Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Jul 17, 2021
Central Park, People's Republic of New York

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


The pandemic’s progress

Sydney’s outbreak

There has been no shortage of media coverage about the Sydney outbreak: it’s serious. As David Speers writes, the New South Wales and Commonwealth governments acknowledged that the virus is far more infectious than previous strains, but acted as though it isn’t.  Just as the New South Wales Government was slow in imposing restrictions, it has been half-hearted and muddled in their design. Anne Davies points out in The Guardian that the New South Wales Government has refused to define “essential workers” and has left retail businesses to decide for themselves whether to open: Words fail Berejiklian government as ‘essential’ NSW workers remain a mystery.

A naïve view is that retailers would welcome such freedom, but as Paul Zahra of the Australian Retailers’ Association stressed in an interview on ABC RN Breakfast, businesses want clear rules. Most businesspeople probably want to act responsibly, but what is a retailer going to do if one of its big competitors opens? Davies points out that retail giant Harvey Norman, for example, is carrying full-page advertisements for people to come and shop. As Zacharias Szumer points out in Jacobin, Gerry Harvey has done well out of Covid-19 and governments’ policies in response to the virus.

The graph below confirms that this outbreak has broken our good run in the eight months since the major Victorian outbreak was finally brought under control last October

At this stage we have to be sceptical about any notion that it will soon be under control.  In spite of better contact-tracing, the trajectory of this outbreak looks very similar to that of Melbourne’s big outbreak. The graph below shows Victoria’s (essentially Melbourne’s) daily cases in 2020 from the time the first locally-transmitted case was detected, up to the daily peak of 723 cases 53 days later. Superimposed on a blue line is the same series for New South Wales (essentially Sydney) this year. We have used a logarithmic scale to illustrate the similarity: maybe it’s flattening but five days’ data does not constitute a trend. The most sobering figure from Victoria is that it took 145 days of strong restrictions before there was a clear run of zero cases.

Worse, it’s no longer a Sydney outbreak, or even a New South Wales outbreak. Because New South Wales had inadequate regulations applying to removalists travelling interstate, Victoria is once again having to lock down because of lax controls in other states.

At worst, we could be facing a tough lockdown in all four eastern states and territories, because the New South Wales Government was reluctant to be seen doing anything that the Victorian Government had done, and believed that letting the virus spread was somehow in the interests of “the economy”. Could it be, as John Quiggin and Richard Holden ask in The Conversation, that policy makers are still framing the problems in terms of “health vs the economy”, because they don’t understand even the basic mathematics of compound growth?


Morrison’s tantrum and vaccination advice

In deciding whether and when to get vaccinated, a rational approach is to weigh the relative risk of blood clotting associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine against the risk of illness and death associated with Covid-19. When the amount of virus circulating increases, that relative risk changes in favour of taking the AstraZeneca vaccine.

That’s the simple logic of the advice given by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on immunisation (Atagi). It’s the same logic that guides fire authorities to change their advice on evacuation when the wind changes or when the fire breaks through containment lines.

Morrison’s response to the Atagi advice was to get on to Ray Hadley’s 2GB morning show and throw a tantrum, accusing Atagi of putting us behind in rolling out vaccination.

Damaging confidence in a public health institution only adds to confusion. On Wednesday night, on the ABC’s 730 Report, Norman Swan, with support from Christopher Blyth from Atagi and New South Wales Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant explained the changed risk situation in a way that the prime minister didn’t.  Former Atagi chair Terry Nolan also explained the logic of shortening the gap between AstraZeneca shots. Such shortening might slightly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine but it would definitely reduce the period when one is only partially vaccinated and at risk of catching the virus if it’s circulating strongly. That’s another simple re-assessment based on changing circumstances.

At the end of the 6-minute clip Swan explained that in New South Wales, if you are infected with Covid-19, your chance of ending up in ICU is 1 in 40; your chance of getting a blood clot after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine is 1 in 50 000.

That’s a better way to communicate with a confused public than throwing a tantrum in the echo chamber of a talkback radio host.

