Australia in a sorry state as Gonski faces failure


Map of Australia in piecesOn 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 bigger pot of money in return for increased federal oversight of policy. The threat was that if they did not agree the Commonwealth might seek to take direct control of public hospitals.

If that had happened, it would have been the most rational outcome: the same tier of government would have been responsible for running and funding the system, so there could be no cost or blame shifting. But the states — including then Labor states such as Victoria — stared Canberra down. More money was poured into the hospital system but the division of responsibility remains.

And Rudd's briefly touted plan to hold a referendum on responsibility for health care in conjunction with the 2010 federal election can in retrospect be seen as one source of his downfall. Roxon, Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan all opposed the idea because without the support of the states a referendum would almost certainly fail.

Their judgment was tactically correct. But the instinct, strong on both sides of politics, to evade the difficult task of constitutional reform is the chief reason why federalism has become an obstacle to good governance.

As the Senate select committee on reform of the Australian federation noted in its report last year, the disparity in revenue between the Commonwealth and the states — which has been tilting in the Commonwealth's favour ever since the introduction of a single national income tax during the Second World War — is now greater than in any other nation with a federal system of government.

Yet the constitution remains locked into the vision of 1901, when the states were largely self-funding and self-managing.

In 1901, it was still possible to speak coherently of six separate state economies. That is not so now, which is why attempts to fix federalism's faults by tilting revenue flows back in favour of the states won't solve the problem. In 1901, it mattered little that educational standards were not uniform across the nation. That certainly matters now, but it is much more difficult to resolve the differences than it ought to be.

Recognition of the problem is no longer a partisan matter. Traditionally the coalition parties contrasted their support for federalism with Labor's centralising instincts.

But John Howard, to name but one prominent conservative politician who has spoken on the matter in recent years, observed when he was still prime minister, in 2005, that if 'we were starting Australia all over again, I wouldn't support having the existing state structure. I would actually support having a national government and perhaps a series of regional governments.'

As an abstract proposition, many would agree. But of course, we are not starting Australia all over again and the strongest argument for retaining the states is that they exist.

Howard also said that no one would want to try to abolish them in the face of resistance by state governments, and so it has proved to be. Rather than take up the gargantuan task of constitutional reform, politicians across the spectrum would rather tackle the almost as difficult task of making a broken system work for them. That is what Gillard will attempt to do on Friday.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor. 

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Julia Gillard, Gonski, states, federation, COAG


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Existing comments

The Gonski report implies that finance is the key to solving our educational problems. It is not. Austraian schools have the unenviable task of educating a student population a significant proportion of which come from dysfunctional backgrounds and,consequently, are that way themselves. As such they are virtually unteachable. and make life difficult for the rest. While the nation continues to spurn the value of marriage and the conventional family this educational malaise wiil continue. This is one of the reasons past government largesse has not resulted in the desired academic progress.We have regressed and will continue to do so until the underlying social problem is recognised and addressed.
grebo | 17 April 2013

It concerns me that you seem to be unquestioning in your assessment that 'Gonski faces failure'. As I understand it, WA has refused to play ball. But no other state or territory has done so. The two most populous states have concerns, certainly, but when has there been a COAG meeting when some Premier or other/s haven't had grave concerns about something. Would Gonski be rightly considered a failure if WA did not take part? If the great majority of Australian children benefit, where's the failure? After all, mightn't this be the way a new relationship between the Federation and the States and Territories will unfold. Some States on board, and some not. Why not?
Kate Ahearne | 17 April 2013

Many good points but please, spare us the rhetoric regarding reduced university funding. "Plundering" it is not; university funding has increased by over 40% since the ALP was elected and there has been a significant increase in the number of students attending tertiary institutions. What we have here is a slowing of the rate of increase in funding, not cuts. And the main saving has been to remove the discount for pre-paying fees - surely one of the worst examples of upper-middle class welfare in the country (who apart from the wealthy can afford to pay Sebastian's or Imogen's law degree fees 'up-front'?) Given that governments' budgets aren't unlimited I would much rather a small reduction in the future funding of universities in exchange for the benefits of the Gonski reforms.
chris g | 17 April 2013

There seems to me that there are two reasons why These reforms will fail . Firstly there has been no effort to explain why more money will give us a better educational outcome or even ,apart for more intense attention for the disabled ,what it will be spent on .If you ask an economist to develop education plan of course it will be an economic solution . More teachers will help the union to fund more strikes by teachers who have not participated in school activities or held parent teacher nights in Victoria in first term .Maybe teacher commitment to the kids is needed long before more money . The second reason is that there is no money to pay for this ,the commonwealth can just run more deficit but the states cannot and should not .Taxes are collected centrally so were do they think the money is to come from ?Painting the states as the problem is just electioneering .
john crew | 17 April 2013

"Grebo" writes as if Australia is "sui generis" and that other countries [say Britain, the USA or Germany] don't have comparable social problems which influence education. No, money won't solve everything but if it provided better physical facilities [as simple inspection indicated that the BER achieved] or encouraged denigrated and stressed teachers not to leave that important profession [or to stay in public schools] that it would be helpful. Mr Cassin has a very valid point: the constitution was written [and, as a compromised, adopted with mixed enthusiasms] in very different times: different in national and international politics [well before the "global economy", for example; in times of radically different communications; in a much more homogeneous society and sense of nationhood]. It is not really good enough -- and in other aspects of our national life, too -- simply to insist on what "our founding Fathers intended". The question of universities is complex. Ever since the dubious Dawkins "reforms" of the late 1980s we've lived with the pretence that it is a "unified" system and that, accordingly, universities are homogeneous. They are not: their intellectual standards, the extent and calibre of their research and -- in fact -- the quality of their students, vary enormously. Perhaps we should be considering closing a few of them -- and not just for financial reasons [though they would also be valid].
John Carmody | 17 April 2013

Like Grebo, I am concerned for children from dysfunctional families. Unlike him, I can't dismiss dysfunctional children as 'virtually unteachable'. While we're working on restoring strong and supportive families in the future, the children we already have need help. If they're unteachable by 'traditional' methods, we must find other educational methods and structures. In addition to all that, the average child from and average family at the average State school needs help because his/her school is increasingly substandard in buildings, building maintenance, program support, teacher support, parent liaision and a dozen other factors that can't be swept away by talking about 'government largesse'. If State governments had done their job, our kids wouldn't need this Federal 'intervention'. As it is - if they're in a State school, they need help!
Joan Seymour | 17 April 2013

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