Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Education Funding

3:10 pm

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator McAllister today relating to school funding.

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Cormann to a question asked by Senator McAllister. Just to remind the Senate, this was a particular question to Senator Cormann in relation to what is becoming a growing discrepancy between what the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Education have been saying about the future of education funding and the future of school funding.

What it really represents is the quagmire that this government has found itself in, when it has been trapped between what it said before an election and what it has been trying to do since an election. Let us not forget that, before the election, Minister Pyne said that you can vote Liberal or Labor and you will get exactly the same amount of funding for your school. That has now been patently shown to be untrue. In particular, what we have seen is a discrepancy between what the Minister for Education has said and what the Minister for Finance has said. The documents are very clear and the budget documents are very clear. These are documents that have no need to be tabled in this place, as they are already publicly available, but the documents and the budget documents say:

From the 2018 school year onwards, total recurrent funding will be indexed by the Consumer Price Index, with an allowance for changes in enrolments.

That is what the documents say. Yet you have a discrepancy when the minister is out there floating that there will be some kind of a change and that this is not set in stone. There is a discrepancy between what the Minister for Finance has been saying and what the Minister for Education has been saying. Clearly, there is a division at the moment within the government on what and how they intend to fund the future of our schools and future school investment. I am always a bit careful about necessarily believing everything that is in the media, but there was a story today—

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That is because you usually put it in!

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Those pieces are the bits that tend to be true, Senator Conroy! I try to be careful about believing everything that is in the paper, but it appears that the government may even be backflipping, and there is talk of the government backflipping on their $30 billion of cuts in education. Let me be clear. That is something that someone like myself would actually welcome. I hope they do backflip. I hope they do reverse their changes. I hope they do end up finding a way of funding the Gonski school model, because that would be the best outcome for Australia. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be no intention by the government to do this. What there seems to be are a couple of flippant lines, flippant comments and throwaway statements. But in the dead of the night in the lead-up to the Christmas period we saw the government abandon the Gonski proposals.

So, on one hand, we have heard a lot of rhetoric from the government, talking about the importance of school funding and the need to improve schools but, on the other hand we have not seen the government put any actual money or the necessary resources on the table. There has been a straw man argument that has been thrown up by the government that says, 'The answer to everything is not funding.' That is true: the answer to everything is not funding. But you cannot fix the fundamental problems within our education system if you are not funding schools properly. The funding is a start, and the Gonski model demonstrated how you can make the best use of funding to get the best outcome and deliver the best results for our students.

We now have a government in disarray when it comes to its education policies. It is a government where one side is not talking to the other and there is a clear division being drawn between those who are responsible for policy development and those who are responsible for finance. We see a growing clear division between the Minister for Finance, Minister Cormann, and the Minister for Education and Training, Minister Birmingham, around how this needs to be funded.

The reality is that there is a proposal on the table. There is a plan on the table that is supported by teachers, by teachers' representatives, by principals and by students. That plan is out there and needs to be funded. Labor has come to the table with a fully costed plan on how to fund that proposal, but all we have seen from the conservative side of politics is disunity and division.

3:15 pm

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

This is one of those rare occasions when I find myself agreeing with an utterance from Senator Dastyari, and that utterance was: funding isn't everything. But those on the other side of the chamber are prepared to throw any amount of money into any pit that they fancy without determining the efficacy, the effect of that money and the priorities and outcomes that should be delivered. This is typical of the socialist end of the political spectrum: they are happy to spend other people's money until there is none left. It does not matter about the results.

If you want to look at the results in the education system, I am one of those people who lament the decline in literacy standards and student outcomes that have been evident over recent years. I read the other day in the newspaper that the number of children starting school without adequate numeracy skills is rising. The problem is not that we have not got enough money in education—education funding has increased by 100 per cent over the last 20 or 30 years while student enrolment has grown by only about 18 per cent—but that student outcomes have declined.

