Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"Conservatives" seize the education reform initiative

The 19,834th demonstration that Conservatives do NOT oppose change

The Howard Government seeks to transform the politics of education with its campaign to reform school curriculums and achieve more uniform national standards. The initiative by Education Minister Julie Bishop yesterday unveils a bold new agenda replete with risk and opportunity. It invests the Coalition with the initiative in education policy, and is anchored in the deep professional and parental alarm about the values and quality of school curriculums.

Bishop's speech reveals much about the nature of the Government in its fourth term. This initiative involves a willing resort to use central government powers against the states. It constitutes a new cultural assault on the ideological Left and the teacher unions. And it will divide Labor between the choice of popular "back to basics" reforms and its powerful supporters in the educational and teacher union lobbies, who will insist on a showdown with the Howard Government. While the Labor states will protest and threaten resistance, they recognise the need to make some concessions on curriculums. This process is under way.

The critical line in Bishop's speech was her claim that the politics of education was moving from staff and student ratios to a "new frontier" of teacher quality and curriculums. This is a shift from a Labor to a Liberal agenda. A shift in the ideas that dominate education policy in Australia. And it is an ominous warning to Labor that in a policy area long deemed to be Labor's political domain, the Government intends to set the future agenda. The new ideas outlined by Bishop are raising school standards, a greater national curriculum consistency and a new system of accountability for what happens in schools. She invoked the recent declaration in this newspaper by Professor Ken Wiltshire that the states had failed to maintain the quality of school education.

The problem for state governments is their subjugation to education theory that undermines traditional disciplines and politicises curriculums. The states cannot win this argument at the bar of public opinion. Asking 15-year-olds to write about Shakespeare from a Marxist perspective or deconstructing Big Brother won't fly with the public. The litany of examples is exhaustive.

The states may fight Bishop's pledge to "take school curriculum out of the hands of ideologues" by campaigning on state rights. Given his cautious instincts, John Howard will not want a confrontation with the states. But Howard has prepared the ground for this cultural battle. Pivotal to Bishop's reform agenda is her ability to persuade the teachers. Hence her commitment to performance-based pay and compulsory professional development. Her strategy will be to entice individual teachers but penalise the union. It will be a difficult task.


Leftist State government jolted into education reform

The Queensland Government is considering plans to overhaul Years 11 and 12 amid growing debate over national education standards. State Education Minister Rod Welford yesterday welcomed plans by the Queensland Studies Authority to review the senior syllabus. The proposals include introduction of a technical English subject and extension level subjects for advanced students. The QSA also suggests a review of assessment levels in term 3 of Year 12, when students are expected to complete a core skills test, major assignment work and subject tests.

"I think it's a pretty good report and offers us a way forward but there's a lot more work to be done," Mr Welford said. The comments came as Premier Peter Beattie yesterday weighed into the education debate by responding to a Sunday Mail report that a Year 9 student at Windaroo Valley State High School, south of Brisbane, was failed when she refused to write about life in a gay community. Mr Beattie said he did not believe the assignment was appropriate for a 13-year-old.

He said the assignment was not part of the curriculum but one of several topics suggested by the independent Queensland Studies Authority and he called for it to be withdrawn. "I would hope that obviously we educate young Queenslanders to live in a global world, we have to be realistic about what happens in the world," he said. "(But) I don't think it's appropriate for a 13-year-old to be doing an assignment like this and I think the authority should withdraw it."

Mr Beattie also defended the curriculum taught in Queensland schools and said he would not support a national system that could "lower the standards". Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop last week said all Australian students should study a national curriculum, claiming state systems were being run by left-wing ideologues.

But in an apparent softening of the Commonwealth's position, Ms Bishop said yesterday she wanted to work with the states to develop a national curriculum. "I'm not talking about a Commonwealth takeover," she said. Nevertheless, Ms Bishop said the states had to "get their act together". "We are on the money on this issue," she said. "Parents are sick of left-wing ideology curriculum." Ms Bishop also questioned the benefit of union representatives sitting on state curriculum councils.

Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said the key was to work with the states, not threaten them. "Labor wants to see nationally consistent high standards of education in all our schools right around Australia," she said. "What Labor doesn't want is (Prime Minister) John Howard and his Education Minister playing politics with our children's education, threatening the states."


Flatter tax coming?

Labor is considering a radical plan to flatten the personal tax scales by scrapping the top or bottom tax rate. In an exclusive article for The Australian, Labor Treasury spokesman Wayne Swan sets out a long-term ambition to remove at least one of the four marginal tax rates as part of a push to raise the nation's skills level and workforce participation. "I would like to see us aim for a system that has fewer and lower marginal rates and a significant simplification of the system," Mr Swan writes.

Labor's policy goal may increase the temptation for the Government to move first by reforming the personal tax scales ahead of the federal election, due next year. It would cost less than $2 billion a year to scrap the top rate of 45 per cent, based on Labor's research. However, sources say this is an option more likely to appeal to the Government than the Opposition. Less than 2 per cent of taxpayers are on the top rate, which applies on every dollar earned above $150,000 a year.

