CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Spending signals start of election campaign
, March 27, 2004
The huge funding injection for Catholic and independent schools indicates just how far the Howard Government is prepared to go to isolate Labor and spend its way to a fourth term.
The spending spree comes amid signs that the Government is also searching for the next big policy idea to counter Mark Latham's strong showing in the polls.
At the same time the pre-election quick-fix policy agenda has become such a pattern in the Howard administration that it is producing the impression of a panicky government more interested in staying in power than in good governance and good long-term public policy.
And policy-on-the-run can produce bad long-term consequences.New policies sought
After almost three months of apparent political paralysis over the Latham ascendancy, the Howard Government began cranking up its policy initiatives well ahead of the expected October/November election timetable.
There have been announcements on veterans affairs and superannuation, but the main game is to counter Latham's key strengths in policy - education and health.
Serious money is involved.
Last year, the most that Kay Patterson could convince her Cabinet colleagues to part with was $917 million (over four years) to tackle declining Medicare bulk billing and the lack of doctors in country and regional areas.
But when she was replaced by Tony Abbott in October the purse strings were opened for the new health minister and this amount was almost trebled to $2.4 billion enabling Mr Abbott to produce his innovative safety net for people whose annual health bills were excessive and not covered by bulk billing doctors.
To get the proposals through the Senate Mr Abbott was given a further $427 million to widen his Medicare safety net.
Apart from blatant pork barrelling in Queensland and Tasmania to placate independent Senators from those states, the Abbott plan was a solid proposal which will underpin the Medicare model and help those who find themselves under financial strain from medical bills.
On the education front Dr Brendan Nelson really scooped the pool with a $31.3 billion package (over five years) and an increase of $8 billion over the period.
Catholic schools will get $12.6 billion, independent schools $7.6 billion, with the private sector gaining more funding from the Commonwealth than the public schools for the first time - showing just how far things have come from the State Aid debates of the 1950s and 60s.
Not surprisingly, neither Catholic nor other independent schools were complaining about the funding increase with the main criticisms coming from state school lobbies and education unions.
But the Nelson plan smacks of grandiosity and another federal power grab at the expense of the states.
The Nelson plan includes uniform start dates for the school year across the country to more transparency in school reports, and minimum standards for literacy and numeracy.
On one level these stipulations are sensible and a welcome counter-measure to the leftist ideologues who control state education departments and as an antidote to the powers of the teacher unions who have driven the culture of mediocrity.
But the sting in the tail is increased federal intervention in education - including independent schools - in the form of federal requirements on standards and curriculum.
There are ominous signs for future governments with Federal intervention on what can and what cannot be taught in independent schools. Will these federal interventions be made on religious teaching, discipline, sex education and the like?
Dr Nelson's higher education plan was a similar power grab which will reduce the autonomy of the universities.
Under Dr David Kemp's original university plan each campus would have become more independent and autonomous, but Dr Nelson appears to want more and more federal powers and bureaucracy rather than less.
And to top off the encroaching Federal Government, a group of federal backbenchers is now urging Prime Minister John Howard to "take over" the running of state hospitals.
Mr Abbott has hinted in speeches that the Federal Government could "do a better job", while his Parliamentary Secretary Trish Worth is apparently an enthusiastic proponent of the idea.
No one will be happier than former PM Gough Whitlam if Mr Howard succumbs to this mad proposal.
Having campaigned on it for nearly 40 years, Mr Whitlam says a Commonwealth takeover of health is the last great reform of state/federal relations. And well he might because it would spell the end of state governments - not a particularly great legacy for the Howard Government.