Archive for the 'Policy' Category
Sunday, April 24th, 2016
At the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March Education Director for the OECD Andreas Schleicher criticised the Australian education system for falling behind global standards. He pointed to the very significant drop in the results of students at the top of the PISA test rankings in the past year. He said “[Australia] more or less defines teachers by the number of hours that [they] teach in front of students. That is part of the problem. We treat teachers as interchangeable widgets on the frontline – they are just there to implement prefabricated knowledge.” Schleicher said many countries were struggling to keep the best teachers in the profession because of curriculums that restrict creativity.
The OECD through its PISA program which explores literacy in 15 year olds in writing, math and science every three years has been criticised very heavily in some countries as driving the education agenda. Countries determine their own policies but unfortunately the ideology which underlies PISA – standardised testing, along with performance pay and independent schooling – has been adopted too vigorously by some countries. The important findings about effective school education policies and practices brought out in the comprehensive reports of PISA and Education at a Glance are ignored or even deliberately misinterpreted.
In Australia parents are moving their kids in ever larger numbers to schools they perceive to be better based mainly on scores in standardised tests – NAPLAN – published on the MySchool website. What is happening is a drift of students from advantaged backgrounds away from public schools, which generally have large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to independent schools. As a result learning gaps between children from different backgrounds are widening. Parents are responding to test scores and to other factors. That should have been anticipated by those deciding to privilege standardised testing and support extra funding for independent schools.
The Myth of School Choice: Government support for Independent Schools and Standardised Tests traverses the recent report from the Grattan Institute which illuminates important outcomes of the Howard Government’s support of independent schools and the reactions of parents to that. The focus on NAPLAN has problems drawn out in a report by Chris Bonner and Bernie Shepherd for the Centre for Policy Development and a study by David Zyngier of Monash University. That independent schools do not contribute to better educational achievement when socioeconomic background is taken into account is shown by a sophisticated report by researchers from the University of Queensland and colleagues. As it has been by many previous analyses!
Study after study has shown no significant educational gain by the much better resourced independent schools. The extra funds would have been better spent supporting those children with greatest needs, those from disadvantaged backgrounds having trouble with the learning program.
The Turnbull Coalition Government, like the Abbott Government before it, has refused to fund the last two years of the National Plan for School Improvement framed in response to the Gonski Panel’s recommendations: it maintains there are insufficient funds. However, there is substantial evidence to the effect that funds are available by addressing the substantial tax expenditures – tax concessions – introduced in recent years; Australia is a relatively low tax country and a major contribution to debt is private debt funding purchase of houses and apartments.
The response by the Turnbull Government to the States’ refusal to consider operating their own income tax systems has left unresolved the funding of schools (and hospitals) through agreements between the former government and the states, with the Prime Minister maintaining that the states have no grounds on which to ask the Commonwealth to raise taxes and claiming the previous agreements were made in “barely credible circumstances”. The Myth of School Choice: the Economics of Independent Schools and Australian Government Policy shows just how wrong this is and how billions of taxpayer funds have been wasted. A report by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow and detailed analysis by Trevor Cobbold illuminate the situation.
Proposals to have the Commonwealth fund independent schools and the States fund public schools were strongly criticised and are not supported by the Government’s own Green Paper on the Future of the Federation. In Victoria a review by former Premier Steve Bracks recommends policies reinforcing the Gonski reforms.
Despite adoption of policies in the US and UK based mainly on neoclassical economics which privilege private sector participation in generating public goods like education, favour competition and choice and deploy financial incentives to drive change, there are examples in those countries, as in Australia, of exciting outcomes from schools which do address the main features of effective learning in schools.
The Myth of School Choice: Genuine improvement happens when everyone collaborates for the benefit of the children summarises an important review by education historian Diane Ravitch of two very interesting books on schools in the United States. It isn’t simply quality teachers or the administrative independence of school principals and it certainly isn’t standardised testing which make the difference! Kristina Rizga, author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, about a high school in San Francisco with an enrolment of students from a wide cultural diversity, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, points out, “too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists are making decisions about the best solutions for schools. In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.””
Despite everything, at Mission High in San Francisco great gains were made by students through the intense enthusiasm of their teachers.
Rizga says, “What matters in quality education – critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills – exist in realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.”
Diane Ravitch points out “grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children.”
And education does not by itself fix poverty.
Saturday, February 14th, 2015
The following post was first published on the website of Civil Liberties Australia under the title, Aborigines: resilience, courage and humour. The post is a response to the Report by the Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage published 19 Nov 2014. It is also cross posted on my blog.
As the lights go down at the Belvoir Theatre, an elderly man with a wonderful white beard leads other actors in a recalled presentation to a Royal Commission.
In 1874 the Victorian government moved to close an economically successful enterprise at Coranderrk, near Healesville. Nearby farmers protested the land was too valuable for Aboriginal people. The people resisted. But anyway the area was closed in 1924 despite protests from Wurundjeri men, returned soldiers from the Great War: people were moved to Lake Tyers. There are scores of similar stories, hardly known.
