The Education Debacle – Bad Policy and Bad Politics

Pyne

Surely Christopher Pyne is the most unlikeable cabinet Minister that we have seen in this country for quite some time. He really does come across as that nasty, sort of greasy public school bully boy, arrogant and dismissive of alternative views, doesn’t he. However that isn’t really the point.
The point is that he is trying to implement a bad policy, and one that not only did he not tell us about in the election campaign prior to his election, he actively denied any fiddling with the status regarding university policy or funding (as did Tony Abbott). The LNP policy document promised to “ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.”
I now reproduce a recent article by Greg Jericho that I think well explains what has happened since then:

The changes were then announced in the 2014 Budget without warning and without any explanation. The government pretty much assumed since they had the big universities on board that everyone would fall into line, and had no counter to the modelling from the Greens and the ALP which suggested some degrees would now cost over $100,000.

Pyne tried to fix it up on the run – changing the indexation rules for HECS such that they would continue to be indexed at the CPI rather than, as proposed, by the government bond rate. But all the while he failed to really explain, except in general and often overstated terms, why any of these changes were needed.

For example, on the weekend he told Barrie Cassidy on Insiders that “At the moment we only have one university in the top 50 in the world”.

Firstly, why does that matter? Yes, we do want to have universities that are highly rated, but given the size of our population, is 1 in 50 actually bad? Is that measure even a good one for judging the entire university sector in Australia?

Secondly, yes, if you use the “Times Higher Education World Rankings”, we do only have 1 university in the top 50, but the QS World University Rankings has 5 Australian universities there.

Even the Times rankings sees Australian universities performing well when broken down into disciplines, rather than according to a general “reputation” measure.

In Arts and Humanities we have 3 in the top 20, in Engineering and Technology we have 3 in the top 50, 4 in the top 50 for Clinical and pre-clinical Health (i.e. medicine), 5 in the top 50 for Social Sciences and 2 for both Life and Physical Sciences.

Oddly, Pyne seems unwilling to advertise this good news.

But while the policy development may have been woefully underdone, Pyne also stuffed up the politics.

He bizarrely threatened to withhold funding for the National Collaborative and Research Infrastructure Scheme – which potentially would have seen 1,700 researchers lose their jobs (not to mention the lost research) unless the crossbench senators voted for his bill.

Not surprisingly the senators reacted as would most when threatened – they told him to get stuffed.

This then saw a tortuous response from Pyne, wherein he withdrew the threat and tried to make it look like he was doing the cross bench senators a favour.

This was despite him telling Cassidy on Sunday that “there are consequences for not voting for this reform, and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand. The consequences are that potentially 1,700 researchers will lose their jobs”.

It seems the only consequence was that such a threat made Pyne look like a goose.

And so by Monday that consequence was no more. How to explain the change? Well, Pyne went on Sky News and told David Speers that he had “cleared it away”, that he “fixed it” that “he had dealt with it”.

How had he done this?

Well, he told Speers, “I’ve fixed it. I’m a fixer … I’ve fixed it by funding it in another way which you’ll find out in the Budget.”

He even suggested that it wasn’t he who had made it a central issue, but the crossbenchers, and that he “had cleared it away”.

It’s a bit like purposefully breaking a shop window, and suggesting the shop owner is the one who made it a big issue, and that your sweeping up the glass was meeting him halfway.

Speers rather naturally enough asked Pyne why we needed to wait till the Budget to find out what cuts he had made elsewhere to fund the legislation – and bear in mind this was legislation that had yet to be voted on in the Senate, so surely it was important to know how he proposed to fund some of the costs.

And when you consider that since losing the vote, it has been revealed Pyne had proposed to Liberal Democrat senator, David Leyonhjelm, possibly fining universities whose graduates had not paid back their HECS, knowing just what Pyne has in store for the sector is pretty important – because any dopey idea seems to be on the table.

But Pyne just replied to Speers, with the look of a man who thinks he is being very clever, but whom everyone in the room thinks is a dill, “I want it to be a surprise for you.”

At a certain point someone might let Pyne know that he gave us a surprise last time in the Budget and Australians reacted with rather less than glee.

I guess some people need to be taught a lesson more than once for it to stick – especially those who think they are so clever they don’t need to be taught.

