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.

Has federalism failed us in the pandemic?

Robert Carling

24 September 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

Disparate government policies within Australia in response to the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic have highlighted strengths and weaknesses in our federal structure.

The recent actions of state governments serve as a reminder that the states are sovereign entities with strong powers. This has come as a revelation to many people accustomed to decades of creeping centralism.

But the reality is that in many spheres the states have substantial policy latitude and can have a major influence on our lives. Public health is one of them.

It is fair to say that many people like the way Premiers have wielded those powers to suppress the virus. Indeed, one of the strengths of federalism is that sub-national governments can try different solutions to a problem and follow the examples that work best. But is that what has happened?

The dissenting view – shared by this commentator — is that state governments have mostly taken a singular and unrealistic view of coronavirus risk management and failed in their duty to balance health advice against the economic, social and (broadly defined) health costs of their policies. Some of them are also pursuing parochial and populist state border restrictions that are doing enormous economic and social harm.

If Premiers are behaving badly, that doesn’t necessarily mean the federal system is broken and more powers should go to the Commonwealth. Any politician, including federal ones, can behave badly. That is what elections are for – and if we the voters don’t take the opportunity to reject bad behaviour and policies, then arguably we deserve what we get.

Rather, the question is whether the pandemic has exposed structural flaws in our federal system that have caused or enabled bad policies and need to be corrected through constitutional amendment or reform of Commonwealth-state relations.

The power of a state to stop residents of other states and territories from crossing their border — or imposing conditions of entry — is one such structural issue. This power is currently under legal challenge in the case of Western Australia. Depending on the outcome of the legal process now moving at snail’s pace, there may need to be some national soul-searching on this issue for the benefit of future generations.

Arguably, border restrictions imposed by one state affect everyone in the nation, not just residents of that state, and should only be imposed with the approval of the national government.

The distribution of financial powers also calls for examination, as the current arrangements do not give states the incentive to fully consider the economic and fiscal burden of the Covid restrictions they have imposed on economic activity.

The Decision-Making Ghosts

Monica Wilkie

24 September 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

When it comes to making decisions, the Victorian hotel quarantine disaster shows neither politicians nor public servants seem to know who is in charge.

The decision to use security guards to enforce hotel quarantine led to Victoria’s second wave. But, so far, the inquiry set up to establish who was responsible for this decision has found it was — no one.

After multiple hearings, hundreds of questions asked of the Victorian Chief Health Officer, Andrews’ top bureaucrat, the Emergency Management Commissioner, and a parade of others we have learned — nothing.

Perhaps this non-exhaustive list of bureaucratic titles provides a clue as to where the problem might lie.

Analysis pieces have exclaimed the inquiry has revealed “a quagmire of blame and lack of responsibility.” But this is not revelatory, and it exists at all levels of government.

A CIS submission to the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS) found the public service was top-heavy, and there are problems around duplication, a lack of efficiency and accountability.

The review resulted in a 384-page report which is, predictably, filled with banal bureaucratese. It discusses duplication, briefly, and concludes what is needed is “broader spans of control.” Those under curfew in Melbourne might disagree.

The other recommendations are typically vague and talk about driving transformation, building trust, and developing and embedding “an inspiring purpose and vision.”

The 2019 report follows on from the 2018 Empowering Change – Fostering Change in the APS report, the 2010 Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian Government administration report, and the APS Policy Capability Roadmap.

Writing stultifyingly long reports, appointing more executives, and providing lists of recommendations creates the illusion of activity. The hotel inquiry, like all the busy work into the APS, will likely yield little to no results.

Responsibility should ultimately lie with elected governments. But as Victoria, the Ruby Princess fiasco, and the fight over aged care have shown, the decision-making structures are virtually useless.

This suits pollies and public servants. They can blame each other for the fire while one holds the match, and the other the gasoline.

Reading wars rage on

Glenn Fahey

24 September 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

Despite decades of bruising battles, the reading wars rage on — with a new review exposing persistent opposition to evidence-based reading approaches in schools.

The NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) has put the contentious L3 (Language, Learning, and Literacy) programe under the knife. As many as three in five NSW government schools subscribe to the reading program — fully or partially — which ignores what’s clearly been identified as the best way to teach children to read.

L3 has persisted thanks to apparent pressure being placed on schools to participate in it, rather than it being backed by evidence.

Considerable taxpayer support has been committed for years to maintain the program, and the NSW Education Department has done little to deter educators from implementing the wayward method.

CESE’s move is a considerable blow to those who have resisted the phonics wave, as well as vindication for those who have been awake to L3’s evident flaws from the outset.

CIS research forcefully argued the case for reviewing the program in 2018 — pointing to the lack of evidence underpinning it at the time. The case against it has only mounted since then.

If it sounds like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have. A similarly dysfunctional programme — Reading Recovery — became defunct in 2018. Similarly, CIS research identified the lack of evidence supporting it as well.

As ever, children’s success in reading has been sabotaged by ideological commitment to constructivist learning approaches from a loud minority of education insiders.

A key battleground of the persistent reading wars is the role of phonics — the understanding of written letter and sound relationships — in learning to read.

One could be mistaken for assuming the war had already been won. Evidence from decades of research has stacked heavily behind use of explicit and systematic phonics as key to young learners’ reading success. And a growing number of policymakers — most notably the federal government — now actively promote the approach as a priority matter.

It’s well past time that education departments across the country better signal to teachers and schools which approaches have proved to be effective in the classroom — and those that aren’t.

Australian students have been denied the opportunity to become proficient readers and enjoy their best chance of educational success.

The task of reversing the damage caused by education’s evidence deniers remains a work in progress.