Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend 

May 1, 2021
Junction Hotel Canowindra at dawn – well-ventilated, away from CBD

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


The pandemic’s progress

Australia – hotels

The issue of hotel quarantine has taken on a partisan dimension.

In the wake of a quarantine failure in Western Australia, Morrison claims that hotel quarantine is 99.99 per cent successful – leaving us to wonder what is the denominator of Morrison’s imagined equation, and what the 0.01 per cent refers to. Liberal Party premiers of South Australia and New South Wales have lined up behind Morrison, while Labor premiers of Western Australia and Queensland are calling for the Commonwealth to develop special quarantine hubs. The Victorian Government is challenging the Commonwealth to fund a specialised 3000 bed quarantine facility in Melbourne. The New South Wales Premier simply says no system is perfect, hoping to rely on contact-tracing. This is in spite of more infectious strains having emerged, and in spite of a calculation by data analyst Anthony Macali, founder of the CovidLive Tracker, that under our present system one in 100 infected people arriving in Australia leak the infection into the community.

The outbreak from the Mercure Hotel in Perth is quite different from previous failures in hotel quarantine, in that the infected individuals almost certainly contracted the virus while in quarantine. This raises a serious question of justice: why should someone who, while living in India or England, has been careful to avoid infection, be forced into a place where they can be infected on their return to Australia?

It also raises a serious question of mathematics. If someone can be infected during their two-week stay, should the stay be lengthened – by another week, another two weeks, another n weeks? But the longer the stay the higher the chance of infection. If cross-infection can occur there is no longer any reasonably safe period of quarantine.

The system does not work unless every person can be protected from cross-infection. As Andrew Miller of the Australian Medical Association asserts on the ABC’s Breakfast program, hotels are not fit for purpose, and exposing people to the virus in hotels is an “abuse of human rights”. (10 minutes.)

Also on Breakfast Norman Swan explains the physics of air movements in hotels, and practical moves that may make quarantine safer, such as vaccinating returning Australians before they travel. (7 minutes.)

Some politicians, journalists and lobbyists are quick to condemn premiers who lock down on the basis of one or two cases in the community. Surely these same people understand how bushfires spread and how rabbits multiply, but they seem to forget that the pandemic, with 150 million infections and 3.1 million deaths worldwide, spread from “just one” person.


What we think of the vaccine rollout: we’re unimpressed

The Essential Report this fortnight is devoted entirely to the vaccine rollout.

The general story is that people are losing faith in the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of the Commonwealth’s vaccine program, and there is a resignation that vaccination and some return to “normal” will take far longer than the Morrison Government promised: 21 per cent of respondents believe vaccination will take more than two years and a further 7 per cent believe it will never be completed.  We’re even more pessimistic about international travel being allowed without restriction.

The survey reveals a growing aversion to vaccination. Only 42 per cent of us want to get vaccinated straight away (or have already been vaccinated), down from 56 per cent last August, and 16 per cent say they would never get vaccinated, up from 8 per cent in August.  A third of “other” voters (i.e. not Labor, Coalition of Green) say they would never get vaccinated.

If, as those numbers suggest, only 84 per cent of Australians are vaccinated, particularly with the AstraZeneca vaccine, it is hard to see us achieving herd immunity. The likely low vaccination rate among “other”’ voters suggests we could see significant outbreaks in some of the poorer rural regions.

The survey reveals that people have a strong preference for Pfizer over AstraZeneca. Because AstraZeneca carries a higher clotting risk for young people, we might expect this preference to be stronger among younger people, but surprisingly the survey reveals the preference to be about the same for everyone aged from 18 to 69. Perhaps information about the age-risk profile isn’t getting through, or perhaps people simply think it’s an inferior vaccine.

There are predictable partisan differences in people’s views on the vaccination: 59 per cent of Labor supporters and 32 per cent of Coalition supporters blame the federal government for the slow rollout. There are also gender differences: men have more faith in the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of the vaccine than women.

