Peter Smith

Julia Gillard, unprincipled to the bitter end

The latest kerfuffle about whether the implementation of Gonski means more or (even) less money for schools has me beat. I mean, I might even get on board the Gonski bandwagon if it means less money to hire more union-dominated public school teachers. Obviously Barry O’Farrell thinks he’s getting a bucket load of money. Why else would a state premier sign up? But is he right? Who can possibly work it out? I have decided not to give a ‘Gonski’ about the whole thing.

What I do give a ‘Gonski’ about is the graceless thrashing of constitutional conventions by a mortally wounded government. Apparently, facing almost certain defeat in September, Julia Gillard wants to leave a legacy. Something for us to remember her by; and she cares not for constitutional niceties.

When government contemplates profound changes to the way a country runs its affairs, which will be expensive and difficult for future governments to unravel — for example, the implementation of an increased taxation levy to pay for a new disability scheme or a new unfunded formula for dispensing money to state schools — it should have mandate from the last election, or should seek bipartisan agreement, or seek a mandate at the next election. John Howard’s introduction of the GST is a great example of acting in keeping with good constitutional government.

It doesn’t matter whether you think any particular change is beneficial and absolutely required. If it is, the political party promoting it will presumably be able to convince the electorate and gain a mandate. What is happening now is un-Australian. If you think that’s an old fashioned way to look at things, well think of something unconstitutional that could be described as un-North Korean.

State premiers to a man and woman (pity about O’Farrell) should simply say let us wait until after the federal election; it would be improper to do otherwise. Equally, the clamour should have been to hold off on the disability scheme until the trials are complete; until a proper accounting is done of what is to be covered and whatnot, and how much it will cost, and how it can best be funded. Both sides could have gone to the election pledging to introduce a scheme and to work together through parliamentary committees on its design and funding. But Ms Gillard would have her legacy.

Historians can be found in Australia who won’t let the facts get in the way. Gillard might therefore go into Labor Party folklore as the saviour of schools and the disabled, undone by the rascally Rudd and the misogynist Abbott.

There will be an alternative history. In this the stench of serial incompetence, duplicity, and an unseemly grasping for a personal credit at whatever cost to the country, will tend to be the overwhelming themes. It could potentially make interesting reading for school children in years to come. In reality, no bets taken, as the years roll by, on which history will be predominantly taught in state schools.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

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