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Wednesday, 7 September 1983
Page: 483

Mr HOWARD(3.05) —This matter of public importance is about one thing and one thing alone; that is, the defence of the absolute principle of freedom of choice as far as parents are concerned in the education of their children. I think it has been the common belief of most Australians that, over the last 10 years, we had reached a degree of bipartisan support for the principle that there should be effective support for a dual system of education. All Australians, irrespective of their politics or religion, believed absolutely in the principle that there should be freedom of choice for parents, a dual system of education and that the Government, on behalf of the community, should give support to both systems of education.

The Opposition believes that the decisions announced by the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) about two months ago represent the thin end of a very large wedge which, if further implemented, will bring about a fundamental change in the system of support for a dual system that has operated in Australia over the last 10 years. There are few things in a free society which are more important than the fundamental right of parents to choose the manner and the place of the education of their children. The decisions announced by Senator Ryan, although clothed in high-sounding principles about supporting the most needy in our community, strike a direct blow at the fundamentals upon which that freedom of choice is based.

I, and the Opposition, have two basic objections to what Senator Ryan has announced. Before I come to that I would like to deal with a few facts and some of the background to the question of education funding in Australia. Let me say at the outset that both streams of education have made a special contribution to the development of Australia. One can go around the State system and the private system and find outstanding examples. Both streams have provided very great people to the Australian community. I do not seek in any way to argue that one system is superior to the other. I do not seek to argue in any way that there are not weaknesses as well as strengths in both systems. But the important thing is that, over the last 10 years, we have moved towards bipartisan support for a dual system of education. Australian parents have taken it as their right increasingly to exercise a freedom of choice according to their own taste, and the abilities and the disabilities in certain cases of their children.

The second fundamental is to reject the lie that has been put around by the Government which was put around during the last election campaign by the Teachers Federation that, in some way, the Fraser Government had neglected government schools. The fact is that, in 1981-82, 86 per cent of all government funding in Australia went to the education of the 76.1 per cent of children who are educated in government schools. I repeat that 86.8 per cent of all public money went to 76.1 per cent of children in government schools, leaving 13.2.per cent of all government funding going to the 23.9 per cent of children in independent schools. Can anybody argue from those figures that, under the Fraser Government, support for public education has declined and that the former Government neglected support for the government sector in preference for the independent sector? Those figures give a direct lie to that proposition and confound the critics of the Fraser Government's approach towards government schools.

But those figures are not the full story of the record of the Fraser Government towards government schools, because over the years the Fraser Government was in office enrolments in government schools declined and enrolments in independent schools increased. They increased because hundreds of thousands of Australian parents voted with their feet in favour of independent schools. They exercised a free choice. They decided that they wanted their children educated in an independent school. I put it to the House that that was their right. They did it for their own reasons. They did it because they thought it would be better for their children. It is not the right of any government of any political persuasion in this country to stand in their way and to say that they cannot do it. But despite that, and despite the decline in public school enrolments, over the seven years of the Fraser Government's period of office the greatest improvement in dollars per head in education in Australia occurred in the government sector. So despite the claims of the Labor Party and the dishonest, prejudiced misrepresentation of the Australian Teachers Federation during the last election campaign, the Fraser Government did not in any sense, shape or imagination neglect the public sector.

I believe that the Hawke Government and Senator Ryan have made two fundamental changes to what most people had believed was a bipartisan policy in this area. I believe that those two changes carry with them enormous implications for the future of government support for the independent schools sector. I hope that no person interested in the survival of the independent schools sector is under any illusion as to what the end result of this new policy will be. I do not believe that the independent sector by and large understands the full implications of what the Government is about in this area. I believe the Government is in the business of attacking the fundamentals of freedom of choice in the education area. I think the Government is about the policy of gradually eroding support for the independent sector. I believe that the effect of the Government's policy will be to revive a bitter and divisive debate that most Australians had thought -indeed had hoped-had been finally put behind us over the last 10 years.

I believe the Government has made two fundamental changes. Firstly, it has destroyed the percentage link between the cost of educating a child in a government school and the cost of educating a child in an independent school. As every honourable member of this House will know, it was a fundamental principle of coalition education policy that every single school in Australia in the independent sector received 20 per cent of the cost of educating a child in a government school. What that system provided, in the words of leading administrators of the independent schools system, was the very life blood of the survival of the independent schools system, because what it uniquely did was to remove from the annual political whims of Ministers of Education the amount of fundamental government support for independent schools. It guaranteed to every indpendent school in Australia some kind of protection against the ever escalating cost of educating a child at either a government or an independent school. To so many of the independent schools faced with a sharp decline-in the case of Catholic schools a decline in the number of Order teachers and a sharp increase in the number of lay teachers-and the ever increasing cost of educating children and running schools, it provided the life blood of their existence and support. By removing that percentage link formula under the guise of an emotional attack on the so-called 41 wealthy schools in Australia and under the guise of talking about giving more help to the most needy schools in the Australian community, the Government has laid the ground work to erode by neglect government support for independent schools in the future. It will be very easy at Budget time for the Minister for Education to say: 'We can't quite give enough money on a basic grant basis to each independent school to maintain 20 per cent of the cost of educating a child in a government school so we will simply, through erosion by neglect, withdraw support for the independent sector over the years.'

The second and, I believe, even more lethal attack on the independent schools system was Senator Ryan's announcement that in future no new independent school will automatically attract Commonwealth capital funding if it can be established that that school will take children away from an existing school. One has only to repeat that to realise the implication that lies behind it because, if fully implemented, that policy will stop the expansion of the independent sector. Why else would one establish an independent school unless one were dissatisfied with the existing facilities in the government sector? Is that what freedom of choice is all about? What freedom of choice do parents have if they cannot establish a new independent school when they are dissatisfied with an existing government school? For the Government to come into this Parliament and say that an education policy with that particular criterion does not represent an attack on freedom of choice is to turn the very expression 'freedom of choice' on its head and to twist the English language in an unconscionable fashion. So I believe that those two new principles-the abandonment of the percentage link and the requirement that capital funding will no longer automatically be available if resources and pupils are to be taken away from a government school-represent a fundamental attack upon the dual system of education, and that they are the tip of the iceberg. All of those who care about the survival and the future of the independent sector ought to understand fully what this Government is about. It leaves far too much in future to the political whim of individual education Ministers.

I believe that what the Government has done in this area represents a sell-out to radical elements in the Australian Teachers Federation. It is no secret that the largest financial contribution made to anybody's election campaign in March was the $750,000 contributed by the Australian Teachers' Federation to the Australian Labor Party's campaign. Year after year Labor Party people have come into this Parliament and talked about the contributions of the multinationals to the campaign war chests of the Liberal and National Parties. I do not believe that anything a multinational has ever contributed to either of the Opposition parties can possible rival the three-quarters of a million dollars that was contributed to the ALP's campaign funds in the March election campaign. If a contribution of that size together with certain policies would not be enough, one would have to be enormously charitable indeed to believe that the Labor Party would be unmoved by the attitude of the Teachers Federation towards state aid in Australia. Let me quote from an interview on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program on 18 February 1983 with Mr Van Davey, President of the Australian Teachers Federation. He was asked the direct question:

Are you against state aid for private schools?

Mr Davey answered:

Yes, we are, and the second reason why we don't go the full way and say '' support the ALP and vote for the ALP'' is because we recognise that in an election campaign there are other issues and people will be looking at them . . .

There is no doubt from the words of Mr Van Davey-whose organisation throughout Australia contributed three-quarters of a million dollars to the ALP campaign cause a bare six months ago-where he stands on the question of aid for independent schools. As I said, one would have to be very charitable indeed to believe that the Labor Party is unmoved by the attitudes of the Teachers Federation. The sad fact is that the Australian Teachers Federation does not represent the views of the great majority of teachers in public schools. It does not represent the views and the aspirations of many hundreds of thousands of parents who send their children to government schools.

If honourable members want to find the reason why hundreds of thousands of Australian parents, who themselves went through the state education system when it was operting in all its full benefit and effect, have chosen, despite their own background and their own education, to send their children to independent schools I suggest that they will find it in many cases in the radical statements and the attitudes of the Australian Teachers Federation. Some of the policies of the Australian Teachers Federation, not only in areas of education but also in other areas, are anathema to the aspirations of many ordinary middle class Australians. That is the reason why many hundreds of thousands of parents are sending their children to independent schools. We on this side of the House remain totally and irrevocably committed to a dual system of education. We believe in competition. We believe in diversity. We reject a state monopoly in the area of education. We reject the changes announced by Senator Ryan. They are the beginning of a fundamental change and we only hope that the full realisation of what is being done spreads throughout the entire Australian community.