Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend 

Jun 12, 2021
Melbourne looking forward to people returning

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress

Victoria – two hotel quarantine failures

It turns out that Victoria’s current outbreak of Covid-19 results from two failures in hotel quarantine, one in Adelaide, the other in Melbourne. With a lot of contact-tracing work infections from the Adelaide failure have been traced, but it has been hard to find the infection path of the highly-infectious “delta” strain.

Now genomic sequencing of those infected with the “delta” strain have traced it back to an infected travellerwho started hotel quarantine in Melbourne on May 8 and was released 14 days later.  Exactly how the virus escaped and infected others is still unknown, but it is definitely yet another hotel quarantine failure.

The rest of Australia

As at Wednesday June 9, 5.2 million doses had been administered to Australians. Almost a quarter of Australians (23.6 per cent) have received at least one dose, while three per cent have received two doses – a figure that should grow fairly quickly as people take their second AstraZeneca dose. Smaller states and territories are well ahead of larger states. There has been a sharp increase in the rate of vaccination in the last two weeks.

As yet, there are no reliable figures on the number of people who have received two doses.  It is possible that, because of split Commonwealth and state responsibilities, no one knows.

The rest of the world

The world’s reported cases are still falling. Brazil now accounts for a quarter of the world’s cases and is the only large country with a sustained high rate of reported infection.

In all EU countries, other than Sweden, cases are still falling. In the UK cases are on the rise again: its comparatively high rate of vaccination (60 per cent one dose, 41 per cent two doses) has not prevented its current outbreak. In countries that have managed a strong reduction in cases in the last two months we should expect the rate of improvement to fall: just as the virus tends to grow exponentially, it tends to decline exponentially (asymptotically to the axis for math purists).

The pandemic and trust

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer “reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. Adding to this is a failing trust ecosystem unable to confront the rampant infodemic, leaving the four institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – in an environment of information bankruptcy and a mandate to rebuild trust and chart a new path forward”.

According to the Edelman survey people in poorer countries are most likely to believe (probably correctly) that “those with less education, less money and fewer resources are being unfairly burdened with most of the suffering, risk of illness, and need to sacrifice due to the pandemic.”  Even in Australia 58 per cent of respondents agree with that statement.

Its findings in relation to Australia suggest that we are doing better than most countries. Our general levels of trust, particularly trust in government and in NGOs, has improved compared with last year and is at higher levels than in most countries.

It has some telling observations about voters in the US, where a huge gap has opened up between Biden and Trump voters in their trust in NGOs and government.

Writing in The Conversation Frank Bongiorno draws on the Edelman barometer in his article How the pandemic has brought out the worst — and the best — in Australians and their governments. He also draws on work by the Museum of Democracy, the Scanlon Foundation and the University of Canberra, all of which confirms the Edelman findings. He is puzzled by the way we have accepted the Morrison Government’s behaviour. He writes of Morrison:

He’s capable of great callousness, and addicted to publicity and marketing over substance and results. I suspect many Australians don’t quite trust Morrison to find the right way of responding to crises and challenges. But they seem willing to stick by him until something better is on offer, a common enough attitude in the two-horse race that federal politics remains.


See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including the ABC’s vaccine tracker.  Norman Swan’s Coronacast addresses some rumours about vaccination, and on his June 9 program he points to some findings that the clotting problem associated with AstraZeneca may be less serious than preliminary estimates suggested (and even those probabilities were low).


Exposing Coalition economic policy: keep wages suppressed

For many years, in opposition and government, the Coalition has spun the line that the most important task of economic policy – perhaps the sole task – is to achieve a balanced or surplus budget. Even though anyone who has stayed awake in Economics 1 knows that this is rubbish and that fiscal management is only one aspect of economic policy, it was convenient for the Coalition to use ridiculous language about “repairing” the budget in the wake of deficits incurred when the Global Financial Crisis occurred on Labor’s watch.

The fiscal response required by the pandemic has rather spoiled that line. ABC business journalist Gareth Hutchens suggests that with fiscal policy now off the political agenda, the government’s true economic policy is becoming clearer: Stagnant wages, a higher tax burden, and labour market “slack”. Was this the federal government’s plan all along?  He points out that an unemployment rate of around 5 per cent, and an underemployment rate of around 9 per cent, have become normalised. The government has been “using an unemployment rate of 5 per cent as a deliberate policy tool in recent years so suppress wages and inflation growth”.

