Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Matters of Public Importance

Education Funding

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A letter has been received from Senator Moore.

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The government's failure to honour its pre-election commitment to maintain the Better Schools funding model.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:03 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

The MPI before the chamber today raises once again the failure of this government to actually honour its election promises and its obligations to the 3½ million students in this country, not just the current generation but future generations. What has occurred in the recent gyrations of the Minister for Education and the Prime Minister is that this government has abandoned its commitments made prior to the election to honour its election promises and to actually make sure that it had a unity ticket with the previous government in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see real reform of Australian schools.

What we have seen as a result of those gyrations designed to meet an immediate political objective—that is, to cover the gross embarrassment that the Minister for Education has caused the government by his ineptitude and his failure to actually articulate a clear case for why the government is abandoning its election promises—is a government's attempt to scramble, to cover up its embarrassment. Through a breakfast meeting the government, without reference to the cabinet, produced a further position on school funding, which of course sums up the position of the government in its confusion most eloquently—that is, schools in this country are going to be abandoned to the cost shiftings of the states because there will be no conditions imposed by this government on its relationships with states.

I quote directly what the minister himself said just yesterday. After his backflip, after his U-turn, he said there will not be conditions attached to the way in which the Commonwealth approaches school funding. Conditions will not apply to Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. However, in an act of incredible faith rather than any reference to experience, he says:

… we would expect those signatory states to commit to those previous promises. But at the end of the day, that is a matter for those sovereign jurisdictions.

What we have noticed here is a complete debacle by this government, and it shows above all else that the people of this country cannot rely upon the word of this government. Their credibility is in tatters. They have broken promises on school funding and they have not been able to provide any substantive government guarantee whatsoever that students in Australian schools will not be worse off as a consequence of their policy positions.

What we have seen is that they have failed to commit not just to the abstract principles of school reform but to the specifics of the funding model, which secures the funding that goes to the students that most need it. That was a fundamental premise of Labor's school reform program—a school reform program which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure quality teaching and quality learning; to empower school leadership; to ensure that we are able to meet, as a nation, the needs of the most disadvantaged people in this country; and to provide the transparency and accountability required in the funding that should flow to those students most in need.

We have seen a return, in a most inept fashion, to the old Howard days of ensuring that the most wealthy and the most privileged get the most advantage. Senator Abetz made the point yesterday and again today that there is no need for schools to be worse off—but there is no guarantee that they will not be. He said, 'You might actually find some schools are worse off courtesy of various state government decisions.' We have a dodgy deal being done with Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory with what we call interim agreements. Under those circumstances the states are given a blank cheque. We have no assurance whatsoever that the Commonwealth money will not be substituted for state government expenditures.

The government of this Commonwealth under the Liberal Party has rewarded the governments of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory for not putting additional money into their schools program. It is very clear that, in terms of the amount of money that was offered under the previous Labor government to the governments of Western Australia and Queensland and what it is now asserted has been accepted under the present arrangements, far less money is provided. These governments refused to sign up to a proposition where the governments of Queensland and Western Australia were actually required to spend more money under the terms of the agreements entered into under the Labor government. The states were required to maintain funding and increase their funding.

In July last year, the Queensland government cut $23 million from its education budget and the Queensland schools commission proposed the closure of 55 schools in that state. In this year's budget the Western Australian government cut 500 teaching jobs and capped teacher numbers for 2014 at the present levels. They cut the schools support program—the schools support resources allocation which tackles behavioural issues, literacy and numeracy—by 30 per cent. Extra time allowances were cut, additional levies on schools were introduced and a 1.5 per cent efficiency dividend was also imposed. At the end of October it was revealed that the Northern Territory government was cutting 71 jobs from its schools. These jobs included class support roles, English as a second language teachers and behavioural support staff. These are not incidental questions. This is not about whether or not there would be reductions at head office. It is not about whether or not you take away the tea ladies. None of those sorts of cliches can be applied here; these are front-line services that directly affect the quality of education for students.

