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Jun 22, 2017


It says much about the current state of federal Parliament that the government securing passage of $24 billion in additional schools funding is a big win, but it is. The economic reform purists won’t like it, and the sectarian rent-seekers of the Catholic education sector will complain, but this is reform that ticks the right boxes. It’s investment in human capital — exactly of the kind Reserve Bank head Phillip Lowe said should be a priority days ago. It reduces a misallocation of spending that has no economic benefit, it implements a sound funding model, and it does so in the face of opposition from influential sectors.

It’s not perfect — it’s a shame that an extra $50 million will be handed to the already overfunded Catholic sector — but the reversal of the position adopted by the Abbott government in its early days is now complete. There will be additional funding,  and there will be the features that then-education minister Christopher Pyne mocked and derided nearly four years: there will be a central body to oversight funding, there will be mechanisms to vet state government funding to ensure they maintain their funding. What was once a virtue — letting the states do whatever they like on school funding — is now a vice to be rigorously guarded against. And correctly so — the history of Commonwealth-state financial relations is the history of cost-shifting by the latter every time the Commonwealth provides funding.

[Doin’ the Gonski — a history of the Liberals’ school funding dance]

This is the kind of reform that Australia needs to be doing. Once you get beyond the hollow cliches and neoliberal nonsense of the business sector’s reform calls — less industrial relations regulation so companies can cut wages more, lower company tax rates, deregulation at any cost — where are the major reform priorities? Climate action, infrastructure, housing affordability and human capital — making our education and health systems work as effectively and efficiently as possible so that Australians can make the most of their opportunities in an era of challenging technological development.

[The ex-MPs sent out to spruik for the Catholic schools]

The other positive of the government’s funding package (Turnbull’s appalling appellation Gonski 2.0 should be taken out behind the Senate and shot) is that it also makes a start on reducing inequality in an age when inequality has worsened significantly. It could go much, much further — hundreds of millions could be saved by slashing funding to wealthy schools of all creeds and colours — but anything that targets inequality, the ever-present, background radiation of neoliberalism, is a good start. This won’t deliver equality of opportunity for school kids no matter their background, but it will shift a little toward that.

Now we’re left to watch an experiment — one you would have mocked as utterly implausible even a few years ago, let alone back in the days of Mark Latham’s private school hit list. Can Labor, in an alliance with the Catholic school sector, turn this into a campaign issue that will worry Coalition backbenchers enough that they start to panic?

That can be a problem for down the track. For today, Malcolm Turnbull and his minister Simon Birmingham can enjoy a welcome, and deserved, political and policy win.


Jun 20, 2017


You can understand why the government is in a rush to try to get its Gonski 2.0 package through the Senate: the longer debate about it goes on, the longer rentseekers like the Catholic education sector and the Australian Education Union have to stir up both the left and the right against the package.

But much like when Labor re-embraced offshore processing in government, thus delivering the Coalition a major victory, trying to declare defeat and run proves difficult when your opponents prefer you to stay right where you are.

Failure to get some sort of package through the Senate this week means the issue will drag out through the coming parliamentary recess, allowing more time for troublemakers to complain, for Labor to tout its fictional claim of a $22 billion cut, for dodgy numbers to be paraded around, purporting to show how badly off Catholic private schools will be. The government has already shifted in response to retiring senator Chris Back’s threat to cross the floor, delaying the implementation of the package by a year for Catholic schools. That’s a signal to others that they might be accommodated, too. If it drags out, it will be at the same time that the internal dispute over energy policy is bubbling away. It could indeed be a winter of discontent in Coalition ranks.

Labor would be perfectly happy for the issue to remain unresolved at the next election, just as the Coalition was happy to ensure the problem of asylum seekers remained unresolved. For all the claims that Turnbull has, by co-opting David Gonski himself, neutralised schools funding, the entire issue remains one that Labor owns.

The Greens, who have had no difficulties agreeing to back the government in the past on small matters like changes to Senate voting or company tax transparency, appear unable to come to a position despite having the government keen to do a deal, even if it costs some serious money in expediting the rollout of the full funding model in coming years. Any decision from the Greens will be tomorrow, at the earliest. On the positive side for the government, One Nation has said they’ll back the package, despite Pauline Hanson making ridiculous — even by her standards — proposals to force schools to punish students more.

