The crisis of public education

Good teachers stay with you for your whole life. Here’s a short roll call of some teachers who shaped mine.

At primary school I fell in love with kind, patient Miss Fielding, my first grade teacher, while streetwise Mrs Dick kept my feet on the ground when my head was in the clouds.

At high school we discovered teachers had first names like us. Our art teacher Roger Chapman had us printing and binding the school magazine. Donald Colgrave opened a door to the universe of France and its language, and Harry Epler, my German teacher, introduced me to Europe and garlic. 

After years of struggle, maths was suddenly interesting thanks to Rex Wilson. My interest in history and literature was fed by Bruno Poulson and Michael Boddy (and at university by Malcolm McRae and his chief sparring partner, poet James McAuley).

Education is an abstract word for an experience that for me was visceral – physical as much as mental. I shared classrooms with kids from every imaginable socio-economic background who taught each other about life. I learned quite a bit at lunchtime, when we’d go down to the creek to hunt each other in packs. 

School life could be pretty rough. Around 1960 my first high school was named by the Melbourne Truth as Australia’s blackboard jungle. We took that as a badge of pride, but we were also aware that this newspaper was known to exaggerate. 

That school, New Norfolk High, was one of many being set up in Tasmanian country centres in the 1950s. My parents sent me there because it was their only option. But within the school, every student had a choice of technical, commercial or academic education.

The secular system that nurtured me gave all children, regardless of background, an opportunity to grow and flourish. Church schools struggled to keep up. When I later was a student at Hobart High (about to change into a pre-tertiary college) we looked down on the impoverished students at Friends just up the road. Our school was tops.

Little did we know that this was about to change forever. In the mid-1960s, to win the Catholic vote, Liberal prime minister Bob Menzies put federal money into private schools, starting an educational revolution that continues to this day. As a result, Australia now has the world’s best-resourced private school sector – at the cost of a steadily eroding public system. 

State governments have compounded a federal funding bias towards private schools by cutting funding for their own public system. Since 2010, combined federal and state funding for private schools has risen six times more than funding of public schools. One result is a dramatic teacher shortage – 4000 teachers nationally by 2025 according to the federal education department.

Parents of private school students seeking for their child the best possible start in life may not feel bothered by this, but they should be. Well-resourced private-school learning is itself compromised by inequalities in school funding more broadly. In education as in so much else, there can be no excellence without equity. 

Inequity is felt especially keenly in Tasmania. Economist Saul Eslake told the Tasmanian Economic Forum last month that his home state’s education system was under-performing and in grave need of reform, while disparities in income and wealth were widening. 

Last week my colleague Greg Barns pointed to every democracy’s need for an informed citizenry. Our youngest people will have to deal with with the thorniest issues ever to confront human society. At their disposal will be unprecedented computing power that may help in the search for solutions, but this same power also makes us more vulnerable than ever to mass delusion.

The teaching profession will be the focus of Billy Blackett, the 2024 Tasmanian Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford from next year. Its ability to deliver to young people the power of independent, critical thinking must surely be uppermost in his mind.

Besides me, the impact of the good people I named above would have been felt by thousands of citizens-to-be. But for each one of them there are countless more teachers today in need of our recognition and support. Potentially, teachers have the power to shape whole societies, but only if we can find it in us to allow them the freedom and the support they need to perform at their best. 

Public education is a fundamental responsibility of state governments. In Tasmania both major parties have shirked that responsibility for decades. Redressing this chronic failure should be the highest priority for parties and voters alike as we near another state election.

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Out of the rubble, a kind of hope

Another annual climate summit is with us. More hype, more dire warnings, more noisy protests, more solemn pronouncements, more hypocrisy, more fakery.

This in a year set to be far and away the hottest in recorded history, when ice sheets are melting like never before and wildfires and heatwaves are at new levels. 

The 28th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is about eliminating fossil fuels, is being hosted by a major oil and gas producer, the United Arab Emirates. It sounds like a bad joke, but it may also be a foot in the door to rein in these massive interests. That is what the UAE leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, would have us believe.

Last week the United Nations Environment Program said that expected oil and gas production from exploration licenses granted this year (Australia is among the culprits) would put us on track to double the emissions needed to be consistent with 2030 Paris temperature goals.

It warned that current G20 targets, which no member nation is on track to meet, will deliver a catastrophic temperature rise of at least 2.5C. To ensure a “safe” long-term warming of 1.5C we need a global 42 per cent emissions cut in just seven years. That is, Australia’s current ambitious target will need to be realised world-wide.

But UNEP also said that projected rises in world emissions by 2030 have dropped from 16 per cent in 2015 to 3 per cent this year. Last week Berlin-based Climate Analytics, a reliable monitor of global progress, said we have a 70 per cent chance that 2024 will be a “crucial inflection point” after which emissions will start to fall.

More good news: Australia has been an emissions laggard and a backwater for renewable energy investment, but that looks set to change. Last week climate and energy minister Chris Bowen announced an expanded “Capacity Investment Scheme” designed to turbocharge investment in new clean energy generation and storage. It looks as if it might actually have legs.

Bowen has seen what the Biden administration has achieved through its signature climate law of August 2022, the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, which turns out to be a potent mechanism for drawing private investment into clean energy.

Under the Act, a projected $369 billion worth of tax breaks, subsidies and grants entice US-owned companies to put their money into wind, solar, batteries and power transmission. It was an instant hit. Within three months of its passage it had drawn $40 billion of private money into clean energy industries – and 7000 jobs.