Australian taxes

The Australian Taxation Office has published taxation statistics for 2018-19. There is a richness of data in these annual publications. The most striking figures that always appear relate to average and median income per taxpayer: in 2018-19 Australians’ average taxable income was $62 549, and the median was $47 492.  Another striking figure is that only 3.5 per cent of taxpayers had incomes of $180 000 or more.

These figures are striking because so many people with high incomes believe they are just typical Australians, paying more than their share of taxation.  They are also striking because the Morrison Government’s Stage 3 cuts are targeted at those with incomes above $180 000, but an Australian with median taxable income will receive a benefit of only $100 a year.

For those who don’t fancy clicking through the ATO tables (accessible from the link above), Nassim Khadem and Michael Janda of the ABC have summarised some of the ATO data, starting with the revelation that 66 millionaires paid no tax in 2018-19.  They also emphasise urban-rural income differences – differences that leave one puzzled why people in rural Queensland and New South Wales support the National Party, a party that without a hint of dissent faithfully goes along with the Liberal Party’s program of tax cuts for high-income urban dwellers.

A future with batteries

Just as town water systems need tanks and reservoirs, our electricity industry, moving to energy sourced from renewables, needs batteries.

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue discussed with Giles Parkinson of RenewEconomy and Adam Best of the CSIRO the prospect of batteries making Australia a renewable superpower.

Batteries now have a well-established role in storage and stabilising the grid, as Parkinson describes (and as Energy Minister Taylor chooses not to understand). The way we generate and distribute electricity is changing: optimisation of the power grid, which has grown over more than 100 years around big power stations, will require extensive use of batteries. We already have the 129 MWh battery at Hornsdale in South Australia and Victoria’s 450 MWh Big Battery will come on line later this year. Many other more modest projects are in progress.

That is part of our future as users of batteries. The other part is in manufacturing batteries, for which we have all the basic minerals. The energy density, safety and cost of lithium-ion batteries are all improving. Worldwide the market is expanding rapidly, particularly for electric vehicles: internal-combustion engines are on the way out. We have a huge opportunity to develop a new industry based on our natural resources. (17 minutes)

The great escape – of gas

There has been a great deal of attention paid to the Narrabri gas project in northern New South Wales, but a similarly large possible expansion of gas exploration and production in Victoria has largely escaped public scrutiny.

In 2012 the Victorian Government placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracking and the issue of licenses for coal seam gas exploration and production. That was implemented by the Baillieu Coalition Government, and was extended in 2016 by the Andrews Labor Government, essentially covering all onshore gas exploration and production.

On March 16 last year the Government indicated it would lift the moratorium and move towards restarting the onshore gas industry from 30 June 2021. Enabling legislation was passed soon after. The date is significant: over the few days from Friday March 13, when Morrison casually dismissed the threat of Coronavirus with his intention to go to the football, and the end of the following week, the whole nation suddenly became aware of the looming threat of the pandemic.  A state premier could have announced a resumption of capital punishment and not have been noticed.

A group of Victorians, including James Gaffey, Amaryll Perlesz and Ernest Healy, have prepared a paper The great escape from gas: accelerating Victoria’s transmission to clean energy by 2030. It is mainly a criticism of the 2017 Geological Survey of Victoria’s 2017-20 Victorian Gas Program study on which the case for lifting the moratorium was purportedly based. That study understated the extent of the likely development, understated the extent of fugitive methane emissions associated with gas exploration and development (an echo of Narrabri), overstated the domestic demand for gas, and overstated the economic benefits to Victoria.  The great escape from gas is more than a criticism of an ill-considered project; it also charts practical and economically realistic measures for Victoria to achieve its domestic and export GHG emission reduction goals, complete treaty negotiations with traditional owners fairly, promote water and regional communities’ security and revitalise the manufacturing sector decimated by gas pricing strategies.

Dani Rodrik explains all you need to know about economics

In a 30-minute podcast – The rights and wrongs of economics – Dani Rodrik explains the work of economists. It is a social science, not a natural science, and like engineers, economists deal with practical problems.  Also, because economics helps shape public policy, the economist cannot always be the detached observer: he or she is involved in the process.

