Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Asian Century

12:44 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on the leadership and vision she has offered our nation through the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, unveiled last Sunday. As we know, the white paper delivers a bold, comprehensive and pragmatic blueprint for policymakers both within the government and in the wider community, particularly those driving policy within industry and education.

The Asian century white paper is both solidly pragmatic and boldly strategic. The white paper is pragmatic because it responds shrewdly to the realities of the world we find ourselves in as a nation—a world in which over the past 20 years China and India have increased their absolute economic size almost six times over and have tripled their share of the global economy; a world in which by the end of this decade Asia will overtake the economic output of Europe and North America combined; a world in which by 2025 our Asian region as a whole will account for almost half the world's output. The white paper is boldly strategic because, as the Prime Minister has reminded us, 'The whole world is moving eastwards,' and that places our nation of Australia in a uniquely advantageous position. Our geographic location, our high standard of living, along with our well-resourced and highly skilled education sector can and will provide Australia with a valuable edge, if the government is given the opportunity to lead our nation into the Asian century.

Of course, a central feature of the Prime Minister's bold vision for our nation is education. The Asian century will afford Australia countless opportunities to boost our national income and lift productivity. But in order to take advantage of those opportunities we must as a nation become 'Asia literate'—that is, all Australian students must gain a better understanding of the culture, history and languages of Asia. In this way, future Australians will be equipped to engage meaningfully and productively with our Asian neighbours, who are rapidly becoming the economic powerhouse of the world and are increasing in global strategic importance.

The Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Mr Garrett, has been explaining to the public how Asian literacy will be achieved through the three educational objectives to be implemented nationally. Those objectives, as you know, are: that every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia across the curriculum to increase their cultural knowledge; that all students will have the opportunity to study an Asian language from their first day of school through to year 12—priority Asian languages will include Chinese-Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese; and that Australia's school system will be in the top five schooling systems in the world, delivering excellent outcomes for all students of all backgrounds and systematically improving performance over time, as outlined in the National Plan for School Improvement. These are bold objectives but ones that must be pursued if Australia is to position itself to harvest the rich opportunities that the growth of the Chinese, Indian and Indonesian economies will present. If we are strategic in our education policy, we can create thousands of high-tech, high-skill and high-wage jobs for Australians.

In concrete terms, the government will require that, from the first day of school, all students will have the opportunity to study Asian culture, history and languages, and all Australian schools will engage with at least one school in Asia to support the teaching of a priority Asian language including through increased use of the much anticipated and beneficial National Broadband Network. The Commonwealth government will negotiate these educational reforms with the states and territories under the National Plan for School Improvement. The government have already made it clear that we are prepared to pay our fair share in delivering the National Plan for School Improvement, including the Asian languages objective.

The visionary educational objectives of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper will build on the significant investments already being delivered by the Gillard government in education, including: $62 million to increase the number of Australian students becoming proficient in languages and understanding the culture of China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea under the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program; $41.2 million to support flexible delivery of language education, including online materials for teaching students in key areas, including about Australia's engagement with Asia; $22.8 million to promote the study of Asia across all curriculum areas in Australian schools through the Asia Education Foundation; substantial investment in developing languages curriculums, with Chinese-Mandarin being one of the first developed; and $27.2 million for the NBN-Enabled Education and Skills Services Program, including the Asia ConneXions Utilising HD-Videoconferencing project.

Given the investment the government is already making and is committed to continue making in negotiation with the states and territories, it is disappointing to see the negative reaction of the Liberal states, especially when you consider that the white paper has been warmly welcomed by business and Asian experts. Industry has no problem understanding the importance of Asian literacy for Australian prosperity. That is why employer groups have welcomed the white paper. Jock Laurie of the National Farmers Federation is just one industry spokesperson who has welcomed the white paper, saying in his statement to the Adelaide Advertiser:

… the important role for farmers in providing food, fibre, knowledge and expertise to the Asian region, and the challenges we must overcome to succeed in doing so, have been recognised.

That is why the government will push on, regardless of the nay-sayers, and work with business and community groups to encourage students to study Asian languages, history and culture.

The Gillard government, along with Australian industry, understand that we face a choice as a nation: either we drift into our future, as the opposition would have us do, or we actively shape it. The Prime Minister's white paper is a bold attempt to respond creatively and strategically to the world in which our nation finds itself at the dawn of the Asian century. It reminds us that how we are positioned as a nation in 10 years from now, in 20 years from now and in 50 years from now will depend on the choices we make, the directions we take and the policies we implement now. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and wait for the future to happen to us. We cannot afford to sit around braying like Mr Hockey on Lateline last Sunday that planning strategically for Australia's future is 'a waste of time'. The Gillard government's plans for Australian education are visionary. Our determination to make Asia literacy a core feature of Australian education and industry is ambitious but it is also necessary and it demonstrates this government's commitment to act now to ensure a promising future for our children and grandchildren.

