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Tuesday, 10 November 2015
Page: 8229


Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (22:06): I would like to speak to a couple of matters this evening. In my first remarks I would like to address the reality on the Central Coast that there is a building under consideration for construction on a site that has been cleared of the Gosford Public School. The removal of a school from a community is no small event

It was one of the longest-standing schools in the region of the Central Coast. The community were finally persuaded to give over that piece of land and move their school to another site on the strength of that piece of land, which is quite near the Brisbane water and quite a beautiful spot, becoming available to create an enlivened and vibrant centre for the people of the Central Coast to gather. That is what people were sold when they gave way and moved the school to another site nearby.

What has happened in recent weeks is that the federal government has determined, through a process which can only be described as incredibly opaque, to impose on that site an ATO building, which could best be described by the drawings that the community has had access to as a brown-brick monstrosity. There will be four floors in which public servants associated with the Australian Taxation Office will be housed, with remarkable views over the beautiful Brisbane water, right at the entry way to the capital city of the Central Coast, Gosford.

On the Saturday of the long weekend recently, with only three days notice, I was able to organise through my office enough communication to the community so that almost 1,000 people gathered at 8.30 in the morning to protest this imposition on our community. The Central Coast will not be taken for granted. I have made a request to the Prime Minister to see him. I have called on him in his new role as Prime Minister to make a break with the imposition of this particular building on the Central Coast—to make a break from the old way in which the government was treating the Central Coast under Prime Minister Abbott. To this day, Prime Minister Turnbull has refused my request for a meeting to hear the voice of the people of the Central Coast. I want to put on the record this evening that people are very, very angry at being ignored. They feel their voice is not being heard. The entire community of that school that gave way is distraught and distressed, and rightly so. They gave up precious space for it to be co-opted and used for a purpose that does not align with the impression given.

This continues to be a fight for the voice of the people and a fair and equitable outcome for an incredibly invigorated space that will create an open and wonderful welcome area for a creative arts hub at the Central Coast—a signature set of iconic buildings that would re-enliven that part of the coast. Mr Turnbull should listen to the people of the Central Coast. I ask him once again, formally through this process, to give me the courtesy of his ear, listen to the voice of the community and halt the process immediately to prevent any further egregious action that has so riled the people of the Central Coast.

I want to speak tonight about the power of innovation and change. I commenced my remarks by acknowledging Albert Einstein who once said:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.

That is even truer in the world where it is certain that nothing is certain. Imaginatively, creatively and innovatively, we live in a world without borders—a world where the free flow of ideas offers vast opportunities. It is very clear that, if we as a nation are to benefit from the economic and social challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, then we must become a nation of innovators—an imaginative nation that delivers opportunities to enable our people to identify the momentous, historic and life-changing ideas of tomorrow and make them work. If we are to succeed as a nation, if we are to become a future orientated and progressive Australia, confident and capable enough to take a leading place within the global company, then we must prepare our next generation of citizens and leaders to grasp the opportunities that the journey they will make provides.

If there is one thing we know about the 21st century, it is that it will require people who are imaginative, innovative and creative problem-solvers—people who can contribute to the economy and society by taking full advantage of a range of skills connected with the digital and computer world of information knowledge. We must develop a culture that celebrates and promotes entrepreneurism. It makes perfect sense, then, that we have an education system that helps develop those capabilities and a teaching profession that is educated and knowledgeable enough to deliver high-quality teaching and learning in these critically important areas.

Labor's response to the challenges and potential of the 21st century is based upon the belief that our schools need to nurture in all our children the abilities and competencies they need in order to think creatively and innovatively. We want our young people, as 21st century citizens and learners, to have a mindset that is imaginative, adventurous and resourceful. This requires developing and enriching core skills in technology, science and mathematics. Recent evidence has suggested that there is a worrying decline among young people in levels of achievement in maths and that there is a chronic shortage of qualified mathematics teachers in secondary schools and, further, that participation in mathematics based courses in universities is also declining.

While we know that the majority of occupations for our young people will require skills in science, technology, engineering and maths, in 2012 only 16 per cent of higher education students graduated in these STEM related subjects. That compares with 52 per cent in Singapore and 41 per cent in China. Clearly, this is a trend that must be reversed. That is why Labor has announced initiatives to prepare our children, our workforce and our industries for that changing innovation economy. To achieve those goals, Labor will establish a STEM teacher training fund to support 25,000 primary and secondary school teachers over five years to undertake professional development in STEM disciplines. To encourage STEM graduates into teaching by offering 25,000 scholarships over five years, which will address the shortage of qualified teachers, recipients will get $6,000 when they commence a teaching degree and $10,000 when they complete their first year of teaching. That is quite a significant incentive. We also intend to provide $100,000 STEM award degrees: $20,000 a year for five years, which will provide a financial incentive for students to enrol in and complete STEM undergraduate degrees. Science, technology, engineering and maths award degree recipients will have their HECS debt completely written off upon graduation.

As we prepare our economy for change it is, clearly, imperative that all Australians are skilled enough to be able to participate in this new world. We must close the skills gap between the number of technology jobs and the people who are qualified to fill them. We cannot continue with a view of information and communications technology that focuses purely upon computer literacy. We must move far beyond the teaching of how to use a word processor, how to prepare a spreadsheet or how to use any new program that might be developed. Our young people, instead, need to be taught computer science and information technology in a way that enables them to become digitally literate.

Fundamental to developing digital literacy in schools is the integration of coding within the Australian curriculum, beginning in primary school. Already there is a significant body of evidence that we are lagging behind our global competitors. New Zealand and Singapore are integrating coding into the curriculum, and it is already there within the primary curriculum in England, Belgium, Finland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece. This is why a Labor government will ensure that computer programming, computational thinking and digital technologies are taught in every single primary and secondary school by a teacher trained appropriately in coding and the pedagogy required to enable learning to occur in that particular field of endeavour. We will also establish a national coding in schools centre where business and industry can connect with teachers and other educational professionals. This is so important to continuing renewal, because coding is going to move very quickly. We need to anticipate that and build in the capacity for innovation and change.

