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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.

To Tinker or Cut?

Just last week at the National Press Club came an announcement one of the first confirmed and specific funding cuts. Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, in his address flagged that the Coalition will dump the Schoolkids Bonus, a policy change made by the Gillard Government. The upfront payment replaced a tax refund, which required the provision of receipts before the payment was made. To date, the government has made payments to more than 1.2 million families, totaling $588 million dollars.

This decision caused some debate, but, in as important a policy area as education, there can always be more attention focused on the impacts of political actions.

In announcing the decision, Tony Abbott remarked that the Schoolkids Bonus was, “a cash splash with borrowed money”. Is it really that simple? Or should we be looking a little more critically and thoughtfully? And in conclusion, was it right for the Coalition to make the decision to dump the payment altogether?

In politics, every single decision, often every phrase, even almost every word is subjected to the political spin cycle. And politicians love to engage in hyperbole, even if they do not know how to pronounce it. And not much is different here.

The change made by the Gillard Government, in that sense, is open to being called exactly what Tony Abbott referred to it as. The timing of the move and new mode of delivery for the payment are questionable, at least on appearance. It’s an election year and probably close to 9 out of 10 people would expect the government to lose at the September 14 poll – the opinion polls have been saying so and even the betting has the Coalition as stark favourites. So the payment of course could be painted in a way as an electoral bribe. It is also borrowed money.

But on closer inspection, the payment itself is actually of the utmost importance. It’s to be used for the education of Australian children – our nation’s future. The Coalition will have you believe that the payment will not be used for education purposes in all cases and they may be right in some cases. But that way of thinking is very illiberal for a supposed Liberal Party. Conservatives see human nature as flawed, and not liberals. Liberals have a largely positive view of human nature.

Scrapping the payment altogether, apart from being illiberal, is also a bad thing for education and equality. For ‘equality’, read equality of opportunity – that should be the main game in education policy as equality of outcomes is a completely unattainable and unreasonable aim in the area of education policy.

We should be ensuring that absolutely every child and young adult has access to an education. It must not be a one size fits all approach, but access to education tailored to meet the needs of those engaged in it must be without roadblocks. That includes assisting families with the cost of school-related supplies.

What the Coalition should have done, rather than deciding to scrap the payment altogether, was announce that they will seek to reinstate the old Education Tax Refund. But of course the budget is in a bit of a mess and they have instead planned to cut funding in an area of policy-making which should be quarantined from cuts in most circumstances.

The decision is not an electoral game-changer, but it’s not a good choice of policy.

The Struggle Ahead for Obama on Gun Control

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

Question Time for Monday has now passed. A wide array of issues were examined in general. But first, the parliament spent the first half of Questions Without Notice expressing their condolences for the loss of six Australians since parliament rose for a short break. Those who died were 5 soldiers across two incidents in Afghanistan and the Prime Minister’s father who passed away suddenly at the weekend while Prime Minister Gillard was at the APEC Summit in Russia.

But just after 2:30pm, questions began in the lower house with spending priorities and the federal budget the main focus of the Tony Abbott led Opposition as well as asylum seekers early on.

The Gillard Government, with Wayne Swan as Acting Prime Minister breached a wider selection of issues including the economy as compared with the world, infrastructure and education.

Tomorrow of course presents the the very high possibility, indeed certainty of exactly the same kinds of issues being brought up during Question Time, with perhaps slight differences in the amount of time dedicated to each issue. But nonetheless, the same general formula and topics will be used to frame questions for Tuesday’s session of Questions Without Notice from Canberra.

Again, the Coalition will probably focus a large part of Question Time on the new and existing big spending items that the Gillard Government has announced. This includes the NDIS, the new dental health plan and the as yet undisclosed contribution to be negotiated with the states and territories to fund the Gonski recommendations in education.

The Liberal and National Party Opposition too, could decide to return to asking questions of the government over the carbon tax which recently saw the floor price dropped by the government as well as plans to purchase five power stations, crucial to combating polution, being scrapped last week.

In fact, it was quite a surprise given these developments and the fact that attacking the price on carbon has been a long-term strategy of the Coalition in and outside of the federal parliament. Perhaps the Opposition Leader did heed the words of Malcolm Turnbull last week, though the variety of issues that questions were asked on did remain narrow despite the slight change.

