Mr PEDERICK (Hammond) (11:46): I rise to speak to the Education and Children's Services Bill 2018. After hearing the comments of the member for Hurtle Vale, I commend the Minister for Education because, obviously, this piece of legislation is a large and imminent threat to the Australian Education Union. If that be it, that be it. I declare up-front that my wife is a public servant and works for the Department for Education. She has worked in schools in both metropolitan and country areas, which gives me a little insight into some of the things that go on in our education system.
Last week, I was a bit intrigued with The Advertiser outing, so to speak, our Register of Members' Interests, as if that was news. It is a public document. Everyone can see what we have registered as our interests. I guess it was news. It is available on a public website and you can see all our interests, including the fact that my wife works for the Department for Education.
Right across the board, from talking to people across my electorate and across the education system, I must say that I have a very good relationship with the current Minister for Education, and across that stark political divide I have had a reasonable relationship with the former minister, the member for Port Adelaide. I have learnt that when you are in opposition, the only way to get on is to try to negotiate with ministers. We had some great wins, including $20 million for the Murray Bridge High School.
Having said that, I recently met with minister Gardner, the member for Morialta, regarding Meningie Area School. There was a funding shortfall and, much to the delight of the chair of the governing council, the money came through. I was very pleased with that outcome. It will give the right result for a school that has a high number of Aboriginal students but is also a vital part of the state connecting to students—obviously because it is in MacKillop—from MacKillop and Hammond to make sure that we get the right educational outcomes.
What I have observed over time is interesting. I heard the discussion about the fear of this legislation knocking out everything the Australian Education Union has done. Some of the information I have heard is about how some teachers—and we have some very good teachers, do not get me wrong; we have some excellent people working in the education department—for a range of reasons are only present about 50 per cent of the time for their classes. People can challenge that, and that is fine, but I do not know of another job in the world where you can have that amount of extended leave and keep your job—but if that is the way it works, that is the way it works.
However, in my mind, what that does not do is uphold the mantra of education of putting the children first. We should always be cognisant of that fact—that we should be putting the children first at all times. I think interruptions of teachers gives plenty of opportunity for temporary relief teachers (TRTs)—and they do great work filling in when they need to—but I am intrigued at the amount of time some so-called permanent staff do not turn up, and that is a fact.
I would also like to comment on what the member for Hurtle Vale tried to portray as the evil that the Liberal Party is putting onto education across the state, when against some strong discussion in the party room and elsewhere we have put $100 million into what is essentially a safe Labor seat in the electorate of Giles. That is hardly partisan politics. There is $100 million for a new school at Whyalla because we are the Marshall Liberal government and we do not just govern for Adelaide, we do not just govern for part of the regions, we govern for the whole of South Australia.
To hear the fallacy that everything is partisan and that we are only here for certain sectors is just fabrication. I am also glad to see what minister Gardner is doing as far as working through a new antibullying program in our schools and keeping our kids safe. The safe schools program was totally inappropriate and only looked after a minority of students. People can challenge that if they like—that is fine. Our policy of looking after schools right across the state, no matter whether they are in Labor or Liberal electorates or marginal seats, is that we want to look after all the children to make sure that they have a safe education, a valued education, and work through all the issues of the modern era. I commend the minister for working through those proposals as well.
Education generally is challenging. It is the second most expensive portfolio, the one with the second highest budget behind health. That shows how serious governments of both sides take education, and so they should because we need to sow the seeds in young people and get them up to speed, whether they become university graduates or tradies. No matter where they land, we want to make sure that there is not only a future for those students but also a great future for this state.
This bill is about getting the legislation modernised to provide a contemporary framework for the delivery of high-quality children's services and compulsory education within our great state. It is certainly similar to the former government's bill that was debated last year in this place, but there are a number of amendments that we on this side of the house flagged when we were in opposition. In fact, part of the election commitments we have made is to remove the previous government's proposed central controls over schools' governing councils and entrench a legal fund for governing councils in dispute with the department, as proposed in recommendations from the Debelle inquiry, and also to introduce legislation to increase fines to deter chronic truancy.
