Can only a Coalition government deliver Constitutional Reconciliation?

At a press conference on Friday, the Prime Minister implied that only a Coalition government could secure a change to the Constitution recognising Indigenous Australians:

The indigenous people of this country are different from anybody else because they were here first and they have a very special place and I think we have an opportunity to honour that place in a respectful, symbolic fashion by putting something in the Constitution. But you won’t do that unless you are able to unite conservative Australia with the rest of the country and conservative Australia will not vote for something that is built on shame and repudiation.

The SMH reported it more strongly: ‘”I don’t believe Labor could unite conservative and progressive Australia on this issue,” he said.’

Certainly, the record of Constitutional referendums that don’t have bipartisan support is a dismal one. And it is Coalition supporters that are least sympathetic to traditional Aboriginal politics. A Newspoll in 2000 on an apology found that while 60% of Labor voters favoured an apology, only 22% of Coalition voters were in support. The 2004 Australian Election Survey found that 60% of Liberal identifiers thought that land rights had gone too far, compared to 30% of Labor identifiers.

The relationship between voters’ partisan loyalties and their views on issues is, however, not straightforward. Continue reading “Can only a Coalition government deliver Constitutional Reconciliation?”

Media payback

Newspapers are never at their best in campaign mode. Today’s Age leads with a story headed ‘Judge savages Andrews’. The article begins:

A FEDERAL Court judge has launched an extraordinary attack on Kevin Andrews over the involuntary removal of a man to New Zealand, claiming the Immigration Minister’s behaviour had been “truly disgraceful”.

The Immigration Department yesterday removed Timothy John Borstrok from Australia, even though he had lodged an application to appeal to the Federal Court over a decision to cancel his visa on character grounds

Only a dozen paragraphs in, long after most people have stopped reading, are we informed:

But a spokeswoman for Mr Andrews said: “While the …removal was done by the authority of the Immigration Department, the minister had no knowledge of, or involvement with the court hearing or the removal.”

Continue reading “Media payback”

Higher education ‘equity’ in the for-profits

Amidst the pre-campaign barrage of media releases from Julie Bishop was one announcing funding for a National Centre for Student Equity in higher education.

“The Centre will develop best practice for attracting and retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds and will provide outreach programs to universities, schools and the broader community,” Minister Bishop said.

This assumes too much. While we know the main reason low SES people don’t go to university, poor school results, we don’t know very much about the consequences for those who do decide to attend. Mainly due to being less academically prepared to start with, their completion rates are lower than for higher SES students. But is doing some university a benefit, even if it does not end in a degree? Are those who do complete getting jobs that match their qualifications, or are they over-represented among those graduates in sales and clerical work?

Our aim ought to be to help people improve their lives, not use them to help make society look more like the ideological preconceptions of the academic left.
Continue reading “Higher education ‘equity’ in the for-profits”

Job vacancy at CIS

My CIS colleague Kirsten Storry is moving on, leaving a vacancy at the CIS for someone wanting a job researching Indigenous issues:

The position will involve undertaking research into the challenges facing indigenous communities, developing policy recommendations for the social and economic development of those communities and promoting widespread discussion among indigenous communities and the general public. Areas of focus will include education, health, housing and governance. The successful applicant will be self motivated, have good writing and speaking skills, and will be able to prepare innovative materials for presentation and publication. Familiarity with the work of CIS and sympathy for its objectives are highly desirable. Candidates are advised to read recent articles (available on the website) produced by CIS authors working in this area. This position is for a term of 2 years in the first instance.
Salary is available on request.

Applicants should have a good degree from any relevant discipline and should be able to show evidence of research competence. Post graduate qualifications would be an advantage. Preference will be given to people with work experience in a research or policy background.

If you are interested, contact Jenny Lindsay, jlindsay AT

Will the Coalition offer tax cuts during the campaign?

According to media reports, the Coalition has announced nearly $10 billion in new spending since the May Budget. But will it announce tax cuts during the campaign?

The political case for doing so is strong. The ACNielsen poll on Monday added to the accumulating evidence that tax cuts are heading back into favour. 51% of voters thought that tax cuts should be offered in the campaign, while 41% thought that they should not.

While that is only a small majority in favour, the proportion of potential Liberal voters interested in a tax cut is likely to be much higher. The 2004 Australian Election Survey found that Liberal voters were significantly more likely than Labor voters to prefer tax cuts to more services, and to rate tax as an ‘extremely important’ issue.

It is also an issue on which – consistent with the history of party stereotypes being resistant to contrary empirical evidence – the Liberals remain credible. In both the Newspoll and AES time series Labor is almost always well behind as the party better able to handle (Newspoll) or closest to the respondent’s view (AES) on tax. (Labor last drew even in the Newspoll series in January 1998.)

True, it is unlikely to save the Coalition from a big defeat. But it might help stave off electoral catastrophe. And if Labor keeps matching Coalition promises, it will at least deliver the Liberal constituency something, win or lose on election day.

The economy as a depreciating political asset

In late September, Newspoll asked its respondents: ‘John Howard or Kevin Rudd – who do you think is more capable of handling Australia’s economy?’. 48% thought the Prime Minister was more capable, while 33% thought the Opposition Leader.

The ACNielsen poll reported in yesterday’s Fairfax broadsheets used a different question to probe the same issue. They included an option saying ‘it makes very little difference which party is in power, economic performance would be the same’, and it was the most popular choice on 43%, with the Coalition regarded as the better manager by 40% of voters, and Labor by 12%.

That’s consistent with the increasing belief, as seen in the Australian Election Survey, that the government makes ‘not much difference’ to either general or household economic situations (I blogged on this in July; the full AES time series has been published here, but unfortunately in a generally very useful publication the ‘bad effect’ and ‘not much difference’ numbers have been transposed).