Uncle Jack Charles, now 72, was taken from his mother at Cummeragunja mission as a one year old and raised in a boys’ home at suburban Box Hill. He was the only Aboriginal child there: they ”thrashed the living bejesus out of me’’, and worse. Jack was in and out of jail for minor crime and substance abuse. Reunited with some family at age 17, it was two more years before that included his mother. Jack is considered a founder of black theatre: he now helps young Aboriginal people.
As I watch Uncle Jack Charles perform, I perceive the resilience, courage and humour permeating every performance, comprising cultural achievement in spite of a life lived against the odds. (The play Beautiful One Day, also performed at Belvoir, has the same characteristics.)
Indigenous people are still here, teaching us cultural lessons, as we who are not indigenous have passed from hideous assimilation to integration through policies based on arrogance and now ignorance.
Denial, exploitation, removal of children, murder and rape, suppression of language. Refusal to acknowledge the past. Refusal to acknowledge a unique relationship with land with all its meanings, and managing the land through ice-age and desert periods. Refusal of equal rights despite judgements of the High Court, despite legislation, despite Royal Commissions, despite so many statements from elders white and black, despite increasing achievements in every field, not only music, painting and literature.
Disadvantage: Closing the Gap?
The extraordinarily comprehensive and, in some places, terribly disturbing Productivity Commission Report of late 2014 reveals trends that are a disgrace of international proportion against global standards. The report is comprehensive and detailed: every aspect of Indigenous disadvantage explored. It contains numerous examples of “Things that Work”. And it received about as much media attention as the chime on a time clock.
Horrendous statistics overshadow small gains and losses. Health, education and housing, which characterise Indigenous peoples’ problems worldwide, remain major issues. Australia is worse than anywhere: 78% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households lack acceptable access to water, sewerage and electricity service, but that figure is 5 points down from 2008…so overcrowding declined!
There is no progress in employment (likely affected by changes in the Community Employment Program), or in disability and chronic disease at 1.7 times the incidence for non-Indigenous people.
An increase in the non-Indigenous rate of family and community violence means the Indigenous rate remains 2.2 times the non-Indigenous rate. Over the nine years to 2012-13 the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders increased almost five times from 11 to 49 per 1000 children; for non-Indigenous children the rate was between 3 and 6 per 1000 children.
Adult Indigenous jailing increased by 57% in the past 14 years. Youth imprisonment increased sharply to 2008 and has since remained at about 24 times the non-Indigenous rate. Repeat offending is 1.5 times the rate of 55% for non-Indigenous prisoners, as in 2000.
The over-representation of indigenous people in prison in Australia is 10 times that of the USA!
The suicide rate in the five years to 2012 was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm increased by almost 50% to more than 400 per 100,000 in the past eight years; for other Australians it remained relatively stable.
In education, the figures are also far worse than for Indigenous people in other countries. In New Zealand, 85% of Maori have post-school qualifications and in the US it is about 65% of Native Americans: in Australia less than 20% have such qualifications.
Decades of continuing discrimination
Gough Whitlam, on election as Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, directed one of his first two major initiatives at Aboriginal people: no more grants of leases on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, appointment of Justice Woodward to commence an inquiry into land rights, and establishment of special schools.
Before and since Whitlam, any moves to advantage Indigenous peoples have been opposed by special interests in pastoral and mining activities and by state governments, except South Australia. In Western Australia discrimination continues as Premier Colin Barnett does his best to remove Indigenous people from remote areas, refusing allocation of mining royalties to support them and maintains mandatory sentencing for minor crime.
In 2006 Prime Minister Howard and Minister Mal Brough established the Northern Territory Intervention or National Emergency Response (NTER) to address alleged high levels of child abuse and neglect, with some allegations later found to be fraudulent and invented by an employee in the Minister’s office. The army was sent in, social security payments were managed, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended. Contrary to recommendations from a government-commissioned report, action was centralised.
Delivering the 2007 Vincent Lingiari lecture, Reconciliation Australia co-chair Fred Chaney expressed shock: the Intervention was contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights and the principles of non-discrimination, authorised micro management of lives, forced people into towns with devastating social consequences likely returning people to dependence, crushing the engagement essential to progress.
The Intervention has produced no gains. In the five years to 2011 Indigenous hospitalisation rates increased by 14%, income support recipients by 20%, reported child abuse by 56% and school attendance declined by 2 percentage points according to emeritus Professor Jon Altman.
Professor Larissa Behrendt says trying to change behaviour through welfare quarantining in an already dysfunctional situation likely exacerbates the stress on households. Improved attendance would be better achieved by breakfast and lunch programs, bringing the Aboriginal community, especially elders, into schools; teacher’s aides and Aboriginal teachers; a curriculum engaging for Aboriginal children which blends development self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture as well as academic excellence.
A failure of policy: What could have been
Dr Christine Nicholls, now at Flinders University, was principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu for almost a decade. In Quarterly Essay 36 (2009), she points out that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change.
People visited from government agencies out of town but nothing happened! The kids have otitis media (a disease of the Third World!) and can’t hear properly: if you can’t hear, you muck up in school, and don’t learn. It is ignored.
