On the Buses

I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.

The Age has published an article (here) about a group of Melbourne white collar professionals who are going to travel into work in the CBD in a private bus rather than put up with the ‘unsavoury aspects of public transport’.

Now this is all well and good. If they want to do so and are prepared to pay for the service then good luck to them. As a matter of personal opinion I’d say it’s a bit unfortunate that (a) the public transport system isn’t well enough invested in to meet these people’s needs and (b) some people feel the need to separate themselves from their fellow Australians. But that’s their choice.

What I want to know is whether anyone thinks these people should be given a government subsidy for their chosen means of transport. After all, they’re easing the burden on the roads and on public transport and they’re paying for the bus service themselves. Do I hear anyone arguing their bus service should be wholly or partly paid for by the government i.e. by other taxpayers? Or that some of their own tax contributions should be siphoned off to support their chosen means of transport? I didn’t think so.

Now if you don’t accept that argument, and you think they should have to pay for it themselves, tell me what the difference is between this and the choice of some families to ignore the public education system while expecting the taxpayer to fund their choice of a private education.

There’s not much difference at all, save for the fact that there is a relatively recent history of public funding of private education in Australia. In both the bus and the school cases there is an existing infrastructure and service which has been publicly funded for the common good. It’s available to all. It’s not entirely free and sure it could do with some improvement in places. But anyone who chooses another means of getting from (a) to (b) is doing so for reasons of personal benefit. It’s hard to mount a logical argument that this deserves a public subsidy.

Spare me the argument that those obtaining a personal benefit are doing us all a favour by easing the burden on the public system. Is anyone out there prepared to stand up and say that their motive for enrolling their child in a non government school that they want to help out the public system? Of course not. They do so because they want that particular type of education for their child.

The truth is that government investment in public education, and in transport, is underdone. And one of the key reasons for this is that there is no united public voice for more investment because a significant proportion of the population is off chasing a personal benefit rather than thinking of the common good. And in the case of education there is absolutely no doubt, like the bus travellers, they’re simply wanting to keep some distance between themselves and the ‘unsavoury’.

I imagine a much better education system for Australia, one which is more inclusive. In which young people learn to mix with others from many different backgrounds. In which we do not exacerbate the growing social divide in our nation or sentence indigenous/disabled/rural/immigrant students to inferior life choices. There seems to be plenty of evidence that the best educational systems around the world are those that achieve this, and better international test scores if that’s your bent, by not dividing children in the way that ours does.

The reality, of course, is that funding of private education in Australia is here to stay.  The mantra of choice is so well embedded, the sense of entitlement so ingrained and the preferencing of personal benefit over common good so accepted that it’s unlikely we’ll see substantial change any time soon. But in the meantime, those opponents of education funding reform might want to pause for a moment and think about how fortunate they are. And let’s hope that those bus travellers don’t cotton on to what’s happening in education.

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