The extraordinary decision by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to propose the abolition of federal funding for government schools has given Labor’s Bill Shorten his best opportunity to win the 2016 election since Turnbull’s accession to power last September.
Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull
have never been so close in the polls.
Although the running of government schools is constitutionally a state responsibility, federal governments of all persuasions have funded state schools for over 50 years. In 1964, the Menzies Liberal government introduced federal funding of science laboratories in state and non-government schools, and this was followed, a few years later, by grants to school libraries.
In the 1970s, this was extended to recurrent funding for both government and non-government schools – a policy which has been supported by governments of both political persuasions for the past 40 years.
While state schools continue to be funded principally by the states, federal funding for state schools has been an increasingly important source of funds, as it has been for roads, hospitals and other public facilities that are also the responsibility of the states.
Mr Turnbull’s proposal that funding for state schools be a state responsibility – to be funded by state access to income taxation – reverses 50 years of bipartisan education policy, and does not take account of the fact that poorer states such as Tasmania and South Australia would never be able to match the resources of the wealthier states.
Many people will be astonished at the level of Commonwealth Government spending on government schools in the states and territories.
Commonwealth expenditure on government schools currently runs at about $6 billion, a sum of money that the cash-strapped states simply do not have.
It is true that money is not necessarily related to educational outcomes, but in an environment where cuts to federal funding are not being matched by any guarantee of replacement funding, the proposal has sent shockwaves through the education system, and alarmed many parents whose children attend government schools.
It also comes at a time when the Federal Government has foreshadowed, in next month’s federal budget, a cut to company tax rates and a freeze on state funding.
The latest Turnbull proposal comes after months of fiscal uncertainty, as the Prime Minister has put forward a series of tax measures to tackle the federal deficit, then withdrawn them in the face of widespread public criticism.
The clear perception is that a Government that has repeatedly said that the federal budget deficit crisis is its major challenge, has repeatedly abandoned proposals to fix the problem, and now has no policy to fix it.
First, it proposed an increase in the GST to 15 per cent, and the inclusion of currently exempt items, including fresh food, and services, such as health and education.
However, after a public outcry, this was abandoned.
Next, federal Treasurer Scott Morrison announced that the Government was looking at the exemption of the principal residence from capital gains tax, and later, that it was examining negative gearing on housing.
Both proposals were abandoned in the face of widespread public opposition.
What we were left with was a proposal to cut company tax rates (which will worsen the government deficit), and no change to personal tax rates – a strange policy to put forward shortly before an election when the people will vote.
This is the context in which the Prime Minister proposed, days before the recent meeting with state and territory leaders, that the Commonwealth withdraw from some of its state funding programs, and give the states power to levy income tax to make up the shortfall.
The state premiers declined to accept the proposal at the recent Council of Australian Governments meeting, and Mr Turnbull withdrew the proposal.
His next proposal was that the Commonwealth Government withdraw from funding government schools, although it would continue to fund non-government schools – a proposal almost designed to outrage people involved with public schooling, and exacerbate divisions between the two sectors.
Mr Shorten’s response was predictable. He will no longer have to defend the conduct of unions like the CFMEU, but will lead a national campaign to defend public schooling, and enlist as many people in the education sector as he can.
He clearly wants to turn the 2016 election into a referendum on Mr Turnbull’s education policies, just as Kevin Rudd turned the 2007 election into a plebiscite on the Howard government’s WorkChoices.
It seems that anything Malcolm Turnbull touches turns to dust.
The result is that a man whose party had an unassailable lead in the opinion polls just months ago is now falling behind Labor, and Bill Shorten has been given a golden opportunity to become the next prime minister of Australia.
No wonder that Mr Turnbull’s colleagues, even those who voted him in seven months ago, are appalled and demoralised.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.