In years ahead when historians try and explain the downfall of the Malcolm Turnbull government, it’s clear that Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s ineptitude will rate highly. While there’s no doubt that Turnbull’s conceit, arrogance and lack of any firmly held political beliefs, except power for power’s sake, Birmingham must also take the blame.
As John Howard said when Prime Minister education is a real BBQ stopper and when it comes to education school funding is the main course. Over 34 per cent of students across Australia go to Catholic (20 per cent) and independent (14 per cent) schools and, contrary to the myth promoted by the Australian Education Union, the majority are low fee paying.
While independent schools like Sydney Girls Grammar, The Kings, Ascham, Melbourne and Geelong Grammar charge parents up to $35,000 a year the overwhelming majority of Catholic schools charge no more than $3,000 to $5,000 per annum.
Birmingham’s insistence on legislating a flawed and misconceived Gonski inspired funding model calculated to financially disadvantage Catholic school parents proves he knows nothing about the art of compromise or how vital the Catholic vote is in marginal seats.
Proven by recent by-election results in Victoria’s Batman and Queensland’s Longman, where the ALP won despite suggestions either the Greens or the Liberal candidates would succeed, the school funding campaign led by the Catholics has gained and will continue to gain electoral traction.
Ignoring the research carried out by Catholic Education Melbourne detailing the flaws inherent in the Gonski model and failing to engage in constructive dialogue with the Executive Director Stephen Elder also proves Birmingham is either guilty of hubris or he is a political novice.
Over the last 12 months, Elder has managed a concerted and highly effective campaign to point out the flaws in the current funding model while Birmingham has simply responded by playing catch up.
That Elder employs a team of highly expert and political savvy operators compared to Birmingham’s office where there appears to be little if any, expertise or institutional memory is another significant flaw.
Even worse, the fact that this year’s Chaney Report confirmed the validity of the research commissioned by Elder made Birmingham look even more out of touch and foolish.
As Robert Menzies and John Howard fully realised when in charge of the nation, Catholic schools are an essential part of our tripartite system of education that must be respected and fairly dealt with. Catholics are also in many ways tribal and to take them on is a recipe for disaster.
Appointing David Gonski and Ken Boston to recommend how best to raise standards and endorsing their recommendations identifying what constitutes a more effective curriculum represents another policy failure.
Neither Gonski nor Boston have any significant curriculum knowledge or expertise and the report they delivered failed to take into account the recent history of school education in Australia or what evidence-based research proves is the most effective way to structure and deliver a curriculum.
At a time of falling standards as measured by international tests forcing schools to implement evidence-free experiments like removing year levels and adopting individualised, twenty-first century learning and non-competitive assessment beggars belief.
The third major policy failure involves the refusal to implement any of the recommendations of the 2014 national curriculum review I co-chaired. Unlike previous education ministers David Kemp and Brendan Nelson who appreciated the importance of a rigorous and academically based curriculum, Birmingham has done nothing.
The national curriculum is still overcrowded, superficial and politically correct where the focus remains on indigenous, Asian and environmental priorities. At a time when it is urgent that all students are given an appreciation of the strengths and flaws of Western civilisation and our political and legal systems too many leave school culturally impoverished and culturally illiterate.
Unlike John Howard who appreciated the significance of the culture wars and the pernicious, destructive influence of the cultural left’s long march through the institutions both Turnbull and Birmingham have refused to even register there is a problem.
While still only rumoured, if true that Michael Sukkar, who recently resigned as Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, is being mooted to replace Birmingham then expect a very different and more effective and considered approach.
As a self-proclaimed conservative appointing Sukkar will do much to reassure the Liberal Party base that the Turnbull experiment is a well and truly over and that the curriculum will be academically rigorous and balanced. Secondly, as a Catholic, Sukkar has a far greater chance of resolving the funding issue and to remove it as an electoral liability.
Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia (Wilkinson Publishing).
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