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Editorial - Ideological battles

AM I wrong or are there a lot more ideological battles taking place in our country than there has been for a long time?

Recently we’ve had the obvious ideological battleground of whether Australia should commit forces to war. That issue, though more subdued, simmers every day as the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat hits the news.

But there are a bundle of less inflammatory issues that have equally import-ant consequences for our nation and our State.

With conservatives in the ascendancy at Federal level this year’s budget has highlighted the patient process of shifting the cost of health and tertiary education, among other things, from the exclusive realm of the taxpayer to the user – perhaps it is not overdoing it by saying this is really the quiet dismantling of Australia’s version of the welfare state.

Arguably, part of this process is also efforts to squeeze funding out of CSIRO and the ABC.

On top of that there is the crusade by Tony Abbott against the dark forces that dwell in our construction industry.

But there are other less political debates.

Like the obesity debate, as our children, encouraged by their parents, become fat little mid-west Americans in every respect bar their accents – and even that is questionable at times.

The age-old debate about the divide between the haves and have nots has also been dusted off for another airing. I reckon all this debate is healthy.

One thing is for sure, failing to question the status quo is just as bad as changing things just for the sake of it.

A lot of the issues I have mentioned are serious ones that deserve addressing. When Australia adopted a lot of welfare state ideals, it was in a world much poorer than the one we live in today.

It was a time when to compete in that much narrower form of global competition was to offer such things as free university education and universal health care.

We needed to use our collective resources to rise up and meet some challenges. Arguably, we have done that.

You don’t need education to be free to know that you will benefit from it.

And why should you have free healthcare if the money you are saving is being spent on cigarettes, alcohol, Coke and chips?

I am cautious to say this because I benefited from both. I was fortunate, just as Australians at the turn of the century were more fortunate than almost any other nation’s citizens at that time. Part luck, part good management.

The point I am trying to get to is that there are times when such things are useful and times when they become redundant. This is not a case of “I’m alright Jack”, as they say.

Across our population, except for Aboriginals, the level of health and tertiary education has reached an extraordinary level compared to 50 years ago when the welfare state was constructed after the long years of World War II.

Some would say our health care is deteriorating, but it’s not. Some expensive forms of medicine and therapy have become commonplace and are placing a burden on the system.

Some might say our universities are slipping behind. But many have developed expertise in important new fields as solutions to funding needs have been sought and have become stronger for it.

The point being that Australia faces many challenges and sometimes you need to restructure things to meet those challenges.

Could our country’s economy be as strong as it is today without the hard lessons of banking and financial sector reforms of the 1980s? I think not.

Like any product or service, when the consumer understands its importance it will pay the market rate.

Tertiary education and health are such things. We no longer need these things to be free to compete – instead we have decades of investment at such a level leaving us with tremendous infrastructure to build on.

With the safety net of HECS allowing anyone access to university and a robust public health system with means-tested access to non-emergency services, governments can start earmarking money to meet new challenges that have so far eluded us.

There are the known issues such as defence and an ageing population to consider, not to mention the emerging issue of water access and the environment as well as the need to refocus on early childhood development as Professor Fiona Stanley regularly points out.

There is no point in having free unis and free GPs if you can’t afford to deal with new threats to our way of life – both the obvious and the unexpected.

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