Surprise! Coalition backflip infuriates
As Tony Abbott was preparing to drop his bombshell announcement of a "unity ticket" with Labor on school funding, it was a time of frayed nerves in Coalition ranks.
It was August 2, Kevin Rudd was newly installed as prime minister and within reach in the polls. The election had yet to be called and the opposition leader had been rattled by his new and unpredictable rival with a reputation, at least then, for his campaigning smarts.
After a series of strategic moves by both sides since the Rudd revival, education had emerged as the major point of policy difference between the parties, the weak link in Abbott's political armoury.
If Labor was to pull off an improbable victory, it would be on this battleground, a traditional area of strength with voters.
Abbott and his education spokesman Christopher Pyne had been railing against the Gonski reforms for months, deriding them as unaffordable and having no support from the states and territories.
But the big Coalition-run state of NSW had just inked an agreement, and its counterpart in Victoria was about to do the same.
As he announced the unity ticket, Abbott opened the press conference by griping that "Labor has been using school funding as a political wedge", a revealing remark that Abbott sensed the political tide was running against him.
"We will end the uncertainty by guaranteeing no school will be worse off," he said at St Andrews Christian College in Wantirna South.
"We will honour the agreements that Labor entered into. We will guarantee the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure no school is worse off."
By apparently adopting Labor's policy so wholeheartedly, Abbott successfully neutralised the issue.
The refrain "unity ticket" was to be heard often during the campaign that eventually led to Abbott's rise to the prime ministership.
After less than three months in office, the Coalition government this week backflipped on the backflip, exposing that press conference at St Andrews College as a politically driven volte-face to safeguard an election victory against Rudd.
The funding from Gonski will now last only one year. A new deal must be struck, to howls of protest from schools and the states.
Abbott and Pyne are now being accused of a fundamental breach of faith with the electorate, a broken promise on par with the carbon tax reversal that Abbott used so devastatingly to undermine Labor in office.
Given the week began with the Abbott government trailing Labor in the Nielsen poll and perhaps experiencing the shortest honeymoon of any government since reliable polling began, it's little wonder Coalition MPs are questioning the judgment of Pyne and Abbott.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten can barely contain his glee as he rushes, television cameras in tow, from school to school to proclaim Abbott has backtracked on his "no surprises, no excuses" mantra.
Abbott denies a betrayal, saying the undertaking was only to maintain the Gonski funding "envelope".
But, certainly, agreements with states won't be honoured, offers that Labor has made are not guaranteed and there are no assurances every individual school will not be worse off.
And Labor has most education stakeholders, and the two big Coalition state governments, backing its case. More than that, the states are howling in protest at what they see as a commitment that has been royally welshed on.
NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli emerged from Friday's state and territory ministers meeting fuming that "all in all the ministers are very disappointed".
His Victorian counterpart, Martin Dixon, said the state would insist that its funding deal with the former government must be honoured.
"We signed the agreement with the federal government, not a political party."
Behind the political theatre is an issue of crucial national importance.
A reform package backed by almost all stakeholders and negotiated over four painstaking years has been dumped, at a time when standards are slipping and disadvantaged students neglected.
Where once Australia ranked in the top three in international surveys of educational attainment, for high-school students, it is now lagging way behind.
For primary students, the shortfall is even more acute.
Pyne has not offered an alternative, only a set of motherhood principles about "teacher quality, a robust curriculum, principal autonomy and parental engagement", while letting loose a volley of alliterative sobriquets for the Opposition Leader, variously dubbed "Shambles", "Saboteur" and "Shortchange" Shorten.
In a spectacular display of obfuscation, denial and not a small measure of chutzpah, Pyne has contradicted the government's former position, and himself.
He has highlighted the urgent need for a national approach, and then said the states need more control.
The politics, and education policy-making, this week have been so awful that many are scratching their heads as to what the Coalition is up to.
For many educators, the reversal is being driven by the Coalition's desire to tilt Commonwealth funding back towards the private schools, who were the major beneficiaries of the Howard-era system.
Piccoli maintains that Pyne implied in Friday's meeting that public schools may lose funding under the reforms.
When he sought clarification on the issue, "none was forthcoming" from Pyne.
"He's still fighting that [private versus public] war," Piccoli said. "But that war is over. That war was going on for 20 years, but what Gonski did was end it."
Public schools bear the heaviest load in educating disadvantaged students and under the Gonski model, they were to receive a far greater share of Commonwealth funding.
The Howard system - targeting funding on the basis of the socio-economic status of the suburbs from which students came - tended to favour the private sector, and many wealthier schools, such as those that had boarders from rich farming families who lived in otherwise poor regions.
Gonski changed that, offering loadings for a variety of disadvantaged students, regardless of what type of school they attended.
Pyne made clear again this week that he sees the states as being primarily responsible for public education and the only backers for his reforms were some small independent and Christian private schools.
Those schools believe they will get more money.
If ideology is part of it, legacy building is another. The Coalition wants to claim education reform as its own, perhaps bruised by the taunts of Julia Gillard after the September 7 poll that much of her agenda remains intact.
