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Thursday, 11 October 1973
Page: 2018

Mr WILSON (Sturt) - The House is at present debating the Schools Commission Bill. This Bill has been introduced by the Minister for Education (Mr Beazley) in performance of an undertaking given by his leader, the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam), in his policy speech prior to the last election. In that policy speech the Prime Minister, then the Leader of the Opposition, said that the Australian Labor Party believes that the Commonwealth should adopt some methods to assist schools as it has adopted to assist universities and colleges of advanced education through a commission. He went on to say:

We will establish an Australian Schools Commission to examine and determine the needs of students in government and non-government--

I emphasise the words 'non-government' - primary, secondary and technical schools.

It is interesting to trace that promise back to the Labor Party's convention at Launceston where the Party resolved:

That the Commonwealth should establish an Aus tralian Schools Commission to examine and determine the needs of students.

The Labor Party stated further:

That the Commonwealth should make to the States grants to assist in meeting the requirements of all school age children on the basis of needs and priorities.

The promise of the establishment of a schools commission created an impression in the public mind that certain goals would be achieved. It is interesting now that we see the detail of that legislation to note the changed emphasis. The emphasis that originally pointed to the importance of examining the rights and interests of students and children of our country has been translated into a concern for schools rather than for children themselves. It might be suggested that to make that point is somewhat academic or somewhat semantic. But I believe it is quite significant that there has been this change in emphasis away from a concern for the Australian children to a concern for schools because in expressing that concern for schools the legislation that we are now considering places great emphasis upon the schools run by the States and by the Australian Government in the Territories that it administers.

We in the Opposition support the need to look at the educational needs of handicapped children and handicapped young persons and to consider the needs of disadvantaged schools and of students at disadvantaged schools. We endorse the concept of the need to encourage diversity and innovation in education in schools and in the curricula and teaching methods of schools. We support the concept of the need to stimulate and to encourage public and private interests in and support for improvements in primary and secondary education and in the schools and school systems. We also support the concept of the desirability of providing special educational opportunities for students who have demonstrated their ability in particular fields of study. We look also with favour on regard being paid to the needs in relation to primary and secondary education and in school and school systems to promote the economic use of resources. But we seek to amend the legislation to have a broader concern for every Australian child.

We have in recent months had quite an extensive public debate arising out of the recommendations contained in the report of the Karmel Committee insofar as that report has had a significant effect on the educational opportunities and future of a significant group within the Australian community. That group is the group of students who receive their education in the independent system. It has been said in today's debate that the concern that is being expressed is a concern for a very small minority of Australian school students. I draw to the attention of the House the fact that our concern is a concern for every Australian student and for a much larger number of children at independent schools than is made out. In fact, if one looks at the recommendations of the Karmel Committee one finds that, for more than 50 per cent of the children attending independent schools in the nonsystemic section of independent schools, the aid being given by the Australian Government to those schools will be reduced in real terms in the forthcoming year as against that which they would have received under existing legislation.

Mr Beazley - You will have excluded the parish schools from that which outnumber non-systematic, non-government schools two to one.

Mr WILSON - But nevertheless, the numbers who attend the independent schools to which I have referred are a significant group of the students attending Australian schools. The fact that this large number of students and their parents are going to be prejudiced in the way that they will be prejudiced as a consequence of the report of the Karmel Committee is something which is of great concern to members of the Opposition. We seek to amend the legislation to include reference to the provisions in the United Nations Charter which deals with the right of every parent to choose the kind of education that shall be given to his children. The amendment that we seek to include in the legislation is to require the Commission to have regard to the principles as set out in article 26 of the United Nations Charter on Human Rights. The relevant sections of the United Nations Charter are as follows:

1.   Everyone has a right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

2.   Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

3.   Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

I submit that this implies that that right of choice shall be a real right. It is one thing to say that there is a right of choice; it is another to push such a price on the right of choice that no real choice exists. Even the Karmel Committee in its report gave the impression that it would like to see the price of choice reduced. Yet, in its recommendations it increased the price of choice.

Furthermore, the actions of the Government went a stage further. Instead of allowing the adjustments recommended by the Karmel Committee to be phased in over a period of time the Government made a decision that the price of choice would be increased immediately. The implications that flow from that are quite serious. We in the Opposition question the sincerity of the Minister and the Government. During the election campaign the Government made promises that no aid being given to independent systems would be reduced. Following the tabling of the Karmel Committee report when the Minister himself indicated that he preferred to accept the recommendations of that Committee-

Mr Beazley - I went beyond that in what I stated I preferred, if the honourable member really wants to look back.

Mr WILSON - Yes, the Minister did, and in doing so he indicated his views of concern. Yet the Government of which he is a member went against the recommendations of the Committee and presumably against the Minister's recommendations and as a result destroyed or reduced the right of choice that Australian parents have to send their children to independent schools.

Mr Morrison - Nobody is stopping them.

Mr WILSON - Nobody is stopping them by direct prohibition. But the Government is stopping many of them by raising the cost of education in the independent system and by creating a situation of which government supporters themselves have been critical, that only those who have means, and substantial means, are able to exercise that right of choice. Why should not that right of choice be extended beyond the limits to which it is now available? Why should not many more parents have the opportunity, within their financial means, to exercise a choice as to whether or not they will send their children to a state system school or to an independent school? It seems to me ironic that at this time when the Karmel

Committee and other education experts are advocating community involvement in education and community participation in the running of schools and the direction and development of their educational outreach, that this Government, professing that it supports community involvement, should deny to communities who wish to group together, for whatever reason it may be, in supporting independent schools the right of choice by putting the price of that choice so high that the numbers able to exercise it are severely reduced.

When we come to look at this legislation we see that there is only passing reference in it to non-government schools - the independent schools. In fact, this legislation contains a criterion - an obligation upon the Commission to pay regard to the primary obligation of governments to provide and maintain school systems that are of the highest standard and open without fees or religious tests to all children. No one would deny that governments should provide free education of the highest possible standard. But the inclusion in this legislation of the reference to a primary obligation has been interpreted by many in the Labor Party's anti-independent school lobby as an explanation and justification for the concentration of effort on the State-run schools and the withdrawal of support from the independent school system.

Mr Beazley - Consider the situation in the Northern Territory. Surely the honourable member would concede that as Minister I have a prior obligation to put a state school in the remotest areas where the Methodists or somebody else are not likely to be putting a school at all.

Mr WILSON - Of course you have an obligation to put a school in areas so that free education is available to every child. But you know as well as other people know that there are supporters of the Government Party who interpret the words I referred to as justification for diverting funds solely to the state system and not providing any support for the independent school system of education.

Mr Bryant - You would not know what a state school looked like.

Mr WILSON - I know what a state school looks like. I have visited IS state schools in my own electorate in recent months and the work that is going on in those schools is highly commendable.

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