All posts by Megan French

How to rebuild trust in politics

Protest politics is on the rise in Australia, and the main cause is collapsing trust in politicians and the major parties, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

A crisis of trust says that if the major parties and politicians want to rebuild trust with voters, they will need to change the way they do politics: stop misusing their entitlements, strengthen political donations laws, tighten regulation of lobbyists, and slow the revolving door between political offices and lobbying positions.

They will need to stop over-promising and under-delivering, on everything from reducing power bills to making houses more affordable and developing regional Australia. And the major parties will need to increase the size of their ‘gene pool’, by preselecting candidates who have broader work experience than being political staffers or union officials.

The vote share for minor parties and independents has been rising for a decade. At the 2016 federal election it hit its highest level since the Second World War. More than one-in-four Australians voted for someone other than the ALP, the LNP or the Greens in the Senate. First-preference Senate votes for minor parties and ‘outsider’ candidates leapt from 12 per cent in 2004 to 26 per cent in 2016.

Voters in regional and remote areas are particularly disillusioned. The further from a capital city GPO, the higher the minor party vote and the faster it has risen.

The report identifies voter disillusionment with the political establishment as the major cause of the rise in protest politics; it’s an ‘anyone but them’ vote.

Voters for ‘outsider’ politicians such as Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch and Nick Xenophon have much lower trust in government than those who vote for the majors. Australians increasingly believe politicians look after themselves and government is run by a few big interests rather than in the public interest. More than 70 per cent of Australians think our system of government needs reform. Voters are choosing parties and candidates that promise to ‘drain the swamp’.

Economic factors are less important. The rise in the minor party vote doesn’t seem to be about stagnant wages or rising inequality: the vote grew most strongly when real wages were rising and inequality wasn’t. And the biggest increase in the minor party vote was between 2010 and 2013 – a period when Australians were particularly optimistic about their immediate financial future.

But the loss of economic and cultural power in the regions looms large in regional voters’ dissatisfaction. Regions hold a falling share of Australia’s population, and consequently of the nation’s economy. Australia’s cultural symbols are becoming more city-centric – from mateship to multiculturalism, The Man from Snowy River to MasterChef. Regional voters increasing fear they are being ‘left behind’ and that ‘the Australian way of life is under threat’. The rhetoric and policies of some minor parties tap into these concerns and values.

Grattan Institute CEO John Daley says: “Our leaders need to heed the warning signs and focus on what matters to voters: restoring trust and social cohesion.”

Report co-author and Grattan Institute Program Director Danielle Wood says: “Politicians need to take a leadership role, by stressing the common ground between city and country and between communities with different backgrounds.”

Read the report

For further enquiries: Danielle Wood, Budget Policy and Institutional Reform Program Director
T. +61 (0)3 8344 3637 E.

If Australians want cheaper housing, we have to build more of it

Building an extra 50,000 homes a year for a decade could leave Australian house prices
5 to 20 per cent lower than they would be otherwise, and stem rising public anxiety about housing affordability, according to a new Grattan Institute report, Housing affordability: re-imagining the Australian dream.

Within living memory, Australia was a place where housing costs were manageable, and people of all ages and incomes had a reasonable chance to own a home with good access to jobs. But home ownership rates are falling among all Australians younger than 65, especially those with lower incomes.

Owning a home increasingly depends on who your parents are, a big change from 35 years ago when home ownership rates were high for all levels of income. Those on low incomes – increasingly renters – are spending more of their income on housing.

Affordability will only get a lot better if governments ensure more homes are built. State governments should fix planning rules to allow more homes to be built in inner and middle-ring suburbs of our largest cities. More small-scale urban infill projects should be allowed without council planning approval. State governments should also allow denser development ‘as of right’ along key transport corridors.

Development in middle suburbs has increased in recent years, especially in Sydney. But today’s record level of housing construction is the bare minimum needed to meet record levels of population growth driven by rapid migration. Meanwhile a decade of accumulated shortages are forcing younger people to set up their own homes later in life.

The Commonwealth government can improve housing affordability somewhat – and immediately – by reducing demand. It should reduce the capital gains tax discount to 25 per cent; abolish negative gearing; and include owner-occupied housing in the Age Pension assets test. And unless the states are prepared to reform their planning systems, the Commonwealth should consider tapping the brakes on Australia’s migrant intake.

