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Book review 'Vital Signs Vibrant Society': Labor can lead reform

By Corin McCarthy - posted Monday, 23 October 2006

Prominent Labor backbencher Craig Emerson has recently used his time to great effect - writing Vital Signs Vibrant Society - a detailed policy prescription for the next 50 years.

Ross Garnaut writes: “[Vital Signs] … is the most detailed plan for Australian economic reform written by an Australian parliamentarian”.

Vital Signs is indeed a rich blend of economic thought designed to persuade policy elites to change direction. Emerson provides a courageous call to reject short-term agendas and for his party to look at what Australia requires in the long run to succeed.


Public service choice

The so-called twin pillars of Labor support - health and education - require a fundamental rethink in delivery method according to Emerson.

He advocates:

  • funding of school students based on need and not whether the schools are state or privately run; and
  • in health the wider use of offset co-payments in non-essential Medicare services.

This places Emerson to the right of his party on public sector reform.

His market-based service delivery is weighted with benefits towards the low end of the earning spectrum, providing a true reform model for public service choice with fairness instilled.

Education funding reform

Emerson cites that a larger sum for poorer students will provide better school funding outcomes and this I agree with. Further, that schools will consequently want poorer students to attend them for custom rather than these students being pushed to the margins of poor performing schools.


This powerful case for removing the funding distinctions between state and private schools is valid as long as the funding differential (with weighting to poor families) is sufficient. Indeed the values of choice will be further embraced by Australians if more Australians are able to access better schools - especially those deprived students who have greater funding attached to them.

In supporting his school funding model, his strongest arguments are not made fully though. Choice also has a democratic component to it: I would argue the strongest reason to support his position is a democratic mandate that a parent - from greater earning backgrounds - may choose religious, non-religious, state or private schools more easily. Yet Emerson does not mark out this territory.

Medicare co-payments

In my view, more offset co-payments for non-essential Medicare use is a vital cost reduction strategy that can keep public health care costs under control by promoting wealthier people to take out “gap” insurance and use the private system. So this debate I also welcome.

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About the Author

Corin McCarthy was an adviser in opposition and government to Craig Emerson MP. He also advised Labor’s 2007 election campaign on small business issues. He has written widely on these issues in The Australian and On Line Opinion. He currently works as a lawyer in London advising on major infrastructure projects. These views are his own.

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