Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Feb 27, 2021

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

Australian politics

The court of Scott Morrison

The other Versailles
The other Versailles

On the sexist culture in Parliament House Clare O’Neil writes There is a greater sense of male entitlement in Australia’s parliament than in any workplace I have seen. “If we needed any proof of the sickness of the culture in parliament, it is that [Brittany Higgins] is the only person to date who has paid any price for what happened to her”. (The Guardian) In the few days since then others have emerged.

This sick culture is in a wider context – the self-contained and disconnected culture of Parliament House. Laura Tingle and James Elton describe Parliament House as an oppressive and all-controlling workplace, shaped by special legislation designed to enforce unquestioning loyalty to political bosses.

What Tingle and Elton describe, and what many readers of Pearls and Irritations who have dealt with Parliament have experienced, is more akin to the court of the French kings at Versailles (but lacking the style and panache), shielded from the people – their needs, their norms and their values – by an ever-tightening security barrier. Only a select few, including corporate elites from rent-seeking and extractive industries, are welcomed into Morrison’s court.

That fortified compound is a world unto itself, with its own hairdresser, post office and other services, providing for the 5000 servants of the court. Their job is to provide loyal service to their political bosses – preparing spreadsheets with coloured cells to help a minister allocate grants to crucial seats, writing speeches for ministers designed to deceive the public through sophistry and casuistry, manipulating statistical and accounting figures in ways to put the best light on their political masters, and above all protecting them from exposure of their corruption. In return they are paid well and as Tingle and Elton point out, those who work for the governing party have much to lose, particular the glamour of proximity to power, if the government changes.

If Parliament were a playground it wouldn’t matter much – in a world where we can splash $79 billion on submarines we will never use, the cost of running a playground would be a comparatively small waste of public funds. But it’s where decisions are made: laws are passed and funds are appropriated that affect everybody’s lives.

Political commentators talk about the “Canberra bubble”, but it is actually the “parliamentary bubble”. The public service – the institution with corporate memory, administrative experience, policy analysis, connection with research institutions – is increasingly shut out of the court, or invited in only if it yields to the political demands of the ruling party.

A few brave women are giving us a look inside the court, and we are understandably repulsed by what we see. They have their personal sufferings, and the whole Australian community is paying a price for a corrupted structure of governance.

Seven years of Liberal Party corruption: The Chaser counts the ways

The Chaser’s Matthew Davis lists 124 ”questionable” decisions made by the Coalition in its current period in office. A complete list of the Liberal Party’s corruption over the last 7 years.  It’s impressive. It includes the perennial cases – ministers abusing travel accounts, contracts let to political mates, major contracts let without tender, discretionary payments directed to sensitive electorates – as well as major abuses of democratic processes, including punishment of whistleblowers, refusal to establish an anti-corruption body, and walls of secrecy to hide decision processes.

The only reservation we have about the list is the claim that it’s “complete”.

In praise of the secret ballot

Americans and Australians alike have been amazed by the way a hard core of Republican Congressmen have shown steadfast loyalty to Trump. Just hours after a murderous mob, fired up by his support, stormed the Congress, 147 Republican Congressmen voted to reject the election results, and in the subsequent hearings only 10 Republican Senators voted to impeach Trump.

Assuming that not all these lawmakers are as deranged as Trump, the explanation for their votes lies in terms of the reactions of their own Republican Party state and Congressional District branches, on which they are dependent for re-nomination.

Writing in Club TroppoSaving democracy: one secret ballot at a time – Nicholas Gruen ponders what the results might have been, had the US Congress been voting in secret ballots. He’s fairly confident that a secret ballot would have seen lawmakers voting in line with their judgement, and Trump would probably have been impeached the first time around. Gruen suggests that perhaps the Senate could have passed a procedural motion to hold a secret ballot for the substantive vote.

Gruen suggests that in certain cases at least, the secret ballot (once known the world over as the “Australian ballot”) should be extended to parliaments. He points out that had our members of parliament voted in a secret ballot in 2013 by now we would have a well-accepted carbon pricing mechanism.