By now (Thursday), 2.1 million Australians (8.2 per cent of our population) have received at least their first dose of vaccination, and the smaller states are still doing better than the larger states. How is it that Tasmania, one of the world’s most protected places against Covid-19, has a first-dose rate of 6.7 per cent while New South Wales, our major gateway, has a rate of only 2.5 per cent? Also of concern is that there seems to be no uptick in our rate of vaccination: over the month of April our vaccination rate has held at around 45 000 doses a day.

Some other countries are steaming ahead. Israel has achieved 59 per cent full vaccination (62 per cent first dose), the US 30 per cent (42 per cent first dose), and the UK 20 per cent (50 per cent first dose).


India

The media have given plenty of graphic coverage to India’s plight.

India appeared to be doing well before the most recent outbreak. Independent journalist Mandakini Gahlot, writing in Foreign AffairsA country gasping for air – explains why the situation changed so quickly. Complacency had set in, policymakers didn’t heed expert advice, governments fudged data, and large religious festivals and pilgrimages proceeded unchecked.

Australian media have given a great deal of coverage to India’s figures on cases and deaths, and that is understandable. Out of 5.7 million new Covid-19 cases reported in the week up to April 27, 2.2 million have been in India. India’s daily reported infection rate has been above 300 000 cases, but journalists seem to have forgotten that with 1366 million people, it is a rather large country. By official figures, reported to the WHO, its daily infection rate per million is 230. That’s a little lower than the EU’s current rate of 270.

OK – Indian figures are probably less than accurate, as indicated by high positive test rates, are under-recorded, but so too were Europe’s when it was going through its worst phases.  At its peak in January this year the UK was recording 900 new cases per day per million, and the USA wasn’t far behind, with a rate of 750.

Of course it is likely that India’s cases are concentrated in large cities, which may partly explain why Delhi and Mumbai are having such terrible experiences. (The New York Times has an informative coronavirus map and case count for India, showing sharp geographic differences). But every country has had regional concentrations: remember those scenes from New York and Bergamo last year.

So why have we closed off flights from India when we didn’t stop people coming in from the UK and the US? Perhaps it’s because the variants coming from India seem to be more easily spread than the variants we had in our first wave, but so too are the variants coming from the UK.

A charitable explanation is that because we have learned that our hotel quarantine system is unreliable we are being extra cautious. A less charitable explanation is that our policymakers, particularly Liberal and National Party politicians, still harbour the idea of a special relationship with Britain, in disregard to our geographic location, security interests and changing sources of immigrants. In 2018-19 – the last year before Covid-related immigration restrictions, we took in 34 000 immigrants from India, compared with 14 000 immigrants from the UK, as recorded by the Department of Home Affairs.


The rest of the world

The rest of the world looks a little more promising. The graph below shows daily new cases worldwide, which are still rising (red line), but it also shows cases in the rest of the world other than India (blue line). In the world outside India total cases may have peaked a couple of weeks ago.

 

In Europe cases are falling, but some countries, including France, The Netherlands and Sweden still have daily infection rates above 400 per million population. The UK, Finland and Portugal all have daily rates between 30 and 50 per million. In the USA the daily rate is finally falling: it’s now around 157 per million.

Japan’s rising rates have been a matter of some concern, particularly in relation to the Olympics as a possible exchange place for virus variants. Its daily infection rate is now 40 cases per million – a figure that looks promising on the way down but that is foreboding on the way up.


What a difference a pandemic makes

A group of three academics from the London School of Economics has found that the experience of  COVID-19 has made people more averse to both income and health inequalities, particularly if they have not been affected by Covid-19 themselves.


Sources

See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19.  On Harvard’s site there is a report by Fauci who says that reaching “a very strong degree of normality” in the U.S. and other wealthy nations is likely by year’s end. And for anyone who is cautious about vaccination, Norman Swan, on his Thursday Coronacast, assures us that the vaccines we are using “work and they don’t have as many side-effects as we feared”, but he does point out that because they are less than 100 per cent effective we must have a high immunisation rate, well into the 90 to 100 per cent range, to achieve national protection.


