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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 98

Senator ALLISON (8:08 PM) —by leave—I move Democrat amendments (1) and (10) on sheet 4436:

(1) Clause 14, page 17 (line 25) to page 19 (line 17), omit paragraphs (1)(d) to (p).

(10) Clause 31, page 30 (line 25) to page 32 (line 24), omit paragraphs (d) to (p).

These two amendments are part of a suite of amendments the Democrats are putting forward tonight which go to the question of accountability. It is pretty obvious to this place that this bill should have been debated long before the election to ensure funding certainty for schools and to allow the debate to run unencumbered from time constraints such as we have this evening. The parliament is now faced with the problem that, if this bill were not passed this session, schools would not receive their first payment due in January next year. Somebody who was cynical—certainly not me—might think that this was a government tactic that was deliberately put up in order to curtail debate and put pressure on opposition parties that might want to amend it.

We are opposing many of the accountability measures in this bill, which is a bit unusual for the Democrats—normally we are very keen on accountability. But we think there is another motive here behind what the government wants to do. We also think that it is not the role of the federal government to micromanage government schools. In fact, Senator Vanstone, in March this year you said:

If you want to say to state governments, `Where you can't be bothered doing your job just come to the Democrats and we will try and badger the Commonwealth into doing it,' good luck go to you. That is not our position. Our position is that the state governments must do their job.

Well, that is not what is being proposed in this legislation. It has a number of conditions that are being set for financial assistance, and we think most of them are unreasonable. Of course, we should not be surprised by this sort of approach. We have seen the same happen in university legislation, where $404 million was tied to such things as the number of members allowed on a university council and universities including a statement about AWAs in certified agreements made after 22 September 2003. That legislation passed and almost a year later the universities are up in arms about the enormous costs involved in implementing the legislative changes and about the increased reporting requirements placed upon them by the legislation—despite Minister Nelson indicating that he would cut red tape in his discussion paper, Higher education at the crossroads. If this bill were to pass unamended we might have a similar revolt from government and possibly non-government schools.

Some of the accountability measures in this bill will also pre-empt decisions from MCEETYA. Obviously the federal minister is having some trouble dealing with the state ministers at MCEETYA. It appears he has decided to try to bypass those processes through this legislation. But we do not believe that those matters, pending a final decision from MCEETYA, should be included as conditions for federal funding to the school.

When I had a look at this bill, I found myself asking: what is the educational basis for these conditions on funding that the government is proposing? It would be very good to hear from the government during the committee stages of this debate on how those conditions will improve the educational outcomes of students, because I would have thought that that was what we should be talking about here.

Another similarity with the university legislation last year is the number of clauses providing the minister with uninhibited control of funding agreements to schools. Any parliament that allowed a minister this level of discretion over schools funding would not be doing its job. What is wrong with the minister bringing an amendment bill into the parliament if he or she wants to change a provision of the act if one is needed? As we all know, the Senate has already passed two amendment bills to the new Higher Education Support Act because of the very sloppy drafting of the original bill. If there is a need to pass reasonable amendments to legislation, the Senate will not interfere or delay them. But it seems to us that there is no need whatsoever for those provisions that allow the minister unencumbered control over funding agreements, such as in clauses 16(2), 23(2) and 33. I hope the minister is equipped with some arguments and reasons to suggest why it is that those conditions are necessary and how they improve educational outcomes in schools. Perhaps the minister might be interested in enlightening us on those scores.