Why “Gonski” — On Balance — Should Be Abandoned

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.



Horror Newspoll: 58-42 To Coalition; Annihilation Awaits Labor

THE FORTNIGHTLY Newspoll for tomorrow’s issue of The Australian is out, heralding a disaster for the Gillard government; a 58-42 lead to the Coalition after preferences, which would all but wipe Labor out. It raises the question of whether the ALP will make one final attempt at leadership change.

It’s just a poll…but in the context of the post-budget climate — and the outcry last week over “reform” of public funding of election campaigns — Newspoll’s findings simply must be taken seriously by ALP strategists as the looming election seems increasingly certain to produce a Labor bloodbath.

Opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne attracted the ridicule of some when he claimed he had “reliable information” that one final challenge to Gillard’s leadership would occur “either on 3 June, or in the week of 3 June.”

Right or wrong his information might be, but if ever there were to be ideal conditions under which to execute another sitting Prime Minister, this poll provides them for Labor’s MPs.

And Labor, historically, is a party that has been obsessed with Newspoll and has executed several leaders in the past on the back of poor figures in Newspoll results.

Newspoll finds Labor now trailing the Coalition by 16 points — or 58-42 — after preferences; this is the ALP’s equal worst result on the two-party measure in a Newspoll since Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as leader, the 2010 election, and the broken promise on a carbon tax: take your pick which is the most historically significant marker.

This 58-42 split represents a swing to the Coalition of 2% since Newspoll’s last survey a fortnight ago.

It breaks down to see the Coalition recording a 49% primary vote (+3%) among Newspoll respondents — close to the historic 50% mark the Coalition vote has sat at or near several times now this year, and historic in that no party has achieved it at a federal election since Malcolm Fraser led the Coalition to power after the Dismissal in 1975.

The ALP records a primary vote of 30% (-1%), with the Greens on 9% (unch) and “Others” at 12% (-2%).

On the “preferred Prime Minister” measure — which will also fuel leadership rumblings within the ALP — Tony Abbott’s incremental improvements become a surge in this survey, with 43% (+3%) indicating their preference for him as opposed to 35% (-4%) for Gillard.

And the individual leaders’ ratings hold no joy for Gillard either; Newspoll finds just 28% (-3%) of voters approving of her performance, with a mammoth 62% (+3) disapproving; Abbott’s approval rating is static at 37%, with his disapproval number edging down one point to 53%.

For comparison, Essential Research also released its weekly findings this afternoon, which showed an unchanged Coalition lead of 55-45.

At the minimum, it suggests there is a floor under the Newspoll result, rather than any prospect of the Labor poll numbers drifting upwards.

Yet by the same token, the fact Essential is a rolling survey with its findings drawn from consecutive weeks of research could well mask any upward trend in the conservative vote, and may even overstate it.

Aside from the general shambles this government has proven to be, there are two specific issues I think have fuelled the Newspoll result.

The first is the issue of a Coalition-led motion of no confidence in the Gillard government; this was threatened at the time of the non-coup in March over the Labor leadership.

After much to-ing and fro-ing — including an attempt in recent days to convince “Independents” Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to support such a motion — this tactic to force an immediate election has now been abandoned on the basis of insufficient support.

Yet I believe it has backfired on Labor, not the Coalition, as Windsor in particular has since made great noise about moving a motion of confidence in the government, talking about its “achievements” from a perspective that Parliament has delivered on “the people’s wishes.”

Clearly, it hasn’t — and this poll shows that very clearly.

The other issue, obviously, is the secret deal Labor tried to strike with the opposition to increase public funding to political parties — and to backdate the deal to April just gone.

Both parties rightly came in for criticism over this measure; there may be a case to make for increasing public funding if private (and especially union) donations are heavily curbed.

But the secrecy with which the deal was negotiated enraged voters; and when Abbott abandoned it, the efforts of the ALP, Greens, and Windsor again to turn the backdown into an adverse reflection on Tony Abbott’s character (and on their own righteousness) has since added fuel to the fire in terms of Labor’s rapidly decaying public support.