As I said, our children deserve the best access to our best schools, preschools and children's services. This bill aims to establish the conditions necessary for everyone involved, whether they be teachers, parents, families or communities, to work together to give our children the best start in life. This bill removes the central controls over school and preschool governing councils. We on this side of the house also believe that by empowering school communities we will deliver better student outcomes and have happier and more efficient school communities.
We have also removed the provision for the minister to direct, suspend, dissolve and establish a new governing council under disciplinary circumstances. There are also changes introduced to ensure parents or other persons responsible for children and students at schools, preschools and children's centres will form the majority of members of the governing councils of those schools and services.
I must commend the many parents and caregivers from right across the state who give up their valuable time to take a leading role on governing councils to seek the best outcomes for their children and the children they care for. The bill also includes provision for governing councils to access funds for independent legal advice when they are in dispute with the department. This was another specific recommendation of the Debelle royal commission.
In regard to committee membership, we certainly believe on this side of the house that the needs of the school, preschool or children's service are not necessarily served by having staff representation on decision-making groups available only to members of the Australian Education Union. That is because, quite frankly, we do not think the Education Union should have a stranglehold on those positions. We are the party of freedom of choice. Why not open it up?
I know the member for Hurtle Vale is shaking in her boots and thinking that this bill is just going to destroy the union. Well, if it does, it does, but I would be a little surprised. What this legislation does is remove the exclusive right of the Australian Education Union to nominate members of the relevant committees formed under the bill, including selection committees for promotional level positions in the teaching service, reclassifications and review committees considering the amalgamation or closure of a school.
I am not sure what the member for Hurtle Vale was concerned about, because why not have representation from across the board, whether they are union members or not? If these positions are based on merit, surely merit should be the winner of the day in these committee positions or promotional positions being discussed at this level. If merit was the one true arbiter, why do we have to be less prescriptive about who is on those committees and who prescribes whether or not someone has the ability?
Regarding the discussion around religious and cultural activities, the bill retains the opportunity for schools and preschools to participate in religious or cultural activities. Obviously, that could involve education around Christian activities, or it could be other religious instruction, but there will be the obvious protocols for parents and their students as to whether they attend, and they will be put in place so that people can get the right outcomes for their family. I think we have to enshrine that right for religious participation.
It was interesting to hear the member for Hurtle Vale's contribution about Christmas carols. She is trying to make it sound as though the possible future of Christmas carols is a big beat-up by Liberals and some crossbenchers. Funny as it may sound, I was not born yesterday, and there are moves from some on the left to get Christmas carols out of schools. I contend the relaxed view of the member for Hurtle Vale that Christmas carols are not under threat because there has been intense media discussion at times and over many years around Christmas carols.
One thing that really disappoints me in life is when people decide that their way is the right way and they do not have an open mind to other discussion. They say, 'How dare we have Christmas carols. How dare we have religious instruction.' Seriously! It is good to see that this legislation upholds both Christmas carols and the rights of religious education at schools, and this is dealt with in existing legislation under section 102 of the Education Act.
I talked about attendance. Education is the key to providing opportunities for children to prosper and to contribute to their communities. In regard to royal commissions, I talked about Debelle, but the Nyland royal commission found truancy to be a significant risk factor in child protection concerns. In addition, research consistently alerts us to chronic non-attendance as a risk factor for ongoing social and economic disadvantage across a child's lifetime.
I know that to assist students who may not fit in the mainstream of attending the standard classroom arrangement a range of things have been put in place. For example, Murray Bridge High School has the EDGE program, and I hosted them here in Parliament House not that long ago, and there are also other programs where children are taught off site because that is how they work. I commend everyone involved in these programs for making sure that kids with those requirements can be educated because we get one chance to get these children through, whether it is at those places or in what we would call our more traditional education system.
What I will say in my closing brief comments is that we must always do what we can to make sure that we put the children first because if we do that we will be putting our state and our community first.