Comments this week by the Social Services Minister, Kevin Andrews, have exposed a breathtaking contradiction in the Federal Government’s approach to conditions attached to Federal special purpose grants to the states. Andrews said that he wants more conditions on Federal funding for the states to reduce homelessness. In contrast, the Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has dropped conditions requiring state governments to increase school funding under the Gonksi plan on the grounds of states’ rights.
The stark contradiction shows that Pyne’s support for states’ rights in the case of school funding is simply a cover for undermining funding for government schools and disadvantaged students. The Government is also maintaining conditions attached to Federal funding for a vast array of social programs including other education programs administered by Pyne.
Before the election, Pyne said that a Coalition government would “dismantle all the central command and control features of the model from Canberra” which referred to the conditions attached to Federal funding for state and territory governments under the Gonksi plan. The Prime Minister said that “Under the Coalition, you’ll get the funding but you won’t get the strings attached”
Pyne made it very clear that state and territory governments would not be held to their agreement to increase funding:
It will be up to the States to decide whether they spend their money or not because they are sovereign Governments and should be treated like adults….
The Commonwealth will pay its share and it will be up to the States and Territories whether they pay their shares….
…as we said before the election we would have a no strings attached school funding model in time. The Commonwealth would put the money that it wanted to put in. And whether the states and territories put the money they wanted to put in would be a matter for them. I never supported – and said so many times – I never supported the Labor Party’s attempt to essentially insert the Commonwealth in state and territory schools in their responsibilities by saying, well give you X amount of money as long as you put in Y amount of money. I don’t think that is any way to have negotiations between states and territories and the Commonwealth.
I don’t think it’s right for us to tell the states and territories how to run their budgets.
State and territory governments will not be required to commit to particular funding growth paths. They will be able to cut their own funding or substitute Federal funding for their own funding.
As the Phase One report of the National Commission of Audit states “…there is no obligation for the States to increase, or even maintain, their own funding levels” [p.261]. In a special briefing to the Senate Select Committee on School Funding by officials of the Federal Department of Education, the Committee was told that the government and the minister have been quite clear that government school funding is a matter for state and territory governments and that the Federal Government “is not intervening in their decisions as to how they use their state funding for schools” [Senate Select Committee on School Funding, Questions on Notice, 18 February 2014].
In stark contrast to this approach, Andrews has made Federal funding for the homeless subject to matching state government funding and increased accounting by the states for how funds are spent.
The Federal Government provided $115 million in the 2014-15 Budget to extend the existing national partnership agreement on homelessness for another year while a new agreement is negotiated. The Budget papers state that this funding is conditional on matching funding by state and territory governments. Andrews told the ABC’s World Today this week that he expects the states to meet new reporting requirements as well.
I believe the states will sign up but, from the Commonwealth’s perspective, we want to know that the funding that we are providing is actually leading to services on the ground….
… rather than just counting what amount of money for example or funds that you provide to a particular service, we want to see what we’re actually getting as a result of that.
We want to make sure that the funds are being spent on the services, are being spent on the way in which we can be assured that taxpayers’ money are going towards actually trying to reduce homelessness.
Already, extensive conditions are attached to Federal funding for homelessness under the existing national agreement. These include requirements to provide services to:
• assist older people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness;
• assist homeless people with substance abuse to secure or maintain stable accommodation;
• assist homeless people with mental health issues to secure or maintain stable accommodation;
• assist homeless young people aged 12 to 18 years to re-engage with their family where it is safe to do so, and engage with education and employment;
• support for women and children experiencing domestic and family violence to stay in their present housing where it is safe to do so;
• connect rough sleepers to long-term housing and health services;
• develop homelessness action plans;
• provide legal services provided to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness as a result of legal issues including family violence, tenancy or debt; and
• improve workforce development and career progression for workers in homelessness services.
It is very apparent that Pyne is out of line with his ministerial colleagues on attaching conditions to Federal funding of specific purpose payments to the states. The Federal Government provides financial support for a vast number of programs across many other policy areas such as health care, housing, skills and workforce development, disability services and indigenous services. These are subject to federal-state agreements that define objectives, outcomes, outputs and performance indicators, other accountability requirements and specify the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and the States in the delivery of services. There has been no hint that the Coalition intends to release state and territory governments from the conditions attached to federal funding in these areas.
This conforms to a long history of the Coalition using tied grants for various programs. In fact, it was the Howard Government that imposed a vast new array of conditions on Federal funding for the states in relation to schools funding. As the former Prime Minister explained.
We don’t want this money disappearing into state bureaucracies and redirected. It’s not good enough just for the states to say give us more money and we’ll decide how to spend it….the idea that we should just hand more money over to the States for them to decide how it’s going to be spent – we’re not just going to accept that.
Pyne has adopted a contradictory approach within his own portfolio. His concern to remove “command and control” conditions on state governments is confined to Gonski funding. There is no indication that he intends to remove conditions attached to other education funding programs. There are many national partnership agreements on education all of which have conditions attached and there has not been any announcement that these will be removed. For example, Pyne has extended the national partnership program on More Support for Students with Disabilities which is subject to a number of detailed performance and accountability conditions. Yet, there was no announcement that these conditions will be removed.
Pyne’s approach to states’ rights is highly selective and entirely opportunistic. Asserting states’ rights is simply a convenient way to subvert the Gonski funding model. It is a way to undermine the key feature of the Gonski approach, specific funding directed at disadvantaged students, which delivers much larger funding increases to government schools than private schools.
The big losers are government schools because almost 90 per cent of their funding comes from state and territory governments and Federal funding is delivered via the states. There is now no requirement on how the Federal funding is spent and no requirement for the states to stick to their previous commitments to increase funding for government schools. In contrast, private schools are guaranteed their funding increase because the large part of their funding is derived from the Federal Government.
The Coalition’s priority in school funding is very clear. Pyne proudly told the national policy forum of Christian Schools Australia last month that the Abbott government has an “emotional commitment” and “a particular affinity” to private schools and that “we have a particular responsibility for non-government schooling that we don’t have for government schooling”.
This allegiance clearly shows in the Government’s approach to the Gonski funding model – guaranteed future funding of private schools and no guarantees for government schools. The Prime Minister’s maxim that funding private schools is “in our DNA” is being followed to the letter while the needs of government schools are dismissed.