Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Answers to Questions on Notice


3:12 pm

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to schools funding.

I have to declare a bit of an interest in the questions that were asked. I did start at a Catholic school, Saint Therese's at Colonel Light Gardens in South Australia, where I was taught by the very dedicated Dominican sisters. I then went on to be educated at Blackfriars college in Prospect, where I was taught by the Dominican fathers. I had three daughters who all went to Catholic schools—the older two went to Saint Raphael's School, an excellent school, in Parkside and then all three of them went on to study at Loreto College in Marryatville. As a parent, I was asked to join the board of Saint Raphael's School, so I believe I do have some firsthand knowledge of how the education system works in South Australia but more particularly how the Catholic education system works. I have a pretty good understanding of the dedication of the teachers in that system.

I do not say that this is limited to Catholic schools, but I have seen it firsthand in my own experience the hard work, sacrifice and dedication of parents who choose to send their children to Catholic schools, because of course there is a cost associated with that decision. We are lucky in Australia that we can get a choice of education through a variety of systems, and those parents who make that decision to send their children to the Catholic schools make a contribution to the cost. And I have seen, particularly for my own children, mostly the pretty hard work the students themselves make a commitment to.

But in particular I have seen just how the small Catholic schools work. Most of them run on the smell of an oily rag. These are not wealthy schools by any means. The teachers, the parents and the students are committed to the system. So I do find it rather dumbfounding that an education minister in this government, from my home state of South Australia, should choose to take the action he has taken in respect of the Catholic school system. Over the last few days in particular, but more broadly, I have had an opportunity to talk to some of the people from the Catholic education system in South Australia. And let me tell you what they are saying about what this minister intends to do to Catholic schools in his own state. They tell me that the cuts mean that in South Australia Catholic schools will get $9 million less in 2018 and $25 million less in 2019 than they would have done under the original Gonski model. In South Australia, Catholic Education says that affordability is already cited as the reason the majority of parents take their children out of the Catholic school system. They also say that any further reduction in revenue will place enormous pressure on the viability of small schools in low-SES areas.

What does that mean? Well, already in the Catholic school system in South Australia they offer fee reductions to up to 40 per cent of parents where those parents cannot afford to pay the full fees. So, what Minister Birmingham is doing is simply making that situation more difficult for all of those parents who make a commitment to their children's education. I have to say, I do not think this minister could go two rounds with a revolving door. He has let the people of South Australia— (Time expired)

3:18 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a fine testament to the Catholic education system we see here in this chamber now: Senator Collins; Senator Farrell; our leader, Senator Brandis; my good self; and I do not know whether Senator Watt or Senator McAllister or Senator Smith—in that true spirit of openness I too have to declare that I started my schooling in 1955 with the Presentation nuns in Goomalling. I then went to the Mercy nuns in Bunbury. Deputy President, you will be interested to know that the very first school in Western Australia, in 1846, was run by a group of Mercy sisters who arrived in the heat of a January summer from Ireland. And do you know, within 20 days, using as desks the very packing cases in which they had brought their belongs from Ireland to Perth, they had started the first school for girls in Perth, including Aboriginal girls—the first Aboriginal girls educated in the then colonies. I then went on to the Marist Brothers in Bunbury and Aquinas College in Perth—for the Christian Brothers—and then, Senator Brandis would be interested to know, I spent a couple of years at Saint Leo's College, run by the Jesuits. In the room next to me was Mr Bob Katter, from the other place. That is not something that I normally publicise, but indeed he was.

I make those points too because I have observed in recent times in the interactions I have had with Minister Birmingham that he is a person who is well and truly across the issues associated with the education sector—higher education and indeed primary and secondary education, including in South Australia, which Senator Farrell has just commented upon.

One of the concerns expressed to me by the group in South Australia is the issue associated with disability funding. I can pick that one up right now, because in response to questions asked of Senator Birmingham he was able to say that over 10 years there will be $21.2 billion spent by this government—promised and actually able to be spent and not the Monopoly money that we know our political opponents throw around—which is an increase of 5.9 per cent. That is something that was of concern to them in South Australia.

