Taking a break part 2

Policy debates

While it is difficult to imagine that there is a deep policy debate going on in Australia given the current election campaign there actually is one.

Indeed – while we are waiting for ScoMo to announce that if people vote Labor God will send a great plague, fires and damnation to the nation – the Grattan Institute continues to produce high quality work over a wide range of policy areas. Most importantly, they regularly evaluate their impact and report back on it the public.

Grattan Institute CEO, John Daley, recently sent around an email which started with the words: “I’m often asked ‘how do you know that Grattan is having an impact?’”

He then attached a detailed report which is a systematic evaluation of how policy is changing on more than 70 issues covered by Grattan reports across all of its programs. (The 72-page supporting analysis is available on request.) It shows both how things have changed over the last 12 months, and the longer-term impacts.

“A surprise that emerges from this bottom-up analysis is that Australia may be making more policy progress than we realise. At times, it can feel like nothing is happening. But influencing policymakers takes time. Over the long term, as this report shows, there is real progress on many policy issues. The Grattan model – building the evidence; making a persuasive case; taking it public; and trying to influence decision-makers – bears fruit,” he said.

The report looks at major social and taxation policies, economic growth, energy, health, higher education, school education and transport and cities. It estimates the direction of reform across a series of policy sub-sets in each area; looks at the policy status in terms of impact; and makes a realistic assessment of the extent of Grattan’s impact in each area. It is an invaluable resource.

And the Institute is also seeking to inject much more rigour into the election debates by publishing what it terms a Commonwealth Orange Book – so called to distinguish it from the official Red and Blue Books prepared to inform incoming governments.

What is impressive about the 182 page book is that it not only includes policy prescriptions but also the evidence base for them – particularly in the context of Australia’s performance, when rated internationally, in all the vital policy areas.

The Institute says; “The Commonwealth Orange Book rates Australia’s performance against similar countries and proposes policy reforms to schools and universities, hospitals and housing, roads and railways, cities and regions, budgets and taxes, retirement incomes and climate change.”

“It includes Grattan Institute’s new ‘International Scorecard’, which shows Australians live longer than most other people, and public debt is relatively low. But our electricity supply is more polluting, less reliable and more expensive than in comparable countries; we lag behind other developed economies on school results; and housing costs and homelessness are relatively high.”

One other thing Grattan, or some other think tank could undertake is to look on the negative side of policy and practice to see what lessons could be learned from disasters. The book – Blunders of our Governments – about a number of UK disasters is an example of this approach.

Those blunders include: continuing with NHS re-organisations and failed IT projects and the continued failure (some spectacular) of outsourcing companies and policies. The current UK Transport Minister, Chris Grayling, is ploughing on with some of them – including the disastrous rail privatisation and contracting system. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM he can thank Ministers like Grayling who put health, probation, translation services, water, prisons, power, trains and buses into private hands which failed to deliver. Indeed, despite the commentariat’s attitude to Corbyn’s water and rail nationalisation policies they are extremely popular with the UK public.

But what list of blunders would we propose for Australia: privatisation of electricity distribution, the Inland Rail, the F35 and the French submarines, Murray-Darling and climate change would all feature. Deregulation and privatisation of technical training would be up there as well condemning a generation of young Australians to debt and lack of real vocational qualifications. .


Is there anything more that can be said about Brexit? Well probably not although the descent into farce probably has even further to go.

But recently there are two things which both explain it well and skewer the Brexiteers. The first is a London Review of Books essay by Ferdinand Mount – who might be dubbed a Tory intellectual grandee as well as grandee – looks at the various historical and constitutional claims Brexiteers make – including relying on ancient precedents and statutes long over-turned or repealed. Needless to say he also dissects why they are nonsense.

And a friend sent the blog a Guardian two word guide to Brexit – Basil Fawlty – with supporting evidence.