Throwing cash at a problem may be the easy way out, but actually structuring a program that is going to deliver results that is much more important. The government have, to their credit, identified this. They have said that teacher quality is absolutely paramount, and it is. It strikes me as incongruous that you can go into teaching with perhaps the lowest ATAR or tertiary education score and yet you are responsible for teaching the next generation. We should be expecting much higher standards for those seeking to teach our children.

School autonomy is also very, very important, because schools can make determinations that are in the best interests of their students. They do that, and they should do that, by engaging the parents in the education system. Too many parents think that the school can do it all themselves. That is not the case. We have got to make sure that parents are spending time with their children, that they are helping to develop their skills so that they can be built upon in the school and then enhanced in a practical environment. I want to give an example of that. When I was a publican and we employed a school graduate as a part-time person to work in our cafe, that person was unable to calculate the change from a $5 note for a cup of coffee. That was when coffee cost less than $5. They could not do that manually without the benefit of a cash register, and that was a year 12 graduate in the early 1990s. That is simply unacceptable and yet we are now risking going even further down that path if we deny that we have to get absolute outcomes. Throwing money at the issue is simply not going to solve the problem.

The final plank of the government's approach—and I think this is very important—is strengthening the curriculum. It is not good enough to teach shades of grey. There are some absolutes that are important in education. Being able to read is an absolute prerequisite. Being able to write is an absolute prerequisite. Being able to think for yourself is a prerequisite. Research abilities and things of that nature are important, as is the historical basis for things—such as learning the times tables. Students will ask, 'Why do we have to do that? We can just google or get a calculator.' It benefits people in development of their brains and everything else as we go along. We should not be just chasing new methodologies and ditching the things of the past simply because we might think they are anachronistic. They are not. It is about the development of our children and the education system.

There is a lot we can do that does not involve new money. We need to ensure that teachers are the best they possibly can be. It is about giving schools and parents a real investment in their children's education and making sure that schools can provide the services and the sorts of facilities that are most necessary and, of course, it is about strengthening the curriculum. Strengthening the curriculum means building around the core. It means establishing the basics so that children can learn to the best of their ability, and that is ultimately what we want from our education system. Right now, the statistics show that over successive years the system has not been doing the best it possibly can for our children.

3:20 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Prime Minister Turnbull's $30 billion cuts to education are a clear broken promise to Australian students, parents, teachers and the broader community. Pathetically, as Senator Dastyari mentioned, he was hoping that by breaking this promise during the Christmas and New Year period, when Australians were enjoying their holidays and time with their families, no-one would notice. Can I tell those opposite: people have noticed. Australian people have noticed and they are not happy. The cuts to our classrooms are the equivalent of ripping out one out of every seven teachers. That is not good enough. I did not actually disagree with what Senator Bernardi said about the curriculum, but what is the point in having any sort of curriculum if you have not got the teachers and the funding there to be able to implement the curriculum? On average the government has ripped $3.2 million out of every school in every state and every territory, and the impact of that is enormous.

Let's look at what that actually means. It will mean fewer subject choices and less support for students with disability, literacy and numeracy programs being cut. We just heard from Senator Bernardi about how important literacy and numeracy are, and I absolutely agree with him. What is the point of cutting them? They have to be there, because to get Australia back working in the way it should be we need to have people who are properly educated and employable. Learning supports will be cut, and we know that there will end up being less support and training for teachers. The deep uncertainty about the future of schools funding is already limiting the ability of school systems and principals to start programs and to plan to improve education.

It is quite clear that only the Labor Party is really taking the challenge of improving Australian education seriously. I say to senators opposite that your plan to cut education will most certainly result in worse education outcomes. Before the last federal election Minister Pyne trumpeted his unity ticket on Gonski. As we heard yesterday, there were posters and all sorts of claims, such as 'You can vote Liberal or Labor and you'll get exactly the same amount of funding for your schools.' Well, that is clearly not true. It was a complete con, because those opposite knew that Gonski was the best outcome, and they wanted to ride on the Labor Party coat-tails of Gonski to make sure that they could get elected.

