THE UPROAR over Education minister Christopher Pyne signalling some elements of Julia Gillard’s so-called Gonski reforms would be reviewed is as predictable as the package’s demise was certain following Labor’s election defeat. It was a political tool and poor policy, and it should be junked.
At the risk of saying “I told you so,” I’d like readers to start by reading this article I wrote back in April; everything that was wrong with the Gonski funding reforms at time is still wrong now, and the Liberal Premiers who foolishly bought into the Gillard government’s chicanery are about to see their handiwork explode in their faces.
There will, in coming months, be much to rattle the bars of the cages of the Left as Tony Abbott’s government looks to clean up the mess left behind by the Rudd-Gillard regime.
The realignment of Australia’s foreign policy focus toward traditional allies (America, Japan, Britain) in priority to China — something that has stimulated “outrage” on the Left this week — is a very good early example.
The recalibration of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia (which, despite the howls of indignation from the Left, has been immaculately handled by Abbott) is another.
And when it comes to the management of Australia’s economy and the Commonwealth budget, many of the Left’s treasured edifices — built to pander to the climate change movement, minority lobbies, and the lunatic Leftist fringe at the end of a
Communist Party Greens gun — are slated to simply be erased from existence.
The newly-defeated ALP made an artform of using taxpayers’ money (or more correctly, borrowed foreign money) in government to erect its monuments and enact its grand gestures, driving Australia deeper into debt than at any time in its history, and using this money to lay political landmines for its Liberal successors to trip over.
Which brings us to “Gonski” — a package that should never have been adopted in the first place, and which the new government is right to ditch.
Let’s deal with the “broken promises” aspect of this course of action first.
The two areas of government expenditure that the Liberal Party promised, in its election pitch, would be quarantined from expenditure cuts are Health and Defence.
Abbott and his team were entirely candid about the fact that every other expenditure measure would be a potential target for savings upon winning government and being able to properly study the true state of the government’s position.
It is obviously very early days in the new Liberal government’s life; its Commission of Audit hasn’t even begun its work. But there are already tangible and ominous signs that the real state of the budget is far worse than its predecessors publicly admitted.
Treasurer Joe Hockey has asked Parliament to legislate an increase in the country’s debt ceiling, from $300bn to $500bn; this is to accommodate recurrent expenditure items locked in and legislated by the previous government, whilst leaving some room to spare as a contingency.
Those spending measures alone will push debt to $400 billion without the Abbott administration spending a single additional cent: far from a “generous” offer by the ALP and the Greens to agree to an increase in the ceiling to $400bn, such a change would almost certainly require an immediate additional increase, which in turn the ALP and the Greens would indisputably attempt to use as “evidence” of Liberal mismanagement with which to engage in tacky, dishonest politicking.
Even now, the more sober (but brazenly hypocritical) barbs from the Left describe the proposed increase in the debt ceiling as “unprecedented” and point to Liberal statements that “the that the answer to debt is never more debt” as if this somehow absolves it of responsibility for the irresponsible time bombs Labor built into the budget.
The more reckless attacks — including by Labor “leader” Bill Shorten — proclaim that Abbott and Hockey “are putting debt up from $300bn to $500bn,” the sheer dishonesty of which typifies the nihilism and ethical bankruptcy into which the ALP has sunk.
Where all of this becomes relevant to Pyne’s first step in walking away from Gonski (and I’ll call a spade a spade: it’s the first step in doing exactly that) is the fact that Abbott made it perfectly clear that the integrity of all spending promises, bar those in Health and Defence, were contingent on the state of the books. It was made abundantly clear.
Quietly hidden away in a corner of the Rudd-Gillard government’s Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) was the revelation, largely unnoticed as intended before polling day, that Labor had itself cut $1.2bn from education funding that it never disclosed in yet another of its shabby attempts to undercook the true extent of its financial ineptitude.
It is this fact — and, in Pyne’s words, the resulting shortfall of money allocated to education expenditure — that sees him now move away from honouring the delivery of the package.
Taken in the cumulative sense, does all of this add up to a broken promise on Education by the Liberal Party? I contend that it doesn’t.
It needs to be pointed out that Pyne has committed to maintain education funding for 2014 “at the levels that would have occurred under Gonski;” indeed, he has offered the states that did not sign on to the package (Queensland, WA, and the NT) the same increase in Commonwealth money for 2014.
Beyond that, no guarantees have been made — and nor should they be.
The Gonski funding reform package was a deeply flawed, poorly directed initiative that was more about driving political wedges into the Liberal Party than it was about any serious commitment to proper funding of quality educational measures.
It featured $2.8bn in cuts to tertiary education funding to help offset the $14.5bn cost of the package — hardly the act, on Labor’s part, of an entity whose “commitment” to education is anything other than as a political tool.
It was in no way tied to educational outcomes, or to improvements in standards of literacy or numeracy on the states’ part; a cynical view would expect the extra money to fund pay rises for teachers, which is simply not an acceptable reason for the Commonwealth to hock itself to the tune of $14.5bn under the guise of “fixing” funding for schools.
Gillard herself was forced into an admission in an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 programme earlier this year that the package was underfunded by $5bn — an amount additional to the $1.2bn Labor has hidden in its pre-election budget documents.
And the states that signed up (yes, I am criticising Liberal Premiers) allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into a shocking political bribe that was only ever going to be to their own political detriment.
One clue was the “no ifs, no buts” deadline that kept getting extended whenever there were no takers for the snake oil Gillard was peddling.
Another was the variable amounts of money being dangled by Gillard: at first, it was a 2:1 offer by the Commonwealth; then, it was a 3:1 offer.
Where Messrs Napthine and (especially) O’Farrell thought this additional money would appear from — or how they thought it would survive a post-election budget review — is anyone’s guess.
Certainly, both of them should have had the sense to realise that with the general state of Commonwealth debt already widely known — if not the exact extent of it — an Abbott government following through on its pledge to right the state of the ship would cut hard on wasteful expenditure.
Make no mistake, the Gonski money — free of meaningful accountabilities as it is — is a waste of money.
And if none of that was enough to induce a state of “buyer beware,” the six-year duration of the proposed package should have had all comers experiencing palpitations at the thought it was anything other than a political trap.
In this sense, Colin Barnett, Campbell Newman and Adam Giles have all shown themselves to be more astute and shrewd than their counterparts in the larger states.
The point that has been conveniently missed in the ruckus generated by Labor and its mates at Fairfax and the ABC is that Pyne has said that 2014 is a bridging year; that is, school funding for 2014 will occur at Gonski levels whilst the whole question of education funding is reviewed.
Pyne has also said that his objective, ideally, is to come up with an ongoing funding model under which “the quantum” of money that would be paid under the Gonski package is maintained.
Of course, that leaves a lot of scope for modification — and perhaps even the extension of the time in which that money is paid. Time will tell on such considerations.
But a bad spending package contrived in the political interests of the ALP — not, as it loftily claims, Australian students — that fails to concern itself at all with improving standards, and costs $14.5 billion in borrowed money over six years, is not a package any responsible government ought to be “honouring.”
Far from being condemned, Pyne should be applauded for applying rigorous management standards to yet another mess the Coalition has inherited from the Labor Party.
Gonski — to put it bluntly — should be Goneski.