Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (11.27 a.m.)-I also rise to speak on the Schools Assistance (Learning Together-Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Amendment (2007 Budget Measures) Bill 2007. This bill delivers on the promises made in the May 2007 federal budget and continues the government’s very strong record of investment in education. The bill provides funds for the English as a Second Language Program for new arrivals and expands government support for non-government schools in rural and regional Australia.
The government recognises the vital importance of recent immigrants learning English. The ability to communicate with people in the workforce and in the general community is an essential skill for integrating into Australian society. As a result, the government is increasing its funding for teaching English as a second language in our primary and secondary schools. The coalition also recognises the challenges faced by schools in rural and regional Australia. Rural and regional schools face a number of costs that their counterparts in metropolitan Australia do not have to grapple with. Accordingly, the government has announced that a new funding loading will be applied to rural non-government schools, augmenting their initial federal funding by five per cent, 10 per cent or 20 per cent, according to their remoteness.
The government is proud of its record of support for non-government schools and for choice in education. The choice to educate children in non-government schools is one that is growing increasingly popular as parents are voting with their feet in what is a virtual referendum on the quality of Australian schools. In the last decade, enrolments at non-government schools have increased by approximately 20 per cent. Unfortunately, although Labor has indicated its support for the bulk of the federal budget this year, these funding policies are not really bipartisan.
We know that the Labor Party, perhaps because of the pressure they feel from the Australian Education Union, is, at best, ambivalent about federal support for independent and Catholic schools. Labor went to the last election with a hit list of schools whose funding would be slashed. They have spent the last 11 years in opposition complaining about the federal government’s support for choice in education. We know that the AEU, still using a Marxist critique, hate the idea that the federal government should facilitate choice. We know that the union movement will be bankrolling the Labor Party’s election campaign this year. We know that, for as long as the union movement holds the purse strings of the Labor Party, they retain their influence and dictate ALP policy. We have seen that expressed again in the papers this morning.
The new secretary of the ACTU has said that he wants a closer and more formal relationship with the Australian Labor Party. I would not have thought it was possible for there to be a closer and more formal relationship between the ACTU and the ALP than presently exists. But, apparently, it is possible for them to still get even closer. I do not know how that will manifest itself, but I will be waiting with bated breath to see what transpires. Already, the AEU has embarked on its regular dishonest advertising campaign, claiming that public schools are underfunded. The truth is that, whilst government schools enrol 67 per cent of all students, they receive 75 per cent of all public education funding. That is not a bad thing; it is a good thing. But it is not what you would believe to be the case if you watched the AEU’s deceptive advertising campaign. This is the sort of misleading and deceptive nonsense that we have come to expect from the unions and from Labor. But the Australian people see through it; they are not so easily fooled.
The AEU helped shape the Labor Party platform, as have other unions. Why wouldn’t they? They control 50 per cent of the votes on the floor of the ALP national conference-and it shows. When it comes to support for non-government schools, you cannot trust Labor. The Leader of the Opposition has been out there running around trumpeting the dumping of the Labor schools hit list, saying, ‘We hated private schools last election; we wanted to slash their funding, but we have now changed our mind, we now love them and want to support them by funding them.’ Mr Rudd has been out there saying, ‘The hit list policy has gone,’ promising that no private school will be worse off under Labor. Mr Rudd thinks that that will solve Labor’s problem. But not everyone is convinced by Mr Rudd.
I picked up yesterday’s Australian newspaper and saw that Bill Daniels, the head of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, wrote to Mr Stephen Smith, the shadow minister for education, to express his concern that the promises of funding from Mr Smith and Mr Rudd are:
… inconsistent with some of the statements in the ALP national platform-
the very platform that the antichoice Australian Education Union helped shape. What does the ALP national platform say on education? I went to the ALP’s website. When you click on the icon platform, this is what is on the ALP’s website-nothing. A month and a half after the national conference, the ALP have still not uploaded their national platform. I did try to assist the Senate on that issue, but I cannot because it is just not there on their website. The Australian, though, reports-courtesy of Mr Daniels, who has seen the relevant sections of the ALP platform-that it contains a clause to the effect:
… “income from private sources” will be taken into account when deciding how much money a school will receive …
We know what that means. That is code for private schools being defunded. If Labor won the next election, the schools hit list would be back. How do we know that? Because the ALP platform tells us that that would be the case. It is just another illustration of the old adage: don’t listen to what Labor say; look at what they do. They say they will not cut funding to independent schools, but their own platform suggests that that is just what they will do. Mr Daniels puts it best in his circular, when he writes:
… (Labor’s) policy, if implemented, would take us back to the dark old days when parents were penalised for their financial contribution to their children’s education.
That is the Labor way: a parent cares so much about their own child’s education that they want to put their own money towards it, and Labor thinks that should be penalised. We on this side of the chamber think it is a good thing that parents want to put money towards their child’s education. We encourage it and we support it. There is only one side of this chamber which can be trusted to support all schools-that is, the coalition.
In other areas of education funding, the 2007 federal budget maintains this government’s strong support for choice. The government will be increasing its support for children who do not meet literacy and numerous benchmarks with an expanded voucher scheme. The National Literacy and Numeracy Vouchers program provides a $700 voucher to the families of students who are not meeting literacy and numeracy benchmarks. Testing conducted at years 3, 5 and 7 determines students’ progress in these areas, ensuring that those who are falling behind are identified. These vouchers provide parents with an opportunity to seek additional help for their children outside the school system in a $450 million program. Vouchers are a very sound vehicle for delivering public funding in order to achieve these objectives. They promote choice and they direct funding to those services which actually help individuals.
