ATO unable to HELP

I’ve spent part of my long-service leave doing a subject through Open Universities Australia. But as well as learning more about statistics, I thought I could use my enrolment to make a point.

Though lending students money for their fees on an income-contingent basis is a good idea, as I have complained before the HELP scheme is now too complex, anomaly-ridden, and expensive for taxpayers.

The particular absurdity I wanted to highlight was that if you do a subject through Open Universities Australia, there is no charge to borrow money under FEE-HELP (students at private providers and TAFEs pay a 20% surcharge). But OUA students still get a 10% bonus on any repayments they make.

I thought I would be able to would be able to take out the FEE-HELP loan, and using the bonus clear my approximately $900 in debt for about $820. I’d then write a newspaper article criticising this free money scheme and call for it to be fixed.

As it turns out, I haven’t been able to do this. Continue reading “ATO unable to HELP”

GST tax and spend

On the day the ABS’s annual taxation statistics showed a rare drop in annual average tax paid, Essential Research released a survey which found that 61% of us think that Australians pay too much tax, while only 4% say we pay too little tax.

Tax surveys have a history of being sensitive to the question asked. Another question in this Essential Research survey asked if the respondents were prepared to pay more GST for a series of specific programs. The answers to this question contradicted the answers to the first.

On all five items suggested more than 4% impliedly said we paid too little tax, given that 42% would pay more GST if the money was spent on health and hospitals, 38% said yes to aged pensions, 28% to infrastructure such as roads and railways, 20% to paying off the national debt, and 11% to create a foreign investment fund. And so much for the idea that the GST is to fund the states, too. Continue reading “GST tax and spend”

Classical liberalism and bills of rights

Andrew Carr asks why, as a classical liberal, I do not support a bill of rights. My political identity survey last year found that among classical liberals only about a third supported a bill of rights, so on this I am not an outlier.

The apparent incongruity is that classical liberals support individual freedom, but oppose a measure that could protect freedom from ‘big government’ or the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

Part of the answer is that virtually all classical liberals believe in democracy as well. Though much has been made of the ‘tensions’ between liberalism and democracy, which obviously can occur, there are also many parallels.

Both give significant weight to the preferences and knowledge of ordinary individual citizens, who ajudicate on the choices offered to them – by parties and candidates in the political sphere, by firms in the economic sphere, and by varying traditions and associations in the cultural sphere. Continue reading “Classical liberalism and bills of rights”

Academics in politics

Andrew Leigh has announced that he has won pre-selection for the safe Labor seat of Fraser. He’ll be in the House of Representatives before Christmas.

Of course Andrew is an outstanding candidate, but this is a big loss to Australian social science. He’s always been exceptionally productive, and in his late thirties has a publication record that most academics would be happy to retire with. Perhaps that’s why he is moving on to something new, but it’s hard to imagine that the steady stream of interesting papers and articles was about to hit an intellectual drought.

I can well understand the temptations of politics. While I think a fair assessment is that Australian politicians have done reasonably well by world standards, there is so much that could be done so much better. The kind of empirical social science Andrew has done in his academic career can tell us a lot about what policies are likely to work, and which are likely to fail or achieve too little at too high a cost. Someone with Andrew’s background can provide valuable input into the policy process.

The question is whether someone like Andrew, whose demonstrated major skills are academic research and analysis, can do more good inside or outside of party politics. Continue reading “Academics in politics”

Constitutional rights and ‘divisive’ issues

Some bloggers were unimpressed with this justification from Attorney-General Robert McClelland for not proposing a charter of rights:

Let me say at the outset, that a legislative charter of rights is not included in the Framework as the Government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that, as far as possible, unites rather than divides our community. [emphasis added]

Guy Beres thought that the ‘absence of any legal bedrock on human rights in Australia is a fairly considerable source of division and uncertainty’. Kim at LR agreed.

The charter itself would have been within the usual range of ‘divisive’ issues, ie those issues on which significant opposing groups both feel strongly. It would have flared for a while, but probably not have entrenched significant on-going conflicts or resentments. The losing side would have had a chance to present its full case, and would have been left with an opportunity to raise the issue again in the future.

