Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Jul 3, 2021
Warning from the BIS: we're over-investing in housing

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress

Cases in Australia

Our chart of daily local cases is looking more colourful as infected people travel around the country, and is resembling the early stages of last year’s outbreak in Victoria. But in the last few days it has fallen below the exponential trendline, many cases are in already-quarantined individuals, and there are few cases without clear links to other cases.

This outbreak has at least two sources – an unvaccinated aircrew driver in New South Wales, and a mine worker infected while in hotel quarantine in Queensland, and the virus’s spread has been helped by unvaccinated front line workers, for whom we now know that there was no priority vaccination program. Ultimately these cases trace back to failures in our controls on external borders. These are Commonwealth responsibilities.

Morrison claims that hotel quarantine has been “99.99” per cent effective. He may be right: we know there have been 25 failures, suggesting that there have been 249 975 cases of hotel quarantine that have notresulted in outbreaks. But let’s not be too impressed by a figure of 99.99 percent; if that were the standard set by commercial aviation there would be ten airline crashes every day.  Those 25 failures have imposed terrible and easily-avoidable costs on the nation.

These outbreaks have revealed extraordinary cases of people making repeated “business trips”. It seems that a system originally designed to help stranded Australians is being rorted, putting public safety at risk. Premiers who have the delegated burden of managing hotel quarantine are understandably annoyed about the Commonwealth’s lax attitudes to allowing people to leave and re-enter the country.

Fran Kelly’s interview with Australia Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram – Who’s travelling to and from Australia – and why? – provides no assurance that the Commonwealth has applied reasonable measures to reduce risks associated with people who travel. Why do they allow people to make multiple departures and returns, why do they not insist on vaccination?  Outram describes the requirements to obtain a travel permit on business grounds but they’re hardly onerous: anyone with an ABN would be able to concoct a reason to travel. Australians have a well-established tradition of claiming personal travel as business expenses for tax purposes; they can apply the same deception to get a Covid-19 travel exemption. (11 minutes.)

Perhaps the biggest risk now is that the Berejiklian Government in New South Wales will relax restrictions too early. Seven of our eight state and territory governments, Labor and Coalition, are struggling to keep the virus out of Australia until we have a safe level of vaccination. The Berejiklian Government has stood out from the others in taking a more relaxed attitude to infections, at high cost to the community (look at those two blue surges on the graph). Will the New South Wales Government be cautious about relaxing controls?

The Babel Tower of vaccination advice

If only politicians and their spokespeople could shut up.

The closest we have come to sound personal advice about AstraZeneca is a segment by Norman Swan on Wednesday’s 730 Report.  The segment runs for 8 minutes; ignore the opening babble from Scott Morrison and Jeanette Young – they’re only adding to the confusion. Swan’s part runs from 1:42 to the end. He provides basic risk-benefit numbers, with appropriate qualifications, and supporting information from Nick Coatsworth and Margie Danchin.

Had Scott Morrison and Annastacia Palaszczuk refrained from vaccination advice we would all be less confused. Similarly government health officers, who feel constrained by public service conventions to support their ministers, have added to the confusion. The strangest aspect of Morrison’s intervention, in suggesting people consider getting AstraZeneca straight away, is that he didn’t mention the three-month lag between doses. We are supposed to have many more mRNA vaccines by September and October, with shorter gaps between doses. Does Morrison know something we don’t know, or does he simply have trouble with arithmetic?

Politicians and their advisers are easy targets and they should bear the immediate blame, but the problem has deeper roots. One is people’s expectation that they can be given simple categorical advice. This stems in turn from an established political culture in which we expect our “leaders” to make hard decisions for us. Technically it also stems from generations of poor mathematical education in our schools – an impoverishment for which both the “left” and the “right” are to blame. The mathematics of uncertainty, probability and risk are not particularly complex; good teachers can cover them in early high school education, but those who could be good teachers have found work in unproductive industries such as finance and insurance rather than in underfunded and under-respected government schools.

