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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1453

Senator MASON (Queensland) (15:44): I thought this matter of public importance should start out on a generous note. I believe the government, particularly the Prime Minister, is concerned about the quality of education for Australian schoolchildren. Last year, I listened to the Prime Minister's address to the National Press Club and she spoke about the transformative power of education. She was passionate and she was sincere. All that you can take as given. But my initial enthusiasm for the Prime Minister's speech—some might even say my joy for the speech—was somewhat mixed with a certain trepidation. How, I thought, are improved learning outcomes going to be achieved? How are they going to be implemented? And also, how much is it all going to cost? Listening to the National Press Club address by the Prime Minister, I had to swallow—and I swallowed very hard—and I thought, 'Oh, no, here goes the Labor Party, yet again.'

What is it about the centre-left agenda ever since World War II, whether it be in health, welfare or education—I could add telecommunications but I am generous this afternoon, so we will not go there—that somehow the policy response has always got to be to spend more money, to throw taxpayers' money away at a problem. Haven't we learnt since World War II that in health and welfare—particularly in Indigenous welfare—and now in education that throwing around money is not always the answer—it is just an easy policy prescription. Labor always suffers from a sort of optimistic belief that if we just spend a little bit more, just a few more billion dollars, we will finally get there. Finally, student learning outcomes in this country will get better, if we just spend a little bit more.

You will recall the Building the Education Revolution school halls. We spent $16,000 million on school halls, and what happened to learning outcomes? They went down. We spent $16 billion and learning outcomes went down. Then the government's contribution to laptop computers was a cool $2 billion. What happened to learning outcomes? They got worse. Now we have the Gonski proposals: a National Plan for School Improvement premised on Mr Gonski's report. A sum of $6 ½ billion per annum is the cost of this one. We are told by the Labor Party: 'This time trust us. If we just spend it, it will be okay. This time we will get it right. This time learning outcomes will improve.'

The director of the Grattan Institute's School Education Program, Ben Jensen, recently said that the government's Gonski funding model:

… retells the same old, and failed, story of Australian education: that the only way to fix our schools is to spend more money and to change the way it is divided between schools and students.

Mr Jensen noted that in the past decade—this is terribly important—education spending has increased by nearly three times as much as the proposed Gonski increases, yet Australia is just one of four OECD countries where 15-year-olds went backwards according to international testing results between 2000 and 2009. It worries me to death that the government has spent $16 billion on school halls, $2 billion on laptop computers and yet, when the last round of international testing was done in December of last year, it showed that a quarter of year 4 students in literacy and a third of year 4 and year 8 students in maths and science performed below minimally acceptable international standards. That is not good enough. We have thrown a fortune in this country at the problem and now we are going to throw another $6½ billion dollars a year at it, and apparently that will be enough. Finally, we will get it right. The money will be worth it. That is Labor's argument. I do not think that it is enough and it will not do the job, and I am very worried about.

Finally, I will concede that the Minister for Education, Mr Garrett, finally seems to understand that teacher quality is important. The shadow minister for education, Mr Pyne has been talking about this for some time now, and Mr Garrett is now talking about it too. Mr Garrett did say that the government would look at improving teacher quality—and Senator Kim Carr has mentioned this in question time as well—and he did say that there would be more rigorous and targeted admissions into university courses and a national approach to teacher practicum. I accept that these goals are welcome—it has taken a long time to get this far but they are welcome—but still there is no implementation plan, and again the devil is in the detail. We have had plenty of plans in the past from this lot, but no improved outcomes; that is the problem.

While the Gonski report recommends a range of proposals to give school leaders and their communities the ability to more flexibly provide for the needs of students—including more power for the principals to hire staff and control budgets—what does any of that mean? After all this Labor still has no agenda and there is still no way of getting there. What conclusive evidence do we have of the government's plans for educational reform? Well, we do have something. We have a bill. It is nine pages long and is about 1,400 words in length. It is called the Australian Education Bill 2012. I like this bill; it is my sort of bill. It is very short and very sweet. It reads like a UN declaration. I will quote from section 3, the objects of the act. It says, 'The objects of this act are for Australian schooling to provide an excellent education for school students and for Australian schooling to be highly equitable.' Well, yeah. It also says in the preamble, 'The quality of education should not be limited by a school's location, particularly those schools in regional Australia.' Yeah. I agree with all that. It also says, 'It is essential that Australian schooling be of a high quality.' Yeah, I agree with that. It is essential for Australian schooling to 'be highly equitable in order to create a highly skilled and successful workforce, strengthen the economy, and increase productivity, leading to greater prosperity for all'. I agree with that too. That is great. It goes on and on. Section 7—reform directions for the national plan—says:

Australian schooling will provide a high quality educational experience …

This is just a motherhood statement. It reads like one of those appalling Nigerian-sponsored human rights documents the Cubans, Nicaraguans and El Salvadorans used to put out.

This is where we are. This bill is a legislative enactment. This is what the government's reforms thus far have come to: this flimsy nine-page document and 1,400 words—all rhetoric, worse even than my contributions to the Senate! What is even worse is section 10 of the bill. I have never come across this in more than a dozen years in the Senate: 'The act does not create legally enforceable obligations'. That is the heading. Subsection 1 reads:

This Act does not create rights or duties that are legally enforceable in judicial or other proceedings.

So let me get this right. We have a bill before this parliament that does not create rights or duties. Oh. I am not a very good lawyer, but I have never come across a bill that states that it does not create rights or duties. If it does not, what is the point of it? Why do we sit here debating very poorly written rhetoric? This is not Abraham Lincoln.

In the end, we have a government that has spent an absolute fortune on education and results keep getting worse. The problem with this government since it started has been that it cannot implement anything. There is a litany of failure in that direction. But it comes to one thing that the Labor Party has never got over: they can spend money all right but have never been able to spend it well and get value. That is their failure. (Time expired)