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Australia in a sorry state as Gonski faces failure

  • 17 April 2013

On Friday Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the premiers assemble once more as the Council of Australian Governments, better known by the ugly acronym COAG. Most of the media attention will be on the Gillard Government's response to the Gonski report on education. The Commonwealth is proposing a $14.5 billion injection into school funding, on condition that the states kick in $1 for every $2 from Canberra.

Most pundits expect the plan to fail because the states are unlikely to agree. Western Australia has already delivered a curt 'no', and the two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, have given only wary 'in principle' consent. If scrutiny of the details doesn't confirm that the cash will flow as they wish, they'll be nay-sayers, too.

Whether COAG reaches agreement or collapses in bickering, it is likely to be reported chiefly through the prism of the Gillard Government's impending electoral doom. Will Labor be able to stave off defeat by finally ushering in the education revolution Gillard proclaimed six years ago, when she was Kevin Rudd's deputy and education minister? Or will the states' intransigence seal her government's fate?

The federal ALP's consistently dire opinion-poll results make this kind of reporting inevitable. Even if Labor is swept away as predicted on 14 September, a redistribution of funds towards the poorest schools would allow it to claim it leaves a legacy of social-democratic achievement. Given the Government's dilution of the Gonski proposals, and plundering of tertiary funding to pay for them, that claim will be highly debatable.

Friday's haggling and uncertainties will not, however, be only the story of a government on life support. They will be a reminder that the constitution devised by the founders of federation in 1901 is increasingly unsuited to the realities of 21st century Australia.

If the states do give the Commonwealth's plan the thumbs-down, it will not be the first time since Labor's return to office in 2007 that Australia's creaking constitutional arrangements have made fundamental reform impossible. Gillard's difficulties in selling even 'Gonski lite' to the states are reminiscent of those the Rudd Government faced in trying to overhaul hospital funding.

Rudd and then health minister Nicola Roxon declared that they intended to end the practices of blame and cost shifting created by the fact that the states have the constitutional responsibility for administering public hospitals but are reliant on federal funding. The inducement offered to the states was a