Public First Program


Shane Elson


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February 2007 # 2

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Back to Editorials 2007

Educated Ignorance

Last week the Age newspaper carried an opinion piece by John Roskam, the Executive Director of the right wing, Institute for Public Affairs. In the latest tome from the IPA, we are told that a free education is “an accident of history and an idea whose time has passed”. Roskam goes on to tell us that free and compulsory education, and more importantly, those who hold to this ideal, are “out of date”. I think this little bit of hogwash needs some correction. 

Roskam’s education was, if his parents so chose, free. I don’t know if he went to a private school but his résumé seems to indicate he may have. However, most of his contemporaries, like mine, would have been educated in the public school system not because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to private schools but because the public school system was already paid for by their taxes. 

Roskam argues that we defenders of free, secular public education “have never questioned why the children of millionaires should have access to 12 years of free education paid for by taxpayers, when the state’s most disadvantaged schools are starved of resources”. 

When I went to school in the 60’s and 70’s I rubbed shoulders, played in the yards and socialised with the sons and daughters of bankers, lawyers, engineers, the unemployed, the single parent and the working class. While we argued over whose family was the richest, the issue for us as kids was more about having some fun during the boring school years. We didn’t care. Sure, later on when it came time to find a mate for life, the class distinctions came to the fore, but for the most part, we visited each others homes. 

However, there were hints of the class system evident. Those from the poorest families tended to stick together as did those from the working, middle and upper classes. These false barriers to social inclusion were the legacy we lived with. The legacy perpetuated in the rubbish Roskam got into print. The one thing we public school kids were able to agree on, regardless of our class status, was that private school kids sucked. Again, class played the greatest role in determining our biases and this is the central issue buried in the subtext of Roskam’s op-ed piece. 

Roskam argues that we pay extra for things like health care via the levy (he can’t bring himself, like the Fraser government that introduced it, to call it a tax). He argues that the issue of free public education is not about “who pays for it but who can use it”. The wrong headedness of this statement makes about as much sense as saying that the victims of the war in Iraq should be grateful we pay our taxes so “our boys” can kill them. 

The issue is not, as Roskam argues, about education but about the way our governments re-distribute our taxes and how they spend our money which we entrust to them to return to us in the form of goods and services that increase our social capabilities and provide a balance to so called “market demands”. It is these market demands that Roskam exposes. 

In many areas of life we are free to choose which products we buy. There are a plethora of consumer goods available to those who can afford them. However, as a society we have agreed that there are some goods and services we all need, regardless of our wealth, in order to function as a coherent, relatively stable community. These goods and services have included roads, ports, electricity, gas, healthcare, education, welfare, police and armies. All these things we accept as being essential to allowing us to get on with our lives. 

In the aftermath of the Second World War the uber-wealthy elites realised that one of the things holding back their capacity to increase their already obscene wealth was the fact that people could only consume so much. The average worker can only own so many cars, take so many holidays, consume so many Cokes and eat so many McDonalds. The problem, which continues till today, is not the production of the myriad of goods we find on offer, but the amount that could be consumed. A solution to the need to increase the already concentrated wealth had to be found. 

The wealthy funders of universities, particularly in the US, called on their loyal clients to start producing research that would be published in order to begin the argument that the private sector can do things much better than governments (and ipso facto, we, the people). The focus was narrowed over the years to only those things we see as central to a modern society. Aside from food, these things are the provision of roads, ports, electricity, gas, healthcare, education, welfare, police and armies as noted above. By the 1970’s the privatisation of these services was in full swing.  

While the privatisations have moved ahead at different paces in different countries, there is no doubt the wealthy elites are the ones who have benefited most from these moves. Here in Victoria we used to have one State Electricity Commission. That was privatised and for a while we something in the order of 10 separate companies running the show. Inevitably prices went up, services went down and profits were artificially boosted by way of redundancies, lowering of safety and maintenance standards and closures. All this was done, we were told, to bring our electricity services up to “world’s best practice”. Ten years later, we find the “market” has seen a re-consolidation of ownership and the vertical integration of the system reintroduced. In short we now have private monopolies owning the infrastructure we rely on to conduct our daily lives. 

This is what Roskam wants. He wants to create an artificial “market” in which parents can “buy” the education they think their kids need. However, what Roskam and his ilk will never admit is that, like the Victorian electricity system, the long term aim is to reconsolidate, via mergers and acquisitions, the ability to steal our children’s and grand-children’s education. What is never asked by the likes of Roskam is where our tax dollars are going? The tax take has never been higher. We are paying record levels of tax yet every government provided service is crying poor. Why? 

This is the question the IPA should be asking. Instead, they leave this hard work to those of us who believe that communal cooperation is often the best way to improve the lot of all those within that community. While the IPA and our current crop of politicians is allowed to ponder only on ways to satisfy the insatiable greed of the already wealthy and we allow them to continue to ignore the real, material issues facing us, the future does, indeed, look bleak. 

The time has come for us to reassert the ideals that enabled most of us alive today to get where we are. A free, secular and universal education is a right, not a commodity. It is not an idea that is “out of date” but one of the foundations our community. To allow it to be colonised by the market would mark a new low in real Australian values.

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