The literacy challenge for our part-time education minister

I didn’t think Stephen Smith’s performance as Shadow Education Minister warranted his appointment as Minister, but creating a part-time Education Minister – Julia Gillard will have to combine it with being Deputy Prime Minister, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister and Minister for Social Inclusion – is bordering on bizarre. It has unfortunate echoes of the two Ministers for everything in the early days of the Whitlam government.

While the media was preoccupied yesterday with ministries and Opposition leaders (another eyebrow raising decision), the ABS issued a report showing just why we need a full-time education minister. It was their second adult literacy survey.

It shows a slight prose literacy improvement on 1996, but still nearly half of all Australians are below the level 3 skills regarded as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’. The same is true of document literacy. (Prose literacy is understanding narrative texts; document literacy is the ability to locate and use information in various formats, including schedules, maps, tables and charts).

On the numeracy scale, more than half of all Australians were below skill level 3, and for a problem-solving scale, only 30% were at levels 3, 4 or 5.

There is also a further clue as to why 20% of graduates don’t have jobs suitable for graduates (pdf). By interesting coincidence, about 20% of bachelor-degree holders have only level 1 or 2 prose and document literacy. They are slightly worse on the numeracy scale, and much worse on the problem-solving scale. Further information is needed on whether these graduates are migrants, and their disciplinary backgrounds.

Regardless of the situation with graduates, there is clearly much work to be done to improve literacy. But will Gillard have any time to do it?

Social democratic liberal conservatives vs conservative liberal social democrats

Back in 2005, Nick Gruen wrote a useful post about the components he liked of the three ideological elements of our political culture: liberalism, conservatism and social democracy. In practice, all major political parties tend to be a mix of the three, but with differing emphasis.

I’d call Labor conservative liberal social democrats; social democracy placed as the noun because that I think is the party’s animating force. People join Labor because they want more equality. Some can be quite conservative and others quite liberal on social issues, and Labor has in the past proven itself capable of major liberal economic reforms. Rudd proclaims himself an ‘economic conservative’. But these ideas complement or modify the party’s social democracy, rather than being the core of what Labor is about.

Under Howard, the Liberals have been social democratic liberal conservatives. For him, conservative ideas were most important – family, Queen and country, so conservatism is the noun. While I think the argument that Menzies was more liberal than Howard is nonsense, this is not because liberal ideas are what drove the former PM, but because he largely took as given the large social changes of the last 40 years.
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Is a micro-party the best way to promote libertarianism?

Liberty and Democracy Party activists seem happy enough with with their 0.13% national vote share in the House of Representatives and 0.15% in the Senate. I’m still not convinced that the micro-party strategy is the way to go in promoting classical liberal/libertarian ideas.

While LDP members did get publicity they would not otherwise have received, much of it was not favourable. Lisa Milat is hardly responsible for the actions of her brother-in-law, but pre-selecting her just about ensured that media coverage was not going to be on-message for the LDP. And Bede Ireland perhaps could have picked a better issue to promote than decriminalising incest.

As the LDP is not seen as a serious electoral contender, the mainstream media will only be interested to the extent that the LDP can offer some colour to alleviate the boredom of the stage-managed major party campaigns. But ‘colour’ in the media context means things that the public will think ridiculous, eccentric or outrageous. That isn’t the way to make people take libertarian ideas seriously.
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Torture and murder on the booths

Handing out Liberal how-to-vote cards in Fitzroy, the Melbourne suburb that is the heart of the left’s sub-culture, you have to expect some abuse. But even as a veteran recipient of political insults, I was a bit surprised to have ‘torturer and murderer’ chucked in my direction twice, once as a particularly disgruntled and hyberbole-loving non-Liberal voter entered the polling place, and again as he left. I didn’t bother inquiring as to who, exactly, I had tortured and murdered. At a different booth later in the day, commenter Rajat Sood, who was handing out with me, was called a ‘fascist’, and I was told to ‘go to hell’.

But even in these areas of maximum social pressure not to be a Liberal, with a secret ballot they persist. At the torture-and-murder polling place the Liberal vote was 14%. It was a little higher on 15% at the fascist go-to-hell booth.

In the seat of Melbourne overall, despite political fashion and campaign dollars being on their side, the Greens were outpolled by the Liberals – only by 44 votes, but on a purely visual examination of the electorate you could be forgiven for thinking that there were only 44 Liberals total.

This is not just because virtually all the propaganda was Green or ALP. It is because, as I noted after the 2004 election, the left dress distinctively. This is particularly true of the Green women, though some of the men are a sight as well. One Green woman, in the spirit of the day perhaps, turned up in a particularly awful green dress and with a boyfriend wearing a fashion-crime bright green shirt. All three campaign workers minding that side of the polling booth entrance – me, the ALP, and the Green – cracked up laughing as soon as they were past. For all our political differences, we have a shared boring task on election day, and we are grateful for voters who keep us amused.

Which candidate deserves to be put last?

Having a longstanding party allegiance simplifies elections greatly, but still leaves the issue of where to direct preferences.

In my House of Representatives seat of Melbourne, my second preference will go to the sitting member, Lindsay Tanner. I quite like him, and he is the only candidate promising to cut government spending, albeit by not nearly as much as I would like. I think I will give the hapless Democrat my third preference out of sympathy for the only party with MPs in more trouble than my own. I’ll probably put the Greens fourth, going above Family First for their stance on gay marriage. Then Family First, who haven’t been nearly as bad as people thought they would be, but there is far too much family stuff coming from the major parties, so we certainly don’t need a whole party based on pushing the familist cause.