Few ESL teachers are employed, the value of teaching in language is denied, housing construction is appalling (and successive governments have done nothing about it). There is nowhere at home to do homework, overcrowding (with its attendant problems of potential child abuse), compromised health and hygiene. Lack of work for parents. Successive governments come to power wanting to be the one that fixes “the problem”. None do, small successes are not built on.
Many programs to advance Indigenous people are supported by private donations, corporate philanthropy, some together with government. Several help young people particularly. What on earth persuaded the Howard and Abbott governments to force on to Indigenous people wholly ineffectual policies that simply repeat all the mistakes of the past, are based on colonial and assimilative policies and in the end waste money and destroy people’s lives?
Governments could have decided to be far more engaged in ensuring proper housing, education and health programs. They could have ensured a substantial funding component of every initiative went to training Indigenous people. They could have stopped trying to justify policy by lying! And the federal government could have rejected the sometimes racist and backward looking objections of many provincial governments. Almost none have the courage to face down critics wanting to solve it all through rational economic solutions like private ownership and put everything in the “they need to adapt to our society” basket.
The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales and Victoria. The situations revealed in the Aboriginal-directed and -produced, award-winning TV dramas Redfern Now are situations of all people in towns and cities on the margin: difficulties of employment and daily living: health issues flowing from bad diet, cheap fast food, substance and alcohol abuse, poor housing.
There are three fundamental requirements: Self Determination, Financial Security, and support of Women/Early Childhood and Parenting
The right to self-determination must be embraced completely. Sovereignty matters! The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has run hundreds of research studies over more than two decades in Native American communities. When Native Americans make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental forms, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision.
Self-determination is a constant theme in every speech by Indigenous people. It is an expression of control over one’s own life. Many, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, have pointed out that redressing disadvantage in the longer term depends upon people having the power to make decisions that affect them, to be responsible for the programs designed to meet their needs, and accountable for the successes and failures that follow.
Michael Dockery of Curtin University has found these same outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia. But no notice is taken. What is axiomatic for white groups in society is seen as a threat if given to black groups! Capable institutions of governance, adoption of stable decision rules, establishment of fair and independent mechanisms of dispute resolution and leaders who introduce new knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and propose change are recognised as essential by Harvard.
Second is equitable funding as the bottom line, and more beyond that as success builds. Under-funding has typified programs for more than 100 years. Except for the Whitlam government, almost every federal government has strenuously failed to adequately fund Indigenous programs. Wages and social security payments have been withheld and compensation ignored. The funding must acknowledge the right to determine the nature of projects directed to community improvement.
Under the government of Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott:
- $43 million will be removed from legal aid over four years;
- $160 million is being cut from health programs;
- language support has lost money; and
- funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was eliminated.
Recently Prof Altman has pointed to the success of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme which began in the 1970s: it increased earnings, provided more time for ceremonial activities, and crime decreased. Howard cancelled the increasingly demonised scheme because it wasn’t “real work”. In December 2014 the Abbott government announced a work for the dole scheme for remote Australia. Utterly pointless!
Early childhood and parenting
Australian and international understanding of early childhood, mother–child relationships, cognitive development and the impact on later life has increased significantly. These relationships are critical. The stimulation and warmth of the relationship contributes to a successful later life. Young children learn how to behave, and about human relationships and self-control which is a greater predictor of later “success” than any other indicator. And they learn self-confidence which helps manage the stress of later life better.
Recalled experiences in early childhood carry over to later parenting situations. So a potential cycle is developed. Therefore maximum support must be given to women and young families. Preschool staffed by qualified teachers and before that maximum effective support. Later, while Indigenous parents may not be clear about what school has to do with education, because of their background, that does not mean they have no interest in education. On the other hand intervening at school age will not likely undo the damage of early life. And availability of jobs after schooling is completed is essential.
The Productivity Commission and many people working and studying in the area have identified successes. But generally governments have not addressed the causes of problems, they have not co-ordinated the policies across significant areas and have not recognised the obligations to First Peoples whose right to the land was denied for 200 years. The invidious comparisons with the Indigenous peoples of other countries testifies to that.
There is a crisis of intellectual laziness combined with arrogance. In particular, the critical importance of cultural issues have not been attended to, nor has the impact of removal from land and of forced removal of children from families, which continues. Nothing has been learned from elsewhere.
The paternalistic approach which denies people any sense of control over their own lives leaves them more than marginalised. A friend points to the fact that many Aboriginal people have little understanding of white institutions and the implications of such things as court judgements.
But they know very well what denial of liberty means. Anything approaching racial profiling, failure to deliver in the judicial and police arena, criminalising minor crimes, mandatory sentencing and imprisonment produces more destructive behaviour and undermines progress elsewhere. It should be stopped immediately. Everything should be geared to developing a sense of self-worth grounded in a unique culture so that Indigenous identity is genuinely valued by the whole Australian community. Surprising as it may seem, many Aboriginal people regard all white people as of greater value than any Aboriginal person.
David Gulpilil won best lead actor for his role in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie’s Country at the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) event in January 2015. There are lessons in that if we only think about them.
