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Federalism, languages and the national curriculum

By Grant Wyeth - posted Monday, 23 April 2012

Few would contest the multitude of virtues that education brings. Education is essential for creating opportunity, economic development, generating wealth, evolving technology, crime prevention, social cohesion, and enjoying the vast wonders of the universe. Education is related to everything. Therefore, education should be at the forefront of all our public debates, particularly those debates begun by our elected representatives. It takes an incredibly inept politician to not be able to sell education to the public. While Prime Minister Gillard began her role in within the Rudd government touting an Education Revolution, the noise from the government on the issue recently has been limited. The Gonski Review came and went with little fanfare. It seemed the Government didn't like its conclusions about Federal Government funding and threw it in the bin. The government wants a national curriculum, not state-based curriculum.

Historically national curriculum have been born out of the idea of nation-building. Nation-building, and nationalism itself, were 19th Century ideas that proved disastrous during the 20th century. Yet the concept behind nationalism was to build a cohesive society out of diverse regions in order to stablise the country as a whole. Presently, Australia has a very socially cohesive society. We have limited crime and we have no organised, popular groups that threaten the state. Despite occasional hiccups, Australians respect the common humanity of those who reside here, and the idea that we need to embrace further institutions to "bind" us together is utterly false. Especially when such institutions have proved so damaging in recent history.

That said, it is generally accepted that education reform is a necessity for the 21st century. With the changes in human organisation through instant global communication and increased mobility, the need for language education is especially essential. Australia has been fortunate that the last two major world powers have been English-speaking, creating an English superstructure, but this may not always be the case, and as a middle-power we need to very aware of the winds of change. We can't continue to expect the free ride we have received. While increased language education has been acknowledged as a necessary reform, there has been little discussion on why this reform should be run from Canberra, and not the various state capitals.


The concept of Federalism is based on respecting the unique assets and values of each state, which together strengthen the resources of the country as a whole. If we are to homogenise education policy then aren't we undermining the core ideas of our federation?

Each region has different economic imperatives, different trading partners, and different cultural norms. States should have the flexibility to foresee opportunities and align their education policies in this direction. Especially when it comes to language learning.

Queensland and Western Australia are trading their resources heavily with China, and may see this trade prospering and expanding into other areas with the learning of Mandarin. Yet Victoria may believe that its assets are best aligned to trade with a rising Brazil and decide Portuguese would be a more beneficial language to learn. A one-size-fits-all policy directed from Canberra can't cater for the unique local knowledge required to best take advantage of potential opportunities.

The learning of languages not only benefits existing trading relationships, but gives greater access to new markets, fuels the diversity of ideas available in the country and creates citizens with a more comfortable global perspective. Language learning primes your synapses to be receptive to difference, and in the modern world this global enfranchisement is essential in order to access opportunity.

Yet limiting ourselves to just one other language is limiting our prospects, as well as underestimating our brain capacity. In Finland students learn two languages as well as their mother tongue, so why can't we? We are in an ideal position (geographically and culturally) to embrace both east and west, and each state should desire to teach a language from each. As innovation feeds off diversity, our de facto mono-lingualism limits our ability to acquire broad and useful knowledge that will be increasingly essential for a post-industrial society. Imagine having access to, and the ability to combine, ideas from Japan, the Lusosphere as well as the Anglosphere? What potential innovations could flourish from such interaction?

Furthermore, a national curriculum will stagnate educational policy. Education needs to maintain both its relevance and flexibility in an increasingly changing world, something it will struggle to do through two layers of bureaucracy. Centralised policies cannot properly cater for local requirements, either trade or culturally based. As the market is struggles to provide a universal acceptable standard of education, Federalism also provides a competition mechanism between states that is essential to fuel education innovation. With each state trying to create the best skills for investment and to generate wealth, they will be keeping each other on their toes.


In Australia we see very little of the defence of states' rights the way we do in Canada's similar political system, where provincial premiers and ministers vigorously challenge Federal government over-reach. While it is necessary for public institutions to come under constant scrutiny to maintain their value, the ideals behind Federalism are still highly relevant today in order to deliver greater democratic outcomes to the disparate regions of this country. This not only maintains the respect for these regions, but has the added bonus of being the most effective way to create opportunity and wealth. A national education policy ignores both these factors and should be opposed by both each state government and the general public.

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About the Author

Grant is a freelance writer and political analyst. Combining his background in political philosophy with his current work in the digital industry has given him great insight into evolving human interaction, technical innovation, economic intelligence and migration patterns. He is the proud owner of an Enron glow-in-the-dark yo-yo that he took from the company's London office post-bankruptcy. He is a dedicated fan of the Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Namibian cricket teams. And due to an extraordinary lack of interest from others, he is quite possibly Australia's foremost authority on Canadian politics. He is impossible to inconvenience, extremely helpful in any capacity, and always punctual. He has previously lived in London and Montreal, but currently lives in Melbourne.

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