Is This the End of Gonksi?

There appears to be a new unity ticket between Labor and the Coalition on the Gonski school funding. The Coalition has always refused to commit to the final two years of Labor’s six year Gonksi funding plan. Now, it appears that Labor is having second thoughts.

The Shadow Education Minister, Kate Ellis, has refused to commit Labor support for the increase in funding it planned for the two final years of the six year transition to the Gonski funding model. It puts a final question mark against the $7 billion increase in Federal funding promised by the Labor Government for 2017-18 and 2018-19.

In an interview on Sky News on 18 March, the same day the Gonksi campaign caravan rolled into Canberra, Ellis repeatedly refused to be drawn on Labor’s election commitment.

She was first asked by David Lipson, “Will you take to the next election a promise to restore funding in years five and six for the Gonski education funding model?” Ellis avoided the question and said “Look, what we are focused on is the budget that is an eight weeks time”.

Lipson then asked again, “Will Labor commit to take that funding for years five and six to the next election?” Ellis avoided the question again, saying “But David, it might not shock you to know this is not our election policy launch”.

Lipson tried a third time: “Isn’t it a bit hollow though to call on the government to do that if you are not committed to doing it yourself?” Ellis avoided the question yet again, this time with “Well, obviously we’ll make a budget reply in a few weeks time”.

Ellis’ prevarication is a clear sign that Labor is now questioning its own commitment to Gonksi. It will dismay all those teachers, principals, parents and community members who have put their faith in the Gonski plan to make a difference to disadvantaged students and schools and reduce the massive achievement gap in this country between rich and poor.

Abandonment of the last two years of funding by Labor will put a final stake through the heart of Gonski. It will be the end of Gonski.

Already, the plan has been dismembered by the Coalition. Not only did the Coalition refuse to fund the final two years, but it will not hold state governments to their agreements to increase funding for schools; it will not place conditions on the funding it has since provided to the governments that refused to sign up to Gonski; and it will not require governments to implement a needs-based funding model.

As state governments will not be required to increase funding for schools as a condition of Federal funding, they are now free to substitute Federal funding for their own funding or even to cut their own funding. The Western Australian and Northern Territory governments have already cut their school funding.

As a result, all that remains of Gonski is a four year funding program to 2016-17 that delivers only a very small net increase in funding. Much of the planned Federal funding increase of $2.8 billion agreed by both the Coalition and Labor is being funded by the re-direction of funds from terminated national partnership programs. According to the Auditor-General the net new increase in funding is only $0.9 billion.

The only certainty is that Catholic and Independent schools will get their part of the Federal funding increase because it is provided under federal legislation and is delivered directly to schools or via private school system authorities.

The big losers are government schools and disadvantaged students, 80 per cent of whom are in government schools. Almost 90 per cent of government school funding comes from state/territory governments and their Federal funding is delivered via the states. There is no guarantee they will get any increase in funding as state governments can decide to substitute Federal funding for their own and even to cut their funding.

The Labor Party should urgently re-affirm its commitment to the full Gonski. Otherwise Ellis’ prevarication will be seen by hundreds of thousands of teachers, parents and community members as a monstrous betrayal. Ellis’ attacks on the Abbott Government for not supporting the last two years of Gonski funding will be seen for what it is – blatant political hypocrisy.

It can only be presumed that Labor’s doubts about Gonski are being fed by the Federal Budget deficit and the perceived political challenge to say how Gonski will be financed. But, this has not stopped the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, from promising to cut company taxation from 30 to 25 per cent.

Under Shorten, Labor appears to be putting corporate welfare ahead of education for the disadvantaged. Australia’s corporate taxation rate is similar to the average for the OECD. Treasury figures show that Australia has the fifth lowest overall tax burden of 34 OECD countries and the third lowest personal income tax burden. Australia is a low tax country.

Labor would do better to close the gaping loopholes that allow international companies to shift profits offshore to avoid tax. Australia is losing billions in taxation revenue each year to tax havens. The Australian Financial Review has shown that Apple shifted $9 billion in untaxed profits from Australia to tax havens in the last decade, including $2 billion last year. It paid only $193 million in taxes in Australia in this period. Over 60 of Australia’s top 100 companies have subsidiaries in tax havens. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation alone has more than 70 subsidiaries across the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Luxembourg and Mauritius.

The latest international PISA test results show that massive achievement gaps continue between rich and poor in Australia. One-third of low socio-economic status (SES) students are not achieving the international mathematics benchmark and nearly one-quarter are not achieving the reading and science benchmarks compared with five to eight per cent of high SES students. Just over half of all Indigenous students are not achieving the mathematics benchmark and nearly 40 per cent are not achieving the reading and science benchmarks. Over one-quarter of low SES students and 46 per cent of Indigenous students do not complete Year 12 or its equivalent.

These results constitute a gross social injustice. But, they also incur major economic and social costs including higher unemployment, lower lifetime earnings, lower productivity, less taxation revenue, higher health care and crime costs, and higher welfare expenditure.

Schools do not have the resources necessary to reduce the achievement gaps. OECD research shows that Australia has the equal second largest teacher shortage gap between disadvantaged and advantaged schools of the 65 countries participating in PISA. There is also greater inequity in material resources (such as textbooks, science laboratories, information technology and libraries) between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Australia than in most other countries participating in PISA.

The Gonski funding plan offers the best opportunity in a lifetime to re-dress these resource gaps and reduce inequity in education. Labor should stop pandering to the big end of town and re-affirm its commitment to the Gonski vision that education outcomes should not depend on wealth and income. It should re-commit to its plan while in government to increase Federal funding for schools by $10 billion by the end of 2018-19. It should also think about how to fund the full Gonski and other necessary social expenditure such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and universal pre-school attendance.

Trevor Cobbold

The office of the Shadow Minister for Education has given SOS a speech in the Parliament on 18 March 2014 by the Shadow Minister and a speech in the Parliament on 27 March 2014 by the Leader of the Opposition that state that Labor is committed to the full six years of Gonski funding.
We welcome these statements, but wonder why the Shadow Minister was not prepared to make this commitment in her interview with Sky News. Her refusal to answer direct questions on this matter has served to create doubt about Labor’s commitment.

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