“It took neglectful governments two decades to create the current housing affordability mess. They preferred the easy choices that merely appear to address the problem,” says Grattan CEO John Daley.

“The politics of reform are fraught because most voters own a home or an investment property, and mistrust any change that might dent the price of their assets. But if governments keep pretending there are easy answers, housing affordability will just get worse. Older people will not be able to downsize in the suburb where they live, and our children won’t be able to buy their own home.”

Read the report

For further enquiries: John Daley, CEO
T. +61 (0)3 8344 3637 E.

Smarter money: a better way for Australia to select big transport projects

Australia should revamp the way it selects major transport projects, so that governments can better know which new roads and railways are worth building and avoid squandering billions of dollars of public money on the wrong projects, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

Unfreezing discount rates: transport infrastructure for tomorrow shows that the ‘discount rate’ Australian governments have applied to assess the value of proposed projects has been stuck at 7 per cent since at least 1989, despite the price of money having fallen from about 8 to 1 per cent since then.

The discount rate is a tool that puts present and future costs and benefits onto a comparable footing: it expresses how much we value the costs and benefits of a major project for young people and future generations relative to the costs and benefits for citizens today.

The report calls for the 7 per cent standard rate to be abandoned in favour of two lower rates: 3.5 per cent for low-risk transport projects (typically trains, buses and urban roads), and 5 per cent for slightly higher-risk investments (such as ferries and freight rail).

This new discount rate regime would cast fresh light on the value of some of Australia’s biggest transport projects. Under the present 7 per cent rate, the benefits of the $10 billion Melbourne Metro rail project and the Commonwealth Government’s $10 billion Inland Rail Freight project are both assessed to be only marginally higher than the costs, with Metro Rail ranked slightly better.

But under a lower discount rate, both projects would be assessed to deliver benefits about two-and-a-half times higher than the costs, and Inland Rail Freight could be ranked even higher.

“Interest rates have fallen dramatically since the 1980s, and it makes no sense that discount rates in Australia have been stuck since then,” says Grattan Institute Transport Program Director Marion Terrill.

This report builds on two 2016 Grattan Institute reports that exposed the need for changes to the evaluation and selection of major projects in Australia. Cost overruns in transport projects found that governments spent $28 billion more on transport infrastructure between 2001 and 2015 than they told taxpayers they would. Roads to riches found that a big portion of the large sums governments allocated to transport projects between 2005 and 2015 was spent unwisely.

“With our cities growing rapidly, smart investment in infrastructure is vital,” says Marion Terrill. “We need to improve our project evaluation, so we build the right transport projects in the right order. Better discounting would be a big step in that direction.”

Read the report

For further enquiries:
Marion Terrill, Transport Program Director
T. 03 8344 3637 E.


A new research organisation for Australian school education

Australia should establish a national school education research organisation to investigate the most effective ways of teaching and spread the word across schools, states and sectors, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

The Commonwealth’s role in improving schools calls for a national debate on how to boost the performance of Australian students.

It says the new research body should be charged with lifting the standard of education research in Australia, creating a long-term research agenda for school education, and promoting key findings across the country.

It could link-up all research on education for people from birth through to age 18, so policy makers and the community better understand the continuum of learning, from early childhood to school and vocational education.

The Australian peak body could be modelled on successful overseas organisations such as the US Institute of Education Sciences. It should be independent of government but backed by the Commonwealth and the states.

The report says that the Commonwealth-commissioned review on ways to achieve excellence in Australian schools (known as the ‘Gonski 2.0 Review’) should focus on reforms like this where the Commonwealth can make a genuine contribution.

The danger is that the Gonski 2.0 Review is used as a platform for Commonwealth interventions into school education that sound good, but don’t actually help on the ground. Experience shows that well-meaning Commonwealth interventions into systems primarily run by the states and territories can end up just increasing red tape and destroying policy coherence.

The ‘Gonski 2.0’ funding deal struck last year will deliver an extra $23 billion in Commonwealth funds to schools over the next ten years. But it needs to be kept in perspective: the extra money will be only 3 per cent of all government spending on schools over the decade. The states and territories still overwhelmingly fund and run schools.

Key priorities for states and territories include supporting schools more so that teachers know what works in the classroom, and know how they can adapt their methods to better target their teaching to the needs of their students.