His talk is mainly about the broad scope of economics, but he makes three specific observations. One is about innovation, examining how governments might steer innovation to serve the public good. Another is about the apparently paradoxical observation that American Democrats in government are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. And the third is his qualified support for industry protection, with echoes of our own “free trade” versus “protection” arguments at the time of federation. Even well-renowned economists see a case for selective trade barriers in some circumstances.

The G7 tax proposal – if it were serious there would be more complaints

At face value few could complain about G7 finance ministers agreeing “to the principle of a global minimum [corporate tax rate] that ensures multinationals pay tax of at least 15 per cent in each country they operate”. Even though the Biden administration initially pushed for a 21 per cent minimum rate, in line with their present rate, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has welcomed the deal for a “global minimum tax [that] would end the race-to-the-bottom in corporate taxation, and ensure fairness for the middle class and working people in the U.S. and around the world”.  OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann (remember him?) has expressed support.

This in-principle agreement is only among G7 members: there’s a long way to go before it is accepted in practice in all countries where multinationals have significant sales. The classic small-state tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands are already subject to anti-avoidance rules. These small countries don’t have much clout, but if this current agreement has teeth we might expect to hear loud complaints from EU tax havens such as Ireland, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Ireland’s finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, seems to be easy about the agreement however, and world stock markets have carried on as if nothing has happened.

Writing in The Conversation (UK) –  G7 tax deal: if you think multinationals will be forced to pay more, you don’t understand tax avoidance – Ronen Palan of the University of London outlines ways multinationals can still get around the G7 agreement.

Commenting on the 15 per cent floor, OXFAM has said:

It’s absurd for the G7 to claim it is “overhauling” a broken global tax system by setting up a global minimum corporate tax rate that is similar to the soft rates charged by tax havens like Ireland, Switzerland and Singapore. They are setting the bar so low that companies can just step over it.

A significant risk to public revenue is that the 15 per cent rate will become a standard, rather than a minimum. We couldn’t help noticing the headline in the ABC article G7 nations agree to set a 15 per cent global tax rate on multinational companies. (Missing word “minimum”.) We can expect to hear more of this misinterpretation from business lobbies in Australia complaining about our 30 per cent tax rate, while conveniently ignoring the reality that for Australian owners of companies the effective corporate tax rate is generally between 10 and 15 per cent because of imputation (the actual rate depending on the company’s payout ratio). Those who call for a lower rate in Australia speak only for foreign multinationals operating in Australia, and they ignore the fact that the Biden administration is committed to raising the US federal corporate tax rate to 28 per cent.

Food prices rise by 40 per cent in one year

After five years of stable prices – in fact a fall in real terms – over the 12 months to May 2020 food prices have risen by 40 per cent, as shown in the graph below.

Relax – this isn’t about our land of plenty. So long as our government makes sure wages in the horticultural and food service industries remain suppressed we can go on enjoying cheap food.

The graph is constructed using data from the Food and Agricultural Organization, who in a recent press release have drawn our attention to the recent steep rise in world food prices. The FAO does not comment on the causes, but Al Jazeera attributes the surge to drought in Brazil, slowing vegetable oil production in Southeast Asia, and strong demand from China. It states that “the world’s hunger problem has already reached its worst in years as the pandemic exacerbates food inequalities, compounding extreme weather and political conflicts”: Global food prices surge again, stoking inflation fears.

The middle east

Israel’s extraordinary new coalition government

Martin Indyk was born in London, his Jewish parents having escaped from Poland before the Holocaust. He grew up in Sydney, did a PhD in international relations at the ANU, moved to the USA, and served two non-consecutive postings as US Ambassador to Israel.

He was a guest on last week’s Saturday Extra, where he gave some initial observations on Israel’s new 8-party coalition cobbled together by Naftali Bennett, and he gave his views on prospects for peace in the region.

The new government will be very different not only from traditional coalitions of parties of similar ideologies, but also from some of the left-right unity parties we see in Europe, such is the breadth of Bennett’s coalition. Indyk accepts that the range of ideologies is so broad that no one grouping will get its way, but they can still get on with the task of providing good administration and Bennett’s government will have to rule from the centre.

