That’s Not A Plan, It’s A Wishlist

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Memo to Julia Gillard: an eight-year timeline is not a reform. It’s not even a wishlist. It’s a joke.

It has taken Labor a full nine months to come up with its response to the Gonski Review. Julia Gillard unveiled it yesterday.

Labor’s "National Plan for Schools Improvement" was released with much ado. There were the usual strategic leaks. There was a Prime Ministerial speech to the National Press Club. A whizz-bang new website has been set up.

But where is the detail? The actual funding formulas? The money? There isn’t any. Labor’s "National Plan" is hardly a blueprint. It’s barely a mud map. About the best you could say is it’s a plan to have a plan.

There are some positive aspects to come out of yesterday’s announcement. The commitment to needs-based funding is a welcome baseline philosophical position in such a confused debate. So too is a commitment to improving standards of education for students with disabilities. Addressing bullying is always worthwhile.

But the lack of detail in Labor’s "plan" is telling. Perhaps that’s why Julia Gillard resorted to martial language of "fights" and "crusades".

To understand the disappointment of many in the sector, you have to understand just how long Labor’s timelines stretch out. The Prime Minister says Labor will move to legislate this year, after consultation with the states and territories. Assuming the states agree to chip in extra money, and assuming the government can find the extra money in its cash-strapped budget, and assuming she can get the legislation through Parliament, then the new scheme will phase in over six years from 2014 to 2020. That’s eight years and three elections away.

Everyone knows government reforms are difficult and time-consuming. Everyone knows they cost extra money. But yesterday’s announcement was especially galling, because it effectively squanders Labor’s last big opportunity for meaningful reform.

As we’ve argued here at New Matilda, Gonski is big, important and also potentially politically advantageous for the government. Years of hard work has already been put into the process by Gonski and his secretariat, as well as by federal and state bureaucrats and policy experts. But the dream of a more equitable schooling system seems to be fading.

There’s plenty that could be implemented tomorrow, if the government were brave enough. When David Kemp set out to pour billions into the private schools in the early 2000s, he didn’t bother with a high-profile policy review. He simply changed the SES funding formulas, ensuring that private schools would get loads more cash.

If Labor had been prepared to wear the political heat, it could have committed to most of the Gonski recommendations as soon as it received them, back in November last year. It could then have worked steadily towards delivering them, however much the states and territories protested. After all, complaining about Canberra is what state premiers do.

For a start, Labor could have found some extra money, and committed to it. More money for the poorest-performing schools is one thing that nearly everyone in this process agrees is necessary. Secondly, it could have abandoned the ludicrous "no disadvantage" policy brought in under John Howard, which means that some schools get far more money than the formulas say they deserve.

The government could also try a lot harder to knock heads together with the states. If anything deserves a special COAG conference to enforce some hard bargaining, it is schools reform. The last COAG conference, on disability reform, demonstrates that a bit of political pressure on social issues like this can quickly force concessions from intransigent premiers. Instead, the government has tacitly conceded the political reality, and treated the conservative states as its enemies.

But to do all this would have meant admitting that some schools would indeed be worse off. Labor is not prepared to do this, terrified by the spectre of Mark Latham’s private-school hit list from 2004.

In the end, therefore, we’re left with a road-map that seems unlikely to ever be implemented. It’s a tragedy for the most disadvantaged in our society. It’s also a set-back for our nation as a whole. Australia desperately needs to raise the productivity of our entire workforce, particularly amongst those whose education finishes at year 12. Yet many ordinary Australians lack the literacy to adequately do their jobs. A recent AI Group report found that three-quarters of the companies it surveyed reported that literacy and numeracy were negatively affecting their businesses. 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics data found that as many as 46 per cent of Australians can’t properly read newspapers, follow a recipe, make sense of timetables, or understand the instructions on a medicine bottle.

At this point in the debate, the cry often heard is that we need better teachers, not more money. But training and employing better teachers takes money too. It also takes a commitment to an education system where the value of teaching is held in far higher regard than currently, and where a genuine career path into more senior and challenging roles is created for teachers. Current state-run education systems are a mile away from this. As Tim Colebatch points out today, simply arguing, as Julia Gillard did yesterday, that our university teaching colleges need higher entry standards means little. The reason ATAR scores for teaching are low is because there is currently low demand for entry into those teaching course.

A lot of the questioning from journalists yesterday at the National Press Club concerned the lack of detail about funding. Where’s the money coming from, everyone wanted to know. We all know the federal budget is struggling, given falling mining tax revenue and generally weak company tax receipts.

But this is where Labor’s chickens are coming home to roost. Labor has run a remarkably low-taxing government — the current administration levies less tax as a percentage of the economy than John Howard’s did. But delivering big picture social reforms costs money. Australia’s public investment in education is in fact below the OECD average.

Labor has taken all sorts of hard decisions when it has come to spending cuts. But when it comes to taxes, it has squibbed it, time and again. The mining tax and the carbon tax should both have raised significant new revenues for the Treasury. Instead, they were spent before they were even received, in a series of over-compensating tax cuts and hypothecated spending measures. As a result, now that Labor really needs a war chest to fund new social spending, the cupboard is bare.

But it’s not just money that Labor is short of. It’s time. With a federal election only a year or so away, the government’s commitment to long-term goals like 2020 funding levels or better international test scores in 2025 looks fanciful. It’s not just that Labor looks unlikely to win the next federal election. It’s also that it hasn’t credibly explained how it can get a better schools funding policy in place, and lock it in, before the 2013 election rolls around.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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