Piccoli's Gonski outrage - a different complexion

The outrage expressed by NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and his Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, over the Abbott government's decision to renege on their Gonski funding deal is no doubt genuine.

Piccoli in particular has long been an advocate of a more equitable model for funding state schools, even at the expense of the private system.

By pitting themselves against Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne's determination to tear up the agreement they struck with the former Labor government, Piccoli and O'Farrell come across as champions of school education.

But we should not forget that just over a year ago they were battling accusations they were education vandals, having cut $1.7 billion from the NSW education budget at precisely the time when the Gonski review was advocating an increase.

Back then, Piccoli and O'Farrell defended themselves by arguing that it was a necessary part of whole-of-government cuts to get the NSW balance sheet under control.

They copped a shellacking on talkback radio and from their own backbench. The state opposition licked its lips at the exposure of the O'Farrell government's first genuine vulnerability.

So it was little wonder that O'Farrell and Piccoli leapt upon Gillard's offer of $3.3 billion in education funding like starving men.

They even found an extra $1.7 billion in savings to fund their end of the deal, by deferring the abolition of state business taxes and cutting money from TAFE.

Viewed in this light, their outrage about Pyne's political bastardry takes a slightly different complexion.

It is likely to be at least partly motivated by concerns that the federal education minister's actions threaten to put the NSW government right back in the difficult position it was in last year.

There are other considerations in play. Pyne clearly does not share Piccoli's view of how the funding pie should be distributed.

He adheres to the classic Liberal line that equity means handing independent and religious schools the same as those in the state system.

Nor should it be forgotten that when O'Farrell signed up to Gillard's deal, he handed a lifeline to her struggling Labor government – albeit with self interest at heart.

With a chorus of conservative voices backing him, a furious Pyne – one of the Abbott opposition's chief bomb-throwers – insulted O'Farrell by declaring he had been "conned".

It is not out of the question that Pyne is also indulging in a spot of revenge, now he is calling the shots.

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