Policy Snapshots

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This week's picks:

School's out

Primary school teachers have been in court this week, defending their decision not to implement A to E report cards in littlies' schools. At the other end of formal schooling, Clearing the Myths Away, a paper prepared for the Dusseldorp Skills Forum, scrutinizes media and government truisms about university training places, skills shortages, and Australia's aging labour force.

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Report authors Bob Birrell and Virginia Rapson set out to explore ‘the dimensions of the gap between supply and demand for persons with university training.' Their many findings include:

  • The net number of subsidized places in Australian universities has not increased since the Coalition came to office in 1996 — increases in university places cited by the government are explained by rising international and full-fee paying student enrollments;
  • The impending wave of baby boomer retirements has fuelled a perception that Australia is running out of young people. However, the labour market will continue to expand, and there is no justification for prioritizing vocational trade training over university training, both are needed;
  • Most of the job growth in the short term is likely to be at the managerial, professional and associate professional level: ‘the problems of filling skilled vacancies will become acute if there is no increase in the numbers of young people undertaking university-level training.'

That's the problem with these bloody university-trained elites: they use their time to find out the facts.

New economic principles

The British New Economics Foundation (NEF) describes itself as a ‘think-and-do tank'. This is the first briefing in their theoretical new economics program, which synthesizes developments in economic theory, and explains the implications for policy-makers. ‘Behavioural economics: seven principles for policy-makers' presents key insights from the fields of psychology and behavioural economics, all of which undermine neoclassical economics' simplistic assumptions about human behaviour. Instead of ‘utility-maximising, rational, self-interested individual' try ‘strongly influenced by other people's behaviour'; attached to ‘ingrained habits'; and keen to ‘do the right thing'.

This report highlights the complex relationships between policy-making, ever shifting socially-defined norms, and the way groups and individuals behave. It's peppered with case studies that integrate theory with reality. For example: The deregulation of utility companies was meant to reduce prices though competition, and was based on an understanding that people would respond by ‘choosing' to reduce their electricity bills. But other behavioural patterns dominate: choice can overwhelm, changing habits is a hassle, and there's a perceived risk in swapping providers — not a calculated one, just a perceived one.

As the Centre for Policy Development's call for new economic policies notes, critiques of orthodox economics proliferate, but these are often not translated into alternative principles for policy-making. The NEF's efforts mark a welcome exception, with more to come from the Centre for Policy Development!

Water policy initiatives

Although Howard has warmed to the idea, other ministers still question the connection between climate change and drought.

Perhaps it's a moot point at present. Things are dry — south-eastern Queensland has moved to tough new stage four water restrictions— and the Water Policy Initiative Inquiry's Interim Report outlines a grim scenario for Australian cities. While Darwin and Hobart have ‘reasonably high levels of water storage' and Perth's seawater desalination plant at Kwinana is on track to start producing drinking water this month, Brisbane faces a dam level of just 28.13 per cent, and Sydney's is dwindling at 41.4 per cent. Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide are not in crisis mode…yet.

The Inquiry so far has heard about Australia's poor record on water recycling; the possibility of a water trading scheme; the problem of over-allocation of water use entitlements ‘upriver'; and the risks associated with excessive groundwater extraction. The Inquiry continues, written submissions are available here.

At the local level, we know water saving and river restoration initiatives are underway. As part of Environment Victoria's Healthy Rivers Project, ordinary people tell of their relationship with the rivers they know.

Prisoner Health

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has released this report, calling for a national prisoner health information system. The report arises out of a 2001 Australian Health Ministers' Conference, which agreed to review the provision of health care to prisoners. Its findings grow only more relevant, as Australian prison populations continue to increase at a rate far outstripping population increase. (Between 1995 and 2005 the prisoner population jumped 45 per cent, compared to a 12 per cent adult population growth over the same period. Indigenous Australians compromised 22 per cent of the prison population as at 30 June 2005.) While the sources of information on prisoners' health are fragmentary, the report suggests that ‘prisoners face both chronic and acute health problems including high rates of communicable diseases, mental illness and health risk behaviours, including injecting drug use'. The prevalence of hepatitis C rates is staggering — 35 per cent, compared to 1.3 per cent of the general community. But the incarcerated should not be seen as separate from the ‘community' — prison populations are transient; the poor state of prisoner health is a public health problem.

The report recommends a national minimum data set on prisoner health, outlining the next steps towards realizing this goal.

PLUS

If you haven't heard of it, you've been hiding under a hot rock: get the 700-page
Stern Review here. While it's an urgent call to action, which we hope the world will heed, campaignstrategy.org lightens the mood. Submit your entry to the ‘most pointless contribution to climate change' competition. Contenders currently include the self-stirring mug, which runs on batteries — and batteries use more energy to make than they yield. It does save you from ‘hunting for a spoon' though: guess it's a question of priorities.

AND

The Centre for Policy Development Magazine continues to probe the situation in East Timor; this week see Mathew Libbis's ‘A New Generation Displaced'. Download the Report of the United Nations Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste here.

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