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Australia has been built on free, compulsory and secular public education. It must not be eroded.

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 22 Jun 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:08):  I rise to speak on the Abbott government's plans to abolish universal access to free public education, as revealed in the leaked chapter of the Reform of Federation green paper today, but first—

Senator Birmingham: Complete bullshit! What rubbish! Could you just not start with an outright lie?

Senator WRIGHT: First, let me go to Senator Birmingham's discussion and contribution, because 'lies, damned lies, and statistics' is what it is all about today. We had Senator Birmingham again in question time repeating Minister Pyne's oft-repeated claim that school funding has increased by 40 per cent in the last 10 years. I interrogated this claim in Senate estimates recently, and the Associate Secretary of the Department of Education and Training, Tony Cook, said that the source of that claim was table 4A.7 in the Report on government services 2015 published by the Productivity Commission.

Don't leave, Senator Birmingham. You might want to correct what you say publicly after you hear this. That table shows an increase of real funding—that is, adjusted for inflation—of 21.7 per cent—about half of that particular claim—between 2003-2012. That is half the figure claimed by Pyne. But let us unpack that a little bit more. That figure of 21.7 per cent was for aggregate funding for all schools—public and private—and makes no allowance for increasing student enrolments. Surprise, surprise—with more students you have to spend more. And in fact, a later table in that report—table 4A.17—shows that the figures for real funding per student, adjusted for inflation, was only 12.7 per cent—about a third of the figure that Minister Pyne and Senator Birmingham keep claiming.

Let me come back to the debate. Sometimes in debates like this it is hard to find the right words to say, because it is hard to find another way to communicate how awful and how brutally cruel this government is, and how low it is willing to go. As one of my colleagues said to me this morning, after we had all woken up to hear that the government was floating a proposal from the so-called Centre for Independent Studies—a right-wing think tank—that would means-test wealthier parents if they wanted to support the public education system: 'just when you think this government can't get any worse, they do.' It can be hard to find words to defend what should be, in Australia, an inviolable right. It is hard to believe that any government would canvass, even for a second, such a radical proposal—to end Australia's proud history of universal access to free public education. Australia has been built on free, compulsory and secular public education. It is the foundation of our country and has been the envy of other nations for decades. This should not and must not be eroded.

Minister Pyne has now tweeted his opposition to means-testing this morning—after having floated it. This is the same man, mind you, who looked us in the eye and promised us a unity ticket on Gonski. Why would we trust him on anything? We have had the Prime Minister out there, too, keeping this idea ticking along, and backbenchers, like Andrew Laming tweeting support for a price signal on education—a signal to send wealthier parents away from the public education system into private education, perhaps. Simply and sadly, we cannot trust this government. And it is clear why: it is not just about flagrantly broken promises; it is about ideology.

We have Minister Pyne very clearly on the record saying that this government has an emotional commitment to private schools. We have the Prime Minister saying: 'We have a particular responsibility for non-government schooling that we don't have for government schooling.' This government seems to have forgotten the most central platform for its existence, and it will do so at its own peril. It is here to govern for all Australians—not just those who are more wealthy, not just those who are more privileged, but all Australians. The government must not abandon the two million students who attend public school.

Public education is a right. Private schooling is a choice. Yet at every turn, as with every policy issue that arises, this government has shown they are more interested in defending the interests of the wealthy and the privileged. Their failure to implement a true needs-based and sector-blind funding system, despite their promises to do so, will further entrench privilege and entrench advantage in our schools. Why is this government afraid of real merit—real equality? What do they have to fear from universal, quality public education? The federation paper actually asks all the wrong questions. No wonder it is coming up with the wrong answers! The Abbott government are actually looking for a way out of being blamed for declining education standards, rather than looking at what they can do to make sure every Australian school is a great school. It is a fundamental right of every Australian to be educated in public schools free of charge. (Time expired)

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