Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekendApr 3, 2021
What people in other forums are saying about public policy
The pandemic’s progress
Following the Queensland outbreak there is a barrage of blame-shifting, well covered in the mainstream media. The question not being asked is why the managers of Queensland health services did not prioritise those working with overseas arrivals. The Phase 1a category is broad, lumping together those in contact with overseas arrivals with health care workers in hospitals remote from international borders. It could surely be sub-divided. As Norman Swan said on Coronacast “there shouldn’t have been a single health care worker without at least the first vaccination looking after COVID-19 once vaccinations were on-stream. So it’s a system failure”.
As for the Commonwealth, it has to bear the political consequences of Morrison’s rash promises about vaccination numbers and his plan to gain credit for vaccination by using GP consultation rather than states’ public health systems. And it’s not clear that the Commonwealth’s allocation of vaccines considered Queensland’s heavy burden of dealing with overseas arrivals. Queensland has had to deal with the arrival of many more infected people than New South Wales.
For the rest of Australians vaccination rolls on at the pace of continental drift. So far 2.7 per cent of the population have been vaccinated.
In lifting restrictions the Queensland Government has taken a calculated risk. The stakes are high. With great effort we only just managed to deal with early variants of the virus; as European experience shows, unless any outbreak of the UK variant is nipped in the bud even our well-honed tracking system would probably be unable to stop it from spreading.
Although most restrictions have been lifted in Queensland, unlike those with the fortune of living south of the border Queenslanders are still subject to restrictions on dancing.
A guide to public policy – charting our way back to normal
For now policies aimed at keeping Australia free of community transmission will prevail, and they should be effective if we maintain strong external border controls and maintain our practices of cautious behaviour domestically. But as vaccination progresses we approach a time when decisions have to be made about how and when to lift internal and external restrictions. Covid-19 will be with us for some years: we want to be in a situation where through vaccination and a basic set of everyday precautions it becomes no more than an irritant.
As vaccination numbers grow there will be an increasing din from industry spokespeople to “open up”. If we do so too early the consequences could be severe, but it’s become obvious over the last year that many politicians and business people, when they have called for easing restrictions, don’t understand the basic mathematics of how the virus spreads.
To help guide the policy path of opening up, a group of Melbourne University public health and modelling academics have developed a web model called the “Covid-19 pandemic trade-offs”. You can get an understanding of its design and purpose if you read their description on their web page Charting our way back to normal, from where you can find a link to the model – the “tool”.
Once you have the model on your screen you can choose assumptions about the vaccine’s efficacy and other variables. Note the significant difference between a 75 per cent and a 90 per cent vaccine uptake rate. Note, too, the sensitivity of changes in the virus’s “unmitigated reproduction rate”: that is its R value if it is not controlled. That’s why it’s important to keep the UK variant out because of its high R, and to take very strong measures if it does pop up. The vaccine efficacy is an important variable, but not as important as the uptake rate. That’s why high uptake of a moderately effective vaccine can be better than moderate uptake of a highly effective vaccine. Our great risk is that we will not take enough effort to ensure that the last X per cent are vaccinated, even though a small difference in X can be the difference between something akin to the seasonal flu and an ongoing high death rate and overload of our hospital system.
The rest of the world
From Australia it’s hard to appreciate that in most of the rest of the world, outside east Asia, the rate of infection is again on the rise – although it appears that those who are now coming down with Covid-19 are less likely to die than those who caught it in earlier waves. In the EU countries cases are rising steeply, in spite of the imposition of hard lockdowns. In France, where daily cases have reached 600 per million population, the government has imposed another tough national lockdown.
The UK stands out as the only large country to have brought the most recent outbreak under control. Its daily case rate is now 75 cases per million – about the same as Victoria’s at the peak of its outbreak last August. In the USA cases are once again rising. In Brazil Bolsonaro’s national government is doing all it can to frustrate city and state governments’ attempts to control the virus, and governments in neighbouring countries are under pressure to close their land and air borders as cases and deaths surge. Brazil now accounts for at least a quarter of the world’s daily deaths from Covid-19.
