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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1999 Week 2 Hansard (9 March) . . Page.. 412 ..



one cent in the budget for them? There is not one cent in the budget for them and the Chief Minister does not even mention them as two of the things that would put pressure on that $90m budget deficit. What, really, is the Government's agenda? Is it to seek popular support by saying the right things or is it to do something about the drug problem? Unfortunately, Mr Speaker, I suspect the latter.

MR STEFANIAK (Minister for Education) (12.14): Mr Speaker, I rise today to focus in this debate on an item which spends close to one-third of the ACT's budget, namely, the education portfolio, which, of course, also includes responsibility for children's, youth and family services and for sport. I will make a few other comments to start with, Mr Speaker. Firstly, whilst the ACT may well benefit, and rightly so, from the Commonwealth Grants Commission's review of funding - I do not think that is necessarily set in stone - the assistance there would not overcome the very significant budgetary problems this Territory faces. In no way should that be seen as a panacea to our problems. I make that point to start with.

I also make the point - I think I said it in an earlier debate - that I do not think that it is right for the Opposition to say that it is totally up to the Government and that they are unable to make any sensible suggestions. The whole purpose of this debate is to enable people to suggest how they would improve the Territory's financial situation. In 1994, in fact, this Government in opposition came up with an alternative budget; so there is certainly a precedent, and a very valid one, in relation to that. For the Opposition to say that they are not going to make any suggestions, that it is all up to the Government, does not help this debate one iota.

Mr Speaker, this year expenditure across my portfolio areas will be in the vicinity of $540m when concessions and other discount subsidy programs are taken into account. However, almost three-quarters of that total outlay is taken up by the schooling costs of our education system. We went to both the 1995 and the 1998 elections promising to maintain school funding in real terms and, despite the very severe financial difficulties that we inherited from those opposite when we came to office, it is with a very great deal of pride that I can look back on the past four years and say that we have kept that promise in every year; in fact, in some years funding has increased above the ACT inflation rate to provide a real increase in funding.

I can also indicate that, as I think the Chief Minister and Treasurer has said, we intend to keep our commitment for the balance of this term. School funding will continue to be maintained in real terms for the next three years. However, Mr Speaker, there are continuing areas of concern which I do believe must be addressed over the next few years. Our population in Canberra is ageing. That is just a fact. Because of that fact, the number of children going to school, both government and non-government, is declining. There has already been some informed public debate in relation to declining enrolments and the changing demographics of Canberra. That debate, I think, needs to continue. I think the ALP and the crossbenchers need to be involved in it - not by any negative knee-jerk reactions, but by thoughtful, constructive comment.

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