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Giving a Gonski Proving a Political Challenge

The Gillard Government has announced its plan to stump up funding for the Gonski Review reforms it has been contemplating since David Gonski presented his plan for school education reform to the government. The Prime Minister’s pitch to the states will be the commonwealth and the states will fund Gonski with a 2:1 ratio. But it is the Labor Government’s planned cuts to fund the education reform which have garnered the most attention and indeed significant criticism since the weekend announcement. And that criticism is warranted.

To help pay for the commonwealth’s share of the changes to school education, the government has decided, in their infinite wisdom, to cut $2.3 billion of funding from the university sector. This will include taking a knife to university grants, putting a cap on self-education tax deductions, compelling students to pay back scholarships and getting rid of the 10% discount for those who are able to pay their HECS debt up-front.

Then of course you have an efficiency dividend of 2% from January next year, reducing to 1.25% the following year. This is a technical way of saying universities must do better with less. In and of itself this is not necessarily a bad thing, though if it results in front-line jobs being trimmed it should rightly be slammed. It is hard to see this not leading to cuts at the coal-face.

There is at least one measure announced at the weekend which is sensible and more sustainable for the budget and one that has the potential to be either good or bad for the fiscal bottom-line.

The decision to scrap the 10% discount for paying HECS up-front is a good move, providing it does not lead to more people moving overseas and taking their university debts with them. At present there is approximately $26 billion in unpaid HECS debts and that has the potential to balloon even further, perhaps aided by this budget measure.

One move that can be praised is the decision to put a cap on self-education tax deductions. This will prove a sustainable budgetary measure which is not likely to act as a disincentive in any way, either over the short or long-term.

Craig Emerson was at pains on the weekend to make the point that education funding will still increase over time. The Tertiary Education Minister made the point that the spending increase was simply delayed by two years. A delay however is still a cut, especially when it involves money promised to a particular sector. There will be real people who miss out on real assistance and real tough decisions made by real universities which will hit people involved in that level of education.

One must not forget that the ALP Government decided in the first place that there was a need to continue to increase the funding to the university education sector. There was obviously a reason for that, a real and tangible need for extra funds to flow to our universities to help more people get a better education.

Why the government thought it was a smart strategic move to take such a swing at universities is alone, beyond comprehension. Why the ALP decided they needed to cut education funding to fund education is quite intriguing. There are a number of other areas of public policy which could, at the very least, do with a bit of a trim.

The Gonski reforms absolutely have to happen. The loading for dealing with different types of disadvantage is essential in going towards ensuring there is equality of opportunity at the heart of our education system.

But tinkering with one level of education to help deal with another is just utter stupidity.

The Indirect Conflict to Try and Win the Electoral War

Julia Gillard has a plan for education – well sort of. The Prime Minister announced her intention at the weekend to implement a new nationwide reading program. But there’s a catch: the commonwealth government does not implement school education – the states do. And there are varying degrees of disagreement from state Liberal Premiers. The PM has been picking her battles of late, choosing to give it to the Greens and now a broader and more deliberate and utterly transparent strategy is quite clearly to take on the Liberal Premiers. It is an indirect battle in the war against the federal Liberal Party. But is it the right battle to pick? Are there other options at the disposal of the federal ALP?

The new nationwide program will form part of the plan to improve education results across the country. The Gonski report recommendations on school funding have also caused a battle between the state and federal governments. The review called for an extra $6.5 billion dollars to be contributed to the education budget. Of course that cannot come from the states alone – the commonwealth has to contribute a share of the funds and funding agreements at COAG are at best a long and laborious process and at worst, pointless.

It is quite a shame that there is such a war about school education. Improving literacy and numeracy should be based on expert advice and the Gonski review provided that. Competitive federalism in this area should give way to cooperative federalism. School management and oversight on the other hand is a completely different beast and providing it does not interfere with teaching and learning, is fine to be based around ideology.

Funding is a problem. There is absolutely no commonwealth money to go towards implementing the recommendations of the report. Any of it will be borrowed and that presents a budgetary dilemma. But the education of our children should be looked upon as an investment.  There are other areas in the budget which are far less important and where spending is actually wasteful. These areas of spending could and should be cut to give the required funds to education. And that is the case for the state governments too.

