Gillard Concedes Under the Collective Pressure of Teachers

The agreement of Minister Gillard to set up a working party to oversee the My School website has been the consequence of many teachers across the country making it clear that we are unhappy with the government’s intolerable treatment; silencing us, and leaving us without any say in our professional conduct whatsoever.

Our collective message has been clearly expressed to our departments and ministers; we are far from happy. Forced to conduct the NAPLAN tests we were threatened with fines and disciplinary action. Principals were asked to organise union breakers as replacements for their own teachers.

We were right to make a stand, the frustration of our convictions has been heard loud and clear; let’s hope the minister heard and absorbed our message too.

The decision of the special meeting of the AEU federal executive on 6 May 2010 is correct to point out:

… governments and their departments take extraordinarily deplorable and unwarranted actions, ignoring the professional and educational concerns at the heart of this dispute. … the intimidation and threats of disciplinary action, the recourse to punitive legal action raising the prospect of penalties and thousands of dollars in fines against individual teachers and principals as well as the employment of unqualified people, including tourists, to supervise tests.

Teachers were divided into those who had to administer the tests; facing $6600 fines and loss of pay. Ultimately the responsibility for the schools actions lay with these teachers. An unenviable and unreasonable position manufactured by the government and the Fair Work Act to squash our campaign. Those teachers not in the firing line would have also faced these penalties if they had refused a direction to do their colleagues’s work.

We were intimidated by the courts’s invocation of these harsh penalties. Many of us were confused by the Ministers heavy-handed refusal to meet and discuss with our federal representatives. Genuine puzzlement was evident over the behaviour of the government and the Minster’s intransigence and their contradiction of values normally associated with the ALP.

This was not how a ‘Labor Government’ was meant to behave; weren’t they meant to negotiate with unions? The realisation that this government is not a government that acts in our collective interests is becoming increasingly apparent.

Minister Gillard and the corporate media will spin her explanation, but it cannot be forgotten we forced her to shift. Up until the announcement of the working party to oversee the website, she had been refusing to entertain any discussion whatsoever. The issue of the NAPLAN test and league tables are still live issues that have to be dealt with. The AEU statement continues:

… a working party of educational experts including literacy and numeracy specialists, principal organisations and representatives of the AEU and IEUA to provide further professional advice on the use of student performance data and other indicators of school effectiveness as ACARA continues to develop the My School website.

Lifting the moratorium was a compromise for our union. The projected moratorium on administering the NAPLAN for ‘professional and ethical’ reasons was taken primarily to avoid the laws of the Fair Work Act. The courts of Fair Work Australia and their state counterparts were not convinced and the judges considered the moratorium to be industrial action. The political stakes had been raised.

The leadership’s mistake was to avoid campaigning on the Fair Work Act. This Act effectively silences our professional and political voice. We have learnt from this experience we do not have a right to strike. There was confusion about the legal ramifications of refusing to conduct tests. There was not sufficient solidarity between other teachers and schools, we felt isolated and consequently we lacked confidence.

Ultimately, many of us were totally unprepared for threats of fines. Because the campaign was designed to avoid the definition of industrial action by the courts meant we were surprised and shocked to find out that we were acting illegally. We were concerned about our reputations, and we were not confident that parents and the public understood, or would be prepared to understand. An important lesson from this is that if we avoid involving parents it will be at our political expense.

We have to learn this lesson. Education means many things to many people and we need to define our visions and ideals if we are to deserve a place at the table. This federal government has publicly and persistently denigrated and discredited public school teachers. The accusation by the minister that we are wrecking and spoiling her government’s project to ‘improve education’ should not be forgotten.

Gillard has declared her lack of regard for the public system, and us in the process. We, as teachers and educators have to appeal to, and listen to all concerned people. This way we can address the public’s concerns and explain our disdain for this government. Teachers will always put children’s interests first but that does mean that on occasions we have to take action that can appear to others as detrimental to children’s interests.

Peter Curtis
Councillor AEU Victoria Primary Council
Personal capacity

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