Monday, 3 June 2013
Australian Education Bill 2012; Second Reading
It is a little strange standing up here this evening and talking about this Australian Education Bill 2012. We do not really have any idea what it is about. It is a bit strange. It contains nine pages and 1,400 words and sets out aspirational goals. The three suggested goals that the Prime Minister is aiming for are: for Australian schooling to provide an excellent education for all students; for Australian schooling to be highly equitable; and for Australia to be placed in the top five countries in reading, science and mathematics. Quality, equity and recognition in international testing by 2025—those aspirations are hard to disagree with.
We on this side would like all Australian schools to be the best in the world, but what we need is some detail. We need to know how the government is going to do this. If there is one thing we—especially the Australian people—have had to learn the hard way it is that you cannot trust this government to implement anything. The idea that on a whim we would just say, 'Yes, Prime Minister, we will pass this education bill and trust you with all the detail,' borders on the absurd. It is a bit like being asked to buy a house but not being allowed to look inside the house: how many rooms it has, what are the quality of those rooms, whether they are carpeted, whether there is a kitchen, whether there are bathrooms. We are being asked to say: 'Yes, Prime Minister, off you go. We trust you. We know that you will deliver on behalf of the Australian education system.' Sadly, we are not in a position to do this.
As a matter of fact, what we would like is some questions answered as to what the detail would be. Those questions are along the following lines. First, where will the at least $6.5 billion per year which the government has touted come from? Where is the money? We have no idea where the money is. All we know is the government is going to find the majority of the money in three elections' time. That is when the money is going to magically appear.
Another question is: how much will the Commonwealth contribute and how much are the states expected to find? All we know about this aspect is that this is still under negotiation, and the government is struggling. Because we have read the papers today, we know that Queensland do not seem to be very happy with the current arrangements that the Commonwealth are putting to them. We know that Victoria has the same problem. We know that Western Australia has the same issue. As a matter of fact, it seems that the government went all out to get one state on board. Given that the government have done that, there might not be much left for the other states. As the Prime Minister has set a deadline of 30 June for this to be completed and as yet she only has one state and one territory on board, it would seem that where the money is going to come from with regard to state governments is still very uncertain.
The third question that we want answered is: what programs will be cut and what taxes will the government increase to pay for this? Sadly, it seems we will have to wait for the detail on that, if the government is re-elected. Personally speaking, I hope for the benefit of the country, the government are not re-elected on 14 September. We also have questions on the leaked Gonski modelling. The only thing we have seen on what Gonski means with regard to modelling is the leaked document. The government has not transparently come out and said: 'Here is the modelling which will sit behind this bill, and this is what Gonski, in the government's form, would mean for individual schools.' The leaked modelling had 3,254 schools worse off. Which schools are worse off? Which states are they in? That is what we need to know. Is the government going to come out and say, 'We've changed the leaked modelling, and this is what it looks like now and what it would mean for individual schools'? Is the government going to be transparent with the Australian people on this issue?
Sadly, I do not think that is going to be the case, because what we are hearing behind the scenes is not only will there not be transparency but there are gag orders being put on various consultations occurring, whereby those the government take into confidence are not allowed to publicly release the detail of those discussions. We are actually seeing the reverse of proper transparency. We are seeing people being gagged, which does not mean that we can look with great faith at what the government is proposing and think that there will not be problems in the process. Once you start moving away from transparency, it usually shows that there are flaws in your approach.
When will the modelling showing the impact of this funding for each school be available? When are we going to see what the individual impact on each school will be as a result of the approach that the government says it is going to take? I say 'says it is going to take' because we have not seen the approach detailed in any form. We want to hear from the Prime Minister a guarantee that no school will increase school fees as a result of her changes. Is she going to come out and give a guarantee that some schools will not be worse off and will not have to lift fees? I look forward to hearing that from the Prime Minister. Where is the detailed response to the 41 recommendations in the Gonski review? When are we going to see the detail? The devil is in the detail, and you would have thought that this government would have learnt that by now.
