It’s been a fascinating few weeks in Tasmanian politics.
On June 16, the Labor-Greens government handed down a shocking budget that cut funding to public health, education, police and other services.
Thousands of public service workers gathered on parliament lawns that day to condemn the plan, saying that services were already struggling to meet demand.
The education cuts included a plan to close 20 schools. Education minister and Greens leader Nick McKim started a process of “consultation” with affected school communities around the state.
Parents were given one month to put together a submission on why their children’s schools should not close. Teachers and other staff were forbidden from helping or from attending the many protest rallies and forums organised in the defence of the schools.
A Facebook page called Save Our Schools attracted 1400 people and served as an organising hub and portal of defiance and solidarity between the schools.
McKim was assigned a police bodyguard to accompany him when he visited the schools on the target list. Despite being given just 24 hours notice in most cases, parents and students turned out to the meetings to vent their anger.
At the July 1 public meeting to save Goodwood Primary School from closure (in Hobart’s northern suburbs), Labor and Greens MPs were unable to defend their policy.
Instead, they encouraged people to campaign for their school and to put together a good submission, despite it being the government that was threatening to close the school down.
Many parents at the meeting said they had always been Labor voters but were so disgusted with the government’s actions that they would vote Liberal in the future. The Liberals opposed the school closures.
Federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie told forum participants he was outraged by the plan to close three schools in his electorate. He said he would push Prime Minister Julia Gillard to demand the state government pay back the $13.5 million the federal government spent upgrading the 20 schools.
The government had budgeted to save $24 million over four years from closing the schools and selling some of the sites, but had not expected to be faced with a repayment bill from the Commonwealth.
Unions Tasmania Secretary Kevin Harkins actively supported the schools campaigns and warned that rank-and-file Labor members were revolting against the policy.
Many Greens members also expressed their outrage through letters to the editor and comments on the Tasmanian Times online forum, saying that the plan to close high-performing rural and local schools, that were obviously much-valued by their local communities. Others said the school closures ran counter to Greens’ principles.
Some federal Labor MPs also spoke out against the plan. Greens leader Bob Brown also expressed concern about the process.
The June 18 Mercury said state Greens MP Kim Booth had vowed to fight for Meander primary school, where his children were educated, and promised to “do everything I can to make sure the school stays open”.
A mass rally on parliament lawns to defend all the schools was planned for July 7.
However, on July 4, McKim announced the plan had been overturned in a cabinet meeting.
“I acknowledge the pain and hurt that resulted from the announcement that up to 20 schools would be considered for closure, and I apologise for that,” he said.
“I am genuinely sorry for the anxiety that has been caused to all involved. We got the process wrong, but we have listened to the community’s concerns and acted on them.
“I know my political opponents will see this as a show of weakness, but I believe it takes strength to admit when you are wrong and move forward.”
McKim promised there would be no closures next year, but said the government was still looking for ways to deal with declining enrolment numbers and he intended to appoint a reference group to “consult widely” and advise him on a new process for considering school closures.
While small schools around the state celebrated their campaigning victory, they also began a discussion on their Facebook site about ways to maintain their network so they can defend themselves from budget cuts and possibly being “picked off one by one” in the future.
However, a fight remains for public sector workers
A July 4 Community and Public Sector Union bulletin said that on June 22, despite signed pre-election promises of no forced redundancies or any time limit on redeployment, all 15 Labor and Green Tasmanian house of assembly members voted to support legislation allowing public sector workers to be made forcibly redundant and placing a six month limit on redeployment.
Some workers have already been informed of job cuts in their agencies.
The budget included a cap on public sector wage rises at 2% a year for each of the next four years.
The union bulletin said: “With effective inflation running between 3-5% this means pay will fall each year while the cost of power, water and sewage, food, petrol and mortgages will keep rising.
“But it gets worse … the 2% will be reduced to pay for the normal, annual increases in allowances such as first aid, testing and tagging, meals, accommodation [and casual loading].
“It was also interesting to hear [the government’s] position on the 0.5% productivity increase the Premier announced ...
“Apparently cutting 1700 jobs out of the public sector but expecting all services to be maintained doesn’t represent an improvement in productivity.
“To access the additional 0.5% … workers must give up an existing entitlement that will save the government at least 0.5%.”
The unions, and other groups such as TAP into a better Tasmania, are planning rallies outside the ALP state conference in Launceston on August 6.