Ideas@TheCentre

Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

It’s not time for a republic

Simon Cowan

12 January 2018 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

After mistakenly opening the door earlier this week to the idea of a quick postal survey on Australia becoming a republic, the Prime Minister has rightly shot down this thought bubble.

The biggest problem is that the republican movement has identified few tangible benefits from making a change. The website of the Australian Republican Movement talks about a head of state that puts Australian interests first and represents Australian values, but these claims ring very hollow.

Does anyone honestly believe the reason that houses aren’t more affordable or wages aren’t growing is the Queen?

The other big problem is that, nearly 20 years after the referendum on the issue was decisively defeated, there is no settled model for change. That the republican movement needs a postal survey to give their big change a definitive identity clearly shows the campaign isn’t ready.

It’s hard to imagine how the putative ‘yes’ campaign might convince an already sceptical and jaded public to vote for constitutional change when they have neither a model to advocate for, nor any clear rationale for making the change.

In a lot of ways, the two unresolved problems in the republic campaign are similar to those manifest in the campaign for Indigenous recognition. For all the claims about the benefits of the Indigenous voice to activists, little time was invested in clarifying how this would translate into better outcomes on the ground or identifying what benefits would accrue to the wider community.

And while the choice not to settle on a model for the Indigenous voice was putatively made to respect parliamentary supremacy, it seems as much motivated by the practical difficulty in resolving the fundamentally incompatible goals of Indigenous activists and constitutional conservatives.

It is hard to reconcile the Indigenous activists’ desire for substantive, meaningful change with the idea that the bedrock principles of Australian government would be unaffected. So too is the difficulty for those advocating for a republic: an argument that things won’t change is always a better argument for the status quo than those seeking reform.

This is an edited extract from an opinion piece published across Fairfax Media earlier this week.

Fixated with Finland

Blaise Joseph

12 January 2018 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

It may be a new year, but we’re still stuck with the old myth that Finland is an education utopia Australia must emulate.

Pasi Sahlberg from Finland, who has joined the new Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW, argued this week that his country’s school system has a lot to teach Australia. Basically, according to Sahlberg, Finland has more student play time and less standardised testing.

It is true Finland consistently outperformed Australia on all the international standardised tests in 2016, and of course we should be willing to learn lessons from the top-performing countries.

But Finland’s international test results have declined in recent years, and — as Steven Schwartz has pointed out — there are many reasons why Finland’s school system would be difficult, if not impossible, to emulate here. For example, Finland has little cultural or racial diversity, and has a much lower immigration rate than Australia.

Finnish is also a much simpler language than English, which means learning early literacy skills is relatively easier, boosting school results in later years.

Other countries like Singapore, which is the top-performing country in literacy and numeracy — not to mention collaborative problem-solving — potentially have many lessons to offer Australia as well.

Analysing high-achieving school systems is useful, but it is a fantasy to suggest Finland is the epitome of good education. This is part of a much broader myth that the Nordic countries are socialist paradises (ignoring the fact that most socialists wouldn’t be happy with Finland’s corporate tax rate of only 20%).

In any case, is more play time and less testing the key to boosting Australia’s school results?

No evidence has been presented to suggest Australian kids don’t have enough play time at school — recess and lunch are actually quite common practices in our schools, and there isn’t exactly a dearth of sports options for students.

And blaming NAPLAN for the lack of improvement in Australian schools is like blaming the thermometer for the fact that it was 42 degrees in Sydney last Sunday. NAPLAN identifies problems; it doesn’t solve them by itself.

Finally, it’s interesting that we’re told we should be like Finland and have fewer standardised tests, on the basis that Finland’s school system performs well — which, ironically, we only know because Finland performs well on international standardised tests.

Financial security will bring Indigenous environmental sustainability

Charles Jacobs

12 January 2018 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

A recent poll found that support for Indigenous ranger programs is high. However, these initiatives must promote financial independence as well as ecological sustainability.

Ranger programs – which largely undertake environmental conservation — employ thousands of Indigenous people across Australia. However, they remain heavily reliant on government grants. In 2017 $30 million of federal government funding was committed to Indigenous land management over the next four years.

If these programs are to be beneficial in the long term they must become financially self-sustainable. To do this, Indigenous communities need to leverage market opportunities that can create genuine sources of income.

Fortunately, there are commercial elements that can be incorporated into many Indigenous land management programs. Some activities are already being undertaken by rangers, but are yet to be fully exploited for financial gain.

Back burning of bush and grasslands is one of the most common practices of Indigenous ranger groups. With the Australian carbon farming industry expected to be worth up to $24 billion by 2030, Indigenous rangers are well placed to target this market by converting their burns into income generating carbon credits – as some groups are already doing.

In the Northern Territory, the economic potential of rampant feral buffalo populations offers another opportunity. Buffalo culling and population control should be harnessed for greater financial gain. Hunting safaris, led by rangers, could generate income and act as a disincentive to illegal killings and trespassing on Indigenous land.

Many of the skills rangers acquire could also be transferable to other employment opportunities or to running a small business. For example, rangers’ knowledge of the ecosystem and the Indigenous stories of a landscape could set the foundations for a four-wheel drive and camping tour enterprise.

Economic development is essential for remote Aboriginal communities wishing to close the gap. The ongoing growth of Indigenous ranger groups presents a significant chance for communities to target markets that can help them achieve this — it is an opportunity that should not be missed.