Like Senator Farrell, I was on the school board of the Catholic school in Northam, when my children went to school. I went on to the Catholic Education Commission for a nine-year period only because the concept of co-responsibility came in. As a board member from a Catholic school in the bush I thought, 'How lovely. This will be the city schools trying to take money off the country schools,' and I jumped up and down so much that Dr Peter Tannock, than running Catholic Education in WA, and Mr Mike Beech, both said to me that the only way they could convince me as to what they were trying to do with co-responsibility was for me to come onto the commission. Indeed, as Senator Collins has just said, Dr Tannock himself was a co-colleague with Mr David Gonski in the original Gonski report. Where was the importance and where is the importance of the co-responsibility funding? Incidentally, it is a funding process—we call it the systemic process—that will be continued by the government, simply because it enables the system to be able to use funding from schools that are better off, either permanently or in any one year, to assist lower socioeconomic schools that may not be. The way the funding is organised in Western Australia at the moment every child in the system is a notional 103 points. I think more than 50 per cent of the children in schools above that 103 are supporting those in lower socioeconomic city, rural and regional schools. That is the absolute strength of our system. That is something—and this was stated in my discussions with Catholic Education officials and indeed in discussions I have had with Minister Birmingham—that has to be preserved, because it is the strength of the system.

I make the point that the cost of educating all children in Catholic schools in Australia is only 90 per cent of that of state schools. The capital cost of building the schools in Catholic circumstances is about 95 per cent. When a child goes into a state school, taxpayers have paid for that school. When a child goes into a Catholic school you can rest assured that the vast majority has been paid. In response to Senator Hinch, who, unfortunately, I think quite disparagingly said it was time for me to go, I can say to him that the best thing for the taxpayer is for more children to be in Catholic and independent schools. (Time expired)

3:23 pm

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

On the same matter, I would like to thank Senator Back for raising the unique characteristics of the Australian education system and the special role that Catholic and other systemic schools have played for hundreds of years in Australian education—unique and needing to be preserved, unlike the changes that would occur under Gonski 2.0, which challenge their very capacity to continue to operate and produce the excellent outcomes that they have.

You saw today the revival of the school funding wars and the unfortunate sectarianism that has evolved—not only jokes about ghosts of the DLP but, equally, during the legislation inquiry on this bill we had Crikey describing me as defending Catholic schools from Gonski 2.0—a Greens and coalition tag team. In fact, I wonder whether Senator Bridget McKenzie is going to join the Greens with the way that she has been conducting herself during this debate.

I too should declare that my children and I have been across all school sectors. Probably most Australian families have experience with government and non-government schools in our unique Australian education system. There is a role for all of them and they should be able to continue to operate without the attacks that we have seen in Gonski 2.0.

I hope that Senator Back is right, but we did not hear much from the minister today giving any assurance as to what changes might be being contemplated. Indeed, all we have seen so far is probably best described by an article online in the Australian Financial Review by Phillip Coorey. It says:

Senator Birmingham left the door open for the compromise earlier on Tuesday morning when he said the government was working through 'technical issues'.

He just describes them as minor technical issues. Those of us who understand these matters know that they are far more significant. That is why Senator Back has been prepared to take the risks that he has. Senator Birmingham remains upset at the Catholic sector, which faces a funding cut only because it was overfunded by Labor's Gonski model in order to reach a political deal. This is simply untrue. This is the misinformation that Senator Birmingham goes on to decry when he says:

There's a lot of misinformation that has been spread by vested interests—

No, by him—

who are keen to get better deals, extract extra dollars during this process. What we want to see though is a final model that puts in place the type of principles that the Gonski report advocated for.