Nationally, vaccination is proceeding slowly: 33 per cent of adults have had a first dose and 12 per cent have had two doses (“full vaccination”), but there are significant differences by region and age. Smaller states and territories are well ahead of larger states, and older Australians are generally better vaccinated than younger people.  Full vaccination rates by age are shown in the graph below as at July 12, compared with rates a week earlier.  Notable features are the progress among the 70+ age group (people now getting their second dose), the low rate among the 50 to 70 group (people who got their first dose later), and the low rates among young people, almost certainly reflecting the shortage of mRNA vaccines.  Note, too, that as yet there are no plans to vaccinate people under 16.


Where’s Scotty from marketing when you need his talents?

A group of marketing experts from RMIT have had a look at the Commonwealth’s vaccination campaign, and aren’t too turned on by the clichéd images of bared arms and the unintended impression that hospital workers will leave you neglected as you gasp for air: Australia’s new vaccination campaign is another wasted opportunity in The Conversation.  In failing to blend the rational with the emotional “they do little to engage the hesitant”.

They compare these advertisements with those run by New Zealand and Singapore (hyperlinks supplied). Even Singapore, where everyone seems to take life very seriously, does better than Australia in building humour into its campaign.


Our region

The table below shows key indicators for countries in our region. A comparison of these infection rates with rates experienced earlier this year in Europe and the US suggests that the current Asian rates are not high. (The US and the UK peaked at around 700 daily cases per million, the US is now at around 100, and the UK is now at about 500.) By those standards Fiji is the only country in our region with a high rate of infection. But most of these countries, developing and developed, have low rates of vaccination. The poorer countries have limited leeway to lock down without incurring severe economic damage, and they have little capacity in hospitals to deal with people with severe illness.

Indonesia, in particular, is a large country both in population and area; large countries, where people are moving around, find it much harder to control the virus’s transmission.  On last week’s Saturday Extra Andreas Harsona from Human Rights Watch describe his personal experiences in Jakarta and his observations about what is happening elsewhere in the archipelago: A personal account of Covid in Indonesia.


The world

Below is the updated graph of world cases and deaths. The recent growth in cases is probably due to the spread of the Delta variant. Deaths are not rising, but there is always a lag of a few weeks between cases and deaths. The WHO reports that in the past week the eastern Mediterranean region experienced the largest increase in cases, but that Africa and east Asia experienced a high increase in deaths.

The USA and EU countries have seen a rise in cases, but there are significant differences within Europe. Western European countries, with the exception of Germany, have seen a sharp rise in cases, while the situation in eastern Europe is improving so far. The UK has seen a very large rise in cases, but as yet no corresponding surge in deaths.

We have looked at data in Israel, the USA and the UK, countries with full-vaccination rates between 48 per cent and 57 per cent, and we can cautiously suggest that even as cases rise in this outbreak the death rate per case is falling. The vaccination rates in these countries are still too low to achieve herd immunity: if a country were approaching herd immunity cases would be falling. Most probably the low death rates result from older and more vulnerable people having higher rates of vaccination than younger people, but there is still much we don’t know about how the Delta variant affects young people.


An apology for not taking the virus seriously

By mid-June, as a result of reasonably strong restrictions on moving and mingling, the Netherlands had managed to bring the rate of new coronavirus infections down to around 35 per million population – high by Australian standards, but good by the standards of Europe, where local elimination has never been considered a possibility. But just in the first two weeks of July, following an easing of restrictions in late June, daily infections in the Netherlands have jumped back up to around 500 per million.

This resurgence, presumably associated with the Delta variant, has been happening throughout western Europe, particularly the UK. What Australians may find surprising, however, is that in re-imposing restrictions, the prime minister and the health minister have prioritised openness with the people over political face-saving. They have both apologised to the Dutch people for their earlier misjudgement in lifting restrictions too soon.


Data sources

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


The Australian economy

Is the economy bouncing back?

Saul Eslake has presented a set of slides on the post-pandemic economy, prepared for the South Australian Center for Economic Studies.

He starts with a world overview, stressing the lack of investment directed to productivity growth. We shouldn’t pay too much attention to incipient signs of inflation in the US: they relate mainly to specific supply issues in the world motor vehicle industry rather than high demand pushing up against production constraints.

Regarding Australia he covers our pitifully slow vaccine roll out, and he notes our high incidence of ”vaccine hesitancy”.  Our impressive fall in unemployment has more to do with closing our borders to immigrants than to jobs growth. Many domestic industries have benefited from the billions we are not spending on overseas travel. (Is this the 2021 equivalent of tariff protection?)  He is one of the few economists who properly sees our high house prices as an economic problem rather than as a generator of wealth.