“Because it doesn’t manage schools or school systems, Commonwealth intervention in school management is likely to be counter-productive,” says Julie Sonnemann, the report’s co-author and Grattan’s School Education Fellow.

But the Commonwealth could help with a research body. “If Australia wants to achieve excellence in schools, we need more and better education research,” says Peter Goss, co-author and Grattan Institute School Education Program Director.

Read the report

Increase competition to give consumers a better deal

The widely held belief that powerful firms control the Australian economy is a myth, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

Competition in Australia: Too little of a good thing? shows that the market shares of large firms in concentrated sectors in Australia are not much higher than in other countries and that they have they not grown much lately.

But the report shows that where a few firms dominate markets, they earn higher profits.

Up to half the total profits in the supermarket sector (dominated by Coles and Woolworths) are ‘super-normal’ – that is, profits that exceed the cost of compensating shareholders.

In the banking sector (dominated by the Big Four), super-normal profits account for 17 percent of total profits.

Other companies and sectors with substantial super profits include Telstra, some major city airports, liquor retailers, internet service providers, sports betting agencies, and private health insurers.

“There’s nothing wrong with profits – they play an important and legitimate role in the economy and society,” says Grattan Institute Productivity Growth Program Director Jim Minifie.

“But where profits become super-profits because firms face little competition, they can come at the expense of customers or suppliers.

“There are no policy silver bullets here, but governments can do more to improve competition in the private economy.”

The report urges governments and regulators to do more to ensure customers get a good deal, especially in highly concentrated sectors where big firms have market power and potential competitors face high barriers to entry.

To intensify competition in banking, governments should free-up customers from the control of their current bank by making it easier for people to switch banks.

In the supermarket sector, where the big incumbents have expanded into liquor and petrol retailing, governments should consider relaxing zoning restrictions that limit the entry of new competitors.

Constraints on competition in retail pharmacy should finally be removed, as many reviews have suggested.

Regulators can put more pressure on electricity distributors, ports and airports, and on health insurers.

And governments need to make it less complex and confusing for people to compare and switch providers of retail energy, and superannuation.

Read the report

Further enquiries: Jim Minifie, Productivity Growth Program Director
T. 03 8344 3637 E.

How to improve school education in Australia

Australia’s school education system is not fit for purpose, and we need to rethink the way we teach students, support teachers and run schools, according to a new Grattan Institute discussion paper.

Towards an adaptive education system in Australia says that, despite individual bright spots, overall student performance is declining in international tests, and an unacceptably high number of our students are not ready for life after school.

Australian school education faces three major challenges: improving student learning in core academic areas; better preparing young people for adult life; and closing the gap between the nation’s educational have and have-nots.

The only way to tackle all these challenges at once is to make our education system more adaptive.

“At present, the system is spinning its wheels,” says Grattan Institute School Education Program Director Peter Goss.

“The status quo is not working. We have failed to create an education system that adapts and improves over time – a learning system that systematically learns.”

Student outcomes improve when teachers track how much their students are learning, identify the specific teaching practices that boost learning and those that don’t, and then adapt the way they teach.

However, this process should not be done independently in every classroom, and schools need more help from education systems to make good local decisions.

As a start, Australia should follow the lead of high-performing education systems such as Singapore and Hong Kong by making better use of our best teachers.

‘Master teachers’ should teach fewer classes and instead should spend more time teaching other teachers how to identify and practise the best ways to improve student performance.

And the system leaders – including education ministers and departments and the heads of the Catholic and independent sectors – need to ensure schools and teachers have good access to the evidence about what works best, and the time, tools, training and support to implement these best practices in the classroom.

“If we want to halt the decline and create a system of excellence that supports all students, we need a new approach to reform,” Dr Goss says.

Read the report

For further enquiries:
Pete Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute
T. 03 8344 3637 E.

How to make our hospitals safer

Australia needs to reform the way we collect and use information about patient safety, to reduce the risk of more scandals and tragedies in our hospitals, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

Strengthening safety statistics: How to make hospital safety data more useful shows that the health system is awash with data, but the information is poorly collated, not shared with patients, and often not given to the doctors and hospital managers responsible for keeping patients safe.

Hospitals boards are often blissfully ignorant of the level of safe care being provided in their own hospitals.

Co-author Stephen Duckett, who led an investigation for the Victorian Government after seven babies died potentially avoidable deaths at Bacchus Marsh Hospital in 2013 and 2014, says safety scandals in Australian hospitals are “depressingly frequent”.

