The deserving rich


Mutual obligation is the latest buzzword in Federal Government circles. If, as I understand it, mutual obligation means that if we give something to you, you must give something back to us, then it is hard to argue with the concept.
But if mutual obligation is such a good idea, why isn’t it being applied to the public money being handed out to all sections of the Australian community?

We have become obsessed with making sure those with the least resources cannot rort the system. The latest moves in this direction include compelling a single parent to return to work when a child reaches school age, ever more rigid parameters for those who get a disability allowance, and the insistence that an indigenous community keep their kids nice in return for a petrol bowser.

Fair enough, perhaps, no one likes people who cheat, or who get something for nothing. But what about the often unacknowledged cheating that goes on at the other end of society?

Some people may remember the howls of outrage that greeted Mark Latham’s rather mild attempt to reform the current Federal Government’s school funding system. Contrary to some recent re-writing of history, the ALP’s policy did not recommend cutting funding to private schools. Total Federal funding to non-government schools would have remained the same if Labor had won the last election. All that would have changed is that some of the money would have been redistributed away from demonstrably highly resourced, high-fee private schools, to less well-resourced, low fee schools.

The buzzwords used to knock this eminently reasonable idea on the head were that it was a symptom of ‘the politics of envy’. A few defenders of élite private schools (spokespeople for lower fee private schools were strangely silent) claimed that, far from educating only the well-off, some of the parents at their schools earned as little as $30,000 a year. With such schools charging a minimum of $10,000 per year — and in many cases twice that much — pardon my scepticism, but how can that possibly be? Unless, of course, some of these struggling parents were seriously understating their incomes.

Worse, the public money handed out to these schools is not controlled anything like as vigorously as the money we hand out to the medical or welfare system. Unlike the de-regulated arena of schools, we sensibly only subsidise private hospital beds when we need them. We don’t pit subsidised private hospital beds against subsidised public hospital beds in a wasteful head to head competition.

The way the Federal Government subsidy to a private school is currently assessed is via census codes. If a private school draws students from a low socio-economic census area, often rural, they receive a higher rating, and more money. This may seem fair at first glance, but, as any public school teacher or principal could tell you (if they were allowed) the really disadvantaged kids in a disadvantaged area go to the local state school. How could it be otherwise, when private schools charge up front fees and public schools don’t?

The Federal Government money attracted to private schools with students who merely live in low socio-economic areas can be as much as a couple of million dollars per annum, whereas the most a disadvantaged state school in the same area can get is State Govt PSFP funding (something like $100,000 over four years for a school with 600 students, plus extra staff). In essence, our current education funding system actually operates like Robin Hood in reverse.
Worse, if the state school does not spend all the money, it must repay it, whereas there is no obligation on the private school to do the same.

Where is the mutual obligation here?
Indeed, we place virtually no obligations on private schools in return for their generous public subsidies (perhaps we should call them gifts). As we saw in the recent case of Tara Anglican Girls School, we do not require they have publicly accessible procedures for ensuring their students’ safety. The ructions between the parents and school board at Ascham reveal we require no particular constitution or corporate governance procedures in return for our money. SCEGGS Redlands and Trinity Grammar have demonstrated that we politely make no enquiries into anti-bullying programs at such schools. Publicly subsidised private schools may teach creationism as science, and propagandise for their beliefs and biases in ways that we may or may not, as a community, approve.

For public school supporters, it is deeply ironic that Foreign Minister Downer wants to give more money to Indonesian public schools to counteract the impact of the madrassahs.

Some private schools are currently receiving as much as 80 per cent of their funding from the public purse, yet we do not oblige them to accept any student they do not want.
In fact, private schools do not even have to tell us what they do with the money we give them.
The rationalisation for giving élite schools large sums of public money is that it will make them more accessible. Yet not one of these schools has lowered their fees since recurrent funding was first established back in the 1970s.

A recent study by Louise Watson and Chris Ryan reveals that these schools have used government money to vastly increase the resources they offer the lucky few, rather than open their doors to a wider range of kids. If mutual obligation was actually being practised, wouldn’t we be insisting on just the opposite?
In fact, becoming more accessible is the last thing many élite schools want, because if they were, how could they remain élite? They would prefer mutual obligation to remain something only the less privileged have to worry about.

I’m not saying, by the way, that all private schools are lacking generosity or a responsible attitude to the public good; I’m simply saying we currently place no obligation on them to behave that way. We give something to them, without asking them to give something back to us.
As Malcolm Turnbull recently pointed out, mutual obligation can only be acceptable if it applies to everyone. In fact, I would go further than that and argue that we should be much more vigilant about the public money we give to those at the top of the pile, than the bottom.

The current social problems in Macquarie Fields, for example, reveal how little society feels obliged to help the kids with the least. We have deserted them on dental care (if you want to know how socially disadvantaged a school really is, forget their addresses, look at their teeth), and there are stories of families in Australia who are unable to afford glasses for their children, particularly if they have more than one child with eye problems. According to the Sydney Morning Herald (12–14 March 2005) any attempts we’re making in early childhood support amongst the disadvantaged are only fiddling around the edges.

Dr Clare Cunningham, director of Tumbatin developmental clinic and learning difficulties clinic at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, is quoted by the SMH as saying ‘There has been an attenuation of resources: the system is unethical.’ And, we are systematically deserting these kids in education; comprehensive, co-ed, public schools in some parts of Sydney have become ghettos for kids who are well endowed with nothing but generations of unemployment and illiteracy.

All this has been aided and abetted by our current Federal Government, and with remarkably little protest from the top end of society, whose only response, it seems, to the widening gap between the haves and have nots, has been to grab their kids and run. As the Macquarie Fields riots reveal, why should less advantaged kids feel any obligation towards us and our rules and regulations, when we have so clearly demonstrated we feel no obligation towards them?

If mutual obligation, or ‘Shared Responsibility Agreements’ are the new deal for what used to be called the deserving poor, why on earth do we not demand at least the same level of accountability from those who appear to consider themselves the deserving rich?

Australian Education Union:

NSW Teachers Federation:

Malcolm Turnbull:

Ascham School for Girls:

Tara Anglican School for Girls:

SCEGGS Redlands:

Trinity Grammar School:

The Drift to Private Schools in Australia; Understanding its Features. Chris Ryan & Louise Watson, ANU Centre for Economic Policy Research, September 2004

Tax the Rich and Give to the Poor “ Turnbull Does a Robin Hood, John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald 14/3/05

Millions for Programs, but Results are Sparse. Adele Horin, Sydney Morning Herald, 14/3/05

So just who is Sharing the Responsibility in Indigenous Policy? Ruth McCausland, New Matilda, Issue 28

Ready, Senate, Go. Michelle Grattan, The Age, 6/3/05

The Catch-Up Kids, A Herald Series; Falling Between the Cracks. Julie Robotham, Sydney Morning Herald, 12/3/05

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.