Senate debates

Monday, 19 June 2017

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:10 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) and the Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) and Senator Chisholm today relating to schools funding.

Senator Brandis and Senator Birmingham have continued in their attempts to justify what is a policy fraud. They are unable to substantiate the shift to a Commonwealth-only school education funding model, try as they might. I will use this opportunity today to highlight several aspects of that policy fraud.

The first is that this is the real Gonski. Let me quote from Mr Gonski in a speech he gave on 21 May 2014 when he said:

Lost in the discussion for more money were the central tenets of our review. We advocated:- A. Funding to be unified i.e. Given by state and federal governments to the different sectors together rather than states substantially only funding their school system and the bulk of commonwealth funding being as a consequence paid to independent and faith based schools.

This is why we continue to challenge the government embedding this 80-to-20 shift. This is the position that Mr Gonski took. Read as you might the comments by the Prime Minister or the verballing by Senator Birmingham, Mr Gonski has not changed his position. We saw this verballing continue today. We saw Senator Brandis verballing Archbishop Coleridge very much in the same form. The basic fact is that there has been no substantiation for the shift that this Turnbull cabinet has taken. I asked during the Senate inquiry if I could be directed to any academics, thought leaders or anyone else who could justify this significant shift in approach that will deny public schools the funding they need into the future. I was told no. The only thoughts on this shift available are cabinet in confidence. This is simply not good enough. It is not good enough for a policy measure that has been rushed through a Senate inquiry and that this government is attempting to rush through the Senate this week.

But let's look at the other elements of this fraud. There are the fantasy figures. We have all seen the Fairfax report on the fantasy figures that Minister Birmingham and his department have put out using their funding estimator. There is the fantasy of recreating the funds that schools get in the 2017 year on the basis of a formula that will never apply to that year. Now we are seeing the fraud of this government in attempting to rewrite the PBO figures that Senator Leyonhjelm received to his questions to the PBO. Thank God for the PBO, I say! Thank God we have a PBO that can provide some independence in these situations. I welcome its new head.

One further issue I should bring to the attention of the Senate is a correction that was received after the Senate inquiry into the bill on this. First, though, let me read Senator Birmingham's claims in this respect. He said socioeconomic data has been used in the school funding system since 2001 and has been 'refined, expanded and broadly accepted as a credible way to measure capacity to contribute'. This is a fraud. Gonski recommended that that model be reviewed and replaced. Indeed, the department tied themselves in knots when they sought to justify it. They were such a bad knots that Mr Tony Cook needed to subsequently write to the committee to correct his evidence. He attempted to justify the minister's claims by arguing that the measure had gone down to ABS mesh blocks. Of course, he had to correct that, because it simply is not true. There had been no response to the Gonski recommendation back in 2011 that the SES needed to be reviewed.

Instead, now we have a government trying to make significant changes in ways that have not been properly tested, have not been properly modelled and have not been properly canvassed and that will damage a lot of our delivery of school education. Everyone, in their local area, in their local suburb, has a local primary school and usually a local Catholic school. The changes that this government is proposing will ensure that that education delivery cannot continue. (Time expired)

3:15 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Collins very much for that extraordinary outburst! I think that is the first time I have heard the word 'fraud' used with regard to Gonski. That is absolutely extraordinary—no, it was the word 'corruption'; the corruption of the original Gonski report—when you consider that the report was presented by the Labor Party in its original proposal. What the coalition has presented in its school funding reform package is in fact the original Gonski proposal, the original Gonski measures and the original Gonski meaning, which was genuine needs-based funding—transparent, nationally consistent needs-based funding. Every school and every element of the Australian school system benefits from the coalition's school funding reform. It has overwhelming public support, yet those opposite clutch at straws, desperately searching for an opportunity to criticise the coalition, which, overwhelmingly, is being supported for its proposals.

The Turnbull government is introducing genuine needs-based funding. It will increase investment and it will give Australian students the quality education that they deserve. It is committing an additional $18.6 billion for Australian schools over the next decade, starting from 2018—an additional $18.6 billion. That $18.6 billion is distributed according to a model of fair, needs based, transparent funding tied to school reforms which are proven to boost students' results. This landmark Quality Schools reform package means Commonwealth funding for Australian schools will grow from a record $17.5 billion this year, 2017, to over $30.6 billion in 2027. More than $2.2 billion in new funding just in the next four years is included in this year's budget, and that follows on from an additional $1.2 billion in last year's budget.

The coalition's school funding model has the imprimatur of David Gonski himself, who is also preparing an updated report for the government on how best to spend the money to improve student performance and improve student results.

A child's education should never be dependent on any particular sector's lobbying abilities, yet under the previous government, the now opposition, there were 27 separate deals and special arrangements. The opposition did not have the political courage to deal with those particular lobbying groups, those particular sectors, and their demands.