As at the end of March, 46 per cent of people in the UK had received their first dose of vaccine (including 6 per cent with a second dose), but vaccination progress in other large European countries is poor – 12 per cent in Germany and France, 11 per cent in Spain and Poland. The Economist is highly critical of the EU’s vaccination program, sheeting much of the blame on to the way member states handed over too much responsibility to Brussels. (When will people learn that top layer administrations are good at collecting and distributing money, but are not so good when it comes to doing things?) In the USA 29 percent have received a first dose (16 per cent second dose). Israel has achieved 61 per cent first dose vaccination (55 per cent second dose): its daily rate of new cases per million has fallen from a peak of 1000 in January to 50 at the end of March.
Reminder – 7.7 billion of us live on the same planet and share the same pathogens
“Developed” countries have a “me first” approach to vaccination. By November last year countries accounting for 14 per cent of the world’s population had locked in pre-market agreements to buy 51 per cent of the first doses of vaccines. Australia has enough vaccine on order to inoculate three times our population.
These are some of the figures revealed in Geraldine Doogue’s discussion with Deborah Gleeson of La Trobe University on last week’s Saturday Extra: Patently unfair? The rules restricting access to Covid-19 vaccines.
Quite apart from the morality of such hoarding, it makes no sense even from a self-interest point of view, because it’s in countries where it has been allowed to get out of control, such as Brazil, where new and possibly vaccine-resistant variants are likely to develop.
There is a push by 118 countries to have patent and other intellectual property rights under WTO rules relaxed to allow “developing” countries to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines, but this is opposed by a number of countries with pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities, including Australia, who claim that there are already voluntary licensing agreements in the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreements of the WTO, and that AstraZeneca has agreed not to profit from Covid-19. But as any production engineer knows, having access to patents is not enough. Manufacturing is governed by detailed process instructions, not covered by patents but which are closely held by corporations.
(Disclosure: Ian McAuley holds shares in CSL who manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia. They have never paid much in dividends: if he had sought to profit from the virus he would have sold CSL shares and bought Harvey Norman shares.)
See our separate web page of generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including hyperlinks to those sources. Vaccination data from Australia and other countries is from the ABC Digital story innovation team Tracking Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout numbers.
On Norman Swan’s Coronacast of April 1 you can hear him discussing the problems that would be involved in manufacturing mRNA vaccines in Australia, with Colin Pouton, Professor of Pharmaceutical Biology, Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. In Germany pharmaceutical firms managed to scale-up quickly to make mRNA vaccines.
(By contrast with Germany, under the influence of neoliberal economic policy, and the lobbying power of the mining, real estate and finance industries, we have de-industrialised.)
Can the US develop a sense of purpose in the way it relates to the rest of the world?
On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue engages in conversation with Robert Zoellick, former President of the World Bank, former Deputy Secretary of State in the Bush Administration and now at the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Government. In talking about the history of US diplomacy they discuss the contemporary questions about hegemony – “can America share this space with China?” and “can China share this space with America”, but most of their discussion is about America’s historical policies. America has tried to avoid “entangling alliances”, but has always been engaged with the rest of the world. Its periods of neutrality should not be mistaken for isolationism.
America’s best diplomacy, such as its involvement in European reconstruction after 1945, has been governed by pragmatism, but it has not always been so wise in its relations with the rest of the world, and its soft power is undermined by domestic racism and inequality.
Zoellick refers to his book America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.
China delivers home truths to America
Commenting on last week’s talks in Alaska between China and the USA, Stan Grant reminds us of democracy’s vulnerabilities: In America, a cancer is eating democracy from the inside, and China has clocked the weakness. “China’s Yang Jiechi certainly knows America’s weakness, and perversely it is what has been America’s strength: its democracy. He might also have reminded them that while the poor in America get poorer, China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty.” In democracies such as the US and Australia the rich, in their short-sighted self-interest, as manifest in their opposition to tax reform, are blocking reforms that would prevent democracy from losing its legitimacy. (28 minutes.)
What’s happening in Xinjiang?