It is absolutely typical of this government that the cuts will hurt those who are least well off. The students who have suffered the most are those who are in remote schools, in disadvantaged schools and, of course, Indigenous children. In contrast, every child in every school in every state and territory in Australia will benefit from Labor's plan. The 'Your Child. Our Future' plan will mean better trained teachers, more resources for our schools and support students with special learning needs. We will fund the Gonski school reform in full, because there is nothing more important that a government can do than invest in education and invest in our schools.

It is a complete farce that Mr Turnbull talks about innovation all the time, but at the same time he is cutting funding to every school across the nation. If you are deadly serious about education policy, then you have to be able to fund that policy and make sure that those on the ground are able to deliver that policy properly. And that is what Labor plans to do. As I said, we hear a lot of talk about innovation from the other side but, without education, all that is is just more talk.

We need real investment in the programs that make a difference to increasing Australia's educational levels. Labor's policy, 'Your Child. Our Future', is fully costed and it guarantees long-term education for all Australian children. Just this week schools are going back in Tasmania. I strongly believe, as does the Labor Party, that every child should have the same chance of succeeding at school, no matter what their background, no matter where they live and no matter what type of school they go to. It is a Labor government—(Time expired)

3:25 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

It is really quite interesting that after question time, when you have the opportunity to get up and take notice the questions that are asked by those opposite, there seems to be an underlying theme in the response, and that is: what about responsible fiscal management? Like everybody else in Australia, I would like to be spending more money on things like education, health and a lot of other things that we would like to have as our way of life. I notice that Senator Bilyk in her contribution was chastising the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, about his innovation agenda.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

It is economics 101. Senator Bilyk, let's start with this: if we have an agenda in this country and a policy platform by the government that creates jobs and creates growth in the economy, the next thing that flows from that is obviously higher revenues that come back to the government. It is those revenues that allow us to be able to afford the highest levels of education and health and all of the other things that Australians like to think should be part of the basket of activities that they can expect to come from their government.

What you see instead is the misinformation, scaremongering and carry-on that went on over the last few minutes about education funding. Let's not forget that it was the promise of the government of which I am a member that said it would honour the Gonski funding to 2018. What those on the other side fail to mention in their contribution in this place is the fact there were two states and a territory that did not have any funding under Gonski. Whilst we continue to honour our undertaking for education funding, we have also had to find an additional amount of money to fund the two states and one territory that were not funded under the model that they proposed prior to the election.

The cynics amongst us might suggest that they never expected to win the election, and so they thought they would go out with all these grandiose, unfunded promises and to hell with it. Unfortunately for them, they did not win government—fortunate for the country they did not as well—but the fact of the matter is that, if you go out with unfunded promises and you want to be a responsible fiscal manager, sometimes you actually have to go back and say to the Australian public, 'We cannot actually afford to honour all of these extreme increases in budget.' We are not talking about cuts in budget, we are talking about extreme increases in budgets. You also need to remember that, when you talk about cutting funding, just because you do not honour some unfunded commitment by an opposition, it does not necessarily mean that you are cutting funding. I think we need to be very careful that we get our nomenclature correct.

The same issue arises with the scaremongering and false information that we are getting in the debate about GST, which is another of the questions asked by the opposition of the government today. I do not understand why this opposition is so scared about having a mature debate about a tax system. The best thing we can possibly deliver for this country is a fit for purpose taxation regime. We have a tax regime that has been in place for 30 or 40 years, and many things have changed in that time. The marketplace does not look the same as it did when many of the current tax measures were introduced. Who would have imagined 30 years ago, 20 years ago or even 10 years ago the size of the internet economy and online sales? To refuse to have a mature debate and to just go completely hysterical about the GST is once again showing the irresponsible behaviour of those opposite.