Underpinned by the principles of equity and fairness, these measures illustrate Labor's commitment to economic reform and planning for a progressive, exciting and prosperous future full of possibility. The challenge for this government is to match Labor's vision for Australia's future. We need a federal government that will make education a national priority. We need a government that will rise to the challenge of meeting the demands of our future by funding schools, by funding TAFE and by funding universities at levels that will enable them to deliver highly educated, resourceful and aspiring young people full of idealism and the optimism that this country needs. We need a government that recognises, as Labor does, the truth that education is a truly transformative experience, not just for individuals but for our nation as well.

We need a vision of education as a public good, a vision that recognises that economic and social progress and the strength and vibrancy of our democracy rests upon a well funded education system committed to excellence. Instead, we have seen from this government savage cuts to schools and universities and to vocational education and research. Education may well have a new minister but, to nobody's surprise, nothing appears to have changed. Billions of dollars in cuts to education funding seem here to stay under Mr Turnbull. So far we have had a lot of talk from this government, but precious little action of a positive kind with regard to education.

Labor has clearly set out what we will do. We have set out our plans for beginning the vital task of developing Australia as a nation of innovators supported by a highly educated workforce and citizenry. Where is the government's plan? What we continue to get from the Prime Minister is more glib charm, more casual and bombastic rhetoric and not much else as he struggles to appease the right-wing conservatives in his party who put him where is he today. It is not good enough for the nation. We need an education system underpinned by the innovation, creativity and excellence that Australia requires. Labor has shown that we are certainly ready for the challenge.

I want to address another significant challenge that I believe is not adequately receiving the attention of this government, and that is the scourge of ice that is ravaging communities across this nation—city, country, high and low SES; it does not seem to make a difference. I want to put that in the context, though, that our biggest drug problem in the country continues to be alcohol.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the menace of the drug ice is continuing to develop into a very dangerous and significant blight on our society. Recent evidence indicates that approximately 42 per cent of Australians say they have used illicit drugs at some time in their lives, and almost 15 per cent of that group have said they had used such drugs during the past year. An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report published in 2014 claimed that the use of ice more than doubled, from 22 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2013. In addition, a 2015 Australian Crime Commission report has stated that more than 1.3 million Australians claim to have used ice. In November 2014 the New South Wales Joint Organised Crime Group seized almost three tonnes of ecstasy and crystal ice worth a staggering street value of over $1.5 billion.

These statistics are very concerning and they constitute a very real threat to our nation. Just as alarming is the impact of ice on addicts, on their families and the broader community. It is simply devastating. It destroys lives and wrecks communities, causing untold pain and anguish. Those addicted to ice and other drugs place themselves at enormous risk of contracting a range of life-threatening and debilitating illnesses, including psychosis, psychological and behavioural problems and an increased risk of heart failure and kidney failure.

In recent days, with the Senate Select Committee on Health in Melbourne, Senator Muir and I were welcomed to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where we were privileged to witness the incredible professionalism, care and compassion of nurses, doctors and other health professionals working in the mental health ward. The setting was a significant attempt at making a homelike environment for people who had admitted themselves to the mental health ward. We were shown the reality of a room in which somebody in a very psychotic state might be held to be protected from themselves.

These rooms are very simple and very strong structures. The ceiling in the room we were shown had a metal grate in it about 1.5 millimetres thick. A person who was in that room recently was so impacted by their ice binge over a number of days that, without any furniture, they were able to get to the ceiling, pull the grate down, twist it with their bare hands and nothing else, and then use it to basically do $4,500 worth of damage to that room. They climbed up through the gap where the grate had been and went across into another part of the facility. Such is the unbelievable strength and distress of people impacted by long periods or intense periods of ice use.

We know that there are drug rehabilitation centres around our nation that are doing wonderful work, with dedicated people working miracles in enormously difficult contexts. I am sure all senators will join with me in paying tribute to the outstanding work of these wonderful people and what they do on the front line of addiction and prevention. They certainly deserve our respect and thanks, and the unequivocal support of the parliament and much more. But they also need funding.

I seek to table articles on the front page and page 5 of The Age last week headlined 'Health cuts equal to closing two hospitals' and 'Federal funding cuts equate to closing hospitals'.

Leave granted.

Senator O'NEILL: These articles refer to the significant impact of the tearing up of the national partnership agreements and the pressure that is putting on the hospitals, just like the one I described in relation to managing the poor man who was in the state that he was in, having been impacted by ice. The pressure that these cuts are putting on staff and on people seeking assistance—on people in the throes of deep addiction, with all of the physical and psychological problems that presents—should not be understated.

Sadly, the work of people providing care for those recovering from addiction illustrates a problem that is too well known in our nation. We know that demand for places in these centres where people can get rehabilitation far outstrips the availability of those places. We know it is all too common and a tragic story for many places anxious to help people start again and distance themselves from the scourge of drug addiction. Time after time, we hear the same story of huge demand for support and guidance that is nowhere near matched by the facilities that are available.

On another occasion, I would like to make some remarks about the wonderful work going on on the Central Coast. But tonight I want to put on record that people should know that, while in the midst of an ice epidemic and all the drama that exists, the coalition government has cut close to $800 million from Department of Health flexible funds and from the Substance Misuse Prevention and Service Improvement Grants Fund. These are the funds that support drug rehabilitation and treatment. I call on the government to reinstate adequate funding for the response to ice. (Time expired)

Senate adjourned at 22:27