“Dear Mr Rudd” – nothing needed on Welfare or Education?

Robert Manne’s collection Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia covers some interesting ground, if relatively superficially (or “readable”, according to the blurb). But what I find more interesting is what it doesn’t cover.

Waiting in Tullamarine Airport on Sunday night for a flight back to Sydney, not needing food owing to large and excellent lunch with Fiona at Silex / Willow Creek vineyard, and having finished my book, I gave in and bought Robert Manne’s collection of demands Dear Mr Rudd. As it turned out, I’d finished it by the time I really needed it, as Qantas took an hour and a quarter to deliver my bag, but that’s another story.

It’s an odd collection, the content being of highly variable style and depth of analysis, indicating that Manne’s briefing of his authors must have been a tad ambiguous. Most of it is at or below the level of detail of an extended Age or Oz opinion piece: Manne is obviously happier at this superficial level, given his comment in the Introduction on the more detailed Water Management piece that “only true experts in this area will know if he is right” …

A full third of the book is devoted to what are essentially management issues on the Republic, Federation, Parliament, etc, and the rest of the first half on defence and foreign affairs, leaving the book’s subtitle Ideas for a Better Australia to be carried by the second half alone. And now here comes the interesting bit – or rather here it doesn’t come. Nice, if mostly lightweight, chapters on The Economy, Health, Families (which chapter is almost entirely about childcare), Indigenous Affairs, Workplace Relations, Housing, Universities and the Arts.

What’s missing from this picture? Well, Manne’s Introduction tells us there is a major gap: ” During this remarkably painless operation, only one aspect of the book changed. … I had initially intended to have a chapter on possible changes to media law. I invited the person I regarded as the most cogent critic of this aspect of the Australian media to contribute. He declined.” So, there we are: if the Media chapter had been there, our list of needed reforms would be complete?

But wait – let me think – we’ve covered pre-school, uni. workplace, health – the whole life of an Australian, surely? Oh, yes, oops, we forgot to say anything at all about Social Services and Welfare outside childcare (but then it’s only 40% of total spending, twice that on Defence), and about primary and secondary Education, and tertiary Education outside Universities. We know from his Introduction quoted above, that Manne didn’t even think to ask for essays on these subjects. So, are we to assume that more than half of the Commonwealth’s expenditure is pretty much on course and doesn’t need any reform by the incoming government? Everything at Centrelink is going well? Our schools are all working as we hope and expect?

There would be some backing for this theory from the 2020 summit agenda, where Education is subsumed under the “Productivity” agenda – whose webpage is named “Infrastructure”, and where the Education discussion is introduced by these fine words (and only by these fine words):

How can parents become directly engaged in their children’s schooling in a way that really improves their child’s results? What skills will our young people need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy? What kinds of teaching and curriculum will deliver those skills? How might digital technology create new learning and teaching opportunities?”

So, if we get the curriculum right, there’d be no problem in schools? Improved results = the best of all possible worlds.

Likewise, welfare comes under “Communities and Families”, and gets introduced thusly:

Social and community services operate across the country, providing everything from childrens’ services to care for the elderly. Many focus on specific issues such as housing, recreation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or the needs of specific groups of people such as women, newly arrived refugees or people with disabilities. Services are organised under different arrangements, with funding from governments, philanthropics or community fundraising. What should the social services system look like in 2020 and beyond? Are there common reforms that need to be made to support a more socially inclusive Australia?

Apart from borrowing the UK Labour mantra of Social Exclusion – and at least putting it positively: when a good friend was Deputy Director of the Social Exclusion Unit at No.10, we used to ask her what new ideas she’d come up with to promote Exclusion this week – this isn’t exactly heady stuff. So maybe we can assume that Labor’s worries about “working families” don’t extend to “non-working families”? I hope not, but Manne’s book doesn’t have any worries about them, either.

We can hope that other submissions to the summit have brought out other aspects of Education and Welfare that need attention – and we can even hope that the co-chairs will add them to the discussion at the weekend – assuming they had any prospect of even reading them – 905 submissions were received on Productivity, and 1139 on Communities and Families.