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.
As the festive season closes, 2016 arrives with many promises and challenges.
For starters, the New Year brings a set of new laws ranging from childcare services to new caps on superannuation income to more restrictive test requirements on school leavers. In all shapes and sizes, some of these new legislations are laudable — such as changes to the Student Loan Payments requiring those living overseas be subject to the same conditions as if they lived in Australia — but others are borderline of state-nannyism: for instance the new NSW regulation on cyclists to carry photo ID at all times.
In regards to the much-needed structural reforms to improve Australia’s productivity, there is a long list of areas to tackle. First, the competition reform is our best bet to lift the economy. The federal government response to the Harper review is a good start, supporting the bulk of its 56 recommendations. However, most of these recommendations lie outside the federal jurisdiction, and require cooperation and championing from Australia’s states and territories.
Another area ripe for change is tax reform. Unfortunately, most of the debate focuses on lifting tax revenues, and very few are actually engaging in constructive talks to deliver the “lower, simpler, fairer taxes” deceptively trumpeted by government.
Both competition and tax reforms lead to another less-hyped area for reform currently under review led by the federation white paper. There is much to do in this arena, from eliminating overlap and duplication in Australia’s federal-state relations to fixing the corrosive vertical fiscal imbalance. Alas, recent COAG meetings are testament of the political challenges to modernise the Federation.
Last, but by no means least, comes the workplace laws reform. Regrettably, the Productivity Commission’s released report is a timid — some say a lost opportunity – response to the failures of an over-convoluted and outdated industrial relations system. Hopefully the bold findings of the Royal Commission’s six-volume final report on the two-year inquiry into the “widespread and deep-seated” corruption within the union movement will give desperately needed political impetus for change.
And yes, this is an election year… so look forward to more promises. And hopefully action to match them.
When federal education minister Simon Birmingham confirmed last week he will not ‘give a Gonski’ and commit to the ultra-expensive final two years of the former Labor government’s schools funding policy, he drew a line under one aspect of the debate but left open the more important question of what it will do instead.
Only one thing is certain. A new federal funding model will not be as generous. The federal government budget deficit is a problem and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Large increases in federal spending on education are not on the cards, especially given the chequered relationship between funding and school performance.
There is ample research showing that not all education spending can be considered an investment in the sense that it leads to measurable benefits. This is not to say that school funding should not increase at all but that any funding increases must be carefully targeted and used in ways that are most likely to be effective.
The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) in NSW, recently published an evaluation of the impact of the former federal Labor government’s multi-billion dollar Smarter Schools National Partnerships over four years from 2009 to 2012.
The analyses of the results are highly detailed and compare NAPLAN scores, School Certificate and Higher School Certificate results, and attendance and retention rates of schools that received Low SES NP funding with similar schools that did not.
Although the impact on NAPLAN scores was reported to be statistically significant, this is partly a function of the very large sample size. In real educational terms, the effects of the funding were small. Over the four years of Low SES NP funding, NAPLAN scores in participating schools increased by a total of 5.04 points on average compared to non-participating schools, after controlling for student characteristics and school location. To put this in context, Year 3 NAPLAN reading scores are out of 700 scaled score points. It is difficult to see this as a strong result given the amount of the funding involved.
Any new federal funding agreement is likely to have an impact factor, with proven effective practices and programs, or accountability for results as conditions. Wanting to see the benefits of increased funding is understandable but getting the right balance of autonomy and accountability, both for individual schools and for states, will be a challenge.
Enthusiasm for silencing religious voices and getting the faithful to keep their beliefs to themselves can blind us to the important connections between religion — particularly, but not only, Christianity — and the institutions of liberty and prosperity we have come to cherish in Australia.
God is changing, or at least the involvement with God of western liberal societies is changing. In parts of Europe and in countries like Australia the ‘secularisation thesis’ holds that religion is gradually being displaced altogether from society. God is on the way out, it says.
Certainly this process of displacement is being accompanied by what appears to be the outright decay of familiar forms of religion. But while traditional religions are losing ground in the west, other religions, such as Islam, are putting new pressures on governments and societies.
No wonder God is seen variously as too timid, too militant, or completely redundant. And no wonder it has never been more important to understand more clearly the contribution religion has made to modern liberal society.
Sovereignty of the individual, for example, owes much to Christianity with its egalitarian moral insight about individual liberty. The emergence of the free individual brought with it a new social and economic status, and the capacity to give informed consent at the ballot box or in a contract.
There is much to criticize in today’s materialistic culture, but the individual’s freedom to participate in the market has helped to transform communities from widespread poverty to remarkable levels of prosperity. Individual economic agency has been a powerful engine for growth.
You don’t have to be religious yourself to recognise that our liberal, democratic way of life has deep roots in religious principles and values. But failure to recognise the important relationship between religion and liberty is likely to lead to a broader indifference to liberty in general.
Of course, none of this is to assert that religion will never wither and disappear from view and practice. But predictions of its demise have so far been off the mark. “Religion and spirituality in Australia [are] about hope,” says sociologist Gary Bouma.
Such hope, and the generation of that hope through actions, beliefs and practices, is critical for maintaining the freedom, resilience and vitality of a liberal society whose freedoms we can so easily take for granted.