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Coalition education policy does not add up

Jim writes for the Drum today on why this is shaping up as a schools election, and why it matters so much.

A common complaint about modern politics is that the two parties are too alike.

A well-worn strategy for oppositions is to present the smallest possible target.

This time is a bit the same (for example, on some but not all budget savings), and yet a lot different.

An incredibly stark choice has emerged. Economic modelling shows that how it is resolved has consequences for our communities and economy for decades to come.

I don’t mean lifting the Goods and Services Tax, though that now appears a real chance if any future Abbott government failed to hold back an alliance of Liberal premiers and the business community, emboldened by another tax review.

And I’m not referring in this instance to harsher industrial relations laws, though again it is hard (if not impossible) to see the Liberal Party resisting big-business pressure for another raid on working conditions and job security.

These are big differences between the two parties with cost-of-living implications for all Australians, and certainly with a great deal of political ‘punch’.

And yet the distinction with perhaps the most to say about the future of our country is the one over schools.

More specifically, between the billions of dollars behind Labor’s vision for school improvement versus the Opposition Leader’s view that the system is not sufficiently broken to warrant the injection of significant new funds.

Like Kevin Rudd in 2007, Abbott’s strategy until recently was to differentiate only on issues where there was a demonstrable advantage. Rudd set out stark choices on climate change and industrial relations, and until now Abbott stuck to the carbon price and asylum seekers.

To differentiate a lot on GST now and a little on industrial relations is unorthodox.

To flag a schools ‘hit list’ of sorts, like Abbott just has with his policy of abandoning the National Plan for School Improvement, is political and economic madness.

Of course, more important than political strategy is what chance kids are given to learn and get ahead, to be the innovators of the future economy.

This is especially crucial when it comes to disadvantaged kids, those from poorer areas, with language difficulties or any other socio-economic barrier to their success. Providing this kind of educational opportunity to these kids can be the core of a country that turns two decades of economic success into something even more impressive – a new era of genuine economic and social mobility.

Get it right and the aggregate economic benefits for Australia will be colossal.

In this respect, an independent report commissioned by the Government from the accounting firm PWC late last year has received insufficient attention. PWC found that dramatically improving the performance of Australian schools has the capacity to double national income over the lifetime of kids born in 2012. And that over the same period, failing to act would cost the economy $1.5 trillion.

These costs and benefits to the economy would go well beyond the $14.5 billion in direct six-year funding at risk in this election because they cascade through time, delivering the improvements to employment prospects, labour force participation, and productivity identified by PWC. Denying schools those billions now means robbing trillions from the country’s future.

The Coalition’s reaction since the Gonski Report was first produced by an independent group of distinguished Australians with links to all school sectors, has been to deny, obscure and obstruct the review’s main finding, that the way in which Australian schools are currently funded is broken and unfair.

On Sunday, New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell confirmed that Tony Abbott had spoken to him directly to try to stop him from signing a six-year funding agreement with the Gillard Government, for all schools in his state.

Now Christopher Pyne, the Opposition education spokesman, is saying that they will certainly not “honour” this agreement with New South Wales and refusing to outline a policy position until after the June 30 deadline set by the PM for states to sign up.

The Coalition could not be clearer: a vote for Abbott is a vote to not proceed with extra money for better schools.

So Australian parents shouldn’t be fooled by a tired old style of election commentary that suggests there is a cost-free change option.

On the contrary, Abbott’s rejection of the National Plan for School Improvement has the biggest potential impact on them and the country.

Their GST might go up, their working conditions will likely deteriorate, and new funding for their kids’ schools will hit the fence.

The 2004 election showed how potent any education ‘hit list’ can be as a vote-changing issue if the P&Cs and unions fire up.

That they are mobilising again is welcome, because if they fail to highlight this stark choice between two alternative visions for schools in every suburb and town, and Abbott wins, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Jim’s article was first published by The Drum Opinion on 22 May 2013.

About Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Minister for Finance, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and, before that, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. He has a PhD in political science and international relations and a first class honours degree in public policy. His book Glory Daze was published in July 2013 and he tweets as @JEChalmers .

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