We see a sharp contrast in approach by this government as opposed to the previous government. The Labor government required that additional money be provided to schools on the condition that the states put extra money on the table and that that money be spent in a way that would secure greater equality of opportunity for Australian students, greater quality of education and greater scope for real reform and improvement for Australian students. Under the Abbott government Queensland will receive $794 million. Under the Labor government they were actually offered $3.8 billion, because the Labor program was for six years, not four. Where two-thirds of the money was to be spent in years 5 and 6, this government has walked away. In Western Australia they have been offered $120 million by this government but under the previous government they were offered $920 million.

Why would a state government walk away from that level of investment by the Commonwealth? The simple reason is that under Labor they were required to spend more money themselves and under this government they are able to walk away. They do not have to maintain commitment, as they say they lost the command-and-control features of the program—by which they mean that states will be able to turn their back on Australian students and they will not have to have any accountability, they will not have to maintain effort, and while the Commonwealth pours money into the bucket from the top the states can rip it out from the bottom. It is the age-old question of the way in which the education system in this country has operated. The states seek to shift their costs to the Commonwealth; the states refuse to maintain effort unless they are required to as a condition of funding. That has been the basis of the state schools grants bills in this Senate for as long as I have been here. That principle of conditionality of funding has been a principle of schools funding for a very, very long time because it was necessary. But what has happened under this government? There is a movement away—a movement to allow conservative governments around this country to walk away from any social or economic commitment to justice in any way. (Time expired)

4:13 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am somewhat bemused by Senator Carr's query as to why on earth any government would walk away from an offer of funds over six years from the previous Labor government. The reason they would walk away from that is that it was complete fantasy. They knew it was complete fantasy. The only people who apparently did not know it was complete fantasy—and I suspect even they did—were the previous Labor government themselves. There was no money to go out over six years and they knew it. They had money on the books for the forward estimates but they had no idea how they were going to fund a six-year education program, given the huge amount of debt that they already had. It was a fantasy of the previous government and it was one of those many continuing fantasies that they developed as it became more and more obvious that they were not the people who were going to win the election. Perhaps we should be looking not at any purported failure on our behalf but at the real failure, the genuine failure, of the previous government to do anything that looked vaguely like a national education agreement. They failed to honour their commitment for fair funding for schools for all states and territories.

We should look also perhaps at the manner in which the then education minister, Mr Shorten, snuck $1.2 billion out of the alleged four-year funding that he was offering just before the election. Under the previous education minister, Mr Shorten, my state of Queensland would not have received billions of dollars as Senator Carr would have you believe. It would have received absolutely nothing. Why would it have received absolutely nothing? Because the regulations and the red tape that went along with this bogus offer from the previous Labor government were unsustainable and unacceptable to any state government that called itself a government.

Now we have a situation where my home state Queensland will receive $794 million in additional funding over the next four years, an amount that has been welcomed by the Premier, Mr Campbell Newman. Not only has he welcomed the amount of money that we will get from the federal government he has also welcomed the certainty that our education minister, Mr Pyne, has put around that funding. There will no longer be the command-and-control situation that was a classic example, yet again, of how Labor goes about trying to sneak federalism—a creeping sort of centralism—into the system and destroy the federal basis for our nation, the way we fund.

Big news for the Labor government: education is in the main a states issue. More than 70 per cent of the funding that goes into our public schools in the states is provided by the states, not by the federal government. The federal government do some topping up and some evening out, and that is exactly what we will continue to do with the $2.8 billion that the education minister, Mr Pyne, has now managed to negotiate with all states and all territories over the next four years. We do not have the ridiculous situation where some states were not signed up at all, such as my home state of Queensland, while other states were supposedly signed up by Mr Shorten, but, 'oops', they had not actually signed the agreement. I am slightly bemused by that, because certainly, if I were wanting to do a deal with the previous Labor government, I would have wanted to have a signature on a piece of paper before I would believe that there was any likelihood of any type of assistance coming from that group.

