I am proud to represent the great state of Victoria in this place. Victorians are thoughtful, optimistic and a little playful. I love representing them, and I am proud to represent a party and a government led by a Prime Minister that understand good economic management is the only underpinning for good social policy. As I rise in the Senate, I want to acknowledge the friendship and support of many people in the Liberal Party, without whom I would not have the opportunity and honour to represent my state and my party in the national parliament. I take the time to do so because the people of Australia, particularly in this chamber, put great trust in political parties which in turn put their faith in individuals to honour that charge.
I am grateful to Senator Kemp and my colleagues in another place-Tony Smith and Peter Costello-for their advice, support and unstinting friendship and for all that I have learned from them about good government, good policy and good politics. I thank those who have offered me opportunities to contribute to public life: my former employers Alan Brown and those in another place, Bruce Baird and John Anderson. In particular, I thank them for what they have taught me about decency in politics and for the chance to see Australia from many angles and in many guises. I acknowledge the support and friendship of Victorian Liberal Party President Helen Kroger, and I thank State Director Julian Sheezel for his friendship and wise counsel.
For anyone who has stood in this chamber, there are people without whom it would not have been. In that context I thank my good friends Narelle Sheezel, Jason Aldworth and Michael Kroger. I also want to acknowledge my former colleagues in the office of Peter Costello-a group who were a second family for 7½ years or, as we tended to measure it, eight budgets-particularly Liz McCabe, Dave Alexander, Niki Savva, Michael O’Brien, Rob Jeremenko and Phil Gaetjens.
This Senate and our nation were well served by my predecessor, the Hon. Richard Alston: 20 years at the bar, Victorian party president, a teacher of disadvantaged kids, aid advocate, Senate deputy leader, cabinet minister and Australia’s longest serving communications minister. Richard has been a great servant of his party, his state and the nation. I want to record my gratitude for his support and guidance. Richard will be regarded in his post-parliamentary life as one of Australia’s great senators and one of the substantial figures of Australian politics.
In many respects I do not come to this place with a typically Liberal family background. My aunt and uncle, I am afraid to admit, were political staffers in the Whitlam and Hawke-Keating governments. And my grandfather, Bert Fifield, served for more than 20 years as Federal Secretary and New South Wales President of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union. A left factional convenor from the other side of this chamber even gave the eulogy at his funeral. The turning point in my family’s political views came when Prime Minister Chifley endeavoured to nationalise the private banks. My parents, both bank employees, saw that Labor was inherently opposed to enterprise and choice. They taught me early: do not look at what Labor says, look at what Labor does.
Mr President, I stand in this place as a Liberal because I am committed to opportunity and to choice. Each of us has our own world view-a frame of reference that informs the decisions we make-but, as legislators, we do not have the right to simply vote to impose our views on the community. We all have free will. The expression of that may not always please us, but it is the right of every Australian to exercise it. That is why in this place I will be influenced, but not driven by, my own personal convictions. My inclination will be towards maximising economic and personal liberty for Australians.
I have worked in politics for 15 years in and around the New South Wales, Victorian and Commonwealth parliaments. It is a profession of which I am proud. But the knowledge I have gained and the experiences I have had outside my professional life have shaped me and my approach to public life as much as those within-like those of my parents. Neither went beyond the third year of high school, but dad was fortunate to attend a selective high school, Fort Street High, in Sydney. Fort Street was an avenue of opportunity for working-class kids. It produced Neville Wran, Garfield Barwick, John Kerr and Edmund Barton. Through education it gave opportunity to working-class kids to become premiers, chief justices, governorsgeneral and prime ministers. Although dad left school in year 9 to get a job at the end of the war, his schooling still afforded him great opportunities. That is why I am a Liberal today-because I know the importance of opportunity.
Education will always be an area where the Liberal Party and the Labor Party differ greatly. It is where the philosophical battle will play out most clearly. As Liberals, we stand for maximising choice; we stand for maximising opportunity. As a coalition government, we need to continually look for ways to maximise opportunity and to fight for it when it is being restricted. That is why I am passionate about the role of selective high schools in Australia. Opportunities are being lost in our state school systems through the failure of the states to establish schools based on achievement and excellence. Parents, above all, want choice. Every parent recognises the value of good teachers and good schools. They want choice between a range of quality education options. They want choice between a strong independent sector and a strong government sector. But parents also want, and students deserve, choice within these two sectors. There are a wide range of options within the independent sector, but choices are far more limited within the state sector.
