More political donations innuendo

An AFR op-ed last Friday cited an anonymous corporate affairs head giving as one reason for ceasing political donations ‘some fear around our reputation’.

And little wonder, given the flimsy grounds on which businesspeople are subject to political donations innuendo.

A page one story in The Weekend Australian did at least – unlike other political donations investigations – start with something that looked a bit suspicious, a favourable deal for Credit Suisse in the now-infamous OzCar scheme.

But from there we head off on a particularly tenuous drawing of links:

The Weekend Australian can reveal that John O’Sullivan, the chairman of investment banking for Credit Suisse, donated more than $20,000 to the Wentworth Forum, the Opposition Leader’s political fighting fund.

But why is this relevant? The Opposition was working to discredit a Labor scheme that benefited Credit Suisse, a funny kind of buying influence for a Credit Suisse executive.
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How ‘brain-sex’ with Robert Doyle led to the Quadrant hoax

Yesterday I went along to a Melbourne Writers Festival session on Australian hoaxes, from Ern Malley to Quadrant (one of the panel was my friend Simon Caterson, whose book on hoaxes is out later this year).

Session chair and Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham began by quoting from an article she had published by Quadrant hoaxer Katherine Wilson, an article I had missed (perhaps because I miss everything that is published in Meanjin).

Wilson briefly rejects a point I made at the time, that this wasn’t a good hoax because it didn’t attack a position associated with Quadrant. In her article as ‘Sharon Gould’, Wilson used her own obsession with GM foods, rather than Quadrant‘s obsession with climate change scepticism.

But another point I made is supported by Wilson’s Meanjin piece. I said that

she wants to discredit Quadrant and Windschuttle in particular not by directly taking issue with what they publish, but by making them look foolish by publishing an article she had booby-trapped with errors and false statements

The real surprise in Wilson’s article is the bizarre source for her political strategy – the English classes of former schoolteacher and Victorian Opposition leader and current Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.
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What’s going on with science applications #2?

Earlier in the year, I reported evidence that contrary to my earlier expectations demand for science courses, for which the student contribution rate has been cut by by more than $3,000 a year, was going up significantly.

The national final applications data shows that science did indeed observe a surge in applications, up 17% in a market that was up 5% overall. The market share gain was 0.72%, within the historical pattern of annual movements of more than +/- 1% market share being rare, but still a big change (some previous U of M professional courses now requiring a science course first explains some, but not all, the increase).

So did the price decrease cause this market share shift? There is some other evidence in the applications data consistent with this interpretation. Past research suggests that people have clusters of aptitudes, skills and interests. On this theory we would expect declining market share in disciplines that draw on similar clusters to science. This is apparent in agriculture (-.49%) and health (-.34%). It is not apparent in engineering (+.32%) or IT (+.11%).

There is however one particularly curious aspect to the applications data. Continue reading “What’s going on with science applications #2?”

A chance to get student amenities financing right

The government’s student amenities fee legislation has been rejected by the Senate.

While I did not support the original VSU bill, and am unpersuaded by the reasons given for rejecting the government’s legislation, I am pleased that it has been defeated.

Even by the low standards of Australian higher education policymaking, Kate Ellis’s student amenities financing plan was a shocker.

As I noted when it was introduced, it sought to impose new unfunded service obligations on universities – and this despite Labor cutting recurrent university funding in real terms in every year of its first term. While they have thrown money at capital projects, their policies on recurrent funding have been worse than the Coalition’s.

The bill would have required universities to make complex distinctions between similar services funded from their Commonwealth subsidies and from the new amenities fee.

The bill would have required universities to create an entirely new and completely unnecessary new student loan scheme, SA-HELP. Anyone who needs to borrow $250 for amenities will also need to borrow for tuition under HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP, and so these should be used for all loans. The SA-HELP alternative would have imposed bureaucratic costs on universities and created confusion for students.

In short, it is a relief that this bureaucratic monster has been strangled at birth.

While the government will probaby reintroduce the bill and hope that an Opposition terrified of an early election will pass it, the more sensible thing from them to do would be to refer it to the review they have promised on base funding levels for universities. Amenities fees are just one component of a much larger funding and pricing issue, and it would be sensible to deal with it all in a coherent fashion.
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Is climate change alarmism encouraging scepticism?

Climate change ‘alarmists’ have been utterly relentless in their campaigning. It’s quite possibly the biggest global political campaign in history. My media survey last year found an average of 1.6 different predictions of climate doom a day. Even on a boat tour of Stockholm today I could not escape it, with warnings that human-caused global warming could cause parts of Stockholm to flood (on the other hand, not having their waterways ice up in winter might be one of the pluses of global warming).