And this brings us back to the question of whether the ALP will make one last, desperate attempt to rid itself of Gillard in a hysterical gamble on averting the rapidly oncoming electoral train wreck.

As we discussed last week, Kevin Rudd is now the only feasible candidate to switch to; it’s too late in the cycle now for anyone else to expect to establish themselves as a cleanskin in time for an election that is almost due.

Proof of this — were it required — exists in the form of the present Prime Minister.

It’s significant that respected ALP stalwart (and Rudd supporter) Martin Ferguson announced his intention to retire from Parliament last week.

It sends a signal to the rest of the disaffected Rudd supporters in caucus which they may follow, and it sharpens the distinction between the ALP of old and the one Gillard and her union masters have been trying to shape by influencing preselections, enforcing disendorsements, and so forth.

And let’s not forget the fact that whilst he has his adherents, Rudd is detested and reviled by a significant percentage of Labor MPs — with good reason, and based on Rudd’s own behaviour.

I personally think that it is now too late for Labor to avoid defeat, and that irrespective of who leads it into battle, the defeat will be catastrophic.

Yet as I have said many times, the ALP, when cornered, is an exceedingly dangerous beast, and it tends to do something.

If a change of leader brought with him the prospect of salvaging even five or ten additional seats (including, in Rudd’s case, perhaps his own) and containing the losses to, say, 25 seats instead of 35, then if the numbers are there to roll Gillard, it will only take someone to call on the spill to attempt to do so.

Despite the non-coup in March, there is no lack of will on Rudd’s part to return as leader: his decision not to stand was an acknowledgement that the numbers simply didn’t exist at that time to do so, and not a sign of weakness — as Gillard jubilantly implied.

Whether they do now or not remains to be seen, but if enough MPs are prepared to dump Gillard, my expectation would be that it will happen before the week is out.

After all, Newspoll — on which so many Labor leaderships have thrived and died — has given the putative plotters the perfect pretext on which to strike.

Back To The Future: The Education Revolution We Need

I’ve been reading the newspapers online today, shaking my head; it sticks in my craw that powerful education unions — backed by a pliant Labor government — demand usurious pay increases whilst generating outcomes that, frankly, are a fraud against any reasonable measure of expectation.

Some readers may accuse me of curmudgeonly petulance — or at least they might, if they have any idea of what a “curmudgeon” is, of course.

It’s a great bugbear of mine that Australia’s schools seem increasingly destined to turn out “graduates” with a flawed grasp of the English language, and an increasingly faulty application of it in daily life.

Reading the opinion section today of one of the supposed leading newspapers in this country, I’ve been treated to a discussion of the political “judgment” of Julia Gillard, written by somebody recognised as one of the leading political opinion writers both nationally and within that journalist’s media organisation.

The same news outlet recently published a feature piece on the “aging” population.

Switching news sites — and reading coverage of last night’s win by the Carlton Football Club over Fremantle in a NAB Cup match — I was informed that “It was difficult to fully gauge the merits of the Blues practice match romp.”

Having listened to the radio coverage on 3AW, I know the Blues’ efforts were stellar.

Listening to that match came after a visit to a bank branch earlier in the day, in which I was invited to add my “signiture” to an official deposit form in order to complete a transaction.

And, shortly thereafter, a sign I encountered during a window-shopping visit to a clothes store informed me that “food and drink are definately not to be consumed in this store.”

These are, to be sure, examples that I have come across in the space of one 24 hour period.

Regrettably, however, they are not isolated, they do not represent every such instance I noticed during those 24 hours, and — sadly — this sort of thing is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.

I am writing this piece because in the present climate, it is both relevant and topical; as things stand in the state of Victoria, Ted Baillieu’s government is locked in a protracted dispute with the Victorian Teachers’ Federation over pay rates for teachers.

Baillieu had promised during the 2010 state election campaign to make Victoria’s teachers the best paid in Australia: “not the worst-paid, but the best paid,” he memorably pledged.