The US Constitution was written for a representative democracy, requiring lawmakers to use their judgement to vote in the interests of their constituents: they were not to be passive delegates bound by the populist opinion. But in democracies around the world that principle has been cast aside.

Bushfire advice: move to a Coalition electorate

Following last summer’s catastrophic bushfires the Federal Government announced $2.7 billion in recovery funding, but less than half that amount has been spent. Some of the shortfall is because projects take a long time to get going, but of more concern is that funds that should have been distributed for immediate relief to individuals have been held up by bureaucratic delays.

This, and other mismanagement of bushfire recovery funds, is documented in a joint Getup!-Percapita publication Smokescreen: The rhetoric and reality of federal bushfire recovery funding. It’s not even clear that the Commonwealth is spending $2.7 billion: some of that money seems to be re-allocations from other programs, and it appears that in some cases ministers have announced the same funding twice.

Given the geographical spread of the fires it is understandable that Coalition-held areas would be more affected than Labor-held areas, but the allocations seem to be disproportionately favouring New South Wales, which has received 77 per cent of economic recovery funds so far released, even though the fires also raged in Queensland and Victoria. Within New South Wales there is evidence that funds have been pork-barrelled, with the badly-affected Blue Mountains area – held by Labor – being disadvantaged in comparison with areas held by state Coalition members.

Why are we keeping Australian-born children in immigration detention?

Remember the Murugappan family? They’re the refugee family who had settled in the central Queensland town of Biloela, with their two Australian-born daughters, before the Commonwealth Government put them into detention when their bridging visa expired in March 2018. Then in August 2019 the Government put them on a plane for Sri Lanka, but a last-minute injunction stopped their deportation, and in echoes of the 1954 Petrov Affair, the plane was forced to land in Darwin. Since then they have been in detention on Christmas Island. Earlier this month they enjoyed a minor win in a legal appeal – sufficient to defer their deportation but inadequate to secure their release. They have now been in detention for three years.

In The Saturday Paper Rachel Withers has written a detailed account of their struggles against the brutal bureaucracy of Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs. (See the Schwartz Media website for access limits).

The family has strong support in the community: see the Home to Bilo website. Biloela lies in the Flynn electorate, which extends west from Gladstone.  It is held by LNP Member Ken O’Dowd, with a 2PP vote of 59:41, but he can hardly claim to hold strong personal support. His primary vote in the 2019 election was only 34 per cent: this was boosted by preferences from One Nation (20 per cent primary vote) and United Australia (4 per cent primary vote).  A strong independent candidate may have a fighting chance.

The USA – how stands the union?

An Australian in Washington meets a deranged narcissist

In his five years as a journalist in the US Jonathan Swan has made a name for himself, particularly for his interview last August where he confronted Trump with figures on coronavirus. Swan allowed Trump to reveal to the world not only his innumeracy but also his inability to spin even a half-credible story around the country’s appalling performance in dealing with the pandemic.

He has now presented five twenty-minute podcasts How it happened: Trump’s last stand, taking the listener into Trump’s conversations and deliberations between election day on 3 November and the assault on Congress on 6 January. They are constructed from recollections of people who were in the Oval Office, in Air Force 1, and at a Trump rally in a Philadelphia garden supplies shop jammed between a sex shop and a crematorium.

Anyone who expects Swan to reveal the thinking of an evil genius will be disappointed: what Swan reveals is the behaviour of a deranged narcissist, untethered from reality.

The ABC’s Conversations program has a 52-minute discussion between Swan and Richard Fidler about the series. Swan describes some of the highlights of the series, and he discusses, with all due modesty, his success in cutting through to Trump in ways most native US journalists have been unable to do. As an outsider Swan had not been immersed in the established patterns in which Washington’s journalists show deference, or even reverence to the President. That was to his advantage. He also describes to an Australian audience the atmosphere of a Trump rally as something like a joyous religious experience for his disciples.

Perhaps in Australia we need a few more foreign journalists who can cut through to Morrison and his ministers, forcing them to reveal the hollowness and inconsistencies in their policies.

When do political hatred and fear turn to violence?

On Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviews counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen on US domestic militias.  It is only through the good work of the FBI and law-enforcement authorities that the US has not seen even more serious political violence in the post-election period.

