Australian Education Amendment Bill 2014

It is my great pleasure to be speaking on the subject matter of education and the Australian Education Amendment bill. I will say at the outset that it is not so much what is in the bill that attracts the attention of members on this side of the House, but the things that are not in the bill and the mess that surrounds it. If there is one thing that has been consistent about this minister and this government's approach to education—whether it is early childhood education or primary, secondary or tertiary education—it is this: they have buggered up everything they have touched. In the 12 short months that they have been in government they have absolutely made a mess of everything that they have touched when it comes to the education sector. I was at my own university—the University of Wollongong, a fine institution—in the Illawarra this week, where they are facing redundancies because of the 20 per cent cut in university funding. You have academics, students and community members up in arms because of the uncertainty surrounding higher education. This has been a critical institution in the Illawarra for giving kids from ordinary working-class backgrounds, like my own, an opportunity in life and a foot on the ladder of opportunity.

It is not so much what is in the bill that attracts our ire, although there are some things that do warrant some attention that are within the legislation—it is the stuff that surrounds it. It is the absolute mess that Minister Pyne has made in his 12 months in the job when it comes to higher education. The first part of the bill attracts our support—the support for Indigenous students in boarding schools, the provisions within the bill that will allow the minister to make payments of up to $6.8 million in 2014-15 to non-government boarding schools that have more than 50 Indigenous boarders or more than 50 per cent of their total population who are Indigenous students. This is something that we support—it is consistent with Labor's policies when in government to construct new boarding schools—particularly to support measures which will assist us in closing the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians when it comes to their life expectancy. There is bipartisan support for the Closing the Gap targets and bipartisan support when it comes to closing the gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous life expectancy and mortality rates. But this goes to the issue of closing the gap in education and employment outcomes: ensuring that we have access to early childhood education for all Indigenous students four years old in remote communities by 2013—that is a bipartisan proposition, initiated by Labor; halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements; and halving the gap in year 12 retention rates for Indigenous students by 2020. All of these are designed to ensure that Indigenous students are able to enjoy the same life opportunities as non-Indigenous Australians. Sensible measures which are directed at these propositions will enjoy our support, and this part of the legislation does.

The second part of the legislation is a solution to a problem of the government's own making. This is the provision which will change the funding transition rules so that funding is indexed by at least three per cent per annum. Without this change, around 38 schools would face funding cuts in 2015. I stress this point: we would not need to be in parliament today debating this provision if the government had not stuffed it up, if the government had put in place the election promises that they went to the 2013 election with. If they had done what they promised to do, we would not be needing to debate this provision within the House today. It is because the government have broken their pre-election promises that we need to put in place this workaround, this fix-up. Had they honoured their bipartisan commitment to the Gonski reform arrangements, we would not be needing to pass this amendment here today.

The third proposition is about delaying the implementation of the school improvement plans by one year. They are going to be delayed to January 2016. What are the school improvement plans? Quite simply, they are the requirement on schools who are receiving additional funding from the federal government to put in place measures to prove that they are actually addressing those educational outcomes that the funding is in respect of. I have got to say that this is the part where the minister has absolutely jumped the shark. We have a proposition by the minister that he does not believe in command-and-control requirements for school funding systems. So he is essentially tearing up that part of the Gonski school funding agreement and saying, 'We need to start again.' In light of their history on this issue, you really do have to be a little bit cynical about a proposition from a Liberal Party Minister for Education that rejects command-and-control propositions when it comes to school funding by the Commonwealth.

All of us on this side of the House remember the 2004 plan by the then Liberal minister, Brendan Nelson, to tie the requirement for receiving school education funds—the $33 billion in Commonwealth funding—to sticking a flagpole in the schoolyard. That is right: these enemies of command and control were saying, from 2004-05, that, if a school wanted to receive any of its Commonwealth government funding, it had to stick a flagpole in the yard of the school. I have no problems with—in fact I support—the proposition that schools have flagpoles, and I support the provision of flags to schools, as most good members do. But, when you look at the coalition's history, you have got to ask yourself how genuine they are when they say, 'We're not into this command-and-control stuff; we'll just hand money out to schools without any conditions upon it; we won't ask what they're doing with the money.'

