Education: Rudd’s Workchoices

Monday, 1 September 2008 

Rudd’s speech to the National Press Club disappointed some commentators in that the much hoped for grand narrative never emerged but rather it almost wholly concentrated on one policy area, education. This disappointment partly underestimates the barriers for any of the major parties forging a political narrative, but it also underestimates the political importance of Rudd’s education agenda.

From the very beginning of this government, the media has underestimated the critical role education plays in the political make-up of this government and why it is no coincidence that the portfolio is held by Gillard in combination with those internally sensitive roles of industrial relations and productivity.

Rudd and Gillard always like pointing out how education is key to arresting the lower productivity growth under Howard, which was almost half of the preceding Hawke Keating years. Yet they never quite explain why productivity growth was so much higher during Labor’s last government.

It certainly wasn’t because of education spending. As a percentage of GDP, government spending on education declined steadily through Labor’s 13 years from the high point under Fraser in 1977. It was taken further down in Howard’s first term but then rose back up to the average level of the Hawke/Keating years. It was especially in the tertiary sector, which would have presumably been most critical for the type of skills to make Australian business competitive, that Labor’s cuts were toughest. Howard basically inherited the regime that began with the Labor re-introducing fees in 1989 and followed by Keating’s ending of indexing funding grants to universities.

The secret to the productivity gains under Labor was not education but its relationship with the unions. It was this that allowed wages to be kept restrained during the Hawke/Keating and it was the exhaustion of the relationship that not only caused subsequent problems for Labor, but meant that anti-union initiatives like Howard’s AWAs were a flop with employers.

It is the end of that relationship, combined with the deregulation that has already occurred in the Australian economy that undercuts any real economic debate in Australian politics. We saw this last week with the Liberals’ attack on the economy in parliament when they spent Question Time listing all the negative indicators. The Liberals may like to say Rudd is just watching the economy, but so are they. Pointing out how the economy is deteriorating is politically meaningless if they have no alternative.

Economic policy has been meaningless for some time (shown by ability of the World’s Funniest Treasurer to take credit for the economic success of the last decade). Howard could not avoid the mistake of Hewson and carried on as though economic reform still had meaning, with spending cuts (which he later reversed) and a sham attack on the unions through Workchoices. Rudd and Gillard’s purpose is to change the whole idea of what is considered an economic debate.

We could take Gillard at her word as she gave it on Lateline last week and assume that what seems like an under-funded education ‘revolution’ will change and spending will be increased to schools that need it most. But you have to wonder why they don’t just monitor those schools that need extra funding (in case they don’t already know) and simply give it to them, rather than make a song and dance about it by issuing public assessments of the schools. Of course, there is nothing wrong with extra information being made available to anyone but how many parents really can’t tell whether their local school is any good or not? Or if they do get told, it is hard to see that there is much they can do about it.

The public report cards on schools may not have much practical effect but it will have a political one. Just as the government has made economic policy all about the skills levels of individual workers, so now the quality of schools has become the key determinant of progress in this country and parents are being expected to play their role. To turn a social question into one of individual responsibility is usually a right-wing trick and it is no surprise that Howard tried this first in 2004. But he was not leading a party that ever had the faith in education like the one that Rudd leads, especially as the main organisations that Labor used to see as the route to advancement, the unions, have now become redundant.

Fortunately (for the sake of political clarity) we always have in Australia an extreme example that highlights the absurdity of this education obsession and the idea that schools and their teachers are responsible for the progress of Australian society. The report from which the government is drawing its inspiration notes that:

The ‘tail’ of underperformance in Australian schools is concentrated amongst students from low socio-economic status (SES) families and Indigenous students.

Does anyone seriously believe that the problem with indigenous communities or the education underperformance of its children ultimately comes down to lack of poor schooling? It is obvious in this case that it is just part of something broader that results from not only lousy schools but also lousy housing, hospitals, roads and employment conditions that determine the living conditions for the parents.

Workchoices gave the Liberals a sense of purpose even if it did not have much practical effect in the Australian workplace. Some government backbenchers may be unhappy about taking on the teachers unions, but the obsession with education that justifies it, gives Labor the similar sense of purpose, even if, like Workchoices, it has the same limited practical effect. This is why, no matter how many assurances the teachers unions may get on extra funding and higher pay, they will understandably be left with the uncomfortable feeling that they are being used to take the responsibility for something else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 September 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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