Taylor confirms curriculum motivated by ideological antagonism

Finding the philosophical assumptions that underpin a curriculum is careful work. It involves looking less at what’s included than what’s absent.

So it was refreshing to see an article in Crikey on Monday by Tony Taylor, which confirmed everything we discovered in The National Curriculum: A Critique. Taylor simply and forthrightly spells out the curriculum’s ideology in a stark few hundred words.

Of course, that’s not his intention. Taylor drafted a previous iteration of the history curriculum, and claims to be a consultant on this one. He intends to defend the curriculum, but he accidentally condemns it.

Take Taylor’s apparent rebuttal of David Daintree’s claim in our book that the curriculum largely ignores and consistently denigrates the role of Christianity in Western civilisation:

Christianity is covered in Year 8 under “the spread of Christianity”, medieval Europe under the Crusades (not so good, that bit), the medieval dominance of the Catholic Church and the Spanish conquest of the Americas (another not-so-good bit).

Could there be any more concise summary of the curriculum’s hostility? Certainly, as Daintree points out, Christianity, and religion in general, is responsible for much historical wrongs. But religion is responsible for much good too.

But weighing up the pros and cons of religion is, contra Taylor, not the point. It’s an undeniable historical truth that Christianity is one of the keys to understanding the development of Western civilisation. Europe’s advances in law, philosophy, and even science have been conceived of in largely Christian terms, by largely Christian people. To imagine that Christianity’s importance can be neatly summarised by a) the Crusades and b) the conquest of the Americas is not only unhistorical, it’s dishonestly antagonistic.

Taylor would be welcome to hold that view in a polemic. But such polemics should not be imposed on a curriculum that will be imposed on every Australian school student.

A much less typical view of Taylor’s is in response to the shadow education minister Christopher Pyne’s view that the curriculum unjustly underplays the English Civil War:

As for the Bill of Rights and the English Civil War, the former is covered in Year 10 under the optional “egalitarianism” and the latter is arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume).

“Just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles” is a strange way to describe the revolt of parliament over the monarchy, the trial and execution of the King of England (an extraordinary break with the past) the declaration of a republic, and its disintegration into dictatorship.

The English civil war echoed through the intervening centuries. It was just as important as the French Revolution. If not more: the principles that were developed after the civil war have become the principles on which liberal democracy has been implemented around the world.

There is a direct line from the Rump Parliament to the Declaration of Independence, to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and, even, to self-government in Australia.

This is a strange thing to have to remind one of the designers of the national curriculum.

If the intention of the national history curriculum is — or should be — for Australian students to understand how their world became, then Taylor’s bizarrely dismissive attitude about one of the foundation events of that world is astonishing.

And if we needed confirmation that the national curriculum is motivated by an ideological antagonism to the history of Western civilisation, Taylor’s short column is it.

Here’s What Isn’t Happening

There’s a lot going on in the Liberal Party at the moment, and, indeed, on the Australian right. But here’s what isn’t happening. There isn’t a burgeoning ideological split between conservatives and liberals. Climate change is not a stalking horse for social conservatism. And this isn’t the old guard rebelling against the new guard. In both camps there are conservatives and liberals, seasoned parliamentarians, time-servers and first-termers.

Neither is this any sort of “Howard’s revenge”. It’s a long bow to blame a schism within a party on the one leader who kept it together for a decade.

For the Liberal Party, the emissions trading scheme is a special case.

After the 2007 election, there was much discussion about the future of liberalism and the Liberal Party. And the debate largely framed in British terms. Should the post-Howard party saunter down David Cameron’s path of moderate economics and moderate greenism, or talk about high tax rates and inflation? (For the questions that debate raised, read James Campbell in the IPA Review in March 2008.)

