Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Schooling Requirements) Bill 2008: Second Reading

I am still a regular visitor to my old primary school. John Rice, the principal of that school, tells a very revealing story about the power of education. He tells me that 80 per cent of the children who turn up at kindergarten every year can barely read or write. A few of them can spell their name. But, within three years, when they sit the basic skills test, those children are outperforming the rest of the state in literacy and numeracy. It is a powerful story and evidence of the importance of education. It is education that gives these kids a chance in life. It is education that breaks the bonds of disadvantage that otherwise would bind them.

Unfortunately, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds do not always get a crack at education. The Prime Minister understands this. He spoke about it at some length in the Press Club last week. In that speech, he said:

In Australia, socioeconomic status is more strongly associated with educational achievement than it should be.

He went on and referred to OECD research which found:

... students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile lagged those in the highest socioeconomic quartile by 2½ years.

Further, he said:

If Australia is to be the land genuinely of the fair go, we must do a better job in ensuring that every young Australian gets a decent education.

He is spot on. It is a question of fairness. Fairness is at the core of what we believe in and it dictates what this government will do in office. Follow the thread. We believe in fairness in the workplace; that is why we are abolishing Work Choices. We are committed to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We are equally committed to helping the 100,000 people around this country who will be homeless tonight-that of itself is a national disgrace. We are also committed to helping people with a mortgage to keep a roof over their head. Fairness is also key to what we are doing in education. The Deputy Prime Minister said in her second reading speech that up to 20,000 Australian kids are currently not attending school regularly. That is not acceptable. It just entrenches the type of disadvantage I was talking about. That is why this bill is so important: it gives these kids a chance. It will do something for these 20,000 kids.

This is not just my opinion. Last week, one of my constituents, a gentleman named Tony Re, wrote to me about these matters. Tony has been a schoolteacher in my local community for many decades, and he recently retired as the regional director of education for south-west Sydney. I value his opinion on these and many other measures, and I think it is important that his contribution and experience be incorporated into this debate. This is the letter from Tony:

Dear Jason

I wish to give my full support to the decision by the government to halt welfare payments to the extremely small number of parents who deliberately prevent their children from attending school.

For most people, it is incomprehensible that some parents would do this to their offspring. We find it very difficult to put ourselves into the position of these parents. Unfortunately such parents exist as I discovered when I was the Director of Education for a large cluster of schools in the New South Wales state school system.

The reasons these parents give for keeping their children from school can be quite bizarre but I am unwilling to outline the most unusual as it could be a breach of privacy. At times they can be humorous, but usually they are very saddening.

Action that can be taken to force the parents to send their children to school is actually quite limited. The threat of a jail sentence achieves very little. I found it very frustrating dealing with these parents. A return to school would be negotiated but the parents would change their mind within a short time. Very unfortunately, some of these parents need a dire threat before they act correctly in the interests of their children.

I accept that the parenting skills of parents who do this to their children are often limited and that their lives are generally quite dysfunctional. I assume that these parents are, or will, receive assistance from the appropriate agencies. I expect the threat will achieve the desired result and that there will be an absolute minimum of cases, if any, when welfare payments will actually be halted. This might be the one way that we can break the cycle of educational poverty for some children.

Yours sincerely

Tony Re

27th August 2008

As I said, Tony has some experience in these matters. He has worked at the coalface. He probably knows these things, I think I can say quite fairly, better than anyone here. I am pretty lucky. I am the first person in my family to have gone to university, but I did grow up in a household that appreciated and understood the importance of education. I find it very hard to imagine what life must be like growing up in a household where education is not valued-the type of home that Tony describes in his letter. I hope that he is right. I hope that the monetary implications of the measures that are outlined in this bill will help ensure that more parents take their child's education seriously and that it forces them to give school attendance the important attention that it well and truly deserves.

The Deputy Prime Minister said when she introduced the bill last week:

The majority of parents do the right thing by enrolling their children in school and endeavouring to support their children's attendance at school. They do everything in their power to make sure their children are enrolled and regularly attending school. This legislation acknowledges the efforts of these parents by placing a minimal impost on them.

However, for parents who refuse to send their children to school, this bill gives Centrelink the power to suspend payments to force parents to fulfil their responsibilities to their children. This in itself is not a new innovation to the transfer payment system. It is already available to Centrelink in a number of different circumstances, and it is designed to ensure that the person who receives the payment meets their appropriate responsibilities.

As the representative of an electorate with many families who rely on these types of payments from week to week, I am obviously interested in how the provisions of the bill will work in practice. The bill does not target parents who take their kids to the Easter Show on the last day of term; it is about long-term unsatisfactory attendance. Schools currently work with parents in addressing these sorts of problems but, when a school is frustrated by a lack of cooperation from the parents, the school will now be able to notify Centrelink of the problem. From there, Centrelink will work with parents in receipt of payments, offering them assistance to overcome the barriers to their child's enrolment and attendance at school.

The suspension of payments in effect is a last resort. I hope this power is never used, but if its existence breaks through in just one case, if it means there is one more child learning in a classroom, then I think it is worth a try. If 20,000 kids are not at school at the moment then obviously something is not working, and doing nothing is just not good enough. So it is worth a try. Any family that relies on transfer payments as their primary source of income is going to find a suspension of payments really difficult; I appreciate that. But hopefully it will sheet home the seriousness of school attendance. If progress is made towards a resolution within the 13-week suspension time, then the parents will be able to have their payments paid back to the beginning of the suspension period. That is a good thing. I think that is fair.

I know that sometimes, despite the best efforts of parents, some young people just refuse to go to school. Parents might wake them up, pack their lunchbox and get them off to school-even drive them to school-but the child may never find themselves inside the classroom and just refuse to cooperate. In these circumstances, parents will not be punished. If you take reasonable steps to ensure that your child attends school, then you will have satisfied the requirements.

I think a trial is the right approach. If the bill works, it will allow for it to be rolled out across the country into communities like the one I represent, and I welcome that. A trial is an evidence based approach. The best evidence is real life. So I welcome the decision of the minister to introduce this legislation and look forward to the results of that trial.

Any bill that supports disadvantaged kids in our education system has my support. It would be remiss of a Blaxland boy to do otherwise. I welcome the government's commitment to education, and I am encouraged by its commitment to ensuring disadvantage does not determine opportunity. When these two ends come together, as they do in this bill, we get policy that will greatly benefit my local community.

The Prime Minister talked about this at the Press Club last week, but he did not just talk about it. He did not just talk about helping the most disadvantaged schools in our community; he promised to back it with real money-half a million dollars for the average sized school. This is what will help turn disadvantaged schools around, and this is what will help ensure what the Prime Minister said he wants:

... the next generation of Australians to be the best educated, best skilled, best trained in the world.

That is real reform. That is economic reform. And it is big ambition. But I believe in the ambition of a guy who was once a kid in a disadvantaged school in rural Queensland. The kids of Blaxland need their political leaders to have this kind of ambition. That is why I support the measures in this bill that will allow the benefits of education to be shared by all. I commend the bill to the House.'