Here's the speech that I gave last night to kick off my community meeting in Gungahlin.
Revenge of the Nerds: Improving Australia’s Education SystemRead more
Gungahlin Lakes Club, 16 March 2011
In a book titled Outliers: The Story of Success, writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses the way that extraordinarily successful people came to get where they are. Gladwell’s aim is to dig deeper than the legend of brilliance, and discover what lies underneath. His most interesting story concerns Bill Gates. Now, you probably think you know the story of Gates: smart geek drops out of Harvard, starts his own computer company, and becomes a squillionaire. But how many of you know about Gates’ high school experience?
Bill Gates attended high school in Lakeside, a school in Seattle. Each year, the mothers’ club ran a rummage sale, and in 1968, they decided to spend $3000 on a computer terminal. Now $3000 was a lot of money in those days, and the mothers’ club didn’t buy any old computer. They bought one that allowed real-time programming, directly linked to a mainframe.
To get an idea of how extraordinary this was, my father was at the time doing his PhD at Cornell University. The computer he got access to used punch cards, and he had to wait overnight to get his results. Yet as a schoolkid, Bill Gates was using a far better computer than a student at an Ivy League university.
The result was that Gates and his friends got the chance to do more computer programming than almost anyone else in the world. Thanks to a few more lucky breaks, he got access to the computer lab at the University of Washington. And before he left school, he had gotten a part-time job writing code. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard in his second year, he had been programming virtually non-stop for seven years. He estimates that there were probably no more than 50 young people in the world with that sort of experience.
Yes, Bill Gates is a smart guy. But the moral of the story is that what made him what he is today were the opportunities he was given. If we want more Bill Gateses in Australia, the answer isn’t to dig inside our DNA and sequence the genius gene. It’s to expand opportunities for every child, so every young Australian has the chance to fulfil their potential.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Jamie Briggs and Andrew Leigh, welcome to News 24.
ANDREW LEIGH: Thanks.
JAMIE BRIGGS: Good afternoon.
CURTIS: Jamie, the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has called for more money to be spent on welfare reform, talking about increased case management, increased income management. In times when budgets are tight, do you think it’s reasonable to spend money on welfare now in order to potentially save later?
BRIGGS: I think the country has to, Lyndal. We are facing in the next few years some significant labour shortages because we have a resource sector which is performing very strongly. We have a reconstruction effort in Queensland which will suck up a lot more of the labour force as well, and we have an ageing population. So we have to address this challenge. The Howard Government began addressing this challenge in its last three years. Unfortunately there has been steps backwards under the Labor Government because the re-regulation of the workplace will make it harder for these types of workers to re-enter the workforce, and I think what Joe’s saying is we have to have a good hard look at addressing these challenges in the coming years.
CURTIS: Andrew Leigh, is there a prospect for bi-partisanship on this? Because the government wants to take the issue of income management national, is there prospect that the two sides could actually agree?
LEIGH: Lyndal, there’s certainly agreement on this and I’m really pleased to hear that Joe Hockey is picking up on an idea that Labor has been pursuing for the last couple of years, and is now supporting it. We’ve had in place systems of non-discriminatory income management rolled out in the Northern Territory, Perth, the Kimberly, and there’s a trial on foot which will report back in 2014. But what we’ve seen unfortunately from Mr Hockey is what we often see, which is this kind of lazy sense that if you read something in a paper one day, you can give a speech about it the next day and pretend it’s your idea. My former profession of academia we used to call that plagiarism. I’m not quite sure what we call it in politics.
CURTIS: But isn’t it worth taking a look at? Isn’t it worth putting the issues up there to start a conversation?
LEIGH: Yeah, you can certainly start that conversation. I think that’s important. But it doesn’t hurt to say I agree with what the government is doing; I’m interested in the trial which currently on foot, reports back in 2014, and here’s where I think it should go. But we often see this from Mr Hockey; we saw this around banking reform; that sense you could get away with reading stuff in the paper and re-presenting it as your own ideas. The Australian people deserve a little bit more from an opposition than that I think. They deserve new ideas, not re-packaged ideas.
