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.

Respect and Division: How Australians view religion

Monica Wilkie

06 December 2019 | ideas@theCentre

Australians’ famously tolerant attitude toward religion endures. But this view has a clear blind spot — religious organisations.

Our research indicates Australians are viewing religion as mostly a personal belief, and they are happy for their neighbours to enjoy certain religious liberties, such as freedom of speech.    

Recent polling has found most (54 per cent) believe religious people should be free to publicly express their views – even if others find them offensive. And most (56 per cent) do not think the religious views of others should be ridiculed.  

This tolerance towards religious individuals explains why most Australians (64 per cent) do not think people should be refused employment because of their religion. In other words, Australians do not think religion should be a basis for exclusion. 

While this is positive, it does limit religion to simply belief and fundamentally misunderstands not only religious freedom but religion.  

Historically, religion has focussed on sacred rites, behaviours, and rituals — what someone believed was often secondary.

Freedom of religion cannot exist without freedom of speech and association. As Attorney-General Christian Porter said in his recent speech at the National Press Club: “For religion to exist at all; religious bodies must be able to maintain a chosen level of exclusivity.” 

This is why it is concerning that only 30 per cent of respondents thought faith-based organisations — such as schools — should be able to employ people who adhere to their faith.

For some religious bodies, staffing is not simply a matter of preference, but a vital aspect of them being able to maintain their ethos and identity.

In a secular, liberal democracy, religious organisations should be free to make these important decisions for themselves.   

This disconnect between religious individuals and organisations is a problem, but not an insurmountable one.

A significant majority (78 per cent) of Australians, regardless of religious affiliation, believe that respecting religion is important in a multicultural society. 

Interestingly, they believe this despite most (52 per cent) also thinking religion divides society more than it unites us. 

Australians are, therefore, happy for a certain amount of division to exist so people are free to follow their religion.

The relaxed Australian attitude is under strain, but it mostly endures. There is good will in the community toward religious individuals. Australians should extend this tolerance to include religious bodies.   

School equity at expense of excellence, efficiency

Glenn Fahey

06 December 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Put to the test in terms of the education’s systems ‘3 Es’ — excellence, equity, and efficiency — Australia has largely been found wanting.

The OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment reports on reading, maths, and science performance of 15-year-olds around the world every three years.

The results, while very disappointing, will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying close attention to Australian schooling of late.

When it comes to ‘excellence’, our results have crashed between 2000 and 2018. In maths, a 15-year-old in Australia is now over 3 years of learning behind the typical student in the best performing countries.

It’s clear that the neglect for high expectations and rigorous testing, and the childish adoption of progressive educational fads, have taken their toll.

PISA lays bare what the CIS has been observing for years — our domestic testing regime is a soft touch, poor performance is often excused, and classrooms have become evidence-free zones.

When it comes to efficiency, it’s self-evident that there’s been no educational return on taxpayers’ investment — especially when it comes to countless STEM cash splashes. Over the past decade, Australian taxpayers have invested a record $473 billion in schooling. Most of this money has gone to increased staffing costs, which haven’t translated into better performance.

Most of the countries that do better than us spend less than us, and most of those that have recently overtaken us in the rankings spend less than two-thirds what we do per student.

On equity, PISA results show that we have a more equitable education system than most – as the OECD identified ours as among a handful of ‘high equity’ systems (meaning that a student’s background is not a strong predictor of performance).

The relatively rosy picture on equity is at odds with doomsaying of progressive education activists, trade unions, and — dispiritingly — education ministers at each level of government.

Disadvantaged students in Australia are more likely to perform well — especially those with a migrant background — than in most other countries. There’s also a relatively small spread in student performance between the top and bottom.

However, one unfortunate reason for this is that declines have been driven by poorer performance among advantaged, rather than disadvantaged, students. This is also responsible for the collapse in the number of high-performing Aussie kids to around 10%.

In short, our education system has become more equitable by dragging those at the top down, rather than lifting those at the bottom. That’s not a model for success.

There will indeed be much soul-searching to come, but if there’s to be a silver lining it may just be that this is the catalyst for much-needed reform. We also mustn’t lose sight that the real losers are young Australians, who have missed out on educational opportunities, and will surely suffer in their future employment prospects.

To be a world class educational system, all 3 Es have to be firing. It would appear we’ve worshipped at the altar of equity at the expense of excellence and efficiency.

Going forward, we need an unrelenting drive for excellence, which will bring the other Es with it.

It’s productivity that needs the stimulus

Robert Carling

06 December 2019 | ideas@theCentre

The September quarter national accounts released by the Bureau of Statistics this week provided no new information to change the assessment that the Australian economy is continuing to grow but at a sluggish, below-trend rate. 

This has led to renewed calls for stimulus either by the government through fiscal policy or the Reserve Bank through monetary policy — or both. 

But such stimulatory action would do nothing to address the fundamental and related problems of depressed business confidence, low business investment and abysmal productivity performance.

Productivity growth is the wellspring of sustainable growth in real wages and per capita income more broadly. It is no coincidence that the era of real wage ‘stagnation’ has also been an era of weak productivity growth. 

In the same week that the ABS has told us real GDP grew by only 0.4% in the September quarter, it has told us that labour productivity actually fell in both 2018-19 and again in the September quarter, while market sector multi-factor productivity also fell in 2018-19 (no data for the September quarter). In the five years to 2018-19, labour productivity growth averaged 0.9% a year and multi-factor productivity growth averaged 0.6%. These are historically weak figures.  

Just as productivity growth sustains real income growth, business investment and innovation sustain productivity growth. But business investment has been at historically low levels in recent years.

It is often said the Australian economy is a cork bobbing around the global economic ocean, and our current travails stem from global economic and political developments. That is true up to a point, but it is not an excuse for failing to control what we can control.

Governments cannot determine productivity directly (other than in public sector operations), but they can shape the enabling factors and incentives that exert an important influence on market sector productivity growth. 

This is the key task for governments in current circumstances, and it is one for both federal and state governments.