Asked by an interviewer whether education funding should be cut at a time when the government is spending more than $3 billion on the Elizabeth Quay and Perth Arena developments, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett's response was as contemptuous as it was dismissive: “What I’d say to you and people listening [is] get a life.”
On 1 April, teachers and education assistants across WA struck to oppose education funding cuts of $180 million. Putting Our Kids First, a combined parents and union campaign group, claims that the central demonstration numbered about 20,000. This is an advance on the estimated 15,000 that came out for a half-day strike last September.
These cuts are the deepest to the education budget in decades. Rallying teachers carried signs showing the total funding cut from their schools – many figures in the hundreds of thousands and some closer to a million. In total, 350 education assistant jobs, 150 education support jobs, 110 Aboriginal education officer positions and 600 teaching positions have been lost.
Also slashed were literacy and numeracy support services and specialist language development and behaviour programs. Overwhelmingly, the cuts have targeted the lowest paid sections of the workforce and support services for marginalised students – including Aboriginal, migrant and special needs students.
Both strikes have received significant media coverage, and the campaign is popularly supported. This had opened the possibility of the unions (State School Teachers Union WA, the Community and Public Sector Union and United Voice) waging a sustained campaign of strikes to stop the initial implementation of the cuts. This opportunity was lost. We are now fighting a defensive campaign to regain lost jobs and funding and to stave off further attacks.
Union leaders have spoken regularly of the need for a “long campaign”, and with both state Labor leader Mark Mcgowen and Bill Shorten speaking at the rally, the union’s electoral emphasis is clear. Never mind that the next WA state election isn’t until March 2017!
Instead of looking to the next election, our strategy should be to create sustained pressure on the state government right now. We need to show that we won’t back down or let the issue go cold. At the very least, the next step should be to call another strike in the lead-up to the state budget to pressure Barnett into backing down from further cuts.