Certainly, the Education Minister wants to make his mark, and Abbott is keen to be remembered as a social reformer.
Consider the Prime Minister's paid parental leave scheme and embrace of disability insurance, which he has renamed NDIS to change it from Gillard's "DisabilityCare", a title designed to echo Labor's Medicare reform for which it is renowned.
Another explanation is the budget pressures on the government. Some 70 per cent of the federal money earmarked for Gonski over six years was to come in the final two years and - along with the NDIS - education spending looms as a budgetary time bomb.
If there was method in the madness, Pyne's chaotic unveiling of the new education position - via a media interview followed by a succession of new announcements - didn't suggest it.
Even his fellow Liberals are saying it makes a mockery of the oft-repeated pledge of "adult government".
"Pyne has lost control of the politics of this," observed one frontbencher. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell launched a blistering broadside accusing Pyne of behaving like he was in opposition, all media flash and no policy substance, let alone mature consultation.
An aggrieved Piccoli told Fairfax Media that, as of late Thursday afternoon, four days after the story broke, he had still not heard from his federal counterpart.
"It's been run 100 per cent through the media," said Piccoli. "No formal communication, no letters, no phone calls."
When he informed Pyne last month he was about to release a school by school funding breakdown based on the Gonski injection of funds for four years, the Education Minister didn't warn him he was wasting his time.
Labor, for its part, wants to hammer home the "broken promise" on education for all it's worth.
"What the carbon tax did to Julia, we want this to do to Abbott," said one Labor operative. "We want this to haunt him for the first term."
A Coalition minister retorts that Pyne has "got the advantage of three years of government, and the levers to fix it".
Abbott - and Pyne - certainly have time on their side.
But education agreements are notoriously difficult to negotiate. They take years, and Pyne has some irate interlocutors across the negotiating table who now have only a year's worth of funding guaranteed.
The heated discussion among education ministers on Friday highlights the strength of feeling.
And the education double-backflip feeds a growing narrative that's undermining the Prime Minister's credo of "we say what we mean and do what we say".
The "budget emergency" and warnings about rising debt and deficit of the Coalition in opposition have been met in government by increased spending and tax cuts, not to mention a bid to dramatically lift the debt ceiling.
Abbott's constant criticism of Labor's handling of the relationship with Indonesia was blown up by the rupture in relations between the two countries after revelations of spying on Indonesia's leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The spying took place under a Labor government, but Abbott bears responsibility for further antagonising Indonesia with his ham-fisted diplomacy.
Through some misfortune, but mostly missteps, it has been an inglorious debut from the new government. It's hard to say if the Coalition had revealed before the election that it was going to dismantle Gonski, whether it would have cost Abbott power.
Rudd was easing off his polling highs, which saw him dead-even with the Coalition, before Abbott's now infamous education "unity ticket" press conference, even if he remained in striking distance.
Labor's long period of leadership battles and political dysfunction, and the erratic display from Kevin Rudd during the campaign itself, indicate the Coalition would still have been favourite to prevail.
Even so, a deception took place that undoubtedly benefited Abbott.
It seems the government always intended to dump the policy once in office. Why else would the Coalition be saying it hasn't broken a promise?
"Pyne has always hated it," said one Coalition frontbencher. But, along the way, well-laid political strategies have been ruined.
By rushing through the carbon tax repeal bills as his first priority in government, Abbott wanted to use Labor's new-found opposition to the abolition of the carbon tax - which it backed under Rudd - to hammer home its continuing dishonesty.
The diplomatic crisis with Indonesia put paid to that, dominating the last sitting week of Parliament.
And, as the Coalition prepares to return to Canberra next week to push the carbon repeal bills through the Senate, it will likely be overshadowed by the furore over Gonski.
Educators, the states and community groups are gathering en masse to save the reforms.
Rather than questions about trust being levelled at Labor, they are now being asked loudly, and often, of the Coalition.
PYNE v GONSKI
“Over the last decade, the performance of Australian students has declined at all levels of achievement.”
David Gonski, leader of education review
■ Australian primary-school students rank 27th of 45 nations for spelling. One in four don’t reach acceptable standard.
■ High school students slipping badly on maths.
Reading and scientific literacy also falling.
■ Divide in standards between public and private schools widening.
■ Funding allocated on socio-economic status of students’ home addresses. Schools with boarders, and those in gentrifying areas, did well. Public schools, especially in regional areas, suff ered.
The Gonski solution
“It’s a lot of money, but I believe it is a wise investment.”
■ $14.5 billion injection of funds over six years, average of $4000 per student.
■ Funding made on assessment of student, not the area they live in. Loadings for disadvantaged students.
■ Deals done with NSW, Victorian, Tasmanian, ACT and South Australian governments, as well as Catholic and independent schools nationwide.
“I’ve never said that we will now re-introduce the previous government’s model, I have never said that, but I have defended it.”
■ Distributes actual Gonski money for only one year. Same funding ‘envelope’ as Gonski for another three years.
■ No details of model until early next year.
■ Will reflect principles of teacher quality, robust curriculum, parental engagement, principal independence.