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View from The Hill

‘Giving a Gonski’ will be torrid test for the Greens

Richard Di Natale is publicly perched on the barbed-wire fence over the government’s Gonski legislation. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Labor has formally decided to try to thwart the government’s Gonski schools legislation, while the Greens are looking over their shoulder at what their base would think if they opt to back it.

Meanwhile, the Catholics continue to baulk because they would not get the special treatment they’ve enjoyed under previous deals.

Political expediency and self-interest are well to the fore as parliament starts to debate the plan, which is closer to the original Gonski model than present arrangements and would inject an extra A$18.6 billion in federal funding across the government, Catholic and independent school sectors over a decade.

Former Labor minister Craig Emerson, writing in Tuesday’s Australian Financial Review, condemned the ALP’s stance.

“While the Turnbull government’s needs-based funding allocation is manifestly inadequate, Labor has a wonderful opportunity to lock the formula into place and promise to increase it if elected,” he wrote.

“Now is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lock in a school-funding system that can give every disadvantaged child a chance of a good education, and Labor has pledged to block it. It’s heartbreaking.”

It’s hard to fault the logic of Emerson, a policy wonk who has the background to judge. Surely it is sensible for an opposition to seize the chance when it comes for a structural improvement, and then undertake to build on it?

Well, except for the politics. Together with health, education is Labor ground. It wants to stop the government gaining any foothold there. It is hand-in-glove with the Australian Education Union, which opposes the government’s plan, running advertisements saying that it would cut money. The union is using as its baseline what Labor would have done if it had won the election.

Importantly, Labor sees the Catholic revolt as manna to exploit. Some states are also unhappy – they wanted funding continued along the lines of the generous deals they won as the ALP government threw everything at getting schools funding arrangements into place.

While Labor’s position is set, the Greens have a lot of agonising ahead.

When Malcolm Turnbull announced the policy, the Greens indicated they were attracted to it. Their education spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, liked the boost it would give government schools and its hit list cutting back money for wealthy schools. The ALP would support the latter, suggesting it be excised and voted on separately – but there’s no chance of that.

But the Greens have not yet made a decision. They are waiting for the short Senate inquiry into the legislation.

In the House of Representatives vote on the legislation this week, Greens member Adam Bandt will likely vote against, as on other controversial measures when the party is in a holding position.

This is a big test for the Greens. They can deliver an improved position for government schools and a fairer model, but it could be at some political cost to themselves.

The Greens know that among their base many detest the idea of dealing with the Liberals on anything. Former leader Christine Milne hated giving then-prime minister Tony Abbott a win. Current leader Richard Di Natale is more pragmatic but still has to take account of the followers. At the moment he is publicly perched on the barbed-wire fence.

He told the media on Tuesday the Greens supported the “original Gonski”. “We want a genuine needs-based funding model. We want more money going to the schools that need it and we want to ensure that there’s a transparent process for doing that,” he said.

Labor had debased the original Gonski plan, so that “the wealthiest private schools continued to see huge cash pouring in and our neediest public schools weren’t getting the funding that they needed”.

“The government’s proposal seeks to address some of those issues but it creates a whole new set of problems and so we’re being forced to choose between two models, neither of which were proposed by David Gonski originally and that is the great tragedy here,” he said.

Labor is applying maximum pressure to the Greens. Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek told caucus on Tuesday: “This is an attack on public education, make no mistake. If the Greens support this it just shows how moronic they are.”

If the government can get the Greens on side it only needs one more Senate vote. If it can’t, it must win ten of the 12 non-Green crossbenchers.

Either way, there is going to have to be haggling.

There are arguments about what the government calculator says particular schools would get under the proposed system, and questions about what schools would receive if the new legislation went down and the status quo remained.

There will be demands for changes in the funding quantum and the timetable and assistance for transition to the new model. Another potential demand would be to establish the National Schools Resourcing Body that Gonski recommended, to oversee the funding model and remove the politics – although that would need a tick off by the states.

The issue may become to the extent to which the government is willing to make compromises. It insists it would not agree to special deals to assist one sector, which would distort the model and generate new difficulties. But it will be very anxious to secure the legislation, to put the Coalition on the playing field in the education battle at the election.

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