The Latham Book of Quotations

According to the website of Mark Latham’s book of quotations A Conga Line of Suckholes:

Mark Latham was the Federal Member for Werriwa from 1994 to 2005. He was Leader of the Labor Party between 2003 and 2005. Mark Latham is the author of The Latham Diaries and five other books on Australian public policy, including Civilising Global Capital and From the Suburbs. He lives in the outer suburbs of Sydney with his wife and two children.

But if you don’t know that you’re unlikely to be interested in this eccentric collection. Virtually all the good quotes (with the exception of a few from Menzies, Whitlam and Keating) and many more besides can be found in international collections like Antony Jay’s Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations. The main interest in Conga Line is what it says about its author.

Latham’s old obsession with a fellow deeply flawed and complex politician, Richard Nixon, is on full display. In 223 pages there are 37 quotes by or about Nixon, a dozen more than Jay fits into 400 pages. Curiously, several of the Nixon quotes are about his extraordinary durability in the face of large setbacks. You can’t imagine Nixon voluntarily chucking it all in the way Latham did in January 2005 (though they both turned to book writing to fill in their retirement years).

Another theme that comes up more than once is not letting your enemies get the better of you. One, from Barry Humphries, is on the back cover: ‘Don’t let your enemies dwell rent-free in your head’. And then, under ‘Hatred’, another Nixonism: ‘Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.’ It’s sound advice, in itself, but not actually the wisdom a pyromaniacal bridge burner like Latham needed to read most, which would be to forgive a little more, so that you don’t end need to avoid enemies living in your head. I’m sure I was not the only person who found this part of Latham’s appearance on Andrew Denton’s interview show sad and misguided:

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The stalemated school choice debate

The compilers of the IPA Review 13 biggest mistakes list think that it is impossible to even trial a genuine parental choice system, where the money follows the pupil. Leaving aside the dispute over whether federal private school funding contributed to this situation, they may well be right to be pessimistic.

We can say two reasonably clear things about public opinion on schools.

The first is that private schools are generally seen as ‘better’ in various ways. With nearly a third of students already at private schools, obviously there is considerable revealed preference to that effect. Thousands of dollars paid every year are more convincing than any answer to an opinion pollster, but the polls back up those actions and add more. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes has twice, in 2003 and 2005, asked its respondents to agree or disagree with the proposition that ‘private schools offer better education than public schools’. On each occasion, about half have agreed and a quarter disagreed.

Back in 1994, a Saulwick poll asked if its resondents had children, and money was no object, would they send their child to a private school? 58% said yes. Among respondents with children actually at a government school, 45% said they would choose a private school, suggesting a large minority would like a voucher that they could use at a school of their choosing. Ten years later, in 2004, an ACNielsen poll for the SMH (some information here, but the page is dysfunctioning) found that 34% of government school parents would not choose a government school if the cost of the alternatives was the same. Again, we could infer a constituency for vouchers here. Put together the parents who have already taken their kids to private schools and the parents who would like to and there is probably a small majority for proper school choice.

But the second thing we know about public opinion on schools casts doubt on that conclusion. This is that ALP/Australian Education Union campaigns on school funding have had an impact. When asked to agree or disagree with the proposition that ‘public schools receive less than their fair share of the education budget’, 3 polls in 2003, 2004 and 2005 came up with almost exactly the same result of nearly two-thirds agreement. Perhaps this just means that they think government schools should get more without private schools getting less. But in a 2004 Saulwick poll, 40% rejected the idea that paying taxes entitled parents to any financial assistance for sending their kids to a private school (though this was 11 percentage points down on 2001). So there is considerable scepticism about increasing funding for private schools.

The seems to be a stalemate here. There is too much support for the existing private schools for the left to achieve its goal of an entirely state-controlled system. But there also seems to be too much opposition to further funding of private schools to give all parents choice. Private school enrolments are likely to continue growing, aided by federal government policy and greater affluence meaning more parents can satisfy their underlying preferences. But unless their kids are bright enough to get scholarships, many poorer parents will just have to take their chances with the state system.

Was federal private school funding a mistake?

In last weekend’s Sunday Age Chris Berg joined the dots between some of the IPA Review‘s suggestions for our 13 biggest mistakes. One of the 13 he didn’t mention in his article was federal aid for school science blocks, including at private schools, introduced by the Menzies government in 1963. Perhaps he did not mention it because it is hard to argue that it was a mistake.

