Is This The Coalition's 'Carbon Tax' Moment?

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There are, roughly, two views about the wild and wacky recent efforts of federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne.

One is the view you can see widely on Twitter and in some sections of the left-leaning media: that Pyne’s kamikaze raid on the Gonski schools funding policy is a broken promise, a breach of trust and the beginning of the end for the Abbott Government.

The second view is that this is an early crisis that the government should be able to recover from.

Which view you hold depends on your analysis of the importance of education policy, and your views on the causes of Julia Gillard’s downfall. Is Pyne’s week from hell a “carbon tax moment”, in which the electorate decides that it can’t trust an incoming government?

The answer, I think, is no. Pyne has sustained a lot of damage in the Gonski controversy, as indeed has the Abbott Government. But it’s far too early to tell whether voters will still care about all of this come 2016.

There’s no doubt that Pyne has had a terrible week. The new Education Minister made a beginner’s error – a series of them, in fact – by unilaterally abandoning an election promise on a highly sensitive policy, without warning and without corralling support from the states and territories he must work with on this federal-state issue.

Opposition from the school sector and his own side of politics exploded. Pyne’s fiercest adversaries were conservative education ministers at a state level, who were horrified at the vanishing billions promised by the previous government.

Matters were not helped by Pyne’s forthright public persona, which combines high-minded rhetoric with a very Adelaide sort of accent. The optics of an Education Minister who presents as a private school prefect (Pyne was schooled by the Jesuits of St Ignatius College in Adelaide) are inauspicious; he compounded matters by admonishing press gallery journalists for not understanding what he was talking about.

Journalists are not the only ones who have found difficulties pinning down Pyne’s position on schools funding policy. Academics, policy wonks and state ministers are also bewildered.

Pyne has unveiled at least three different policies in less than a fortnight. Initially he was simply going to abandon Gonski, and renegotiate everything. Then he was going to honour the amount of funding Labor had promised, but change the formula. By yesterday afternoon he had completed a double backflip on the issue, announcing that he was going to keep existing arrangements and throw in an extra $1.2 billion in funding for Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The complicated gymnastics brought to mind Doctor Johnson’s famous remark about a dog walking on his hind legs: “it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”. Where that leaves education policy is anyone’s guess.

Certainly, Pyne still has the whip hand in negotiations with the states and territories, signed contracts notwithstanding. Ultimately, it is the Commonwealth who pulls the purse-strings in the schools funding debate, and this gives him enormous leverage in nutting out the final Gonski arrangements.

On the other hand, as savvy observers like Bronwyn Hinz have pointed out, the states and territories are the ones that ultimately run the public schools. There is little an education minister in Canberra can do to micro-manage state resourcing priorities, let alone lessons in the classroom.

Even if Pyne still has plenty of leverage in schools policy, there are now big questions as to whether he can use it effectively. After the past week, you’d have to wonder if Pyne knows his portfolio well enough to win any sort of policy debate.

The current outcome seems to imply a sort of Gonski-apartheid, in which states like New South Wales are pursuing a relatively strong version of reform, backed by federal dollars, while Queensland appears to be getting federal money without any stipulations about schools funding reform at all. The Newman LNP government has cut funding to schools in recent budgets, so in effect it will be using federal money to ameliorate state austerity – hardly the over-riding goal of the Gonski reforms.

Despite two decades of experience in federal politics, Pyne was comprehensively done over by pugnacious New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli — a bloody nose that the conservative South Australian won’t soon forget. The very fact that, after a week of letting Pyne deal with the crisis, Tony Abbott has stepped in to front media conferences alonsgside Pyne must be a terrible humiliation for a man with prime ministerial ambitions of his own.

How much long-term damage this does to the Coalition remains to be seen. The Abbott Government has lost a degree of credibility, and it has alienated the important schools lobby. A powerful minister has seen his credibility shattered. The press gallery appears to be turning against the government far earlier than it did against Kevin Rudd. Should there be some further negative movement in opinion polls away from the government, the early impression of a new government out of its depth will be buttressed.

However, those drawing comparisons with the carbon tax outrage tax that engulfed the Gillard government would do well to think carefully about whether the comparison holds.

The carbon tax “lie” played into deep-seated community prejudices linked to Gillard’s gender, particularly among a subset of middle-aged men. The sense of betrayal was amplified by widel -held views about the illegitimacy of a minority government, and a view of the Coalition as the rightful party of power.

As Paula Matthewson has pointed out, carbon policy also hit the hip-pocket nerve, because it correlated with nasty spikes in energy prices, which consumers mistakenly blamed on the carbon tax. None of those factors are in play here. Finally, of course, the government has now caved in to pressure and restored its election pledge.

Can Tony Abbott’s government steady the ship, and establish a long-term political hegemony, just as John Howard’s did? The only honest answer is: we don’t know.

Tony Abbott and the Coalition have found governing a pretty difficult task so far. But 2016 is a long way away. New governments can and often do recover from early stumbles. The media is about to go on holiday for the summer; January is traditionally a dead month for politics as focus turns to cricket and the beach.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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