Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Australian Education Union National Conference, Saturday, 23 May 1998, Sydney: address.

Download WordDownload Word











Thank you, Sharan Burrow, and all your colleagues, for the invitation to address you t oday.


Your Conference could not come at a more important time for the political debate over education as we head towards an election the Prime Minister seems to want to call earlier rather than later.


It would be a great mistake if we allowed the election pitch to override the things that we are discussing at this Conference.


Because, of the thousand ways to measure the way the conservative parties in this country have withered to become what they are today - tired, small-minded and irrelevant - the clearest is this government's attitude to education.


Here you have a Party holding office on the threshold of a new century, with great new challenges and opportunities for Australia. Here you have a Party allegedly dedicated to the idea of individual empowerment and achievement. A Party, therefore, with responsibilities, and with pretensions, but when it comes to education, it shows itself to be a government that has declared itself incapable of governing Australia for the 21st Century.


Australia is, and we must remain, a decent civilised democracy. We are, and we must remain a skilled and successful economy. Whether or not we meet these great twin objectives will depend centrally on the quality of our education system. It will be determined by whether or not the system will be open to all Australians, whatever their status, wherever they live.


And, as we know, and our political opponents should, none of this is possible without the rational, responsible and consistent support of government.


And on the threshold of the election that will take us into the 21st century, we have an education system that is being stripped of its capacity to help us make the best of what the 21st Century will bring.


An education system being dragged backwards just as it should be surging forwards.


But let's not just assert that, It won't do just to assert it We must explain it, we must argue it, and we must do so tirelessly, and we must do so from first principles.


So let's go to the first principles,


Consider our situation today.


We are moving into the new century as a small market in a world in which the big market counts. We depend in large measure on selling commodities whose prices are highly variable on world markets. We are a small national economy in a world in which the new economic forces leap over national boundaries.


The forces of economic globalisation are changing everything. They have moved against nations relying heavily on exporting minerals and farm products, and in favour of those producing sophisticated goods and services. They have moved against economies depending on machine power, and in favour of those harnessing brain power. They have moved in favour of people with high skills, and against people with low or no skills.


Just in the last few days, a report by CEDA has made clear what is at stake here. It points out that the Asian economies won't have their current problems for ever; that they will re-emerge and grow quickly again, thanks in large part to their high levels of investment in technology, and the skills of their workers. It confirms that we will be competitive with these economies only if education policy focuses on developing human capital. The future will depend more on the accumulation of human capital than on the accumulation of physical capital and the exploitation of natural resources. As the report says:


“Australia should seek to be a 'clever nation' with high average levels of human capital relative to its trading partners."


In the Australian Labor Party, we intend to put ourselves at the forefront of the debate as to how Australia achieves this. Let me give you some introduction to our thinking today.


I want to start by coupling for you today two quotations taken from my colleague Mark Latham's book Civilising Global Capital which I think summarise how Australia must be thinking about education policy as we approach the 21st Century.


"History tells us that whenever society has faced widespread insecurity and rapid economic change, lasting answers have only ever been found in the logic of collective action."


“The most effective form of collective action in an open economy and society now lies in ensuring that each of a nation's citizens can respond adeptly to the contingencies of change. This means using the learning processes to empower people to act in new ways - to develop skills and personal capacity, so that change can be treated more as an opportunity than a threat."


These quotations I think encapsulate Labor's view of education as a strategic resource for the future of our nation, and our determination that government must play a strong role in the national investment in education.


There is a debate here we must win, because there are two trends in education policy, each of them leading in contradictory directions.


The first is to view education as essentially a source of private benefit to an individual, in the form of better jobs, greater participation in society, and higher pay, to name a few. The logic is that the individual should make the majority of the financial contribution towards the education which produces these advantages. It is the line of argument preferred by our political opponents.


The other trend emerges from the increasing body of analysis of strategies for national competitiveness, In this age of globalisation, such analysis points towards education as an important resource for nations and their competitiveness in today's world, and therefore as a good for which there is a compelling logic for public provision.


The thing those of us in political office must ask ourselves is this: will a reliance on private provision, and private sources of funding for education, result in an appropriate level of investment in education for our future as a nation?


I think not, and I think that for a very particular reason. It is a simple law of economics that private investment in education will need to be weighed according to the extent of expected private benefit in education. On balance, private investment will not have in mind the public benefits which flow from education. There is therefore an argument, as far as the overall stock of national investment in education is concern, that exclusively privately-funded investment in education would result in a nation underinvesting in education.


Thankfully, exclusively private sources of investment in education are not in prospect for Australia's education system at this stage of the debate - only ever in Dr Kemp's quieter reflective moments when he casts free the shackles and cares of everyday life and his imagination is allowed to wander.


But there is a balance to be preserved between public and private education, and we might well wonder if that balance as it stands at present is appropriate.