Again, this is simply untrue. The Gonski report advocated exactly the arrangements that were put in place for Catholic systemic schools. They advocated that, until the SES model had been reviewed, they continue to operate with a system-weighted average. It advocated that we be very careful with the shape of the measure on capacity to contribute. But no, this minister, to make cuts, has unilaterally changed all of that without consultation, modelling and proper policy work.

Even worse than that, I mentioned the correction that the associate secretary needed to make to the evidence provided to the Senate committee looking into this bill yesterday. Today, I look forward to seeing the minister's correction to the comments that he made today in answer to Senator Farrell, because he is simply wrong. Let me quote to you from an early Hansard what the minister said in question time today. He described the fine work the Catholic systemic schools do and purported that they should be able to continue to do so. What he went on to say is that they can keep doing more with an increased share of funding. Catholic systemic schools do not get an increased share of funding. Under the proposals in this bill, they get a cut in their share of funding. What everybody knows when they understand the figures here is that that is why their growth is so much less than the growth for private schools and less than the growth for government schools. That is why there is this cut in the share of funding for Catholic schools. The minister will need to come into this place and correct what he said on the record today because it is wrong. There is no increasing share of funding for Catholic schools. (Time expired)

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

But they get more money—

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

But they grow—

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order on my right!

3:29 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I did not appreciate that you were going to come back into the chair. I thought that the Deputy President was going to be in the chair. I know, being a Lionel Richie fan, she would want to share with me in wishing a Lionel Richie a very happy 68th birthday.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hello—I am more of an easy man, Senator Watt. I am more of a Commodores man.

In all seriousness, it has been quite revealing to hear the contributions from Senator Collins and Senator Farrell this afternoon. That is because Senator Collins has admitted that there is in fact growth happening in the Catholic education system, but, if you listened to Senator Farrell's contribution, you would have thought that there was no growth in the Catholic education system. It has been quite revealing.

As a boy who went to a state school in a pretty tough part of Perth's northern suburbs it has been interesting for me to listen to people in this place sing the praises of Catholic education—interesting for two reasons. The first is that the Catholic education system in this country does deserve to be praised. The second is: but does it deserve to funded at the expense of other education systems in this country? Absolutely not.

If Senator Farrell and Senator Collins want to take forward their arguments about the funding of education in this country, particularly the funding of the Catholic education system, then do you know where they should take them? It is not in here to the Senate, not to Senator Birmingham, but to the Catholic education system itself, because the Catholic education system retains the authority to fund Catholic schools. It is interesting that, in Senator Farrell's and Senator Collins's contributions, they did not talk about the $1.2 billion growth in the Catholic education system that will happen as a consequence of this government's education reforms. That is $1.2 billion over the next four years, and $3.4 billion over the next 10 years. There is growth in the Catholic education system, and Labor should at least be honest in admitting that.

This is an important point. It has been lovely to hear people's lovely stories about their experiences with the Catholic education system. But many children in this country are educated in other systems, and the families of those children deserve to be supported and the school councils for those children deserve to be supported, and that is what this government is doing. What is needed now, and what we are providing, is a dispassionate view of the best way to fund education in our country—dispassionate because we are putting needs first and dispassionate because we are putting a focus on those values that are important.

We have heard everyone come in here and talk about their love for the Catholic education system because that is where they were raised and that is where their children were raised. Big deal. Many other children in this country deserve to have their schools funded properly as well. If someone wants to come into this place and argue that the Catholic education system is being defunded, then I want to hear about it, because in fact—and Senator Collins admitted this; you can see it in the Hansardthere is growth in the Catholic education system. If people are concerned about sectarianism and those sorts of things, I have a very, very simple answer: step back and approach this issue more dispassionately, because we do not want to get into a debate in this country about Catholic versus non-Catholic, or government versus non-government education. What we are interested in is how we best fund each student in each school.

Let me share this with you. I think a great virtue—and, Senator Watt, I hope you agree with me, putting the politics aside for a second—of education in this country over the last 10 or 20 years perhaps has been the growth in low-fee schools to give parents options about sending their children to government schools or non-government schools. Now, my parents would have loved the option of sending me to a low-fee school, but they did not exist when I was going to high school. I went to a state school, and Mr Stitt, Mr Ragan, Ms Kellow and Mr Stone were great teachers. It was an ordinary school in a tough part of Perth, but it was blessed with great teachers.

