House debates

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


Education and Employment Committee; Report

10:10 am

Photo of Mike SymonMike Symon (Deakin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, I present the following advisory reports, incorporating dissenting reports, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee: Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 and the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013.

In accordance with standing order 39(f) the reports were made parliamentary papers.

by leave—The advisory report on the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 was referred on 30 May by the House of Representatives Selection Committee for inquiry and report. The bill establishes a special account to administer the Early Years Quality Fund, providing for $300 million to be credited to the fund over two years.

The fund will provide financial assistance to approved early childcare services to be used exclusively for pay remuneration and other employment related costs and expenses. Both for-profit and not-for-profit service providers will be eligible to apply for funding. Approximately 7,000 centres are eligible to apply for funding, covering over 78,000 workers.

The objective of the fund is to attract and retain qualified professionals working in the early childcare sector. It is anticipated that high wages will have a positive impact on attracting and retaining qualified employees in the sector and increasing professionalism overall.

Further, a key component of quality education is the opportunity for quality interaction between educator and child. International studies have shown that, as children develop, with longer attachments to their educators, their education and care experience is equally enhanced. Retaining early educators in the sector is therefore an important factor when striving for high educational outcomes for these Australian children.

The committee notes in its report the significant level of misinformation promoted by stakeholders on both sides of this debate. However, the committee focused specifically on the merits of the bill before it. In addition, the committee received a large volume of submissions as a result of campaigns run by both sides of the debate. The report notes that such campaigns are not an effective way to engage with parliamentary committees and are particularly ineffective in bills inquiries. I would encourage all stakeholders wishing to run such a campaign to contact the respective committee secretariats about more effective ways of communicating with committees.

As the terms of the bill meet the government's policy objective, the committee recommends that the House pass the bill. I commend that report to the House.

In relation to the advisory report on the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, on 5 June 2013 the House of Representatives Selection Committee referred the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 for inquiry and report. The reason for that referral was to ensure scrutiny of legislation associated with the Australian Education Bill.

The bill amends certain Commonwealth laws and contains transitional arrangements consequential to the enactment of the Australian Education Bill 2012, which was passed with amendments by this House on 5 June 2013.

The majority of submissions received by this inquiry focused on the policy and provisions of the Australian Education Bill rather than the bill before the inquiry itself. Although the current bill contains transitional and consequential amendments to the Australian Education Bill, the latter is not the subject of this inquiry and therefore issues raised by these stakeholders are not discussed in the committee's report.

Given that the proposed bill gives effect to the decision already taken by the House, the committee recommends that the bill be passed. I commend the report to the House.

10:14 am

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I am Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment. I thank the chair for his comments. I will commence my speech on the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. I am dismayed to report the coalition members were unable to make a recommendation at all in relation to this bill. The reason is that we feel the committee system is being abused in the current parliament. I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Oakeshott, you would probably feel quite strongly about this issue, considering your involvement in the new parameters for how this House operates. Currently the committees are being overloaded with inquiries and consequently the inquiry times have been shut off to such an extent that we, the coalition members, feel we could not fully get to the bottom of the meaning of the legislation.

I thank the secretariat—in relation to both of the reports I have in front of me at the moment—for their diligent work in this area. But I am very concerned they are being overloaded beyond their ability—beyond anybody's ability—to respond to the time lines which are put in front of us at the moment. On this bill, the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, we were unable to have any public hearings at all. Although we had, I think, nine submissions, we were unable to ask many difficult questions, which remain unanswered—for instance, we do not know, and we could not find out, when the last school will come off transitional arrangements. We could not find out whether we really have a national funding system, because we read in the press that New South Wales, for instance, will be operating on 95 per cent of the student resource standard while Western Australia may be operating on 111 per cent. But this committee is not able to get that information. It is, I think, a wrongful use or an abasement of the committee system that we have not had the opportunity to explore the ramifications.

There was a list of schools put forward by Victorian minister Martin Dixon to the Victorian parliament last week; he said 481 schools in Victoria would be worse off over the next six years under the deal offered to Victoria. But, as with the Australian Education Bill itself, the committee has not had the opportunity to actually get to the bottom of the meaning of the bill and now the transitional arrangements. In fact we spent 2½ months working on the original version of the Australian Education Bill—which, I would have to say, did not say much at all—and then we were not even given an opportunity to look at the 70 pages of amendments that were rushed through this parliament in the last sitting week. Under those circumstances, how on earth can a committee with any integrity actually offer advice to the parliament on whether it should or should not pass those bills? So, for the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, we have put in a dissenting report and pointed out those factors about this very short use of the committee system that I think is just wrong, and we have not made a recommendation to the parliament.

For the second bill before us, the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013, we have also put in a dissenting report. While we recognise that the government has nominated an extra $300 million to go into the sector, we are very disappointed that it is only a two-year funding line, and nothing has been addressed about what happens after that first two years. There is conjecture about how much of the sector that money will get to. We have received reports that it will be between 27 per cent and 40 per cent. It has created absolute division and anger within the childcare sector that some people will be getting a wage rise and others will not. The vast bulk of the submissions—99 in all—actually raised this as a key point.