He concludes with observations on revenue-sharing arrangements, particularly the extraordinarily good deal Western Australia is enjoying at the expense of other states.


The economics of full employment

The ABC’s Gareth Hutchens explains the economics of “full employment”: If we stop using the unemployed to control inflation, will we all be better off?. It’s a neat and short explanation not only of the policies that led to low unemployment in the years after the Pacific War, but also of basic Keynesian economics. Economies guided by no more than the “invisible hand” do not come to some equilibrium of full employment: the level of employment is directly controlled by government policies, and governments have choices.


Australian politics

Commuter car parks: it’s corruption, don’t try to call it something else

What do we call the use of public money or power for private political purposes?

Corruption.

That’s how Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre describes the Morrison Government’s rorting of public funds to build commuter car parks in Coalition electorates, instead of in regions where the benefit-cost returns would have been much higher.

We covered the main political issues relating to the “pork and ride” scandal last week, including Simon Birmingham’s outrageous defence of pork barrelling.

On last week’s Saturday Extra, Geraldine Doogue asked Yee-Fui Ng, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre for Justice Innovation at Monash University, whether a Commonwealth anti-corruption commission would be able to take the next steps – calling relevant ministers and public servants to public hearings, and recommending or laying charges against those whose behaviour it considers to be corrupt.

Yee-Fui Ng described how the present government carefully designs its distribution of political slush funds to avoid accountability and the risk of breaking laws. Funds are often laundered through statutory corporations, for example, to avoid any trail leading back to ministers. But a properly-constituted anti-corruption commission would be able to cut through these blockages. It would not only bring miscreants to court, but would also deter people from a cavalier use of public money.  What to do about the misuse of public money. (9 minutes.)


Advice to Labor – Carpe diem or never let a chance go by

July so far has been a series of political disasters for the Morrison Government – more rorts exposed, businesspeople bypassing Morrison to draw on Kevin Rudd’s reputation, exposure of missed opportunities to buy mRNA vaccines, Morrison’s favourite premier allowing the virus to get out of hand, and an energy policy held hostage by climate change deniers.

So Crispin Hull asks where has Labor been? –  Time for a credible bold plan. Is Labor waiting for the Morrison Government to quietly biodegrade?

“History tells us that poor government is not enough for voters to change rulers” Hull reminds us.  Labor should seize the day and show us how it proposes to govern, starting with its plan for an integrity commission.


Melbourne’s Crown Casino: A progress report on Ray Finkelstein’s Commission

On last week’s Saturday Extra Stephen Mayne gave an update on the Commission inquiring into the future of Crown’s licence to operate a casino in Melbourne.

One near certainty is that Crown Melbourne as we currently know it will not continue in its present corporate form. In fact, on hearing Mayne’s account of money laundering one might conclude that the best outcome would be for the Victorian Government to close the joint down and to convert the buildings into public housing, but that option unfortunately is not on the table, because Crown has made itself too big to fail. It’s twice the size of the biggest casino in Las Vegas, employs 12 000 people, and provides 15 per cent of the Victorian Government’s revenue, according to Mayne.


Strong women in public life

How a misogynist politician’s plans backfired, and other stories of Australian women in politics

Annabel Crabb and a team of creative internet publishers at the ABC have produced an infographic of 100 years of ‘firsts’ – the story of women in Australian parliaments. It’s exactly 100 years since Edith Cowan was elected to the Western Australian Parliament, to become the first woman to break through that male stronghold.

The story goes back further however, to 1894, involving Adelaide suffragette Mary Lee and South Australian Legislative Councillor Ebenezer Ward. Crabb, with the help of many past and present women politicians, explains how in 1894 events unfolded to make the women in an Australian colony the most enfranchised women in the world.


How a group of women took on a far-right men’s movement, and won

On the ABC’s Saturday Extra last week, Geraldine Doogue interviewed Gayle Tzemach Lemmon about the all-female Kurdish militia that fought against the odds to become part of the world’s best hope for stopping ISIS in Syria: Daughters of Kobani: The Kurdish women who fought ISIS and won.

Lemmon described not only the group’s military strategies and the women’s relationships with their conservative families, but also the group’s origins and political ideologies. She concluded with an account of the post-bellum situation in Kurdish regions. (15 minutes.)

