Shoots of hope for change
As 2014 stumbles to an end, the disengagement by increasing numbers of our fellow citizens with government and especially the dismay they feel with what passes for governance at a national level further signals the need for a rethink on some of the fundamental ideas of how we are governed. The limits of government that has become more complex and incapable of performing many of the functions it seeks to undertake are clearly evident.
This is not the place for a treatise on government, not yet anyway. But it looks like Australia is finally to have a long overdue debate about reform of its federation and, more importantly, reform of federal-state financial relations. A few green shoots of hope were evident in the Prime Minister’s recent Tenterfield speech.
He said then “A hundred years ago the states were clearly responsible for funding and operating public schools, public hospitals, public transport, roads, police, housing and planning. Under our constitution, the states are still legally responsible for them but a century of encroachment has left the Commonwealth financially responsible for vast services that it doesn’t actually deliver and can’t really control.”
Well, that’s a good start. I hope as we move into 2015 and the federalism review gets some substance built into the idea, the public might get to understand that while government is there to serve them, there are limits; that certain levels should only be responsible for certain functions; and actually, given the right incentives and opportunities, the people can do way more for themselves and get government out of their lives.
Greg Lindsay, Executive Director
Shadow of danger cast over Australia
In just three seconds, the appearance of a black cloth bearing white Arabic text focused the world’s attention on a Sydney café. Pressed against the window by hostages’ hands, that cloth alerted all Australians to the threat Islamist ideologues pose to our society.
Efforts by Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders to forge trust between their respective communities are welcome. But enhanced security legislation, as well as the heightened presence of armed police, remind us that a shadow of danger has now been cast over even the simple act of stopping for coffee with friends.
Our civil liberties, which guarantee us freedoms of speech, belief and association, must be defended and it is the duty of every Australian to do so. But just as our society looks to Jewish rabbis and Christian bishops to guide the practices of their respective faith communities, so we now look to our Muslim leaders to fight more assertively against the Islamist ideologies they reject.
The threat of jihad is real and candid recognition of that threat is long overdue. All Australians must now express unequivocal support for a free and open society. The victims of the Lindt Café siege deserve nothing less.
Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
****18C Headline Censored Due To of *****
Now increasing numbers of Government’s has broken its pre-election promise to abolish Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), the nation of forced to debate the question of Indigenous Recognition with its tongue (metaphorically) tied. Proposals for constitutional change start with minimalist acknowledgement of original ownership of Australia, but include calls to outlaw discrimination, establish a right to traditional ‘culture’, and even, perhaps, reserve seats in parliament for Indigenous representatives.
If one section of the community is seeking special legal privileges in the name of ending Indigenous disadvantage, it is legitimate to enquire into the merits of these claims. This raises the fraught issue of Indigenous identity, and the fact that today increasing numbers of Indigenous people self-identify based on family history and descent. Many of these Indigenous Australians look and live little different to non-Indigenous Australians, and many have suffered few obvious difficulties due to their Indigenous status. How, therefore, will extending special rights to this group overcome Indigenous disadvantage? In the wake of the ‘Bolt case’, it could prove illegal to discuss the way identity politics is driving the Recognition cause.
In a democracy, no issue of public importance should be too dangerous for citizens to debate. Unfortunately, due to fear of legal action under the RDA, that is not the case regarding Indigenous Recognition while 18C remains on the statute books.
Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
Nothing sometimes better than something
The abolition of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency in the early months of 2014 was certainly one of the year’s policy highlights. In its three years of existence, ANPHA attempted to position itself as ‘nanny-in-chief’ on issues like alcohol, tobacco, and junk food.
Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — its efforts along these lines were mostly ineffectual. Very few Australians were inconvenienced in their pursuit of guilty pleasures by ANPHA’s long report on the best way to artificially raise the price of alcohol, for example, or by its $200,000 ‘healthy eating’ cookbook.
Alas, the agency’s abolition was a bittersweet victory, for the legislation that would officially end ANPHA’s existence has not yet been passed. Consequently, the head of the now dismantled agency is still drawing a six-figure salary to preside over … nothing. But in some cases, nothing may be better than something.
Helen Andrews is a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies
The Greens: Australia’s party of social justice
No sooner had he won the Greens first seat in the House of Representatives, than Adam Bandt — now Deputy Leader of the Greens — was explaining to ABC radio that “social justice concerns have been…in our DNA since the Greens started”. Social justice is a nebulous policy term. Everyone supports social justice because no one would consciously promote social injustice. But what does social justice mean to the Greens?
Apparently social justice involves increasing taxpayer funded Paid Parental Leave (PPL) payments from $11,539 to 26 weeks of parent’s replacement wages. Social justice requires taxpayers to fork out $50,000 to parents earning above $100,000, in addition to any PPL workplace entitlements they might have, while those earning less than the (full-time) minimum wage get $16,667. Stay-at-home parents get nothing.
This is an interesting policy position for a party that purports to believe “…the social problems we have today…could be dramatically improved if we focus on eliminating extreme inequality in Australia…”. It would seem using taxpayer’s money to entrench certain types of inequality is ok provided it benefits your professional inner-city constituency.
Matthew Taylor is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
Strength falters on Family Tax Benefit means-testing
A photo of the Senate chamber went viral this December. It depicted Senator Leyonhjelm putting forward a Private Senators’ Bill to strengthen means-testing on the $14.6 billion Family Tax Benefit Part A. Forty-five senators opposed the bill, which was very similar to a proposal put forward by the Commission of Audit earlier this year.
