Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2008; Schools Assistance Bill 2008
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
Minister, you have already indicated that you will give me the assurances which I sought. I thought that if I could get those assurances and just understand on what basis those assurances are given then I will be out of the debate and will leave it to people who have a lot of amendments and other issues to raise. But, Minister, I would not accept you are well versed and competent to do it, and I will say a few things while your officials are getting here. I am very concerned, on advice from those involved, that this bill will mean a massive reduction in funding for Catholic boarding schools, particularly in the diocese of Townsville, which are the schools that educate the greatest number of Indigenous people in Australia.
Whilst I do not assume bad faith on the part of the government, and I mentioned that in the debate—my contribution is not political, although the minister was clearly incapable of understanding that and could not help himself but pretend that we were back in the old bullyboy union days where you had to attack anyone who had a view that might be slightly different to yours; my contribution had nothing to do with that—my contribution is to try to assist the government to do what I do not think they meant to do, and that is to ensure that these Indigenous schools do not suffer with respect to funding.
On the best advice available to me, the bill before the chamber will mean a substantial reduction in funding not only to Queensland Catholic Education Commission schools but also to independent Catholic schools, independent Lutheran schools, independent Uniting Church schools and other independent schools which educate many Indigenous people from remote Australia. I said in my speech on the second reading—and Hansard will show this—that the minister responded to my request for an assurance that over the next funding period, which I assume is four years, these particular schools will not get less than they are currently getting, which is indexed to inflation. The minister, in his second reading speech, said, ‘Yes, we’ll give you those assurances.’
At the beginning of this debate in the committee stage I would like to repeat the assurance that I want. The assurance is that these institutions will not receive less funding over the next four years than they are currently receiving: the Abergowrie College in Ingham, which is part of the Catholic education system; the Columba college in Charters Towers; St Patrick’s College, which is on The Strand in Townsville—it is not part of the system and, as I understand it, is a stand-alone school run by the order of the Sisters of Mercy—who believe that if this bill goes through they will be down by over $100,000 annually; the Shalom College in Townsville, run, I think, by the Uniting Church; Mount St Bernard’s in Herberton; St Augustine’s College, in Cairns; certain Lutheran colleges in Cairns, whose names I do not have with me; independent colleges—these are boarding schools—both in Cairns and Townsville; and also the Good Shepherd hospice, which is not a boarding school, but which I am told on the current formula will receive about $40,000 less than they are currently getting.
Can I broaden it out to ask for an assurance that every boarding school in Queensland, which is my state—but perhaps I should be more broad—and every boarding school or other school in Australia dealing with Indigenous children will not receive less over the next four years than they are currently receiving. When I say less, I mean indexed for inflation. If the minister can give me that assurance, I will happily retire. I can assure the minister that many in the Catholic education system in particular—who are the people who have been speaking to me—and others who also have those concerns, will be very happy tonight.
I will only ask one other question, if you can give me that assurance, which you indicated earlier in the debate that you would be giving me. I ask you—or the officials, through you—to indicate how, under this particular bill, you get to be able to give that assurance. I want you to give the assurance. I will be very happy if you can give it, but I would like a little bit of explanation about how you get there through the bill. The bill does seem to me to be written in the way that the Catholic schools think it might be.
Firstly, I will table a supplementary explanatory memorandum relating to the government’s amendments to be moved to this bill. The memorandum, as I understand it, has already been circulated.
What I am able to point to, Senator Macdonald, is clause 70, on page 61 of the bill. It is entitled ‘Indigenous funding guarantee—funding determination’. It actually makes it very clear what that funding guarantee involves. You asked me about the situation of a number of specific schools. In general terms, following changes to support for Indigenous education, I can assure Senator Macdonald that through the Schools Assistance Bill non-government schools and independent schools will be better off or will attract equivalent recurrent funding entitlements to those that they receive in 2008.
School systems can still choose to allocate funding in particular ways. Therefore, systemic schools always need to seek assurances from their systems about the level of funding that they receive, in the knowledge that the Commonwealth recurrent contribution to the system is either better than or no different from that received under the previous government. This assurance applies to systemic and non-systemic boarding schools, as they also receive significant funding through Abstudy. In particular, the removal of the cap for Indigenous education enrolments under this bill—that is, the minimum floor of 20—has seen a situation where some 19,000 Aboriginal students will receive funding that they otherwise would not have received. That is the effect of the removal of the cap. I trust, Senator, that that assists you with regard to your inquiry.
Minister, not at all, and it reinforces the fear I have. You assured me in your response in the second reading debate that you would give me the assurance I sought. You were to assure me that, over the next four years, the schools that I have named would not receive less. If you are confident in the response you just gave to me, you will have no problem whatsoever in giving that assurance. But I can tell you, before your advisers tell you, that you will not be able to give that assurance because the bill does not say that. You referred to clause 70. It starts off by saying:
(1) The Minister may make a determination authorising payment of financial assistance to a State ...
That is going to be useful for independent Catholic schools! It continues:
... for recurrent expenditure in relation to Indigenous students receiving education at a non-systemic school, or at schools that are members of an approved school system, in the State, for a program year.
It goes on:
(2) In making a determination under subsection (1) for a non-systemic school, or an approved school system, the Minister may consider—
he does not have to—
the following amounts of financial assistance received (or to be received) by the school, or all schools in the system ...
How does that work for St Pat’s and Shalom? It continues:
- financial assistance authorised for the calendar year 2008 under either or both of the following:
- Division 2 of Part 6 of the former Act;
- the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 16 2000;
- financial assistance to be authorised for the program year under this Part (apart from under this Division).
Quite frankly, Minister, you made a snide comment about me confessing that I had not read the bill until 11 o’clock this morning. That was because I could not believe that you and your department would not have been trying to take up the obvious flaw that the Catholic education system and I were trying to point out to you for your own benefit. But you clearly have not read the bill, Minister. I do not want to have a fight about that. I do not care whether you have read it or not, but your advisers have.
What I want you to tell me, or for your advisers to tell me, through you—unfortunately, your advisers cannot talk here—is the answer to those questions. If the funding is paid to the state, how does that help Shalom College? If it is paid to a systemic school I can understand that the school itself can make the decisions. It says ‘may consider’, not ‘will’, not ‘must’, not ‘will guarantee it’, not ‘will give Ian Macdonald the assurance’, but ‘may consider’ what they received before.
Minister, you have not read it, but I will go on to clause 71. It is headed ‘Indigenous funding guarantee—funding amounts’, and it says:
The sum of the amounts paid to the States under section 70 for a program year must not exceed:
(a) the funding amount specified in the following table for the program year ...
Then you have some tables there.
What happens if, by acting on the assurance you have given me, the funding amount in the program year exceeds $5,500,000, which clause 71 says is the upper limit? What happens if, according to the minister’s determination, he thinks it should be more than that but he is constrained by this bill to a maximum amount of $5½ million in 2009 and the different amounts that are mentioned—amounts that are going down? I would just draw that to the attention of the Senate. In 2010 it is down to $4½ million, in 2011 it is down to $4.1 million and in 2012 it goes down to $4 million. So it has gone from $5.5 million down to $4 million over the funding term. And that is the maximum that can be paid under clause 70—which you were very keen to point out to me gave the schools some guarantee. It does not give them a guarantee, Minister.
I again invite you to give me the assurance that those schools that I have named will not, over the next four years, get less than they are getting in the current year, indexed, as I indicated. That is what you have been telling everyone in the committee. That is what you have been telling the Catholic Education Commission. So it will not hurt you, Minister, to tell the Senate, and we will put it on the record so that everyone will know that—subject to you bringing in an amendment later on, because I do not think this bill covers it—we have your assurance as an honourable senator and an honourable minister that none of those schools will receive less. You should not be worried about saying—if you are confident, as I am sure you are and as I am sure your officials are—that these schools will not get less.
I rise to support Senator Macdonald. I note for the benefit of the Senate that the issues that Senator Macdonald refers to are on our running sheet on page 2, the second last point there—clauses 66 to 69. We will be addressing this issue directly later on. In essence, Minister, I accept, and I think Senator Macdonald accepts, that the quantum available to the system may be the same. I accept that and I accept your undertaking.
Potentially, the quantum. You keep talking about the quantum of money. The concern that Senator Macdonald has raised and that the Catholic Education Commission has raised is that remote Indigenous students studying in regional boarding schools will be worse off. In your earlier remarks, Minister, you mentioned that thousands more students will be receiving benefits. That generally means that others will be receiving less. So I accept that the quantum may be the same, but these particular students and these particular schools—some of them outside the system, as Senator Macdonald has referred to—will be receiving less. That, in essence is our concern.
I rise to support what my colleague the shadow minister said in relation to this. However, the amendments which we will be moving relate to clauses 66 to 69. I am now talking about clauses 70 to 71, and I am inviting the minister to explain.
