Christopher Pyne’s Education Values

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.

About Jack Cormery

Jack Cormery

Jack Cormery is the pen name of a former senior adviser to several Australian governments.

    CONTRIBUTOR click to Donate

    The Chifley Research Centre relies on contributions from individuals and organisations to fund our operations, events and research. Without your donations, nothing we do would be possible.

  • Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor

    Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Ryan Batchelor is a director of the Chifley Research

    Ben Hugosson

    Benedict Hugosson is an Organisational Ombudsman for the Swedish Social Democrats, focusing on training and membership development. Benedict has experience

    Cameron Clyne

    Cameron Clyne is the former CEO of National Australia Bank and now chairman of advisory firm Camel Partners and a

    Carol Johnson

    Professor Carol Johnson - Carol is an Adjunct Professor of Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively

    Catherine King

    Catherine King is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.

    David Coats

    David Coats is in Australia as a Visitor at the Chifley Research Centre. He is a research fellow at the

    Gabrielle Kuiper

    Dr Gabrielle Kuiper has a background in science, sustainability and urban planning. She was previously Senior Adviser, Climate Change, Energy

    Emma Maiden

    Emma Maiden is the former Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW. She is currently Head of Advocacy for Uniting, leading their

    Erin Watt

    Erin Watt is the National Secretary of the Labor Environment Action Network. Erin is a National Political Coordinator for United

    Jim Chalmers

    Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Treasurer, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was

    Jo-anne Schofield

    Jo-anne Schofield is the National President of United Workers Union.

    Josh Burns

    Josh Burns is the federal member for Macnamara in Victoria.

    Linda Tirado

    Linda Tirado is a completely average American. She also has good rants about how much it sucks to be poor

    Lindy Edwards

    Dr Lindy Edwards is the Associate Head of School in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University

    Rebecca White

    Rebecca White, Leader of the Tasmanian Labor Opposition

    Terri Butler

    Terri Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, and the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

    Tim Kennedy

    Tim Kennedy is national secretary of the United Workers Union, organising for secure jobs and a fair Australia.

    Website design and development by