While it is true, as the IPA Review points out, that school funding is now a mish-mash of bureaucratic programs from two levels of government, this ‘mistake’ faces the same problem as the claim that publishing On Liberty was a mistake: it relies on a complex, and not very convincing, counter-factual.

Essentially, we are being asked to believe that if this policy initiative had never occurred we might have at least trialled a system in which parents had ‘real financial choice’ about which school their child attended. But the more likely scenario is that we would have ended up like the US, where about 10% of students attend private schools, or Britain, with about 5% in private schools – much less practical choice for parents than exists in Australia today.

Without the series of policy changes that began with the Menzies state aid decision in 1963, private school enrolments would probably have gone backwards from the 24% they were at then, as the Catholic Church no longer had enough nuns and brothers to teach in Catholic schools (the largest part of the non-government sector) or the money to employ enough laypeople to take their places. And because parents would have had to pay both full fees and taxation to maintain government schools, most of the remaining private schools would have been for the very rich only or struggled to provide adequate facilities.

Instead, at least partial transferability of funding from public to private schools has generated considerable growth in private enrolments, with nearly a third of students now at private schools, a proportion that increases every year. Expanding the private system has meant that the Australian school system has had better results than it would otherwise have had. And if we do the sums on the Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services, private schools save taxpayers about $4.7 billion a year (the difference between the average per student funding in the two systems, times the number of students in the private sector).

If, as the IPA Review does with On Liberty, we are also to consider the tangential consequences, federal funding of private schools looks better still. For a start, it helped Menzies win the 1963 election, sparing us Arthur Calwell as Prime Minister (though Calwell may have saved us from a mistake not on the IPA list, the Vietnam War). It also helped ease tensions between Catholics and Protestants, as Catholics resented the lack of aid, which they rightly put down at least partly to anti-Catholic prejudice. Admittedly, those tensions have been displaced into the on-going ideological disputes about public versus private education, but this left-right faultline would exist in any case and only seriously preoccupies a small number of people.

As I said, none of this is to deny that there are problems in the existing arrangements, or that a better system can be imagined. But given the realistic actual alternatives, partial private school funding has been a big success.

Why are universities failing to fill all their places?

On Monday, Jenny Macklin explained the University of Ballarat’s failure to meet its enrolment quota this way:

Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said it suggested HECS rates were turning potential students away from study in regional areas. Maximum annual HECS rates this year ranged from $3920 to $8170, depending on the course. “For students in country areas these fees are very high,” Ms Macklin said.

But today comes the news that both universities in affluent Canberra have also failed to meet their targets, the ANU by 175 and the University of Canberra by 300. The ANU is a particularly interesting case, because its experience contradicts most of the ad hoc explanations for what’s happening to university demand – that regional universities are disadvantaged, that there is rush to prestige brands (the ANU is part of the Group of Eight ‘sandstone’ universities, and the highest-ranked Australian university in the global research rankings), and that the 2005 increases in HECS have put students off. The ANU kept its HECS charges at pre-2005 rates.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb is putting it down to ” higher-than-usual deferral and graduation rates”. I can’t see that graduation rates have anything to do with it, since generally these increase student ‘load’ (as it is called) as students stick around to finish rather than dropping out. But deferrals or delayed applications could at least partly explain it. I have noted before that commencing students are getting older, and if the Department would release its 2005 statistics in a timely manner I’d be able to check whether indeed this trend is continuing. My hunch is that with a strong labour market more kids are taking time off after Year 12 to get a break from study, earn some money and create an ‘independent’ Youth Allowance entitlement for themselves, and perhaps do a little travelling. But without more data it is hard to be sure.

Does Senator Conroy support Telstra privatisation?

Opposition Communications Shadow Minister Stephen Conroy <a href="opposes the federal government’s decision to appoint Geoffrey Cousins to the Telstra board against the wishes of Telstra management:

“For the last eight years Mr Cousins has been a consultant to the Prime Minister,” Senator Conroy said. “The decision to give him another political appointment is a spectacular display of arrogance by the Howard Government and shows utter contempt for the interests of Telstra shareholders.”

But isn’t the whole point of Labor opposing the full privatisation of Telstra that it wants the government to show if not ‘utter contempt’ at least indifference to the interests of Telstra shareholders, by forcing them to finance telecommunications services that have no prospect of making money?

