Another baseless campaign finance story (and one not so baseless story)

There’s an odd campaign finance-related story on page one of today’s Australian. Apparently the brother-in-law of Queensland Opposition leader Campbell Newman put in a bid for a contract with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority. The Australian‘s assumption seems to have been that Newman somehow has questions to answer, which as Newman’s response makes clear he does not:

“I am not a state government decision-maker nor am I an elected member; therefore there is no conflict of interest. I can categorically state that Lisa [his wife] and myself have not received any financial benefit and will not in the future receive any financial benefit from the operations of Frank and Seb Monsour’s company.”

I don’t think there was any story here, and certainly not a page one story. But if there was a story to be extracted from this thin material, what about the angle that the Queensland government wouldn’t do business with a company because its owners had family associations with the LNP leadership? The possibility that politicians might improperly use information about the financial associations of their opponents seems to be largely ignored in the campaign finance debate.

Also on page one, another campaign regulation story: Jewish doctor John Nemesh being prosecuted for posters critical of anti-Israel Green Fiona Byrne, which failed to include the name and address of the printer. An example of how complex campaign rules result in people who are not political professionals being prosecuted for inadvertent and trivial violations of the law.

Overseas student reforms bad for higher ed market design

Declining international student numbers prompted the government to commission a report from former NSW politician Michael Knight, and his report was released today. The government has accepted his recommendations.

Most of Knight’s recommendations are sensible. But his report would also lead to a visa system that is biased in favour of universities at both ends of the course of study: in a easier process for getting a student visa, and for a new two-year work right after completing the course. This would put non-university providers at a significant disadvantage.

Coming on top of the government’s decision to uncap Commonwealth-supported places for public universities, letting them compete more strongly against private providers and TAFEs offering degrees, and to lift the FEE-HELP debt surcharge from 20% to 25% for undergraduate courses, I could see why the non-university higher education sector could come to the conclusion that the government is trying to put them out of business.

I don’t think the government is trying to wipe out the non-university higher education sector; rather this situation is the result of an ad hoc approach to policymaking, with decisions made without adequate consideration of their systemic consequences.

Though Knight correctly observes that there have been more migration-related problems in the vocational sector than in the universities, I could not find any evidence that the non-university higher education institutions were particularly prone to taking students who broke visa conditions (especially compared to the universities at the cheap end of the market, attracting students from poor countries with the strongest reasons to want to stay in Australia). There was a discussion of the difficulties in setting rules institution by institution, but not for different classes of institution.

An effectively functioning higher education market in Australia requires – to use the now cliched metaphor – a more level playing field. International students are important to building economies of scale in the non-university sector, and making those institutions more able to take on the universities in the domestic market. So Knight’s recommendations, and the government’s apparent acceptance of them, are a setback to good market design in both domestic and international markets.

Is academic professionalism adequate?

“Over the past two decades, there has been a serious diminution in professionalism as we are
compelled more and more to complete accountability/kpi measures, as if jumping over ‘productivity’
hurdles could substitute for professional ethics.”

– quote from an academic, p.24 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

Overall, 37.3 per cent of academics have never undertaken training in university teaching,
and 72.1 per cent indicate that training is not mandatory in their institution.

– report of survey research, p. 25 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

As this report makes clear, collecting data and filling in forms – administrivia, as Conrad calls it – is the bane of academic life. I’m quite prepared to believe that some of it is unnecessary and much of the rest could be delegated to administrative staff.

But I am much less prepared to believe that we can put our faith in the ‘professionalism’ of academics. Quite clearly in my view, academia failed to develop a proper professional ethos around teaching. Though things have improved in the last 20 years, still a very large minority of academics have not undertaken any training in one of the key tasks of their occupation. The previously abysmal results recorded in the survey sent to completing students are now reasonable though not great.

Until the norms of good teaching practice are internalised in the academic profession, external pressures to protect and promote student interests are necessary.

According to the polls, the public both supports and opposes offshore refugee processing

The Australian public don’t want refugee boats to keep coming, but other than that it’s pretty hard to work out what they think. Earlier this week, new polling from both Nielsen and Essential Research was published on what to do with boat arrivals.

The questions were slightly different, but the results were opposite: Nielsen find a majority for onshore ‘assessment’, while Essential find a majority for offshore ‘processing’. I would have thought the questions were getting at the same thing, but perhaps respondents did not think so, or there was some other issue with the polls.

But to me this looks like at least a very significant minority of people have no clear opinion on the policy details.

Essential question: Thinking about the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat – do you think they should be processed in Australia or should they be sent to another country for processing?
Nielsen question (inferred from table in Age print edition): Asylum seekers arriving by boat should be … allowed to land in Australia to be assessed/sent to another country to be assessed/sent back out to sea/other or don’t know.

NSW Libs in ‘cynical attempt’ to restrict their political opponents, part 2

As well as potentially making the ALP guilty for actions committed by others, the campaign finance reform bill introduced into the NSW Parliament yesterday would, if passed, ban all donors who were not on the electoral roll for state, federal or local government elections. So unions, business, and all other associations and organisations would be banned from giving money that would support ‘electoral communication expenditure’ in NSW state elections.

I discussed this idea in my Democracy and Money paper, published in June. As with all the cascading campaign finance regulation, this attempt to tighten the law simply generates new anomalies.

Though this provision is partly aimed at the unions, the unions are better off than most third parties. What any laws restricting donations do is damage donor-reliant third parties compared to third parties that can self-finance their campaigns. So ironically the vested interests that campaign finance law was originally intended to curb – principally the unions and business – can use their own income to continue as before, within the restrictions imposed by the expenditure caps (which obviously would be significantly tightened for the unions if the bill passes). However the more public interest organisations that typically rely on donations would have their fundraising curbed by being denied organisational gifts (the 2010 Labor amendments had already restricted them to maximum $2,000 a year donations).Read More »

NSW Libs in ‘cynical attempt’ to restrict their political opponents?

In a rare case of good timing, my Policy article critiquing restrictions on third-party political rights went online on the same day that the NSW government introduced a draconian new bill further attacking third parties.

Under current NSW law, political parties can spend $9.3 million on their state election campaigns if they contest all Legislative Assembly seats, and third parties (organisations or individuals participating in politics but not standing for office) can spend up to $1.05 million. Third parties are caught by the law if they promote or oppose, either indirectly or directly, the election of a party or candidate, or influence, directly or indirectly, voting at an election.

In a law clearly aimed at limiting union power, the political expenditure of a third party affiliated to a political party is included in the political party’s cap. With some justification, Unions NSW describe this as a “cynical attempt … to silence the political voice of working people”.

The way I read the amendment, the ALP will be guilty of an offence if the spending of one or more of its affiliated unions pushes the collective union/ALP spend over $9.3 million. Yet presumably the ALP cannot control the unions. To take an example from the previous NSW Labor government, if Unions NSW campaigned against electricity privatisation during the restricted campaign period (from 1 October the year before the election) not only would the Labor Party have an unhelpful campaign, they could also be punished for something that did not do and did not want. Read More »

On track for 20% low SES students by 2020?

As education minister, Julia Gillard set a target of 20% of undergraduate university students coming from the lowest 25% of SES backgrounds by 2020. Some enrolment statistics released last week showed a 0.30 percentage point gain between 2009 and 2010 to reach 16.47%. This is the biggest increase since this time series began in 2001.

The figure below shows that if this growth rate was maintained for the decade, the target would come close to being met. On the other hand, if the growth rate was the average of 2009 and 2010 the target would be missed by a largish margin.

Which scenario is more likely? At least in the short term, there is a good chance that strong growth will continue. For commencing students, there was a .64 percentage point gain, so as this cohort moves through the system the low SES share will expand. We don’t have any detailed 2011 data yet, but with some expected additional growth in overall numbers I would anticipate that low SES numbers will again improve. Read More »