We in the coalition believe in having the best education system there is to have. The best education system is not simply based—memo to the opposition—on throwing money at a system. There is a lot more to a good system than chucking money at it. Some years ago I ran a workshop on the topic of what we needed to have good, inclusive education for students with disabilities in Australia. The name of that workshop was: 'Is it the will, the skill or what's in the till that guarantees a good education for children with disabilities in inclusive schools?' The answer is that it is all three, and the answer is the same for mainstream schools and for other students as well. It is the skill of the teachers; it is wanting to provide a good education; it is wanting to have a good education; it is the funding resources and the will to use those resources to achieve the best outcomes. You need all of those things before you get a decent education for children, whether they have disabilities or not. This is apparently something that Labor does not know.

We want to improve education outcomes across the board, across the nation. We want to do that by having quality teaching. We want more power for principals to run their schools and, if and when necessary—and I know that this is a dirty word in the lexicon of the opposition—to discipline teachers who are not performing to the standard that is required. We also want outcomes that include more say for parents and, where appropriate, for the local community, and we want a strong curriculum. All of those things are needed to achieve a good education for our children, a world-class standard for our children. It is not achieved by the current position of the opposition, which seems to be more about the fact that they cannot stand the success of this government. They cannot cope with the fact that Mr Pyne as education minister has negotiated an agreement with all the states and all the territories, based on real money that will be genuinely there over the next four years, to give all the states and territories the opportunity to go about performing education within a national curriculum in a way that improves the outcomes for all our students.

Certainly there is nothing we can look at, in the results we have had from NAPLAN and from other tests that have been undertaken, to suggest that Labor's answer was successful—and you need to remember that former Prime Minister Gillard was also in fact a former education minister who vaunted her work in education as having achieved a lot in Australia. You need to keep that in mind—and yet there is nothing in any of the statistics, in any of the results that we see, that would show that what had been done under the previous government had achieved anything, had in any way been successful.

I would like to quote the Queensland Education, Training and Employment Minister, Mr John-Paul Langbroek, who of course was welcoming the $794 million that we will receive from the government—which is $794 million more than we would have got from a Labor government. He said:

Labor used heavy handed tactics to try and force Queensland to sign up to a program that meant more red tape instead of getting the results we needed.

The Abbott government knows Queensland runs our schools and we know what our schools need.

He said the Queensland government:

… has a relentless focus on achieving better outcomes for Queensland students. We—

the state government of Queensland, like every other state and territory government—

are committed to revitalising front line services for families and this federal and state funding demonstrates some of the ways we are delivering on our election promises.

It is a shame that there is so much spite, I think, in the opposition when they should simply be supporting this wonderful scheme.

4:23 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this matter of public importance motion because the issue of education funding remains urgent, notwithstanding the piecemeal posturing we have been seeing from the minister. This motion is urgent because the inequity in our education systems is increasingly urgent—it has been growing over decades—and because the government has not honoured its pre-election commitment to reformed, needs based funding. Despite the risible attempts of the Minister for Education to rewrite history and now to reassure everyone that everything is fixed—trying to say that it does not matter where you start, it is where you end up that counts—it is important to look at where we have ended up after this circus that we have seen over the last year but particularly over the last week. What is clear is that there is no national schools funding model in Australia being delivered by this government.

What we do see is that schools in five of the states and territories will still be funded very differently to those in the other three. We do not have a national system. As the president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation said this week, the Abbott government has responded to a political problem, a problem of their own making, but not to the problems with our funding system that have been screaming out for leadership and a truly national interest approach—what we should expect our national government to be attending to. As he noted, the only thing the government has been consistent about is its opposition to a fairer funding model right from day 1. And that is because Minister Pyne has never acknowledged the truth at the heart of the Gonski review of funding for schooling. He has never admitted, and neither has the Prime Minister, that there is disadvantage in our schooling systems.

There is overwhelming evidence of disadvantage. For instance, under the existing education scheme the educational outcomes of Indigenous children in Australia are scandalous. They have fallen two years behind those of non-Indigenous kids. We know that only 45 per cent of 20- to 24-year-old Indigenous people in Australia had a year 12 or equivalent qualification in 2008, compared with 85 per cent of non-Indigenous population. Clearly, there is an overwhelming effect of disadvantage on the school achievement rates of young Australians.

