Monday, 3 June 2013
Australian Education Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Australian Education Bill 2012. Within the Australian psyche Labor owns the education portfolio. That is one of their cornerstones. The great reformist of education was Whitlam with free universities. They have a track record on education. With the bill before the House tonight, which is no more than nine pages and 1,400 words long, oh how the mighty have fallen.
The bill sets out a set of aspirational outcomes with no funding associated with it. The coalition's strength is our capacity to manage the economy. We are all businessmen and we basically cut our teeth on reading balance sheets and making tough decisions to bring businesses back to profitability. This bill is an aspirational statement. In the context of the Gonski environment that surrounds our nation at the moment it would appear there are more unknowns about Gonski than there are knowns to the point where you now have two conflicting parts of the community: those who avidly support Gonski and those who scratch their heads and say, 'How is this going to be paid for?' Those who avidly support Gonski would have you think that those who do not support it do not love their kids—if you do not support Gonski, you are so far right of doing the right thing for tomorrow's kids.
This bill is devoid of any real detail and must be updated with new information. Until then there is very little that can be said about how the proposed funding formula might impact on schools in my electorate. I am so blessed to represent the electorate that I do. In my electorate there are schools from as small as 28 kids with one teacher and sometimes with a couple of teacher aides through to schools with over 1,000 kids. I have spent time with the teachers and teaching staff in those schools and we need to acknowledge at every turn the outstanding work that our educators do with the challenges that face them on a daily basis. It changes, it is systematically different, as you move through the electorate. In some areas they may be dealing with under-resourcing and in the larger schools it is not uncommon for deputy principals to spend the first couple of hours of their day not dealing with student truancy but staff who did not show up. But those are not issues that concern the federal government or the House here at the moment.
There is a belief in the House at the moment that Tony Abbott, the leader of the coalition, the leader of the LNP, is somehow strongarming the states to not sign up to the Gonski education reform in the current bill, but that is the furthest thing from the truth. States have to make a decision on whether they bounce onto it. In my home state of Queensland I regret to say my state colleagues were left with a terribly enormous debt given their state's GDP and there is a long road ahead. The debate up there at the moment is about selling state electricity assets to try to clear some debt, to try to reduce their overall debt level, and get a cheaper interest rate so that their interest bill does not start at $30 million a week. So a lot of the decisions are based on finances.
The federal budget handed down this month reveals that Labor will spend $325 million less on schools over the forward estimates than was forecast in 2012-13. I heard a previous speaker say that that was not true. Overall in education, including higher education and vocational education and training, they will spend $4.7 billion less in the four years to 2016 than was budgeted. My words will go into Hansard, so to assist those on the other side to find where I am getting that $4.7 billion less from, I draw their attention to their budget papers. These were circulated by the Hon. Wayne Swan and Senator the Hon. Penny Wong, so these are not Treasury's figures; these figures belong to the Australian Labor Party.
What we do is get the 2013-14 papers and compare them to 2014. We go to table 7 in both of these books. To make it easy for Hansard, one table 7 is at 6.17 and the other table 7, in the 2013-14 edition, is at 6.20. If you look at those estimates from last year against what was proposed this year, 2012-13, last year they were forecasting that it was going to be $29,572,000,000. What was actually spent? Twenty-eight billion, four hundred and eleven million—a difference of $1.161 billion. The difference in the next year's actual to estimated expenditure was a $187 million shortfall; for 2014-15, a nearly $1.3 billion shortfall; and in the following years, 2015-16, a just on $2 billion shortfall. That makes a total shortfall of $4.7 billion between what they forecast last year and what they forecast this year. Mr Deputy Speaker, do not dare let anyone come into this House and say that these numbers are being made up. These numbers come from the Treasurer's and the finance minister's own workings.
When it comes to the integrity of these guys, you cannot question them because they are honourable men and women; they would not mislead the parliament. But when it comes to the Treasurer's credibility, there was that little throwaway line—it was absolutely hysterical—that somehow we are moving towards a carbon tax. More recently, when we were speaking about the write-downs, they were $7.5 billion; a couple of days later the Prime Minister had to come out and say: 'Oh no, Wayne got it wrong. I think the write-downs are going to be $8 or $8.5 billion'. Then Senator Wong had to come out a couple of days after that and say, 'Oh no, all those figures are wrong; the write-downs in revenue are going to be closer to $12 billion'—and that was within a period of three weeks. These forecasts and aspirations—that go out as far as 2025, may I add—are somewhat farcical in an era when Australia is falling behind our competitors on international standards.
So, with the amount of money we have spent on education in recent years, we must pose ourselves an ideological question. Of course, no-one will forget the education revolution that we had—I think it was $6.4 billion that was going to enhance education outcomes and do wonderful things. When you measure us against other nations around the world we went backwards as a result of that investment, purely from an economic benefit point of view. I have seen the benefit of some of those outcomes in the classroom and, to give credit where credit is due, some of the learning aids are substantial and will make a difference into the future. But, rather than debate about aspirational visions, on behalf of the teachers and parents in our electorates when we leave Canberra and go back there, why are we not having the debate as to what has gone wrong with our education system? We all want the same thing. There is a Tally-ho paper of difference, really, between the aspirational vision of the Labor Party and our vision. 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 and distributed according to socioeconomic needs. We all have the motherhood statements, but why are we debating education without going back and understanding where it was in our communities that education started to not get the desired results?
We have seen such a transformation in this country. My grandfather will sit there and tell you the story of how he used to ride his horse to school and in the middle of winter he used to have to get off with no shoes and stand in a cow patty to keep his feet warm. I would love a dollar for every time Pop gave me that one. Then there was Mother, with her stories of writing on a slate with a chalk. She would say, 'I used to ride my pushbike 230 kilometres to school every morning, so stop whinging and keep walking.' The reality is that over time our school standards have improved and we are a stronger nation for that, but there is such a race for us not to drop the ball on this.
Are we to have a debate about how we are not reaching our outcomes because of the quality of our teachers? I do not think that is so, but let us be brave and bold enough to have that debate; and if we need more money to raise the standards of professionalism there, let us have that debate. Are our kids not reaching the international PISA standards because their household environments have changed? Is it a social issue? My father died when I was in grade 8. When I went to school, I was the odd kid out because I did not have a dad. Now it would appear, when I travel through the electorate, the odd kid out is the kid who still has two parents and the same surname as their parents.
In summary, I do not believe in throwing money after money—and this bill does not speak of money. This particular bill before the House today does not speak of money because, when you go to the explanatory memorandum, at page 4, to try to assess the financial impact statement, the page is blank other than the line: 'There is no financial impact associated with this bill.'
In closing, as the coalition have owned wholeheartedly the management of the economy of this nation for many years, where we have continually paid down Labor's debt, we will continue to own this space. With respect to Labor's ownership of education, with the reforms that have come before the House over many years, and when I read such a document as this bill, can I just say, ashamedly: how the mighty have fallen!