I will have a look at clause 69, which talks about secondary education for Indigenous children. This is the problem that I have identified and which has been identified to your officials—but which they have not, apparently, taken up. Clause 69 talks about ‘Indigenous secondary students at remote and very remote school campuses’. It is talking about the location of the school, not the location where the students come from.
This is the problem with St Pat’s on The Strand in Townsville. It is not a remote school; it is in the centre of the biggest city in Northern Australia. It is not a remote school. But clause 69 refers to the assistance going to ‘remote and very remote school campuses’. St Pat’s is not a remote school campus, but a lot of the children that they get funding for come from very remote parts of North Queensland, the Torres Strait and I think even from the Northern Territory. That is the flaw in the bill that the Catholic Education Commission have been trying to point out to you and your officials, but the officials have not been able to respond. That is the issue.
I have asked a number of questions now—firstly, in relation to clauses 70 and 71, which you have not answered, and, secondly, in relation to clause 69, which is underlying the whole problem. Believe me, Minister, I am trying to look after these schools. I am sure you did not mean to shaft them, and I am trying to help you and your officials to make sure that there are not unintended consequences of this bill. I know you do not want to shaft them, and I am trying to help you fix it up.
I will try to explain to the senator, first of all, the way that the education programs work and have worked for as long as I have been in this parliament, through all the bills that I have been associated with in this parliament, throughout a Labor government, a conservative government and now a Labor government again. The term that is used in all of these bills—and consistently used throughout this bill—is that the minister ‘may make’ determinations. That is the standard form of the draftsman’s work. The proposition that I have advanced to you in response to your question, Senator Macdonald, is that the funding goes to the system. Their funding is maintained. Why we cannot say that individual schools within the systemic system can be able to determine their funding is that the Commonwealth does not allocate the money; the systemic system allocates it.
I am sorry, Senator, but you have asked me a direct question and I am trying to give you a direct answer about how the education funding arrangements have worked. The SES system was a system introduced by your government and funding was made to systemic schools through their respective systems. The systems then determined allocations. Of course, the Catholic education system, in particular, were insistent on that arrangement. They were opposed to the SES model to begin with, on the basis that they were concerned that they would be bypassed. The previous government made arrangements with the Catholic Education Office to ensure that the authority of the system itself was maintained. The funding guarantees that were presented by your government were allocated on that basis.
It is custom and practice for the system to manage itself with regard to its funding allocations. The Commonwealth is guaranteeing the funding arrangements. The systems take responsibility for the management of their systems. We do not appoint the principals, for instance; the system does. The Catholic Education Office takes responsibility for the management of Catholic schools—and it is the same for the Lutherans and so on. If we are talking about a non-systemic school—which is the case that you have referred to—then we are guaranteeing them funding. It is a different set of circumstances but the same principles apply, as outlined in section 70 of the bill. What the schools in remote and very remote areas are able to call upon is special assistance—
I am just trying to indicate to you that there are special payments for schools in remote and very remote areas that have higher costs associated with their location and they are less able to access the infrastructure that can be utilised by schools in a metropolitan area. They are protected under this bill.
For students who move from a remote region to a city location, Senator, under the applications of the SES formulas, their home address is what is utilised for the purposes of the allocations of funding—even though they are in a boarding school. So the principle remains at the higher rates.
You asked me a question with regard to the funding guarantees and the figures in the bill. The figures in the bill highlight the fact that, because of the application of the AGSRC, which is an index, it is at the very highest rate. It is, in fact, at the highest rate of all the Commonwealth grants programs—which, from memory, was 6.2 or 7-point something; better than the WCI 1s, WCI 2s, WCI 3s or WCI 4s or any of the other education indexation programs. The fact remains that the AGSRC is the most generous funding formula of any of the grants programs that are run by the Commonwealth, in my experience—certainly in education. Compare the AGSRC with the vocational education system or the university system or even other aspects of the grants programs that operate within the school system. If you apply the AGSRC, you are at the top of the pile—and that is what this bill provides. As a consequence, there are variations in the figures because of the need for the programs to be indexed at that higher rate. Senator Macdonald, you can shake your head and you can be as indignant as you like, but all I can do is come back to the same points—and I will do so over and over again, no matter how many times you ask the same question.
I just need some clarity on this as well. I actually thought I was clear on it and now the minister has confused me again. I would like to go through my understanding of it and see if that correlates with what we have got before us. My understanding is that, previously, an Indigenous student from a remote community who travelled to a boarding school in an area like Townsville or some other city like that, would be funded at a higher rate than an Indigenous student who lived in Townsville and attended the school as a day scholar. That is my understanding.
That is why the concern of the Catholic system was that, with the changes that the were proposed, they would receive less funding. The point they have made quite clearly is that Indigenous students from remote communities frequently need greater levels of support in order to achieve the levels at which they can then engage and go on to further achievements in the system. They also need to have support facilities so family can come and visit them and there are a whole range of other associated costs to do with supporting them in being able to achieve at school.
My understanding of the new system and what has come out of COAG this weekend is that the payment differential between what a remote student in a boarding school in Townsville would get before under the SES model and what they would get now under the new model means that there would actually be a reduction in the amount of money per student but that the cap would be removed and, with a collapse of a whole range of different funding allocations, there is a more generous amount. It is also my understanding that, whilst every Indigenous student—whether they attend as a day scholar locally or whether they come from a remote community—will be funded the same, the level of funding will be higher than it is now; that, averaged out across the system, there will be more money in the system for Indigenous students per capita than there was before; and that, because systemic schools do average and spread it on a needs basis across the system, those systemic Catholic schools will actually be better off than they were before because of the removal of the cap and the collapse of the number of payments into a more simplified arrangement.
The point that Senator Macdonald is making is not in relation to the systemic schools but in relation to those non-government schools which are one-offs, which are not part of a system-wide capacity to average out the funding across the system. What I would like to know from the minister is how many of those schools we are talking about. I do not know how many non-government boarding schools there are that are not in a systemic arrangement. It seems to me that under the new arrangement those schools which are non-government schools but not part of a systemic system might well be better off. I would like to understand how many of those schools there are and, at the moment, what the approximate number of students attending those schools is. I would like some confirmation from the minister that I have actually got this straight and that that is the issue that we are now talking about.
On the same point, I would like to explain to the minister that he said that it goes to the systemic school and that they can spread it around. That causes them difficulties which they should not be put to, but let us avoid that. Minister, this is not a political argument. I am trying to help people. While you say that you do not appoint the principals of these schools and you do not determine their curriculum or whatever, in the Catholic education system in Queensland they can even it across on what is currently their SRA payment. But where the individual school does not go through the Catholic system, they used to get the ITAS and IRS payments, which went directly to the school involved; they did not go through the Catholic system. Now they will go through the system and they might get the payment but all the evidence given to me says they will not.
I am sorry, Senator Milne; you asked a question. I just wanted to make it clear that it did go to individual schools, even within this system, because there were these other buckets of money under the old system. If you want to get rid of the old system, that is fine. You are in government; you do that. But do not make those schools worse off. I think Senator Milne’s understanding—which is not for me to confirm—is that the Catholic education system can broaden out, but not without embarrassment because a school in Brisbane will see the figures and think they are entitled to it and then the Bishop will have to come along and say, ‘Sorry, we are going to take some of this off you and give it to Townsville because it is better.’ In the past they did not have to do that because it went straight to the school involved under these buckets of money. That is the difference. It is related in the legislation. I am sure the government does not intend this to happen. I am positive of that. Why would they? But I am trying to point out to them, in the most helpful way that I can, that there is a problem with their legislation that has been identified by others and that I am trying to help them to fix. The problem is that, in section 69 and others, you talk about the school campuses rather than the school children. That is the problem.
I apologise to Senator Milne. I am pretty certain the minister will not have the answer. In Townsville, at least, there is St Patrick’s on the Strand which is a Sisters of Mercy school; there is the Shalom College, which I think is a Uniting Church school; and, I am sure, St Augustine’s in Cairns; and I think there is a Lutheran church in Cairns. I do not have those figures and I doubt that the minister would have them, but there are many independent schools which are not part of the system. I am saying that even if they are part of the system, it does not really matter for the reasons I have mentioned—but there are quite a number. Shalom College has a lot of Indigenous boarding kids from a long way away. St Patrick’s, I am told, had the biggest number of Indigenous boarding kids of any school in Australia, and it is not a systemic school; it is run by the Sisters of Mercy.
Again, on the same point, to flesh this out a little more in relation to the non-systemic schools, it is my understanding that the Catholic system has always operated by averaging on the basis of need. That has been fundamental to their acceptance of the funding guaranteed, funding maintained. The whole SES system has been across averaging. That does not bother me particularly because that is the way they are expected to do things, but I do want to know how many remote students are attending non-systemic schools—even if we can get the big picture on that.