How much indexation will each school and school sector receive? What will be the benchmark funding per primary and secondary school student? How much funding per student will be allocated for students with a disability? We saw some movement on this from the government today, but still questions need to be answered. Will this funding be portable between the government and non-government sectors? This is a very important point. What type of competition are we going to see brought into the school system as a result of these changes? What, if any, future capital funding arrangements will be provided for schools? We have heard that there are schools that will not move to develop extra parts of their schools. We have particular sectors in the education system which will not build new schools while they are waiting for the government to get its act together on this.
What new reporting requirements and other conditions will schools have to meet in order to qualify for government funding? Once again, we are in the dark with regard to this issue. As a matter of fact, we are hearing that the government, especially when it comes to the Catholic sector and the independent sector, wants to put more regulation in place so that how the independent and Catholic schools want to spend their money will be regulated. We hear they will need to get permission from the federal department before they can make decisions with regard to allocating funding which, in the normal course of events, they would make themselves. Those are the questions that we need answered. We need them answered soon because, if the artificial deadline of 30 June which the Prime Minister has set is to be believed, then you would think that the government would allow the public system, the independent system and the Catholic system time to look at this model and to decide whether it is in the interests of all Australians.
What will the coalition do if we are elected to government? We have our own set of principles which outline our values for schooling. These values are seen in the amendments that we have put forward to this bill. We believe that families must have the right to choose the school that meets their needs, values and beliefs. All children must have the opportunity to secure a quality education. Student funding needs to be based on fair, objective and transparent criteria, distributed according to socioeconomic need. Students with similar needs must be treated comparably throughout the course of their schooling. As many decisions as possible should be made locally by parents, communities, principals, teachers, schools and school systems.
Schools, school sectors and school systems must be accountable to their communities, families and students. It is a very important point, because if they are accountable locally that means the schools know that their community is judging their performance. And there is no greater judge of your performance than your peers, and especially when it comes to local and country communities that is absolutely the case.
Every Australian student must be entitled to a basic grant from the Commonwealth government. Schools and parents must have a high degree of certainty about school funding so they can effectively plan for the future. Parents who wish to make a private contribution towards the cost of their child's education should not be penalised, nor should schools in their efforts to fundraise and encourage private investment. Funding arrangements must be simple so schools are able to direct funding towards education outcomes, minimising administration costs and increasing productivity and quality.
They are the principles that will guide us. They are the principles that have guided the amendments to this bill that we have put forward. Until we see the detail, they are the amendments we are going to base our approach on to this bill. I would like to commend our shadow minister because he has had the sense to give the government a chance to come in and provide the detail. He has also provided a way for the government to be able to say: 'We're really not competent enough to do this. Everything like this that we have done we have failed on.' What we are putting forward is a way out for the government—a way for the government to say, 'Yes, you're right, this is too big a reform for us to handle.' So let's postpone it for a couple of years. Let's cement the existing funding arrangement to keep it in place and then, hopefully, we can get a competent government in place that can do the reform that is necessary. That is what our shadow education minister has put in place, and I think it is a pretty reasonable compromise. It understands the incompetence of the other side and reflects the need for us to get some certainty into the funding arrangement in the next couple of years and then for a competent government to come along and do the necessary reform.
I would like to congratulate our shadow minister for that very sensible and reasonable approach he has adopted on this bill. He has acted in extreme good faith in the approach that he has taken and given the government a very good way out on this bill. As I explained at the start, it is very difficult to come in here and talk about a bill on education funding and talk about reform of those education funding arrangements without any detail. I understand the government is negotiating, or trying to negotiate, in good faith with the states. The fact that they have left it to the eleventh hour, the fact that they have not got their act together, the fact that we have Queensland coming out today and saying, 'Sorry, we don't trust your government and what you are putting towards us,' show that this is lacking in credibility. So I think the best thing is for the government to admit, 'Yep, too hard, too difficult, we're not competent enough,' and for us to roll over the existing funding for a couple of years and put reform of education in competent hands. Hopefully, the Australian people will recognise that the competent hands will be on this side, if they see fit to vote us into office come 14 September.