Kilcullen stresses that in the US the far right has stoked political hatred, but hatred itself does not lead to violence. When hatred turns to fear – for example fear that the economic and class status of “whites” is being undermined and that governments are doing nothing to protect them or are evening assisting the process, fear can turn to violence.  As the right marshals its resources to defend its territory, so does the left in response.

One of his chilling revelations is that widespread political violence often arises in the wake of disputed elections.

The Biden Administration must tread a fine line. The threat of widespread violence is dormant, not extinguished: it must not be ignored.  The government cannot go in heavy-handed with military force because that only strengthens paranoia. It must treat violations such as the attack on Congress as criminal acts. (19 minutes)

Kilcullen is author of The dragons and the snakes: how the rest learned to fight the west, a description of how patterns of conflict have been changing, with a blurring of the dividing line between the way state (formal military forces) and non-state (terrorist and guerrilla movements) operate.

Polls and surveys

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on the latest Newspoll and Roy Morgan polls, both of which have the TPP split 50:50. (Actually 50.5:49.5 in Labor’s favour in the Morgan poll but such precision is meaningless.)

Labor’s primary vote seems to be creeping up according to Newspoll. It is now hovering around 36 to 37 per cent, up from 33 per cent at the 2019 election, but the Coalition vote has also increased a little (to about 42 per cent, up from 41 per cent in 2019), but these may just be artefacts of inter-election polls, which shift towards major parties and away from “other”.

Of more concern to Labor would be Morrison’s widening lead over Albanese on approval and as preferred prime minister revealed in the Newspoll  – a result also shown in last week’s Essential poll. It is possible that Morrison is distancing himself from the stench of the Liberal Party’s corruption and incompetence – as revealed by his claim that he had no knowledge of the allegations of sexual assault among party staffers. It’s akin to the way the US president can separate himself or herself from Congress, but Morrison’s separation is a fiction. We have an executive that sits in Parliament, and with Craig Kelly gone the Liberal, National and joint caucuses are solidly in line with Morrison.

Energy policy

The geopolitics of energy

Recent history has seen a few countries holding political power because of their control of energy resources, but that era is ending with the tumbling cost of renewable energy.

At present 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that are dependent on imports of fossil fuel, but in the future renewable energy resources will be geographically distributed: there will be no renewable “superpowers” as there were fossil fuel superpowers. The world has reached “peak oil” but this isn’t the “peak oil” envisaged some decades ago when people were thinking of supply capacity; this time “peak oil” has been reached because of falling demand.

This was one of the points made by Thijs Van de Graaf of Ghent University on Saturday Extra last weekend – The renewable geopolitical order.

He has a sobering message for Australians hoping to see our country develop green steel and a hydrogen-based economy. These are worthwhile projects, and we should proceed with them, but there are plenty of other countries with sunshine and wind: we don’t have much time to get an early advantage, and our lead should be in technology. He refers to an article in the Financial Times: How the race for renewable energy is reshaping global politics,  that forms the basis of his interview. The article’s maps of the world distribution of wind and solar resources are revealing – we’re not the only place with a surfeit of wind and sunshine, but we do have a deficit of hydro resources.

He points out that one country stuck in the old fossil fuel superpower model is Russia: it has abundant fossil fuel reserves but is not well-endowed with wind or sunshine.

(It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that if Russia wants to keep Australia out of the renewable transition all it has to do is to nobble a few National Party politicians, or even perhaps a key Labor politician or two in coal-mining electorates, and rely on our dysfunctional convention of party loyalty to block any sensible transition to a competitive renewable-based economy.)

Decarbonising the USA – the big challenge

The Biden Administration has been quick to return the USA to the Paris Agreement, but what does this mean in terms of its necessary industrial transformation to decarbonise?

The Economist has a 45-minute podcast The switch – how can America decarbonise?, involving political figures (John Kerry, now Biden’s climate envoy, and Democrat Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia) and experts (Varshini Prakash of activist group Sunrise and Charlotte Howard, The Economist New York Bureau chief).

