Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Perth proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The failure of the Government to adequately invest in the skills, education and training of our people and the need for greater investment in education at every level.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
Australians have traditionally looked at education as the one thing which gives a young Australian the chance to maximise potential and get ahead. The chance to get ahead particularly applies to those people who come from lower socioeconomic, disadvantaged or battling circumstances. Education is seen as the great arena of equity, access and opportunity. But these days it is also the case that education is the single most important economic investment that we can make for our nation. Investing in the skills, education and training of our people and our workforce is the single most important thing we can do to ensure our ongoing international competitiveness, to ensure that we take Australia to the next level of productivity and to ensure that we continue to be a prosperous country and give all Australians the opportunity to share fairly in that prosperity.
This absolutely essential economic and social requirement of making greater investments in education at every level—whether it is early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational or technical, university or on-the-job training—has been Labor’s mantra chant all this year. In addition to stressing the importance of that and the need to make greater investments for the future, we have also made this fundamental point. In the old days it may well have been that people looked at investments in education and compared the investment in one state to the investment in another state or the investment in one system to the investment in another system, or looked at educational outcomes from one state or system versus educational outcomes from another state or territory or system. These days, the absolutely essential requirement for us as a nation is to start comparing and contrasting the educational investments that we make internationally and comparing and contrasting the educational outcomes that we achieve as a nation internationally. In education, as in so many other things in life, we are now in an international competition. So it is the international comparisons in terms of both investments and outcomes that are so essential.
For all of this year the Leader of the Opposition and Labor have been making this single important point. Over its period in office, the Howard government has failed to invest enough in education. It has failed to invest enough in the education, skills and training of our people and our workforce. That puts us at risk. It puts our future prosperity at risk. It puts our future productivity at risk. It puts our international competitiveness at risk. That is why all year we have been urging the need for greater investments in education.
At the beginning of this year, we started with an investment in early childhood education, announcing a half-a-billion-dollar program to give every four-year-old whose parents want it the chance of 15 hours of education per week. Why did we do that? Because we know from the work done in Australia by Fiona Stanley, amongst others, and also from the work done internationally by the Canadians in particular that, if we make an educational investment early—particularly if that educational investment comes in respect of someone who may come from a disadvantaged or dysfunctional family or from a family where a culture of learning and study is not necessarily part of that family’s history—that is the thing that gives us the chance to maximise a long-term beneficial educational outcome.
As well as that half-a-billion-dollar investment in early childhood education, we have announced a $2.5 billion program to bring trades training centres into our secondary schools. We have linked that to improving and increasing our secondary school retention rates, which have regrettably stagnated at about 75 per cent over the last decade. We have committed ourselves to increasing our secondary school retention rates to 90 per cent by 2020.
The reason we have done that is, again, that all the evidence in Australia and internationally shows that, if we get a young Australian to complete year 12, to complete secondary school, then that young person effectively doubles his or her chance of going on and getting a further qualification, whether that is a vocational and training qualification, an apprenticeship qualification or a university qualification. It also doubles that young person’s chance of remaining in gainful employment all of his or her adult life. That evidence is backed up by the recent Australian Industry Group and Dusseldorp Skills Forum report that came out a week or so ago.
All year Labor have been saying that we need to make greater investments and all year we have been saying quite rightly that one of the great failings of the Howard government has been to not make enough investments in all of these areas. Today, the publication of the OECD report Education at a glance 2007 again confirms the lack of investment and the neglect and the complacency of the Howard government in this area. The report underlines Labor’s call for an education revolution to make these greater investments. The report underlines Labor’s view that our comparisons necessarily now have to be international; it underlines the fact that the real comparisons now are with what our international competitors and neighbours are doing.
A searing indictment of this report is that it effectively shows that at every level there has been a decline in investment as far as public investment in education is concerned. Let us just go through some of the damning analyses in this OECD report. As a proportion of GDP, public expenditure on education in Australia is 4.3 per cent; the OECD average is five per cent. As a proportion of total expenditure, Australia has the third lowest proportion of public expenditure on education, at 73 per cent, when the OECD average is 87 per cent, and our proportion of public expenditure has declined by nearly six per cent since 1995. We are the third lowest OECD country in terms of our proportion of public expenditure on education. We are 14 percentage points under the OECD average, and we have declined six points since 1995.
Public investment in tertiary education, for example, has declined by four per cent, while in other OECD countries the average increase has been 49 per cent. So in the period of the report—1995 to 2004, the substantial period of the Howard government in office—our public investment in tertiary education declined by four per cent when the OECD average was plus 49 per cent. Our share of public expenditure on tertiary institutions fell from 64 per cent in 1995 to 47 per cent in 2004, and the OECD average for public expenditure on tertiary institutions was 75.4 per cent. As a proportion of GDP, public expenditure on tertiary education was 0.8 per cent; the OECD average was one per cent.