But what vision does the opposition have to offer Australia? If the Prime Minister's white paper is a 'waste of time', as Mr Hockey would have us believe, let us hear what the opposition has been spending its time planning. Let us hear what directions the opposition is setting, what decisions they are making, what policies they are seeking to implement to achieve the best educational outcomes for Australian children and to ensure the welfare of Australian families. We know what the opposition has been planning. Mr Hockey announced it proudly on last Sunday's Insiders program. Let me outline for you the opposition's bold vision for the future of Australian schools and for the welfare of Australian families. Madam Acting Deputy President, I am sure you know better than I what your plan is.

For a start, Mr Hockey announced proudly that the opposition plans to destroy, at its first opportunity, Labor's Schoolkids Bonus. This visionary piece of policy will hurt 1.3 million families straight off the bat. For those 1.3 million families—families whom our government has determined can do with a little extra help with their educational expenses—Labor's Schoolkids Bonus is worth $410 a year for each primary school aged child and $820 a year for each of their high school children. It is not much, some may say, but it makes a big difference to Australian families with children at school who are struggling to make financial ends meet. It is not a lot, perhaps, but over the duration of a child's education it equates to significant assistance to their family. By destroying Labor's Schoolkids Bonus the Liberals intend to rip away about $15,000 from a typical family with two children over the time that their children are at school.

And how did Mr Hockey justify the opposition's plans to sabotage much-needed assistance to these 1.3 million families with school children? He claimed, ignorantly—very ignorantly for a shadow Treasurer—that the Schoolkids Bonus is budgeted to be funded by the mining tax. But Mr Hockey knows by now, if he did not know before, that the money for the Schoolkids Bonus has already been accounted for in the federal budget and has nothing to do with the mining tax. So it is clear that the opposition's plan to scrap the Schoolkids Bonus is not a reaction to a projected shortfall in income from the mining tax, as Mr Hockey would have us believe. It is not a reaction, it is a deliberate policy decision. It is part of the opposition's 'grand vision' for Australian education. The opposition wants to rip $15,000 away from a typical family over the course of the schooling of their children not because of anything the Labor government has or has not done. They want to do it because they believe it is good policy. So that is step 1 in the opposition's grand vision for Australian families and Australian education.

What is step 2? Again, according to Mr Hockey on Lateline, if the opposition get into office we can count on them to not reinstate the education tax refund. So they will destroy the Schoolkids Bonus, ripping $15,000 from a typical family over the course of their children's schooling, but they will not replace it with their own education tax rebate. And this is despite the fact that their own website currently advertises their promised commitment to increase the tax rebate for children's education. I have it here; I printed it off their own website. Their 'Real Action Plan' to reduce pressure on families hinges on 'increasing and expanding' the tax rebate for children's school expenses. So one has to ask the question: when it comes to opposition policy on financial assistance to families with school children, which Real Action Plan is the real action plan? Is the real action plan the one they promised which is still advertised on their website or is the real action plan the one announced by their shadow Treasurer on national television? The opposition's grand vision for helping Australian families and improving Australian education promises no Schoolkids Bonus and no education tax rebate.

But wait, there's more. It seems the shadow Treasurer's ambition for our nation knows no bounds. Mr Hockey also confirmed loud and clear on Lateline that the Liberal Party plans to slash up to $600 a year in extra family tax benefit payments. This means that 1.5 million Australian families will lose up to another $600 from their annual budgets. And all this is on top of the Liberals' planned cuts to the household assistance package which includes tax cuts for workers and increased family payments and pensions. The Labor Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, put it correctly when she said that Joe Hockey's plan is 'to wreck the household budgets of Australian families'. So the opposition's grand vision for Australian families and Australian education hinges on misinformation, cutbacks and negativity.

Mr Hockey also tried to convince the Australian people that the Australian economy has collapsed and is flatlining. And this is despite midyear budget predictions which give every indication that the economy will continue to grow close to three per cent this financial year. It seems pretty clear to me that the only thing that has collapsed or is flatlining at the moment is the opposition's sense of vision for the future of this nation. Their imagination has flatlined, their ambition has flatlined, their courage has flatlined. They have no positive vision to offer. All they have left to give us are misinformed justifications for negative policies and complaints that our visionary policies are 'a waste of time'.

In contrast, Labor offers our nation the bold vision of the Prime Minister's Asian century white paper, a vision which, as I said, is both solidly pragmatic and shrewdly strategic. Our Prime Minister has made a choice. She has chosen to set a clear direction for our nation. She has chosen to implement policies now that will pay dividends for our children and grandchildren into the future. The nation as a whole also needs to make a choice. Leaders in education, industry and the community need to make a choice: either we follow the Prime Minister's leadership and position ourselves strategically for the Asian century, or we hang back with the opposition and wait for the future to happen to us, hoping it will all turn out all right. (Time expired)