When Julie Bishop was appointed Minister for Education, many believed that a respite from Brendan Nelson’s hyperactive culture wars was in prospect. Early signs were that this was indeed the case, with Bishop taking a thoughtful and consultative approach to issues in her portfolio. But as the slings and arrows cast against the outrageous Maoists currently infesting teachers’ unions and state education bureaucracies indicate, Bishop has become Nelson – though without the seemingly ADHD approach to bomb throwing. What explains Bishop’s culture wars posture?

It’s more than just the relentless drive for centralisation and the anti-federalist politics that are characteristic of today’s Liberal Party. Though this is certainly a factor. Jeff Kennett, for one, has drawn the obvious moral – the powers Howard grabs today will one day be used by a Labor federal government. Only a mindset which believes the Coalition will be in power eternally explains the obvious political danger of arrogating massive power to the Commonwealth that will one day be used to advance Labor priorities.

Bishop may or may not believe that “back to basics” and an end to the alleged postmodernist disease in education is a necessary and good thing. But behind her current stance are two more mundane political imperatives.

The polls show, and Howard’s political antennae will confirm, that the political environment for the Coalition going into an election year is by no means a comfortable one. The Howard battlers in particular will be worried by WorkChoices and interest rates. It’s a classic move out of the political playbook to attack your opponent on an issue they have made their own. Labor usually polls well on education. But the PM’s belief is that the socially conservative suburban voter will shun “progressive” educational experimentation and that a 3Rs campaign will resonate. Attacking state Labor governments also damages the ALP’s brand federally.

There’s no doubt that a large impetus for Bishop’s anti-Maoist agenda is direction from the micro-managing PM. But she’s also no doubt read her own publicity. Given that she’s perceived as a moderate, what better way to set up a campaign for the Deputy Leadership than to tub-thump against the dreaded postmodernist elites?

Education is an inherently dangerous business. Teachers can never quite predict what use their students will make of the lessons taught. Dr Nelson may have inadvertently taught Bishop something about the political uses of education that she can now use against him.

Peter Fray

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