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.

Dire differences

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price

29 January 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

There are dire circumstances facing Indigenous Australians living in regional and very remote Australia, setting them apart from the rest of the country.

The Closing the Gap plan has done very little to address disadvantage for Indigenous Australians living in remote and very remote communities.

In Worlds Apart: Remote Indigenous disadvantage in the context of wider Australia, I outline the vast gap between communities with a higher proportion of Indigenous population and the rest of Australia in a range of categories, including:

  • life expectancy,
  • school attendance,
  • education levels,
  • employment,
  • health, and
  • crime — especially domestic violence.

Across all states and territories examined, these crimes occur at twice the rate — and higher — for communities that have 50% or more Indigenous population.

Alarmingly, in some states and territories, domestic violence and assault outstrip the rate of all other crimes.

Unemployment sits at around 19% for Indigenous Australians as opposed to just under 7% for non-Indigenous. Unemployment in very remote communities is even bleaker, being 29% as opposed to 3% for non-Indigenous unemployment in those communities.

Nationally, Indigenous Australians experience three times the unemployment rate of non-Indigenous Australians; this has a knock-on effect, given that employment has a direct impact on school attendance and crime rates.

School attendance has declined across all states and territories between 2018-2019 to 82%, compared to the rest of Australia at 92%. In the Northern Territory the Indigenous school attendance rate has declined even further to 63%.

Life expectancy has not improved, with Indigenous women in remote communities living up to 69.6 years compared to Indigenous women in cities at 76.5 years, and Indigenous men in remote communities living to 65.9 years compared to Indigenous men in cities at 72.1 years.

Life expectancy has not improved at all and school attendance has declined across all states and territories.

In 2021, it is unacceptable that in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, such conditions exist. We require effective policies that deal with the dire circumstances in remote communities — not the current raft of policies that are based primarily on Indigeneity.

Public debt risk

Robert Carling

29 January 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

It has been clear since early in the pandemic that Australia was set for a huge blow-out in deficits and debt. The tabling of 2020/21 budgets by the Commonwealth and all states and territories (except the ACT) in the final quarter of 2020 now enables the blow-out to be quantified to 2023/24 — subject to the uncertainties being even greater than usual at this time.

The results are outlined in the new CIS report, The Looming Iceberg: Australia’s post-pandemic debt risk .

While Commonwealth gross debt alone is set to double from $626 billion before the pandemic to $1,240 billion in 2023/24, total debt will be much larger when the states and territories are included in the picture.

For the non-financial public sector as a whole (which includes both general government and government businesses such as water utilities), the increase is from about $900 billion pre-pandemic to $1.9 trillion ($1,900 billion) in 2023/24. As a percentage of GDP, this is a near doubling from 46 per cent to 86 per cent.

The Commonwealth is set for the biggest deficits and increase in debt, but most states and territories will also see very large increases relative to their revenue bases. The largest will be in Victoria.

Several states were ramping up infrastructure spending and borrowings even before the pandemic, but its effects on all budgets — and the fiscal stimulus and support measures adopted by the federal and state governments — account for much of the increase projected since 2019.

It can — and no doubt will — be debated how much of this was unavoidable and how much excessive.

But the debt risk it will leave as a post-pandemic legacy will stand as a priority issue for policy in the post-pandemic economy. It poses a risk to growth in the longer term, reduces the choices governments will have in taxation and spending, and limits their capacity to respond to future crises.

There is a complacent view that the debt burden will effortlessly dissipate with low interest rates, economic growth and inflation, but such an outcome is not assured.

The debt will not be paid off. But there is a best case scenario in which the burden becomes manageable — provided governments are pro-active in strengthening the foundations for vigorous and sustainable economic growth, exercising fiscal discipline and keeping inflation and interest rates at moderate levels.


Recover and revitalise education

Glenn Fahey

29 January 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

As Australia’s 4 million school students and their educators kick off a new school year, it must be free of educational complacency for the path ahead.

It’s fitting that back to school coincides with this week’s UNESCO International Education Day —themed around ‘recovery and revitalisation of education for the covid-19 generation’.

Recovery and revitalisation are certainly worthy aims for policymakers in light of last year’s educational disruption. School closures undeniably resulted in learning losses and forced educators, policymakers, and parents to challenge existing schooling practices and priorities.

The task of recovery — in scope and scale — mustn’t be dismissed.

Last year, CIS research found that around 1.25 million students in the eastern states — over 40% of them — were likely to have fallen behind.

The plan of attack in NSW and Victoria is centred on marshalling a thousands-strong army of tutors to provide catch-up support. However, it’s expected this will assist only around one in five students — or around half those that will likely need it.

And while schools will welcome the help in remedying lost learning, to date there’s been limited quality assurance and considerable uncertainty over expectations of catch-up tutors.

The scale of learning loss is also likely to eclipse previous — relatively benign — predictions.

Late last year, the results of a pseudo-NAPLAN test found NSW students had fallen behind by months rather than weeks. This means that while schools were closed — around 7 weeks in NSW — students not only progressed more slowly, but effectively went backwards. This bodes poorly for Victoria’s status as the education state, since students were out of class for up to 18 weeks.

Among the key events of the 2021 education calendar will be May’s NAPLAN exams — results of which will paint a national picture of student progress following the pandemic.

But just as recovery will not be for the education policy faint-hearted, so too will be the challenge of revitalisation. This will largely hinge on learning key Covid lessons to better harness parental engagement and technology in schools.

In 2020, home-based learning gave many parents a closer look at, and interest in, their child’s schooling. CIS polling shows a majority now have more positive views on teachers and schools. A key task for educators this year will be to capitalise on this goodwill via more constructive engagement between school and the home.

In addition, 2020 saw educators embrace increased uptake of technology in schools — many with a view to entrenching a more permanent place for digitalising course content, collaboration, and assessment. While innovation is welcome, this will require smarter and more discerning applications than has been typical in the past.

The Covid-19 generation will need to muster all the available support this year to ensure they don’t become educational casualties of the pandemic.

If 2020 will be remembered for its educational disruption, 2021 must be equally characterised by recovery and revitalisation.