The second point that I make in relation to this is that, with the announcements at COAG at the weekend, there is going to be a substantial bucket of Commonwealth money which will go to funding clusters of schools in low socioeconomic areas. That money will be available and contestable between public and non-government schools in the cluster area. I do not know if any of these non-systemic schools are going to be in a low socioeconomic cluster so that they may be able to access additional funding.
The third point is that I have seen in the media a number of reports of scholarships being made available through the private sector to students from remote Indigenous communities to attend non-government schools. How much money does that bring to the school? On paper, it looks as though the schools will be disadvantaged, but I do not know how that scholarship system actually works in relation to this. Perhaps the minister could also comment on the system for the placement of scholarships in non-government schools for Indigenous students in those boarding schools. To what extent does that impact on supporting those students? Is it just fees or is it other support?
That is the problem, Senator; if they are talking to you, I can understand why they might be confused! Systemic schools—and most of the schools you have spoken of, Senator, are systemic schools—have received support through the Commonwealth in the manner contained in this bill. Under our government, it is as it was under your government. Nothing has changed. There is a funding guarantee that schools will be maintained, or do better, if they are non-systemic. In the case of the school in Townsville that you have mentioned, it is my understanding that they will do better.
Senator Milne, some Catholic boarding school providers believe that, in addition to receiving Abstudy, the additional remote funding should follow the student to the schools in non-remote locations. That has led to claims that students will be worse off. But that is not the case. That is not what the bill actually says. What it does is provide a funding guarantee. Furthermore, with regard to Abstudy entitlements for secondary students approved to live away from home to attend a boarding school, in 2008 prices, students are entitled to one or more of the following Abstudy allowances: a means tested living allowance of up to $5,085 per student per year for students below 16 years of age and up to $9,291 per student per year for 16- to 20-year-olds; a school fees allowance at a boarding rate, part of which is income tested, of up to $8,694 per head—
Opposition senators interjecting—
I was asked a series of questions but I do not see any of the Liberal senators actually listening to the answers. So I wonder whether we are wasting our time, Madam Chair, or whether we should seek to have an amendment actually moved.
Rent assistance of $107 per fortnight, or some $2,144 per year, can be paid. A remote area allowance of $18 per fortnight, or some $291 per student per year, can be paid for the first eight weeks of a temporary absence. There is a pharmaceutical allowance of $5.80 per student per fortnight, or $116 per year. There is also an under-16 boarding supplement of $4,206 per student per year, and fares or actual costs can be approved for transport or motor vehicle allowance. There is a whole series of allowances under Abstudy, which students are entitled to. Combined with the funding guarantee in the bill, it strikes me that it is not possible to realistically argue that schools or students are worse off under this legislation. Any fair reading of clause 70 of the bill and any understanding of the way in which education legislation has been written for probably the last 25 years would show that the claims that are being made are incorrect.
I do not see any amendments to clause 70, Senator Carr. I will restrain myself from making the obvious comments, because I am genuinely trying to fix an issue here.
I listened to every single word you said, Minister. Regrettably, you have no idea what you are talking about, and I am disappointed that your officials cannot get it through your thick skull what the issue is! I did not want to do that, because I am trying to help these people. Minister, if you and your officials are so confident in what you are saying, it is very easy for you to rise and say, ‘Senator Macdonald, I’ll guarantee you that all of the schools you’ve mentioned won’t get less in the next four years, indexed, than they got last year.’ You are arguing that they are okay. I am accepting your argument that they are okay. So you will suffer nothing by getting up and naming the schools or just saying, ‘I’ll guarantee that all of the schools you have mentioned, Senator Macdonald, won’t get less over the next four years.’ Isn’t that reasonable? We are with you. You have convinced me they will not, so get up and say it.
I want you to do that, Minister, because the bill does not support you. I know, having given your word, your officials will bring on an amendment bill early in the new year and we will all be happy. That is what I want to achieve. I do not want to achieve any political points. I just said to Senator Mason: ‘Why am I bothering? Why don’t I sit down and let you stuff it up?’ All the Catholics in Townsville will vote against you and it will be a good political thing for us. I do not want to do that; I want to fix the problem. I know you do not mean them to have difficulties.
You made a passing comment, ‘If St Pats were talking to you, no wonder they did not understand.’ I have not been talking to St Pats; I have been talking to people in the Catholic education system who have given me a list of figures on how much each school will lose if this bill goes through. You do not want that, you do not intend that. That is not what this bill is all about. You want to give them more and I accept that. So why won’t you just guarantee it, and I will guarantee you that we will pass the amending bill when it comes in in February. There is an extra bonus to my invitation to you, Minister. If I can get that assurance I will leave the debate and you can get onto the amendments that you want to.
Indigenous funding is the other issue I wanted to raise because it has come up in COAG. Contrary to what the minister thinks, there is an amendment that has been circulated. When we get to the amendment this discussion will take place again. I hear what the minister is saying about a funding guarantee and funding being maintained for non-systemic schools, and I am taking it from what the minister is saying that none of the non-systemic schools are going to be worse off because of the changes. On that basis I understand the minister is telling Senator Macdonald that those schools in Townsville are not going to be worse off, in spite of what those schools are telling Senator Macdonald. So that is going to be something that we are going to have to watch.
I was distressed about the government’s decision to split these bills between the public education and the non-government component because I recognise that the Commonwealth is changing the formula but putting additional funding into Indigenous education in non-government schools. And I think that is a good thing as we desperately need to have more money in Indigenous education. The problem is that 80 per cent of Australia’s Indigenous students attend public schools—that is, government schools.
Education in government schools is the responsibility of the states. So it does not make one iota of difference to the Indigenous child whether it is the state government or the federal government that is responsible. The end result is that, if you are an Indigenous child, you are better funded in a non-government school than you are in a government school and 80 per cent of Indigenous children are in government schools. The problem here is that the Indigenous children are subject to the vagaries of state budgets.
I know the Commonwealth is going to say, ‘Our only responsibility in terms of education is predominantly the funding in non-government schools.’ But I want to be assured here, Minister, that there are some performance criteria, some requirement that the states actually fund Indigenous students in government schools at the same rate so that collectively, between Commonwealth and state finance, an Indigenous student—whether they go to one system or the other—is funded at the same level. I would like to know from you, Minister, at COAG this weekend what requirement there is on the states to actually fund Indigenous education? Otherwise we will have a situation where inevitably you are going to have some Indigenous students much worse off because they are subject to the vagaries of state governments.
All I can indicate to you is that the same accountability requirements apply to both the public and private sectors in regard to the education system. Of course each of the states provides different levels of support for an Indigenous education, therefore there are going to be disparities across the country. The Commonwealth, however, provides the same level of support to students no matter where they live. The arrangements in regard to the accountability provisions for public education are dealt with through the COAG processes and the arrangements for private education provisions are dealt with through this bill.
I very well aware of that—and that is the point. That is why I am so disappointed that the government has split funding for public education from funding for private education. It is very difficult for people in a parliament to make sure that there is equity across the system. My understanding of the Constitution is that the Commonwealth has responsibility to ensure the well being of Indigenous people. I want to make sure that the states have some obligation to make up the funding to the same level that the Commonwealth is funding Indigenous students in non-government schools. Otherwise we are going to have a situation where the equity gap is widening, and that is not just. I accept the minister is telling me that we are just dealing with non-government schools and that is precisely why, as a symbolic issue, I have an amendment saying that the title should be ‘non-government schools assistance’ because that is what this bill is about. At the same time, before I am prepared to support one bill, I want to know that Indigenous students in non-government schools have some chance of access to equal levels of support.
I will try my best to answer your question. Clearly, there are philosophical differences in the approach that you are taking compared to that of the government. I say that without rancour. Clearly, the Greens are taking a different position to the government. We are clearly saying that there are quite specific requirements in the new education agreement for states to demonstrate improvements in Indigenous education. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the Closing the Gap targets are tough. If we are to have our best shot at meeting these targets, there will need to be a fundamental shift in the view that one size fits all within our education system. We will need to ensure that the individual needs of students are properly catered for.
The per enrolment allocation mechanism under the National Education Agreement is intended to provide an average cost across all students. Jurisdictions will be expected to utilise the funding strategically by focusing support on those students that need that assistance the most. It is the fundamental principle of a needs-based approach. All the states and territories have agreed that halving the gap in educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is a key priority under the National Education Agreement. As such, it is expected that states and territories will utilise specific purpose payments funding, GST revenue—not just education funding through these schools bills but also GST revenue—and their own sources of revenue to prioritise appropriate support for Indigenous students in order to achieve these targets. You are actually seeing an improvement in the level of support; we have seen some 29 per cent improvement in the levels of funding across the whole school system—specifically, in closing the gaps in education requirements, literacy and numeracy results, low socioeconomic status provisions and teacher quality provisions.