This coalition government has the political will and the political courage, and it has the imprimatur of David Gonski himself—and not just David Gonski but other members of the Gonski panel. Ken Boston was a Gonski review panellist, but he is also a very strong supporter of public education and is a former head of the New South Wales education department. Ken Boston said:

Five years after the release and subsequent emasculation—

they were his words—

of the Gonski Report, Australia has a rare second chance …

There are no grounds for opposition to the schools funding bill in principle, and every reason to work collaboratively towards its successful implementation and further refinement in the years ahead.

He also said it would be a 'tragedy' if the government's bill is voted down. In fact another former panellist, Kathryn Greiner, said it would be a disaster if the current model remained in place.

A child's education, as I have said, should never be dependent on a sector's lobbying ability. It is imperative now that we grab the opportunity to implement the true Gonski reforms—fair, needs based funding—with both hands. I urge the opposition to reconsider its recalcitrance and embrace those reforms, if for no other reason than on the grounds of equity.

3:20 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is just another policy disaster from this incompetent government. The government's education funding reforms are now starting to come apart. If one were to listen to Minister Birmingham and the Attorney-General, one would think that all of the concerns raised by the Catholic system are unfounded; there is nothing to them; and somehow the Catholic education system is wanting more than its fair share of federal government funding.

This is an extraordinary accusation or insinuation to make in respect of this matter. What really illustrates the fact that this is not the case is that we find Senator Back coming out this morning on ABC television to highlight the point that he cannot support this change to the funding arrangements. He does not believe that the Catholic system is receiving a fair deal. If one of the government's own senators cannot bring himself to support this proposition, then why on earth should anyone else in this chamber come forward and support something which is obviously seen as a backward step for the Catholic system, which does pull its weight and does an extraordinary job around the country in educating young Australians.

With Senator Back standing up to the government, we also hear that One Nation are likely to support the government and support an unfair deal. I would express my disappointment with that announcement and ask our colleagues in One Nation to review and reconsider their approach. Senator Hanson seems to talk about the fact that it is not just money that is going to solve the problems. Of course, money alone does not solve problems, and having proper funding does not exclude attention being given to the standards in schools as well. These are not mutually exclusive objectives. We need to have both.

The Queensland government's education minister, Kate Jones, also knows the truth. It is not just the Catholic system, it is not just the government's own senators that have expressed concern—there are also some concerns about this in the public sector. Minister Kate Jones has referred to Gonski 2.0 as just 'smoke and mirrors'. What she is saying is that she is concerned that the Turnbull government, after promising at the last election that they would not walk away from the Gonski funding model, in fact did so. 'They tore up the six-year agreement and now they are saying we should trust them on a 10-year agreement.' Those are the words of the Queensland education minister. Queensland schools stands to miss out under this government. They are claiming extra funding, but really it is now just less of a deep cut.

Labor understands the importance of education and its links to the dignity of work. Labor has announced that we will restore $22 billion that the Prime Minister will cut from schools. Only a Labor government can be trusted with education funding, and only a Labor government can be trusted to properly equip the Australian people with the skills they need to meet the embrace of the economy of the future. We know that what the government is proposing is not fair. We notice that it is not sector blind and we know that it is not needs based.

Just returning to Minister Jones's comments, she has pointed out that government schools across the state of Queensland will be $300 million worse off under the Gonski 2.0 changes, in contrast to the $1.43 billion surplus spruiked by the federal Minister for Education and Training, Minister Birmingham. Whilst Minister Jones has indicated that she is happy that the cuts will not be as deep as was flagged last year, the reforms will still result in a decrease in funding. This is an attempt, as Ms Jones has indicated, to trick schools and to trick parents in Queensland, so she wants to compare real dollars flowing to our schools right now to after June. A $300 million cut for Queensland public schools over the 10-year plan means that decisions get tougher. This government is no friend to Queensland schools.

3:25 pm

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

I noticed Senator Collins mentioned the word 'fraud' in her brief presentation as the first speaker is this debate. The biggest political fraud I saw in this whole debate and issue was when, in 2013, the Labor Party—they were back to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd; yes, I think they swapped back—promised this $80 billion that the coalition has supposedly cut out of education and health funding. The $80 billion was never there. It was never budgeted for. It was a promise. It was a good political ploy to take to each election so they could say, 'Here's a promise'—

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Neither was yours, over four years. That is what you are doing now, over 10 years. It is no different'

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

It was never budgeted for, and Senator Collins knows that. The money was never in the budget; it was never in the forward estimates. It was a promise, knowing full well that Labor would lose the 2012 election, which they did, of course. So now they keep saying that it is the coalition that is cutting the spending back. You cannot cut back on something that was never ever delivered. It was never funded. It was simply a political statement.

I find it amazing when we see the increase in funding in education. For example, in New South Wales, this year's funding for the government schools is $2.186 billion. For the non-government schools, it is $3.306 billion. So that is about $5½ billion of funding for New South Wales government and non-government schools this year. In 2027, that $5½ billion will go to more than $9 billion—almost double. In fact, that is an 83.1 per cent increase for the government schools and a 56.6 per cent increase for the non-government schools. So here we have the funding going up. If you look across Australia, the figures I have here show that there will be $17½ billion of funding this year for government and non-government schools and $30½ billion of funding by 2027, in 10 years time. So there will be a huge increase in funding by the federal government, and it is needs based funding, I might add.