Tuesday, January 27th, 2015
The school education policies of the Abbott government enunciated by Minister Christopher Pyne focus on several important features. These are a uniform curriculum, standardised testing of students, a didactic approach to teaching including “Direct Instruction”, school choice linked to support for private or independent schools based on the implication that government or public schools are failing and, implicitly, teacher accountability which can mean student test scores being the measure of teacher effectiveness. Pyne has said that those who oppose his policies are simply being politically correct.
The policies are unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. They largely follow the highly prescriptive conservative push which has typified the approach of the United States based on accountability and uniformity across schools. The policies are strongly advocated by the Institute for Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, the former a particular influence on the Abbott government. Conservative individuals and groups in the US also have substantial influence on school education policies there. The policies are not ones followed by those countries which are successful in international student assessments. Those who have studied the approach to schooling in countries such as Finland point that out in respect of the US.
Two major issues are at stake and are the subject of major conflict: the relative importance of student inequality and influence of the school relative to other influences such as the home, peers and out-of-school activities. All impact on teaching and learning and on creativity.
The Pyne policy sidelines or even denies inequality as an issue. Rather, the view is that public schools are ineffective and the only way to achieve improvement is by encouraging independent schools. This is a policy pursued relentlessly in the US through charter schools and in the UK through Academies but not in European or Asian countries though the relative attention to inequality may vary. An essential correlate of the judgement about relative effectiveness of school is the emphasis on standardised tests and on uniform curriculum. Teachers are considered the key to effective learning, effective teachers should be rewarded financially and that many of the people employed as teachers are not suitable and should be dismissed. A high degree of autonomy for schools in respect of financial management and teacher recruitment is advocated. (These are issues which have been addressed elsewhere on this site.)
Early childhood intervention is a major contributor to student educational achievement. That is significantly influenced by the social and economic advantage of the family. Recognising that, most countries whose school students achieve high test scores support universal preschool: that brings greatest gains for less advantaged children. They also support government funded paid parental leave allowing parents to spend more time with the very young child during a critical period of life. The early years’ learning experiences influence the development of self-control which has a greater effect than any other influence on later life, as shown by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.
Over 50 per cent of the contribution to school student achievement is contributed by what the child brings to school and a further proportion is contributed by out of school influences. In other words, most of the factors which influence student achievement are outside the control of the school. And, as John Hattie points out it is the school, not the teacher which has most influence. Almost all children are taught by many different teachers: to single out one teacher, as is done when teacher effectiveness is assessed on the basis of students’ test scores, is nonsense.
The Howard government from 1997 through 2006 had financially supported independent schools leading to a significant drift of students from public to independent schools. Writing in Quarterly Essay 36 (2009) writer Jane Caro quotes researcher Barbara Preston’s statement that by 2006 there were 16 low-income students to every 10 high-income students in high school playgrounds, compared with 13 students from low-income families 10 years earlier. The Rudd and Gillard governments continued support for independent schools by acknowledging, when the review of funding of education was announced, by undertaking that no school would lose money in any government policy flowing from the review.
The Gonski panel strongly supported special funding to address inequality. The Gillard government also sought substantial improvement in teacher training: though initially teacher progression and promotion was linked to student test scores, that was dropped in favour of linking teacher pay to individual teacher attainment of progression through an agreed professional performance framework.
The National Plan for School Improvement, the legislation implementing the Gonski recommendations, provided for increases in funding targeted at disadvantage and committed States to direct their funding to complement the Plan. Pyne removed those provisions in respect of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory which had not signed up to the National Plan before the September 2013 election. He was loudly opposed by every member of the Gonski Panel and large sections of the community for these decisions.
Pursuit of Pyne’s policies will waste money and take Australian school education policy back decades. The accompanying policies of early childhood education introduced by the Gillard government have stalled amid claims that increases in salaries for teachers are a sop to unions.
The essays accompanying this post summarises a number of recent reports and studies bearing on the fundamentals of Pyne’s policies for schools. These include, in the first essay dealing with learning, creativity and early childhood
- studies of learning and creativity in very young (4 year old) children with implications for “direct instruction” and the issue of Indigenous children and education
- three studies of the contribution that independent and public schools make to later student achievement in university and employment and
- a related set of studies about early childhood and coping with stress in later life.
And in the second essay on teaching and school performance
- a comparison of the approach to teaching in Finland and the US and the results of a survey by the OECD of innovative practices introduced in those two countries and more generally,
- a note on recent events in New York in the war over school education and teachers
- a review of teachers and teaching practice in the US with implications more generally
- assertions by some educational researchers of the damaging impact of the PISA program and assertions derived from the PISA survey that Australia is “falling behind” Asian countries,
- results of the PISA 2012 study of creative problem solving
- a study of school performance “in context” published January 2015 which examined schools and society in nine countries including the US, UK, China and Finland
Continue to Learning, Creativity and Early Childhood
Tuesday, December 30th, 2014
This year 2014 has been one of the most difficult years Australians have faced in peacetime. It is a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing and the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.