The ALP through the Dorothy Dixer will continue the strategy of examining a wide selection of government policy areas. That is likely to again include a mix of at least some of the following including carbon price compensation, the economy compared with others around the world, health, education, infrastructure and workplace relations.

We were blessed with comparatively improved behaviour, though a few MP’s did manage to test the patience of the Acting Speaker, the usual suspects really. Will they be as lucky tomorrow?

Question Time Ahead of Time

Just as quickly as federal parliament rose, so it has come by just as fast. Our federal MP’s will return to Canberra this week after a brief break from the federal capital based hostilities, read for another parliamentary sitting week. Much has happened during the last few weeks in federal politics. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had a major new dental plan announced, the Gillard Government wanting to proceed with the Gonski reforms but not without COAG negotiations and of course the ever-present asylum seeker and carbon price debates, with the floor price now gone on the latter. Sadly too, over the weekend, the Prime Minister lost her father and won’t be present while her family grieves.

In light of the tragic passing of Prime Minister Gillard’s father, hopefully, in her absence we can expect to see a more subdued parliament that more than likely will pause briefly to reflect on the passing of John Gillard. Mr Gillard migrated to Australia with his wife and daughter whom he saw become Prime Minister of her adopted country.

One question that does remain, but will probably be answered in the negative, is: will the Tony Abbott led Opposition heed the words of their former leader, Malcolm Turnbull and diversify their Question Time strategy, becoming more subdued and asking questions of the government in a wider array of policy areas than in recent times.

The Opposition will more than likely stick to familiar territory, the carbon price, Minerals Resource Rent Tax and perhaps asylum seekers from time to time. Of late too, the Coalition has asked questions of the Treasurer, Wayne Swan about budget forecasts and priorities given new spending commitments like the dental health changes announced, all $4 billion worth, as well as reforming education which will also cost in the billions of dollars.

It might be reasonable to expect maybe a question or two on education, but that will more than likely be in the prism of how will the government fund it and/or work with the states to achieve the implementation of such a big reform.

The ALP Government as has become their practice particularly this year, will again use the Dorothy Dixer to canvass a wider variety of policy areas than the Coalition. So far this has included the carbon price, infrastructure, health, families, community services, disability reform and education in particular.

It is likely that both health and education will be a major focus of the questions that government back-benchers ask of their ministerial colleagues in light of the dental and education reforms announced over the past weeks.

It is also a distinct possibility that the Immigration Minister will be asked to update the parliament on the progress towards re-opening the immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.

Question Time, as always begins from 2pm and can be seen live on your television or on the radio. Let’s hope its a more respectable week of parliament ahead.

 

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

It’s almost curtains for Question Time this week. We’ve been through Questions Without Notice for Wednesday without much of the ridiculously over-the-top behaviour we’ve almost grown to expect from our politicians. It wasn’t great though, there was still loud interjections and points of order that continued a little longer than they should have. But that’s Question Time and some level of misbehaviour will seemingly always be tolerated, no matter who occupies the Speaker’s chair.

There was a bit more variety than usual in the hour and ten minute session today, but only just.

The Coalition of course continued to ask questions of the Gillard Government on the carbon price during the Wednesday outing. They again focused around businesses in a number of Opposition MPs’ electorates. Again the attacks were largely over power prices applying to small businesses who are not compensated under the ALP’s price on carbon. At the very start of Question Time, the Shadow Treasurer rose too, in order to ask about business confidence, profit and investment under the carbon tax.

The Coalition also asked, again through Joe Hockey at the start of Question Time, just how the Labor Party propose to pay for their recent big spending commitments without raising taxes and with less revenue than during better economic times.

There was also time from the Coalition devoted to asking the government about union rorting and that topic was breached toward the end of Questions Without Notice.

The Labor Government were again varied in the number of topics they chose to highlight during Question Time. Backbenchers asked questions on the economy, infrastructure, carbon pricing, families as well as education and health.

So what’s to come during the last day of parliament for the week? Well, to be honest, much of the same from both sides of the political fence.

The Liberal and National Party Opposition have hitched themselves to the carbon price wagon and it would be laughable to suggest that the parliamentary attacks over this policy are not set to continue. The only question here will be which businesses take the focus on Thursday? We do know that it will be centred around small businesses who are not compensated for carbon price cost flow-ons.

We know first it was fruit and vegetable producers and related businesses, followed by meat producers and associated businesses and then on Wednesday, a variety of small businesses. So the indication is that it’s probably the latter, though you get the impression that the Olympic Dam project, now not going ahead will be co-opted into the debate.

