Beyond Kevin, beyond Julia, beyond Kevin

It was the morning of Saturday, 24th November 2007, in London. A powerful sense of impending euphoria had made it difficult to sleep. There was no plastic Christmas tree in the corner of the room, and no presents to rip open (and I wasn’t seven years old), but that remains for me the only comparable feeling. I can recall some anxious fumbling through the channels of a friend’s Sky-connected flatscreen TV, a gleeful visit to the local Starbucks; I confess: I was almost certainly wearing a Kevin07 shirt at the time. The results, as they rolled in, were delicious. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted. It was the end of a small-minded, cold-hearted era that had gone on far too long for Australia’s good.

At the time, in Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, it seemed that Labor had elevated and united its two brightest talents: the folksy, popular communicator with the feisty, intellectual firebrand. Perhaps they did, but a lot can change in six years. Go on, search for “Rudd and Gillard” in your preferred search engine. See if you can find a trace, a morsel, a crumb of their initially productive partnership. Try to think to yourself for a moment about the achievements of their governments, without finding yourself waylaid by the leadership innuendo and soap opera froth; the brutal replacement of Kevin Rudd in June 2010 with Julia Gillard, the subsequent relentless hounding of Gillard by the man she replaced, the eventual rational yet absurd caucus admission that Gillard must in fact be replaced by the man she replaced. At this point I am not sure if it would have really mattered if Labor had, during its time in office, eliminated poverty in Australia, built an impervious boat-frying force field around the nation’s circumference, and managed to transcend time and space by colonising Jupiter. Stirred on by the media, the situation with the leadership had become incredulous – a laughing stock – and I am not sure you can blame some voters for being sick and tired of that.

In this context, perhaps it is not surprising that an open, democratic leadership contest between two factional heavyweights feels like a breath of fresh air. As it turns out, the faceless men have faces, and this time, we’ll even let you pick one! Politically, you might agree with one more than the other, but the beauty of this contest for Labor is that either Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese is wholly capable of leading the party forward. But yet, the spectres of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd cycle, like some god-awful ten-volume fantasy book series written by cult author Mackenzie J Clouddancer, very obtrusively remain. Kevin of course will remain in parliament, but almost certainly not stewing and seething and plotting a return to his throne, not that anybody would dare put it past him, given priors. Julia, by marked contrast, has acted with consummate dignity since being dumped from the leadership, putting the Labor Party’s fortunes at the election ahead of any natural instinct to defend her political legacy or to seek some form of revenge against those who discarded her.

Well, until now, anyway. In a coup for the Guardian Australia, Julia Gillard has written a 5000 word essay that seeks to remind us of Labor’s historic achievements, why the party is important, why the party got it wrong by replacing her, and why the new leadership rules are wrong-headed. To be perfectly honest, I think the piece is misjudged; perhaps it is just too soon. A fair proportion of the essay re-iterates the historic achievements of Labor and revisits arguments waged during the election campaign – which if people are not familiar with by now, they really haven’t been paying any attention at all. To be honest, even I have had enough of this sort of shit. The people Julia is reaching out to are not likely to read a 5000 word essay. Indeed, much of the piece reads like the long post-campaign speech of the ghost of a leader who was but will no longer be.

The central argument of the essay is that Labor needs to embrace “purpose”, which Gillard best defines at the start of her piece:

Purpose matters. Being able to answer the question what are you going to do for me, for my family, for our nation, matters.

Believing in a purpose larger than yourself and your immediate political interests matters.

Labor comes to opposition having sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about its sense of purpose.

This “cynical and shallow” message, of course, refers not particularly subtly to her removal from the leadership by the Federal Labor parliamentary caucus. She picks up on this again towards the end of the essay:

The answer to the question, “Why do I support this Labor leader?” should not be because he or she polls well or because the rules say I am stuck with them. The answer has to be found in actual and informed consent that this person represents what I believe in and has the leadership capacity to pursue it.

I don’t think many people would disagree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, but on the other hand I think it is plain silly to ignore the fact that one of the most powerful and compelling possible answers to the “Why do I support this Labor leader?” question is: “because I think he/she can capture the support of the Australian people, and I think he or she can win”. Personally, it goes without saying that I agree with most Labor members of parliament, most of the time. In general, their beliefs overlap in a satisfactorily proportional way with mine. It remains the case that one of the most important tasks of a Labor leader is to win elections, as cynical and as pragmatic as that sounds. The greatest of Labor leaders have tended to be those who have won the support of the Australian people to such an extent that they have defeated the Opposition at several elections and earned the right to pursue their political agendas over multiple terms. This is not a quirk of history or statistics. In politics, leadership is not just about policy, or having the most moral virtues, or the best one-liners, but earning and keeping the support of the public.

Julia Gillard achieved a lot during her time as Prime Minister – proportionally, perhaps as much or more than any other Labor leader in history. But she cannot deny that particularly towards the end of her term this year, she lost the support of a decisive proportion of the voting public. She would have lead Labor to a crushing defeat in the election two weeks ago, a defeat at least as decisive as the one it suffered, but most likely even more so. The polls proved beastly for Labor’s first female prime minister – as did Kevin Rudd – but it would be churlish of her not to realise that those catastrophic numbers she was getting were not just numbers. They were not just spin and electoral gimmickry. The sad truth is that all along, there were real people behind those polling numbers, and those people had lost faith with what Labor was offering. They had lost faith with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.

For better or for worse, the Australian people wanted Julia to leave, and Kevin Rudd only hastened that process. Labor must not allow itself to be dictated to by opinion polling, but turning the other cheek out of pride or in the vain hope that polls are immaterial would be equally as egregious an error.

Et tu, Julia?

It’s a bit funny how quickly personal fortunes can turn around; just a month or two ago, the putsch was on, and we were all watching Kevin Michael Rudd give his final, painful press conference as Prime Minister. At that point in time, it did not seem likely that we would see Rudd return to the forefront of political debate in this country. Although he was at pains to re-iterate his commitment to continue on the backbenches as the Member for Griffith, before very long the media rumour mill was running overtime with suggestions on what international diplomatic roles might potentially float across the former Prime Minister’s desk.

Now the Rudd Government is history, the campaign is history, the federal election itself is history, and we have a Gillard Labor Government at the helm, assisted by the Greens and independents Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott. If that wasn’t strange enough, the former Prime Minister has returned as a frontline member of Cabinet as Foreign Minister; one pictures him staggering zombie-like into the room with that Milky Bar grin, daggers jutting haphazardly from his back. We’re a long way from Kansas now. One supposes, given the unpredictability of recent events, that it would not be completely inconceivable for Kevin Rudd to emerge as Prime Minister again in some crazy election campaign in the future.

There is little doubt that Rudd is the best person for the job in Foreign Affairs and that under normal conditions, he would be a big plus for the government. Stephen Smith has run a tight ship but has not really shone either during his time in the role, particularly given that he was always operating in Rudd’s shadow. Suggestions from the Opposition and indeed from Professor Hugh White that the former Prime Minister damaged Australia’s relationships with some of its partners during his time in office are exaggerated. As it stands however, given the circumstances, there are clearly going to be some outstanding personal issues that Federal Labor will need to confront in Cabinet in order to govern effectively. An already byzantine situation, given the reliance of Labor on the Greens and the independents for power, will hardly be simplified by the fact that one of the most senior positions in the government is held by someone who was so recently betrayed by the new Prime Minister.

Matters are so delicately poised that a by-election in practically any seat but the most safest of seats could result in a change of government. I’m not too sure about the stability bit, but this election has certainly delivered political intrigue to the nation – in spades.

