Image for NATION: Corks pop for Gonski 2.0 but Turnbull government has nothing to celebrate ...

*Pic: of Simon Birmingham, from Twitter. Image from here

Corks pop and peals of laughter ring out over the disco beat of a ghetto-blaster cranking out a Donna Summer from Liberal offices deep inside Parliament House, safe from the world outside and Canberra’s winter frost.

She works hard for the money, MPs sing along with Donna.  It’s 2:00am Friday before MPs can celebrate a pay rise, a tax cut and a six week break. Overseas holidays, aka tax-deductible study tours, in warmer climes beckon. 

All raise a glass to Remuneration Tribunal members, John Conche, Ewen Crouch and Heather Zampatti, for their fair decision to grant federal parliamentarians and senior public servants a 2% pay rise. Years of experience as company directors of banks and investment houses help John, Ewen and Heather achieve arms-length objectivity.

The rise coincides with government’s decision to scrap the deficit levy even though the deficit is still $30 billion. Selflessly, it eases the burden on our highest income earners and lowers the top marginal tax rate to 47 per cent.

Yet many ordinary hard-working Australians will lose their recent minimum weekly wage rise of $22.20, a rise deplored as devastating by the Australian Retailers Association, negated by the loss of penalty rates from 1 July.

Or will they? Our rapidly expanding precariat and those in the trendy serfdom of the gig economy, or a quarter of our workforce face pay cuts of up to $63 for working a public holiday after July 1. Some pin their hopes on gorgeous George Christensen, who even promises fabulous mining jobs in his quest to do something for them. 

All talk and no walk, sneers Labor. Coal mining employs 0.5% of the nation’s workforce. Yet a workers’ champion is born as Deadly Duterte fan-boy George crosses the floor to support Labor’s bill to reverse penalty rate cuts.

... it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll stand for ...

The bill is lost 73-72, Tuesday but George is hot to trot. Or walk again. His breach of party discipline further wounds a PM so agile and innovative it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll stand for next. Low emission coal-fired power?

The electorate has written him off. Essential Research shows Labor continues its steady lead 52:48. Newspoll is a week late but still shows 53:47 to Labor. One Nation is up a point despite adverse press recently.

Despite his flip-floppery and Morrison’s budget lunge to the sensible centre provoking screams of Labor-lite from the lunatic right and doing more harm than good, our Mal for all seasons has 14 consecutive bad Newspolls to prove his unpopularity. Although he deposed Abbott after 30 bad polls, he now says it’s no benchmark.

Paul Bongiorno quotes polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says a close look at the poll shows that “nothing is happening here”. Gonski 2.0 won’t help and Finkel is a resounding tinkle. Mal’s now as unpopular as Bill Shorten.

Yet it’s not all bad at the top. While Australians’ average income is $80,000, our PM’s pay will increase from $517,504 to $527,852. Barnaby “Bat-poo” Joyce pockets $416,191. Luckily we’ve saved $18 billion on schools.

Everyone’s toasting Gonski 2.0. It’s a brilliant pea and thimble trick to cheat millions of ordinary hard-working Australians, as, Mal’s mob so fulsomely flatters its victims, of their birthright. Yet it’s been sold not only as an increase in funding but a brave new system which is “sector blind and needs-based”. Spin? Marketing genius.

Bugger equal access to education for everyone. Gonski 2.0 subsidises the rich and perpetuates privilege. It locks in federal funding for private schools while poorer states are left to struggle to find the money for public schools.

... private schools will be guaranteed eighty per cent ...

It’s radical. Epoch-making. For the first time ever, private schools will be guaranteed eighty per cent of federal funding. States and Territories will get twenty. States can find their own money for public schools, with what’s left over from funding hospitals and any other small change they can find down the back of the federation sofa.

Or they can bugger off. The Coalition’s ultimatum to the states plumbs new depths in state-commonwealth relations, trashes Malcolm Turnbull’s 2015 promise:

“ There must be an end to policy on the run and captain’s calls. We need to be truly consultative with colleagues, members of parliament, senators and the wider public.’’

Consult? States were presented with a fait accompli. Education Minister, Simon “Bolivar” Birmingham, refused, moreover, to enter into long-term consultations with States on future arrangements. Bugger federalism. States were also excluded from appearing before the Senate inquiry hearing on Gonski 2.0.

In a final tour de force, Birmingham turned to coercion. He threatened to cut funding to public schools if Gonski 2.0 were not passed by the Senate. Only public schools would suffer in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. All private schools would have their funding guaranteed.

Birmo’s bullying evokes Howard’s special deal in 2000 which guaranteed private schools their Gonski 1.0 funding. Funds continued after Tony Abbott cut public sector funding in 2014 two years before the end of the agreement.

Elite winners such as Loreto Kirribilli, Brigidine St Ives and St Aloysius’ College in Milsons Point received more than $5 million a year over the Gonski amount because of Howard’s funding guarantee; safeguarding privilege.