On the ongoing conflicts within Israel he sees little likelihood of unity among the Palestinian factions: the situation remains “shambolic”.

He goes on to make general observations on diplomacy, drawing on what he learned from Henry Kissinger. He suggests that the Biden administration take a realist and gradualist approach to Israel and the region: the US can help but the conflicts have to be resolved by the parties in the region. (19 minutes)

Another contribution on Israel’s new government is by Ian Parmeter of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU, writing in The Conversation: Israel’s new government doesn’t give Palestinians much hope. It could be time for a radical approach. He believes that because there are so many different groups in this new government it will be very easy for Netanyahu to entice at least one member to defect, thus bringing on yet another election. He agrees with Indyk that in the immediate term at least there is little chance of a two-state solution.

Afghanistan – mates betrayed

Hundreds of Afghan people have been employed as interpreters, drivers, guards and in other support roles for the Australian military and our embassy in Afghanistan. Because of that association they and their families face the threat of death If they stay in Afghanistan, a threat confirmed by the Taliban having placed those who worked for “infidel enemies” on a kill list.

On last week’s Saturday Extra –  Leaving Afghanistan – retired Army officer John Blaxland, now Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at ANU, pointed out that only some of these people have been granted Australian visas. There are still at least another 200 to 300 who are clearly identified as having worked for Australia.

Their situation is worsened because we have now closed our embassy in Kabul, making it harder for them to apply for visas. In the Saturday PaperUS warned Australia on embassy closure – Karen Middleton points out that there are many people who are officially classified as eligible for humanitarian visas, but who cannot travel because they still have to lodge a 35-page form, which now has to be posted to Jordan, and then is placed at the end of a long queue in the Department of Home Affairs.

Middleton reports that both the US and Afghanistan Governments told the Australian Government that they were very concerned about the closure of the embassy – a decision foreign minister Marise Payne conveyed to the Afghan Government with just three days’ notice. By any standard of diplomatic practice that’s contempt.

Both Blaxland and Middleton note that other countries involved in Afghanistan have been far more considerate to their locally-engaged staff.

And they both recall our indefensible behaviour when we closed our embassy in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, leaving Vietnamese staff behind. Surely we can do better this time, if not for the sake of decency, then so as not to sully our reputation in other conflicts when we will ask local people to stick their necks out. To quote Blaxland, in our selfish isolationism we are behaving in “in an odious manner”.

Blaxland is author of Niche wars: Australia in Afghanistan and Iraq 2001-2014.

Education and health

Tanya Plibersek on universities

Tanya Plibersek’s speech to the Universities Australia Conference last week was about the contribution universities can and should make to Australia’s future.

In many ways she re-asserted the Curtin and Chifley Governments’ vision: “To build a modern university system, which could support industry and help drive a post-war economic boom. That was the vision – and it was supported by both Labor and Liberal governments; by Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies”.

That vision was largely realised, but now the Morrison Government “is systemically trashing higher education in Australia”. Unsurprisingly she is highly critical of the Government’s decision to exclude universities from “Jobkeeper”, while casinos and other businesses with soaring profits got millions in wage subsidies.

The vice-chancellors she was addressing probably didn’t need reminding that the Morrison Government has a deeply-rooted contempt for higher education. They would have been reassured that Plibersek, and Labor more generally, are aware of the terrible waste as we see courses and research projects closed down, as we see university staff and postgraduate students pack up and move to other countries, or write off years of investment in building their knowledge and capabilities, and as we see the government actually discouraging young people from serious tertiary education through a fee structure that disingenuously discourages them from both liberal arts and STEM studies. (About all that’s affordable is a degree in marketing.)

Getting through to vice-chancellors is the easy part. Can she get the message to the suburbs and country towns, where young people risk being left behind if they are denied the chance to realise their capabilities?

In defence of liberal education

The transformation of our universities from places of learning to commercial enterprises was in train well before the Coalition was elected in 2013.  Morrison and his Education Minister Dan Tehan, since replaced by Alan Tudge, have pushed the process along, particularly in their response to the Covid-19 crisis when, through the restrictions on their “Jobkeeper” program, they revealed that it was more important to preserve the employment of bankers, dog walkers, marketing executives, pubic hair removers and real-estate agents than teachers and researchers.