Our hobbled transition to reducing emissions

The emperor has no clothes – only speaking notes

“Has Australia ever put in a more depressing and shameful performance at a major international forum than during President Biden’s climate summit?”

That’s the opening of the editorial in last Saturday’s Canberra TimesMorrison’s failure on the global stage –– where even Brazil’s President Bolsonaro managed to commit his country to carbon neutrality by 2050.

The ABC’s Ian Verrender is kinder on Morrison, suggesting that he managed to bluff his way through the summit. Verrender notes an apparent policy anomaly with Labor having been in favour of a market-based approach to CO2 abatement by using a carbon price while the Coalition has gone for subsidies. But it is so strange? The Labor-Coalition difference in current times is the difference between a preference for established economic principles and a preference for crony capitalism.

He also writes “With the slimmest of majorities and a looming election, the Prime Minister’s reticence to commit to anything concrete is understandable from a domestic political perspective”.

Is it understandable? A significant majority of the people Australians elected to Parliament believe we should take strong action on climate change. There is nothing in our Constitution condemning us to a winner-take-all “Westminster” system in which a caucus of three or four people with inflexible minority views can thwart the public interest.

Gabi Mocatta and Rebecca Harris, of the Climate Futures Program at the University of Tasmania, writing in The Conversation, don’t believe Morrison has been politically clever. Worldwide there is a groundswell for change. They cite opinion polls and they note the enthusiasm with which people have supported climate change action. In leaving us behind Morrison is ignoring nit only good science but also people’s wishes.


Gosplan down under

April 30 was the Commonwealth’s deadline for the private sector to come up with a scheme to build a 1000-megawatt gas-fired power plant in the Hunter region. In view of the private sector’s reluctance to invest in dud projects, the ABC’s Jane Norman confirms that the Coalition is attempting to emulate the extraordinary success of Soviet central planning, by building such a plant itself: Federal government set to build taxpayer-funded gas-fired power plant in Hunter region of NSW.


Duties of directors

Corporate directors have a duty to their stakeholders to report and act upon their assessments of climate-related risk in their enterprises.

On Monday The Centre for Policy Development hosted a roundtable attended by representatives of the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Institution of Superannuation Trustees. They examined critical challenges and flash points for directors and trustees seeking to meet their climate-related obligations. While the discussions were held in camera, the CPD has summarised key conclusions relating to “greenwashing”, the responsibilities of superannuation fund trustees, and opportunities for collaboration within the bounds of competition law.


Europe’s plan to tax the world into carbon pricing

“Dumping” is a basic concept in international trade. Dumping occurs “when a country or company exports a product at a price that is lower in the foreign importing market than the price in the exporter’s domestic market” (Investopedia).

As far as the importing country goes, dumping is not always a bad thing; it means consumers enjoy cheaper goods. But when it hurts domestic industry, governments have a legitimate case, supported by WTO rules, to impose anti-dumping duties. The WTO is particularly on the lookout for subsidies given to exporters.

If a country has a carbon price that accounts for the environmental costs of burning carbon (“negative externalities” in economists’ terms), then its industries will be disadvantaged by imports from countries that are effectively subsidising their exporters because those exporters do not have to pay a price for CO2 emissions. These importing countries are entitled to impose anti-dumping duties.

The international law firm Norton Bright Fulbright describes in general terms how the EU may go about creating a carbon border adjustment mechanism – essentially a formalised anti-dumping duty imposed on products from countries without a price on carbon or a price that is below the current EU €40 a tonne. Giving more detail, KPMG lists four specific ways in which such a mechanism may be applied. Writing in Politico Karl Mathiesen and Paola Tamma suggest that the EU will probably go for simply applying a carbon price, being a difference between the exporter’s carbon price and the EU’s price – Europe’s plan to tax the world into climate ambition. They note in passing that Morrison’s Trade Minister, Dan Tehan, has been wandering around Brussels complaining about Europe’s plans as “protectionist”. A knowledge of economics and WTO conventions does not appear to be among his policy strengths.