Another problem is that the media and governments have locked themselves into legacy ways of communication which are poor at conveying numerical information. Media releases and journalists’ reports, be they paper or electronic, are usually strings of text, interspersed with the occasional number in a way that doesn’t convey useful information. Similarly, when they appear on television or video clips most politicians, public servants and commentators simply come across as “talking heads”.

It needn’t be like this. The issues around immunisation – both personal advice and community advice – can be explained on well-designed websites, using tables, graphs, scenario choices and “what if” analysis. The purpose of such websites is not to provide simple yes-no answers: rather it is to help people exercise their own informed judgement.

For people who have a combination of skills in programming and journalism such websites are not hard to design. We already have some excellent examples from the ABC Digital Story Innovations team, and within the limits of the medium, Casey Briggs brings a clear representation of Covid-19 cases on ABC television. What’s holding governments and most journalists back seems to be the inertia of hundreds of years of self-imposed constraints on means of communication.

Morrison advises people seeking vaccination advice to talk to their GPs. Maybe they can help a little, but we shouldn’t expect too much, because they too are locked into legacy ways of communication. As an example, on Thursday morning we heard Chris Moy of the AMA trying to give general advice on AstraZeneca on the ABC’s Breakfast program. He had a generous 12-minute time slot, and was giving sound advice, but in spite of his best efforts, any listener would have come away confused: it’s the wrong media for the topic. Nor could he have done any better as a talking head on video media.

Those who are concerned with their own protection need to be able to weigh up the costs and benefits of AstraZeneca vaccines available now versus mRNA vaccines that will be available later. Some GPs may be able to take people through proper risk analysis, but it would be far better if people could access information for themselves. And those whose concerns extend to protection of the whole community would do well to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

How they messed up vaccination: let us count the ways

Stephen Duckett, having been head of the Commonwealth health department, knows a thing or two about health policy and health program administration. His Conversation article Australia has not learned the lessons of its bungled Covid vaccine rollout is a condemning story of administrative incompetence. He lists four bungles about vaccination:

  • the wrong pace – there is no sense of urgency;
  • the wrong phasing – four months into the program there are still unvaccinated aged care, health care and international border workers;
  • the wrong model – the GP model is unnecessarily slow and cumbersome;
  • the wrong messaging – optimistic political messaging contrasts with reality, leading to mistrust.

Malcolm Turnbull simply calls the Morrison Government’s vaccine rollout a phenomenal failure in public administration.

Labor lockdowns bad, Coalition lockdowns good

Denis Muller, writing in The Conversation, compares the way the media are covering lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales: Contrasting NSW and Victoria lockdown coverage reveals much about the politics of COVID – and the media. The media seems to be bound by established political stereotypes about the two states’ handling of the virus, regardless of the source of the outbreak. For example why was Victoria blamed for an outbreak that came from a hotel quarantine failure in South Australia? It’s a politicised coverage of the virus and its consequences, adding to polarisation of the issue.

The rest of the world

Worldwide, cases are rising once again.  In most “developed” countries cases are falling, but the virus is spreading strongly in Africa and in South America.

In most European countries cases are falling, with the exception of Cyprus, Spain, Portugal (all tourist destinations) and the UK. In the USA and the EU on average daily case rates are around 40 per million.

Three countries with high vaccination rates

We have had a look at recent cases and deaths in three highly-vaccinated countries – the UK, the USA and Israel. Their daily case rates (per million) and death rates (per million) are shown in the three graphs below.  Although their vaccination levels are all much the same, their experiences are very different.

The surge in UK cases is probably associated with the Delta variant.  So far there have been few deaths, perhaps because cases have been concentrated among younger people, but hospital admissions are now rising. Deaths will surely follow. Remaining restrictions are due to be lifted on July 19.

In all three countries authorities are understandably reluctant to link vaccination to falling death rates, but Associated Press journalists Carla Johnson and Mike Stobie, using data provided by the Centers for Disease Control, found that only about 150 of the more than 18 000 Covid-19 deaths in the USA in May were in fully-vaccinated people: Nearly all COVID deaths in US are now among unvaccinated. They report significant outbreaks among unvaccinated populations, such as in Arkansas. As yet the Delta variant seems to have made little inroad into America: that could change the situation quickly.