The degree of arrogance displayed by the current government is well represented by Mr. Pyne in everything that he does. Unfortunately the current policies that he has pursued, unsuccessfully thanks to the Senate makeup and his own incompetence, are based upon the LNP doctrine that education, like almost everything else, should be “user pays” and is not a ‘right’ of all young people in our society but rather a product to be purchased if you have the money to afford it.

Health is next.

Attacking the ABC/SBS

ABC Image

In an environment where our media ownership lies in the hands of a few, including at least one overseas citizen, our sole source of information that can be relied upon to provide accurate news without bias or self-interest is the ABC. The ABC is the most trusted source of news, as continuously confirmed by research results, followed by SBS.

“New polling from Essential Research shows Australia’s most trusted media outlet remains ABC television news and current affairs: 70% of voters have some or a lot of trust in it, including 21% who say they have “a lot of trust”.  SBS television news and current affairs is also trusted, with 65% of voters having some or a lot of trust. ABC radio news and current affairs scored 63% for some or a lot of trust” [Dec 2013]

Yet the current government continues to publically attack our public broadcasters in a quite blatant campaign to undermine their credibility, supporting attacks from commercial media organisations (Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and other ‘pay for comment’ pseudo journalists) who of course have their eyes on the plum international network and would like the ABC to wilt and be less competition. After publically lambasting the ABC for being “un-Australian” by publishing news critical of the Australian Navy, the Prime Minister’s office then made two appointments to the four person panel which overlooks appointments to the ABC’s Board that shocked us all, as both those persons (Janet Albrechtsen and Neil Brown) had publicly, viciously and consistently attacked the ABC  in the past, Brown even stating that he’d like “to sell it off”! Communications Minister Turnbull washed his hands of the appointments, saying the Prime Minister’s office was responsible for them.

“ABC Friends has condemned the appointment of conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen and lawyer Neil Brown QC to the panel overseeing appointments to the broadcaster’s board as a “declaration of war on the ABC’s independence”.”

Most recently the government slashed 1% from the ABC’s budget (despite a pre-election promise not to do so) and closed down the ABC-run Australia Network that broadcasts to our overseas neighbours, prior to initiating an ‘Efficiency Review’ to see where further cuts can be made. This Efficiency Review is of course just a mechanism for withdrawing funds from the ABC, with no intention to reinvest any monies saved by ‘efficiencies’ in new programming or expanded services. As at today the rumours are talking another $50 million or more in cuts on the way. As I see it, the government is intent on, at the minimum, hamstringing the ABC in political influence and ‘bringing it to heel’ to the government’s will, and at the maximum destroying it completely.

Clearly the Abbott government, supported by its ‘friends’ in the media, Murdoch et al, is determined to punish the ABC & SBS for their fearless criticism of government (actually no matter who is in power – they’ve similarly criticised Labour governments ). But because the public broadcasters are so popular and respected by the community (see above stats) the government strategy is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ rather than a direct, sweeping attack.

The first point in that strategy is take control of the ABC Board. Rudd’s Labour government had tried to protect the ABC Board from political interference by creating by law the independent panel which makes Board appointments, so Abbott simply started stacking that panel with right wing enemies of the ABC.  Now that stacked panel is appointing Abbott henchmen onto the Board.

Peter Lewis

Peter Lewis

“It appears the Government is seeking to divert public attention from planned funding cuts to the ABC by attacking the broadcaster in another way. It has appointed Peter Lewis – the former chief financial officer of a commercial media company who devised a blueprint for how the ABC should be cut – to the ABC Board.”

The next points in the strategy are then to withdraw the ABC funds in gradual funding cuts so that the ability of the ABC to command a strong audience is diminished over time. The funding cuts have nothing to do with budget requirements or economic needs, they are a straightforward exercise of political will.

The impact of this strategy for us, the Australian electorate, is that our source of factual, unbiased and politically unfiltered news and information will be withdrawn. The influence and spread of private media organisations will be enhanced and the ability of the government to manage what news we get, and what editorial commentary is attached to that news, will be strengthened via its ‘friendly’ relationships with those private media organisations.

