Malcolm Turnbull was surging down the straight, clearing every obstacle in his stride, confident of success, when suddenly he baulked at the last hurdle, and instead of jumping it, tip-toed around it, wallet in hand.
He fell over the line and went on to celebrate a victory lap, but even his most avid cheerleaders had to admit that he had been forced to compromise. Like Gonski Mark I, Gonski Mark II had succumbed to a special deal for the loudest common denomination – the Catholics.
And it was not even the might of the mother church itself that prevailed – at least, not directly. Turnbull’s doughty Education Minister Simon Birmingham had stared down the clerical bureaucrats, and was all but ready to do a deal with the Greens and the Xenophon team to secure the numbers in the senate.
This had involved some tricky negotiation, but none of it affected the integrity of the package. A quicker transition to the needs-based ideal was expensive, but obviously desirable. The demand for the states to ante up more of their share of public school funding particularly annoyed the Victorians, whose share will have to rise from 66 per cent to 75 per cent, but a national model is a national model. And the requirement for an independent body to oversee the funding process appears superfluous – isn’t that why we pay the shiny bums of the Commonwealth Education Department? – but will do no lasting harm.
At the last minute there was a hiatus: the Stalinists of the NSW branch of the Greens instructed Lee Rhiannon (who did need much instructing) to follow the dictates of the militant Teachers Union and oppose everything forever, but given the other Greens were on side and most of the remaining crossbenchers were responsive, this need not have been a game breaker.
So when the retiring senator Chris Back announced that he would conclude his totally undistinguished political career by giving the government a farewell present by voting against it, and his fellow zombie Eric Abetz muttered about doing the same, instant panic set in, followed swiftly by appeasement.
However, time was short, so Birmingham went back to the others, including One Nation, which is apparently considered more acceptable to the ideologues of his party room than the Greens. The numbers were just about there, although there were at least one waverer – Jacqui Lambie needed a lot of geeing up. But the real problem was the hardline Catholics in coalition party room.
George Christensen broke ranks last week to support Labor’s demand to retain penalty rates. This didn’t matter because Christensen had made sure that the government would prevail, but it spooked Turnbull in particular: although it is obvious that Christensen’s maverick stance is all bluff – he is no more likely to leave the Nationals than he is to desert his religion, although come to think of it he has already done that – it showed our Prime Minister how vulnerable his hold on power could become.
So when the retiring senator Chris Back announced that he would conclude his totally undistinguished political career by giving the government a farewell present by voting against it, and his fellow zombie Eric Abetz muttered about doing the same, instant panic set in, followed swiftly by appeasement. $50 million for ‘transition’ arrangements, almost all of which was earmarked for the Catholics. And there is to be another review about how much (more) they should snaffle, a process which may well unhinge Gonski Mark II just as it did Gonski Mark I.
It should be noted that the Catholics already receive special treatment; unlike the other schools they are granted the privilege of collecting their money as a lump sum and then doling it out to their constituents as they see fit. And this may or may not be according to need: a few weeks ago there were reports that wealthy city colleges were being favoured at the expense of poorer rural parishes. So other independent schools, not to mention public schools, are naturally envious.
It would make more sense to bring the Catholics into line than to give them yet more advantages. But no one ever said politics is entirely rational, let alone Bill Shorten and his cynical Labor opposition. Having started by complaining that the government had not matched Labor’s spending target – clearly unfunded, rather like Turnbull’s company tax cuts, but let’s not pursue that) Shorten fell to his knees to become a Catholic crusader.
The best that can be said for his opportunism is that it has produced a major dilemma for the ageing groupers of The Australian. They would normally fall reflexively behind any campaign to defend the one true church but they hate Labor and all its works. In the end they have lapsed into doublethink, blaming Labor for everything while cheering on the massive scare campaign about higher fees, closing schools, and even the ultimate horror – Catholic parents forced to enrol their children in the public schools inhabited by the vast majority of other Australians. Dennis Shanahan appears particularly conflicted.
And Turnbull, a convert to his wife’s illustrious Catholic dynasty, has been equally circumspect. After the revelations of the Royal Commission into the trades unions, he has been remorselessly hounding Labor as the puppets of thugs and criminals. After the revelations about the Royal Commission into child abuse, it might have been thought that he would berate Labor as endorsing paedophilia and conspiracy to cover up crime, but then, politics is no more about consistency than it is about reason.
But for all that Turnbull’s big week has had its flaws, and the education wars will resume as soon as the major stakeholders catch their breath, a win is a win. Gonski Mark I was the foundation, and Gonski Mark II is a massive improvement. We now await Gonski Mark III to find by how much the Catholics are able to further distort the pristine concept, and then Gonski Mark IV, the bygone, when the scheme’s eponymous founder moves on from the funding to try and improve the declining standards within Australian schools.
This will be the big one but, perhaps fortunately, it is a fair way into the future – perhaps further than the life of the Turnbull government. However, in the meantime Turnbull can chalk up a rare and vitally important win before the winter recess closes in. It came just in time for the longest night of the year; our Prime Minister, if not all his colleagues, will hope that this is a sign that increasing hours of daylight, if not actual sunshine, will follow.