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.

Could China make the world safer for autocracy?

Sue Windybank

10 May 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

How can a liberal democratic country like Australia engage with an increasingly illiberal and authoritarian power like China in ways that are consistent with liberal norms and values?

Much depends on the health and vigour of our society. This is where domestic and foreign policy meet — and where there’s some important overlap between the new CIS project, China and Free Societies, and the CIS program Culture, Prosperity and Civil Society, which seeks to defend and promote the values and principles that underpin liberal democracy.

We will be more credible in defending liberal values — from external challenges from whatever source — when those values are upheld first and foremost at home. A good example is the censorship at play in the Israel Folau case, which straddles freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

We will also be more credible in promoting liberal principles if the government publicly condemns gross violations of human rights like the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal persecution of Muslim minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. The scale of this persecution — an estimated one million Uighurs have been interned in ‘re-education camps’ — collapses the traditional distinction between interests and values.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has already persuaded the United Nations to support its preferred concept of ‘human community with shared destiny’… a markedly different idea to universal human rights. Beijing is also exporting facial recognition technology and other surveillance tools to repressive regimes in Africa and elsewhere. It is building support for its concept of cyber sovereignty, which legitimises internet censorship and control of information within a country’s borders.

While other authoritarian states are also challenging the interests of democracies in the fraying liberal international order, China is the most important because only the PRC has the will, capacity and power to change the international system in ways that could make it more compatible with its domestic political order.

Tunnelling under federalism principles

Robert Carling

10 May 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

As an election campaign issue, federalism doesn’t rate a mention. But commitments are being made in the campaign that disregards the principles of federalism and undermines its foundations more than ever before. We should all be concerned about this abuse.

At the local level, myriad small grants are on offer for security cameras, ovals and other local public goods that have nothing to do with the federal government’s constitutional responsibilities.

In the hotly contested seat of Warringah— where former PM Tony Abbott is facing off against high-profile independent Zali Steggall — a proposed road tunnel is a major issue even though it is entirely the prerogative of the state government.

The victor in Warringah will have no say in the matter, in whatever capacity they sit in the federal parliament. The federal government may overstep its proper role and make a financial contribution, but it will not determine whether the project goes ahead or not.

On a larger scale, there are promises of extra money for schools and the greater federal intrusion into state policy that goes with it.

One reason the disregard for federalism has come so far is that election campaigns have degenerated into bidding wars for the median voter — in which the more chips the bidders have to use, the better for their purposes.
Another reason is that the federal government’s role has become so far-reaching after decades of creeping centralism that federal politicians act as if there is no voter grievance and no problem beyond Canberra’s capacity to resolve — and the voters have been conditioned to go along with the act.
We should be concerned that the foundations of federalism are being undermined in these ways. Our democratic system will work better if the principles of federalism are respected. Clear boundary lines between the functions of different levels of government and avoidance of duplication and overlap are not merely a fetish for neatness.

Under properly functioning federalism, voters know who to hold to account, politicians can’t buck-pass, and choices are made by the level of government best able to make them.

School suspensions not always bad

Blaise Joseph

10 May 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Schools should have high expectations for student behaviour. And the harsh reality is that this sometimes requires student detentions, suspensions, and expulsions.

Queensland government schools last year were reported to have had a 12% increase in students being suspended or expelled. In response, the Queensland education minister Grace Grace said this shows the government’s aim to foster a more positive school environment is working.

The minister’s approach should be commended — especially since behaviour management (and clear consequences for misbehaviour) went out of fashion in many education circles decades ago.

It is true that students who are suspended from school tend to have worse outcomes later on, but how much of this is just correlation rather than causation?

There is a tendency to criticise schools when they suspend or expel students for serious incidents of misbehaviour. The instinctive response is to blame teachers for not sufficiently ‘engaging’ the students, and teachers are told they should focus on understanding the reasons for student disruption.

But this ignores the fact that children often make irrational decisions, and take many years to acquire an adequate moral framework and impulse control. This happens regardless of how well they’re taught or how ‘engaging’ the lessons are.

If a school culture is too permissive, misbehaving students will not learn to improve their conduct and will undermine the academic outcomes of other students. Discipline is a key ingredient of success for all schools, including those with disadvantaged students.

And according to the international datasets, Australia’s school system is among the worst in the OECD for student behaviour. So focussing on discipline is potentially a way of improving school productivity in Australia.

Maybe the major parties should think about that before spending billions more taxpayer dollars on schooling.