ADJOURNMENT;Education Funding – 29 Feb 2016

The Abbott-Turnbull government are failing Australia’s schools and schoolchildren. Since coming to government in 2013, they have tried every trick in the book, all the weasel words they can think of, to cover up the fact that they did so on the false promise that they would match Labor’s education funding dollar for dollar. Minister Pyne, the then shadow minister for education, said:

… you can vote Liberal or Labor and you’ll get … the same amount of funding for your school …

And Mr Abbott, as Leader of the Opposition, said the coalition was ‘on an absolute unity ticket when it comes to school funding’. The words ‘Liberals will match Labor’s school funding dollar for dollar’ were emblazoned over signs at polling booths across the country during the election.

This was clearly not the case, because, unlike Labor, they refused to commit to years 5 and 6 of the Gonski school funding plan. And, when those opposite came to government, they cut education funding by $30 billion over the next decade.

Despite the savagery of its cuts, it seems impossible to get this government to acknowledge the plain, honest truth, even though it is clear to ordinary Australians. The cuts to education have been described by the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham, as a ‘different trajectory of growth’ and by the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann, as ‘CPI plus an element to acknowledge enrolment growth’. The government’s budget overview for 2014 refers to the cuts as ‘sensible indexation arrangements for schools’.

The Abbott and Turnbull government’s rhetoric, both before and after the election, is a ploy to take credit for the Gonski school improvement plan without having to confess that they were never committed to it. It explains why Mr Turnbull waited until the Christmas holidays to announce that he would be breaking the government’s commitment to match funding dollar for dollar during years 5 and 6 of the plan. Followers of the TV series The West Wing would know that the practice of timing announcements to minimise public scrutiny is known as ‘taking out the trash’. But for something as big as this—a $30 billion broken promise, a $30 billion betrayal of Australia’s school students, their parents and their communities—did they really think the Australian public would not notice? Did they really think we were not going to remind Australians of the government’s broken promise at every opportunity?

For all the Prime Minister’s talk about innovation, he is pretty short on action to match it. The truth is that, when it comes to innovation, our current Prime Minister, just like his predecessor, is an abacus in a digital world. He would not know innovation if he tripped over it. I could reel off a list as long as my arm of the decisions this government has made that contradict its hollow rhetoric on innovation. The decision to cut $30 billion in education funding is just one of many, and it is a serious one.

The OECD’s 2015 report Universal basic skills: what countries stand to gain says:

… the quality of schooling in a country is a powerful predictor of the wealth that countries will produce in the long run.

If we equip all our graduates with the basic skills they need for the global economy by 2030, it will add 2.8 per cent to our gross domestic product, the equivalent of a $44 billion expansion to our economy today. The government’s cuts to education are the equivalent of ripping an average of $3.2 million out of each and every school in Australia or the equivalent of sacking one in seven teachers.

I am pleased that Bill Shorten has recently announced Labor’s ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy, which provides an additional $4.5 billion in school funding over the 2018 and 2019 school years. This plan includes important transparency and accountability measures which will ensure that Commonwealth funding reaches classrooms and drives evidence based improvements in teaching and learning. Labor’s ‘Your Child. Our Future’ plan will ensure that children get more individual attention and tailored support. In particular, it focuses resources on the groups identified by the Gonski report as the most disadvantaged in our schools. Those groups are the students from a low socioeconomic background, Indigenous students, students with disability, students from a non-English-speaking background, small schools and rural, regional and remote schools.

We know that to see the greatest improvement in educational outcomes we need to invest the resources in the areas of greatest need. This was the essence of the Gonski report’s findings. In my home state of Tasmania, Labor’s plan would deliver an extra $70 million to our schools over the 2018 and 2019 school years. The delivery of resources to help the students with the greatest need is of particular importance to Tasmania. Compared to other states, education provision in Tasmania is particularly challenging because of our higher incidence of low-socioeconomic and small rural communities.

Another important element to Labor’s plan is that states will need to uphold their obligations under existing funding agreements. As if the savage cuts from the Turnbull government are not bad enough, Tasmanian schools have been hit with a double whammy, with state budget cuts causing schools across the state to make the tough decision between cutting programs and increasing class sizes. The Hodgman Liberal government’s cuts in Tasmania are the equivalent of removing 266 staff from Tasmania’s schools. I have heard reports from Tasmanian schools that, following the Hodgman government cuts, they were forced to make decisions between increasing their class sizes and cutting specialist programs. Others lost support staff. The programs that were cut included music and language classes, sports activities and literacy programs.

Just tonight, at the Australian Primary Principals Association meeting held here in Canberra, at a session that was held for senators and members to go and talk to Australian primary principals, I was talking to a couple of Tasmanian principals. One of them was telling me how their school had had to choose whether they would do PE or music. They chose PE, so the kids in that school have lost out on a music program, except for the fact that they have volunteers coming in to help out with that. A number of schools have tried to rely on volunteers to keep their specialist programs, but volunteers are already stretched with fundraising activities. We are asking more from the volunteers. Really it should be something that the education system can provide. You should not have to choose whether your child does PE or music. That is just not on.

The savagery of the Tasmanian government’s school cuts probably explains why they are so quiet on the failure of their federal counterparts when it comes to school funding. The Tasmanian shadow Minister for Education, Michelle O’Byrne stated:

What the Education Minister Simon Birmingham is saying is that he doesn’t intend to provide extra funding for education because he doesn’t trust the states to manage education budgets.

But these are the same people who removed the clause that would have prevented states likes ours from ripping funding out of education …

The Liberals are so desperate to discredit our plan they are resorting to all sorts of disingenuous language. We hear the catchcry from those opposite that improving education is not all about money. Well, we have never claimed that it is all about money. We have never claimed that it is all about funding. As I mentioned earlier, the ‘Your Child. Our Future’ policy is a comprehensive suite of reforms focussing on better trained teachers, more individual support and attention for children who need it, and better targeted resources for schools. We have never claimed that the only way to improve Australia’s education system is by throwing money at the problem.

Are those opposite seriously trying to suggest that more resources for Australian schools will not make a difference? Try telling that to the millions of parents across Australia who are working hard running raffles and school fairs to provide more resources for their children’s schools to improve the learning experiences. Try telling any school in Australia that there is nothing to be gained from getting back the $3 million, on average, that this government has cut from their budgets. While funding is not the only solution, you cannot deny that it is an important part of the solution.

Even putting the quantum of funding aside, it is this government that stripped away all the accountability mechanisms which ensure that the states and territories are using Commonwealth funding to the best effect. The claim that Labor is doing nothing more than throwing money at education is a bit rich coming from the government that ditched the requirement for states to show funding was being used to improve educational outcomes. Through our plan, Labor will restore accountability to Commonwealth school funding and ensure that not only are there more resources for education but those resources are targeted in an evidence based way. In their last desperate attempt to talk down our plan, those opposite have made the ridiculous claim that Labor’s policy is unfunded. That claim is patently untrue. (Time expired)