05 September 2011

The most important issue of the week, part one

The most important issue of last week was the release of the Gonski Report into school education funding.

Yes it was. Asylum-seekers are few in number: some of the nation's shock-jocks cannot claim an audience as high as the number of asylum-seekers we receive each year. Very few voters (and almost none in marginal seats) will change from supporting Labor over the issue to supporting the Coalition, or vice versa.

Education is one issue where many people will - and do - switch their votes. With millions of students in the Australian education system, and with everyone having an interest in a well-educated workforce, it is one of the most important issues facing the country.

Each time government has changed at the federal or state/territory level in this country, one of the key planks in the insurgent opposition's campaign has been to portray the government as incompetent in managing the education. A government that has an effective rebuttal/counterattack on education policy against the opposition has more than a fighting chance of being re-elected.

It is probably the only policy area that can consistently mobilise Australians to engage in public protests. Leaving aside the small cohort that protests at the drop of a hat (largely consisting of university students/staff and activists of unions such as the CFMEU), threats to diminish education funding or standards gets people who wouldn't otherwise participate in protest action to hit the streets. It isn't the only issue: the odd war or environmental issue can stir the passions but these are few and far between.

Two reasons why leftists and anarchists are wasting their time when they latch on to protests in the hope of being able to steer popular dissatisfaction to their ends: education is not deliverable in conditions of chaos and is aspirational (in both social and materialistic terms) in character.

David Gonski is a busy man. He's a much sought-after board member of corporate boards, he was executor of Kerry Packer's estate, he's Chancellor of UNSW. It is telling that such a man has taken time out to chair the committee conducting this review. The report is too in-depth to be some rich-man's folly and it puts to shame all those edifices and "causes" that are (I mean, fancy scrapping over becoming a director of an AFL club. Honestly).

It is fair to expect that the Australian media, with an eye to both real and big issues and to selling product that appeals to the market, would have been all over the Gonski Report. There is something in it for everyone. Journalists should have the skill and media organisations should have the range to cover the full range of public policy on this issue, from decisions at Federal Cabinet to delivery in classrooms, public and private, across the nation.

Once again, the media have obsessed over a few snippets which don't really matter, and ignored big and complex issues that matter a lot. The people who are running the mainstream media into the ground think it's clever to do that, they think it's clever to avoid the hard work of writing simply about complex issues. Their whole 'profession' is going down the toilet because they can't snap out of this, and they can't understand why people don't trust them:
  • This and that were the best value articles out there and should have been the start of a series of articles. Each of the dotpoints in the Milburn article warrant a 400-1000 word investigation, as does the chop-and-change approach to teachers' professional development in Zyngier's piece;
  • This does the ABC trick of starting out with the opposition response before you find out what is being criticised. Journos may love this but it makes for poor information: you shouldn't have to wrestle with a text just to find out what is being said;
  • This shows the limits of aggregated media. Why people in Wingham should care about what happens in Lansvale without a contrasting local angle isn't clear (but that would assume that readers' interests matter more than the fact that Fairfax has content to pump at them);
  • In this, Kevin Donnelly is apoplectic that someone, somewhere, disagrees with him about anything. The idea of all this outrage is for transactional politicians to give up and give poor old KD whatever he wants, anything to avoid a bit of fuss; which leads to
  • Crap like this, in which our correspondent is outraged that a government she didn't vote for might consult people she doesn't like, which almost adds up to a slander against Gonski and a disincentive to conducting public service in the way that he has;
  • You'd almost feel sorry for the writer of this, starting off as a straight piece of reporting but slowly and inexorably sucked into the party line toward the end.
Public policy should be examined all the way from the interest groups that raise issues, through the parliament and back to the community through frontline services. It's stupid and wrong to regard parliament as where the public policy action is - but that's a tradition of journalism apparently. The only thing that gets in the way of the traditions of journalism is the future of journalism, and as the latter dims you can only wonder at the sheer puffery that exists around the former.

If journalism is going to stuff up big and important issues like education funding, and beggar their own profession, you can't trust them to get anything right.

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