Embracing Gonski and taking the hard decision to cut spending on an over-funded private school sector was always a risk for Turnbull and his minister Simon Birmingham. If it doesn’t come off this week, it might become increasingly problematic. But there are still two and a half sitting days to go, and maybe some detention on Friday if there’s the possibility of late deal. Much rides on it.


Jun 19, 2017


Whatever might be said about Malcolm Turnbull and his government, he has proved better at responding to the alienation and anger of voters than his counterparts in the UK and the US.

The May government, and most of the UK commentariat, were shocked by the strong level of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Old Labour in this month’s election. May’s handling of the Grenfell disaster — which may be the product of years of deregulation — has been so abysmal Corbyn now looks like the prime minister in waiting, and a damn sight more leader-like than May herself.

In the US, it’s been no surprise that Trump, who has betrayed pretty much anyone he has ever dealt with, has sold out the voters who put him into the White House on a wave of disaffection with business-as-usual economic policies. But Republican politicians are continuing to govern as though Trump’s election gives them carte blanche to implement a hardline neoliberal agenda beyond the wildest dreams of corporate America.

[Rundle: anguish turns to anger as London burns]

But Anglophone voters have had a gutful of neoliberalism and are expressing it at the ballot box — not necessarily in coherent or consistent ways, but expressing it they are. It’s a mistake to call it a shift to the left; there are plenty of conservative voters who are shifting further right as part of it. But it’s a shift away from market-based policies, curbs on government spending, open borders and the mantra that whatever is good for business is good for a country.

Turnbull has reacted to the shift better than the Tories in the UK, perhaps because he feels more comfortable governing from the centre, perhaps because compulsory voting (and lack of US-style gerrymandering) has made clearer the deep sense of alienation in the electorate. Turnbull nearly lost government, Nick Xenophon’s protectionist party seized both Senate and Reps seats, and One Nation has lurched out of the political grave to bring its stench of bigoted banality into the Senate.

On Gonski, on energy, on fiscal policy, Turnbull has shifted leftward in an attempt to claim the centre ground, conscious that if he continued to slavishly follow the dictates of the right, he’d be toast. On Gonski, he’s shifted even further left than Labor, promising to cut funding to wealthy private schools and taking on the gouging, unaccountable Catholic education lobby over its favouritism toward rich schools. On fiscal policy, he’s whacked a tax on the banks and increased the Medicare levy. On energy, he’s walking a fine line through his party room on trying to provide certainty for investors about climate action while fighting off irrational denialists like Abbott and other far-right backbenchers.

Of course, it’s not universal — Turnbull remains wedded to the right-wing approach to terrorism of relentlessly hyping the threat to national security from Labor, despite the fact that it never helped Abbott one iota, and it didn’t help Theresa May more recently. Maybe voters simply see through the claim from conservatives that when terror attacks happen on their watch, it’s magically the fault of their opponents in opposition.

[Even Keating now admits that neoliberalism should be dragged out the back and shot]

Turnbull’s opponents, needless to say, don’t care to see him succeed in this shift. Judging by today’s Newspoll, they’ve been successful so far. Labor is still portraying Turnbull, courtesy of some creative accounting and factual cherrypicking, as a rogue neoliberal hellbent on slashing schools funding, destroying Medicare and taxing low-income earners while handing out tax cuts to the top end of town. And Tony Abbott managed to make what had been a careful process of preliminary consideration of the Finkel review all about Turnbull’s leadership and the spectre of 2009.

The government is dead keen to nail down a deal on Gonski, preferably with the Greens, even if it costs a motza. It is dead right to oppose the greedy Catholic education sector, but a prolonged stoush is not in its interests. Already one backbencher, the retiring Chris Back, is threatening to cross the floor on the issue this week. Leaving the issue to fester over the winter recess will, at best, only create more static for the government. A worse outcome is it blows up and causes another internal brawl.