When you go to primary, secondary and postsecondary non-tertiary education, you see the report finds that, as a proportion of total expenditure, Australia has the third-lowest proportion of public expenditure in the OECD. When you go to early childhood education expenditure as a proportion of GDP, Australia’s figure is 0.1 per cent, one-fifth of the OECD average. So for the key area of early childhood investment ours is one-fifth of the OECD average, and for primary, secondary and postsecondary non-tertiary education we have the third-lowest proportion of public expenditure of all OECD countries. That takes you through the searing, damning indictment of the failure of the Howard government to invest adequately in the education, skills and training of our people and our workforce.
The government’s response to that is to say that the report is dealing with old data and does not deal with data from more recent years. A university revenue report came out today, which, coincidentally, the minister released overnight, entitled Finance 2006: financial reports of higher education providers, but what the minister does not say when she looks at the finance of higher education providers is that, when the government came to office in 1996, Commonwealth recurrent funding to universities was 0.9 per cent of GDP; it is 0.6 per cent today. Commonwealth grants to universities, as a proportion of total revenue, decreased from 57 per cent in 1996 to 41 per cent in 2004 and, at the same time, university revenue derived from fees and charges increased from 13 per cent in 1996 to 24 per cent in 2004. As if the universities have not suffered the adverse consequences of that, the staff-student ratio in our universities, on the advice of the vice-chancellors, has increased, from 14.6 in 1995 to 20.4.
So the government says two things today: firstly, that we are dealing with old data and, secondly, that we should look at the revenue sources of the universities. What the minister will not say is that, as a rule of thumb, when the government came to office 57c of each dollar that the universities spent came from the Commonwealth, from the nation state adequately discharging its essential obligation to fund higher education and learning. Now it is close to 40c. So we have seen the universities stress on quality and rely increasingly on other sources: fees from full fee paying Australian undergraduates, fees from full fee paying overseas students and a substantial individual and national increase in the HECS burden.
At question time the Prime Minister said, ‘These figures don’t take into account HECS.’ He made only one mistake: the Leader of the Opposition, in all of his questions at question time today and in all of his comments today that I have heard, referred to public investment, as I have—the nation state discharging a central obligation to ensure that education at every level, whether it is early childhood education, primary or secondary schooling, vocational education and training or education at our universities, is adequately supported by the Commonwealth.
The other point that the minister and the Prime Minister made today is that we have not taken into account the things they have done recently. What a surprise that in this year’s budget the Howard government—after Labor and the Leader of the Opposition called for an education revolution and noted the need for greater investments—responded with the Higher Education Endowment Fund. Does anyone seriously think they would have come up with that if it had not been an election year and Labor had not been making greater investment in education front and centre? The Howard government are so very good in the run-up to an election at coming up with something that it then tries to use as a political fix to mask a longstanding, enduring complacency and neglect. The most serious indictment that can be made of this government is complacency and neglect and not providing for the future of our nation. The government and the nation have had 16 years of continuous economic growth. That is a great thing, a lot of it substantially set up by the structural reforms of the previous Hawke and Keating Labor governments and by, more recently, the benefits of a boom in sales of our resources to China. Whether it is infrastructure or skills or education, the government have completely failed to invest for the long term, to ensure that our investments are adequate on an international comparison, and to ensure that our outcomes are adequate and of a sufficiently high level on international comparisons.
The government has been sprung by this OECD report, and again I will very quickly go to some of the analyses. The OECD report says that, as a proportion of GDP, Australia’s public expenditure on education is 4.3 per cent less than the OECD average of five per cent and that Australia has the third lowest proportion of public expenditure on education in the OECD. It says that Australia’s proportion of public expenditure on education is 14 per cent below the OECD average and has declined by six per cent since 1995. It goes on to say that public investment in tertiary education has declined by four per cent, compared with the OECD average of a 49 per cent increase, with Australia the only country to have a decline in public investment in tertiary education. It further says that public expenditure on tertiary education is 28 per cent lower than the OECD average, that it has declined by 17 per cent since 1995 and that expenditure on childhood education in Australia is 0.1 per cent of GDP, compared with the OECD average of 0.5 per cent.