So what should be done with public broadcasting? Britain’s approach to the BBC gives us a clue. The BBC is not only an influential source of unbiased news and current affairs for Britain, it is also a reliable source for the world. In the jungle of broadcast propaganda and centralised control of media throughout the world, no matter where you are you can still get access to the BBC, and get the real, factual news. The BBC also provides a wealth of educational and entertainment programs and supports the arts and sciences in that mix, subject areas rarely included in commercial broadcasting because they don’t have broad-based interest to advertisers. The BBC is supported by bi-partisan long-term funding that provides certainty to its management, and it is protected from political interference by legislation. It does not accommodate advertising and is thus not subject to pressures from advertisers. This is the model that we need to adopt in Australia -it’s that simple.

Andrew Denton, well known for his interview program ‘Enough Rope’ had something to say on this subject. Denton, who wields sway with younger audiences, had a message for the government on its funding cuts to the ABC, and in particular for News Limited, an “American company run by an American citizen” which had led a “blatant and commercial campaign to cut the ABC down”.

“[News Limited] is a company which doesn’t have your interests at heart; which is about its bottom line profit; which has meddled in the politics of this and other countries for its own gain; which has been responsible for some of the great journalistic outrages [of our time], the phone hacking scandal in England being the most recent.

“[News Limited] is attempting to take away from you, an ordinary Australian citizen, a cultural resource, a news resource, a professional resource, which you have paid for, which is here entirely for your benefit, which is here to hold your government to account, which is yours.

“That’s what’s actually happening here. This is not just about a political ideology which the Liberal Party had, it’s actually about an attempt to take away from Australians their voice, their critic and their questioner of those in power, and replace it with an American multinational with an extremely dodgy record and a very low moral compass.”

Victoria Road Contract

Again we see the self interest of politicians override any interest in the nation’s welfare. The Victorian government in its dying days of rule pushes through the signing of a massive contract to build further roads. Not only does it do this within weeks of an almost certain change in government (to the Labour Party that has promised not to go ahead with this road plan), and in the face of a growing tide of opinion that the money could be better spent on public transport, but also includes in the contract an unbelievable $500 million penalty should the contract be cancelled by the government for any reason!

One has to conclude (and as someone who has written many large commercial contracts I do conclude) that no organisation in its right mind would agree to insert such a penalty clause, against its own interests, with this probable cancellation hanging over the whole agreement. So why would it do so, assuming that the Victorian Government is not ‘out of its mind’. Clearly the Government (the Coalition parties in fact) see some political advantage in this with an election looming (and being 10 points behind Labour with 6 weeks to go one can see that things might be getting a bit desperate). And commercial reality be hanged!

Now what could the costs to the contractors be expected to be in the 6 weeks between contract signing and change of government when the contract (if politicians are to be believed) will be cancelled immediately upon the new government being sworn in – perhaps $10,000? Perhaps $100,000? Certainly nothing like $500 million! So this penalty has been inserted purely to embarrass the incoming labour government whilst assuredly it will cost the Victorian taxpayer and the State an enormous amount, for nothing.

Political self interest at its worst!

 

An Opening Statement

As an opening statement let me explain why I have become upset enough to create this blog, which I hope will be an opportunity to entertain some serious, informed and balanced discussion without degrading into biased argument. There is enough hate in this world and I do not intend to contribute to it.

Number One – I’ve had enough of politicians thinking that electoral promises don’t need to be met. There seems to be an almost amused view by politicians that pre-election commitments really do not constitute any contract with the electorate, but rather are a form of advertising/marketing technique to get your vote and once that is achieved they can be forgotten. Even a pre-election promise not to break promises becomes a laughing stock within weeks of electoral success. You can literally see the laugh lines on their eyes crinkle as they face questions about such broken promises. It’s infuriating!

With Thanks to Leunig
With Thanks to Leunig

 

Number Two – I’ve had enough of the tone and content in political discussion in the media and internet, which is largely ‘grabs’ & slogans, quoting unsubstantiated ‘facts’ or often complete inaccuracies, with news reports and current affair programs providing opinionated views rather than simply reporting the news.

What politicians say, and what information is fed to us, on which we base our opinions, is now driven by the media, television in particular (or the internet which is possibly worse). And all media publishing is increasingly opinionated rather than reportive (ownership perhaps driving such opinions?). Only the ABC can claim an absence of editorial directive or advertising pressures, and on the ABC only the program ‘4 Corners’ affords the time on any subject to discuss it fully.

