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If Rupert Murdoch had put politics aside to support the education reforms he deemed urgent, Julia Gillard’s Gonski funding model might now be in place. Instead, Abbott and Pyne are restoring privilege. By Mary Delahunty.

How Murdoch hypocrisy killed Gonski

It is perhaps difficult to believe, given the relentless attacks of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp papers on Julia Gillard and her government. But back in 2008, the pair were in an unlikely – and unrecognised – agreement on school reform.

Gillard, then federal education minister and deputy prime minister, was one year into her five-year education reform long march when Murdoch delivered an ABC Boyer lecture, in which he labelled our public education systems “a disgrace”.

In his address, entitled “Fortune Favours the Smart” in November 2008, Murdoch fired a few volleys.

“Despite spending more and more money, our children seem to be learning less and less,” he said, “especially for those who are most vulnerable in our society.”

“Today the global economy is raising the bar for success. The need is urgent: countries like Finland and Korea and Singapore are leaving us behind when it comes to education. We need to reform our public education system, and make our schools internationally competitive with the best of them.”

At the time Murdoch was lecturing his former compatriots, Gillard was battling to prise student data out of each school to splash on the My School website for parents and educators to examine.

“On my first day in government,” she said, “no one in this nation could have given you the list of our best performing schools or our worst performing schools. I was told that couldn’t be fixed. I was faced with political resistance from all sides. But now you can get more information than our nation has ever had before on Australian schools on your smartphone.”

After the flip-flops of the Abbott government on education, it’s frustrating to contemplate how close Australia came to sector-blind, needs-based funding for our schools, with high accountability for student results. And how a fractured Labor government couldn’t make it to the finishing line with a plan called “Gonski”. Frustrating, also, to think how such a plan might have had Murdoch’s support – if it wasn’t for the rancorous politics of his Gillard-baiting tabloids, a newspaper network that stretches across more than two-thirds of the market.

“The arc started in 2007,” explains Tom Bentley, deputy chief of staff and education adviser to the then PM. “Julia Gillard had a clear focus on systemic change. As deputy PM and education minister she remade the whole department, from early childhood development, through to schools, university and skills training.”

She had also taken on her own political base – the education unions – in the battle for the My School website. “I was determined to win the My School battle,” she told me, “because I always believed that the more we knew about our children’s education, the more we would be driven to improve it.”

That was round one. Another four bruising rounds with the states, cabinet, independent schools, treasury and the finance department had Gillard starting to push through the Gonski reforms.

Gillard's program unfolds

It started with Gillard’s inaugural speech as a parliamentarian in 1998 and expanded with her personal story in a milestone speech as PM at the National Press Club on September 3, 2012.

“Education transforms lives. I know because it transformed mine,” she said. “The story of my parents’ lives is a story of education denied. As an adult, I understand their stories aren’t unusual for their generation. But as a child, their stories were my world, the backdrop of my life. Because my parents had hungered for education, they wanted their daughter to enjoy all its benefits. And so as a young girl, I was painstakingly taught to read by my mother before I went to school. As luck would have it, the public schools I was zoned to attend were great schools. I liked school and succeeded at it. I had some great teachers, a group of friends focused on doing well, a family ready to support me in every way. But even in great schools like Unley High, I was conscious of the kids who struggled, who got left behind.”

Gillard, famed for her personal reserve, lifted the veil a little by delving into that concealed space where private experience ferments into political resolve. It was a narrative that made sense of her drive to the top.

“So from my earliest years, the life-changing unfairness of being denied a great education has struck me as a moral wrong. For me, eradicating that moral wrong is what drove me into politics and drives me still.”

For Gillard, legally trained and politically pragmatic, to frame education reform as a matter of conscience may have seemed a jolt, but this crusade was built on alarming national statistics. By year 3 of primary school, 89 per cent of children from the poorest quarter of Australian homes were reading below average, and the average 15-year-old maths student in Australia was two years behind a 15-year-old in Shanghai.