We can see a small rise in cases in Israel. Some of these are “breakthrough” cases – i.e. of people who are fully vaccinated – but they are not getting seriously ill.

Data sources

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

Australian economics

The intergenerational report

Few government publications are as poorly covered in the media as the Commonwealth’s five-yearly Intergenerational Report, released on Monday. Many media call it a forecast of our spending on services including aged care, health care and education, but in fact it is only a projection of Commonwealth Government spending on those and other services. It doesn’t even cover state government spending, and for the most part it says nothing about private spending on those same services.

In times past Coalition governments have used the Intergenerational Report to raise panic about future government spending, in the hope that the public and journalists don’t realise that shifting spending for aged care, health and education off-budget and on to private expenditure usually results in us paying more for these services through inefficient and inequitable mechanisms, such as for-profit nursing homes and private health insurance. The first Intergenerational Report in 2002 was used by Treasurer Peter Costello to argue that because Medicare was going to become unaffordable, private health insurance should take a bigger role in funding health care. Even though economics wasn’t Costello’s strong point, he would have realised that such a shift would have made health care more expensive for the whole community. But his concern was only for the cosmetics of public finance.

Some media call the Intergenerational Report an economic forecast, but in fact it is only a fiscal projection, based on economic assumptions and an assumed absence of major shocks – no pandemics, Donald Trumps or global financial crises. To the extent that it contains economic assumptions about immigration, productivity, ageing and terms of trade, they are presented only to support fiscal forecasts.

Some of these economic assumptions reflect Coalition hubris. The report assumes an ongoing growth in labour productivity of 1.5 per cent a year. That was its average growth from 1979 until 2013, before the Coalition’s current term in office, but it has fallen to zero on the Coalition’s watch (well before the pandemic). It assumes continuing favourable terms of trade, even as demand for our fossil fuel exports dwindles. It acknowledges that other countries’ commitments to net zero emissions by 2050 “are likely to reduce demand for unabated fossil fuels for some decades”, but it does not convey any confidence in our domestic adaptation to climate change, and it mentions risks associated with climate change only in passing. Most crucially there is an assumption that migration will resume at reasonably high levels once we re-open.

It sees only a modest increase in Commonwealth spending in the future years, to reach 27.7 per cent of GDP by 2060-61, up from around 25 – 26 per cent of GDP in pre-pandemic years. This small increase largely ignores the fact that because health, education and policing are intrinsically labour-intensive, public spending should be rising simply to maintain the present (inadequate) level of provision – but these services are largely provided by states, and that’s of no concern to the Commonwealth. In fact the report shows GST receipts – the main source of Commonwealth transfers to the states – falling as a percentage of GDP from around 2035.

Without explanation it assumes total Commonwealth tax receipts will be held at 23.9 per cent of GDP. In defence of this cap the Treasurer simply repeats his inane statement “you cannot tax your way to prosperity”.  To reconcile these figures there either has to be a continued emasculation of the public sector, or a large rise in state taxes.

Missing from the economic background is any suggestion about how we are to restore productivity growth and address the economy’s structural weaknesses – weaknesses resulting from decades of misdirected and inadequate public spending, a de-skilled public service, a tax system that widens income and wealth disparities while rewarding idle speculation, a bloated financial sector, an export sector based on unprocessed commodities, stressed natural resources, and an adversarial political system shaped by Coalition governments whose only policy agenda is to remain in office and sustain privileges for their rent-seeking cronies.

Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute writing in The Conversation, draws on the report’s projections to suggest ways we could address our structural deficits. We should “revitalise our health and education systems, improve our tax system, fix planning regimes and make more sensible infrastructure choices”.  She notes that although the report forecasts a rising budgetary cost of superannuation and other concessions for well-off retirees, the present government has no plans to address intergenerational inequities.

John Edwards is a little more positive about the report, mainly because “it officially frees Australia of the politics of debt obsession”, and has shifted the economic debate towards productivity.  He notes that the report identifies problem areas in the services sector where productivity is falling, but it’s hard to see where Edwards finds evidence of policies to address these weaknesses – It’s official: debt isn’t the problem, in Inside Story.