I also say quite clearly: there has been no announcement and there is no policy of the government which is running in the Australian economy at the moment—that is, the Turnbull coalition government—to increase the GST. There is no proposal to increase the GST. So I do not know how any opposition can manage to get itself so totally overexercised in having a discussion around a whole heap of matters that are really important for the ongoing prosperity of this country that it would seek to derail a sensible debate about tax reform, hysterically scoring political points about the GST.

A renewed taxation system that allows for growth and for opportunities which generate jobs is going to be extraordinarily good for the country. We have also promised that there will be no net increase in the amount of tax. So I really do not know what those opposite are going on about.

3:31 pm

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like Senators Dastyari and Bilyk before me, I rise to speak on the motion to take note of answers, such as they were, to questions regarding education. Western Australia is a resources state. For years, the resources industry has underpinned our state's prosperity, with high wages, the nation's lowest unemployment rate and, at least under the great Labor Treasurer Eric Ripper, prior to the 2008 election, an economy in which prudent efforts were made by the state government to ensure that the benefits of the mining boom were shared across the population while maintaining the state's AAA credit rating.

The resources industry is, of course, cyclical. The situation in Western Australia is very different today as a result of a combination of the collapse of commodity prices and the profligate spending of the current government, which has seen the state lose its AAA credit rating and which has seen average wages fall, house prices slump and unemployment rise to 6.3 per cent—well above the national average of 5.8 per cent. Each week seems to bring worse news with respect to the state's economy, courtesy of the mismanagement and misdirected priorities of the current state government. The question must be asked: what are the long-term measures which need to be undertaken to broaden the state's economy, to insulate us from the commodity cycle and to underpin the future prosperity of our great state?

Only Labor can be relied upon to have the long-term vision for a prosperity in which we can all share, and that vision is founded on an education system fit to equip our children with the skills needed to face the challenges of the future. Labor has always been the party of education. Education is the key to opportunity. It provides the tools necessary for individuals to achieve their potential.

Last week Labor leader Bill Shorten ensured his place in the pantheon of great Labor leaders with respect to his vision for education, with the announcement of his detailed 'Your Child. Our Future' plan for education. It is an ambitious plan, with a commitment to the expenditure of an additional $4½ billion over the 2018 and 2019 school years and a total provision of over $37 billion over a decade. It is a plan which has been fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. But, notwithstanding the enormous investment which it constitutes in the future of our children, in the future of our economy and in the future of our nation, it is an investment which falls comfortably within the detailed savings measures which have already been announced by Labor in the areas of multinational tax avoidance, inequitable superannuation tax concessions, progressive tobacco taxes and the scrapping of the Emissions Reduction Fund. It is a policy which is therefore not only visionary and not only necessary in terms of securing our future but economically feasible and responsible. It is a policy which people understand only a Labor government can be relied upon to deliver.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you serious, Joe?

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am serious. The Shorten Labor plan for improving educational outcomes is comprehensive. It comprises a number of elements: a focus on every child's needs, which will address the particular disadvantage of any student, whether it be disability, remoteness, poverty or limited English, with tailored support; an emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy, with one-on-one support, early intervention and remedial and extension classes, with early intervention available to every child who needs it so that they do not fall behind and stay behind; working with universities and the profession to ensure the best quality teachers with access to the greatest professional support, technological support and professional development, with a particular emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths so as to best equip our children for the jobs of the future—this is consistent with Labor's already announced commitment to supporting STEM teachers; more and better targeted resources to give schools flexibility to choose programs which will deliver the best results for their students, with the opportunity for more meaningful engagement with parents; and, finally, more support for students with special learning needs.

Labor has a long-term vision for Australia's future, a fundamental element of which is a commitment to education, backed up by a funding package that you can believe in, and Labor remains committed to the full implementation of Gonski reforms. The government, by contrast, has broken all of its education commitments, has abandoned Gonski and has, as its only policy, cuts to education at all levels. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.