Round two was softening up the states, which run education, and in December 2008 a victory, in the delivery of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. This agreement of state education ministers on national goals and commitment to action provided a template of stronger partnerships, quality leadership, world-class curriculum, accountability and transparency – it was the stencil for Gillard’s education prototype. She was building from the base.

Round three was the development of a national curriculum with Gillard’s fiercely held belief that Australian students have a learning entitlement. The new curriculum described this entitlement as a foundation for their learning, growth and active participation in the community. Although it had been talked about earnestly in education circles for more than a decade, it was Gillard who “got it done”. Half a century after we had standardised the nation’s rail lines, we finally had a nationally shared schools syllabus from kindergarten to year 12.

Round four was in early 2010, when Gillard commissioned a panel of experts and community leaders chaired by David Gonski to throw off the cobwebs of a creaking structure, and review and dissect Australia’s overlapping education arrangements. The most comprehensive investigation into school funding in almost 40 years, it was a critical step in Gillard’s plan, having specialists address the question of what kind of country we wanted to be. Were we the land of the fabled fair go, where all children had access to a good education to provide a kickstart in life? Or did we hanker for a preferment system, where extra opportunities were available to those with the money to buy them while the rest got a basic service? As Victoria’s education minister I’d had a good look at the latter concept and didn’t like it. It’s the Howard model of federal funding that preferences students in high-end independent schools and leaves students in public schools to the cash-strapped states. The result is competing and unbalanced systems.

Gonski report

The Gonski report found that between 2003 and 2008, capital investment per student was twice as high in private schools as in Catholic schools, and four times higher than in government schools. When the global financial crisis hit, Gillard persuaded her “Gang of Four” colleagues – then prime minister Kevin Rudd, treasurer Wayne Swan and finance minister Lindsay Tanner – to direct a sizable portion of the government’s emergency spending intended to keep the economy afloat towards new school buildings. The Gonski review also found that independent schools in Victoria, for example, had 24 per cent more teachers per 1000 students than public schools, and 31 per cent more than Catholic schools.

Most Western countries had adopted the equal access option; Australia operated the second, preferment one. Here, our choice of school has become a vehicle for our aspirations. We buy our children an education based on what we can afford, and our aspirations for them, and we expect government to help us pay for it. Such has been the cultural shift to a privatised education system in this country.

Yet this binary between public and private is not advantaging the nation. On the contrary, we are dropping back.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment results showed that in 2012 Australia had one of the biggest gaps of any Western country between high and low performers on literacy and numeracy. Plot it by social advantage and it was a steep straight line: the more disadvantaged the child, the worse he or she did.

Gillard was prime minister when the Gonski report was received by the government in December 2011. It had acquired a one-word slogan, as though the media and public had given up on any complexity, even its full title. It was now just “Gonski”.

The report demonstrated that our current funding system was inequitable, opaque and needlessly duplicated in certain areas. It proposed to fund schools and students on the basis of need, taking into account average measures of disadvantage at a school level, including students who were Indigenous, from a low socioeconomic background or living in a remote location. It also proposed a more transparent funding system, so stakeholders would understand where money was coming from and where it was going.

The Gonski report made two main recommendations. First, Australia’s schools generally were underresourced, and total funding should be lifted by about 15 per cent, or $5 billion a year in 2009 dollars. Second, our present funding arrangements gave too little to the students who needed it most, and the growth in funding should be redirected to the most disadvantaged 25 per cent.

Gillard and her government had developed a model for national school improvement that had been thrashed out with noisy and passionate stakeholders. She then had to find the money and harness the political will.

Australian Education Bill

Round five saw Gillard as prime minister pinning her colours to the mast with the Australian Education Bill introduced to parliament on November 28, 2012. The bill, she told the chamber, enshrined in law the principles of the National Plan for School Improvement, including the introduction of a new funding model, and committed to a target of Australia being in the top five schooling nations in the world for reading, science and maths by 2025.

