The Bradley report’s OECD cringe

The Bradley report’s authors display the OECD cringe, an attitude that OECD statistics set the benchmarks Australia should follow, regardless of whether those statistics are meaningful or whether other countries get better outcomes. It is the modern-day version of the old cultural cringe, that whatever was English set the standard Australia should follow.

Some examples:

* concern about a drop in Australia’s tertiary attainment levels relative to other countries (at pages 9, 18), ‘notwithstanding classification issues’. In fact, those classification issues are serious. And as I have pointed out, the same OECD publication that reports these attainment levels also shows that high levels of attainment correlate with high levels of graduates in low-skill jobs (though the extent of these correlations will be lower than reported, due to the data issues).

* increases in public funding to be in the ‘top group of the OECD’ (6). Yet there is no evidence that public funding is better than private funding, and the OECD does not claim that there is.
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Are Australians losing faith in the integrity of our political system?

Jamie Briggs is cloaking his attempt to nobble GetUp! with electoral law in concern about how Australians feel about their political system. He told The Age that

“We are heading into dangerous territory where Australians are losing faith in the integrity of our political system because of the large amounts of money being spent on access and donations.”

Alas Jamie, a subject on which there is empirical evidence!

As this publication on trends in Australian public opinion (largish pdf) records, satisfaction with Australian democracy in 2007 was, at 86%, the highest it has been in a series of questions going back to 1969. It has been trending up since 1998. No sign of losing faith in the system there.

A question which more directly targets the issue of ‘access and donations’ is this:

Would you say the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?

Here people are more cynical, with 65% saying ‘big interests’. But contrary to the losing faith theory, this is trending down from a peak of 82% in 1998. On a slightly different question, 71% gave the ‘big interests’ response in 1969. There is no long-term rise in cynicism, despite the vast increase in the cost of election campaigns and consequent need for more donations.

Voters are wisely sceptical of what politicians tell them. But there is no crisis of integrity in government or public perceptions of that integrity.

Liberals still trying to get at NGOs

Newbie Liberal MP Jamie Briggs is off to a bad start to his parliamentary career, continuing the Howard government’s anti-democratic attempts to use electoral law to get at its political enemies.

Briggs told The Age that:

with the Government’s recent release of a green paper on all aspects of electoral funding, “we must not just look at donations to political parties — reform must also cover the influence of third parties on elections”.

“If not addressed, heavily financed third-party campaigns will be like a growing cancer in our democracy.”

Though it does not provide a direct quotation, the paper reports Briggs as saying expenditure by third parties should probably be capped.

But I fail to see how people getting involved in politics can be a cancer on our democracy, unless they are aiming to overthrow our democracy, which clearly the groups that seem to pre-occupy Briggs – GetUp! and the ACTU – are not. All they are doing is opposing the Liberal Party, which may be frustrating and annoying to a Liberal MP, but is of no systemic concern.
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Is the Pope stirring up hatred of homosexuals?

The Pope’s reported comments* about homosexuality being as much a threat to the world as climate change have drawn the expected condemnation (surely gays are helping reduce climate change by not having kids??).

But I think Fred Argy worries too much when he fears that these comments may ‘stir up hatred of homosexuals’.

Certainly, religious doctrines on homosexuality help explain why non-believers are more likely than believers to be unworried by gays and lesbians. But Catholics in particular have long had a pragmatic approach to the sexual teachings of their church, as seen in the very low birth rates of many Catholic countries (and no, this is not due to abstinence).

Clive Hamilton and Michael Flood pointed out some years ago, using Morgan polling research, that Catholics are less likely than members of other Christian religions to believe that homosexuality is immoral (only 34%). Consistent with this, the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that Catholics were more likely than other Christians to support gay civil unions (50% support).
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Is Christmas shopping bad for your identity?

It wouldn’t be Christmas without clerical complaints about commercialism:

But God is far from a capitalist, says Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier, who said the commercialisation of Christmas and encouragement to spend increased the risk that people would define themselves only as consumers.

Praise the Lord and Clive Hamilton!

But outside Clive’s books, how likely is it that people would define themselves only as consumers? The 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked its respondents to agree or disagree with the proposition that:

Shopping helps me create who I am

2% of respondents strongly agreed, and 11% agreed, for a total of 13%. But they were massively outnumbered by the 34% who disagreed, and 28% strongly disagreed, for a total of 62% (there was a large ‘neither’ response).

Unhappily for the Archbishop, listening to Christ’s message on a regular basis isn’t a big help in warding off the evils of consumerism. 11% of people who attend church once a week or more agree that shopping helps create who they are, exactly the same proportion as among the people who never go to church.
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Are human rights based on love?