Based on the “do nothing” policies of the Morrison Government, a more honest Intergenerational Report may set an economic background of a once-prosperous country slowing sinking into poverty, along the path Argentina did in the early years of last century.

It’s not worth the space it takes on your hard disk.

Handouts you may not have heard of

MSN re-posts a Crikey article by Jason Murphy: Cashflow boost? It’s the $35b taxpayer-funded policy no one’s ever heard of.

It’s about a Covid-19 relief program called “Boosting cash flow for employers”.  Note the term “employers”: it wasn’t for companies, it wasn’t for workers, it wasn’t tied to new equipment.  As Murphy points out, employers could use the full amount, up to the program’s $100 000 cap, “as a dividend to themselves”.

It hasn’t been as expensive as “Jobkeeper”, and is phasing down, but it has come at a huge opportunity cost. There are many ways $35 billion could be spent in the public interest rather than being handed out to businesspeople.

BIS outlook – including a warning on house prices

The Bank for International Settlements has produced its Annual Economic Report, which can best be summarised by its opening chapter’s title “a surprisingly strong but uneven recovery”.

The bank’s concern is mainly with monetary and financial stability, and in this regard it sees the possibility of inflation re-emerging in world economies. There has been strong inflation in commodity prices (we know all about that in Australia), some rise in the prices of manufacturers’ intermediate products, but little inflation in final goods and services – presumably because underlying demand is still weak. When inflation re-emerges in still-weakened economies, there will be inevitable tensions between governments’ fiscal and monetary policies.

Unsurprisingly it finds that countries with rising Covid-19 infections have experienced low or negative growth, and that employment in those countries fell most sharply in low-wage industries.

In what should be a warning to the Morrison Government, which has deliberately promoted house price inflation, it draws attention to the risk of a housing boom:

Soaring house prices give rise to intertemporal trade-offs. They can bolster consumption in the near term and are an important part of the monetary policy transmission mechanism, but they also raise downside risks in the medium term, particularly if accompanied by a pickup in credit growth. In addition, rising house prices tend to go hand in hand with increased residential construction, which is associated with lower aggregate productivity growth.

Australian policymakers may note that the bank’s report shows other countries are experiencing worse house price inflation than we are, but our prices are still rising off a very high base.

We’re heading out of the big cities

Junee waiting for the population surge

The Regional Australia Institute finds that the number of people shifting from our capital cities to other areas is at a high level –  New index fast-tracks details on where Australians are moving regionally.

The Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast – respectively to the south and north of Brisbane – are experiencing high growth, as are Geelong, Wollongong and Newcastle. Both Sydney and Melbourne are experiencing significant outflows of internal migrants. At the same time there has been a reduction in the tendency for people to leave country towns and move to the cities.

It’s a useful contribution, but we need to have a more nuanced way to think about our settlement patterns than calling everything outside our capital cities “regional” – a category that lumps Wagga, Wauchope, and Witchelina together while overlooking the large and diverse regions within our large conurbations.

The Coalition’s war on renewable energy

Killing investor confidence

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviewed Kane Thornton, chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, about the unexpected and sudden decision by the Commonwealth Environment Minister to knock back a variation to the Asian Renewable Hub’s plan for a major hydrogen project in the East Pilbara – Renewable hub setback.

Thornton’s concern is not about the decision itself, but its suddenness, and the fact that it was not preceded by any discussion of problems the Commonwealth saw with the project. In fact the consortium had not submitted a detailed plan for approval: that comes later. It appears that the government has made an anticipatory move.

As he points out, such capriciousness sends a chilling message to potential investors in renewable energy: Australia isn’t the only country with potential for large renewable energy projects. (13 minutes.)

(Or is it the message the Morrison-Joyce government really does want to send?)

