Parliamentary speeches

Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017 - Second reading speech

May 23, 2017

The Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017 before the House is a betrayal. It is betrayal of the Gonski report. It is a betrayal of students. It is a betrayal of parents. It is a betrayal of teachers and school communities. But, most fundamentally, it is a betrayal of our collective future. That is why I am proud to join the deputy leader, the shadow minister, and all my Labor colleagues in making clear my opposition to this bill and everything it represents. It is not needs based funding as we understand it on this side of the House. In Labor, when we talk about needs based funding, we are talking about the needs of individual students to get the educational support they need to fulfil their potential. On the other side of the House, it is very clear that the need is base politics—the basest of politics. We see that in the broader priorities this government has put before us in refusing to invest in schools, refusing to invest in our human potential and choosing instead $65 billion in tax cuts for companies, the majority of which will be realised by overseas shareholders. That is the poverty of this government's vision for Australia. That is its lack of confidence in Australians, particularly young Australians. We are focused today, as we join this debate, on what is at stake, and I stand up here as a Victorian member who is extremely conscious that in the next two years $630 million will be ripped from public schools in my state. I cannot begin to imagine what will be lost in terms of individual lives.

It was interesting to be in the chamber for the contribution of the previous speaker, the member for Mallee. There are a few things in his contribution that deserve a response—firstly and fundamentally, his reference to the importance of someone's home life as a foundation for education. This shows how he and too many of his colleagues fail to understand needs based school funding. For us, we are determined to make sure that the support we put into schools and schooling overcomes the disadvantages that come to some through the lottery of birth, the lottery of a postcode. Members opposite, including the member for Mallee, are blind to this. They are blind to it, but it is something that we see as critical to our challenge in supporting equity and excellence in schools education. He also laid down a challenge about funding, and I think we need to respond to it here. We have got runs on the board in a couple of senses. Firstly, we found the funding. We prioritised the funding for the National Plan for School Improvement when in government. Secondly, in the last term, in the last parliament, the member for Adelaide, who was a fantastic shadow minister for education, and the shadow cabinet made the tough decision to continue to support the full Gonski. This week, as we approached the debate on this bill, we made the same decision. We prioritise education, not tax cuts. On the maths, I say this to the member for Mallee: taking $30 billion out and putting $8 billion back is a cut and a pretty big cut, with profound consequences.

I think it is worth reflecting on how we come to be debating this issue, because all of the questions of schools funding are complex in Australia—they are complex by reason of the history of our Federation and the history of how schooling systems have evolved in Australia. For more than 40 years there was an interminable argument about the Commonwealth's role in funding schools education in Australia. It took a Labor government, the government of Julia Gillard, to bridge that gap, to end the wars over schools funding and to recognise that quality education is a national responsibility and should be something that matters to every Australian. That is a Labor tenet. It took a Labor government to over those 40 years of inertia and conflict.

Of course, since then, we have seen obfuscation, denial and failures of process as well as substance. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition made clear that our opposition to this bill is based on principle, in terms of it failing to secure needs-based education, but it is also based on some of the practicalities. She spoke about the practicalities in terms of the funding arrangements. But the practicalities that go to process are significant also, because they highlight so many of the flaws that are contained in the bill which is before the House.

The member for Sturt promised a unity ticket on schools funding at 2013 election. That was the election where I was first elected, and I remember the signs up in my electorate: 'Dollar-for-dollar matching'. Well, that was of course a lie; it has been proven to be a lie. Since then, we have seen him crabwalk away from that promise. And in the current minister we see a minister who is capable of talking around any issue without getting to its crux, and that is what has characterised his engagement in this portfolio from the moment he took on those responsibilities. He has failed to engage with the states and he has failed to engage with the schooling sectors, particularly systemic Catholic schools, as anyone would have observed. This failure to engage characterises the failings which emerge in this legislation—those practical failings.

Government speakers have been speaking a lot about transparency. But, whatever this proposal is, it is not transparent. We do not have the data. We know that the data from the funding calculator that our Prime Minister so proudly displayed in a ranting performance in question time today is not adequate. We do not have the evidence before us to properly assess all the claims which are contained in the materials underpinning this bill. And that just is not satisfactory, because this legislation is so important. The quality of schooling is so important not only to individual Australian children but also to all of us, if we are serious about Australia's future as a high-wage, high-skill economy.