But back to the politics of the education funding wrangle. This battle is a purely political construct. It is an attempt by Canberra, or more accurately, the ALP in Canberra to paint the state Liberals as bad. And by doing this, the Labor Party is clearly hoping that the bad look translates to the federal Coalition by default, although it’s not exactly default as they support the status quo. It’s an attempt to vicariously land a blow, because whatever they try, Labor cannot take a trick and they are landing no blows on the political face of the opposition.

There are not many options left for the Labor Party in terms of an electoral strategy. At best they would hope to valiantly continue the electoral fight with as much vigour as they can muster. Even a significant error by the opposition would appear unlikely to lose them the election. So the ALP fighting the federal Liberal Party and the state arms is one of a very limited range of options which will be utilised by the Gillard Government between now and the election.

Regardless of whether or not a fight should be provoked by any given policy, the Gillard Government willingly pursued this particularly battle strategy, sparking this added conflict in the Gonski war for their own electoral gain.

But it will not matter at all for the election result.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Monday began almost entirely as predicted, with the protests by some members of the Islamic community in Sydney being the first thing mentioned in Question Time after procedural matters. Both the Acting Prime Minister, Wayne Swan and the Acting Opposition Leader, Julie Bishop rose, on indulgence to condemn, in no uncertain terms, the actions of a violent minority of demonstrators who caused mayhem in Sydney on the weekend. But the actions on the weekend did not result in any questions as predicted prior to the commencement of parliament. There were simply the statements by the two leaders and then Questions Without Notice began for the day.

Question Time on Monday, as far as the Coalition was concerned, was pretty evenly split between two issues. There was the return of the usual prominence of the anti-carbon tax campaign, which has taken somewhat of a backseat and then there was a number of questions in relation to the visa of a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group, who spoke at a conference here.

The Gillard Government through the Dorothy Dix pursued, as has become their strategy for some time now, a much broader range of policy areas in an attempt to highlight positive differences in policy and perceived shortfalls of the Opposition in these policy areas. There were questions on the economy, taxation, duplication of the Pacific Highway, disability, healthcare and school education, all now regular features in questions from Labor backbenchers.

Question Time on Tuesday looks like it will play out in a similar fashion to Monday. It now seems likely that the Coalition will return to asking questions related to the carbon tax, around power bills quite likely, as it was today. Questions on the carbon price could also centre around the dropping of the floor price as well as the decision to not seek the closure of the 5 biggest coal-fired power stations and the impacts of the policy on businesses not compensated for price impacts.

Questions about the Hizb ut-Tahrir conference matter may continue tomorrow, but if this occurs it seems likely to not be as prominent as it was today.

Another issue which may compete for top billing, but was non-existent during Question Time today during Opposition questions would be matters related to spending priorities and the budget and what services would be cut, or taxes increased to pay for the significant new policy promises from the ALP.

Even more certain is the broad range of areas that the government will ask questions of itself on during Question Time. This will likely included comparative economic performance, healthcare and school education reform and could just as likely include infrastructure. taxation, the environment and families and community services questions.

Nobody was asked to leave the chamber under Standing Order 94a, but that could all change tomorrow as our parliamentarians begin getting back into the parliamentary groove.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Parliament and Question Time are back after just a weekend break. It has been a rather eventful weekend, with tensions exploding from within elements of the Islamic community of Australia in response to a lame video by an American individual. The government here and most across the Western world, including the United States of America, were quick to condemn the video when it became known. These events seem likely to change the complexion of Questions Without Notice early in the week at least as the government seeks to explain their position and possibly answer questions on the matter from the Opposition.

Last week, like the previous sitting week, was all about the Opposition asking questions about the spending priorities of the Gillard Government, especially in relation to the budget, which the government is trying to say, will return to surplus.

The carbon price was next in line on the list of priorities of the Coalition, with a number of questions on the issue throughout the week. But unlike many previous weeks in this, the 43rd parliament, it actually took a backseat to something else on the political agenda of the Liberal and National Party Coalition.