Though the Coalition is still well ahead of Labor on this indicator, it is not as strong as Newspoll would suggest. As more people come to believe that the economy is going well on autopilot, and Labor won’t try any Whitlam or Keating crash landings, the more the Coalition loses one of its clear policy strengths and the more likely people are to take a chance on Labor. It’s probably one factor explaining why, despite the best set of economic indicators in a generation, the Coalition faces the kind of wipeout normally reserved for goverments that have presided over serious economic downturns.

Do graduates from private schools earn more?

In The Sunday Age yesterday, there was another article about private school students struggling at university. It was based on the numerous studies (I mention a couple here) which have found that, for a given ENTER score, kids from private schools, and also selective government schools where they have been examined, average slightly lower first-year university marks than kids who have been to government schools.

Though this finding has been repeated frequently enough for it to be regarded as a valid social science generalisation, it is also widely misunderstood as saying that private school students get lower grades at university. I haven’t seen that question specifically answered in research, but given that private school students have much higher median ENTERs that is unlikely to be the case. Though private school students are not as academically prepared as government school students who get the same grades as they do, disproportionately few government school students actually get those matching grades at the end of Year 12.

There is also the problem that the studies are all of first year students. It would not be surprising if the differences narrowed in subsequent years, as private school students adjust to the more self-directed study style at university and learn that university life doesn’t offer quite the same freedom compared to school at they might have first thought.

As an ACER study I blogged on in April found, private school students have a higher rate of actually completing university, though once starting ENTER scores are taken into account there are no significant differences betweens school sectors.

One issue we don’t know much about is the differences between government and private school students after university. I have been trying to do a little research on this using the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes.
Continue reading “Do graduates from private schools earn more?”

Australia’s surprisingly secure workers, part 3

Not all the data reported in Australia@Work follows the union line. The unions have persistently argued that WorkChoices reduces job security. For example, in the ACTU’s one year on report on WorkChoices, released in March this year, Sharran Burrow claimed:

Job security for Australian workers has been eroded – with 3,761,000 Australian workers employed in businesses with less than 100 staff having lost any protection from being unfairly dismissed.

Yet as I have argued in the past, there is little evidence that variations in employment law have much impact on how likely someone is to be dismissed. While statutes may make getting rid of unnecessary or incompetent employees more time-consuming and costly, it has nearly always been possible. Even where sacking is legally difficult, employers can encourage ‘voluntary’ departures by giving unwanted employees boring work, or treating them poorly.

In Australia@Work, employees were asked to agree or disagree with the statement that:

There is a good chance that I will lose my job or be retrenched within the next twelve months.

About 9% agreed or strongly agreed. I can’t find an exact pre-WorkChoices comparison point, but neither of the two 2005 surveys I have found suggest that things have deteriorated since. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked:

Continue reading “Australia’s surprisingly secure workers, part 3”

Proxy analysis

On complex issues, people often resort to proxy measures to make judgments. At think-tanks, we get it all the time. People often seem more interested in who the funders are than the time-consuming process of working out whether our arguments make sense or not.

So the authors of this week’s Australia@Work report can hardly have been surprised when Joe Hockey focused on the report’s union links. Particularly as it turns out that Hockey made his original comments afer being called by a journalist for comment on a report which he had not seen. The summary the journalist gave probably focused only on negative comments about the government, which generated the predictable response.

The actual report, however, would not immediately give any cause for confidence that it was not just pushing the union line. After all, if as its cover says it is ‘sponsored by Unions NSW’ the conclusion that its content would be favourable to Unions NSW is not exactly counter-intuitive.

In this morning’s Australian, the paper digs up a speech by Australia@Work author John Buchanan, in which he declares himself to be a socialist. Can a socialist view WorkChoices objectively?

Buchanan and his co-authors were also trying to invoke a proxy measure of the report’s worth, citing the Australian Research Council in addition to Unions NSW as a ‘sponsor’ of the research. According to The Age:

Continue reading “Proxy analysis”

Literary v social science political thinking

In this month’s The Australian Literary Review, Paul Kelly offers a wide-ranging critique of Australian intellectuals. One thread of his argument deals with intellectuals as political moralists, giving many examples of attacks on John Howard as dishonest. Kelly disputes the interpretations often placed on Howard statements that turned out not to be true, that he would never introduce a GST, children overboard, and Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. As Kelly points out, none of these were straightforward lies if they were lies at all. But assume they all were lies, and I still think we have an interesting insight into how Australian intellectuals think.

Take for example some of the inferences drawn from these statements that turned out not to be true, all from Kelly’s article:

For Raimond Gaita, writing in an earlier Quarterly Essay, Howard is “systematically mendacious”. … [David Marr] asserts Howard was “a liar from the start” … [Julian] Burnside has compared Howard’s manipulation of language to Hitler’s Germany. “The Nazi regime were masters at it,” he said of doublespeak. “The Howard Government is an enthusiastic apprentice.” For Burnside, Howard has a “congenital dishonesty”.

In an earlier post on intellectuals, I pointed out that almost all of the people who make it to the lists of top public intellectuals are moralists or storytellers, and often both. This I thought helped explain why they were more successful with the public than intellectuals with a more empirical or analytical approach. Our brains find it easier to follow narratives than arguments, and almost everyone is concerned with issues of right and wrong.

There is nothing wrong with using stories to make a point. But when stories are used as the model for analysis things can – and do – go badly wrong. We need to distinguish here between ‘literary’ and social science forms of social and political understanding. Continue reading “Literary v social science political thinking”