Not only has it become divisive in the sector; it also became apparent very quickly from reading the submissions—because once again, owing to time lines, we were unable to have a public hearing—that the union, United Voice, has been in the workplace telling people that they must sign up to the union to qualify for the new wages deal. It is quite widely reported; they have been saying that each workplace must have in excess of 60 per cent of their workforce signed up to the union so they can negotiate the EBA on their behalf. I have a letter from the department which was sent to a union official advising them of the correct arrangements; but, to my understanding, the union has not been rebuked or pulled back into line. Further to that, there is an underlying tone of bullying in this. This House has recently been considering issues of bullying in the workplace and certainly this has been a case of bullying in the workplace. One particular owner-operator of a childcare centre had their house and their name identified and then were publicly—on the internet, at least—accused of not being able to understand what workers in this sector think. That is outrageous. Evidence was given about that to the committee, but we suppressed it because we did not want to draw attention to the individuals. It is outlandish and it should not be accepted.

So, because of the inequity and the fact that there is no future after two years for this funding arrangement, and because this has been debased by union interference in the workplace, the coalition members have recommended that, due to the time frame, equity and wage claim matters raised in this report, the bill in its current form should not proceed at this time.

I would also like to make the case that we recognise that there are low-paid sections of the workforce, and that people have every right to pursue a better deal but there is a correct place and a correct mechanism with which to do this. That place and mechanism is within Fair Work Australia and the industrial provisions the government provided in its first term in office.

This new arrangement selects between 27 and 40 per cent of the workers within the sector—with no understanding, by the committee at least, about how that group will be selected. The minister at one stage said that it would be on a first-come, first-served based. The arrangements have very murky guidelines and there are indications coming from the union movement that workers must be union members to achieve the higher wages. So it is a bad deal. It smells. The fact that this is being used by the union to lift its membership, and this union is a very strong contributor to the ALP, causes great concern to the coalition members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment; hence our recommendations.

10:22 am

Photo of Alan TudgeAlan Tudge (Aston, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I was also a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment which inquired into these two important bills over recent weeks. I would like to make some brief comments in relation to the dissenting reports that we have put forward. I do not wish to replicate everything that the member for Grey has just eloquently said, but I would like to make some additional comments in relation to the two bills in question.

I will first turn my remarks to the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill. The inquiry into this bill was quite an extraordinary process. And there was quite an extraordinary legislative process and policy development process to develop a new school funding model.

We were given this mandate to look at the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill merely a week ago. That mandate was given to us from the parliament to inquire into some new amendments which were tabled and to provide some advice to this parliament as to how we should be dealing with these amendments and how they could be improved. Frankly, we had no real time to do a proper and thorough job. One week is not enough, particularly in the context of the fact that the initial inquiry into the Australian Education Bill, as the member for Grey pointed out, went for two months. But it was inquiring into nothing more than a press release—a seven-page document, with one of the clauses in that document saying that the bill as it was drafted would not have any legal impact. We had spent two months travelling around the country inquiring into this bill that was not going to have any legal impact, but according to the objectives of the bill was going to be changing the world for schoolchildren around this country.

Then in the last sitting week, a little over a week ago, the government delivered 71 pages of amendments to that bill. As you well recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that debate was guillotined after only two hours of debate. There were only two hours of debate for what is being billed as the most important changes to school funding in decades—and wrongly billed as that. With only two hours of debate, many people on this side of the House who are deeply concerned about the proposals did not get an opportunity to voice the concerns of their constituents, of the parents in their communities and of the school principals from their communities.

That was the context from which we were given this mandate as a committee to inquire into this bill, or at least to properly analyse, digest and assess what those 71 pages of amendments would mean. Bear in mind that was the first time that the entire sector had received these amendments. These 71 pages of amendments largely outlined the architecture of the new school funding model that the government was putting forward. But we had one week, and so we had no proper consultation. We did not even have the major state government departments present to us. We did not have the National Catholic Education Commission present to us. We did not have the parent councils present to us. We did not have the independent schools authorities give evidence and provide advice as to the merits or otherwise of these pieces of legislation. This committee process became a farce, and that is why we have made the recommendation in our dissenting report.

We cannot possibly support this bill through our committee process, given the time line and given that we did not have those opportunities to consult with the various stakeholders on this bill. Bear in mind that over three million students and the parents of those three million children are affected by this. Almost every Australian has a deep and abiding interest in how our schools are going to be funded and what new regulations are going to be put in place, and therefore the impact on their local schools and their local school communities.