According to The Australian, the new girlfriend of David Hicks, Aloysia Brooks, ‘writes poetry on human rights issues’. Thankfully the paper spared us any quotations from it. But we were not so lucky in escaping ex-Justice Michael Kirby’s imaginative musings on ‘human rights’:

In an article published in The Age last week he told us that:

The essential underpinning of fundamental human rights is love. Love for one another. Empathy for fellow human beings. Feeling pain for the refugee; for the victim of war; for the prisoner deprived of the vote; for the child dying of cholera in Zimbabwe. We can imagine what it must be like to be a victim because, as human beings, we too feel, and yearn for, life, freedom and justice.

That’s quite a segue from ‘love’ to the pity we feel for a kid we’ve never met and never will meet dying of cholera. Putting ‘love’ as the underpinning of human rights seems to me to have things the wrong way around. It is because we don’t love each other, because positive emotions of any kind are in finite supply, that we need social norms and legal and political institutions that seek to protect us from others and to manage conflict in a peaceful way.

Judith Shklar, a fine Harvard political theorist and escapee from the Nazis as a girl, had it right in her famous essay on the ‘liberalism of fear’: that liberalism – which provides much of the ideological basis of ‘human rights’ – begins with the evil of cruelty, and the desire we have to live free of fear.

Whether legally-entrenched ‘human rights’ are the best way to put limits on cruelty is a debate that we will again be having over the next six months. But it we had unlimited love no such legal rights, and no such debate, would be necessary.

Bradley’s social justice mindset

The term ‘social justice’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bradley report on higher education policy, but the idea is everywhere in the section on ‘access’. Advocates of ‘social justice’ believe that they can describe in advance what a just society would look like; the actual interests and preferences of the individuals involved typically do not count for much.

The social justice mindset is behind the targets for ‘under-represented’ groups set out by the Bradley committee. They believe that by 2020 the proportion of students from the lowest 25% of socieconomic postcodes should be 20% of the university population. It’s currently in the 15-16% range. They don’t even attempt to defend this figure; like many other numbers in this intellectually weak report it seems to have been taken out of the air as sounding about right.
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Conor Cruise O’Brien, RIP

The Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died last week aged 91, had a very varied career, straddling as his Times obituary says ‘diplomacy, politics, historical scholarship, literature and journalism’.

It was the last three that attracted me, though the first two informed them. I probably first came across him via his introduction to the Penguin edition of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though I can remember also liking his mid-1980s book on Israel, The Seige, after which in some circles he was known as Conor Cruise O’Zion. From the Times obituary, he wrote it for much the same reason I read it, the influence of Jewish friends. Political views are usually part biography.

In 1994 I interviewed him for Policy, during my first stint as editor. We mostly talked about nationalism, which nearly 15 years on I fear may have annoyed him; presumably he was hoping to publicise his book The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke, which had recently come out in paperback. Re-reading the interview, he knew a surprising amount about Australia, commenting on the history of Catholic-Protestant relations here and praising Noel Pearson.

It’s probably nearly as long ago as that interview since I read O’Brien, and I felt embarrassed as I read the obituaries that I could not recall a single idea, insight or piece of information that I could attribute to his writings. Perhaps they are there in my memory, unattributed. But on dipping into The Great Melody, it’s clear that he was one of those writers with the talent to make reading its own reward.

Conor Cruise O’Brien, RIP.

Youth Allowance reform

Though the Bradley report fails on the key funding issue, not all of it is bad.

Earlier in the year, we debated the ‘independence’ test for Youth Allowance. I thought it should be tightened to exclude those satisfying a soft work test, but really still living at home dependent on their affluent parents.

The report provides new information on this issue. It shows (p.52) that ‘independent at home’ has been the only growing class of YA recipients over the last few years, though there was a small lift in other categories over 2006-07. Work Bruce Chapman carried out for the review using HILDA data found that 36% of Youth Allowance recipients were in households earning more than $100,000 a year. By contrast, only 32% of recipients were in households earning less than $50,000 a year. It’s quite a small sample (136 students), but supports other evidence that YA has turned into middle-class welfare rather than a program that assists genuinely needy people to attend university.

Sensibly, the Bradley report recommends abolishing these ‘independence’ categories, but lowering the age of automatic independence from 25 to 22. Money would be diverted to increasing how much parents can earn from $31,400 to $42,500, increasing the amount students can earn, and increasing benefits by an unspecified amount. Existing rorters of YA can, however, rest easy – current recipients will be ‘grandfathered’ out.