And so we have a narrative, or at least the start of one.
The Prime Minister isn’t mucking round when he talks of being at the reforming centre of Australian politics. With the truancy-welfare bill and yesterday’s education announcements, Rudd has adopted some decidedly Howardesque policy positions.
The Opposition is working hard to claim credit for Rudd’s proposals to link education funding to greater school accountability and performance pay, even if their own efforts fell foul of the Labor states. But the proposals strongly complement a key emerging theme of the Rudd Government — consumer empowerment.
This is the idea behind making it easier to transfer between banks — however clunky the new arrangements, behind Fuelwatch, behind the drive to improve hospital performance indicators, behind the Grocerychoice website and unit pricing, and now behind the way Rudd and Gillard want to enable parents to work out how their school is performing.
The approach is easily mocked, and of course has been. Providing information looks wimpy, and bureaucratic. Any benefits that arise are long-term, rather than the immediate fix everyone demands. But better informed markets operate more efficiently. Better informed consumers can exploit competition better and obtain lower prices and better deals. It’s not Government intervention, price-fixing or regulation — which is presumably what critics of such proposals would prefer — and all the better for it.
In each case, there are vested interests that prefer to operate in, if not secrecy, then with consumers acting with less than full information. Oil companies. Big retail. The banks. And education and health bureaucracies.
One of the most telling reactions to the Rudd plan was contained in Justine Ferrari’s item in The Oz:
Some states believe publishing information about the ethnic make-up of a school and the socio-economic status of parents would be counter-productive.
That’s code — an unsubtle code — for “parents are bigots who don’t know as much as we do about what’s best for their kids.”
Some parents will undoubtedly make biased and unjustified educational decisions based on the additional information the Commonwealth wants to see them getting. But that’s their right as parents and as consumers. That’s why Rudd yesterday was so keen to declare that if parents used performance information to vote with their feet, well, that was partly the point of the exercise.
Rudd and Gillard will probably also be delighted if teachers’ unions react with fury to the proposals. Parents like their kid’s teachers, but hate their unions. The more union leaders condemn the proposals, the more it will position the Government nicely at the political centre, where it wants to be seen. The notion of a Government run by the unions — or out to get private schools — never looked so absurd.
Getting a front page run on newspapers as diverse as The Daily Telegraph, The Oz, The AFR, The Age and SMH won’t hurt politically either.
Driving this reform through COAG might also be easier than previous attempts at “cooperative Federalism” like the Murray-Darling Basin. With water, doing nothing was not an acceptable option for Rudd, so all the negotiating power lay with recalcitrants like Victoria.
Here, doing nothing means the States miss out on funding, so all the power is with the Commonwealth. The States have already agreed to more benchmarking of hospital performance. But the States are the ones that will have to drive the shift to performance assessment and develop the performance data — and deal with striking teachers.
Meantime, the Rudd-Gillard narrative starts to take shape. It might lack the drama of the big reforms of the Hawke Government, but it should yield significant long-term benefits, especially when applied to public services that for too long have kept their users in the dark.