The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

by Rishabh Bhandari

Jim McMorrow, the former deputy director of New South Wale’s (the largest state in Australia) education portfolio and a current academic, has recently released a report detailing that under the status quo, the public school system in Australia will be facing a $673 million deficit by 2015-16 while the private school system in Australia will be flush with a $1.3 billion surplus. Beyond the logistical problems this will create for the next generation of educators and students, in Australia this revelation has been interpreted as another symptom of the growing gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’  The report detailed how private schools (which are often affiliated with a given religion and attract only wealthy Australians capable of paying exorbitant tuition prices) will have received $47 billion from 2007, when the Labor government took over, until 2013 in government funding while public schools, in comparison, will receive only $35 billion despite teaching two-thirds of the nation’s students and generally the poorest two-thirds at that.

The oddity of this factoid is compounded by Labor’s identity as the party for the Australian working-classes, trade unions, and minorities. The biography of Labor’s leader and Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, well represents the image of the Labor coalition: an immigrant born outside Australia to poor nurses, Julia joined Socialist political groups while at law school before working in industrial law on behalf of many unions among other clients. She also was a leader of Australia’s EMILY’s LIST – a pro-choice and affirmative-action network similar to PAC in America – before becoming the MP for Lalor, a working class region of Melbourne that has remained a safe Labor seat for the past three decades.

If any party should have perpetuated such a baffling and illogical distribution of education funds, it should have been the Liberal Party. Misleadingly named, the Liberal Party has been the conservative party of Australia, with its strongest support coming from metropolitan residential suburbs and districts with high levels of income. Like the Republican coalition in America, both rural voters and more recently blue-collar workers with staunchly conservative social views have bolstered Labor’s constituency. As such, many of the party’s loyal supporters and leaders (including its leader Tony Abbott) have been educated in often-religious private schools.

Flags made for a protest to cuts in a local state education budget (Flickr Creative Commons)

Yet as news broke of McMorrow’s report, it is interesting to note how remarkably similar the two parties’ education platforms were in the 2010 elections. Just below, I’ve given point-by-point comparison of the two parties’ education policies:

 Australian Labor Party:

–          Doubling the federal funding for Australian public schools broken down into the following main programs:

  • $14.7 billion program to enhance public school infrastructure (All figures from here on are in Australian Dollars)
  • $1.5 billion to specifically improve disadvantaged school communities such as those within the indigenous population
  • $2 billion to ensure a two computer to one student ratio for high schools + fiber-optic connections for all schools.

–          A national curriculum designed by bureaucrats and appointed national professors rather than localized curriculums designed by regional agents.

–          $222 million to expand and maintain the Australian National School Chaplaincy Program (essentially paying for chaplains to come and provide religious and general guidance in school communities).

 Liberal Party of Australia:

–          Match the same funding increase proposed by Labor EXCEPT:

  •  These funds will not be dispensed by the federal government but rather by state and local governments
  • There will not be a $1.5 billion fund for disadvantaged and indigenous communities as under a Liberal government there will not be a withdrawal of govt. funding for private schools
  • Rather than a $2 billion fund for all schools, Liberals will implement a $120 million fund, where schools have to apply for grants to develop new programs.

–          Allowing local school boards and communities to construct their own curriculums (effectively retaining the current system whereby private school associations maintain their higher standards)

–          $165 million to maintain the Australian National School Chaplaincy Program

 In America, voters grumble about political polarization. The Republican and Democratic parties offer starkly contrasting visions of governance and policy. In Australia, however, voters feel that the two parties have ideologically converged; it would have been inconceivable 20 years ago to imagine that the Labor Party (essentially the equivalent of the Democrats in Australia) would be arguing for a more comprehensive and expensive Chaplaincy Program than the Liberal Party (which is the party of the Christian conservatives among other groups). Ideological convergence has meant an energetic Australian federal government which has implemented a number of major initiatives in the recent years. Stimulus bills, a super-tax on mining companies, and climate-change reform have all been passed in just the 2 years since Labor won in 2010. Such lack of gridlock arguably saved Australia from a global recession which snared nearly every other developed nation. Yet when the system does break, as it appears to do so now with education, Australian voters often wish there is a similar creativity in its political parties as in America, where the ideological spectrum is far broader.  To a jaded American this may come as a surprise, but at this moment many Australian voters look across the Pacific with envy.

Rishabh Bhandari ’16 is a blogger on Australian politics and society.  Contact him at