I was blessed with parents that put value on education. I could go on and on about this, but—

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Smith. You cannot, because your time has expired.

3:33 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would have very happily listened to you go on and on, Senator Smith, for some time! But there will be other times for that. I also rise to take note of answers by Minister Birmingham to questions asked by a number of opposition senators today concerning the government's proposed arrangements for the funding of schools in Australia.

Last night, I gave a short speech in the debate on the Medicare Guarantee Bill, and one of the points that I wished I had made—had I thought of it—was that, as well as being a great national institution, Medicare is a great symbol of what governments can do to bring us together as a community. By properly funding public health care that all Australians can receive no matter what their background, we are actually making sure that our community stays together. Similarly, the theme of my contribution today is that the proper and fair funding of all schools in our society is a very important way of making sure all people in our society get an opportunity and, therefore, we help to bring our community together.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing from the Turnbull government right now is not taking us in that direction. We know that their forebears, particularly in the Howard government, rejigged school funding arrangements to advantage wealthy private schools at the expense of public schools and poorer Catholic schools. That is to their eternal shame and it is one of the great contributors to rising inequality within our society today. It is a fact that children from wealthier backgrounds going to more privileged schools have had all sorts of opportunities arising from previous funding arrangements put in place by the then Howard government that in many respects continue to this day.

Of course, the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments attempted to correct this by changing our funding arrangements for schools again to ensure that some of the most disadvantage schools in our community actually got the proper support they needed and, more importantly, that the kids who attended those schools got the support they needed. We are actually seeing the benefits of that come through right now. One of the duty electorates that I represent is the electorate of Forde, which is on the southern outskirts of Brisbane in the Brisbane-Gold Coast corridor. There are many quite disadvantaged areas in the community. I know from personal experience that some of the schools have been using that funding to employ speech therapists and teacher aides to provide much more individualised education and support for children who really need that support in order to reach their own potential. These are the kinds of things that kids from wealthier backgrounds do not necessarily need, and that is what the purpose of this funding was.

Minister Birmingham and the Prime Minister want us to believe that their new funding arrangement is going to continue this sort of support; but, of course, they do not want to acknowledge that their very own policy documents state very clearly that they are going to be taking $22 billion out of the education funding system compare to what Labor in government had proposed to spend. We know that public schools will be worst affected by this; but also there has been significant debate in recent times about the impact on Catholic schools, which also disproportionately service poorer communities, disabled children and children in Indigenous communities, the very kids who most need federal government support and stand to lose most if this funding package get through.

I mentioned that our approach to schools and school funding should be something that binds our community together. But not only is the minister, with his stubborn approach on this funding arrangement, driving individual schools further apart; he is also driving school sectors apart. We have seen the Catholic Education Commission publicly criticise this minister in a way we have not seen for a very long time. In fact, they were reported today as saying that this minister's consultation is the worst they have seen in 50 years. So I guess that makes him an even worse education minister than Christopher Pyne, which is really saying something. The independent schools sector, having supported the government's arrangements up until this point, can see the writing on the wall, can see this minister backing away from his previous statements that he will not be cutting special deals.; and they have warned that they are going to walk away from this funding arrangement if the Catholic schools sector gets some sort of special arrangement from the minister.

So every single school sector is now expressing deep concern about this package. In addition to that, we all know that the minister is driving his own government apart with an increasing number of backbenchers coming out publicly expressing serious concerns and flagging the possibility that they will cross the floor and vote against this legislation. This is no surprise when the minister has been revealed to be providing to the crossbenchers, in order to gain their support, departmental modelling data that he will not even share with his own side of politics. This minister needs to come up with a fair funding arrangement rather than the unfair one he is proposing. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.