CURTIS: Jamie Briggs.
BRIGGS: That’s just, I mean honestly, one day you have the Labor Party screaming blue murder that all we do is run negative scare campaigns and then the next day when we’re talking about policies, important policies, important areas which actually, if Andrew is in the business of giving credit, it would be fascinating to hear this, he might go back and give credit to John Howard and Peter Costello, because they were the people who started to address this challenge. They say oh well, you know, it’s just sort of our idea somehow and he’s re-packaging. I mean Joe Hockey started the banking debate last year. The Treasurer is now desperately trying to catch up. Joe Hockey has now started this debate, an important debate. The Labor Party can’t have it both ways. They can’t accuse us of just purely running negative campaigns at the same time saying that we’re dreaming up ideas to talk about. The two don’t walk together.
CURTIS: Jamie Briggs is there any hope ever of bi-partisan agreement if both sides are in fundamental agreement in the question of income management, yet you can’t stop sparring?
BRIGGS: It’s important in a democracy to argue about ideas, Lyndal. You can have a similar goal, but you can have a difference in how you get there, and I think over time you’ve seen that the Liberal Party has not only talked about these types of ideas, but they’ve also worked out ways to deliver, and in government we delivered. We delivered low unemployment. We delivered higher wages. We delivered opportunities for people to get off welfare and into work. On the other hand, with the Labor Party, their record has been more patchy in this area.
CURTIS: Andrew Leigh, has the case of welfare reform actually stalled in the last few years, apart from the issue of income management? Ken Henry suggested a lot of things to deal with what’s called the tax and transfer system to try and get people off welfare. But neither party has really taken any of those ideas up.
LEIGH: Well Lyndal I don’t accept that characterisation. I mean the non-discriminatory income management trial, which I guess is the difference between the Howard Government’s system of income management which was racially discriminatory…
CURTIS: Although that started of…
LEIGH: And Labor’s which is not racially discriminatory. There is a trial taking place, there’s a consortium of universities analysing those results and that will report back in 2014. So yes we should have that debate, but it would be useful if Mr Hockey came in at the point at which the discussion is taking place, rather than pretending that he can start something new on the side.
CURTIS: But the question of welfare reform, broader than just income management, addressing the underlying causes that lead to income management and also the barriers to people getting jobs.
LEIGH: I think that’s absolutely an important issue. I was up in Cape York this week, I’m on the economics committee which is looking at the broad issue of indigenous economic development, sitting down in some of these remote communities, one with a population of 20 people, talking about ways of improving an employment base. One of the critical things of course that Labor has done since we came to power in 2007 is fiscal stimulus through the global financial crisis. That made sure that 200,000 people who would otherwise had been unemployed managed to keep their jobs. That is a massive impact on Australia’s unemployment roles and one which unfortunately the Coalition at the time opposed.
CURTIS: Jamie Briggs, are there any areas of welfare reform you think also need to be addressed.
BRIGGS: As I alluded to earlier, you need a mix of measures to address what are a difficult group of people to get back into the workforce for various reasons, and one of those is to ensure you have workplace laws which do not preclude employers, or do not disencourage employers from taking on the more difficult in the labour market, and I think that is an area which the Labor Party has certainly gone backwards in. We’ve just heard Andrew’s comment then the prescription in the Labor Party is to spend money. They claim that’s the best way to create jobs. They only know how to create jobs. Not employers, the Labor Party and the government, which of course everyone knows is bumpkin. It is the employers, it is the businesses, the small business people out there who if you can get government out of the way, we’ll get on with the business of employing people, we’ll be in the business of giving people an opportunity and this is where I think the Labor Party has made a fundamental error, which will be bad for our economy in the long term.
LEIGH: Can I just come to one aspect of what Jamie said? Trying to take some of the politics out of this, I think there are two broad ideological views as to how to tackle this question. The Coalition’s is very much about labour market reform and I was at a conference over the weekend where we were talking about some of these sorts of issues. The Labor Party’s is very much around human capital; improving the quality of our schools; making sure our trade training centres are better; making sure our university system works better. We’re much more about improving employment rates by giving people the skills to get the jobs of the future, that’s our strategy. Not through removing protections that look after workers.
