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.

Missed chance for civics

Fiona Mueller

12 February 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

The current review of the national Curriculum seems an almost covert operation, and neglects the pressing need to elevate Australian Civics and Citizenship.

The latest CIS paper, A 2021 education resolution: keep an eye on the Australian Curriculum, assesses the potential opportunities at risk of being neglected in the review.

Australian students and their teachers deserve the best possible curriculum, but the trajectory of the review doesn’t inspire confidence.

A clever country would shine a probing spotlight on this national education project, which claims to ensure the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion.

The paper follows recently released results of the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship, which revealed 62% of Australian students nearing school-leaving age didn’t achieve the proficiency standard, and 87% couldn’t interpret the results of a hypothetical federal election.

For this reason, the review must chart a balanced approach to the nation’s heritage as a Western liberal democracy and must redress a curriculum that is currently completely lacking in intellectual and cultural firepower.

There are replicable examples of curriculums that prioritise a ‘love of country’, particularly high-performing Singapore. Closer to home, this is also a common theme in the education and broader aspirations of Indigenous Australians but can barely be detected in the wider curriculum.

This is the time to recast Civics and Citizenship — ironically, the subject that few seem to care or know much about — as the major integrating feature of the Australian Curriculum.

Centring the curriculum around our cultural and intellectual heritage would mean a far more solid foundation, but there should also be room for schools and teachers to weave in material appropriate to local students and communities.

This would help ensure students can meet the objective of becoming successful lifelong learners who can make sense of their world and think about how things have become the way they are — as the goals outline.

However, there has been no widespread public consultation to determine priorities and there is only a brief window of opportunity to comment on proposals for changes.

Every Australian has a stake in this review, especially as the country works to recover from the consequences of the pandemic and position strongly for the future.

RBA’s lack of interest

Peter Tulip

12 February 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

At last Friday’s Parliamentary hearing, the RBA’s performance was disappointing.  It appeared reluctant to consider alternatives to its pre-conceived choices, unenthusiastic about pursuing its mandate and uninterested in leading ideas in central banking.

The highlight was a lively confrontation between Governor Philip Lowe and Andrew Leigh, the ALP Member for Fenner and a former economics professor.

Leigh asked about the RBA’s decision to buy government bonds, so-called ‘quantitative easing’… and why they shouldn’t do even more.  After being pressed, the RBA conceded that doing more would probably lower unemployment and raise inflation, though the size of the effect was unclear. As Leigh remarked, “It’s not obvious that this is a bad thing”.

After a bit more floundering, RBA Deputy Governor Guy Debelle suggested that extra bond buying might “end up with a dysfunctional bond market”.  Bond market participants rejected this, noting that the bond market was thinner in the 2000s without substantial problems.

The RBA gave the impression it had not really thought about the consequences of its decisions and was just making up excuses for inaction.

Leigh asked whether the RBA might tolerate a period of above-target inflation, to make up for the current prolonged period of below-target inflation.  Lowe’s reply — “I haven’t thought too much about that” — was both surprising and puzzling.  ‘Average inflation targeting’ was the centrepiece of the US Federal Reserve’s recent overhaul of its monetary policy framework and is a leading idea in monetary policy debates.

Leigh then suggested that the RBA was unusually insular.  Lowe disagreed, saying that three of the top 20 or so RBA executives had actually been appointed from outside —  a strikingly unpersuasive argument.

Leigh asked whether disagreements within the RBA staff were ever presented to the RBA Board for adjudication.  Lowe replied yes, to which Leigh responded that he could not see this in the Board minutes.  My reading is the same as Leigh’s – the minutes do not convey disagreement.

There was considerably more in this vein, and interested readers should read pages 8 to 11 of the transcript.

These flubs might seem like “gotcha” games but they point to fundamental problems in the RBA culture.   And that culture is likely to lead to poor decisions.

Kiwi undiplomacy

Leonard Hong

12 February 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

“In archaeology, you uncover the unknown. In diplomacy you cover the known,” former United States Ambassador Thomas Pickering famously quipped. And Pickering’s wisdom is still relevant today.

In the aftermath of New Zealand’s free trade agreement upgrade with China, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor decided to reprimand its Trans-Tasman neighbour. He believed that Australia should follow New Zealand and “show respect” and “a little more diplomacy” with the Chinese government.

This incident alarmed many senior members of the Australian government and created unnecessary tensions between the two nations.

Cosying up to the Chinese with an upgraded trade agreement is not something government ministers should brag about to the world.

His comment explicitly signals for the first time, that China could just assert pressure on countries such as New Zealand and even divide the Five Eyes security alliance.

Although both the Aussies and the Kiwis are part of the Five Eyes, each has its independent foreign policies. New Zealand took a more ambivalent approach towards China, while the Australians pursued an aggressive and defensive strategy.

Some of O’Connor’s  sentiments are understandable. Smaller powers such as New Zealand and Australia rely on the multilateral international order for its economic interests.

In an anarchic international system, great powers rule supreme.

China is a significant power across the Asia-Pacific. Under President Xi, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ has continued to exert itself across the world stage and expanded its influence across the region.

Therefore, it is vital to conduct foreign policy in a practical and realist manner.

For New Zealand, upgrading the free trade agreement was necessary for the country’s economic recovery, especially considering the global recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the short run, the deal itself was the right step for New Zealand, especially considering the United States’ current circumstances. The new Biden Administration must deal with its domestic affairs before even thinking about returning to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement, let alone containing the Chinese.

But O’Connor’s comments were not helpful. Australia is one of New Zealand’s critical western brothers and partners in the Five Eyes alliance. So isolating New Zealand from its security partners is not in its best interests.

In soft power, the less interest you reveal, the more superior you seem. As Pickering said, diplomacy is all about covering the known. Avoiding silly comments in the future would be the best way forward.

Leonard Hong is a Research Assistant at The New Zealand Initiative based in Wellington and a former intern at CIS.