Why not good action all the time?

COVID-19 has driven other important issues off the media agenda. But COVID-19 and those things driven off the agenda have something in common: the competency of government.

Notice that whenever governments deliver bad news, such as restrictions of movement, they either have the health expert announce it or at least be present at the announcement and always ensure they say that “we are following the best scientific and medical advice”. Government action that affects people adversely needs expert support. Without it, confidence and votes would be lost.

Notice the difference when there is good news and hand-outs to be had. Where are the experts? What happened, for example, to the experts at the Australian Sports Commission, who advised on what grant money should go to which deserving sporting program? It was tossed out the window. The Minister’s gut feeling and political bias and self-interest was put in its place – incompetent, dishonest government.

Just as a gut feeling and political bias is unworkable for the COVID-19 crisis, so it should be when money is being handed out.

But let us not, in six months’ time praise a government for acting decisively on expert advice in response to the COVID-19 crisis without asking the more important question: why don’t governments act on expert, impartial advice all the time? Or at least respect it and let it be the major consideration.

That certainly has not been the case with school funding. The first Gonski report was done by an expert. Its release caused massive squeals and the Gillard Government white-anted its major premise: public funding according to need.

Every independent expert on the subject since has been ignored. And an incisive piece of research published this week –  The School Money-Go-Round – by education researchers from the Universities of Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra is likely to go the same way, especially as it has got scant media attention because of COVID-19.

But the research debunks the oft-cited “fact” that private schools save the government money. The Howard Government often said this as it tipped ever more money into private schools.

The raw figures say governments spend $9,350 for each Independent student, $11,180 for each Catholic student and $17,530 for each government student – a big saving on its face.

But the raw figures mislead. Government schools educate nearly all the difficult, disabled and remote-community students. They educate students in smaller rural communities where it is more costly. Government schools predominate in areas with more students who are from low socio-economic groups and are more costly to educate. 

The researchers reached the conclusion based on My School data that governments would have saved money if all new students enrolled between 2011 and 2017 had gone to government schools. They worked out that the 231,333 additional enrolments in the government sector cost $4,516 per student in combined government funding whereas the 102,020 additional enrolments in the non-government sector cost $5,697 per student.

Worse, since the large boost to private-school funding, educational outcomes have fallen. And the social impact is also important. People who go to schools which by-and-large exclude poorer, more difficult, disabled and Indigenous students miss out on experiences which would help them in later life.

We are paying more for less because of political ideology or fear of back-lash.

Good policy based on facts and expert advice is just as important for the education of our children as it is in confronting a health crisis.

It is also important with health in general. Alas, health policy in Australia has been dogged by a failure to listen to experts and rather to apply. 

Dismantling Medicare is in the Coalition’s DNA. As a result, the public-private mix is unsustainable. Despite all the bribes and blackmail to keep people in private health insurance, people, especially young people, are gradually leaving. The funds are left with the high-risk older patients. So, premiums and gap fees go up while coverage goes down, making private insurance less attractive. And the spiral goes on.

People with insurance who need treatment get gap quotes that are often prohibitive. They then have to turn to the public system and wonder why they ever bothered with private cover.

Alas, the public system has been run down. GPs have been squeezed mercilessly. Medicare rebates have not kept up with health-sector inflation. 

Meanwhile, in private health, as in education, the government subsidies (particularly the private-health-insurance rebate) are such that there is practically no saving to the public purse by having a private sector. It would be cheaper and better for patients and students if governments simply stopped underwriting the private systems.

If people want private treatment or private education, let them pay the full cost. 

Since the mid-1990s, both education and health have been suffering the slow drip of poor policy. Since 2007, the Coalition has refused to listen to scientific experts on climate change, again a slow-drip issue, not an immediate crisis.

COVID-19 must make voters demand government look to medical, educational, economic, policy and other experts to deliver better health, education and energy and climate policy to Australians.

It will be difficult. Indeed, the political management of a crisis like COVID-19 is a lot easier than the nitty-gritty of basic health, education, energy and climate policy with all their vested interests and political donors to be sated. In a crisis the population is by-and-large co-operative and compliant and emergency laws make enforcement easier. Moreover, criticism by Oppositions is largely muted lest they be branded unAustralian or unpatriotic.

So when this crisis is over, let us not praise the wonderful government for doing such a good job, but ask why it cannot do a similar job on day-to-day policy.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 21 March 2020.

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