“With this bill,” she said, “the government declared that it aims at agreement with states and territories, and the non-government and Catholic sectors, on funding and implementation of the plan early in 2013. The legislation will be updated to reflect the details of these agreements. If passed, the bill will come into effect on 1 January 2014, with a transition period to give schools and systems time to adjust.”

Here was Gillard throwing down the gauntlet to the states, the opposition, the public. This was the plan, the target and the timetable.

It was a slow process. Five years after she set out on the patient path to systemic school reform, and 14 months after she had received the Gonski report, Gillard finally had a plan. But the Gonski report carried a vaporising price tag of $5 billion extra a year. The entrails of the GFC were still entangling governments around the world and the Gillard administration had declared the target of a return to surplus by 2017. Treasury refused to engage with the Gonski plan, in a form of passive aggression, because of its concern about the deficit. Gillard had put into the parliament the legislative shape of the school improvement plan but without the figures. The money was the subject of hard haggling.

In the cabinet there was inertia. Was this worth the political capital? Was it worth the political risk? What was the political narrative? How could we be clear on the choices and benefits around complex education systems’ machinery? Shouldn’t we prioritise other things? Though the men and women around the cabinet table shared the values of improving education, the political reality was that few other ministers stood to benefit from this plan getting up. Indeed, if Gonski sucked up the money, other ministers’ projects wouldn’t get a guernsey. And then there were the Rudd agents provocateurs in caucus determined never to let Gillard succeed.

David Pope, cartoonist for The Canberra Times, drew his “Vision of St Julia” (September 4, 2012) with the prime minister in Joan of Arc armour on her knees wielding a sword marked “Gonski”, while behind her lingered naked angels with the lined faces of state premiers, holding baskets of cash. In the distance a New Jerusalem of public-school portables rose, while in the foreground Peter Garrett in harness ploughed the cracked land. Misplaced optimism needing miraculous intervention, the immediate political imperative for Julia Gillard was to not get singed.

The brutal sectoral politics of Labor’s last go at fairer funding for schools had badly burned the party and its then leader Mark Latham. Some wealthy independent schools, doing very nicely under the Liberals’ largesse, had produced a “Labor Losers Hit List” and the mother of all scare campaigns going into the 2004 election.

There were plenty of Labor MPs who didn’t want to touch it again. Gillard was not one of them. She set clear parameters, gathered the data and proposed a model that the states could afford and the feds would pay for. She was prepared to shape the debate, with the bottom line that there were no losers.

“She never wavered from the longer-term objective,” says Tom Bentley. “She understood that if we didn’t take the opportunity now, school funding would become one of those no-go areas in government.”

Selling the plan

“Big day,” the PM deadpanned. It was early evening April 2013 and Julia Gillard had just completed another television interview, in a string of media appearances that started at 7am. It was her second full day of selling her Gonski schools plan. Only the burden of her body against the wall betrayed any weariness. Today Gillard had withstood about 10 live radio, TV and general media interviews, chaired cabinet, caught up on correspondence, made a few phone calls and would shortly return to the Lodge to host an education dinner. The security detail, unobtrusive near the entrance to her private suite, had been turned over at least once through the course of the day.

I asked her to rate the effect so far of the Gonski plan and its sell.

“When you can do a press conference and no one mentions ‘Hit List’ or ‘Loser’…” She smiled, then gathered herself. “The independents gave it a tick, the Catholics are okay and the AEU is campaigning for it.” Her evaluation: “It’s okay. We’ve done a lot of work over five years to bring the sectors together.”

Gillard was offering a sweetener to the states. A two-for-one deal: one dollar from the states with two dollars from the federal government, to set a base level of funding for each primary student of $9271 and $12,193 for a secondary student, topped up with “loadings” for disadvantage.

