Matters of Public Importance – I am very pleased to make a contribution on this debate today, and I think if there is one thing we have all learned over the last 30 years, it is that investment in early childhood is the most important thing of all that we can do to ensure that our children have a pathway in life. All studies point in that direction. All studies for so long have shown that it is those first five years that are the most important time of all. But now we are seeing studies looking at the first 1000 days, so up to three years old. That time is also particularly important. But as you go forward and as children move into the education system they will continue to need the supports and the best level of developmental support that they can get to make their years in the education system worthwhile. In terms of this budget I would like to just make some comment on the free dental care. If there is another thing we all know, it is that what happens in your mouth is really important in terms of your health. It is just so much of an indicator of a person’s health to know what the state of their dental health is.
I have to say that I have a brother who has worked in regional Victoria, in Maryborough, for probably 40 years, and he has been on national councils to Canberra, rural alliances and all sorts of things to try to get a better deal for the rollout of dental services, particularly for those groups of people who are so often deprived of the opportunity. That of course includes young children. The rollout of these dental vans will provide, I think, some amazing services in many places. I just wanted to highlight one of the unintended consequences that could arise in regional areas, and that relates to the fact that dentists are relatively few and far between in regional areas, and often in smaller towns there might only be one or two dentists for the whole community. At this point in time most of the children who are being seen by a dentist are being seen by the dentists in their local community. To be viable they also need to have a continuity of patients running through, so I would ask the government to really carefully look at some of the communities they are going into and how this rollout of the vans might impact on local dentists in smaller towns, because the rest of the community do not want to see a situation where their dentist is in a situation where it is not a viable proposition for them to continue their business in a small town. We all rely on the dental services that are provided by the dental profession.
In 2016 I did my first grievance debate on education in this place, and I referred to the fact that there had been numerous reports, Auditor-General’s reports and the like, that pointed out the discrepancy in the outcomes in education for those young people who live in rural areas as compared to metropolitan areas. Something like 30 per cent of children underperform on those sorts of indicators in rural areas. Their aspirations are low, their opportunities to go on to further education or indeed even complete their secondary education are much poorer and their attendance at university later on or even to achieve a certificate IV at a TAFE college is significantly reduced compared with the opportunities that young people in metropolitan areas have. This has been studied, written about and known about for a very long time. How do we address that? Well, I just want to tell you that in the Shepparton district I have really decided to take this up as an issue because we have seen four secondary schools in the Shepparton and Mooroopna area underperforming and undervalued. We have seen a significant reduction in enrolments over a period of years. A school like Mooroopna Secondary College back in the mid-1980s had over a thousand students enrolled in it; now it has 300. There are real issues around that. The community has abandoned that school and moved onto another place and into other schools. In the Shepparton district our private schools, our Catholic schools and the Christian school are all bursting at the seams because people have chosen to abandon the secondary state education system. So something needed to be done about it, and something is being done about it.
Over the course of the past two years’ work has been done on developing a Shepparton education plan. That is a zero to 18 plan, and it is designed to look at the whole level of state education from very early childhood through to the end of secondary education, but factoring in what might happen to young people once they leave school. The Shepparton education plan is truly a transformative plan in that what it is choosing to do—and this has been done through consultation over a couple of years and as a result of a strategic advisory committee with community members on it advising the government—is to bring together those four secondary schools onto one campus. It is a model that has not appeared in many places. There will be nine schools of 300 students all on one campus and three neighbourhoods each with three schools, so it is a very innovative and transformative plan. There is no doubt that there are people in my community who are struggling with the notion of what that will look like. I was very disappointed, I have to say, during the 2018 state election to see the National Party take up this issue as a negative. To preside over regional areas for so long as the incumbent members across many regional areas and not to have advocated for better investment and change in our region and other areas in regional Victoria is an indictment of that party. To have used the last election campaign to put up posters around election booths talking about the super-school as if it was the grim reaper of education in our region was a disgrace. In our region for many, many years there have been various attempts to try and improve the education opportunities and what the education system should look like: how will young people get better opportunities in regional areas such as ours? So I do not have a lot of faith in the National Party as being the provider of educational opportunities, because I have seen what has happened in our area where for years the schools languished with lack of investment.
Now you might say that for a lot of that time there was a Labor government, but it is up to the local member of any electorate to advocate for their community, to take it to the government, to take it to the ministers involved and to try and get a better outcome for the students in that area. As part of the Shepparton education plan, we have the Mooroopna early childhood centre, which is an integrated children’s centre being attached to what is one of our most disadvantaged primary schools in Mooroopna. It is a centre that is going to be based on the Doveton College model, with one point of entry into this school. Parents will be able to be identified as to who may be in need of services, and there will be maternal and child welfare services there, playgroups for mothers, three-year-old kindergarten when it comes—and I will be lobbying the government and I put them on notice that we will be wanting our three-year-old kindergarten rolling out in the Shepparton district much earlier than it is presently slated for—and four-year-old kindergarten and transition into school. So that seamless hub that will develop at that school will really be something extraordinary to have in my electorate and will provide that ability to identify those children who are so vulnerable. Just in the last few minutes I have left, the Australian early development census figures have just been released. They show that across all indicators the vulnerable group in the Shepparton district in my region is becoming more vulnerable. Across Australia that is not the case; there is improvement happening. So if ever there was an area that needed access to government funding to provide the sorts of services that are being foreshadowed in the budget by the Shepparton education plan and by other early childhood investments, it is my region. I will continue to advocate to ensure that we get our share of the money so that we can educate young people in our community and give them the ability to go on to trades, universities and TAFEs.