In question time today we saw the hollowness of the government's agenda—the recourse from the Prime Minister and the minister representing the Minister for Education on tired talking points. These were things that were drawn out during the contribution of the shadow minister, in particular this tiresome reference to overcoming 27 separate arrangements. In the provisions contained in this bill there will of course be separate arrangements, but they will be a blunt instrument without the strings attached to require an effective partnership between the states, the territories and the Commonwealth to get to the core of the Gonski vision, and that is a common student resourcing standard across the country. Under Labor, we were to reach that recommended standard for most schools in two years time and, for the rest, those in my state of Victoria, by 2022.

But what is before us now in this arrangement? Abandoning Commonwealth responsibility for our national education standards; abandoning Commonwealth responsibility to every child in school today, because 10 years from now only one-seventh of public schools will have reached the schooling resourcing standard—only around 15 per cent in 2027. Often when we look at long-range forecasts and decisions in this area, there can be arguments for looking to a 10-year vision. But let's think about a schooling cycle. As a parent of a child in grade 1, I think about how far down his schooling journey he will be by 2027. This sort of delay cannot be afforded; it comes at a cost that is much, much too great. And that is what makes the cheap politics of the Prime Minister so much more than simply disappointing; as I said at the outset, it is a betrayal of all of us.

On this side of the House we stand firm for this principle: every young Australian deserves every chance to reach their full potential and have a quality education. We recognise the economic benefits for them but also the weight of evidence about the wellbeing that comes from being successful at school. Fundamentally that is why, in 2013, Labor introduced a funding model to ensure that every student would receive a great education. Reference to the Schooling Resource Standard guaranteed that young Australians in most disadvantage would receive the extra support to get the individual attention to reach their potential.

And now we have a government which has turned its back on those students in particular, as well as all of our students. What is at stake here is a cut of $22 billion, the equivalent of sacking 22,000 teachers. These cuts will impact most significantly on our public schools. Under Labor's model, the majority of the additional Commonwealth investment was going to government schools. As the member for Sydney said, these schools educate the vast majority of students with disability—a matter I hope to have time to return to further—most kids who do not speak English at home, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids and most kids from low-income families. This model is providing much less for those schools and so much less support for those kids. Accordingly, it is a model which, almost by definition, will undermine the education of those children, including many in my electorate of Scullin.

Mill Park Secondary College in my electorate has pioneered some fantastic innovations in teaching practice which will be fundamentally undermined by cuts of $1.8 million. Cuts of a similar level, or nearly as high, will impact on Epping Secondary College down the road. The other day I was outside Epping Views Primary School, which will be the victim of a cut of $800,000 over the next two years. This will dramatically impact that school's capacity to service a growing and diverse population.

What the Gonski review fundamentally said was that the Commonwealth and state governments need to work together if we are to ensure that every child receives the education they deserve. Of course. What matters here is the total resources provided to schools, not which government provides those resources. Labor understood that in government and Labor understands that now. The contrast on the other side of this place is instructive—whether it be the contemptuous disregard shown by the member for Sturt in the agreements that he entered into or the more fundamental withdrawal from responsibility that we are now seeing from Minister Birmingham. Fundamentally, the agreements that we entered into recognise this. The Prime Minister has turned his back on those agreements. He says in effect that it is not the total funding that matters. Under this bill, let's be clear: the states are not locked into keeping their share of the bargain and are only required to maintain the 2017 per student funding level. This is not enough, especially for those students most in need of extra support.

Underpinning this are concerns of process. There is no detail about how students with disability are to be supported through this bill, which makes significant changes to those arrangements. We on this side of the House remember the promise that the disability loading would in effect be finalised by 2015. Well here we are, in 2017, and uncertainty continues. It is clear that, under this government, every Australian does not count when it comes to getting a quality school education.

When we go beyond the high-level concerns—and it is difficult to do so, because they raise such profound issues—and look to the detail of this bill, we see many other causes for concern. In particular, there is the removal of critical objects from the former bill that shaped our attitude to the purposes of a national engagement effectively taking national responsibility for school funding and the outcomes that come from schools. When we look at this bill we see a rushed job.