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Why is Labor no longer moved by working-class priorities in education?

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Tuesday, 15 July 2003

Whom does the ALP represent and what is its core constituency?

Historically, the answer was the working class represented by the so-called Howard battlers in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Since the Whitlam ascendancy, this is no longer the case. Beginning in the 1970s and '80s, the ALP, in Kim Beazley Sr's colourful phrase, turned its back on the cream of the working class in its rush to embrace the dregs of the middle class.


Whether it be Balmain's basket-weavers or Carlton's beaujolais bolshies, the sad fact is that the ideologues of what passes for today's Left have long since decided that there is more value in chasing the politically correct vote than in winning over traditional supporters.

Nowhere is Labor's failure to support those most in need more evident than in education. Take the latest ALP announcements on tertiary education released recently.

Superficially, the ALP appears concerned about equity and social justice. It wants to remove full-fee-paying places for Australian students, stop universities from setting their own fees and increase the Higher Education Contribution Scheme repayment threshold.

What's forgotten is that tertiary education is essentially a middle-class pursuit whereby those from advantaged backgrounds ensure better jobs and more pay by getting a degree.

Also forgotten is that Brendan Nelson's reforms - increasing funding to universities, allowing students (in relation to full-fee-paying places) to take out a loan if they cannot afford up-front fees, and introducing scholarships for disadvantaged groups - do the opposite.

Like Labor's Knowledge "Noodle" Nation report two years ago, its new policy statements completely ignore this central fact: in order to become internationally competitive, our universities need the incentives and flexibility to raise standards and to excel.


As Andrew Norton notes in The Unchained University, universities are shackled by an antiquated funding system that stifles innovation and excellence - the very things needed to increase Australia's wealth and economic prosperity.

School education is another area where the ALP has long since stopped representing the interests of the battlers. Notwithstanding that many Labor politicians send their children to non-government schools, the ALP consistently attacks other parents who make the same decision.

It is no secret that non-government schools, when compared to government schools, perform better academically. They are seen by many parents to provide a more disciplined, productive environment. The success of non-government schools explains why approximately 30 per cent of Australian students, compared to 22 per cent in 1980 and 28 per cent in 1990, now attend such schools. During the past decade, the number of government schools has fallen by 6.4 per cent while non-government schools have grown by 6.1 per cent.

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Article edited by John Carrigan.
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This article was first published in The Australian on 09 July 2003.

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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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