Another self-imposed Commonwealth government deadline passes, further extensions are granted, headlines appear suggesting the remaining states are about to strike a deal, yet still the Commonwealth has failed to get all states and territories on board with the no-longer-Gonski, Better Schools new school funding arrangements.
Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are still not buying – or more accurately, are not yet agreeing to be bought with promises of extra dollars that have enticed other governments to succumb. And as for the non-government sector, their agreement is not at issue, given the rushed Australian Education Act 2013 binds them to the new arrangements anyway – all the newly appointed Education Minister, Bill Shorten negotiated was a public statement of acceptance!
Mr Shorten tells us he “will continue meaningful negotiations with remaining states.”
Indeed, that’s the problem.
The whole Gonski Review process began in April 2010 as a public inquiry with “eminent Australians with a range of expertise and capacity” to undertake a “thorough and wide ranging” review that would be “informed by data and evidence,” carried out in a “inclusive way ... without fear” to provide well researched and viable recommendations for future school funding that would be “transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent educational outcomes.”
Professor Gary Banks of ANZSOG recently stated that “well targeted and properly conducted public inquiries provide a useful mechanism for penetrating complexity and countering asymmetric political pressures on government, ” and are needed “given the loss of policy analytic capability within the public service ...(and) the erosion of procedural protections.”
Establishing the Gonski Review as a public inquiry also fitted with Kevin Rudd’s 2008 proclamation his government would be driven by “robust, evidence based policymaking processes,” and “facts, not fads.”
Alas, however, the Gonski Review fell short of a good public inquiry. It failed to address many key issues in Australian schooling, to debunk funding myths, clarify the facts and to produce coherent implementable proposals. Far from providing an evidence base for policymakers on measures to improve education performance for various groups of students in various contexts, the report’s overwhelming focus was on money – more money. Even then, it neglected important parts of the funding equation, like the realities of Australia’s Constitution and federal-state relations.
Hence the messiness that has characterised the Commonwealth’s subsequent handling of the policy process. Genuine debate has been lost in pseudo consultation – headlines at a thousand paces, you show me your figures I’ll show you mine, endless photo shoots at schools, a union-backed propaganda campaign and taxpayer funded media advertising. Such tactics undermine open and informed policy discussion in Australia, so needed to restore the trust and legitimacy essential in a well-functioning democracy.
Not only has good public communication fallen victim to the process, so too have the revitalised COAG arrangements that Rudd hoped would remove duplication in regulation and service delivery and end the argy bargy of typical federal negotiations. Instead, deals have been reached by take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums, threats, incomplete and distorted data and incentive funding.
Worst of all, there is now no policy process. Policy based on open public inquiry, expertise and independent analysis has degenerated into policy by negotiation, of the worst kind – bilateral and backroom deals, special arrangements for certain groups, misinformation and a education package that fails tests of transparency, fairness, financial sustainability and effectiveness in promoting excellent educational outcomes. The negotiation process is more like the bargaining in a Kasbah bazaar where sealing the ‘deal’ and scoring a ‘win’ is more important than the actual product sought.
And the Commonwealth’s priority has not been about ensuring “every Australian school is a great school and every Australian child receives a world-class education,” as Mr Shorten suggests, but rather, on the eve of federal election, on how a political party in office since November 2007 finally gets one core policy promise actually implemented.
Meanwhile the federal Opposition has been missing in action, unwilling or unable to articulate a clear policy framework except the trite statement that “no school will be worse off” – the very cause of the current funding distortions. It has not provided a real policy alternative. The only glimmer of hope is if the Coalition wins government, there may be another independent review of funding – a second chance to use expertise and evidence to drive policy.
So endeth the Gonski review. It was born in the early optimism of the first Rudd Government. It sought to inject informed debate into a sensitive policy area, to make a difference to education performance. It was sinking in the Gillard Government’s mismanagement. It is now swamped by the political exigencies of the second Rudd Labor government.