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.

18C is not what keeps us civil

Jeremy Sammut

02 April 2015


The Abbott Government’s attempt to remove Section 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was politically doomed the moment Senator George Brandis uttered his now infamous statement about people having ‘the right to be bigots’.

Unfortunately, the Attorney-General could not have done a better job of confirming the worst fears about the potentially divisive impact on community harmony publicised by opponents of amending the RDA.

The association this has created in the public mind means those who still want to amend Section 18C will need to walk the case for change back through some treacherous cultural terrain.

The first step is to recognise why this was such a disaster, not only in PR terms, but also in terms of understanding the kind of social values that make a multi-racial society like modern Australia a success.Section 18C should be amended because it undermines the democratic rights of all Australians.

In the wake of the Andrew Bolt case, I fear that the RDA will have a chilling effect on important national debates including Indigenous identity and Muslim integration.But if I believed that this meant giving people the right to be bigots I too would be opposed.

Yet some Libertarians have suggested that people should simply harden up and ‘choose not to take offence’ at what people say. Doubling down on idea that bigotry is somehow a right both misses the point and lowers the stakes, while amplifying the issue that should be neutralized.

To argue like the old anti-PC brigade that some people are too sensitive, and appear  to  suggest that the use of discredited derogatory speech should be shrugged off, is to put at risk one of our greatest national achievements.

The amazing transformation over the last half century from a White Australia to a remarkably harmonious multi-racial society, an achievement partly measured by how truly ugly and unacceptable racial epithets now sound to our ears.

But does this mean we need to keep Section 18C? No, it does not. The idea that the RDA keeps ‘race relations’ civil in this country profoundly misunderstands the way the nation has actually worked to overcome its racist heritage – which is, by promoting a culture of tolerance in tune with the pre-existing egalitarian values of Australian society.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. This piece is based on his opening remarks at the CIS Freedom of Speech Symposium on Monday night. His full speech and those of the other speakers will be published in the special forthcoming edition of Policy Magazine.


Opening the tax reform can of worms

Robert Carling

02 April 2015

dreamstime_m_26578529The current ramshackle tax system is the product of compromises, tinkering, political pragmatism and budget ad hoccery over decades.

There isn’t the luxury of designing a new system from scratch, but set-piece reviews – such as that publicly launched this week with the release of the Abbott government’s tax discussion paper – provide the opportunity to stand back, take in the big picture and rearrange its elements for better effect.

Such big picture reviews have occurred before – once a decade starting in the 1970s – and while they have produced some reforms in the true meaning of that over-used word, they have also left a lot of unfinished business or, worse still, gone off in wrong directions. 

The patchy record of big picture tax reviews serves to illustrate the obstacles to reform. This may be no bad thing if it helps to contain revenue and the size of government. It is better to have a ramshackle tax system generating revenue of 27% of GDP (as the current system does) than a super-efficient system generating (say) 35% of GDP.

The issues in tax reform have been extremely well rehearsed by past reviews and there is not much in this week’s discussion paper that hasn’t been said before. One key difference with this review, however, is that it is being held at a time of entrenched budget deficits. This presents the risk that the review process will be hijacked by those who take growing government spending as a given and want taxes to be higher. They want a more efficient system not just because of the efficiency gains but because it will generate more revenue more easily than a ramshackle system.

The government rightly says it want lower taxes to provide a supply-side boost to economic growth, but this will be empty rhetoric unless the growth of spending can be pegged back. The ideal would be a super-efficient tax system generating sufficient revenue to finance a smaller government , as advocated in CIS’s TARGET30 campaign (link to my 2013 Target 30 paper ‘Shrink Taxation by Shrinking Government’).

Robert Carling is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies


Socialism with Singaporean characteristics

Benjamin Herscovitch

02 April 2015


The legacy of recently deceased Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew offers one of the most reliable guides to China’s future.

As Peter Cai, editor of China Spectator, pointed out last week, Lee and his People’s Action Party (PAP) serves as a model of how to retain power and run a country that is still revered at the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Not surprisingly, in a manner reminiscent of Lee’s efforts to ensure uninterrupted PAP-rule, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been busy clamping down on dissent and debate, eliminating political rivals, and launching fresh attacks on ‘Western values.’

However, as Professor Kerry Brown, Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, recently argued, the preservation of CCP-rule will depend on not just amassing more power but also shrewdly exercising it.

Accordingly, like Lee’s demand for official rectitude, Xi has made good governance a core plank of his presidency.

In a bid to restore the ‘moral authority’ of the CCP, Xi has moved to head off public discontent through a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption, liberalisation of residency laws (the Hukou system), and initiatives to improve China’s appalling air quality.

Of course, the velvet glove of even relatively enlightened forms of authoritarianism conceals a steel fist.

In a grim reminder of what typified Singapore under Lee and what will likely continue in China under Xi, a Singaporean teenager was arrested for posting an angry YouTube video critical of his country’s late leader and five female activists languish in detention in China for simply planning a protest against sexual harassment.

Like the PAP in Singapore, the CCP might be farsighted enough to reform in the name of good governance without also being brave enough to give the people genuine political freedom.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. He will be discussing China under Xi Jinping and the implications for Australia with Kerry Brown and Peter Cai at the CIS on 13 April. Register for this event here.