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Governor-General address in reply speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 2 Dec 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:40): I rise to respond to the Governor-General's articulation of her government's agenda and to reply to some of this coalition government's agenda, of which there are some aspects that have been articulated and, more importantly, some aspects we did not hear about. Before I do so, I want to reflect on the Prime Minister's opening priority as he stated it in the speech he made to the welcome to country ceremony in the Great Hall on the first day of this 44th Parliament. How ironic it was. First, we heard a very moving welcome from local representatives of the first Australians, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples from the Canberra region, who welcomed all of us who have come to this country after them. Then, we had Mr Abbott proceeding to tell us first-up, before anything else, that his government would secure the borders. Before health, before prosperity and before education for our population, his government's first priority would be to secure the borders.

It struck me: against whom? Have I missed something? Can it be that we are actually at war and I had not noticed this? Who is it that threatens our security to such an extent that the pre-eminent priority for this new government is to lock up our country and secure our borders? Now, of course, I see it. This government would have us believe that we are under dire threat from marauding hordes of those women, men and children who come to us from across the sea, making precarious journeys away from the horrors of war, torture and persecution-the horrors and fears that would have any one of us fleeing given the same circumstances. These people come to seek sanctuary with us, and this government's first, pre-eminent priority is to secure the borders against them.

These are people who-it is clear from the decision that they have made-are courageous, resourceful and resilient. These are people who are willing to risk everything for a new life, for the sake of their families and for a belief in the future. These are people who, if welcomed and supported by us, make great citizens, bringing with them a sense of gratitude and determination to render their risks and sacrifices worthwhile in their new life. We see this around us. We see the great contribution made by many of those who have come before on similar journeys. Shamefully, this Prime Minister and his government are clearly intent on continuing the tone that they set in opposition, emphasising threats and fears and playing up the worst in us-the prejudice and the mean-spiritedness-rather than appealing to the best of us in Australia-compassion, decency and a sense of a fair go.

I turn now to the Governor-General's address, which set out the government's agenda for the 44th Parliament. In focusing on the areas of schools and education and on the legal rights and interests of Indigenous Australians, I am particularly interested not only in what was said but also in what has not been said. On the topic of schools, it is not so much what the government is keen to say as what it is prepared to abandon, as we now know very clearly. This is what will be crucially important now and over the next three years. When it comes to the idea of advancing Indigenous Australians and their ability to enforce their own rights, there are elements of the government's agenda that require much more scrutiny and accountability.

First, let me turn to education and the government's stated vision for education as being greater autonomy for principals, a rigorous national curriculum, all children leaving school literate and numerate, and tackling cyberbullying. Let me say that I wholly commend work towards making students feel safe and accepted by tackling cyberbullying and I look forward to working with the government on this and other issues related to the mental health and wellbeing of young people. From my meetings with teachers, principals and parents, I know there is growing concern about the level of anxiety and sadness being experienced increasingly by younger children in Australian schools. There is a need for a much more dedicated, highly skilled workforce in schools when it comes to promoting mental health and wellbeing and help for those kids who are struggling. We need experts in mental health in schools and I want to see a greater emphasis on qualified mental health specialists to support and assist teachers and principals to meet the growing needs of their students.

But it is also important to point out that issues of cyberbullying-and bullying generally-cannot be divorced from wider issues like the commonplace discrimination and homophobia experienced by young people in Australia on the basis of their sexuality. The government's willingness to allow religious schools to continue to discriminate against students and staff on the very basis of who they are as people-their sexual identity and preferences-reinforces the systemic discrimination that allows bullying to flourish. Cyberbullying, and bullying generally, occurs in a context and it is irresponsible for any government to condone conditions which seriously undermine the mental and physical health of many of its citizens.

The other apparent cornerstones of this government's education policy, such as independent public schools and a curriculum stripped of progressive ideals, are distractions from the crucial core task of educating students to attain to the best of their ability. That has to be the core task in Australia: to harness the human potential that is in our schools among our kids to make sure that every kid can reach the absolute height of their ability by providing adequate opportunity.