That is a series of damning indictments. The government is completely exposed here by an OECD report that treats Australia in exactly the same way as all of the other 29 OECD countries, and it comes to a searing, damning indictment. This government has failed to adequately provide for the future of young Australians and for the future prosperity of our nation by failing to invest enough in early childhood education, by failing to invest in primary and secondary education and by failing to invest in postsecondary technical and higher education. The reason the government has done that is that, in the end, its ideological view is that these things should not be part of the central obligation of a nation state to discharge but should be pushed onto individuals and families to fund for themselves. That attitude puts our nation’s prosperity at risk, and for that the government stands condemned. (Time expired)
The member for Perth’s entire argument on this matter of public importance is based on one OECD report, a report that is riddled with flaws—it is a very flawed assessment of the education system in Australia. First, it is old data. It does not take into account any investment, public or private, since 2004. It ignores the last three years of public and private investment in education. In particular it ignores the $7.9 billion of additional funding that has been announced this year for higher education. Second, it omits all subsidies that the government pays under the HECS system. Third, it omits the majority, about 75 per cent, of the funding in vocational and technical education. The fact is that funding across all levels has increased but specifically in tertiary education it has increased by 31 per cent in real terms.
Labor quotes selectively from this report. It is like Groundhog Day—out comes the OECD report and out come the member for Perth’s usual declarations about it. But what the member for Perth does not do is acknowledge the outcomes that Australia is able to deliver from the investment that it makes in education. Let me take tertiary education as an example. The OECD report shows that our population has one of the highest percentages of tertiary qualifications. We have one of the highest percentages of young people—that is, 19-year-olds—at university across the OECD world. Most importantly, we have the highest level of employment amongst graduates in the entire OECD world.
Labor is so keen to rely on this OECD report—let’s have a look at a comparable OECD report, a report released in 1996. The member for Perth will be fascinated by this, because it shows the position of investment in education as at 1993. Let’s have a look at what Labor did when it was in government at the federal level. Let’s expose the rank hypocrisy of the member for Perth in raising this matter of public importance and let’s destroy any credibility he has on that issue. I remind the member for Perth as he leaves the chamber that in 1993 he was the economic adviser to then Prime Minister Paul Keating. At that time a million Australians were unemployed. At that time 100,000 eligible students were turned away from the universities in this country. The 1996 OECD report for 1993 proves that the member for Perth did not think an investment in education made much economic sense back then.
Take the question of the percentage of the population that had tertiary qualifications. In 1993, 15 per cent of our population had tertiary qualifications. In 2004, 32 per cent of the population had tertiary qualifications, and it is much higher today. Take the number of students at university. In 1993, only 23 per cent of 19-year-olds were at university. That of course is because, in 1993, 100,000 eligible students were turned away from university because the then Labor government was not funding enough Commonwealth supported places. In fact, in the last three years of the Labor government, 300,000 eligible students were turned away from university because the then Labor government did not fund sufficient Commonwealth supported places. In 1993, 23 per cent of 19-year-olds were at university; in 2004, according to the OECD report released today, 35 per cent of 19-year-olds were at university, and it is even higher today. The vice-chancellors of our universities have acknowledged that unmet demand—that is, the number of eligible students unable to get a place at university—has virtually been eliminated and will most certainly be eliminated by next year.
Here’s a doozy: when the member for Perth was the economics adviser to then Prime Minister Paul Keating, back in 1993, expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP was 1.1 per cent. The figures released by the OECD today show that in 1994 that increased to 1.6 per cent of GDP. Back in 1993, the figure was 1.1 per cent of GDP, when we were in the middle of a recession. In 2004, it was 1.6 per cent of GDP, when we were in the middle of a booming economy.
In 1993, when Labor was in government, total expenditure on all education relative to GDP was 4.9 per cent. In a recession, 4.9 per cent of GDP was the total expenditure on education. In the figures released today for 2004, it is 5.9 per cent. The expenditure on education relative to gross domestic product is 5.9 per cent in a booming economy, an economy that is outstripping virtually every other OECD economy. These figures again do not take into account the huge investments that have been made in education since 2004, including the $7.9 billion boost that we have given to higher education this year.
The fact is that when we came to office we were saddled with a $96 billion debt from the Labor Party; the Labor Party in government left a $96 billion debt. As we have paid off that debt since 1996, and as we have not had to find $9 billion each year to pay off the interest on that debt, we have been able to increase our investment in education. So we are paying off the debt and we are increasing our investment in education. The member for Jagajaga would be interested in that—as we have paid off Labor’s debt we have increased the funding to our universities.
The Howard government has invested record levels of funding in schools, in vocational and technical education and in universities. We have been able to invest because of our strong management. We have paid off Labor’s debt and we are now in a position to invest even more in education, as shown by our announcement of a $6 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund, a perpetual growth fund for the benefit of our universities for decades to come. As I said, the $9 billion that we used to have to find to spend on interest payments on Labor’s $96 billion debt can now be invested in our schools, in vocational training and in our universities.
