Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Mar 27, 2021
Enlightment festival - Old Parliament House

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

Men behaving badly

In the USA aggressive thugs break down doors to storm parliament; here they are given security passes. 

The political context – Scotty from sales

Laura Tingle, on the ABC’s 730 Report on Tuesday, summarises the politics of the events that have unfolded since Brittany Higgins went public about rape allegations on 15 February. (Was it really only six weeks ago?) Tingle’s segment, from 09:20 to 18:10, puts these and other accounts of sexual aggression in the context of a government that is disconnected from community standards and from traditions of government accountability and responsibility.

In Tingle’s clips we see Morrison doing his best to manage the situation as if it has been a minor political hiccup for his government – something to be smoothed over with carefully-crafted spin.  What we see is not “Scotty from marketing”: any business school student knows marketing involves finding people’s needs and fitting your offerings to those needs.  Rather what we see is “Scotty from sales”, the peddler who has a standard spiel and cannot deviate from it.

After Tingle’s session, the program moves on to interview two Liberal Party Members of Parliament – Russell Broadbent and Industry Minister Karen Andrews (the only minister who accepted the invitation). Both come across as sincere (no doubt they have subsequently been reprimanded for not having picked up “speaking notes” from the PM’s office) and it’s in their sincerity that they reveal the underlying nature of the government’s problem. Broadbent asks “what has changed with the nationall psyche that allows this type of behaviour to be seen as normal?”, and Andrews suggests that what is happening in Parliament House may be widespread in workplaces right across Australia.

Broadbent and Andrews should be reassured that Australia is still a society where norms of decency rule. While male bullying and gender discrimination are still blighting our country, the behaviour revealed over the last six weeks is on another level of depravity and disrespect. It’s happening in the more confined political milieu that politicians have shaped. While the ABC and other media suggest the problem applies across the political spectrum, almost all revelations and accusations are about the Liberal Party – the party that has been in government for 18 of the last 24 years and that has shaped the present sick and dysfunctional political culture.

A criminologist’s perspective

“As a criminologist, I interpret men’s sexually aggressive behaviour – whether it is desecrating a woman’s desk by videoing himself masturbating on it, or a sexual assault – as an activity born of a need for power and control.”

So writes Xanthe Mallett, of the University of Newcastle, in The Conversation: ‘Cultural misogyny’ and why men’s aggression to women is so often expressed through sex. There is a great deal of work to do in breaking down gender stereotypes. “We must challenge the undermining of women’s and girl’s autonomy and value when boys exhibit it, to break the chain of passing on these negative attitudes.”

Justice for victims of sexual abuse

Very few women report sexual abuse to the police, and of those few, who put themselves through harrowing experiences, only a tiny number see their cases result in criminal prosecution. Writing in The Conversation a group of criminologists point to ways in which these criminal justice processes can be improved, and they also point to victims’ other needs. The victims seek “to have their experience heard, to have the wrong against them acknowledged, and to know that something will be done to stop the perpetrator from harming others.” Almost 90% of sexual assault victims do not go to police — this is how we can achieve justice for survivors.

In a similar vein, in last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviews three experts from different backgrounds – Kerry Carrington, Andrea Durbach and Anthony North –  on how to improve the system to support victims of sexual abuse and minimise gender violence.  (25 minutes.)  All are frustrated by the rigidities in the criminal justice system, and by the way defence lawyers use tactics of humiliation and belittling to undermine complainants’ credibility.  But they also acknowledge that criminal justice necessarily requires very high standards of proof, and they point to the applicability of some (but not all) of the practices of restorative justice programs.

A historian’s perspective

Michelle Arrow, Professor of History at Macquarie University, notes in The Conversation that even though their numbers are small, women in the Coalition could have been more outspoken and assertive – Memo Liberal women: if you really want to confront misogyny in your party, you need to fix the policies.  She goes on to detail a succession of policies that have been against women’s interests, almost all of which have been initiated by the Coalition.

We note that in the House of Representatives there are only 15 women in the Coalition parties. In view of the fact that a tiny handful of Coalition MPs can stymie any chance of the Coalition developing a responsible climate policy, it seems that these women are either implicit in the Coalition’s policies or are too meek to assert their power. And is it that they don’t have a well-heeled lobby group, such as the mining industry, supporting them?

Porter’s defamation action: was it such a good idea?

Crispin Hull writes about defamation law. “For all its nuances and complications, defamation law in Australia can be boiled down to two simple words: ‘media loses’”.  Defamation law in Australia is stacked against the media.

