Hockey gambles while Pyne welches

The government's Gonski backflip isn't about money, it's about ideology. But playing voters for mugs may very well backfire.

Christopher Pyne’s broken promise on schools funding is really much simpler than he pretends. He has found an excuse to back out of the Gonski school reforms, not a compelling reason to do so.

The excuse is the $1.2 billion that Labor took off the table before the Pre-election Fiscal Outlook statement was prepared before the September 7 election.

Labor’s move was itself a political statement – failing to sign up Western Australia and Queensland to the Gonski reforms, it decided to sweep the money allocated to the recalcitrant states back into consolidated revenue and make its accounts look a little less dire.

The Coalition conveniently failed to notice that when it read PEFO, just as it, rather shockingly, failed to notice the ‘efficiency dividend’ cut-backs to the public service that it recently tried to claim were Labor’s “secret job cuts”.

In both cases, to have been ignorant of these moves by Labor would be damning enough – the Coalition simply isn’t that incompetent – but to suddenly ‘notice’ them and use them as pretexts for policy backflips nearly beggars belief.

Twice now, the Coalition has tried to play journalists, and voters for mugs – first saying Labor's implied jobs cuts meant it couldn't make its own cuts, and now that the removal of funds justifies scrapping Gonski after one year, instead of its promised four.

Or have we been played for mugs three times? Some weeks ago, Treasurer Hockey relied on Australian Office of Financial Management advice to take the “prudent” step of topping up Reserve Bank of Australia capital reserves by $8.8 billion.

However, as Michael Pascoe astutely spotted, this was in fact a gamble by Hockey on the near-certain fact that the Australian dollar was about to fall, and fall a long way. When that long-expected correction happens, the RBA’s foreign currency reserves will swell – a straight arithmetic proposition based on the exchange rates.

So on the one hand, Chris Pyne can’t possibly find $1.2 billion to patch up the raided Gonski funds, but Hockey can hive off $8.8 billion to ensure the government gets healthy dividends from the RBA for the last two years of its three-year term.

How stupid does the Abbott government think voters are?

This broken promise is not about money. It’s about an ideologically-driven desire to return to John Howard’s socio-economic-status funding model – a model that on paper looked equitable, but in practice was rorted to over-allocate funding to some schools.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Abbott bunker, a numbers man or woman has worked out that the schools that lose the most under the Gonski funding arrangements will have a disproportionate impact on Coalition voters.

And from the bunker comes the diktat that we’d better go back to the bad old days.

As Niki Savva points out today, Abbott needs to get away from his bunker and stop listening to the advice of a select few. She writes in The Australian: “The point I have made consistently is that no one person, no matter how talented, is capable of making all the decisions in a prime minister's office in a timely and judicious manner. They especially will be guaranteed to get them wrong if they make them in an echo chamber.”

The ‘echo chamber’ wants to go back to SES funding and has found a pretext to justify the move.

It is a very grave mistake - quite possibly Abbott’s ‘carbon tax moment’.

And to make such a huge, unforced error at this point does not bode well for the remainder of this government’s term.

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