Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

10:21 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | Hansard source

The Australian Conservatives believe in evidence based spending of government funding and resources. We are rightly concerned about the evidence that has been put forward by the minister with respect to this funding. We are rightly concerned about the principles applied by the minister in determining this policy position. And, as a former longstanding member of the Liberal Party, I am deeply concerned about the complete abandonment of Liberal values and principles by the government.

This bill, this policy mix, is yet another example of how the Liberal Party has completely lost the plot and jumped into bed with the big spending, big taxing ideas from the other side of the chamber. Their selling point to me to convince me to vote for this bill is: 'It would be worse under Labor. We are slightly less bad than the Labor Party. If we can't do a deal with you, Senator Bernardi, we will do one with the Greens and it will be worse.' All of those things may be true. But it does not negate the fact that that is not how we should be deciding public policy in this place. We should be looking at outcomes and this is an expenditure which violates, I think, the most basic principles of governance.

They have dressed it up in the guise that it is going to lock in security for the next 10 years for schools funding. That is absolutely nonsense, because whatever they decide they want to lock in can be changed by subsequent governments. They have adopted exactly the same process, which is a smoke-and-mirrors load of baloney that the other side put up under Gonski 1.0. They are saying: 'We're going to lock this money in. It won't be changed.' Then, when the opposition become the government, they seek to change it. Of course they can. It is unfunded beyond the forward estimates. We are fooling ourselves if we think a government can bind future governments on a recurrent expenditure process like this. It is a con. It is a 'conski'. It was 'conski 1.0'; it was rightly criticised by the Liberal Party and the coalition. Now they have 'conski 2.0', which is exactly the same thing but 'slightly less bad'. That does not cut the mustard.

They are saying they are 'slightly less bad' and they are going to do a better job. But they neglect to reflect on what I would call the key performance indicators: literacy and numeracy. Their policy is, 'We're going to throw money at this and hopefully it will turn out better for students'. There is zero accountability built into this program. 'Let's get the money, throw it in, and then we will decide how it's going to impact our students and our children later on'.

Much has been said in this place in recent years about record funding for education, yet the statistics are quite damning. We are ranked 25th in maths, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, which ranks 15-year-olds. That is barely above the OECD average and trails Vietnam and Russia. We are ranked 16th in reading, behind Poland and Slovenia. We are 14th in science. If you look at the trends of the international rankings in maths and science, we trail many countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan. In fact, we are ranked 28th for nine- and 10-year-olds. That is a fall of 10 places from the same survey five years earlier. We are ranked 18th for 13- and 14-year-olds in mathematics, 26th for nine- and 10-year-olds and 17th for 13- and 14-year-olds in science. In almost every ranking we trail New Zealand.

So, more money is not the answer—yet both sides of this chamber boast about record spending on education. The big problem we have in education is that they are not teaching our children how to read and write. Children are not learning the literacy and numeracy that they need. That traditional teaching ethos has been abandoned in favour of things like Safe Schools, which I note the education minister defended from pillar to post, notwithstanding the evidence that was presented to him. He had a mock review of it, which was a dud, and he still went into bat for it. It is not about the outcomes; there is an agenda here, an ideology, that is underpinning this, and it is a fraud. It is a fraud because it is failing our students and it is conning the Australian people, suggesting that anyone who is opposed to this funding is apparently somehow for poorer outcomes for students. That is absolutely wrong—but Australian taxpayers do deserve value for money.

I also reject the notion that some students are more deserving than others. If we want our children to achieve the best possible education outcomes then each child should be equal. Each child should be funded equally. I note that the education minister, in his first speech—of course, you are full of bravado in your first speech; you can say what you think—said, 'Why don't we trial education vouchers?' The problem is he has abandoned that. He is now in a position to do something about it and he has abandoned that value, he has abandoned that principle, just like the Liberal Party have abandoned their criticism of 'conski' 1.0. What a metamorphosis we have seen. It was a con, and then at an election you had then education minister Christopher Pyne, the mentor for Senator Birmingham, promising that Gonski 1.0 would be funded and that they were absolutely committed to it. Now here they are trying to pull their own 'conski' on the Australian people. This is a complete abandonment of principle.

I suspect that there are some hardheads in the coalition who recognise they are staring down the barrel of electoral defeat because of the decisions that they have made in recent years, and they have decided that if you can't beat them, you might as well join them. I am not joining them in their socialist nirvana. They can have that to themselves. The Australian Conservatives will stand alone as principled conservatives that are determined to get good taxpayer value for money and good outcomes. We are determined to have key performance indicators to measure the success of programs rather than throw money at them and hope the problems all go away into the politically too-hard basket—and that is precisely what has happened here. Two wrongs do not make a right, and for the coalition government to be aping the Labor Party and the Greens party and chasing this unfunded 'Starship Conski', as I would call it, is absolutely wrong.

