It is impossible to make sense of anything in the budget without reference to the election, of course, but it is also impossible to make sense of it with reference to nothing else.

So before we get down to the realpolitik, credit where credit is due: Julia Gillard and her government have tried, really tried to do the right thing by schools, and their idea about what’s the right thing, for all its flaws and limitations, for all the klutziness of its political management, is by far the best on offer. And that’s one reason why schools were up there in lights with the NDIS on budget night.

Then there’s election calculus. Gonski and the NDIS got star billing because the government believes that its only chance on September 14 is to run a “Labor values” campaign, as exemplified by these two grand programs. They not only serve to distract from the deficit; they can even be represented as justifying it, as the responsible policies of the party that cares about the vulnerable and the young.

There is an important difference between Gonski’s political value and that of the NDIS. Everyone wants the NDIS, including the states and the federal opposition. It is a done deal, whatever the election outcome. Gonski is not, and therein lies both a problem and an opportunity for the government.

The problem is to make Gonski look real in the face of stiff resistance to it from Victoria and Queensland and outright rejection from WA, and in the face of perceptions that any deal may mean little after the election.

Gillard is doing everything possible to counter those perceptions, including passing empty legislation at the end of last year and this week rolling out 10-year spending projections.

The only real help she has received has come from NSW. Its (Coalition) government, a strong and principled supporter of Gonski from the outset, is the first and only state so far to sign up. It seems to have taken the view that since Labor’s indexation of future spending is better than the current scheme, what’s to lose? If Labor can get the other Coalition states to support its scheme on similar grounds, then the opposition has a problem.

Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has so far had three positions on Gonski. First he promised that an Abbott government would repeal any legislation giving effect to Gonski. Then he said that he would look at some way of incorporating Gonski’s needs-based “loadings” into the current model. Most recently Pyne has said that he’ll go with Gonski if the states’ support for it is unanimous. But just a week after Pyne said this, his leader declared that the present funding model ain’t broke — so he’s not going to fix it.

“What might an Abbott government actually do? History provides some suggestions.”

All that is music to Gillard. It also poses interesting questions about the likely future. What might an Abbott government actually do? History provides some suggestions.

The last federal government to be hyperactive on education was the Whitlam government (1972-75). Then as now Labor promised big increases in schools funding. Then as now Labor introduced an entirely new funding model. Then as now the economy soured just as the scheme was ready to roll out, and then as now that led to a relatively austere budget (the famous Hayden budget of 1975).

Then as (probably) now, Labor lost office soon after. But most of Labor’s schools programs survived. They were trimmed, and there was a lot less pushing from Canberra and a lot more buckling to the states, but there was no return to the status quo ante.

That the Fraser government did so little to wind back the Whitlam reforms came as a surprise to many. Will we be surprised again? There is an extra degree of uncertainty this time because there is such a wide range of opinion in the Coalition.

Views in conservative ranks range all the way from those who believe that the Commonwealth should leave schools to the states, and that new money for schooling will disappear into the sands, to those who think that federal money is the bulwark of non-government schools, to some (including the Coalition in NSW) who are genuinely sympathetic to the Gonski idea that schools doing the hardest educational job should get the most money. Presumably one ingredient of the tussle inside the Coalition will be calculations about whether it needs to take Gonski out of play by promising to implement it, as with the NDIS.

There is no risk-free future for Gonski even if, against the odds, and unlike 1975, Labor wins. The government’s “Gonski” is already much smaller than Gonski wanted, and has fewer teeth. And 10-year budget projections notwithstanding, any coming government will face significant, perhaps serious budgetary difficulties. Unfortunately any Labor commitment, even for a year, let alone a decade, comes at a heavy discount.

*Dean Ashenden was ministerial consultant to federal Labor minister for education Senator Susan Ryan

Peter Fray

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