Less than two weeks ago, Conroy’s fellow MP Chris Hayes issued a press release which said:

Member for Werriwa Chris Hayes has called on the Prime Minister to pull Telstra into line over the price gouging and bully boy tactics that it is using on local schools. …

Do surplus HECS places mean full-fee places are not necessary?

Swinburne University in Melbourne can be quite innovative. For example, it is planning to offer a joint Master’s degree with Northeastern University in Boston, so that students receive both Australian and American credentials.

But that’s for the deregulated postgraduate market. In the Australian undergraduate market, Swinburne’s Vice-Chancellor Ian Young sees students as playthings in an egalitarian ideological game. Back in April I had a go at him for opposing the University of Melbourne’s plans for US-style graduate schools (disclosure: the U of M is one of my employers). He thought that this would create inequality between universities – the educational benefits being of little relevance to Young.

Today he is quoted in an Age story on the regional University of Ballarat, which this year has not been able to fill all its Commonwealth-supported places (aka HECS places).

But with demand falling markedly, Professor Young said there was for the first time an oversupply of HECS places, making full-fee places unnecessary.

But aggregate supply of places was only ever one, and not the most important, use of full-fee places. Commonwealth-supported places are allocated under a quota system, with little or no regard for either supply (that is, a university’s willingness to offer places) or demand (applicants wishing to do the course). Full-fee places allow supply and demand to meet, despite the quota. Someone who wants to do Law or Medicine at the University of Melbourne would rather pay vastly more and do that then get a much cheaper HECS place at Ballarat – we know this is true, because anyone who can get into those full-fee courses at Melbourne already has an ENTER (95+) that would get them into almost any other course around the state at a fraction of the cost.

Perhaps Professor Young wants quotas abolished, but if so, why doesn’t he say so? But I suspect he does not. Most Vice-Chancellors quite like the quota system, since it protects them from the pressures of competition. Young wants full-fee places abolished because he puts egalitarian ideology over the course and career hopes of young Australians.

Update: The original last paragraph was based on what Young was reported as saying in The Age and his previous public statements. But I have now received a copy of a speech he gave last week, in which he gave as a possible response to excess places the kind of reform I have long advocated: giving students vouchers, lifting all controls on student numbers, and letting universities charge market rates. In that policy context, full-fee places are indeed unnecessary if it is a universal voucher scheme, rather than a more limited voucher scheme in which the government still decides who should and should not get a voucher.

This is an amazing turnaround by Young, given what he was saying as recently as April.

Norton vs the Arts lobby, again

University of Sydney Dean of Arts Stephen Garton is again spruiking his courses under the guise of news. A story in the SMH, without giving a source or actual statistics, claims that that ‘classical studies – and the humanities in general – are booming’. Garton is reported as saying that:

students had returned to general degrees as they realised the changing nature of the job market. The dotcom boom had helped the humanities, he said, as when it ended it taught students a narrow expertise could be redundant by the time they graduated.

It’s true that commencing enrolments in ‘society and culture’ (which includes arts, but also law) were up between 2004 and 2005, though three vocational fields (architecture, health, and education) were up by more in percentage terms. But claims that student perceptions have greatly changed should be treated with scepticism. In reality, the ‘market share’ amongst disciplines is quite stable over time. Since 2001, arts share has fluctuated over the range 25.46% to 26.48%, with the latest share at 25.82%. In absolute numbers, they are down more than 4,000 on the peak year of 2003. It’s possible that particular universities are seeing an upsurge in applications, but there is no general change in thinking apparent in these figures.

Nor is there any evidence that acquring an arts degree, as opposed to some other degree, gives you generic skills that enable you to adapt better to the ‘changing nature of the labour market’ – though having an arts degree is more likely to mean that you will have to rely on generic skills rather than on the specific content of your course. The book How College Affects Students surveys the American higher education research literature, and struggles to find consistent differences between student majors in development of generic skills, except that quantitative courses tend to increase quantitative competencies (as one would hope). But the book says that the ‘evidence is less clear-cut for the acquisition of verbal skills’, with one study finding that social science courses improved them, but five others not replicating the finding (p.91). Similarly, the evidence on acquiring critical thinking skills is also inconsistent (p.175). It’s not that there aren’t usually improvements in these skills during the university years; it’s just that there aren’t reliable differences between disciplines.