In my judgement, the Commonwealth, under this government, is moving to establish a new era of educational funding much more closely aligned to the achievement of student results. That is why I made the point earlier. People talk about the rights of parents. This is about defending the rights of parents to actually know what is going on at their local school. All of us who have children know what a frustration it can be to actually understand what is happening at the local school with our kids. I am sure my experience has been repeated right across the country. We are trying to provide basic information for people to make choices about what is going on at their local school. If that principle applies to the public education system, why shouldn’t it apply to the private education system? What is the fundamental philosophical difference that says that parents with kids at private schools are not entitled to the same information as parents who have kids at public schools? That is the principle. If you are an Indigenous parent, you, above all else, are entitled to know that the public funding that is going to support your children is actually being spent properly. You have the right to expect that that level of support will be well used. That is what we are trying to do. We are trying to provide the resources to allow for a real improvement in the quality of opportunity for children in our schools.
I thank the minister and would like to ask him the question: what if the states do not do as they are asked to do? You have just listed a whole range of performance objectives and so on about using GST money, using some of their own resources, using special purpose grants, blah blah blah, but what if they do not? What is the penalty the Commonwealth will apply to the states if they do not do it?
My second point is that I am so tired of hearing in this place time and time again the notional view that schools are somehow withholding information from parents. Let me tell you, from the point of view of a school, that schools are desperate for parents to take an interest in the school. It is not actually the other way around. Schools are desperate for parents and communities to get involved and to support them in every which way, from reading classes through to sports days to camps to everything. The problem schools have is that they have not only a small number of parents who are vitally interested and want to be involved but also a large number of parents who are not. Frequently, on parent/teacher nights, it is the parents of the students who you have not asked to see who want to come along and talk to you, because they are interested and their children are doing well. It is the parents of the students you have asked to see who do not come.
Let’s not keep accusing schools, Senator Carr. Please stop accusing schools of being some little closed shop that is trying to keep the community out and implying that we are somehow forcing the doors open for some sort of accountability. I can tell you that in the public system—and I am sure it is the same in the non-government system—schools are falling over themselves to involve parents and the community in the school. That is why I made the remarks I did in the second reading debate about improving educational outcomes. It is about getting the whole of society to value education more, to want to support schools more and to appreciate teachers more. It is a mindset that has developed: ‘Teachers are bad. Schools are holding out on parents. Parents cannot find out.’ I do not know of a single school where parents cannot find things out if they go to the school and get involved with positive interaction. Can we please stop this notional view that there is some sort of secret society going on in schools? We have the problem of a high level of community disengagement with their schools, and that is why they very often do not understand the results or the reports that are sent home. They have not had that level of engagement. I think it is great that we can improve that. I hope we can improve that. I would be happy to improve that, but let’s actually value what schools are doing and stop this accusatory nonsense that suddenly the community is desperate to break down the doors of schools. The doors of schools have been wide open. It is just that people have not been coming through them.
I will just go back to the minister’s assurance to me. I am told that Abergowrie College will be $250,000 worse off. I am told that Columba college will be $100,000 worse off. I am told that the Good Shepherd Catholic College, at Mount Isa, will be between $30,000 and $40,000 worse off. I am told that St Pat’s at Townsville will be down by over $100,000 in any year. I do not have figures on the others, but I mention Shalom College, which would be in that line. I mention Mount St Bernard’s. I mention the Lutheran boarding schools in Cairns and the independent boarding schools. Minister, you are assuring me—and I will leave this on your assurance—that all of those schools will not be worse off under this system.
I just mention that, to my knowledge, in Queensland—and Queensland is the biggest state for Indigenous children who board—all of the schools that take boarding students are non-government. I am not aware of any government school that has boarders. The reason the children come from remote and very remote areas—and Senator Carr thinks this is funny—is that it is very difficult for young people to get an education in very remote parts of Queensland. That is why they come in to these schools around Townsville, Cairns, Charters Towers and Mount Isa. I repeat that there will be an amendment that my colleague will move, which I hope will achieve support, which will give the government power to make regulations, which they do not have in relation to this aspect.
I leave this debate now on the basis that Senator Carr has assured me that Abergowrie College will not lose $250,000—in fact, it will not lose anything; that Columba college will not lose $100,000—in fact, it will not lose anything; that the Good Shepherd school at Mount Isa will not lose between $30,000 and $40,000; and that all of those other schools that I have mentioned will not lose money over the next four years under this bill. The minister has not been able, nor have his officials been able, to show me where in the bill there is provision for that. His officials at least should understand—I do not expect Senator Carr to—that the provisions of the bill do not provide for that. They should well know that. I leave the debate on the basis of Senator Carr’s assurance as a minister of the Crown that none of those schools will be receiving less under this bill than they have received in the current financial year.
I move Greens amendment (1) on sheet 5654:
(1) Clause 1, page 1 (line 8), omit “Schools Assistance Act”, substitute “Non-Government Schools Assistance Act”.
Previously, the Schools Assistance Bill incorporated the funding for both government and non-government schools. This year, it has been split. The bill before us is precisely a bill for non-government school funding, so I am moving to amend the short title of the Schools Assistance Act to be the ‘Non-Government Schools Assistance Act’, because it is a matter of fact that that is the case. That is exactly what we are doing, and I think it is important, if we are going to split the bills and we are going to deal with public education separately from non-government education funding, that we be specific about what we are doing.
The opposition will not be supporting the Greens amendment. I understand why Senator Milne is doing it, but we do not agree that it takes the debate any further and we will not be supporting it.
by leave—I move Greens amendments (2) to (4) on sheet 5654 together:
(2) Clause 3, page 2 (line 9), omit “2012”, substitute “2010”.
(3) Clause 4, page 8 (line 11) (definition of program year), omit “, 2010, 2011 or 2012”, substitute “or 2010”.
(4) Clause 71, page 62 (table items 3 and 4), omit the table items.
These are very important amendments, and they are basically to look at the funding period. The issue here is that the funding bill before us is for a four-year period and it locks in the SES model and the funding-maintained-and-funding-guaranteed model for four years. When Labor came to power, they said that they were going to bring in an education revolution. The minister had said on many occasions that the SES system was flawed, and even the Howard government’s internal review of the legislation acknowledged that it was flawed and that there was a substantial overpayment to non-government schools. That was acknowledged, as I said, in that internal review, which was leaked to one of the newspapers, and it was subsequently acknowledged that that was the case. It was very clear that, had the SES model been applied in the manner in which it was meant to be applied, there would have been $2.7 billion less for non-government schools and that almost half of non-government schools would have been in this category of overpayment. So this came as quite a shock to people around Australia, the Labor Party—particularly the minister—having in opposition been so critical of the SES model. Minister Gillard in 2000 and 2001 was very outspoken in her opposition to the SES model. She at that time said that it was unjust and so on and so forth. Now we are seeing the Labor Party move for this model for four years.
The thing about four years is that it takes us beyond the 2010 election. In the meantime, the Labor government is going to have a review of non-government school funding, but that review will not start until 2009 and will not be completed until 2011, in time for the next quadrennium, starting in 2013. The Labor government is locking in for four years a system which it knows to be unfair and unjust in terms of equitable distribution of funding to non-government schools. In my view, it is cowardice to do this in a way that means that at the 2010 election the Australian community will not have the ability to vote on what might be the outcome of a review of non-government school funding. I think everybody, regardless of which side of the debate they are on, would like to think that that internal review would occur in 2009 and 2010 and at least the recommendations would be available so that parties could go to the 2010 federal election with a position on what is going to be the funding model for non-government schools thereafter.
The second point I make is that the global financial downturn is going to mean that state governments will have less revenue in the next three or four years than they otherwise would have had. We have seen that already in the resource based states, particularly in Western Australia, but we are also going to see reduced GST payments to the states as a result of the downturn. That means that, whilst the Commonwealth is now guaranteeing non-government school funding at this rate for four years, state governments are not going to be guaranteeing anything to public education in the next four years and they will determine it year by year, according to what the allocations under state budgets are.
I know that people here will say, ‘We’re just dealing with non-government schools and Commonwealth funding for non-government schools and it is not relevant what the states might do,’ but it is highly relevant because the reason that the funding of non-government and government schools has become such an issue in recent years is equity—the gap in funding has become wider and wider. There is a strong argument to say that, whereas the Commonwealth over the last decade did increase funding to schools, the states allowed the funding to fall backwards, which meant that the gap between government schools and non-government schools widened.
What I indicated before with regard to Indigenous students is pretty much the same with regard to all students—their parents are not really fussed about the argument of whether it is state governments or federal governments that give the funding. What they want is an equitable arrangement so that education is adequately and equitably funded across the board. My concern here is that we are locking in an incredibly generous funding model for four years to non-government education, in which we acknowledge that there is an overpayment in that period of $2.7 billion under the SES model, and at the same time we are not giving any guarantee to the states whatsoever as to what public school students might expect. I do not think it is fair to give a funding guarantee to non-government schools for four years when there is no guarantee of equity in terms of state government funding of education over that period.
