AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL FOR THE DEFENCE OF GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS - D.O.G.S.
PRESS RELEASE 47#.
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NEW TIMES: NEW DIRECTIONS
OPENING ADDRESS BY DENIS FITZGERALD
AUSTRALIAN EDUCATION UNION
ANNUAL FEDERAL CONFERENCE JANUARY 16-18 2002.
The following are excerpts from this address:
"We have had quite a year since I first stood before you in this present capacity. The word has changed utterly, but for many of us in Australia, it feels as if it has not changed at all. The dull hand of inertia can still pervade this country. Perhaps Dickens got it right, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
When I spoke to you last year the Federal Conference and the Federal Executive set a deliberate course about changing the content of educational debate in this country. We had seen a couple of decades where the voice of private education, and all the regressive things they stood for, dominated the debate, as shrill and avaricious voices can. We set out to change that. We have made a good beginning. The public education movement is now mobilising into place into every part of this nation.
We said at our last Federal Conference that public education, in our schools and TAFE colleges, had to become the number one priority, in policy and funding terms, for all governments in Australia. You might recall the parade of politicians we had before us last year - ALP, Greens, Democrats - moving slowly towards committing to our cause. We can now reflect, not in any vainglorious way, that they subsequently won public support and respect in proportion to the degree that they rallied to our cause.
It is more important however for us to resolve now to continue with the task that we have set ourselves and to remember that it is not only the destination we seek but also the journey we made which matters.
It is right for us as well to see last year as well as the one that consolidated Labor governments in every part of Australia, with WA, the ACT and the Northern Territory added to the list. Only South Australia stands now as an exception.
One of the truly gratifying parts of the journey of the past year is to have been in every part of Australia and to have witnessed the rising level of consciousness amongst our members and supporters about the purposes of public education. It has been good to see our members in shopping centres, in streets, in the letters columns of newspapers, ringing talkback, harassing politicians, seeing the signs on our schools and colleges proclaiming that "The Issue is Public Education". I have been able to attend dozens of conferences of principals and teachers with the theme "Proud to be Public".
In simple community terms, public education made a huge impact. As the Newspoll, Nielson and Morgan polls all indicated, education - and in particular public education - was the number one domestic issue up to and throughout the recent Federal election campaign. And despite what some fevered, latter-day revisionists in some sections of the ALP might suggest, it was only the issue of education which kept them in the hunt and allowed them to gain a two-party preferred vote large enough to allow them to be close enough to win the next election.
One of the significant and positive by-products of the election campaign was the signing by every state and territory Labor leader of the Public Education Alliance document which committed each Labor government at these levels to real and sustained increases in the funding for public education. We now intend to see these commitments delivered in the states and territories.
...This year we have set ourselves the task of examining our "New Times and New Directions".
Yes, our past year was very productive. But we have to go on with it, and sometimes in new and different ways.
We have seen off the *****and ******Dr. Kemp from our patch. ..Perhaps we could merely observe that like the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, nothing became him in the portfolio like the leaving of it. ******
The new chap, Dr. Brendan Nelson, will be an improvement, yet that in itself will not be difficult. I note that on the day after his appointment he promised that under his stewardship "Policy decisions will be made in the best interests of Australians, not sectional interests." This is indeed potentially great news as hitherto the entire education policy of the Federal government has genuflected to the sectional interest of private education. The Prime Minister even issued the infamous proclamation last year that "Government schools are not our responsibility". We call on the new Federal Minister to put in place policies which serve the educational interests of all Australian children and to end the discriminatory and elitist policies of his predecessor. We will strive to develop a constructive working relationship with Dr. Nelson. We have already started.
At the same time we will need to keep a keen eye on developments within the ALP. Over the course of the last year they came to see the electoral, and one would hope the ethical advantages of creating a much stronger policy on public education. They revised their policy and funding commitments significantly, but of course they were starting from a long way back.
We have been delighted with the appointment of Jenny Macklin as Minister responsible for education. Delighted that a figure as senior as the shadow Deputy Prime Minister was given the role and delighted that this was the area that Ms Macklin wanted. We are now well-placed to built on the policy advances made in recent times. Federal Education has never had such a senior figure in charge of the shadow portfolio and never had a politicians so committed to transformation via public policy.
At the same time, some curious emissions have been coming from that side of politics.In response to a belated frenzy of concern about losing the Labor heartlands and the support of working people, some in the ALP have felt it timely to put the boot into trade unions and workers' organisations. This is a bizarre inference to be drawn from a loss of support in working class communities. After brandishing an election platform that was rightly criticized as being in part too right-wing, too indistinct from the Tory parties, some in the ALP are coming over all excitable and suggesting that further shifts to the right are in order. This is clearly a case of not being able to distinguish the cure from the disease.
We can expect even more lavish entertainment, not lease from our old mate, Mark Latham.Now Mr Latham of course chose the week of the release of ALP education policy during the election campaign to proclaim his own educational manifesto which was principally about flogging kids and farming them out. Earlier in the year, he released a book, to some fanfare in the right-wing media, which is perhaps the silliest book on education in recent times. This excitable essay would end the primacy of public education, endorses the SES methodology of the unlamented Kemp, proposes tax breaks, vouchers and learning accounts and generally takes us back to the 1879s before the Public Instruction Acts. If he is allowed anywhere near education policy in this country, there will be a blue.