CURTIS: If we could turn now to Julia Gillard’s speech to the Congress, Jamie Briggs, for a self-confessed foreign policy reluctant, do you think Julia Gillard actually hit the right notes?
BRIGGS: Talking of notes Lyndal, I did note that it was nice that she referred to the experience of watching the Americans send a man to the moon. And it was interesting that it was a similar story that Bono recounted, the lead singer of U2, some four or five years ago, when he told his story about his first experiences of Americans, sitting in a school yard watching the Americans send a man to the moon and how wonderful that was and how America could do anything, and it was quite interesting the word plagiarism that Andrew used earlier. But look overall it was a good speech. It was a speech that you would expect an Australian Prime Minister to deliver. We need a close relationship with the United States and I am glad that Julia Gillard in her last 20 years has come around to that view, because at university, and not long after, when she was a member of the socialist alliance, she didn’t think so much about that at the time. And of course, her co-Prime Minister Bob Brown doesn’t like the American alliance at all. So it was very good to see that at least one member of the coalition party in government agrees with the American alliance and paid the due respect it deserves.
CURTIS: Andrew Leigh, it does seem that the question of commitment to the American alliance is not an issue for either major party. Julia Gillard also had some praise for John Howard, is it the speech we could expect from the Prime Minister?
LEIGH: Lyndal, I’m slightly biased on this given I have an alliance of my own; my wife is from the US. I loved the speech, and I thought it did what a great speech should do, which was to tell stories. So it told the story of Sapper Jamie Larcombe who died serving Australia in Afghanistan. It told the story of Kevin Dowdell, an Australian firefighter who was lost on September 11. It talked about the greatest generation and it talked about the Prime Minister’s own experiences as a little girl, watching America land on the moon. In some sense in a world of seven-second media grabs, we can often lose the value of those stories and the way in which weaving together those stories has such a powerful provocative emotional effect on people.
CURTIS: It also was a speech Jamie that used language that might make Australians feel a little uncomfortable. There was a touch of hyperberly. Is that something that you do when speaking to an American audience because it’s the sort of language that Americans are more used to hearing?
BRIGGS: Look that’s an issue you will have to raise with the Prime Minister. I think the importance for an Australian Prime Minister in delivering a speech to that audience is to ensure that the very close and important relationship that we have with the United States - and it is good that Andrew has got a personal connection to the alliance, and I am sure it has strengthened the alliance - the respect that the alliance, our most important alliance, is given in that speech. She is our head of state, sorry she’s our head of government, and in that respect, when in America, I think Australians would expect that she shows the deference to the alliance that she did, and as I said earlier, I think it was a good speech. I did find the coincidence with the story of Bono a little intriguing, but I’m sure both have had that experience.
CURTIS: That’s where we’ll have to leave it. Gentlemen, Andrew Leigh and Jamie Briggs, thank you very much for your time.
LEIGH: Thanks Lyndal.
BRIGGS: Good on you Lyndal.
(Thanks to JB for transcribing the discussion.)http://www.youtube.com/v/kY7Lfa_APkc?fs=1&hl=en_US
Welcome back. Joining me this morning in the Canberra studio is Labor MP Andrew Leigh, good morning Andrew.
Good morning, Kieran.
And we’ve got Senator Mitch Fifield, Liberal frontbencher, joining us from Melbourne. Senator Fifield, first to you. What do you make of the Government’s response in the wake of this Japanese quake? Has it been appropriate as far as the Coalition can tell?
Well, I think it’s important at a time of crisis like this to not nitpick. Our focus should be on making sure that we can render whatever assistance to Japan that we possibly can and that we also focus on Australians who are in Japan. There’s a very important job to keep families in Australia in touch with what’s happening with their loved ones back in Japan. But I think that the time for reviewing the Australian response is after the immediate crisis has passed.
Andrew Leigh, your thoughts on what has been the latest in a long series of disasters over the last few months? It’s been remarkable.