Since 1996 enrolments in independent schools have increased by 13.3 per cent, while enrolments in state schools have increased by only 1.6 per cent. These statistics merely reflect parental choice. The Commonwealth’s financial contribution to education facilitates choice. If the Australian government did not support the independent school sector, access would be confined to an elite, wealthy minority. Many of Australia’s small, modest, independent schools would not be able to survive. Choice would be denied and the cost to the public purse would grow exponentially.
There are parents who, regardless of the choices available and standards within the state system, choose to send their children to an independent school. They do so because of personal philosophy, religion, family history, tradition. There are others who only send their children to independent schools because they feel the public system does not have the same commitment to excellence or sufficient choice in the types of schools on offer. For many parents today, the government sector is not offering the range of options for which they are looking and which they are entitled to expect.
Both independent and state schools must cater for students of all aptitudes, from gifted pupils to those with learning difficulties. Both ends of the spectrum represent specific needs and all students deserve the right environment to achieve their potential. Most Australian state governments do not willingly support a culture of achievement in their secondary schools-schools that foster and embrace excellence or which specialise in a particular discipline: music, sport, science, agriculture or technology. Most states do not even offer academically selective state high schools-those schools with an enrolment policy based on academic achievement and entrance exams.
Selective high schools are one way that states can provide a high-quality public alternative to independent schools and offer opportunities to students on the basis of merit, regardless of means. New South Wales has historically enjoyed a far more diverse state secondary school system than the other states. For instance, New South Wales has 17 fully selective high schools, seven high schools with selective classes and four agricultural high schools offering selective placements-in total, 28 high schools with a selective element. Some of these are general selective high schools like Sydney Boys High. Others, such as James Ruse Agricultural High, are centres of excellence and are consistently among the top academic schools in the state. James Ruse defies the stereotype of great academic schools. It is coeducational, it is a state school, it is in an outer suburb and it specialises in agriculture. It does not fit the stereotype we have in our mind of the great academic school: we think private, single sex, in an inner-city suburb and definitely not agricultural.
The only other state with fully selective high schools, Victoria, has just two: Melbourne High for boys and Mac.Robertson for girls. Both are exemplary schools whose students consistently perform among the best in the year 12 exams. But there are only two of those schools for Victoria. New South Wales also has centres of excellence in particular disciplines such as Cherrybrook Technology High, Conservatorium High and Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. The conservatorium and Newtown are not selective in an academic sense but do require auditions and interviews. There is a focus on excellence and achievement in a particular discipline.
The failure of the Australian state school system to provide a comprehensive range of
merit based selective schools and centres of excellence is a national outrage. This is not the fault of principals, though. It is not the fault of teachers. State educators do incredibly well within the narrow confines imposed by the states. It is up to the state governments to have the vision to put the right framework in place to allow teachers to do their best for their students. State governments around Australia have been too terrified to claim and use the word ‘excellence’. They have been scared of the teacher unions and of being tagged as ‘elitist’, as if aspiration is something to be ashamed of rather than something to be nurtured and encouraged.
Selective schools have served for over a century and a half as a ladder for talented kids regardless of means, regardless of background. I use the word ‘ladder’ deliberately because Labor have no political copyright on it. It is easy to use and appropriate the language of merit and hope; it is much harder to have the courage to adopt policies that give expression and meaning to the rhetoric. Selective schools are an avenue of opportunity, but they are under threat from Labor. The New South Wales government has received a report calling for the dismantling of many of its selective schools. This must not happen. There is no lack of money in state government coffers to establish and maintain selective high schools and centres of excellence. But there is a lack of will on the part of state government leaders. This lack of will is denying students opportunity, it is denying parents choice and it is denying our community the strong and vital public education sector it deserves. It is strong competition between schools, between school sectors and within school sectors that will strengthen both state and independent education.
