Know that internet debating rule that the first person to invoke a comparison with the Nazis loses? Perhaps we need a similar one for comparisons to North Korea.

Glenn Milne today called the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister “Dear Leader and Dear Madam Leader” over the Government’s insistence that stimulus package projects in schools be badged as Government-funded.

We’ll get to the signs business in a tick, but imagine if any journalist or commentator during the Howard years had compared the then-Prime Minister to Kim Jong-il. Oh how the conservatariat would have howled about what a gratuitous insult it was to Howard and the millions of victims of Stalinist tyranny in North Korea. And, despite their hypocrisy, they’d have been right. The Kims were and are mass murderers on a scale surpassed only by Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Comparing any democratic leader or, for that matter, even your run-of-the-mill dictator, to them is highly offensive.

But Milne, who makes his living channeling the Liberal Party and big retailers, evidently feels it’s OK.

The Government’s insistence on signage for its projects is weird and offensive. But there’s something in all politicians’ DNA that prevents them from seeing this. All governments, all politicians, insist on such attribution when they can. The Howard Government was obsessive about such matters and drew up lengthy rules to ensure that its responsibility for funding infrastructure was always, and generously, recognised — particularly if there was any danger of infrastructure users being confused about whether a state government might have provided it. That thought particularly mortified Howard and his ministers, and inspired tens of millions of dollars’ worth of signs across the country telling motorists that they were driving on a Commonwealth-funded stretch of tarmac. The Howard Government also banned its agencies from using their own logos and insisted on the use of the Commonwealth coat of arms on all advertising.

Now we’re getting the same nonsense from Julia Gillard, although she hasn’t gone to the extent of Laurie Brereton, who insisted on sticking a giant version of his signature on everything in Sydney in the mid-80s.

But it might do to remind Milne and others of some other history about Commonwealth funding in schools. Go back five years and Brendan Nelson was insisting that in order for schools to get access to additional funding — funding that only in part replaced the transfer of Howard Government funding from public schools to private schools — they had to have a flagpole. To his credit — Nelson was, after all, a decent bloke — he offered schools $1500 if they needed to install a such a thing.

Nelson didn’t require a sign to indicate Commonwealth funding in schools. Instead, he demanded that Government MPs had to attend its opening. “Where the Government has made a significant investment of hard-earned taxpayers’ money in a program it makes no apology whatsoever for requiring that a Government representative will officiate at that opening,” Nelson piously declared when criticised.

Gillard has done the same thing. She, too, requires that a representative be present at the opening of new facilities funded under the stimulus package.

But Nelson and Howard went further, using public schools as part of a campaign to link the Government with the crass nationalism of which Howard was so proud. You know what I’m talking about — the nationalism of concerts at Anzac Cove, green-and-gold tracksuits and an assumed right to control of any foreign soil on which an Australian may have died in battle. Nelson also demanded the “prominent display” of that bizarre “Values for Australian Schooling” poster with Simpson and his donkey in the background (Leunig’s “Simpson and his Rooster” being unavailable for copyright reasons, presumably). It was never clear whether Nelson was aware that the man he was lauding to Australian kids was British, an illegal immigrant and a revolutionary socialist. But Nelson also took the opportunity at the time to publicly lecture Islamic schools that they needed to teach Australian values. A little later, Howard provided funding for chaplains in public schools.

In short, under the Howard Government, our kids’ playgrounds and schoolrooms were co-opted not merely for publicity purposes but as part of an attempt to define the Coalition as an intrinsic part of Australian statehood. This Government is doing something similar, as part of an effort to paint Labor as the only side of politics interested in stimulating the economy and investing in education. But it’s nowhere near as egregious as what went on under the last mob. Maybe Glenn could discuss that next week.

Peter Fray

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