But does that mean Christian Porter has served his and the Liberal Party’s interest in taking defamation action against the ABC?  Not necessarily, writes Hull. For one thing it spins out the situation in a way that a quick inquiry would not have, to Porter’s and the Government’s political detriment: Porter case: prolonging the spotlight.

Economic policy – we can do better

Getting to Zero

The latest Quarterly Essay is by Alan Finkel – Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition. Although Finkel held the position of Chief Scientist, this is really the work of an engineer who writes about practicalities: Finkel’s original studies and his PhD were in engineering. It can be read as the white paper on adjustment to climate change that the government never produced. It takes the reader through the basic science of climate change, and the engineering solutions, mainly in the electricity sector, that can bring Australia to a net zero contribution to greenhouse gases. As with a white paper, Finkel’s essay holds back on recommendations and criticisms of the government, but the reader doesn’t have to put much effort into concluding where good engineering and good public policy should lead us – and it isn’t the direction the Morrison Government is trying to take us.

A moonshot model for capitalism’s transformation

That’s the sub-title of Mariana Mazzucato’s article Saving the climate in a triple crisis in The New Republic. It’s really about re-designing capitalism in a way that will not only deal with the climate crisis but that will also ensure the long-term viability of capitalism. We must do better than blundering our way from one crisis (Covid-19) to another (climate change).

She outlines three necessary transformations. One is to lighten the burden of a bloated finance sector. In the USA and the UK only about a fifth of finance goes into the productive economy: the other four-fifths is cycled through the finance sector itself. The second transformation involves de-financialising the real economy itself – ensuring that corporate profits go into long-term investment in equipment, research and worker training, The third transformation is about government, which has to be more than a side player involving itself only when the market fails. Public organisations should be managed as enterprises with “dynamic capability to create value”.  She sees the present challenges and opportunities for government in the context of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Kennedy’s Apollo moon program.

You can hear Mariana Mazzucato on last week’s The Money, from 11:00 to the end, speaking on the same theme. (19 minutes.)  Her most recent book is Mission economy: a moonshot guide to changing capitalism.

Let’s not go back to 2019: we can do better

Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute writes that as the economy recovers Australia should strive to build back better.  She reminds us that the immediate pre-Covid-19 economy didn’t look too wonderful: we should strive to go back to something better. “It would be a disappointing result if we were to bounce back from COVID only to get stuck again in a stagnation bog.” Economic stimulus should be maintained, there should be investment in child care and aged care, and the government should put the country on a path to meet net zero emissions by 2050.

Should central banks do more to manage the economy?

When we think of central banks we often think of institutions that operate one big policy instrument – the immediate cash rate – and otherwise slip into the background between monthly meetings. In reality central banks are somewhat more active, and many are now   buying government debt – “printing money” to use the jargon.

But should central banks go further in economic management? In a speech that would classify as heresy in most quarters, Anna Breman, Deputy Governor of Sweden’s central bank (the Riksbank) has given a speech to the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences How the Riksbank can contribute to climate policy.

She doesn’t go as far as to suggest that Sweden’s Riksbank should be transformed into an investment bank, financing specific projects, nor does she suggest that it should assume the role of resource allocation: the details of fiscal policy are matters for the government. But the central bank should take into account climate change in its operations – in its research and analysis, in its regulation of the financial system, and in management of its own balance sheet.  Although she does not draw attention to Australia, Australia stands out as the country with the highest per-capita emissions among all countries in which the bank holds foreign exchange reserves, and by implication as a high-risk item on the Riksbank’s balance sheet.

Another housing warning – this time from a Liberal

Last week we linked to quite a few pieces on housing, generally warning that a housing bubble is developing, fuelled by low interest rates and by government policies, and that this bubble is financed by high levels of household debt.

To confirm that this warning is not simply a piece of academic pessimism (academics revel in predictions of doom) or a partisan swipe at the Morrison Government, we bring a link to the same message from John Hewson writing in the Canberra Times: No room for complacency on housing bubble.

Housing inflation is not wealth generation

“Booming property prices push household wealth to record levels in Australia” is the headline on an ABC web page about Thursday’s finance figures released by the ABS.

The journalist’s figures are right. They check out with the ABS data which is based on changes on the market value of housing over the last three months. But to make a very basic economic point price inflation is not wealth generation. Unless we have done big renovations the houses we own today are the same houses we owned three months ago. There is no change in wealth, just inflation driven by irresponsible public policy.

This is more than a semantic point. The Morrison Government relies on the illusion of people interpreting house price inflation as an increase in wealth. The reality is that the same illusion encourages us to become more indebted. High inflation almost always makes us poorer, not richer. Those with public voice should not reinforce the illusion.