It’s been an awful period, hasn’t it Kieran. I, like many Australians was in touch with a friend of mine who lives in Tokyo, just to check that she was alright. And there’s been those 70 Search and Rescue Officers who have just arrived in Tokyo, and a couple of Sniffer Dog Teams. So Australia is certainly doing what we can to assist in this.
OK. Senator Fifield, let’s look at some domestic politics before we go – obviously most of our focus this morning has been appropriately on the quake. But on the Nielsen Poll back at home – Julia Gillard’s disapproval rating is up, and her approval rating is down. But I suppose a concern for the Coalition is that Tony Abbott’s approval rating is also down. Why do you think that’s the case?
With these polls there’s always a beauty contest element in the preferred leader stakes so I don’t pay too much attention to that. I just focus on the fact that Tony Abbott is doing a great job holding Julia Gillard to account, and I think what the polls essentially reflect today is that the Australian public know that Julia Gillard lied. She put her hand on her heart before the last election, and she solemnly swore that no government she led would introduce a carbon tax. She fibbed, she is now going to introduce one, and the Australian people are not happy.
And the disapproval rate shows it, doesn’t it Andrew Leigh? This has been a clear rebuke of the Prime Minister’s broken promise.
Kieran I don’t agree with that at all. We’ve spoken on the program before about the fact that polls this far out from an election have no predictive power. And I think that it’s important that we try and spend less time on polls and more time on ideas. Two of my favourite journalists, Annabel Crabb and George Megalogenis, have made a promise not to mention a single opinion poll for 2011, and Kieran I’d like to use this chance to encourage you to join them. I think it’s - go cold turkey and dive into the ideas. And you’ll find there’s a rich vein there. This is a big economic reform.
Well let’s move on from the poll – I’ll try to go cold turkey at least for today. But it’s a broken promise, isn’t it? And this reaction we’ve seen through talk-back – it’s right across the board that we’ve seen this reaction. Mitch Fifield and the rest of the Coalition are making a lot of ground on this because it’s a clear, unequivocal, broken promise.
Kieran we’ve been absolutely clear for years now that we want to implement carbon pricing. That means using the magic of the market in order to move us to a clean, green carbon economy. And we’ve recognised…
It’s an artificial market.
…that a clear way of doing that is to set a fixed carbon price for a three to five year period and then move to an Emissions Trading Scheme. And that’s the same scheme that the Coalition took to the 2007 election. It’s the same scheme that British Conservatives have backed. This is mainstream policy and what’s striking about the Coalition is they’re disappearing into a kind of Dada land in which some of them are sceptics, some of them are market-averse. They’re really moving away from what I would regard as fundamental free-market principles.
Senator Fifield, it doesn’t help the argument when you’ve got the likes of Senator Minchin questioning whether or not the world is warming, when Tony Abbott wants the focus on the tax?
Well the Coalition accepts that man makes a contribution to warming, and we have a policy to address that. Colleagues have a range of views – there are a range of views in both political parties. But our policy is that we have a practical plan of action to reduce emissions. The Labor Party’s plan is based on a lie. Labor’s plan will see prices go up for petrol by 6.5 cents a litre. Labor’s plan will see the average household pay $300 more a year for their electricity. Before the election Julia Gillard said ‘no way, no carbon tax.’ She lied. We’ve got a practical plan – that’s what we want to introduce. And I’ve got to say, I’m happy that in defence of Labor’s position Andrew is talking about the Philosophy of Dada. If that’s the best the Labor Party can do in seeking to defend their position, then good luck to them.
Well Mitch what you’ve got is a Party at the moment which is backing away from using the market in order to bring us to a clean, green economy. Carbon pricing is a mainstream approach. It recognises that when you price carbon, you allow businesses and households to make the decisions that move us most efficiently to a cleaner economy.
Andrew Leigh you’ve said that it should be…
It’s an artificial market.
Yes, that’s the point I was going to make. We’re almost out of time, but just quickly, as Senator Fifield says, it’s an artificial market. Why not move to the ETS sooner as well if you believe so firmly in the market rather than have this tax in the first place?