Abolishing the 15 per cent rate - which mainly covers part-time working mothers on $6001-$25,000 a year - would be significantly more expensive for Labor. But it could be achieved over a number of years, and be sold as a reform to increase incentives for people to move from welfare to work.

Mr Swan's article places a greater priority on tax cuts than increased family payments. "Labor's preference will be to improve incentives through the tax system primarily, but there will be a need for targeted changes to the transfer payment system," Mr Swan writes. "(And) in terms of boosting participation, I believe we need to pay special attention to potential second-income earners, who are principally women. "This would need to involve a further lowering of tax rates at the bottom and new mechanisms to make childcare more affordable, particularly for those returning to the workforce. The system can't be fixed overnight, but it can be achieved through a staged reform process."

The Government, by contrast, has favoured spending. The lion's share of the $42 billion revenue windfall from the China-led boom has been returned to voters as handouts rather than tax cuts. The past three budgets have yielded a combined $16 billion in personal tax cuts in this financial year. But government spending is $18 billion higher. The balance of the windfall had gone to the budget surplus.

In the May budget, Peter Costello reduced the top rate from 47 per cent to 45 per cent after leaving it untouched for 10 years. The Government also raised the income thresholds at which the rate kicks in and lowered the upper-middle rate from 42 per cent to 40 per cent. It had earlier reduced the bottom rate from 17 per cent to 15 per cent.

Labor is expected to wait until after it has seen next year's budget before concluding its tax-policy review. It will not run down the surplus to pay for any tax cuts after the Reserve Bank warned that any easing in fiscal policy would risk further hikes in interest rates. The present tax scales contain four tiers - the lower-income rate of 15 per cent, the average-earner rate of 30 per cent, the upper-middle rate of 40 per cent and the top rate of 45 per cent. Almost two out of three taxpayers (65.3 per cent) are clustered on the 30 per cent rate, which applies on incomes between $25,001 and $75,000 a year. Mr Swan argues that many of these voters have fallen behind in real terms.

Senior Labor figures are prepared to consider tackling the top rate if the Government does not make a move. But sources emphasise that higher-income earners would not be getting a larger handout than those in the middle. Mr Swan wants to focus Labor's tax cuts attention on low- and middle-income earners. Labor has learned two valuable lessons from the 2004 election. It won't repeat former leader Mark Latham's approach of taking money off lower-income families. And it won't repeat former Treasury spokesman Simon Crean's tactic of leaving the costings of Labor's policy until the last moment. Labor sources were aghast when they learned in the final days of the 2004 election campaign that they could have been more generous on tax and family payments.


Aussie lingo facing extinction

Strewth mate! Where have those expressions that made Australian speech so distinct gone, asks Ray Chesterton

My cobber is crook as Rookwood somewhere near the Black Stump and I'm going to get him." "I hate the Mulga but this bloke's blood's worth bottling, even if he's sometimes a sandwich short of a picnic. "It'll cost big bikkies but I'll chuck a sickie and hope no bludger gives me up."

Ah. The resonance of the majestic English language. Its rhythms, its unmistakable cadence, its nuances so easily understood by Australians. What? You didn't grasp what I was saying? You might have passed English at school but obviously you failed Australian.

I said: "A colleague of mine, who I hold in high regard despite his occasional eccentricity, has taken ill in the outback and I'll have to organise his return. "It will cost me a lot of money but I will take sick leave and hope no one vengeful alerts management to my real intentions."

Where have those expressions that made Australian speech so distinct gone? When kids asked what mum was making, it was always a: "Wigwam for a goose's bridle." And: "Eat everything on your plate. There are a million hungry Chinese who would love it." I never saw the correlation between Australian children rejecting broccoli and fulfilling the needs of hungry Chinese but mothers knew best.

Nowadays Australian colloquialisms are going down the same path to extinction as the Tasmanian tiger. No one calls anyone a "mutton-headed galah," as Nino Culotta did in Gone Fishin', " any more. Instead, it's "Hi bro" when teenagers meet instead of "Hello mate". Americanisms are an unimaginative substitution for genuine wit and humour. Why steal from others when we have a rich cultural verbal heritage of our own?

We have Crocodile Dundee saying: "That's not a knife. This is a knife." It's a multifaceted comparison test for all males making comparisons. Not just knives. And Darryl Kerrigan saying, "This is going straight to the pool room" in The Castle.

The last true centre for the protection and extension of notable Australian is the docks. Only there do you meet people with names like The Sheriff ("Come on men. Where's the hold-up?" when production slows). There's also Mirrors, the union rep, (Always says "I'll look into it'). At a time when we're saving water, trees and anything else that walks, flies or swims could we spare some time and effort to save the language. Stone the crows, it would be worth it.


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