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.