The perils of insular thinking

In yesterday’s Fairfax papers, John Hirst had a fine piece on policy areas where Australia is out of line with international norms. Sure enough, in today’s Age Russell Marks has another example with the same underlying theme: the fiasco of Melbourne’s new public transport ticketing system, Myki.

Non-Melbourne residents might easily pass over it, but it’s well worth a careful read – not just as a warning for those who might travel here, but as a study in how badly a ticketing system can be mismanaged.

Smart card ticketing isn’t somehow unique to Melbourne. Most large first-world urban transport operators either have or are planning such a system. The technology isn’t even particularly new any more; it was already spreading across Europe in the 1990s. Yet the Victorian government not only chose to commission a new system to be constructed from scratch, but picked a tenderer that lacked relevant experience and seems to have studiously ignored the lessons to be learned from overseas.

Unfortunately this is a failing that Australia can be prone to: ignorance and lack of attention to how other countries tackle problems. Many policy choices are made as if we lived in a world of our own. Not just ordinary voters but politicians and pundits as well often show a complete lack of interest or understanding about overseas practice, assuming that the way we do things is the only possible way. (And our politicians have enough of a history of wasting money on “study tours” that are actually junkets for us to be sceptical when they try to redress their lack of knowledge.)

There’s nothing wrong with being patriotic; there’s nothing wrong with thinking that we’ve developed the best way of doing something. No doubt sometimes we have. But before making that judgement we should be sure that we’ve actually looked at how it’s done elsewhere and consider whether we could learn something from the successes or failures of others.

Hirst’s two examples are school funding and death duties. Both seem to run counter to our professed egalitarianism; as he says, “Americans would be surprised that there are no death duties in Australia and that one in three children attend private schools, which receive government funding.”

For what it’s worth, I have no problem with the idea of subsidising people to attend private schools, but I think it’s undeniable that our school funding model is badly broken and could benefit from a good hard look at some overseas examples. (The Gonski review tried to do this but has largely been ignored.) The abolition of death duties, on the other hand, is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but in hindsight has helped to screw up our tax mix in regressive and unproductive ways.

The two examples that always come to my mind are bills of rights and compulsory voting.* In each case, Australia is out of step with world democratic practice; not, it seems, through any conscious decision to do things differently but simply out of ignorance and insularity.

We are the only democracy with a written constitution that lacks a bill of rights. Yet the arguments against introducing one are typically made with no reference to the fact that they have been falsified by overseas experience. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad arguments, but it surely puts the onus onto their proponents to explain why Australia is different and why something that works in similar countries to us wouldn’t work here.

The story is much the same with compulsory voting (although the argument tends to come from the opposite side of politics). Outside of Latin America, Belgium is the only other democracy that forces people to vote, and even there it is apparently on the way out. Supporters of compulsion here, however, prefer to just ignore the fact that all the most successful democratic systems seem to cope just fine with voluntary voting and seem to have no interest in changing. Maybe Australia is special, but it would be good to be told why.

As Hirst says, we often criticise the US for its insularity – and rightly so; American ignorance of other countries can be staggering. But ironically enough we not only have a similar problem, but when we do look at the rest of the world we often limit it to the US. That, I think, is a big factor in the debate on compulsory voting. We observe that American democracy is dysfunctional, notice that they have voluntary voting and draw a connection, without stopping to wonder why the same problems don’t affect Canada, New Zealand, Japan and most of Europe.

The billions of dollars wasted on Myki may be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the costs of insularity. We have no choice about being an island continent, but we can choose whether or not to keep the island mentality.

* Or, for pedants, compulsory attendance-at-a-polling-place. I would be grateful for enlightenment as to why anyone thinks this distinction is important.

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