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.

Yes, Ministers – collaboration is the answer

Fiona Mueller

09 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Public confidence in Australian school education may be low, but no one could complain about a shortage of official reviews and reports.

High-powered panels and prominent figures continue to produce lengthy publications recommending various strategies to achieve one mighty goal: improve the academic performance of students.

The long list includes the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (Gonski 2.0), the Independent Review into Rural, Regional and Remote Education and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015.

From the start of this year, all states and territories have signed up to a National School Reform Agreement that has the overarching objective of ensuring that Australian schooling provides a high quality and equitable education for all students. That Agreement will expire on 31 December 2023.

Success will depend on what the Agreement refers to as ‘the long-standing practice of collaboration between all governments to deliver school education reform’.

But wait, there’s more! One of the most important — albeit most abstract — documents guiding Australian school education since 2008 is also being reviewed.

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, signed by all education ministers serving at the time, has steered the development of the Australian Curriculum and other reforms. It followed the Hobart Declaration (1989) and the Adelaide Declaration (1999).

All these national frameworks have stressed the importance of collaboration. As the Hobart Declaration put it, working together “to enhance Australian schooling” would be the key to success.

But collaboration isn’t easy in a federal system where each jurisdiction has separate responsibility for schools, teachers, curriculum, assessment, student credentials … and so on. There are still far more differences than areas of common practice. Notwithstanding the flexibility states and territories need to do their best work for their own schools and students, this is not leading to the best results.

As ministers consider the review documents landing on their desks, collaboration should be at the very top of the subsequent list of action items. They should insist on an honest assessment of the cost and benefits of education between 1989 and 2019 — particularly as seen through the lens of national agreement and the goals of the three documents.

If nothing else, better collaboration would set a great example to young Australians. After all, isn’t this one of the exciting new 21st century skills they are supposed to be learning?

Ministers would be wise to tread cautiously with regard to all proposals for solutions. Australian education has been all too vulnerable in the past to a range of fads and trends, much of which explains the challenges we face now.

It would be good to think that 30 years of talking about teamwork won’t be wasted.


Super misdirection

Simon Cowan

09 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Misunderstanding and misdirection abounds in the current superannuation debate.

It is an incontrovertible fact that superannuation is ‘paid for’ through wages forgone. It is not, and never has been, an additional ‘bonus’ from businesses to workers that would be pocketed by employers but for legislation.

Leaving aside for a second the economics of the situation – or the number of economists and politicians who have made this exact point – even the internal logic of those arguing otherwise is irrevocably flawed.

Their argument goes: businesses have all the power in the relationship with their employees. For most employees, they simply have to take whatever wages businesses choose to pay or are forced to pay by law. So when it comes to super, why would business pay more than they had to?

First, real wages are increasing. They may not be increasing by much, but they are unquestionably going up. Even the ACTU admits this, noting in a February press release that the annualised wage growth of 2.3% was “barely above inflation.” This means real wage increases could absolutely be redirected to pay for super increases.
Second, even if real wages were flat, workers’ wages would still be going up by the rate of inflation (around 2% a year).

The argument that super doesn’t come from wages depends on ignoring this 2%. In the real world, if nominal wages were not rising at all it would certainly be harder for businesses to reduce take home pay to fund additional super payments, than it is to offer smaller pay increases.

However, given wages are increasing (at least nominally) this must mean the bare minimum that businesses have to pay is that 2% a year increase (on average).

In two years’ time, businesses will have to pay an extra 0.5% super. Where will that money come from?

Well, if you accept the logic that businesses have all the power, wouldn’t it come from the 2% increase? Why would businesses pay workers an additional 2.5% when they only have to pay 2%?

This is the key point: it’s not that wages will now increase by 2.5% if the super guarantee is cancelled, it’s that wages that would have increased by 2% in the absence of the increase in super contributions, will increase by just 1.5% if super goes up 0.5%.

If there is a case for even greater paternalism in super it should be made using facts, not papered over with incorrect assertions. After all the money is coming from workers wallets.

Social media not the biggest threat

Monica Wilkie

09 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Social media has been blamed for an epidemic of damaging misinformation that has poisoned political discourse. But the real threat to free speech and political debate comes from over-zealous and ill-advised regulation.

Mainstream opinion insists social media has damaged democracy by creating a polarised, toxic environment devoid of nuance and fact.

Concern is such that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recommended digital platforms implement a code to counter disinformation, and a regulatory body (like the ACMA) oversee platforms’ “voluntary initiatives…to enable users to identify reliability, trustworthiness, and source of news content.”

Regulatory oversight into misinformation will likely create more problems, and compliance costs will restrict start-ups by creating a huge barrier for entry.

Having sources rated as ‘trustworthy’ has the potential to risk disadvantaging smaller, independent news outlets, as such a designation would presumably favour well-established outlets and brands.

Given Australia’s preoccupation with media concertation, this could, ironically, lead to less viewpoint diversity.

Not only will regulation most likely be ineffective, the ACCC’s concern is based on a problem which is overstated and misunderstood.

As expert in internet governance Professor Milton Mueller has argued, there is the perception social media is the cause of problems such as misinformation. Whereas, far more likely, these technologies have created a hyper-awareness of an already existent problem.

The concern about fake news is entwined with the idea that social media creates ‘filter-bubbles’ or ‘echo-chambers.’ That is, users retreat into online communities and only interact with people who share their views.

However, the extent to which this happens is unclear. Some researchers suggest online communities re-invigorate public debate by democratising communication, and exposing people to a variety of online communities.

‘Filter-bubbles’ are also not exclusive to the online world. People who consume a limited number of offline sources risk only receiving information which re-affirms their views.

Tech companies have issues they need to, and mostly are, addressing. But, the biggest threat to free speech and democracy comes from excessive and unnecessary regulation.

This is an edited extract of a longer opinion piece published in The Spectator’s Flat White section.