Several months into this new government it is now clear that these are dangerous distractions deliberately designed to divert attention from the pressing call for real needs based funding reform in our education system. Now we fully understand something long suspected by those of us who knew that Prime Minister Abbott and Minister Pyne had never acknowledged the inequity of the current system. We know now that this government has every intention of moving away from the principles so clearly espoused in the Gonski review of schools funding.

The past several years have seen some great developments in education reform in Australia and many of us have been cautiously optimistic that we were moving away from a long-held inequitable system. To its credit, the previous government recognised the need to provide all students with access to high-quality schooling and tasked the panel led by the businessman David Gonski with its review of funding for schooling-the Gonski review. The Australian Greens welcomed the Gonski review in 2012 because we have long advocated for needs based funding for schools and we have long championed universal access to high-quality education for all kids in Australia. From early childhood education, through the schooling system to options like TAFE and university, we believe that Australian kids have a right to educational outcomes that do not depend on wealth or location. In the 'lucky' country where our average per capita income is among the highest in the world, how well a child performs at school should not be a matter of luck. The Greens have been resolute that funding for schools should be based on need and equity-what is fair-and should prioritise the public education system to ensure that public schools can set the educational agenda and standards for the nation. While they were not perfect, we supported the Labor government's reforms to school funding in the 43rd Parliament because they were going to end the unfair funding model that has seen a far greater increase in funding to wealthy private schools than to needy government schools over decades, and they were going to transition to a new needs-based model based on principle that would see a significant investment in public education to address the huge gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is true we were disappointed by the inadequacy of the funding that was to be devoted to this-it did not come close to the investment that was recommended by the Gonski panel-and of course we thought that the regime should have included more robust accountability measures to make sure that the money ended up where it needed to go. However, the framework set out in the Australian Education Act of this year offers a tremendous opportunity that is open to all education sectors: public schools, Catholic schools and other independent schools. It is the opportunity for a truly needs-based, sector-blind funding system where the factors that have been proven to disadvantage students can truly be adjusted for-factors like disability, remoteness, low socioeconomic status, not having English as the first language at home, the size of the school and the particular and pressing needs of Australia's Indigenous students.

By contrast, this government has never acknowledged the inequity in the existing system, reinforced and entrenched by policy decisions of the Howard government, which saw funding for the wealthiest schools in Australia increase at a far faster rate than funding for the poorest ones. Neither Christopher Pyne, now the Minister for Education, nor the Prime Minister has ever acknowledged the shameful fact, clearly documented in the Gonski review, that in Australia we have the most segregated schooling system, where a child's background is more likely to determine their educational performance than in any comparable nation in the OECD. In some cases this leads to a gap of five years in the same age group

Of course, even before he held the office of minister, Christopher Pyne has played education reform like a game of political football, far more interested in politics than principle. Now we see that this is set to continue as he and the Prime Minister ruthlessly dump their pre-election commitment to match the Labor government's education reforms. In doing this, they betray not only the trust of the voters who believed them but also the many, many committed teachers across Australia who have been waiting for this change in policy and have been working against the odds to offer all kids the chance to reach their potential, and those children themselves.

While a more equitable funding system may have been jettisoned by this government, it is clear that the issue of independent public schools is still squarely on the agenda. But this notion, characterised by tweaked governance like school boards and increased financial autonomy for principals, is a distraction from the core reforms we need to get on with. It is obviously an article of faith for Christopher Pyne, but what is the evidence for this great ideological push? The best reference point we have for independent public schools in Australia is the Western Australian model, and the Western Australian government's own analysis of the model, led by the University of Melbourne, concludes that there is no evidence to indicate changes in enrolments or student achievement. I have spoken to stakeholders in Western Australia who are comfortable working with the independent public school model, and I accept that that is meaningful, but many other stakeholders and researchers argue there is no evidence in favour of independent public schools in terms of increased student achievement, and there are significant risks with a move that basically amounts to privatising the education system. By removing an education department's role in ensuring that money is well spent and ensuring a base level of quality across the board, there will be even less accountability in how resources are allocated.