Decarbonising the electricity sector will be the easy part compared with other sectors. In fact, rather than approaching each sector (electricity, transport, agriculture …) separately, public policy should be directed to electrifying as much of the economy as is economically feasible. Most transport, apart from aviation, can be electrified, as can many energy-intensive manufacturing industries.

Opinion polling reveals popular support for decarbonising the economy, but America’s political system makes change difficult. Coal mining accounts for only three per cent of West Virginia’s employment, but it has a much greater presence in the state’s political identity as Senator Manchin points out. The Democrats’ numbers in the Senate do not guarantee an easy path to de-carbonising the economy.

What about nuclear power for Australia?

The Nuclear for Climate group points out that a majority of Coalition backbenchers – particularly National Party backbenchers – favour allowing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to invest in nuclear energy. Morrison, however, will not move to lift the ban on nuclear energy without bipartisan support.

They make the reasonable point that Canada, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea are all relying on nuclear power as part of their contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

These countries reasonably consider their investment in nuclear power as a sunk investment, but would they go ahead with nuclear power if they did not already have it?

On the post is a detailed comment by Peter Farley, pointing out the financial folly of investing in nuclear power in 2021. It would take many years for a plant to come on stream, over which time the cost of renewables and batteries will continue to fall. The figures he provides sink any idea of nuclear power for Australia.

The Australian economy

The unemployment benefit – back to poverty

In March last year the unemployment benefit was boosted by $275 a week with a coronavirus supplement. The supplement fell to $125 a week in September, and from the beginning of this year it has been $75, before it will be abolished at the end of March.

But the Morrison Government has raised the base rate of the unemployment benefit. It will be lifted by $25 a week – from $257 to $307. The Australian Council of Social Services has called it a cruel decision that shows a complete lack of humanity and empathy.  Morrison has boasted that it’s the largest increase for decades, but as with so much of his spin, that’s meaningless, because it has been subject to small increments twice a year in line with CPI inflation: any step rise is large by comparison. Such indexation seems to be reasonable at first sight, but in relation to incomes it has been falling back. Age pensions, by contrast, are linked to wages, not inflation.

Economic advice from Ross G

Contrary to the government’s claims, the economy didn’t look too flash before we were hit by the pandemic. The economy we return to once the pandemic is suppressed will be even worse. To lift the country out of mediocrity we need fundamental reforms in income support (a guaranteed minimum income) and significant tax reform.

They’re the main points in Ross Gittins’ review of Ross Garnaut’s book Reset: Restoring Australia after the pandemic recession.

One of the main reforms Garnaut and his colleagues – Craig Emerson, Reuben Finighan and Stephen Anthony – recommend a fundamental change in corporate taxes.

It has become increasingly difficult for the governments of mid-sized nations such as Australia to collect taxes from corporations. Multinational firms have many means to shift profits to low-tax jurisdictions, and in response governments have been engaged in a futile race to the bottom by reducing corporate tax rates.

We must do something smarter.

Their proposal is published in the Australian Economic Review, suggesting that the corporate income tax be replaced by a cash flow tax. Although at first sight a cash flow tax appears to be distortionary because it fails to distinguish between capital and recurrent cash flows, the authors point out that with simple refinements a cash flow tax can result in more efficient resource allocation than a profit tax, and can be designed to tax only economic rents (i.e. above-normal profits). Disallowing tax deductibility for interest payments (the flip side of not taxing normal profits) would not only discourage intra-firm lending at high rates (a common means of tax avoidance) but would also result in more secure corporate structures carrying less debt.

If you’re reading this you have at least a basic internet connection

Remember this sound? We’ve come some way from the dial-up modem, but our mixed-technology internet still falls far short of Labor’s original fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) model.

Rob Harris and Jennifer Duke from the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age have used previously redacted content from a 2013 review of the NBN, from which they calculate that Labor’s original plan would have been at least $10 billion less costly than the Coalition Government claimed. It was already evident in 2013 that cost efficiency improvements were available, but the Coalition, in order to support its assertion that Labor’s plan was “hugely expensive”, chose not to factor these efficiencies into its comparative costings: Secret figures show full fibre NBN may have cost $10 billion less than claimed.

