Labor’s response to Gonski 2.0 hasn’t made the grade, except to bare its weakness

David Gonski was flanked by Malcolm Turnbull at this week's announcement.

David Gonski was flanked by Malcolm Turnbull at this week's announcement. Photo: AAP

Labor’s response to the Turnbull government’s education announcements this week signals the party has sold its soul to Abbott-style negativity.

And why wouldn’t it, given Tony Abbott’s hyper-partisan style took him to an election victory?

But as the backlash against fake news increases scrutiny of political claims, voters might not be quite as willing as they’ve been in the past to take the opposition at its word.

Particularly when Labor is trying to find a way to criticise the government for stealing its policy.

Ever since Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009, hyper-negativity has become the new norm for opposition parties.

Long gone are the days when an opposition leader would occasionally concede the government had made a good policy decision, and commit the opposition to supporting that policy in parliament.

These days, electoral success is only about product differentiation, with health and education policy being two areas where the major parties have been most divergent.

But that changed this week when PM Turnbull and his Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, stood at a podium with the man most associated with Labor’s education policy, David Gonski, and audaciously took the name and the policy for their own.

Not since Clive Palmer took the stage with former United States Vice President Al Gore to claim the moral high on climate action (while vowing to scrap the “carbon tax”), has the political agenda been changed by such an unexpected appearance at a government press conference.

Against the rustle of tarps being pulled over the “I Give a Gonski” campaign bus, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten initially responded to the switcheroo by claiming Mr Turnbull couldn’t be trusted to deliver on the Gonski 2.0 commitment.

But when a distrusted politician tries to accuse another of mendacity, the tactic tends to fall flat.

So Labor shifted gears, deploying its popular education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, to explain why the new Gonski proposal was “an act of political bastardry”.

Ms Plibersek claimed the government’s commitment to spend more on schools was actually a cut because the amount offered was less than that previously promised by Labor.

Up until recently, such a claim would have had a good chance of passing the media’s sniff test.

But with new voter concerns about “fake news” and heightened expectations that the media will cut through any political bulldust to expose the facts, Labor’s claim of a “cut” to education spending is receiving additional scrutiny.

The government is doing its bit to help, with Minister Birmingham indefatigably popping up on television and social media to call out the opposition’s “scare campaign” and fact-check Labor every time it holds yet another press conference at a school that it claims will go under the government’s knife.


Simon Birmingham has done the media rounds this week. Photo: AAP

In addition, by making this game-changing announcement shortly after another on university fees, the government deprived critics of the latter decision from obtaining anything other than minimal media coverage.

Leaving such an important announcement until the week before the budget may have also been about minimising the opportunity for the government’s “other” critics to re-adjust and mobilise.

But where Malcolm Turnbull and his advisers seem to have wrong-footed Labor on education, they’ve been less successful in keeping a step ahead of Tony Abbott on the same issue.

The former PM was on the other side of the country when Gonski 2.0 was announced, having been invited to address the Liberal faithful on “Western values”.

Mr Abbott wasted no time tweeting his “concerns” about what this might mean for Catholic schools, and then tried to create momentum by making himself available, along with Abbott loyalist Andrew Hastie, to meet Catholic education representatives in Western Australia.

But even if Gonski 2.0 dies in a party room bonfire next week, like many other worthwhile Turnbull reforms before it, the co-option of the Gonski brand by the government has at least neutralised that brand’s potency for Labor.

The opposition will not only have to repaint the Gonski bus but also trash forests of pamphlets bearing that name.

Labor should also take this time to consider whether a carpet-bombing of negativity is still the most potent form of political campaigning.

If that negativity is based on half-truths and porkies, it has a good chance of backfiring.

Bill Shorten and his team need look no further than Tony Abbott to work that out.

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