The $64-million question is when is a backflip good, and when is it bad?
This week’s massive backdown by the State Government on its controversial $64-million funding cuts to education was its second major backflip in that portfolio in the 10 months it has been in office.
The retreat from axing Schools of the Air was not entirely unpredictable, because it had sparked the biggest public backlash of all the services to be closed or slashed under the cuts.
But the fact the Government decided to reverse so many aspects of its mid-December education funding cuts announcement, and the fact it occurred before Cabinet had even held its first meeting of the year, took many by surprise.
Education cuts reversed
- Axing the Schools of the Air
- A 25 per cent cut to gifted and talented programs
- Closing the Northam Residential college
- Freezing the intake of Level 3 classroom teachers
The Government’s first backflip in education happened in June, and related to a plan to move the academically-selective Perth Modern School to a high-rise building in the Perth CBD.
That backflip occurred in similar circumstances to the one announced this week — an unpopular decision was made on the run, sparking a widespread public campaign that damaged the Government.
A flood of complaints
Both Perth Modern School and Schools of the Air are much-loved and highly successful WA public educational institutions.
Schools of the Air have been around for more than 50 years, delivering quality education to children in some of the most remote locations across WA.
The nostalgic attachment to Schools of the Air goes far beyond the pastoralist families who rely on it.
Just ask any metro or country Labor MP whose electorate office has been bombarded with email complaints about the proposed closure since that mid-December announcement.
The WA Nationals and families affected by the Schools of the Air decision ran a clever campaign that painted the Government as “anti-country”, “anti-regional children” and “city-centric.”
It was a perception that particularly hurt the Government’s Upper and Lower House country MPs, aided by the fact it was ploughing ahead with an election promise to build a new $68 million inner-city school in Subiaco at the same time it was planning to close Schools of the Air.
‘We went too far’: McGowan
That was the backdrop for this week’s backflip, which was announced by Premier Mark McGowan on his first day back from leave on Thursday.
It was a press conference that started with the usual blame game, with Mr McGowan pointing out he had inherited a “disastrous” set of finances and had to make difficult decisions to get the budget under control.
Then came the mea culpa.
“Clearly, in the case of education, we went a bit too far and we caused distress and anxiety to some families and some students, and for that we apologise,” Mr McGowan said.
Education Minister Sue Ellery was eating similar amounts of humble pie.
“We had got the balance wrong, we had got the timing wrong and we didn’t bring people with us,” she said.
“For the anxiety and distress that that caused parents, I’m sorry and I apologise for that.”
Perceptive or populist?
When do such reversals turn from creating an impression of a Government that is willing to listen, to one that is weak and happy to change course for populist appeal?
The reversals have left a $23 million black hole in the budget that will have to be filled by cuts elsewhere in Government.
The response to the backflip in the community and on social media appeared to largely applaud Mr McGowan for listening to the community outcry, and being humble enough to back down and admit he was wrong.
Many also made the point it was a stark contrast to the former Liberal-National government, which under Colin Barnett would not even admit its mistakes (failed council mergers, a shark cull and the Roe 8 project), let alone apologise for them.But this was Mr McGowan’s second apology since his landslide win. The other was made at September’s state budget when he broke a key election promise of no new taxes or increases in existing taxes on West Australians when announcing a now-failed gold royalty hike.
Will backflips become the norm?
The Government is setting a tricky precedent when faced with a public outcry that causes a big political headache.
There are many cuts still to come, including in WA Police, and some might question whether this latest backflip shows a Government unwilling to stand firm when confronted by a well-orchestrated campaign, particularly one run through the mainstream and social media.
Mr McGowan and his team were elected on a promise to fix the State’s dire finances. In 10 months they have hardly made a dent.
They are copping criticism for not yet going far enough to make the hard decisions needed to put the State’s books back in the black.
And yet when they have announced funding cuts, sold as “budget repair measures”, they have also been attacked.
But this could change if backflips become the norm for the Government when confronted with a damaging public backlash.
WA voters may not be quite so enamoured with Mr McGowan’s approach in just over three years when they head to the polls again and the State’s finances remain dire.