Of course too, it would not have been a parliamentary week, or even a week in politics in general, without the Tony Abbott led Opposition asking the government some questions on asylum seekers and refugees.

The government again continued to have their backbencher’s ask questions on a number of issues including the economy, health, education, infrastructure, the environment and workplace relations as well as immigration.

In the week ahead, not much is likely to change as far as the overall make-up of Questions Without Notice goes. Early on in the week, probably limited to Monday, there is likely to be a question or questions from both sides of the political fence as Australia seeks to make sense of the angry protests which took place at the weekend.

After that, it is likely that the Coalition and the government will return to other issues. But the policy areas considered will likely remain the same.  Only the number of questions on each regular issue will change.

Asylum seekers might well dominate the week, at least early on, as the Opposition seeks to goad the ALP into allowing the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas and the turning back of asylum seeker vessels. This comes after the first asylum seekers have begun to head to Nauru

If asylum seekers isn’t the main political game this week, it will again be government spending priorities, taxation and the budget that make up the majority of questions that come from the Liberal and National Party’s.

That small matter of the carbon price will also make an appearance, but it may not be as prominent again as it has been in previous weeks of parliament.

The Labor Government for their part will also aim to respond to the events of the weekend during Question Time, with Government MP’s likely to ask a question or questions on the matter, but probably limited to Monday.

After that, attention will again to return to the spending priorities of the government, those announced and half-announced, including health, education and infrastructure in particular. There will however, also be questions on the environment, the economy in general and workplace relations.

The only unknown factors in Question Time are the exact make-up of questions on each issue, whether any other topical issue arise during the week and just how bad the behaviour is and how hammy the theatre.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Congratulations Australia, we’ve almost made it through another week of parliament, and more importantly, Question Time. It’s not been the most rancorous, loud or boisterous of weeks, but nonetheless, it hasn’t exactly been subdued. We could hope that this is down to the words of caution from Malcolm Turnbull about how poor the parliamentary and broader political debate has been, but it’s more than likely that it’s just been a slightly nicer week of behaviour from our federal parliamentarians.

It’s also been a bit of a strange week in the way of the questions asked by the Opposition. For the most part, the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott has not prosecuted the case against the carbon tax. Most of the focus this week from the Liberal and National Party Coalition has been on the state of the budget. They’ve asked how, with lower government revenues and more high cost promises in recent weeks in particular, that it will be possible for the government to return to surplus in time.

The price on carbon though has repeatedly made appearances throughout the week so far. But the comparative absence of questions on the matter from the Coalition is very surprising, given that it’s been the central plank of Opposition attacks since the government got back in power under minority government.

There has also been a question or two from the Opposition over the week about asylum seekers. This has been in relation to the re-opening of the Nauru and Manus Island immigration facilities recommended by the Houston panel just a matter of weeks ago. They’ve also been centred around pushing the government to adopt other elements of the Howard-era ‘Pacific Solution’ which included Temporary Protection Visas, colloquially known as TPV’s and turning back the asylum seeker vessels when safe to do so.

The government again this week has been all about a broader explanation of government policies and promises. They’ve spent this week talking about education, health, infrastructure, jobs, skills, wages and vulnerable groups of people in the community.

It’s more than likely that the Opposition will continue to pursue the government over the budget and their spending priorities and whether or not new or increased taxes will be instituted to pay for the shortfalls in revenue and existing funds after these promises are funded.

They will likely again have a question or two, perhaps a number of questions, devoted to the carbon tax which no longer has a floor price and now won’t rely on the closure of the five biggest coal-fired power stations in order to reduce emissions.

Just as likely, but perhaps less prominent as has been the case this week, is the possibility of a question or two on asylum seekers and the now almost ready detention centres on Nauru and also the one on Manus Island.

The strategy of the Labor Party, through their use of the Dorothy Dixer has been just as predictable, though the mix of questions slightly uncertain. This however, changed yesterday. With the Queensland budget calling for big staff cuts and NSW also looking to take a slice out of education funding, the government used answers to warn that a Coalition Government at the federal level would do the same. These questions though will likely still cover the areas of education reform, health, infrastructure, communities, families, employment, wages and skills. 