It is quite possible, indeed almost certain, that the Shadow Treasurer will stride to the despatch box, early in Question Time to ask the Treasurer or the Prime Minister just how they plan on funding their spending commitments of late.

As was shown on Wednesday, the unions might just find themselves back in Question Time, courtesy of perhaps one, maybe two questions from the Opposition benches.

The ALP Government will again highlight a number of areas of government action. They’ll still talk about the perceptions and realities of the price on carbon, that’s a given. But they’re also just as likely to visit education, workplace relations, infrastructure, health and families and health.

It will be interesting to see if the National Disability Insurance Scheme is again conspicuously absent or only mentioned in passing.

A New Kind of Question Time for Australia, We’ve Earned It

Question Time, that hour and a bit of politics most sitting days, that Australians despise even more than the broader political discourse itself. Questions Without Notice frustrates everyone, from those who accidentally stumble across it on television or the radio and feel like they’ve had acid poured on them to the rusted on supporters that subject themselves to it freely on a regular basis.

Question Time in particular needs new rules to make it work better.

Some of the following are serious rule changes, the others, clearly not. The point is, that Question Time is still a joke despite changes to the Standing Orders- the rules that govern parliament and Question Time, when Australia discovered they’d voted for a minority government.

The Speaker of the Lower House is a very important position in the scheme of things. There should be a change which sees an independent Speaker, not necessarily an Independent MP, ideally a suitably qualified member of the public, elected to take the chair. This Speaker would ideally be elected by a popular vote of the people, but if an Independent MP or other suitable person were to be elected by the parliament, with at least 2/3 of the parliament in agreement, this would suffice.

Next cab off the rank- questions. Debate is not allowed in questions and questions asked in the House of Representatives are now limited to 45 seconds and to 1 minute in the Senate. This is simply too long.

Questions in the lower house of parliament should be limited to no more than 30 seconds- 15 to 2o seconds would be brilliant. It would be preferable, indeed beneficial, if questions asked in the Senate were limited to the same amount of time. Y0u could call it ‘The Katter Clause’.

The so-called ‘Dorothy Dixer’ should be completely removed as a feature of the parliament. If the government of the day wants to talk about their policies, have a press conference. Question Time should be all about holding those on the government benches to account, not allowing them a public relations exercise.

In addition, as far as questions go, there should be a new rule that business, education and health must be the focus of a certain number of questions every week. In an ideal world, that would mean one question in each area every day that parliament is in session.

Answers to questions asked during Question Time, in fact at any time, by anyone, politician, journalist or citizen during any political discussion involving our parliamentarians invoke very strong feelings. Even with a new ‘direct relevance’ clause our politicians waffle, blissfully aware that they are nowhere near answering a question.

Politicians should, as a matter of course, be ordered to be directly relevant to every single question asked of them from the moment they open up their traps. Any minister not immediately relevant is sat down by the independent Speaker. This will be hard for, well all of them, but if they want our respect they have to be weaned off the bullshit.

Not only that, but the time limit for answers to initial questions should be at least halved- from 3 minutes to at least as little as 1 minute and 30 seconds, but it would be glorious if answers could be limited to just 1 minute.

Ideally too, a device to measure decibels should be installed and if any one politician records more than a reasonable amount of loudness, they are sat down for their screeching. Call it a screechometer if you like.

The number of point’s of order that can be raised should be unlimited.

If in the course of Question Time the Opposition wants to table a document that they say supports their claim, in the interests of openness and accountability this should always be allowed.

Interjections really get under the skin of both sides of politics, they appear to cause the most angst in both chambers. They result in name-calling and can completely destroy the tone of any reasonable debate that exists in the parliament. If someone is overheard making offensive remarks about another politician across the chamber, they should be immediately booted, but only after being asked to withdraw first.

Both the government and the Opposition should have what could be described as a ‘captain’s challenge’. This would be a rule where the Prime Minister or Manager of Government Business on the government side and the Leader of the Opposition or Manager of Opposition Business on the other side can call for a video review by a third umpire when they think interjections are at their loudest on the opposite side. Question Time is then stopped and on the video evidence, anyone found interjecting on the opposite side of the chamber is immediately evicted for an hour under Standing Order 94a.

A bullshit meter was also considered, but frankly, they would cost too much as they’d be broken a number of times every day and our economy simply could not support that kind of spending.

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