Let’s pay a bit more for our food and give rural workers a fair go

The Australian Workers’ Union has called for a Royal Commission into our horticulture industry “to uncover and end the culture of rorts, criminality and exploitation”. Their claim is supported by the report from the Commonwealth-commissioned  National agricultural workforce strategy. That document covers many issues: unethical and unlawful practices are outlined in a short section on Page 194, where it is revealed that 55 per cent of employers failed to comply with Australian workplace law and that there is significant underpayment (as low as $5 an hour) of temporary visa holders. These figures relate to 2017 and 2018, but there is no reason, apart from possible temporary labour shortages, to believe that the situation has improved.

Democracy’s challenges

Australia’s democracy score slips

The V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg has produced its fifth Democracy Report, recording that for another year liberal democracy is in decline, particularly in the Asia-Paciic region, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Autocracies are now home to 68 per cent of the world’s population. Some anti-democratic restrictions, particularly restrictions on travel, result from Covid-19 adjustments, but there have been other slippages in electoral processes and freedom of association.

The Institute detects a pattern for the path from democracy to authoritarianism:

The playbook of “wannabe” dictators seems to have been shared widely among leaders in (former) democracies. First, seek to restrict and control the media while curbing academia and civil society. Then couple these with disrespect for political opponents to feed polarization while using the machinery of the government to spread disinformation. Only when you have come far enough on these fronts is it time for an attack on democracy’s core: elections and other formal institutions.

Compared with west and north European democracies, and with New Zealand, Australia scores poorly, and our score has slipped significantly since 2010. Even countries that we have tended to consider as less democratic, including the UK, Spain and Portugal, rank well ahead of us. We still score well on the “liberal” dimension (mainly about protection of rights) and the “participation” dimension, but poorly on the “egalitarian” dimension (the extent to which all social groups enjoy equal capabilities to participate in the political arena).

India’s democracy decays

The world’s largest democracy, India, has seen a strong decline in its score on the V-Dem democracy index. (See the above item.)  Writing in Foreign Affairs, Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes The decay of Indian democracy. While elections remain relatively free, the decay has three dimensions – Narendra Modi’s Hindu-majoritarian brand of politics, a concentration of power in executive government, and a clampdown on dissent and the media.

The world beyond our shores

USA: is Biden on to something big?

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviews Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for the New York Times and MSNBC: Is Biden’s COVID-19 rescue plan a new New Deal? (12 minutes). Baker does not go quite so far as to call Biden’s program a “new New Deal”, but he sees it as a down payment on an FDR-type program, and as a reflection of shifting sentiment away from Reaganomics (“Government is the problem”) to an era where more people accept the need for government to take the lead in dealing with climate change, health care, infrastructure and poverty. He reminds us that the Democrats cannot afford to lose a singe vote in the Senate, and that they have only a slim House majority.

In the session Geraldine Doogue refers to a recent ABC Rear Vision podcast   Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days.  Biden makes no secret of his admiration for FDR.

John Quiggin also writes on Biden’s economic program. Quiggin has a contract to write a book on the economic consequences of the pandemic, and was prepared to write on the folly of austerity – after all did not austerity become the pattern after the last global crisis in 2008?

But then comes Biden successfully getting his $US1.9 trillion American Recovery Package through Congress, with another $US3 trillion infrastructure package a possibility. Quiggin, no enthusiast of “the pop version of Modern Monetary Theory” argues along orthodox economic lines that these outlays should be financed by increased taxes – “If we want a big increase in public expenditure, it’s necessary to prevent high-end private consumption and speculative investment from crowding out vital social needs”. He also argues that those taxes should be paid by the well-off.  Out of respect for Keynes he calls his short essay The Economic Consequences of Mr Biden.

UK: will it hold together?

On Late Night Live Phillip Adams interviews Gavin Esler, Chancellor of the University of Kent about peripheral forces pulling the United Kingdom apart: How Britain and the union ends. Esler describes what has always been a weak union – four countries with their own legal systems, their own dominant religions and their own education systems. Johnson’s belligerence towards other European countries is an attempt to hold the union together through the idea of a shared enemy, but that tactic has worked only when there has been a real shooting war with the Spanish/French/Germans. They discuss the political weaknesses of the country – the lack of a written constitution and the winner-take-all “Westminster” parliamentary system.  (25 minutes.)

Esler is author of How Britain ends: English nationalism and the rebirth of four nations. He sees the UK’s fragmentation less in terms of Scottish nationalism and Northern Irish separatism than in English nationalism and exceptionalism: the English are driving other nations out of the union.

