Reading ambassadors fail the basic test

It's easy to become an ambassador these days. If you do the right job – model, politician, Olympian, sometimes even writer – or show your face enough, there's a chance someone'll ask you to be one.

Maybe even lots of people. Maybe even so many that, if you keep saying 'yes', you risk becoming ambassador for the National Year of Lip Service (if it's Tuesday, it must be prostate cancer…).

Until now I thought lip service was as low as ambassadorial form got (with the possible exception of getting hammered at the cocktail fund raiser and dacking the mascot or making a seriously unwelcome move on Miss Fork Muffin Day just after you've presented her with her sash).

Late last year, when I was approached to become an ambassador for the National Year of Reading, I knew it was something I should get behind. Books are what I do, reading is something I love and literacy is one of life's most crucial skills.

The real clincher for me was a statement based on recent ABS stats: "47 per cent of Queenslanders cannot read newspapers, follow a recipe, make sense of timetables, or understand instructions on a medicine bottle."

I assumed it was 4.7 per cent and they'd missed out the decimal point. Wrong. It is 47 per cent. (And, non-Queenslanders, don't go thinking things are much better where you are.)

So, I took the somewhat daggy free ambassador T-shirt and I signed up. That meant a commitment to a pic and interview for the website, four free talks and an agreement to speak up when the opportunity arose. I'm this week's featured ambassador, and I'm calling that an opportunity.

I thought my week would see me doing something along the "rah rah books are great" line. They are great (some of them, including mine obviously). But some people can't read books, and much more, and it's those people I want to focus on today.

I share my ambassador status with three Queensland government ministers. Here's what they say NYR means to them:

Campbell Newman (Premier): "I'm delighted to feature as an ambassador for the National Year of Reading. It's timely too as the Premier's Reading Challenge was recently launched in Queensland, an initiative I believe will provide a wonderful opportunity to focus on improving the literacy standards of our young students."

Ros Bates (Arts): "I am very honoured to be a National Year of Reading ambassador on behalf of the State Library of Queensland. The Library is to be congratulated for its excellent writing and literacy programs, which it rolls out across the state."

John-Paul Langbroek (Education, Training and Employment): "It is a great honour to accept the position as a Queensland Ambassador for the National Year of Reading."

Honour and delight about being involved – we should be glad to see a sizeable chunk of the state cabinet rushing to be pro-reading. If only their actions lived up to that.

Because here's the Premier's new reading challenge. Not the one featuring Campbell grinning over a picture book, with schoolkids clustered around him in varying degrees of uncertainty. This one features the 47 per cent of Queenslanders who can't read as well as they need to.

On 16 July, Mr Langbroek put out a media release announcing the canning of the Skilling Queenslanders for Work initiative.

One hundred and forty four public service jobs are to go and the usual language of this government was used: "Skilling Queenslanders for Work programs are not front line positions". So, more shiny bums, being slung out into the winds of George Street (or in this case, Mary Street)? Sorry guys, that rhetoric's already worn thin and we're starting to look closely at the fine print.

In another quote from the minister in the same media release, "Employment services are the responsibility of the federal government and … we need to end this type of needless duplication".

Needless duplication cleverly terminated? Well, no, as it turns out. To quote the state government's website on one particular SQW program that I'll explore in more detail below – though it applies to other parts of SQW too – it "primarily assists Queensland residents who are ineligible to access assistance from Australian government funded service providers".

So, were the SQW programs axed because they were duds? Also no. In The Courier-Mail, the minister said they're "great programs" and in the media release he says they were cut because we "cannot afford" them.

So, it's about saving money then? How does that rationale stack up? Also not so well. Here's how Deloitte Access Economics sees it: "The annual outlay by Queensland on SQW is returned to the state within a year of program completion, in terms of both increased earnings and value added."

Simple as that. These programs make money.

In the period 2007-08 to 2009-10, 57,000 people gained employment through SQW. Employment – that's when people who have been relying on benefits earn wages, pay tax and spend.

I'm sure no one needs persuading about the social benefits of employment, and the economic benefits are huge. And in this case quantifiable. If it's about the numbers, minister, here's some that are worth a look.

By 2020, had it continued, Deloitte Access Economics estimates this $53 million initiative would have contributed $6.5 billion to the Queensland economy and generated $1.2 billion in state taxes. It's a wealth builder, a capacity builder and a self-esteem builder.

When the opposition raised the success of SQW in Parliament on August 22, Mr Langbroek, forgetting for a moment that these were "great programs", called Labor "fiscal incompetents" for spending more on job creation than South Australia.