“Moving forward” to the final countdown

Mercifully for everyone, the dog-eat-dogging and gratuitous slander of Federal Election 2010 is drawing to a close. In a few short hours we will probably have a fairly good grasp of just who is going to be running the country for the next three years. It has been a strange federal campaign; one in which both major parties have proven to be shackled to the budgetary circumstances that they find themselves in. One gets the impression that the driving motivation behind the decision of both major parties to not announce many significant new spending measures is a desire to curry favour with an electorate feeling wary about Australia’s budget deficit and the general economic situation, rather than any deep throbbing vein of fiscal conservatism. As much as this election has reminded us all that Australia is a fairly socially conservative nation, as Tom Switzer points out, it has also reminded us all that the differences between the major parties on economic issues are in realistic terms, quite slight. Whether for reasons of conviction or reasons of political expediency, big government is alive and well in Australia; where the Labor and Liberal parties differ is how they spend the money.

There has been quite a bit of talk in the media regarding whether this has been a “boring” campaign. Like Tim Dunlop, I’m a bit sceptical about this point. This has been a disappointing campaign on a number of levels, but election campaigns are not, strangely enough, meant to entertain us. This is not a reality TV show we are talking about. Democracy is not necessarily meant to be an exciting thrill ride from start to finish; in fact, quite the opposite. Election campaigns frame the orderly decision that every elector in Australia has to make when they cast their ballot, a decision that will decide who will run the country for the next three years. Despite all the flotsam and jetsam that’s cast around by political parties of all stripes during campaigns, the collective decision that Australians make is actually rather important.

If the government changes, the country changes. In my view, it changed for the worse during the Howard years. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, and there were things I would have preferred were done differently, but it changed for the better during the Rudd years. Whether or not the still hypothetical Gillard years really do “move us forward” remains to be seen, but what is certainly clear is that any hypothetical Abbott years would certainly move us backward, or in the very least, halt any further progress for three years. That would be a shame.

The Gillard faceless men putsch

A month ago, I couldn’t see it happening. There has been quite a bit of speculation around the traps in recent weeks about the leadership of Federal Labor, but I’m not sure that too many people took it completely seriously. Then suddenly, in a matter of hours yesterday evening, it all happened. Senior factional figures within the party evidently put forward a case to Gillard for standing against Rudd that she could not refuse. It would be very interesting to know exactly what precisely compelled her to act, to turn on a dime under pressure after months and years of proffering resolute support for her leader. She has been pushed off the proverbial cliff on this, and I think we all deserve to understand why.

Federal Labor has just shot itself in the foot in a dramatic way; one recalls the damage ultimately done to the party by the Latham challenge. I’m not sure what sort of risk assessment was conducted by the folks pulling the strings here. If Rudd somehow clings to power, against all odds, he will be critically diminished. The Opposition will be able to pick at the bones of Rudd’s credibility all the way up until the impending election. If Gillard wins, she will have a lot of explaining to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. An election may be called within days so that Gillard can establish a mandate from the people, nullifying the Opposition’s likely line of attack. What is she going to do differently – what is she offering that is really any different? If she is going to do a number of things differently to Rudd in a policy sense, how can the people trust what Federal Labor say anymore, given that just days and weeks ago she was talking up her leader’s credentials and direction? We have no idea about what Gillard’s personal views are on the RSPT, climate change, or any number of other issues. Presumably, at least in part, her personal views may be deemed irrelevant. The so-called faceless men may well decide what her views will be.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Julia Gillard will make a great Prime Minister – one day. But that day is not today, and I still don’t think this is the right time or the right path, for her, or her party. If the putsch succeeds, it will have been a rise to the top characterised by cowardice and panic, driven by people who care more about polls and the state of the spin cycle than just about anything else. Of course the alternative, now that the putsch has been rammed maniacally into motion, may be even worse.

Happy unbirthday, Tony Abbott!

Unpowered, unsupported computers for schools?

