I rise to make a contribution on this important debate. I welcome genuine
debate, particularly on the issue of education. It has always been a no. 1
priority for me, and I am more than happy that it is a no. 1 priority for the
Brumby Labor government.
But when I looked at the first line of the motion and saw the
words ‘extreme hypocrisy’, I hesitated. Mr Hall, in his motion, is claiming that
is the behaviour of the Labor government when it comes to education. I could not
disagree more with him. I also think that using that type of language in a
debate as important as this one is simply not helpful, and it undermines our
having proper dialogue on education.
I am surprised by the tone of the motion. I consider Mr Hall to
be a very credible man, a very competent man and a man who clearly is keenly
interested in the issues of education, so I am somewhat surprised that he has
fallen for what I consider to be a fairly blatant party political line on this
As we have heard from previous speakers, members on this side
of the chamber saw what happened during the Kennett era. We saw what happened to
education, schools and the supporting services around those schools.
During that time many of us experienced the effect of those
policies in terms of school closures and, with our communities, were involved in
fighting many of those closures. As a result, we were in a key position to
listen to communities; we took on board what parents were saying to us at the
time. We took on board what educationalists, community leaders and Labor
activists were saying to us at the time, too.
They all agreed that they wanted communities to be involved in
the future of their local schools. Essentially that brought about a clear and
transparent policy which was adopted by what was then a newly elected Labor
government. The policy of this government is that it does not force schools to
close or merge. The government believes that local school communities should
make the decisions about the future of their schools. Therefore a school will
only close or merge if a school council voluntarily decides to seek formal
approval from the minister to do so.
That is the major tenet of this government in respect of
closures and mergers.
Part and parcel of that commitment is to make sure that
education is the no. 1 priority of government not just in terms of money,
although all of us have seen record commitments in terms of funding. We have
seen unprecedented commitments in terms of capital and recurrent moneys directed
to the education sector. We have seen an increase of about 8700 in the number of
teachers and support staff. We have also seen a number of new projects and programs that are
complementary and which will take our education community forward. Then there
are a number of feelgood but incredibly important programs that operate on a
daily basis within schools, whether it be Go for Your Life, the healthy cooking
classes, the school kitchen gardens, the cycling programs or the water storage
We have also seen the rollout of laptop computers for all year
5 students currently being trialled in Barwon South West. There is every
indication from that program so far that it is incredibly popular and
educationally exciting. It is providing some exceptional outcomes already.
Having said all that, Mr Atkinson made some comments in
relation to mergers and closures and about some aspects which people need to
take into account when having a discussion or debate about the future of
Much of what he said would have been helpful in taking this
discussion further if, in fact, we were having a really genuine debate about the
issue. It is true that predicted population changes, the size of towns, the size
of suburbs, the sprawl or the expansion of population areas and changes in age
demographics make government officials, including departmental officials,
responsible for attempting to allocate resources in the best possible way to
service the needs of the community. The education department is part and parcel
of all of that.
It is an ongoing process. It is a fact that the education
department comes up with proposals and discussion papers to take back to the
schools and their communities, and for those discussions about their local
community to take place. It is a robust process. As is usual in robust debates,
because schools are very much part of our communities and certainly very close
to the lives of our children, there will be points of difference.
Usually those points of difference surround preferences on the
types of buildings that might be looked at, the types of contractors and so
The obvious thing that I have found in the electorate of
Western Victoria Region is that in terms of closures and mergers, those issues
are not controversial or have not been at the forefront. The amount of lobbying
I get from school communities is largely concerning extra or further funding. In
recent times, because of the stimulus package and the moneys for the state and
federal government education revolution, most of those requests have been dealt
I was taken by surprise to see how the issue of school closures
was handled by the member for South-West Coast in the other place, Denis
Napthine, over the last four weeks. The debate that has been happening in
Portland over that period has not been what I would consider to be a healthy,
robust debate at all.