Anyway, it turns out that there are a few problems implementing an Antipodean interpretation of Cameronism. There appears to have been an assumption that choosing to follow the UK model was a simple as flicking a switch – just a quick rejig of the Liberal Party’s press release template and bang, the Liberals are now greener than the ALP. Hence Turnbull’s recent use of “progressive” – a word that resonates among Cameron’s strategists, but is alien to the Liberal parliamentary party and its supporters.

Campbell’s piece shows that Cameron’s strategy was more than just adding a tree to the Conservatives logo. For one thing, he took his party with him, over a period of many years. And whatever success Cameron is enjoying cannot be isolated from a few pertinent facts: the Tories have been out of power for a decade, Labour has driven the UK basically into the ground, and the ideological ghost of John Howard is not as strong as the ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

But most importantly: It’s easy for a nominally small government party to be clean and green if all you’re talking is about bicycles. By contrast, the ETS is no small thing. The ETS Green Paper bragged that the government’s scheme would “change the things we produce, the way we produce them, and the things we buy”. The scheme is arguably the largest economic change in Australian history — an emissions trading scheme is like plopping a entire second economy on top of the first one.

Malcolm Turnbull’s camp wants to follow the Cameron model. Nick Minchin’s camp is more diverse. Not all of the Minchin sceptics are sceptics of the science. Weirdly, Kevin Rudd got this one right. Sceptics include those who believe the science but think the scheme is irrevocably flawed (does anyone disagree with that?). And then there are those in the Minchin camp who even believe the world should take action on climate change, but feel that Rudd’s diplomatic strategy of legislating before Copenhagen is a little bit silly. You might not agree with it, but this is an entirely defensible position. The entire economy isn’t just a bargaining chip to be handed to our diplomats to go off and play with.

Most in the Minchin camp have little interest in climate science, but believe a Liberal Party cannot claim to be liberal if it supports one of the biggest government interventions ever considered by the parliament. And with its extraordinary concessions, the ETS doesn’t even have the redeeming quality of being able to achieve its purported goal: substantially reducing emissions. It doesn’t even work as an insurance policy. It has negligible coverage and a massive premium. The ETS is, simply, a massive tax/corporate-welfare churn. Its economic cost will inevitably be substantial – doubly so in the absence of a global deal – and the Minchinites are betting that cost will be a significant political issue in future elections.

So before a global deal, for many in the parliamentary Liberal Party, opposing the ETS seems like a no-brainer.

Big Government: A Love Story

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story “takes aim” at the capitalist system, as a few dozen supportive reviewers have mindlessly written. But that’s a tough metaphor to uphold. It’s easy to aim when you don’t care what you hit.

Moore is interested in Big-C Capitalism. So after a few stories of families having their homes foreclosed, Moore reveals his thesis.

“Capitalism is a sin”, he gets a series of priests to say darkly into the camera; it’s “obscene” and it’s “radically evil”. Capitalism is a secular “crime” and spiritually “immoral”.

Another priest reflects that he is “really in awe of (pro-capitalism) propaganda”, which is funny to hear from a minister of religion. And a bit rich: one sequence in Moore’s film describes the somewhat icky practice of firms taking out life insurance for their employees, which he tastefully illustrates with lingering shots of a grieving family, as if insurance policies cause cancer.

Moore has always been an awkwardly self-conscious working-class man. In this instalment, he is also God-fearing. And his NASCAR-chic populism is now littered with calls to “people power”, which, coming from a multimillionaire, are as authentic as the Spice Girls’ “girl power”. It’s all so laden that there’s a good chance he wants to run for office.

In a bizarrely misdirected appeal to authority, Moore quizzes the off-Broadway actor Wallace Shawn, who has “studied history and a bit of economics” about what he reckons is the problem with capitalism. (The audience Moore hopes will see his film know Shawn from The Princess Bride. But those who will actually see it know Shawn from My Dinner With Andre.) Shawn’s answer isn’t the point: what possible value could his view add?

But Moore’s argument is even more misdirected. He’s justifiably outraged at the bailouts and the way they were pushed through Congress. Who isn’t? He’s angry about the favour-trading relationship between Wall Street and Washington. Again, who isn’t?