Boris Johnson has been the quintessential English nationalist. Writer Edward Docx describes him as a clown, who refuses to take anything seriously – not even a virus that has killed 130 000 people in his country: The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool in The Guardian. Docx writes:

The difficulty for the clown is that once truth and seriousness have been merrily shattered, they cannot be put back together and served up anew. Or, to put it another way, the buffoon who has just entertained the audience by smashing all the plates cannot now say that he proposes to use them to serve up a banquet in honour of himself becoming a wise and honest king.

Johnson’s idiocy is probably doing more for Scottish separatism and Irish re-unionism than any movements in those countries can do.

China: is it time to call it out for genocide?

On Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviews human rights lawyer Yonah Diamond, principal author of The Uyghur genocide: An examination of China’s breaches of the 1948 Genocide Convention, a major research project undertaken by the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, in cooperation with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Uyghur genocide report: what now with China. (16 minutes.)

Diamond describes how the project gathered information from a variety of sources, including many from China itself, providing evidence of selective killing, torture, detention, enforced contraception, and separation of infants, carried out against Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region.  These are consistent with an “intent to destroy a group’s existence”.

He diplomatically avoids drawing a comparison with Australia’s historical policies towards indigenous people.


Last week we mentioned the Netherlands election in which Prime Minister Mark-Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the largest block of votes 21 per cent – giving them 34 seats in the 159 seat lower house. VVD will have to form a coalition with some of the other 16 parties that won seats. There were 37 parties contesting the election – essentially a proportional representation system with ranked choice, but with no threshold for representation. “Jesus Lives” and the “Ubuntu Connected Front” parties failed to win representation, but the “Party for the Animals” picked up 6 seats with 4 per cent of the vote. Geert Wilders’ isolationist and populist “Party for Freedom” won 17 seats with 11 per cent of the vote – down a little from the 2017 election.

Adrian Beaumont sees the election as a poor result for traditional left-wing parties. Rutte will continue to govern in coalition with the socially liberal pro-Europe Democrats 66 and two Christian parties.  (Beaumont’s article also has some observations on Germany’s recent Bundesstaat elections.)


So far, all we know of Israel’s elections is that Netanyahu’s Likud Party, with about 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, would probably have to reach to the far right if it has any hope of continuing in government (assuming it rules out reaching to the left or centre). We will have to wait until the vote is finalised before there will be any firm analysis of swings, but we do know that Likud has lost some support.

Public ideas that defy classification

Malthus updated: a banquet of consequences

Satyajit Das has updated his 2015 book A banquet of consequences: How we got into the mess we’re in, and why we need to act now, to incorporate the origins of, and world’s reaction to, the pandemic.

On the ABC’s Focus program he discusses with Cassie McCullagh the consequences of the way we’re living, consuming the resources of 1.6 Earths, and calls on us to make the necessary adjustments – consume less or reproduce less. The pandemic has its origins in the way we have pushed intensive agriculture into areas where humans and other animals exchange pathogens, and has been spread by our mobile lifestyles. In what may be considered an update of Malthus’s projections, he takes us through the physical and biological constraints we are running up against. He mentions climate change only in passing: there are many other constraints. How the pandemic is exposing serious challenges facing the world. (26 minutes.)

The pandemic’s progress


On Friday the Queensland Government announced that a man with Covid-19 has been active in the community for a week. “Just one case” may be the reaction of those who still don’t understand how the virus spreads, but in view of the virulence of strains now in circulation, the relaxed attitudes of most Australians, the pitifully slow pace of vaccination, and the onset of colder weather, this could be the start of a nation-wide European-type outbreak. There is no excuse for the Queensland Government not taking immediate and strong measures, and to trace the source of the outbreak. Even if nothing is found, Queensland and the whole country will bear the cost of people and businesses reacting by deferring or cancelling travel and other plans for a week or two.

Victoria has cleared 28 days without any community transmission – in fact without any cases at all because they have not been taking overseas arrivals but with their hotel quarantine system supposedly improved, they will soon be taking some. Although New South Wales had two cases that got out of quarantine earlier this month Premier Berejiklian is so confident of the state’s safety that from Monday people of New South Wales will be permitted to sing and dance anywhere within the state’s borders . (Traffic hazard – be on the lookout for joyous singers and dancers.)

