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Nowhere man faces the storm

23 October 2010 No Comment

Peter Garrett’s new job is a reflection of the government’s precarious position, not his abilities

THE release of the Australian National Audit Office report into the home insulation scheme last week revealed departmental bungling and flawed governance and the minister responsible, Peter Garrett, should have done the honourable thing and fallen on his sword.

Meanwhile the Labor government seems unrepentant and has suggested this disaster was not its fault but the fault of the Department of the Environment. But with insufficient resources and inadequate measures in place to deal with such a program, the department was ordered by the government to roll it out at a frenetic pace. That turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Garrett seems to be suggesting the ANAO report has absolved him of responsibility. But in the Westminster system it is the minister who must ultimately be accountable for departmental administration and the impact of government policy.

There is no question that there has been a dissolving of the concept of ministerial responsibility. Naturally a minister can’t possibly account for every human error in a sprawling federal bureaucracy under his or her administration.

However when an example arises in which monumental failure of government policy occurs and any good intention has been overwhelmed by the destruction of property and worse, fatalities, then surely the proportional response of any government is at least a ministerial scalp.

Unless a minister chooses to resign it is the prime minister who decides if such ministerial action or inaction warrants a private scolding or public humiliation.

Surely becoming a liability to the re-election of your political party is the single greatest political factor influencing a prime ministerial decision about who stays and who gets the knife.

So why did Kevin Rudd strip Garrett of responsibilities but keep him in cabinet, and why has Julia Gillard rewarded Garrett with responsibility for our children’s primary and secondary education?

In February Rudd was strong in the polls, but the government was concerned over the impact of Tony Abbott and a more confident Coalition. Rudd needed to punish Garrett publicly, but removing him would have been the end of Garrett’s political career, with the insulation debacle his epitaph. It would also have looked like an admission by Rudd that his government was culpable for the program failing.

Why Gillard kept Garrett is easier to understand: look no further than the floor of the current House of Representatives. Under the much-touted new paradigm, ministers can sleep easy in the knowledge the prime ministerial power to hire and fire is hamstrung. Gillard cannot afford a by-election in even the safest Labor seat, so Garrett has been given some hefty new responsibilities, as Minister for School Education, Childcare and Youth to keep him inside the tent and in parliament. But this ministerial change has also lead to significant embarrassment.

Despite having school education in his title, the administration of the other great Labor policy blunder — Gillard’s Building the Education Revolution program — has been given to Senator Chris Evans.

This aside, it is usual practice in parliament that when a minister responsible for a certain policy area sits in the Senate, that minister is represented in the House of Representatives, and vice-versa. This allows the opposition to ask questions on any topic whether the minister responsible sits in the Senate or the lower house.

This arrangement usually is grouped by portfolio. Given Evans has overall responsibility for the school hall program, one would expect the Minister for Schools, Garrett, to answer questions on this topic in the House of Representatives.

However on the floor of parliament in the first sitting week, Garrett sidestepped a curly question from Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne on the school hall program, revealing it was Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, who would answer questions on the BER.

Garrett didn’t seem to appreciate the fact he had inadvertently humiliated himself.

Not being allowed even to answer questions on the BER strongly suggests Gillard has little faith in Garrett’s abilities. And given the mess left by Gillard in the schools portfolio, anyone thinking it is going to be easy to manage is profoundly mistaken.

Garrett is already damaged and cannot afford any more blunders, yet major programs such as computers in schools and trades training centres are already not delivering as promised. And another storm is brewing.

Just last week the Prime Minister said the development of a national curriculum is a key plank in her government’s reform agenda. Gillard announced in 2008 that a curriculum would be developed and ready to implement by the beginning of the 2011 school year.

Yet there is little to no possibility the curriculum will be finalised and available for implementation by January.

State governments, education experts and other stakeholders have heaped criticism upon the draft curriculum. If Garrett persists with the draft, the states and non-government sector will refuse to adopt it. If he decides an overhaul is needed, that will push the rollout back. Either way Gillard will not deliver the curriculum as promised and Garrett will take most of the heat.

The various stakeholders within the education portfolio are vocal and belligerent. The Australian Education Union threatened to boycott national testing because of objections to the MySchools website.

The non-government sector exercises much influence, even bringing Gillard to heel during the recent election campaign over the timing of the school funding.

The postponement of any changes to the existing school funding model until 2013 means Garrett may avoid fighting that battle before the next election, but what is unavoidable is dealing with the extremely contentious and controversial funding review process under way.

In this process, Garrett also has to contend with the indefatigable Pyne as his opposite number.

Pyne caused Gillard no end of grief over the BER, turning what should have been a tremendous gift for re-election into an overall negative and embarrassment. Having served as shadow minister for education since 2008, he knows all the players and pitfalls in the portfolio and will be able to cast a forensic and ruthless gaze over Garrett’s performance.

All of these difficulties and Garrett’s past failings have powerful figures in the sector and the government thinking Gillard might be planning to run the schools portfolio from her office.

This would be the worst of all possible outcomes for Garrett, as it would mean the PM had again made him a ministerial benchwarmer, with any opportunity to restore his credibility gone forever.

That would really have the once hugely popular rock star, now failed parliamentarian and minister, burning the midnight oil, with no way left but out.

The Weekend Australian

October 23 -24, 2010

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