This in some way, shape and form has been the way it has been all week and will likely continue to be until the next big issue comes along to steal some political thunder.

Gonski Another Lacking in Detail Policy Almost Certainly Heading for the Scrap Heap

Well, the long-awaited response to the Gonski review into education has finally arrived- or has it? The Prime Minister made an appearance at the National Press Club to launch what was supposed to be her response to the the recommendations of the report by businessman David Gonski into how to better fund our education system in the future. Julia Gillard spoke of the need for a new model of funding along the lines of that suggested by Mr Gonski in his report. But what was missing was the dollar amount though the Prime Minister says the Gonski recommendations would require about $6.5 billion. After winding us all up with expectations of new education dollars the exact financial commitment was left unsaid.

The new model of funding that the Prime Minister has accepted calls for a base level of money which is directly in relation to the number of students enrolled in a  particular school. On top of that, the Gonski scheme of school funding calls for loading for schools that are in a rural or remote area, teach children with poor levels of English, if the school is smaller, has students from low income families enrolled or caters for people with a disability or those from an indigenous background.

From the outset, the Gillard Government knows that they have little money to play with and that any would be borrowed, so this is not a good starting point.

Like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the future funding of the new system of education will be fought over in Council of Australian Governments meetings. This is certainly why the PM didn’t announce a price tag for the much needed education reforms.

The Prime Minister today signalled that negotiations over the joint funding of the future of education will take place between the commonwealth and the states. This could well lead to the collapse of the proposed policy before it begins, the COAG process isn’t exactly a walk in the park, and at the very least this will result in protracted negotiations.

There’s also the small matter of the timing of the implementation  of the new framework. Prime Minister Gillard announced that there would be a six year process of policy implementation which would start in 2014. Based on this timetable alone it is within reason to think that the Prime Minister is not serious about setting up the new system. It’s increasingly likely that the Prime Minister and her government will not be in power from 2013 and we already know that an incoming Coalition Government would get rid of this vital education reform.

It seems clear that this announcement today is about pretending to do something while not taking seriously the need to put the ideas that Mr Gonski put forward after his review into action. There have been a number of policies where either the money has been announced or just the policy itself, or in the case of the NDIS, some cash put towards the scheme, but not enough. This isn’t brave, it’s just pure politics.

The report has been sat on for months and all that the ALP have managed to come up with is a timetable and a promise to negotiate with the states and territories, knowing full well that at the very least negotiations will take a long time. and at worst, the talks will collapse completely without an outcome. Or alternatively, and more likely, a Liberal and National Party Government would repeal the legislation and money upon taking office.

What is a real shame about the half announcement today is that there was no immediate commitment to the loading payments for various types of disadvantage which have been overlooked with previous ways of dealing with education costs. Indigenous students, children from low income families, rural and regional students and those with a disability are the most in need of increased support and have fallen behind because that extra financial commitment for their specific needs has not been available.

This is clearly a policy response on the run and gives the appearance of action to the naked eye. When you look closely there’s no clear goals, other than for Australia to be in the top 5 countries in reading, science and maths by 2025. This is another policy area that the Labor Government would well know is almost certainly not going to come to fruition and that’s a big shame given that it’s about education and providing equal access to learning opportunities. This should, for the most part, be a politics free zone, especially when developed from expert advice.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Tuesday has thankfully flown by at warp speed, meaning we’re ever closer to the end of another week of Questions Without Notice, the second week in a row since the winter recess. After the events of yesterday, you could have been forgiven for thinking that much of the same was on the way, comparatively it was tame. That’s not to say it was shouty and screechy, it certainly was. But there wasn’t the same level of ill disciple that saw multiple Coalition MP’s booted for an hour under Standing Order 94a yesterday including the Opposition Leader and Manager of Opposition Business.

Probably tired from the amount of energy burnt yesterday, members of parliament, particularly on the Coalition side, fell back into the rhythm that’s been common since this 43rd parliament commenced in 2010.