“They stimulate special reports and an immediate flurry of action. But the tragedy is that these safety incidents occur despite reporting, governance and oversight measures that – if they were working properly – might have detected the aberrant clinical care.”

Strengthening safety statistics shows there is no public reporting of safety data about private hospitals in Australia, and that private hospitals are left outside state government monitoring of hospital safety.

Australia has dozens of collections of detailed data about particular diseases or treatments – for example the Australian Genetic Heart Disease Registry, the Australian Bleeding Disorders Registry, and the National Joint Replacement Registry – but they operate independently. This means important information about an individual patient with multiple conditions – for example someone with a knee problem and heart disease – is kept in separate data sources.

To ensure hospital safety data is more useful, it must be more trustworthy, relevant and accessible. The many different data sets should be linked, and the information should be presented more clearly so doctors can act on it and patients can understand it.

The report calls for more and better safety data to be collected. And it says it is “unethical” not to better use all the data already available to improve patient care.

Some registries act like “secret squirrels” – they know about safety problems but won’t share the information with any body other that the person or clinical unit that contributed the data. Hospitals managers – and patients – remain in the dark.

“Clinicians and managers need to set high standards for what is acceptable in hospitals, and they need to have access to all relevant safety data so they can meet those standards,” Professor Duckett says.

Read the report

Further enquiries: Stephen Duckett, Health Program Director
T. 03 8344 3637 E.

How to fight congestion in our major cities

Congestion charges should be introduced in Sydney and Melbourne, according to a new Grattan Institute report that provides a uniquely detailed look at road congestion in Australia’s major cities.

Stuck in traffic? Road congestion in Sydney and Melbourne warns that, with their populations growing strongly, both cities could face traffic gridlock in future unless decisive action is taken to manage congestion.

The findings are based on an examination of 3.5 million Google Maps trip-time estimates across more than 350 routes over six months of this year.

In the middle and outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, most drivers have a pretty smooth run most of the time. But commutes to the CBD can take more than twice as long as the same trips would take in the middle of the night.

In Sydney, CBD commuters from Balgowlah in the north and Hurstville in the south can expect delays of about 15 minutes on an average morning, far longer than commuters from other parts of the city.

In Melbourne, the worst delays are for people commuting from north-eastern suburbs, including Heidelberg, Kew and Doncaster. Drivers who have to use the Eastern Freeway and Hoddle Street in the morning peak are often delayed for more than 20 minutes, and the length of the delay can vary greatly from day to day.

The report recommends congestion charges in the most congested central areas of each city. Key bottlenecks in Sydney include The Spit Bridge and the commute to the CBD from Drummoyne via Balmain.

Melbourne should introduce a “CBD cordon” congestion charge, similar to London’s. The cordon could cover Hoddle Street to the east, Royal Parade to the west, City Road and Olympic Boulevard to the south, and Alexandra Parade to the north, with motorists charged when they drive across the cordon into the city during peak periods.

People who pay the charge would get a quicker and more reliable trip, because there would be fewer cars on the road at peak times. People who can travel outside of the peaks would not have to pay, because there would be no congestion charge when the roads are not congested.

To make clear that the new charges are to help manage traffic flows rather than boost revenue, the money raised should be used to fund a discount on vehicle registration fees and improvements to the train, tram, ferry and bus networks.

Melbourne’s CBD parking levy should be doubled, to match Sydney’s and to further discourage city commuters from driving to work.

And public transport fares in both cities should be cut during off-peak periods, to encourage people to shift their travel to times when the trains, trams and buses are not overcrowded.

The report dismisses the idea that new city freeways are the answer to road congestion.

New roads are important for areas of new growth or substantial redevelopment, but close to the city centres it is often more effective and always cheaper to invest in smaller-scale engineering and technology improvements such as traffic-light coordination, smarter intersection design, variable speed limits and better road surfaces and gradients.

“Don’t listen to the politicians who tell you big new roads will be ‘congestion busters’,” says Grattan Institute Transport Program Director Marion Terrill.

“You can’t build your way out of congestion.

“We need more sophisticated solutions. Some of the great cities of the world have successful congestion pricing schemes, including London, Stockholm and Singapore.

