A CLAIM to be an “Education Prime Minister” or to lead an “Education Party” is one thing; to act like it is another matter. As with most issues, Julia Gillard and Labor seem happy to jettison outcomes in order to sabotage the Liberals, and show no evidence of giving a rat’s rectum about Education at all.
Labor’s form, since Kevin Rudd proclaimed the party would launch “an education revolution” during the 2007 election campaign, has been woeful, to the extent there is little or no evidence of “a revolution” occurring in education at all.
Remember Rudd cavorting about with a laptop computer, claiming that “this (was) the toolbox of the future?”
Or the histrionically-titled “Building the Education Revolution” program, which amounted to a smattering of unusable buildings erected on school premises across the country, and paid for with billions of borrowed dollars from China?
All of that aside — and I say this purely in the context of federal Labor and its grandiose rhetoric — there is no tangible evidence after five and a half years that the Rudd-Gillard government has advanced educational standards in Australia, or educational outcomes, in any way, shape, or form.
It doesn’t matter that since the ALP took office, state Labor regimes (who pay for most of education spending anyway) have been booted out in NSW, Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory, with those in South Australia and Tasmania almost certain to suffer the same fate when they face voters early in 2014: it was federal Labor that made the promises, and it is federal Labor that has failed to deliver on them.
And it doesn’t matter that teacher unions win pay rises for their members every time their agreements with relevant state governments are up for renewal: with no disrespect intended to teachers, this is money that (rightly) benefits them, not their students; and again, salary arrangements between a state government and its teacher workforce do not in any way influence an “education revolution” of the type promised by Rudd in 2007.
And — to be clear — the promise and the pretence of an “education revolution” has never been abandoned by the continuing Labor government under Gillard — quite the contrary.
This brings me to the so-called Gonski reforms to overhaul funding arrangements for schools in Australia, with the headline figure of $14.5 billion of increased funding on school education over a six-year period.
I will just say — before I sink the boot into Gillard over her po-faced, “non-negotiable,” but politically strategic “reform” package — that anything that increases education funding should be received and reviewed favourably, especially if targeted toward actual improvements in educational standards and outcomes rather than simply bankrolling additional bureaucrats who deliver nothing of benefit to young minds in a classroom.
But that said, the debate over the Gonski reforms — and the package Gillard is attempting to force state Premiers to commit to — is a farce.
What was non-negotiable, according to Gillard, was a 2:1 funding “offer” in which the federal government would cover two-thirds of the costs, and the state Premiers the balance; it had to be signed off today — no ifs or buts.
Unsurprisingly, not a single Premier signed up — not even those from the two remaining Labor states — as suspicious state leaders realised in some cases they would get next to nothing, or that some school sectors would actually go backwards, and in any case refused to agree point-blank to the blackmail-style demand that they sign up — or else.
Tonight, there’s now a new deadline in June, and talk of a revision of the split between the Commonwealth and the states from 2:1 to 3:1, which amplifies the question of how the federal government is supposed to be able to afford such an extravagant measure.
And if there is no agreement then — which will happen, if the Premiers still find uncertain odours emanating from the “deal” — then presumably the whole thing falls in a heap, and Gillard goes looking for another ruse to pin her scant re-election hopes on.
So much for non-negotiability; the Premiers called Gillard’s bluff, and Gillard capitulated.
Gillard’s package, simply stated, is no more than an attempt to lock an incoming Abbott government into a Labor spending program that is unaffordable, inadequately costed, and unlikely to make a scrap of difference in terms of delivering outcomes.
Readers will of course recall the raid on superannuation funds the ALP is proposing to attempt to legislate before it leaves office; this was meant to form part of the looming horror budget Wayne Swan must deliver next month, but was brought forward as a direct result of the horrific numbers being leaked and on account of the public intervention of sacked frontbencher Simon Crean (who, until recently, was a member of the Gillard government’s Expenditure Review Committee, or “razor gang”).
Those changes — unlikely to ever be legislated, in my view — produce additional available revenue for the government of $1 billion, which Gillard has signalled will be redirected toward funding the Commonwealth’s share of the Gonski reforms.