Last week we linked an ABC Saturday Extra program on China’s handling of the Uyghur people. This evoked a large amount of thoughtful comment, particularly from Teow Loon Ti. Cameron Leckie gave a link to a Grayzone article disputing the claim of a Uyghur genocide. George Wendell gave a link to a speech by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson at the Ron Paul Institute and Man Lee has linked a Global Times article Time to end US ‘drama’ over Xinjiang rumors. That about covers sources from the left, libertarians and the Chinese Government. See last week’s roundup for the full thread.
Australia – fertile ground for the far right
The ABC’s Europe correspondents Linton Besser and Roscoe Whalan draw our attention to a report by the UK Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right warning that Nazi cells in Australia have been becoming more active. They name four groups proscribed in Canada but not in Australia: Combat 18, Blood and Honour, Generation Identity and the Proud Boys. They also mention some home-grown groups: Neo-Nazi groups banned in Canada and Europe set sights on Australia.
Alex Mann and Kevin Nguyen report on a plan by the resurrected New Guard to take over political groups and even to set up their own community. It appears to be far-fetched, but the group seems to be well-organised, and they did get some way in attempts to infiltrate the New South Wales Young Nationals in 2018.
Quite separately the ABC’s Alex Mann on Sunday Extra reports on a man with the alias Volkskrieger recruiting for a US-based far-right group “The Base” in Western Australia: The Base tapes. The recordings, obtained by someone who has infiltrated the group, make for chilling listening. The language is vile, and at least one of the men wanting to join The Base is armed and has access to a rural property for combat training.
There are two disturbing revelations in this short exposé. One is that a pair of journalists, with some help from an internet-savvy assistant, can locate and meet two of the people seeking to join “The base”. Yet the authorities in Australia, as far as we know, seem to be uninterested. (In Germany the police and security services would be right on to such individuals.)
The other disturbing revelation is that one of those who sought to join up, Dean Smith, was an endorsed One Nation candidate in the 2019 federal election. Mann tries to find information on Smith from One Nation, who claim that they don’t have any contact information. If that is the case – that they are not protecting Smith – it suggests that One Nation takes so little care in its selection of candidates that it doesn’t keep basic records. Even if One Nation itself does not go along with Nazism (it has fielded Asian-Australian candidates), such laxity is worrying whatever party is involved.
In all this reporting of the far right there is hardly any mention of women. Some groups such as the Incels and the Proud Boys are definitely gender-defined. Does this say something about the experiences that shape the views of boys who grow up in this country?
Who will feed the robots?
The common view is that the future will continue to see labour being displaced by technology – confirmed by the technological intensification in service industries in response to Covid-19.
Not so fast. Robots need humans to program them, and organizations still need people with skills that cannot be captured in computer code. “Automation is here, but so too is a deeper appreciation for and investment in things like upskilling, learning and development, and education for all workers” write Michael Horn and Henry (“CJ”) Jackson in the Sloan Management Review – A paradox no more: investing in automation and people. Because technical talent is in short supply, firms are having to invest in training their existing workforces.
One can interpret their research optimistically: automation may see firms retaining and retraining their workers rather than sacking them. But it reflects poorly on education systems that universities and technical colleges cannot turn out enough graduates, and it may mean that firms’ training will focus on company-specific skills rather than on general technology-related skills, reducing workers’ capacity to bargain for better pay or conditions.
A new source of economic history
The Reserve Bank has launched a digital platform, Unreserved, with archives going back to the bank’s origin in 1911. (Until 1960 the Reserve Bank was actually a part of the Commonwealth Bank.)
In the March RBA Bulletin Jacqui Dwyer and Virginia MacDonald write about the London Letters – exchanges between the Bank’s Sydney and London offices up to the 1970s when Australia floated the dollar. Their summaries of correspondence give insights into the costs borne by Australia from its adherence to the gold standard during the 1930s depression and the “commotion” at the Bretton Woods Conference when Australia advocated full employment as a primary consideration for postwar economic recovery.
