Public First Program


Shane Elson


email Shane

+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

Dec 2008 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2008

Dentists, Dole and Private Schools

There are two places I really don't like. The first is dentist's waiting rooms and the second are dole offices. Being in both give me a sense of dread.

In the dentist's waiting room I begin to sweat a little and my knees begin to ache. I imagine the huge – I mean really, really big – needle that will be plunged into my gums and the way in which my jaw will ache for a day or two afterwards. I imagine the recurrence of the dreaded 'dry socket' which is even worse than the toothache. In the end I submit to the procedure and put up with all the uncomfortable processes required.

When it comes to the dole office, similar feelings of dread are evoked. Earlier on this year I found myself waiting in the que at a dole office as I signed up to receive the infamous 'welfare benefits' our society grants to those who are in hard times.

Out of necessity I booked in to sign up and duly attended the appointment. I found my way to the office and when I entered I felt like turning around and walking straight back out. The last time I was ‘on the dole’ was when I was in my teens, fresh out of high school and looking for an apprenticeship. How times have changed.

In this age of “accountability” I had to bare my soul to the “customer service officer” and give over the most intimate details of my private life. I had to sign a document, that described in detail, the penalties that applied should I give false information, regardless of whether it was by way of oversight or deliberate.

For what seemed like forever, I sat as a barrage of questions was fired at me. I was asked how I had lived without income (savings), whether I had looked for work (yes), if I had travelled outside Australia (no), if I had any bank accounts other than the ones I declared (no) and on and on it went.

I was also asked to sign a “mutual obligation” form that outlined the obligation I had to diligently look for work and the ways in which I would penalised for not doing so. I was also given a “work diary” which I had fill in each fortnight, detailing the jobs I had applied for. I was also given a form that I had to fill in every two weeks and return to the dole office so my “benefit” could be processed.

Don't get me wrong. I can see the need to ensure that people who are claiming benefits are checked and that we are grilled in order to ensure that our claims are in no way just an easy way out. My six weeks or so on the dole demonstrated to me the ways in which we are subjected to classification, surveillance and monitoring when it comes to being assisted by our fellow tax payers.

What I also realised was that being on the dole is pretty much a full time job. Scouring newspapers and the internet for jobs, calling or writing to prospective employers, filling in “job diaries” and responding the seemingly never ending stream of paperwork mean that being on the dole is not something that can be done between drinks.

Thankfully, that short period of being subject to constant threat of penalties is over. It did, however, renew in me the respect I have for those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves subject to the scrutiny of the state. It is not pleasant, places you in a constant state of dread and certainly doesn't do anything to boost your self image or morale.

But when it comes to our private schools, it seems they demand a different set of rules.

You might have heard that the current federal government is wanting to pass a bill that will cause all schools, public and private, to, among other things, disclose a whole range of things that, in the case of private schools, have been hidden from public scrutiny since the start of time.

Of interest to me, in the current context, is the fact that the schools will have to disclose all sources of funding in the new format for annual reports. Julia Gillard, the Federal Minister for Education says that such disclosure will usher in a “new era of transparency” and make it easier for parents to make ‘informed choices’ about their children's schooling. Yet, the private schools, who stand to get twice the funding of the public schools, are baulking at opening up their books.

So, I ask you, ‘is it fair that the poorest have to subject themselves to scrutiny while the wealthiest do not?’ Evidently it is fair. It is worth noting that most of the wealthiest private schools in this country are associated with religious organisations. Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, Uniting, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Jewish and other faith based schools account for the majority of private school providers. The non-Catholic ones want to disguise themselves behind the “independent” label. Yet it is apparent they really should be called “non-accountable” schools.

Its also worth noting that under the much maligned Australian Constitution, there are clear declarations about how the state should not fund religious bodies, which obviously includes their schools. However, these declarations are ignored by successive governments seeking to curry favour with their “serious money” backers.

Another thing worth noting, as our government seeks to inject $28 billion of our hard earned into the private school system, is that the so called “Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority” will include only government appointed bureaucrats and private school nominees. I suggest it should be renamed the “Australian Private School Fund Raising Authority”. With no public school representatives allowed on it, how will the government know what the true state of public education in this country is?

Like dentists and dole offices do to me, the thought of private school money having to be accounted for sends shivers up and down the spines of the elites. Unlike me and many others, when it comes to their spending of our money, they do not have to sign forms, attend job appointments, fill out activity diaries or in any way stand accountable for putting our their hand for a hand up (as if they need it any way).

I’m all for choice and all for assisting those who need a hand when times are tough. I even support dentists who provide good care (even if I try to avoid them at all costs). But when it comes to my taxes being spent at a 2 to 1 ratio to save the already wealthy from the ramifications of their choices, I think there is something seriously wrong with our system.

I suppose the wealthy are just as nervous about having to disclose how they maintain their lifestyles as I am about saying ‘ah’ when the person in the white jacket with the big needle asks me to open up or when the “customer service officer” asks me to ‘sign here’.

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