As if to compound error we read in "Investor Weekly" that the ALP is proceeding to review superannuation arrangements to allow for "Life Long Learning Accounts". This has surfaced from time to time as one of the fancies of various moguls in the industry superannuation world. Your superannuation account could be accessed so you could do a course at your local private or public provider of further education and training and the benign government would put money into your account to co-fund the cost. We say, as would any sane person, "hands off my superannuation." It is for my retirement and not for continual interference by policy makers seeking to avoid the responsibilities of public provision. We give notice to the ALP that any attempt to further undermine public provision by shifting to eccentric individualised funding schemes which raid superannuation entitlements will lead to opposition.
And speaking of historical regression, the miasma that arose from electoral defeat lead to an unearthing of an aspirational class, who are to be the new force in politics apparently, as they review their portfolio of stock and bonds from the comfort of their mock Tudor mansions. This is to be the stuff of Labor politics it seems.
As a history teacher would recognise, there is nothing new in this. It is pure Bob Menzies in design and ideology. Menzies called them his "little people". He developed a theory around "people's capitalism" which talked about stocks and shares and mortgages and petit-bourgeois respectability. it has been the sales pitch for the Liberal Party for decades and John Winston Howard is its apotheosis.
Public education can tell people where the real aspirational class is to be found however.
They are in our classrooms and in the families and communities that public education serves.
They aspire to opportunity that is built from well-resourced public schools and TAFE colleges
They aspire to full employment and real jobs
They spire to a better world for their kids, free from war, racism and sexism.
They aspire to leadership that proclaims the equality of humankind.
Almost without exception the churches took a vow of silence in the period leading up to the election. They sided, by sins of commission and omission, with those political forces which have exacerbated the war, the racism, the sense of vengeance, the inequality and the social division locally and internationally.
The Coalition of churches- Catholic and Protestant - wanted "their" government back in power lest they lose a mite of the massive public funding their schools have arrogated to themselves. Well, they got their government back, but the churches stand bereft of moral authority and drenched in the complicity of the silent. ...This was the time when national leadership that would play to the better angels of our nature was urgently required. Instead then, right then, we got Tampa, racism and the vilification of the different.
What this underscores for all of us as public educators is the absolute necessity of affirming the secular basis of our schooling, our pedagogy and our curriculum. At no time in history have children needed more to be schooled in the secular tradition that frees them from dogmatism; that sets no belief system above another; that regards all people as equal and that offers human reason as the solution to our problems rather than hate, division and superstition.
So where are we headed? The Conference Statement suggests a number of priorities for our work in the future.
We have achieved the goal we set ourselves last year of making public education matter in this country. We must intensify this. We are on the verge of establishing the issue of public education as the principal domestic political issue in Australia. It is within our grasp. The statement suggests a range of ways in which this can be done. The most important element is what you can do at your local level, in your states and territories. We face the fascinating prospect of having a hostile or indifferent Federal government surrounded by state and territory Labor governments, who have the opportunity, via the MCEETYA and MINCO processes, to develop worthwhile nationwide programs that will address the needs of students in public education.
Meanwhile, in the catalogue of deceit and hypocrisy what could surpass the decision, announced after the election, of private schools across this country to actually increase their fees by an average of more than 8 per cent this year. Remember how the whole raison d'etre of the States Grants Act and the $15.7 billion of taxpayers' funds it appropriates was to open up choice in the private system by having reduced fees which would allow the humble and disadvantaged to enter these academies. Well. They lied.
This entirely predictable state of affairs however provides us with limitless campaign opportunities in the immediate future. So far the media have discovered just one private school in all of Australia which has actually reduced its fees. Our campaign will demand accountability for all private schools in receipt of public funds. The new Minister will need to ensure that such accountability including across the board fee reductions, as promised repeatedly in the Australian Parliament, are urgently brought into being. otherwise, the legislation may well have to be revisited and future appropriations declined as the objects of the Act are being flaunted by the very beneficiaries of the legislation.
We also have the chance and responsibility to increase our focus on professional matters. it is highly likely that the Federal department of education will sustain its neglect of the critical issues facing the teaching profession. We proposed to jointly host a major conference this year to facilitate the key debates affecting our profession and its future. *****
Our greatest power to resist this reactionary phase is in the curriculum. The way we work as public educators dedicated to producing a liberal, inclusive, anti-racist, non-sexist young generation can hold off the regressive tide. Our greatest hope is amongst the young. This is perhaps the most vital work of teacher-unionists in the immediate future. To build a better world in the hearts of our young.
So as we set off again in our mission, having had some wins and having endured some setbacks, we think not only of the destination but the value of the journey.
We are now seeking to change the face of educational politics in Australia. We have made a sound beginning. The words "proud" and "public" are now habitually co-mingled. Let us now go the extra mile."