On energy, Turnbull is in no hurry, partly because he knows he can’t be seen to railroad anything on energy through the party room. But the same risk applies as with Gonski — the longer the issue goes, the more static it will create, the more likely it is that troublemakers like Abbott will exploit it. Plenty of reports say Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg are happy to wait until later in the year to settle the issue. That gives the denialists plenty of time to cause chaos.

What’s every bit as worrying as Labor’s persistent two-party-referred lead is the strong polling performance on One Nation. One Nation, courtesy of a lower than expected result in WA, and ongoing scandals and revelations of open contempt for the electorate, should be struggling. Instead, Hanson and her coterie of conspiracy theorists have bounced back into double figures. Turnbull is trying to address the very disillusionment that is fueling populists like Hanson, but it’s failing to have any impact so far.


May 3, 2017


One of the few pleasures of watching politics in recent years has been observing the contortions, gyrations, backflips and general one-person game of Twister that the federal Liberal Party has engaged in on school funding. Once a potent weapon to use against Labor, when John Howard used the threat of a “private school hit list” to demonise Mark Latham’s Labor, school funding became a major weakness for the conservatives after the (first) Gonski review of school funding under Julia Gillard. Having started the “school funding wars” in the 2000s, the Liberals discovered they were losing them as the years went by. Now Malcolm Turnbull has declared that the war is over and he is going the full Gonski — at least according to his own numbers.

So we toted up all the positions the Liberals have had on Gonski over the last five years.

February 2012: Then-education spokesman Christopher Pyne rejects the 260-page Gonski report two hours after its release and subsequently warns of Labor plans for a “private school hit-list”.

July 2012: Pyne warns the Coalition will repeal Gonski legislation if elected.

April 2013: Gillard government announces a funding package based on the report, but short of the funding levels identified in it. No school is to be disadvantaged in the new funding model. Pyne calls it a “conski”.

July 2013: After Gillard and her successor Kevin Rudd negotiate a number of funding deals, Tony Abbott says the Coalition will only retain the first year of Labor’s Gonski funding.

August 2013: Tony Abbott commits to a “unity ticket” with Labor on Gonski funding for four years, saying “we will honour the agreements that Labor has entered into. We will match the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure that no school is worse off.”

November 2013: Now education minister, Pyne announces in fact only the first year of Gonski funding will be honoured, and funding for 2015 and onwards will require a new model; he says the socio-economic status model of the Howard government, which heavily favoured private schools, would be a “good starting point” rather than the Gonski model.

December 2013: Abbott announces that four years of Gonski funding will be honoured, but that the money will be handed to the states without any requirement for matching funds or any other of what Pyne calls Labor’s “command and control” measures.

May 2014: First Coalition budget cuts education funding indexation level down to what it terms a “sensible indexation arrangements for schools”.

2013-2016, various: Liberals respond to Labor attacks on school funding by saying “more funding is not the answer” to improving Australia’s educational performance.

January 2016: The government criticises Labor’s commitment to additional schools funding as “huge, unfunded spending commitments”.

March 2016: Malcolm Turnbull proposes a state income tax, under which the Commonwealth would abandon all funding for government schools and only fund private schools.

May 2016: Government lifts school funding indexation again to reflect what it says are “real education costs”, requiring an extra $1.2 billion in funding over forward estimates. “Command and control” funding requirements are now re-imposed on the states.

May 2017: Government commits a further $2.2 billion over forward estimates and continuation of additional funding through to 2027, all unfunded. Education Minister Simon Birmingham reveals there will be “a small number of schools that will experience some negative growth”; around 350 private schools will have real funding reductions. David Gonski to undertake “Gonski 2.0” review to determine allocation of new funding. Press gallery lauds Turnbull’s master stroke.

So, apart from whether the review undertaken by Gonski was worthwhile, the level of funding for schools, the formula for funding for schools, the indexation for funding for schools, the sources of funding for schools, whether “command and control” conditions apply to funding of schools, whether wealthy private schools should lose funding and whether more funding will improve our schools’ performance, the Liberal Party’s school funding policy has been a model of clarity and consistency.


