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Producing Jones's Knowledge Nation will be a costly affair

By Andrew Norton - posted Sunday, 15 July 2001

The Knowledge Nation Taskforce's comprehensive agenda for upskilling Australia was widely welcomed yesterday. But the ultimate fate of the task force's report depends on a short passage near the end of Kim Beazley's speech at its launch.

"Reforms will be implemented as and when budgetary circumstances allow," the Opposition Leader said. "We will not be undermining fiscal responsibility in the delivery of these essential reforms."

We've had many reports before on why we should spend more on education and "knowledge" activities.


The task force's report is more wide-ranging than others, but that only makes the financial problem larger.

There are no costings provided, but they would be enormous. Doubling R&D as a proportion of GDP, one of the ideas to which Beazley committed himself, is alone a multibillion-dollar proposition.

And this is before we even start on improving school retention rates, increasing access to high-bandwidth services, or making Australia a world leader in biotechnology - all of which find favour with the Opposition Leader.

Financing, though, is the key issue and, unless we get some progress on that, the task force's volume will be shelved along with all its predecessors.

People associated with the ALP have given the issue thought. Professor Simon Marginson, who collaborated on an earlier ALP-aligned report into knowledge expenditure, points out that Australia has a lower tax burden than other OECD countries, and particularly its European members. He believes there is room for tax increases. But Kim Beazley's political opponents are struggling in the polls at least partly because of perceptions that the GST increased tax.

Should he win office, he is not likely to want to replace them in the electoral doldrums by increasing tax.


Earlier this year, Labor's former spokesman on education, Mark Latham, released his latest book, What did you learn today?

His solution to the financing problems is to "defund the old economy" by abolishing industry assistance and reducing what he calls "passive welfare".

With the money saved from these areas we could substantially increase investment in education and research.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on July 3, 2001.

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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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