THE State government has defended Education Minister Sue Ellery and hit back at claims of disunity between its country and city party members over regional education cuts.
In a statement released last week The Nationals WA called for Ms Ellery to step down after Labor Albany MLA Peter Watson made comments on ABC Radio that indicated country members of the party were pushing for a reversal of several cuts to education.
It comes after the government announced it would close the Moora Residential College, sell-off camp schools and take funds from an agricultural education trust fund in December.
Despite backflipping on several other education cuts in January, the aforementioned savings measures were kept on the table as part of the State government’s plans to save $41 million.
The Nationals WA leader Mia Davies said comments made by Mr Watson reflected a divide within the Labor Party and called upon country Labor members to make their positions on the education cuts known.
“Despite the protest of some regional Labor MPs, it’s clear who rules the Labor party room – the city members,” Ms Davies said.
“Labor’s country members have failed to convince the Premier of the damage these cuts will impact across regional Western Australia.
“Regionally-based Labor MPs, including those ministers in the McGowan Cabinet representing country electorates, must now declare publicly if the Education Minister retains their support.
“The Member for Albany has belled the cat and if the minister no longer enjoys the support or confidence of a section of the caucus and Cabinet, she must do the right thing and resign.”
Ms Ellery has dismissed calls for her resignation and said she would “not be taking career advice” from the opposition party.
“Their irresponsible budget management is the reason these tough decisions had to be made,” Ms Ellery said.
Mr Watson has since publicly declared his support for Ms Ellery and said country and city MPs were unified on issues related to regional education cuts.
While he understood the discontent surrounding the closure of the Moora Residential College, he said difficult decisions had to be made in order to repair the State’s finances.
“Since then it has been explained to me that it’s millions of dollars – and around the Moora area there’s empty beds at all of these other facilities,” Mr Watson said.
“The National Party had the opportunity when they were in to do something about it and they didn’t, so I’m a little bit disappointed they’re coming out and making comments about what should be done when they had eight and a half years and didn’t do anything.
“When you look at how much money does go into regional areas from the Labor government I think it’s a bit harsh to blame everything on the minister.
“There’s been a couple of backflips but that happens when you’re trying to make hard decisions – I think she (Ms Ellery) is doing a good job, she’s very passionate for the job.”
Agricultural Region MLC Darren West has also declared his support for Ms Ellery, saying while there had been robust discussions within the party room over the education cuts, all MPs understood the State’s financial predicament.
He said it was now time to focus on moving forward and support those affected by the education changes.
“As regional MPs we’re certainly not backwards in coming forwards in airing our views about things and there certainly was some pretty frank discussions early on about some of the changes which were reversed,” Mr West said.
“There’s no split or anything, it’s just as regional MPs we get in there and bat for regional areas, just as they do in every other party.
“We all understand the minister is in a difficult position and has to make some hard decisions, I’ve accepted that that’s the decision that it’s going to be and we’re moving on.”
East Metropolitan Region MLC and Liberal Party spokeswoman for Education and Training Donna Faragher said the fight was not over, and opposition parties would continue to advocate to see all remaining education cuts reversed.
Ms Faragher said it was clear that regional communities would not back down following a well-attended rally held by the Country Women’s Association of WA (CWA) at State Parliament last week.
About 400 people attended the CWA’s first political demonstration its 94-year history last Tuesday, in support of its bid to see a backflip of the remaining cuts to country education.
“I was very pleased to see the number of people there who were from a broad range of both the country and the city in support of the CWA, I think that was a very clear demonstration of the significant concern that continues to be felt right across the State,” Ms Faragher said.
“I am continuing to meet and discuss with various groups and individuals who are impacted across the board with respect to these cuts, and that’s both in country WA as well as the city.
“I will definitely be taking a lead fight when we return to parliament next month and I’m continuing to advocate very strongly with all of my Liberal colleagues and National colleagues for these cuts to be reversed.”