The most difficult choice is for the last three spots. There is the Socialist Party’s Kylie McGregor, the Socialist Equality Party‘s Will Marshall, and the looney LaRouchite Citizen’s Electoral Council’s Andrew Reed. They all deserve to be put last. I’ll see how their party workers behave on the booths.
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Labor’s full-fee phase-out policy shambles, and what to do about it

My criticisms of Labor’s policy of abolishing full-fee undergraduate places at public universities had a good run in The Australian‘s Higher Education Supplement this morning. Amazingly, even though Labor has being saying for 10 years that they will abolish these places, they cannot give basic details about how it will be done. A bit like the Americans invading Iraq, it seems like they have little idea about how they will run the country once they have won the war.

What we have so far is that these places will be phased out beginning in 2009, and that the universities will be compensated to the tune of $300 to $400 million. But as I pointed out to the HES, from a public policy perspective the most important issue is not the compensation (though more on that below), it is what happens to the student places created by the full-fee policy.

According to DEST, in 2006 there were 13,762 full-fee domestic undergraduate students at Australian public universities (the number of effective full-time places would be lower, but they have not published that number yet). That’s about 2.5% of all domestic undergraduate students. Are we supposed to remove 2.5% of the system’s undergraduate capacity? Shrinking the number of places in disciplines with graduate undersupply – there are many full-fee students in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science – doesn’t sound very sensible, and is hardly consistent with Labor’s rhetoric about skills shortages.
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Is the Howard government running against the issue cycle?

In the Liberal election post-mortem, I think at least three levels of factors will need to be considered: the transitory, the cyclical, and the structural.

The media puts most emphasis on transitory factors, because these generate the material needed to fill the space and time allocated to Australian politics. Into this category I would put things like leadership issues, interest rates, various stuff-ups, and the campaign strategy. Most what-ifs belong here – what if Howard had left in 2006 and allowed Costello to establish himself as PM, what if Howard hadn’t promised in 2004 to keep interest rates low or if interest rates had stayed low, etc?

There will be some lessons for the future in all these experiences, but at least in principle things could fairly easily have turned out differently, and could turn out differently in the coming years. Analysis of these factors will have only modest value for the Liberals in planning their next move. Howard will be gone, and interest rates will be Kevin Rudd’s problem.

My main interests are in the other two sets of factors. Various aspects of public opinion in Australia are cyclical, with people’s views going back and forth without any long-term trend. Some of this opinion is of the what-is-to-be done variety. We have several decades of data, for example, showing that the public changes its mind over time on the balance between taxing and spending and on the right level of migration to Australia. We also have about 25 years of reasonably consistent survey questions on which issues people think are most important. The public’s basic stance on these matters may be stable – unemployment bad, hospitals good etc – but what varies is the emphasis placed on them as issues affecting votes.
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How long will ‘economic conservatism’ last?

Kevin Rudd may be reluctant to call Labor left-wing, but he’s happy to cloak himself in conservatism. It started last year when he invoked – albeit inaccurately – British conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his criticism of market forces. After becoming leader, he endorsed – albeit inaccurately again – Australia’s most successful conservative leader, Robert Menzies, as preferable to Howard.

And more recently Rudd has been calling himself an ‘economic conservative’, which Josh Gordon wrote about in The Age on Saturday. As Gordon says, not so long ago this would have been a negative term, but such is the general agreement that has built up around the main component parts of ‘economic conservatism’ – Reserve Bank independence and a balanced if not surplus Budget – that ‘conservatism’ on these matters is uncontroversial.

Even Labor’ s once-true believers are getting in on the consensus. If Howard being cheered by CFMEU members was the most bizarre aspect of the 2004 campaign, for me the most bizarre aspect of the 2007 campaign was the enthusiastic applause from the party faithful at Labor’s launch when Rudd said:
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Interest rates and the vote

Those commenters stressing that interest rates could be a signifcant factor in the election, even if most people don’t think the government is to blame for them, get a boost from polling reported in this morning’s Sunday Age.

In a Taverner Poll of Victoria and NSW, 21% of those polled blamed the government for the increases in interest rates. That’s a lot more than the 12% blaming John Howard in a Galaxy Poll earlier this month. Is that because there has been an increase since, opinion is different in NSW and Victoria, or the question wording affected the result? Unfortunately, The Sunday Age has kept up with its very poor opinion poll practices, and published nothing about question wording or sample size.

But some evidence for the vote-changing case:

The latest Sunday Age/Taverner Research poll shows that 57% of the key mortgage-holder demographic will be voting for Labor, compared with only 43% for the Coalition.

This is a complete reversal of the 2004 campaign, when a Taverner poll conducted then showed the Coalition enjoying an 8-point margin over Labor among mortgage holders.

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Are people moving more often?

At the Stephen Smith versus Julie Bishop education debate at the Melbourne Institute on Thursday, they discussed their mutual plans for a national curriculum. While I think this a bad idea, the aspect that appeals to many people is helping people who move interstate. Smith claimed that we are an increasingly mobile society. But is this true?

Back in 2004, I wrote a post questioning this conventional wisdom. I reported then:

The first time the census asked about any residential move in the last 5 years, in 1971, 60.6% had not moved. The last time they asked, in 2001, it was 57.6%.

Most of these moves are to places nearby. Only 4.8% of the population moved interstate between 1996 and 2001, compared to 4.4% between 1966 and 1971. The 4.8% is the lowest rate since the 1971 to 1976 period; it peaked at 5.5% between 1986 and 1991

Since then, of course, we’ve had another census. Though the ABS has not yet put out a publication on population mobility, the census website allows you to create tables yourself on many topics, including internal migration (I wish they would do this for other datasets).
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