After weeks of being accused of being indecisive, wishy-washy and all talk and no action, Kevin Rudd has retreated to his secure policy fortress of education and revealed a veritable armoury of canes, straps, bludgeons and other weapons of mass discipline.

The next stage of the revolution is at hand, and as with many other revolutions, it has an element of terror about it. States, schools and teachers had bloody well better shape up, because those who fail will be punished to within an inch of their lives and if necessary beyond.

There will, of course, be rewards for those who embrace the new order; the coffers will open and the money will flow. But there will be no middle ground, no room for excuses and no second chances. Toe the line, or you’re down the mine. We’ll teach the bastards.

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This robust approach has of course been welcomed by the Mr Whippys and Madame Lashes of the so-called education reform movement, most of whom enjoy unlimited space in The Australian; this is clearly designed to give the impression that the general public is weeping with delight and dancing in the streets at the prospect of their schools being subject to some kind of auto da fe.

This is clearly not the case, but it is true that most parents will probably gain some satisfaction from the idea that those entrusted with the education of their children will have to be more open and accountable to everyone, including themselves.

It is an unfortunate but rarely discussed truth that parents and teachers are natural enemies; both groups are certain that they know best about what is right for the children, and each has a tendency to blame the other when things go wrong.

The only time the groups unite is when they face their common enemy, the government, usually to demand more money. By promising to deliver to the winners, and by shifting the balance of power away from the teachers towards the parents, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have at least temporarily got the majority group on side. But while this is undoubtedly good politics, it does not automatically make it good policy.

One obvious worry is that the new model appears to be drawn largely from that of New York, recently visited by Gillard. She was impressed by the fact that the Americans have managed to achieve a real increase in basic skills, mainly literacy and numeracy. This is obviously worthwhile, but in the process they have clearly not also induced a passion for learning.

Most Americans end up either under-educated or at best very narrowly educated; American ignorance of anything outside America, or in many cases a single state, is both notorious and dangerous. This is not the path an internationalist like Rudd would want to tread.

Another problem is that it is not smart for a Labor government to treat teachers as potential enemies. The teachers’ unions have always been favourite scapegoats for conservatives, who portray them as cells of wild-eyed Marxists determined to overthrow society and destroy public morality by perverting innocent young minds. And it is true that the Teachers Federation in particular has generally been leftist and occasionally radical. But it has also been a strong intellectual base for Labor, and one of the few remaining non-apparatchik sources of worthwhile political recruits.

Certainly the government of John Howard regarded teachers as a hostile force, which is why when Brendan Nelson was Education Minister he sought to counter their malign influence by imposing a flagpole in every schoolyard and a poster of Simpson’s donkey in every classroom. In opposition, Labor was usually on the teachers’ side. It would be a shame to break up a longstanding alliance now by wielding a big stick when diplomacy could well serve the purpose.

And the same applies in spades to Labor’s punitive approach to truancy. Poor kids who habitually fail to turn up to school will now see their parents deprived of welfare in an attempt to starve the miscreants back to a sense of responsibility. Rich kids, whose families do not depend on welfare, will presumably still be able to skive off to their hearts’ content.

Apart from being clearly inequitable, this approach is both heavy-handed and silly. Children avoid school for many reasons, not all of which they are willing to reveal to their parents. In some cases the conflicts can be resolved by discussion and consultation; in others it may be necessary to change school. But it is hard to see that the process will be improved by threatening to remove what may well be the family’s principal source of income.

One must assume that the policy is actually designed for Aborigines: in isolated outback settlements it may have some effect. But to present it as part of a 21st century education revolution is simply unacceptable — the sort of bullying approach you might expect from a tin-pot hillbilly dictator in the style of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Rudd and Gillard can and must do better.

The efforts of the last week certainly deserve an A+ for populist politics, but would be lucky to gain a pass in the larger classroom of life. And the bad news from the Liberal Party is that the deadly Yellow Costello virus appears to be catching. When the best and brightest of his colleagues gathered to pay tribute to Pusillanimous Pete last week every one of them showed symptoms of infection.

The man himself insisted that it was neither a farewell nor a resurrection and indeed it wasn’t: it was just another episode in his interminable political prick tease. And not one of his slavish admirers had the ticker to tell his tormentor: “Look, Petey-pie, enough is enough: either come to bed or put your clothes back on and I’ll call you a taxi.”

Perhaps Tony Abbott was right: Costello really is the Liberals’ greatest asset. What a depressing thought.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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