Tuesday 27 October 2009
Mr FINCH (Rosevears)  - (Motion) - Madam President, I move -

That the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Community Development on the provision of public primary school education for residents of Port Sorell, Shearwater, Wesley Vale, Sassafras and Moriarty, be considered and noted.

In seeking to have this reported noted, I would like to present it as an illustration of the successful working of this Parliament's joint standing committee system and, in particular, the Community Development Committee.

Mrs Rattray-Wagner - Does it reflect any proxy members?

Mr FINCH - Are you able to be patient?

Mrs Rattray-Wagner - I'm not usually good at it but I'll try.

Mr FINCH - Okay, thank you.  To do that, I would like to go back to April this year when the motion to refer the issue of public primary education of the Port Sorell region was debated in the House of Assembly.  The motion was put by a member for Lyons, Rene Hidding, who firstly made the point, and I quote:

'I should say that, due to the small size of the Parliament, joint standing committees are very difficult to operate.  A committee I am on has today, thankfully, finally agreed on some dates, but it is very difficult for committees to do their job. 

The Community Development Committee is a very good committee and it has a big job' -

Ms Forrest - He is not a member; how would he know?

Mr FINCH - From all reports around Parliament, from staff and members, I would say.  I do not know; you had better ask him.  I will go on with his quote -

Mr Wilkinson - He heard this because of the chairman, didn't he?  He said it was only as a result of the running of the committee by the chairman.

Mr FINCH - As well.

Mr Wilkinson - Oh, as well.

Mr FINCH - I quote:

'With the successful passage of this motion we ask that the committee take on this reference referred by the House of Assembly in the spirit that was intended.  There is a degree of urgency; it is not something that we would be thinking to talk about for a year or two, because the argument is fairly well developed.  The facts are on the table and we will be hoping for the committee to find its way clear to do this inquiry and report by 30 October.'

Well, Madam President, the report was tabled well before the suggested deadline, although during the House of Assembly's debate it was suggested by the Leader of the Greens that the committee would be hard-pressed to meet the deadline.  In presenting his case for an inquiry, Mr Hidding pointed out that some 300 students attend primary school at Wesley Vale and 230 of them come by bus from Port Sorell or the Port Sorell area, 10 kilometres away.  Mr Hidding went on to say:

'The placement of schools is a particularly important matter for education.  While it is impossible to have a school within walking or pushbike-riding distance for everyone in Tasmania, certainly in this case 230 students, a very substantial cohort, would live within a pleasant walk or a quick BMX ride to school were there to be a school there.'

He was, of course, referring to Port Sorell, Madam President.  I strongly endorse the view that Tasmanian students should be able to walk or ride to their primary schools wherever possible.  Mr Hidding's motion was supported by the Government with the Premier pointing out that a committee inquiry was a good mechanism for public consultation.  I quote:

'This is one such area where an open debate about the data and evidence can be a useful thing to take some of the politics out of it, to get some information into the open and to allow people to have their say before any decisions are made.'

The Premier also referred to an important issue that our committee has had to take into account.  I will quote again:

'at present 75 per cent of the children at Wesley Vale are drawn from the Port Sorell area, so to build a new school at Port Sorell is one outcome, but you would gut Wesley Vale'.

So the committee has been at pains to address this concern in its recommendations, Madam President. 

The third recommendation is that no school be closed immediately as a result of the planned opening of a new school.  Recommendations 5, 6 and 7 also address concerns about the future of the Wesley Vale Primary School:  recommendation 5 - that consideration be given to an operational model which would allow savings in management costs by operating all schools in the area as a cluster or campus model; recommendation 6 - that an independent task force with consultative and resolution capabilities be assigned to work with Sassafras, Moriarty and Wesley Vale school communities to assist in developing the most appropriate educational model for those students in collaboration with any new school at Port Sorell; recommendation 7 - that Wesley Vale Primary School considers its immediate needs for heating and urgent capital works and that the remainder of the Building the Education Revolution Funding be redirected towards the proposed Port Sorell Primary School.

The Commonwealth Building the Education Revolution funding in this Tasmanian region is somewhat contentious, Madam President.  There have been suggestions that funding for approved projects be diverted.  My general belief is that students, whatever the long-term future of their schools, deserve the best possible facilities and BER funding is there for that purpose.  The concept of a cluster or campus model referred to in recommendation five I think is highly appropriate for the geographical area that the committee looked at.

Madam President, I referred to the Premier's reference of one of the roles of our committee system, public consultation, when he spoke to the motion to set up this Port Sorell school inquiry.  The consultation process was amply demonstrated in the committee's hearings.  There was obviously an argument for more public consultation through such hearings but, as we often hear, our small Parliament does hamper a wider role for committees.  Is there a solution?  Well, I think our committees already have adequate and very professional assistance in doing their work.  However, given that our committee system is probably stretched to its limit, perhaps more consideration could be given to priorities, but that is just a thought, Madam President.

Back to the committee's recommendations.  The secretary to the Premier, Heather Butler, has described the report as making some major recommendations, including that a new contemporary public primary school be planned and constructed and opened in Port Sorell.  Ms Butler, in a media release, says:  'The recommendations will take some time to consider and work through in detail.'  Well, we have a State election coming up in March, Madam President, so that will perhaps help the Government to focus on the recommendations.  Ms Butler also stressed the need to keep moving with planned BER-funded projects for the existing schools at Wesley Vale, Sassafras and Moriarty.  She said the three schools projects were principally focused on refurbishment and replacing existing facilities, and this is what I understood the BER funding program was all about, Madam President.  I referred a while ago to my belief that students deserve the best facilities we can give them now, whatever the long-term future of their schools may be in an ever-changing demographic picture.

Madam President, a standing committee report like this one may make its recommendations, but the rest of the process is up to the Government.  I am confident that the children at Port Sorell will get their own primary school sooner rather than later.  The public has been given a voice, and the Government has their recommendations to consider.

I must say thanks to our secretariat for the support that was given during this process.  As you would realise, Madam President, we had at the same time two other recommendations or references on our plate.  We did need some extra support for our secretary, Charles Casimaty.  That was forthcoming and I must thank Emily Campton for her work in helping to finalise this report.  Together they have done an excellent job, overseen too, I might say, by Shane Donnelly, and the result I think is reflective of the effort put in by all concerned.  Also of course thanks to my fellow committee members, who brought some very incisive and well-considered observations to the debate and certainly a strong understanding of what was going on in that area.  As Mr Hidding alluded to, the debate was really quite mature in respect of the time that had already been spent discussing the options for the area. 

I would also like to thank the member for Apsley who joined us as a proxy for the member for Mersey and I must emphasise how diligent and enthusiastic she was in the process.  We very much appreciated her input. 

To finish off on the thoughts about the committee process, apart from its other roles it is a safety valve for public opinion.  It is democracy at work.