So, the following constitutes a kind of end of year rave about Australia and the world at this time. It started out as a commentary on the response to friends about the article of last May by Warwick Smith in The Guardian on the budget: number of economists who agree with government economic policy? Nil.
I am deliberately posting this instead of placing it as an article amongst the pages of this site. This post has also been published on my blog.
The Abbott-led Opposition had consistently criticised the Gillard government as illegitimate and non-functional when it was in fact legitimate (as are many coalition governments around the world) and was able to pass substantial amounts of legislation, albeit not all representing the best that could be put in place. In government, Abbott faced trouble from cross bench Senators throughout the year, passing little legislation.
Government claims of a welfare crisis were undermined by a Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research report that has tracked more than 12,000 people since 2001. The Survey showed working age Australians have become far less reliant on welfare payments since the turn of the century. As Peter Whiteford,Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University pointed out, Australia has the most targeted social security system in the OECD and that total social security payments in Australia, at 12 per cent of average household income, are the third-lowest in the OECD. Strategies aimed at getting more people on welfare, including youth and those receiving disability benefits, into work have nothing to say about job creation!
The Prime Minister Tony Abbott ended the year in very bad shape and indeed Treasurer Hockey is said to have failed. Many have been the commentators giving vent to their views on that: I don’t need to here. I have in recent posts. Except it is worth recalling that, on gaining office on September 8 2013, Mr Abbott declared the Nation “open for business”. Instead business confidence weakened, terms of trade declined and the deficit grew. There are multiple reasons which only shows the folly of making grand predictions about financial outcomes!
I do want to point out that the posts on this site have changed from ones that commented in a perhaps fairly staid manner on various issues to increasingly strident condemnation of trends in Australia and more generally. Apart from failures in education in many places the overwhelming failure has been in respect of climate change, though the outcomes of the meetings in Lima atd the end of 2014 perhaps give some hope.
It is fair to say that Australia is involved in conflicts in the Middle East which probably have nothing to do with Australia, or more correctly are unlikely to solved by our intervention or indeed the intervention of any outside power, hideous as the situation is.
Immigration has become a nightmare which decent Australians find appalling, policies based on lies, as pointed out by many including Julian Burnside, Malcolm Fraser and Sarah Hanson-Young, and a level of meanness which is hard to imagine.
Consider this contrasting decision: “Sweden has become the first European Union country to announce it will give asylum to all Syrian refugees who apply as reported by SBS for instance. “All Syrian asylum seekers who apply for asylum in Sweden will get it,” Annie Hoernblad, the spokeswoman for Sweden’s migration agency, told AFP. The agency made this decision now because it believes the violence in Syria will not end in the near future.” The decision, which will give refugees permanent resident status, is valid until further notice, added Hoernblad.”
The government has pursued energy policies totally at odds with any verifiable facts: carbon emissions were decreasing before the carbon tax was repealed and have increased since then with brown coal being burned in much higher amounts. Declines in household energy consumption and in petrol prices have delivered significantly much more financial gain to people than any action of the government. Energy retailers have been profligate – spending some $40 billions on infrastructure that will never be needed – and the Energy Regulator lacked discipline. The arguments for a reduction of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) are merely a sop to retailers and coal miners. (The actions of the Victorian State government in promoting urban transport infrastructure in a process which concealed the lies underlying the asserted outcome and unnecessary desalination infrastructure are similarly egregious.)
Government policies on health are utterly irrelevant. A co-paymdent has nothing to do with maintaining a healthy citizenry and the proposed $20 billion dollar research fund does not address chronic disease. Anyway the health minister was shoved off to Immigration in the December reshuffle whilst Social Services are to be subject to the discipline up to now imposed on Immigration. No hint there of increasing revenue other than further arguments about the regressive GST bolstered by ongoing assertions from Western Australia.
Proposals for funding education so that the major issue of disparities in advantage would be reduced have been trashed in a welter of lies and misrepresentations. Why hasn’t the media reported these two comments by the chair of the panel, the redoubtable David Gonski in his Jean Blackburn Oration to the Australian College of Educators?
“I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.
“To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.
Continuing to talk of what he saw, Gonski noted, “The outstanding professionalism of both the leaders of the commonwealth department involved in school education and a number of the equivalents in states.
“I confess that my un-researched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite. The people I met, who dealt with me, were on the whole open to change, experienced, intelligent and well-meaning. In my view we are lucky to have them.
“I should also mention that dealing with the representatives of the various sectors be they from the catholic system, the independent school sector, the education unions and others was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively. This I found very reassuring for the future – and I take the opportunity of this “postscript speech” to thank them.”
Despite evidence that universities are vitally important but that there are needs for improvement in teaching and that for reasons not explained large numbers of graduates have difficulty finding jobs, the government adopted policies for higher education that, like those for schools, had no basis whatsoever in evidence, were promoted by focus groups (which are relevant to what?) at great cost and advocated through an advertising program which did not mention the great cuts to research funding.