Writing in Inside StoryThe preservation of pure learning –  Frank Bongiorno reminds us of  the Morrison Government’s contempt for anything that may be called a liberal education, privileging vocational courses over arts and sciences. It’s the naïve belief that all education must be directed to immediately applicable specialist skills, ignoring the reality that in the long run, even by the materialist criteria of economics, progress in human wellbeing rests on the arts and sciences, and on people who can bring the perspectives of different disciplines together.

It’s not just anti-intellectualism that’s driving Morrison and his ministers in their war against academic excellence. It’s also a Trumpian know-nothing populism, a conviction that universities are incubators of socialism, and a belief that bashing universities is “good for votes, and especially for votes in marginal seats in regional areas and outer suburbs. The stereotypical tradie supposedly regards academics as wankers and universities as cesspits”.

It was not always thus in the Liberal Party. Bongiorno quotes Menzies’ vision for universities as “the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary”.  Bongiorno concludes with a vision of what our universities might become, recognising that there are many paths to academic excellence.

Writing in The Conversation Richard Colledge of the Australian Catholic University suggests that in this “job-ready” era, it’s worth looking at how a US-style broader education can benefit uni students.  Even before Tehan and Tudge came on the scene our universities had a strong focus on professional and vocational training, and have been drifting further in that direction in the last ten years. He notes that the North American system, in its four-year bachelor degrees, emphasises a breadth of learning, including not only exposure to a number of disciplines but also critical thinking and other transferrable skills.  Professional skills can be developed in postgraduate education.

No, the Morrison Government isn’t gutting Medicare (they’re just underfunding it)

There has been a great deal of excitement about the Government’s plan to make 900 changes to surgical items on the Medicare Benefits Schedule. These changes will substantially increase patient co-payments on many procedures. The Labor Party, using an article published in the Telegraph as support, is circulating a petition to stop what they see as another Liberal Party attack on Medicare, having also circulated an e-mail calling the changes “the biggest attack on Medicare in decades”.

The AMA has come out with its own press release: Government in danger of history repeating with Medicare rebate changes.

The Grattan Institute has a statement by Stephen Duckett clarifying the changes. Yes, some procedures will receive a lower MBS payment, some have been removed, but some new procedures, not previously covered, have been added. Surgery is changing.

The Consumers’ Health Forum (CHF) while it criticises the government, has not taken up arms against the changes. They point out that the changes stem from a five-year review of Medicare benefits, presented to the Government late last year.  A glance at the review – An MBS for the 21st century – confirms that it has involved a great deal of consultation and expert input.  To quote from the CHF’s media release:

We have supported the MBS Review – a review that was long overdue – as good public policy to weed out items in the Medicare Benefits Schedule that are outmoded and have a poor evidence base. Taxpayers should not be contributing to outmoded treatments and should expect the scheme they pay for to subsidise the most up-to-date and effective medicine.

The AMA, the Grattan Institute, and the CHF all criticise the way the government is rushing these changes at short notice. The AMA says this process “leaves doctors and patients scrambling and confused about what and how to bill against Medicare and private health insurance policies come 1 July”.  The CHF calls for a short pause to allow for the changes to be communicated.

The main criticism seems to be about yet another case of the Morrison Government’s administrative incompetence – an incompetence stemming from decades of a deliberate policy to run-down the capabilities of the public service, and the Coalition’s default practice of shrouding public administration in secrecy.

The changes will affect people who use private hospitals for surgery, be they paying from their own pockets or claiming from private health insurance. The changes should have the benefits of cutting back on unnecessary surgery and they may encourage people to drop private health insurance and place more trust in public hospitals.

Here was a chance for the Labor Party to criticise the Government’s administrative ineptitude, rather than to mount a de facto defence of private health insurers’ interests. They could have insisted that any savings resulting from the MBS changes be directed to supporting public hospitals, because the real threat to Medicare lies in successive Coalition governments underfunding public hospitals. That would have been a re-assertion of social-democratic principles. Why is the Labor Party so afraid of telling people what it stands for?