It is worth thinking about Labor’s legacy. Labor puts itself forward as an alternative government. What did it leave the Australian people after 13 years in government, from 1983 to 1996? We went through one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history; unemployment peaked at one million Australians and 300,000 eligible university students were turned away from university because of a failure to fund enough Commonwealth supported places. Real wages decreased under Labor by 1.8 per cent and homeowners were hit with 17 per cent interest rates. Labor governments closed technical colleges and deprived a whole generation of young Australians of a technical education. A generation of young Australians had their aspirations, their hopes and dreams, taken away from them. They could not get a job. They could not get an apprenticeship. They could not get a place at university. Labor talks about skills needs. We need look no further than when Labor was in power to see the policy failures that have led to a lack of skilled workers—and all this was when the member for Perth was economics adviser to the Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating. The member for Perth oversaw failed policy after failed policy. He was part of the team that gave the Australian people the ‘recession we had to have’. It is a shameful record, and the member for Perth was part of it.
Let me also refer to another matter regarding the OECD report. The report fails to recognise that, in Australia, parents have choice in education. In Australia, we have a strong public education sector and a strong private education sector. Particularly in primary and secondary education, parents choose to send their children to schools where they pay fees. They send their children to Catholic and independent schools. On this side of the House we support parents in their choice of schooling. We believe parents have a democratic right to choose the school of their choice for their children—a school, which, as far as the parents can see, will give their children the best outcomes. We believe that parents, having paid their taxes, are entitled to receive a level of public funding if they choose to send their child to a non-government school.
The OECD report, the report that is prepared in Paris, fails to recognise that Catholic and independent schools are part of Australia’s education system. You could be forgiven for thinking that the OECD has been listening to Labor, because Labor is ideologically opposed to supporting the parents of children in Catholic and independent schools. When Labor was in government, it had a policy that actually prevented the establishment of new Catholic and independent schools. When we came into government in 1996, we overturned that policy—but we only overturned it with the support of former Senator Brian Harradine. Labor opposed the coalition’s policy of allowing more Catholic and independent schools to be established. We only got that legislation through with the vote of former Senator Brian Harradine—not Labor. Labor is the party that opposes funding for non-government schools. Since we got rid of Labor’s ‘no new schools’ policy—that is, its ‘no new Catholic and independent schools’ policy—we have seen almost 300 new Catholic and independent schools established in Australia. Nearly 300 new schools have been established in response to parents’ concerns that they be able to send their children to a school of their choice. This government supports parents in that choice.
Labor is the party that announced in its policy a schools hit list. Labor actually listed the names of schools that were going to have their funding ripped away from them. And their crime? They were Catholic or independent schools. Labor has adopted the Australian Education Union’s policy of punishing parents who choose to send their children to a Catholic or an independent school. Labor’s hit list would have cut $520 million in funding from 178 schools, representing 160,000 students. That is a disgraceful policy. After decades of bias against Catholic and independent schools, after its ‘no new schools’ policy, after its hit list, Labor is trying to make us believe that it has changed its spots. I can assure you that Labor has not changed its spots, because the education unions who control the Labor Party have not changed their spots. The Australian Education Union said in a submission to a Senate inquiry:
The AEU has long opposed any funding to private schools.
In March this year, the New South Wales Teachers Federation said in a media release:
The Teachers Federation will continue to campaign for:
… … …
- a redistribution of funds from private schools to public schools.
They are going to rip money off private schools. The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union in May this year in an opinion piece in a newspaper, when talking about the Labor national conference, said:
Positive news from the ALP’s national conference. The education platform reaffirmed the importance of funding education on the basis of need.
That is code for the hit list formula. It is the same terminology. It goes on to say:
Stephen Smith, shadow education minister, pointed out that this generally means government schools.
In other words, government schools, not private schools, will get funding. The fact is that ALP policy—and let us make no bones about this—is set by the unions and delegates at Labor’s national conference. It is not set by Labor’s parliamentary leadership. Labor’s actual constitution says:
Policy within the Australian Labor Party is not made by directives from the leadership—
So it does not matter what the Leader of the Opposition says; Labor Party policy is made by:
... resolutions originating from branches, affiliated unions and individual Party members.
The ALP’s national platform, approved by their national conference in April this year, recently made public, states:
Labor will adopt new funding arrangements for non-government schools that reflect the following principles:
… … …
the resources available to non-government schools, including income from private sources, will be considered when assessing financial need;
Those words—word for word—are the words from the 2004 Latham policy that underpinned the hit list. The wording of that clause, reaffirmed this year, is exactly the same as Labor’s national platform in 2004. (Time expired)
We have just heard a whole matter of public importance response by the Minister for Education, Science and Training—the minister responsible for education in this country—but not one word about early childhood education or preschool education, even though the OECD report released overnight demonstrates that Australia gets the wooden spoon when it comes to the delivery of preschool education.
