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Back to school, Julia

7 April 2009 1,008 views No Comment

A PROVEN method of getting a message across is to repeat it. Whether it’s computers in schools, higher education funding or Labor’s stimulus package, virtually every media release from Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne concludes: “Australia deserves better than a part-time education minister.”

Julia Gillard has a collection of roles of which any retiring politician would be proud. The difference with Gillard is that she is doing them all at once.

As Deputy PM, Gillard is the second most senior member of the Government, taking on the role of acting PM when Kevin Rudd is overseas, more than 70 days so far. In addition, Gillard is the Minister for Education, Employment, Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion. And her portfolio areas have been busy.

So far, the press gallery has been captured by Gillard’s withering parliamentary and media performances. Indeed, her oratory and humour are a standout. However, less attention has been paid to sloppy mistakes made, particularly in education.

The public has been bombarded with rhetoric about an education revolution, a “digital education revolution” and “building the education revolution”. What next? Low-fat food in tuckshops could be “eating the education revolution”. Toilet refurbishments could be “flushing the education revolution”. But as yet, not a cent has been set aside for a “higher education revolution”.

Nonsensical branding is one thing, but the delivery of Gillard’s supposedly “revolutionary” educational packages has been far from smooth. This indicates a failure in her capacity to match action to her lofty rhetoric. Computers from round one of the Computers in Schools program are finally arriving more than a year after schools put in applications, but many schools have no money to remove the computers from their boxes because they have received no funding for infrastructure, which is more expensive than the computers.

Round two of the Computers in Boxes program was rejected outright by NSW, while other state governments confessed they were swapping existing computers for new ones, to save money.

After months of arguing that there was no problem, in November Gillard realised that the program would fail without a massive injection of funding, so a program costed at $1billion will now cost $2billion.

The promised “trades training centres in all 3650 Australian secondary schools” was also not properly costed, resulting in schools forming “clusters” of up to 10 to obtain sufficient funds to build a single centre to train students. Rather than a centre in every school, some students have to travel dozens of kilometres to access trade training programs.

Soon after the election, Gillard commissioned a comprehensive report on higher education. The Higher Education Review, chaired by Denise Bradley, reported at the beginning of December, around the time of the first stimulus package. Unfortunately, by the time of the second stimulus package, the Government still wasn’t ready to respond to the review, so higher education has missed out. Of the $6.5 billion Bradley sought, not one dollar of spending has been announced.

The second stimulus package benefited those primary schools looking for a new school hall or gymnasium to “build the education revolution”. While the sheer scale of the money being outlaid is inspiring, the minister is far too busy to ensure the rollout is going smoothly.

Stories point to shoddy work. Schools aren’t allowed to get new air-conditioners because the environment has been put ahead of child comfort; multi-campus schools are missing out on money they used to be entitled to when they were treated as separate entities. Some schools are being ripped off as they are forced to use state government-approved contractors rather than local labour, while other schools complain that they can’t afford new technology like smart-boards. Rather than putting money directly in the hands of the schools and governing councils, money is being diverted through state governments, which are creaming off administration charges.

If this were the final years of the Howard government, such mismanagement would have been lambasted in the press, and the minister would be on the ropes nervously awaiting the next reshuffle. Instead, partly because of her powerful media performances, Gillard continues on; the problems causing no more than a scratch.

Yet the unrelenting complaint that the Deputy PM has too much on her plate is beginning to resonate. As the cracks deepen in the education portfolio, and she considers her next move, Gillard might also ponder whether, in 2009, Australia deserves a full-time education minister?

The Australian April 07, 2009

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