There can be absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that an education system exclusively, or even significantly, based on private sources of investment, will not provide educational opportunity equally to all our citizens.


There is, of course, no reason to believe that those citizens with the greatest aptitude for learning will always be those citizens with the greatest means available to them to pay for that learning.


It is this question of the national stock of investment in education, and the distributional aspects of investment in education that makes the argument for a clear ideology of commitment to public education,


And I choose the word ideology deliberately.


I choose it because education is not simply a matter of social justice and equity, but it is. Nor is it simply a matter of security. It is that too.


It is fundamentally a matter of national development and survival. If education is not argued as a public good, and if that essential ideological commitment is not there in the minds of decision-makers, then the capacity of Australians to confront a rapidly changing world is seriously damaged.


I have said before, and I will say again, that when it comes to concepts as important as this, we politicians must carry some ideology around with us - not of the left, nor of the right, but an ideology steeped in what we must all realise is an absolute imperative for our country's future prosperity.


We must understand that, when it comes to national competitiveness, there are some options simply unavailable to us. It is simple and self-evident that, in most industries, you could cut Australian workers' wages in half and they would still be more expen sive than workers elsewhere in the world. It has long been true for Australia that in so many industries we cannot compete internationally on the basis of the price of our labour.


The only solution for Australia resides in embracing the dignity and intelligence of our workforce, I have an audience before me - and I am proud to say I have a Party behind me - that understands these things: that understands educated workers are more productive workers. That understands more productive workers justify higher wages. And that understands more productive workers make for a more competitive product on international markets.


This is just further proof, if any of us needed it, of the intellectual bankruptcy of this government's approach to education.


It represents the agenda of a government that just wants the 21st Century to wait a few more years, and to come when - and if - it is ready to deal with the challenges.


Even this characterisation is charitable, because what the Howard government has been doing is to undermine our greatest source of competitiveness.


Everybody here will have their reasons for being painfully aware of the consequences.


The effect of this year's Budget is that total spending on all education will fall by 6% between 1996-97 and 2001-02. Sp ending on schools will fall 1.3%, though enrolments are expected to be about 70,000 higher in 2000 than in 1996.


Nominal funding for government schools this financial year will be $1.289 billion. Discounted for price increases, this works out at $1.193 billion - or nearly $90 million below the level for last financial year.


Thanks to the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment, government schools are set lose up to $270 million over the next four years. This year alone, they will lose about $12 million, even though they are enrolling 8,500 more students than last year.


No matter where we stand in the debate over public and private education, it's impossible to deny that this government's Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment is wrong in principle, and a mistake in practice. We totally reject the idea that growth in one area of education should be at the expense of another, and accordingly we oppose their EBA, and we will abolish it when we win office.


The Government has been advised by its own officials that schools will need about $140 million so that they can cope with the 27,000 16 and 17 year olds who will be forced back to school by the introduction of the Common Youth Allowance. The 1998 Budget provides $42 million. Schools in the Liverpool-Fairfield area are anticipating that they will be looking after well over 700 extra Year 10s and 11s next year; up on the central Coast, nearly 600.


In the closing years of last century, the Labor Party was born to give the workers who built this nation a political voice. That continues to be our job today.


A century ago, the workers who were building this nation were building its physical infrastructure - the ports, the roads, the railways, the buildings, the mines and the factories. They were building the capital which gave us strong Australian industries, secure Australian jobs and a prosperous society this century - our first century as a nation.


Next century, the capital Australia must build will increasingly be different. Increasingly, the builders will be the educators in society: the teachers, the lecturers, the child care workers and the parents of Australia.


And Labor must be there, and Labor will be there, to give you a voice, but also to support you and invest in you, because you will be building the future for our people and our nation.


So let me start with a subject close to my heart: Teacher Professional Development.


When we were in Government we had planned to add more than $60 million over three years to the three year National Professional Development Program that I began in 1993. The emphasis was to be on information technology. Of the $300 million we had earmarked for our EdNA program, fully 20% was to go into professional development.


The Coalition also promised to add another three years to the NPDP, though with only $45 million taken from somewhere else in the DEET portfolio, This turned out to be yet another non-core promise.


I've often pointed out that teachers tend to be forgotte n as an element in the education debate. Yet they have the first and often the most influential role in the cultural and ethical development of our children.


Our view is that any good government should contribute in material and other ways to the quality and development of teaching as a profession. Good government should be concentrating on ways to use teachers' experience and skills as we develop the quality and accessibility and relevance of our education system.


Why then does the Howard Government and some of its followers at the State Government level see them as the enemy?


A Class Act , the recent Senate committee report on the condition of teaching, had some very discouraging things to say about this. It reported that teachers were depressed at the lack of support they were getting, the demand from all sides that they do more with less, and the ill-informed criticism aimed at them.