Well Kieran you can do two ways of carbon pricing. You can – the government can set the price and the market sets the quantity, or you set the quantity and the market sets the price. Either way it’s a market mechanism. So let’s be clear about that. What we’re doing is we’re setting the price in the initial period, because that provides certainty for business – certainty of the impact of the scheme. Not the kind of scare-campaign numbers that are coming up but real certainty.
OK, Senator Fifield, just very quickly.
Two questions the Government has to answer are, what will this carbon tax cost, and will it achieve anything. The truth is, it’s a tax on everything that will achieve nothing.
Gentlemen, we will continue this debate no doubt when we speak again in a couple of weeks. Andrew Leigh and Senator Fifield, thanks for that. I’m Kieran Gilbert, thanks for your company.
[Thanks to Mitch for transcribing.]
My AFR op-ed today is on corruption and foreign aid.Add your reaction Share
Aid Prone to Corruption, Australian Financial Review, 15 March 2011
A cruel fact about the world is that corruption and poverty tend to go together. This presents a dilemma for donors: do we guarantee our dollars never go astray, or do we focus on countries and programs where the need is greatest? An aid program that offers technical advice to Korea is less corruption-prone than one that uses local contractors to build pit latrines in Cambodia. But if we care about reducing the number of sick children in the world, toilet-building in poor nations is likely to have more impact than providing advice to middle-income countries.
For decades, Australia’s aid officials have wrestled with the challenge of how to have an impact on poverty while minimising our corruption losses. The problem is a bit like a football coach trying to reduce injuries: you don’t want the lads to hurt themselves, but a strategy that guarantees zero injuries will earn you the wooden spoon.
One example of this is the emphasis on ‘improving governance’ that occurred under the Howard government. In the decade from 1996, spending on governance programs such as better administration went from 9% of the aid budget to 30%. In Papua New Guinea, where around half our aid goes to consultants and training programs, there have certainly been some success stories. Yet a recent AusAID review pointed out that PNG still ranks highly for corruption, and suggested that the number of expensive expatriates should be cut back.
In The Plundered Planet, economist Paul Collier argues that one of the challenges of development is that poor countries sorely need more construction projects such as roads and ports. Yet internationally, the construction sector has a reputation for being one of the most corrupt sectors. Because each construction project is subtly different, modifications invariably need to be negotiated as the project is built. The consequence, Collier concludes, is that ‘a large public investment program is dependent upon a sector which is globally corrupt’.
For the world’s poor, a new road enables a farmer to access new markets, permits a child to attend secondary school, and allows a woman to give birth in hospital. Yet if donor countries like Australia were to run a risk-averse aid program, it would involve building fewer roads in places like in Indonesia and the Philippines.
According to the latest figures, AusAID’s losses to fraud in 2009-10 were just 0.028% per cent of the total aid program. This is minimal by comparison with other government departments (Centrelink’s proportional loss to fraud is considerably higher). Indeed, it’s probably lower than fraud losses for businesses operating in Australia, and doubtless much smaller than losses suffered by Australian companies investing in developing nations.
Yet in a world where many good aid programs go unnoticed, while fraud losses are splashed across the front page, the incentive is to be overly risk-averse. Indeed, there are already signs that AusAID has become twice shy. According to a 2009 Australian National Audit Office report: ‘AusAID’s cautious approach to fund provision, while minimising the risk of corruption, has sometimes prevented resources to getting where they are most needed’.
It is not in Australia’s interests for our aid program to ignore the countries most in need (our top nine aid recipients score in the bottom half of Transparency International’s corruption ranking). Nor should we return to the old approach of overspending on technical assistance at the expense of schools, health clinics and roads.
Getting aid right is no easy task, particularly with the rise of China as a major donor (a topic I hope to cover in a future column). But there are plenty of fresh ideas about cutting corruption. For example, the UK Department for International Development have reduced graft by setting up a system to pay Afghan police officers via their mobile phone. For nations with large mineral deposits, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative attempts to pressure resource companies to publish the monies they pay to governments. And in Indonesia, AusAID not only built thousands of schools, it also created a corruption control mechanism that has now been adopted by the Indonesian Government to use on all its school building projects.
