It’s bad when governments stuff up the politics of an issue. And it’s bad when they pursue poor policy. But the very worst political debacles are a combination of policy and political blunders. And Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s handling of schools funding is one for the ages. He’s single-handedly turned an ordinary start for the Abbott government — partly through no fault of its own — into a complete stuff-up. The government will either be defined by this, or learn from it and dramatically improve its performance.
Unlike most issues of government, education is not an esoteric matter for voters. It is persistently one of the most important issues in determining how people vote, just below the economy and health. It’s an issue that cuts through. And it’s an issue where voters don’t trust the Coalition as much as they trust Labor. So the first lesson should perhaps be not to wander, smirking, into a shed full of political dynamite and start lighting matches.
But whatever the damage to the government’s credibility, there’s also now nothing left of education funding policy except smoking ruins. The Gonski reforms are dead. The only thing that’s left is additional funding. Most commentators, bizarrely, have missed the point that the funding was never the issue in Pyne’s second backflip, last week (yes, we need to enumerate the backflips — the first was the pre-election “unity ticket” backflip). Pyne sought to make funding an issue, to use a fictional $1.2 billion cut in funding to Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory as a fig-leaf for his abandonment of the Gonski needs-based funding model. But the real issue was that abandonment, in favour of the Coalition’s preferred Howard-era socio-economic status (SES) funding model, which is why Pyne could no longer commit that every individual school would get the same funding under the Coalition as under Labor.
Now, with Pyne’s third backflip yesterday, at the instruction of his Prime Minister, there’s no funding model of any kind. States can direct the additional funding (for four years) wherever they like — which allowed Pyne to partially restore the promise about individual schools to say they wouldn’t be worse off “as a result of Commonwealth actions”. But there’s no requirement on the states to adhere to the needs-based funding model developed by the Gonski panel — a state could direct all the additional funding to wealthy private schools if it so desired.
Indeed, startlingly, there’s no need even for the states to provide the additional funding to which they themselves committed as part of their agreements with the Gillard and Rudd governments, or for the non-Gonski signatories not to cut their own schools funding to offset the additional funding announced yesterday. In as remarkable a policy moment as I’ve seen in many years, Pyne declared it would simply be “poor form” if the states cut education funding to offset the Commonwealth’s additional funding.
“What drove all this, apart from Pyne’s ineptitude? One is tempted to suggest ideology, but that doesn’t quite add up.”
There are no conditions. There’s no quid pro quo, no requirements, just a blank cheque and a weird threat of club-style disapproval if the states do what states always do unless prevented — cost-shift to the Commonwealth.
And, under the cover of removing the “command and control” elements of Labor’s reforms, there won’t even be any requirements to provide performance and resources information to monitor the effectiveness of additional funding. We won’t even know if, for example, schools with disadvantaged students are getting more money.
The national needs-based funding model and an effective performance and resources information system were every bit as central to the Gonski model as the additional funding. As the report itself originally pointed out, at the moment we don’t even know if resources are reaching disadvantaged students, let alone the extent to which they are benefiting from them.
The result, perversely is exactly what Pyne himself when shadow minister, and right-wing critics of the Gonski report, complained of — simply throwing extra money at state education systems without any effort to find out if it’s actually working.
At this rate, the only clear benefit from the extra billion dollars that Pyne has had to produce to fix this disaster is his delight that Labor had to rejig its question time attack yesterday. And where will that billion dollars come from? The government is refusing to say — it will be revealed in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. That means they want some clear air between this announcement and the revelation of what’s been cut — presumably among a number of other cuts to offset Treasurer Joe Hockey’s enthusiastic expenditure on the Reserve Bank and deteriorating revenue. That means it’s come from within Pyne’s own budget, and there’ll be some political pain from it. Not that Labor will be able to exploit it — after all, it was Labor that used higher education funding to partly fund its own contribution to Gonski.
What drove all this, apart from Pyne’s ineptitude? One is tempted to suggest ideology, but that doesn’t quite add up. Political pragmatism drove what turned out to be the original “unity ticket” lie from Abbott and Pyne. Then the Coalition’s obsession with supporting private schools kicked in and Pyne attempted to resurrect the Howard government’s SES funding model. Then he abandoned that after 24 hours. Now we’ve landed at some kind of states’ rights position — the states run schools, they can spend the money as they wish, we’re treating them like adults, etc, etc. Confused? You ought to be.
And a final point on this balls-up. If you’re an industry demanding a handout, or a rent-seeker wanting protection, you now have your political guide: this government can endure six days of bad headlines, tops, before they cut and run and start flinging money to make a problem go away. We better hope this disaster is a lesson for the government, rather than defines it.