It is extraordinary that the minister for education said not one word about preschool education when, a little over a year ago—in March last year—the minister got a great headline on the front page of the Australian, ‘Preschool plan for all four-year-olds’. She trumpeted that she was about to force all four-year-olds into formal preschool education under a plan, to be delivered by her, for a nationwide program to educate youngsters before school. The article states:
Ms Bishop wants all Australian children to receive the education through a preschool or an accredited childcare centre with trained staff.
That is what the minister for education said in March last year.
As the member for Cunningham rightly asks: what happened to this wonderful plan that she put out there? As she said in the article:
The problem is there is no overarching policy to ensure that long daycare offers a preschool program that is carried out by a qualified early childhood teacher.
She was so right back in March 2006. Nothing happened then, just like nothing happened when the Prime Minister went to cabinet back in 2003. We have a copy of a leaked cabinet submission from 2003 which noted the inconsistent preschool education provision across the states and territories. What was the Prime Minister’s proposal back in 2003? We know that the minister for education has achieved nothing for preschool education. The Prime Minister’s proposal back in 2003 was to set up a committee. He decided that he would set up a committee, and the committee would include the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Treasurer, the Minister for Education, Science and Training and the Minister for Family and Community Services. They were going to get advice from another high-level committee—an interdepartmental committee—and report to the cabinet in mid-2004 with possible models for the future direction of the childcare and early childhood education sectors. What happened? Absolutely nothing. Apparently the committee was formed, but there was no plan whatsoever developed for early childhood education. There was no plan to fix the inconsistent provision of early childhood education in this country.
We know from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that 100,000 four-year-olds in Australia miss out on preschool education. The cabinet has known this for years. The Prime Minister set up two committees to examine this issue; in fact, the Prime Minister told the media back in July last year, more than a year ago, that he was resurrecting this plan and taking it to the Council of Australian Governments. Once again, what happened? Nothing. There was a cabinet committee back in 2003; the minister said in March last year that she had a preschool plan for the country; the Prime Minister took it to the Council of Australian Governments—so he said—back in July last year. Nothing has happened. Absolutely nothing has happened. This government has been in office for 11 years. A lot of four-year-olds have gone through preschool, and a heck of a lot of other four-year-olds have missed out on preschool because this government has done nothing except set up committees and make empty promises that it has had no intention of meeting.
Interestingly enough, I went to a conference with the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs earlier this year. It was a conference held by the Creche and Kindergarten Association in Brisbane. A few home truths were told at the conference. The Chief Executive of the Creche and Kindergarten Association told the conference that he had been told by the minister for education that the Howard government would take a similar approach to Labor and deliver comprehensive preschool education to all four-year-olds. But the minister for families and community services decided that at this conference, in front of 500 preschool and kindergarten teachers, he would blow the whistle on the minister for education:
For a starter, that has not been enunciated policy, as you would know—
Mr Brough told the whole conference. He went on to say to the conference:
You’ve had meetings which you’ve referred to. So as far as Julie Bishop being concerned, mate, she’s not standing before you, and when she’s ready to do that, she can do so.
In other words, the minister for families and community services made it plain, for everybody to see, that the minister for education had no plan; and, if she thought she might have a plan, he was not going to agree with it. Once again, it is quite clear that four-year-olds are going to continue to miss out on early childhood education.
Finally, in July this year, we had them all coming clean. The Howard government has now ruled out matching Labor’s promise to place early childhood teachers in all childcare centres and to make sure that all four-year-olds get an early childhood education. Finally they have ruled it out. Finally they have all come clean and made it clear that it does not really matter what the minister for education might have said last year. It does not matter what they might have decided in cabinet three or four years ago and with all their committees. All that has been put aside because they have given up on early childhood education—which is pretty extraordinary when you consider the level of advice that they have received, that we have all received, from people right around the world demonstrating the importance of investing in early childhood education. Nobel laureates have made plain the importance of investing in children’s education when they are young, the ages nought to five being so critical for a child’s development.
All that advice has been coming to this government year after year. And what do we find out in this Education at a glance report that was received in Australia last night? It shows that for eight years Australia has had the wooden spoon when it comes to preschool education. We invest 0.1 per cent in preschool education while the rest of the OECD countries are investing 0.5 per cent. What an extraordinary demonstration of failure from this Howard government.
