The unpopularity of war

With a new US strategy on Afghanistan set to be announced and a rising Australian death toll, three pollsters recently surveyed opinion on Australia’s troop deployment. Their results were consistently against expanding our troop commitment, and showed that about half of their respondents did not want our troops there at all.

ACNielsen found 51% of voters against the deployment, and two-thirds against sending more troops, with 30% in favour. Essential Media found 50% in favour of withdrawing and only 14% in favour of sending more troops. Newspoll also found two-thirds of its respondents against sending more troops and 28% in favour. The only real difference is opinon on sending more – this is probably a question effect, with Essential Media having an option of keeping the same number.

While these are negative results for the Afghanistan commitment, there is little evidence that recent Australian deaths have hardened opinion. A Lowy Institute poll last year found 56% against Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, up from 46% in 2007. And these figures are not radically different from those recorded on Iraq – for example in 2005 a small majority opposed Australia’s continuing involvement in Iraq.

Generally, it is a good thing that the Australian public is reluctant to support war. But these figures do also give weight to the concerns of conservative pessimists that Western publics have the lost the will to fight for anything, and not just wars without (perhaps) sufficiently clear links to immediate security. If these wars are unpopular with minimal casualties, how unpopular would they be with a large number of deaths?

Australian political identity survey

As a classical liberal, I am the kind of person people like Kevin Rudd or the academic left are talking about when they use the term ‘neoliberal’. However, their descriptions of ‘neoliberalism’ often seem to be, if not totally inaccurate, crude caricatures of what people like me actually believe.

My impression from years of talking policy and politics with a wide variety of people, and editing a classical liberal magazine, is that even among those willing to identify with a particular political philosophy their actual views are (depending on how you look at it) more complex or less consistent than simply following the logic of their philosophy wherever it might take them.

To try to see to what people with different intellectual political identities believe, and on what they agree and disagree, I have devised an online survey of about 40 questions. There is a question on party support near the end, but the main point of the survey is to see what people willing to identify as classical liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and social democrats believe, regardless of their party affiliations. I’ll publish the results over Easter.

Click here to take the political identity survey

Words Julia Gillard may regret

After more than a decade of the Howard Government [universities] felt neglected, and they had been neglected because there hadn’t been the proper investments into our universities. But they also felt under siege. They were rolled up in red tape, they could hardly scratch themselves without having to send a piece of paper to Canberra and wait for it to come back out. They weren’t able to see what the Government’s vision for universities was for the next five or 10 or 15 years, other than more neglect and more micromanagement. (italics added)

– Julia Gillard speaking yesterday to Alan Jones.

Let’s be clear on Labor’s record so far. Though as part of its stimulus measures it has given universities some capital hand-outs, its 2008-09 budget imposed real cuts on recurrent university income for teaching Commonwealth-supported students, and its phasing out of domestic full-fee students further reduced recurrent university teaching income. By contrast, Coalition budgets delivered real increases in 2005, 2006, and 2007 for all disciplines, and in 2008 for some disciplines.

The Coalition’s higher education policy was a shambles. But at least over the last few years there was some recognition that it was irrational to cut annually in real terms government teaching subsidies and to regulate student contributions so that these were also cut in real terms. The lead story in today’s Australian about the razor gang getting to Gillard’s higher education spending looks like part of an on-going downgrading of expectations for the higher education sector. It is possible that on the key issue of recurrent funding this year’s budget may confirm Labor’s record as worse than the Coalition’s. Unfortunately, universities cannot spend education revolution rhetoric.
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A Mammon-solution to an Allah-problem

Letter writers to The Age are not impressed with demands from Muslim students for dedicated prayer rooms at RMIT. Plausibly enough, some argue that a secular institution like RMIT should not favour one religious group over another.

It seems to me than an obvious solution is being overlooked. The University should provide a Muslims-only prayer room, but do so on a commercial basis. RMIT could either rent a room to a Muslim group, or operate the prayer room itself by issuing students with swipe cards in exchange for a fee. Maybe the very religious could get bulk discounts for using the room 5 times a day, or maybe it could be like a gym membership, in which the sunk cost encourages attendance from those whose desire to get fit or show faith is not always matched with action.

If RMIT charged too much, this would provide an incentive for other groups to offer cheaper prayer space. Indeed, particularly for RMIT’s city campus I imagine there is a good business opportunity in seeking custom from the many Muslims who now use Melbourne’s CBD.

Another win-win market solution.

Will uni students have to learn about Indigenous culture?

One of the less remarked-on sections of the Bradley report claimed that

it is critical that Indigenous knowledge is recognised as an important, unique element of higher education, contributing economic productivity by equipping graduates with the capacity to work across Australian society and in particular with Indigenous communities.

Arguments for incorporation of Indigenous knowledge go beyond the provision of Indigenous-specific courses to embedding Indigenous cultural competency into the curriculum to ensure that all graduates have a good understanding of Indigenous culture.

