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Taxpayers dig for details

AN eleventh-hour backroom deal with the Greens brings the government's mining tax one step closer to law. But even as legislative completion looms, questions arise about the tax's financial details.

AN eleventh-hour backroom deal with the Greens brings the government's mining tax one step closer to law. But even as legislative completion looms, questions arise about the tax's financial details.

AN eleventh-hour backroom deal with the Greens brings the government's mining tax one step closer to law. But even as legislative completion looms, questions arise about the tax's financial details. We've long argued it's only fair for Australians to capture a greater share of this once-in-a-century commodity boom. But will the revenue raised by this new mining tax - $11 billion over the forward estimates - be sufficient to cover the cost of associated promises? These include raising the superannuation guarantee, cutting the corporate tax rate from 30 per cent to 29 per cent and new infrastructure.

By tying a highly cyclical source of revenue - the mining tax - to spending promises which continue in perpetuity, the government has exposed itself to a potential budget shortfall. If spending costs proved higher than anticipated, or mining tax revenues lower, that would by itself constitute no immediate political failure. Should such a yawning gap occur, it would be prudent for promised spending to be curtailed. But it would seem difficult, once legislated, to reverse cuts to the company tax rate or increases to superannuation. Infrastructure spending would be the most likely candidate for the chop.

The important thing here is transparency. Taxpayers are overdue an update on Treasury's latest forecasts for revenue to be collected by the mining tax and the cost of associated promises. Projections on these matters are by definition fragile - they depend upon many assumptions about the future path of commodity prices, economic growth and savings. Who really knows where China will be in a decade, let alone in five years? But all budgets are built on such assumptions, and prudent budgeting requires that such assumptions are laid bare for all to see.

Speaking of which ? if the government's budget bottom line seems somewhat obscured, the shape of a future Abbott government's budget is completely opaque. The Gillard government may or may not emerge ahead on its mining tax-and-spend package. But it is clear from the outset that the Coalition - by promising to abolish the mining tax revenue but committing to increasing the superannuation guarantee - faces a budget shortfall. And this is in addition to the $70 billion budget ''black hole'' revealed in internal Coalition minutes leaked in August.

As the pollster's clear favourite to win the next election, the Coalition needs to outline what budget cuts or extra revenue measures it will use, if elected, to fill its budget shortfall.

Starting early with languagesBEFORE he set off on his recent mission to boost economic and cultural ties with India, Barry O'Farrell voiced his opinion that our education system had foreign language teaching the wrong way round. It puts intensive teaching in the senior years of high school and university, and relies on a light, sampling approach in primary school years when young brains are at their most flexible and ready to soak up and retain new vocabularies and grammars.

Combine the boredom and frustration of learning language basics in mid- to late-teen years with the pressures to opt for subjects that boost tertiary entrance scores, and you have the dismal drop-off in all language study that we see today, not least in Asian languages.

With a new paper from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, we're reminded that NSW starts from an already invidious position. At the moment there is no formal requirement for language teaching at all in NSW primary schools. Not until the first two years of high school is instruction mandated, at 100 hours of class time. By contrast, students from Victoria's primary schools will already have spent 700 hours learning foreign languages.

The Victorians complain ACARA's recommendation of 350 hours of teaching in primary schools, followed by 160 hours in years 7 and 8, would reduce them to the common denominator. For NSW it would be a great leap forward. But even then, as the Herald reported on Tuesday, the state's Education Department is showing no enthusiasm for the change.

ACARA has not made it any easier by recommending that Mandarin Chinese and Italian be the first languages of priority. The first would require either a huge, long-term investment in local teachers, or recruitment of exchange teachers from China - the latter the more feasible option for near-term results, but needing innovatory thinking from the department and the teachers' union. The choice of Italian is bizarre. It has little weight in our existing bank of language teaching skills, and - with all due respect to our Italian migrant community - will not loom as a language of strategic value for Australia.

The situation calls for leadership from the top. O'Farrell must put the stamp of his own thinking on language teaching in NSW primary schools and overcome the institutional inertia in the Education Department. If he does, it will rank as one of the things marking him as a premier out of the ordinary, even a great one.


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