We know from the Intergenerational Report of 2002 that demographic trends mean Australia will be reliant upon relatively fewer in the work force to finance the needs of an ageing population. We will be expecting more from future generations. In this context, second best for our students will not be an option. Why should state students put up with a monochromatic secondary school system, particularly in the state of Victoria? Why not have selective high schools, agricultural high schools, technology high schools, performing arts high schools, comprehensive high schools, co-educational high schools and single-sex high schools? What is wrong with each school having its own character, its own identity and its own areas of specialty?
Let’s embrace choice, let’s embrace variety, let’s embrace difference and excellence. Let’s even bring back the old ‘tech schools’ in Victoria. Let’s recognise that students have the right to have their potential and their opportunities maximised. Allowing people to reach their potential unrestricted is not the essence of elitism; it is the essence of true egalitarianism. Unfortunately, Labor is hostile to the very avenues of educational opportunity from which particularly lowincome families have benefited and stand to benefit in the future. We need to give our children the opportunity to be their best. And if the states will not then perhaps the Australian government will need to take an even greater interest in school education. I will be asking the federal Minister for Education, Science and Training what avenues might be open to the Australian government to persuade the states to introduce selective schools and centres of excellence.
Mr President, those who have been given opportunity through education have a great responsibility to build and contribute to the communities in which they live. One of the most common cries today is that we have lost our sense of community. The paradox is we have never been more connected as a community by transport and technology but, at the same time, never more distant from each other. Contact and connectedness do not equate to proximity. It is proximity that gives meaning to human contact and to community. Ultimately what determines the true quality of our lives is the quality of the relationships we have. Community is what happens when we engage. This engenders relationships we otherwise would not have undertaken in circumstances we would not have otherwise found.
I propose a measure that could provide both incentive and reward for young people to become more involved in the community. Let us offer university students the opportunity to reduce their HECS debt by a few thousand dollars each year in return for undertaking weekly volunteer or community work. This measure would encourage community work and increase the likelihood these people would continue their involvement in later life. This would involve a discount on HECS fees for a certain number of hours spent each week with a recognised charity or community group. Part of the HECS debt could be forgiven in exchange for, say, five hours per week or 200 hours a year of community service with a recognised charity or community group. If each hour was valued at, say, $10 this would amount to a $2,000 saving each year on their HECS liability.
I fully support the HECS system. I supported the Labor government’s introduction of HECS while at university, despite the opposition of its own party members on campus. It is right that those who derive the most direct benefit from further education make an appropriate financial contribution. But we can use the mechanism provided by HECS to foster greater community interaction and involvement. The scheme could be available to undergraduates undertaking their first degree and a similar scheme could be put in place to reduce the upfront cost for TAFE students undertaking vocational courses.
Students could tutor disadvantaged children, assist the churches in their charitable work with the young, or work with organisations that care for the aged. Young people would become more intimately acquainted with their neighbourhoods and the problems which confront them. There would be a slight lifting of the financial burden on students and a greater lifting of some of society’s burdens. This measure would encourage greater community understanding-that misfortune befalls many people often through no fault of their own and that its remedies lie with people not just government. Hopefully, it would foster lifelong community involvement.
This is an idea I first raised with my preselectors in October last year and have discussed extensively as I have moved throughout Victoria. I have raised the idea with the Prime Minister and have commended it for his consideration. To be a compassionate society means being able to put yourself in the shoes of another and understand what makes them different and why they find themselves in their particular circumstance. This scheme would, in a small way, help engender greater community and rebuild social capital. It is only when we keep coming back to our core Liberal values of choice, independence and responsibility that we find the policies that facilitate opportunity.
I want to acknowledge the love and support of my extended family: the Fifields, the Fords and the O’Learys-especially my brothers, Scott and Matt; sister-in-law, Denise; John and Di Ford; and John and Annette O’Leary. I thank my great friend Liz O’Leary for her enduring support. My only regret today is that my late parents, Alan and Jan Fifield, are not able to share this day. I thank my three-year-old daughter, Ruby, who is in the gallery, for her love and curiosity which keeps everything in perspective.
May I be worthy of the trust placed in me by the people of Victoria. I pledge to always work to ensure a better Victoria and a better Australia for my daughter’s generation. I thank the Senate for the courtesy extended to me.