Climate change beliefs

Successive polls reveal that Australians are well aware of climate change and would like our governments to take stronger action to reduce our contributions to greenhouse gases. We might rationally expect that those who live in regions most affected by climate change, such as rural regions in the arid zone, coal mining regions, and low-lying coastal regions, might be most concerned. Those of us living in the comfort of capital cities with a few meters of elevation would be less concerned.

That’s not so. The opposite is the case, as revealed in electorate analysis by the ABC, based on its Australia Talks survey: These electorates have the highest climate risk. So why are they less likely to demand more action? They find a cluster of five electorates, all in non-metropolitan Queensland, where there is strong agreement with the idea that the government should do “about the same” or “less” to deal with climate risk.

All five electorates are represented by LNP men:  Garth Hamilton (Groom), Ken O’Dowd (Flynn), David Littleproud (Maranoa). Keith Pitt (Hinkler), George Christensen (Dawson).  (The links above take you to the electorates’ AEC profiles.)

Even the coal generators don’t think much of Taylor

How long does it take to bring a coal-fired power station on stream?  How long does it take a battery to respond to a change in demand?

If you have some idea of the answers to these questions (one is in hours, the other is in milliseconds) then you will understand why even AGL and Origin, two of Australia’s largest coal generation companies, find fault with market rule changes written by energy minister Angus Taylor to favour coal-fired generators. Writing on the Renew Economy site – “Fundamental flaw”: Big coal generators slam Taylor’s favoured coal subsidy – Giles Parkinson explains the flawed thinking in Taylor’s idea of “physical retailer reliability”, pointing out that what the grid needs for reliability is fast-response storage, as provided by big batteries for example, rather than inflexible 24/7 baseload power.

Universities and coal

Last week we covered the protests at the University of Newcastle over Mark Vaile’s appointment as Chancellor, and his subsequent resignation. Writing in the MJA’s Insight, Jenny Martin and Richard Denniss cover the importance of the University standing up for the interests of its students and its wider community. Those interests are not served by the University having a close relationship with the coal industry, or more generally with those who profit from businesses that damage people’s health: Crisis at University of Newcastle: leadership symbolism matters.

Other Australian politics

Car park rorts

The Audit Office has produced more evidence that Morrison uses public revenue as a source to advance the political interests of the Liberal Party, this time with its report of Administration of commuter car park projects within the urban congestion fund. Rather than any assessment of needs based on consideration of congestion or the capacity of existing car parks, “the approach to project identification included canvassing the Member of the House of Representatives for 23 electorates, as well as Coalition Senators or candidates for six electorates then held by the Australian Labor Party or Centre Alliance”.

The Audit report finds, as a result of this decision process, that:

  • “64 per cent of projects were located in Melbourne, representing more than 2.5 times the number of projects located in Sydney notwithstanding that Infrastructure Australia has identified that the majority of the most congested roads in Australia are located in Sydney;
  • the Melbourne projects were predominantly located towards the South-East, whereas data shows that Melbourne’s most congested roads in 2016, and as forecast in 2031, are predominantly in the North-West; and
  • nationally, 77 per cent of the commuter car park sites selected were in Coalition-held electorates and a further 10 per cent were in one of the six non-Coalition electorates canvassed”.

Those who are familiar with ANAO reports are struck by the strength of this report’s language about Coalition corruption.

Just as we asked why the Commonwealth was involved in community sports projects, we ask why it is involved in commuter car parks? They are no doubt worthy projects, but surely such location-specific infrastructure should be the responsibility of adequately-funded state or city governments. The Commonwealth has a clear role in interstate and international transport, but the only conceivable reason for its involvement in local transport projects is to allow the Commonwealth government’s political priorities to override the needs and choices of local communities.

There may be a tendency for the public and journalists to see this corruption as ancient history. Those rorts, like the sports rorts, were in 2019: it’s time to “move on”. But the Coalition politicians who used our taxes to fund their re-election haven’t moved on: they’re still in office, emboldened by having escaped sanctions for past corruption.

The case for a substantive and symbolic constitutional indigenous voice to parliament

The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart called for a constitutionally enshrined indigenous voice to parliament.  In response the Commonwealth developed a “co-design” process which produced an interim report earlier this year.

