Transitioning to the 'new economy': It's not rocket science, Malcolm

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Welcome to the Ideas Boom — currently occupied (Image via @Feeney4Batman)

The rise of Bill Shorten as a real threat to Turnbull is only explicable if you have more respect for policy than the press gallery have, writes Andrew Elder.

IN 1953, the boy who became my father started high school in regional NSW. The man who became my grandfather drove him down from the farm in the ute and they went to see the principal.

The boy could read quite well, but there was always room for improvement. My grandfather insisted that he was not to waste time on fripperies like art or music or foreign languages or Shakespeare. His idea of mathematical competence was being able to read a set of accounts and determine whether he was being swindled; he had no time for the abstruse mathematics where Greek letters floated across the page.

It was at this point the principal stepped in. The 1950s was an age of progress driven by scientific discovery, with rockets and nuclear power and advances in medicine all underpinned by advanced mathematics. People entering the workforce in the late 20th century needed a higher education than those entering it beforehand.

My grandfather had left school aged 14 at the height of the Depression. He was an intelligent man and we might wonder what he might have done with more and better education; then again, consider how few opportunities there were to even the well-educated at that time. My father didn’t end up becoming a rocket scientist; he became a teacher with a specialty in art education. It’s funny how things turn out, really.

I thought about them when the Budget came down last week. It turned its back on the future. It disavowed needs-based support for schools and individual students (the Gonski model). It turned its back on funding for the kind of basic science (such as monitoring climate variations or biodiversity) from which great scientific advancements are possible.

When Turnbull came in he talked about startups and disruption. He soon found out that the big businesses who like the idea of competitive advantage through technology hate disruption, which is why that rhetoric has gone. I had expected some cut-and-paste from the tax code from California onto that of this country regarding write-offs for startup investors. Now, I know that isn’t going to benefit many people, but it might have given some indication of how the government regards this "new economy" to which they’re apparently "transitioning".

Future ways of working and even the gamut of education funding from pre-school to post-doctoral aren’t really central to this election — they’re kind of important, but the smarties and the insiders will tell you they don’t shift votes. Here’s where those issues do matter: they undermine the entire message of this government.

The science/technology agenda has no basis if education is too expensive or dodgy. Australian science has a strong global reputation because of its solid grounding in quality education and basic research, and to deprioritise the latter is to diminish the former.

You can’t go on about infrastructure when all your projects are so piecemeal: a suburban freeway here, maybe a bit of railway line there, fibre to the node. If you’re half-hearted and spreading your bets, say so; don’t roar like a lion about your commitment to the future and the infrastructure to support it, then scatter all these half-formed projects while claiming they really truly link up … somehow.

The rise of Bill Shorten as a credible Opposition Leader and a real threat to Turnbull is only explicable if you have more respect for policy than the press gallery have. This isn’t to say Labor’s policies are perfect – they have been taken at face value, just as Abbott’s pamphlet was in 2013 – but the idea of political journalism that policy is trumped by framing and razzle-dazzle perishes in the face of the reality before us. Journalists who can’t report on reality are no journalists at all.

The press gallery have noted the Government’s statements, and journalists who work in other fields have noted bits and pieces about education funding or science, or the NBN; nobody in traditional media is doing the hard yards of drawing contrasts between what is said and what is done. The prospect of a long election campaign provides the perfect opportunity to bring these various strands of reporting into a coherent whole, where political statements can be tested against objective reality and other sources of authority in particular fields.

Having long predicted a 50-odd day election campaign, it seems effete to declare yourself “over it” when you can only think, speak and write in the very political clichés that bode so poorly for the campaign. The media have a chance to redeem themselves with well-considered reporting, pooling their resources for picfacs and announcements, and concentrating on questions like “is this true?”, and “does this work?”. If they indulge themselves in clichéd reporting they undermine their own authority – and their own future – as surely as the Turnbull Government is (did?).

It’s not rocket science, but an intelligent audience will respond to information better than arse-covering cliché. Let’s show that generations of education funding in the interests of the nation hasn’t been wasted.

You can follow Andrew Elder on his blog Press Gallery Reform or on Twitter @awelder.

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