When Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the Prime Ministership I warned that he would be worse than Tony Abbott. I never intended this to be hyperbole, I was speaking literally and today I feel sadly vindicated. After over six months of disappointment and appeasing the socially conservative wing of the Liberals, Turnbull has shown his true colours as a leader of the fiscally conservative wing. And by fiscally conservative, I mean fiscally extreme. Despite his apparently reasonable demeanour that fooled the Q&A crowd for too long, Turnbull has always been an out of touch, big business guy and despite a youthful ambition to lead the Australian Workers Union he is a venture capitalist to his core. What has only become abundantly clear in the last few days though, as Turnbull and Morrison lay the ground work for a budget worse than Abbott’s first one, is the extent that he is a small government US style Tea Party type.
Yesterday, Turnbull outlined his proposal to lower federal income tax rates and allow state governments to levy their own income taxes so that they can pay for the shortfall in services. Today, in what one can only hope is an early April fool’s joke, he floated his preference for the federal government to stop funding public schools entirely. He argued that this wouldn’t reduce overall spending for public schools since the states would be able to levy their own income taxes to pay for them. So if overall total tax intake and total spending on schools remains the same, what is the big deal and why bother? Why bother, indeed. The whole point of this exercise is to reduce the size of the federal government. It’s not about reducing the size of the federal deficit (lowering federal taxes at the same rate as cutting federal spending will ensure that doesn’t happen) – this is about ideology.
Tea Party American politicians like Sarah Palin often talk about abolishing the Department of Education and other federal programs. Ted Cruz led the right of the Republican Party in forcing a government shutdown in order to reduce US federal government spending on healthcare. They don’t care about outcomes – Cruz certainly didn’t seem to mind that his temporary government shutdown wiped off about 55 billion dollars from the US economy without ever having a hope in hell of achieving its aim of appealing Obamacare. They just want a “limited government”. They want, as Ayn Rand famously put it, Atlas to shrug.
And so it is with Malcolm Turnbull. He doesn’t care that ultimately some states will decide they too would rather keep taxes low and not pick up the bill for public schools. He doesn’t care that some smaller states like Tasmania and South Australia, even with the ability to levy their own income taxes, won’t ever have the money to adequately replace the lost funding. He doesn’t care that there will potentially be eight different funding levels across the eight states and territories, making the lottery of geographical birth an even more important factor in determining opportunity than it already is in this country. Turnbull’s response to these issues when they were brought to his attention today was to shrug (like Atlas) and reply “that’s federalism”. In his version of federalism, the federal government does less and states do more (if they can and want). It sounds foreign to hear an Australian politician talk about states’ rights. It’s such a fringe American right wing obsession. And it shatters the bipartisan Australian consensus that has been in place since Whitlam. I guess Tony Abbott wasn’t the only PM who wanted us to return to the fifties.
What might be lost in all this talk about federal-state relations is the fact that today Turnbull confirmed the death of the Gonski reforms. Perhaps no one’s surprised because no one believed Tony Abbott’s pledge to implement them. Yet they are worth mourning. The federal government was to significantly increase its funding for schools on a need basis. It was locked in, written into government agreements. But Turnbull won’t be honouring them. Individual students who required more support (such as disabled students, indigenous students, those from low SES backgrounds) would have attracted more funding. With Australia lagging in international education rankings, this funding would have not only been life changing for many disadvantaged young people, it would have seen the boost in investment and innovation that the PM claims he wants. I mourn the student with a learning difficulty who will no longer have a teacher’s aide in their classroom to assist them. I mourn the poor student who will go hungry because there will no longer be a school breakfast program to feed them when their parents can’t. Of course what makes Turnbull’s new federalism all the more offensive is that he said today that he can’t see the federal government reducing its spending on private schools. Don’t get me started on that one. What a joke. I wish it was April fool’s day already.