Minister Pyne has never admitted that the socioeconomic status funding model, which preceded the Gonski reforms and resulted in millions and millions of dollars in funding increases for the wealthiest private schools, was flawed. Indeed, it was Prime Minister Howard who introduced that scheme and Minister Pyne has been persistent in trying to extol the virtues of that scheme, despite the evidence and the very widely held view of commentators throughout Australia that that is a flawed scheme which actually entrenched privilege. That was because that funding was never given to government schools; it was Commonwealth funding to the schools in the private system. In distancing himself from the Better Schools Plan last week, Minister Pyne even flagged the SES model as a potential starting point for his government. He said:

The principle of a needs-based funding system, where disadvantaged students get more money, is a good principle and that was the same principle of the previous socio-economic status [SES] funding model. It was called socio-economic status, because funding got to where it was most needed.

We know that that assertion is wrong on so many levels, and yet he insists on continuing to make it. The money did not get to government schools, which educate 80 per cent of those students who have characteristics of disadvantage in Australia, because under the existing arrangement the Commonwealth largely funds private schools and the states, with less financial reserves than the Commonwealth, fund the public schools.

New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is a conservative politician who is prepared to speak the truth about this sham that is going on. He said last week of Minister Pyne:

He must be the only person in Australia who thinks the SES model is a good model. The Gonski panel said no. If you walked into any school in New South Wales, every teacher and principal would say no.

But Minister Pyne and his colleagues have rejected the expert Gonski review without assessing its merits. Gonski was dismissed as a 'conski', with no explanation as to why, apart from the fact it had been commissioned by a government that was not theirs. Not even the most basic policy analysis was used to try to justify these wordplays. We had no evidence before us that Christopher Pyne understood the nature of the Gonski reforms—we still have no evidence to that effect—or why they were needed and what the implications would be of maintaining the status quo.

The impacts of years of unsustainable funding are very real. We continue to see evidence that the gap between the highest and the lowest performing students is widening. If we do not move quickly and effectively to fix that we will not be able to raise Australia's overall education performance. Many of us await the further PISA results that will be released tomorrow to see what the effect of this education disadvantage gap is on our education performance standards on the international stage. Most of us are concerned about the fact that they will very likely be showing a further decline. This represents an enormous future cost for Australia in terms of social costs as well as considerable losses in productivity.

No matter how much it has been reported and how much spin has been put on this, the truth is that the Minister for Education has not committed to needs based funding. In the wake of his announcement yesterday, on the Prime Minister's instructions, the fictional funding vacuum of $1.2 billion is restored. But there is no requirement that states distribute that funding according to need. It is no-strings-attached, no-conditions funding provided to the three states that were the slowest to sign up to the proposal from the previous government to increase the school funding in Australia. There is no need for the states to kick in the complementary funding they committed to as part of their agreements with the former government—and that is the states that were signed up. There are not even requirements for states to provide information about how effectively, let alone how equitably, the additional funding is going to be used.

For the states which had never signed an agreement, there is nothing stopping them cutting their own schools funding to offset what the minister announced yesterday. They have, of course, the Prime Minister's advice that to do so would be 'poor form', but that is hardly compelling, given the shattered credibility of the minister. In fact, we have been seeing world's best practice when it comes to poor form, in the backflips, the obfuscation and the duplicity that we have seen, particularly over the last week, especially when we have the minister and the Prime Minister trying to shift the blame from their own ducking and weaving to the public and the media, suggesting that we just have not been smart enough to be able to understand what they have been saying, or rather not been saying.

What is truly poor form is the constant politicking of this government when it comes to the future of Australian children. The coalition pledged, before the election, to what it called a 'unity ticket' on education funding. But since then it has walked away from that, clarifying that all it can offer is a unity ticket on the overall amount of money—but we cannot be sure how that money will be spent. By abandoning needs based funding, the government is committing our education system to inequity, a worsening of achievement and, ultimately, a reduction in the level of opportunity available to Australians.

