The tensions in Labor’s education agenda

When Kevin Rudd walked into an overflowing lecture theatre at Melbourne University today the crowd broke into spontaneous applause. The true believers are desperate for Labor to win. The basic theme of Rudd’s speech was that Australia can do better on education, which the Labor leader argues is crucial to improving Australia’s productivity performance (the audience may not have been so impressed with the focus on economics; many academics like to think they are above mere money-making).

The speech itself was just rhetoric, but the ALP has also released a more substantial discussion paper (pdf). The first half discusses the long-term foundations of prosperity and the importance of productivity, and the second half focuses on human capital.

The tensions between the two halves are what Labor needs to overcome if it is going to be credible on education. They note that one way of increasing productivity is improving the way firms and industries are organised:

That requires the right market incentives for resources to flow to the more efficient areas of the economy, and for businesses to organise themselves in the most productive way … this means businesses working in competitive product markets …

And that another way is to:

improve the quality of production inputs themselves. This in particular means raising the quality of human capital by investing in the workforce…

But if we are to improve our human capital it is not just a matter of increasing inputs, as the second section with all its comparisons with other OECD countries implies, but improving the productivity (broadly defined) of the education industry.

Australia has been increasing its spending on non-tertiary spending. The OECD Education at a Glance publication shows that on non-tertiary education Australia has increased its spending by more than the international average since the mid-1990s. Though productivity is very hard to measure in education, I doubt many people believe there have been significant improvements in school level educational outcomes in that time – certainly not the increasing number of parents shifting their kids to private schools.

Just throwing more money at schools isn’t going to work without sound curricula and good teaching, and in those areas we run straight into the heavily-entrenched centralised education bureaucracies running the public school system and the teacher unions that have obstructed many previous attempts at reform. Without even direct constitutional control over schools, federal Labor will struggle to make the necessary reforms, even if it supports them in principle (which at this stage is far from clear).
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How influential will the Iraq war be on the 2007 vote?

According to a poll reported in today’s Australian, 71% of voters say that the federal government’s handling of the Iraq war will be important in how they will vote in the federal election.

It sounds like a lot, but when you look at Newspoll’s tables more carefully its significance becomes less clear. For example, though 65% of people who say that they support the Coalition regard the government’s handling of the war as an important issue, only 41% of Coalition voters say they are against the government’s handling of the war. This suggests that some people are saying that they support the Coalition because of the Iraq war. And of Coalition supporters who are against the war, if it would influence their vote why isn’t it influencing what they tell Newspoll now? After all, surveys are an opportunity to send the government a message without actually risking putting keen Kevin in the Lodge.

On the Labor side, 78% say that the Iraq war will be important to their vote. There is some consistency here, since 79% of Labor voters are against the way the government has handled the Iraq war. Yet most of the 46% of people who say they will vote Labor would have done so whether the Australian troops were in Townsville or Baghdad. The ALP’s primary has not been below a third since the last election.

It’s hard to believe that the government’s position on Iraq is helping them electorally, whatever a few Coalition voters are telling Newspoll – but it is also hard to use single-issue polls to estimate the effects of policies on voting behaviour. What we can say is that for a range of reasons the two-party preferred isn’t good for the government – 55-45 in Labor’s favour. Things haven’t been that bad since March 2004 – six months before an election in which Labor lost seats.