School Flagpole Farce

Remember Brendan Nelson’s edict that every school in Australia should have functioning flagpole and fly the Australian flag? It was part of the Government’s plan to promote Australian values and patriotism.

It also had a Government self-promotion component. As a condition of receiving Federal funding for flagpoles, schools were required to invite a coalition MP to a flag-unveiling ceremony, publish a picture of the MP in the school newsletter, and erect a plaque acknowledging that it was a gift from the Government.

Well, apparently Government MPs haven’t been turning up to the ceremonies and this has meant that many schools have been unable to meet the conditions for Federal funding. It seems that some Government members are not as committed to public patriotism as their leaders would wish.

The Senate Estimates hearing on the 2007-08 Federal Budget has revealed that about 3000 schools applied for Federal funding and over 1000 were still waiting re-imbursement. Many of those waiting had been unable to fulfil the Government’s recognition requirements because of the failure of Government MPs to attend school flagpole ceremonies.

As a result, the Government has been forced to water down its requirements. Under the new guidelines for Federal funding of flagpoles, schools are now invited to recognise the Australian Government’s contribution.

Schools are now only required to provide an opportunity for a representative of the Australian Government to attend a flag raising ceremony at the school. If no Australian Government representative is available within a reasonable timeframe, the school may invite whoever it wishes to officially ‘commission’ the new flagpole.

To cover any unavailability of Government MPs to attend school flagpole ceremonies, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Science and Training will send a message to the school to be read out at the ceremony.

The new recognition requirements state that schools should advise their local school communities about Australian Government funding either through the school newsletter or in a letter to parents. They state that schools should publish a newsletter article that could say, for example “A gift from the Australian Government” or “Made possible by Australian Government assistance”.

According to the Secretary of the Department of Education, Science and Training, Lisa Paul, the new recognition requirements have been loosened. She told the Estimates hearing that the new requirements are that schools should do these things instead of that they must do them. Schools can be forgiven for missing this fine distinction in bureaucracy-speak.

Schools may well be advised to use the flagpole funding farce as part of courses in civics and citizenship. It is a lesson about how seriously Government MPs take their own civic and electoral responsibilities.

It is also a lesson in how the Howard Government uses public funding for partisan electoral purposes – it was only ever Government MPs invited to these flag raising ceremonies. Although not specifically precluded by the guidelines, local Opposition MPs were never invited.

Trevor Cobbold
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