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Address to AEU National Conference

Christine Milne 22 Feb 2013
Christine Milne & Penny Wright give a Gonski

I begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.


I thank Angelo Gavrielatos, Federal President; Susan Hopgood, Federal Secretary; delegates and members of the AEU for giving me the opportunity to address you today.

I want to acknowledge Penny Wright, Australian Greens spokesperson on schools, who is here today. Penny has a profound commitment to public education as reflected in her first speech to the Senate when she said "In an increasingly divided community, where people's destinies are often determined by their postcodes, quality public education can be a unifying force.  It fosters connection and understanding by bringing together children who would otherwise always move in different orbits.  And for many children it is the lifeline that will help them achieve their potential.  We are all impoverished when our public schools are starved of adequate funds."

I also acknowledge Lee Rhiannon our spokesperson on higher education and her commitment to greater funding and security for the TAFE system.

But today I am focusing on schools and the opportunity we have in the remaining months of this parliament to make a difference to public education in this nation.

Firstly, congratulations  to the AEU on the "I give a Gonski" campaign - your work with the community has kept the need for significant additional investment in our public schools at the forefront of the political debate and has built important momentum for the Gonksi reforms. All Australian Greens MPs have signed up to campaign - we all "give a Gonski".

And we do so because we know that this is a once in a generation opportunity to put in place a schools funding system that will guarantee a strong future for public education in Australia.

A system that puts the needs of students at the forefront. A system that recognises the central place of public schools in educating Australia's kids.  A system that addresses the additional burdens placed on schools educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A system based on equity that has its core the belief that educational outcomes should not be a result of differences in wealth, income power or possessions.

I taught in high schools in the on the North West coast of Tasmania between 1975 and 1984. I tried throughout those years to encourage students to see education as the key to a happy life, to better health, better employment prospects, greater opportunities. I tried to inspire young people to lift their sights beyond the local, and see that through education they could do and be anything they wanted to be there or anywhere in the world. But unfortunately the poor retention to senior secondary education and beyond continues.

My home state of Tasmania has some of the lowest educational outcomes in the OECD. Tasmania will not be able to reach its economic potential as a clean green innovative state unless it drastically improves its educational outcomes. We need a cultural shift to valuing education as the key to success in life; to valuing imagination as the resource of the future rather than the ongoing focus on physical resources. And this is the case for the nation as a whole. We need to be focusing on what comes after the mining boom and it is an educated, innovative Australia that will be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this century offers.

It is simply unacceptable in Australia, a wealthy country by any measure, that our education standards are going backwards. We are unfortunately turning more and more into a nation where wealth is concentrated for a privileged few and this is reflected in education outcomes against the best interests of the community.

On Tuesday I explained that the Labor government has walked away from their agreement with the Greens to act in the public interest by refusing to fix the gaping holes in the mining tax and by putting the interests of mining corporations over the interests of the community.

With the Government failing to fix the mining tax we are worried that there will not be enough money to fund the full implementation of Gonski, indeed there are likely to be other programs with long delays due to the resistance of the government to raise more revenue. If this is the case then the additional funds available must be prioritised to where they are needed and that means they must flow to our most disadvantaged public schools.

With the OECD confirming the Gonski report's findings that socio-economic status is a key determinant of educational outcomes and that the impact in Australia of student backgrounds is stronger than in other countries, our most disadvantaged public schools must come first.

The longer these schools need to wait for funding the wider the gap becomes, the bigger the educational hurdles and the more students fall behind.

To address this Adam Bandt will be moving an amendment to the Australian Education Act to include as a principle for the funding reforms that "The most disadvantaged government schools will be prioritised for any additional Commonwealth funding during the implementation of the national plan." This would improve the legislation not undermine or threaten it.

Contrary to things you may have read or heard today the Greens have no intention of putting the Gonski reforms at risk. We would anticipate the Government would back such a common sense amendment, however our support for the legislation is not conditional on the amendment being supported. What we would like is for the government to have the backbone to raise the revenue so that the Gonski reforms can be implemented in full, sooner than 2020. But we will not jeopardise the school funding reforms we know are so necessary and long overdue.