But that’s not capitalism. It’s corporatism - a political system with a veneer of free enterprise but where a network of lobbyists, bureaucrats and politicians use the political system to achieve private goals. Moore would like to add a fourth movement to this symphony - the unions. But unless you think of unions as omniscient and beneficent guardians of the public good, doing so wouldn’t change the corporatist dynamic.

So when he describes a real outrage - like a corruption case in Pennsylvania where a corrupt judge funnelled innocent kids into a privately run juvenile detention centre - he doesn’t quite understand who the bad guy actually is: the politicians and administrators who let it happen. (After this case, two judges face charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and federal tax violations. Corruption is, after all, against the law.)

And who to blame for the bailouts? The firms that ask for them, or the politicians that grant them?

For Moore, Barack Obama’s election is a spiritual catharsis, an explosion of people power, and a sudden break with the capitalist nightmare. But the outrages he spent 90 minutes detailing have, if anything, gotten worse under the Obama administration. The employment pipeline between Goldman Sachs and Treasury has is even busier. And Obama has graduated from bailing out banks to bailing out car companies. For Moore, when Bush did this sort of thing, it was capitalism. When Obama does, it’s democracy.

In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore can’t quite get himself to the problem. If he did, he’d have to admit that the big activist government of his dreams is actually the cause of his nightmares.

Where Is The Evidence That Junk Food Ads Make Kids Fat?

Australia’s public health establishment doesn’t lack ideas. Another official report into preventative health brings another few dozen recommended regulations, subsidies, cries for greater ‘public awareness’ and demands for further (commissioned) research.

This latest edition is the result of the Senate Inquiry into Obesity in Australia put out yesterday in order to avoid being completely overshadowed by the release of a National Preventative Health Strategy that should come out sometime this month.

The committee’s proposals are predictable. Limiting – with a view to banning – advertising of junk food to children. Subsidising gym memberships. Even more food labelling. Regulating stupid diet programs. Encouraging urban planners to deliberately design cities that are inconvenient to drive in. We’ve been hearing these ideas for years.

Unfortunately, while public health advocates may talk big on ‘evidence-based’ policy, their recommendations almost always fall well below that standard.

Take the popular claim that junk food advertising is causing fat kids. The evidence just isn’t there. The federal government’s peak communications research body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has concluded that it is near impossible to parse out the relationship between advertising and childhood obesity. At best, advertising could account for 2 per cent of food choice.

And the fuzziness of the relationship is clearly reflected in the academic literature: “Despite media claims to the contrary, there is no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children’s food consumption and, consequently, no reason to believe that a complete ban on advertising would have any useful impact on childhood obesity rates.”

Yet despite this almost complete lack of evidence – which was acknowledged in the committee’s public hearings – the committee’s report just recommends more stringent regulations on advertising, and, of course, more research. And the Senate was actually quite conservative compared to the waves of doctors and public health activists who participated in the inquiry, agitating for every sort of ban and regulation on marketing to children they could think of.

So why such a casual approach to the use of evidence in developing effective public policy, from an industry that prides itself on the close scrutiny of evidence as it affects medical outcomes? Regulation might not be a science, but does nevertheless require careful attention to cost-benefit analysis, and some analysis of efficacy and efficiency. And then governments need to consider the philosophical implications of many regulations – how it relates to responsibility and choice, and who will bear the brunt of the costs.

But as we wait for the Preventative Health Taskforce to lodge its report, we’re still seeing no signs that these issues are really being considered.

Never Mind The Deficit, Look At The Spending

It must take a lot of confidence to blame the size of our new deficit on revenue loss due to the financial crisis just seconds after you have finished a mind-numbingly long list of new spending measures.

In fact, there’s a weird – almost creepy – sense of confidence surrounding Wayne Swan’s second budget.