And the ABC and SBS had their funds further reduced. Like CSIRO, excuses were made and the issues ignored and the blame avoided. That any government concerned for education and an informed citizenry and future prosperity would of necessity generously fund scientific research and public broadcasting escapes these people. The ABC and SBS deliver an extraordinary array of material of extremely high quality. But as ABC’s Mark Scott has said the focus is on some small part of what they do. Skilled and experienced people left. Skilled and experienced scientists continued to leave CSIRO after a plethora of reviews over more than 25 years. In both places corporatisation has delivered exactly what?
The greatest tragedy of the budget, though in this sense the present government is not completely different only much worse, is the way it has ignored the major challenges facing humanity. Those will always be argued about but inequality, addressed by CEO of the IMF, the Governor of the Bank of England and French academic Thomas Piketty as well as a host of others, immediately comes to mind.
Of the many excellent reports of those challenges, the Oxford Martin Commission, “Now for the Long Term”, chaired by former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy (and including an astonishing array of internationally respected economists, specialists and political leaders) can be mentioned. And there are several insightful reports from the United Nations and the OECD. When Lamy visited Australia mid-year the Commission’s report received media attention only from the ABC and he met no government Minister! I don’t know if he met any business group. His talks in capital cities were booked out. (The visit was promoted by the Centre for Policy development.)
Here are three recent tweets of mine, relevant to the above, that those who do not tweet will have missed (no doubt to the relief of some):
Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates astronomy would hardly have advanced beyond Galileo. More
Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates we wd b drawing blood 2 cure illness. DNA search wd b 2 risky!
Advances gain f prev unknown knowledge & skills. Instead of colonisation & takeover try join w others 2 leverage knowledge Mkt econ model NO
If the meaning of these ravings are not clear, I can explain. I consider that banks and too many (not all) other corporates are engaged, not in innovative solutions to advance society, but simple behaviours merely to enrich a few people who fund them.
After all banks have gotten into trouble because they did things like decide to reward people for lending money without any regard to whether the loan would likely be repaid; they could have decided to reward only those who had made successful loans. Even better they could have engaged with a multiple of reinforcing goals such as “advance economic performance whilst encouraging innovation in pursuit of improving the health of minorities (or even the middle class)”.
Consider the recent behaviour of the ANZ bank (whose chair is a climate change denier) which bought an investment vehicle at a knock down price and then pursued the debtors, closing their mortgages if they missed one payment. These are farmers: what were National Party politicians like Barnaby Joyce doing? Answer: nothing!
The chair of the National Australia Bank Michael Chaney recently said that banks had a duty to fund the mining of coal! This is even more stupid than Abbott’s comment that coal was good. Banks have no obligation to fund anything other than what is consistent with their goals and prudent. Chaney was once chair of the Business Council and advocated then, as the BCA still does, nonsensical views about financial incentives driving teacher performance and test scores representing teacher competence.
The behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank is well known.
For the rest, consider corporate failings and illegal behaviours. I have a list.
As to colonisation and takeovers. The first thing to recognise is the huge cost over time. Most of these ventures are loss-making. Consider Vietnam and Algeria, not to mention French and British interests in the Middle East. (The British betrayed those who gave their support to the defeat of the Turkish forces in WW1 and British and French representatives divided up the land as they had in Africa to suit themselves.) The present insurgencies in Syria and Iraq represent the ongoing return on investment by those powers.
All colonised peoples have knowledge and skills of great value which are completely ignored and supressed so that the people can be applied to the simple tasks of working at little or no wages in enterprises which the colonizers have dreamed up as appropriate to achieving their own ends. Such as ground nut farming in East Africa. (See the history of pioneer ANU anthropologist Bill Stanner whose writings were recently edited by Robert Manne, the novel and play “The Secret River”, Bill Gammage’s book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and “Into the Heart of Darkness”, etc, etc)
Most company mergers in the end benefit only the lawyers who arrange the mergers and a few people who get “success fees”. What generally follows is downsizing or, in other words in not a few cases, at least temporary unemployment sometimes leading to worse. The simple solution to “wealth generation” is followed: cut the costs by increasing the margins which results in increase in the stock price which, since the “investors” leverage their borrowing against stock, represents a considerable gain for them. When they have made enough they sell on the company which by now is diminished. All a result of companies considering the main role to be generation of wealth for their shareholders rather than providing needed goods and services to a specific market.
The boards of such merged companies often contain no person who actually knows anything about the business; the directors are rewarded with large fees, a process which makes virtually no difference to performance as has been demonstrated by research on behavioural economics. Employees are hired by another company so the principal company doesn’t have to worry about the workplace conditions. And employees are engaged in whatever country pays the lowest wages with little or no regard to conditions of employment or any sense of decency. (See ‘Why Work Is More and More Debased’ by Robert Kuttner in New York Review of Books October 23, 2014 reviewing ‘The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It’ by David Weil and ‘Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street’ by Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt.)
The very much more productive alternative would be for companies to merge when each recognises the other has experience and skills which the principal company, or both, lacks but has identified as critical to its progress. What would follow is not sackings but a period of considerable training and development of all staff in the new company in the areas critical to success. Those asked to leave are only those who reveal that they are not comfortable with the nature of the new business. (IR policies rest on best practice as revealed by best research and law.)