Newsflash – Facebook and Google are different

As the Commonwealth has grappled with ways to get companies to pay for news content, there has been a tendency to refer to them as similar tech giants because they are both used as gateways to news content.

So why has Facebook managed to stand up to the Government, while Google has buckled?  (The official account is padded with a little face-saving qualification.)

In a piece in the Canberra TimesWhy Facebook is beyond our control – Peter Martin takes us back to basic Economics 1. Google has competitors, or at least potential competitors. Facebook, by contrast, has power in the market, because its users have built up a network. One can switch from Google to another search engine: it may or may not be as good. But he or she who drops Facebook drops out of a network. De facto Facebook is close to a monopoly.

The virtue of the World Wide Web, supported technically by the Internet, is that it does not have a single gateway. That design should protect us from domination by a gatekeeper – a gatekeeper who can tell us what we can and cannot read, hear and watch, and more worryingly, who can feed us with what the gatekeeper believes we should read, hear and watch. In using Facebook as a news portal, its subscribers are consolidating that power.

In closing off its news links Facebook has done Australians a service: they have had to go to publishers’ own sites. It’s not hard to compile a list of your own shortcuts to locations on the Web. We commend this to Pearls and Irritations readers.

The pandemic’s progress


In a process that makes soviet-era bureaucracy look slick by comparison, vaccination is getting under way.

Norman Swan reminds us on Coronacast, that vaccination is only the end of the beginning (10 minutes).  He says unequivocally that “we’ve made the wrong bet with the Astra vaccine”. For effective control of the virus we should have gone with the mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer (which we’re getting in limited quantities), Moderna or perhaps even Novavax, which are more likely to protect against emerging new strains. This is not to criticise the government or their advisers: they were acting on the basis of very little information.

The Australian Academy of Science has urged the Government to invest in updated mRNA vaccine technology, otherwise we will be vulnerable to regional supply limitations.  (CSL is manufacturing only the Astra vaccine.)

That doesn’t mean Swan thinks we shouldn’t bother with vaccination: “I think it’s really important that we all get covered. So, first of all, we are going to have a layer of protection” he says.  (In fact, mathematically, the weaker the vaccine is in terms of preventing transmission, the more important it is to go for 100 per cent vaccination). He warns that if our behaviour gets back to normal too early we could be hit with a third wave evolving at the end of the northern hemisphere summer.

If we don’t count Victoria’s 24 rapidly-contained cases, or earlier single cases in Western Australia and New South Wales, it seems that Australia has gone at least four weeks without community transmission. The last cluster in New South Wales was cleared up in mid-January.  As at yesterday (Friday) there are only 12 people in hospital with Covid-19, and none in ICU.

See our separate web page of generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19.  We have added The Conversation’s site linking to articles on vaccination (98 articles at this stage).

The world

Last week we drew attention to WHO data suggesting that worldwide Covid-19 cases are falling.  Another week’s data, however, shows that progress has stalled. In fact in most European countries cases are on the rise again, and authorities are attributing the rise to British and South African variants. In Europe only the UK is achieving progress in reducing infection, but it would be rash to ascribe this to vaccination (around 27 per cent have had at least their first dose), because it also has a stringent lockdown.

Médecins sans Frontières is campaigning against rich countries hoarding vaccines. They take a swipe at Australia for securing three times its requirements. They also call on countries to stop patent protection from getting in the way of production of vaccines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment in poorer countries. South Africa and India have called on the WTO to temporarily waive provisions of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that are presently preventing the free transfer of intellectual property rights.  The map below, provided by MSF, shows which countries have supported and opposed the proposal. You may be wondering about the sole green tick in western Europe: it’s the Vatican. The red cross in the Pacific needs no explanation.

The hard-nosed position of “western” countries is difficult to understand. Its moral shortcoming is clear enough, but even on self-interest grounds it makes no sense. Unless this virus is effectively suppressed worldwide new strains will keep breaking out. Some will almost certainly be resistant to vaccines, and all will be able to infect the unvaccinated in rich countries, particularly if they are unable to reach herd immunity.

Travel section

We started with a reference to Versailles; we can finish with a virtual tour.

See Michael West Media for more analysis of these and other economic and political issues, and watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s environment round up.

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