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Gillard’s priorities: education and refugees

The media’s focus on personality over policy – and in that shrinking proportion of the time in which policy is discussed, the endless speculation on how events will be perceived, and how ‘narratives’ will ‘play out’, rather than the actual impact of policies on people – makes for a lack of serious analysis that results in an intellectual impoverishment of the public sphere. As Jeff Sparrow predicted on this blog, the elevation of Julia Gillard has been greeted with a rush of ink and pixels attempting to define her character, rather than analysing her record, to gauge the kind of policies we might expect.

My usual response to this topic would be to discuss the ways in which, as the demands of capital and the relentless ideology of corporate media hem in the scope of democratically elected politicians to differ substantially from each other, personality and identity become the surrogates for real political debate. Celebrating Australia’s first woman prime minister is fine, but let’s not delude ourselves about how much difference it makes. For myself, growing up in the UK under a Thatcher government erased any illusions I may have had – as the anonymous writers of the The Coming Insurrection put it, ‘patriarchy survives by attributing to women all the worst attributes of men’. In the 2008 Democratic primaries in the US, Clinton’s tough talk of ‘obliterating’ Iran was an attempt to deflect sexist stereotypes and prove that she had – as her loyal follower James Carville put it – the ‘testicular fortitude’ to be an effective commander-in-chief.

As it happens, though, a policy decision of Gillard’s was brought to my attention, and it seems quite telling. So I can respond more directly to Jeff Sparrow’s appeal to ‘start talking about … not who she is, but what she does’.

My mother works at the TAFE in Blacktown. Much of her work there is with LLNP (language, literary and numeracy programmes). Many of her students are refugees; some arrive speaking only a few words of English. Some do not read and write their own languages, so literacy is entirely new territory. Needless to say, these people face enormous difficulties in the basics of daily life – catching the bus, going shopping, filling out a form – let alone in finding employment. Being able to understand, and be understood, and to read and write, is absolutely necessary for them to participate fully in society. Learning language is harder for adults than for children, and teaching them requires specialised training, skill and experience.

The education department contracts out the work in a competitive tendering process. Gillard was at the helm when the tenders were decided this year. TAFE NSW lost nearly all of its LLNP work to private companies and charities (the page on the government website is misleading here, since it does not provide any breakdown of the proportion of the work assigned to each provider). As John Kaye, NSW Greens MP, described the situation in a press release on 31 May:

TAFE NSW will lose $50m and 170 full-time equivelant teachers in a race-to-the-bottom in teacher wages and quality of services. This is a frightening glimpse of the future of skills training under Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard’s privatisation agenda.

‘Skills training’ is an inadequate term for teaching people the basics they need for life in Australia. The injection of the profit motive into public services is always egregious, but politics aside, on an empirical basis, the service the private providers give is transparently an inferior one. Before my mother began work at TAFE, she taught at a private college, and the difference in facilities, such as student access to computers, is striking. Eleni Prineas, an assessment verifier who visited private providers across NSW, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald to express her dismay, in the light of her experience of the quality of teaching:

With few exceptions, the quality of teaching was abysmal. In some cases it was clear the ‘trainers’ (trainers were employed rather than teachers because a lesser qualification was required) should have been undertaking courses to improve their own written grammar rather than trying to teach it.

Politics is all about priorities. So what does this decision, to choose cheaper, inferior education for some of the most vulnerable members of our society, suggest about the priorities of our new Prime Minster, and how those priorities are likely to translate into policy? I’ll leave the last words to Gillard herself. As she told the ABC:

I do understand the anxiety and indeed fears that Australians have when they see boats intercepted. It does make people anxious. I can understand that, I really can.

Joshua Mostafa is an Anglo-Bengali expat, who, with his Susanne, lives in the Blue Mountains with their various children and other animals, where he works for a digital publishing company, and writes stories, essays and poems. http://joshuamostafa.info/

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  2. It’s great to see someone shining light on this issue. Not only do “trainers” require lower teaching qualifications, the way in which private providers are audited is different from TAFEs: TAFEs are required to meet higher standards yet aren’t funded accordingly. Let’s hope that away from the education portfolio the PM can actually do better things for education.
    The TAFE4All website is fighting some of the recent blows to Victorian TAFEs – http://tafe4all.org.au/ – like increased fees and the introduction of competition for funding between TAFEs and private providers.

  3. Thanks, Josh.

    ‘testicular fortitude’
    ‘TAFE NSW will lose $50m and 170 full-time equivalent teachers’
    ‘I can understand that, I really can.’

    I must confess, I am becoming increasingly despondent about the whole thing. Last night someone pointed out that at Labor conferences in ’01 and ’04, Gillard voted to keep TPVs and the Pacific Solution.

    When announcing her retirement, Julia Irwin described how she started on the Left of Labor (she came out of the unions) and moved to the Right – and there’s no difference at all.

    I am just baffled by the idea that her gender is in any way relevant, as if having a vagina (uterus?) produces a compulsion to nurture the world.

    This must be the Australia Gillard is proud of:

    Happy Invasion Day 2010 from FOABP x FCAC on Vimeo.

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  5. Good post mate. I agree with the point that we need no longer preoccupy ourselves with the fact that Julia Gillard is a woman, though this is indeed a major milestone in the history of Australian politics. Indeed, it is time to consider both Gillard’s political credentials, and the potential ramifications of her ascent to the top of the ALP. Gillard is a strong politician, a point evidenced by her defussal of the Mining Profits Supertax issue. She has thus far skillfully avoided questions of her intentions, lulling both Labour and Liberal voters into a false sense of security as to whether will back the plan or not. If she does, it will not be nearly as vociferously as Rudd and Swann, but if not; it will appease the conservative establishment enough to guarantee Tony Abbott receives the electoral trouncing he duly deserves.

    Gillard has stated that she will not “Lurch to the right”, but a fairly liberal (excuse the pun) hop in that direction looks like the recipe of political self-preservation in Australia, and considering her comment on Rudd’s political future last night, she most certainly intends to man (again, no pun intended) the crease for some time. Its interesting that you mention growing up in the UK under Margaret Thatcher, because as THE most Conservative PM in the history of British politics, Thatcher privatised practically everything, notably education, utilities, and public transport. Suffice to say that Gillard’s rise to power; based on her actions, represents one small step for women in politics, and one giant leap for Liberal voters across Australia.

    • The problem with the tendency of social democratic parties to drift from centre-left to centre-right (of which Labor, and indeed New Labour, are just examples, many others across Europe) is basically that left voters have nowhere else to go. The Greens are the only voice with any electoral clout at all that’s challenging Labor from the left, and they’re still very much a localised / fringe phenomenon, unfortunately…

      • I agree with almost everything you say, other than your assertion that the Greens actually represent a feasible alternative to the political duopoly in this country. The Greens will never win enough seats to genuinely develop the electoral clout you speak of, and I know first hand (having contributed to the Greens Penrith By-Election Campaign), that they are struggling to make head-way in even marginal Labour seats… New Labour may be a legitimate political phenomenon in the UK, but there’s nothing new about middle of the road politics from the ALP…

    • Agree wholeheartedly. If Julia lurched any further to the right she’d fall flat on her face. It’s also laughable to hear her and others talking about the Labor Party ‘losing its way’ when she was so much a part of the direction they mapped. It seems much more likely they were fearful of losing power (power for power’s sake) and some, their own seats, than caring about anything else including that thing called ‘democracy’.

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