Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:33): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Senator Birmingham, regarding the leaked proposals for school funding in the Federation green paper. The education minister has tweeted today: “The Australian government does not and will not support a means test for public education. Full stop. End of story.”
But the Prime Minister, on the other hand, has said it is a creative idea and was not closing the door. However, I now understand he has ruled this out in question time. Can you confirm the official position of the government on means testing public education?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Assistant Minister for Education and Training) (14:34): I thank Senator Wright for her question. Clearly Senator Wright was not listening or paying any attention when Senator Brandis answered a near-identical question in question time earlier. But if it helps Senator Wright, I can be absolutely clear that we have no intention of supporting any policy that charges wealthy parents for their children to attend public schools. That is not the government's policy. The Australian government does not and will not support a means test for public education. Full stop. End of story.
I think we a seeing quite a hysterical scare campaign to what is an options paper that is designed to canvass all scenarios.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator O'Neill and those opposite can get worked up about it if they like, but they may be wise to heed the words of the South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, who said:
…"it's only a discussion paper".
"We've been asking them to canvas the broader range of options," …
"There's a broad debate going on about Commonwealth/state relations, which is a good thing."
South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill says it is a good thing that the whole suite of options is being canvassed. That is not to say that any of those options is necessarily our policy, Premier Weatherill's policy or any other government's policy. The debate underway is a full consideration of how the Federation could be addressed and could be reformed to ensure we have a more effective delivery of education services and of school services in the future because we are seeing Australia's performance going backwards. Despite record levels of funding going in, performance is slipping backwards. That is not good enough, and we have to address why that performance is going backwards. (Time expired)
Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:36): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. That one has been ruled out. Another proposal in the paper is cutting all federal funding for public schools. Is the coalition really brave enough to go to an election proposing to cut all funds for public education, or can you now also rule out abandoning the two million Australian students who attend a public school?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Assistant Minister for Education and Training) (14:36): Senator Wright appears to misunderstand what the notion of the Federation white paper is. It is looking holistically at all elements of the Federation. This is not a narrow discussion purely isolated to school funding. It is a discussion looking at education, looking at health and looking at tax and revenue. Senator Wright, I am quite confident that were any agreement to be made with the states that reformed any element of funding, the states would equally expect to have greater security over revenue streams to offset such funding. The government will not be leaving schools worse off, the government will not be leaving school students worse off, and the government will not be leaving public education worse off. We will simply be ensuring that we have a proper discussion with the states that deals properly with how we get the best possible management of our schools into the future.
Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:37): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Education Minister Pyne is on the record as saying that your government, Minister, has an emotional commitment to private schools. Do you have an emotional commitment to public schools—and if not, why not?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Assistant Minister for Education and Training) (14:38): We are canvassing religions and schooling today, it seems. Yes, I have an emotional commitment to public schools. I have an emotional commitment to Gawler High School, where I attended; I have an emotional commitment to public schools right around Australia, and I expect to see the best possible outcomes. I would encourage Senator Wright to read the whole discussion paper. Is says that spending by all Australian governments grew by 37 per cent in real terms in the 10 years between 2002-03 and 2012-13, yet we now have fewer high achievers and more low performers than we had a decade ago. So, while how much funding schools get is important, it is not the silver bullet for better results. How it is spent matters more.
Opposition senators interjecting— The PRESIDENT: On my left!
Senator BIRMINGHAM: This government wants to see it spent well and see it spent efficiently and effectively. We are committed to continuing record funding for schools, but we want to ensure that record funding delivers better outcomes—unlike what has occurred in the past. (Time expired)