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PM's identity crisis on education

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Prime Minister Gillard, to paraphrase Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral, is an honourable politician.  And like all honourable politicians during her years in parliament she has never been guilty of speaking a mistruth.

So yesterday, when the PM said in her speech to an independent schools conference in Canberra “I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought ‘that’s not fair’.  I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think ‘that’s a great example’, she can be believed.

After all, the Prime Minister is an honourable politician and when it comes to statements like: there’s as much chance of me becoming PM as there is putting on a Western Bulldog’s footy jumper, this government will never introduce a carbon tax and we will never adopt the Howard Government’s model of a off shore asylum seeking process, she can be believed.


But, can she?  Take yesterday’s statement that she has never been guilty of class envy in relation to non-government schools.  While the PM now wants to paint herself as a champion of school choice and a friend to Catholic and independent school parents, in her maiden speech the new member for Lalor was happy to attack a so-called wealthy and elitist eastern suburban independent girl’s school.

As I wrote in a recent posting on The Punch, after bemoaning the fact that students at what she describes as “a very exclusive ladies college in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne” outperform students in her electorate in the western suburbs of Melbourne Julia Gillard promised to “seriously tackle the inequality of opportunity that exists in our education system”.

Repeating the Fabian mantra that success or otherwise at school is determined by socioeconomic background, and not ability, motivation, effort or teacher quality, Gillard went on to argue that “students from my electorate are not any less intelligent than those form Higgins or Kooyong” and that overcoming inequality in education will be “one of my priorities in politics”.

And it’s not only non-government schools that are criticised, after referring to the working class voters of Lalor and their ability to always “try harder” Gillard disparages eastern suburban parents by arguing that in her electorate there is “a sense of community and a fighting spirit often missing from the sleeker suburbs”.

It’s no accident that Prime Minister Gillard thanks the ex-Premier of Victoria and member of the socialist-left faction of the ALP, Joan Kirner, in her maiden speech for “never once wavering” in her support. 

Joan Kirner, in a speech to the Victorian Fabian society once famously argued that education had to be reshaped so that it was “part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system”.


In a newspaper article written for the Australian in September 2009, detailing her childhood and her families move from the Welsh coalfields to Australia, Julia Gillard reveals the likely reasons for her disliking non-government schools and the privileged class such schools are supposed to represent.

After regretting the fact that her father, on being offered a scholarship, never had the means to continue his education, Gillard writes “I went to a state school.  There was no way in the world that mum and dad could have afforded private school education”.

In a speech delivered at the school she attended Gillard describes herself as a “proud graduate of our public education system” and applauds government schools like Unley High for taking “all comers no matter what their wealth, culture or ability”.

Such a romanticised, simplistic view not only ignores that fact that many Catholic and independent schools serve low to medium socioeconomic status communities, it also ignores the reality that enrolment for selective government schools is based on ability and that it’s only parents that can afford $million plus real estate that can get their children into a sought after school’s enrolment zone.

Of course, I could be wrong and it could be the case that Prime Minister Gillard fully supports Catholic and independent schools as proven by yesterday’s speech at the independent schools conference when she said “You know that I’ve supported you and your schools because you’ve seen me do it: when I’ve been with you in your classrooms and your staffrooms”.

After all the Prime Minister is an honourable politician – the only problem being which is the real Julia?

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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