Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (1.26 p.m.)-I rise to speak on the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 and the Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. The Education Legislation Amendment Bill amends the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 to implement a range of appropriations. It also makes consequential and technical amendments to a range of other acts. The Schools Assistance Bill 2008 provides Australian government funding to non-government schools for the next four years-2009-12. It is the Schools Assistance Bill which I will primarily focus on this afternoon. The coalition has four principal concerns with the Schools Assistance Bill 2008. These concerns relate to the changes to the power of the minister to refuse or delay the payment of funding, the requirement for all schools to comply by 2012 with the yet-to-be-developed national curriculum, the new reporting requirements for schools relating to the disclosure of financial information and sources of funding, and the scrapping of the new non-government schools establishment grants program.
Before coming to these specific concerns, it is worth putting this bill in context. This is a government that promised an education revolution. With much fanfare, Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard toured the country in the lead-up to the last election promising a bold new era in Australian education. But, to my understanding, ‘revolution’ does not mean ‘a bit of tinkering’; it does not mean ‘the status quo’; it does not mean ‘slow, gradual change’. A revolution is a swift and dramatic shift. Labor’s education revolution was to be-as I understood and as I think most Australians understood-a complete rewriting of the prevailing paradigm of education in this country. But so far all we have seen is a record of failure, a bit of disappointment and not too much action. We have seen the abolition of the Investing in Our Schools Program, which provided $1.2 billion for vital school infrastructure and equipment. That program primarily addressed neglect by state and territory governments around the nation. We have also seen the winding back of the Australian Technical Colleges and plans to hand those Australian Technical Colleges back to state governments-the very state governments which abolished technical education in Australia in the first place. And what on earth has happened to the schools trade training centres that Labor promised?
And then there is the biggest failure of all: the computers in schools program. The Labor Party, in opposition, promised a laptop for every student in the country. We were told that the laptop was to be the toolbox of the future and that every student in the country would have a laptop. It was not too long before we found out that that promise had been divided by two-that is, only every second student would have a laptop and students would have to share.
The next instalment in the saga of computers in schools was revealed at the COAG conference last weekend where what we on this side of the chamber had been saying for months and months came to pass-that is, that the government had dramatically underfunded the computers in schools program. We had said, and schools around the country had said, ‘What is the point of giving schools computers if you do not give them the software or the capacity to put in extra cabling, the capacity to put in air conditioners to keep the computers and the classrooms cool or the capacity to secure those computers?’ And what did we find out at COAG? That the government had undercommitted by $800 million-not $100 million or $200 million but $800 million. That is a massive cost blow-out. I hope that Deputy Prime Minister Gillard, at her annual performance review with the Prime Minister, is taken to task because that is rank incompetence. But I am sure she will not be chastised by the Prime Minister for that 66 per cent cost blow-out, because we on this side of the chamber all know that Ms Gillard is performing a lot better in the public’s view and in House question time than the Prime Minister. So I think he will tread very warily and very carefully with Ms Gillard.
The Labor member for Fowler, Julia Irwin, shares a bit of the scepticism of this side of the chamber in relation to the education revolution. When she spoke on these very bills in the House on 21 October, she said that these bills:
… have been presented as delivering Labor’s promised education revolution.
She went on to say that the measures contained in the bills are ‘hardly a revolution’. Mrs Irwin, surprisingly, exposed the con and the sham of Labor’s education policy when she described the supposedly new Labor wave of education reform as the ‘so-called education revolution’. I suspect Mrs Irwin is attacking Labor’s reforms from a somewhat different ideological standpoint but, nevertheless, she has belled the cat-it is not a revolution of any sort.
The widespread concern in the non-government schools sector over this bill should serve as a message for the government. The government say that they will consult with the non-government schools sector on the implementation of this legislation, but these discussions will be after the fact. That is not consultation; that is notification. This funding needs to be delivered. Non-government schools require certainty over the funding that they are to receive from this bill so that they can properly plan for next year and beyond.
The coalition’s record on delivering support to all schools probably does not need to be defended. In government, the coalition were able to provide substantial funding to both government and non-government schools because we managed the economy well, paid down Labor debt and produced budget surpluses. That is a bonus from balanced budgets and having surpluses: you can actually afford to do good things for schools. On top of recurrent funding, the coalition also funded capital projects, particularly in government schools, which, as I said earlier, have been badly neglected by Labor state governments. Through the Investing in Our Schools Program, which Labor has now abolished, the coalition delivered nearly $1.2 billion in capital funding for schools right across Australia. Thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of students have benefited from new computers, classroom furniture, playgrounds, sports fields and equipment.
In contrast, Labor’s attitude towards non-government schools has ranged between extremely reluctant support and outright hostility. Ms Gillard is dragging her caucus kicking and screaming to the provision of a level of support to non-government schools. And we should not forget that the Labor Party is a creature of the trade union movement. We know that the teachers unions would rather walk over hot coals than see a single dollar of funding provided to non-government schools. The Australian Education Union has for some time now been running a dishonest and misleading campaign on schools funding. It claims that government schools are not properly funded by the federal government and that non-government schools receive a highly disproportionate level of funding. The AEU conveniently neglects to mention that government schools are owned and operated by state governments, which are and have always been their main funding source. The balance of taxpayer funding for schools in Australia is not tilted towards the non-government sector; quite the opposite in fact. Non-government schools enrol 33 per cent of students but receive just 25 per cent of total Commonwealth and state government funding. Yet the clear message coming from the education union is that non-government schools get too much money.