In the same Bulletin, also drawing from the archives, Gianna La Cava and Fiona Price write about households’ banking behaviour during the 1890s and 1930s depressions. They find “Depositors responded to both depressions by withdrawing more money, consistent with households drawing down on their saving buffers in the face of rising unemployment and falling incomes. The net withdrawal rate of depositors also increased when deposit interest rates fell and when public confidence in the banking system deteriorated, with clear evidence of a run on a savings bank in the 1930s”. In the course of this research they found that in the period surveyed – 1870 to 1930 –around half of bank accounts had a female name as the primary account holder.
The end of Covid-19 stimulus payments – a return to stress and poverty
Covid-19 supplements to unemployment benefits ended on Thursday, April 1.
Citing research by the ANU’s Ben Phillips, ACOSS predicts that the poverty rate among people receiving unemployment benefits (“Newstart”) will rise to 85 per cent, compared with 26 per cent earlier on when the rate was temporarily doubled. Our unemployment benefit as a proportion of average incomes is now back to being one of the OECD’s stingiest. At the same time those on medium to high incomes, who are less likely to be spending, are enjoying income tax cuts. On the ABC’s Breakfast program ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie explains the burden on the unemployed in more detail, correcting some of the government’s misleading statements about income support for the unemployed. (9 minutes.)
In a broader context Peter Martin, writing in The Conversation, warns of the extra stress the government’s obscenely-named “mutual obligation” requirement will impose on the unemployed, who will have to apply for 15 jobs a month (20 a month after July 1) to be eligible for unemployment benefits. He cites research by behavioural economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir showing the stress the imposition of such unattainable requirements imposes on people – stress that impedes their mental capabilities. The true cost of the government’s changes to JobSeeker is incalculable. It’s as if it didn’t learn from Robodebt.
As Goldie points out, our structurally-weakened economy can offer only one job for every 8 unemployed people, or only one entry-level job for every 48 unemployed people . The only work on offer is the unpaid and soul-destroying task of writing applications.
Our personal taxes are becoming less progressive
Writing in Inside Story, Saul Eslake explains how our income taxes are becoming less progressive: The trickle-up effect. As a result of proposed changes in marginal tax thresholds, including eventual abolition of the 37 per cent marginal rate, our income taxes will become somewhat less progressive, but our income tax scales remain reasonably progressive compared with other “developed” countries.
What concerns Eslake more is the tax treatment of income from other sources – “from capital gains and rent, for example, and from superannuation fund earnings and ‘business’ income routed through trusts”. He finds it regrettable that the Labor Party has abandoned the reforms to capital gains and negative gearing that it took to the 2019 election.
The government’s “Jobmaker” gets off to a poor start
The Morrison Government has a scheme known as “Jobmaker” (they’re good at neologisms) that gives businesses a subsidy to employ young job-seekers aged 16-35.
Brendan Cates and Tom Crowley of the Grattan Institute point out that it is likely to fall far short of Treasury’s predictions that it will create 450 000 jobs by year’s end: 10 jobs a week: JobMaker needs fixing. They point out its design flaws, including the fact that too few businesses are eligible.
Digging up the Hunter Valley
In the Upper Hunter Valley there are proposals for new coal mining projects with a combined output of 98 million tonnes a year – the equivalent of ten new Adani-sized mines. This is in spite of the fact that for the last five years, demand for Australia’s thermal coal has been way below the industry’s forecasts, and existing mines have a great deal of unused capacity. Yet in spite of the environmental damage caused by coal mining in the area, and opposition from farmers and horticulturalists, the New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment goes on approving projects. The state government’s dependence on mining royalties seems to be a driver of this enthusiasm.
That is a potted summary of the Australia Institute’s report One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: New coal mines in the Hunter Valley by Richard Denniss, Rod Campbell and Eliza Littleton.
On the ABC’s Breakfastprogram you can hear Malcolm Turnbull, a landowner in the Hunter, calling for a freeze on coal mining approvals in New South Wales. Turnbull is concerned that although the big players such as BHP-Billiton are getting out of thermal coal, there is a scramble by second-tier foreign mining companies to get in before the market collapses, leaving a trail of environmental destruction which remediation security deposits will not cover. (14 minutes.)
