Student challenges Gillard over school funding
It’s not every day that the prime minister of Australia shows up at your public high school to hold a “community forum” writes student and Socialist Alternative member, Ryan Higginson in Socialist Alternative.
Following her actions in recent weeks – justifying the lavish government funding of private schools, and passing a law that will now see asylum seekers rotting in concentration camps thousands of kilometres off of Australia’s shores – it was probably a bad idea to hold the forum in an under funded working class public school with a large refugee population.
So when it was announced, or rather leaked, to students that Julia Gillard and education minister Peter Garrett were coming to Braybrook College in the western suburbs of Melbourne, we decided it was our duty to make this PR stunt go as un-smoothly as possible.
Some of us decided that I should sneak into the forum and confront her in front of national media. With the help of some left wing teachers I was, some would say, smuggled into the 24 August forum. Bell times were changed to accommodate the special guest. Uniforms were checked to be in perfect condition. Troublemakers then hidden away in portables. And I took a seat in front of the cameras.
The prime ministerial party – consisting of Gillard, Garrett, attorney general Nicola Roxon and a plethora of school officials and high achieving students – set out along the officially designated tour path. They looked at our science centre, (avoiding the home made science equipment), toured our clean, sterile halls (avoiding the old portables we do most of our learning in), and finally arrived at the Music Room, where the meeting was to be held.
Strangely enough, they were greeted by the sound of our school band playing 2pac’s Changes. The irony of Gillard being greeted by a song glorifying the Black Panther Party and condemning imperialist war in the Middle East was lost on most people there.
With Garrett looking like he was going to break out into a Midnight Oil-era dance, the band finished playing and the guests took a seat. The forum began rather modestly, with a local primary principal declaring that he was “sick of bumper sticker slogans”, and was wondering when actual change would come about. Her response? Soon – or something. She didn’t really say.
When the principal, who was facilitating the forum, asked if anyone had a follow on question, my hand shot up. There was no “seizing” of the microphone like the media reported – it was politely handed to me by the principal. I asked:
“Ms Gillard, recently you were quoted as saying that you’ve ‘never thought big independent schools in established suburbs’ were unfair; rather you saw them as a ‘great example’ of your policies. Now, despite that being completely untrue, as your maiden speech as the member for Lalor in 1997 shows, I just want to know how you can justify seeing no inequality in the funding of schools, when private schools in upper class suburbs are installing new swimming pools, football fields and underground car parks on the government’s money, when we learn in old portable classrooms, and schools in this area have to use home-made science equipment.”
“And, looking past why the state is even funding these private institutions, how can you justify to teachers and students in this school, and other schools in areas like this all around the country, that those ‘big independent schools in established suburbs’ will not loose a dollar as a result of the education reforms but, rather, will be getting even more funding?”
As I finished I could hear the sound of applause. Limply holding the microphone, Gillard began her response. Initially she laughed, commenting on my “well researched” question, but then she began to realise I was serious. “It is true in Australia today that you are less likely to emerge from school with a great education if you come from a poorer background,” she answered. “However I do believe that every child’s education should receive some government support.”
Her five minute reply basically boiled down to her agreeing that there is inequality in the education system, but only for the poor. So deal with it. The forum finished without further “incident”, just some more empty promises. However, as my classmates scrambled to get her autograph, I found the perfect opportunity to confront her face to face.
“I have another question, Ms Gillard”, I began “How can you justify sending asylum seekers thousands of kilometres off shore to rot in prison camps for the ‘crime’ of escaping wars your government participates in?”
As I asked this, I saw a look of shock emerge on the faces of those around me. Her response? I didn’t understand what was actually happening: it was all to save lives. I’ve heard politicians lie before, but never directly to my face. “Save lives?” I continued, “The reason that their lives are in danger is because…” I was cut off when my principal pulled me to the side, and Gillard ended by saying she “had a different opinion”.
Returning to class I was complimented by passing teachers, and greeted with a round of applause by my classmates. Later on I was told by a teacher to not be so aggressive, and “toe the line” of the school. A caller to talkback radio station 3AW accused me of being “brainwashed by the unions”.
Although one angry student sneaking into a meeting to harass the prime minister isn’t going to change the world, it’s important to show that wherever racists, homophobes and ruling class stooges like Gillard go, they will be challenged.