Schools Funding: Once Again, Turnbull Tills Labor’s Electoral Soils

UNBELIEVABLY, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has handed Labor ammunition for another big scare campaign — this time on Education — that will hound him until polling day; regardless of the merits of any underlying principles or the possibility Turnbull has been misunderstood, he has given the impression the Coalition would fund private schools whilst abandoning public schools to the states. It is a flirtation with electoral Armageddon.

Hot on the heels of Malcolm Turnbull’s “initiative” to provide limited income taxing powers to the states (which can be raised after four years) to fund hospitals in exchange for the termination of some federal government grants — accurately described, I believe, in this column yesterday as a stinking, festering turd — the Prime Minister has continued laying the groundwork for the Labor Party’s election campaign, this time suggesting schools funding should be included in the recalibration of income tax arrangements and going so far as to virtually declare that the Coalition intends to continue to fund private schools whilst leaving full responsibility for public schools to the states.

There’s no need to doubt my word on it: the comments were made on ABC Radio National’s breakfast programme yesterday, and you can listen to Turnbull’s interview with Fran Kelly here.

And if you can’t be bothered listening to Turnbull blather on for quarter of an hour, left-wing media portal Crikey! — always happy to leave what it thinks is the material most damaging to the Coalition outside its paywall — nailed Turnbull’s misdemeanour in a crisp, clean post yesterday that you can access here.

I must make a point of clarification about the scathing article I published on the hospitals issue yesterday: nobody denies the recurrent funding of services like Health and Education is a never-ending problem, not least in the case of Health, where growth in real costs far outstrips CPI growth and has done so for years, and only an idiot would suggest that the total cost of providing both suites of services is within the scope of the states to meet on the current configuration of federal-state funding arrangements.

And it may very well be that the PM and his acolytes are clutching reams of documentary evidence to back their contention that what they are advocating not only adds up, but that nobody will be worse off (as they claim), that the states will have no need to raise the stipend of income tax the proposals will effectively enable them to levy, and that growth from the tax changes will cover Health and Education costs, in full, and in perpetuity: in short, proof that what they advocate is a stroke of policy brilliance.

But I doubt it.

Yet even if it was, or is, the politics of what Turnbull is doing is horrific; already, opposition “leader” Bill Shorten is running around, as expected, screeching about “double taxation” and ranting about vast tax increases for average wage earners whilst the nasty Turnbull government viciously slashes funds that should pay for treatment for the sick and the infirm.

It is all bullshit — just as I signalled yesterday that it would be — but in a sign of just how poor his judgement and/or the “strategic” advice he is receiving really is, Turnbull has now handed Shorten what is tantamount to a direct quote, with an audio track to match, for use in propaganda to allege the Liberal Party is planning to abandon state school funding altogether.

Never mind that this kind of material from Labor is misleading, deceptive, and filled with lies: even if Turnbull somehow persuades the reluctant state premiers to buy into his tax changes, the states will still receive funding to pay for schools and hospitals. It will just be accounted for differently, although as we have already seen over the past 36 hours, the endless bickering over exact amounts and whether these represent “cuts” or not will remain a feature of Commonwealth-State relations as it has been for decades.

But what Turnbull told Radio National yesterday morning will resonate with ordinary voters far more than the finely nuanced intricacies of the funding arrangements themselves, irrespective of whether you think they’re just great or a festering mess.

Explaining that the federal government — if its proposed changes were enacted — would continue to provide financial support to private schools directly, whilst allowing the states to assume full responsibility for funding public schools, Turnbull said

I suspect no federal government would retreat from funding and continuing to support the non-government school sector because there would be a concern that they would not get a fair go from state governments who obviously would have a competing interest with their schools.”

Rather lamely, he has since added that there would be little point expecting the states to assume funding responsibility for the independent schools sector as such an expectation would be predicated on asking the states to fund something that sat “in competition” with their own product.

Just for a moment, let’s set aside the question of whether Turnbull’s tax changes have any merit whatsoever, and focus purely on the politics of the Health and Education announcements of the past few days.

Turnbull has quantified the value of the income tax amount he and treasurer Scott Morrison have earmarked for allocation to the states: they say it’s 2% of income tax revenues, or $14 billion (although how 2% of $150 billion per year equals $14 billion is unknown, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt).

Turnbull has also made firm his earlier indication that Commonwealth grants to the states would correspondingly be reduced, producing a revenue-neutral transfer of accountabilities: that is, that other Commonwealth grants to the states would be cut by $14 billion. This, too, was explicitly spelt out in his interview with Kelly yesterday morning.

Whether the “reforms” Turnbull and Morrison are attempting to sell to sceptical state Premiers are creditable or not, one thing that is abundantly clear is that they are so detailed, heavy on bureaucratic concepts and jargon, and convoluted that the average voter — and I mean no offence to those who fit the category — couldn’t care less about the finer points and will make no effort whatsoever to avail themselves of same.

So here’s how the story will run for floating voters in marginal seats that will decide this year’s election, as framed by the ALP and its imbecilic “leader.”

  1. The Liberals will cut $14 billion from Health and Education funding to the states annually.
  2. The Liberals will refuse to spend a cent on the education of the majority of Australian schoolkids, who attend public schools.
  3. The Liberals will continue to pour money into elite private schools to the benefit of the families of their richest mates and corporate donors.
  4. The mean, nasty Liberals are planning to wipe their hands of any responsibility for public schools and hospitals across Australia — so don’t vote for them.

And do you know what? Hundreds of thousands of gullible swinging voters, who want to hear what they want to hear and to believe it, will listen up and take note.

I may not be doing this issue the justice I would have liked; a relatively short post this morning was the alternative to no post at all, as I have rather a busy day ahead.

But you have to wonder whether Turnbull and his “brains” trust are oblivious to the political damage their handiwork is exposing the Coalition to, or whether they even care: for so brazen are the poorly chosen words in which all of this is being framed for public consumption, the distinct impression given is that they will crash through — or crash — with nary a care for the consequences.

When I remind readers that I don’t think it’s even the right package of reforms to set out ahead of the election — not least given the hurried, almost panicked way in which all of this appears to have been thrown together — the judgement that Turnbull is wilfully flirting with political mortality becomes almost irresistible.

A different path to solving the funding issue (in Health at least) is laid out in a piece by Queensland LNP leader Lawrence Springborg that appears in today’s issue of The Australian; whilst I’m on record as agitating for him to be removed from the LNP leadership — and quickly — before a possible snap state election, I have also repeatedly opined that as Health minister in Campbell Newman’s government, his performance was excellent.

Springborg should be listened to on this issue, but he won’t be: not even by his Coalition colleagues, who stand to benefit the most were they to do so.

For just as the Coalition proved spectacularly inept at selling anything on the watch of Tony Abbott, its sales and communication skills have improved, under his replacement, only marginally at best.

All of this is writing a campaign playbook for the ALP that Shorten and his buddies couldn’t have wished for in their wildest delusions.

And given the movement in electoral sentiment over the past couple of months has been sharply away from the government — and from Turnbull in particular — the risk of electoral defeat is now all too real.

The coming federal election is Turnbull’s to lose and, based on the government’s output this week, you’d have to say he is making a reasonable fist of doing exactly that.