An Educator’s Explainer for the 2016 Election

Like Term 2, this election campaign has been a long one. Historically long at that, clocking in at eight weeks as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sought to frame the stakes of the Double Dissolution Election around the role of unions in Australian workplaces.

Whilst my attention has been divided between the election and the school, with the arrival of some much needed holidays has come the chance to fully embrace my inner political tragic. Politics has long been a passion of mine (often to the detriment of my standing amongst my friends) ever since I marvelled at the inner workings of Australian democracy on a Grade 6 Camp to Canberra. In fact, I was a fan boy of ABC Elections Analyst Antony Green’s before it was cool.

Since then I’ve regularly engaged in both State and Federal elections and as a teacher, have sought to engage my students in civics and citizenship. Over my two years as a teacher in Portland (in South West Victoria), I collaborated with staff and students to invite members of Parliament to my school and run mock elections with my Year 7 students.

The election campaign has been a robust battle between Prime Minister Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Many commentators have noted that despite the challenges of toppling a first term government, Shorten and Labor have made this a genuinely tight election, with most opinion polls in recent weeks predicting a tight result both nationally and in key marginal seats across the country.

Meanwhile, the Greens have continued their surge in inner-city electorates, targeting well established Labor and Liberal MPs and Nick Xenophon leads a cadre of independents and minor parties as they seek to take control of the balance of power in the Senate once again. With new voting rules in the Senate at this election and with reduced quotas to be elected to the Upper House, Xenophon and the Greens are potentially pivotal players in the next term of parliament.

Turnbull_Senate

A Dank Meme for all you #auspol geeks out there.

DOES ANYONE CARE?

Amidst the seemingly endless debate about preferences, policy costings and the spectre of past leadership spills, it’s been hard to ascertain whether there’ve been any genuine policy debates. Whilst Prime Minister Turnbull and Opposition Leader Shorten have debated three times (including a highly agile debate streamed on Facebook Live), engagement in the election has been perfunctory at best. A recent Essential poll shows that 30% of voters believe that the election result will have limited impact on Australia.

Perhaps the stakes of the Australian result stand in stark contrast to the heated battle for the Presidency between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and the ongoing shockwaves of the Brexit vote last week.

WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

While education issues will be of primary importance for people reading this blog post, it seems we are in the minority relative to the Australian electorate.

It’s hard enough to find education issues in the questions asked by the likes of Newspoll, as they are seemingly secondary to issues such as the state of the Australian economy, housing affordability and the future of Medicare.

Consequently, education policy has not been a centrepiece of either of the major parties’ campaigns.

That said, it has been a policy regularly discussed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who has suggested that investments in education at all ages is a guaranteed way to promote long-term economic growth.

To clarify, the following policy comparisons will focus on school education as opposed to the debates over higher education.

LABOR’S POLICY – YOUR CHILD, OUR FUTURE

Long considered an issue of strength for the Labor Party, as reflected in their policy emphasis, expert opinion and a range of opinion polling over many years, Bill Shorten’s education policy – Your Child, Our Future – has sought to capitalise on the past popularity of the Gonski needs-based funding model as advocated for by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Bill Shorten has promised to reverse the cuts in education funding made by Tony Abbott in the 2014 Federal Budget and fund Gonski in full, at a cost of $4.5 billion above and beyond the Coalition’s policy.

Their total package of education-related measures will cost $37 billion over the coming decade and includes “a focus on more individual attention for students, better training for teachers, and more funding for students with disabilities,” according to the ABC. The policy notes clearly that this funding is not intended to be a “blank cheque” for schools and that it will be tied to an array of accountability measures to improve performance, such as nationally standardised benchmarks. This is designed to ensure that states “uphold their obligations … and ensure that federal investment delivers evidence-based programs in classrooms, and is not used to prop up state budgets.”

Notable targets in Labor’s policy include 95% Year 12 completion by 2020 with an explicit focus on STEM education. Labor proposes to achieve this through ensuring all secondary school STEM teachers are appropriately qualified and all students study a maths or science subject up to and including Year 12.

Coupled with an emphasis on teaching coding and digital competencies to students, Labor aspires to an improvement in Australia’s rankings according to educational measures compiled by the OECD, which as have been previously discussed on this blog, are not up to scratch.

Represented by Shadow Education Minister Kate Ellis, Labor are potentially onto a winning theme with their education policies. As indicated by a ReachTEL poll in March, just over half (53.0%) of voters in South Australia and half (49.2%) of Queenslanders would prefer to see government revenue spent on health and education services and infrastructure spending.

Click here to see Labor’s policy document.

These guys ask tougher questions than the Press Gallery!

These guys ask tougher questions than the Press Gallery!