Other Australian economics

Do we have to tolerate high unemployment?

In its time our Reserve Bank, in its zeal to contain inflation, has been harsh with its monetary policy settings, resulting in a much higher level of unemployment than is necessary to maintain price stability. (That is, if one is convinced by the idea that there is a firm trade-off between unemployment and inflation.) Most economists believe that if we are to get wages up we have to get unemployment down.

The ABC’s business and economics reporter Gareth Hutchens summarises a presentation by Justin Wolfers given to the Australian Business Economists: Economics professor Justin Wolfers says Australia ‘failing’ as land of the fair go. Wolfers argues that the Reserve Bank is still obsessed with the idea that there is some “natural rate of unemployment” (known to economists as “the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment” or by its ghastly acronym NAIRU”) that should be tolerated, as if monetary and aggregate fiscal settings are the only tools governments have to combat inflation. He says governments should abandon this idea.

He also makes the surprising claim that even after the Hawke Government successfully floated the Australian Dollar in 1983, the Reserve Bank continued to see containing the current account deficit as a policy objective, which may have made sense in the Bretton Woods era of fixed exchange rates but not when the currency is floating.


Frydenberg discovers Keynes – or at least cherry-picks Keynes

Treasurer Frydenberg’s pre-budget and fiscal strategy speech hardly makes for good reading: it is overloaded with Coalition propaganda and selective data. But it’s worth attention for it does suggest some change in the Coalition’s macroeconomic policy. (What does he mean, however, in calling it a “strategy”, and what is the “Plan”, with a capital P?)

His speech could be summed up by saying that a long period of reliance on monetary policy accompanied by fiscal austerity – essentially the neoliberal consensus – has imposed a huge cost on the Australian economy. This cost is the opportunity cost (or “output gap” in other economic terminology) of unnecessarily high unemployment. The economy will need some net fiscal stimulus for the foreseeable future to bring us back closer to full employment.

But such a summary would be tantamount to Frydenberg admitting that the Liberal Party has followed a dead-end economic policy for decades, more concerned with figures in the government’s fiscal ledger than with the strength of the Australian economy. And it would be an implicit apology for the Coalition’s vituperative attack on the Rudd-Gillard Government for having run a mild expansionary fiscal policy in response to the GFC.

Will it work? On a whiteboard in a university lecture room it all looks simple: stimulate the economy, more demand will increase employment, wages will rise, unemployment will fall, and the extra demand will fuel a self-sustaining cycle of activity. Q.E.D.

But that simple model assumes that the so-called “labour market” is a homogeneous pool of workers. The reality is that Australia suffers what is known as “structural unemployment”. The skills of the workforce do not match the needs of the economy. High unemployment can co-exist with labour shortages.

Structural unemployment cannot be swept away with a little Keynesian stimulus. It has to be addressed by a suite of policies – social inclusion, early childhood development, primary, secondary and tertiary education, industry programs. A fiscal stimulus is welcome, but on its own it can worsen inequality as its benefits are captured by the well-skilled, leaving others behind.

As we read through the speech we come across the old Coalition mantras – commitments to “lower taxes”, “containing the size of government”, and “maintaining a tax-to-GDP ratio at or below 23.9 per cent”, as if small government is a self-evident economic good. No explanation why our needs for infrastructure, health and education should be constrained by an arbitrary figure of 23.9 per cent. No explanation of why Australia should have an emaciated public sector, out of step with almost every other prosperous country.


Productivity – have we hit the end of the line?