But a recent Morgan poll suggests that maybe the constant predictions of doom is having an unintended effect. The number of people who think concerns are exaggerated has doubled since 2006, from 13% to 27%.

There is still an overwhelming majority of people who believe that climate change is happening and strong majorities in favour of policy action. But perhaps the claims of impendending disaster are sounding a little too hyberbolic, and people are beginning to mentally discount the scale of the problems we face.

(It could be that the denialists are gaining some traction; though they get only a small fraction of the media coverage given to the alarmists.)

HT: Pollytics blog.

Jan Palach RIP

Jan Palach

Memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, and millions of other victims of communism. Picture taken in Wenceslas Square, Prague, 12 August 2009

Palach, followed by Zajic a month later, burnt himself to death in January 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion to crush the Prague Spring.

There is so much to see in this beautiful city that I have not done as much political history tourism as I would have liked, but I did take a photo of this memorial to two brave young men.

Where does Kaplan rank?

During a couple of days as Singapore’s lone classical liberal last week, I took a particular interest in education advertising. A major theme is rankings, with results of student surveys used where the conventional prestige measures are unavailable.

On advertisement in the Straits Times particularly caught my eye. It advertised Monash University degrees, noting that Monash is ranked 47th in the Times Higher Education Supplement and is a member of the ‘prestigious Group of Eight universities’.

But the courses advertised aren’t taught by Monash. People wanting to find out more had to go to the website of Kaplan Singapore, part of the big US for-profit Kaplan University.

And where does Kaplan rank? It’s not 47th in the THES. It’s not in the Group of Eight. It isn’t in the major rankings at all.

Though this raises yet more questions about the consumer information value of rankings in teaching markets, this teaching outsourcing could be a positive development overall.

There is a potential conflict of interest in the same institution both teaching and assessing, since there is an incentive to soft mark to ensure that students continue. I’m not sure how Monash’s deal with Kaplan works, but it is possible that this conflict is minimised by outsourcing teaching (or Kaplan outscourcing assessment, depending on how you look at it).

Disaggregation of the industry may also bring the benefits of specialisation, with different institutions building skills and reputation in course development, teaching and assessment.

Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism

Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines is part personal memoir, part Howard goverment history, part conservative philosophy, part analysis of current politics. I don’t think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are interesting enough.

For me, its main value is in being a relatively detailed statement of ‘big government conservatism’, from the perspective of a supporter.

Even coming after the big-spending Howard years, there are several proposals for more spending still, including teacher salaries, dental care, and yet more family spending (I laughed out loud at the sub-heading ‘how families have been forgotten’). Luckily there are also some proposed cuts, from a higher retirement age and to superannuation concessions.

Though there is an ideological element to the family spending idea, Abbott’s plausible claim that the Howard government was a problem-solving government rather than one that was highly ideologically driven also helps explain why government grew under Howard.
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Political xenophobia 2

A referee for my political expenditure laws paper pointed out that – contrary to the title of an earlier post – that someone doesn’t have to be a xenophobe to have theoretical concerns about foreign donors.

Perhaps not, though I am not entirely clear what concerns about foreign donors could not be dealt with via other provisions that do not distinguish based on nationality. There are some foreigners whose influence is plausibly seen as bad, but the disclosure regime can deal with them the same way it deals with undesirable Australian donors (for example, I think Labor refuses donations from tobacco companies).

But given the vagueness of concerns about foreign donors, xenophobia does seem like at least a plausible explanation of this proposed ban.

In a Canberra Times op-ed yesterday I noted how the media is repeatedly investigating people with Chinese names, with echoes of the ‘yellow peril’ fears of the White Australia policy era.

Perhaps the machinations of the Chinese regime justify this attention, but after following this issue for a couple of years it is striking how much attention Chinese-background people get.

The ‘xenophobia’ evidence here is stronger than other similar claims, for example about ‘dog whistling’. It directly targets foreigners and assumes that their desire to be involved in Australian politics is improper. It’s a big generalisation, with too many exceptions to justify a ban.

Media 101

Over the weekend, I lamented to friends that I did not get much media coverage for my paper on political expenditure laws. I thought I had a good argument and had exposed many previously unreported negative consequences of the electoral law reform bill.

But while many days research and writing yielded only a handful of low-profile news reports (though also some opinion pieces), a couple of five minute conversations on Friday with journalists from The Australian about the protential financial woes of universities yielded me a page one top-of-the-fold story with my name in the second paragraph. (My comments were just an updated version of this April post).

Perhaps the lesson is that while carefully-researched papers are a necessary part of building credibility as a dial-a-quote media source, saying something colorful or sensasationalist is the key to actually getting good coverage.