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.

Not ‘wasting the crisis’

Gary Banks

07 May 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

It is becoming a cliché to say that we should not waste the opportunity for reform presented by the COVID crisis.

But achieving sufficient support to secure particular reforms (consensus rarely being possible) still requires a compelling case to be made.

It is a no-brainer that the absolute policy imperative is getting people back into productive work as soon as possible.

Job creation will need to take place mostly in the private sector, since public sector employment is still at record levels.

The capacity of businesses to employ people will depend not only on the state of the market for their products, but also on their ability to adjust and compete (without government support) in a post-COVID world.

This shifts the spotlight from well-worn macro instruments to stimulate demand, to regulations and other policies that inhibit the ability of firms to adapt, or that unduly raise the unit cost of labour.  Governments must make it easier, as Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe recently put it, “to expand, invest, innovate and hire people”.

The reforms that are most needed right now are ones that can support job creation in the short term, while simultaneously contributing to higher productivity growth in the longer term.

Mr Lowe went on to nominate taxation, infrastructure, training, industrial relations and regulatory impediments to innovation as key areas.

In devising a new ‘to do list’ of reforms that would best meet the dual objective of early job creation and sustained productivity growth, two of those areas stand out.

The first is regulatory impediments to innovation. This encompasses not just technology adoption, but enabling investment and enterprise adjustment generally.

The second area deserving priority attention is what Lowe refers to as the problem of ‘flexibility and complexity’ in the industrial relations system.

Australia’s idiosynchratic and highly prescriptive system for regulating workplaces, impedes firm adjustment and job creation in ways that have become too costly to ignore.

This is an edited excerpt of an opinion piece published in the Australian Financial Review as This job-killing IR system has to go.

Privacy advocates not paranoid

Monica Wilkie

07 May 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

Those who have expressed privacy concerns about COVIDSafe have been mocked and dismissed. But these concerns are valid. After all, government has spent years warning us about online privacy.

Last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry concluded, “consumers are generally not aware of the extent of data that is collected nor how it is collected.”

Back in 2013, then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus asked for an inquiry into online privacy because of technological growth and “changing community conceptions of privacy.”

Internationally, Facebook, and Google have faced enormous fines for privacy breaches — $5 billion and $170 million respectively.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal saw Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hauled before a Senate Committee to answer questions about invasion of privacy and electoral interference.

These initiatives were spearheaded by governments — because they believed the public were being deceived by Silicon Valley, which was breaching the public’s trust.

Now government is asking us to trust them with our data.

Compared to Google and Facebook, the government app COVIDSafe does collect extraordinarily little data. The app asks only for your first name, postcode, and telephone number; and uses Bluetooth – not GPS – to register close contacts.

To safeguard privacy, the Morrison Government has introduced legislation to ensure the app is only used for its stated purpose, and that police and security agencies do not have access.

But this may not be sufficient.. Legal experts have warned the US government could gain access to the data — because the app data is stored on US company Amazon’s servers.

Furthermore, unlike private companies such as Facebook and Google, the government could potentially use the app as a form of coercion. Business groups have already suggested downloading the app should be a requirement to enter pubs, restaurants, and shops.

After dangling the juicy carrot of COVIDSafe as a way to end the lockdown so we can ‘go to the footy’,  it is not unimaginable government would make having the app a condition of entry to businesses or events.

Hopefully, we can install enough safeguards so COVIDSafe is not misused.

Privacy advocates are not paranoid, we are simply attuned to a threat the government pointed out.

NHS now a UK religion

Peter Saunders

07 May 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

It is just over 100 years ago that celebrated French sociologist Emile Durkheim published The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1917).

Durkheim asked why every society develops some form of religion.  He looked at the simplest society he could find — the Aboriginal clans in Australia — to find the answer.

The Australian clans identified themselves by sacred totems.  A totem could be almost anything — an animal, a natural feature of the landscape.  Its intrinsic character was unimportant.  What mattered was that the totem represented the whole clan.

Totemic objects and symbols were set apart from everything else in the world and treated as sacred.  For much of the year, clans were scattered, but when they reunited, the sacred objects would be retrieved, rituals would be performed, and there would be an eruption of what Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence.’  Individuals felt themselves in the presence of a transcendent power, greater than themselves.  They attributed this power to the totem, but its source was really their society.

Durkheim argued it is this experience of belonging to something greater than ourselves which generates ‘religion.’  When we come together around sacred objects, we bind ourselves together and feel exhilarated.  As he put it: “The idea of society is the soul of religion.”

Durkheim recognised that “the old gods are growing old,” but he insisted we’ll always create new ones.  The Americans have their sacred flag.  The Aussies, Gallipoli (and perhaps their cricket team).  The Soviet Union had Lenin’s tomb.  And the Brits have the National Health Service (NHS).

Ever since the coronavirus lockdown started, every Thursday at 8pm, the BBC has summoned people to come to their front doors and join in a collective celebration of the NHS.  People clap, whoop and bang saucepans.  Like those Aboriginal clans, they feel reinvigorated as they celebrate their three-letter totem.

Every developed country has a health care system, and everywhere people express gratitude to the medical professionals who risk their lives fighting this virus.  But the Brits thank the NHS.  They think this lumbering state bureaucracy has special powers, and that nowhere else in the world has anything like it.

For years some of us have been arguing that the NHS is a badly flawed system.  It’s cripplingly bureaucratic and unresponsive; other countries have much better health outcomes.  But nobody’s listening to that now.  When you’re caught up in a religious fervour, all that matters is the collective effervescence.  The NHS is Britain’s national religion.