As this was a ‘finding’ rather than a ‘recommendation’, most readers were probably content to take it as a necessary, but empty, gesture to the hurt felt by the Indigenous Australians. After all, only a tiny proportion of graduates will ever work in contexts where knowledge of Indigenous people – let alone ‘Indigenous knowledge’ – will be useful, and it would be far more efficient to pick it up as needed than to build it into unrelated courses.

But now the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council is, according to the SMH, taking it a step further and proposing that

ALL university students and staff will be required to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture under proposals to be considered by the Federal Government.

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The economy and elections

Commenter Krystian asks:

Do government get tossed out because of difficult economic times, or more because of their own incompetence plus the presence of difficult economic times?

Andrew Leigh has asked himself exactly that question, and come to the (data-laden) conclusion that unemployment does affect election results but ‘luck’ – global or national economic conditions – counts for more than ‘competence’, how well a jurisdiction is doing relative to the gobal or national economy.

He puts this down to

something psychologists call ‘the fundamental attribution error’, which is the fact that humans aren’t very good at separating situational factors from ability when making assessments.

But it seems voters used to believe that governments have more influence over the economy than they do now. The Australian Election Survey has a question about what effect respondents think the government will have on the economy twelve months from now. The first couple of times the question was asked, in 1987 and 1990, about 60% of respondents thought that the government could have either a good or a bad effect.
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Speaking truth to populism

From the 60 Minutes interview with Pacific Brands boss Sue Morphett, introduced as the most hated woman in Australia:

ELLEN FANNING: … Does the Australian consumer have to accept some responsibility for this decision?

SUE MORPHETT: They do. We all do. Long, long gone are the days where, actually, Australians are prepared to pay more for Australian-made goods and the only way that we’ll pay for Australian-made goods is if they’re giving us something that buying elsewhere or cheaper isn’t giving us.

Is losing an election ever a good thing?

Third-time unlucky Lawrence Springborg must be feeling a bit down today, while Anna Bligh is triumphantly not packing her office.

But can there be elections it is better to lose?

I can think of two basic scenarios in which this might be the case. The first is when the party is (if in government) no longer capable of doing a good job and risks damaging its reputation if it wins another term or a party is (if in opposition) not ready for government and risks damaging its reputation if it nevertheless wins office.

The second is when there are events over which the government has no or insufficient control, but which overwhelm it and destroy its prospects at subsequent elections.

Unfortunately for the hapless citizens of NSW, both versions of scenario one were at play at the March 2007 election. However for Labor – having so rundown the public institutions of NSW that no quick recovery is possible, even with competent Ministers – a narrow loss would probably have been preferable to the agony of being in terminal decline for years. Despite on-going doubts about the Opposition, Labor runs the risk of severe electoral punishment at the 2011 NSW election.

The Victorian election of 1988 is an example of the second scenario. Labor won, but it was probably too late to avoid the financial disasters of the coming few years. Instead of the Liberals winning a narrow victory and being destroyed by these problems, Labor won a narrow victory and was wiped out by Jeff Kennett in 1992.
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Miscellaneous links

Tony Abbott’s obituary for Melbourne intellectual Ronald Conway. I was impressed with Conway’s books The Great Australian Stupor and The Land of the Long Weekend when I read them in the mid-1980s. Looking at them again last night, I am still impressed with the range of reference and the synthesis of psychology, sociology, history and politics. But the psychological framework, especially drawing on Freud, seems dated. Still, the books had great titles, which should help preserve Conway’s place in our intellectual history.

The Productivity Commission has released its draft report on parallel importation of books. I have not read it all. Main point I had not previously thought of: that many of the benefits from the existing rules flow overseas, because foreign authors can extract higher prices from the Australian market than otherwise. Main recommendation: that publishers still be protected from parallel importation, but only for 12 months. As most of the profits from a new release will be made in the first 12 months, this looks to be largely a win for the publishers.

Still at the Productivity Commission, an inquiry into the contribution of the not-for-profit sector. It sounds reasonably benign, but I am suspicious. The trend is for civil society is to co-opted or coerced into serving the state.

Sinclair Davidson uses
the latest tax statistics to continue his series of analyses showing that during the Howard years the Australian state was increasingly funded by the top 25% of income earners.

Do Group of Eight graduates earn more?

In full-fee markets, Group of Eight universities charge a large fee premium over their less prestigious competitors. But is this a good investment by students?

According to an article in the latest Australian Economic Review, reported on in the SMH this morning, the answer is no – at least for new graduates.

Using data from the 2003 starting salaries survey carried out by Graduate Careers Australia, UWA academics Elisa Rose Birch, Ian Li and Paul W. Miller found that while choice of industry (mining especially), occupation and having an honours degree all matter, once other factors are controlled for ‘university effects have only minimal impacts on graduates’ starting salaries’.

If this pattern persists as graduates’ careers continue, it would be remarkable: that the brand value of prestige institutions and the presumably higher average innate ability of Group of Eight graduates count for near-nothing in the labour market.
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