It’s no way to build a new national funding system, however loudly the private school claque may applaud.

Gonski is “the best special deal that private schools have ever had”, writes Save our Schools’ Trevor Cobbold, a former Productivity Commission economist.  But such schools have ridden a winner since 1964 when their pork-barrelling potential was exploited. MPs saw schools as a wonderful vehicle in vote-buying and opened the public purse, ending a century of no support.

... avidly recreating the colonial system of the 1850s ...

Since 1964, the private funding juggernaut has continued apace. We are avidly recreating the colonial system of the 1850s; replacing free and secular education with a system that embeds inequity and division.  Fee barrier aside, private schools are exempt from discrimination legislation and can select students as they wish.

There is no evidence whatsoever that private schools offer higher education standards. Research does show that once you take their parents’ privileged backgrounds into account, students fare no better in the private system.

“We allow people to opt out of a government service and then send us a bill for obtaining the same service from a private provider. We are happy to buy a car for the chap who finds public transport distasteful,” notes Cobbold.

The private system enjoys huge subsidies. Their latest windfall boosts the $12 billion that our proudly “pragmatic” neoliberal government blithely currently lavishes on them. Private schools, in essence private businesses, receive from the federal treasury more than nine times the combined annual budget of SBS and the ABC.

Needs based? Or greed, with at least a whiff of droit du seigneur or good old-fashioned ruling-class entitlement?

Lauriston Girls’ School, for example, with annual fees of $25,000, will get an increase from Gonski 2.0 of $4093 per student over 10 years, while the public school in Tennant Creek, with three-quarters of its students in the lowest quartile of disadvantage, must make do with a paltry $1300 a student over the same decade.

Tanya Plibersek cites , Geelong Grammar, with 70 per cent of its students in the top quartile of advantage, will get an increase of $2309 while Wanguri Primary School in the NT, with a quarter of its student body from Indigenous families, will surely struggle to get by with a mere $565.

And Birmingham’s making noises about not “throwing money” at the issue; expecting more bang for those bucks.

... Under-funding is, therefore, assured ...

Even worse, the federal contribution is capped. Under-funding is, therefore, assured given that few states ever meet the 80% schools need. In 2016, for example, NSW found 71%, 66% in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, 72%  and 67% in the Northern Territory.

Prospects are even bleaker for Tasmania, which has the largest proportion of low socio-economic students in Australia and where 85% attend public schools. Its Labor Government slashed state funding for public schools between 2009-10 and 2013-14 while the Liberals cut further in 2014-15.

Public school funding did increase slightly overall, because of increased Commonwealth funding but this was outstripped by a massive, five-fold increase in government funding of private schools. It can only get worse.

Unlike Gonski 1.0, there is no incentive for states to increase or maintain their level of funding in order to qualify for federal funds. If anything, under-funding is almost guaranteed.

State and Territory governments already punish public schools by cutting funding by $732, or 6.6%, on average, per student, while increasing funding for private schools by $161 per student, or 6.9%, according to records from 2009-10 and 2014-15, the last five years for which official figures are available.

The bill, which passes the lower house around 2:00am is a wonderful victory for spin and wedge politics. Not only is Gonski 2.0 “the most significant reform to school education in Australia’s history” says another former failed Education Minister, Christopher porkie-Pyne.

The $50 billion dollar MP maintains his seat of Sturt in SA by a dodgy pork-barrel submarine-building contract yet he paints Labor’s Gonski opposition as petty politicking.

Politicking? In 2014 Pyne erased all mention of Gonski from every government website including reference to the original 2011 report. Amazingly, all were re-instated early last month, as Gonski became a sales pitch.

... Abbott, a vacuous three word slogan personified ...

“Transparent, right and fair,” gurgles Turnbull mimicking Tony Abbott, a vacuous three word slogan personified. All hope of any rational, national conversation is torpedoed by MPs whose speech blends the language of advertising with the front bar inanities, platitudes and half-stewed certitudes of some imaginary country pub.

Our brave new political discourse echoes tabloids and shock-jocks to weave a “shallow, facile and ill-informed” world, as Jeremy Corbyn notes. Emotions are massaged as exponents swap headlines and reductive bumper sticker slogans in a caricature of debate. When two-dimensional superficiality triumphs; issues wither and die.

Advertising and propaganda techniques impoverish our “national conversation” about education funding. Slogans such as “needs-based” or “sector-blind” remain unexamined; unexplained. Incessant repetition is provided instead. Gonski 2.0 is just another chance to dumb-down issues, whip up fear and to patronise constituents.

“It will end decades of arguments about the school funding wars,” breakfast TV celebrity, near-sighted Liberal hack, former Education Minister, Christopher Pyne periscopes on Nine. Can Mr Magoo not see that Labor has already declared war? It will fight Gonski 2.0 all the way until the next election; restore every dollar cut.

Opposition to Gonski 2.0 will be wide and enduring. Turnbull’s government will face stiff opposition from not only from supporters of systemic Catholic schools but from a wide group of others dedicated to educational equality.