Turnbull suggests we look at Google Maps to get an idea of the effect of coal mining in the Upper Hunter. The screenshot covers an area of approximately 35 X 40 km between Singleton and Muswellbrook.
We note, in passing, that the Member for Upper Hunter in the New South Wales Parliament has been Michael Johnsen, who has resigned from the National Party and from the New South Wales Parliament following allegations of serious sexual misconduct. In the 2019 state election he won the seat in a three-way contest between the Nationals (34 percent of primary vote), Labor (29 per cent), and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (22 per cent), with a narrow TPP 52.6:47.4 result. ABC election analyst Antony Green points out it will be a hard seat for the Berejiklian Government to defend in the upcoming by-election. Its loss would mean a loss of the Coalition’s parliamentary majority, but its cross bench would still be held by conservatives.
James Chin, of the University of Tasmania, writes in The Conversation that democracy in Southeast Asia may be sliding backwards. Myanmar’s military coup is the most vivid recent example, but he also reminds us of Thailand’s return to monarchy-military rule, Rodrigo Duterte’s populist extrajudicial clampdown on drugs in the Philippines, the emergence of a Malay-Islamic coalition government in Malaysia, and the enduring hold on Singapore by the People’s Action Party.
Democracy in Southeast Asia has come about as something left by the European colonial powers as they departed, who had shown no commitment to democracy up to that point. It could hardly be described as embedded. China, as the emerging regional hegemon, presents an economically successful authoritarian model.
On the ABC’s Late Night Live Phillip Adams and Stan Grant spend half an hour talking about the future of democracy, mainly in the context of China-US rivalry – A world in crisis. Grant is well aware that the Athenian philosopher Thucydides believed that when one great power displaces another, war is inevitable.
The discussion is wide-ranging, covering identity politics, Hegel’s historicist philosophy, populism, and the Uluru Statement. It is held together by Grant’s view of the world through a historical perspective, and by the question whether democracy can endure – not only from its assaults from authoritarian movements, but also from the poor example it presents to the world.
Grant’s most recent book has the Hegelian title With the falling of the dusk: a chronicle of the world in crisis.
Polls and elections
Who are we and what do we value?
Based on a national survey, the Next25 Navigator presents “a comprehensive picture of the future Australia wants and whether we’re on track”.
Its initial report Next25 Navigator Social Research Report 2021: Think future, act today finds that while we have liberal and collective aspirations, we do not believe our institutions are performing in line with those values.
To summarise its summary, it finds that institutions are failing, short-termism and vested interests trump the public interest, no one is taking responsibility, a generational schism has opened up, and Australians feel powerless and have switched off. Pessimism abounds: “Only 39% of us are confident Australia will be a better country in 5-10 years”.
A useful contribution is its “public interest index” – a measure of “the public’s sentiment about how well institutions are delivering what Australia wants, how well institutions are acting in the public interest”. We are generally unimpressed: politicians and the media score poorly, while experts and NGOs score comparatively well. It summarises the regional dimension of views with the conclusion “the further away from Canberra you live, the worse you believe institutions across Australia are acting in the public interest”. Overall we’re not very engaged with public issues.
Morrison and Frydenberg might be surprised that owning five investment properties and having a gas-guzzling Hilux to tow a boat do not appear in the survey’s findings of Australians’ top ten aspirations.
Of those ten aspirations “all Australians having access to quality healthcare” takes first place. The only one of the top ten that could align with values of the right is “Australians should take responsibility for their own mistakes” in third place – but that doesn’t mean it aligns with the values of some Liberal Party politicians, for whom the idea of personal responsibility is alien.
It presents its findings in clear and well-presented text and graphics – it’s worth at least a scroll through.
Economists on climate change
The New York-based Institute for Policy Integrity has been surveying economists on their considered beliefs about measures to deal with climate change, replicating the same survey conducted in 2015 – Gauging economic consensus on climate change by Peter Howard and Derek Sylvan.
Contrary to the assertion peddled by some economists that reaching net-zero greenhouse gas targets by 2050 is too costly, 66 per cent of those surveyed expect the benefits to exceed the costs, with a further 18 per cent unsure.