But presuming that the charter was just the first step (or the first part of the slide down the slippery slope, depending on your perspective) towards constitutional rights protection then I do think it has significant implications for the way we handle ‘divisive’ issues. Continue reading “Constitutional rights and ‘divisive’ issues”

Are your uni days the best of your life?

The SMH yesterday wrote up this report which, as many other analyses have, finds graduates are not happier than other people (though the research is mixed on this; some studies do find a benefit, and in the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes sample graduates are happier).

Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition by Curtin University’s Michael Dockery is especially interesting on the question of graduates and happiness because it uses the the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), which tracks the same individuals over time. They start when the respondents are in Year 9 and finish when they are in their mid-20s. This lets us see happiness over time and the possible effects of changing circumstances.

Happiness relative to mean, by educational attainment

Source: Figure 2(b) in Education and happiness in the school-to-work transition, published by NCVER
Continue reading “Are your uni days the best of your life?”

No charter, but too many ‘rights’

The government has decided not to introduce a charter of rights. Instead, they will introduce greater human rights scrutiny into the legislative process and increase human rights education campaigns.

While on balance I think that no charter is the right decision, the process of drafting and debating it would have had one distinct advantage over the chosen policy path. This would have been to focus attention on which interests and freedoms really deserved to achieve quasi-constitutional status as ‘human rights’, and which were things that should be the stuff of ordinary political debate.

Instead, the government has decided that ‘human rights’ are all the contents of the seven international rights treaties that have been signed on our behalf by various executives (this is not a democratic process; treaties do not require ratification by parliament). New legislation and delegated legislation will need to have a statement that ‘assesses its compatibility’ with these treaties.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in particular has provisions that are, as Jeremy Bentham famously described rights, ‘nonsense upon stilts’. It is a social democratic wish-list. Take for example this one on higher education: Continue reading “No charter, but too many ‘rights’”

Should we be sentencing criminals to transportation?

Yesterday’s Age reported the case of Andrew Moore, who died in England of a heroin overdose. Two days before he died, Moore had been removed from Australia after his visa had been cancelled on character grounds.

The interesting aspect of this case is that, as in a number of similar cases in recent years, Moore was in all but law an Australian. Originally from Scotland, he’d lived here for 32 of his 43 years. But he had never taken out Australian citizenship. People in this situation who are convicted of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment of 12 months or more can have their visas cancelled, and be sent back to the country they originally came from.

Moore’s crime – manslaughter – was a lot more serious than just one involving a year in jail, and he was a junkie and a drunk as well. Unlike other ‘Australians’ sent back to their birth countries, he could at least speak its language. But this practice of throwing people out of the country on what looks like a technicality does seem problematic to me.

It means that imprisoning long-term non-residents can be tantamount to also sentencing them to transportation. Continue reading “Should we be sentencing criminals to transportation?”

Migration opinion turns

As recently as last month, a Morgan Poll found that the majority public support for migration that began in 1998 had been maintained. As I noted at the time, this was a little surprising given other polls were identifying concern about the consequences of population growth.

Now the latest Nielsen poll reported in the Fairfax broadsheets finds that finally the polls have turned on support for the migration program, with 54% saying that the number of migrants coming to Australia is too high. 38% say that the number is about right, while 6% say it is too low.

John Carroll repents

In 1992, John Carroll and Robert Manne published Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism. This was the book that prompted me and two university friends, Chrises Jones and James, to co-edit A Defence of Economic Rationalism.

Eighteen years on, Carroll has written to The Australian to explain that he no longer supports the book’s conclusions:

To me now, the past two decades support the maxim: if in doubt, trust the free market.

Moreover, if the GFC signals anything it is to beware irresponsible government

Shutdown co-editor Robert Manne is hoping that he will be second-time lucky with Goodbye to All That: On the Failure of Neoliberalism and the Urgency of Climate Change.

It’s rare that public intellectuals will admit that they were wrong, so Carroll deserves congratulation for doing so.