View from The Hill

Abbott government runs very quickly from idea of user pays for public schools

Education Minister Christopher Pyne was fast to dismiss the idea of wealthy parents paying for public school. AAP/Mick Tsikas

First it was the tax paper falling victim to the exigencies of politics; now it’s the federalism one. Neither is finished but already the government has, under sharp political pressure, ruled certain options out.

No, there won’t be changes to the GST, never mind that all the experts think they are needed. And the government has kiboshed any proposal to cut back the present generous tax arrangement for superannuation, even though as part of its pensions deal with the Greens it has extended the tax paper’s work on retirement income.

Now, immediately after the publication of leaked material from the draft federalism green paper – prepared by the Prime Minister’s department and the stage before the white paper due next year – the government has dismissed an idea canvassed for wealthier parents to pay for their children to attend public schools.

The paper lists four options for rebalancing Commonwealth-state responsibilities for schools:

  • the states would become fully responsible for all schools and their funding;

  • the states would be fully responsible for funding government schools and the Commonwealth would exclusively fund non-government schools;

  • the present system of mixed funding would be retained but with reduced Commonwealth involvement in school programs to avoid duplication;

  • the Commonwealth would become the dominant public funder of all students.

The prospect of “the ability of families to make a contribution” being part of the funding for children in government schools is raised under this last option. Currently, families’ ability to contribute is only taken into account when determining Commonwealth funding for private schools.

At one level, the kerfuffle is academic as far as the federal government goes. The Abbott government is not going to contemplate taking over full responsibility for public schools.

But it shows, in the world of the continuous election campaign in which we live, how vulnerable the wide ranging white paper processes are to the politics of the moment.

It also reinforces the point that the obstacles to reforming the federal-state system, not just in schooling but many other areas, are likely to be overwhelming – at least for a government with as little political capital as this one has. Even moderate change would be difficult with a public that has become cynical and averse to hard new courses.

The government seemed blindsided by the leak of the document.

Tony Abbott’s initial response was to say that “we [the Commonwealth] have no role at all in the running of public schools. Public schools are absolutely the business of the state and territory governments … any question of how you fund public schools in terms of what contribution parents might be expected to make is absolutely a matter for the states and territories.”

Of course this fundamentally ignores the basis of the whole federalism paper process. Its purpose is to review whether the present allocation of responsibilities between Commonwealth and states in policy and funding should be rejigged and present choices as to how it could be done. The notion of parents paying for public school education was part of a highly radical rearrangement thrown up in the paper as an option for change.

Before long, Education Minister Christopher Pyne was taking to Twitter to reject the idea, as did Abbott in Question Time.

“The Australian government does not and will not support a means test for public education, full stop, ends of story,” Abbott told parliament, although he added that if the states wanted to charge wealthy parents that was up to them. “Charging wealthy parents for their children to attend public schools is not this government’s policy.”

NSW Premier Mike Baird tweeted that “public education will always be free under any government I lead”.

While there are in fact creeping costs for parents of children at public schools, the prospect that any government, state or federal, could propose a fee-paying system seems beyond any current political reality – a shortcut to electoral suicide.

The idea belongs in the realm of think-tanks and green papers in which every option is canvassed.

It gave Bill Shorten’s embattled opposition an easy day in parliament. But what will the government now do? Will there be some judicious editing before the green paper is publicly released, on the basis that the government has already got its “feedback” on this proposal? One would think so. But then the range of options would not be complete. Reportedly, other parts of the discussion paper contain radical options. Will they be filleted before it is issued?