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Pyne's Gonski shambles

By Dean Ashenden - posted Friday, 29 November 2013

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne is correct in saying that the Gonski scheme is a mess, but culpably wrong to use that fact to ditch the whole idea. The Gonski mess shows few of the actors concerned in a good light, and some, including Pyne himself, in a very poor one. It also reveals fundamental problems in the governance as well as the funding of Australian schooling.

Heading the list of those responsible for the mess is the person who also deserves most credit for coming up with the Gonski review in the first place, and for driving it to the brink of success: former education minister and prime minister Julia Gillard.

Gillard must surely regret her loss of faith midway through the process. Even though the review was her creation, and even though it came up with well-argued and widely-supported proposals, Gillard gave the report a lukewarm, even chilly reception. We'll have to see if the money is there, she said, before launching Gonski on the treacherous waters of 'further consultation', the extensive consultations already undertaken by the review notwithstanding.


Another six months on, Gillard changed tack again, declaring a national education 'crusade' with Gonski as its centrepiece, but by then it was too late. Gillard's mid-stream hesitation was fatal. The 'consultations' effectively eviscerated Gonski.

The first of several key components to go was a 'national school funding body'. As Gonski panel member Ken Boston pointed out recently, that concession to the states and non-government sectors meant that no agency or government was in a position to do the complicated arithmetic required by Gonski's 'needs-based sector-blind' funding model. Hence the technical mess that gives Pyne a spurious causus belli.

Pyne's contribution to this debacle was to act as spoiler from the day the Gonski report was released. In that role he has so far adopted no less than four positions: any Labor legislation of Gonski would be repealed by a Coalition government in favour of the existing funding system; an Abbott government would go with Gonski only if all states and territories signed up; the Coalition was on a 'unity ticket' with Labor and would implement Gonski even though some states and territories had not signed up; and now, after only ten weeks in government, Gonski is ditched.


This deviousness owes much to the then-Opposition's strategy of denying legitimacy to the Gillard Government. It arises also from a bedrock belief in subsidising 'choice' rather than reducing the need for it. And there's the money problem. Although the position is not yet clear, it seems likely that the Abbott Government is proposing to spend less than both it and Labor promised before the election.

Pyne's fourth and current position on Gonski may not be his last. He has bought a serious fight with powerful adversaries. The New South Wales Government, a strong supporter of Gonski from the outset, is livid. Other states, both those who signed up for Gonski and those that didn't (WA, Queensland and NT) will want the money even if they don't want Gonski's needs-based way of distributing it. The Catholic system has been circumspect so far, but it will no doubt mobilise if need be. Tony Abbott's assurances of yesterday, following Pyne's provocations of the day before, suggest that the Prime Minister is more aware of the danger than is his minister


Behind the political and administrative debacle lie fundamental problems of the structure and governance. First is Australia's unique sector system, which sees three different sectors in receipt of government funding in three different mixes, and two of them charging fees while the third does not. It is an inherently divisive and unstable arrangement, and the source of political grief extending back well into the 19th century.

Second, these complications are compounded by the involvement of both federal and state/territory governments in all three sectors. The system is inherently wasteful and ineffectual as well as unstable and divisive.

Third, the drawn-out saga of Gonski has made clear that the machinery of federal-state cooperation through COAG set up by Labor to handle the first and second problems has failed. A different division of funding labour between governments now seems inevitable. One of several options would be to give the states the money for government schools while Canberra takes the non-government sectors.

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This article was first published in Eureka Street.

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About the Author

Dean Ashenden was co-founder of the Good Universities Guides and Good School Guides, and had been an adviser or consultant on education policy to state and federal governments and agencies.

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