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Published 15 December 2012 00:31, Updated 15 December 2012 02:49
Illustration Ward O’Neill
So it ends, a political year that most ordinary voters will be happy to forget as soon as they can.
It is fitting that, as most of those involved in politics begin to wind down for the long holiday season, any temptation by the nation’s political leaders to look back with satisfaction should be dampened by shocking news about the failing Australian education system.
It was an ugly sight, the collision of the unpalatable reality about the most important issue for the nation’s future and the great Australian complacency.
There could not be a more stark example of the curse which refuses to let go of Australia’s image of itself – a tendency to live in a bubble of delusion about what a great country this is and how lucky we are to live in it.
It’s a curse that grows ever more dangerous because of the potential costs of failing to recognise how rapidly the rest of the world is changing and how the challenge of keeping up is becoming ever more demanding.
It is little short of a scandal that Australia’s primary-age schoolchildren have been relegated to the bottom of the ranks of developed countries. But where is the sense of outrage in the community?
The popular media this past week gave the story only scant attention, in contrast to the endless screaming, angry headlines and exaggeration which characterises much of the coverage of asylum seeker boat arrivals – an issue of relatively miniscule significance for the nation’s future.
In federal politics, no one stood up to declare a national emergency for the future of our children.
Instead, the issue that consumed Canberra was the grubby little Peter Slipper affair.
As the political cycle moves into a federal election year, politics is dominated by the bitter personal politics between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. The leaders hardly ever engage in serious debate on issues of real substance.
In the past few days, cabinet records for the period 1984-85 have been opened, on an embargoed basis, to the media. The details of these will be published when the embargo is lifted on New Year’s Day.
But without breaking the embargo, what the records of that period starkly reveal is the contrast between today’s low-rent politics and the big picture that framed the challenges facing Australia in the early days of the Hawke-Keating reform era, and the sense of passion and urgency that pervaded federal politics then.
Today, the economic policy debate has narrowed to an almost pointless battle over relatively minor differences over the balance of fiscal policy.
More important issues, such as a concerted national plan to raise competitiveness and productivity, won’t be debated in more than a surface-skimming way. Appeals by business to politicians to put regulation of the workplace at the top of the economic policy agenda will be ignored.
Despite growing evidence to the contrary, the government will continue to insist that “we have it about right” with the Fair Work Act and the Coalition will run away from the spectre of WorkChoices and avoid any serious debate.
Without addressing this issue, the Coalition will not have a coherent, alternative economic strategy. But as long as it is confident that it can win the election on Labor’s weaknesses, it is not likely to produce one.
The worrying thing about an Abbott-led alternative government is that this small-target thinking may not just be a strategy for winning the next election; low-level ambition may characterise an Abbott government.
But the last thing Australia needs is a return to the days of relaxed and comfortable conservatism.
The clanging alarm bells sounded by this week’s news on the way the country is failing its children shows what a terrible mistake that would be. But those bells also draw urgent attention to the inadequacies of the current government.
They are a wake-up call for a Prime Minister who says that her passion for education policy is the motivation for her political career.
After five years with the levers of government in her hands, Gillard has received the worst report card ever on Australia’s education system.
The PM says she has taken up the challenge and will deliver on the Gonski review of school funding. But with so little time left, Labor can only make a start and risks any reforms being swept away by an Abbott government.
Gillard risks being judged by political history as having failed to make a lasting difference to the issue she says is her passion.
This is the price that she and the nation have paid for the folly of the way in which she seized the Labor leadership and was then cursed with a hung parliament.
She was forced to accept the agenda which she was able to negotiate with those on whom her survival depended.
She was forced to make a carbon tax the issue on which her government was judged, rather than the issue which was most important to her.
A bold reform agenda of the Hawke-Keating kind was not deliverable. For all of Labor’s boasting about a “449-0” success record in getting legislation through Parliament, the Gillard government has always been handicapped by its weakness.
But even if the next election delivers a decisive result, it will not guarantee a bold and decisive government unless the community demands it.
If this week’s bad news does not shake the nation out of its complacency, maybe nothing will.