Speech - Australian Education Amendment Bill - fixing Labor's mess
Monday, 10 November 2014
Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (20:50): Here we are re-prosecuting the rhetoric once again, with the Labor Party and the Greens trotting out their familiar lines. The Coalition believes that every child in this nation is entitled to a great education no matter which school they go to or where they live, which is exactly why the Minister for Education has chosen the policy settings he has and why this bill, the Australian Education Amendment Bill 2014, needs to be amended. In the rush and the haste to politicise education in this country, and in the context of the last federal election campaign, this bill was rushed through, and it is riddled with mistakes that we are now coming to address. This bill amends the Australian Education Act 2013, which commenced in January 2014. As a result, in 2014 around $14 billion will be paid to government and non-government school authorities under the Act. This funding is disbursed across state and territory governments through funding from the Commonwealth government.
The legislation had gaping holes in it that needed to be addressed. But where were the Greens complaining about the haste with which that bill was constructed? They were nowhere. They were absolutely silent, as Labor and the Greens slogged it out for the hearts and minds of the AEU in the context of the last federal election campaign. I think Labor won, though, Penny.
What we propose to do is amend the bill to ensure there is adequate administration and that all students, especially Indigenous and disadvantaged students, are able to receive a high-quality education. Specifically, the bill allows payment of additional funding, in 2014, to schools with large numbers of Indigenous boarding students from remote areas. It sounds like a good idea.
The Liberal/National government's Indigenous boarding initiative was announced in this year's budget. It provides $6.8 million in additional funding for eligible schools. Increased funding will be available to schools that currently have more than 50 Indigenous boarding students from remote or very remote Australia, or where more than 50 per cent of their boarders are Indigenous and from remote or very remote Australia.
The bill also prevents funding cuts to students with disabilities in some independent special schools and special assistance schools from 1 January 2015. The bill also amends the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act to extend the start of school improvement plans under the Act in response to feedback from principals and schools. In short, the bill is important legislation from the government's perspective, because we need to make good on our budget initiative to provide additional funding for Indigenous boarding students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are not altering the substance of the initial Act. We are not altering the needs based funding models. We are not walking away from the commitments we made prior to the election.
Senator Wright interjecting—
Senator McKENZIE: Your saying it is so does not make it so, Senator. The fact remains that the focus of the Australian Education Act on a needs based funding model that is funded through the forward estimates—
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order! Please resume your seat, Senator McKenzie. Senator Scullion.
Senator Scullion: We listened in respectful silence to some pretty ordinary contributions from the other side. If you could ask the Greens to provide the same respect it would be useful.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I will take that on board, Senator Scullion. Senator McKenzie has the call.
Senator Wright: She was heckling the whole time.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Wright, Senator McKenzie has the call. Will you refrain from interjecting, please.
Senator Cameron: You know she wants to join the Liberal Party. She wants to join the Libs.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order, Senator Cameron. The chamber will come to order. Senator McKenzie has the call.
Senator McKENZIE: So the needs based funding model exists. It is completely funded over the forward estimates. It actually has additional money going towards its implementation than that provided by the previous government. Yet they stand here and complain and make up realities that simply did not exist.
We have listened to an independent review and to the schools that have come to the government pleading for extra funds. The result is an initiative that provides high-quality education to young Indigenous people from remote and very remote areas around Australia. We are being responsive to the feedback from the sector, with measures that make a real difference in young people's lives, and in the lives of their families, so that they may have a positive and successful future.
This bill is close to the heart of those of us who care about education, and it should be supported by everybody in this chamber for the very reason that Indigenous boarding students from regional and remote Australia are clearly quite disadvantaged. I would like to acknowledge the work of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, for his focus on tangible, practical measures to close the gap with respect to educational outcomes for our Indigenous youth. These students are at the crux of this reform for ensuring that we have a sustainable and well-considered education bill. Hence, we did not expect the bill to be controversial. But that is what happens when Angelo wakes up and works out that Labor in the other place has actually supported this bill going through. The AEU wakes up and sees it and it is in the Bundaberg News the next day, slamming the bill. And what do we have? Backflips left, right and centre from the Labor Party on whether or not to support the bill.