Compare that to the policy that Labor has proposed. This was the first part of the Leader of the Opposition’s education revolution. The Leader of the Opposition has committed a future Labor government to something that no other national government—and certainly not the Howard government—has ever committed itself to. Kevin Rudd has committed us to every single Australian four-year-old having a right to a preschool education enshrined in Commonwealth legislation—to 15 hours of education for 40 weeks delivered by a qualified teacher, whether at a childcare centre, at family day care, a preschool or a kindergarten. We want to make sure that all of those children get the early childhood and preschool education that we know they not only deserve but will benefit enormously from. And we will make sure that the staff are there to teach them. We are going to deliver additional, fully funded early childhood education places at university. We are going to pay the TAFE fees for our childcare workers to get their diplomas. We are going to make sure that the staff are there for our four-year-olds so that they get the education that will mean, when they get to school, they are ready to start learning.
We recognise just how important this is. We are not going to shove it off onto a committee like John Howard, the Prime Minister, did back in 2003. We are not announcing it on the front page of the paper and then doing away with it, as this minister for education has done. (Time expired)
That was a riveting contribution by the member for Jagajaga. She is always somewhat less than an inspiration. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter of public importance because it is important. This government is absolutely committed to education. This government takes the decisions that are necessary to drive this country forward. If you are going to have a strong education system, you need to have a policy. You do not just go around the countryside telling people what they want to hear. You need to take the tough decisions and decide your priorities and sometimes priorities can be difficult. Choosing between alternatives can be difficult. But what do we hear from the Leader of the Opposition? What do we hear from the members opposite? They just wander the countryside telling all who will listen exactly what they want to hear with no intention of delivering anything.
Good education policy needs a rigorous approach. Good education policy needs a grasp of the detail. We saw the Leader of the Opposition fail in this House today. He came into question time and asked questions on education based on a false premise. He did not have the facts. He did not understand. Just as he did not understand productivity and just as he was found clueless today on tax policy, he has proved he is clueless on education. He is nothing but a policy fraud. He is nothing but a projected image. He is a disgrace. He is a weak leader and he is a disgrace. He mouths the words scripted by Hawker Britten but does not understand them. He is the gutless fraud of Australian politics. He wanders the country, as I said, telling people what they want to hear and then he disappears without providing a solution—except perhaps for a policy review or a new bureaucracy. He does not take on the challenge of advancing this nation. He merely cowers before the unions in telling them what they want to hear. He is a weak leader. He is a gutless leader. He is a fraud. He had to get the member for Grayndler today to rescue him from his question time mess. He is so hopeless that he had to send out the member for Grayndler to rescue him. Goodness me!
If you are running a trillion dollar economy, you cannot just run away. You cannot just halt question time and pull on some rather dubious dissent motion. You cannot run away when you are running a trillion dollar economy. That is what we saw from the Leader of the Opposition today. He had to send out his strong man—the member for Grayndler—to try and rescue him. Such was his disaster in question time today. The Leader of the Opposition is a weak leader—a leader who can talk the talk but does not walk the walk. We know he is a patsy for the union movement—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The importance of this is the relevance of the character of the Leader of the Opposition in relation to standing up to the education unions with regard to good policy. We know he is a patsy and we know he is a doormat for the unions. They are going to walk all over him. Good policy will need strong action in relation to unions. What do the Australian Education Union say about funding for private schools? This government believes in choice in education. This government believes that we should assist parents. If they wish to choose a quality education in the public system or if they wish to choose a quality education in the non-government system, they should be assisted in that choice. This government strongly supports both sectors. But we know the Leader of the Opposition’s union masters are not going to wear that. We know that. We know he is a patsy, we know he is weak, and we know he is a doormat. What do the Australian Education Union say in their submission as to schools funding in 2004? They say the AEU has long opposed any funding to private schools. So what do I tell the parents of the students who attend non-government schools in my electorate?
Absolutely. I thank the member for Macquarie. ‘Don’t vote Labor’ is how they can secure their choice in education. What should I tell them? Do I tell them that the Leader of the Opposition will not stand in the way of the Australian Education Union? We know that. He has form; he will not stand up to them. What did the New South Wales Teachers Federation say? In their media release in March 2007, the New South Wales Teachers Federation said that they will continue to campaign for a redistribution of funds from private schools to public schools. Well, I think the people of Australia deserve a detailed explanation from the Leader of the Opposition—in far more detail than he was able to give today in respect of the tax thresholds, I might say—on how he proposes to deal with his union masters and to manipulate this redistribution from private schools to public schools. We want to hear that from the Leader of the Opposition—not more airy-fairy words, hot air and rhetoric. We want to know how the Leader of the Opposition will respond to his union masters.
