The Government of “No Surprises” rewrites History
The following article is by Laura Tingle and first appeared at The Australian Financial Review…
Two months after being sworn in, the Abbott government is now at war with conservative states, the Senate and parents across the country.
Not only is the politics of education calamitous, the government risks a High Court challenge to any attempt to walk away from education funding agreements with the states, being blocked in the Senate, and has even raised questions of sovereign risk.
On the political level, Christopher Pyne’s announcement on Tuesday that the government would dump the Gonski education funding model after 2014 is likely to leave voters feeling even more badly done by than they ever did about Julia Gillard and the carbon tax.
For behind all the well documented pledges about being on a “unity ticket” with Labor on education funding that were being thrown back at the Coalition on Tuesday is a more fundamental political problem for Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
That is that he promised he would lead a government of “no surprises”, a government that would rebuild faith with voters about politics by honouring its commitments, and remove the uncertainty of the last three years.
Instead the move on education leaves schools uncertain about their funding beyond next year, and the government on yet another uncertain path in the Senate on a central policy issue.
No wonder Labor is now repeating, ad nauseum, the line that the Abbott Government “is not the government they said they would be”.
The politics of the brawl with Indonesia may have reflected poorly on the prime minister’s control of foreign policy.
But education is something that affects almost everyone. It now seems the Coalition neutralised a positive issue for Labor by lying about its intentions.
This is the only possible conclusion you can draw from Christopher Pyne’s attempts to rewrite the history of what he said before the election at a fiery Canberra press conference on Tuesday.
The government’s attempt to hide behind a suggestion of a ‘budget shortfall’ left by Labor only makes the politics of this look even more tawdry.
Mr Pyne is asserting that Bill Shorten “cut $1.2 billion from the school funding envelope for the next four years”.
In fact, what happened was the former government was unable to get the conservative governments in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory to agree to a new funding deal. It had allocated $1.2 billion to funding agreements with these three jurisdictions in its economic statement but they had declined to sign up.
Therefore, the money was no longer relevant by the time of the pre-election fiscal and economic outlook.
This was widely reported at the time, as was the fact that some, but not all schools, were covered by funding agreements on election day.
A majority of schools was covered by those agreements: schools in NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, as well as catholic and independent schools.
Mr Pyne and Mr Abbott repeatedly committed to honouring funding agreements for at least four years.
Mr Pyne has been working hard in the past few days to claim that even some of these deals weren’t properly completed but has struck push back from some of those on the other end of the agreement.
The bottom line is the Coalition is now saying it will only honour one year of the agreements reached with all of these school systems because, after that, it will have to spread the pot of money committed into those agreements across the whole country.
The NSW O’Farrell government is leading the push back in no uncertain terms, attacking not just the federal government’s decision but its very modus operandi.
“When you move into government you have to stop behaving like an opposition”, Premier Barry O’Farrell said.
His education minister Adrian Picolli observed Mr Pyne “must be the only person in Australia who thinks the SES (Socio-Economic Status) model [ the model that came into being under the Howard Government and which Mr Pyne has said he will resurrect] is a good model”.
The federal government cannot surely be serious in its assertion that it can simply walk away from a binding agreement with another government.
Maybe Mr O’Farrell is right and this is but another example of the Coalition failing to come to grips with the difference between being an opposition and being a government.