Given that come September Tony Abbott is likely to be PM and Christopher Pyne the education minister, the opposition’s policy on the schools funding plan is crucial, as the outcome of the federal-state Gonski negotiations remains uncertain.
Pyne has now clearly spelled this out. If Julia Gillard can reach a comprehensive deal with the states by June 30, it would stay in place under a Coalition government.
But if Gillard can only get a patchwork result, that would not be acceptable to an Abbott government. Pyne says it would seek to extend the current funding model - which the Coalition prefers anyway - plus the indexation “that we currently have, which is about six per cent over the last 10 years on average”.
Note he is not saying the indexation would be six per cent; for next year the estimate is three per cent.
After rolling over the present system for a year or two, the Coalition says it would negotiate a new agreement with the states. This could include some of the loadings for disadvantage in the Gonski model, which Pyne has praised.
The school funding debate is difficult for the Liberals. Education is natural Labor territory. The Gillard government’s $14.5 billion plan, with Canberra providing $2 for every $1 the states would be required to put in, is a big pot of money to move funding to a broader, more needs basis. The concept is inherently popular.
So Pyne is concentrating his attack on the argument that this is smoke and mirrors (Abbott has yet to comment on Sunday’s announcement). He is saying the government is taking more money out of education - including the weekend’s big cuts to university funding - than it is putting into its schools plan.
The opposition’s position complicates things for the conservative states.
If NSW and Victoria agreed to sign up, they would be annoyed (and concerned) if the refusal of recalcitrant states, Western Australia and perhaps Queensland, meant an Abbott government would seek to unpick their deals.
They would later likely pressure a Coalition federal government to let things stand.
If Gillard managed to defy the odds and get a comprehensive agreement (say by giving WA more money) she would have landed a major victory, and the Coalition would stand to inherit a system it did not want.
Gillard would get marks for achievement; on the other hand, there would no longer be a choice over schools funding, so the issue might lose some election potency, which could suit the Coalition.
If an Abbott government found itself with a hybrid system, it would confront problems in seeking to repeal the state agreements.
With the election on September 14, there would be hardly any of the year left to get the repeal legislation through for the start of 2014. And the timetable would be extremely disruptive for the schools and states that had agreed to the new system.
That’s assuming the repeal bill could be passed - the Senate numbers would still be as they are now, so it would likely be blocked.
(Incidentally, the government insists that any state that signs between June 27, when Parliament is due to rise for the last time before the election, and the deadline of June 30, a Sunday, can be included in the funding scheme. The Australian Education Bill, now before the House of Representatives, would be amended in such a way as to enable this).
Whatever happened to the school funding plan, under an Abbott government the universities would not be getting their money restored. The Opposition is critical of the cuts but will be pocketing them to help its bottom line as it struggles to pay for promises.