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They call him backflipper, but Gonski's still sliding


Gymnast performs a backflip, silhouetted against the skyAccording to conventional political wisdom, a new government should break a promise it doesn't intend to keep early in its term of office because by the time the next election arrives most voters will have forgotten about it. This assumption is usually paired with another: that voters shrug off politicians' deceitful conduct anyway, because they don't expect any better from them.

Is that what was happening last week, when Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced that the Abbott Government was reneging on its campaign 'unity ticket' support for Labor's Better Schools plan, aka the Gonski reforms to school funding? And was this week's reversal of last week's reversal prompted by a panicked reassessment of the conventional wisdom?

Did the chorus of commentators chanting that abandoning the campaign pledge was the Coalition's 'carbon tax moment' spur Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Education Minister into reinstating the pledge, lest they have to endure three years of the 'liar, liar' accusations that buffeted Julia Gillard after she implemented a carbon price she had not promised not to introduce?

An implied 'yes' to this last question has become the established narrative on the nation's front pages: Gonski is back, but the series of backflips has undermined the Government's credibility and possibly Pyne's prospects, too. Expect him to be demoted in the first cabinet reshuffle, some pundits are already venturing to say.

Well, maybe. The decision to reinstate a plan that Pyne had publicly denounced as a shambles only a week earlier certainly suggests that he, Abbott or both of them realised that they had badly miscalculated the likely public reaction to ditching the reforms. And the series of policy reversals has fuelled perceptions of a wider ineptitude in this Government, whose ministers have been slow to grasp that they cannot speak and act with the freedom available to Opposition frontbenchers. When a minister utters what sounds like policy, there are consequences.

The established narrative ignores, however, that the reversals — or 'backflips', to use the term favoured by headline writers — weren't really reversals at all. An acrobat who performs a backflip ends up standing where she did in the first place. But the Abbott Government is not back where it started on education funding.

It has had four quite distinct positions: initial rejection of Gonski and adherence to the Howard Government's funding model; then the so-called 'unity ticket' declared during the campaign; last week's junking of the unity ticket; and now, apparent restoration of the Gonski funding, which is not where the Coalition wanted to be when Pyne, as Opposition education spokesman, was denouncing Gonski as 'Conski'.

To this must be add further qualifications. First, what has been 'restored' resembles Gonski only in that it involves handing a lot of money to the states. The Government has mysteriously discovered $1.2 billion that apparently wasn't available last week, and with this has enticed Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, all of which had refused to sign up to Labor's plan, into the scheme.

Pyne has spun this as saving Gonski and achieving what Labor could not, but it is an achievement derived from surrendering oversight of how the money will be spent. Labor's plan provided increased funding in return for the states making their own contributions, specified in bilateral agreements. There is no longer such a requirement. The states can spend as they wish. In any case the money is offered over four years, not six as in Labor's scheme. That was also the case under the campaign 'unity ticket', of course, which was thus never a real unity ticket at all.

It should always have been obvious that the Coalition was not happy about Gonski, even in the diluted form of the review's original recommendations that Labor had packaged as the Better Schools plan. The 'unity ticket' promise was a ploy to shut education funding down as an election issue and it worked, because media coverage of the promise either ignored or glossed over the continuing differences between the Coalition's policy and Labor's.

Pyne's mistake was not to see that the kind of naivete — among journalists as well as the wider electorate — that allows election ploys to succeed can quickly turn to outrage. No one likes being conned, even if — perhaps especially if — they bear a measure of responsibility for their own state of deception.

So has the latest, big-spending non-backflip shut the issue down, avoiding a 'carbon tax moment' for the government? Gillard was never allowed to forget her broken pledge, but there are enough examples of politicians surviving and even prospering after blatantly breaking promises to suggest that the conventional wisdom still has something going for it. The real question is, what kind of breach of trust might voters forgive, or at least overlook?

The chief inequity in school funding that Gonski — the original review, that is — sought to redress was the decreasing proportion of public funds being spent on the public system. For a decade now, most of the increase in government education funding has gone to private schools.

