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Coalition can't convert its tries

by December 16, 2016 General

Luck matters a lot in politics, but events don’t unfold with captions advising where the opportunities are. The most successful politicians are those who see unexpected, even unfortunate, events as occasions for a rethink, a platform for changing direction, dropping baggage and reinventing oneself. The past week has seen Malcolm Turnbull fumble some heaven-sent opportunities.

There was bad news for Australia from an annual OECD report comparing educational outcomes in the world’s advanced economies. The performance of Australian 15 year-olds, particularly in maths, science and reading, slipped markedly, whether by comparison with Australians who did similar exams 10 years ago or with their peers abroad. Our place in the international pecking order fell; “we” are, on average, now about a year-and-a-half behind the top-performing countries. Whatever fabulous educational initiatives were developed by Julia Gillard or Christopher Pyne over the past decade seem to have positively dulled Australian students. This was in spite of a substantially increased investment in education.

Australian students have plummeted in the latest international maths and science rankings, with Kazakhstan, Cyprus and ... Australian students have plummeted in the latest international maths and science rankings, with Kazakhstan, Cyprus and Slovenia leapfrogging us. Photo: Nic Walker

The quarterly national accounts showed the size of the economy fell by about 0.5 per cent between July and September. No one, yet, is expecting that the next quarter will also record a fall, which would mark a “technical recession” and the end of 25 years of growth. But it was an unpleasant surprise, brought on by bad trade numbers, falling housing construction and reduced business investment, and, particularly, a marked slump in Western Australia’s economic fortunes. Worse, although the economy is still growing, if by a miserable annual rate of about 1.8 per cent, Australia seems to be slumping just as other advanced economies are taking off.

And the government announced a long foreshadowed review of Australia’s climate policy, one that had been bound to canvas whether existing policies – built largely on Tony Abbott’s political opportunism in turning against taxes on carbon – were the ones best adapted to reduce the pollution we create. It had been intended that the review would be evidence rather than conviction-based, but the moment that Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg allowed that an emissions intensity scheme would be one of the options canvassed, all hell broke loose among Coalition conservatives. And, yet again, Turnbull quailed, panicked and absolutely ruled out in advance such a measure, regardless of what the evidence suggests, the danger warrants, or the world, the nation and the public, as opposed to the lobbies, want. One could imagine Turnbull reflecting that a more scientifically literate Australian population wouldn’t have quite the same problem of coping with climate change facts.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, pictured with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, said the only reason for power ... Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, pictured with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, said the only reason for power distributors to appeal regulatory decisions was to slug consumers. Photo: Andrew Meares

A better government – including, I expect, one led by John Howard – would have seen great political opportunities in any of these events. Some of Howard’s on-the-run instinctive responses would have set him up for further re-election.

One wouldn’t expect to see him delighting in any of them as news, or as pressure on his government and its policies. But he would have seen in each not an opportunity for hectoring the public about how these proved the need for more rigid application of the policies and the medicine that he was applying, but as an opportunity to declare some need for a halt, a reconnaissance and a fresh start.

No one ought to know this better than Turnbull, who suddenly found himself working with Howard on a complete revamp of Murray Darling water policy in 2006. He and Howard worked on it over a Christmas holiday (without the bother of needing to cope with any inconvenient facts from the Treasury) and announced it on Australia Day 2007.

The art of Howard – and, at other times, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating or even Kevin Rudd – was not in using bad news for mere fine-tuning of policy, or for calls for redoubled action. It was of admitting failure, or disappointing achievement. Acknowledging that a situation has reached a crisis, accepting a need to seriously reconsider policy. Using the opportunity, if necessary, for a complete U-turn, or significant change in objective, direction and process.

Great Liberal leader Sir Robert Menzies invested heavily in education. Great Liberal leader Sir Robert Menzies invested heavily in education. 

If one seems to use the chance to take charge, one can sometimes even escape the odium of having presided over failure and get some credit for facing the facts and being flexible enough to change. Likewise, the clear air of confected crisis means one can make substantial, not piecemeal, change and can avoid long, nagging and at least partially true criticism from the opposition and the lobbies. And get some space, and time, while the public judges whether the changes are working.

The Coalition ought to be especially embarrassed by its response to the slump in growth. For Treasurer Scott Morrison, the poor result was everyone’s fault but the government’s. There are those bastards in the Labor Party, for example, resisting government measures in the Parliament. Whoever had heard of such a thing before? And a mad Senate? Who brought them? And the nation is, apparently, too complacent about the economy, as is (according to an extraordinary inappropriate speech from Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet head Martin Parkinson) the public service. And business is bad, for not investing and for keeping its money in a cave. What we need, clearly, are more tax cuts for corporations and more savage cuts to government goods and services. The answer to a contracting economy, apparently, is to contract government spending.

No one might expect that the Turnbull government would suddenly admit defeat on its budget strategy – whatever it is. Nor that it would admit that its policies for jobs and growth didn’t seem to be delivering. No one anticipates that governments, of either stripe, are about to reduce controls over government spending programs and go on some big spendathon.

