Anatomy of a con job. How TAFE was, and is, labelled completely “unresponsive”


Rhetoric = language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.


This paper studies the manner in which the establishment of a climate of belief in an ‘unresponsive’ TAFE system, was pursued. It is argued that Dawkins’ activities may be viewed as an exercise in the ’mobilisation of bias’ (Bachrach 8: Baratz 1963) to achieve a policy outcome.

It is clear that while little concrete evidence was adduced in any single document to support the argument of TAFE’s poor performance and unresponsiveness, the simple repetition of the theme over two years had an effect in mobilising bias and thus resetting the parameters of policy debate.Where the claims of these policy documents can be checked against evidence they are largely unsubstantiated, but this did not diminish the success of the rhetorical mobilisation.

From the time he became Minister for Employment, Education and Training in ]uly 1987, until he launched his bid to take effective control of State TAFE systems in October 1991, Minister Dawkins worked to craft a window of policy opportunity through a sustained effort to create belief in his propositions about TAFE in relevant policy communities.

Not only was there far less dissatisfaction with the training system than implied by government, some crucial areas of the agenda, such as industry involvement in accreditation machinery, and thus the competency-based training push, had rather less industry support than claimed.


When in 1991 federal Employment, Education and Training Minister J0hn Dawkins
proposed a radical plan for the Commonwealth to take ejective control of State technical and further education (TAFE) institutions, he was taking the step in a campaign which had long been in preparation.

Policy theorists argue that policy entrepreneurs like Minister Dawkins deploy carefully developed rhetoric to promote their preferred initiatives, aimed less at persuading than at widening the debates audience, altering decision-making criteria and mobilising bias by linking issues to a wider policy agenda.

Rhetoric of a policy-making tool

The importance of rhetoric in policy-making is not primarily its persuasive power. Rather, policy rhetoric is about the framing of a policy agenda, the determination of the roster of participants in policy debate, and the specification of decision-making criteria.

Policy proponents will frequently express their goals as a set of technical questions, concerned with improving efficiency while trying to avoid terminology which might invite a wider political debate. Their opponents within a policy community, if in danger of losing the debate, will frequently try to shift the issue to a wider and possibly more sympathetic audience, through the use of rhetoric which redefines an issue as broadly political or even moral in scope.

March and Olsen have argued that ‘the history of administrative reorganisation in the twentieth century is the history of rhetoric’ (March & Olsen 1983, p.282). Rhetoric is an important tool that policy entrepreneurs use to establish the existence of an issue for which their proposed reform is presented as the appropriate solution.

In their pioneering work on ’non·decision-making’, Bachrach and Baratz demonstrated that the manipulation of dominant community values, myths, political institutions and procedures was a technique used to limit the scope of decision-making to issues considered ’safe’ by political elites (Bachrach & Baratz 1963, p.632).

The border between decision- making and non-decision-making is maintained by the ’mobilisati0n of bias’ (Bachrach 8: Baratz 1963, p.642). Rhetoric is the instrument political actors use for the mobilisation of bias, either to keep an issue off the political agenda, or to force it on.

This conceptualisation of the role of policy rhetoric has been developed and systematised in the work of Baumgartner in his studies of educational policymaking in France (Baumgartner 1989). Baumgartner began by asking the question:

…why do some issues become important societal debates, dominate the national media, and monopolise the attention of the nation ‘s political leaders, whereas other issues are decided by small groups of experts?
(Baumgartner 1989, p.3)

Policy-makers attempt to manipulate the policy process by defining the issues. Those with an interest in contracting the debate use arcane and technical language in an attempt to define the issue restrictively as a technical question to be handled by specialist participants. Those with an interest in expanding the debate use symbols to portray the issue as broad and political, so many can participate.

Policies must be explained in symbols of some sort, and policy-makers fight over the attachment of some symbols to their policies because they know that different symbols will attract different participants.
(Baumgartner 1989, p.11)

Case study – TAFE

The conflict which eventuated over Dawkins’ plans for TAFE illustrated these techniques. Minister Dawkins linked his proposals to micro-economic reform and the perils of international competition (Dawkins 1991, p.5) while opponents, such as South Australian Minister Rann, spoke about ’the cold, clammy hand of Canberra’ (The Australian 16/ 10/ 91) and an ’East German centralist model’ (Ryan & Hardcastle, 1996, p.244).

The effect of these rhetorical upgrades was to take the debate to increasingly wider audiences, to link it to broader Commonwealth] State disputes and eventually to secure a partial
victory for the resisting States.

