Opinion- 13 March 2006




 Harry Robinson: The Encumbering of Unencumbered Australia



    The London Times in its pre-Murdoch days hired an ex-jockey as its racing commentator. His prose was fresh, direct and entertaining which most Times' copy was not. What was his best qualification? "He was unencumbered by education."

From Len Steckler's Gods Forgotten series

Unencumbered by education! If only all success could come so easily!

Unencumbered by education!

Could that be the way our government wants us? And the opposition doesn't notice?

Unencumbered by education.

Consider the fallout from some recent political eruptions.

The AWB bribery affair about which the government knew nothing -- a sin of omission if nothing else. But polls showed most people did not care. Or maybe the truth was that they found it all too hard to follow -- unencumbered by education.

Then there was Prime Minister John Howard's 10th anniversary in office. Almost to a man or a person, political journalists tugged their forelocks and agreed that Mr Howard was an extraordinarily successful politician. A few lonely voices protested that he had the protection of a decaying Labor opposition. One young woman asked the prime minister where he intended to take the nation now? She drew a blank. He had no forward plan which meant he wanted more of the same. He was, in short, unencumbered by vision.

While this dismal sequence was in play, Peter Costello was noting that Oz had big, big budgetary surpluses. Asked what he planned to do with all that lovely money, he hedged and teased. Well, some might go to paying down the national debt. (It is miniscule.) Yes, well, maybe some good citizens might get tax cuts. And again, maybe this or that. Mr Costello was unencumbered by candour. Few bothered to remark that he did not mention money for higher education much less for scientific research. We could go on unencumbered by all that stuff.

Perhaps the most disquieting phase was when members of the Labor Party went public with internal strife. Self-destruction was the name of the game while the voting public saw clearly that they were a bunch of apparatchiks fighting for the spoils of office. Never mind the nation or its future. They might have added that there's no need to spend more on education -- the people are better unencumbered.

Amid the turmoil, the spite, the shallow posturing we could read a clear message: neither our government nor our opposition has one idea for what kind of Australia they want. "Just like now only more so" seems as far as they can see.

The drought was broken to some extent by the autumn issue of The Griffith Review, devoted to an outline of trends and offerings in higher education. Professor Glyn Davis, Melbourne University's vice-chancellor, made much of online degrees and university entrepreneurial measures and he got a wider audience when he joined the ABC's Princess Royal, Geraldine Doogue, on her Saturday Extra. Taken at face value, Professor Davis held out possibilities for over-encumbering our young people with education.



Forget all the foregoing grumpy stuff. Let us indulge ourselves. Let's look at a vision.

The year is 2050 and the place is Oz.

Sometime a few decades ago, governments went utterly mad and changed the nation's face. They shut down half the farmland, closed half the coal mines, made manufacturing a minor matter. At the same time, they expanded schools, multiplied universities, turned great tracts of land into vast campuses, dotted them with research labs and established a central clearing house for online course generation. Each campus had a Foreign Students Bureau and an Office of Export Education.

The earth sighed with relief, rivers ran again, it was all pretty peaceful except for occasional outbreaks of youthful vandalism. Not everyone was happy with the revolution. Some could not bring themselves to believe that giving up the gritty, hard labour of dragging products out of a hostile continent was decent. They longed for their old burdens. Some could not face the challenges of brain-work, thinking it sissy. "What? Make your living out of your head? What would they say about that in the footy club?"

The happiest place in the whole country was the Reserve Bank in Canberra where the chairman and all his gnomes had little to do apart from count the national wealth. For the revolution brought a bonanza. Wheat, wool and coal might still make some profit, but the rate of return was miserly when stacked against the returns from exporting education and applying technologies. And as to the profits from scientific discovery-- well!

Granted, none of the new found wealth came easily. The globe was a competitive place, with fiendish challenges coming from the two giants of Asia and even some flutters of greed from the deflated American empire. Management and protection of intellectual property demanded hot shot lawyers, financiers and other finaglers and they were among the nation's prosperous classes.

Historians still try to find the turning point -- was it when Prime Minister Julia Gillard surveyed the future? Or was it when a son of Peter Costello saw a blinding light on the road not to Damascus but to Goondiwindi? Nobody knows but the outcomes were splendid. Especially the encumbrances.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.