I looked at what happened at COAG over the weekend, and I have been briefed to some extent by the department in relation to this, and I do acknowledge that the government has indexed the funding to government schools and there will be an increase of about $1 billion to government schools—which is an indexation increase, so it is not going to make that much difference in that sense. I do acknowledge there is another bucket of money for special-purpose payments, but again that is contestable and it will be divided between government and non-government schools.
It is my view that it would be irresponsible to lock in funding for non-government schools when there is no equivalent provision of locking in funding for government schools, especially because we know the way the economy is going. I know the government of Western Australia is not going to have the money in the next four years it had in the last four years, and neither are the governments of Queensland, Tasmania and so on. Whilst the Commonwealth is saying these special-purpose grants that were made at the COAG meeting are dependent on the schools meeting certain educational outcomes before they get the ongoing funding and so on, frankly I have not seen state governments behave very responsibly in terms of public education funding for a very long time, and I am not persuaded that they are going to start now. When the pressure comes on from their electorates as they face state elections, I am not persuaded that they are going to put money into public education.
So what we are setting up here is actually a process for making the gap between non-government and government schools wider. Whilst some people might say, ‘That’s not our worry,’ it is our worry because, as was very clear in the committee hearings in relation to this matter, the wider the gap, the more inequitable the arrangements, the higher the tension in the community, the higher the conflict that arises and the less the ability to get cooperative arrangements in education delivery in communities in clusters between government and non-government schools. It is in everybody’s interests, in terms of community harmony, justice and fairness, to reduce the gap in funding between public and non-government education.
My argument is that government schools around Australia only ever get one year’s certainty and they get it each year in the state budget. They might talk about triennial funding, but in reality they are subject to the vagaries of state governments, redundancies and whatever else happens—closure of schools and so on. With the current financial situation in a global context and the state governments’ financing arrangements, it would be unfair to lock in four years guaranteed funding to one part of the system when there is only a year-by-year arrangement for government schools.
I come back to my other point, and this is critical. The community is not going to thank us for delaying, until after the 2010 federal election, the recommendations of the review that Minister Gillard is going to conduct. People want to know beforehand and they will feel once bitten, twice shy because the Labor Party went to the election promising an education revolution. Promising to lock in the SES funding for another four years was a huge disappointment to people who were looking for a genuine education revolution which would have seen a huge bucketload of money going into public education. So I think there is a very strong reason for it.
There are other arguments that pertain to some of the issues that were mentioned here earlier. Some of the non-government schools are very concerned about what the curriculum provisions and the accountability provisions might mean. I happen to think that it is perfectly reasonable to require the accountability provisions that are being talked about, including for all sources of funding in specific terms that go to non-government schools. I think that is reasonable. If non-government schools do not want to disclose that, fine: they are not eligible for government funding. It does not mean to say they cannot operate; they just have to find all the funding themselves.
But the issue is that they are concerned about what those provisions might mean and about the national curriculum. The national curriculum will not be applied in the next two years because in that two-year period there will be discussion et cetera about what the national curriculum will be. It will be there in principle, but a consultative process is going to go on. If we guarantee the funding for two years, it means that the non-government schools get their funding and we all know what they are doing for the next two years and coming into the 2010 election. Then we go to the 2010 election with an ability to see where everyone is going to go on this funding formula. We go into it with a clearer understanding of what the national curriculum and the accountability provisions for private or non-government schools might mean and a much clearer view about what the states have done in response to the Commonwealth’s education partnerships and to the Commonwealth’s requirements of the states to deliver under some of those educational outcomes in improved literacy, numeracy, teacher training and so on. I think it makes a great deal of sense to limit this to two years, for a range of reasons, and I think the community would see that as a reasonable compromise.
The government made a firm election commitment to four-year funding. Certainty is important to schools no matter where they are. We are honouring our election commitment.
The opposition will also be opposing the Greens’ amendments, although I note Senator Milne’s comments regarding the operation of the national curriculum. It certainly is not urgent in that sense, and we will be getting to that debate a little bit later on, but I note her comments on that. Certainty is required for the non-government school sector. In particular, the government’s ongoing commitment to the SES funding model is not assured, and I think it is fair to say that non-government schools would rather have assured funding for the next quadrennium than for any shorter period. So the opposition will be joining with the government in opposing these amendments.
by leave—I move government amendments (1) to (3) on sheet QF314:
(1) Clause 15, page 19 (line 20), before “The Minister may”, insert “(1)”.
(2) Clause 15, page 20 (lines 4 and 5), omit “if a law of the Commonwealth or a State requires the body or authority to be audited—”, substitute “a law of the Commonwealth or a State requires the body or authority to be audited, and the Minister determines that this paragraph applies because”.
(3) Clause 15, page 20 (after line 8), at the end of the clause, add:
(2) A determination made under paragraph (1)(c) is not a legislative instrument, but is a disallowable instrument for the purposes of section 46B of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.
These amendments address concerns raised by a number of senators in relation to the government’s commitment to the national school performance and transparency requirements. A central feature of the funding arrangements for the period 2009 through to 2012 is a simpler, strengthened and transparent performance information and reporting framework that will apply equally to non-government and government schools. The government is firmly of the view that such a framework is an essential component of delivering a high-quality education to all Australian children.
As far as we are concerned, there has to be equality in the approach that is taken at government and non-government schools when it comes to the issue of performance and reporting. Therefore we have argued that there needs to be a more transparent set of arrangements. Nonetheless, we accept that in fact the current wording of the bill could be clearer, particularly in relation to the requirements regarding financial viability and qualified audits and the requirement to report sources of income. The Deputy Prime Minister has met with Senator Xenophon and listened to his concerns on these matters. He has proposed some technical improvements to the bill which clarify its intent and do not amend its substantive commitment to transparency and accountability. With clause 15, concerning the minister’s power to refuse to authorise payment or to delay payment if an audit of a school or a school authority ‘is expressed to be qualified’, the government recognises that the decision to delay or refuse payment to a school is a highly significant decision and should be only be taken in the most serious of circumstances. For this reason the government is prepared to make it clear in the legislation that the power to delay or refuse funding will be a disallowable instrument. By requiring any determination of the minister in relation to such a decision to be tabled in both houses, an appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny is assured in regard to this legislation.
I indicate that I support these amendments. I thank Senator Carr for his comments. My concern was that, with the bill as it stood, there were real concerns as to the scope of what a qualified audit could be. I believe that having this safeguard, making it a disallowable instrument, provides a level of scrutiny and a level of accountability. It still gives flexibility with respect to the extent of a qualified audit. Therefore I am pleased to support these amendments.
The opposition also supports these amendments. I congratulate Senator Xenophon for his intervention and the government for its amendments. In relation to qualified audits, proposed section 15(c) of the bill provides for new reasons upon which the minister may refuse to authorise or delay a payment to non-government schools. An audit may be ‘expressed to be qualified’. The problem, insofar as non-government schools are concerned, is this: there may have been grounds for an auditor to qualify an audit that do not go to financial viability but instead go to hesitation about a school model or other reasons. For that reason there were great concerns, among those in the non-government school sector, that potentially a minister may be of bad faith, and I am certainly not implying that the current one would be.
Yes, I’m saying that. We wanted to ensure that there is no way that a qualified audit could be used for grounds other than as to financial viability. With these amendments the Senate will be able to disallow a qualified audit where that audit does not relate to financial viability. In other words, there will be parliamentary oversight of any qualified audit that does not go to financial viability—and the opposition supports that.
Family First also supports this common-sense amendment. It will bring peace of mind to many schools that were concerned about qualified audits. It takes away any uncertainty that was there. Family First supports this common-sense amendment.
The Greens also acknowledge their support for this amendment and note with interest the government’s willingness to negotiate in relation to this amendment and its apparent inability to negotiate in relation to any others.
The Temporary Chairman:
The question is that government amendments (1) to (3) on sheet QF314 be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
Family First oppose clause 22 in the following terms:
(1) Clause 22, page 25 (lines 3 to 11), to be opposed.
This amendment looks at a national curriculum and I think most Australians would support a national curriculum. But what we are doing here is tying schools to an unseen national curriculum, which I think is a bit rich. This amendment will untie—or, to put it another way, split the bill so that $28 billion of funding proceeds without forcing schools into a national curriculum that they have not seen. There is big concern out there. I think this is a common-sense amendment. I acknowledge that it is also the same as the opposition’s amendment, which is to follow. I commend this amendment to the House which will ensure that schools are not forced into an unseen national curriculum.
