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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Summer Series: Defence or Degrees?

Watching an old episode of `The West Wing' recently, one phrase captured my imagination: `Education should be as expensive to the government as the military'. Given Kevin Rudd's decision to name education as his first key policy battleground, it's a timely thing to discuss.

The philosophy of military spending is contrary to that of pretty much every other policy area. Firstly, it's extremely expensive, and it's about the biggest of `big government' policies there is. Governments no longer like big government. It costs too much, and people don't like to pay taxes. They're particularly unhappy about having to pay for things that may or may not occur. Climate change is a good example. The argument used by its now dwindling band of opponents is that we should get `proof' that climate change is man-made before we start addressing it. The thorny issue of what happens if it is but it's too late to address doesn't seem to cross their minds. Should a military threat with as clear a potential danger as climate change have presented itself, governments would have fallen over themselves pulling money out of just about every other policy area preparing themselves.

It could be argued that military policy is fundamentally different to any other area; that there's no priority greater than defending a country. Obviously, countries should be prepared for such things, but it's quite puzzling that money is pulled away from the solving of present problems and spent on problems that haven't occurred yet and may or may not occur. The likelihood of Australia needing to defend its own soil is remote to say the least. After all, in a history of human habitation that spans some 60,000 years, this has only happened twice - once by England in 1770, once by Japan during World War II. On only one occasion was the invasion a success, and it was a pretty lopsided battle to say the least.

Imagine if military policy were conducted along the same lines as education - or healthcare, for that matter. We would have a government funded military, but we'd also have a privately funded one, for which people could choose to pay a monthly fee in case of military emergency. Efforts would be made to encourage wealthier people to spend a little more on the private military to take the burden off the public purse. Soon, poorer people would decide they couldn't possibly take the risk of relying on the government army in case of an emergency, and would start digging deep into their too-shallow pockets. After all - if you didn't provide the finest military protection for your children, you'd be a bad parent, wouldn't you?

This would hasten the decline of the increasingly underfunded public military, which the government would refuse to prop up, arguing that citizens had demonstrated their clear preference for the private military - and anyway, why should it be solely the government's job to defend the country? People have to have a choice. To facilitate this `choice', private military would receive ample government funding.

Perhaps, eventually, it would be decided that the best thing for all concerned would be to privatise the public military altogether. Private enterprise would be so much better at running an army, and it could spend a lot more on maintaining expensive infrastructure. Why should it be the government's job to pay for the defence of its people anyway? Plus, some of the money earned could go into the Super Fund - and the rest could be returned as tax cuts! Everyone likes tax cuts! And of course, privatisation means never having to say you're sorry. It's the company's fault, not yours.

But I shouldn't go giving people ideas.

In the 2006-07 Budget, $16.6bn was allocated for education. Of this, approximately $9.5bn is to go towards school education - though two thirds to private schools. Not so long ago, Mark Latham was pilloried for a policy in which - gasp! - Federal funding only went to schools that needed it, rather than subsidising what are, in the end, commercial enterprises with paying customers. The situation is even worse regarding higher education, with the migration of full fee paying students into places for which people with higher marks have unsuccessfully competed well documented.

Meanwhile, $19.6bn was allocated for defence, with a guaranteed 3% annual increase each year until 2010. A good deal of this of course paid to private companies for the construction of infrastructure and resources (though not, following the Jake Kovko debacle, towards the repatriation of the bodies of Australian soldiers). Just imagine the furore if it also went towards paying companies for the privilege of charging others to use their armies.

I sometimes think education is the key to all other policy areas. Ensure a good education is available to all, and Australia becomes a more attractive country in which to invest, a source of the world's best innovations, and a place with a highly-skilled workforce. Such was the philosophy behind the `Clever Country' - and lets not forget this phrase was meant as a riposte to the `Lucky Country', which, despite being reclaimed as a statement of patriotism originally referred to the fact that , as author Donald Horne put it in the book that coined the phrase, `Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck' - a country that has relied on its natural resources rather than enterprise and innovation. It is a cliche, but education really is an investment. The importance of education as a policy area, and the amount of public money spent on it, should reflect this.

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