Australian Labor government beats down teachers' revolt

Submitted by martin on 11 May, 2010 - 4:58 Author: Martin Thomas

Australian state school teachers took it to the brink this month, when their union declared itself willing to defy legal rulings against its boycott of NAPLAN tests (similar to SATS in Britain).

But in the end a brutal, unashamedly union-bashing approach from the federal Labor government made the union back down. The tests are going ahead, from 10 May.

The New South Wales Teachers' Federation, the largest and historically the most left-wing of the state organisations that make up the federal Australian Education Union, remained defiant longest, but eventually buckled on Thursday night 6 May.

The AEU leaders claim they have won a concession - a "working party", with AEU representation, to study ways of stopping the NAPLAN results being used for British-style "league tables" of schools - but it is only a sop.

The Labor government's project of collating NAPLAN results on a website has been condemned not only by the state school teachers' union, but also by teachers from private schools, including those which get the highest rankings in the scheme.

The principal of the selective Melbourne High School describes the scheme as "a piece of crock".

Federal education minister and deputy prime minister Julia Gillard started by urging parents' groups to intervene and administer the tests.

Then state Labor governments got industrial court rulings against the boycott, making individual teachers liable for fines of up to $6600 (about £4000).

The New South Wales government sent government officials to seize the test papers from school principals, and phoned principals to say that their schools' funding, or their own careers, would be at risk if they boycotted.

The teachers' union should not have backed down. But it should also have got much more vocal support from other unions. Gillard's victory is a blow not only against education but also against trade unionism.

The Australian Labor Party, unlike the British, has a more-or-less recognised "left faction", sustained and in large part organised by "left" unions.

But the leading political figure of that "left" is... Julia Gillard.

As Christine Wallace, author of a biography of Gillard, writes (The Monthly, October 2009): "The Labor left is ‘the other’ of the ALP; historically, it was a refuge for those repelled by the grubby, money-oriented deal-doings of some on the party’s right. In recent decades it has been, disproportionately, the place talented women in the party call home.

"The left is not... something Gillard once was and isn’t anymore. Rather, it’s a place that Gillard... passed through on her way to the top".

The unions and Labor activists need to build a left which is not just a corridor to high office.

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