Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Education Funding

8:10 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to talk about the great responsibility a government has to the nation to provide a quality education to the next generation. This is something Labor takes very seriously. On this side of the parliament, we have always stood for a fairer, more accessible and higher quality education system. A good education is the best creator of opportunity in our society. It is why as a government we put forward the $15 billion Better Schools Plan so that our children could get more of the individual attention they need from their teachers to be able to reach their full potential.

If ever there was an example of a government abandoning its commitment to the next generation, we have seen it in Christopher Pyne's actions this week. And if ever there was a great example of a broken government promise, we saw it yesterday with Christopher Pyne's triple reverse backflip with pike on the Better Schools funding program. In the election campaign, we saw Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne promise to support Labor's education funding reform. Why? Because they know what the public wants, and that is fairness in education. It mattered to the electorate; if it did not matter, they would not have said their weasel words during the election campaign. The public in our nation are now seeing the coalition's commitment at the election as simply a cynical election ploy.

The truth is, I think, that the coalition never intended to keep that promise. The truth is that Minister Pyne does not understand Gonski; does not want to understand fairness and equity in education funding. The fact that Christopher Pyne coined the use of the term 'conski' to refer to the Gonski reforms demonstrates that he never had any intention of supporting an equitable model for school funding in our nation. It is the Australian public who were conned at the last election.

The Abbott government have blatantly abandoned their so-called bipartisan 'unity ticket' support for education reform by ripping up the agreements that they made with the states. We are now left as a nation not knowing where he wants to take us. What we do know is that an equitable and fair education funding model is not in Mr Pyne's knitting. His first impulse has been to take us back to Howard's broken SES formula, which unfairly prejudiced disadvantaged schools in our nation. It seems that directing limited education resources to the privileged is, sadly, hard-wired into Mr Pyne's brain. Labor, on the other hand, knows that the Gonski reforms are about creating a quality, fair and equitable education for our young people.

What Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne have done on education is quite a manoeuvre, and it is highlighted in the editorial in The West Australian today:

It is a shame that the issue has been entirely overtaken by partisan politics. The Government has done itself no credit in getting to this position. It would be reasonable to expect that during six years in opposition, the coalition might have been able to formulate a cohesive education policy but the flip-flopping over the past few weeks shows a surprising lack of commitment.

A lack of commitment? Yes. Am I surprised? No—sadly, not really. Why aren't I surprised? Let us take a quick look at what is being offered by the coalition to Australian schools and, in particular, Western Australian schools. Christopher Pyne has said the coalition will fund WA to the tune of $120 million over the forward estimates. This is certainly not in keeping with the coalition's promise to ensure that no school is worse off under a coalition government. WA schools were most definitely better off under Labor's Better Schools Plan, with $211 million of funding over the forwards.

In addition to that, WA schools and WA students would have been better off under Labor's Better Schools Plan because it contains protections to ensure that these resources would go to the schools in need, and the funding was conditional on the states making a contribution, not on cuts. We have seen massive cuts to WA schools under Colin Barnett, and sadly any leverage the Commonwealth had on Colin Barnett to lift his game and do the right thing by WA students has now been ripped away by Mr Pyne.

This really matters to WA students. It particularly matters to WA's disadvantaged students. In WA 350 education assistants have been targeted for job losses. This is at a time when parents are calling out for more teacher's aides, not fewer. This will have a massively detrimental impact on WA's most disadvantaged students. Think about it—the loss of a teacher's aide in your classroom. That simply could not have happened under Gonski, had Colin Barnett signed up and had Tony Abbott delivered on the plan as promised. Both the states and the Commonwealth, under Gonski, need to put in more money, not less. What is more, the Gonski deal offered to WA was good because it recognised the high costs of delivery for education in WA schools, considering our remoteness and our labour market.

Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne put forward unashamedly populist policies at the election. In this case it was the right policy—of education equity—but they have reneged. We are now left with a government that has no plan to improve education equity or quality for our nation's schools. And, worse, so many of our nation's schools—schools that desperately need a lift in support—have had their hopes dashed. States under Pyne's plan—so-called plan; I am not sure what kind of plan it is—are not required to make a higher contribution; nor are they even obliged to maintain their current funding levels; nor are they obliged to address the longstanding equity imbalances in education funding that Gonski was designed to address. In fact, Pyne himself is not committed to correcting these problems. The Commonwealth, under Pyne, has left a path open to handing all the additional funding promised under Gonski to wealthy private schools—the schools that benefited from the SES formula—rather than to the most needy schools, targeted by Gonski. It seems that continuing this inequity is in line with Pyne's idea of a needs based model within the promised 'funding envelope', whatever that means. Put simply, the government cannot ensure, as it has promised, that no school will be worse off than it would have been under Gonski, under its cynical commitment.

Under the government's new 'commitment'—at least until the coalition decide to change their minds again—they have left it open for the states to gut funding for schools. This is what has happened in Western Australia. After the federal election Premier Barnett said, 'Gonski has gone'. At the time I did not understand why he did not want to accept a $920 million funding deal for education. But we know now that Barnett was in fact standing ready to cut education funding to Western Australian schools to pay for his government's mismanagement of the WA economy. He did not want to be accountable for maintaining education funding in WA—and, it seems, nor do Tony Abbott or Christopher Pyne. Barnett has delivered budget cuts to every public school, levies on every teacher and a new $4,000 school fee for children of guest workers.

The true nature of both the Barnett and Abbott governments is cuts to education and cuts to public services, cuts that affect the most disadvantaged schools in my home state. This has meant cuts to programs such as literacy, numeracy, music, English as a second language, children with learning difficulties, art, counselling and truancy services. It seems, sadly, that both the Abbott and the Barnett governments have abandoned Western Australia's children, and this is something that Labor will not do.