We, the Australian Conservatives, will be seeking to improve very bad legislation by saying that the funding for this program should exist only as far as the government has budgeted for it. That means over the forward estimates. It is nonsensical to promise a 10-year program. What is next—a 20-year program to education? We could play at one-upmanship the whole time. We could operate a 50-year program of $500 billion going into education. We will not spend any of it, or very little of it, now; but I promise you that in years 45, 46 and 47 we will put $100 billion into education in those years. It is nonsensical. No-one would believe it. Why would we believe this now? It is a con. Shame on those who are perpetrating this on the Australian people. On the one hand they say the Catholic sector will not be disadvantaged, and yet the evidence in the modelling suggests that $4 billion is going to be taken out of the Catholic sector and put into the public sector. Even though the minister denies that again and again, he will not release the modelling. I have had a senior minister come to me and say that the Labor Party's $40 billion Gonski 1.0 is legislated and there is nothing they can do about it; so unless I support this bill the Australian taxpayers will be $20 billion worse off. But when I raised that with the education minister, he said, 'No, that is not entirely true.' So in the same cabinet room they do not even know what they are trying to convince us of.

I know the minister is making the point that he has the crossbench all locked away. The threat is, 'We'll do a deal with the Greens and it will be much worse.' What sort of policy program is this? It is blackmailing over a system that is going to impact every child in this country. There are no key performance indicators in it. There is not one basis that says that if the school does not achieve a higher literacy or numeracy rate, the funding will diminish. There are no performance indicators. You might as well just throw it into a big black hole and say, 'Let's hope it comes out the other end.'

I am not buying that. I think it is absolutely wrong that governments think they can borrow money from future generations and scatter it wildly and hope that some of the seeds take root. It is a flawed thing. It was flawed when the Labor Party did that. I remember, when the coalition government had some principles left, they identified it as a con. It was underfunded; it was undemocratic; it was absolutely false. And now they are doing exactly the same thing. This has become a witch's brew of leftist policies in this place, and everybody is having their sip of it—eye of newt and tongue of ox, or whatever they want to put in there.

But in this little wedge—and it is a tiny wedge; there is only me right now, but I welcome anyone else—we are rejecting the witch's brew. We are going to continue to put forward ideas that are responsible, that are funded, that will get meaningful outcomes, that will ensure that parents have choice, that will ensure that education standards rise and that our children are not being done a long-term disservice because we feel that by simply throwing money at a problem it will go away. If money were the answer to success, then Collingwood would probably win a grand final every second year, because they spend more than anyone else. But it does not work like that. It does not work in education and it does not work in government.

I feel that I cannot trust anything that is being put to me in respect to this funding by members of the government. That is a very hard thing to say, but I do not believe what they are telling me. Their own people do not believe what they are being told. They tell me that they have been told one thing and then one of their colleagues is told something different. I reckon it is a massive con job. It is designed to fix a political problem rather than solve an education issue.

And it is an issue, because I think the education system is failing our kids. Yes, they might learn about gender theory or this or that, but it is not much good if they cannot write a sentence coherently. It is not much good if they cannot be literate and numerate and they cannot calculate the change from $5 when they are buying a cup of coffee or tea, which is the lived experience. When I was running a business, I employed a year 12 graduate who could not mentally calculate the change from $5 for a cup of coffee. You just ask yourself: how did we get to that circumstance? And they graduated year 12 with good marks, and they got entry to university! But no matter what it qualifies you to do in academia, if you do not have those practical skills, it is a dud. And we are getting worse. This is the great problem. We are getting worse by any standard, as we saw when I went through the trends in international maths and science.

So I am deeply concerned about this. I will try and improve it by limiting the indexation, which is an amendment that I think Senator Leyonhjelm is going to produce. I will support the funding model if it is limited to the forward estimates, where the government is accountable and has to budget for it. But I will not support some random figure that is unfunded and unaccountable and has no measurable statistics. I encourage those on the crossbench, those who are serious about getting positive outcomes, to get the government to rethink this policy—not to do a deal with the Greens or with Labor but to rethink this policy so that it actually has some bite; so that it places some responsibility on the school system to do better by our students; so that it is responsible with taxpayers' money; so that it does not lock in a three per cent funding rise if inflation is only one per cent; so that it does not lock in guaranteed ongoing funding for particular schools if they are failing our students just because parents do not have a choice about where they can send them; and so that it does not provide funding if schools are not delivering absolutely positive results for our kids. These are the problems that we face. This is a very expensive fix for a political problem that the government has. It does not want to fight a campaign against the AEC or the Labor Party about being different on education. It is preparing for its next election and it is doing taxpayers a massive disservice in the meantime.

I cannot foresee a way, based on what I know, where I can support this bill. It is because I do not trust the government, who have abandoned their principles; I do not trust the information I have been given; and I do not respect a policy that is going to promise to spend borrowed or taxpayers' money with no meaningful outcomes.


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