Anyone who has been following medium-term economic trends in Australia knows that labour productivity – the amount of real output we achieve for each hour (or day or year) of work – has been on a downward trend for almost all of this century so far. Undoubtedly some of this decline can be traced to poor government: the Coalition has held office for 15 of those 21 years.

Labour productivity drives living standards. Taking a longer-term view of the world, Peter Martin suggests that in prosperous countries like Australia things are about as good as they are ever going to get: we might be “coming up against hard limits in the amount we can squeeze out of each hour of paid work”. In the twentieth century we enjoyed tremendous improvements in living standards through electrification, telecommunications, cheaper and safer transport, sewerage, piped water, useful appliances, to name a few, but the present era is bringing us mainly electronic gimmicks of marginal benefit and more makework jobs in finance and marketing, with little real value-added: Why productivity growth has stalled since 2005 (and isn’t about to improve soon) in The Conversation.


Consumer prices – an economy limping back, not zooming back

On Wednesday the ABS released the Consumer Price Index for the March quarter. Normally in an economy pulling out of recession, when consumers are becoming a little more confident about spending, we would expect to see some price inflation. But only in the transport sector was there significant inflation (3.2 per cent) and this was due to foreign factors – rising world oil prices and supply disruptions in the world automobile industry. There was a 2.0 per cent price rise in the health sector but this is a cyclical phenomenon to do with Medicare safety nets that reset every January 1. Otherwise prices are hardly moving.

In all it’s a story of an economy with some combination of weak demand and a large amount of unemployed capacity.


World economics

The public sector’s job goes beyond fixing the messes left by the private sector

Isn’t it amazing that only a year after Covid-19 broke out there are effective vaccines in production? If we follow the right-wing propaganda it’s because of the boundless energy and creativity of the private sector, spurred on by the incentives of competitive capitalism.

Mariana Mazzucato reminds us that such a view overlooks the work of the public sector in “developed” countries, in having done basic research, in training scientists, and in spending at least $12 billion in research specifically relevant to immunisation. She is interviewed on Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra program, in the third of a series on the public sector. The countries that are prospering in these difficult times are the countries that have invested in their public sectors in previous decades, and have seen the public sector not only as an entity to correct for market failure, but also as an essential part of the value-adding economy.

Rather than outsourcing work to contractors and consultants, we should maintain and strengthen the capability on our public sector so that, in cooperation with the private sector, it can work to take advantage of emerging opportunities to create value for citizens.

In advice to social-democratic parties she stresses that they should not allow their valid concern for redistribution to distract from the need for the government to be involved in wealth-creation. The public sector should be more than something we use to fix up the problems of capitalism; it should be seen as an essential productive part of the economy.

Lest we think this is all self-evident, we should recall that the Liberal Party, the Prime Minister’s party, explicitly writes in its statement of beliefs “that businesses and individuals – not government – are the true creators of wealth and employment”.

Mazzucato’s latest book is Mission Economy: a moonshot guide to changing capitalism.


Musk and Bezos leave this troubled world behind

We hear a lot about Musk’s and Bezos’ space ventures, but Robert Reich brings us back to earth with his post Musk’s and Bezos’s Great Escape.  He describes employment conditions at their establishments, and what he describes isn’t pretty.

I’m grateful to Musk for making electric cars and to Bezos for making it easy to order stuff online. But I wish they’d set better examples for protecting and lifting the people who do the work.

As Reich, former Secretary of Labor, points out, prominent firms like Tesla and Amazon, through their examples, have a huge influence on how the country’s chief executives understand their obligation to employees.


Politics

Europe’s political conflicts

This month’s Foreign Affair segment on the ABC Saturday Extra program has a focus on happenings in Northern Europe – France, Germany and Denmark.

The first segment is about the German national election to be held in September. Whatever the outcome it appears that Covid-19 has done to Germany what years of persuasion by Macron and other European politicians have failed to do: it has moved Germany away from austerity towards a more expansive fiscal policy. Because of Germany’s economic might in the EU this matters for all of Europe. The panel also discusses the chance that Angela Merkel’s place as Chancellor could be taken by a Green politician, possibly in a green-conservative coalition (such a coalition has happened in Austria).

