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Speech: Mutual Recognition Amendment Bill 2021

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 12 May 2021

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (11:39): I rise to speak on the Mutual Recognition Amendment Bill 2021 on behalf of the Greens. From the outset I'd like to indicate that the Greens will support the referral to the inquiry so that the extensive issues with the legislation can be given due consideration, as Senator McAllister just told us in very clear terms. Frankly, the government has an opportunity here to fix those extensive issues that have been highlighted by so many across the board before the Senate actually considers this legislation again, so, if the government has any sense, they would really consider referring the bill to the inquiry. I understand that that was an agreement that was already had and somehow the government has reneged. That's not a surprise to me at all.

I do want to go to the crux of the bill as well and just highlight again to the government why this needs to go to an inquiry and why there needs to be more scrutiny than just a few hours notice of this bill coming up. No-one in the sector actually knew that this bill was going to come up today either. As my colleague Adam Bandt reflected in his contribution to this bill in the other place:

It takes a particular kind of arrogance and incompetence to take a really good idea and turn it into something that's a potential threat to people's safety—

That's what this bill is at the moment, and that's why it needs to be taken off the table. It needs to be relooked at. We need to go back to the table, rewrite this bill and make it something that is useful and helpful to people, not a potential threat. But, of course, regrettably, here we are. This is where we find ourselves. It's so typical of the Morrison government that they would strike upon a principle everyone supports—being able to take your qualifications and work in other states—and find a way to make it a deregulating race to the bottom that creates more risks than it does rewards.

In voicing our opposition to this lazy, wrong-headed attempt at implementing mutual recognition and in my capacity as education spokesperson for the Greens, I want to particularly highlight the risks the legislation in its current form poses to teachers around the country. In their analysis of the bill that the government rushed through the House of Representatives in March and is now rushing through the Senate today, teachers and their union identified no fewer than seven critical issues with the automatic mutual recognition processes that the bill establishes.

First, it creates a burdensome duplicate mutual recognition process. The appeal of automatic recognition is that it is just that—automatic. But the system the government has set up means that mandatory vulnerable persons and public protection checks will have to apply to teachers before they can rely on mutual recognition, checks which are vital and form a part of the existing non-automatic mutual recognition arrangements. So what's being created here is, in the Australian Education Union's words, 'a parallel, costly, confusing and redundant regulatory burden on teachers and the education sector.'

Second, the automatic recognition process in this bill foists the burden of these checks onto the jurisdiction where a teacher is trying to work while forbidding them from raising fees related to that teacher's registration and not offering any new funding to support these checks. The practical consequence of this is state teaching regulators, instead of pursuing their important work of enforcing child safety and professional standards, will be obliged to divert resources into checks that they aren't funded to perform. Over time this will only erode the core work of these agencies.

Next, the AEU notes that where an automatic deregistration is cancelled or suspended for any reason, including innocuous reasons such as a teacher choosing to cancel their registration, the teacher regulator responsible for oversight of that ADR must notify all other state and territory regulators, including regulators unrelated to where a teacher teaches or intends to teach. What does this mean for teachers and their state and territory regulators? It means that, instead of a careful system that ensures vital information relevant to child protection and professional standards is shared between jurisdictions as appropriate, we will end up with regulators producing endless, copious reports that occupy resources and provide little signal amongst noise to the receiving regulators.

Fourth, because an automatic deemed registration under the proposed scheme won't appear on searchable teacher registration databases, the Liberals are creating a situation where individual principals and school administrators will have to manually investigate whether there are any conditions or red flags on a prospective hire's registration in another jurisdiction. This is not something that we should be expecting individual schools to do. Naturally, it gives rise to the risk of it not being done with due diligence, and it is, of course, something that a more carefully considered scheme could have dealt with.

Fifth, teachers are concerned that the powers granted to the federal, state and territory ministers to decide whether or not teachers are subject to the scheme will:

… inappropriately expand the role of Ministers in the governance of the education profession, bypassing the appropriate state and territory regulators, and politicising the regulatory function.

Sixth, this bill creates a race to the bottom in terms of professional standards between jurisdictions. We should have a national focus on lifting teaching standards and creating consistency between jurisdictions of registration requirements, like fees and professional development. Instead, this bill leaves open the possibility of a worker who hasn't cut the mustard in one state going shopping for a state with lower standards that will let them register, before moving straight back to the state that has higher standards. Once again, it's clear that the government hasn't appropriately thought through how this will work in practice.

Finally, teachers rightly identified this as a missed opportunity for positive reform. We should be on a unity ticket in this place calling for safe and efficient movement of teachers between states to address shortages and ensure we have the staff needed to support students and families wherever they may be. It is incredibly frustrating that, instead of a targeted scheme to achieve those goals that have been voiced time and again by teachers and state registration bodies, the government has brought us here today, and to this.

In light of these concerns raised by Australia's teachers, I will be moving an amendment in the Committee of the Whole to exclude them from the operation of the mutual recognition processes established by this bill. I hope the chamber will support this sensible step for teachers, if this bill actually does go ahead today. I hope it doesn't, and I hope it will be referred to an inquiry. I also hope that the government will take the opportunity to do the real work on improving existing mutual recognition arrangements before coming back here with suitable legislation. Unfortunately, it would be small comfort if the problems with this bill that I've identified today were applicable only to teachers and if excluding them would actually fix the bill. Regrettably, the same issues affect other professions that will be regulated by the bill, as the Greens raised in the other place and as the ACTU and its member unions have made abundantly clear throughout the legislative process so far. The Greens will oppose the bill, but I do hope that the government sees sense and refers this bill to an inquiry.

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