If this seems too much like naïve and ignorant nonsense answer this question: how has the European Space Agency managed to land vehicles on a moon of Jupiter and a comet, a process which in each case involved hundreds of scientists from many different countries over a very long time? And how did they get the Hadron Super Collider to “discover” the Higgs particle? In the latter case the machinery broke down at one point: 3,000 scientists and technicians worked at fixing it! How have the hospitals which are expert at managing the most critical medical problems got to be that way? (This year’s Reith lectures by Michael Gawande give a clue about managing complex problems such as bringing back to life persons severely injured and seemingly dead after accidents. A clue: the answer isn’t money or competition. You guessed it, it is cooperation!)
Compare the ESA achievements with the relatively simple tasks of rolling out the NBN, installing pink bats, putting in place a universal ticketing system for Sydney’s public transport system and – yes I know that is very much more difficult than putting a decent education or health system in place against the wishes of entrenched privilege) – transiting to a low carbon economy!
The fact is that the politicians and the corporate boards we have in place are not fit for purpose, mainly through intellectual laziness and an overwhelming belief that what they have been brought up to believe is the eternal truth. The influence of those in leadership positions is followed almost unquestionably until they are found to be no longer of use! Sensible decision-making requires constant challenge and exposure to alternative views!
Almost none of these people would dare to consider the proposition that we would all be better off if there was a substantial reduction in inequality, if those on the margin, especially indigenous people*, were granted the dignity and recognition to which they are entitled including equitable access to the judicial system, if the poor were adequately housed rather than living on the street and the seriously disadvantaged cared for, if drug addiction were treated as an illness and not a crime, if children were encouraged to play by themselves unsupervised as part of their learning, if test scores at school were abandoned because all that can be measured is of little consequence, if investment in childhood education was considered the key to the future, if health care were paid for through taxes because the net gain to the community at large is positive over the longer term, if public transport, urban planning and health were recognised as fundamental to a just society and to gains in other areas, if industrial relations were recognised as constituting the processes for mutual satisfaction of competing wants in the alternative village that workplaces are, if investment in scientific research, certainly not economic growth or population growth, was recognised as the principal driver of future prosperity broadly defined. And if the military had to run cake stalls to generate the funding for their weapons!
I believe these are amongst the most important and critical issues. The economy is not the principal issue, at individual, family, local or national or international level. Writers like the Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay have been saying this for some time and so have many people who have pointed to the importance of issues beyond the economic.
In his commencement address at American University Jine 10 1963, President John F Kennedy said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal…”
I finish with some of my favourite quotes. They come from the 2010 Deakin lecture by Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey. (Jackson is featured on TED. One of the first actions of the UK government of David Cameron was to dismiss the UK Sustainable Development Commission: the parallels with Australia will be obvious.)
“The concept of prosperity as an ongoing drive for growth is inconsistent with human nature. … prosperity has a meaningful sense that isn’t directly about income growth. It’s about the health of our families. It’s about the trust of our friends. It’s about the security of our communities. It’s about participation in the life of society. It’s about some sense perhaps of having a meaningful life and a hope for the future…
“We evolved as much as social beings as we did as individual beings. We evolved as much in laying down the foundations for a stable society as we did in continually pursuing novelty…”
Some of these ideas are explored in my book “Education: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity” (published early this year by Springer) and in other posts on this site.
- Indigenous Australians fought in both world wars: they enlisted only by concealing their racial background. When they returned they were granted no benefits accorded to non-indigenous returned soldiers, not even able to enter RSL clubs. Their names are not inscribed on the honour rolls of the Australian War Memorial. (The huge turnout at a ceremony arranged by descendants of these people gives the lies to the proposition that symbolic gestures are of no significance and that what matters is practical reconciliation, in other words assimilation!) This was revealed in a Summer Special program on ABC RN on December 31 2014, and enterprise which as I have said, like most other things of value is being trashed by the present government.
Monday, October 27th, 2014
Like thousands of Australians I have been almost consumed by frustration over the political situation in Australia over the last several decades. To anyone reading these pages that will come as no surprise. The last 25 or so years have for the most part been exceptionally difficult as politically and economically the country seemed to retreat to the past, to embrace more than most other countries an economic model which on examination lacks any real justification in history or people’s behaviour, a subject I have already traversed in the context of education policy.
Australia has achieved some astounding things in its relatively short history.
And it has been through some horrendous experiences, though almost as nothing compared to what has fallen on the citizens of many countries. And continues!
But more than that, the embrace of a policy – neoclassical or market economics – which focuses so much on the short run, on a belief in the merits of competition and financial rewards and more, indeed an ultimate gain in individual gratification through financial success, has led to further marginalisation of the less advantaged and ongoing limitation in the expectations for many. That is seen in policies for education and housing which entrench advantage, in limited investment in infrastructure of all kinds and in continued reliance on resource exploitation and primary production, a “dig it up and ship it out” mentality which allows that commercial enterprises, especially those owned by overseas interests, need not necessarily devote resources to research and development in this country because the answers can be got from overseas, sometimes from their branches. In particular little attention has been paid to economic diversification whilst the contribution of some areas of the economy, especially mining, are vastly exaggerated by their supporters. The Australia Institute has released reports showing, for instance, that solar energy contributes more to the economy than coal mining.