 

LIBERAL’S POLICY – PUTTING STUDENTS FIRST

Under the new leadership of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and new Education Minister Simon Birmingham, the Coalition Government have sought to mitigate the consternation and criticism directed towards former Prime Minister Tony Abbott over the reversal of his pledge to run a “unity ticket” with Labor on education funding.

According to the Coalition’s policy documents – Putting Students First – the Turnbull Government is investing “record levels” into schools with Commonwealth funding reaching $73.6 billion over the next four years, an increase of 26%. Central to this is a commitment to fund the first four years of Gonski with an additional $1.2 billion for schools from 2018 to 2020.

Notably, this extra funding will be tied to “programs to improve student performance and results,” according to the ABC. This focus on greater accountability in school performance is similarly reflected in a pledge to provide parents with greater information about their child’s academic performance, with annual reports comparing the students’ results relative to the national standards.

In Year 12 this will be accompanied with a minimum standard set for literacy and numeracy skills. A further component of the Coalition’s policy is to ensure better teaching quality. This will be achieved through the introduction of a new national literacy and numeracy test to ensure “all new teachers are in the top 30% for literacy and numeracy in Australia.”

With the aforementioned polling showing a historical preference for Labor’s education policies, it has been interesting to see the Government take a proactive approach to discussing education under the policy umbrella of their widely discussed National Innovation and Science Agenda, known to many as the #IdeasBoom.

Testament to this is the ongoing presence of former Education Minister Christopher Pyne in the Cabinet as the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science alongside his colleague and fellow South Australian, Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Click here to see the Liberals’ policy document.

The Prime Minister going hard for the toddler demographic.

The Prime Minister going hard for the bellwether toddler demographic.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS?

To briefly encapsulate the education policies of the other prominent political parties:

  • The Greens state that, “A strong public education system is key to investing in the next generation and building a fair, successful and cohesive society.” They’ve emphasised a need to rebalance funding from private to public schools and greater support for VET and TAFE providers.
  • The Nick Xenophon Team believes that their policies will, “support transforming schooling to drive a new era of development and growth across the full range of expectations for 21st Century learning.” They’ve focused on the full funding of Gonski in placing a greater emphasis on trade, work-ready and entrepreneurial courses from years 10+.
Another Hung Parliament please?

Another Hung Parliament please?

SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Debates over education policy in Australia often narrowly revolve around funding. Whilst this election campaign hasn’t suggested otherwise, the detail in the major parties’ policies suggests that we’re slowly but surely moving towards broader debates about the role of education in Australian society and the ways that can be achieved beyond debate over the allocation of funds.

Despite similarities in both themes and commitments amongst the major parties, there are still significant divides in the Australian community when it comes to education policy. According to ABC’s Vote Compass, one of the issues that brought about the most division between voters was the role of schools in discussing issues of the LGBTQ community.

In responding to the question, Transgender awareness should be taught in primary schools” there is an evident divide between inner-city electorates in Victoria and New South Wales and remote electorates of Far North Queensland of over 40%. In contrast, there is only a 27% range in agreement to the notion of needs-based funding for students and schools.

Left: the metropolitan electorates strongly support transgender education in schools. Right: Whereas the rural electorates are in stark disagreement.

Left: the metropolitan electorates strongly support transgender education in schools.
Right: Whereas the rural electorates are in stark disagreement.

IT’S TIME TO DECIDE

On 2nd July, nearly 16 million Australians will head to polling booths across the country (often at their local primary or secondary school!), receive an array of How To Vote cards, navigate a tablecloth-sized Senate ballot paper with new rules and most importantly, sample the finest Democracy Sausages the country has to offer.

The real reason we go to vote ...

The real reason we go to vote …

As I venture to the kindergarten where I was educated nearly twenty years ago to cast my vote, I’ll reflect on the role education has had in my life. Moreover, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the modern marvel that is Australian democracy.

With the benefit of compulsory voting, Australia has one of the most stable and robust democracies on the face of the Earth. But it only preserves this status through an engaged citizenry; one that asks tough questions of its leaders and thinks carefully about the impact of their vote.

To achieve this, we as teachers need to play our role. No matter the result of this election it is our responsibility to engage our students in matters of politics and government and make the case for why they should get involved and vote with interest and enthusiasm.

As political commentator and Gold Logie Winner Waleed Aly said at the start of the campaign, I don’t care who you vote for, just vote, because right now we only have a partial democracy. Let’s get a real one.”

Put another way, democracy is not a spectator sport. Every election is determined by the people who show up.

So brush up on the parties’ policies, thank their How To Vote card volunteers and the AEC workers at your local booth and vote with enthusiasm on Saturday.

As our Prime Minister says, “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.”