Bill Shorten makes education a priority as Labor ‘underdogs’ hit campaign trail


The phony campaign is over. The true believers are heading for the barricades. It’s time for the watchers to hurry up and wait.
While Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign day resembled something like fruit ninja, Bill Shorten’s troupe took off for northern Australia, landing at the Cairns West state school in the seat of Leichhardt held by Liberal MP Warren Entsch.

“We are the underdogs,” Shorten said, framing his first full day.

“You have to be when you’ve got to win back 20 seats, don’t you, but I think what the government’s done is underestimated the Australian people.

“The Australian people are sick of three-word slogans. Mr Turnbull simply saying ‘plan’ any number of times does not somehow magically create a plan.”

This was about scene setting, revealing a Labor campaign plan designed to build slowly in a marathon race. It was the only media event of the day for Shorten, who was looking relaxed for the short time he appeared. He posed happily in front of a bus-sized picture of himself.

It was not surprising that Labor began with the Gonski education funding issue – a strength for Labor. The announcement was bolstered by the gravitas of Indigenous leader and now senator Patrick Dodson, not your average three-word-slogan merchant.
Also present was the Labor candidate for Leichhardt, Sharryn Howes, a former Canberra public servant, who is hoping to win the enormous electorate held by Entsch on 5.7%. The seat takes in Cairns and stretches up through Cape York, just shy of 150,000 sq km.
Shorten was announcing new Indigenous teachers scholarships as part of the $100m in funding under Gonski targeting Indigenous education. The Gonski model starts with an equal funding for each student and loads on for known disadvantage such as remoteness and Indigenous background.

But of the $100m Labor pledge on Monday, only $4.8m was new money, to be put towards 400 Indigenous teachers scholarships.

Labor is planning to campaign from a Townsville base for the better part of the week and Shorten’s reception – particularly on Gonski – will shed light on just how education is playing out in regional areas. (Independent Tony Windsor is promising to support the Gonski model in the deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England.)

Over the next few days, no doubt Labor will visit the seats of Dawson (LNP George Christensen 7.6%) and Capricornia (LNP Michelle Landry 0.8%) with Bob Katter’s humongous seat of Kennedy – one third of Queensland – probably thrown in for good measure.

In rejecting the Gonski model, the Coalition has done its best to try to neutralise education with a $1.2bn funding offer to the states – if they agree to certain conditions. It follows Tony Abbott’s previous attempt to neutralise the Gonski policy in the 2013 election, only to break a promise after coming to government.
Dodson said he hoped the scholarships could provide more support from Indigenous teachers to children in remote areas.

But it was a question from an Indigenous reporter which underlined how Dodson could change debates around constitutional recognition and even a treaty from within the parliament.

Asked if he had discussed a treaty with Shorten, Dodson acknowledged it was a “big discussion” in the Indigenous community, the tension being over whether constitutional recognition should come before a treaty.

Dodson said the constitutional referendum and a treaty were “not mutually exclusive matters” and he would be consulting with communities about whether they wanted a treaty.

Dodson has written before that a treaty could still occur between the “Australian nation state” and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples if constitutional referendum occurred.

“What is required here is the political will to do so.”

It showed how a election can run down many different paths. You only have to hurry up and wait.

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