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Coalition win causes uncertainty

Doubts linger about the new government's promise to strengthen schools, says Geoff Maslen

Australian teachers face an uncertain future following the stunning victory by the conservative parties in last week's general election.

At least eight Labor ministers lost their seats in the election, including the minister for schools, Ross Free. Former prime minister Paul Keating led his party to its worst defeat in 20 years and now looks set to retire from Parliament himself.

Labor could point to some astonishing achievements in its 13 years in office - including a 55 per cent real increase in spending on schools, a doubling in the proportion of young people staying on to the final year of school and a virtual doubling in the number of school- leavers going to university. Despite this Australians overwhelmingly rejected its plans .

The conservative coalition of Liberal and National parties went into the election promising to "maintain and strengthen" public education. But teacher unions said the conservatives' education policy hardly reflected this goal.

Sharan Burrow, president of the Australian Education Union, said the policy was made up largely of rhetorical statements about government schools while promising extra money for private schools. She noted that maintaining Commonwealth spending on schools at current levels would mean an actual decline by the end of the decade.

The union, which represents 150,000 teachers across Australia, had asked the various political parties to support its campaign to increase spending on primary schools by $1 billion (Pounds 500,000) over the next five years and to lift overall expenditure to the average Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development level.

In a radical move, the union also proposed the creation of a "national bank" that would pool the money spent on schools by state, territory and federal governments and re-allocate this on the advice of a new national advisory council. Under the plan, the federal government's share of spending would rise to 50 per cent by 2000.

While the Labor party did promise to devote more money to schools, the conservatives refused to commit a coalition government. In fact, by guaranteeing to balance the federal budget within three years, the coalition is more likely to slash expenditure on public services, including schools.

The new government of prime minister John Howard, who once described himself as the most conservative politician in the country, will scrap Labor's new schools policy, which placed limits on the growth of private schools, and seems certain to exclude the unions from the political decision-making that was the hallmark of Labor's term in office.

One of the most serious issues confronting teachers is the conservatives' attitude to industrial relations. The new government has vowed to prevent unions from negotiating federal awards for their members and to downgrade the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

When conservative state governments in Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia attempted to change working conditions, including increasing class sizes and introducing individual job contracts, the AEU persuaded the commission to allow teachers to transfer to a federal award.

Under Mr Howard, however, this avenue will be closed and the commission's power sharply reduced.

"The threat to both quality education and democratic industrial rights is real," Ms Burrow said. She said the union had lost the support of valued advocates for public education, including the schools minister who was also a member of the AEU.

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