The opposition supports Family First’s position on this for three reasons. Proper parliamentary scrutiny of a national curriculum will not, in any case, be possible until it is detailed in regulations to be made in the future by the minister. In other words, as Senator Fielding touched on, it will be impossible for the parliament to assess the ins and outs and the workability of this program until such time as it is detailed in regulations. I just do not think that we can take that on trust. It is not a matter of bad faith in terms of the government at all. It is a matter of workability, and it is very hard for senators of any party to assess the workability of a national curriculum until such time as the program is ordained in regulation.
In addition, there has been some concern and the concern remains, even though I understand Ms Gillard, the Minister for Education, has touched on this in recent times. I know some schools are offering alternative educational philosophies such as Steiner or Montessori schools. They believe they may face great difficulties in meeting the requirements of this clause. I know that Ms Gillard has tried to meet those concerns, but they certainly remain. Thirdly—and Senator Fielding touched on this as well and it is a very good point—the opposition does not believe that there is any need for a national curriculum to be attached to the bill at this stage. A national curriculum will not, in any case, commence until about 2012 and to argue it has to be done here tonight in relation to this bill, I think, is incorrect. For that reason, the opposition will be supporting Family First’s position.
The Greens will not be supporting this amendment. The government has made it very clear from day one that it intends to introduce a national curriculum. I think there is merit in having a national curriculum. I think there is merit in standardising things across the country and getting some sense across the country. I agree with the private schools when they say that there is no clarity about what the national curriculum will be. At this stage, though, I reiterate, again, that Steiner education or Montessori education or any of those educations, it is a way of teaching—it is a philosophy, a pedagogy. It is not a curriculum as such. So it is a very different scenario, if you like. You are not saying, ‘In a Steiner school they will teach this, that and the other; therefore they can’t adhere to a national curriculum.’ It is the manner in which they approach the teaching of a national curriculum that defines the nature of the school, the nature of the philosophy and so on. Frankly, I think it is a beat-up. I do not think that is the major concern. The reason, as I said before, that I moved for two years is that that would give people two years from henceforth to be part of an ongoing negotiating process. A committee has been set up for this purpose. That committee will be negotiating in the next couple of years. Had we just gone for two years, at that point schools could have determined what is actually in the curriculum.
However, that is not the view of the House. I think it is completely unreasonable to say that private schools want the funding but they want it without the conditions which the government have made very clear and which I think are very appropriate, one being the national curriculum and the other being the accountability measures. Again, for a long time the community have said that they want to know exactly what the financial scenarios are for various schools. That includes all sources of funding to private schools because people want to know about the equity issues. As I said before, the tension and division in the community is because they can see inequity when they drive past a school, let alone go into it. You can see exactly what is going on. So I support the national curriculum being part of this bill and a condition for funding.
We are discussing a fundamental principle here—and remember it is $28 billion worth of public money. This measure will commence, we hope—that is, if the opposition does not seek to block this legislation and deny over 1.1 million Australian children access to their funding—
I think you should be aware of the consequences, Senator. Quite glibly you make these claims, but the consequences of your actions have to be understood. We are talking here about a bill that affects, across the Commonwealth of Australia, 2,728 schools, over 1.1 million students and, as I said, involves expenditure of $28 billion. The principles that have been outlined in this bill highlight the government’s commitment to ushering in a new era of transparency and accountability for both—and I want to emphasise this, Senator Mason—government and non-government schools. We are not asking anything of the non-government sector that is not being asked of the government sector.
This is about parents’ rights. It is about parents’ rights to know what is going on. It is also about children’s rights to a decent education, no matter where they live in Australia. It is an expectation that I think the parliament has a right to assert when we are spending $28 billion of public money. The amendment is being proposed by Family First and the Liberal Party—
Oh, so it is the National Party as well. Do not let me forget the National Party when it comes to backward thinking. Senator Mason, you are quite correct. If there is a retrograde party in this parliament then of course it is the National Party. But we are talking about Family First. I am sorry. Family First have now proposed to do the dirty work for the Liberal Party. That is what they are doing—the dirty work for the Liberal Party on this issue. Clause 22 of the Schools Assistance Bill requires, as a condition of funding, the implementation of a national curriculum in all non-government schools by 31 January 2012. The same provisions apply to the arrangements that have been made for the national education agreement. The implementation of the national curriculum, once it is known and agreed, will be mandatory for all schools in Australia. It will not be an optional extra.
Senator Mason, you seem to think that quality is an optional extra for those with the ability to pay. That seems to be the model that you are proposing. The process of developing the national curriculum is one in which representatives of the non-government sector have been directly involved. The national curriculum will detail the content and the achievement standards that all young Australians should have access to, regardless of their socioeconomic background. So the quality of the education you get should be based not on your postcode but on your access to the very best resources this country can provide and the very best teaching. It should be based on the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity for every child in this country.
This is a fundamental principle of equity that the Liberal Party has historically walked away from. We are seeing it here again tonight. Very much at the centre of debate here is the failure of the Liberal Party to face up to its responsibilities to ensure that every child in Australia gets access to a quality education, no matter where they live, no matter who their parents are and no matter how much money they have in the bank. That is the principle that I think this parliament has to focus on.
There are requirements in terms of both content and achievement standards. They will, however, continue to provide for flexibility in terms of innovation and creativity for the development and delivery of the curriculum at the local level by individual schools. The national curriculum will not mandate the practices that schools or teachers use to deliver the content that they teach. What it will provide, though, is the capacity to ensure that we can get proper standards right across the country. We can ensure that schools and teachers will continue to use their professional talents, their professional judgement about the ways in which to cover the material and in what sequence and how best to reflect local and regional circumstances and philosophies in the learning environment.
I was a schoolteacher for 10 years. I will say this to you, Senator Mason: I know something about the difficulties of teaching in a working-class district in the north of Melbourne. I can say this to you on the basis of my experience: the fact is that in this country the levels of inequality are unacceptable.
It is very much about curriculum. It is about the standards of education. It is about the quality of education. It is about the capacity of this country to provide $58 billion across the full range of programs and the right of parents to know that there is a decent education system operating in every school in this country.
Yes. That is a 29 per cent increase in the level of support for schooling in this country. The government say that we have a right as a parliament to say to the schools of this country, ‘You must participate in a quality educational program’. We are in the business of ensuring that schools participate in the development of that program, that the professional judgement of teachers is used fully and that they reflect the local communities in which they live. The Australian government recognise that some specialist schools have specialised curricula. For example, Steiner and Montessori schools have educational philosophies that involve a particular approach and delivery of the curriculum. We recognise that existing curriculum frameworks, such as the International Baccalaureate and the University of Cambridge International Examinations, are appropriate. Clearly, these approaches and these frameworks are internationally recognised, educationally recognised, and used by schools.
We have also said that, with regard to the development of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, there has to be provision for the most effective method of confirming the recognition of well-established curriculum frameworks in line with existing curriculum accreditation arrangements that operate within the states and territories. The recognition of this is outlined in the regulations to this bill and the way in which the national curriculum will be developed. We are also saying, though, that we have to ensure that the non-government sector is represented through that authority.
This bill recognises the proper processes, including the draft administrative guidelines—which have already been carried through and have been sent to the Independent Schools Council of Victoria, the National Catholic Education Commission and other non-government stakeholders for their comments. The previous government imposed 16 different sets of conditions on its schools through its schools bills. There are six in this bill. There is a fundamental difference in the approach. The level of quality, the level of transparency and the level of accountability is much greater but it applies equally to public and private systems. Therefore, we will be opposing this amendment strenuously.
I will be brief. We have a lot of legislation to get through, and I want to confine my remarks to the issues. I say to Senator Carr, with the greatest respect, that gratuitous remarks are not helpful—for example, calling the National Party backward-thinking. There are many in the community who would think that they are forward-thinking for their votes on the carbon sink legislation last night. And suggesting that Senator Fielding is in some way doing the dirty work of the coalition is, I think, quite a gratuitous and unnecessary remark.
The issue is this: should the national curriculum be tied to funding? I think there is consensus that it should be, but the point of difference is: should funding be tied to the national curriculum in the absence of the curriculum being available? That is what I understand the issue to be. I understand that the amendment moved by Senator Fielding has been moved with a genuine intent. There is not any malevolent intent to it. I understand the coalition’s position as well. I cannot support the amendment for these reasons: I believe that there are sufficient safeguards built in, given the statements that have been made by the government in relation to this. I would have preferred that there be further statements to crystallise it further, but we have got a broad outline and a framework of what will occur.
I think that private schools are in a dilemma. The many private schools and organisations my office has spoken to have varying views and I think a fair consensus is that they would rather see the national curriculum, but they do not want to see their funding held up. Is this good policy? Is this good practice? Maybe not, but in the context of this particular bill, in the context of what we have to deal with here, I am satisfied that there is a sufficient framework in terms of the information provided by the minister earlier and in terms of what has been on the public record about the processes involved.
