This is a story of how a party is pursuing a fiscally sensible and socially fair reform but is being fought by cynical political opponents in alliance with a vested interest that is used to getting its own way at taxpayers’ expense. 

The advocate of sensible and fair reform is Education Minister Simon Birmingham. The cynical opportunists are Bill Shorten’s Labor Party and the vested interest is one of the world’s richest institutions, the Catholic Church.

The government’s Gonski 2.0 package, eventually passed in parliament last year, was probably the Coalition’s 10th or 11th separate policy position on schools funding since the original education funding review by David Gonski. But while it took them long enough, they eventually reached the right place — a full acceptance of the basic Gonski formula of per-student funding with weightings for disadvantage, and an end to the privileged place that Catholic schools had occupied in federal funding for nearly two decades.

Under the Howard government, private schools, and especially Catholic schools, won the lottery: federal funding per private student increased at six times the rate of federal funding per public student — all part of John Howard’s fantasy of taxpayers funding the transformation of Australians into shareholding, private-school-and-health-care-using, McMansion-owning contractors. Under the government’s Gonski 2.0 formula, instead, the federal government will provide 80% of non-public school funding and 20% of public school funding.

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That’s bad news for the Catholic system because they’re already close to 80% federal funding and many wealthy Catholic schools are way over it, so that means smaller increases than those promised by Labor in the Gillard years. The Gillard approach, remember, was to prevent any Latham-era “hit list” scare campaigns by promising that no school would miss out on funding under its version of Gonski. Even so, funding for Catholic schools under Gonski 2.0 is going to increase by 3.5% every year over the next decade — almost twice the inflation rate. Imagine Australians workers enjoying wage rises of that level. And to get the Gonski 2.0 funding package through last year, the government agreed to give an additional $50 million to Catholic and other private schools to help them “transition” to the new arrangements. 

But the Catholics want everyone to forget that the Howard-era lottery win ever happened — they dismiss the fact that they’re already near 80% as the result of “flaws in the system in the past”  and a “retrospective argument” that should be ignored. They also would prefer people forget that the Catholic Church has the privilege of divvying up its school funding how it sees fit — meaning it can transfer funds from wealthy schools to the lower-income schools that get dragged as examples every time one of The Australian‘s Catholic journalists wants to run a sob story about how unfair the government is being.

Labor — a party in which revenge is never too cold a dish to be served with glee — has delighted in reversing the dynamic of the Howard years and posing as the protector of Catholic schools. The issue is especially potent in Victoria, and Labor used the issue to palpable effect in Batman, even thought the Liberals were missing from the fray. The government will be quietly worrying about what impact the issue will have at the coming election, especially after Birmingham’s ill-advised quip comparing Catholic schools executives to Judas (though Labor can spare us the confected outrage about that).

Labor’s cynical exploitation of the issue will almost certainly cost taxpayers, since the government is going to have to resolve the issue by throwing more money at the Catholics. That won’t just hurt the budget, but distort the funding framework, and undermine a key reform that, at long last, promises to establish fairness and efficiency as the primary drivers of federal funding. It’s deeply disappointing stuff from an opposition that has, in other policy areas, been a lot better than we’re used to.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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