On the ABC’s Law ReportOverwhelming support for constitutionally enshrined indigenous voice – lawyers Megan Davis and Gabrielle Appleby, both of the University of New South Wales, summarise the case for a constitutionally-enshrined voice, rather than a legislative process.

Gabrielle Appleby was one of a panel of three who analysed 2500 submissions to the process – submissions from people in all walks of life. In their report –  An Expert Analysis of the National Indigenous Australian Agency Public Consultations  – released on Tuesday, they point out that 90 per cent of submissions to the co-design process wanted the government to put the question of a constitutional First Nations Voice to a constitutional referendum.  A parliamentary process is too subject to the whims of future governments. They are also unenthusiastic about a two-step “legislate first” process, fearing that once legislation is passed the campaign would lose momentum.

Their discussion provides insights into our existing constitutional situation. Section 51:xxvi contains provisions on “race” powers, but they point out that “race” is a social construct. Aboriginality is about the status and the rights of indigenous people.  (29 minutes.)

Profound political ideas

If you find Karl Marx or John Stuart Mill heavy going, you might find it easier to follow the thoughts of two of our contemporary political philosophers – Barnaby Joyce and Alan Jones.  There is a possibility they really believe what they say about dams, coal, nuclear power, and Joyce’s overwhelming popularity in country Australia.

Contrarian ideas

We’re all for merit – aren’t we?

What could be less contentious than the proposition that the government’s main role in promoting fairness is to ensure equality of opportunity?

In a review of Michael Sandel’s book The tyranny of merit, Peter Mares pulls apart the idea that we live in a meritocracy: The myth of merit in Inside Story.

“Today’s mantra is merit” Mares writes, but “we live with a contradiction: we talk about creating opportunity and enabling people to work hard and get ahead, while living in a system that consistently generates high levels of inequality and insecurity. This contradiction is masked by the myth of merit”. The perception that the better-off among us have achieved their wealth or power in society through their own efforts erodes their sensitivities towards others.

Mares’ review goes a long way towards explaining how the well-educated and well-off (the “élites” to use the derogatory language of the right), who may see themselves as liberals, have become de-sensitised to the conditions of those less fortunate, because the myth of merit rationalises the current order: it’s a much more defensible and appealing rationalisation than the idea of a divinely-sanctioned hereditary class order. His review also goes a long way to explaining the rise of populism in democracies, and the support enjoyed by politicians such as Trump and Morrison who claim to identify with the “ordinary people” while leading their countries into impoverishment.

The roots of eastern European nationalism

When Soviet communism collapsed in 1989 the prevailing idea was that the former communist states of eastern Europe would turn to free market capitalism and western liberalism.

That prediction was only half true: they were quick to take to market capitalism, but in Poland and Hungary, in particular, they showed little enthusiasm for liberalism. They were enthusiastic about joining the EU, but more for access to markets and as a source of aid than out of any identification with European liberalism.

Writing in The Guardian (UK edition) Nicholas Mulder traces the post-1989 political history of Poland and Hungary – The revolt against liberalism: what’s driving Poland and Hungary’s nativist turn?.  He sees illiberalism as a purposeful political movement:

Poland and Hungary’s ruling parties pursue what they see as a truer break with the past than the mirage transition of 1989. Anti-liberal nationalism in eastern Europe is more than an outburst of uncontrollable passions. Common to both is the belief that a historic task has befallen them, and that the end of communism was only the beginning of the road to national liberation. The fact that these ideas were formed during the transition decade also suggests that illiberal democracy is a purposive project – something not just reactive, but with clear ideological goals of its own.

Immigration and emigration have reinforced these countries’ politics. They have stood strongly as bulwarks of European Christianity against African and Muslim immigration, while trying to stem the emigration of their younger citizens to western Europe and beyond.

While Mulder explores several plausible explanations for eastern European illiberalism, a common theme among these theories is that they see both Soviet communism and western liberalism as alien movements. But they have no objection to capitalism.


Xi’s gamble

Is Xi Jinping trying to remake the global economic order in terms favourable to China? Is he “the anxious overseer of a creaky and outdated Leninist political system that is struggling to keep its grip on power”?