As long-term advocates of universal access to high-quality education everywhere, for every child, the Australian Greens welcomed the Gonski review of funding for schooling. We supported the Better Schools Plan, on the basis that its accountability mechanisms and other key elements that the review recommended could be implemented more robustly. We will continue to advocate for funding to be distributed on the basis of need, with a baseline amount for every student in every school in every sector. We also know there have to be loadings on the basis of factors that are known to be associated with disadvantage: low socioeconomic status, Indigenous status, remoteness, school size and disability. Sadly and dispiritingly, it is clearly impossible to trust this government on education funding, because it is delivering a system where there is no national funding model, and we will continue to have a system where some Australian kids are more equal than others.

4:33 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Education policy in the Abbott government is a shambles. After only 76 days in office, Mr Pyne, the Minister for Education, has become a national laughing stock. Quite rightly the government has copped an avalanche of criticism as a bemused public have witnessed backflip after backflip after backflip. I would like to look at the facts. First, when the Liberal Party were in opposition, we had what they called 'conski'—an amateurish play on words from the amateurish Mr Pyne. But don't take my word for it; this is what was said at the time:

This is not Gonski – it is a conski.

Those were Mr Pyne's own words on 14 April this year in a press release—one of those press releases which have survived and remarkably, unlike many others, are still available on the Liberal Party website. Then 'conski' was followed by a monumental backflip. Mr Pyne was embarrassingly humiliated by his leader. On 2 August, Mr Abbott was forced to announce to the Australian public a second position, a 'unity ticket' on education funding, and forced to make clear he would honour all of the Labor government's agreements. Again, don't take my word for it; here is what Mr Abbott said:

… as far as school funding is concerned, Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket. There is no difference between Kevin Rudd and myself when it comes to school funding.

At the same doorstop, Mr Abbott assured the Australian public that no school would be worse off, that the coalition would honour all the then government's agreements and deals, and all funding would be matched if the coalition won the impending election. Mr Abbott again:

We will make sure that no school is worse off.

…   …   …

… we will honour the agreements that Labor has entered into. We will match the offers that Labor has made.

Then just two days later, on 4 August, Mr Abbott reiterated his commitment, in his own press release:

We’ll also provide schools with funding certainty – so the Coalition will match the dollar-for-dollar commitments already made to schools for the next four years …

But, after the election, guess what; everything changed. We had Liberal education policy No. 3. On 25 November, Mr Pyne announced another backflip—an egregious broken promise. He said on radio:

I will renegotiate all funding agreements with the signatory and non-signatory jurisdictions …

And to add to the outrage, two days later, at a press conference on 27 November, Mr Abbott said in answer to this question from a journalist:

… You're guaranteeing that no individual school will be worse off?


That's what he said: 'No.' Then yesterday we had the latest gyration from this hapless government—yet another backflip

The political fix was in. No cabinet meeting or decision, just the leadership group deciding the outcome, minutes before question time yesterday. It was policy No. 4: all deals and agreements were now being honoured. But even today there is no certainty, no clarity, no detail, no specifics about the government's latest model for school funding.

The funding model itself is a very sorry story. On 29 August this year, at a News Ltd education forum, Mr Pyne said: 'We have agreed to the government's school funding model.' That is the first position. After the election, Mr Pyne did not agree with the school funding model. TheAustralian, on 25 November, quoted him:

Everything needs to be examined fresh, because the model that Labor came up with is a shambles and quite unimplementable.