The most telling finding is that in response to the statement “immediate and drastic action is necessary” 74 per cent of them agree, up from 50 per cent in 2015.
Newspoll – not much to see here
William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports that the latest Newspoll shows Labor’s primary vote to be down one per cent and the Coalition’s up one per cent, but this is all within the margin of error, and the TPP vote is still 52:48 – safest to say 50:50.
The One Nation primary vote is two per cent. Normally one should disregard numbers close to zero – the most accurate polling numbers are those that show up near the middle – but when small numbers show up in successive polls some of the noise of sampling error is diminished. Because this is the 27th poll since the election there is some evidence that while One Nation clawed its way back after the 2019 election (possibly because of the disappearance of Clive Palmer’s party), its support has been falling since late 2019.
Essential – Australian men have a long way to go
This fortnight’s Essential Report has a number of questions on gender and sex discrimination, revealing that Australian men and women have vastly different understanding and knowledge of discrimination.
Morrison’s net approval – approval minus disapproval – has fallen from 37 per cent in February to 22 per cent in late March. Among women it has fallen from 37 per cent to 9 per cent, while among men it has hardly moved, falling from 37 per cent to 35 per cent.
On a number of questions relating to women in politics there is a net shift in views, but where responses are broken down by gender, men and women have very different opinions. For example, 28 per cent of men believe that “women are less likely than men to have the experience and skills to make a good politician.”, compared with 12 per cent of women who hold that view. Surprisingly, older people (>55) seem to be more inclined to support women in politics than younger people. There has been a small increase in support for political parties having gender quotas – 48 per cent support, 36 per cent oppose, without much gender difference.
Most people believe that the misogynistic culture of Parliament House is symptomatic of discrimination in the wider society. Most Australians believe that what’s been happening is not just a Parliament House problem, but on this view there are significant gender differences: 70 per cent of women agree, compared with 50 per cent of men. And there are significant differences depending on voting intention: Labor and Green supporters believe the problems are symptomatic of wider society, while Coalition supporters tend to believe they are Parliament House problems.
There is generally strong support for specific measures to address gender inequality.
Another set of questions relates to casualisation of work – an issue closely associated with gender discrimination. When presented with the rather long statement “Casual employees are not entitled to annual or sick leave or superannuation. They also face greater employment uncertainty. However, people choose casual work as it can provide higher wages and more flexibility in terms of hours” most people are positive towards casualisation, but on questions to do with the rights of casual workers a large majority favour casual workers having more rights to convert to permanent employment and to enjoy conditions such as sick leave.
Finally there is a question on Australia becoming a republic with an Australian head of state: 48 per cent support, 28 per cent oppose. Men are more in support of a republic than women. There is only a little difference across age groups – if anything younger people seem to be less in support of a republic than older people.
Last week we mentioned Israel’s election, in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party lost support. If they had any hope of staying in government they would have had to do some coalition-building with some unusual partners. A week later John Strawson of the University of East London writes that politicians of both pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, are in discussion with Mansour Abbas, leader of the right-wing Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List): Israeli election: Mansour Abbas emerges as possible first Arab kingmaker in nation’s history in The Conversation. “There could be an Israeli government led either by Netanyahu or Lapid relying on the votes of an Islamist party” he points out.
Tasmanians go to the polls four weeks from today in an election called a good year earlier than necessary. William Bowe has some early comment – expect more as the campaign develops. And the Labor Party, in a stunning act of political cowardice has pledged “to ‘support the rights’ of pubs and clubs to operate pokies”. We might recall that in the 2018 election Labor promised to remove poker machines from pubs and clubs, with a $55 million assistance package to compensate the venues. In response the pubs and clubs poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Liberal Party’s coffers, and ran a dishonest scare campaign about job losses in rural Tasmania. It’s clear that $55 million is a trivial amount compared with what poker machines are taking from Tasmania’s poorest.
Media coverage of Easter religious ceremonies will probably focus on services in the Vatican and at Westminster Abbey. But Beirut is much closer to where Jesus lived than Rome or London. See – and hear – how a group of Lebanese Christians celebrated Easter Sunday in 2015.
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.