These are the guys who started the culture wars when it came to school curriculum. These are the guys that could not find enough opportunities to bag the schoolteachers in the public school system. They required that schools have a flagpole in order to receive Commonwealth government funding, and yet they stand here today and say, 'We need to put this legislation before the House because we do not like those provisions of the Gonski school education plan that require some conditionalities upon the additional funding.' You have got to ask yourself: is this just a ruse for the government to once again back away from what was said before the election about a bipartisan commitment to the Gonski school education plan? We all remember Chris Pyne saying that you could not put a cigarette paper between the Labor Party and the coalition parties when it came to school education funding and the Gonski plan. We know they have torn up the funding agreement. You have got to ask yourself whether this is just another ruse to enable them to completely back away from every and each part of that funding plan.

I know the minister likes to stand up and say they are still honouring their proposition, but they are the only Liberal government in the country which claim that they are honouring the Gonski school education funding agreement. In fact, last week we had the National Party Minister for Education for New South Wales, Adrian Piccoli, say quite clearly that they signed a six-year funding agreement, a contractual arrangement, with the Commonwealth, and they signed it because they could see that this was to the benefit of every student in every school in New South Wales, and they think that the federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, has reneged on that agreement, has torn up the agreement, and they will be taking steps within their power to ensure that it is honoured.

Why is it important? We know that the Gonski school education review was the most comprehensive review of school education in over 40 years. At its core the proposition was this: public or private does not matter; we want to ensure that as a Commonwealth and as state governments we are funding schools on the basis of need. Schools with higher need students, whether they are students from low-SES backgrounds or students from Indigenous backgrounds and whether they are schools with a higher proportion of students with disabilities, are the schools that should attract a greater amount of state and Commonwealth funding, and we will put in place a funding formula to ensure that that occurs.

It does not make sense if the Commonwealth is putting more money in the top of the bucket and state governments are putting a hole in the bottom of the bucket and draining it out for other programs, so it is absolutely critical that you have a joined up response from federal and state governments and from the non-government school sector. That is what Labor managed to do, and it was not easy getting around the table an reaching agreement with the first ministers of all the states and territories around the country. But do it we did with all but one exception, and agreement was reached.

But almost the first act—in fact, one of the quickest retreats from a promise—was this minister, Christopher Pyne, breaking his promise to the Australian people and tearing up the Gonski school education plan and funding agreement with the state and territory ministers. If it were not for that act, the legislation before the House today would not be necessary.

We will not be seen as standing in the way of a provision which is going to provide more funds to Indigenous students who are attending boarding schools, particularly those boarding schools which have a high proportion of Indigenous students. We will not stand in the way of ensuring those independent schools have their funding indexed so they can continue to operate over the next two years without funding cuts. We also will not do anything to stop the rest of the schools receiving their increased funding under Labor's improvements to the school education funding arrangement. We will not do it in a way that lets those opposite get off scot-free. People need to know when they go to the next election which side of politics stands for education in this country; which side of politics can be trusted when it makes a promise in relation to early childhood, primary, secondary, university or TAFE education; which side of politics is truly committed to investing more money in our kids and universities; and which side of politics cannot be trusted to keep their promises, because, every time they have made a promise when it comes to higher education—every time they have made a promise when it comes to school education-they have broken their promises. The people of Australia will not forget that.

The people of Australia will not forget that the Minister for Education cannot be trusted when it comes to education. If he has made a promise on it, you can be guaranteed that, if he is re-elected, he is going to break that promise. The people of Australia need to be and will be reminded of that. They will not forget.

As I said at the outset, the students from my region at the University of Wollongong will not forget that. They are red hot with anger because they know that this government which is cutting funds to schools is also now cutting funds to universities. It is going to mean higher fees for them. It is going to mean fewer academic staff teaching them. It is going to mean a reduction in the number and quality of services. So we support the legislation but not without reservations.