Teachers, in particular, will not take kindly to what is already seen as an attack on their profession in another part of Gonski 2.0 that has received no real public discussion and been through no real consultation process.

Little comment has followed Birmingham’s plan to include with Gonski 2.0 NAPLAN tests for every year level; annual literacy and numeracy reporting requirements; performance pay for teachers (including student results); a year 1 phonics test; contracts and performance pay for principals; and more Independent Public Schools. These arbitrarily imposed conditions must be met to access any funding. The implication is teachers are slack.

... a rapid decline in the prosperity of ordinary Australians

The politics of Gonski 2.0 is also part of a rapid decline in the prosperity of ordinary Australians.  Workers’ share of GDP has plummeted since 1975. Then, two-thirds of our GDP was in wages; in 2014 it was just 53%. The gap between rich and poor is accelerating. The richest 1% of Australians now own 22% of the nation’s total wealth.

As the asset ownership gap widens, the rich, of course, have increasing influence. Private school associations enthusiastically endorse the coalition’s new funding model. Yet no-one can explain how it was decided that they should receive 80% of federal funds. Part of the Coalition’s spin on transparency.

Yet one the most remarkable - and distressing features of the Gonski 2.0 con is the success of government spin.

The Coalition has been assisted in its Gonski confidence trick with the support of a compliant media. Its win is paralleled in the other big issue of the week, the flogging of the Finkel Report, a campaign which began with the demonising of renewables after the SA blackout, a cause fearlessly championed by ABC’s Chris Uhlmann.

An Important Announcement on Energy Tuesday is a Gilbertian performance. Coal school quality. On TV everywhere, Matt Canavan, Josh Frydenberg and Malcolm Fraser perform Three Little maids of School Are We.

No-one mentions that Finkel is dead in the water. Instead, Turnbull has a thought bubble:

“It would be good if we had a state-of-the-art clean coal power station in Australia,” Turnbull tells a media conference in Canberra. We could have a reverse auction. (Easy to rig in coal’s favour.) Technology neutral.  Someone asks what technologies could provide “continuous” and “synchronous” power.

Turnbull can talk only of “clean coal”, gas and hydro. Gas, he notes, however, in an aside, would be too expensive.

Solar and wind with battery storage do not rate a mention. Nor do other technologies. No-one recalls that he had the clean coal bug when he was Environment Minister in 2007. Or expects him to account for the $1bn spent on the quest for CCS.

... the PM waffles off somewhere ...

“We are seeing a real change in the nature of the energy market … with more variable sources of energy, more distributed sources,” the PM waffles off somewhere on his own evasive wave-length.

The April announcement that Australia would intervene in the gas market, something catchily entitled” imposing an Australian domestic gas security mechanism” is announced again. It was to have started 1 July but it has been postponed to allow consultations with the sector. It is “immediate action to put downward pressure on prices” which will probably happen next year, if it happens at all.

Best of all, the “limited merits review” which was to put downward pressure on electricity prices is put off to 2019.

The cave in to coal precedes a party room meeting to approve all of Finkel except his main point, the adoption of a Clean Energy Target. No policy. The media show reassures everyone that clean new coal is in there with a chance.

Coalition Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel continues his flawless political performance mid-week as he delivers a thoroughly dull and boring account of his report to the National Press Club. A highlight is an aside when he recalls a quotation from Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a text he read to help one of his children with their HSC.

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. It’s an inspiring quote about adaptation, especially if you see yourself as an enlightened autocrat. Job’s done for Finkel who makes it clear that the ball is in the government’s Dark Age court. There change must contend with the likes of Barnaby Joyce.

A week ago, proudly airing his sublime ignorance on national television, the Deputy PM tells Insiders host Barrie Cassidy:

“I flew in this morning Barrie, it was a beautiful day, not a puff of wind and if memory serves me correct, it was dark last night, so you switched off your coal-fired power stations, how do you switch on the lights?” he said, before adding:  “So it’s just, we’re living in a different church to reality.”

Living very much in a different church is a Coalition which is on target to revise the CET to accept coal-fired power stations. Naturally they will be mythical High Efficiency Low Emission and clean coal even if they will take five to seven years to build. Of course they are expensive. But funds can then be provided at low-interest from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Emissions? Don’t you worry about that. Paris? Non-binding.

The week ends, we are told, with Coalition MPs going away to have a think about a Clean Energy Target after a Finkel Review which is destined to be no more that just another piece of theatre to avoid commitment to clean energy as a means to curb carbon emissions and as a cheap, economic and reliable alternative to coal. If, after four years, the party has been unable to agree on energy or climate, however, six weeks’ break is useless.

Gonski 2.0 reveals a high-handed government prepared to ride rough-shod over the states to impose a funding system which is not needs-based and certainly not sector-blind but one which will only entrench privilege and perpetuate inequality. In media management it has been a huge success and it will save $18 billions on Labor’s model but, in its style and in its substance, it can only leave a poorer and more divided nation.

*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.

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