The Greens want the full Gonski fast tracked.

We know that with 3 simple changes to the mining tax an additional $26 billion over the forward estimates can be raised by the Commonwealth government. The Greens already have a bill before the parliament to fix the royalty loophole and will be moving to address the ridiculously generous depreciation rules that have meant the big mining companies have paid little or no mining tax at all.

Rio Tinto while posting an overall loss from poor management decisions still made over $9 billion from Australia's iron ore but because they got to write their tax laws, they didn't have to pay anything.

Tony Abbott of course is even worse wanting to give the billionaire miners a completely free ride and in thinking public schools don't need any additional investment. He is all set to take Australia backwards, to a harsher, less caring and more unequal society. Christopher Pyne is already saying he wants to lock in the inequitable model for yet another two years.

In contrast the Greens are standing up for the community, and for the additional $6 billion a year required to be invested in our education system, in the face of mining industry dictating government policy.

The Government has no excuse for further delay in bringing the Gonski legislation to parliament. They have had the report for more than a year and almost two full terms of parliament to deliver reform that we all know is in the national interest. They are now leaving it to the very last gasp of this 43rd parliament.

A child who started high school in 2007, the year Labor was elected has now finished year 12 and the same inequitable funding system that existed then, remains in place. This is wrong.

There is a risk of failure if government dithers and does not introduce the funding model legislation and pass it soon. It is not enough to just have the shell. We are running out of time in the parliament and with an Abbott government looming the next few months really are the last chance. This essential Gonski reform must be legislated and locked in before the September the 14th election and the funding should be brought forward. 2020 is too far away.

And if we do make Gonski a reality, and we must, we cannot risk an Abbott government in control of the Senate. If the reforms are to be lasting, the Greens are essential and must retain the balance of power in the Senate to stand up against the repeal of a fair funding model.

As I said last year at the AEU's Public Education Forum - the Greens were prepared to legislate Gonski before the end of 2012 and I challenged Minister Garrett at the time to give an unequivocal undertaking to get the legislation before the parliament before we rose for the summer. He didn't do it.

The Greens are ready to pass legislation to implement the Gonksi reforms now, so as to ensure public education gets the funding our children deserve.

We have been pushing the Labor government since its election in 2007 to get on with school funding reform. In 2008 the Labor government, in fact Prime Minster Gillard when she was the Education Minister, extended the inequitable funding arrangements for non-government schools. At the time I moved an amendment to limit the extension to 2 years to enable the promised review into schools funding to take place.  The amendment was defeated by both the old parties.

But it wasn't until 2010 that the government commissioned the Gonski review and now after having had the Gonksi report for well over a year we are still waiting for the government to present legislation to the parliament to finally address the inequities in the system.

The Greens do not want this reform put in jeopardy by cynical political games. It has now become clear that the Gillard government wants to make the implementation of a new funding formula an "at risk" proposition for the election. This is wrong. We cannot make the education of our children an "at risk" proposition. We need to pass it well before the parliament rises. Equally, we cannot have the same Coalition who drove the appalling inequality in funding under the Howard Government allowed to do it again.

You - the AEU along with the parents, students and others who care about our schools - have done a fantastic job with your campaign. Thanks to the "I give a Gonski" campaign we know the independents in the House support Gonski, in addition I can assure you Adam Bandt supports the multi-billion dollar additional investment into our public schools, and the Greens in the Senate will support legislation for a school funding system based on need. We can make this happen and we can do it now.