Going to the schedules of the bill, schedule one outlines the reforms and amendments that come into place. They will apply retrospectively from 1 January 2014 to double-check that payments and calculations for this year are correct and schools are receiving the adequate funding they are entitled to. The new mechanism under schedule one will be created to make payments to schools in recommended circumstances where parliament and the minister will be able to review eligibility and calculation of funding. It will become known as the Australian Government Indigenous Boarding Initiative. It was announced in our budget, and as I have outlined it has specific criteria around the number of young Indigenous Australians in those schools and where they are actually from. It allows the government to meet budgetary constraints while still providing high-quality education to those who need it.
With schedule two we are actually trying to correct errors that have become apparent since 1 January 2014, when this act was implemented. There are a number of errors that the Labor Party or the Greens did not pay attention to when finalising this legislation. This has created confusion for different authorities and schools, and we are actually aiming to provide certainty for them. Currently there are gaps in the system concerning schools in a transitional process, moving between approved authorities. Different authorities will provide different levels of funding and the bill seeks to address this problem and have a Commonwealth starting point for funding entitlement under that authority.
We also seek to clarify the accessibility remoteness index of Australia, ensuring that there is proper acknowledgement of inner regional locations. As it stands, the Act could also see some school authorities in a position to receive funding as a whole from the Commonwealth government, rather than the Commonwealth share of that amount. This is a significant error that could see the Commonwealth and the national state share being paid to one authority. It is just ridiculous that that sort of error can occur. Not supporting it being fixed shows the level to which the Labor Party are beholden to the AEU in this matter.
The bill will seek the wide consultation that the current Act ignores. We will amend the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act to extend to 1 January 2016, or a later date determined by the minister, the commencement of school improvement planning requirements under the act.
We want to work with stakeholders to consider possible adjustments to this requirement. Extending the time frame provides us with the opportunity to consult. Since when did consulting with people we are seeking to impose a regulatory burden upon become a bad thing? Yet, if you listen to those opposite, it is.
We need to get it right. We need to provide schools with certainty. One of the biggest criticisms, when the original bill was before the last parliament, was that there was a severe lack of certainty for school systems and for school principals about what their funding allocation would be, what were they going to be able to do with staffing et cetera. We seek to provide certainty so that they can get on and do what we want them to do—which is provide high-quality education to young Australians.
We are also ensuring that funding for special schools and special assistance schools remains at the forefront of education reforms. That is what we want to do. It is one of the key pillars of our 'students first' policy—ensuring that students with a disability are catered for and supported within our system. We have to get it right. In its current form, the safety net currently in place for these schools will disappear in 2015. Funding will be reduced to the schooling resource standard. This is purely because the current work with the states and territories to develop nationally consistent data is missing. We knew this. We knew that this was going to be an issue. Anybody that worked on the Australian Education Act through the Senate Education and Employment Committee inquiry process in the last parliament knew that this was going to be a problem. Yet we stand here today as if this has become an issue because of some Machiavellian action by the current government. We all knew, when the bill went through the last parliament, that this was going to become a problem.
We propose that $2.4 million be spent next year to assist these schools to adjust to the schooling resource standard, aiming to provide some certainty to these schools, schools which the current legislation ignores. We want to work with disadvantaged students, their families and their communities—and indeed the schools that care for them—to provide them with the best education possible. What we care about is putting students first, putting student outcomes at the heart of our education policy. That is why we are focused on teacher quality. It is why we are focused on measures to increase parental engagement. It is why a key focus of this government, particularly of Minister Pyne, is on those aspects of our policy that support students with a disability. It is about ensuring our national curriculum is relevant and responsive and that our young people will graduate from our schools not only literate and numerate but fabulous young citizens ready, willing and able to take on the challenges of the 21st century. We also believe that school principals should have a little autonomy in deciding what goes on within the school grounds. It is not a bad thing to make students the focus of education policy. What a change!
There are other errors in the current legislation that this bill addresses. One is final amounts for block grant authorities, providing a base for future capital funding. Another is giving greater flexibility and more options for managing any noncompliance that occurred under the previous legislation. The bill also seeks to clarify the operation of reviewable decisions and will correct errors in the current act relating to who can apply for a review of a decision under the Act.
This bill seeks to tie up loose ends forgotten in the former government's rush to politicise education in the context of the last federal election campaign. The Gonski report was handed down in December 2010, yet we were scrambling to get the signature of premiers on bits of paper in September 2013. It was a joke. What we ended up with was an almighty mess which this bill seeks to address and fix. I support this bill; I support our government's intention to put students first, to put students back at the heart of education policy; and I support our commitment to a needs based funding model fully funded over the forward estimates, in line with the commitment we made before the last election.