For Whom The Bell Tolls: ALP MPs Jump Ship

FOLLOWING this week’s replacement of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister by Kevin Rudd, Labor MPs are dropping like flies; walkouts from the ministry are almost at double figures, with many opting to leave politics altogether. It is mostly childish, and exposes others to a charge of extreme gutlessness.

Over the next few days — as Kevin Rudd’s regurgitated government takes firmer shape — we will be speaking in greater detail about the direction Rudd seems to want to head in, and how he’s shaping up.

The early portents are hardly promising; his insistence Tony Abbott’s policies would ignite a war with Indonesia being an irresponsible and petulant hint that despite his protestations to the contrary, he hasn’t learned anything in the three years since he was first deposed.

But tonight I want to take a look at those who deposed him, and — more importantly — things that were said about Rudd subsequently, particularly around the time of his failed leadership challenge of February 2012.

The one aspect of any return to the Prime Ministership by Rudd that was always going to be entertaining to watch was the kids in the sandpit packing up their bats and balls and going home, with some — petulantly — ensuring they could never return.

And so, as the days pass, it has increasingly proven.

In actions guaranteed to assist Tony Abbott to rip Rudd apart a second time as Prime Minister (and remember, had Abbott not taken him down in the first place, Rudd would never have been vulnerable to a coup in 2010), Labor MPs have expended a great deal of hot air talking about what a dreadful piece of work Rudd is.

He’s not a Labor man. He has no Labor values. He’s a maniac. He’s a psychopath. On and on it went, all gleefully stored in the Liberal Party vault for use in the runup to any election Rudd might subsequently lead Labor into.

Such an election is now approaching, and the first shot out of the locker has proven potent. For those who haven’t yet seen it, check this out.

With no irony intended, the chickens seem to be coming home to roost; and whilst not meaning to revisit the deliberately farcical effort from Liberal HQ earlier this year (OK, all right…you can view it here if you haven’t seen it) it seems clear that the queue at Labor’s exit hatch will take longer to clear, even now.

The latest departure is Climate Change minister Greg Combet; having resigned from the ministry immediately after Gillard’s loss of the leadership on Wednesday, he has added today that he will not contest his Newcastle-based seat of Charlton at the coming poll.

Combet’s retirement is said to have been coming for several months, although his support for Gillard was open and it is no secret he has little time for Rudd; even so, Combet himself admitted that the leadership change was “probably a catalyst” for his decision to quit.

I thought we would quickly run through who’s resigned from what thus far, and who — by omission — is glaringly obvious.

  • Julia Gillard — dumped as Prime Minister, retiring from Parliament
  • Stephen Conroy — resigned as ALP Senate leader and from the ministry
  • Craig Emerson — resigned from ministry, retiring from Parliament
  • Stephen Smith — serving as Defence minister until election, retiring from Parliament
  • Greg Combet — resigned from ministry, retiring from Parliament
  • Peter Garrett — resigned from ministry, retiring from Parliament
  • Wayne Swan — resigned from ministry, contesting parliamentary seat at election
  • Joe Ludwig — resigned from ministry, remaining in Senate
  • Nicola Roxon* — resigned earlier 2013 from ministry, retiring from Parliament

So far, names such as those of Tanya Plibersek and Kate Ellis – trenchant Rudd critics whose continued presence in any Labor ministry would appear grossly hypocritical at best — are mysteriously absent from the gaggle of MPs refusing to serve under Rudd.

Finance minister Penny Wong — a staunch Gillard supporter — is not only remaining in the ministry, but has accepted election as the ALP’s Senate leader, replacing Conroy; and Jenny Macklin, another Gillard supporter (and someone this column has a fair bit of time for) simply wishes to remain in Parliament and do her job as a minister.

Overall though — what a cesspool.

And as obsequious and contemptible as Rudd might be — and if anything, the free character assessments so freely offered by his colleagues collectively amount to a massive understatement — he is probably entitled to the clear air the stampede out of the ministry should give him.

Which is why those who were happy to engage in a character assassination of Rudd whilst he was on the backbench should probably now take their own places there as well.

Swan — a surefire loser in his own seat of Lilley under Gillard — has, curiously, announced his intention to stand again; to me this smacks of the lowest form of pusillanimity conceivable: Swan was to some extent the leader of the pack against Rudd, and now Labor has hope of stemming the anti-Labor tide, Swan is going to try his luck at the polls.

Another Queenslander, Graham Perrett in the highly marginal seat of Moreton, is another who has been flushed out as a fraud; his threat to immediately quit Parliament and cause a by-election were Rudd restored to the Labor leadership (seemingly to bring the government down) has amounted, predictably enough, to nothing.

And it warrants mentioning that of the 102 Labor MPs who voted on the leadership on Wednesday night, 45 voted for Gillard; by my reckoning — taking into account the nine who have left the ministry already, and including the odious Roxon, that leaves another 32 potential tantrum throwers to go.

Politics is politics, and what has transpired this week is mild compared to some of the things that this country has seen over the years.

But the ones who were all talk and no action when it really came to it are symptomatic of a culture that, in the end, stands for very little.

And the continuing torrent of resignations — and be assured, there are more to come — will simply feed the perception that far from taking steps to get its house in order, Labor remains little more than a directionless rabble at the mercy of competing whims and egos.

*Nicola Roxon included on account of her vociferous and vehement anti-Rudd outbursts despite the fact her resignation from Parliament was announced earlier this year.

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.

