There are some issues that fall into the “only Nixon can go to China” category — policy areas where one side of politics is helplessly locked into position because voters simply trust their opponents far more. Asylum seekers is one such issue in Australia, where Labor must stay in lockstep with the Coalition or risk being portrayed as soft on border security. Nuclear power is another — the Liberal Party is full of fans of nuclear power (and, presumably, the staggering taxpayer handouts it would require) but they dare not open their mouths for fear Labor will start asking which electorate would like a nuclear reactor put in their midst.
One of the more unusual achievements of the current Coalition government, under both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, is to turn education funding into such an issue — for themselves, not for their opponents.
Education funding used to be a Labor weakness. Voters thought Labor was more supportive of public school funding, particularly when the Howard government grossly favoured private schools in its funding, but Mark Latham destroyed Labor’s advantage by going after private schools. This allowed John Howard to portray him as a left-wing zealot hellbent on destroying the schools on his “hit list” — a phrase that still resonates today.
Years later, when Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett came to implement the Gonski education reforms, they were still hamstrung by Latham’s political ineptitude and had to promise that no school would be worse off — even though the Gonski education funding report made clear that the pressing need in our education system was to redirect resources to disadvantaged students.
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But the Gonski report and Labor’s commitment to it so resonated with voters the Coalition had to play along with it. Christopher Pyne hadn’t bothered reading the Gonski panel report before labelling it “a Conski”, but the government then made what would turn out to be an Olympian series of backflips, ending up endorsing Labor’s funding, albeit for only four years, before the 2013 election. That commitment was promptly abandoned within weeks of the election, in the first of what would turn out to be a long series of policy disasters by the Abbott government — before the backflip on the backflip was backflipped on. The fact that Pyne actually said he wanted to return to Howard’s discredited “Socio-Economic Status” funding model that favoured private schools confirmed what voters always thought — that the Coalition at the federal level is only interested in looking after private schools.
But it was on March 30 that Malcolm Turnbull turned school funding into an issue that is deeply toxic for his own side when he said that, as a result of the state income tax proposal he was pushing (remember that?), the Commonwealth would give up funding public schools and only fund private schools. Despite the best efforts of Education Minister Simon Birmingham to clean up the mess, Turnbull in effect had vindicated Labor’s long-running criticism that the Coalition hated funding public schools. Ever since then, the Coalition has been torn between its mantra that additional funding has no benefit for schools and trying to boast that its own funding arrangement with the states — announced in the May budget — would deliver a lot of, apparently superfluous, additional funding. Little wonder that voters trust Bill Shorten over Malcolm Turnbull to deliver public school funding — by a whopping 16 points in today’s Essential poll.
Now Birmingham is trying to argue that the funding arrangements nutted out by Julia Gillard in the last days of her government are “corrupt” and too complicated, and that a more rational and “equitable” funding arrangement with the states is needed. He has a point — because Gillard’s efforts at a multilateral deal were stymied at the Council of Australian Governments in April 2013, primarily by WA Premier Colin Barnett and then-Victorian premier Denis Napthine, she had to negotiate individual deals with the states, creating a patchwork funding model.
Trouble is, Birmingham is now running into the same problem Gillard did, only he doesn’t have any more additional funding to offer. NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, a strong supporter of Gonski, reacted furiously, warning that “we’re back to the bad old days where we’re going to be fighting regularly over school funding and that’s always going to come at the expense of students.” “We were so close to having a national system of school funding,” Piccoli lamented, “but what’s been put to us today, it just raises more questions than it resolves.” The Queenslanders promptly attacked him last week for talking about renegotiating funding; Victorian students “will be worse off under the Turnbull government’s plans to slash education funding” the Victorian government said.
There might be a strong element of politics in such reactions, but after March 30, why would any state premier, or for that matter any voter, believe that the Coalition is genuinely committed to public school funding? The Prime Minister sees public school funding as an encumbrance to be rid of. Birmingham may be coming to the issue with the purest of intentions, but the Coalition has long since forfeited any right to the benefit of the doubt on public school funding.
And just to give the matter a little hurry along, Tuesday morning Labor’s education shadow and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek issued a media release challenging Birmingham to reveal his “a secret hit list”, after Birmingham acknowledged the obvious on the ABC Monday night — that some private schools were overfunded. After what Howard did to Latham on the the issue, do you think Labor could possibly have resisted?