Her recently-published book is The Daughters of Kobani: a story of rebellion, courage and justice. Geraldine Doogue mentioned that Hillary and Chelsea Clinton may be producing a film about the movement, and recommended an SBS-on-demand program No Man’s Land about the movement.


US politics

Bernie’s manifesto

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reports on a short interview with Bernie Sanders, in which he outlines his political beliefs and advice for the Democrats in plain language. “He is the guy trying to yank his party back to its working-class roots and steer President Biden in a bolder, more progressive direction” she writes.

Sanders lists a set of failures in the US – neglected child care and early education, unaffordable post-school education, collapsing physical infrastructure, the influence of the anti-science ideology, high-cost and ineffective health care, unaffordable housing.

Refreshingly there is no mention of “identity” or “people of color” in the interview. Nor does Sanders go along with the “defund the police” movement. His ideology is rooted in conventional social democracy and his passion is to show that good government can deliver.

The US is further along the road to a failed state than we are, but we’re catching up: our social democrats would do well to heed his advice.

(You should be able to download Dowd’s article The ascension of Bernie Sanders within the NYT free article limit, but if you do so we suggest you read it immediately or print it rather than saving the link, because the NYT’s cookies interpret a reload as a new article.)


New York, New York

New Yorkers are excited about their city’s mayoral race for two reasons.

One reason is that the winning candidate in the Democrat primary election was Afro-American Eric Adams, a former police captain with centrist political views and with no enthusiasm for defunding the police. He will almost certainly be become mayor in the final election.

The other reason the contest has gained attention is that the Democrat’s primary was run on a “ranked-choice” system – a system familiar to Australians but known as “preferential voting”. With 30.8 per cent of the vote Eric Adams led the other six candidates and on allocation of preferences he scraped in with a 50.4 per cent two-party lead. (The Republican primary was traditional first-past-the-post.)

Although various American legislatures have used ranked-choice voting in the past, it is not well-known or well-understood among the public, and even where it is permitted, most elections have been de facto two-horse races without preference distribution. In view of the polarisation in the Republican Party Americans are starting to take more interest in ranked-choce voting, however, and last year Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting for the presidential election. Had America been using ranked-choice voting in the 2000 presidential elections Ralph Nader’s preferences would almost certainly have flowed to Al Gore, saving America and the world from the disasters of the George W Bush presidency.

While New Yorkers are understandably focussed on the mayoral contest, Liza Featherstone, writing in Jacobin, points that at least three socialists have declared victory in the city’s council races, and that New York has a proud tradition of electing socialists to city offices.


It’s all very well to defend democracy, but what about poverty?

Biden’s concerns are too heavily influenced by the interests of the small fraction of the world’s population that lives in today’s rich democracies, and by an obsession with great power competition, writes Boston University’s Jake Werner in Foreign Affairs: Does America really support democracy—or just other rich democracies?

“Rather than pursuing a global strategy to revive faith in the common good, Biden focuses on outcompeting China—as if people outside the United States value democracy not because it empowers them but because it is synonymous with U.S. power.”

Werner urges Biden to turn his attention to issues that concern people living in materially poorer democracies, particularly ensuring these countries have the means to combat Covid-19. People in these countries need a regime of international labour rights, access to intellectual property, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

He reminds readers that much of America’s prosperity stems from its having done in the past what it’s trying to stop poorer countries from doing now. He notes, for example, that America’s early industrialisation was based on knocking off intellectual property from Europe. He asks:

Is the role of democracy merely to provide a neutral framework within which individuals can freely exchange goods and ideas by reducing threats to liberty and property—that is, by providing “negative” public goods? Or should democracy also ensure the substantive provision of “positive” public goods such as health care, education, high-quality jobs, and capital investment?


Renewable energy

Making the best use of renewable energy

Pushing against the Commonwealth’s efforts to slow the uptake of renewable energy, more rooftop solar and larger-scale renewable electricity generators are becoming available, but for reasons to do with system stability it’s difficult to make the best use of these resources. The existing electricity generation and distribution system is designed around big spinning machines with lots of inertia, while renewables have variable output and usually require conversion to AC. It’s hard to bring them together.