The national rollout that the government proposes would impact different states in very different ways. Some states are traditional and centralised, while others already have a highly devolved system of governance. We also know that in Australia principals experience high levels of stress, anxiety and bullying. The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, published this year, showed the need to provide principals with the highest level of professional support. Increased workloads and demands for productivity, if not coupled with appropriate resources and support, will compound this.

The international research varies widely on the claim that independent public schools will enhance productivity. There is no evidence beyond the level of principal perception of the actual efficiency and productivity of the independent public school model in Australia. International comparisons can be misleading due to unique factors in educational systems and legislation. For example, some charter schools in the United States, which are likened to independent public schools, are run by for-profit corporations.

Even more contentious is the claim that increased school autonomy improves student outcomes. The Melbourne University study found 'no substantive increase in student achievement' and described the lack of impact on achievement as 'concerning'. This is actually consistent with evidence at the international level. Multiple research projects in the UK, the United States and New Zealand have found that school autonomy has very little or no effect on student achievement.

The government's claims of improved efficiency and student outcomes are misleading. They are used to bolster an agenda that is designed to distract from core issues, like the need to make a more significant financial investment in schools in Australia and making sure that that investment is targeted at the schools that most need it. Internationally, independent public schools are found to have unintended consequences, like schools manipulating admissions to select and exclude particular students to bolster their market position. This can actually compound the social segregation that we know can occur when certain schools are privileged and others disadvantaged. Of course, we actually have that scenario before us in 2013 in Australia.

By contrast, the evidence in favour of directing funding to where it is most needed is very strong. This is the call to action that the Greens would like to make. All sectors in Australia who are concerned about educating every one of our children should unite to ensure that public funding is directed to those schools that need it most.

Australia's future lies in new ideas. Giving kids a great education will make that possible. We cannot do that without investing in and supporting great teachers and a curriculum that teaches the basics well but is also rich in art, music, languages and thinking skills. As the Australian Greens spokesperson on schools, I call on this government to commit to truly address the growing inequity in our schooling system by using evidence based measures to advance this rather than spending finite resources on unproven, ideologically inspired notions, which are being used to distract from the most important task at hand.

I turn now to the Prime Minister's stated objective of being the first Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians. I commend the government on signalling a new era of engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and a greater acknowledgement of their status as the First Australians. This will be welcome if it is grounded in policy. It remains to be seen, however, how this will be translated into meaningful action. For instance, I want to see the government elaborate on what this signifies for Indigenous people and their legal rights. Two days before the election the coalition covertly flagged significant cuts to the Indigenous Legal Assistance and Policy Reform Program-$42 million over the forward estimates, with $7 million before the end of June next year.

On one hand the government states that it wants to prioritise efforts to end disadvantage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and on the other hand it cuts legal aid funding for Indigenous people, which can only fundamentally undermine this commitment. These cuts go directly against the government's rhetoric and will exacerbate already grossly unacceptable imprisonment rates for Indigenous Australians. It is a matter of national shame that Australia's first peoples are some of the most incarcerated peoples in the world.

In estimates it has become clear that no work has been done by the Attorney-General's Department to assess the likely effects of this cut on the ability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services to advise and represent their clients or the likely consequences on what are already scandalous rates of imprisonment. To see these rates come down, we need a fundamentally new approach to criminal justice in Australia and we need leadership at a federal level to set justice targets to close the gap and facilitate the uptake of justice reinvestment principles. Justice reinvestment is a smarter approach to criminal justice. Reducing crime and escalating imprisonment rates requires smart, evidence based policy that actually works.

Given the inconsistency between the Prime Minister's avowed commitment to Indigenous people and this slashing to funding, the Australian public is entitled to clear answers around how this government intends to deal with Indigenous imprisonment rates and how it will equip Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enforce their own legal rights. Where possible, I will work with this government to bring about the best possible results for our nation. Along with my colleagues in this 44th Parliament, I will always hold true to the values that underpin the Australian Greens, because these are the values that will go towards achieving the healthy, caring, just society that I want to see for my children and other people's children.


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