I have been an advocate for a more fundamental and widespread use of education vouchers. Some of Australia’s leading institutions have added their support for this concept. The Group of Eight universities recently came out in support of student vouchers as part of a more consumer driven system. Earlier this year the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry heavily featured vouchers for higher education in its education reform blueprint. I am pleased that the government has continued to expand its use of vouchers to deliver education funding, and I look forward to further developments in the use of vouchers. I must commend Senator Birmingham on his first speech last night, in which he called for a comprehensive voucher system in the school sector. Under other proposals announced in the budget, the federal government has continued to intervene where state Labor governments have failed to deliver.
There are a few things which I must at this point take up in response to Senator Carr’s speech earlier. Senator Carr was making the allegation that this government has somehow dudded government schools and dudded independent schools in relation to the Investing in Our Schools Program. I should put on the record that the guidelines have not changed for the original amount of funding under the $1 billion plan that was announced at the 2004 election for government and non-government schools, except for the new allocation of funding announced by the Prime Minister earlier this year and the $40 million remaining from the previous allocation for state government schools. The original allocation provided was $700 million for government schools, for grants of up to $150,000; and $300 million for non-gov-ernment schools-$100 million of this amount for grants of up to $75,000 and $200 million for larger grants. Program funding was brought forward, through legislation for state government schools, due to overwhelming demand. However, non-government schools will be able to receive funding as per the original guidelines through to 2008 as funding was not brought forward through legislation.
But the real outrage regarding the Investing in Our Schools Program is the approach of the state governments. It is bad enough that the state governments do not adequately fund their own state schools-that is why they are called state schools: because they are run, they are managed and they are funded predominantly by the states. Not only do the states not adequately fund them, but after we introduced this Investing in Our Schools Program the state Labor governments actually creamed administration fees off the top of the grants to schools. We have seen in Western Australia and New South Wales those governments actually take funds from schools administration fees of over 20 per cent. They have creamed 20 per cent off the top for administration. Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory also impose fees and charges on successful applications. It is an outrage. These states do not adequately fund their schools, the Commonwealth has to step into the breach to support them and then state governments cream the money off the top. It is an outrage.
Also in this budget we have done more for literacy and numeracy. We know that providing students with skills in literacy and numeracy is critical to their development. We as a federal government are not going to stand by whilst a provider driven state education system fails in its duty to properly prepare students with the skills they need. In addition to vouchers, which provide assistance to underperforming students, the government will be rewarding high-performing schools who improve their literacy and numeracy standards with $50,000 grants. Further, the government will reward teachers who undertake ongoing professional education to ensure that Australia’s children are taught by the highest quality professionals. The government also realise that not all teachers are created equal. We are seeking to reward outstanding teachers with performance pay. And in its typical fashion, following the lead of the AEU, the Labor Party is opposing the apparently radical idea that teachers who perform well should be financially rewarded for doing so. After years of claiming that teachers are underpaid, they are opposing a program of merit based pay. Labor’s shadow minister for education, Mr Smith, mused earlier this year that performance based pay for teachers was something that he supported in principle, but he was quickly smacked down by the AEU. I note Mr Smith has now adjusted his rhetoric following the dressing down he copped from AEU Federal President Pat Byrne and is now talking about rewarding teachers for things other than student performance.
The government is also acting where state governments have failed in providing support for technical eduction. The highly successful Australian technical colleges are being expanded with three additional centres to meet the strong demand. These Australian technical colleges have gone from being just an idea to reality in a very short space of time. In the 2004 election the establishment of 25 colleges was announced, and by the end of this year 21 colleges will be operating around Australia. The good news is that the Commonwealth’s effort in establishing these colleges has shamed the state governments into establishing their own technical colleges. Some 20 or 30 years ago the states, very unwisely, dismantled the old tech colleges that we had. We recognised that that was a mistake and we did something about it. Thankfully, as a result of what we have done, by 2009 there will be 70 technical schools around Australia. There are now 25 and the rest will be established by the states. So by 2009 there will be between 25,000 and 35,000 young Australians at technical colleges. That is what I call a real education revolution. This is not just about having a lathe or a pie warmer in every school, as Mr Rudd announced as his grand technical education revolution; this is about having 25,000 to 35,000 real students enrolled at 70 technical colleges around Australia. That is a real education revolution.
In addition, the federal government’s usage of vouchers to promote choice has been expanded to cover Australian apprentices with the new apprenticeship training voucher. First and second year apprentices in areas of skills shortage are eligible for vouchers to the value of $500 to defray the cost of their education. Those vouchers are in addition to the government’s $2,000 tax-free wage boost for young Australian apprentices. If Labor were doing their job and providing real choice for students-something which they are, belatedly, starting to do now that we have shamed them into introducing their own tech colleges-then some of these federal programs would be unnecessary.
Perhaps most importantly, the federal government will be encouraging the development of additional academically selective government schools as part of the next round of funding negotiations with the states. New South Wales does have a number of academically selective government high schools-something in the order of 17-Victoria has two and South Australia is in the process of establishing its first three. There is no reason why, because you lack the means, you should not be entitled to the best education possible. Unfortunately the state education systems, which have become so monochromatic, have not provided real choice and real variety in their own systems. That is something that the Commonwealth is going to endeavour to encourage the states to do in the next round of funding negotiations. I have to admit that the Victorian Labor government have reluctantly agreed to build an additional two selective entry schools after pressure from the Victorian state opposition, but that does not go far enough.
Academically selective schools do offer real opportunities to talented kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack the means, and I think the states need to realise the benefit of offering that sort of choice in the state sector. On the issue of education, we know where the coalition stands-this government supports choice, it supports excellence and it supports higher standards. The real test though is for the Australian Labor Party. Will they toe the union line or will they support parents? Will they support choice? It is time for Labor to stop paying heed to special interest groups and to stand up for standards and choice. It is time for the Australian Labor Party, once and for all, to abandon the politics of envy.