ACT schools hit in budget massacre

Issue 

Alison Dellit, Canberra

On June 7, the ACT Labor government announced the closure of 39 schools (and the loss of 160 teaching jobs), the cutting of another 500 public service jobs and severe cuts to superannuation for the remaining workers, two new taxes, increased ambulance charges, a new levy and a 6% rates increase as part of its 2006-07 budget.

The June 7 Canberra Times estimated the budget will impose an extra $450 in costs on the average Canberra household.

Dickson College's open night on June 8 was turned into a spontaneous protest against the budget changes, as outraged students and staff realised their school was one of those scheduled for closure. Dickson College is in the final round of scheduled closures, projected for 2008.

Elsewhere in Canberra, students, staff and parents are still in shock. Most of the schools, including primary schools and high schools, are scheduled to be closed either at the end of this year or the next, although the government is planning a quick "community consultation" process first.

All pre-schools will be amalgamated into primary schools. A parent at Riverside primary school told the ABC on June 6 that the budget was "devastating. It's very, very sad, and a bit of a surprise. I know it shouldn't be, but it is."

Australian Education Union ACT president Clive Haggar described it as "the worst budget for public education in our history". He was quoted in the June 8 Canberra Times as saying that the budget put ACT Labor Chief Minister John Stanhope's government "on a par with Jeff Kennett in Victoria and the damage he inflicted on the public education system down there".

AEU members have begun a secret postal ballot to decide whether to take industrial action over a pay-claim campaign.

The budget's impact will go well beyond students and teachers. Superannuation for new ACT government employees will be set at 9% — well below the 15% the federal government estimates is necessary to avoid poverty in retirement.

Several government agencies are to be "rationalised", including EnvironmentACT, which will be decimated (losing one in 10 staff members) and it is rumoured that it will be folded into another department.

Ambulance fees will increase and a new "emergency services levy" of $84 will be imposed on households. Public housing places are to be cut.

Unlike the Greens, who have condemned the budget outright, the Liberal opposition has stopped short of opposing the school closures, while blaming the budget on "Labor's mismanagement" of funds.

Few Canberrans are not horrified with the budget. Even the Chamber of Commerce's Chris Peters told the ABC that it would send a message "that Canberra was an expensive place to live".

The sole supporters of the budget appear to be the Master Builders Association, which is eagerly anticipating the land sales from the closed schools, and capitalism's auditors, Standard and Poors, which gave the ACT a AAA credit rating after the budget. S&P analyst Brendan Flynn told the ABC on June 8 that it was necessary to trim the public sector to avoid future deficits.

[For more information on how to fight the school closures and the public sector cuts, contact your union, or the Socialist Alliance at <canberra@socialist-alliance.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.

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