May 2, 2017


The Prime Minister’s “Gonski 2.0” announcement yesterday was a dramatic attempt to end the “school funding wars” that have been a series of losing battles for the Coalition since 2013: Turnbull has (again) increased Commonwealth school funding commitments and extended them through to 2027, as well as commissioning the architect of Labor’s overhaul of school funding, David Gonski, to conduct another funding review.

The package will, according to the government, mean an “additional” $18.6 billion for schools between 2018 and 2027, although it appears funding will be backloaded, as the government says there will only be an extra $2.2 billion of funding over the first four years, which will appear in next week’s budget papers. The sources of the funding have not been identified.

David Gonski will also be tasked with another review”to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools”, which is intended to “provide advice on how this extra Commonwealth funding should be used by Australian schools to improve student achievement and school performance”. Gonski led a seminal review of school funding that reported to the Gillard government in 2012, recommending a consistent level of funding per student across all schools, weighted in favour of disadvantaged students.

Yesterday the Prime Minister has committed to lift Commonwealth funding to 20% of funding for government schools, which was the level recommended by Gonski; Labor inherited a Commonwealth funding level under 10% from the Howard government and steadily lifted it; it is now over 17%.

That represents a remarkable turnaround from early last year, when Turnbull speculated that the Commonwealth could eliminate all government school funding and simply fund private schools, if the states accepted his proposal for a state income tax. That idea was abandoned within hours in the face of a massive backlash.

The funding package is, in the words of the Prime Minister, “expected” to include funding cuts for 24 of the most overresourced schools on the eastern seaboard, as well as the continuation of slower funding growth for other wealthy schools, meaning around 350 well-heeled private schools will eventually see real funding cuts or slower growth than other schools. Under the Gillard government’s Gonski-based school funding package, no schools were left worse off. Labor feared that any wealthy private schools that lost funding under its reform package would be the subject of a repeat of the Coalition’s campaign against Mark Latham-era Labor’s “hit list” of schools. Since then even Liberals have admitted that some of Australia’s wealthiest schools should not be receiving the high level of Commonwealth funding they enjoy. 

The government increased schools funding in the 2016 budget in an effort to escape the constant criticism levelled at it by Labor that it had abandoned the Gonski funding reforms in favour its preferred funding recipient, private schools. Until then, the Liberal line had been that more funding would not lead to improvements in Australia’s declining (in relative terms) international education performance. However, the Liberals remain damaged by Tony Abbott’s handling of the issue: Abbott promised to abide by Labor’s school funding package before the 2013 election and then immediately sought to cut funding once elected, before backflipping multiple times. Whether the literal appropriation of Gonski by Turnbull is enough to end the “school funding wars”, however, remains to be seen. The Liberals started the wars back in the Howard years, to great success, but more recently they have turned into a consistent loser for conservatives.


May 16, 2016


Framing is one of the most critical tools in political discourse: if you can set the terms of how voters and the media view an issue, even if it’s one that doesn’t necessarily work for you, you can blunt an opponents’ attacks or successfully attack them. In Friday night’s leaders’ debate, Malcolm Turnbull was trying to reframe the debate about banks as being about economically stability when he thought it would be smart to say that Bill Shorten wanted banks “in the dock” — only for the audience to erupt in applause at the idea of jailing bankers. Sometimes you can go a frame too far.

But framing is about more than short-term political debate: one of the most successful reframings of the 20th century was by US conservatives and corporations in response to concerns about the massive damage being inflicted on the American environment by companies. They reframed the issue of environmental damage as being about “jobs versus the environment” — a fictitious claim that protecting the environment would cost jobs and economic growth. It was extraordinarily successful, and that framing, of course, remains the dominant paradigm in both climate action and environmental protection debates, even as the coal mining industry collapses and investment and jobs in renewable energy surge worldwide.

In an effort to blunt Labor’s attacks on the government’s abandonment of the Gonski education funding reforms, the Coalition has for a long time been trying to reframe the education funding issue away from money, insisting that Australia’s declining educational performance was unrelated to the level of investment and that merely increasing funding wasn’t going to fix it.

