Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017; In Committee

12:30 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Having not had the opportunity to make a couple of comments at the closing stages of the second reading debate, I do want to reflect upon the vote that was just taken. I am very pleased that the Senate has voted to bring this important bill into the committee stage, because that is a demonstration that this parliament is working and is committed to delivering the type of consistent, fair and needs based funding that Australian schools deserve. It is a demonstration that the members of this Senate have heard the arguments over the last few weeks and months, which have been clear-cut in terms of what the model is and what David Gonski himself and Gonski panellists like Kathryn Greiner and Ken Boston have advocated, and many other independent experts have argued for—and that is, that we are delivering a fairer model of needs based funding that is more consistent than the one the Labor Party put in place previously and which will strip away the 27 different special deals and disparate agreements that the Labor Party had in place.

What we are putting in place now delivers increased support to Australian schools—$18.6 billion of additional funding that the Turnbull government committed this year—which will be distributed fairly and according to need, and will be used to drive real reform across the Australian education landscape and drive the types of reform that will ensure that schools, whether they are government schools, Catholic systemic schools or independent schools, receive the funding relevant to need for their individual circumstances. That, of course, is exactly what the Gonski report has been on about for a long period of time. Six years ago we saw the Gonski report handed down, which, at that time, demonstrated that there was an argument for putting in place a more consistent model of needs based funding around Australia. The Gonski report recommended that there should be a base level of funding for all Australian students, a schooling resource standard, that should, in the case of non-government education, be discounted according to the capacity of that school community to contribute. It recommended that there should be loadings for additional support for students with disability, for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, for Indigenous students, for students from language backgrounds other than English and indeed for smaller rural, regional and remote schools. All of those factors are reflected in the bill the Turnbull government has before us and in the model we are seeking to implement.

But the Gillard government, as it was then, rather than going forward and deciding that they would truly work to adopt the Gonski model, decided that they could not possibly apply fewer models or a consistent funding model for Australian schools. Instead, as has been noted by Gonski panellist himself Ken Boston, what we saw was Mr Shorten, as the then education minister, and prime ministers Gillard and Rudd running around the country, stitching up different deals in what was described as 'a corruption' of the Gonski model. The Turnbull government has come to the rescue of the Gonski model of needs based funding. The Turnbull government is implementing what was envisioned would be the case, and we are doing so regardless of state boundaries and sectoral differences in education. We are putting in place a funding model that ensures that that schooling resource standard with its base funding and additional loadings is applied consistently right across the country.

We know from evidence that individual schools at present can receive thousands of dollars less in one state relative to another state, even if they have exactly the same levels of need within their school systems. That, of course, is a completely unfair and unacceptable circumstance. Why should a school student in Western Australia be treated at a disadvantage to a school student in New South Wales by the national government—the Australian government—just because they happen to be in a different state or territory? Why should a student in the Catholic education system in Tasmania be treated at a disadvantage to a student in the Catholic education system in Victoria just because they are in a different state or territory? What we want to ensure is that all are treated according to the need of their individual school and their individual circumstances and based on a consistent approach and methodology by the Commonwealth government.

What we have proposed to the Senate is a 10-year transition period for this. I anticipate, as we move through the debate, that there may be some variations to that and that those variations, if implemented, could see even greater benefits for school systems of all stripes. I anticipate that the types of amendments that have been mooted in the discussions with various members of the crossbench—and I thank them for their engagement—will deliver an even greater rate of funding growth in a shorter period of time to government schools across Australia. They will deliver an even greater rate of funding growth in an even shorter period of time to Catholic education systems across Australia, and they will deliver an even greater rate of funding growth in a shorter period of time to the neediest independent non-government schools in Australia.

Importantly, we are also looking at proposals that structurally would not change the long-term consequences for the budget and that structurally would still ensure that, although we will get to a consistent, fair and needs based model of funding in a shorter period of time, the long-term impact will be as the Turnbull government's proposals originally forecast. But it will provide faster support if these proposals are adopted by the Senate.

I want to reflect on the thoughtful engagement and contributions to date from the various elements of the crossbench. The Greens have been thoughtful contributors in the public debate on this issue, and I appreciate the fact that they have continued those discussions. I would welcome them continuing those discussions further to ensure that we have and will deliver needs based funding across Australia. The Australian Greens have shown the willingness that the Labor Party has lacked to actually adopt a sensible approach to these reforms.

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

We have no confidence in you, Simon—that's why!

