House of Representatives Speech - Education - Monday, 29 May 2017

The Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017 will be amongst the most important that we will debate in the 45th Parliament

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (12:49):  The Australian Education Amendment Bill 2017 will be amongst the most important that we will debate in the 45th Parliament. There can be no question about that. I rise to speak to it. I also rise to support the amendments put forward by the member for Sydney which, of course, highlight the inadequacies of this bill and highlight the funding cuts which will be imposed on our schools—Catholic, independent and, of course, our public schools right across the country.

It was Neville Wran who once said, many years ago, that there are really three issues before the government. I think it was in a campaign at that time. Those three issues, he said were, jobs, jobs and jobs. For me that is very much what this bill is all about. It is about making sure our young people and the young people of tomorrow secure the education they need to secure for themselves a well paid, secure job in life and all the knock-on consequences or benefits that flow from that.

One of my greatest passions in my 21 years here has been the issue of intergenerational unemployment. Sadly, many of us in our electorates have young people idle, unemployed, who have never known either their parents or grandparents to have worked, who have never really worked to a timetable, have never really had much structure in life, never woken up to an alarm clock like you and I do, something we take very much for granted and accept as part of our daily routine. I have worked with and through and developed various labour market programs designed to intervene with these young people. Some of them have been quite successful over the years; some have been less successful. We all remember the RED scheme, well before my time, which people often described as an exercise in painting rocks white. They took people into work for a short time but provided no longer term training or hope for a job.

We have been more enlightened in recent years, providing training as part of those labour market programs, although less enlightened in more recent years, under the Abbott government in particular, where political populism seemed to become more important than ensuring that within these programs there is a sufficient level of training and, therefore, an opportunity to give young people a better opportunity in life.

We now live in the 21st century, where low-paid, manual jobs, unskilled jobs are becoming less and less a feature of our economy. Of course that will be increasingly the case in future decades. So we ask ourselves what sort of jobs there will be for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What sort of chance are they going to have to secure a job in that new economy? How are we going to ensure that they have the skills they will need to secure a job in an environment where skills are absolutely necessary?

Let me go back to intergenerational unemployment. We are too close to these debates. We need to go back to our electorates and talk to people one on one. The basic facts of these debate tend to get lost in the big words we use and the nature and high level of the debate and the big numbers that we use around these conversations. The reality is that many people in our communities do not know what Gonski is. They do not know what it does. They sense that it is in part about giving more money to our schools. For me it is very simple: Gonski is about giving the schools the money they need. Let us forget these people who say money does not matter. Have a look at some of the outcomes of some of our very wealthy private schools and some of the outcomes of our public schools and the difference between them and ask yourself, why? It is about money. Money does matter. Gonski is about giving our schools the least amount of money, really, as determined by the resource standard, that they need to do what we want them to do—that is, to give our kids a good education, an education to a standard that assures them an opportunity to secure a good job in life.

I think it must have been towards the end of the 2014 calendar year when I had an amazing experience. At every school presentation day that I attended at the end of that year, I was thanked publicly by the principal in the principal's address. I was thanked by the principal as a member of the parliamentary Labor Party for what we did for their school, for the fact that we gave them the opportunity to intervene with those children whom I have been talking about. That is what Gonski in many senses is: the capacity of a school to identify a child who has come from a difficult background and who has obviously arrived at the school with challenges. Not only does the school identify them; it also puts in place for that child a program which helps them overcome that disadvantage, to put in place an additional teacher or half a teacher or quarter of a teacher—whatever it might be in hours terms—to make sure that child has the best possible chance to overcome that disadvantage. Of course, it is not just about the challenged child. We do not want students with difficulties and the extra resources they draw from teaching staff to become the disadvantage for those who come from a much happier environment, without so many challenges. We want to make sure that schools have the resources to not only do their best for the challenged child, the challenged student, but also ensure that those who come from happier situations have every opportunity to fulfil their aspirations as a student. That is, for me, more than anything else what Gonski is about. Our school teachers, our principals, were thanking me for that—but they are not going to be thanking the Turnbull government for these massive cuts.