Problematically for that reframing, however, it needed an answer to the inevitable question “well, what will fix it?”. To answer that semi-coherently, the government needed to make another of the many backflips it has made in this area: national control of standards, reporting and testing in schools was restored as a central part of government policy, despite the Abbott government making it a point of pride to have abandoned similar requirements planned by the Gillard government as “Canberra command and control”. Canberra command and control was now what was required to address Australia’s declining educational performance — along with a commitment to increased funding that took the Coalition about halfway to Labor’s Gonski funding requirement, which it hoped was far enough to blunt Labor’s attacks.

The framing is fallacious, as truthful as “jobs versus the environment”. The Gonski panel’s funding recommendations were about effectively targeting educational funding at disadvantaged students who are the key reason why Australia’s overall performance on primary and secondary education has declined. The benefits of the Gonski funding model will come disproportionately from improving outcomes for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, from rural and regional schools and indigenous communities and students with disabilities, rather than lifting the overall level of school funding.

Last week The Australian launched a concerted attack on Labor over its school funding plans that reinforced the government’s attempt to reframe the issue: additional spending on education would not provide any “immediate” impact on economic growth. Curiously, when the government, right before the budget, announced its own increase in schools funding to try to blunt Labor’s Gonski-based attack, there was no forensic analysis in the pages of the national broadsheet of its claim that the additional funding would “increase productivity, drive innovation and support our transition to a stronger and more diversified economy.”

Nor has there been any dissection by The Australian of the government’s claims about the economic benefits of its $48 billion company tax cut; quite the opposite, in fact, with articles spruiking its benefits, despite the budget papers acknowledging they would be negligible.

This is another example of how the Liberal Party, which one could legitimately hope to fully embrace neoliberalism ahead of a party like Labor, instead lapses into crony capitalism. Rather than seeing investment in education as a critical means for ensuring future workers and employers can take advantage of economic opportunities and live individualist lives free of dependence on government, the federal Liberals prefer to target Commonwealth funding at private schools, which bear little of the burden of educating disadvantaged students, because of the party’s strong links with private schools.

But so far, disadvantaged students have been “reframed” out of the debate, despite being central to the rationale for the Gonski funding reforms.


Apr 1, 2014


We’ve now entered the traditional pre-budget softening-up period in which treasurers engage in expectations management ahead of the fiscal set-piece of the year in May. But even given that, Joe Hockey is treating us as complete idiots.

The line Hockey has been pushing for some days now, and which he gave a big push to yesterday in a flurry of media appearances, is that not merely did Labor hide the level of deficits in the current budget cycle, but that it left a series of hidden spending commitments in the unpublished years beyond forward estimates. Hockey has been circulating a document to journalists portrayed in the media as a “Treasury analysis” that shows how “the Coalition inherited an unsustainable budget position” and Labor “hid [expenditure] from the public”. Hockey would like us to see him as a budgetary innocent who has found himself in the middle of a fiscal minefield planted by Labor.

Well here’s the document, and it isn’t a “Treasury analysis” — it’s prepared by Hockey’s media adviser, former Australian Financial Review journalist Gemma Daley. And if Hockey seriously expects us to believe his latest argument, he must have nothing but contempt for us. This is Hockey yesterday:

“We didn’t anticipate that everything else would be of equal or larger scale as a tsunami coming across the water. The fact is Labor’s left us with a massive forecast increase in foreign aid, a massive increase in defence – for example in one year, there’s meant to be a real increase in defence spending of 13 per cent, a 66 per cent increase in foreign aid.”

At another media conference, he said:

“If no action was taken on the budget, what the fifth-year deficit would look like, contrary to what both Labor promised was a surplus, if no action was taken, based on the approximately 6% increase in expenditure between the fourth year and the fifth year, which Labor locked in on NDIS, on Gonski, on overseas aid, on hospitals, on defence …”

Well, um, tsunamis are actually tiny when they’re on the ocean — but never mind that, let’s look at the detail. Labor in fact revealed the funding for the National Disability Insurance Scheme — or DisabilityCare as it had been renamed — in the budget last May, with new spending broken down out to 2019:

In addition to the numbers in the budget papers, there was a specific “glossy” with funding graphs for DisabilityCare and one for education funding as well, which was still being finalised in deals with the states. The increase in foreign aid was also in both the budget papers and a ministerial statement by Bob Carr — not that the government got any credit for it, because it was actually a reduction, with the government’s Millennium Development Goal commitment to lifting foreign aid to 0.5% of gross national income put back another year to 2017. The government spelt out its planned increase in foreign aid up to and including 2017-18.

