Dr Chris Back - Liberal Senator for Western Australia

Schools

July 20, 2017

What a fine testament to the Catholic education system we see here in this chamber now: Senator Collins; Senator Farrell; our leader, Senator Brandis; my good self; and I do not know whether Senator Watt or Senator McAllister or Senator Smith—in that true spirit of openness I too have to declare that I started my schooling in 1955 with the Presentation nuns in Goomalling. I then went to the Mercy nuns in Bunbury. Deputy President, you will be interested to know that the very first school in Western Australia, in 1846, was run by a group of Mercy sisters who arrived in the heat of a January summer from Ireland. And do you know, within 20 days, using as desks the very packing cases in which they had brought their belongs from Ireland to Perth, they had started the first school for girls in Perth, including Aboriginal girls—the first Aboriginal girls educated in the then colonies. I then went on to the Marist Brothers in Bunbury and Aquinas College in Perth—for the Christian Brothers—and then, Senator Brandis would be interested to know, I spent a couple of years at Saint Leo's College, run by the Jesuits. In the room next to me was Mr Bob Katter, from the other place. That is not something that I normally publicise, but indeed he was.

I make those points too because I have observed in recent times in the interactions I have had with Minister Birmingham that he is a person who is well and truly across the issues associated with the education sector—higher education and indeed primary and secondary education, including in South Australia, which Senator Farrell has just commented upon.

One of the concerns expressed to me by the group in South Australia is the issue associated with disability funding. I can pick that one up right now, because in response to questions asked of Senator Birmingham he was able to say that over 10 years there will be $21.2 billion spent by this government—promised and actually able to be spent and not the Monopoly money that we know our political opponents throw around—which is an increase of 5.9 per cent. That is something that was of concern to them in South Australia.

Like Senator Farrell, I was on the school board of the Catholic school in Northam, when my children went to school. I went on to the Catholic Education Commission for a nine-year period only because the concept of co-responsibility came in. As a board member from a Catholic school in the bush I thought, 'How lovely. This will be the city schools trying to take money off the country schools,' and I jumped up and down so much that Dr Peter Tannock, than running Catholic Education in WA, and Mr Mike Beech, both said to me that the only way they could convince me as to what they were trying to do with co-responsibility was for me to come onto the commission. Indeed, as Senator Collins has just said, Dr Tannock himself was a co-colleague with Mr David Gonski in the original Gonski report. Where was the importance and where is the importance of the co-responsibility funding? Incidentally, it is a funding process—we call it the systemic process—that will be continued by the government, simply because it enables the system to be able to use funding from schools that are better off, either permanently or in any one year, to assist lower socioeconomic schools that may not be. The way the funding is organised in Western Australia at the moment every child in the system is a notional 103 points. I think more than 50 per cent of the children in schools above that 103 are supporting those in lower socioeconomic city, rural and regional schools. That is the absolute strength of our system. That is something—and this was stated in my discussions with Catholic Education officials and indeed in discussions I have had with Minister Birmingham—that has to be preserved, because it is the strength of the system.

I make the point that the cost of educating all children in Catholic schools in Australia is only 90 per cent of that of state schools. The capital cost of building the schools in Catholic circumstances is about 95 per cent. When a child goes into a state school, taxpayers have paid for that school. When a child goes into a Catholic school you can rest assured that the vast majority has been paid. In response to Senator Hinch, who, unfortunately, I think quite disparagingly said it was time for me to go, I can say to him that the best thing for the taxpayer is for more children to be in Catholic and independent schools. (Time expired)

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