Again, aside from Joe Hockey on spending priorities and the prospect of new taxes to pay for those immense spending allocations, the Tony Abbott led Opposition continued on the obvious ground of the carbon tax. Yesterday it was all about fruit and vegetable farmers and businesses, today it moved to the carbon price and meat producers and businesses.

The Gillard Government as they have shown in recent times, were much more varied in the areas of policy that their backbenchers asked questions on. Questions did include the price on carbon, but also education reform, health and workplace relations.

It would be folly to not accept much of the same during Questions Without Notice for Wednesday.

You can expect the Coalition to continue with questions about the carbon tax and any deviation from that would almost be a letdown, perhaps even like living in an alternate universe. The only question is what type of business will be focused on? We know that power prices and small businesses will continue to be the focus.

It would almost be equally as strange to not expect a question at the start of the session from Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, again on the spending priorities of the Labor Party as occurred yesterday and today.

A question or questions on the Fair Work Australia investigation and Craig Thomson are also likely to make an appearance after the KPMG report into the Fair Work Australia investigation of the HSU was released.

The certain thing about the issues that the ALP Government ask questions of itself on is that there will again be variety. The carbon tax will attract the most questions again, of course.

However, other areas of policy will definitely be highlighted during the hour and ten minutes that is Question Time. This will undoubtedly include, as it has particularly this week, leading up to an announcement, education reform.

Other questions on the economy, health, infrastructure and workplace relations are also likely to appear.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The first Question Time of the week has passed and boy was it a cracker, well, if you like comedic theatre anyway. There were interjections, aggressive answers and a number of Opposition MP’s that found themselves on the end of Standing Order 94a. Tensions were heightened it seemed, perhaps as a result of carry-over energy from the debate of the previous week in the federal parliament where asylum seekers was the main issue early in the week and then debate returned to the carbon tax field. Things were so loud, over the top and angry today that even the Manager of Opposition Business and the Leader of the Opposition found themselves out of the chamber for a beverage break.

After an initial few questions based around the budget and spending priorities from the Opposition through Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, questions returned to that all too familiar area, the carbon price. Today these questions focused around small businesses and the carbon tax, mostly fruit related businesses as it turned out.

The Gillard Government, for their part, was more diverse in the policy areas that were highlighted in Questions Without Notice today. There were questions on the carbon price, the economy and infrastructure. But the Labor Party started out asking itself about education reform with the Prime Minister today announcing intentions to overhaul school funding, but not the funding to match just yet.

With the surprising start to Question Time of the Joe Hockey asking questions on the budget and funding commitments, it seems likely that this area will again be breached on Tuesday and beyond.

The overwhelming focus of the Opposition though, will without any shred of a doubt, continue to be over the price on carbon. Any prospect for a change in this strategy would be simply too hard to believe. The bulk of the Coalition election strategy is built around this area of policy, though not all about the policy itself.

The Labor Party will probably again look to highlight a wide array of areas of policy action with education taking a greater focus as we get closer to an announcement of actual funds.

Labor though will continue to prosecute its case for the carbon tax, mostly around the compensation and how the perceptions of the tax have failed to materialise.

As happened during Questions Without Notice on Monday, it would be reasonable to expect questions from the Labor side also on the economy and infrastructure and perhaps social policy, chiefly the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Was today a sign of things to come this week in the brutal arena that is Question Time? Just how noisy will our MP’s get? And how many more will find themselves being sin-binned?

Question Time Ahead of Time

The first week back in the federal parliament has been and gone. The week started off with a bang with the expert panel on asylum seekers headed by former Australian Defence Force declaring that a variation of the Coalition’s former Pacific Solution, which is also the Coalition’s current policy, being deemed the best way forward in dealing with boat arrivals. This set the scene for the early part of last week  being dominated by attacks on the government over the issue and was all about the Opposition scoring some political points on this difficult and complex issue.

After a couple of days of political posturing and games over asylum seekers, the debated returned to the main-game in politics since the August 2012 election, debate over the carbon tax and there it stayed.