They might also have spent more than Guam, Bratislava and who knows where else, but what kind of measure is that exactly? The programs put loads of people in work and generate more tax revenue than they cost.

"Don't worry about the outcomes, just keep funding it," he said, presumably inferring that was the Labor attitude. But plenty of us worry about the outcomes, minister, and call us all fiscal incompetents if you want to – Labor, me, Deloitte Access Economics – but the numbers make it pretty clear that the outcomes are great. And surely you know that, since you're not, um, a fiscal incompetent, are you?

But why draw all that into a piece about the National Year of Reading? Part of SQW is/was the $2 million Community Literacy Program "to help disadvantaged job seekers develop and improve their language, literacy and numeracy skills".

So, in the National Year of Reading, three ambassadors are right at the heart of a government that axes a literacy program for disadvantaged people. One is the relevant minister, one is the Premier, one is the minister representing the libraries that run many of our community literacy programs.

Here's how that money's spent, or at least some of it – $100,000 a year for a community literacy program run from a regional library service north of Brisbane. That money funds:

  • specialist adult literacy staff (one permanent and three casual);
  • training of volunteers (who must complete certified short course 30979QLD in Volunteer Community Adult Literacy Tutoring);
  • provision of specialist resources;
  • admin support (such as photocopying of lesson materials); and
  • insurance.

There are currently 100 or more active volunteers – now trained literacy experts – giving their time for nothing.

The program operates across seven venues in its region, each week offering four core literacy classes, three conversational English classes and close to 200 hours of the volunteer tutor time that allows intensive one-on-one tutoring, with lesson plans customised for each participant.

The program receives referrals from job placement and other agencies, and no other program exists that can deliver what it delivers.

In 2011, it gave regular, focused and personalised assistance to around 200 participants, 148 funded by SQW and 50 or more unfunded. The students enrol in the 30719QLD course in adult literacy and numeracy. Over the past year, 178 were enrolled in a module of the course and 122 completed a module (some students take two years to complete a module).

As a result of their achievements in the program, many participants were able to keep jobs they were in danger of losing. Others became eligible for (and achieved) promotion. Some got their first ever jobs, some went into further training, some became volunteers in their community. All benefited from a boost in self-esteem and an increased mastery of their environments and access to information.

And all at a cost in the order of hundreds of dollars per participant (a cost we know will be dwarfed by the economic benefit).

Premier, in the National Year of Reading, you and two of your ministers have signed up as ambassadors and mouthed the requisite pro-reading statements, while at the same time taking action that will deny literacy to thousands of people across the state who badly need it.

You will keep people out of jobs. You will stand in the way of them learning. You will limit their capacity to contribute. You will diminish their opportunities and their families' opportunities.

You talk a lot about front-line services. If literacy isn't front line, ambassadors, what is?

I realise it's awkward for the National Year of Reading coordinators to have one ambassador going rogue and turning on three others. That's why I've kept this post from them until it's gone live – it's entirely my responsibility and not theirs. I can't say if they'll be filthy with me, crapping themselves at the thought of ambassadorial T-shirts shredding in the scuffle, or able to see my point and why I need to make it. (I expect I'll find out soon enough …)

But I can't let my week as ambassador be about lip service. If it's September, it must be, um, [pauses to check diary … men's sheds? … endangered fluffy animals? … oh, wait, there it is now …] reading. No. I need to do better. And, while this week is also Brisbane Writers Festival and this month is the big month for Get Reading and I'll be doing plenty of "rah rah books are great" – and sincerely too – I can't let that be all I do.

Premier and ministers, the best thing I can do in my featured week to live up to my commitment as an ambassador is to tell people what your government is doing and how misguided you are in doing it, and that you need to hand back your T shirts or reverse this decision now.

Skilling Queenslanders for Work is an investment in people that comes with the bonus of giving the state an investment-grade financial return.

I know the Premier has said the only negative mail he gets is form letters from unions, but it's time for those of us who have and value literacy skills to put them to work and let him know that we need this changed.

Please contact them, and please get everyone you know to do the same. Please copy and paste this post at will to tell your friends about this issue, or send them here. Please tweet about it and retweet.

It's time to help these politicians see sense before their ambassador invitations arrive from the team at World Hypocrisy Day. Meanwhile I'm happy to announce that my new T-shirt's just arrived and I'm the first official signing for National Cranky Ambassador Week.

This post originally appeared on Nick Earls's blog.

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