Abbott and his colleagues have created ‘Team Australia’, and it is now apparently ‘Un-Australian’ to report anything negative about the government or its public servants. Is it a coincidence that the current government seems intent on emasculating the ABC by filling senior Public Broadcasting positions with persons who have been publically anti-ABC and by slashing the ABC’s budgets?

Perhaps encouraged by the rise of ‘pay-for-comment’ media personalities such as Jones and Bolt, the contributions to discussion from the public are similarly unbalanced, often vitriolic and abusive, and generally lacking any real thought or understanding of the issues. During the Gillard government term my inbox was bombarded with anti-Gillard material, always unsigned, that made accusations or decried whatever the Gillard decision had been, never with any facts or supportive argument, just filled with slogans, venom or nasty ‘humour’. When I complained to my conservative friends, who forwarded these emails, that the content was totally unimpressive and did nothing to raise their own reputations, they just laughed and said I was taking it too seriously.

Leunig Take Me to Your Leader
Thanks to Leunig

 

Number Three – FEAR the ENEMY! For years I have visited America on business or pleasure and been bewildered by the nature of on-going political debate in that country which always seemed to be dominated by the promotion of fear; fear of something, somewhere. Now it appears that this political culture has come to Australia and is driving the political agenda irrationally. After decades of civilised acceptance of the need to welcome and settle refugees from around the world into our spacious land, Howard initially raised the spectre of the ‘Boat People’ and a desire to reject them. We needed to fear this uncontrolled ‘wave’ of unauthorised immigration. Subsequently that fear and rejection has escalated under governments of both persuasions to a level of irrationality that is hard to comprehend, yet has been a dominant issue over many elections. There is no basis for the nonsensical propaganda on this subject thrown at us by both parties. These people are peaceful refugees, fleeing from persecution in small numbers, looking for a better life. We are throwing them into long-term prisons. It is crazy.

Then Howard moved into the issue of fear of terrorism, which resulted in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, based upon misinformation and more propaganda with simplistic slogans thrust at us at every opportunity to promote the urgency and necessity of the governments actions – “Axis of Evil”, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, “Alert not Alarmed” and so on. Now the Abbott government, suffering in the polls because a string of broken promises and attacks on the poor and disadvantaged, has moved ‘Thatcher-like’ into a war footing again, with strong messages on the need to fear returning Australian citizens from Iraq and Syria, massive changes in legislation to remove rights, broad-based monitoring of communications, to allow arrests and penalties without the normal legal process, and with associated broad publicity as police raid Muslim properties and ASIO heads raise the alert levels to yellow and red! Suddenly police presence at sporting or other events is doubled. Suddenly raids on a variety of properties are hitting the headlines every day. And what are we talking about – 60 Australians who have gone to Iraq or Syria with 6 who have returned. Does anyone really believe that these 6 people couldn’t have been monitored with the existing powers? The entire country suddenly on high alert and our Muslim citizens being accosted on a regular basis across the land, because of their religion! Talk about cracking a nut with a sledgehammer!

Leunig terror alert
Thanks to Leunig

 

Number Four – I am so sick of Australian politicians and governments displaying  little vision about the country’s future, complete lack of statesmanship, promoting antagonism instead of inclusion, exhibiting arrogance rather than presence, and following a platform agenda that they believe will result in their re-election as distinct from one which would leave the country in better shape. I defy anyone to name any long-term bilateral initiative to provide Australia with the infrastructure, industries or environment that it going to need to prosper into the future. While successive governments have allowed manufacturing to decline dramatically in this country (probably correctly if they could only survive subsidised) what vision of new sustainable industry has been put forward? Both parties have cried off any real policy on sustainable energy or public/commercial transport. Labour at least had one long-term policy on communications, the NBN, which was strongly supported by everyone knowledgeable in this area, however the coalition is now diminishing that platform to only meet short-term needs and ignoring the needs of rural Australia in the process. At various times we thought briefly that there was some consensus on issues like climate change, education funding and support for the handicapped, however these were brief agreements indeed, very shortly to be undone. In every major policy area – population, energy, industry, communications, water, transportation, environment, health, education – there is only discord between the parties, each trying to differentiate themselves in order to be electable, with no thought to create consensus in order to achieve long-terms gains for Australia as a nation. NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!

Leunig Party
Thanks to Leunig

 

So that is enough for an opening statement I think. Of course there is so much more to say but we mustn’t be too lengthy on just the first day.