I try not to think about Christopher Pyne, I really do. So-called “wet” Liberals who run a hard-right agenda for the purposes of career advancement are a special breed. They always over-do it and end up nastier than the nasties – political panto-villains, the lot of them. But I can’t let his comments about a Coalition government shifting the education debate from a discussion about “more money” to one about “values” go unanswered.
This is one of those bland comments that conceals multiple cruelties. On the surface, who can disagree that children should be taught the right values? But as soon as you ask the next questions – which values and by whom – you can see what I mean. Let me take a wild guess at some of Mr Pyne’s answers to those and subsequent questions.
The first point – and the article displays this very clearly – is that Mr Pyne intends to take us back to the days of Liberal Party meddling in school curricula. We can brace ourselves for more Brendan Nelson-style insistence that all schools must put up a picture of a donkey and have a functioning flagpole. (Readers under 25 won’t believe me. Look here: Yes, it really was that bad). Oh, and if you want to, the values stuff can do double-duty with some nasty race-baiting (see: this transcript and John Howard and Philip Ruddock, passim). And don’t think they won’t go there.
Second, there’s the very salient point that Bob Carr took about 4 seconds to put his finger on – Mr Pyne advertising to the Liberal Party hack-and-slash brigade that he won’t fight any cuts to education. Remember – career advancement.
But where I really want to dwell is on a third point, and it’s this: just like in the Howard years, the endless discussion of “values” will achieve the Liberal Party’s most cherished education goals without them spending a cent.
How so? Firstly, a discussion about values in schools will literally never end. Everyone has their own idea of what those values should be, and disagrees with everyone else. We can spend a good, solid decade arguing these issues with no result but to distract us from the real issues of funding and the organisation of schooling. And right on cue, you’ve got Mr Pyne’s promise to ignore funding in black and white, to cut out and keep:
Asked whether he agreed with the basic principle of the Gonski review, which is that Australia needs a world-best school system regardless of where you live, your income or the school you go to; Mr Pyne said “of course I agree with that” but he believed Australia already had such a system.
Let’s be clear. If you’ve read the Gonski report, you can’t believe what Mr Pyne believes. As the report says (page 34):
… research shows a clear relationship between the socioeconomic backgrounds of students and their school performance … In line with their levels of need, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students, and underperforming schools will require additional support (both financial and non-financial resources).
This is the debate Mr Pyne is trying to avoid by raising the values issue. But he’s doing something else as well. “Values” means something very specific for the Liberals. It’s coded rhetoric against public schools. John Howard didn’t even bother to code it after a while.
Why would they do this? Partly it’s penny-pinching, but overwhelmingly it’s about ideology. Good public schools are hotbeds of meritocracy. They give the opportunity to millions of kids (full disclosure, like me and my schoolmates) not born into the comfortable Liberal-voting middle class to get a good education and a good job. They create that most horrible of things: social mobility. That thing we pay ever-louder lip service to in our public discourse while the reality of it goes quietly extinct in Australian society.
When I was going through a public school, I was silly enough to believe that – for the most part – it was my family’s job to teach me values. I still do. In fact, we’d have much less of this rubbish debate about values if parents would spend less time trying to outsource their kids’ values education to private schools and a bit of time doing it themselves, but I digress.
My school did teach me one value. In its admission policy. They took everyone, and they did their best for everyone. That’s the values debate worth having, and it’s the one you’ll never hear from Christopher Pyne.