With some politicians, it's hard to imagine them in another job. Not Christopher Pyne. You could easily see him as a Shakespearean thespian or possibly as a particularly persistent wasp, writes Greg Craven in The Australian.
But his talent for striptease has hitherto gone unnoticed. Recently, however, Pyne has been gradually unveiling his higher education policy with an almost erotic, gingery coyness. Interestingly, the approach makes political and policy sense.
Pyne’s dance of the 17 veils allows him to gauge reaction as he goes. It also permits him to indicate basic policy directions, then refine them as issues emerge. It’s now clear Pyne's plan is one of the boldest in Australia’s higher education history, and ultimately has four planks.
First, reducing regulation for universities. Second, maintaining the demand-driven system. Third, deregulating the amount students pay. And fourth, extending government support to non-universities.
Fee deregulation is the one that will draw attention, rather like the sudden appearance of Miranda Kerr. There will be outrage at the prospect of 'rolled-gold degrees' and mounting student debt.
But even acknowledging these worries, there are two hard reasons a government would consider this course. First, Australia's great research universities have to research. Research is expensive. There is no government money. Without fee discretion, how do they even fall behind gracefully?
Second, the government is cutting like a lawnmower on a mission. Sadly, universities cannot anticipate immunity. If their support declines, they must make it up from somewhere or they — and students — will suffer. This is reality.
Luckily, the vast majority of universities have neither the inclination nor the brand to extract bowel-clenching premiums. The real political challenge for the government is the so-called elite universities, which may (or may not) have both.
This is where Pyne's slow strip is clever. As he sketches vision, he fills detail. There are any number of brakes he could develop on sandstone ambition, should the need arise.