The bill would remove the second of the two FTB Part A income tests, which is aimed at wealthier families. It would maintain the status quo for those at the bottom but the payment would taper out to nil, cutting four payment rates to just two (a maximum rate and a tapered rate). My own report, Complex Family Payments: What it Costs the Village to Raise a Child made a similar suggestion.This is not a left-field idea, so the unwillingness to engage with it is a sad indictment of our politicians. It also shows us exactly how difficult it will be to chip away at the edifice of entitlement.
Trisha Jha is a policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies
Foreign policy forte
This year alone, the government scored a trifecta of free trade agreements with Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, stood up to violent Russian meddling in Ukraine in the wake of the downing of MH17, and threw its weight behind the international effort to stall the murderous march of Islamic State across Iraq and Syria. However, the path Canberra has navigated between undue influence from either Washington or Beijing is the greatest demonstration of the government’s savvy foreign policy.
This foreign policy independence was on show as the government decided to join the Chinese-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) after an initially sceptical response. Rightly, concerns that the AIIB’s governance structures could see it serve as a tool to advance China’s strategic interests led Canberra to rebuff Beijing’s hasty membership deadline. Just as shrewdly, Canberra has now signalled that it will not be shaken by US misgivings about growing Chinese economic influence and will join the AIIB once governance standards are raised.
Despite the gravitational pull of Chinese and US economic and strategic influence, the government clearly understands that Australia’s national interest is distinct from what either Beijing or Washington wants.
Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
Pharmacy: a protected species
Public and private expenditure on PBS pharmaceuticals and other medications during 2011-12 amounted to $18.8 billion-about 13% of health expenditure. Some two thirds would have been channelled through Australia’s 5000 community pharmacies who have long depended on Government patronage from series of five-year funding agreements with the Pharmacy Guild.
These agreements have assured the viability of community pharmacies and safeguarded them from competing with supermarkets. A new Agreement for 2015-20, now under negotiation, is expected to cost about $20bn. Most of this will accrue to pharmacies as dispensing fees, dispensing incentives and controversial patient programs and services which other health professions consider risky and for which consumers themselves have never been willing to pay.
This is a large amount of money to support an uncompetitive cottage industry for little evidence of incremental health gain. The AMA has now called for supermarkets to be allowed to openly compete with community pharmacies to give cost-effective access to medicines to government and patients. The government should heed this advice in their current negotiations with the Guild.
David Gadiel is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
Stand up for incentive and enterprise
One of the nasty surprises of 2014 was the Abbott government’s increase in the top personal income tax rate to 49%. The increase is an affront to the culture of incentive and enterprise, from a party that presents itself as the main advocate of those values. The supposedly temporary nature of the measure provides little comfort. As a political strategy aimed at gaining broad acceptance of the budget, it has failed miserably.
The contest between incentive and enterprise and the culture of entitlement and redistribution can only intensify as the government struggles to balance the budget against the background of an ongoing world-wide campaign against inequality.
Many more ideas for redistributive tax increases (such as the suggestion of a wealth tax, from an unexpected quarter, this week) will be floated. It is a time for those willing to stand up for the culture of incentive and enterprise to do so.
Robert Carling is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
Keeping up the momentum
Changing entrenched attitudes in education is like trying to turn an ocean liner — the momentum has to be maintained for a long time. Such is the case with reading instruction, where it has taken decades to see real recognition of the need for teachers to be trained in proven, effective methods.
While there have been glimmers of hope in the past — the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, for example — this year there were strong signs the ship is finally turning. Increasing numbers of schools are adopting explicit teaching methods.
The NSW government announced it will only accredit teaching degrees that include evidence-based methods of reading instruction. The national curriculum review and the federal government endorsed an emphasis on explicit, effective teaching methods. New executives of the board of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) are evidence-driven reformers. The potential for significant reform in 2015 is great and the CIS will remain front and centre.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies
If a ‘neo-liberal’ consensus ever existed, it’s long gone
In 2009 Kevin Rudd penned an essay on the Global Financial Crisis which stated that neo-liberalism is ‘the economic orthodoxy of our time‘. Of course his party in government, together with their allies the Greens, went on to disprove that any consensus on the economy existed.
The budget response makes this clear. By arguing against any reduction in universal services (higher education and health changes) and opposing any individual measure that reduces disposable income (welfare and Family Tax Benefit reform) in effect the opposition is to any measure that would reduce the size of government.
Yet most support removing tax concessions for super and negative gearing, increasing taxes on the rich and multinational companies. In short, these are all measures to increase the size of the government.
For many on the left, the GFC was simply vindication of a fervent ideological belief that markets and individuals will get it wrong most of the time if left to themselves. The core of our problem with budget repair is that difference between left and right thinking on the role of government is larger than it has been at any time since Whitlam.
Simon Cowan is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
Strongest memories of the year
I am going to leave the memorable events and policies of 2014 to the researchers. The strongest memories for me this year are closer to home, the people I work with at the CIS.
The CIS attracts a special kind of person. People who question the accepted wisdom, who have open minds and are prepared to fight for good ideas. Everyone I work with is prepared to work hard, whether it is getting the research right, organising events creatively, getting our ideas into the media, working on graphics and multi-media and cheerfully keeping the wheels rolling in the office.
Working for a not-for-profit is a great leveller. We all spend time together stuffing envelopes and sticking labels on while arguing about what to do about unemployed young men, the latest restriction on our freedoms and who is the best Dr Who.
How lucky am I to work with such a diverse, passionate group of people who all come to work to build a more prosperous and freer Australia.
Jenny Lindsay, General Manager