Don’t let the permanent backlash stop education reform

For Australians who think our country can do better than cynical game-playing, the Prime Minister’s ambitious and visionary schools plan is their chance to unite behind a big national project.

First published by The Drum Unleashed on 15 April 2013.

Like me, you have probably lost count of the number of articles you have read bemoaning the absence of genuine ambition, vision and leadership in politics at a national and sub-national level, here and around the world.

Citizens, we are told, are crying out for the type of leader who is prepared to stake their legacy on uniting their country behind a defining project, who bends history in favour of the generations to come, whatever the political consequences of the day.

Many people watching Prime Minister Julia Gillard detail her National Plan for School Improvement on Sunday would have thought that, for Australia, that moment has come. For those desperate to know what the big national project is in this Asian Century, following the stunning success of economic policy during the global financial crisis, here is their answer: bold education reform.

Few things could be more visionary, ambitious or ultimately beneficial for Australia than lifting the performance of our schools into the world’s top five, as Gillard proposes. Or making sure that schools right around our country are churning out the contributors and innovators of the future economy, investing in productivity well over the horizon. And giving poor kids and those with difficulties as good a shot at success as those from rich areas or with other advantages.

Authenticity is the most precious commodity in today’s politics. Not even Gillard’s harshest critics would doubt her authentic commitment to the issue that brought her to politics and which still gets her out of bed each morning. Following her announcement, even Graham Richardson told Sky News that “when it comes to education, I’ve always said she is top of the class”.

If Gillard could be remembered for one thing only, we get the firmest sense it would be her ambition for education and especially the opportunities that flow from getting the best chances as early as possible in life.

Yet despite the strong support of teachers and parents from across the education system and across the country, and many months of consultation and expert input, the Prime Minister’s schools vision has also attracted substantial opposition. In the case of Queensland’s Premier, Campbell Newman, that opposition was voiced before the plan was even detailed – a brazen but unpunished act.

We hear of Western Australia’s Premier, Colin Barnett, taking great offence to the offer of hundreds of millions more in federal funding for his state education system. He is arguably the country’s cagiest, wiliest practitioner of parochial state politics. But telling the teachers and parents of his state that it is a good idea to knock back funding of that magnitude takes opposition to all things that emanate from Canberra to costly and cynical new depths.

Opponents of the schools vision point to the different levels of funding being offered to each state. They compare the Western Australian aggregate dollar figure with the Victorian one, ignoring the fact that WA’s funding is already superior to states on the eastern seaboard. The logical corollary of Barnett’s argument is that school funding should be determined politically or geographically and not based on evidence of need and an objective formula that takes into account disadvantage or learning difficulty, or a range of other factors recommended by David Gonski.

We have come to expect from politicians like Newman and Barnett this kind of parochialism that risks such damage to the future of Australia’s kids. But why is there no accountability mechanism that punishes this sort of behaviour when cynical politics are prioritised over educational – and, in the long run, economic – outcomes?

The answer lies in the destructive politics of the permanent backlash. This is the phenomenon that most bedevils our democracy today; an obsession with opposition and criticism over vision and ambition. This backlash mentality makes it far easier to be against something than for it – the secret to Tony Abbott’s success as Liberal leader but a damaging habit for Australia.

It is the prevalence of the permanent backlash that encourages newspapers to prioritise an opinion poll that comes out every fortnight over the most significant schools policy announcement in 40 years, as some did today. It is the same incentive in our political system that gives as much attention to just over $2 billion of tweaks to still-rapidly growing higher education funding (including just $900 million from universities) as to a $14.5 billion plan which will transform the opportunities provided to our kids.

Tony Abbott is probably cock-a-hoop this morning about the new opinion poll and especially its potential to knock the PM’s schools plan from the most prominent places in sections of the media. But some of the smarter people around him will be worried that the last week has seen him unable to engage in the policy discussion around Australia’s relationship with China, National Broadband Network technology, public transport, and now schools.

Four issues crucial to our future, and Abbott can only offer flawed or failed positions. He’s psychologically incapable to lift his sights above the usual combination of three P’s that has worked for him to date: politics, polls and process.

But so many Australians think our country can be better than the cynical game-playing that dominates our national discussion. Now is their chance to unite behind a big national project that gets us above the muck of recent years and does something truly historic for the kids who will shape the future.

If we don’t get right behind Gillard’s ambitious and visionary schools plan, those kids might be the next casualty of the politics of the permanent backlash.

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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