Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


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.

Buying votes easier than selling good policies

Robert Carling

07 September 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

Does the nature of a democracy change when an increasing majority of its voters receive net benefits from, or are employed by, government — while a diminishing minority shoulders the net tax burden?

Australia is in the process of finding out.

Recently released ABS figures show that in 2015-16, nearly half of Australian households received more in broadly-defined benefits from government, than they paid in direct and indirect taxes. When the number of public sector employees is added, close to a majority of voters benefit more from government than they contribute.

The figures are surprising, not because some households benefit from the tax/transfer system, but because so many do. If the population of households is divided into quintiles (slices of 20% each) from lowest to highest income, not only the first and second quintiles are net beneficiaries, but also the third (middle) quintile.

In Voting for a Living: A shift in Australian politics from selling policies to buying votes?, released this week, Terrence O’Brien and I explore the implications of this trend. The paper outlines that having such a large group of government beneficiaries exerts pressure for policy making to preserve existing benefits and create new benefits; while largely restricting new taxes to higher income households.

The emergence of such a large population segment that in a sense ‘votes for a living’, could help explain much of what has gone awry with Australian public policy in recent years. Specifically, it could help explain government decisions such as the abandoning of the proposed pension age increase from 67 to 70, announced earlier this week.

This decision also illustrates a general point made in the paper — that it is not just voter behaviour that’s affected by increasing net benefits. Political parties will also curry favour with this group of voters and become more interested in buying votes than selling good policies.

Are school leavers prepared for university?

Blaise Joseph

07 September 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

About one in four Australian university students drop out and don’t complete their degree. One of the questions this raises is: are schools adequately preparing students for higher education?

This question was tackled by a panel I was on at the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit (Kevin Rudd’s notorious ‘2020 Summit’ may have given summits a bad name, but this one was actually serious and worthwhile).

I was joined on the panel by Emeritus Professor John Halsey and school principal Joanne Wastle. We agreed that in many cases schools do a great job of preparing students for university, but it’s inconsistent across the country. Professor Halsey emphasised the struggle for students from rural areas, while Ms Wastle highlighted the importance of having qualified secondary teachers in maths and science. And we all agreed that more technology by itself isn’t the answer.

Ultimately, if students leave school without proficiency in literacy and numeracy, university will always be very difficult.

University certainly isn’t the best option for everyone, and one common concern at the Summit was the growing pressure on high-school students to go to university even if they don’t have the necessary academic ability or motivation. However, ensuring students leave school with a sound and well-rounded knowledge of all the core disciplines, at least gives them a viable option of going to university.

For example, school students without adequate maths and reading ability will find science in Years 7-10 much more difficult, which significantly affects motivation and ability to continue with science subjects in Years 11 and 12. This may then obstruct them from enrolling in science or engineering degrees, even if they would like to.

Developing core literacy and numeracy skills in the early years of school, is necessary for students to have good university prospects. And what happens in the classroom 10 or even 12 years before students leave school can affect their higher education prospects.

No basis in bias science

Monica Wilkie

07 September 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

News that the Australian Taxation Office has been running unconscious bias training (UBT) courses raises the question: why are taxpayers footing the bill for a potentially flawed psychological test?

The course uses the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), which employs image and word association to determine the level of ‘unconscious bias’ an individual has towards those of a different race, sex, and so on. My colleague Dr Jeremy Sammut highlighted the socially destructive nature of this test, but the origins themselves are equally disturbing.

The IAT was introduced into the scientific literature in 1998 by researchers Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGhee and Jordan Schwartz. However, not only does the test suffer a replicability problem — meaning that some of the results have not been successfully replicated — a number of psychologists have come out and challenged its efficacy.

A 2009 report by psychology professor Hart Blanton demonstrates the evidence between IAT scores and real world behaviour is virtually non-existent. A Kirwan Institute Study on implicit bias found such tests can be damaging because the range of responses are limited. And a paper published by Gregory Mitchell and Philip Tetlock argue the claims made by proponents of the IAT are exaggerated, and the test fails to consider alternative factors that could influence an individual’s responses.

After the IAT was introduced in 1998, many private companies such as McDonalds and Google started teaching their employees about unconscious bias. But now, in the era of diversity bureaucracy, the adoption of pseudo-scientific programs that place feelings over facts has sadly also become the new norm for taxpayer funded institutions.

The Australian Public Service Commission dedicates a page to ‘unconscious bias.’ The Queensland Government claims the IAT can be used to bring awareness to organisational and individual biases. And many more government agencies now cite ‘unconscious bias’ in their diversity programs.

The idea that a government agency would want to test the unconscious thoughts of its employees and try to change them, is disturbing enough. But when a test is this flawed, it is also an egregious waste of taxpayer money.