Without entirely dismissing either possibility, Jude Blanchette, writing in Foreign Affairs, says Xi is driven by a sense of urgency to exploit a 15-year window of opportunity before the US recovers from its Trump-imposed wounds and other manifestations of weakness. Within that window he needs to overcome China’s own structural problems – Xi’s gamble: The race to consolidate power and stave off disaster.  Xi is well aware of his country’s structural weaknesses – weaknesses that are a by-product of its economic success. Wages have risen, threatening its international competitiveness against countries with low labour costs, but a lack of highly-skilled workers could restrain its ability to compete on a higher level. Widening inequality is a rising source of tension. And China is facing a significant demographic challenge. Blanchette sees Xi’s plan as a high-risk gamble, in large part because his authoritarian approach could suppress the economy’s hitherto impressive capacity to adjust, innovate and create.

Hong Kong is “on a rapid road to becoming a police state”

Amnesty International has issued a detailed report on the National Security Law China has imposed on Hong Kong. The law attacks people’s rights to assemble peacefully, to exercise freedom of expression, to associate freely and to engage in political advocacy.

Amnesty are far from the first to raise attention to Chinese violation of human rights in Hong Kong, but what sets Amnesty apart is the rigor of its research, and it would be hard for anyone to accuse it of having any partisan alignment.

Is China’s Communist Party more representative than our political parties?

We could hardly have missed noticing that on Thursday the Chinese Communist Party turned 100. But what do we know about the contemporary party, whose members are more likely to be wearing a business suit and carrying an iPhone 12 than wearing a blue Mao suit and carrying a banner to celebrate the revolution?

On the ABC’s Breakfast program, David Shambaugh of George Washington University gives us a quick guide to the Party and its tactics: China’s Communist Party turns 100. One key figure is that 90 million of China’s 1.4 billion population are party members, and the party strives to keep its membership broadly representative of the population, to include business people and members of the middle class. (Trotsky must be turning in his grave.)

With such numbers – 6 per cent of the population – and such breadth of membership, it could be fairly said that it is far more representative of the population that any of our political parties. It would be hard for the Pentecostal Church or any other small group to branch-stack the Chinese Communist Party.

Of course that doesn’t make it liberal or democratic: Shambaugh stresses its repressive practices and its intolerance of dissidence.  (6 minutes.)

One aspect members of our Labor, Liberal and National Parties would find familiar is its gender ratio: Shambaugh tells us that 77 per cent of the Chinese Communist Party members are men.

Shambaugh is author of Chinese leaders: from Mao to now.

Can’t we have a more grown-up relationship with China?

Our government is adept at blaming China for anything that goes against our national interest. Most recently the environment minister managed to implicate China in UNESCO’s provisional assessment that the Great Barrier Reef was endangered, for example.

Writing in Eureka Street Australia should resist totalising China narratives – Andrew Hamilton points out that unnecessary hostility is not in our interest. In our relationship with China we should take into account its human rights violations, but it is in neither country’s interest to cut ourselves off from areas of potential cooperation. “To treat people as enemies means that they become enemies, with the result that both sides will spurn the mutual exchanges that can help each other”.

His criticism of our government’s hostile attitudes goes beyond forgone opportunities for economic and academic cooperation. “Ultimately when as persons or as nations we make enemies, we encourage our fears. We give our enemies more power than they have”.

Polls and surveys

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on two polls – a Newspoll and a Roy Morgan poll, both showing a slim two-party lead for Labor. In other words no change, other than a confirmation that Labor’s primary vote is a little up on the 2019 election. Because both polls were taken before Barnaby Joyce ran amok, and before Morrison’s failed response to Covid-19 sent 12 million Australians into lockdown, they may not necessarily reflect current public opinion.

Rousing celebrations

Did you notice that Xi Jinping sent his aides out to the Vinnies depots to find him a 1950s Mao suit for the Communist Party’s birthday? In keeping with that same spirit we bring a rousing rendition of Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.  If only our Labor Party could rouse such enthusiasm!

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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