The Leader of the Opposition cannot hide from this question any longer. We know he is weak. We know he will not stand up to the unions. The unions—the policy mandarins of the Australian Labor Party—are saying that there will be a redistribution of funds from private schools to public schools. It is a disgrace that the Leader of the Opposition pretends that he is serious about education and that he will look after all Australians, when we all know that his union masters will not allow him to do that. They are going to walk all over him. They will show him who is boss if he ever gets onto the Treasury benches. The education unions will be the de facto ministers for education in Australia. I think that would be a retrograde step. I would be meeting with my school communities and having to answer their questions, should the Labor Party ever gain government in this country, as to why their school’s funding has been cut, why their school is on a hit list and why they now have to pay fees of double the magnitude. The real tragedy in this is that the very strong growth we have seen in the private schools sector has been primarily in the low-fee independent schools sector. They are the families who can least afford to pay increased fees brought about by the de facto puppet masters of education policy under a future Labor government, the education unions.
This government has spent ever-increasing amounts of money on education. Today was not a good day for the Leader of the Opposition to make a foray into the field of education. The report Financial reporting information for higher education providers was released earlier today, and it showed a record revenue for universities—$15.5 billion in 2006. That is an 11 per cent increase from 2005, supported by an increase in coalition funding of 10.4 per cent. Mr Deputy Speaker, this is hardly the sort of increase in education funding that you would expect from a government that did not support education. We have seen more higher education places. We have seen the level of unmet demand in our universities fall from some 70,625 places in 1994—under Labor, the party that claims to support education—to only 14,200 unmet places in 2006. That is a massive decrease.
As with all matters of public importance that the Australian Labor Party introduce in this House, they have proven themselves to be hypocrites. They do not have the policy rigour to claim the high ground on education. They do not support education; they support education unions. We know the Leader of the Opposition is weak. We know he will not stand up to the unions. We know he is a patsy and he is a doormat, and his policies will result in a poorer education outcome for Australian students and for people who seek trade training. It will be a very poor result for Australia. It will affect Australia’s productivity. We do not want the unions running the education system. We do not want the Leader of the Opposition and his second rate opposition.
I rise to support the matter of public importance that was submitted by the member for Perth in the following terms:
The failure of the government to adequately invest in the skills, education and training of our people and the need for greater investment in education at every level.
I support the comments made by the member for Perth and also the comments made by the member for Jagajaga. As I only have five minutes, I will certainly cover a different area from the areas they covered. There was a press release issued by the Leader of the Opposition today, and the member for Perth, as well as the federal Labor candidate for Eden-Monaro, Mr Mike Kelly. It pointed out that, after 11 years, the government’s record on public spending for schools and vocational education shows that Australia has fallen to third-last in the world on OECD figures, ahead of only Korea and the United States. That is a disgrace.
Reports released by the ACTU and the Australian Industry Group in 2004 projected skills shortfalls of over 21,000 positions, particularly in the traditional trades areas, although the Australian Industry Group said that a more conservative estimate would put the number close to 18,000 positions. In the manufacturing sector, the AiG projections recorded the following skills shortages: wood, wood products and furniture, 2,800; chemicals, petroleum and coal products, 3,200; transport equipment, 3,000; and, machinery and equipment, 3,100.
The ACTU paper stated that, in addition to the manufacturing sector, there were national shortages in the vehicle trades, in the electrical and electronics trades and in some of the construction and food trades. To date, these shortages have not been seriously addressed by this government—11½ years, 11½ years too long. Their record shows that they deserve to be thrown out at the next election.
As I have said previously, the government’s reaction has been simply to introduce the infamous Australian technical colleges. I quote what I said on 21 June 2006:
Of course, the concept of Australian technical colleges crystallises the government’s agenda on two fronts: industrial relations and education. ATCs further privatise our education system and have the potential to damage enrolments and course offerings at nearby high schools.
… … …
The real ideological attack is on public education and the government’s underhanded attempt to deregulate the national training system.
I have a TAFE in my area of Padstow and I know the member for Blaxland has the Bankstown TAFE in his electorate. They are terrific institutions and they have served the community well. They are the institutions that we should be pumping money into. We should be growing those institutions and creating opportunities for children to come through those institutions with trade qualifications. Ideology stopped this government from doing it, so they set up an alternative system which is doomed to failure.
I am of the view that the Commonwealth should cooperate with the state and territory governments on the all-important issue of apprenticeship training. Instead, we have a government that is duplicating existing skills structures. The government have effectively decided to avoid cooperation and coordination. They will be caught out and found out when the figures come through.