After a year investment was at $270 billion and climbing fast. As the US Treasury said in a review, such manufacturing investment has been especially telling for struggling, economically disadvantaged communities, where investment in manufacturing jobs offers the biggest bang for the buck.

Japan and Korea have followed suit. The European Union, for decades the world’s renewable energy leader, now has its own $261 billion clean energy investment plan. We’re seeing perhaps the biggest global investment boom ever. Management consultants McKinsey have estimated that over the next five years it will total about $US130 trillion (about $200 trillion Australian).

This is the global backdrop for Chris Bowen’s expansion of the existing Capacity Investment Scheme and the National Energy Transformation Partnership with the states. Aiming as he put it to “supercharge” electricity supply and create a new “reliable, affordable and low-emissions” energy system, tenders will be called every six-months, starting around a year from now.

The CIS, says Bowen, will boost the National Electricity Market by 50 per cent by adding 23 gigawatts of renewable power and 9 GW of instantly-available dispatchable energy from storage devices, mainly batteries.

The expanded investment scheme offers energy supply contracts to successful bidders specifying a revenue ceiling and floor. If a project’s revenue is above the agreed ceiling, the owner will pay the government a percentage of that excess. If revenue is below the floor, the Commonwealth pays the owner. Winners everywhere.

Forefront in Chris Bowen’s mind is COP28’s global stocktake of national actions to phase out fossil fuels. Its other main focus will be financing and managing a “loss and damage fund” for the countries most affected by climate change. Without rich countries like Australia and the US getting their own houses in order, all this will fall in a heap.

Climate wars have crippled us, but now the energy transition is becoming lucrative. Speaking all languages and capable of breaking the most iron-clad of ideologies, money is our last, best hope.

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Ferries, electric transport: small steps on a long journey

It has been a long and anxious wait, but last week produced two signs that the Tasmanian government is now on board with the notion that being committed to climate change is more than just saying so. 

The first came on Monday, with the unveiling by premier Jeremy Rockliff and his deputy and transport minister Michael Ferguson of a “River Derwent Ferry Service Master Plan”, outlining how today’s Bellerive to Hobart service could be expanded to take in six additional sites – Regatta Point, Sandy Bay (Wrest Point), Wilkinsons Point (Goodwood), Howrah Point, Lindisfarne and Kingston Beach.

With conventional diesel the proposed power option, at least initially, a ferry service won’t affect transport emissions. The plan notes the high cost of electric or hydrogen ferries and the fact that zero-emission bus technology is more advanced than for ferries. But in that case why are we still without an electric bus fleet?

History is on the ferries’ side. Starting with repurposed whaleboats and finishing with clunky old car transports, water craft were essential to get people over the river until Hobart got a bridge in 1943. And they allowed industries like timber and agriculture to flourish in the Huon and Channel and on Bruny Island when road transport barely existed. 

Sightseeing ferries plied the Derwent for decades, and long before a New Norfolk railway started in 1887, river boats were the valley’s main freight transport. Reflecting these earlier far-flung connections, potential ferry destinations in the new master plan include New Norfolk, Woodbridge, South Arm and Nubeena – albeit at a low priority. It was that which raised the ire of Brighton and Derwent Valley mayors at the weekend.

The government remains open to attack for its neglect of Metro bus services and its wholesale rejection of rail possibilities. It has now opened the door to what may well be the least cost-effective public transport option. But at least it’s talking about public transport, which is welcome. The next question must be, what about Metro?

More noteworthy from a climate perspective was its launch on Friday of a new “e-transport support package”. There are three parts to this grants program, designed to cut transport emissions by offering people money as an incentive to ease the cost of buying vehicles and equipment. 

The first is to support people buying electric cars, for which a $2,000 rebate is being offered for new – or new-to-Tasmania second hand – battery electric vehicles (EVs). 

The second offers a 12 per cent rebate on the purchase cost of electric-powered bikes, scooters, skateboards and other “e-mobility devices”. There are set caps to this, of $250 for e-scooters, $500 for e-bikes and $1000 for cargo e-bikes (bikes designed to carry cargo, luggage or extra passengers).

The third part of the e-transport package is not yet available, but when that happens it will be offering financial support in the form of no-interest loans for installation of home EV chargers.

The subsidies are hardly spectacular, but they’re one more incentive for people to end their use of fossil fuel for their private transport. Given that almost all Tasmanian transport relies on petrol or diesel, and the fact that this sector is the main source of ongoing carbon emissions, I’m not going to argue with that.

Every political action, including a plan for a ferry scheme and support for electric vehicle use, matters, because any one of them can lead to another. But in the bigger scheme of things, they are drops in an ocean of actions and transformations needed to stop the advance of global warming.

The really critical question about any government’s climate response is, when will it take effect? Accelerating climate change is shrinking the time available to make a difference. At the weekend, for the first time in recorded history, Earth’s surface temperature broke through 2C above the pre-industrial baseline, while this year’s average is going to breach the 1.5C “safe” limit.

In this context, the climate response of Tasmanian governments present and past is a resounding failure. Once I would have huffed and puffed about this, but over the years I’ve come to realise that this chronic failure is only partly the responsibility of governments. They fail because their people let them. In the end we all fail.

In fact, Tasmania’s failure belongs to every jurisdiction in every developed country on Earth. It’s now clearer than ever that when humans individually and collectively are settled into a particular way of life, it takes a monumental shock to shift them from it. That, I fear, is what is in store for us. We should brace ourselves.

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