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.
One of the many things now in pandemic lockdown is the ongoing discussion about religious freedom in Australia. It may be quite a while before it is let out. However, religious communities are still flourishing.
Buildings may be closed but services, bible studies, prayer gatherings, and even morning teas continue undaunted — albeit in somewhat unfamiliar forms.
In a spirit of innovation and invention, churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are using online and social media resources to continue to meet and sustain the lives of their communities.
Before the pandemic, debate about the proposed federal religious discrimination law was descending into sloganeering and caricature. All that paused with the imposition of the shutdown. There is a welcome opportunity to regain much needed perspective.
This is why the publication of a new book from the CIS is so timely.
Forgotten Freedom No More, Protecting Religious Liberty in Australia: Analysis and Perspectives is a collection we have edited that contains a wide range of contributions from writers sympathetic to promoting religious freedom in Australia.
Each of the contributors agrees on the importance — and yet the fragility — of religious liberty in Australia, while approaching the issue from varied viewpoints and experience; even at times disagreeing with each other.
Some offer a general analysis of the problem with suggested ways forward; others offer a more personal perspective. We sought contributions from those who write from a particular religious point of view, as well as from those with none.
Different authors make very different proposals for the path forward — ranging from bringing in a full religious freedom act to removing government entirely from the whole discrimination and human rights arena.
But the value of Forgotten Freedom No More is that it will make a significant contribution to the thoughtful and reasoned debate we still so sorely need.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Parents and policymakers have generally had enough, and schools are now on the path to completely re-open in most states and territories, if they aren’t already open.
This is thanks in part to increasing concerns about the negative effects of school closures on many students, particularly those from disadvantaged families — not to mention the growing realisation that it’s practically impossible for most parents to simultaneously work from home and supervise their children’s education.
It has also put unnecessary strain on schools to deliver both face-to-face and online classes, while monitoring ‘attendance’ of some students on site and some at home.
These issues should have been obvious from the start (after all, schools exist for a reason). Asking parents to keep their children at home with only limited exceptions was always problematic.
New independent research for the National Cabinet has confirmed the downsides of learning from home. For example, it is estimated that disadvantaged students could fall four weeks behind in reading and six weeks behind in numeracy if online delivery continues for two terms.
In addition, expert medical advice for the past month has been there is no reason to keep schools closed. A report from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance found an “extraordinarily” low rate of covid-19 transmission in schools and that there were no cases of students infecting staff.
It was merely a union-influenced political decision by state governments to ask all parents to keep their children at home if possible.
The current advice to parents varies significantly between states and territories, and between sectors.
In NSW, for example, government schools will move back to normal in a phased return over a month, starting with all students attending school just one day a week (a confusing approach that has been rightly questioned by education unions).
The staggered plan is especially concerning for Year 12 students in government schools, who may fall behind students at non-government schools with more face-to-face teaching. Hopefully the NSW government will accelerate the re-opening process for Year 12s.
Victoria is an exception, with the state government maintaining all students should continue learning from home if possible. This is clearly against the expert medical and educational advice given to the National Cabinet. If it continues for too long, it will potentially cause substantial educational harm with little medical benefit.
Even though Covid-19 has briefly unified both major parties, and State and Federal government, the prospects of a similar consensus on meaningful economic reform today is slim to nil.
The various sides of this debate can’t even agree on the goals of reform, let alone the methods. The left and right are as far apart on the key issues of economic reform as they have been since the 1970s.
A key difficulty stems from the fact that the left thinks the main problem is inequality and the answer is more government. By contrast, the right thinks government is actually part of the problem, and the answer is private sector growth and productivity.
The unions are desperate to cling to any and all protections remaining for them in the industrial relations system, while their boosters in the media are arguing that any industrial relations reform should strengthen union protections, boost minimum wages and increase regulation.
Left wing think tanks argue capitalism is broken and government should abandon free markets in favour of government-led actions aimed at “reducing inequality and constructing an economically and ecologically sustainable world.”
This means protection for manufacturing, higher wages for subsidised workers in health and child care, a ‘massive investment in public housing’ and permanent increases in income support. Not to mention raising the superannuation guarantee.
These reforms are more or less exactly the opposite of a productivity-focused agenda.
And if paying for all this ever crosses their collective minds, or the mind of their collectives if you prefer, the sole answer is higher taxes.
The government has already made clear that it will not increase taxes, or introduce new ones, including the Treasurer specifically ruling out increasing the rate of the GST or broadening its base — even as a way of offsetting other tax cuts.
The government is apparently looking for new reform proposals that can win bipartisan support in response to the economic challenges. It would be better to return to the tried and tested ideas that generated so much prosperity, even if they meet with opposition.
We don’t need a new economic settlement. We need to restore the free-market framework of the economy and get government out of the way.
This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times as Grand coalition economic reforms are best left in the ’80s.