The danger for non-government schools and their teachers, parents and students is that the union view will gain currency in the Labor caucus. On this side of the chamber we all remember Labor’s private schools hit list. It is little wonder that non-government schools are suspicious of Labor’s motives in putting forward some of the provisions in this bill. Labor has a long and established history of attacking private schools. Any psychologist will tell you that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Teachers, parents and students are right not to trust Labor when it comes to supporting a diverse schools sector.
The first specific concern that schools have with this legislation is the insertion of a new power for the minister to refuse or delay payment of grant money to a school on the basis that it receives a qualified audit. The purpose of this provision, contained at clause 15(c) of the bill, is to ensure that payment of public money is made only to financially viable schools. That is an appropriate aim; none of us would disagree with that. But this new clause deems that the delivery of a qualified audit could be sufficient to deny funding to a school. This shows a lack of understanding of the audit process itself. There are a whole range of reasons why an audit report may be qualified-for example, it may be that record-keeping has been deficient in some minor way. This sort of problem can be easily rectified and it does not necessarily indicate that an entity is not in a sound financial position. There is no reason why the minister should have the power to refuse or delay payments to a school merely on the basis of a minor technical qualification of an audit.
The bill also seeks to tie funding for non-government schools to compliance with the national curriculum, yet the national curriculum is not drafted. I am pleased to see that the direction the curriculum seems to be heading in is a back-to-basics approach, but the parliament can hardly be asked to agree to make funding to schools conditional on compliance with a document none of us has yet seen. Indeed, a key issue is how prescriptive the national curriculum will be. The national curriculum does have the potential, if badly framed and implemented, to destroy choice in our education system. The non-government school sector is a big part of the culture of choice and diversity. If the national curriculum is framed and implemented in such a way as to erode the flexibility and choice of curricula available to parents when they choose schools for their children, non-government schools will have no choice but to comply or lose their Commonwealth funding.
The potential for removal of flexibility for schools in developing their curriculum content is of great concern for the non-government school sector. John Marsden, the principal of Candlebark School in Victoria, told the Senate inquiry into this legislation:
The dead hand of bureaucracy already rests heavily upon Australian schools. The Parliament should be working to lift it, not to add to its weight.
If the government begins to take Australia away from a diverse schools system characterised by choice, the only destination will be a one-size-fits-all system that will require much more prescription and regulation, adding to the bureaucratic burden referred to by Mr Marsden. There is no reason why the funding delivered to non-government schools in this legislation needs to be tied to national curriculum compliance now. Let us see the national curriculum first and have a debate about it. There is also the concern that the insistence on compliance with the national curriculum will mean that schools will be unable to offer alternative curriculum choices such as the International Baccalaureate, Montessori courses and Steiner courses.
Parents and teachers are rightly anxious about another matter: why the government wants access to their funding sources. Everything from donations from parents to the proceeds of school fetes, raffles and cake drives will need to be disclosed under the new Labor regime proposed in the bill. There is no disclosure threshold, so effectively the government wants to subject schools to a stricter regime of financial disclosure than is applied to political parties and candidates. Requiring the disclosure of this sort of information is unnecessary, and we on this side are very suspicious of Labor’s motives. There is a real and legitimate fear that this information will be used against non-government schools. Our fear is that the old politics of class envy, which we saw under the leadership of Mr Latham, is lurking below the surface of this bill, and that this bill will enable the government to give effect to that politics of envy at some point in the future.
We also have the concern that, the moment such information is published-something which is not required at the moment-no matter what the data shows, the teachers’ unions will be out there saying that private schools are awash with money and that those schools should not receive any taxpayer support. No doubt many on the Labor side will echo these sentiments, and I fear it will be only a matter of time before Ms Gillard is forced to cave in to union and caucus pressure, just as she has done on union right of entry into workplaces. My fear is that Labor will use this legislation to justify a redistribution of public funding away from non-government schools, just as was proposed in Labor’s schools hit list under Mr Latham. This would be a devastating blow to school choice in Australia.
The coalition in government was a strong supporter of choice in education. One way that the coalition supported the development of the non-government school sector in Australia was through the new non-government schools establishment grants. But the Rudd government, through this legislation, is phasing out these grants. This is a direct attack on the development of new non-government schools. There is no other way to look at it. This legislation will make it much, much harder for new non-government schools to be established. What this government should be doing is facilitating parental choice, not making that choice harder. Instead, the removal of this assistance will make the establishment of non-government schools that much harder and that much less likely.
Parents of students at non-government schools are taxpayers. They deserve a level of public support for their children’s education. In many cases, parents who send their kids to non-government schools make enormous sacrifices to send their children to those institutions. In many, many cases the parents are not wealthy, both parents work hard and they sacrifice a lot to provide that opportunity for their children. And it is the responsibility of government to help facilitate that sort of choice and to help support parents in making that sacrifice.
It is a deliberately dishonest stereotype promoted by Labor’s class warriors to try to imply that all parents of private school students are rich. Students at non-government schools receive a lesser share of public funding than students at government schools. That means that the non-government schools sector is making an enormous contribution to the wellbeing of the government school sector in Australia. The more students that are enrolled at non-government schools, the more funding is freed up to improve the government sector. To put it more simply: every student who attends a non-government school saves the taxpayer money and frees that money up for the government sector.
The coalition supports choice in education. We are the champions of choice in education. We are the champions of a parent’s right to choose the best school environment for their kids. It is essential that this funding be delivered to non-government schools. On this side of the chamber we hope that the government does not hold students at non-government schools hostage to ideology and that it does split the funding of the non-government schools from those areas in this legislation which we have concerns about. Some of the onerous and unnecessary requirements imposed by this legislation ought to be discarded. I urge all senators to support the opposition’s amendments to this bill. We should be giving schools our support, not new red tape to strangle them with.