Bad government

In New South Wales at least, the Coalition does not have a monopoly on sleaze

Once was a park

Many Australians have enjoyed a little Schadenfreude seeing James Packer brought down by the revelations from the Bergin inquiry (the inquiry for the New South Wales Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority of NSW into the suitability of Crown Resorts to hold the license for a casino at Barangaroo). We have heard about Crown’s mistreatment of its staff in China, its blind eye to money laundering and the company’s poor corporate governance. These findings have not only denied Crown its sought-for Sydney license, but have also led to the scrutiny of commissions on inquiry into Crown casinos in Melbourne and Perth.

The ABC’s Four CornersPacker’s Gamble – takes us into the background of the whole Barangaroo development of which the casino was to be the crowning part.

It all started with a lunch hosted by Alan Jones in his apartment, attended by James Packer and Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell, where Packer sold the idea of a landmark development at one of Sydney city’s few harbourside parklands, Barangaroo. But there were just a few political and legal impediments to be overcome, and it was necessary to bypass planning processes that may have subjected the project to the embarrassment of public scrutiny. They knew that the people of Sydney would be less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a piece of precious public land being given over to a 270 meter tower of luxury apartments, a six-star hotel, and a casino designed to attract Chinese high rollers.

The Four Corners program goes into the ways various parties were brought on side, bullied into submission, or simply bypassed, particularly how Packer hired two former Labor powerbrokers – Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar – to get Labor on side. That did not prove to be an onerous task as they ensured that any pockets of resistance were “overrun by the Labor machine”, to quote Greens Legislative Council Member David Shoebridge.  “Money was speaking, and money was getting whatever it wanted”.

Funding institutions of democratic accountability

As we have seen with the Coalition’s cut to the Australian National Audit Office, it’s easy for a government to shield the public from its corruption and maladministration by starving institutions of accountability.

The Centre for Public Integrity is calling for the establishment of an independent funding tribunal, modelled on existing remuneration tribunals. It has prepared a short paper – Protecting the integrity of accountability institutions: an independent funding model – setting out the design principles for such a body, including appointing tribunal members, securing ongoing funding and the body’s own accountability.

Polls, surveys and elections

Newspoll – slow movements

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on the latest Newspoll. If one were to put faith in Newspoll’s two-party-preferred TPP calculations, it would appear that Labor’s TPP vote has slipped from 52:48 in October to 50:50 now. But outside election time TPP calculations are rough, because voters are surveyed on only four parties – Labor, Coalition, Greens and One Nation. The “other” vote in Newspoll is consistently lower than the “other” vote at election time.  That’s an unavoidable distortion in polls between elections.

Also, it is probably no coincidence that the Morrison Government has made a swag of positive announcements over the last few days, corresponding to the Newspoll sampling period, about extra vaccine doses for Victoria (whose allocation do they come out of?) and a softening stance on quarantine facilities. That’s the way the Morrison Government works, with an eye on opinion polls, particularly Newspoll which has been so prominent in Liberal leadership conflicts in recent years.

The main finding in this latest Newspoll is that there is no movement in the main parties’ primary vote. Labor’s primary vote has been on a glacially slow improvement since the election two years ago – up from 33 per cent to 36 per cent – while the Coalition’s has been more volatile, but is now sitting at 41 per cent which is the same as its vote at the election.  On face value that’s promising for Labor but a 3 per cent lead at this stage of the cycle can easily be wiped away by a deceptive scare campaign, as the Coalition and Clive Palmer ran in the last election.

The other message from Newspoll is that unsurprisingly Morrison’s net approval (approval – disapproval) has fallen from 20 per cent to 11 per cent, but Albanese’s net approval remains negative, having worsened from minus 7 per cent to minus 9 per cent.

Preferential voting: what’s the value of how-to-vote cards

Antony Green on his election blog has analysed preference flows in the recent Upper Hunter state by-election. We don’t expect there to be much continuing interest in this specific election, but Green’s analysis gives an insight into the effectiveness of parties’ “how-to-vote” advice, and the bias, if any, in optional preferential voting, as is used in New South Wales. (In federal elections one must place a number for each candidate, while in optional preferential voting one need choose only a preferred candidate, and give no further rankings.)

In this election there were 13 candidates, and the outcome was a remarkably poor showing by both lead candidates. The National Party held the seat with a primary vote of 31 per cent, having held an absolute majority of 55 per cent just ten years ago, while Labor’s primary vote was 21 per cent. The TPP outcome after preferences was 55.8:44.2.