Pyne might surmise that since increasing numbers of parents are sending their children to private schools they don't have a problem with the slicing of the pie, and that it will be safe to continue dismantling what remains of Gonski. And the fact that most media reporting of this week's announcement has portrayed it as a restoration of Gonski, despite the lack of oversight of how money will be spent, suggests that for the present he is getting away with it — however silly the 'backflips' make him look.

If public schools continue to be the losers in the battle for funds, however, the reversals of the past fortnight will be remembered as the start of a slow burn for the Abbott Government.


Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Backflip image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Gonski, Christopher Pyne, Tony Abbott, Coalition



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Existing comments

Is there any more reason to believe Pyne and Abbott this time around than last time? At least last time it appeared to us poor benighted voters to be clear, even if what we thought we clearly heard wasn't what Abbott said he clearly said. But this time, what actually have Pyne and Abbott said? The extra $1.2b for school education will come from as yet unspecified cuts in the overall education budget, but as yet they've refused to say from where. 'Trust us', they ask, 'It will be from areas that students and teachers and parents won't mind'. If they are serious and, for once, being truthful, that doesn't leave many areas for such a large amount to be cut. Could it be universities? Or TAFE? Or early education? Or perhaps research, especially in climate science or the humanities?

Ginger Meggs | 03 December 2013  

Pyne and Abbott have been taken to task but not without a lot of squirming on their side. The sooner people regard school funding in the same light as hospital funding (I can afford to go to a private hospital but can get a bed in a public hospital if all else fails) the better off our society will become.

John | 03 December 2013  

Ray Cassin points to the key issue that Gonski addresses, the unfair funding of education. Pyne refuses to tell us why he refuses to address this discrimination of the poor schools. Has he an hidden agenda ?.

Reg Wilding | 04 December 2013  

"Nobody likes being conned" especially by Pyne. I am bemused that anyone believed him pre-election. When he makes a statement I feel immediate need for someone fully informed on the subject to explain what he has deliberately omitted or twisted in his primary objective of misleading and deceiving the public. While Pyne may have been a useful attack dog in opposition, as a minister he just undermines government credibility.

Claire | 04 December 2013  

It interests me that in the debate about "Money isn't everything in education, but teacher quality is", that Christopher Pyne seems to be unaware that teacher education and professional development cost money. As well, where once the Catholic system was able to take into our schools all comers whether they could pay or not, this does not happen to the same extent. Then Religious teachers were paid less than a living allowance, and it is unjust to do so with teachers in today's Catholic Schools, so most of the poor of the country access the public school system. They desperately need money to buy books, pencils, usbs and more.

Rosemary Grundy | 04 December 2013  

It seems that Pyne is not able to efficiently and fairly handle a ministerial portfolio. He made a mess of Aged Care whilst in the Howard government and doesn't seem to have learned from erxperience. Twisting words to suit the occasion doesn't cut it Mr Pyne.

David | 04 December 2013  

It has been obvious to many people for a long time the enormous inequalities that have been allowed to exist between the private and public education systems. When the majority of Australians wake up to the fact that Gonski was about addressing that inequality and it was dismantled there will most certainly be a voter backflip. Most Australians believe in a fair go.

Terry Fitz | 04 December 2013  

I wonder if showing the worst photo of Christopher Pyne is an invitation for only contributors who do not like the Liberal Party may express their views. The Coalition Government has restored the $1.2 Billion that Labor ripped out of schools funding. Labor and the former Education Minister, Bill Shorten left school funding in a mess.

Ron Cini | 04 December 2013  

Ron, the $1.2b that was, according to you, 'ripped out' was offered to, but declined by, the non-partcipating states. The $1.2b that is to be, according to you, 'restored' is actually, according to Abbott and Pyne, to be taken from other education programs, as yet unspecified. Perhaps you can tell us from whence it will come, because neither Abbott nor Pyne have told us. Yes, you could say that the pre-election position was a'mess' but that was because agreements had not been reached across the board. I too can be critical of previous ministers' processes but an agreement requires by definition the consent of at least two parties, so that one could just as easily say that the non-participating premiers were equally responsible for the pre-election 'mess'.

Ginger Meggs | 05 December 2013  

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