Over last week another 100 000  doses of vaccine have been administered bringing the total to around 340 000.  (Remember the 4 million target for early April?)  If we can get to the promised million doses a week we should see everyone seeking vaccination to have their first shot by the end of October, 30 weeks away.  Stephen Duckett of the Grattan Institute calls on the Commonwealth “to invest less in hype and photo opportunities and instead focus on actually managing the rollout”, and to engage with the states in managing the process.

An extraordinary aspect of the vaccine rollout is that nurses are sidelined to a subsidiary role: if they are administering a vaccine it must be under supervision by a medical practitioner. This policy makes no sense when GPs are overworked, and there is a risk that the workload of vaccination will crowd out or defer people from seeking other medical services.

The slowly-emerging policy challenges are about when and how Australia should open up to the rest of the world. Because we have been so untouched by the virus we have a vulnerable population. There will be commercial pressure to open up, backed by the argument that we will soon have most vulnerable groups vaccinated, but it’s easy to forget that the virus has become more easily transmitted, and even among the comparatively young it can still have costly effects. Norman Swan discusses the issues involved in opening up on his Monday Coronacast: While the world fights variants, we have a border problem.

Just how good is the AstraZeneca vaccine?

News of airplane crashes and terrorist events heightens our fears of flying and of going out in public, even though the probabilities of such events are tiny.  So too with vaccines.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been getting some bad press lately, particularly when many European countries suspended its distribution. One of the Liberal Party’s key political allies is spreading false stories about its dangers. And there is a revelation that the company may have been less than rigorous in providing its efficacy data.

But the same Economist article hyperlinked above goes on to report results from Britain’s mass vaccination program, demonstrating high efficacy even on its first jab. This is not just British nationalism: even the Russian site RT is acknowledging that the AstraZeneca is more effective than originally thought.  From Europe, ABC correspondent Nick Dole returns the compliment: Should the world be more open to Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine?  It seems to be working well.

Clinical trials are run according to conservative standards, particularly in relation to safety, but the numbers are small, and there are certain biases in these studies that lead them to understate their effectiveness. What counts is the empirical test in the real world as vaccines are rolled out. So far so good.

Global trends

After what looked like a promising trend earlier this year, cases and deaths are once again rising.

Much of this reversal is attributable to mainland Europe, as is seen in the graph below. We also add Brazil, which is now the only large country deliberately letting the virus spread – the worst place in the world for Covid-19.

It is notable that cases in the USA and the UK are continuing to fall, although there is some levelling out. As at Friday Britain had achieved 55 per cent first dose vaccination (5 per cent second dose), and the USA had achieved 34 per cent first dose coverage (18 per cent second dose). Some of the US figures may include the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.

Morality and self-interest align – so why are we not helping poorer countries more?

The pandemic is a global problem: rich countries cannot isolate themselves from the problems of poor countries, where new strains of coronavirus are likely to break out among unvaccinated populations. “If countries won’t share vaccines for the right reasons, we appeal to them to do it out of self-interest”, said WHO Director-General Tedros at a press briefing.

How people worldwide have coped with Covid-19

The ninth World happiness report devotes much of its coverage to the effects of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly it finds that the pandemic has led to insecurity, anxiety and disruption, but that “there has been surprising resilience in how people rate their lives overall”.  It finds that young people in all countries have been disproportionately affected: “Coupled with delays to education and training programs, obstacles to finding work, and increases in loneliness and social isolation, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a particularly dramatic toll on young people’s well-being.”

It devotes a chapter to the success of Asia-Pacific countries compared with north Atlantic countries, which it puts down to better public administration and more collective rather than individualistic culture in Asian countries, and poor scientific knowledge among the general public in north Atlantic countries. In an endorsement of the approach taken by our state governments, it states that “the best strategy was to drive community transmission to zero, and to keep it there, thus saving lives and achieving more open societies and economies by late 2020. This is likely to make for happier societies in 2021 and beyond”.

It finds that while money contributes to happiness, trust in others – neighbours, institutions, governments – is a stronger factor in explaining differences in people’s reported life satisfaction.

It’s a long and detailed report – we have only dipped into it.  In terms pf overall happiness, according to their aggregation of seven components, Australia comes in at #11 out of 149 countries, with the usual set of northern European countries and New Zealand occupying the top ten slots.

The Economist has a short article on the report, contrasting changes in happiness in the UK and the USA, both countries with terrible rates of Covid-19 infections and deaths, but with different changes in reported happiness.  Why have the British felt more knocked around than the Americans?

Other coronavirus findings from our regular sources

See our separate web page of generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including hyperlinks to those sources.

The end of Covid-19 support

It’s tough when Covid-19 support ends. See how an 81-year old Sydney welfare recipient is trying to cope.

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

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