One of the most publicly prominent foundation stones of Federal Labor’s “education revolution” policy program was the so-called National Secondary School Computer Fund. Under this policy, announced during the November 2007 election campaign, a Rudd Labor Government would theoretically provide access to a dedicated computer for every Australian student in Years 9 – 12. Secondary schools across the country would be able to apply for capital grants of up to $1 million each from the government for funding either the upgrade of existing computers or purchase of new computers for this purpose. Although the actual educational benefits of this policy are a little on the nebulous side, the summary policy principles were sound, and one would have to assume that it was a potentially vote-turning policy for the then Rudd Opposition going into election day.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of this policy program that leaves something to be desired from the perspective of no doubt many schools and of course the state and territory governments; namely, the funding of second-order costs for all this new kit. Who pays to install, configure and maintain all these new computers that the Rudd Government wants to parachute into schools? Who pays the increased electricity bills that will no doubt result from all this new energy consumption? How will all the computers be housed, bearing in mind that many secondary schools across the nation suffer from a lack of teaching space as it is, let alone if they have potentially over a hundred new computers to support? The NSW Government, struggling as it is at the moment with a range of financial and political issues, has just in the last week announced itself as the first to withdraw its support for the program. It remains to be seen whether the Rees Government’s rebellion will lead to something of a domino effect amongst the other state and territory governments, but clearly Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard and the Prime Minister need to have a good hard think about how the potential fallout from a collapse in support for the program should be managed.

As I am sure any senior manager in a decent-sized government department or business can tell you, hardware procurement is usually one of the less risky and more manageable components of an organisation’s information technology services. Where costs tend to blow out on IT projects is when mid to long-term factors like the costs of providing ongoing support and maintenance are not factored into the equation. The phrase “a computer for every school kid” seems like a simple enough proposition and appears from the very outset to be quite an attractive one, but one does have to wonder whether the mid to long-term costs of this proposition were adequately investigated by the Rudd Opposition before it embarked on this policy.

Is it fair and reasonable to expect that the state and territory governments have to cough up the money to install, support and maintain all the new hardware that the federal government has dumped on them?

One can use the keyboard, the other can use the mouse, and then they can swap

Farrah Tomazin reported in The Age last week that the Rudd Government appears to be getting just a bit cheeky with another one of its election promises, this time in relation to the provision of individual computers to all high school students in Years 9-12. Education Minister and Deputy PM Julia Gillard seemed to be engaging in a spot of pragmatic goal-shifting when announcing the funding in Essendon a few days ago:

“In the first few rounds of this program, we are taking schools to a ratio of one to two,” Ms Gillard said as she announced the long-awaited funding at Essendon East Keilor District College yesterday.

“Schools that have participated in this round will be able to apply in other rounds for further resources, but we wanted, in the initial stages, to make sure that students around the country benefited from a ratio of one to two.”

Tomazin does not shirk from interpreting these comments as effectively a broken election promise in her story. However, even without considering the financial aspect, for plain and simple operational reasons it makes sense to roll out the promised computers incrementally. Allocating 100% of the computers required for a small subset of schools in this first phase of the funding allocation (the current allocation has a five year budget) would mean that some schools may miss out on funding altogether until the final phase of the process. It would also immediately burden schools (particularly those with limited existing infrastructure and resources) with a small cache of computers with considerable maintenance, power and access requirements, requirements that need to be met as soon as possible in order for full value to be derived from the venture.

In short, I don’t think this announcement from Gillard reflects a true shift in either rhetoric or intentions. What I think is far more likely is that the financial and operational considerations associated with introducing over $1 billion in computing equipment to schools across Australia have forced the government to be pragmatic about how it delivers. Until the delivery has been fully completed, the jury should remain out on the question of whether this particular election promise has been met. I don’t think Tomazin is being fair in jumping the gun here, and nor do I think there is much to be gained for the Opposition from the current situation with this policy.

Excellent, if belated news on the schools funding front

I have fairly strongly and with some frustration criticised Federal Labor on a number of occasions recently in relation to the weak position on schools funding they took to the election last year. Possibly with a view towards minimising potential electoral pitfalls leading up to the poll, a decision was taken by the then Federal Opposition to simply adopt the Howard Government schools funding model until at least 2012. This stance certainly did a good job of eliminating schools funding policy as a potential electoral saviour for the Coalition, but it also served to entrench an inaccurate and arguably unfair funding model for four more years, longer even than the first term of the Rudd Labor Government.

