Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Newmania: Must Try Harder

I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and yet I sit here, reading Section 96 of the Constitution of Australia, and pondering at the level of sheer arseholery enacted in its name.

This morning I had the pleasure of coffee and a chat with the Member for Chatsworth, Mr Steve Minnikin. Like most of Newmania’s state parliamentarians, he was launched to power in the electoral tsunami of 2012. It was always going to happen. Before the 2012 election, the seat of Chatsworth in Brisbane’s suburban south-east was the most marginal seat in the state. Mr Minnikin needed a swing the size of a gnat’s dick to be elected. He won the seat with a swing of 10.8%.

My meeting with Mr Minnikin was not so much a discussion around current state politics as it was a relaxed chat about life and politics and people. We were making peace from opposite sides of the political divide after a spiteful twitter exchange a month or so ago. We proved, if nothing else, that political opponents can be civil. 

Take note, Caaanbra; you can and must do better.

Mr Minnikin and I touched on one piece of policy though: I wanted to know how in the name of everything holy could King Campbell’s Government knock back $3.8 billion dollars in education funding – Gonski funding – from the federal government. It’s inconceivable to me that a state government which says it’s under critical financial pressure, and which is not delivering the results in education that we’d like, is refusing this colossal gift.

Let’s be honest: the only state doing consistently worse than Newmania in terms of education is the Northern Territory. It’s a record we in Newmania are rightly ashamed to hold.

The media (social and traditional) have dropped some hefty hints that King Campbell was refusing to accept Gonski on instruction from his mate Tony Abbott, in an attempt to undermine the Prime Minister’s record as the education reformer of the generation. That sounds plausible, right?

It seems that I was wrong.

Mr Minnikin referred me to Section 96 of the Australian Constitution, and made some fairly neutral sounding noises about a tug of war for power between the states and the Commonwealth. Section 96 looks like this:

During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.
Strictly speaking, the Commonwealth has no designated constitutional power when it comes to school education. The states hold responsibility for education. Having said that, successive Commonwealth governments have dipped their oars into this area of state responsibility to the extent that now, the Gillard Government has high profile Peter Garrett as Minister for School Education. 

Sadly, the Newmanian Powers the Be have banned Mr Garrett from setting foot on public school grounds in Newmania, lest he use them as a stage from which to preach the merits of Gonski. (It could be worse - Mr Garrett could dance at the students.) In any case, that's a staggering political pissing competition when you consider that King Campbell is doing exactly what he's banned Mr Garrett from doing. Furthermore, Newmania's Education Minister, Prince Langbroek has admitted that Gonski would benefit around a thousand schools in his state.

One of the key points of the Gonski Review was the determination that management of schools was to remain with the states. Therefore, federal grants and monies offered would be administered by the state education authorities…but there are some strings. Those strings include changes in administration practices to address the issues of poor transparency and accountability which were identified in the Gonski Review.

Strangely, it is the existence of those strings provide the state’s exit plan. They are “Tied Grants”. If the state government doesn’t like any aspect of the Gonski package, including the amount of funding, the funding contribution expected of the states, the changes in administration practice, or even the fact that the Gonski reforms are being made by the Labor Government, they can refuse to accept the funding packing, and that's what they're doing. 

Let’s review this through the lens of the average voter who knows nothing about the Constitution of the Australia, and less about the detail of the Gonski reforms. More importantly, they don’t care. They want to know what’s in it for them, for their kids, grandkids and local schools. They have checked the Courier Mail and they know how much money is being allocated per school and they want their share of that.

There is $3.8 billion dollars sitting on the Gonski-shaped table and our state leader thinks that accepting that funding, making that commitment to improving the standard of education in Newmania is less important than maintaining a structural status quo.

And that is sheer bollocks.

Nothing is more important than improving the quality of education on offer in Queensland. Nothing.

Academic Bronwyn Hinz summarised the outcomes in her paper Schooling federalism: Gonski, Williams and reform prospects like this:
“…any change to schooling federalism will depend not only the federal structure and institutions, but also interacting political forces and opportunities, and entrenched patterns with cultural, political and economic aspects. Foremost among these, it seems, is pure politics.”
I believe that most politicians are, at their core, good people who want to make a positive difference in their community, their country or their state. Mr Minnikin and the rest of King Campbell’s Court can discuss Section 96 until their lips bleed and their ears fall off, but the choice is still their choice. Make that positive difference. Improve education outcomes for the children in this state, or don’t.

Everything else is just politics bullshit.

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