Federalism and schooling reforms in Australia
AffiliationMelbourne Graduate School of Education
School of Social and Political Sciences
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2016 Dr. Bronwyn Ann Hinz
This thesis reveals how federalism has shaped schooling reforms and policy making processes in Australia, a portfolio characterized by extensive and contested overlap of state and Commonwealth government roles. This is done through qualitative case studies of two landmark reforms from the 1990s - Victoria’s Schools of the Future reforms and the Commonwealth’s Choice and Equity reforms – based upon semi-structured interviews with policy actors and documentary analysis of material from personal and institutional archives, parliament, media, government and other sources. The thesis traces each of these reforms from their origins through to their implementation with the decisions, motivations and obstacles faced by policy makers examined at each ‘stage’ of the policy making process. Next, the lens is widened to encompass the broader and dynamic intergovernmental context in which each reform was pursued, to consider the direct and indirect ways each reform and the policy making process were shaped by Australian federalism. This is the first close-range, comparative, multi-level qualitative study of schooling reforms from an intergovernmental perspective in Australia. The thesis contributes new knowledge and a deeper understanding of these landmark reforms, of the operation of Australia’s federal system, and of the dominant models of federalism and policy making. This thesis finds that while each reform was pursued unilaterally, each reform was also significantly and indirectly shaped by features of Australia’s federal system. Contrary to widely held views on the restrictive nature of tied grants and perverse effects of overlapping roles, the study found the Victorian government possessed policy autonomy and the capacity to innovate in their response to what they considered state issues. Tied grants from the Commonwealth helped rather than hindered reform. The Victorian reforms were also enhanced by the spread of policy ideas, movement of policy actors and the availability of comparative data on school spending and outcomes in other states. These findings indicate the existence of a policy ‘laboratory’ and the protective ‘insurance’ effects of overlap, two claimed advantages of federal systems. The Commonwealth likewise pursued its reform package unilaterally in line with its own analysis of the policy problem and its own policy agenda. Yet the Commonwealth’s new school funding model was derived from models already in operation at state level, and constitutional provisions meant that the Commonwealth relied on state cooperation to implement its reforms. Vertical fiscal imbalance in its favour enabled the Commonwealth to provide funding to private schools beyond their estimated need. This constitutional, fiscal and political settlement contributed to what was ultimately a sub-optimal policy decision, poor resource allocation and slow, partial implementation. Simultaneous to the Choice and Equity reforms, the Commonwealth unilaterally reengineered tied grants for schooling to the states to make them more prescriptive and punitive, and attempted to extract other school funding from the states. The Commonwealth had very limited success in both instances of coercion. Conversely, evidence of highly productive collaboration was found in the case of the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling for the Twenty-first Century. These findings demonstrate that the coordinate and cooperative models of federalism, as well as the collaborative and competitive models of intergovernmental relations, are simplistic and unrealistic reflections of the fluidity and complexity of intergovernmental relations and governance in each of the case studies. The use of these models risks imposing unproductive and artificial boundaries on policy thinking and practices. The thesis supports a reconceptualisation of Australian federalism as concurrent federalism, which recognizes that policy actors act unilaterally and pragmatically in pursuit of their own policy goals within a shared policy sphere, but are still shaped by the contours and institutions of Australia’s federal system. This term also allows for the fact that intergovernmental relations took a variety of forms simultaneously – combative relations on one issue did not prevent constructive work on other issues. This was much more dynamic than previously conceived. This flexibility of Australia’s federal system is likely to be of value in the face of the increasing complexity of public policy problems. Furthermore, the thesis finds that models of policy making, such as the Australian Policy Cycle (Bridgman and Davis 1998) and the ‘streams, entrepreneurs and windows of opportunity’ model (Kingdon 1984), are useful analytical tools in a federal system, even where their descriptive value differed in relation to the two case studies. Findings from this study indicate that state governments are more effective at developing and implementing schooling reforms. Concurrency, tied grants, intergovernmental comparisons and movement of policy actors and ideas can enhance policy making processes and the policy laboratory effect to maximize policy responsiveness and effectiveness. But these benefits are undermined when tied grants become prescriptive and punitive, especially if the conditions are determined unilaterally by the Commonwealth.
Keywordsfederalism; policy making; reform; education policy; schooling; school funding; schooling policy; intergovernmental relations; Australia; government
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