Treasury’s reputation should be very battered. Just last year, the inflation genie was out of the bottle and we were looking at a beautiful vista of economic happiness stretching as far as our eyes could see. But Treasury seems to be getting more sure in its ability to predict the future, not less.

Wayne Swan’s conceit that this recession will be quickly followed by a burst of astonishing, face-saving growth relies on a predicted GDP growth of more than 4% in the next couple of years. That’s a pretty big call in the middle of a recession that took the Treasury itself by surprise. And it’s an even bigger call considering during the twentieth century, the average GDP growth was only 3.4%. So if Treasury’s forecasts are accurate, then the fire in which this budget was forged was not very hot.

The misplaced confidence of this budget is even clearer when we look at Wayne Swan’s counterfactuals. Without the property bailout, the Wellington Street bus station, the highways up (and down) the coast, the detailed design work for the Sydney West Metro, and the $900 recession hush-money, the Treasury believes that Australia would apparently be 2 ¾ per cent poorer next year. And there’d be 210,000 fewer people in work. Not 220,000, not 200,000 but 210,000.

Of course, these numbers are almost always invented out of thin air. Treasury secretary Ken Henry admitted as much in February.

So without these impressively self-assured Treasury figures we are left with just a historically large deficit and a government piling its promises up behind the next election. We have spending levels not seen since the Second World War, and not a whole lot to show for it.

Wayne Swan’s budget is a chickie run between Treasury and the global economy. Sure, both could get out of it safely, but you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

The Winds Of Change Will Not Wait For Rudd’s Broadband

The failure of the National Broadband Network tender to find a sensible and willing private sector company is not surprising. But the failure cannot be blamed on the global financial crisis – the economy may look pretty dismal, but the government’s broadband policy was never very good anyway.

Partly this is because technological change has boxed the government into a corner. Earlier this year, while the NBN expert panel was dithering about looking for a firm to make good on the Labor Party’s election promise of a 12Mbps network, Telstra announced that it was planning to upgrade its already-existent cable network to 100Mbps, without a scrap of government support or subsidy. Even the firm’s mobile Next G service – which right now covers far more of Australian population than any future fixed-line network could hope to – is being upgraded to 42Mbps. And it’s not just Telstra – Optus has been periodically upgrading its cable network to match the speeds of its competitor.

Simply put, it would have been humiliating for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to trumpet a 12Mbps network while there are superior products in the broadband marketplace.

And these are just the private sector’s plans for the next twelve months. The government intends to roll its network out over eight years – who knows what we will expect from our internet connections in 2018? There’s a very good chance that the new network will be long obsolete by the time it is finished.

While the Prime Minister announced that the network will cost “up to” $43 billion over those eight years, it has only committed to an initial $4.7 billion investment into the project. This cost is, at least on the face of it, a drop in the bucket. Since coming to office, the Rudd Government has increased the size of government by a massive 21%. And the Commonwealth Government’s contingent liabilities have increased ten-fold in the last year. Nevertheless, the new NBN plan opens the door even wider to future financial obligations, especially if the fundraising and rollout doesn’t proceed as smoothly as the government is hoping.

So far no government has been willing to treat the cause of our broadband problem – the long outdated access regulations which compel Telstra to share its network at a regulated cost.Today’s announcement just maintains the fiction that the government can buy its way out of a long-term regulatory mess.

Broadband: Another Telco Monopoly Would Be A Disaster

If the Expert Taskforce into broadband infrastructure was supposed to delay scrutiny of the government’s broadband policy until after the election, then it isn’t working.

The Taskforce was formed to evaluate proposals for broadband infrastructure roll-out, and assess the regulatory or legislative changes that that may require.

Debate over telecommunications regulation hardly needs its fire stoked. But, oddly, the loudest agitator over the last week has been the communications minister herself.

Helen Coonan has spent the last few days apologising for speculating that the taskforce could recommend the structural separation of Telstra.