The following day, 26 November, Mr Pyne said that the 'unimplementable' model would be implemented, but only for one year. I quote him again:

Well in 2014 we will ensure that the new school funding model as proposed by Labor is implemented …

That is his third position on a model for school funding. Then three days later, at a press conference on 29 November, Mr Pyne was proposing yet another new schools-funding model. I will quote him again, out of his own mouth, his own words:

Well next year I will sit down and after consulting and talking with stakeholders I will develop a new model in the early part of the New Year

That was the fourth position. Then, just yesterday, here in Parliament House in Canberra, Mr Pyne announced approach No. 5. He said the government would keep the original model and keep it for four years this time. I quote Mr Pyne again: 'We will keep the model for the next four years.' That is his fifth position on school funding. At this stage I have to be fair to Mr Pyne and acknowledge that that is his current position; he has not changed it in the ensuing hours. That is the situation we have got.

Now we know that Commonwealth funding is to be provided to state and territory governments with no strings attached—no strings attached at all. I ask this question: what of the risk that state and territory governments—the Queensland government, the West Australian government, the Northern Territory government—will reduce their funding whilst receiving additional funding from the Commonwealth? Who knows how individual schools or individual students may be disadvantaged with the current policy as announced by Mr Pyne? We simply do not know; none of the detail has been tied down. What would you expect when the cabinet did not even meet before the latest position of the Abbott government on school funding was hastily announced before House of Representatives question time yesterday? It was incredible.

Mr Pyne told us all that he had 'a good day in the office' yesterday. That is what he said: 'I had a good day in the office yesterday.' I have got to say, and I am sure you would agree with me, Mr Acting Deputy President, that it looked a shocker to me. This is a sorry story of incompetence, of bungling and of deceit. I finish by awarding Mr Pyne, as Australia's education minister, an emphatic fail, an emphatic F minus. Yes, he must do better, as is written on so many school report cards. But, no, I do not like our chances.

4:42 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address some of the positive things that the government is doing in the area of education. But my first comments really are to talk about the confected outrage from members opposite, particularly the fine performance by Senator Faulkner. I realise he was a teacher in a former career; perhaps acting would have been a good career as well after the performance we have just seen.

One of the important things to understand when you are listening to those opposite is that they only tell half the story. My grandmother used to give me very good advice about being upright and truthful: half the truth is not the truth and therefore it is important to get the whole story. Senator Faulkner has just been talking about the risk—'what if?'—and he named some conservative state governments. What if those state governments decided to cost shift and not pass on the full costing? Yet we heard here just today about cuts to education funding in South Australia by the Labor Party. Why didn't he talk about that? Why did he only give half the story?

When Senator Carr was addressing this matter of public importance earlier he talked about class warfare. It amazes me how, when issues come up, the Labor Party immediately resorts to class warfare rather than dealing with the real issues at hand. He was keen to talk about dodgy deals—in his words, dodgy deals were done—because we had signed up with states and territories with no conditions attached. But what he does not talk about is what happened prior to the last election. For those who can remember, think back to the dying days of a bad government that was so desperate to retain power that one of the few planks of its platform where it hoped it could have credibility with the Australian public was education. The current Leader of the Opposition went around the country with a chequebook saying anything, doing anything and signing any amount to try and get state and territory governments on board so that his government could say, 'We have a national scheme and the support of the states.' Talk about dodgy deals!

Why didn't Senator Faulkner and Senator Carr tell the full story about the background to this sorry state of affairs? Senator Carr talked about the fact that Queensland would have less money under the coalition because there were no strings attached. But the full story is that under the former Labor government's deal Queensland had no requirement to increase their funding and they were not going to get funding from the Labor government. So, clearly, they would have significantly less funding than has been provided by the coalition. Again, only half the story is being given, and, without that context, people are very easily misled about why this government has had to take the steps that it has taken.

This government has restored the $1.2 billion in funding that the previous Labor government chose not to give to students in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. Without that decision, those students, regardless of the actions of their own state governments, would have been worse off under a Labor government. They are better off under a coalition government because more money is going to them. There is also now a truly national scheme being developed. Again, that half story thing—Labor love to talk about the national scheme they were putting together and they love to talk about the people who had signed up, but what we have found since the election is that some of the states and some of the schooling sectors who were said to be on board in partnership with the Labor government had in fact not signed agreements. So one of the certainties that the Australian public have is that they will not only get half the story, but also that they cannot even believe the half story they get from the Labor Party. Real discretion is required.

This government is giving $2.8 billion to the education sector, to the independent and Catholic sectors, to the states that had signed up previously and to the states that had not—Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia. This government is giving it over the forward estimates as a guarantee, which brings me to the next point of the half-truth. When the Labor government talk about the funding over a six-year period, what they are hiding is that this is just another of the many commitments that a bad government made in their dying days. They were promising money that went beyond the forward estimates. Why did they push things beyond the forward estimates? Because they were so desperate politically to be able to say that they were delivering a surplus. They were on a trajectory to deliver a budget surplus and they were shifting money left, right and centre to make the forward estimates and the books look good. In business, you would call that cooking the books. A forensic accountant would be on the lookout for that if they were doing due diligence on a company you were about to buy. That says something about the state of finances in this country under the Labor government.

As well as the funding, one of the key things that this government is looking to do is increase the quality of teaching, have robust curriculums, increase school autonomy and encourage greater parental engagement. Why do we say that? We say that because the alternative, which has been so fulsomely put forward by the Labor Party and the Greens today, is about central control.

If I go back to the founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, one of the things he said was:

… what we must look for, and it is a matter of desperate importance to our society, is a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and national progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism.

Socialism is all about central government controlling everything that happens. We on this side know that giving local control works. This was exemplified in the Australian technical colleges that were part of the Howard government's education policy.

In South Australia, St Patrick's Technical College, which started its life as an Australian technical college under the Howard government, has a board which is run by local industry and parents so that the curriculum and the whole way it runs is targeted to the real opportunities and the educational and employment outcomes that are needed for those young people to get jobs. In April this year, they had their 500th young person get an apprenticeship with local industry. Why? Because industry and parents have a voice in how that runs. So that local control is not just educating for the sake of educating, it is educating with a focus on outcomes. It gives these young people a real opportunity in life. The coalition is about funding certainty and real outcomes.

4:51 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Fawcett, you will have to do better than that. If you have to descend to the argument that it is socialism to give Australian schoolkids a fair go, then I think you have lost the plot—a bit like Mr Pyne, who has completely lost the plot when it comes to education policy and actually understanding the key issues for children in this nation.

I just want to go through some of the headlines to dispel the arguments of Senator Fawcett. What are the headlines that we have seen in the press in the last couple of days? 'Pyne blows himself, and the Gonski reforms, to pieces'. The argument that the coalition are actually going to deliver is a nonsense, because the independent analysis is that the Gonski reforms are dead. The only thing that is left is additional funding. In a blind panic the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education have gone to the states and said: 'We will throw billions of dollars your way. You won't be accountable for how it is spent. Sign off and we can then run an argument that we have a national agreement.' There is no national agreement because there are no checks and balances on how that money will be spent. There is no guarantee that the public school system in this country will be better off.

I, like many senators here, go to both public and private schools in my work as a senator and I have to say that I know where the money needs to be spent. The money needs to be spent in our public school system. If you go to a public school you see some of the infrastructure that is falling apart. You see some of the lack of decent conditions that our schoolkids are toiling in. Then you go to a private school and you see the cricket pitches, the three-quarter length Olympic swimming pools and the art galleries. You see all the trappings of wealth and luxury. Public school kids have to go in and toil to get their education in conditions that in my view are unacceptable in the 21st century. They are just not acceptable.

We have to get a position where we understand what this government is doing. It has been clear that they are destroying the capacity of public schools to provide a fair opportunity for schoolkids in this country. The first headline was 'Pyne blows himself, and the Gonski reforms, to pieces'. You cannot say much more than that. Then there is 'Abbott in backflip to save face on schools'. It is about saving face; it has nothing to do with the education system, nothing to do with our schoolkids. Mark Kenny in TheAge: 'Abbott's Gonski backflip shows honesty in short supply'. He goes on to indicate that Minister Pyne 'first feigned surprise at the "missing" $1.2 billion'. It was in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook. So there was this feigned surprise at the $1.2 billion that was not there.

