A funny thing happened on the way to the 2016 federal election. The Labor opposition started to win some arguments. One hesitates to claim any kind of intellectual supremacy in the reductive brute business of Oz politics, but there’s no denying that Labor has forced Turnbull and his team, in strict policy terms, to go into this election sounding both reactive and defensive.

Who would have thought it?

No one was predicting at the start of the year that the Liberals would end up echoing the Labor argument that superannuation concessions are too generous and that tobacco taxes would have to rise. On other fronts, it’s been Labor that has pushed for greater scrutiny of the country’s banks and financial institutions, along with a plan to stop the party for property speculators, and wind back negative gearing. While you would not want to place a bet on either idea taking off in the near future, all credit to Bill Shorten and his shadow treasurer Chris Bowen for being prepared to tackle some tricky public policy issues.

We should all be alert in the weeks ahead to the predictable blow-back from the banks and those representing property interests, as they pour vast amounts into advertising and special pleading. In any democracy worth the name, this kind of activity would be banned — the Canadians, for instance, prohibit any third-party advertising after the election has been called — but that is a subject for another day.

So what’s ahead? Shorten goes into this campaign with some substantial negatives — the biggest being the carry-over baggage from the Rudd/Gillard era. And not withstanding the more than solid work of the past few months, the Opposition Leader’s primary point of definition with voters remains the image of him as the backroom bloke on the phone, the lethal man in the shadows. While his public presentation is a big improvement on the vaudevillian acts of 2015, he lacks Turnbull’s rhetorical flair and capacity to express confidence in the national story. No Yeatsian flourishes from the Member for Maribyrnong.

The flip side of this, and it will matter in a tight race, is that so far Shorten hasn’t fumbled too much, whereas Turnbull, for all his talents, keeps making basic mistakes. One might say the best lack all nuance, given Turnbull’s revealing rejoinder to Jon Faine on ABC Radio last week, when the PM suggested that 20-somethings could get a leg-up in the housing market if well-off dads like Faine provided the necessaries. From Turnbull’s point of view it was a bit of realpolitik. In 2016 social mobility in the lucky country is dependent on the family into which you are born and the extent to which your parents have prospered. Assuming there aren’t too many siblings (who wants to share the dosh?) intergenerational wealth transfer is now the passport to the good life. Look, Jon, everyone understands this in Wentworth.

This is a gift for Labor, and Shorten’s success or otherwise may turn on the extent to which he can take this seigneurial attitude of Turnbull’s and cast it as a series of questions about whether a ride up the social elevator is still available for all Australians. Is it harder for you to buy a home in the capital cities? Is it harder for you to secure the education you want for your child? Labor’s policy position, of a change in negative gearing and a commitment to the full funding of David Gonski’s needs-based formula, provide a respectable platform from which to argue that Labor is the party prepared to invest in and maintain the Australian egalitarian ethos.

Against this is Turnbull’s appeal to a still-latent entrepreneurial culture of innovators, but the obvious pivot here (assuming Labor spokespersons can avoid sounding like pre-digital luddites and knuckle-draggers) will be in linking advocacy of Gonski funding to the rebuilding of faith in public education. As demographer John Black has pointed out, this is an issue that cuts across class. Transparent school data is driving a shift back to public schools, particularly in wealthier city suburbs. The cost-conscious middle-class parent is having a bit of a re-think about the value of spending upward of $20,000 in private fees and concluding that the local comprehensive can deliver a good academic result and a decent ATAR. Of course, it’s a case of “lucky you”, if you have a house in an affluent area where the public schools draw on a cohort of engaged students with a high socio-economic status.

The challenge for Shorten — and indeed for Turnbull, if he listens to his eastern suburbs friend David Gonski — will be in reviving strong community support for significant extra investment for our poorer schools. As Gonski and fellow reviewers such as Dr Ken Boston and Kathryn Greiner documented, Australia has developed a system of extreme social segregation. One-third of all Australian schools serve a student population where the average socio-economic background of students is below the national average. The social profiles of these students, along with their available life choices, won’t change without extra investment in transformative and evidence-based strategies.

A forthcoming documentary series, due to start on ABC TV in late May and to run throughout June, will look at one of these schools, Kambrya College in Melbourne’s Berwick. It’s a place that has had a remarkable turnaround under the leadership of principal Michael Muscat and now successfully prepares more of its students for tertiary training than ever before. But it’s a daily struggle. and there is still plenty to shock, such as the exceptionally low literacy levels of many of the junior high school pupils, as well as the confronting behaviour of others. But its great value, on the strength of some of the footage I have seen, is that it shows how hard and complex is the whole business of modern education.

The take-out, for some, may be “thank god my kid is not there”. The responses of those who seek to lead us requires something else. An understanding, backed by resources, that every student who attends a school like Kambrya deserves a rich set of choices. Beyond that, the hope and capacity to live in an Australia that is still prepared to share the bounty.

The election may well turn on the ability of the contenders to persuade a coming generation that their future isn’t necessarily dependent on the choices made by mum and dad.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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