And yesterday in the Australian Financial Review she raised the possibility that the government could help pay for a proposal that delivered fibre-optic broadband all the way to the home. This too was quickly retracted. The Minister, a spokesman claimed, was speaking “hypothetically”.

Conspicuously, one option which has been not withdrawn is the potential that the winning broadband proposal will be granted a monopoly over broadband infrastructure. Coonan periodically refers to this possibility in her public addresses and it goes unchallenged. But granting an infrastructure monopoly would stifle competition in the telecommunications industry far more than it is already.

While the Taskforce prepares to receive the first broadband proposals, almost any regulatory change is on the table. But the one thing that the taskforce cannot yield on is the most important and controversial – the requirement that any new network be open to access by competitors at a “non-discriminatory” rate. The taskforce’s job is to devise some regulatory conditions under which a firm would both build the fibre network and share it with competitors.

But it is this sort of mandatory access regulation that has drawn the telecommunications sector into its current regulatory quagmire. Access regulation encourages firms to piggyback on existing infrastructure, rather than competitively build infrastructure themselves.

And fibre-to-the-node will hardly be the last broadband infrastructure Australia ever needs. When the next upgrade inevitably appears on the horizon, mandatory access regulation will still be hampering investment.

Coonan let this cat out of the bag when she raised the possibility of government subsidies for a future, higher-speed network – a tacit admission that she does not believe that the telecommunications industry can manage and fund its own investment while the existing regulatory framework remains.

The Taskforce’s requirement that the new network be open for access by competitors merely demonstrates that the government has learnt little from the failures of telecommunications regulation. To appropriate the Minister’s artless phrase – whatever the Taskforce concludes in February next year, telecommunications regulation will still not be “future-proofed”.

The Slippery Slope Towards Internet Censorship Continues

The Australian Government continued down the slippery slope towards internet censorship yesterday by introducing a bill to give the Australian Federal Police the power to nominate terrorism or crime related websites for filtering.

In The Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle expressed concerns that the Police Commissioner might use these new powers to call for Greenpeace’s website to be filtered – which really should raise more questions about the activities of Greenpeace than the value of the legislation.

Nevertheless, there is slightly less to this bill than it seems at first glance. The internet industry code currently governing online content already provides for filtering of pornographic and offensive content. But this filtering is voluntary, not mandatory.

At the moment, internet service providers who want to be designated “family friendly” by the Internet Industry Association have to offer their customers one of a range of approved PC or server side commercial filters. And these filters are periodically updated according to an Australian Communications and Media Authority black list. Yesterday’s bill would merely allow the AFP to add terrorism or crime related sites to that black list. But why would aspiring terrorists and criminals willingly install a family friendly filter onto their PC?

A lot rides on how the Internet Industry Association rewrites its codes of practise in the light of the government’s NetAlert scheme. Under NetAlert, all internet service providers will be compelled to offer consumers the choice between an unfiltered internet connection or a server-side filtered one.

Again, terrorists are unlikely to choose a filtered internet connection. The government’s new legislation only really makes sense if the unfiltered product is not going to be truly ‘unfiltered’. That the internet content bill was introduced quietly yesterday morning does not inspire confidence that the government plans to leave our internet connections alone. And it’s worth remembering that the Labor Party has for a long time promised mandatory server side filters if they win government.

Quite aside from the internet censorship issue, this bill highlights a disturbing regulatory trend – governments delegating the policing of the internet to the communications industry. Many of the measures canvassed by the inquiry into social networking sites would do just that. Even outside the high-technology sector, counterterrorism and anti money laundering regulation in the financial sector compels firms to police their own customers.

Particularly in the communications sector, these sorts of regulatory burdens can only add to costs for consumers.

Dealing With That $30,000 Phone Bill… Without Regulation

There is a “mounting dossier” of complaints to communications regulators concerning unexpectedly high mobile phone bills, reports the Australian Financial Review today.

