advise on allocating all the independent sector's equity funds according to national priority and national criteria. Is that what the independent sector really wants? If the government is required to deal with the independent schools on a one-to-one basis, that is surely what they are going to get. We do not particularly want that, they do not want it, and their students certainly deserve better.