The second segment is about the waning position of far-right parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland. The consensus is that while Germany, in its post-1945 rehabilitation, has immunised itself against the far right, other European countries have tended to see anti-Muslim and general anti-immigrant sentiments become established in centrist parties. The force of the far right has been less in terms of their own parties than in influencing national cultures and normalising political behaviour. (The right seems to have learned from Gramsci.)

The final segment focuses on Denmark, where even the ruling Social Democratic Labor Party has embarked on a program of “coercive assimilation” towards immigrants, and has a harsh policy towards Syrian refugees. The assimilation policy involves relocating immigrant communities, breaking up their “ghettos” (an idea that horrifies the Germans), and declaring Damascus as a safe zone, to which Syrian refugees should be returned. They are encouraged to do so by withdrawal of benefits such as health care and schooling for their children.

Lest we think Denmark’s policy is home-grown, we can watch a 5-minute CNN interview with Kenneth Kristensen Berth of the right wing Danish People’s Party, who gives due credit to Australia as a model for Denmark’s asylum-seeker policy.


Once upon a time a Liberal prime minister acted in the national interest

John Howard was elected Prime Minister on 11 March 1996.  Just seven weeks later, on 28 April, while he and Janette were working out the lighting and heating systems at The Lodge, there was the Port Arthur Massacre. On Wednesday, exactly 25 years after the massacre, Fran Kelly on the ABC’s Breakfast interviewed Howard on his achievement in implementing the National Firearms Agreement, which saw a ban on semi-automatic rifles and a national buyback scheme – how he secured the support of the Labor opposition, and with the help of Tim Fischer who calmed nervous National Party members.

Writing in The Guardian Elias Visontay warns that Australia’s global gold standard on gun control is being eroded. The number of licensed firearms owners has decreased significantly since the Port Arthur killings, but there are now more firearms per licensed owner, and there is a vocal – and at times offensively aggressive – gun lobby. There are still weaknesses and loopholes in our gun laws.


Religion and public policy

A prime minister with God on his side

When Morrison mounted the pulpit to talk to a religious gathering, most media reported that the address was to some broad-based Christian group. The Guardian, for example wrote that he was at “a national conference of Christian churches” – Scott Morrison tells Christian conference he was called to do God’s work as prime minister.

Josh Butler, writing in The New Daily, more accurately describes the gathering as “The Australian Christian Churches”, probably better known by its former name “Assemblies of God”, and points to its website where it describes itself as having “over 1000 churches” and “over 375 000 constituents”. Although it is known for large gatherings of its followers, it’s a tiny portion of the 13 million Australians who describe themselves as Christian.

It’s important to understand this movement, because as is evident from video recordings of the event, Morrison’s role was more than that of an invited guest speaker: he is clearly in his comfortable religious milieu and he greets “brothers” by name. Auditors should be asking why he should have used an air force plane to take him to his church.

You can see a three-minute edited extract provided by SBS News, or the whole 23-minute session provided by Rationalists Australia, where he starts by acknowledging his “brothers” in the congregation.

Most political commentators shy away from mentioning politicians’ faith, and most politicians have respected our constitutional separation of church and state. This has been an easy settlement because our prime ministers for the first 117 years of our federation have come from mainstream Christian religions (Anglicans, Catholics, Protestants), or have been agnostics or atheists in a liberal humanist tradition, all sharing the same broad social morality. The differences between these faiths have been more about points of theology rather than morality.

