Welcome back to the second instalment in our 'on the campaign trail' blog, where we try and cover the merits (or otherwise) of the policy announcements made in the lead up to the 2016 Federal Election. We are well past halfway now and with only two weeks to go until election day, the campaign so far could be described as long and a little uninspiring from all players.

Our look at 'Politics in the Pub' at the Brisbane Powerhouse

Our look at 'Politics in the Pub' at the Brisbane Powerhouse

We went along to the Politics in the Pub event at the Powerhouse here in Brisbane back in May to hear the pitch from our local candidates. All the candidates did a solid job and most came across as both charismatic and passionate, but it was hard not to feel like the only ones going home satisfied would be campaign HQ based on each speaker's ability to stick to their closely scripted campaign lines. 

As expected, there has been a fair bit of focus given to each of the major parties' respective heartlands but there hasn't been anything offered up so far that's really gotten us out of our seats. In fact, if you took a look at the policy action areas mentioned on both major parties' websites, you could be forgiven for thinking that they are both stealing each others' lines. Labor will make "health our #1 priority" while the Liberals will shoot for "world-class healthcare". Labour will focus on "nation-building infrastructure" and "acting on climate change", while the Libs will go for "building Australia's infrastructure" and "protecting our environment". And the Liberals' "strong new economy" is an echo of Labor's "10 year plan to strengthen the Australian economy". We did start to get a little bit excited when we saw an action area from the ALP focused on "Tackling inequality and disadvantage", but that quickly disappeared when we saw one of the inequality/disadvantage policies was putting the Republic debate back on the table - not exactly a game-changer for those Australians in need of a genuine helping hand. 

With rising inequality against a budget struggling to ensure the social safety net we all expect in a progressive high-income country like ours, we seriously need our leaders to support some genuinely innovative ideas. Just throwing more cash at the same old (and growing) problems is the easy but flawed way out for both parties. Our aim is to dissect what is happening in the five social policy areas we think should feel the love - education, health, housing, employment and community inclusion. First up, education...

Source: Heckman, J 2006, ‘Investing in disadvantaged young children is an economically efficient policy’

Source: Heckman, J 2006, ‘Investing in disadvantaged young children is an economically efficient policy’

Despite some of the campaign scare-mongering around cuts, each of the major parties are committed to record-level investments in school funding to be achieved over the next few years. Cool? Yeah. But it really begs the question, where will all of those extra billions be spent? Most education experts contend that the benefits flow from education 'quality' rather than the volume of the funding pool

Unfortunately, the highly politicised nature of the 'Gonski' debate has undermined the promise of genuine 'needs-based' funding for education. A recent report titled 'Educational Opportunity in Australia' points to four key milestones at which children and young adults can be keeping up or falling behind with the education system:

  1. readiness for school, based on AEDC domains
  2. succeeding in the middle years
  3. completing school by age 19
  4. engaged in education, training or work at age 24

The report estimates that over 20% of children or young adults at any time are missing out on these educational milestones and this proportion is over-represented by those from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g. CALD, Indigenous Australians, low SES). Alarmingly, the authors find that the experiences of those students that fall behind and need the most support often engage later with the education system and are in communities with lower quality early childhood education services and local schools with performances below the average. And there is a cyclical effect - those children with less educated parents are more likely to fall 2 years behind children of university-educated parents by Year 9. The disadvantaged student of today is the disadvantaged parent of tomorrow.

It seems Labor's priority for all of this extra cash is to increase teacher quality and to increase early learning opportunities. The latter should be encouraged - Australia ranks 34 out of 36 in the OECD for participation in early childhood education. The Coalition are also focused on teacher quality and amongst other things, more school autonomy. On first glance, empowering local schools is a worthy goal but the facts above mean it is likely to lead to even wider gaps. Those schools with less problems to fix will benefit from more autonomy, while those needing support will be left to fix things on their own. 

Where the real opportunity to lift the quality of the education system is in schools' ability to engage young people in learning and wellbeing, beyond just academic achievement. Critics will say the role of a teacher is already part-educator, part-carer, part-mentor, part-counsellor and the curriculum is too crammed. But what is more important - an education that serves teachers/funders or students? Why does it have to be teachers doing more? What wrap-around support can a school provide to develop young people's capability and resilience? How can schools be supported to try innovative, tailored approaches to teaching? How can parents, particularly those with limited education, be supported themselves to continue to support learning at home? And most importantly, how do we make sure that some kids aren't already behind by their first day at school? Current estimates are that around 63,000 children arrive at school each year developmentally vulnerable in one or more domain.  Shameless plug here, but we have been doing some really exciting initial work with some neighbourhood centres on fetal programming, and the evidence points to the first building blocks for success being in the prenatal period.

Higher education is one area where there is some variation in the bigger parties' policies. The Coalition are keen to deregulate university course fees and let market competition drive improved course quality and lower costs (or not). The ALP and Greens are committed to reducing the size of accumulated HELP debts and subsidising costs of education materials for university education. There is consensus that more higher ed places is good. Disagreement remains on how and what to pay for it. Stats show that 'between 2009 and 2014, an additional 36,720 low-SES undergraduate students were enrolled' as a result of removing caps on university places, which was an expensive undertaking. We'll leave that for the pollies, but what we thought was worth a mention is Labor's unexpected policy pitch to bridge the gap between university and voc ed through their mooted 'Commonwealth Institutes of Higher Education. Critics will argue that this model is just another layer of complexity in an already messy system and not the answer (which is probably correct). But it opens up a new front in the higher education debate and we are keen to hear more about it.

As with all government policy, there are always going to be competing priorities and limited resources, but when over a quarter of Australians aged 24 are not 'earning or learning', there is a big opportunity to use the education system to give people economic empowerment, lift them out of disadvantage AND improve the productive capacity of Australia's workforce.

Stay tuned as we take a look at the areas of health, employment, housing and community inclusion before the end of the campaign. Given the flurry of promises that can be expected in the last two weeks, we are still holding out hope for some innovative or exciting ideas that could go some way to disrupting the cycle of disadvantage and creating opportunities for those in society that really need it. Fingers crossed...