MUP –a footnote

The blog promised not to mention MUP again but at a friend’s recent 80th birthday a mutual acquaintance of the blog and the birthday boy fleshed out the story of the Royal Society of Victoria Burke and Wills books MUP rejected and which went on to become one of the CSIRO’s best-selling publications.

The acquaintance clarified that the book had not been rejected as such but that it had offered to publish it if the RSV tipped in the odd $50,000. The RSV gratefully denied the wonderful opportunity.


Sadly the blog accumulates odds and sods from many sources – and while it tries to be scrupulous about recording where they come from sometimes the source gets lost. The following came to it from somebody or the blog saw it somewhere and stored it away for future use.

As a result, the item can’t be properly attributed. Should whoever sent it, wrote it, or has seen it somewhere and recognises the piece please let the blog know and proper attribution will follow.

But it is close to views the blog has expressed and is too good to let disappear so: “Tony Abbott called the NBN a ‘white elephant’. Taking that cue from his Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications in effect sabotaged a possible world-class NBN by refusing to support fibre-to-the-premises. We got a second-rate system as a result.

“But the problem goes back to the Coalition and John Howard, with the privatisation of Telstra in three stages in 1997, 1999 and 2006. If at least the wholesale arm of Telstra had remained in public hands, a separate and new NBN company would not have been necessary. Without John Howard’s privatisation the publicly owned wholesale arm of Telstra would have rolled out an NBN as part of its normal business operations. That is what happened in New Zealand and why New Zealand has a far better telecommunications system than we have. The Coalition, with John Howard as Prime Minister, through the privatisation of Telstra, has left us with an appalling legacy, a second-rate NBN. Malcolm Turnbull compounded the mess.”

Religion, charities and schools

In the United States leading legal firms and financial advisors managed to spirit away the assets of many Roman Catholic dioceses – often declaring bankruptcy – to avoid paying compensation to victims of priestly abuse.

Sadly in Australia there has been little debate about the charitable status of churches in Australia although conservatives get agitated about the charitable status of many other organisations. Nor has there been much concern about the inefficient proliferation of charities all focussed on the same areas.

Local Australian councils see the direct impact of charitable status on rate revenue with church buildings in their areas. The land on which they are built was gifted free and when the numbers of churchgoers decline the churches then promptly sell the buildings while pocketing the profits. Fortunately some of them are being forced to cough up some it in compensation payments to abused children although the government mandated limits system set up to facilitate abuse compensation has been another gift to the churches – saving them fortunes. But that is another story for later.

The United Kingdom National Secular Society (NSS) has prepared a report which describes what’s wrong with the current system and how it can be changed. The Economist online religious correspondent, Erasmus, discusses some of the implications.

“Under the Charities Act of 2011, the ‘advancement of religion’ is listed as one of the forms of ‘public benefit’…….. Among the 170,000 outfits, more than a fifth list “religious activities” among their aims, and 7% declare religion as their sole aim.”

“As is argued by the National Secular Society (NSS)……. this regime has some strange consequences. It can certify militant and self-segregating forms of Islam whose influence the authorities are trying, in other contexts, to restrain. It validates newly established Pentecostal sects offering bizarre ‘cures’ for same-sex attraction.

“The inclusion of ‘religious activities’ as something clearly beneficial to society dates from an era when most Britons had a religious affiliation, however loose, and when the number of faiths that were widely recognised as valid forms of spiritual practice was quite limited. These days, as the report notes, some 53% of Britons say they have no religious affiliation and the number rises to 70% among people between 16 and 29. And the number of new-fangled and eccentric organisations competing for souls is growing in an almost uncontrollable way.

“If the proportion of people who follow any kind of religion continues to drop, a change along those lines will probably become inevitable. But religions, with their extraordinary ability to affect people’s lives for better or worse, will still need to be regulated, if only to protect against manifest fraud. Perhaps the main point is that religions and charities have hitherto been regulated under a single heading; in future they may need to be regulated separately.”