Living within our platitudes
Whatever the politicians say, we can't afford to skimp on education
By Don Watson
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Our prime minister says that we must “live within our means”. The treasurer and the minister for finance both say it. As is the custom, having said it once, they have said it again and again. “We must live within our means.” “We cannot spend what we don’t have.” “What is true for families and businesses is true for nations.” Though the former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett said it was a “message” that gave him “a sense of connect”, the Sydney radio broadcaster Ray Hadley told his friend the treasurer it sounded suspiciously like a slogan.
Perhaps it’s a slogan and a message, but it’s a platitude before it’s either of them. The thing has served as pious moral stuffing since the ancients. Last century it had a thorough working over from Calvin Coolidge and Margaret Thatcher, among many others. This century, John Howard and Peter Costello often spun the line even as they rode the boom, but of course no one tossed it around as often as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Let’s face it, they’ve all said it. Messrs Turnbull and Morrison have merely renewed their predecessors’ vows.
As good conservatives, they must know the history of this banality. And as good Christians they will also know the Parable of the Talents, wherein a lender rewards two chaps who risk his money and turn a profit, and the pusillanimous one who salts it away he wishes “into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” etc. On the face of it at least, the lesson taught by this bit of the Judeo-Christian tradition is to not live within our means, but to revel in the reality of our credit-fuelled lives. Don’t bury it; turn it into something. And what goes for every householder, as they always say, goes for the nation as well.
Of course, like life itself, the meaning of the tale is slippery, and many will say this reading is altogether too literal and fails to see the analogy between usury and the kingdom of heaven. But we do not pay politicians to argue the finer points of parables. We’re talking about messaging, not telling the truth, and if they’re going to plug an ideas boom and the transition to a 21st-century heaven, Matthew 25 will take them further than “living within our means”.
Oscar Wilde said that people who lived within their means suffered from a lack of imagination. (He said it just once, yet we remember it still!) Wilde was not advocating profligacy, but rather openness to human possibility. It was not responsibility or prudence he wanted to abandon, but the incanting of those words to bludgeon intelligent free thought and generous deeds. He knew how readily in the name of moral duty small and fearful minds will strike with piddling homilies any hint of a noble idea. That he knew this without knowing anything about modern Australian politics is one more proof of his genius.
In early April, there was Gerard Henderson, outnumbered by leftists as usual, perched on the end of the Insiders couch, an earthbound emissary of all the righteous gods, wishing he had wings. (Why the ABC hasn’t given him The Hendo Show is a mystery. He is one of the genuine characters of our public life, much the deepest of his cohort and the one most likely to oblige his enemies to examine their conceits.)
Henderson told us how he got an excellent education from unpaid priests teaching classes of 60 or more boys. (For an Old Xaverian he is.) His point was that money, equipment and small classes are much less important than good teachers. This is the best point to be made about education, and much too often forgotten. Just the same, while a smart kid like Gerard Henderson was likely to do well in a big class, he might have done even better in a smaller one, and, what’s more certain, the less smart kids would have had a better chance as well. Some children survive poverty and neglect, and are stronger for it. For some, hardship is a training ground for success. But, much as it adds to our admiration of such people, with good reason we don’t set greater hardship or abuse as goals of education (or any other) policy.
It doesn’t seem such a stretch to hold that, while good teachers are the crucial element, smaller classes and useful equipment also make for better schools and better teaching – either that or the wealthy private schools are showering their students with goodies just because they can, and our government should stop enlarging the means within which they live. To believe, along with Gonski, that all schools should have the teachers and resources necessary to meet their students’ needs seems an equally reasonable proposition. And since money is as much needed to recruit, train and pay good teachers as it is to buy Bunsen burners, this much of the pedagogical question and the financial one are the same, and further debate is unnecessary.
Bearing in mind that both sides of politics insist that the essential task of government is to oversee the nation’s transition to an “innovative”, “agile” 21st-century economy, both must also insist that a first-class education system is essential. Sad to say, since Bob Hawke and Paul Keating insisted on the transition a quarter of a century ago, the Australian education system has by many measures declined. Consider just a handful of recent dismal statistics. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, in maths and science an average 15-year-old Australian is three years behind a student in Shanghai; in reading, the Australian is a year and a half behind the Shanghai student. It’s more than a relative decline; while other countries have improved in the past decade and a half, on all kinds of measures Australia has slipped in real terms. In 2013 only 12% of Australian boys studied advanced maths in Year 12. For girls the figure was 6.6%, a 23% drop in the past decade. That same year, only 8% of students took a foreign language in the New South Wales HSC, the lowest number ever. Of more than 75,000 HSC students in 2014, only 798 studied Chinese and 635 of them came from a Chinese background. Less than half of all recruits to teacher training have ATAR scores in the top 30%. The figures are alarming just about everywhere you look.
With so much at stake and so much agreed on, there can be no sensible argument about whether to find the money for education. And yet it is rare for the debate to rise above one side arguing for money and the other saying money isn’t everything – and anyway there’s not enough of it, and unfunded promises have been wantonly made, and Labor just wants to tax and spend, and we must live within our means, or, as the PM says, in “our fiscal envelope”. And hardly ever does the debate get out of the ideological ruts and not an inch of progress is made.
Comes the prime minister two days before the COAG meeting, offering to tip the Commonwealth’s financial responsibility for public education onto the states by replacing Commonwealth tied grants with state income taxes. The Insiders crew was divided: the ABC and Fairfax leftists reckoned the PM’s attempt was a crazy brave act, if not just crazy; the Guardian leftist thought it might have been a play in a different game and cleverer than it looked, or that at least the intention – to gain a political advantage by giving the notoriously malfunctioning states responsibility for a service crucial to his government’s mission – had to be clever because seen in any other way it was mad; Gerard Henderson seemed to believe that, while possibly worthy in intent, it was likely not the smartest thing, politically speaking.
The prime minister spoke eloquently for his action. He was no less convincing in stating his concerns about Australia’s education system. Listening to him talk you could begin to think Australian education had at last found its great advocate. Perhaps it will prove to be. Yet if his plan was bold, its execution unorthodox, and his advocacy bracing and persuasive, the whole remained familiar.
He must have known, first, that at two days’ notice the state premiers would never buy it, and, second, from that moment until the election he would be accused of abandoning public education and establishing a system that favoured private schools over public ones. And he must have realised that when the familiar complaints were made on these grounds, as they were by his fellow Liberal the NSW minister for education, his government would feel obliged to pull out the even more familiar “perpetuating class warfare” jibe, as it did per the Commonwealth minister for education. And still not an inch of ground was gained. It was familiar in that the debate about education – unlike, say, a debate about spending an extra $30 billion on defence – remained a debate from which any spectator might have concluded that, as much as education is essential to the nation’s future, it’s just too hard for the country to figure out.
Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, American Journeys, The Bush and, most recently, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’.