Of Australia’s 20 nearest neighbours, 18 are developing countries. This means that our aid program is more than an expression of our generosity – it is also an investment in a richer and safer region. Like a good football coach, we should do what we can to keep our aid projects off the injury bench – but let’s not forget that the war against poverty is the big game.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
The submission which Gai Brodtmann and I made to the Senate inquiry considering changes to the ACT Self-Government Act to strengthen territory rights.
Submission to Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment Power of the Commonwealth) Bill 2010
Section 35 of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 affords the Governor-General the power to disallow an enactment of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly by legislative instrument within 6 months after it is made.
Because state parliaments are not subject to the same limitation, this limits the power of the ACT Legislative Assembly to legislate on behalf of all Canberrans. Its practical effect is that an ACT law may be overturned by the Governor-General (acting on advice of the executive), even though it is supported by a majority of Canberrans.
Citizens of the ACT deserve a better deal. After more than two decades of self-government, the ACT Legislative Assembly has proven itself to be a mature debating chamber, which stands the equal of any other state or territory legislature in Australia.
Without a constitutional change, the Australian Parliament will still have the right to overturn territory laws. But this power should only be exercised in the most extreme cases. Overturning territory law should require a decision of the federal parliament, and not remain the prerogative of the executive.
Moving the veto power from the executive to the Australian Parliament will ensure that an open debate takes place, in which every Australian Parliamentarian – including the ACT’s MPs and Senators – has the opportunity to speak out.
We encourage the committee to support the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment (Disallowance and Amendment Power of the Commonwealth) Bill 2010 and the repeal of section 35 of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988.
Dr Andrew Leigh MP Gai Brodtmann MP
Federal Member for Fraser Federal Member for Canberra
If you haven't yet registered your baby for 'Welcoming the Babies', there's still time. Details below.Add your reaction Share
Welcoming the Babies
I'm hosting a community event for parents and carers of children aged 18 months or younger. This will be a chance to meet other parents, find out about community services for new parents, and enjoy a morning out with the whole extended family. All attendees will receive a Baby Pack including community information and a formal certificate.
Date: Sunday, 27 March 2011
Time: 10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Stage 88, Commonwealth Park (Google maps)
Registration: Register your attendance by phoning 6247 4396, or emailing andrew.leigh.mp(@)aph.gov.au.
In the latest Quarterly Essay, I have a response to George Megalogenis’s contribution.Add your reaction Share
In his reply, George doesn't take all my advice, but it sounds like he'll meet me part way. He promises not to discuss a poll number in 2011 - a pledge that Annabel Crabbe has apparently also made. Kudos to both journalists; may more of your colleagues join you.
Response to George Megalogenis’s Quarterly Essay, “Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era” (Nov 2010)
Psychologists have a theory they call the fundamental attribution error: the tendency for humans to overplay the role of individuals, and underplay the role of circumstances. On the field, sports broadcasters love to speak about players who are ‘on a roll’, when they’re merely observing Lady Luck. In business, chief executives who govern during a boom tend to be overpaid, because their company is just surfing the wave like everyone else. And in politics, observers love to tell stories that focus on the role of players, rather than events.
A few facts. When the early-1990s global downturn hit, sitting Prime Ministers in Australia and the United Kingdom were both dumped by their own party-room. During the period 1992-1995, six of Australia’s eight states and territories ousted their government. But in the early-2000s, state elections almost invariably saw the incumbent returned. Even when John Howard had clearly passed his use-by date, the booming world economy meant that his party room could not bring it upon themselves to wield the axe. In the words of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the greatest challenge for a political leader are ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’
For commentators, the temptation to focus on personalities over larger forces is understandable. Tolstoy may have mounted a convincing case for historicism, and against the ‘great man’ view of history. But when you’re trying to sell a story for the daily news rather than a 1,225 page novel, why not boil things down to a human scale?
The trouble with an individual-based approach is that you can miss the wood for the trees. It is true that Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd are deeply fascinating individuals. But the big stories are less about personalities than grander structural narratives.
