The view from Billinudgel

The future of the Gonski reforms

Last week was a good one for Coalition backdowns.

First there was Malcolm Turnbull, admitting that if he becomes minister not only will what has already been rolled out of the National Broadband Network be preserved in its present form; so will work in progress, and indeed much of what is still in the planning stage. His own proposals for NBN Lite will therefore be relatively minor, as well as strictly temporary.

And then there was Scott Morrison promising to keep all of Labor’s PNG solution, even though he insists that the present government can’t implement it – just a week ago Tony Abbott was ready to dismiss the whole idea as a mere thought bubble.

But the big one, which got lost in the hysterical arms race over boat people bashing, was from Christopher Pyne, who, it is often forgotten, is not just there to set records for being thrown out of parliament – he is also the shadow education minister. And Pyne now says that a Coalition government would not, as he had previously insisted, dismantle Labor’s Gonski (now rechristened Better Schools) education reforms unless they were accepted by all the states and territories.

Although the six states and two territories remain split down the middle, Pyne says the system will endure for at least a year – which in practice will mean indefinitely; the longer it stays in place, the harder it will be to repeal, and also the more likely it becomes that the recalcitrants will sign up. In fact, Pyne has become the reforms’ best recruiting officer.

It is not entirely clear what has caused the flip flop; reversing changes which were already under way across half the country and more than half the pupils was always going to be difficult and unpopular, but Abbott and Pyne had been adamant: the old funding system was not broken and did not need fixing, and that was that. Admittedly they were just about the only people in the country who felt that way; even the principals of the wealthy private schools, those who benefited most from the skewed method of determining payments to schools by the postcodes of their pupils’ residences, agreed that the system was arbitrary and unfair.

But Abbott held his ground – at least he did until last week, when the nation’s Catholic schools decided to be part of Better Schools. And then he saw the light; could it be that his personal confessor, Cardinal George Pell, did a little arm-twisting behind the scenes? But for whatever reason, Better Schools is now just about set in stone.

David Gonski and his team will be relieved, as will Kevin Rudd and his new minister, Bill Shorten. But the real winner is Julia Gillard. Like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Better Schools was her special project, one for which she will be praised and remembered. Her memorial is now secure. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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