This is in addition to $2.8 billion her government plans to rip out of the university sector; $2.3 billion of it in direct funding, and another $500 million in cuts to deductions for work-related self-education expenses that the bubble of self-importance Swan claims will result in a “more fairly targeted annual cap” of $2,000 per person.
Forget the rhetoric: this Labor government has committed to slash university funding by almost $3 billion over six years in a repudiation of its commitment to higher education and in apparent contravention of its “proud Whitlam tradition” of “free” university education for all Australians.
Even so, the question of where the money is coming from to fund the Gonski reforms is a potent and valid one and, it seems, a point Gillard is either unable or unwilling to satisfactorily explain.
She was interviewed by Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 program last night, and proved unable to give an adequate account of how funding could affordably be found for the package; faced with Sales’ persistent and blunt line of questioning, Gillard repeatedly referred to “the professionals at Treasury” as if this was somehow an answer.
That was after she talked herself into a virtual admission there was a $5 billion shortfall on the part of the Commonwealth in funding the reforms; Gillard had tried a bit of swift talking (savings are over six years, Gonski expenditure over four years) but a quick totting up of the numbers still produced a $5 billion hole that Gillard couldn’t or wouldn’t say how would be covered.
(My tip is savage cuts and hefty tax rises in the budget, as I’ve said before, but then I don’t expect much when it comes to Labor governments, or Gillard and Swan in particular).
The same response — droning on about “professionals at Treasury” — was deployed when Sales pointed out to Gillard, helpfully, that the funding “solutions” for the Gonski reforms (as well as other initiatives Labor is frantically trying to legislate) hit “a bottleneck” in 2015.
2015, conveniently enough, is after the federal election is out of the way and at a point in time at which an Abbott government will have to begin to think about re-election.
And remember, the starting point for the upcoming budget is likely to be a deficit of between $20 billion and $40 billion, with the exact figure largely dependent on how honest the government is about the advice from its beloved “professionals at Treasury.”
Let’s forget about whether more money should be spent on education — I don’t think anyone disagrees with that proposition if, indeed, there is actual money in the tin to spend.
I think Gillard and her government are using this issue like they’re using everything else: to sabotage an Abbott government, wreck its budgets, and ensure an almighty fiscal bomb detonates in Abbott’s face just in time for his re-election prospects to be seriously compromised.
To hell with any genuine concern for education in the process.
Unconvinced? Then consider this:
- A botched raid on superannuation which — if ever legislated — will raise $1 billion instead of the intended $3 billion;
- The attempt to ram Gonski reforms down the throats of state Premiers and force them to commit, in time for the package (and its recurrent costs) to be legislated well ahead of the September election;
- A similar modus operandi in the case of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which was recently agreed, but which will soak up billions more in recurrent expenditure which, like Gonski, has to come from somewhere;
- The refusal to modify the $23/tonne carbon price at the heart of Labor’s carbon tax in the face of the comparable rate in Europe collapsing to about $3; revenue assumptions in the budget as it stands rest on the higher figure, which means reality will dictate a further blowout in national finances;
- The attempt to legislate penalty rates and other union-dictated terms prior to leaving office, making it harder for Abbott to wind back the Fair Work junta that was a sop to Labor’s union masters.
There are other items that might be added to the list, but in the interests of brevity…
The point is that when taken altogether, a trend becomes obvious: Labor’s 2013 is proving an unusually active one, and when its legislative agenda for the year is compiled and viewed from an overall perspective, it becomes clear that Gillard and her cohorts are lining up a neat little list of measures to inflict as much damage as possible on their replacements in government.
It’s the type of endeavour which — if undertaken by a corporation rather than a government — would constitute white collar crime on an unprecedented scale, with prosecutions and jail terms and fines running to hundreds of millions of dollars rained down upon anyone involved in its perpetuation.
So much for education. Or the environment. Or anything else Gillard Labor, hand-on-heart, professes to be the national champion of the welfare of.