Another headline from TheAge reads 'Going, going, Gonski: report is no longer found in online search'. The government has removed the Gonski report from government websites. The Australian Financial Review says, 'Reverse double backflip but no safe landing'. That was from Laura Tingle. I think it says it all. Actually, I don't think Laura Tingle, with all her expertise, has got it right. I think they will have to come up with a new name for this backflip, because it is the most complex, convoluted backflip you have ever seen and there will be no safe landing because the public are onto the coalition. They know that this is about ripping off from the public school system, they know this is about destroying Gonski. You will pay a price for this. You will pay a heavy price for this backflip, the lies and the awful position that you have adopted on Gonski.

4:56 pm

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If there ever was an address to this place that demonstrates just how out of touch those in the opposition are then we have just heard it from Senator Cameron. I thought the days of seeing things through the prism of class warfare was a thing of the sixties. That was 50 years ago. Get up to speed, Senator Cameron. It is extraordinary that you still actually seek to characterise things through that prism. That is really a sad reflection on you and a sad reflection on the senators who sit on the opposition benches.

If I could make a couple of observations. What we are seeing today with this matter of public importance is the most breathtaking hypocrisy that we have seen for a long time, and that is saying something having sat through the protestations of the government—originally a Rudd government and then a Gillard-led government and then a Rudd government again—and their claims that they were investing in the future of our young Australians. How wrong they were.

If I could just come to the facts here because we actually seem to have missed the actual facts of the situation. We know what they are. I suggest that most Australians do. The opposition are intent upon peddling misinformation in this debate. The first thing is, former Treasurer Chris Bowen himself, in line with the Charter of Budget Honesty, demonstrated that $1.2 billion was being cut out of the education fund. Former Treasurer Chris Bowen admitted that Labor had cut $1.2 billion out of school funding just weeks before the election. Just weeks before the election he conceded that they had done that because there was no agreement cut with the states of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

He conceded that the then government did cut funding. But we do not hear any of this today. Oh no, it is all protestations about what we are doing in fixing up the mess that we have inherited from the more recent Rudd ALP-Greens alliance government. What we are not hearing and what we have not heard today is the fact that we are now dealing with the national education funding model that is in the best interests of all young Australians, given the extraordinary and an incompetent fiscal scenario that the former government bequeathed to us.

One of the other things we have to deal with here is increasing the debt ceiling so that we have sufficient resources to deal with the appropriations and budget determinations. Just coincidentally, those on the other side forget who has bequeathed this legacy to Australians.

Senator Cameron interjecting

I have to suggest to you, Senator Cameron, that the Australian public are not fooled and they will not forget who has put the country in this situation, which is why the protestations and interjections that we continue to hear—

Senator Cameron interjecting

With great respect—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—notwithstanding how difficult it was, I gave Senator Cameron the courtesy of allowing him to make his address in silence. It is a courtesy that he finds it very difficult to extend to others. Perhaps he should take a leaf out of other people's books in extending some decent and common courtesy in this chamber. Notwithstanding that, what concerns me about this debate is that all we hear about is the effect that increasing money has on a particular outcome. All we are hearing today is about the dollar value and the bottom line.

The very fundamental difference between the coalition government and an ALP opposition or government is this: we do not believe that the actual dollar amount is the only thing that will increase standards. As we have seen from international independent reports that have compared the numeracy and literacy standards of Australia with like-sized countries and economies, notwithstanding the protestations from the other side of the chamber, the literacy and numeracy standards of our young men and women have declined under the ALP-Greens alliance regime. But we do not hear about that. All we heard about was the very—

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I remind members on my left that under standing order 197 senators have a right to be heard in silence.

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

All we heard about the situation was that they were going to commission a report, and then they commissioned Mr Gonski to provide a report. He came up with a recommendation to invest $6 billion. The government of the day was in such dire straits that that was clearly out of the equation, so they cherry-picked that report to reduce it to what we have today. I stress this: I urge those on the other side to look at the real ways in which we can raise standards.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the discussion has expired.