It’s hard to be too sympathetic with somebody who couldn’t figure out they had spent nearly $30,000 in a single month – they must now have an extraordinary library of downloaded ring tones.

But this surge in complaints is partly due to technological convergence. As mobile phones increasingly provide the same sort of internet connection that consumers are used to at home, those consumers expect it to be just as accessibly priced.

Unexpectedly high bills were the subject of a high-profile Australian Communications Authority investigation in 2004. The services the ACA fingered as culprits less than three years ago, MMS and subscription services, are strikingly different from those now. In 2007, it is mobile data and download services on 3G handsets that are at fault.

The industry ombudsman says that complaints over high bills have increased thirty percent over the last year.

Mobile providers need to develop processes to deal with the high account activity that leads to these extraordinarily high bills. Neither the consumer nor the firm is helped by the sudden appearance of a multi-thousand dollar debt.

Firms offering home broadband services have dealt with the unexpectedly high bill problem before. Early plans punished consumers with high ‘excess’ data prices, but now most firms have structured their prices to ‘shape’ data to a lower speed once consumers reach a certain limit.

This is a model that the mobile industry may be able to adopt. Indeed, some major mobile carriers apply hard caps to a range of premium services.

Furthermore, in the United States, the iPhone / AT&T deal offers unlimited data plans, which may indicate that the price of mobile data is trending towards zero. Certainly, in Australia mobile data is now much cheaper than it was when the only technology available was GPRS on a standard GSM phone. And some Blackberry plans offer unlimited email data already.

Horror stories like those in the AFR today tend to encourage regulatory responses. In this case, legislators should be wary of knee-jerk reactions – mandating specific pricing models for high data usage could raise prices for consumers across the board.

Instead, the phenomenon of unexpectedly high mobile bills simply illustrates how the communications industry needs to adjust their business models to changes in technology and consumer demand.

Cracking Coonan’s Filter And Other Tech Wrecks

For the second time in recent months, Communications Minister Helen Coonan has found herself in the awkward position of trying to defend the merits of specific technologies.

Coonan argued that the government had anticipated that the porn filter announced by the Prime Minister last week would be cracked, eventually but must have been shocked by how quickly it was. On Friday, a year ten student found a workaround in thirty minutes, and defeated the subsequent update in forty more. Nevertheless, the government stands by the software it chose.

Similarly, when the Minister announced that the Optus-Elders consortium had won nearly a billion dollars to provide regional broadband, she was forced to defend the WiMAX technology against a barrage of criticism.

WiMAX is a high-quality technology but its reputation has suffered from some outrageous claims by its proponents. Early WiMAX advocates breathlessly claimed ranges of up to 70 kilometres. The government claims a range of 25 kilometres – even this is hopelessly optimistic.

Real life experience suggests that the technology has a much more modest range of 5-10 kilometres, in good conditions. And only on spectrum that the Optus-Elders network doesn’t currently have access to.

This new role – the government as tech expert – is becoming more and more prominent. Consumers are now quick to learn whether specific technologies or services meet the government’s seal of approval.

For instance, Telstra’s Next G service is, apparently, not satisfactory – Helen Coonan has received “hundreds of complaints”.

The Minister has also determined that a recent Telstra upgrade of its Hybrid Fibre Coaxial cable network is better than fibre-to-the-node technology, which will be news for those in the industry who have spent the last two years debating the appropriate regulatory framework to encourage firms to invest in fiberoptic broadband network.

Sometimes these statements are mere rhetoric flourishes, indicative only of a government struggling to navigate the complex interactions between politics and high-technology. But many in the industry are frustrated with the Communications Minister’s self-appointed role as technology propagandist and critic.

The government, when pressed, insists that it remains strictly “technology neutral” when it writes public policy. Unfortunately, the reality is much different.

In the course of the long-running dispute with Telstra, the government has largely abandoned allowing the market to decide the most suitable technologies. Instead, it has readopted the characteristic winner picking strategies which have long discredited national industry policies.