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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 88

Senator NETTLE (6:23 PM) —The Greens will be opposing the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004 because it is part of this government's agenda to privatise our education system. It is part of turning Australia into a divided, elitist and, as a result, underperforming country. For the sake of our future generations, the Greens will play no part in taking our country down this path. We will also be opposing the harebrained scheme outlined in the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 to introduce the Tutorial Credit Initiative, which will pour $11 million per annum into privatising year 3 literacy whilst allowing public schools to go without much needed resources to tackle literacy problems within the comprehensive educational environment of the classroom. I have spoken in the chamber many times about the importance of public education, and I am proud to be in a political party that is a vocal advocate for public education. I speak out again today to defend public education because there is a no more gratuitous transfer of wealth from the public sphere to the private sphere of education—and no greater threat to the egalitarian nature of this country as a result—than that contained in the two bills we are debating today.

The Greens' concern with the future of public education is about the principle of equity. Equal access to the highest quality education, equal access to the outcomes that education gives, equal status in the community with our neighbours, the right to grow and learn with all kinds of people as equals—this is the gift that public education gives us. This is why public education plays such a crucial role in knitting together our fair go society. But this fair go society is under threat as long as private schools which continue to exclude students on the basis of wealth, academic ability, behaviour, religion, sexuality, disability or race expand their share of school enrolments. Sadly, this is the context in which this debate is occurring.

Earlier this year the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned research on school enrolments. The study identified a drift in enrolments to the private school sector of over 22.3 per cent since 1993, whilst public school enrolments increased only 1.2 per cent. This is a staggering rate which is radically changing the culture of our communities, yet state and federal governments are silent on the dangers of this shift. In the face of what appears to be a growing class divide in Australia, both major parties are silent on this issue of enrolments. In the government's case, they support the drift away from public schooling under the guise of promoting parental choice. The Greens recognise that this decline, if allowed to continue, will result in the public system being seen as a residual safety net school system. We recognise the negative effect this will have on the cohesiveness of our communities. The Greens recognise that the decline in enrolments in our public schools is a national problem that must urgently be addressed by all levels of government.

The Howard government are quite happy to see this drift in enrolments away from public schools to private schools because it is the outcome that their schools policy is designed to achieve. The policies of the government, which are clear in the bills today, have nothing to do with the principles of equality and everything to do with user-pays elitism. In fact, it is only when you understand that reducing the number of students in the public school system and boosting private school enrolments is the aim of the government through their schools policy that you can make sense of their policy, which otherwise appears as a real dog's breakfast of conflicting logic and blatant inequities. For the first time ever, Commonwealth funding of private schools now exceeds the total Commonwealth expenditure on public universities—a staggering fact that the Howard government have brought into play. Between 1993 and 2002, funding for the Catholic sector rose 3.1 times faster than for the government sector, whilst funding for all other private schools rose 2.7 times faster than for the public schools sector. Since the government took office, recurrent per student funding to private schools has risen by 42 per cent. The share of total federal government funds spent on schooling that goes to private schools has risen from 55 per cent in 1993 to over 70 per cent today.

The private school sector has done amazingly well out of the federal government's policies in the last few years. This is a result of deliberate federal government policy. The Howard government's primary contribution to the school sector has been its generous bankrolling of private schools and its support for the deregulated expansion of the private school sector. Private schools have received a far greater increase in funding from government—that is, both state and federal governments—than public schools have over the same period. Even though the federal government contributes only around 30 per cent of the schools budget in Australia, the Howard agenda to push private schooling has reached a scale where the figures for all government—that is, state and federal—funding over the same period shows private schools outstripping public schools in their funding increase. A study carried out by Swinburne University of Technology's Institute for Social Research found that between 1993 and 2002 government expenditure on private schools increased by 91 per cent, compared to 28 per cent for public schools. This was not simply a function of enrolments, because per student funding for private schools rose by more than double that of government schools.

Debate (on motion by Senator Ian Campbell) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.