The OECD gives Nathan Rees a nudge

With respect to the incredibly destructive electricity privatisation debate in New South Wales, I remain a fence-sitter, at least to some degree. I was not convinced by the arguments that were put forward by the former Premier and former Treasurer Michael Costa in support of the sell-off, nor the arguments of those opposing it. In an ideological sense I do not believe there to be a simple answer to the questions raised by the associated issues in this case. The old left/right dictums of “state ownership” and “private ownership” can not simply be applied glibly to complex situations such as this one, no matter what the nation’s rigid ideological warriors might continue to believe.

It’s probably worth considering the politics of this for just a moment. The Rees Labor Government is in a spot of bother, given that its former leadership team was determined to push the privatisation through, with or without the support of the NSW Labor Party. With Nathan Rees enjoying only a tenuous command of the party organisation, he lacks the political capital to defy the rump of the party on this issue, as Iemma and Costa bravely (and stupidly) tried to do. This leaves NSW Labor looking like a bit of a shambles, with the whole issue shelved once again for now. Of course, unless the government can turn things around rapidly over the next year or two, the smart money in 2011 will definitely be on the Liberal Party returning to power in New South Wales, as unsavoury as that is for Labor supporters like myself. If and when that happens, it is likely that electricity privatisation will be back on the agenda anyway, and this is something that the Rees Government needs to consider carefully.

On balance, from what I have read, I do believe that a partial sell-off of the state’s electricity assets probably makes sense for the people of New South Wales. On the other hand, I don’t think any person within the Labor Party has yet cogently argued their case to the people of this state or indeed the party’s rank and file. It’s interesting therefore to note this excerpt from the OECD’s policy brief [PDF] associated with its Economic Survey of Australia 2008 report (pp. 8-9):

The implementation of a competitive domestic energy market needs to be accelerated, with companies still under government control privatised and the ceiling on electricity retail prices removed. Public control over electricity companies is neither necessary for securing power supply nor a guarantee of efficiency. Electricity prices have risen faster in New South Wales, where there is still a public monopoly, than in other states in eastern and south-eastern Australia since the creation of the National Electricity Market, whereas productivity gains have been smaller.

So where to now on the electricity industry Premier Rees? If anywhere at all?

Measuring science education standards

The OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is the world’s largest international education survey, involving schools and students in fifty countries, and assessing the knowledge and skills of 15 year olds as they approach the end of compulsory education. Surveys are carried out every three years, with surveys focusing in reading, mathematics and science having taken place in 2000, 2003 and 2006 respectively. The next survey is scheduled for 2009 and repeating the triennial cycle, will focus on reading. The full report from 2006 is available from here, together with a more easily digestible executive summary [PDF].

The chart below (click to open) shows the mean performance of countries surveyed for 2006 (e.g. science). 

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The countries are ordered from top-left to bottom-right in the legend by performance. Overall, I think its fair to say that Australia is quite well placed in ninth slot, although there is of course still room for comparative improvement. There are a few surprises. Finland is at the top of the leaderboard, although its much lauded Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Norway did not fairly nearly so well. The United States is quite far down the list, sandwiched between Latvia and the Slovak Republic, and New Zealand just managed to outperform Australia.

While it is obvious that certain policies may only really work in certain social and cultural environments, and that different nations have different situations to deal with, one would have to think that the governments of the world should be playing fairly close attention to how Finland approaches the education of its students. When it comes to education, it is wonderful to think that Australia could one day be the nation setting the benchmark when it comes to performance metrics like these.

That is just one aspect of the challenge that lies ahead for the Rudd Government and its much vaunted education agenda. There is no excuse for the government not to aim to provide (either directly or indirectly) Australian children with the best education in the world.