Rather than saying that the coalition and Senator Fielding have a different view, I think it is a question of a difference of opinion rather than suggesting that there is anything malevolent or sinister in it. I will support the government and the Greens in relation to this. I note their position as well. I think that it could have been done better but, on balance, I am inclined to support the government’s position.
Just briefly, I would like to ally some of the concerns of Senator Milne and, indeed, my good friend Senator Carr. I understand, Senator Milne, your point about a school philosophy. But, in relation to schools offering, for example, the International Baccalaureate or the Cambridge University International Examination, that actually is about curricula. And that is the problem. The interchange between the two is still uncertain. That is why the opposition is so concerned that the details of the national curriculum have not been published.
There are four discipline areas that have been covered—maths, science, history and English—and there are going to be several more, but we do not even know what they will be. As to how prescriptive the curriculum content in these discipline areas will be, we are uncertain. Will it be prescriptive in terms of content and materials or, alternatively, will it be a framework within which schools can determine content? This question still has not been answered.
Given that the national curriculum will not be ready for quite some time yet, why is the government in such a hurry to tie funding to it? What Senator Fielding said before is quite right: you are asking non-government schools right across the country to take this on trust, and it is too important to take on trust. I know the minister is concerned about education—I have always accepted that—and I also understand the principle of tying funding to the national curriculum. I do not have a problem with that either, Minister. My concern is that the national curriculum is still embryonic and you cannot ask non-government schools to sign up to it when it remains embryonic. We will be supporting Family First.
Thanks for all the input. I think the minister said ‘a new era of transparency’. Where is the transparency in not seeing the national curriculum and then having to sign up to it? I do not see how that is transparency. There are 1.1 million children involved in this and there are 2,228 schools. But they are also tying in $28 billion worth of funding. It is like a gun against the schools’ heads. Frankly, you can de-hook the curriculum. This amendment will split the bill and allow the national curriculum to take its course. When the government goes away, does its homework and then brings that back, then we can look at how we tie the national curriculum across the board. You can do that at any stage. You could do it next year or the year after—whenever you have got it ready. When you have done your homework, you can bring it back and then we can debate that and how we tie it to a national curriculum. Most of Australia wants a national curriculum, but we also need to make sure that we understand how prescriptive this will be. It is outrageous to think that you could even say that you have ‘a new era of transparency’ when the first thing you are trying to do is hide behind a gun worth $28 billion. We will strip this out from the bill and, if you do not support the bill, then it is the Rudd government that is stopping the schools from getting the funding.
That the clause 22 stand as printed.
I move government amendment (4) on sheet QF314 standing in my name:
(4) Clause 24, page 26 (line 16), after subclause (1), insert:
(1A) A funding agreement must not require a report mentioned in subsection (1) to include any information that would identify a particular donor as a funding source of any non-government school or non-government body.
This amendment relates to the reporting and disclosure of sources of income. The government will not step back from its commitment to proper transparency in relation to the resourcing of schools and the results that they achieve. However, it was never the government’s intention to require public reporting of individual donors to individual schools as part of the process. Many of the concerns raised about these issues have resulted in scaremongering tactics by the opposition. The government is proposing the public reporting of the income category of ‘source’, not the reporting of individual donations and transactions. The government is therefore prepared to amend clause 24 to explicitly state that individual donors will not be identified through public reporting of school income sources.
I welcome the government’s amendment, but rather than the opposition and others having run a scare campaign, the simple fact is that the government has been forced into this position because of the community reaction. I remind the minister and the Senate what the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee reported via its Labor Senate majority in paragraph 1.9 where it reads:
Submissions received by the committee supported the bill being passed … However, this support was conditional on certain issues being addressed, namely the implementation of—
amongst other things—
… the proposed transparency and reporting requirements within the provisions of the bill.
This is the arrogance of the Labor senators. This is what they wrote and said:
As was revealed at the public hearing, however, representatives of non-government school organisations understood that these concerns would be addressed in discussions with the government after the bills were passed, and that they were in no position to influence the government’s immediate legislative intentions.
What hubris. What absolute arrogance. The fact that the government is coming here this evening with an amendment—
Paragraph 1.9, Senator Marshall, in case you do not know. It is your own report. It is sad that Labor senators need this sort of assistance from the opposition. But what hubris and what arrogance for Labor senators to say that these school organisations knew and were told that the Labor government would not listen to them and that you could not change the government’s legislative intentions. The simple fact is that their legislative intentions have been changed this evening by virtue of the government moving its own amendment. But this is the approach of this government to every peak and representative organisation: they try to bully them into submission. I congratulate the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria who actually stood up on this issue and represented their membership.
I admit—and when I say ‘admit’ I am very proud of the fact—that prior to my entry into this place, I was the deputy chairman of an independent school’s board. There is a great degree of philanthropy and a great degree of commitment by many good, solid citizens all around Australia to the independent school movement. But to say to them, as the Labor majority in this Senate committee report did, that, no matter what, the government will not change its legislation, indicates the hubris and arrogance that has set in within the first 12 months of this government. Also, very interestingly, Minister Gillard told us earlier today:
If Christopher Pyne has his way, every non-government school in this country will miss out on the Federal Government’s funds when it starts next year. Those funds are critical to the operation of those schools
Here we have at least one admission by the government that they had overstepped the mark. What Labor and the class warriors on the other side of the chamber need to understand is that there are very many genuine men and women in this country who make substantial donations and offer substantial support to the independent school movement without wanting to be identified and without wanting to be recognised. That is why, when I was aware of this, I said to my good friend and colleague Senator Mason that I would want to be part of the committee stages of this bill.
The Labor Party, because of their philosophical mindset, just do not get that there might be people who are philanthropic and who do not necessarily want to have public recognition or be publicly identified. I also say to those opposite and to the government that there are people who would be willing to make a capital donation to a school for a particular purpose which, at the end of the day, will not assist that school in any way, shape or form in relation to its recurrent expenditure needs.
What I detect with clause 24, which Labor wants to have in this legislation, is that if somebody were to, for example, donate a substantial sum for a gymnasium, a library or a swimming pool, that could somehow be seen as the wealth of the school, or the income of the school, and, as a result, the recurrent funding to that school would be diminished. If that is the government’s intention it will mean philanthropic support for those schools will be diminished. But if somebody were to make a similar contribution to a state government school for a quadrangle, a donation to its library or whatever, would the federal government then be seeking to diminish its support for that particular state government school? Of course, one would hope not, and I trust that it would not be the case.
I do not know if Senator Marshall got as far as paragraph 1.22 of the report—he did not read paragraph 1.9, so I dare say he does not know about 1.22—but it states:
In bridging the gap between public and non-government schools, the government has promised to apply the same financial transparency requirements across the education sector.
Until the government moved this amendment tonight, there was no such transparency requirement on anybody donating to a state public school to have their donation publicly disclosed. What is very interesting in this report is that Labor senators are talking about bridging the gap between public and non-government schools. But, of course, we know which way that gap runs. That gap runs on the basis that taxpayer support of non-government schools is substantially less than that of government schools. If Labor senators are genuine about bridging that gap, they would of course be committing themselves to increasing the funding for the non-government sector. I have got a funny feeling that that will not be the case and it is not what Labor actually meant.
I indicated to my colleague Senator Mason that my contribution to this debate would be brief. I made copious notes and I had copious questions to ask of the minister until the government raced in with this last-minute amendment—and it was not before time. But it is an outrage, when these issues have been in the public domain for quite some time, that the minister asserts that there was an unsubstantiated scare campaign. If it was unsubstantiated the minister might care to explain to us why a government amendment was actually necessary. The reality is that the campaign that was run was a good campaign, a robust campaign, and one that was based on substance. It so embarrassed the government that they were forced into the chamber this evening with an amendment. The government were prepared to do a humiliating backflip on this issue. I congratulate them on doing so, because it was the right thing to do, the proper thing to do, and we of course support the amendment.
Family First supports this government amendment because the targeting of Australians who want to give without being publicly acknowledged is an area of concern for non-government schools. Even though the government started out by saying they would not change this, I am glad to see that they have. I foreshadow that Family First will be withdrawing amendments (2) and (3) on sheet 5648 revised because this amendment covers the issue of unfairly identifying donors.
I indicate my support for this amendment. I am pleased that the government has acknowledged the concerns that a number of people have had. I had a good discussion with the minister earlier today. I do not think it was ever the government’s intent to include private sources, but this amendment makes it absolutely clear that it is not their intent to do so. To me it would have been an absolute deal breaker. It would have been entirely unreasonable. It is not unreasonable to give the details of aggregate funding, but I think it is beyond the pale to give the details of the individual sources of funding. It is good that the government has listened to the concerns and the arguments. I congratulate them for it and I support the amendment.
