Bill Shorten Photo: Louie Douvis
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Education Minister Bill Shorten has invoked John Howard's "who do you trust" mantra as he declared Labor would deliver the majority of the $10 billion in extra school funding earmarked towards the end of the decade.
In a fiery appearance at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Mr Shorten insisted the Better Schools plan was fully funded over six years, the first four years of which are within the current budget cycle and contain a slow start to the promised boost.
He said anyone who doubted Labor's ability to deliver the full six years of funding "must be scared to death" of the Coalition, which had promised to match only the first four years - a difference he said could be as high as $8 billion.
Mr Shorten likened the opposition's education policy to "cheap knock-off handbags" but pleaded with parents not to opt for "the imitation when it comes to your kids' education".
And the minister pilloried his counterpart, Christopher Pyne, for not agreeing to debate him at the National Press Club, but said it reminded him of a quote from French playwright Philippe Destouches: "The absent are always in the wrong."
Mr Pyne said prior commitments made his attendance "impossible" but two showdowns with Mr Shorten were locked in for next week, one with ABC TV's 7.30 program and another with News Ltd.
“I note Mr Shorten decided to go ahead anyway - I assume because he loves the sound of his own voice," Mr Pyne said in a statement on Tuesday.
Mr Shorten promoted the new needs-based funding system modelled on a review by businessman David Gonski, saying parents faced a clear choice at the September 7 election.
"The question is: who do you trust to fund the education needs of your children? Who do you trust not to make savage cuts to the education budget for your children? Who do you trust to respect teachers, to value teachers and not attack their pay and conditions? Who do you trust to build an education century? Who do you trust to build a good society?"
It was reminiscent of Mr Howard's pitch, when launching the 2004 election campaign, asking who voters trusted to keep the economy strong, interest rates low and to fight terrorism.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have both spoken about trust during this election campaign, with Mr Abbott most recently invoking Mr Howard's trust mantra when launching a tough new asylum-seeker policy last week.
The government's school funding plan would deliver about $10 billion in extra federal money over the next six years, but most of this is beyond the four-year budget cycle.
The government in April announced savings in higher education and student support would help fund the reforms. But the numbers have kept shifting, depending on states signing up.
Latest information provided by the government indicates the government has budgeted $3.1 billion over the four-year budget cycle.
However, this has since been reduced by $1.2 billion as a result of a lack of a deal with Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. The full six-year cost depends on whether those jurisdictions sign up after all.
Mr Pyne has vowed to deliver the same funding as Labor over the budget cycle, but argued Labor's promises after that could not be believed as they were "on the never never".
At a media conference in Adelaide, Mr Pyne seized on Treasurer Chris Bowen's appearance on Q&A on Monday night when he made a distinction between promises made in the budget cycle and those further into the future.
But Mr Shorten sought to allay doubts over whether Labor would be able to deliver the substantial extra funding beyond the current budget cycle.
"We've got a six-year funded proposition. We've been working on this for two-and-a-half years," he said.
"If you have any question which you really believe is a real issue in that question, then you must be scared to death of the Coalition's false conversion two minutes to midnight. We've costed six years.
"Kids don't go away in year five and six. They're still there."
He reaffirmed that a re-elected Labor government would work with those states to clinch a deal.
Mr Shorten defended Labor's campaign ads claiming billions of dollars would be cut from education under the Coalition - a point denied by the opposition.
He said the Coalition had committed to cut the bonus that helped parents with the costs of sending their children to school.
"I love the Libs. They want to give Rio Tinto; they want to give BHP Billiton a tax refund but they want the parents of Australia to pay for it. Obviously they must think school shoes can last twice as long in Liberal land," he said.
"When we talk about cuts, some people say, 'Oh tut tut, the Labor party's being negative, as if the only positive form of politics in Australia is not telling anyone anything you're going to do ever and using the fact that policy invisibility is proof you're positive'."
Mr Shorten said his decision to switch his support from Julia Gillard to Mr Rudd on the night of the leadership change in June this year was "a very tough call" but he believed Mr Rudd was "making us as competitive as we can be".
He said Labor's cause would be helped when it could "pin down the opposition on its costings".