Comment: Bad policy, woeful politics - can we fix it?


If this is it fixed, I'd hate to see it broken.

As ever, it always comes back to policy. And as is seemingly a constant for the government, this week saw another policy failure.

This week saw the defeat of the government’s bill to deregulate the higher education sector. The legislation was Education Minister Chris Pyne’s baby, and that it has been defeated so comprehensively, without any suggestion his job is on the line is testament to the fact that it takes a very poor performance indeed to have a minister fearing for his or her job.

The work by Pyne over the past 10 months is an exemplary example of how not to embark on new policy.

The policy firstly contradicted the stated position the LNP took to the 2013 election – in which their policy document promised to “ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.”

The changes were then announced in the 2014 Budget without warning and without any explanation. The government pretty much assumed since they had the big universities on board that everyone would fall into line, and had no counter to the modelling from the Greens and the ALP which suggested some degrees would now cost over $100,000.

Pyne tried to fix it up on the run – changing the indexation rules for HECS such that they would continue to be indexed at the CPI rather than, as proposed, by the government bond rate. But all the while he failed to really explain, except in general and often overstated terms, why any of these changes were needed.

For example, on the weekend he told Barrie Cassidy on Insiders that “At the moment we only have one university in the top 50 in the world”.

Firstly, why does that matter? Yes, we do want to have universities that are highly rated, but given the size of our population, is 1 in 50 actually bad? Is that measure even a good one for judging the entire university sector in Australia?

Secondly, yes, if you use the “Times Higher Education World Rankings”, we do only have 1 university in the top 50, but the QS World University Rankings has 5 Australian universities there.

Even the Times rankings sees Australian universities performing well when broken down into disciplines, rather than according to a general “reputation” measure.

In Arts and Humanities we have 3 in the top 20, in Engineering and Technology we have 3 in the top 50, 4 in the top 50 for Clinical and pre-clinical Health (i.e. medicine), 5 in the top 50 for Social Sciences and 2 for both Life and Physical Sciences.

Oddly, Pyne seems unwilling to advertise this good news.

But while the policy development may have been woefully underdone, Pyne also stuffed up the politics.

He bizarrely threatened to withhold funding for the National Collaborative and Research Infrastructure Scheme – which potentially would have seen 1,700 researchers lose their jobs (not to mention the lost research) unless the crossbench senators voted for his bill.

Not surprisingly the senators reacted as would most when threatened – they told him to get stuffed.

This then saw a tortuous response from Pyne, wherein he withdrew the threat and tried to make it look like he was doing the cross bench senators a favour.

This was despite him telling Cassidy on Sunday that “there are consequences for not voting for this reform, and that's very important for the crossbenchers to understand. The consequences are that potentially 1,700 researchers will lose their jobs”.

It seems the only consequence was that such a threat made Pyne look like a goose.

And so by Monday that consequence was no more. How to explain the change? Well, Pyne went on Sky News and told David Speers that he had “cleared it away”, that he “fixed it” that “he had dealt with it”.

How had he done this?

Well, he told Speers, “I’ve fixed it. I’m a fixer ... I’ve fixed it by funding it in another way which you’ll find out in the Budget.”

He even suggested that it wasn’t he who had made it a central issue, but the crossbenchers, and that he “had cleared it away”.

It’s a bit like purposefully breaking a shop window, and suggesting the shop owner is the one who made it a big issue, and that your sweeping up the glass was meeting him halfway.

Speers rather naturally enough asked Pyne why we needed to wait till the Budget to find out what cuts he had made elsewhere to fund the legislation – and bear in mind this was legislation that had yet to be voted on in the Senate, so surely it was important to know how he proposed to fund some of the costs.

And when you consider that since losing the vote, it has been revealed Pyne had proposed to Liberal Democrat senator, David Leyonhjelm, possibly fining universities whose graduates had not paid back their HECS, knowing just what Pyne has in store for the sector is pretty important – because any dopey idea seems to be on the table. 

But Pyne just replied to Speers, with the look of a man who thinks he is being very clever, but whom everyone in the room thinks is a dill, “I want it to be a surprise for you.”

At a certain point someone might let Pyne know that he gave us a surprise last time in the Budget and Australians reacted with rather less than glee.

I guess some people need to be taught a lesson more than once for it to stick – especially those who think they are so clever they don’t need to be taught. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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