Queensland Labor could protect its funding, but not its seats

After yesterday’s disastrous electoral result, one decision of the former Queensland Labor government is looking good, at least from their perspective. This was the change to the public election campaign funding regime.

Previously Queensland, like other jurisdictions, had a pay-per-vote system of election public funding (about $1.65 per vote in the QLD case). In the reforms legislated last year, this was changed to a system of reimbursement, up to a maximum of about $5.3 million. The formula works like this:

All of the first 10% of electoral expenditure
75% of the next 80% of electoral expenditure
50% of the remaining 10% of electoral expenditure

I’m not sure how much Queensland Labor spent this time around, but presumably they will walk away with several million dollars in public funding, while the old system would have netted them $1.2 million on yesterday’s vote.

The main argument for the new system is that it introduces a counter-cyclical element to the system. With donations tending to follow popular support, parties on the downward part of their cycle are dealt a double blow. This system of public funding lets them mount a decent-sized campaign (I’m not sure how big the Queensland Greens or Katter Party campaigns were, but this system also helps small parties, provided they reach a 4% threshold).

However, as the NSW and QLD elections demonstrate there is only so much money can do. From a campaign finance theory perspective, each campaign was a fairer and more even contest than it might otherwise have been. But that did not stop two of the biggest defeats in Australian electoral history.

Should the government redistribute student fees between universities?

In an AFR op-ed today (not behind a paywall – things are improving), Macquarie Uni VC Steve Schwartz suggests some egalitarianism for universities.

If fees are deregulated, the more prestigious universities would charge higher fees than others. Schwartz suggests that if they did, their government subsidy should be reduced, and redistributed to other universities.

The reason is regulatory – the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is imposing standards on all universities, but it is hard for the poorer universities to match the standards of the wealthier universities.

I doubt TEQSA will require all universities to be the same. A university licence to operate depends on meeting minimum standards, not being identical to all other universities. That said, there is a tendency in the standards released to date to codify common practices, some of which are of doubtful necessity. If this continues, the universities in the best financial position to try new things will tend to set the standards over the long term. Read More »

Department of Corrections

For those who downloaded my Grattan report, Mapping Australian higher education, there was an error in table 8 on page 50 which lists funding rates for Commonwealth-supported places. The maths and science rates did not include $3,499 in transitional funding paid for students enrolled in 2009 or later, who paid a student contribution amount reduced by that amount. The correct numbers are in a revised version of the report.

Further complicating matters, these student contributions will be put back up next year, so assuming that the required legislation is passed future calculations should take this into account. Other than via indexation the total won’t be affected, but the student contribution will go up, and the Commonwealth contribution will go down.

The pattern of growing information regulation

There has been plenty of negative comment on the Finkelstein review proposal to impose federal regulation of the media. But so far as I have seen this commentary has not focused on how it fits a pattern of increasing central regulation of, or proposed regulation of, information flows in Australian society. Further examples here:

* National curriculum. One of the oddities of Australian political culture is that we have always – and the negative reaction to Finkelstein suggests still – been sceptical of government media regulation, but quite unconcerned about government control of what is taught to the young people who must attend school for 10 to 12 years. Many complain about the content of that curriculum – but think that the wrong people are in charge, not that there is too much centralisation of curriculum in the first place.

* The mechanism now exists for the federal minister of education to impose ‘teaching and learning standards’ that could control what universities teach.

* While the federal proposals for controlling 3rd-party opposition to the government are much milder than the draconian NSW regime, it’s highly likely that we will see more controls introduced during the current parliament. Was Wayne Swan’s speech today softening us up for banning billionaires from buying media space when the government attacks them?

* Senator Conroy’s internet filter seems to be on hold, and while not aimed at political speech it would create a mechanism for regulating it at a future time.

Overall, I think technological changes mean that we are in a better free speech situation now than 15 or 20 years ago. It is important to keep things in perspective. But it is hard to see that the at best very minor gains from the proposed or actual centralisation of information control in Canberra are worth the risks.