In fact in question time last week, Labor invited the Prime Minister to spell out the government’s MDG policy, which he duly did: aid is to reach 0.5% of GNI when the budget returns to surplus. Which raises the question of why, in Hockey’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December, Hockey left Labor’s MDG aid funding increase intact, in defiance of the government’s own policy. The answer, of course, was that it would inflate the budget deficit for 2017 and beyond.

As for defence, the Gillard government gave the portfolio a “guidance” that it would receive around $220 billion in the six years from 2017-18, which Hockey’s document proposes to mean funding would leap 13% in 2017, when in fact the “guidance” reflects a growth rate in defence spending from 2017 lower than the average between now and 2017 of nearly 7%. And remember that Labor was repeatedly criticised for decreasing defence spending — every armchair general and arms industry lobbyist in the joint was whinging about how we weren’t spending enough taxpayer money on buying gear from the US military-industrial complex. “Military spending slumps to 1930s level,” The Australian‘s Paul Kelly shrieked. The 1930s theme — hint, appeasement!­ — was picked up by the Coalition, including Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce. Abbott “aspired”, he said, to lift defence spending to 3% of GDP.

So, Labor were both neo-Chamberlain surrender monkeys for not spending enough on defence when in government and now, magically, reckless spendthrifts who committed too much to defence at the same time.

Hockey’s fiscal innocent act is a little hard to believe given we were told what an exhaustive, indeed exhausting, shadow ERC process Hockey was leading within the opposition at the time to establish its fiscal credibility.

And above all, there’s this point: if Hockey seriously believes his own claims about the budget beyond forward estimates, why did he remove Labor savings measures that offset future spending? Why did he remove the 15% tax on superannuation income over $100,000 a year, costing the budget billions beyond forward estimates, for the benefit of high income earners? Why did he restore the Fringe Benefits Tax rort on novated leases — remember Joe being photographed in front of a sports car? And why have Hockey and his leader pushed for the abolition of the mining tax, which even in its crippled form, according to Hockey’s own MYEFO, is worth more than $3 billion over forward estimates? Eventually it will be the only way of recovering some of the profits offshore owners of LNG and iron ore projects will make and ship overseas (over 60% of these projects are foreign owned or controlled).

Then there’s the silly decision to hand $8.8 billion of borrowed money to the Reserve Bank in one hit, when it doesn’t need the capital. And the sale of Medibank Private — a $4-5 billion contribution to the budget — will be spent on roads because Abbott wants to be an “infrastructure prime minister”, when it could cut the budget deficit or the debt. That could be $13-14 billion off the deficit and debt right there — or an interest saving of more than half-a-billion dollars a year.

Hockey is talking about sharing the budget burden around, but that’s only after the government plans to increase its own spending for political purposes and sought to hand billions of dollars in tax revenue back to foreign mining companies, large carbon emitters and the well-off in the community — revenue that would have offset exactly the spending on education, disability and foreign aid that Hockey is now claiming to have only just discovered.


Mar 25, 2014


Australians believe that they are more highly taxed than other developed countries and that their tax burden has increased in the last five years, today’s Essential Report shows — but they believe taxes are high enough to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski education reforms and other social service programs.

Sixty-four per cent of voters believe taxes are higher in Australia than in other developed countries, Essential found. Only 8% think they’re lower. And while 69% of Coalition voters think they’re higher, so do 64% of Labor voters (and the same proportion of other voters), while Greens voters are split 47%-15%. According to OECD-compiled data (using Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, not Australian, methodology) up to 2012, Australia had the fifth-lowest tax-to-GDP ratio out of 34 countries, 26.5%, compared to an average of 31%. Only Mexico, Chile, the United States and South Korea have lower tax-to-GDP ratios than Australia.

