24/10/2006 - 22:00

Big stick misses on education

24/10/2006 - 22:00


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Julie Bishop has had a dream run since she arrived in Perth from Adelaide as a junior lawyer, just in time to benefit from the mounting work arising from that costly ongoing political and legalistic imbroglio called WA Inc.

Julie Bishop has had a dream run since she arrived in Perth from Adelaide as a junior lawyer, just in time to benefit from the mounting work arising from that costly ongoing political and legalistic imbroglio called WA Inc.

Her achievements include rising to partner status with the Perth wing of a national law firm, and appointment to a raft of state or federal quango positions provided by senior local Liberals with whom she was closely associated.

Three such posts were membership of a pearl industry quango, Murdoch University senate seat, and even an out-of-town spot, with SBS-Television.

She capped this off with preselection for WA’s bluest federal Liberal seat of Curtin, followed by a spot in John Howard’s ministry overseeing the aged.

Today, some even say she’s a likely Howard successor, so could follow John Curtin as a Western Australian in that job.

That said, perhaps Ms Bishop should take stock of her two WA decades to help ensure she doesn’t stumble as she once did.

Recall 2001, when she was already Curtin MHR, and moves by a state Liberal parliamentary faction to block Colin Barnett’s ambitions to become leader after the resignation of former premier and Nedlands MLA, Richard Court.

Ms Bishop agreed to vacate Curtin to become Nedlands MLA, which, like Curtin, incorporates Perth’s swish western suburbs.

Her planned bail-out from one parliament and parachuting into another was to be followed by immediately becoming WA Liberal leader – thus sidelining Mr Barnett – and hopefully premier in 2005.

But Murphy’s Law struck, with Barnett backers sparking a rumpus that prompted Ms Bishop to cut her losses to beat a hasty retreat.

What next?

Well, after a brief spell, Mr Howard forgave her for teaming up with his designated arch-enemy, former senator Noel Crichton-Browne, to gain Curtin’s preselection, thereby thwarting prime ministerial moves to ensure his mate, Allan Rocher, then an independent, retained Curtin unchallenged as an official Liberal.

Such forgiveness meant the aged portfolio followed soon after by education.

And that’s where we’re at, with Mr Howard launching an ‘ideological/cultural war’ against Australia’s leftist proselytising establishments that dominate some of the media, certain Australian Broadcasting Corporation editorialising programs, a swath of tertiary humanities departments, and, crucially, school curriculum formulation.

It’s necessary to say State Scene broadly sympathises with most strands of those Howard stances.

It’s true too many tertiary humanities departments, especially in history, stress fuzzy black armband political correctness.

It’s also true some in the ABC spruik faddish leftist cant.

And it’s true that outcome-based education (OBE) seems set to dumb-down young Australians.

That said, it’s been surprising to find Ms Bishop now emerging as State Scene’s ally on such issues, since my long-time assessment of her aligns with what one of her colleagues recently stated.

“You wouldn’t call her a conviction politician,” that unnamed colleague said.

“She is accomplished, competent, she presents well, she makes a lot of sense.

“But she has no strong philosophical commitment or passion, which makes it hard to see where the core is.”

Saying that certainly isn’t rejecting her coming aboard. Far from it. She’s welcome. Perhaps she’s always been there unnoticed.

But doubts remain, with the key one being that she, like Mr Howard, sees the remedy to so many facets of Australia’s so-called ‘ideological/cultural war’ as the embedding of ever more power in Canberra.

Both, therefore, have much in common with 1970s arch-centralist Gough Whitlam rather than 1950s and 1960s Robert Menzies.

Moreover, they seem oblivious to the fact that politicians come and quickly go – if not to backbenches then right out of parliament, whereas Canberra bureaucrats, once gaining greater powers, forever retain them.

Canberra transients like Ms Bishop should pin on their office door, so they can read it regularly and often, a sign saying: ‘I’m a Canberra transient – my Canberra bureaucrats are permanent fixtures’.

If just a few Liberal ministers did that, the one-way flow of power from the states to Canberra would finally cease.

It’s perhaps because Ms Bishop hasn’t done this that some of her Liberal backers now see her as Canberra’s, or Howard’s, woman in WA, not vice versa.

Liberal state upper house leader Norman Moore, who, as education minister from 1993 to 1995, thwarted then Canberra education minister Kim Beazley’s blueprint for a single Australia-wide curriculum, is a case in point.

When quizzed on the motives behind Ms Bishop’s bid to revive that early 1990s Beazley moves, he said “greed and power” with Canberra bureaucrats wanting to “run everything”.

Interestingly, even some ardent Laborites have begun highlighting the Howard-led Liberals’ centralist conversion, a predisposition Labor once monopolised.

Labor speech writer, Dennis Glover, echoed Mr Moore’s view in a recent opinion piece in The Australian.

Analysing Mr Howard’s well publicised 50th anniversary Quadrant oration and his prosecution of the ‘anti-leftist ideological/cultural war’, Mr Glover said Howardism meant “belief in centralised power” and that the view across Canberra Liberal ranks was that “the states must wither away”.

Sounding like a pre-Howard Liberal, Mr Glover said “simply replacing one set of cultural commi-ssars with another isn’t the answer”.

One would be hard pressed putting it better, since, at rock bottom, centralism is precisely that, transferring power from state bureaucrats – commissars if you like – to distant Canberra-based ones.

Ms Bishop was recently quoted saying: “I am part of the prime minister’s broad church”.

Unfortunately, however, all those sitting in that church’s ministry are, as Messrs Moore and Glover suggest, obedient centralisers.

Finally, two considerations about Ms Bishop’s push for Canberra to direct school curriculums nationwide.

Firstly, can she guarantee all future national education ministers will be as high-minded as she ostensibly is and ensure that high-standard nationwide monopoly curriculums will forever prevail across Australia?

In other words, can she guarantee a Canberra-controlled curriculum bur-eaucracy won’t emerge to tread a path that’s even less satisfactory than OBE?

If not she should cease proselytising centralism as a palliative, since it would simply be the replacement of “one set of cultural commissars with another”.

Secondly, State Scene remains convinced state-based curriculums are crucial even though we’ve not been well served by them since the mid-1990s.

Here’s one reason why.

Consider the table on this page, recently carried by The Economist, which highlights the educational performance of Albertans in 2003 alongside Finland, Hong Kong and Japan.

Compare Canada’s reading and mathematics ratings – it wasn’t in the top 10 in science – to Alberta’s.

Surely one wouldn’t wish to see Alberta’s students dumbed-down – socialistically levelled – to Canada’s national outcome!

But would that have occurred if centralism prevailed in Canada, if those dominating Canada’s other provincial education systems prevailed nationally?

Alberta resembles WA; a sparsely populated western province with a V-8 resources-based economy.

The Economist said moves to use Alberta’s approach: “have already been launched by school boards in Colorado Springs, Oakland and New York City”.

Furthermore, some New York schools have adopted Singapore’s maths curriculum. Australia only just pipped Macau in science.

Rather than threaten the withdrawal of billions of educational dollars from the states to get her way, Ms Bishop would be wise to urge state education ministers to similarly look far and wide for successful models to emulate and improve upon, instead of signalling the imposition of Canberra bureaucratic control forever.

A competitive federalist approach is far more likely to lead to the emergence of Alberta-like results by WA students than if we had Canberra monopoly control of curriculums.

States rejecting such advice would watch students in progressive outward-looking states streaking ahead academically – like Alberta, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong – so would be shamed into following.

Ongoing competitive federalist improvement would also put, and keep, Australia on top.


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