But as James Boyce pointed out in a 2019 essay in The MonthlyThe Devil and Scott Morrison – the prime minister’s Pentecostalism is from a different tradition. The prime minister’s Horizon Church is not just another conservative Christian denomination:

The religion’s starting point is not the written-down teachings of Jesus, the moral code set out in the Bible, or the instructions of the institutional Church. Nor is its essence captured by infamous conservative Christian campaigns on sex, marriage and gender. Even the comparatively well publicised “prosperity gospel” (most Pentecostals celebrate the fact that earthly gifts as well as spiritual ones are available to believers) is not a universal teaching. The essence of our prime minister’s religion is not a set of beliefs at all but a unique perspective on the Christian experience in which God is so intimately present to the saved and sanctified that he can be felt, talked to and heard at any time (an intimacy that is not confined to those who have the celebrated gift of speaking in tongues).

Boyce goes on to describe Pentecostalism’s obsession with the Devil – not as an abstract idea as in the theology of most Abrahamic religions, but “a highly personal fallen angel who, through his ability to manipulate and direct nonbelievers, largely runs the ‘world’”.

The way Pentecostalism emphasises experience over dogma goes some way to explaining  Morrison’s contempt for intellectuals – those who talk about climate policy “in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner cities” – and his hostility to universities and the ABC.  What counts is what one experiences, not what some bunch of analysts calculate will happen if we invest in child care or if we don’t cut emissions.

It’s a limited empirical view of how the world works. Also the Pentecostalist obsession with combating the devil also fits easily with the Liberal Party’s own raison d’être which isn’t so much as pursuing a coherent platform or ideology, as to protect Australia from the Satanic Labor Party.


Another prime minister with religious conviction

Mostly, prime ministers and other prominent politicians keep their religious convictions to themselves and respect the traditions of our country as a secular democracy.  But that doesn’t mean they are not influenced by their religious beliefs.

On Wednesday’s 730 Report Kevin Rudd talks about “what a Christian belief means in terms of political practice, which is about the theology of social justice and the theology of environmental custodianship”.

He assures Leigh Sales that he didn’t believe that when he was prime minister it was God’s will that he occupied that position. Such a belief is “the stuff of real danger” he warns.  He goes on to remind us that “we are a proudly secular country where people who are agnostics, atheists, Christians, Calathumpians can compete for office in our secular national parliament. That’s as it should be”.

(The interview runs for 7 minutes. The topic of Rudd’s religious beliefs runs from 3:21 to the end.)


Remembering Daniel Berrigan

Pearls and Irritations reader Wayne McMillan has reminded us that April 30 marks five years since the death of Daniel Berrigan, the American Jesuit who rose to prominence as an activist in the protest movements against the Vietnam War, and who was an advocate of strong but non-violent political action.

For a time Daniel and his brother Philip, a Josephite priest, were on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. Daniel spent almost seven years in prison. After the Vietnam War ended he continued his peace activism, protesting against the 1991 Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Wayne has brought to our attention a short biography of Daniel Berrigan, by the pacifist priest John Dear, tracing his spiritual and political life: Daniel Berrigan and his fearless nonviolence, at 100.


War and peace

Beating the drums of war

When the failures of an authoritarian or incompetent government become evident to the community, a typical response is for the government to talk up external threats. We see it in Putin’s Russia, and we now see it in the Morrison Government. A senior public servant doesn’t give a speech about “the drums of war” on his or her own initiative.

It is a dismal reality that the possibility of military tension in our region has risen over the last few years, as Charles Glaser points out in Foreign Affairs: Washington Is Avoiding the Tough Questions on Taiwan and China, but security threats develop slowly. Why is there a barrage of security talk just now? Why has ASIO head Mike Burgess chosen this time to warn of a terrorist threat – which remains at “probable”?

Kevin Rudd, interviewed on the ABC’s 730, sees this security talk in terms of domestic politics:

My interpretation is that this is primarily about a piece of domestic political repositioning by the Government simply to change the domestic political narrative and agenda from areas where the Government is in trouble on vaccines, on climate change, and, if you like, on sexual abuse scandals in Canberra, to what they would regard as much safer political terrain, namely the khaki terrain of a national security agenda.

