By Jack Sumner
August 4, 2013
Tony Abbott’s change of heart on Labor’s Gonski reforms for school funding came a tad late for John Alexander, the Liberal MP for John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong in Sydney’s northern suburbs.
The former tennis great fronted a “meet-the-candidates” forum organised by the Ryde-Macquarie branch of the NSW Teachers Federation a day before the opposition leader and shadow education minister Christopher Pyne said they’d match Labor’s funding commitment.
“We will adopt exactly the same funding envelope as Labor over the forward estimates,” Abbott and Pyne announced.
The previous evening, Alexander had lined up with Jason Yat-sen Li (Labor), Dr Lindsay Peters (Greens) and Julie Worsley (Christian Democrats) to explain their positions on the Better Schools Plan and the future of TAFE. Each candidate told of how their life experience had strengthened their resolve to improve the nation’s education system.
Julie Worsley has been a teacher for 33 years.
Lindsay Peters’ father came to Australia as an orphaned refugee and spent three years in Concord Hospital where, at the state’s expense, he was able to pass his leaving certificate. He then studied medicine at Sydney University and was in general practice for 61 years. It was a good return on that educational investment, Dr Peters said.
Jason Li’s “Tiger Mum” retired recently after 50 years as a primary school teacher. From public schools in Kingsgrove and Hurstville, Jason went on to Sydney Grammar and Sydney University. Only later did he appreciate the sacrifices his parents had made for the education of him and his sister. When he raised the subject with his father, Jason was told: “I haven’t any investments in shares or such. It’s you that is my biggest investment.”
John Alexander’s mother Thelma, a public school teacher in Stanmore and Enmore, had told him of how rich her experience had been, although his sister Anna’s teaching career had not been as rewarding.
Despite all these similarities in their backgrounds, the candidates differed sharply on the direction for education in Australia.
Jason Li declared himself a huge fan of Labor’s Gonski reforms, saying: “It’s ambitious but it’s got to be.” He cited his experience with The Smith Family charity, which shifted from responding to emergencies to early intervention because so many people it helped had said, thanks for the hampers but could you please make sure our kids don’t end up like us.
Lindsay Peters reminded us that David Gonski’s report had recommended more than the $16 billion committed to by the federal Labor government. He said the Greens would accept the recommendations in full, financing it through a more effective mining tax. The Greens would also look at over-generous government funding of the wealthier private schools and would raise teacher remuneration and reverse the increasing casualisation of teaching posts.
Julie Worsely welcomed the Gonski objectives of more resources for disabled and Aboriginal students, but she saw problems in greater government involvement. The Christian Democrats’ basic premise on education was that parents had the prime responsibility. Government should facilitate more home education and encourage choice of schools. A voucher system should be investigated. Schools should be allowed to discriminate in accepting pupils and recruiting staff so as to support their particular ethos and beliefs.
The sitting MP, John Alexander, focused on what was then his party’s line – no additional funding. He said the Gillard government’s selling of the Gonksi reforms had been “extraordinary” and increased funding would be mainly in the fifth and sixth years of the plan.
Lindsay Peters was the only one of the four candidates to use his opening address to speak on TAFE funding cuts made by federal and state governments since 1997. He deplored the dismantling of a great institution and the insidious creep of privatisation into skills training. He said the Greens would restore TAFE funding to 1997 levels.
From the audience, TAFE teacher Pierre Massey said 50 of his colleagues had been lost their positions in the past two years and asked the panel for their positions on TAFE funding.
Alexander said it was the current Labor government that had made cuts to TAFE and that the coalition had no plans to cut TAFE funding. The remarks brought gasps and guffaws from the audience.
Li, expressing a personal view, supported TAFE and questioned the privatisation of education. He said there were many demands on government revenues, all of which could not be satisfied. He believed governments should investigate more creative ways of compensating students for the rise in TAFE fees.
Peters rebutted Alexander’s claims on funding, saying $1.4 billion had been cut from TAFE by Liberal and Labor governments with deliberate fostering of privatised training providers. His statement drew applause from the floor.
Another questioner raised the exemption of private schools from anti- discrimination and FOI legislation and asked whether the recipients of government funding should be more accountable to taxpayers. She also asked for comment on teacher’s performance pay.
Alexander confirmed that Christopher Pyne had welcomed performance pay but it was matter for state governments. But he said he understood the difficulties in implementing a system that would be relevant, fair and workable.
He also questioned what discrimination there was in private schools but said he believed there should be full public accountability.
Peters said successive governments had made no attempt to link anti-discrimination requirements to school funding. He gave the example of Exclusive Brethren schools, which excluded anyone not of their faith yet received $12 million in public funds. He stressed that the Greens rejected performance pay for teachers, believing a school’s culture should be about co-operation and sharing, not competition.
A public school teacher told te forum of one of her eight-year-old students could not talk but there was no money available for a speech therapist; of the meagre financial support available for staging a school play; and the school only having 6 iPads. She invited the Bennelong candidates to visit her school.
Li accepted the invitation and linked the problems she had listed to Gonski’s extra funding for disabilities and appropriate teaching aides.
Alexander said Christopher Pyne had welcomed Gonski’s focus on addressing disability, noting two of his four school-age children had learning difficulties. On visits to schools, the MP said many students had seemed not fully engaged and his response had been to put table tennis tables in 40 or more schools and to organise ping-pong competitions.
A questioner from the floor reminded the MP that while Barry O’Farrell believed the NSW education system was broken, Tony Abbott had said the current system was okay. Did he agree with O’Farrell or Abbott?
He said the NSW system was broken because of 16 years of Labor government. The Coalition approach was to carefully analyse and only fix what was broken. Revolution was only needed if there wasn’t evolution. Any repairs must respect taxpayer’s money. He said much taxpayers’ money had been wasted in federal Labor’s BER (Building the Education Revolution) program, adopted as part of stimulus measures to ride out the global financial crisis.
Peters responded by pointing to the spectacular facilities available at the wealthiest private schools, saying they did not need and should not get government funding. This brought loud applause.
A Carlingford High School teacher said when he began teaching in 1984 teachers’ salaries were linked toarliamentary pay, but now there was a widening gap. He also had grave reservations about school principals having greater authority.
Alexander said teacher’s pay had been left behind that of other occupations represented by more aggressie unions. He defended the pay of parliamentarians, saying salary increases had been accompanied by a loss of some expense and superannuation entitlements.
To this observer, it seemed the audience received Julie Worsley’s contribution respectfully, but it is unlikely too many would have sympathised with the Christian Democrat positions she espoused.
Jason Yat-sen Li spoke to a more sympathetic audience and expressed his personal beliefs and ideas cogently and fluently. An understandable lack of familiarity with ALP policy detail meant he could not always comprehensively set out the government’s record and policy positions. He made it clear when the opinions he stated were his own.
Lindsay Peters performed impressively. He presented his and the Greens’ policy well and effectively differentiated it from Labor and Coalition policies. He was also convincing in challenging comments made by John Alexander and Jason Li.
Convincing an audience made up mostly of public school teachers was always going to be a difficult task for any Liberal MP and John Alexander should be congratulated for taking on the challenge. Some of his less than carefully chosen comments referred to above didn’t help his cause. Notwithstanding Friday’s announcement by Abbott and Pyne, I suspect his campaign will not be featuring the Coalition’s education credentials.