Labor: Locked in the Third Quarter?

University Cutbacks? They’re Gonski

When Labor Minister, Bill Shorten, fronted a television interview in the
hours following the spontaneous combustion of his party’s leadership,
he invoked a curious, if not condescending, analogy to pacify claims of
dysfunction against the federal government. In a desperate bid to assert
a sense of order over the day’s political catastrophe, Shorten claimed
Labor’s caucus was akin to a football team, and that the team was merely
confronting the question of who should be the ultimate captain.

Yet for a ‘team’ which Shorten claims to be locked in the “third
quarter” of this high stakes game of national affairs, their resolution
attempt appears futile, for the fat lady has long since sung and their
supporters are duly fleeing the stadium gates, hoping to escape the
merciless result awaiting the final siren.

In an abstract sense, the ‘sport’ of federal politics is not that far
removed from the gladiatorial contests which consume the bloodthirsty
colosseum of the typical antipodean weekend. Both spheres provide us
with the partisan rhetoric to blindly follow the aims of our own ‘teams’
and attack those of others. Both spheres help to guide ourselves and
others to identify who we are and where we belong. Both spheres provide
us with the front and back page canvases upon which our city’s tabloids
incite their hyperbolic invectives. And importantly, both spheres
convince us that ‘winning at all costs’ is the aim of the game.

Yet whilst it may be easy to perennially forgive the failings of our
own football teams, forever returning to them in the hope that ‘maybe
this will be our year’; when faced with equal dysfunction in our political
party’s operations, we should not allow our partisan bias to shield
necessary electoral punishment. For when my team -the Dees – face
internal ructions, on field disunity or make poor judgements throughout
the course of a season, I lose. Yet, when these elements are present in a
governing party of the entire country, we all lose.

At the beginning of any sporting season, each team enters with
a clear desire to execute goals for which they have planned; promising
their supporters ‘the world’ in exchange for their hope and support.
Politics largely mimics such initial optimism, yet importantly, produces
policy ‘goals’ which -unlike those of competing sporting teamsare
rarely mutually exclusive to the interests of the majority playing the

The Gillard government’s vision to reform education through
the ‘Gonski’ funding model, is arguably the ALP’s grandest policy goal
which remains unresolved. Yet in confirming that it would be Australia’s
university sector which would burden a significant proportion of the
budget reallocation toward Gonski, the ALP has not only robbed an
already underfunded Peter, to pay Paul, but has also played off the
interests of students of all ages against each other.

Unfortunately for Labor, the backlash against cuts to public funding
in a sector that is already ranked 25th of 29 OECD countries, further
plays into the Coalition’s narrative describing Labor as dysfunctional
economic managers. Furthermore, it gives Tony Abbott ammunition to
criticise Labor for public sector cutbacks, which he himself would more
likely have enacted by choice, rather than economic necessity.

When a government faces continual losses and declining public
support, it is easy for the party in control to make rash decisions
to protect a policy they feel will induce unbearable criticism if not
delivered. Yet, this approach conceives of a policy like the Gonski
reforms as some kind of ‘silver bullet’; whose fulfilment will simply
obfuscate the electorate’s memory of the preceding term in office. Much
like the question of a party’s leadership, it implies that a short-term
change to the status-quo will be all that stands between certain defeat
and potential success.

Such reforms should instead be seen as necessary improvements
which aim to complement existing educational structures; requiring our
consistent attention and support in order to achieve success. For whilst
the ideological purity of giving greater opportunities to underprivileged
students may be momentarily inspiring, there remains little point in
fostering a generation of enlightened, better-educated students, if our
tertiary institutions are incapable of supporting them in years to come.

In our nation’s capital, our political battles are fought between our
two gladiatorial parties, each with their own incentives to defeat each
other from week to week. Yet unlike our sporting teams, who can afford
to fight their battles ‘one week at a time’, politics demands a much
broader vision, spanning years, if not decades; where victory is far from
fleeting and redemption can lie years away. It requires government to
invest reasonably in all sectors critical to the nation’s success, even when
such investment requires them to divest themselves of a partisan goal for
the good of the entire nation.

Unlike the nation’s sporting competitions, Australian politics
cannot afford any single ‘team’ to dominate to the exclusion of its
competitors, nor can it afford for those watching to abandon the
spectacle from sheer frustration. It especially cannot afford for one
‘team’ to become absorbed in its own internal challenges, when such
distractions cloud their ability to achieve the goals to which they are

I’m not encouraging Labor, or its supporters, to make a final, valiant
attempt to salvage their operations in an attempt to justify re-election;
for the house which is Labor’s electoral chances is already burning to the
ground. Instead, I’m imploring Labor to execute the policy goals already
set, whilst not compromising otherwise critical sectors, before they too
are stained by the black smoke of electoral annihilation.

If Labor fails to salvage a respectable defeat, then it will be the
Australian people who suffer greatest. We will be beholden to the
domination of an Abbott coalition with a mandate which confers no
more than their opponent’s incompetence. On September 15, we may
well wake up to a unenviable contest between two asymmetric sides; one
free from the constraints of political compromise and another without
enough players to field a competitive team.

James Barklamb

The author James Barklamb

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