Most parties and independents did not have how-to-vote positions but the Greens, Shooters Fishers and Farmers, and one independent all favoured Labor. Greens preferences flowed 86 per cent to Labor, while SFF preferences flowed only 58 per cent to Labor.  Among independents and small parties some had strong flows to Labor or National, while others were about 50:50.  For example Liberal Democratic Party preferences flowed 78 per cent to Nationals, while Sustainable Australia Party preferences flowed 70 per cent to Labor.

This all confirms the proposition that although journalists often say that a minor party has “directed” its preferences, evidence from this by-election at least – a hotly-contested one – is that many voters make up their own minds. Antony Green points out that many booths were not manned by party volunteers, but the LDP and SAP preference flows suggest that people know their own preferences well enough with being patronised by a how-to-vote card. Parties put huge resources into manning booths; perhaps they could find a better use for their volunteers.

The other revelation in Green’s analysis is that only 36 percent of the votes of the 11 minor candidates saw their preferences allocated to Nationals or Labor: the remaining 64 per cent of votes had no influence on the eventual two-party outcome.  These votes were “exhausted” to use his terminology. We note that 47 per cent of Greens’ votes were “exhausted”: in fact 31 per cent of Green voters did not allocate any preferences.

Our calculations suggest that Labor’s TPP outcome would have been 1.2 per cent better had all Green voters allocated their preferences at least as far as the two main parties and even 1.8 per cent better if they had followed the party preference for Labor. That’s why the Coalition Government in New South Wales favours optional preferential voting. But the results are less clear in a complex situation with many minor parties. When we apply the same calculations to all parties in this by-election, we estimate that Labor’s TPP result would have been only 0.8 per cent better.

Essential – slow movements

The latest Essential poll has monthly approval figures for Morrison and Albanese, and a set of questions relating to vaccines.

Unsurprisingly Morrison’s net approval is down, but the fall hasn’t been sudden. In fact his approval has been on a downward trend for the last twelve months. So has Albanese’s. This parallel slide is consistent with a general disillusionment with the way we perceive our two main parties, or perhaps even with the so-called “Westminster” model of representative democracy.

On assessment of preferred prime minister, nothing has really changed over the last twelve months.  Perhaps people would like a third option?

Essential has specific questions on whether people have changed their views towards “Scott Morrison’s federal government”. There is a clear shift in sentiment away from Morrison, but there are also strong partisan biases, suggesting that hardening attitudes may be more prominent than shifting attitudes. State breakdowns show that Victorians are most likely to have turned against Morrison.

Similarly, when asked how people rate the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, people are becoming less impressed, but it still gets a 53 per cent “good” rating, against a 24 per cent “poor” rating – down from 70 per cent “good”, 12 per cent “poor”, in March.

On people’s assessments of their state governments’ responses, Western Australia maintains its lead (75 per cent “good”), while Victoria has the lowest rating (48 per cent “good”). By a significant majority (61:39) Victorians believe that their government is raising valid concerns about the federal government’s performance.  Most people in other states agree, but not by such a wide margin.

About half of respondents hold the federal government responsible for the slow vaccine rollout, while about a quarter hold state governments responsible. When the question is disaggregated on party lines, Coalition voters are more likely to blame state governments rather than the federal government. Partisan differences are understandable on issues where there are fundamental issues of collectivism versus individual responsibility, where facts are complex, or where a degree of judgement must be exercised, but on this question the federal-state division is clear: it’s a matter of established fact. A partisan bias in such a situation has echoes of Trumpian disregard for evidence, suggesting that rational argument and presentation of evidence in an attempt to swing Coalition supporters may be futile.

Unsurprisingly there is a jump in the proportion of people wanting to be vaccinated, particularly in Victoria, and a significant proportion of people prefer the Pfizer vaccine over the AstraZeneca vaccine.


The Mexican elections have seen the governing notionally-“left” Morena Party returned to office with a reduced majority.  With around 40 per cent of the vote, it will scrape together a parliamentary majority with the help of other “left” parties.

Dealing with a rude and petulant child

Almost every parent has had to settle a petulant child whining and screaming abuse at others. With a little firmness the child can be pacified.

If you have comments, corrections, or links to other relevant sources, we’d like to hear from you.  Please send them to Ian McAuley — ian, at the domain name

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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