I know that teachers are shouldering the burden of growing inequality in Australia. You see the impacts everyday. No body needs to tell you what it is like to have hungry children in your classroom, or how to deal with disruptions from traumatised children, or how to support children with disabilities, or the extra work needed to close the literacy gap for kids from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Unlike the Labor and Liberal parties, the Greens believe we should be supporting disadvantaged schools, not punishing them, with finger pointing on websites. In almost all cases, these are the schools where the students and teachers face the most challenging circumstances. Our public schools teach the vast majority of children who have the most educational hurdles to overcome and that they perform so well is a credit to Australia's public education teachers and communities.

And unlike the Labor and Liberal parties, who believe that teaching to the test and who think that principal autonomy, are the silver bullets to improving educational standards, the Greens know that we need an education system that supports teachers, understands your needs and the difficulties you face everyday.

As a society we should be caring for teachers as the people who nurture and guide our children, not importing the top-down failed approaches of the US and UK. The evidence is clear that standardised high risk testing leads to restricted curriculum and a focus on teaching to the test, not the creative innovative teaching that sets our kids up for their future lives.

Whilst I support lifting teacher standards through university entrance scores, the real issue, is pay and conditions. Attracting and retaining committed teachers when pay and conditions are inadequate is a challenge you grapple with every day. We need to be demonstrating the value, we as a society, put on teaching as an indispensible profession. My mother was a teacher, I was teacher, and my son is a teacher. We need both, Gonski and the multi-billion investment in our education system the reforms will bring, and at the same time, a national conversation on valuing teachers and education as central to our happiness and wellbeing as a nation.

Teaching is a profession that deserve more support. I know many teachers are not able to access professional development and that many early career teachers leave after a few years. The government's program of 6 week courses for high achieving university graduates doesn't show enough respect for the professionalism of Australia's teachers.

We are developing comprehensive policies to address these issues: to ensure teachers can access professional development, to provide greater support for early career teachers and to recognise the value of more experienced teachers and will continue to consult with the Australian Education Union accordingly.

Senator Penny Wright and I look forward to speaking with you more about the policies that will help you do your jobs even better.

This is an election year where education will feature prominently as it should. The government has clearly made schools one of their key election themes.

This is a good thing for Australian schools, teachers, students and parents. By the time of the election you should be under no illusion as to the effect of your vote on Australia's education system.

The Australian Greens provide an important voice in the Australian parliament, with Adam Bandt in the House of Representatives and the rest of us in the Senate. We stand up for the interests of our community, our public schools and teachers.

We spoke out against the MySchool website when it was being used to undermine public schools, we spoke out against the chaplaincy program giving our secular public schools no choice but to hire a chaplain if they wanted additional support, and we have spoken out against performance pay proposals that lead to division, disunity and a divide and rule culture. We have consistently over many years stood up for a fairer schools funding model that prioritises public education. We unlike the Coalition supported the Building the Education Revolution funding as part of the stimulus package and I have visited schools especially in my own home state where the additional facilities have made a huge difference to both teachers and students.

Without Adam Bandt, the lower house would not be debating prioritising the most disadvantaged schools first.

Like the Gonksi report, we are driven by the belief that differences in educational outcomes should not be the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions and all students should have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or circumstances. And we know that only a well funded public education system ensures any degree of genuine choice for parents.

The strong voice of the Australian Greens will be even more crucial if, as the polls suggest, Tony Abbott is Australia's next Prime Minister and Christopher Pyne is Education Minister. 

Rest assured, the Greens will stand as a bulwark in the Senate against any moves from the Coalition to repeal or water down the school reforms we expect to pass in the next few months.

And let me say again, the Greens will not allow the historic opportunity we have now, to pass. The Greens will push this hard. We will support reform for a fairer and more equitable funding model. We will stand up for an educated society and an economy beyond the digging up and cutting down. We will stand for equality of opportunity for all children regardless of where their parents live and how wealthy they are.

Now is the time, and as Dr Richard Jones, the founding father of the Greens said, "We do not believe that our time is the best time ever, but it is our time and we owe it our prime duty and affection." We Greens will use this time, our time, between now and September 14 to make passing the Gonski reforms our prime duty and affection.

For transcript of doorstop held after the speech please follow link:


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