This is the other thing that people do not understand. They hear us debating all these big numbers, but it is pretty simple. So let me simplify it for them. After three years, I suppose it has been, of denying the needs based funding system that we put forward under Gonski, the government have now capitulated. They have capitulated and said: 'Okay. We accept that is the model moving forward. That aspect of Gonski is the best thing we can do for our schools and so, axiomatically, we are going to spend more money.' That is welcome. They have accepted the needs based model and they are going to spend more money, after three years of denying that the needs based model was the best way to go and after three years of arguing that they were spending more than enough money. They stand at this dispatch box every question time and say: 'School funding is going up every year, out 10 years.' Of course it is. Imagine if it went backwards? Of course it goes up every year—so does inflation. Schools need more money every year, and so does the school population. Of course it goes up every year, but it was not going up enough. Now, even after their capitulation, it will still not be going up enough—and that is the point. That is what people need to understand. The Prime Minister has capitulated. He has said: 'Okay. I will spend more'—substantially more, actually, but not what the David Gonski's needs based system is demanding. They are spending more, but it is not enough. I say to those who might be listening out there: this is what the debate is all about. Yes, they are going to spend more money, more than they planned, more than they argued they needed to spend over three years, but it is not enough. It is nowhere near enough. In fact, it is $22 billion less over 10 years than they need to, if they are really serious about backing Gonski and Labor's model.

What makes me so passionate about this issue, beyond the obvious, is that those most disadvantaged by this legislation will be our students in rural and regional Australia. I am pleased that the member for Lingiari is here with us. No-one knows that better than him, and he knows better than me that it is even more true for Indigenous students. We are commemorating the anniversary of the 67 referendum, the Bringing them home report, and the Mabo decision.

We are standing here, leaders at the dispatch box, commemorating those important events, recommitting ourselves to narrowing the gap and all that goes with it. But it is Indigenous students who are going to be the most disadvantaged by the bill before the House today.

I sent a message to the people of Mallee, Gilmore, Forrest, Corangamite, Grey, Gippsland and Cowper. I asked them to have a look at the speeches of those members who have been in here defending this bill.

Mr Rick Wilson interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  I was not sure whether the member for O'Connor would be speaking. Is the member for O'Conner speaking?

Mr Rick Wilson:  I will be.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  He says he will. I do not think his name is on the speakers' list. Maybe now that I am issuing the challenge he might find the intestinal fortitude to leap to his feet and defend this outrageous bill before the parliament. But I want others, from all of those electorates, to have a look at the speeches of their members, have a close look at those speeches, and see the extent to which they sought to defend this bill. And if they did not defend this bill, that will be even more interesting, because we do not have time to listen to all of them, and I would make an appeal to those residents to let us know what they were saying and to let us know where they thought they were being duplicitous. Have a close look, I say to those residents, at what their members have to say—and of course we will all have a very close look at what the member for O'Connor is now going to say, having been dragged screaming to the debate.

But what about the members for Calare, Capricornia, Murray, Parkes, Flynn, Maranoa, Dawson, Wide Bay, Hinkler, Durack—and O'Connor? We might have him; we might be able to move him—and La Trobe and Farrer, people representing rural and regional communities, the communities that are going to be the most adversely affected by this bill. Not one of them is on the list. And I did not mention the member for Hume. Maybe he has come in here now to make a contribution to this debate. Maybe the member for Hume has just come in to defend this bill, despite the adverse consequences for his local schools.

I was very proud to join the Australian Education Union and our leader and deputy leader and so many members of the federal parliamentary Labor Party in our party room last week, where we held an event to highlight the disadvantage. I was talking there to a high school teacher who was outraged by these funding cuts. He is a leader in the union movement as well. He comes from Armidale High School in the electorate of the Deputy Prime Minister. And guess what? He cannot even secure a meeting with his local member. As the president of the union locally, representing his school and teachers and the families of those students, he cannot even secure a meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, who no doubt is too busy pork barrelling the APVMA into his electorate rather than worrying about the real issue in New England, and that is that we need to give students the best opportunity to secure a job.

The member for Hume is going to get sucked in to now quoting what is happening with school funding in Armidale. He just highlights the point. Of course school funding is going up, but it is not going up enough, I say to the member for Hume. It is not going up as much as it should. It is not going up as much as David Gonski insisted it must in order to give those students the best opportunities in life. So, I look forward to seeing the member for Hume, who is avoiding speaking on this bill, jumping, leaping to his feet and explaining to the residents of Hume why he is in here voting for a bill that is going to entrench disadvantage in his local electorate. I look forward to that very, very much. (Time expired)


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