Malcolm Turnbull has conducted possibly the biggest heist in Australian politics. While university campuses have reacted to funding cuts with discontentment and gloom, Turnbull, assisted by his lieutenants- Treasurer Scott Morrison and Education Minister Simon Birmingham, have tried to shift the entire narrative from tertiary education to its direct predecessor. In doing so, he has attempted to boldly step onto Labor’s territory and has managed to get away with one of its most prized policy proposals.
“Gonski,” as it has become known after its chief architect, David Gonski, has always been one of the Gillard government’s lasting legacies. There are many reasons to find Julia Gillard’s tenure as Prime Minister memorable for all the wrong reasons, from the wars between the ALP’s “faceless men” to the infamous “no carbon tax” pledge. Despite these blemishes, it did succeed in reigniting debate around the issue of education funding courtesy of the Gonski Review, which looked to ensure that every child should have access to the best possible education, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds.
Hence, when Turnbull coined the term ‘Gonski 2.0’, it sent the political world into chaos. Stealing the mantle of fair education funding from the Labor Party, Turnbull’s controversial move has left his counterparts in a state of pandemonium. If Turnbull were still a university student, one could argue he has committed an act of plagiarism. It remains to be seen whether the PM will have to pay a political price for his actions. Has he risked the wrath of his traditionally conservative backers? Has Turnbull become too small-l liberal for the party’s liking by committing to a big-spending policy at a time when the budget deficit remains a concern?
The Treasurer’s new budget will benefit a majority of Australian schools, with the total funding to Australian schools in general to increase from $17.5 billion in 2017 to $30.6 billion in 2027. This figure is a major improvement from last year’s effort, but remains a far cry from the initial projections of the Gillard government and the Opposition’s promised funding at last year’s election. Particular highlights of this educational package are the promise of a 4% annual funding increase for each year of the next decade, and the fact that the vast majority of Australian schools are set to see a funding boost.
However, a small but significant proportion of schools will be seeting. These include Catholic and Independent schools, who see their funding rise by a mere 64% compared to the 94% projected increase in funding for public schools. The rationale behind this move is in line with Gonski’s recommendation in 2011. It looks to level the educational playing field by cutting funding (in real terms) or reducing funding increments in some (usually Catholic and Independent schools) while increasing funding for others until a general ‘equilibrium’ is achieved. 353 schools, almost all of which are Catholic and Independent schools, will be subject to less funding than their public counterparts. A further 24 schools will receive real cuts to their funding. Catholic schools, which educate approximately a fifth of Australians have lashed out at Turnbull, with the Archbishop of Sydney recently lamenting the repercussions of such a funding scheme.
However, there is a key difference between Gillard’s Gonski and the remodelled Turnbull version. Gillard, perhaps wary of the fate of one of her predecessors, Mark Latham, who dared to defy the independent schools by releasing a ‘culling list’ during the 2004 election, decided not to adhere to the full recommendation of Gonski’s Review. She resisted the temptation to cut funding or even reduce it alarmingly for Independent and Catholic schools for fear of a political backlash. Turnbull, however, has indeed released a culling list, albeit a much smaller one of 24 compared to the 67 compiled by Latham in 2004. It is an unprecedented move, even more so as it is coming from Turnbull and Morrison, politicians on the centre-right rather than Latham’s previous life as a centre-left politician.
Gonski 2.0 is refreshing in some ways, especially coming from a Liberal government. However, Turnbull’s aim to rebrand his party and himself as progressives befitting of their party’s name has several hurdles to overcome. The Opposition will continually argue in both houses that more can be done and that this is a downgraded version of the promises made prior to the 2016 elections, no matter how realistic these promises happened to be. Furthermore, one would expect the Catholic and Independent school lobbies to rally and launch scathing attacks on the Turnbull government. It is a radical move that has the potential to be the legacy project of the Turnbull government. Many questions remain to be asked of Turnbull’s great heist. Has he induced the wrath of traditionally loyal supporters of the party, and in doing so perhaps alienated true believers in the Liberal party room? Only time will tell.