John Gillard’s Pride

Alan Jones wasn’t just setting a new standard of nasty when he said Julia Gillard’s father died of shame: he was showing – again – how challenged he is by facts. There is absolutely no doubt that John Gillard was enormously proud of his daughter’s success.

In the days following his death, the Prime Minister spoke in parliament about her father’s life and wrote this piece, published on the Drum.  She noted how important education was to him.

“He grew up in a state of hardship. It was not unknown for him to literally not have enough food. He grew up in a coalmining village and he was one of seven children. They did not have much money. He also did not have the opportunity at that stage of his life to fulfil his dreams for a further education.”

In Adelaide, he gained a university qualification and became a successful psychiatric nurse.

Her father passed his belief in the “life-changing nature of education” on to his daughter, the future Prime Minister of Australia. Whatever you think about Julia Gillard’s various policy successes (and some failures) there is no doubt that one of her driving passions is to improve the accessibility of education and skills training for young Australians.

Mr Gillard would have been extremely proud of his daughter’s education policy achievements. The Gonski report recommendations, which the Gillard government has accepted, will improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students by giving them greater share of much needed commonwealth funding. In the higher education sector, Gillard’s government has set a target of 40% of all 25-34 years olds to hold a bachelor qualification or higher by 2025. This will increase the number of graduates by 217,000 on current levels. 217,000 John Gillards. Although you don’t see good news about the government’s policy successes very often in the media, it’s worth noting that achievement of this target is currently on track.

Julia Gillard knows that her family’s experience of the value of educational opportunity is just one example of the larger phenomenon of social mobility. Put simply, measures of social mobility display how well a society provides opportunity for people to improve their circumstances. Australia has, comparatively, a very good report card for social mobility. A recent study released by The Sutton Trust reveals that “Australia and Canada are around twice as mobile as the UK and US”. Australia should, however, not rest on its laurels.

Lack of social mobility has become a hot political topic in the US and the UK. Australians can see in the poor record of these countries what might happen if we take our eye off the ‘social mobility’ ball. While they are slowly recovering from the global financial crisis and recession, it is clear that the gap between rich and poor is growing, and that the only winners from growing incomes are the rich.

In ‘Voices from the vanishing middle’, The Guardian introduces a typical UK family from Nottingham, whose combined income is £30,000 per year (approximately $AU 47,000.) Clair is a part-time hairdresser and Dan is an air-conditioning technician. The family can’t afford to buy a house, Clair can’t work more than part time because of childcare costs and they live week to week, with nothing left after household expenses. Clair has considered higher education, but the cost put it beyond her reach.

The article is based on a study released by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Employment Research. It highlights:

“how Dan and Clair, and millions of others like them, are victims of changes in the UK jobs market which – coupled with current policy on tax, benefits and other issues – are fast creating a Britain of two halves: those in the bottom 50% whose living standards are on the slide, and those in the top half who can look forward to better prospects in the future.”

The study warns that traditional skilled jobs, for example in manufacturing, are declining, and concludes that only those in higher skilled jobs have any chance of mobility.

In America, there has been a lot of focus in the current election campaign on the growing size of America’s ‘working poor’ and their limited access to the most expensive tertiary education system in the world. In this article, Jerome Karabel, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, points out that:

“those committed to greater equality of opportunity also need to address disturbing trends in American education that have undermined its historic role as an engine of opportunity. Not long ago the world leader in the proportion of young people graduating from college, the United States has now fallen out of the top 10. Coinciding with this decline has been an extraordinary increase in student debt, which has passed the $1-trillion mark and now exceeds the total credit card debt of the United States. In no other advanced country is college so expensive or so dependent on parental resources.”

When the cost of an education is dependent on parental resources, social mobility is stifled. Education is the key determinant in our society in establishing the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. So you can see why the Labor government wants to improve accessibility to education.  Australia can’t afford to entrench generations of working poor. We must ensure that children whose parents are in ‘low skilled’ professions, aren’t destined for the same fate.

Julia Gillard is a fantastic advocate for increasing access to education, whether a child’s parents are rich, middle class or poor. She, and many in her cabinet, are great examples of people who have been socially mobile – coming from low socio economic backgrounds to positions where they can directly influence the social mobility of future generations. John Gillard’s pride in his daughter’s success was not just seeing her become the Prime Minister of the country that gave his family the opportunity to be socially mobile. His pride would also have been in his daughter’s commitment to sharing this opportunity with a growing number of Australians. Alan Jones couldn’t have been more wrong when he said John Gillard ‘died of shame’. And it’s not only her father who is incredibly proud of Julia Gillard, it’s all Australians who value the benefits of social mobility. Where do the Australian Liberal National Coalition stand on the issue of educational opportunity and social mobility? That’s a topic for another post.

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