But a cold and calculating true politician might recognise there had been some water under the bridge since the May budget and the government’s triumph at the polls in July. There had been major international changes and uncertainties, including Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, concern about growth and political stability in Asia, but also some signs of a pick-up in economic activity among some of the countries against which we judge ourselves. Just as importantly on the political front was a new self-consciousness among politicians about whether they were alive to the real concerns and insecurities of the population and, in particular, their fears and concerns about their jobs, personal security and economic future. Perish the thought that the bad quarterly figures were the consequence of government action, but, regardless, the fact that the figures were bad might be a time to admit candidly that things weren’t working out quite as had been wanted or intended, so that a rethink, rather than a mere tinkering at the edges, was necessary. That it represents a turning point can be emphasised, of course, by putting the Treasurer in charge of the veterans’ affairs, finding a new Treasury secretary and, perhaps, a major Christmas-break reshuffle.

Howard’s art was not in using bad news for mere fine-tuning of policy. It was of admitting failure, or disappointing achievement.

Likewise, one didn’t have to go far into the OECD report to find some material that could aid a defensive posture, if that were to be all that was wanted. If Australia’s educational policies are failing, indeed going backyards, it seems that it isn’t for want of spending, salaries or status of teachers, nor for particular failures to deal with the problems of clearly disadvantaged groups (such as Aborigines, migrants or people of low socio-economic status). Australia spends more than the OECD average on pre-primary, primary and secondary education, including on disadvantaged groups.

Our biggest problem, statistically, is not the underperformance of the poorer or more disadvantaged half of the 15-year-old cohort. These aren’t dragging down the averages of the comfortable middle classes – it’s the other way round. Our top students, mostly at the richest and best-resourced schools, are averaging second-rate results. Not only is the average Singaporean student outperforming the average little Aussie by miles (the equivalent of a year-and-a-half or so of schooling), but Singapore’s top 25 per cent are far further ahead of our top 25 per cent, our elite. Put another way, only about 10 per cent of the top Australian 15-year-olds can match the average performance of the top 25 per cent of their Singaporean cohort.

There was the odd, perverse, but deeply satisfying finding – for example: “School systems where students spend more time learning after school, by doing homework, receiving additional instruction or in private study, tend to perform less well in science.” This year’s deeper analysis was focused on general science, but I’d be prepared to bet the same is true of maths. The problem of getting students engaged with, interested in, and thriving in the study of maths and science is not one of their application or a failure to grind their noses to the wheel. My answer to the “crisis” of maths and science is to make the subjects harder and more rewarding, not easier and less engaging.

Willy-nilly, neither a federal education minister nor his or her department is personally responsible for the sorts of outcomes the OECD reported. Yet a good federal minister, or, for that matter, a prime minister who cares about the intellectual qualities of Australians, could never complacently pass the buck or blithely carry on with existing policies in spite of the evidence of poor performance. Nor would he make weak and pathetic remarks about importing better teachers.

Rather, he would use the occasion to galvanise a debate, to shift policy and objectives, and to set some national missions to make a difference. It wouldn’t involve doing crude and anti-Liberal things involving the manipulation of education markets or the establishment of five-year workforce plans. Rather, it might focus on creating an environment in which there were incentives – for students, parents, schools and school systems – for better focus on and performance in subjects such as maths and science, as well as certain concrete symbols that the struggle was going to be worthwhile.

It has become clear that relying on the market guesses of individual universities (even good ones) and individual student demand is not going to come up with a swing towards quality STEM outputs. But a great statesman – such as a Robert Menzies – could completely change the game without necessarily committing the Commonwealth to vast extra spending.

Turnbull could, for example, announce he was going to create three or four fresh prestige universities, on the models of (from America) the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or (in Australia) the ANU’s Institute of Advanced Studies, focused primarily on maths and science, and subsidiary fields such as engineering, computers, IT and artificial intelligence. A Ben Chifley or a Nugget Coombs could imagine an ANU quickly developing a world-class critical mass in a wide range of sciences back in 1945, when the population was much lower and the graduate population a tiny fraction of what it is today. How much more could a game-changing investment in the sciences do for Australian industry, growth, invention and innovation, and Australia’s international contribution to pure science today?

A canny prime minister could have a vision for a time long past his reign – say, of 2040. But he could own it by setting a course towards it, with concrete objectives to be achieved within existing budgetary frameworks, buttressed by some fresh incentives, such as scholarships, industry participation and, perhaps, the incorporation of some of Australia’s existing research, development and pure science gems such as the CSIRO. He could also artfully adapt the vision for different places for political advantage – Western Australia’s new university, for example, might focus more strongly on earth sciences, surveying and satellite technology; South Australia harnessed to a national objective of redoubling Australian agricultural productivity and output in 20 years.

Existing universities might seethe, and insist they could do better jobs if only they were allowed to tender for the roles or a share of the action. They might also claim there would simply not be enough qualified academics. There would be, including from overseas, if the demand were created. Some might come from the very academies turning out more, and better, students in maths and science than us.

A pipedream? Impossible to imagine? Actually, it’s little more than what Menzies did in the 1960s, when he took the Commonwealth into education at all levels by focusing on improving the quality of Australian science education. For Menzies, it wasn’t a spending decision. It was an investment. And not merely on baby boomers but in the nation’s future.

Much as what Gough Whitlam sought to achieve with further focused massive increases in education in the 1970s. And that from a public sector spending base about a third, in real terms, of what it is today. And from public spending, as a proportion of GDP, about 60 per cent of now. Why is it that the generation that most benefited from such statesmanship are so hesitant about passing on the flame?

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.