The Australian’s current campaign against the Government’s stimulus package has to be one of the more dishonest and hypocritical media campaigns of recent years.

Back in February, The Oz, in one of its typically ponderous editorials, spent 1500 words umming and ahhing about the Government’s stimulus package, adopting the Coalition’s line and comparing the Prime Minister to Gough Whitlam, declaring that tax cuts were superior to handouts (another Coalition furphy), and that there was “a faint aroma of pork”, but reluctantly concluding that the package was affordable and that the Government had no choice given the crisis it faced.

Since then, the Government’s decision has been vindicated by a regular stream of economic data that shows it has substantially ameliorated the impact of the global recession, to the extent that Australia is the best performing developed economy.

How that must stick in the craw at The Oz. Deprived of a legitimate basis for attacking the stimulus — that it didn’t work — they’ve resorted to attacking the implementation of the package in a series of articles and editorials this week. On Wednesday, there was a front page article by Natasha Bita about hundreds of millions of dollars of “Labor largesse” to private schools handed out in the infrastructure component of the second stimulus package. “Elite private schools that boast of their superior facilities were handed hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding for new libraries, halls and refurbished classrooms yesterday.”

That’s rich stuff — forgive the pun — from a newspaper that has played a key role in winning acceptance for massive taxpayer assistance to private schools. The debate about school funding is over and good policy lost. Australian taxpayers now fork out vast amounts of unmeans-tested middle class welfare via private school funding. Labor has given up trying to inject some basic equity and economic reason into the debate, and accepted the reality established by the Howard Government and its cheerleaders at The Oz. As recently as last October, The Oz attacked Labor leftie Julia Irwin for daring to suggest private schools got too much.

“The Australian supports choice in education as a means of reinforcing parents’ values, as opposed to the values of most teachers’ unions,” the editorial pompously intoned. “We also support better resourcing of all schools.” Well, until Labor does it.

Day two of the campaign saw a front page splash “Adviser slams school cash”, which detailed how Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman, a board member of Infrastructure Australia and one of the country’s leading experts on sustainability in urban planning, had “slammed the federal government’s $14.7 billion education revolution program, claiming it has missed a generational opportunity to build environmentally sustainable schools across the nation.”

For a member of a high-profile entity like Infrastructure Australia to come out and attack the Federal Government that appointed him would be a major story — if it happened. Newman yesterday told the Fifth Estate website he did not “slam the government”, that The Australian “blew out everything I said” and that he supports what the Government is doing.

Newman further told Crikey this morning that he thought The Australian’s sub-editors had twisted what had initially been a local Perth story about the inability of schools to access funding for sustainable infrastructure because of the WA State Government’s restrictive approach. Newman believes the twisting of his comments forms part of a broader Australian campaign to attempt to derail Government action against climate change. “I’m so sick and tired of being used by the media in this way,” he said.

Tony Barrass, The Australian WA editor, disputed Newman’s account when he responded to Crikey this morning:

Professor Newman has not lodged any complaint to the reporter concerned, his immediate boss (me) or the newspaper about the reporting of his comments. We rang him the day following publication. He did not return our calls. We have left numerous messages. I have listened this morning to the tapes of  two interviews [journalist Nic Perpitch] had with Professor Newman. There is no grey area here. There is no possibility that there was a misunderstanding. We rang him to discuss the federal Government’s $14b funding of the education revolution and the money coming into schools.

Barrass also noted that the quotes in the Perpitch article were accurate and that Newman had not been taken out of context.

Today front page — Day Three — “Millions handed to axed schools”, was about how stimulus package funding was going to schools about to be closed. The “grateful dead” from the other week also got a look-in.

“The revelation of grants to schools set for closure shows the federal government is effectively handing millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money to “dead” schools, in the same way it paid economic stimulus cheques to dead people’s estates earlier this year.”

Except, erm, on closer inspection, that wasn’t quite right, as the story itself admitted. In South Australia, 15 of the national total of 21 “axed” schools aren’t set to close — or, actually be amalgamated with other schools — until 2011, and eight of those are receiving funding for ICT equipment like electronic whiteboards. Which are, you know, able to be moved to other schools.

In fact the South Australian Education Department explicitly told the journalists that all the funding would go on transportable items. Still, apparently that’s a case of “millions handed to axed schools in stimulus debacle.”

The Oz ramped up its campaign with another epic editorial yesterday attacking the Government for “frittering away” money and, apparently, overdoing the stimulus.

While the government did nothing to cause the present crisis, the fact that Australia went into it with an economy that was being slowed was at least, in part, their responsibility. The risk now is that having decided that the global crisis imperils Australia, they will make a similar mistake and refuse to read the prevailing economic signs and adjust their settings to suit improving circumstances.

It also suggests there’s no more capacity to borrow in the event there is further need for stimulus. “And in using everything left by the Liberals and then borrowing tens of billions more, the government is already at full stretch.”

Clearly The Oz disagrees with RBA boss Glenn Stevens, who in a speech last week took great pains to say the opposite.

The size of the build-up in government debt in some of the major economies will surely become much more of a constraint on their fiscal room for manoeuvre over the next decade. Let me be clear that I am not talking about Australia here; rather, I have in mind countries where public debt could approach 100 per cent of annual GDP over the next few years.

The bold type is Stevens’s, not mine.

The idea that stimulus cash is being “frittered away” is nonsensical. The economic effect doesn’t differ if the money goes to private or public schools, on “axed schools” or ones that will be standing in a 100 years’ time. And spending on portable IT infrastructure is likely to yield as much or more long-term educational benefits as more classrooms or better playgrounds. Short of a wholesale Commonwealth takeover of the nation’s education systems, how was the Federal Government supposed to roll out the funding than through State educational systems, for all their faults?