Deck Chair Dancing: Gillard Government’s Dud Reshuffle

The innocuous resignation — and pending departure from Parliament — of veteran ALP frontbencher Nick Sherry necessitated a reshuffle of Julia Gillard’s ministry. The result is a showcase of incompetence, indulged egos, political weakness, and a fatally flawed Prime Minister.

I’d like to say some nice things about Senator Sherry; he’s a good bloke who has faced a lot of personal adversity to have the career he has had.

He hasn’t revolutionised Australia; but he has been the quintessential quiet achiever, with the emphasis on “achiever,” who came back from that dreadful suicide attempt many years ago to be an honest, ardent and diligent Minister who added a bit of lustre to the government in which he ultimately served.

Unfortunately, his resignation has led directly to one of the grubbiest little exercises in partisan politics witnessed in this country for quite some time.

The ministerial reshuffle announced by Julia Gillard yesterday stinks; it reeks of payback, patronage, revenge and self-interest.

It will also cost the taxpayer a bit more money; more on that later.

It should alarm anyone concerned about politics in this country that Peter Garrett —  he of the “Pink Batts” fiasco, latterly charged with responsibility for schools forced to build useless structures under the so-called “Building the Education Revolution” scheme — was informed he was to be sacked, threatened to resign from Parliament, and thus was allowed to stay in the ministry.

It’s a pretty clear signal as to just how unstable Julia Gillard’s government is, and of just how unstable her leadership of it is.

And it’s pretty clear how far the threat of a by-election will get you at the moment; even with Liberal turncoat Peter Slipper in the Speaker’s chair, a by-election is the last thing Gillard wants, needs, or can afford.

Especially when there are other obvious time bombs like Kevin Rudd and Craig Thomson on the loose.

I have opined previously that the best thing Gillard could do would be to sack Rudd; a dangerous exercise to be sure, but the only way to remove a debilitating cancer eating away at her leadership and — as long as anybody other than Rudd leads it — at the survival prospects of the Labor government.

To use an Andrew Peacock phrase, as sure as night follows day Gillard faces a leadership challenge from Rudd early next year; she hasn’t sacked him, which will only embolden him, and allow him to continue to act as a magnet within Caucus to attract the leadership votes of the increasing number of disaffected Labor MPs.

But there you go; Gillard didn’t have the nerve or the verve to act against Rudd — even with an extra vote in the chamber as a short-term safeguard from an election, should a resultant by-election add a number to the Liberal Party tally.

There’s a clear risk the rumours that Thomson will face criminal charges early next year — leading to disqualification from Parliament and another by-election the Liberals are certain to win — will materialise into reality.

Yet Gillard has sought to use her reshuffle to spit in the eyes of her enemies, and to signal to the waverers that their doubts about her judgement are based in fact and not suspicion.

The demotion of former industry, innovation and science minister Kim Carr to a very junior portfolio as minister for manufacturing — supposedly as a result of Carr’s transfer of his leadership support to Rudd — is just too cute.

Carr — who is from the Left of the ALP, an entity I despise — has nonetheless been a relatively competent minister.

But competence, to Gillard, is no consideration.

She made the statement yesterday, in explaining her reshuffle, that it would give her government “the firepower” it needed for 2012 and, it was implied, in the lead-up to the election due in 2013.

That argument might be valid if not for the fact the overall composition of her ministry is virtually unchanged: aside from a couple of personnel changes mandated by resignation, the line-up is identical.

It’s only the seats on the proverbial deck that have changed.

Michelle Grattan, in today’s edition of The Age, made the observation (I believe, with tongue in cheek) that Gillard has now appointed a bunch of bright political salespeople who will get the message out.

Have they in the past four years?

Who are they? They’re the same group of people who were there last week.

It’s still basically the same team that couldn’t even communicate good news without damaging the Labor vote.

And I’d make the observation that they can’t be too bright if the Labor vote now languishes around the 30% mark.

Still, there are “positives.”

Ambitious egocentric Bill Shorten enters Cabinet; Greg Combet is promoted for his astute handling of the climate change issue (which not only is largely responsible for Labor’s freefall in the polls, but has been followed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol and all future similar treaties).

The size of the cabinet has been expanded from 20 to 22, meaning the Australian taxpayer is liable for two additional fat salaries in exchange for Gillard buying off people who would otherwise have caused trouble for her leadership had they been on the receiving end of a straight sacking.

And we have Gillard explaining that expansion of Cabinet by saying that the additional  numbers are the result of the “increased breadth of the Labor reform agenda.”

Er…no, they’re not the result of that.

And the so-called Labor “reform” agenda is a dubious entity at best.

You see, all Gillard has done is to buy people off, keep certain interests quiet, stave off multiple sources of insurrection, and purchase her useless tenure as Prime Minister a little more time within the closed citadel that is the ALP.

This reshuffle has been grubby; it has (as reported) rewarded and promoted allies and cronies, and punished and demoted enemies and dissidents — real, perceived and/or imagined.

Tony Abbott has been right to criticise the arrangement and he has been right to criticise Gillard’s failure to act against Kevin Rudd: in purely political terms, Rudd must be discarded from the government, and as Gillard hasn’t done it now, she never will.

Which in turn means Rudd will fatally wound Gillard, even if he isn’t the recipient of the prize when Gillard’s leadership collapses next year.

No no no, Tony Abbott — again — has correctly read this situation.

For Gillard, she’s reshuffled the deck chairs, and is smug about the look of the arrangement.

But at what cost…at what cost?