Negotiations hit an immediate impasse when the powerful VTF entered negotiations seeking annual 30% pay rises for its members, as opposed to a government offer of 2.5% plus additional amounts in return for productivity.

Naturally, the situation is deadlocked, with both sides in the dispute refusing to back down (although the teachers’ union did revise its ambit and ridiculous demand of 30% pay rises down to 12.5% over a three-year period).

In case readers think this is a Victoria-centric article, I assure you it isn’t; I merely make a skeletal summary of the situation in Victoria by way of example.

I could just as easily have chosen to talk about negotiations over teacher pay in any other state; the script — especially on the union side — is depressingly familiar wherever one looks and, somewhat surprisingly, it matters little whether the state government at the centre of negotiations is Labor or Liberal.

The only real difference on that last point seems to be a greater inclination on the part of teacher unions to strike and cause disruption when dealing with a Liberal government than with a Labor one, but in honesty, it’s simply a question of degrees.

In short, teachers (or at least, their unions) think they should be paid at a level which reflects their self-designated “status” at the very apex of society.

Indeed, some teachers I have had the misfortune to encounter over the years have told me that in their view, teaching is more important than any other vocation.

I call it “a vocation” because it’s too much of a stretch to describe it as “a profession:” if I were completely honest, the example set by teacher unions make it “just a job” like anything else.

And as far as I am concerned, it’s a job whose outcomes neither match the hype nor merit the ridiculous pay structures its protagonists seek.

Using Victoria as an example again, a look through the relevant state government website reveals that starting pay for a graduate teacher (with no previous experience) is $56,985 per annum; pay rates increase through a series of grades up to “Leading Teacher Level 3” which commands $91,883 per annum — or a shade under $1,770.00 per week.

This is an industry that offers its members 21 contact hours per week (“contact hours” being the length of time they actually stand in front of a class); significant amounts of designated time for preparation and marking (free periods) during what the rest of us would call business hours; 12-13 weeks’ paid annual leave each year; a number of paid student-free days; and a raft of other benefits not typically available to workers in other industries.

I’ve heard the argument that teachers take a lot of work home with them, and I am not unsympathetic. But so do plenty of people in other jobs, often earning a hell of a lot less than a teacher does.

My point is that I think teachers are more than adequately remunerated for what they do — the importance of teaching as a vocation not in any way subject to challenge here — but it is my firm contention that if the teachers’ unions want more, their focus must be on improved outcomes rather than increasing the fortunes (literally) of the collective.

This is a point that has been repeatedly made by Victoria’s education minister, Martin Dixon, although it applies to every jurisdiction in the country.

Dixon simply says that the government is happy in principle to pay the best teachers more money (and for the record, it’s a position I not only endorse heartily, but am also an advocate of).

He also says that what the government is not prepared to do is to embrace a position by which underperformers are rewarded at the same level as those who deserve and merit higher pay for the better outcomes they achieve and again, I can’t argue with him.

The VTF can, however, and does; it says that it cannot and will not agree to any resolution of the current dispute in which differential rates of pay (i.e. the productivity route by which the government seeks to reward better teachers) leave any of its members “straggling” or create different tiers of remuneration for its constituency, the members of which “all do the same job.”

I’ll concede that quantifying and scaling teacher outcomes on an equitable and reasonable basis is a difficult question, but it is one that needs to be addressed.

And if that means that the likes of the Victorian Teachers’ Federation needs to pull its head in — or have it kicked — then so be it.

For the past six years we have witnessed the spectacle of a federal Labor Party making even more noise about education than it historically has — and “education” is something the Labor Party has arrogated to itself as its own issue for a long time.

Yet reality has not matched its rhetoric; Kevin Rudd campaigned on an “Education Revolution” wielding a laptop computer, proclaiming it to be “the toolbox of the future.”

After more than five years in government Labor’s laptops have not been distributed to schools in any comprehensive manner, and its education “revolution” has manifested itself in the form of a series of largely useless structures strewn across school grounds throughout Australia.