In the earlier case of the supposed unresponsiveness of State TAFE systems, however, Dawkins’ rhetorical deployment was seen as no more than niggling and no vigorous response was offered. Only in retrospect was it realised how effectively Dawkins had taken his claim outside the narrow policy community of State and federal VET officials to one incorporating employer and union bodies and central government agencies. By the time of the 1991 conflict, a climate of belief in the unresponsiveness of TAFE institutions had become, to a greater or lesser extent, an accepted element of the debate.

The Skills For Australia document was aimed primarily at introducing radical changes to the method of TAFE funding by the Commonwealth and sought to justify these by asserting that:

The government is determined that our education and training system should play an active role in responding to the major economic challenges now facing Australia Our skills formation and training arrangements are not yet adequate to meet these demands. (Dawkins & Holding 1987, p.111).

The document insisted that the focus of funding needed to be sharpened to ensure that funds are spent in accordance with national objectives and to ensure improvements in the relevance of TAFE provision’ (Dawkins & Holding 1987, p.34)….

….The A changing workforce document was essentially an exhortation to industry to become more involved in training issues. It included the proposition that ‘the government has made clear its wish to see greater industry involvement in TAFE and more diversified arrangements for vocational education and training generally’ (Dawkins 1988, p.8) and the hope that
’increased industry-based training will provide healthy competition for TAFE’ (p.21)….

These papers [amongst others] set out Dawkins’ rhetoric on TAFE in broad terms.

It is clear that while little concrete evidence was adduced in any single document to support the argument of TAFE’s poor performance and unresponsiveness, the simple repetition of the theme over two years had an effect in mobilising bias and thus resetting the parameters of policy debate.

Evidence for the effect achieved by continuous reinforcement of the ’unresponsiveness’ rhetoric is available from a succession of reports issued by the Economic Planning Advisory Council (EPAC), a highly influential policy forum of the government, whose membership
included State premiers as well as business and union representation.

According to Boreham’s study of corporatism in the Hawke government, EPAC could be described as the major institutional embodiment of corporatism in Australia (Boreham 1990, p.50). EPAC did not undertake or commission any direct research into the VET sector until 1992. Until then it relied wholly on advice from Dawkins’ Ministry for its comments on VET.

For example, in its 1986 report on human capital and productivity growth, EPAC supported the view that ‘industry representatives were concemed that technology and business courses in TAFE were insufficiently up to date (EPAC 1986, p.19). In 1988, EI’AC’s An overview of microeconomic constraints on economic growth argued that ’a major barrier to improvement in the quality of apprenticeship training has been the absence of defined competency standards and competency testing’ (EPAC 1988, p.32).

The EPAC document concluded that reforms to widen and deepen the national skills base were essential to the promotion of economic growth, a recurring theme of the Minister’s statements, although it would appear not to have been fully supported by contemporary research (Marginson 1993, pp.128—129).

Industry criticism of the responsiveness of the TAFE and training systems was a common theme of the 1980s. Whilst much of this criticism as fundamentally a reflection of the rigidities of the labour market in which TAPE and training authorities operated, much of it also arose from difficulties in the structure, operation and management of the training
system itself (Sweet 1993, p.5)

If Sweet’ s assessment is accurate, it would seem that a moderate degree of industry dissatisfaction had been systematically inflated by Minister Dawkins and agencies within his portfolio as part of an exercise in mobilising support through rhetoric for a package of intended reforms—the training reform agenda. Not only was there far less dissatisfaction with the training system than implied by government, some crucial areas of the agenda, such as industry involvement in accreditation machinery, and thus the competency-based training push, had rather less industry support than claimed.

Between 1987 and 1990 Commonwealth Minister ]ohn Dawkins engaged in a systematic process of setting a policy agenda derived from the new value system of corporatist and managerialist approaches to government.

A clear policy trail of docmnents and policy initiatives illuminates his attempts to mobilise support through rhetoric which stressed the urgency of adopting an economic and instrumentalist view of education and training and cast the existing public TAFE system as maladaptive and non-responsive.

The training reform agenda was deeply rooted in a new industrial relations agenda built on the concept of award restructuring. This approach allowed the recruitment of representatives of the industry parties into a corporatist ’common front’ against institution—based
vocational education. The fact that a common front was not always easily developed, especially with some employer organisations, reflects the degree to which the rhetoric was contrived and, in its characterisation of an unresponsive TAFE system, went well beyond the
actual experience of the parties involved.

Lasting impact of uncontested rhetoric

As well as his own (and his agencies’) rhetoric, Dawkins skilfully deployed legitimation derived from the key economic corporatist bodies, EPAC and OECD, which had the added benefit of widening the roster of debate participants. Like the reportage of industry attitudes,
the use of EPAC and OECD material was, at the least, selective.

But it was effective and stands as an exemplar of the lasting impact of uncontested rhetoric in setting a policy agenda.











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