I am not quite sure where the member for South-West Coast was
coming from — maybe it was a slow news week or maybe he just got up one morning
and wanted to stir things up. In June 2009 he went to the Portland Observer and
rolled out a story that had absolutely no currency whatsoever.
The heading of the article in the Portland Observer at the time
was ‘School closure plans revealed’. What transpired in all of this was that a
discussion paper was put out in January. Yes, it was talked about; yes, there
were discussions in March and April; and yes, there was a decision by the school
council that it did not wish to proceed with any closures or mergers. But that
has not stopped Dr Napthine, who was quoted as saying:
- Closing schools and forcing students and parents to travel long distances is
counterproductive in the fight against childhood obesity, in our efforts to
create community and parental involvement in primary schools, and would have
significant impacts on traffic management and the environment.
In the next edition of the Portland Observer the banner
headline was ‘Schools are not closing!’. The truth came out in a signed
statement by two principals. The article stated:
Ms Millard and Mrs Atchison said the member for South-West
Coast Denis Napthine was aware in March or April they had rejected the proposal
and could not understand why he had spoken out last week about the plan.
I do not think that that is being responsible.
Knowing that the community had discussed it and had essentially
made up its mind that it was not progressing, several months later Denis
Napthine went to the papers and said there were proposals on the table to close
schools. It is not helpful to the school community or to the principals, and it
is certainly not helpful to the parents, because it just amounts to
It might be the politics of wanting to get any headline, but I
think the good folk of Portland know that the modus operandi of Denis Napthine
is not really to address the issue that is in front of the community. He tends
to invent and repackage issues in an attempt to manipulate opinion. The actual
facts stand for themselves. We have the minister saying in the Portland Observer
that there will be no closures unless school councils vote in favour of it. She
has stated it categorically not just in the Portland Observer but also in the
Age. In fact in the Portland Observer the minister states:
- The state government will never force any school to close or merge. Any
decision about the future of each school is a matter for school councils to
I also wonder whether Denis Napthine went to the Portland
Observer to carry out what I consider to be a phantom closure campaign, because
he knew the shadow minister that week was writing a letter to the editor
condemning the government for school closures. That letter to the editor was in
the Portland Observer of 1 July. The shadow Minister for Education, Martin
- The state government has been closing Victorian schools for more than four
years and has failed to deliver on education for Victorians.
He then went on to say:
- The minister seems unwilling to tell Victorian families which schools are on
the hit list for merging or when those schools will be affected by the state
government’s so-called ‘regeneration’ process.
What sort of responsible behaviour is that to say ‘a hit list’?
At best we have a situation where, as a responsible government, we have
discussion papers continually going out to communities to talk in a very genuine
way about their futures. To then say that we have a hit list — and this is
coming from the Liberal Party, which had exactly that in relation to education
and a whole range of other basic services in this state during the Kennett years
— is absolutely unbelievable. Taking up Mr Atkinson’s comments, it is important
not to have spin when it comes to these sorts of issues. We are responsible for
making sure that we spell it out and tell it how it is.
I call on the National-Liberal coalition to try to be
responsible, and in doing so I urge them to sit the member for South-West Coast
in the Assembly down and tell him that he has to stop playing bad politics with
education. He has to stop playing politics with people’s lives, with the lives
of children and with the aspirations of the communities in his electorate.
I say to Mr Hall that this is no way to go about having a
proper debate. If this is the way the coalition performs on the ground when it
comes to education, I have grave fears. I understand that the space they need to
capture within the community to gain some traction on education leading up to
the election is important to them, because we have done an enormous amount in
terms of education — from massive capital and recurrent funding injections to
rebuilding schools and doing a whole range of things that have never been seen
before. I can understand their dilemma, because we have fulfilled our commitment
to making sure that education is our no. 1 priority.
Coming up with this resolution really does not come close to
doing the job. They have to invent a serious strategy to try to create some
damage in terms of the government’s agenda. That is their challenge, and it is a
challenge they will not be able to fulfil because we have the game covered. The
game is over.