COAG – the last throw of the dice for the Gillard government

The states and the Gillard government both have a lot at stake at today’s COAG meeting. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Today’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting over the so called Gonski “reforms” to school funding, is the Prime-Minister’s last desperate throw of the dice to show she can deliver a big policy promise.

The Gillard government has supported the Gonski proposals for increased funding for schools and a new spending formula, which would increase Commonwealth involvement in school education – an area that lies totally within state constitutional responsibilities.

By framing education “reform” almost totally in terms of increased spending, despite Australian and international evidence that extra money in itself will not make the difference, the Gillard government is playing two political games at COAG.

First, it is saying to the federal opposition that if they do not support these changes and especially the increase in spending, they must be against education. Remember how at the 2007 federal election the Rudd-led Labor opposition scored well over the then Howard government with the “education revolution” catchcry?

The government is also seeking to force the states, especially those with Liberal premiers, to support the Gonski-inspired changes. The aim is to put them offside with the federal coalition opposition, and also to make an increased contribution to education.

And if the states do not come on board, especially the Liberal ones, they will be painted not only as wrecking education and denying the children at their schools extra funds, but also as being too partisan. This is especially tricky in a policy area that is seen as being too sensitive for such games.

Because education policy is complex, and the quality dimension that should drive all education policy even more so, it is difficult for the media, stakeholders and the wider public to get past the debate on the money and focus on what’s really needed to improve education quality. That is, where funds should be spent to have any chance of making a difference to education outcomes, and how much these measures would cost.

If the states do sign up on Friday – or by the extended deadline in June – they should seriously consider what is at stake. They already know what is at stake politically in refusing to sign, but the costs of agreeing may be more severe in the longer term.

It will mean more power divested to the Commonwealth, probably forever. It will mean more regulation – the School Improvement Plans could see up to 10,000 individual plans supervised by an expanded Commonwealth bureaucracy.

If the School Improvement Plans are not onerous, but little more than a list of “tick a box” Commonwealth demands (like the obligation on every school to teach an Asian language), or if they are simply lowest common denominator targets, then we can all ask what has it all achieved?

With WA already saying they won’t join, the Gillard government needs to get the three most populous states of NSW, Victoria and Queensland (which are also all Liberal states) to agree. Otherwise, the whole exercise is a non-starter.

The issue to watch is whether the states can rise, for once, above the bait of money and argue a policy case for not joining.

And in this policy area the states have a case to argue. In many instances, the state education reform agendas are more advanced, more progressive, more focused, and more likely to have an impact on education outcomes than the Commonwealth’s big bucket of money and headline aspirational statements.

Look at how Victoria, Queensland, even NSW have been focusing on teacher quality – are they able to use new Commonwealth money to finance their own policies, which involve some of the “hard decisions” the Commonwealth hasn’t been prepared to take? Will they have to give those up?

The states will also need to consider at COAG how much of the Gonski money is new money – it’s too easy to conceal and distort reality in school funding figures, especially with long time horizons.

Indeed, it’s worth unpicking the details of the supposedly lucrative deal Peter Garrett is offering to state and territory education ministers. First, the figure the government attached to the package was A$14.5 billion over six years which includes only around $9 billion from the Commonwealth, with the rest down to the states. States and territories would then be required to commit to annual increases in their own funding of government schools by a minimum of 3%.

But A$2.34 billion of this comes from rolling over the National Partnerships Program funding that was due to run out next year. There’s also other schools programs that are probably encompassed in the Commonwealth figure.

You can see why the package has been described as “Gonski Lite”, it consists of around a third of the amount the Gonski panel recommended for a comparable period. The original recommendations saw A$6.5 billion a year in extra funding, shared between the Commonwealth and the states – around A$39 billion across six years.

Will the premiers and prime minister discuss how the reforms are to be funded, especially the proposed A$2 billion cuts to universities? Will universities be forced to quarantine teacher education from this so they can adequately support poorly prepared entrants to become quality graduates?

Politically, there is another game in town. Almost everything the Gillard government does in the run up to the September election is to act like a government that knows it is not going to win.

This means initiating actions that would make it hard for the incoming Abbott government to undo. If all these proposals go through COAG it gives a green light for legislation to go to parliament and if the Liberals do not win control of the Senate they will be stuck with an expensive program for which they will have to find the funds and one that is intrusive on their Liberal state colleagues.

The Gonski reforms have got to COAG after an appalling policy development process; a poorly conducted public inquiry in Gonski; slogans parading as policy; a refusal to look to the evidence about quality education; playing the states off against each other and refusing to approach this area as a shared responsibility that appreciates the limits and roles of the Commonwealth and states.

It’s hard to see how, from all of this, we’re likely to see any real improvements in Australian education.