“For Sydney and Melbourne, congestion pricing would deliver city-wide benefits: not only reducing the amount of time we spend stuck in traffic, but also funding better public transport and a cut to car registration fees.”

Read the report

For further enquiries:
Marion Terrill, Transport Program Director
T. 03 8344 3637 E.

How to make sure Australia has enough electricity in the future

Australia should start work immediately on a new way to ensure reliable electricity supplies, according to a new Grattan Institute report.

Next Generation: the long-term future of the National Electricity Market calls for preparatory work on a ‘capacity mechanism’ to encourage investment in new electricity generation and reduce the threat of shortages and blackouts.

The report warns, however, that the costs of such peace of mind would ultimately fall on consumers through higher electricity prices. So a capacity mechanism should be introduced only if all other market reforms have been exhausted and supply is still under threat.

Through a capacity mechanism, generators would be paid not only for the electricity they produce to meet current demand, but for committing to provide power for years into the future. The market operator or retailers could contract for sufficient electricity to meet future demand, to ensure new generation and storage is built in time.

“Australians have endured a decade of toxic political debates about climate change policy, South Australians suffered a state-wide blackout last year, consumers across the country are screaming about skyrocketing electricity bills, and energy companies are shutting down big coal-fired power stations,” says Grattan Institute Energy Program Director Tony Wood.

“It is understandable that governments feel the need to ‘do something’. But the danger is they will rush in and make things worse. What Australia needs now is perspective, not panic.”

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) last week called for a ‘longer-term approach’ to ensure electricity supplies. The Grattan report identifies a capacity obligation on retailers as the most effective and lowest-cost approach.

The report calls for a three-step policy. First, the Federal Government should implement all recommendations of the June 2017 Finkel Review, including a Clean Energy Target or a similar mechanism to price greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, alongside the Australian Energy Market Commission’s work on the market’s reliability framework, AEMO’s annual assessment of future supply and demand should be extended to include a more comprehensive assessment of the future adequacy of generation supply.

And third, if the newly created Energy Security Board concludes that projected shortfalls are unlikely to be met under the current market design, AEMO should introduce a capacity mechanism.

“This pragmatic, planned approach offers the best prospect of affordable, reliable, secure and sustainable power for Australians,” Tony Wood says.

Read the report

For further enquiries: Tony Wood, Energy Program Director
T. +61 (0)3 8344 3637 E.

Australia’s city-country divide is not as wide as you may think


The popular idea that the economic divide between Australia’s cities and regions is getting bigger is a misconception, according to new Grattan Institute research.

The working paper Regional patterns of Australia’s economy and population, released today, shows that beneath the oft-told ‘tale of two Australias’ is a more nuanced story.

Income growth and employment rates are not obviously worse in regional areas.

Cities and regions both have pockets of disadvantage, as well as areas with healthy income growth and low unemployment.

And while cities have higher average incomes, the gap in incomes between the cities and the regions is not getting wider.

Grattan Institute CEO John Daley says the research casts doubt on the idea that regional Australians are increasingly voting for minor parties because the regions are getting a raw deal compared to the cities.

“Given that people in regions have generally fared as well as those in cities over the past decade, major parties may need to look beyond income and employment to discover why dissatisfaction among regional voters is increasing,” he says.

The paper shows that the highest taxable incomes in Australia are in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, followed by Cottesloe in Perth and Stonnington in eastern Melbourne. The lowest taxable incomes are in Tasmania and the regions of the east-coast states, especially the far north coast of NSW, central Victoria and southern Queensland.

But income growth in the regions has kept pace with income growth in the cities over the past decade. The lowest income growth was typically in suburban areas of major cities.

While unemployment varies between regions, it is not noticeably worse in the regions overall. Some of the biggest increases in unemployment over the past five years were along transport ‘spines’ in cities, such as the Ipswich to Carole Park corridor in Brisbane and the Dandenong to Pakenham corridor in Melbourne.

The biggest difference between regions and cities is that inland regional populations are generally growing slower – particularly in non-mining states. Cities are attracting many more migrants, particularly from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The east coast “sea change” towns are also getting larger, but unemployment is relatively high.

The research will contribute to a forthcoming Grattan Institute report examining why the vote for minor parties has risen rapidly over the past decade, particularly in regional electorates.

Read the report

For further enquiries: John Daley, CEO
T. +61 (0)3 8344 3637 E.