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Collins and the noisy voices on the Labor Party side decided that just saying no was the best thing. Why have they done that? They have done that because they would much rather play politics with this issue than actually get an agreement and actually get needs based funding. What has become apparent with the Labor Party's handling of school reform is that it has never been, for them, about actually applying needs based funding consistently across Australia. It has been about using that as a political wedge instead. For Labor, it has always been about, 'How much more money can we spend and how do we use that as a political wedge?' Through this debate, they have been exposed. Their hypocrisy has been exposed and the reality that they were never genuine all along has been exposed. For them, it is about buying off different constituencies through special deals and putting in place something that ultimately serves their electoral advantage rather than the advantage of Australian school students.

Our intention is to ensure that there is a real model in place that does deliver for Australian school students—a model that delivers according to their need and treats them consistently. But, importantly, also, it is a model of reform that looks to how it is we can guarantee that education investment also gets the best possible results in the future, because it is really critical that, as we continue to see a growth in funding for schools right around Australia, we also see that that is invested in the best possible way. That is why the Turnbull government was delighted that David Gonski himself agreed to engage and to undertake a further body of work, the review, to achieve excellence in Australian schools—to ensure that the real problems and challenges in our schools are addressed and that the record growing funding that the Turnbull government will provide is actually record growing funding used to best effect of ensuring that our schools get the support they need, but also that they use those dollars as carefully and wisely as is possible to ensure educational advancement of their students in those schools around Australia.

That report will be critical to ensuring that next year states and territories in receipt of the second Gonski report, which identifies evidence based reforms and opportunities to maximise educational excellence in Australia, actually sign on to deliver those types of standards and reforms. We know that teacher quality is an essential component, the most important ingredient of school performance and in-school factors. We equally know that parental engagement is the most important other factor. We need to make sure that with additional funding flowing into the system we lift the quality of teachers, we enhance the engagement of parents, we ensure the relevance of the curriculum, we apply the support that is there to arrest what has been in some cases a stagnation and in others a decline of Australia's overall educational performance, and that this additional funding is used to the best possible effect for the future. I look forward to seeing many different parties engage with that second Gonski review.

I want to reflect on what it is that we are expecting state and territory governments to do as a result of these reforms. Our expectation is that state and territory governments must maintain the funding they have committed into their schools in order for additional funding to flow into the future. We want to make sure that there is no wriggle room for the states or territories to cost-shift, as has been the case previously; that there is certainty in relation to those state and territory governments and making sure that they pull their weight. In recent years we have seen at times that as the federal government has given more to state and territory governments for the neediest public schools in Australia, the states and territories, rather than investing that and ensuring there is additional support, have instead simply withdrawn an element of the funding support that they provide, which has provided no net advantage to those needy schools. We want make sure that if the Commonwealth is doing as we propose and increasing support, then the states and territories maintain their real effort as well. Through the mechanisms in this legislation and through our reforms we will achieve that.

We also want to ensure that states and territories are accountable for whether or not they are putting in fair support for their schools. Our approach of applying the same formula consistently across the country will allow people to hold state and territory governments to account and for those state and territory governments to justify their decisions about relative spending. The estimates are that with the Commonwealth government providing a 20 per cent share of the Schooling Resource Standard across the country consistently, that would see that school resource standing formula met in Western Australia and the ACT, and very nearly met in Tasmania; that South Australia would receive around 95 per cent of that standard; but that some other states and territories would fall short. We are keen to ensure that the transparency of this means that constituent bodies in those states or territories can question their state governments about why it is that they do not invest as much as another state or Territory, and those state governments can explain their rationale and in doing so justify that to their constituencies. For too long now there has been this notion of continually shifting the pressure and the blame onto Canberra in relation to school funding. Our model puts in place something that ensures consistency but also proposes what is a fair share of support from Canberra and then makes clear that is up to the states and territories to take responsibility in their systems, as the Constitution dictates. So by applying that type of approach we are confident that we can ensure state and territory governments themselves also have some accountability for their responsibility in school systems that they have run throughout the history of Federation.

But I want to emphasise to the Senate the government's gratitude for those who have supported entry into the committee stage. I want to emphasise that we are committed—

Progress reported.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, I have a point of order. Could you perhaps get back to the Senate how standing orders apply during a second reading debate as to who gets the call. I would say that I was on my feet before Senator Cormann in the second reading debate and you saw me on my feet. I do not understand why I did not get the call. I understand there is some discretion. Could you clarify that for me, please.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Certainly, Senator Whish-Wilson. Both you and the minister stood and the minister was given the call because that was to call that I made. He was on his feet first—that was the call I made.