In my seat of Banks, apprenticeship completions have been dropping over the past 10 years. I am advised that failure rates have risen—in some cases to 40 per cent. Certainly there have been marked changes in the types of apprenticeships completed, with the proportion of those in traditional trades decreasing. For example, in the 12 months to June 2005 there were 430 new apprenticeship completions and only 110 traditional apprenticeship completions. What is the government’s solution? Bring people in from overseas on 457 visas. That is a short-term, crazy solution.
A federal Labor government will work with the states and territories to encourage and support young people to take up apprenticeships which will realistically address the national skills shortage. Among other initiatives, younger students will be encouraged to try their hands at a trade through a trade taster program. We will increase the number of school based apprenticeships and establish a $2,000 trade completion bonus to encourage kids to complete their courses. We will introduce skills training centres in our high schools, where students will be able to complete their general education while at the same time beginning trades training. This is how it should work: a federal government working in conjunction with the states and territories to achieve outcomes together, not setting up in competition to make a political point.
This government has failed to adequately invest in the skills and education Australia needs to participate on the global stage in the 21st century. They will suffer for it at the next election, because people will punish them for it. If you do not invest in the nation you are stupid or foolish because you do not give the nation a decent future. What this government has done for the last 11½ years is to invest in ideology alone. (Time expired)
This matter of public importance is particularly disappointing, not because under any examination it is totally untenable—there is nothing unusual about that in motions from the other side—but because in question time today it was shown clearly that the OECD report on which this MPI is based is totally false. Firstly, it excludes a whole number of government initiatives. It excludes HECS subsidised places at university, it excludes 75 per cent of VET funding and it omits all new government initiatives since 2004, including the now $6 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund. The disappointing thing is that, although knowing that this report was wrong and knowing that it was seriously flawed and did not accurately represent the situation with regard to education funding in this country, the opposition still came in and presented this MPI on the basis of the report.
Let me quickly turn to the three areas of education. Firstly, I turn to the higher education sector. The fact clearly is—the 2006 finance report shows this—that revenues for universities this year total $15.5 billion, double what they were in 1996. How in the world can the opposition say that we have not increased funding when the finance report shows clearly that it is double what it was in 1996?
Not only that but the outcomes in terms of meeting the demand for university places are very clearly there. In 1995, Labor’s last year in office, there were an estimated 100,000 unmet places at university—that is, 100,000 students who wanted to go to university could not find a place. The situation now is that basically there is no unmet demand. The head of Universities Australia, Professor Gerard Sutton, in January this year said:
Nationally, effectively, the unmet demand has been met.
It has been met because of the policies of this government. We have removed the waiting list of 100,000 that we had when we came into office.
Secondly, let me turn to vocational education and training. Here we have the same story. The evidence that the Labor Party wishes to ignore shows a massive increase in spending by this government. Spending is now up to $22 billion for vocational education and training. We have introduced a range of initiatives, including a massive increase in vocational education and training at schools, an extra 7,000 new school based apprenticeships, the establishment of 28 Australian technical colleges and a range of initiatives to encourage employers to take on apprentices and give young people a chance of an apprenticeship and meaningful training that will lead to a job.
The outcomes speak for themselves. Look at the outcomes in terms of the effectiveness of that training to prepare people for the workplace. In 1995, Labor’s last year in office, youth unemployment was 34 per cent. We have halved that to 17 per cent. Total unemployment was 8.3 per cent. We have almost halved that, down to 4.3 per cent. It is the lowest level of unemployment in over 30 years. The point is that the Howard government is investing more in training. That training is meeting the needs of young people, because those young people are now finding jobs and unemployment is at a 30-year low.
It is worth pointing this out: there was not so much of a skills shortage under Labor because there was a jobs shortage. There were masses of unemployed eagerly waiting to get a job but there were no jobs available. We have a skills shortage now, if there is such a thing, because we are running at full employment. Young people, when they leave school, now have a range of options from which to choose—university, apprenticeships, trade courses and whatever. The point is that we are investing heavily and getting the outcomes.
The third area of education is our schools. Primary and secondary school funding by this government has increased by 170 per cent since we have been in office. How in the world can the other side say with a straight face that we are cutting funding for schools or that we are not increasing funds for schools rapidly enough? There has been a 170 per cent increase, a far faster rate of increase than the spending that we are seeing from state governments. We have provided not only extra money but new initiatives to improve the quality—such as national testing for literacy and numeracy in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, plain-English report cards, explicit teaching of values, increased investment in teacher professional development and moves towards a national curriculum. We have put more money into education and provided a greater focus on quality outcomes. This has been ignored by the other side. Let us not have any more of this hypocrisy and nonsense from the other side. Our record stands for itself. We are investing heavily in education. (Time expired)