Popular support

How did we know that Rupert Murdoch was once a fan of Gillard’s significant reforms in education? We know because he told us.

Social media was roiling with its usual fury or fantasy when I came across this pithy tweet from the world media mogul: “Gillard once good education minister, now prisoner of minorities & Greenies.” Clearly, he was once a fan of Gillard when she was looking after education as deputy PM but not once she was running the show. He then nailed the challenger: “Rudd still delusional who nobody could work with.”

Although both Murdoch and Gillard apparently agreed effort and investment in education were needed, when Gillard pursued that exact agenda as prime minister, she had to resist the Murdoch newspapers’ trenchant opposition to anything she did.

The Murdoch press, ubiquitous in Australia, continued its remorseless hostility to the Gillard government with no pretence of balance. But after the budget in May 2013 even News Corp papers had to concede that the schools plan was a winner.

“Voters strongly support the Budget’s two key social reforms, with 65 per cent backing the Gonski funding package and more than half supporting the Medicare levy increase to pay for disability care,” News Corp papers revealed. “An exclusive Auspoll for News Ltd shows solid bipartisan support for Labor’s two big spends – $9.8 billion over six years for schools and funding an extra $14.3 billion in disability support through a 0.5 per cent rise in Medicare Levy.”

Tom Bentley wasn’t surprised. “She [Gillard] was also confident it could be a political strength.”

Gillard campaigned hard on this reform and though she was no longer at the helm in September 2013, Labor went into the election with a 20-point lead over the opposition on education. No wonder Tony Abbott panicked in the twilight of the campaign and surprised everyone with a sudden “unity ticket” on education, declaring that the Coalition would “match Labor dollar for dollar over the next four years”.

Abbott government's confusion

That was then. Since the Coalition took office, the new education minister Christopher Pyne has created his own Gonski groundhog day, succeeding in confusing and alarming schools and educators all over the country, including Liberal state education ministers.

Pyne was never a fan of the Gonski plan.  As the opposition’s education spokesman, he infamously didn’t even bother to read the initial report before emerging to attack it. He declared that New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell had been “conned” by Julia Gillard into signing up. “In fact this is not a Gonski response, it is a Conski,” he quipped.

Then it got really silly. Last November, the minister announced that the new government would dump the Gonski model and the former government’s deals with the states. It’s “back to the drawing board”, he declared: “The idea of a national school funding model is a sham.”

That triggered cries of “broken promise” and a roaring row within the Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, NSW and ACT governments, which had made funding agreements with Labor.

Prime Minister Abbott said his government would deliver its actual election promises, not what some voters “thought” it had promised. He then promptly overruled his education minister by announcing the government will honour Labor’s Gonski commitments for four years, as well as “in-principle” agreements with Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Confusion reigned. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Abbott had put students, parents and teachers on a “roller-coaster”.

In all this spectacular policy flipping, flopping and backflipping, the real aims – needs-based, sector-blind funding of the Gonski review’s recommendations – have been forgotten. Some states and sectors remain uncertain about the future of schools funding, as the 2014-15 budget confirms the end of reforms introduced by the Labor government and implements a new funding arrangement from 2018. Australian schools will not receive the $7 billion (over indexation) in additional federal funding they were expecting. This money would have been provided in 2018 and 2019 had Labor’s school funding reforms been fully implemented.

Minister Pyne insists that the funding system from 2018 on will remain needs-based and that it will include disadvantage loadings, but the government’s refusal to support the financially significant years of Gonski is a major setback for education.

 

There is some irony that on June 26 last year, the day Gillard’s head was put on the Labor leadership chopping block, her signature education reforms passed into law. How much of them is implemented is now in the hands of Abbott and Pyne. And, as ever, the sometimes capricious support of the Murdoch press.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "Classroom politics". Subscribe here.

Mary Delahunty
is a journalist, author and former Labor state government minister. Her latest book is Gravity.

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