John Hewson, writing in the Canberra Times, warns that Dangerous talk of war with China is not in the national interest. Matters of national security have to be handled discreetly and carefully.


The world is over-armed

Sipri – the Stockholm International Peace Institute – reports that world military spending in 2020 was just on $US 2 trillion, a real increase of 2.9 per cent on the previous year.  This at a time when world GDP contracted by 4.4 per cent.

The usual suspects – the United States, China, India, Russia and the United Kingdom – account for more than half of weapons expenditure. In our region China ($252 billion), India  ($73 billion), Japan ($49 billion), South Korea ($46 billion) and Australia ($28 billion) have all increased expenditure.


The Armenian Genocide remembered

President Biden has formally announced that the US regards the 1915 killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks as genocide. This is a significant departure from US foreign policy: the US was cautious about Turkish sensitivities during the Cold War, and there was a close ideological relationship between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Writing in the New York Times Rick Gladstone describes the formal meaning of “Genocide” and the specifics of the Armenian Genocide, in history and politics: what to know. During the 1914-18 War the Ottoman Empire was aligned with Germany, and the Turks feared that the country’s ethnic Armenians, living mainly in Eastern Turkey, would collaborate with Russia. “As many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians died from starvation, killings by Ottoman Turk soldiers and the police, and forced exoduses south into what is now Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.”

At least 30 countries have recognized these killings as genocide: Australia is not one of them. The parliaments of New South Wales and South Australia recognize the killings as genocide, however, and there have been rallies in Sydney and Melbourne calling for the Commonwealth to follow suit. New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian, herself of Armenian descent, supports the call, but the movement is widespread: it is not confined to those with Armenian ancestry.


Polls

Newspoll – not much change

Most media have focused on a shift in the Newspoll 2PP vote from 52:48 to 51:49 – still in Labor’s favour – as a comeback for the Coalition. (Is it possible to get through a degree in journalism without even a basic exposure to statistical concepts such as sampling error?)  In any event, no poll can pick up support for local independents, or for small here-today-gone-tomorrow parties. It’s better to focus on primary votes, and this poll has Labor on 38 per cent  (up from 33 per cent in the 2019 election) and the Coalition on 41 per cent (no change from the 2019 election).

William Bowe remarks on Morrison’s strong approval rating and strong lead as preferred prime minister. Labor, or more specifically Albanese, is scoring poorly on these dimensions.

Labor may gain some comfort from Newspoll time series in what is starting to look like a recovery in the party’s primary vote, shown below.

Writing in The Conversation, Adrian Beaumont has some comments on Newspoll and on the new Resolve poll. He also reports on a uComms poll on the Tasmanian election that points to a reasonably strong performance for the Greens and independents. We should remember that Tasmania has five regional divisions, each electing five members, on a Hare-Clark system of proportional representation. It’s a system that doesn’t deliver thumping majorities.


Respect for coal miners

Be careful with your message (Mullumbimby)

In the not too distant future there will be no more coal mines in Australia. Even with well-designed and generously-funded structural-adjustment packages, there will be pain for many people and their communities. Men – and some women – have held highly skilled jobs in mining. In some communities there have been generations of mining families. They take great pride in coal’s contribution to human well-being.

These men and women know about the forces that shape the planet. They know about climate change.

Some of the protests and demonstrations that preceded the 2019 election came across as patronising and offensive in coal-mining regions, particularly when the protesters were seen to come from distant places. It is probable that through stimulating a backlash the protesters inadvertently contributed to the re-election of a government that is doing great damage to the planet, and that is offering false hope to coal miners and their communities.

There is no perfect way to ease the transition, but whatever is done it should be with respect for the people involved, with recognition of people’s losses, and appreciation of the rich culture of coal mining. See how the Germans handled the closure of the Prosper-Haniel black-coal (Steinkohle) mine in the Ruhr, in a rendition of the miners’ Steigerlied traditional song.  (The tears are real.)


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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