It may be true that teachers can earn reasonable entry salaries. But the Senate committee found that the average teacher earned less than $50,000 a year and that she or he can reach the highest level of salary after nine years.


Today, in other words, a great many teachers will have gone as high up the salary chain as they're ever likely to get something like five or six years ago.


After more than two years of steady strangulation of resources and abuse from the likes of Dr Kemp, it's small wonder that the Senate committee decided that teacher morale had just about reached rock bottom,


If education determines whether or not we can compete in and survive the new century as a skilled, informed and free community, how can we treat its workers like this?


Well, Labor won't. Teacher Professional Development will be one of the highest priorities we intend to address in our education policies for the next election.


And in that spirit, let me conclude today with some of the broad outlines of where Labor intends to go in Education policy.


Let me start with something which is obvious to everyone here. We all know - not just the hist ory teachers - that Rome was not built in a day, though Nero burnt it in one.


When we assume office we will have a big job to do and a lot to repair, not just in education, but across the full gamut of government services.


We take this job seriously, and for what it is and must be: a long-term program of reconstruction, steadily building and consolidating and guaranteeing good government for the future.


So let me tell you what we will do.


We will recognise that the Coalition has placed under attack every philosophical underpinning of the skilling of our Australian population put in place since the 1970s.


* They have attacked the notion of education as a public good.

* They have attacked Labor's legacy of broadening the base of access to tertiary educati on as a means of enhancing the national skill base and guaranteeing social justice.

* They have attacked the system Labor created to remove sectarianism from Australian secondary education.

* They have attacked the self-evident notion that dealing with unemployment means dealing with skills deficits and the programmes Labor had in place to address these deficits.

* And they have attacked, by starving the child care system of funds, the quality of child care, and thereby invariably much of the educational content of that child care.


We cannot pretend all this has been only a minor drift. In so many areas, we need to re-build from first principles again.


Everything Labor did for education in the 1980s and 1990s fed off the great Education Inquiries - the Kar mel and Kangan reports.


This is where we must start again - start to fix the damage, but also to try and catch up the yards the conservatives have lost us in the meantime - to create an education system truly based on continuous and repeated investment and reinvestment in our nation's human capital - in short, to give reality to the idea of lifelong learning.


This I why I have committed Labor to a ground-up review of the entire Australian educatlon system - pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, VET and Universities.


I do not intend this to be a simple exercise, or an inquiry for the sake of it. It will be a full-blown National Commission. The task is too big, and the timeframe too short, to allow for any further drift. We must review the entire structure of Australian education.


Governments have set up essential inquiries into education in the past, and I mention again Karmel and Kangan, and the others we all know so well, but they have all been sector specific. There has never been a close and total look at the whole structure, its links and connections and its relevance to our being - and remaining - a skilled economy as well as a civilised democracy.


I suggested such an Inquiry to Mr Howard more than two years ago and offered him my full support. It didn't happen then. It will happen when we win office.


The Inquiry will, of course, be advisory in terms of telling us what is needed to create the education system we aspire to, but I also want it to have a continuing role in terms of delivering on its plans. It may, like Gough Whitlam's Schools Commission, go over into actual implementation of some of its recommendations.


We, as a government, and also you, as a union, will have ideas and priorities to feed into the inquiry, and in that context I would like to give you some of the priorities we will want to assert.


We have already said that we will abolish the EBA, and abolish it we will.


We have also foreshadowed our intention, through programs of professional development, to do what any enlightened employer would do: and that is to invest in adding value to the skills of education workers.


Our Platform shows that we're determined to put in place a system of allocating funding for schools which will basically do two things. It will seek to take out the divide between the public and private streams and base funding on need. And it will seek to end the cost-shifting between the Commonwealth and the States that makes such a contribution to that divide.


We believe, as the Platform says, that:


"scarce public resources must focus on core concerns about socioeconomic needs and capability rather than on false economies of absolute choice.... that the only fair and effective way to frame schools policy is to invest fully in Australian schools, whether government or non-government, and to allocate these funds on the basis of need".


Labors approach will be to rat ionalise the dual funding streams and allocate funding on the basis of acceptable national principles and standards. These will include acceptance of federal responsibilities in resourcing schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods; sensible planning in development of non-government schools so that they do not disadvantage existing schools, either public or private.


Let me close by saying that I am pleased to see the ideas you discuss at this Conference argued with passion and conviction and commitment.


But we have passed the point in our history as a nation when the idea of education as a public good - the idea of national investment in education can remain within this Conference.


We must re-double our efforts to get them on the canvas of national politics. Other nations are already there.


This government will resist our efforts. It will want to talk about other things its favoured diversions mostly - but we must not let it.


Because a government that does not want to talk about education, a government that has nothing to say about it, is not a government worth the candle.


It is a government we must get rid of, and quickly at that.


Thank you.