And 65% of voters think taxes have increased in the last five years, while 9% believe they’ve decreased. However, 72% of Labor voters believe they’ve risen, compared to 65% of Coalition voters and 46% of Greens voters. Some 24% of voters believe taxes have “increased a lot” — again, with more Labor than Coalition voters believing it — while 20% believe they’ve stayed the same.

According to budget figures, taxation receipts as a proportion of GDP fell from 21.7% of GDP in 2008-09 to 21.4% in 2012-13, and are estimated to be 21.8% of GDP this year. In the final year of the Howard government it was 23.6%. Labor implemented its election promise tax cuts in 2008, almost fully copied from the Coalition election promise in 2007, although these were partially reversed by the temporary flood levy and then the NDIS levy.

However, 47% of voters think the current level of taxation is sufficient to fund services such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reforms, which many economists and Treasury insist can’t be afforded without tax rises. Thirty-three per cent of voters believe taxes will need to rise to pay for them. Labor voters are the most optimistic, with 52% of voters thinking current taxes are enough to pay for reforms and 28% who think they aren’t. Coalition voters split 48%-39%. Greens voters split the other way, 31%-43%.

The figures demonstrate the success the Coalition had in portraying the previous government as high-taxing one, helped of course by a relentless focus on the carbon price and the mining tax, even as Labor cut income taxes and falling company tax collection savaged the budget bottom line. However, the Coalition now faces the flip side of its success, having encouraged Australians to believe they are highly taxed, as voters are less inclined to believe taxes may need to rise to fund new expenditure like the NDIS.

The Labor Party has also improved its standing in the eyes of voters on a range of attributes. Compared to November last year, it has improved on a range of positive indicators and declined on negative indicators: it has fallen 14 points on “divided”, from 72% to 58%, gone up 8 points on “clear on what they stand for” to 42%, and gone down 4 points on “out of touch”. The Coalition, meanwhile, has mostly done the opposite: down 6 points on “clear on what they stand for”, up 7 points on “divided”, up 4 points on “will do anything to win votes”. However, the Coalition has declined on “extreme” and actually fell a point on “too close to the big corporate and financial interests”. A comparison shows the Coalition still ahead on many indicators, but for the first time since 2009, Labor looks competitive on voter esteem.


On voting intention, it’s still 51-49 to the government, with Labor and the Coalition both picking up a primary vote point to 44% and 37% respectively; the Greens remain on 9%, Clive Palmer’s party on 4%.


Dec 16, 2013


When the Abbott government threatened to come up with a new model for funding schools, many state-school parents panicked. Would the government redirect taxpayers’ money from public to private schools?

State schools may have had good reason to worry. A Crikey survey has found that 82% of Tony Abbott’s cabinet went to private schools, with annual fees as high as $32,000 in 2013. This compares with the general public, where 35% of students attended private schools in 2012, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Crikey calculated it would cost $234,142 in mandatory tuition fees to send the cabinet back to the schools they went to for year 12 in 2013.

The Crikey survey found that 14 out of 17 cabinet ministers were privately educated. Two ministers were excluded from the survey; Nigel Scullion and Mathias Cormann refused to tell us where they were educated (in Cormann’s case, it was in his native Belgium).

Members of the cabinet attended some of the nation’s most prestigious secondary institutions, with tuition fees ranging from $4000 to over $30,000 per year. Some, like Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, went to Sydney’s elite Greater Public Schools group.

The majority come from religious schools, some in the Roman Catholic tradition, such as St Ignatius Riverview in Sydney (Abbott and Joyce). Anglican institutions like The Peninsula School, Mount Eliza are represented (Environment Minister Greg Hunt), while others come from non-denominational independent schools, such as Brisbane Grammar (Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane).

Topping the fees list for cabinet members is Wesley College in Perth, the alma mater of Defence Minister David Johnston. In 2013, tuition for year 12 students was a cool $32,061.

Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, Employment Minister Eric Abetz and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison are the only ministers flying the public school flag in the cabinet meeting room.

It all makes for interesting discussions around the cabinet table as the Abbott government looks at education funding. Before the election, Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne (St Ignatius, Adelaide) pledged a “unity ticket” with Labor on the Gonski school funding model. Replacing a Howard-era model that was criticised for sending too much taxpayer cash to already over-privileged private schools, the Gonski model was designed to allocate funding on the basis of need, to combat disadvantage.