When asked at the end of their course about their acquisition of generic skills, with questions about analytic, problem-solving and written communication skills, ‘society and culture’ graduates don’t stand out as having acquired unusually high confidence in their abilities. As reported in Graduate Course Experience 2005, 67.2% of bachelor degree graduates agreed that their generic skills had been improved (that is, on average they picked one of the top two points on a five-point scale). However, graduates in the sciences, engineering, and agricultural and environmental courses all showed slightly higher agreement. The lowest agreement was among architecture students, on 59.2%.

I have raised issues like this before, to which the Arts lobby has replied with rebuttals of arguments I did not make, anecdotes and methodological points: anything but social scientific evidence for their case. To make it clear – I am not arguing against arts degrees as such, though students need to be very careful in choosing their subjects. But I do think that universities should not make unsubstantiated claims about their services, and if they do newspapers should not simply report them without contrary comment.

Was publishing John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty a mistake?

Under the editorship of Chris Berg, the IPA Review is generally much improved. But its recent list of Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes contains some rather eccentric entries.

One of these is to put the publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty on the list. The entry doesn’t argue against On Liberty itself, but rather that its popularity rubbed of on some of Mill’s other books, which contained ideas supporting protectionism, which in turn contributed to the rise of tariffs in the new federation that began in 1901.

Generally, Mill was in favour of free trade. But the source of the trouble was this passage in his Principles of Political Economy:

The only case in which, on mere principles of political economy, protecting duties can be defensible, is when they are imposed temporarily (especially in a young and rising nation) in hopes of naturalizing a foreign industry, in itself perfectly suitable to the circumstances of the country.

Stuart Macintyre’s A Colonial Liberalism reports that:

Colonists invoked this section of the Principles so often and so liberally that Mill added a passage to the 1860s edition that carefully insulated his ‘infant industries’ argument from the protectionist heresy he saw flourishing in places like Victoria.

While Mill’s ideas were used – or misused – in the 19th century, it is a rather dubious move to blame a book that wasn’t even about trade policy for the trade policies that were implemented in Australia. Are we to believe that if On Liberty had never been published that Australia would have adopted free trade? The interests allied in favour of protectionism would have succeeded with or without whatever intellectual respectability this passage from Mill gave them, and indeed another of the IPA Review mistakes (the end of the Reid government in 1905) gives some of the blame to the Free Trade party itself.

Against this, too, we need to consider the good On Liberty has done and is doing. While Mill’s Principles of Political Economy are deservedly long forgotten, On Liberty‘s ideas on free speech and individuality and his harm principle continue to be influential nearly 150 years after the book was published. I doubt there was a social liberalisation over the last century in which Mill’s arguments haven’t played a part. When I was assessing entries in a recent CIS essay competition Mill’s ideas kept coming up, and he’s there again in a robust defence of free speech that fellow blogger Steve Edwards has coming up in the next issue of Policy. It’s probably the only nineteenth century political work that’s still relevant to us today, and still a force for freedom.

Are Australians more job mobile than in the past?

According to Yobbo in comments yesterday:

The modern workforce is a lot more flexible and a lot of people change jobs every 2-3 years.

It’s certainly true, as the labour mobility statistics show, that lots of people change jobs – in 2004, more than 40% of workers had been in their jobs for three years or less. But to imply that this is a trend, as Yobbo’s remark does, is yet another example of our poor ability to compare over time. In an article labour market economist Mark Wooden wrote in 1999, he has a table showing that in 1975 36.1% of workers had been in their jobs for two years or less. In 2004, 34.5% of workers had been in their jobs for two years or less, a slight decline in short-term job holding.

Another curious – because it does not conform with our perceptions – feature of the 1975 statistics is that the ‘jobs for life’ that we supposedly use to have are rather hard to find. 8% of the workforce had been in their jobs for 20 years or more, slightly less than the 8.6% in that category in 2004. In the same period, the proportion of workers in their jobs for 10-20 years grew from 12.4% to 15%.

One likely explanation is the ageing of the workforce, with the average worker nearly three years older than 20 years ago. As people get older they tend to stay in their jobs for longer periods of time. Having turned 40 I’m noticing this in my peer group (and saving time in updating my contacts) and myself, having now spent 6.5 years with the same employers. And with young people a shrinking proportion of the total population, and delaying their entry to the workforce by studying, the proportion of workers with a propensity to be job fickle has decreased.