When it comes to the media, George Megalogenis neatly captures the zeitgeist. He writes of the phenomenon that ‘turns journalist into player’, as ‘commentators… find themselves reheating the one insight across half a dozen forums’. The cost, he points out, is ‘the hours that instant punditry takes away from the day job – time that used to be spent nagging sources, listening to debates and reading documents’ (p.15).
Note that when Megalogenis dissects how the media has changed, he doesn’t focus on individuals. Rightly, he doesn’t attempt to argue that journalism has changed because of the way that particular journalists choose to do their job. Media transformation is about structures and technologies, not the personal styles of Paul Kelly and Laurie Oakes.
Yet when it comes to interpreting modern politics, Megalogenis casts aside his big picture view and turns to a focus on the players. To his credit, he acknowledges the role played by powerful anti-reform forces in the campaign against Mining Tax Mark I. But in the end, Megalogenis cannot resist laying the blame at the feet of an individual. The same goes for his discussion of climate change.
I’ll admit that writing about the tectonic forces that shape modern politics it is harder than spinning a yarn about the witty barbs exchanged during Question Time. But without that kind of context, there’s a risk that reportage devolves into a kind of reality TV show.
Take economic reform, where Megalogenis acknowledges that Labor already has form. Under Curtin, we put in place uniform personal income taxation and laid the foundations for a post-war full employment policy. Under Whitlam, Labor implemented universal health insurance and began lowering Australia’s tariff walls. The Hawke government floated the dollar and negotiated the Accord. And Keating’s government introduced the superannuation guarantee and enterprise bargaining.
Yet Megalogenis fails to recognise that the Rudd and Gillard governments have been engaged in an economic reform agenda that is at least as ambitious. Investing in roads, rail and ports, building the National Broadband Network. Reforming the education sector with more information, greater choice, and a set of incentives that will help students learn more. And switching to activity-based funding for hospitals to bring about structural reforms.
What distinguishes the Gillard government from the Hawke and Keating governments that came before us is not reform ambition, but the difficulty of conducting a sustained national conversation through a media that seems to be perpetually suffering from attention deficit disorder, and amidst the din of an opposition that seems to have adopted the US Republican playbook without changing a page. (Listening to Tony Abbott’s raucous bawling on the last day of parliament in 2010, I half-expected him to caw across the chamber ‘How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?’) Like all governments, ours has made mistakes, but the big story is about the economic circumstances and the media environment, not the reforming zeal of particular individuals.
If Megalogenis wants to help economic reform succeed in Australia, I have two suggestions as to how he might achieve it.
First, call your colleagues out on their inconsistencies. When News Ltd tabloids recently embarked upon a campaign against foreign investment (under headlines such as ‘Chinese buying up our farms’, ‘It’s time to stop selling off the farm’, and ‘It’s time to save our farms from foreign investors’), did anyone stop to question the hypocrisy of foreign-owned newspapers campaigning against foreign ownership?
Second, drop the polls, and report only betting market odds. We now have a large body of economic research (including some of my own work on Australia, co-authored with Justin Wolfers), that clearly proves betting markets are more accurate than polls at predicting the final outcomes. But more importantly, betting markets are also more stable. With response rates so low they don’t dare publish them, asking a pollster who is going to win the next election is as useful as asking a manic depressive how he feels today. By contrast, betting odds are as dull as a suburban solicitor. Consequently, a newspaper that reported only betting odds would find ‘who’s going to win’ stories relegated to the inside pages – freeing up precious front pages for issues of substance.
That said, while I think that Megalogenis has overplayed the role of personalities in Australian politics, I share his optimistic view about our nation’s current circumstances. As he points out, ‘Australians elect Labor governments to change things.’ (p.4). The Gillard government fits proudly in that long Labor legacy.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser in the ACT. Prior to entering politics, he was a professor of economics at the Australian National University. Andrew’s latest book is Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010).
In his reply, George doesn't take all my advice, but it sounds like he'll meet me part way. He promises not to discuss a poll number in 2011 - a pledge that Annabel Crabbe has apparently also made. Kudos to both journalists; may more of your colleagues join you.