All that changed when Pyne recently publicly rejected Gonski. A furious backlash followed, including from some Liberal premiers, and the Coalition had to backtrack and restore Gonski.

For now …

Interactive graphic: roll your mouse over the image below to see which cabinet MPs went to public schools:


Nov 26, 2013


It was the Sunday Telegraph that broke the news that some of the agreements underpinning the Labor government’s education reform package — known to many as Gonski — had not been finalised.

Is Prime Minister Tony Abbott “walking away” from the agreements, as the opposition is suggesting? Is it “back to the drawing board”,  as federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said?

Not really.

Given the constitutional division of responsibilities — states manage schools and provide over 75% of all school funding, mostly directed to public schools — the Commonwealth’s National Plan for School Improvement depended upon agreements with each state and territory, as well as with the Catholic and independent school sectors. These were negotiated over many months, between April and August. NSW, SA, ACT, Tasmania, Victoria, and private school sectors all committed to the reforms and the additional funding, much of which they would contribute from their own coffers. The rest of the funding — from the Commonwealth — had many strings attached. 

The Coalition went to the election promising voters they were on a “unity ticket” with Labor when it came to school funding and would offer the “the same funding envelope” for the first four years. However, given that half the funding was to flow to schools in the fifth and sixth year, the Coalition only effectively promised to deliver half as much funding as Labor pledged. This was after years of  Pyne stating additional money was not required and the system did not require major reform — rebuking the evidence of the Gonski review, and repeated statements from public and private school systems that funding overhaul was needed.

Pyne is now claiming that some of these legal agreements were not finalised, and that he will “renegotiate all the funding deals” to make the reforms implementable and fairer. (The legality of this is highly questionable, given these written and signed agreements are all — or most — legally binding agreements. And the states are not recalcitrant administrative entities of the Commonwealth, but democratically elected, sovereign governments.)

“Pyne has waxed lyrical about treating the states with respect … he should practice what he preaches.”

The bodies in question — Tasmania, Victoria and the Catholic sector are refuting Pyne’s claim — have stated that firm agreements are in place. Tasmania is even threatening legal action if the Commonwealth backs away from the written agreement they have. The conservative signatories (NSW and Victoria) have emphatically confirmed that binding deals are in place and that the Commonwealth cannot unilaterally turn away from it. They have vowed to fight for them.

The Victorian government explicitly told its schools and citizens last month that it was committed to full implementation of the reforms and the full $12.2 billion increase over six years, pledging it would “work with the new Commonwealth government to ensure this agreement and the promised additional funding is honoured beyond the current budget estimates period to 2019″. In NSW, implementation has already begun.

Ross Fox, executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission, likewise says a deal was reached, and that he was not concerned that their $1.6 billion of funding was at risk — although he hoped to streamline some of the reporting requirements before signing the dotted line for the final time.

Another obstacle for Pyne is that the increased funding for school systems that signed up to Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement have been legislated for the period 2014-2019. The complexity of this legislation and a hostile Senate means that the Abbott government cannot just back away from these legislative commitments, and certainly cannot prevent the first additional funds from flowing before the start of the new school year.

Contrary to Pyne’s claim, the individual flexible bilateral agreements negotiated separately with each school system (as opposed to a uniform, national agreement) are not a shambles — they’re exactly what David Gonksi recommended. In Gonski’s own words, the existing state and private school system authorities “are better placed than the Australian government to determine the most effective allocation of available resources in their particular circumstances”. This is because their local knowledge and administrative capacity is greater than that of the Commonwealth. In fact, most elements of the Better Schools plan were already in place, or scheduled for introduction at the state level to varying degrees.

When it comes to innovation in schooling, states are the engine room of the nation. They should be allowed to get on with the job without a distant government waving carrots and sticks at them. Pyne has waxed lyrical about treating the states with respect and ending the “command and control” from Canberra. He should practise what he preaches.

*Bronwyn Hinz is completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne on how federalism shapes Australian school funding reforms. She has worked for the Education Foundation and Per Capita and written a book on the development of multicultural policy (ASP 2009)