I congratulate the government on the amendment and, perhaps more importantly, I congratulate Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon for prodding the government in the right direction. Our principal objection was that, as originally crafted, this clause inhibited philanthropy, and to us that was appalling. Any clause that inhibits people from donating to schools for education is a bad thing. Senator Abetz is right that people often do not want to be publicly disclosed. What the government has done is a good thing. The opposition is pleased to support it but it is a great pity that it took the government this long to come to this particular conclusion. Senator Abetz is quite right that this was an issue. Indeed, that is why we had to have this amendment. The opposition supports this government amendment.
Question agreed to.
As a consequence of the previous debate, I seek leave to withdraw opposition amendments (1) to (3) on sheet 5647.
by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) to (4) on sheet 5689 together:
(1) Clause 66, page 57 (line 6), omit “the amount worked out under subsection 67(1)”, substitute “the amounts worked out under subsections 67(1) and 67(1A)”.
(2) Clause 67, page 57 (after line 23), after subclause 67(1), insert:
(1A) The regulations may specify, by reference to an amount or a formula for calculating an amount:
(a) an additional amount of assistance for each Indigenous student from a remote area receiving primary education at a non-remote campus;
(b) an additional amount of assistance for each Indigenous student from a very remote area receiving primary education at a non-remote campus.
(3) Clause 68, page 59 (line 3), omit “the amount worked out under subsection 69(1)”, substitute “the amounts worked out under subsections 69(1) and 69(1A)”.
(4) Clause 69, page 59 (after line 20), after subclause 69(1), insert:
(1A) The regulations may specify, by reference to an amount or a formula for calculating an amount:
(a) an additional amount of assistance for each Indigenous student from a remote area receiving secondary education at a non-remote campus;
(b) an additional amount of assistance for each Indigenous student from a very remote area receiving secondary education at a non-remote campus.
The amendments that I am moving on behalf of the opposition concern division 9 and relate to Indigenous supplementary assistance in clauses 66, 67, 68 and 69 of the Schools Assistance Bill. My good friend Senator Ian Macdonald raised this issue in the debate about an hour and a half ago. He mentioned that the Queensland Catholic Education Commission is concerned that the bill seriously disadvantages boarding schools and their capacity to educate Indigenous students from remote and very remote areas. They are concerned that, as the bill currently stands, Indigenous students from remote areas who attend boarding schools in regional or metropolitan areas attract half as much special assistance funding as that provided to their counterparts who attend schools in remote or very remote areas.
In short there is concern that the bill fails to recognise the higher needs of these Indigenous students regardless of where they attend school. The bill allocates funding according to the location of the school rather than where the students have come from. The amendments I am moving on behalf of the opposition seek to create a category of assistance that will enable the government by regulation to provide for these several hundred Aboriginal boarders from remote or very remote localities.
I would like to pay a compliment to Senator Macdonald for pursuing this issue. Having read the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations report into the provisions of this bill I, like that committee, was convinced by the department’s argument that this was no longer an issue. But thanks to the work of Senator Macdonald it would seem that Indigenous students from remote or very remote areas could be disadvantaged if they were attending a school in metropolitan areas. Given the government’s professed and, I know, sincere concern for Indigenous students I think it is appropriate for the Senate to amend this bill to ensure that there is a capacity for the government to make adequate provision for Indigenous students from remote or very remote areas.
This bill does not prescribe or mandate any conduct by the minister at all. All it does is give an opportunity for the minister to provide for Indigenous students from remote or very remote areas who are attending schools in metropolitan areas. That is what it caters for. It merely gives the minister extra discretion to cater for those students. That is why the opposition is moving the amendment and I would hope and like the government to support it.
Having spent the first hour of the proceedings this evening covering these issues I think the government’s position is crystal clear. The provisions of this bill make it absolutely clear that the government is guaranteeing funding for schools—there is a funding guarantee in this bill—so that systemic and non-systemic schools will be able to ensure either that they have the same amount of money they have now—have their funding maintained—or that their funding is actually increased. There is extra money in this bill for schools.
The claims that have been made by Liberal Party senators in this matter are simply wrong. They are not able to sustain the position in terms of the historical precedents or the normal custom and practice of the craftsmanship of the education bills in this parliament, which, of course, is reflected in this bill as it has been in every other bill that I have been personally associated with in this chamber over the last 16 years. The rural and remote loading was introduced by the previous government. It recognises the cost of delivering education in non-metropolitan areas. The SES school provisions, which were also introduced by the previous government and which are not being changed in this arrangement, reflect the aggregate arrangements regarding students’ addresses and, consequently, the general recurrent funding for every school. In fact 19,000 students will now attract funding and increased indexation to their maximum SES funding for their predominately Indigenous schools. That is a result of the provisions in this bill.
The enrolment caps have been removed. Under the previous government’s arrangements there was a requirement to have 20 low SES students in a school. This bill actually allows for much greater levels of flexibility. Under the new arrangements additional resources will be provided to low socioeconomic communities for teacher quality and teacher literacy and numeracy under the national partnership agreements.
Senator Williams, you are concerned suddenly about time after having wasted all that time on this bill and not listening to a word of what was said earlier in the evening. The vast majority of schools with Indigenous students will receive significantly more money as a result of this bill. For a small number of school systems there will be the maintenance of a funding guarantee under these arrangements.
This amendment of course is one of those ‘make work’ clauses that the Liberal Party, who does not know where it is going, has to make to appease dissident senators within their ranks and to justify the incredible waste of time that they have taken up in the Senate this evening. This is an amendment that is not necessary because any fair and reasonable reading of the legislation would demonstrate the adequacy of the funding guarantees and the extra resources in this bill. Senator Mason, frankly, I do not think you can in all honesty look yourself in the mirror and say that this is actually necessary.
I indicate my support for this amendment for these reasons: firstly, I do not doubt what Senator Carr says, but this amendment makes it absolutely clear that it gives the government, through the Minister for Education, the power to provide additional funding if need be. It does not require it; it does not mandate it; but it actually provides for additional funding to be given in the sorts of circumstances that Senator Macdonald articulated earlier this evening. I see no harm in that. I note Senator Milne’s concerns that it could well be seen as discriminating between government and non-government schools, but I would have thought that, if this is flagged as an issue, if there is power to do so in the way that it has been structured, that is a good thing because it gives that degree of flexibility to the minister. It acknowledges this as an issue and, in the context of Senator Milne’s concern, I think it sets a good precedent that, in those circumstances, in exceptional cases, the minister has the flexibility to deal with those students from remote communities if it is necessary. I think Senator Carr is right but I also think that the opposition is right on this. That is why I see no harm in this amendment. I see it as being beneficial, and I support it.
Having sat through the committee inquiry into this legislation and having had a briefing on it, I am reasonably satisfied that the issues that were raised in the committee and that were of concern to the committee about making sure that Indigenous students were no worse off—and, in fact, trying to ensure that they would be better off—have been dealt with by the bill. Having said that, I am concerned about those non-systemic schools. I am concerned, as I said before, about the fact that, whilst this may deal with Indigenous students in non-government schools, it will, in fact, increase the gap in funding for the 80 per cent of Indigenous students who go to government schools. That is my concern.
Inasmuch as giving the Minister for Education the discretionary power to strike a regulation if she chooses, I do not see this as a problem. I would like to see this transferred across to government schools as well. Because I am satisfied that this is simply providing the discretionary power for the minister to act in the event that students from remote communities are worse off, it can be dealt with. It does not actually require the government to spend any money. It does not even require the minister to actually regulate. It simply gives her the power to regulate should she choose to do so. I am happy to give her that power. If, as the government has said, it is not a problem any more and the issue has been dealt with and Indigenous students from remote communities are not affected adversely then there would be no requirement for her to actually exercise the discretion and strike the regulation. On that basis, I will support the amendment.
For the reasons Senator Milne mentioned, I indicate that these amendments, although they are moved by the opposition, do not go as far as I would have liked. But, of course, I and the rest of the opposition will be supporting them because they are our amendments.
I am grateful to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and accept the assurance he gave me previously that none of the schools that I have mentioned will be worse off. I thank the minister for that assurance. The record shows that. I have already issued my press release giving the good news to the schools in Townsville who were desperately concerned about this bill. As I said earlier, I did not know anything about this bill at 10 o’clock this morning. But, at 11 o’clock, they were in touch with me, desperately concerned that they would be worse off. Senator Milne, this is about Indigenous boarding students. As far as I am aware, there are no government schools that take boarding students, Indigenous or otherwise. I am grateful for the minister’s assurance. I think he will need these amendments to be able to action the assurance he has given the Senate. So, for all those reasons, I think it is a very worthwhile move. I am particularly grateful to the crossbenchers for their support for Senator Mason’s motion.
The Temporary Chairman:
We move to Australian Greens amendment (5) on sheet 5654.
I withdraw that amendment. It pertained to the time frame of my amendment which, basically, was an extension of two years, not four. Therefore, it was changing the date from 2012 to 2010. The previous amendment was therefore lost, so I withdraw that amendment.