It’s likely, with the asylum seeker issue now muted politically, that debate will stay with and over the carbon price introduced by the Gillard Government which commenced on July the 1st.

The Opposition will continue to try and paint price rises, in particular power prices, as in large part down to the price on carbon which has been in operation for a matter of weeks. The Tony Abbott led Coalition will also likely during the week direct their questioning to industry specific areas and to the Treasury modelling done in the lead-up to the beginning of the policy. It is also entirely within the realms of possibility, in fact alm0st certain, that as has been done time after time, the Opposition will ask the Prime Minister to apologise for breaking her pre-2010 election promise.

It is possible that the asylum seeker debate will result in at least some questions during Question Time this week with the Coalition indicating that they would have liked the government to go further and reinstate Temporary Protection Visas (TPV’s) and begin towing boats back to Indonesia.

The government will, after having spent today talking about the Gonski Review and school funding, likely spend the bulk of the hour and ten minutes of Question Time with backbenchers asking questions of the Prime Minister and Education Minister on education reform.

The ALP Government, through their usage of the Dorothy Dixer will probably, in some small part, continue to sell the message of carbon tax compensation that they have been trying to prosecute. This message appears to be cutting through to the public with a big swing in the perception of the carbon price in the community.

Another policy area that the Labor Party may choose to highlight is the National Disability Insurance Scheme progress, particularly in light of recent machinations involving New South Wales and Victoria.

The only uncertainty of the week is just how well behaved our MP’s and Senators will be in parliament this week. Will they be loud and bickering with each other more than usual? Or will they act with a little more restraint than in recent times? I

f last week is any indication then there will be some improvement in the level of childishness that has infected our parliament. The issues that will be at play this week are not exactly new so our parliamentarians will just be going through the motions, but as always there will be at least one or two who find themselves on the wrong end of Standing Order 94a.

Oh, and then there’s also that ever-present possibility of a motion to suspend standing orders that we’ve sadly become accustomed to as a regular function of Question Time during this 43rd parliament.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Wednesday has come and gone. It was a rowdy affair from the start, but appeared to quiet down towards the end as the variation in Dorothy Dixer’s crept in and the initial boisterous behaviour of both sides over the carbon price questions relaxed just a little at least.

It was a little surprising that the Opposition did not choose to use just one more session of Question Time to have a bit of fun over the half-pike on asylum seeker policy which will see offshore processing return to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the near future. The House of Representatives passed the amended bill just before Question Time today with the support of the Opposition and is assured of passing through the Senate.

Instead of just one more day attacking the Gillard Government over offshore processing, the Coalition chose to resume hostilities over the recently commenced price on carbon. This returns the debate to the long-term issue which has been the main debate of the 43rd parliament since that August 2010 statement from the Prime Minister just prior to the election that brought us a minority government.

The questions from the Liberal and National Party Opposition were largely centred around price rises and the carbon tax as they have been for some time and will likely continue to be right up until the next election due around mid-2013. Carbon tax questions were also about the broken promise as they have been since it was broken.

The government, for it’s part also chose to have a focus on the carbon price. Again, they too returned to their common strategy on the issue which is to highlight the compensation available to low and middle income earners in an attempt to compensate for associated price rises.

There were also Dorothy Dixer’s on the aslyum seeker bill that passed the lower house, as well as on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and education reform.

And so it goes that this gives us a hint of what is to come during Questions Without Notice on Thursday, the last session for the week.

It is now certain that, barring any last minute topical subjects, that Question Time will be dominated by questions from the Opposition on the carbon price as it applies to price rises as well as that promise.

The government will also likely return to the carbon price fight again with questions from backbenchers based around the payments and tax cuts that will be received in return for the introduction of the policy.

It is entirely possible that in the Dorothy Dixer mix will be questions on the NDIS and education reform as there were in the previous session.

With Standing Order 94a used on Wednesday and the noise in the parliament not abating, will there be more of the same tomorrow? Or will our parliamentarians ease into the weekend after a full-on week? The answer to the former is a definite ‘yes’ and the latter a certain ‘no’

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