On Wednesday Daniel Westerman, CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), spoke to a CEDA forum on integrating renewable sources into the electricity grid: A view from the control room.  His address is mainly about meeting the technical challenges of making the best use of those resources, with a view to ensuring that by 2025, at times when there is enough renewable instant or stored capacity in the grid, renewable energy can be used up to full capacity, shutting down all thermal resources on such occasions. AEMO is working towards “a grid able to manage 100 per cent renewables penetration – at any moment in any day – by 2025”.


The European Green Deal

On Bastille Day the European Union released the European Green Deal. It’s a commitment by all 27 EU states “to turning the EU into the first climate neutral continent by 2050. To get there, they pledged to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels”. The deal covers not only electricity generation, but also transport, buildings and energy used directly in industry.

The general approach is an emphasis on price signals through emissions trading and carbon prices to achieve that objective, backed by some specific interventions, such as a requirement for member states to renovate at least 3 per cent of the floor area of public buildings each year, and from 2035 a ban on production of cars powered by internal combustion engines.

The statement that’s sending the Morrison Government into a panic relates to border pricing: “The Commission proposes a mechanism to ensure that, even when they are from countries with less strict climate rules, companies importing into the EU have to pay a carbon price as well”.

On the ABC’s Breakfast Program Trade Minister Dan Tehan claimed that such a mechanism amounts to trade protectionism, and suggested that its purpose is to raise revenue. He seems to consider the EU’s use of prices to allocate resources as some radical new form of economics: perhaps he missed out on Adam Smith in his university studies. It’s worth listening to the 12-minute interview: Fran Kelly is much more on top of the economic issues of trade and climate change than our trade minister is.


Cracks in the Coalition’s ranks on 2050 targets

On the Coalition’s approach to emission reduction, it’s notable that at least two Liberal Members of Parliament – Trent Zimmerman and Bridget Archer – are publicly backing a net zero by 2050 target. The ABC’s Melissa Clarke suggests that many others privately share that view. There is even some suggestion that some Nationals from Victoria (the less loony branch of the party) are not happy with the way Barnaby Joyce is holding the government to ransom over climate change.


Climate change litigation

Eight young people, relying on common law principles, went to court seeking an injunction against a mine project by Whitehaven Coal. They also sought a statement on the duty of care a minister has towards those who in their later lives will suffer from the consequences of climate change.

They didn’t achieve an injunction but they did come away with a determination from the federal court stating that the environment minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the future impact of climate change when approving coal projects.

On the ABC Law ReportClimate change litigation – Damien Carrick describes the outcomes of the case. He quotes from the judgement, including the judge’s statement that “climate change will largely be caused by the inaction of this generation of adults in the greatest intergenerational injustice ever inflicted by one generation upon another”.

The program goes on to a discussion with lawyers about the precedent set by this judgment and earlier judgments that are now requiring companies, governments and financiers to pay far more attention to climate-change related risks in projects.  (This segment occupies the first 22 minutes of the program.)


Elections

Moldova looks west

After a turbulent time in which competing parties were unable to form a government, a snap election last Saturday gave a clear majority to the centre-right Action and Solidarity Party. This could be seen as a victory of the right over social democrat parties, but AlJazeera, Deutsche Welle and Politico all see it as a victory for President Maia Sandu’s pro-EU policies, and a turning away from the social democrats’ too comfortable relationship with Russia. It was also a reward for her having organized supplies of vaccines from western Europe.


Coming events

Australia Institute webinars

Tuesday 20 July, 1300 AEST: Katharine Murphy, Pete Lewis, and Ebony Bennett “Poll position” – a discussion of polling trends and methods.  (This webinar is held every two weeks as issues unfold.)

Wednesday 21 July, 1000 AEST: Senator Rex Patrick on “keeping the bastards honest”.

Both are free, but registration is essential. See the Institute’s seminars webpage.


Always look on the bright side of vaccination

We had a look around for vaccination campaigns. This French advertisement has an emphasis on the community. It’s all about the things we can once again enjoy together once we’re vaccinated.

The Germans have strong advice about what we should do while waiting for our government to get vaccines into the country: Absolut gar nichts. Who said Germans overwork and cannot laugh at themselves?

But for Australians seeking a longer-term solution, we think The First Dog on the Moon hits the spot with a final warning about the dire consequences of not getting vaccinated.


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 ianmcauley.com

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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