I find this process particularly galling given that it has not been a two-month process to develop this new school funding model. In fact, it has not been just a two-year process. This has been a 13-year process for the Labor Party to develop an alternative school funding model. That is when this Labor Party first started to critique the SES funding system which the Howard government introduced in the year 2000. That is when the Labor Party started to critique it. They did not offer just mild critiques of that funding system. I will quote Stephen Smith, who was shadow education minister at the time. He said that 'this SES funding system was the destruction of our egalitarian society'. That is what the Labor Party believed the present school funding model is, the destruction of our egalitarian society. This has been in place since the year 2000. Since that time they have had 13 years to develop an alternative school funding package. Yet they landed 71 pages of amendments a week ago and gave us two hours for debate. They did not give us time to consult with the sector and so we had a committee which only had a couple of days to inquire into it. They are now going to guillotine it through. I will not mention the person who moved that motion to guillotine it through. That is the context of this, but I should not mislead the House and confirm the record.

The Labor Party did have an alternative funding policy. They have put one up in the past. So I partially misled the parliament in saying that it has been 13 long years for them to develop one. They did put one up and at least they were honest about this. They put one up in 2004. In the 2004 election Mark Latham was the leader of the Labor Party and the Labor Party famously put up the hit list school funding policy. At least they had the honesty at the time to go to the electorate and say: 'This is our policy. We don't like Catholic and independent schools and here is the list of 59 schools which we are going to cut immediately. And, by the way, in the details of that policy, every single Catholic and independent school will have their funding reduced over time, because we are going to introduce a lower indexation rate.' At least they were honest and upfront about it at the time in 2004. I commend them for their honesty. It was a dreadful policy and they rightly got trounced for that policy, but at least they were honest and upfront about it.

But that was 2004, the last time they put up an alternative school funding policy. It has taken until now for them to come up with an alternative, despite the current model supposedly being, according to their own words, the destruction of our egalitarian society. Then they drop the 71 pages of amendments just a week ago and railroad it through the parliament without any consultation with the sector. Then they give the reference to our committee to inquire into the 71 pages and shovel that through as well so that we cannot properly digest it and we are expected to make a recommendation to support it. It has been a disgraceful process in terms of the development of this new school funding model.

I will not say much more on that. I could go through some of the problems with the content of their new school funding model but, in the interests of time, let me briefly make some comments in relation to the second report, which is being delivered to the parliament today, which our committee developed. This concerns the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account. Again, the coalition members have delivered a dissenting members report here.

This bill which we are inquiring into has been, again, a rushed process on the eve of a dying government. We have considerable concerns in relation to this bill that has been put forward. It is ostensibly to support the wage increases of workers in the childcare sector. The objective itself we have no problem with. As the member for Grey said, people can make legitimate claims for wage increases and there is a process for doing that. They have that right to do it and we support them in that right.

But we have a number of key concerns with this particular bill. Firstly, there is the issue of equity, because the bill only covers at most up to 40 per cent of the childcare workers. So at least 60 per cent of childcare workers will not be the beneficiaries of this particular measure. Only 40 per cent at most will be beneficiaries of this particular measure. So what happens to the others? Why are they disadvantaged? Why should it only be 40 per cent of the childcare workers and not the other 60 per cent?

The second point that we are concerned about is in relation to the fact that the bill itself only lasts for two years. It is a special measure to get the Labor Party through this election and it provides two years of funding to that 40 per cent of the childcare sector workers. After those two years the money disappears. Is the expectation that those wages would drop after those two years? Is that the expectation, because we are given no details in relation to this? They are just putting two years of funding to supposedly boost the wages for those couple of years and then it disappears. So we have serious concerns about that. If you are actually serious about making a measure, it is not a two-year bill, it is not a two-year measure. Wages just don't come for two years and then disappear. This is a nonsense.

The third and perhaps most substantial concern that we have in relation to this particular bill, which we inquired into as committee members, is that it just appears to be a deliberate mechanism to support the United Voice union membership drive and to shore up support for the Prime Minister in her difficult leadership struggles at the moment. That is what it seems to be about. This is costing the taxpayer $300 million and it is only given to childcare centres if they enter into enterprise bargaining agreements, which the unions have interpreted as meaning you must be a member of the union to be eligible for this particular money. It is basically no ticket, no start—that is what this is about. It is purely a sop to the unions, who have been calling for this for some time, and the Prime Minister, because her leadership is under such grave threat, has delivered for that particular union so that it will support her. It has probably never crossed their mind, I say facetiously, that that union is a big financial supporter of the Labor Party as well.

As I said at the outset, people have the right to make legitimate wage claims. There are many low-paid workers out there and we would all like to see people's salaries go up. During the Howard years they did go up and they went up rapidly. In fact, I think the average person's salary went up by something in the vicinity of 15 per cent in real terms above and beyond inflation during the Howard era. That occurred because we had a strong economy, because there was productivity and because we had less regulation so that businesses could grow and everyone could be the beneficiary of it. We also have a process whereby people can make their wage claims, and that is through the Fair Work Commission. That is the proper way that you can make a wage claim and we support people who want to make wage claims to go through that commission. It is not the right way for the parliament to legislate in a side deal for union members for two years to get them through an election and then for the money to be cut. That is not the proper way. We know what this bill is about. We will not support this bill. We support the workers in the childcare centres. We support their right to call for higher wages, but this is not the way to go about it.