To some, such things as concern for the disadvantaged, for universal access to education and universal health care, to decent housing for everyone and to functioning and attractive physical and natural environments, to a system of justice which recognises and protects the dignity and justifiable right to reasonable privacy for all, a society in which creativity and inquiry are valued and not least a society in which diversity, cultural, racial, gender, age and more including sexual orientation, seem justifiable only in an economic frame. That these things, along with workplaces which respect and appropriately reward the unique contribution of everyone, do actually contribute very substantially indeed to economic success is evident beyond any doubt to anyone who considers that evidence. Seemingly, that is not sufficient to those who allow that personal experience and entrenched belief should trump everything. So political propaganda and patronage of fear can play havoc and divert attention from the imperatives of the future in favour of the emergencies of the present. Something that the wonderful Barry Jones said decades ago.
Ignoring the substantial contributions that Australians have made to science and the arts are just part of the mix, a view that innovation is something that business does but government doesn’t. That is wrong! As Mariana Mazzucato points out in her book The Entrepreneurial State (Anthem, 2014), very many extremely significant commercial developments developed from basic “blue sky” research by government funded agencies, not from business. Business takes on the results of the basic research and brings the product to market. To do that requires business to be prepared to take risks, including the risk of failure, an essential element of innovation. The claim for certainty heard often from business is antithetical innovation and ignores the real world.
The response? The Australian government’s spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP is now the lowest it has been since 1978 and the third lowest of any OECD country. For several decades there has been a drive for CSIRO to be more commercially oriented and substantial numbers of staff have been lost from the organisation. In 2007 the Productivity Commission reported concerns about the focus and called for the tax breaks for business investment should not be targeted only at commercial benefit. Then science minister Julie Bishop dismissed the concerns.
In October 2014 the Abbott government announced $500 millions for programs entirely directed at certain areas of the commercial economy and Industry Minister Macfarlane acknowledged that there were concerns about reductions in funding but blamed the budgetary situation! At the same time most other countries are investing heavily in science. The 2013 budget contained very substantial cuts to research in universities and proposed increasing charges for students attending universities. These were part of proposed university deregulation which large universities, some policy groups like the Grattan Institute and the Business Council supported. That is despite clear evidence that in Australia the return to the community is far greater than that to the individual.
Of course we do well in sport: well we don’t actually achieve internationally in sport as we do in the arts and in science, for our size. Recall the number of leading actors, dance companies, orchestras – the Australian Chamber Orchestra recognised as the best small orchestra in the world – authors and musicians. Films don’t miss out because they are no good but because of the scene being swamped by huge promotional spends by overseas companies.
The fact that business can thrive quite satisfactorily and at the same time be regulated to protect the legitimate interests of the citizenry is not a deeply held view. Too often, especially in respect of financial institutions (which incidentally have done best from the measures put in place to confront the Global Financial Crisis), an attempt by government to regulate is howled down. For the governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott almost any regulation is seen as a burden. Indeed the Abbott government seems intent on abandoning any role in regulation and even the notion of Australia as a nation except in respect of defence and foreign policy and a few other things such as “being open for business”, whatever that means. Providing we determine who comes to this country and allowed to stay!
All of these issues are ones traversed energetically in the increasing conversations in social media and more serious places. But governments in the last 25 years have not necessarily listened to those views which do not suit their philosophies. Though one would have to say that the Rudd and Gillard governments were characterised by substantially greater intelligence than some others. A contested view of course. But think education reform and the response to the Global Financial Crisis. And the substantial raft of legislation passed despite it being a minority government: being supported by intelligent and committed independents made a difference which Abbott refused to admit, branding the government illegitimate but not labelling the coalition government of David Cameron in the UK with that epithet.
Go back further and think of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments, not just economically. The Whitlam government whose achievements have been so acknowledged in the last weeks of October following the death of Gough Whitlam aged 98, achievements of vast long-term economic importance, achievements denied at the time. The Fraser government which enacted some of the Whitlam initiatives, embraced humanitarian approaches to asylum seekers and immigrants which have so enriched this country in the context of multiculturalism initiated during the Whitlam years, difficult though that was. And advanced Indigenous interests.
Now we face critical issues at almost every turn. As I have already written, these essays under the subject of “In Australia” address some of those issues and eventually will suggest some approaches for the future. But the views and suggestions are just more amongst the many views and suggestions of others, the thoughts and opinions of the many Australians whose commitment and intelligence will be evident to anyone reading, listening to or watching the more serious publications, radio and television programs. Most of the last two and some of the first are to be found on the platforms of the ABC and SBS, media branded as inefficient at best and biased at worst by those of the right. Despite being trusted by over 80 per cent of the population on every survey! Despite their attention to the very values which so many cherish and which on occasion have been embraced politically.
The next two essays address a very difficult subject: is the Abbott government competent to lead the country.