Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Belshaw's World - big issues missed in political discourse

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 9 September 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I don’t know about you, but I find present political discussion at Federal level quite depressing. We have what I can only describe as group think, in which everything seems to be dominated by two policy issues (refugees and the carbon tax) plus one political issue (Gillard vs Abbott).

In all the screaming media headlines and chattering heads, it’s easy to forget that life goes on, that there are other important issues that need to be dealt with, that decisions are being made that will have significant national and regional impacts.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that either refugees or the carbon tax are not important, just that the current obsession with them and the fortunes of the PM are draining the oxygen from other important issues.

From a narrow Armidale perspective, the decisions being taken on the future of higher education are far more important than either refugee policy or the carbon tax since they will determine just how many jobs the city has in five years time. That’s kind of important.

More broadly, the Gonski inquiry into school funding has just released four important research papers.

They suggest, among other things, that while Australian school education still scores quite well, the gap between the top and bottom performers has widened. They also suggest that performance within the Australian school system is far more influenced by socio-economic factors than is the case in many other places.

As I write, the Australian Government is considering changes to visa requirements to make it easier to bring in skilled labour to work on mining projects that cannot otherwise get people.

Facing its own skilled labour problems, the Defence Department has announced plans to try to train the workers it needs for planned large scale Defence procurements. The skills required no longer exist in this country.

All three examples selected deal in some way with education and training.

To take a different area, who knows what is happening with the Australian Government’s regional development agenda? Action goes on, but it has largely vanished from the political stage in terms of public discussion.

One of the features of all these various policy areas is the importance of time.

Back in another mining boom, I was a member of a high level interdepartmental committee formed to address the question of skills shortages. An investment boom was underway, and we didn’t have the people required to build the mines and railways.

Looking back, we had been under-investing in technical education. Special programs were launched to try to increase supply of skilled labour.

By the time those people started to come on stream, that mining boom was over. Further, the economic re-structuring of the 1980s took away just those jobs in manufacturing that the newly trained workers were equipped to do. With unemployed tradesmen, training was cut back again, leading to subsequent skills shortages.

In the late 1990s, I was CEO of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists. Our workforce planning analysis suggested a looming shortage of ophthalmologists because of the combination of population growth with an aging population. But where were the new trainees to come from?

The then Commonwealth Minister for Health had been worried about the costs of medicare. He had concluded that there were too many GPs and that this was leading to over-servicing. Medical training was cut back, while it was made more difficult for GPs to get the required certification to access medicare. The resulting shortages at all levels of medicine are now history.

In higher education as well, policy has chopped and changed in light of current views and fashions with significant long term effects. The problems faced by UNE are partly a result of poor management, more the flow-on effects of past Government decisions that started in the 1980s.

If we now link all this back to current imbroglios at Federal level, the Gillard Government may or may not survive. We may or may not have overseas processing of refugees. We may or may not have a carbon tax.

What we can be sure of is that the current focus on the short term, the obsession with the Government’s immediate fortunes, Mr Abbott’s hard ball short term political focus, means that the scope for real policy discussion has become increasingly constrained.

Those of us with a genuine interest in resolving past problems, with finding a way to actually do things better, have become increasingly marginalised. Real policy discussion has moved from the centre to the periphery.

You won’t find real policy discussion or indeed reporting in the main stream media with its narrow obsession with the current. You won’t find real policy discussion in the headline political discourse. It’s all been poisoned by the short term.

I think that’s a problem.

No comments: