Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Apr 24, 2021
War memorial, Yacka, South Australia

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The state of our commonwealth

Australia has an impoverished public sector

Among so-called “developed” high-income countries, Australia is already among the ranks of the lowest-taxed countries. If a country raises insufficient public revenue its public sector will be inadequately funded, and an inadequately-funded public sector leads to a path of slow economic decline as we fail to sustain investments in education and infrastructure, and as widening inequality tears apart the nation’s social fabric.

Our taxes are shown in the graph below, compiled from OECD data. Only four high-income OECD countries have lower taxes.

If Biden’s tax plan makes it through Congress, the United States will jump up past Australia, and because his plan involves agreements on tax havens, Ireland and Switzerland will have to increase their taxes. The only country with lower taxes than Australia will be Korea.

On last week’s Saturday Extra, Geraldine Doogue’s guests Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University and Wayne Swan, now a member of the Independent  Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation, discuss the prospects for Biden’s tax plan: The US is on board for a global corporate tax to lift revenue.  Countries like Australia and the United States, if they are to prosper, must make the public investments that will put their economies on a sound footing, and if their systems of government are to have legitimacy they must address worsening inequality.  (16 minutes.)

How good is the public service?

The 1941 novel The red tapeworm by Compton Mackenzie is about two senior British public servants struggling to cope with the real world. Inspired by the prime minister’s speech asking people to do their part in fighting the war, a lady has delivered a cast-iron bathtub to their office as her contribution to the war effort. They have to deal with this gift – a practical task that would have fitted into a council-worker’s day-to-day routine, but that was absolutely beyond the ability of two Oxford-qualified senior public servants.

There are echoes of Mackenzie’s comedy in Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra interview with Gordon de Brouwer, former Secretary of the Commonwealth environment department, and Financial Review journalist Tom Burton, the second episode of her four-part series on the public sector.

In dealing with the pandemic the task has fallen mainly to state public services, who have done a reasonably good job. By contrast, in aged care, where the Commonwealth has responsibility for service delivery, performance has been woeful, and the same contrast is now being revealed in the Commonwealth’s botched and politicised vaccination program.  Their discussion is mainly about the competencies of the Commonwealth public service – a service whose top ranks are now dominated by people with law and liberal arts degrees, but with little experience in or respect for technical and administrative expertise. (24 minutes.)

Such was not always the case in Australia. Writing in Inside StoryWho’s holding the hose –  Stuart Macintyre points out that the Commonwealth public service’s loss of administrative competence is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Citing the 2019 review Our public service, our future, he traces the service’s depletion of expertise to “a cumulative effect of the government’s efficiency dividend, the proliferation of contractors and consultants, and the continued growth of ministerial advisers”, adding the observation that “no other country with a Westminster system of responsible government allows the prime minister unfettered discretion in the appointment and termination of departmental heads”.

Foreign affairs

There’s more to the Quad than containing China

The Quad is a diplomatic grouping comprising India, the United States, Japan and Australia, formally convened in 2007.  In its early years it was fairly inactive, but worsening relationships with China among member countries, particularly India, and the Biden Administration’s re-engagement with regional diplomacy, has seen it become more active.

Writing in Foreign AffairsHow the Quad can match the hype – Dhruva Jaishankar and Tanvi Madan describe how the Quad functions. The only times the Morrison Government mentions the Quad is in relation to defence cooperation, but it is also working on Covid-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, and climate change.  (Why do we have to go to a foreign journal to learn what our government is doing?)


On the ABC’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviews Jonathan Liljeblad of the ANU Law School  about the practicality of applying sanctions against Myanmar’s Tatmadaw— Cutting the purse strings to Myanmar’s military could be crucial to ending the crisis. Liljeblad describes the Tatmadaw’s business activities – some in legitimate activities such as hotels, others in covert activities such as gemstones, narcotics, wildlife and timber. The path to effective sanctions is through these businesses. (12 minutes.)

Last week, in response to our links to articles on Thailand, George Wendell provided a link to Anya Parampil’s interview with Vijay Prashad, in a 23-minute YouTube interview mounted on The Grayzone. Prashad takes us through the complexities of the situation in Myanmar.  No one, including Aung San Suu Kyi, comes out looking like a hero. The military has misjudged Aung San Suu Kyi ‘s popularity and has overplayed its hand. The crowds have come out on the streets about many issues besides a coup against a democratically-elected government.

Democracy’s fragilities

Press freedom falling

Reporters without Borders has published its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, revealing two worrying trends. One is a deterioration in people’s access to information and a corresponding increase in obstacles to news coverage, at least partly attributable to the pandemic having been used as an excuse to suppress journalism. The other is a rise in public mistrust in journalists, because people find it difficult to distinguish genuine journalism from sources of disinformation.

As usual, of the 180 countries covered the Nordic democracies occupy the top ranks of press freedom.  New Zealand comes in at 8th place, and we come in at a miserable 25th place. Our score is pulled down by concentration in our privately-owned media (Murdoch and Nine Entertainment), the Morrison Government’s obstruction of coverage of environmental issues, the lack of a constitutional guarantee on press freedom, and the use of “national security” as grounds to intimidate journalists.


Last week we covered an ABC/RMIT Fact Check team’s report on the reach of the Murdoch media. Based on the number of viewers who tune into Sky News – the most toxic of Murdoch’s offerings – the conclusion was that its reach was comparatively small.

Pearls and Irritations reader Eric Pozza has reminded us that Sky News is also viewed on YouTube, where it has many more followers, and has given us a link to a Media Week post listing Sky News’ outlets, including 490 000 subscribers to its YouTube channel, and a substantial audience on Sky News on WIN.

Malcolm Turnbull, appearing on CNN, describes the Murdoch media as a political party with only one faction – the Murdoch family. He finds similarities between Murdoch’s and Putin’s influence on United States politics: their intent in common, through disinformation campaigns, is to set Americans against one another and to undermine trust in democratic institutions. (9 minutes.)

A sense of duty

“Duty” may be an old-fashioned word, but it still has meaning in contemporary life.  On Saturday ExtraGeraldine Doogue discusses with Mary Zournazi of the University of New South Wales and Robert Fitzgerald, now the New South Wales Disability Commissioner, the shifting ways our sense of duty guides the way we behave towards one another. A sense of duty.

Maybe the idea of citizenship with its implicit moral obligation to serve others has given way to a form of selfish individualism and mere compliance with legal requirements, but has the epidemic made us re-think our basic moral values? (13 minutes.)

Mary Zournazi is author of Justice and love: a philosophical dialogue.

Setting the record straight on aboriginal deaths in custody

American and the world media have given a great deal of attention to George Floyd’s murder, and the guilty verdict against his killer.

America has to deal with institutionalised racism with its origins in slavery. We have different problems to address stemming from dispossession and murder of the land’s original owners: one of them is the high rate of incarceration of indigenous people and their deaths in custody.

In the 30 years since the Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported, another 474 aboriginal people have died in custody. Writing in The Conversation Amanda Porter and Eddie Cubillo pull apart some myths about aboriginal deaths in custody. Correcting those myths she points out that the number of deaths is unacceptably high because the rate of incarceration of aboriginal people is unacceptably high, deaths cannot be explained away by “natural causes”, and there is plenty of evidence showing police using unnecessary violence and excessive force when arresting aboriginal people.

Some good news on capital punishment

Death sentences and executions seem to be continuing on a downward trend according to Amnesty International’s annual review of the death penalty. In those countries for which Amnesty can get numbers there were 483 executions in 2020, 26 per cent down on 2019 and 70 per cent down on the high point in 2015. Amnesty has no figures from China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Syria, but it believes China executes thousands of people every year. Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia accounted for 88 per cent of all known executions in 2020.

Australia’s carbon-heavy economy

101 Nobel Laureates – phase out oil, gas and coal production

On the eve of Biden’s climate change summit (where, true to form, Morrison has dragged Australia’s reputation through the mud) 101 Nobel laureates in peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry and economics have made a clear sharp statement. We have a moral duty to phase out oil, gas and coal production. “The first step is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

Albanese on structural change

Antony Albanese’s speech to a clean technology and jobs summit Clean energy will power a jobs revolution is around the theme of jobs and electricity prices. A transition to clean energy will provide a raft of employment opportunities – even in mining as the world needs more lithium, copper and nickel. Electricity from low-cost renewable sources will keep energy prices down, boosting the competitiveness of a wide range of trade-exposed industries.

Labor’s specific measures include a $15 billion national reconstruction fund to direct investment into new ventures, particularly in manufacturing, investment in electricity transmission to make use of renewable resources, tax reform to make electric vehicles more affordable, and subsidies for community batteries.

More Morrison bullying

The Four Corners program of April 12 – Fired up – was about Morrison’s push for a gas-fired future for Australia, in defiance of advice from independent engineers and economists. The program was mainly about the seven men (yes, they are all men) on his so-called “National Covid-19 Commission”, which perhaps should be called his extra-statutory delegation of industry policy to the gas industry.

The program included references to the Government’s pressure on independent statutory bodies. Kerry Schott, Chair of the Energy Security Board, was urged to resign because of her refusal to support Government’s insistence on building a 1000 megawatt gas-fired station to replace the Liddell power station when it closes. Minister Taylor pressured Audrey Zibelman, CEO of the Australian Energy Operator, to change its forecasts relating to gas in its Integrated Systems Plan. She refused to do so.

As revealed in his disgraceful behaviour towards Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, Morrison has trouble working with statutory authorities. They are an irritant in his model of crony capitalism.

Noting the pressure put on Zibelman, the Centre for Public Integrity has re-published Mike Foley’s Sydney Morning Herald article on the role political donations are playing in shaping public policy.

Other economics

Memo to Labor: Look to America

Joe Biden doesn’t spend much time boasting about his economic plans: he just gets on with the job of doing what a social-democratic government should be doing. That is, cleaning up the trail of economic wreckage left by forty years of governments guided by the dogmas of austerity, small government, and neoliberalism.

In the London Review of Books historian Adam Tooze has written a major review of Paul Krugman’s latest work: Arguing with zombies: economics, politics and the fight for a better future. His review is essentially a chronicle of Krugman’s economic beliefs over time, concluding with his acceptance that social-democratic governments, particularly the US Democrats, have unnecessarily allowed concerns with debt and inflation to constrain their policies, but are now returning to their traditional principles. “By tracing Krugman’s itinerary, we can shed some light on how we arrived in our current situation, with three centrists – Biden, Janet Yellen and Jerome Powell – undertaking an experiment in economic policy of historic proportions.”

John Quiggin, writing in the Canberra TimesJoe Biden, zeitgeist president – sees the attachment of social-democratic parties to neoliberalism as a phenomenon that has had its time. The Democratic Party is predominately a party of the young, who identify more with the politics of a 78-year old President whose ideas were formed by the liberal politics of the postwar era than with the “soft neoliberalist” politics of Clinton and Obama.  “If Biden succeeds, as he seems to be doing at present, the cohort of young Democrats who elected him will be a powerful force in US politics for decades to come”.

Biden’s American Rescue Plan: cui bono?

As with our Labor Party, the US Democrats need a nudge from the left.

In this regard Pearls and Irritations reader Cameron Leckie has brought to our attention an interview by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges on his weekly On Contact podcast. This 28-minute interview is with Richard Wolff of the University of Massachusetts, discussing Biden’s $5 billion for Covid-19 relief and infrastructure projects: American economic illusion.

Who will benefit from this expenditure? While Wolff approves of the programs, he points out that corporations will certainly do well. Pharmaceutical firms, for example, will enjoy a windfall from the vaccine rollout.

Wolff reminds us that this expenditure can be financed through borrowing or taxation. He makes the basic accounting point that when governments borrow they do so from corporations and the rich. Taxes redistribute, but government borrowing does nothing to redistribute: bondholders get their money back with interest.  (Wolff assumes that deficits will be funded. Governments can use central banks to “print money” by holding government bonds, and that has different distributional consequences.)

He points out that missing from Biden’s packages are minimum wages, campaign finance reform, and other reforms to repair the country’s structural imbalances. “The basic message of both of these big bills is that the capitalist system of the United States is now one hundred per cent on life support from the government.”

Aged care Covid-19 deaths – Commonwealth corruption?

In Melbourne last year at the peak of the pandemic’s outbreak 45 people died in one aged care home – St Basil’s in north western Melbourne.

The ABC’s Background Briefing has a story about St Basil’s: The Archbishop, the luxury pad, and the COVID-ravaged aged care home. In part it’s a story about corruption, negligence and carelessness with public (and private) funds in one establishment.

But it’s also a story about terrible failures in public policy – a failure to trace how a religious body has used public funds, and a failure to enforce safety standards. The ABC team finds that in mid-2019 the Commonwealth’s Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission had given St Basil’s a glowingly positive report, quite at odds with staff recollections.

If 45 people had died in an air crash attributable to safety inspectors’ laxity there would be major recriminations. But in this case these revelations have met with a cast-iron shield of defensiveness, and expenditure of $30 000 in public funds to suppress information from being revealed in response to an FOI request.

We tend to imagine corruption in terms of people in underground car parks exchanging paper bags stuffed with $50 banknotes, but corruption by neglect – indifference to how taxpayers’ money is spent and deliberate laxity in enforcing regulations – is more common, more costly, and harder to uncover.

How to fund aged care?

One of the proposals to come out of the Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was a one per cent levy on taxable income to pay for nursing and similar services in aged care.

Stephen Duckett and his colleagues at the Grattan Institute take up this proposal, suggesting a combination of a Medicare-style levy on taxable income and a reduction of the unjustifiably generous tax breaks for well-off retirees: The next steps for aged care: Forging a clear path after the Royal Commission.

The pandemic’s progress


While the Commonwealth dithers, undermining public confidence, the Victorian Government has pledged $50 million towards developing capacity to manufacture mRNA vaccines in Australia. It’s not much, but it is unconscionable that the Commonwealth has so far refused to match it. If we had well-functioning capital markets, free of the distorted incentives that direct people’s savings into housing speculation, there would be plenty of private equity to fund such a venture and to provide CSL with some competition.

In two states, Western Australia and New South Wales, hotel quarantining has failed, once again. Both are serious: 40 people who could have been infected with the South African variant have left the Sydney hotel and authorities are having trouble in tracking them down, while a person who was discharged from the Western Australian facility on Wednesday tested positive for Covid-19 after flying to Melbourne, and after infecting at least one other person in Perth, prompting a three day lockdown. (Breakdowns in hotel quarantine have the habit of occurring just before important holidays.) If people arriving in Australia can catch the virus in a facility that’s supposed to protect the community, and start spreading it, something is very wrong.

On the ABC Breakfast program Premier Gladys Berejiklian evaded questions on hotel quarantine safety and seemed to underestimate the consequences of opening borders before a high level of vaccination is achieved. (9 minutes.) Writing in The Conversation Tom Blakely of the University of Melbourne spells out the factors to be taken into account when we gently ease our borders open, providing some back-of-the-envelope calculations of risk factors.

The hotel quarantine system is coming under further stress from outbreaks in particular countries where the virus is out of control. The graph below shows the number of cases detected in people in hotel quarantine so far this year: the rapid rise in cases over the last month is clearly evident.

Our vaccination program rolls on slowly.  As at yesterday 7.0 per cent of the population had received their first dose, with the smaller states and territories doing better than New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.  Public health experts are pressing the case for mass vaccination hubs. It is hard to make sense of the Commonwealth’s strong preference for GP delivery over mass vaccination hubs: any political advantage through using the Commonwealth’s Medicare program seems to have been lost. Is it that Morrison and his fellow Liberals see vaccination only in terms of its private benefits?  Just as voting centres at the local school or town hall carry a sense of community involvement and obligation, so too can vaccination hubs carry the message that vaccination is not just about “me”, it’s also about protecting the whole community.

The rest of the world

Globally the story is grim.  The WHO warns that the pandemic shows no signs of easing, and is particularly concerned by the possible emergence of vaccine-resistant variants.  (From the above link download the latest week’s report to read its special focus on risk assessment.) The WHO once again carries warnings about half-hearted attempts to suppress the virus and about lifting restrictions too early.

Daily infection rates have reached a new high, and death rates are not far behind. Last week India accounted for 27 per cent of all recorded cases, and Central and South America for another 19 per cent.

In Europe infections are slowly falling. In the best-performing countries – Portugal, Finland and the UK – daily infection rates are down to around 40 cases per million. By contrast with high rates in Europe and the Americas, other regions, particularly Africa and East Asia, remain comparatively lightly affected. There has been a great deal of publicity about Japan’s rising infection rate, but it has only just reached 40 daily cases per million, equal to Europe’s best.

America enters the next phase

In the USA cases have come down from their January peak of around 700 daily new cases per million, but they seem to be stuck at a rate of about 200 cases per million.  On the ABC’s Health Report Anthony Fauci explains the challenges public health officials have faced in a divided country, and the task faced by the Biden Administration in ramping up vaccination. It was a quick ramp-up: in one day they managed to perform 4.6 million vaccinations. (Scaling for population, that would equate to about 350 000 in Australia: our best so far has been 135 000, and our average rate is around 50 000 a day.) His advice for Australia is to pull together as many resources as we can to get people vaccinated.

The Health Report segment runs for 8 minutes. The Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales has a 55-minute lecture by Anthony Fauci, the Inaugural David Cooper Lecture, introduced by Tegan Taylor, host of the Health Report. Fauci’s session is wide-ranging: he goes into detail of vaccine development; he stresses the importance of preparedness to stop outbreaks from spreading; and he has advice for reaching those who are sceptical about vaccination.

Writing in The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang explains the next problems facing America as the vaccine rollout among willing adults runs its course. There will be young people, generally under 16, unvaccinated, because clinical trials on the very young have not yet been completed. The Covid-19 risks faced by young people are lower than they are for adults, but they are real, and young people can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Even as urban regions approach herd immunity, America is likely to have many pockets in rural regions where, because of vaccine hesitancy and economic disadvantage, there will be vulnerable populations.

Vaccination worldwide

Different countries are showing different patterns of vaccination. Below is a table showing vaccination performance in the 15 countries where at least 10 per cent of the population has achieved full vaccination.

In relation to vaccination it’s far too early to make conclusions about its effectiveness. As public health experts stress, vaccination is only one factor in suppressing the virus and some countries are combining vaccination with tough restrictions. Note, for example, how in terms of infections the USA is doing far worse than the UK, even though more of its population is fully vaccinated.  But Israel’s results look promising: its daily infection rate is down to 16 cases per million as shown in the graph below.


See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19.  On Harvard’s site there is more about long-haul Covid-19 and Joseph Allen reflects on the Healthy Buildings project.  (One thing we have learned from the pandemic is that most modern hotels function as exchanges for disease.)

Polls and surveys

A new poll on federal voting intention

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on an Age/Sydney Morning Herald poll on federal voting intention that wisely focuses on primary votes rather than two-party support. It finds the Coalition support to be 38 per cent (41 per cent in the 2019 election), Labor 33 per cent (33 per cent in 2019), and Green 12 per cent (10 per cent in 2019).  He goes into some further detail, but notes some strange results, including a finding that Morrison’s net approval is stronger among women than men, and some other significant departures from other polls.

Bowe sees these anomalies as teething problems. He is impressed by the poll’s transparency and by the way it presents its findings on the Resolve Political Monitor.  (The Monitor allows for fine disaggregation, but be warned that disaggregated figures usually carry high sampling errors.)

Coming webinars

The Australia Institute has two webinars next week:

  • Tuesday April 27, 11:00 AEST, Malcolm Turnbull in conversation with Richard Denniss, on Coal, climate change and conservatives;
  • Thursday April 29, 10:00 AEST, Eli Pariser, Lizzie O’Shea and Peter Lewis on Remaking the public square.

Register through the Australia Institute webinar series page.

Flanders Fields 100 years on

Hear and see the Ypres Surrey Pipes and Drums Band perform Ich hatt’ einen Kamerden for British and German military reservists.

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


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