Now, Julia Gillard wants to commit upwards of $9 billion to the school sector to fund the so-called Gonski reforms; it has been made abundantly clear that she expects state governments to fund this particular adventure, but I would ask, very simply: will these so-called reforms make one jot of difference to educational outcomes?

I doubt it.

And this brings me back to my opening remarks on the failing standard of teaching the English language, and my criticisms of the perpetrators of those failings.

I once dated a girl who was studying for a Diploma of Education; having offered to type her assignments for her, I was amazed to find the handwritten drafts not just unintelligible, but that she had extreme difficulty even explaining what they were intended to communicate.

Ultimately — after I spent many hours rewriting them — the two assignments in question earned her the highest pass level available to students in her course; it’s something I have regretted being responsible for ever since, and something I’m sure the Queensland University of Technology would be aghast at.

But I am not singling anyone out here — rather, the illustration highlights to my mind the probability that where one such example exists, there are bound to be many, many more.

The problem we face is that there is a great number of excellent teachers who are well worth the money they are paid (and, in fairness, probably deserve more if it’s affordable to pay them accordingly).

There is also a large contingent of “teachers” who shouldn’t even be in the education system: incoherent and unable to accurately communicate, these people are taking good money to turn out students inadequately equipped for real life in the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic.

I know I am focused on the language side of the ledger here; the English language is my forte, whilst I do not even pretend to amount to a mathematician’s bootlaces.

Even so, what I am talking about is alarming enough.

Many so-called educators argue that accuracy is unimportant; that provided graduates are able to convey meaning and effect communication, it shouldn’t matter about such niceties as spelling, or punctuation, or grammar.

In other words, sloppiness and mediocrity are not only acceptable, they should be aspired to in the name of so-called teachers being allowed to hide behind their own incompetence.

And everyone has heard the contemporary stereotype that “spell check” has rendered such considerations irrelevant.

That might — on one level — have some substance, were it not for the fact that spell checkers themselves now perpetuate incorrect and inaccurate executions of the English language; type “aging” and “judgment” into the spell checker on the latest version of Microsoft Word, and it won’t miss a beat: those bastardisations of the language are now stock issue, it seems.

It’s the latest INSTALMENT in the degradation of language; even then, many spell checkers will seek to change “instalment” to “installment,” because slovenly contemporary practice has seen the latter (incorrect) spelling supersede the former.

And fire up your Apple device…and watch the so-called auto-correct function change any permutation of the three letters “its” to “it’s.”

It’s enough to drive you nuts when the computer wants it’s (incorrect) version to prevail.

Closer to home — and returning to the media — words such as flavour, saviour, candour et al are not correct when the “u” is omitted, despite what whoever sets editorial policy might proclaim, or the pap spouted to justify it.

Readers will also note I referred earlier to BASTARDISATIONS of the language, not BASTARDIZATIONS: this is Australia, not the USA.

The buck has to stop somewhere for all of this.

Teachers, if they cannot communicate accurately or use the language correctly, cannot expect to have usurious sums of money thrown at them to reward a culture of error and mediocrity.

Government policy makers — be they conservatives or social democrats — have a responsibility to address this, be it through additional training, modifications to curriculum, or through evaluation metrics used to gauge teacher performance.

And the community at large has a responsibility to hold both entities to account rigorously, to ensure coming generations receive the level and quality of education to which they are entitled, and which the vast sums of public money expended on education must deliver.

The teacher unions have a role to play, and I need to be clear about that point.

But they are not entitled to demand that society rewards an education culture that delivers utter mediocrity in terms of outcomes, and they must never be allowed to elicit huge monetary stipends for individuals who, on balance, are too incompetent and/or illiterate to justify the stain they place on their vocation, merely by virtue of their presence.

Winston Churchill once opined that anyone who could not write a sentence in good English must have very little of interest to say.

Alas, I fear it’s not so much a case of having anything of interest to say, but of having the means with which to say it; and when it comes to educational outcomes, “near enough” simply isn’t good enough.

If governments of whatever stripe wish to embark on an education “revolution,” perhaps they could begin by getting the basics right.