It is about time the states looked at their education budgets. I know that in the last 10 years, in New South Wales, the federal government has increased spending in real terms—Senator McCarthy, that means above inflation—by 66 per cent. Many of the states have increased their funding to education by only six per cent and seven per cent, yet the liability of education falls on the state government. But we know who is doing the funding. It is the federal government doing the funding.

I have more to say on that briefly, as I watch the clock and see I have only a couple of minutes to go. The government is spending $18.6 billion on schools through real, needs based funds that are fair, transparent and consistent. Labor's alternative is based on 27 special deals that treat students in one state differently from the students in another state. Why would you treat students differently because of a state border? Our plan means that every Australian child, regardless of the state in which they live, is treated consistently based on needs. That is fair, and I say: life is about fairness.

The funding we are providing to schools is fully transparent—that is also fair. Funding to Catholic schools will grow by $1.2 billion over the next four years and $3.4 billion over the next 10 years. Catholic Education retains autonomy to distribute their funding however they please. In other words, a cheque is given to the Catholic Education management, and they allocate the funding where they consider it to be most important. We will continue to fund systemic schools in Catholic education and other parts of the non-government sector directly, and they will continue to have autonomy and accountability for how that funding is distributed. While we know that a strong level of funding is vital, we also know that what is more important is how that funding is used. That is why we have used David Gonski and a panel of education experts to provide advice on most effective teaching and learning strategies to improve student outcomes and school performance.

This is about improving student outcomes. For years we have put billions and billions more money into education and our literacy and numeracy standards have gone down and down and down. Perhaps a little bit more discipline in the schools would be a good thing. Perhaps a little bit more respect for the teachers would be a very good thing. Perhaps, in many cases, parental involvement and parental interest would be a good thing. Those three things—discipline, respect and parental involvement: what do they cost? They cost nothing at all. I think that is where we have really fallen down in our education system over decades: it is the lack of discipline, respect and parental involvement, to some degree. There is the problem in itself. The money is there but we need to do a few other things as well. (Time expired)

3:30 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government's approach to education funding is certainly yet another example of their chaotic, divided and out of touch approach. Fairness it certainly is not. This is not some political argument removed from the lives of Australians. In fact, it is about a fundamental issue: the education of our children and who gets access to a decent, fair and equitable education system. Yet again, the Turnbull government is selling Australians short. They are doing it to our kids and our young people.

In the Northern Territory this attack on education, in a way, is about shattering the hopes and dreams of the education of our young people. It is actually starting to erode any thoughts of what our future will look like—in a positive way. How can Mr Turnbull's policy be needs based when the nation's most disadvantaged schools systems—our schools in the Northern Territory—get the least help. We just want a fair deal for our kids, but fairness is not what we are receiving. Instead of supporting Territory schools and students, the Prime Minister is punishing them.

One of the government's own, Senator Back, said this morning that he will cross the floor and vote against these changes—$22 billion in cuts to schools across the country. These are real cuts that will impact on the standard and delivery of education in our schools and that directly affect our children. To talk about needs based funding is almost laughable—if there weren't such serious consequences.

If you want to talk about need, let's continue to look at the schools in need in the Northern Territory. Every government school in the Northern Territory will lose money under the model put forward by the Turnbull government—151 government schools across the Northern Territory will lose funding. The Commonwealth's funding proposal will see federal funds cut to 20 per cent of the School Resourcing Standard. Currently, NT government schools received 23 per cent of the SRS. Under the Turnbull schools policy, all 151 government schools across the Northern Territory will lose funding, because they have been classified as over-funded

The coalition must be the only people in Australia who think Northern Territory public schools, on average the nation's disadvantaged, are overfunded. I visit a lot of schools across the Northern Territory and I know of the great work of teachers, principals and students in those schools. They deserve proper funding. More than 40 per cent of students in Northern Territory schools are Indigenous. We heard here in February that the Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report 2017 shows that none of the eight literacy and numeracy targets are on track. The gap will never close without adequate schools funding.

I ask again: how can this policy be needs based when the nation's most disadvantaged school systems, and particularly our schools in the Northern Territory, get the least help? Cutting the funding to the most disadvantaged schools and students with the most need is definitely not fair, not just and is certainly not reasonable. It is such a bad idea that even members of the Turnbull government are sceptical of supporting it. A senator from WA is prepared to cross the floor to vote against it.

But this is not the only cut this government is inflicting on education in the Territory. Federal disability funding to public schools in the Northern Territory will be cut by $10 million next year. Commonwealth funding figures for students with disability loading by state show that the NT's take of $27 million in 2017 will be cut by more than a third, to $17 million, in 2018. The more vulnerable you are, the more education funding the Turnbull government will take away from you. That is the message being given to the people of the Northern Territory. This government is about giving tax cuts to big business while making schoolchildren pay. Investing in schools is smart. What this government is doing is totally the opposite.

Question agreed to.