Opposition leader Peter Dutton (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

As thousands of NSW teachers took to the streets over a fight for better classroom conditions last week, Peter Dutton was setting his sights on a different kind of battle over education. 

The new opposition leader recently emphasised the issue as part of the opposition’s path back to government. “There is a lot of non-core curriculum that is being driven by unions and by other ­activists that parents are concerned about,” he told The Australian’s political editor Simon Benson.

Don’t be fooled by the standard red-meat-for-the-base bashing. Dutton’s call to arms is more than just a routine attack on the usual Liberal Party enemies; it’s inspired by the success of his international political counterparts at reframing education as a conservative-favouring issue.

Last month, Crikey reported on how Dutton’s signposting about education as a political battleground in one of his first interviews as opposition leader seemed to draw inspiration from the United States. In recent years, state and local Republicans have capitalised and encouraged confected fears about critical race theory or gender theory in curricula to scare parents about what’s being taught to their children. 

In an attempt to avoid an unfavourable comparison to the book burning of the 1970s and the obvious hypocrisy of the so-called “party of free speech” policing what’s taught in Year 4 classrooms, Republicans are branding it as an issue of “parents’ choice” — a messaging sleight-of-hand that Dutton has also adopted. 

Except it’s really about less choice around what children can be taught in Australian schools. Dutton wants to crack down on “non-core curriculum” — surely something that would go hand in hand with choice. Nor is it about parents: as Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes recently said, the future of the Liberal Party depends on “fixing” the education system.

Hughes really gave the game away when she told an audience at the conservative think tank the Sydney Institute that youth voters are abandoning the Coalition because of “Marxist” teachers who are teaching them “absolute leftwing rubbish”. In Hughes’ eyes, the actual problem with the education system is that not enough children are coming out with a desire to vote for the Liberal Party. 

It’s also important to look at what Dutton, Hughes and the rest of the party don’t say about education. They want to talk about the national curriculum. They want to talk about protecting schools’ values (presumably a reference to the debate over our religious discrimination bill and its impact on schools). The education debate, by their telling, is being fought over the culture that they’re being taught about.

They’re quiet when it comes to any analysis about why our education system is reaching a crisis point. After gruelling years of teaching in a pandemic, there are severe teacher shortages. Some of those still in the sector are planning to leave. An exhausted cohort of teachers are striking because they’ve been offered less pay for doing more work. Private schools funded with millions of taxpayer dollars are building a third pool while other public schools scrape by. 

These are the real issues with our education system, and therefore the ones that are actually hurting our children’s education. Our quality of teaching isn’t being hurt by children learning about gender or Australia’s colonial past. It’s being sabotaged by a system that leaves overworked teachers with managing big classrooms with fewer resources. Any significant education reform would probably be complicated and expensive — neither are attractive attributes for a conservative opposition. 

That’s why Peter Dutton has been careful to draw the battlelines as he has. He’s right to identify education as an issue that Australians care about, parents most of all. He’s just hoping that voters are desperate enough to believe in his solution.