Despite the delay, which admittedly does ensure that the current quadrennial funding arrangements are not abruptly disrupted, I nevertheless applaud the announcement of a schools funding review made by Julia Gillard in a recent speech delivered at the AGM of the Association Of Independent Schools NSW; as Jewel Topsfield and Farrah Tomazin report for The Age:

Education Minister Julia Gillard has blasted the existing system as complex and confusing, and declared that a complete review of schools funding would be finished by 2011.

In keeping with Labor’s pre-election promise to retain the existing funding model until 2012, changes would not be introduced until 2013. But Ms Gillard has made it clear she wants radical change across private and public schools funding.

I find it very interesting that this review of schools funding is painted primarily in such a negative light; the main story that Topsfield and Tomazin appear to pull from the speech is that “hundreds of private schools could be at risk of losing some federal funding”. This seems like wild speculation at this exceedingly early stage, and particularly so given that there will be no change to the current funding arrangements until 2013. Of course, the possibility that hundreds of private and public schools could have their funding increased as a result of an overhaul of schools funding is not canvassed, although that is probably just as likely an outcome.

It just goes to show that the private school that stands to potentially lose funding (or even – has its funding “reviewed”) is today apparently one of Australia’s most revered and protected sacred cows. It would seem that some people out there are decidedly short of context when it comes to budgeting and where the majority of problems requiring funding solutions reside in Australian schooling.

Is extending a bad model really the way forward?

Regular readers will know of my extreme consternation when the Rudd Opposition declared that it would retain the Howard Government’s SES schools funding formula for non-government schools until at least 2012. There are quite simply reams of criticisms that can legitimately made of how the formula is applied and the way the system currently works, many of which have been quite poignantly made by Federal Labor over the years, while in Opposition. The current model does not allow for funding to drop, even if the SES “ranking” of a particular school changes from year to year. The current model is based on the socio-economic status of the census district of families who send their kids to a given school, rather than the actual socio-economic status of the families. It does not take into full consideration the facilities or assets a particular school has as its disposal. Quite simply, the SES funding model is inaccurate and needs a overhaul if the government is truly serious about funding non-government schools in an equitable and transparent way.

Given my feelings about the inherently flawed SES model, I must say I am feeling a bit perturbed that the Rudd Government is now looking to extend the model to also cover public schools, as Paul Kelly reports:

In an interview with The Weekend Australian, Ms Gillard said it was a “great frustration” that she was able to determine the socio-economic status of private schools but not public ones.

As a policy-maker, I cannot look across the nation now and identify within the public and private systems those schools teaching children from households most likely to face educational disadvantage,” she said.

I do continue to believe that needs-based funding for all schools in Australia is the right path forward for the country, and I can understand the need to have some common metric for comparing schools across the government/non-government divide. I am also quietly wondering whether this may be the means that Federal Labor is going to use to reinvigorate the federal funding of government schools, given that it is to be expected that on average, government schools should score better on the SES model than non-government schools, especially those located in affluent areas. However, we are still using a flawed model. Measuring all schools against a common metric does take the country a couple of steps forward, but the fact that the common model that would be applied is flawed and inaccurate takes us one step backwards again.

I therefore strongly urge the government to reform the SES funding formula as part of any initiative to introduce government schools into the scheme. Julia Gillard should not have to look too far for suggestions on this issue. Treasurer Wayne Swan told us all about the problems with the SES model back in 2005 in his carefully compiled book Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation. Despite their election commitment to the mediocrity of the current funding model for non-government schools, it would be disingenuous of Federal Labor to simply ignore their own quite correct criticisms of the model now that they are in government. If there was just one election commitment that I wished the Rudd Government would break before 2012, it would be this one (well, okay, and this one).

ELSEWHERE: You can feel the pain of raging lefty Steve Cannane as he interviews Julia Gillard here, back in January of this year. He asks good if very much loaded questions, and to Gillard’s political credit, she fends them off quite ably.