- Australian politics: full coverage
- Abbott finds $1.2b more for schools
- Peter Hartcher: Minister for muddles is really the artful dodger
- Mark Kenny: Honesty in short supply
- Education groups wary of Gonski backflip
It's always unattractive to see politicians caught with their pants around their ankles.
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Labor's apprenticeship leg-up
Backflip on Gonski backflip
While the government backflips on Gonski funding, Labor says it is still a broken promise.
Just such a moment occurred – for the first time – to Malcolm Fraser in 1983. He hurried out to the Governor-General's residence to call an election, believing he could beat opposition leader Bill Hayden.
By the time he got back, he discovered the Labor Party had ditched Hayden and had a new leader, a fellow named Bob Hawke. Fraser's pants stayed, at least metaphorically, around his ankles until his government was thrashed by Hawke.
The new Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, found himself in a slightly analogous plight on Monday.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Education Minister Christopher Pyne had spent more than a week digging themselves into a ditch over schools funding. Pyne, having turned a somersault with at least a half-twist about his pre-election promise to maintain Labor's education package dollar for dollar, had taken to insisting all the critics were mad: they simply couldn't understand that black was white.
Abbott had tied himself in a rhetorical knot, arguing that the universe was confused about what his party had promised, which was "not the promise that some people thought we made or the promise that some people might have liked us to make". He sounded as if he were trying to rewrite George Orwell's 1984.
Unsurprisingly, Shorten's opposition was licking its collective chops at the chance to savage Abbott and Pyne with their own deception. Why, Abbott had spent three years accusing Julia Gillard of lying about a carbon tax. Perjury about paying for the schooling of the nation's young was an infinitely greater sin.
Abbott and Pyne knew what was coming, and pulled a swiftie.
Minutes before question time, they announced they would not only meet the commitment to match Labor's scheme dollar for dollar, but they'd overcommit with an extra $1.2 billion to cover all states and territories.
This was close to perjury – the "extra" billion had earlier been earmarked by Labor for Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, but Labor had put it aside when those states and the territory hadn't signed up. And it was another somersault. In politics, of course, too many somersaults are regularly barely enough.
The announcement, however, left Labor with nothing but the questions it had written before the change in the wind, and apparently too little time to change tack.
Shorten and his colleagues forged ahead with demands for guarantees that no school would be worse off.
Abbott, clearly recognising the sound of pants descending to the ankles on the opposition benches, chortled happily.
"He [Shorten] obviously had what he thought was a fantastic question time strategy. He is incapable of adjusting it in the light of the facts as they stand," he taunted.
Pyne, who can never be accused of modesty, chose to quote Ataturk, the military leader who drove the Anzacs off Gallipoli: "When the battle changes, a good general changes their battle tactics."
Shorten was driven to such emotion that he tried, unsuccessfully, to censure the government, apparently for pulling a dirty rotten trick and leaving him in his underpants.