Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Jul 24, 2021
Your taxes at work, provided you live in a marginal electorate

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress


Two graphs tell most of the story.

The first, on daily cases, is largely self-explanatory. It’s alarming, but we are still well short of the peak of 723 daily cases in Victoria’s 2020 outbreak, and this time the virus seems to be under control in Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.

It is still growing exponentially in New South Wales, however. Although the virus is a more contagious variant than the one circulating in Victoria last year, its growth rate so far has been lower. With strong measures it should still be possible to bring it back to zero. If the people of Melbourne could endure the pain of a prolonged lockdown surely the people of Sydney can, and if the Victorian Government could ignore the petulant and uninformed voices of so-called “business interests” surely the New South Wales Government can.

We’re experiencing the consequences of a situation when seven of our eight state and territory governments learn from experience and heed the advice of experts, but one goes its own way because its premier and ministers, egged on by voices of self-interest and ignorance, know better.

The second graph is of inoculation.  That is, “full” two dose inoculation, because it seems that the Delta variant is not deterred by a single dose. This graph shows the growth in vaccination by age group over the last two weeks.

We can see the effect of older (70+) Australians getting their second dose, mainly Astra-Zeneca, and we can expect to see some jump in the 50 – 69 group soon, whose eligibility came later and who are now ready for their second dose. But younger Australians are still waiting for mRNA vaccines. Some may be persuaded to take up AstraZeneca, but many are undoubtedly confused by the Commonwealth’s messages about the imminent arrival of mRNA vaccines, and the advice to consult their GPs about AstraZeneca, as if GPs are a font of statistical knowledge. Also, in view of the long time-lag for a second AstraZeneca dose, if people expect mRNA vaccines to be available soon, they may rationally calculate that waiting for mRNA is a faster path to full vaccination.

The most telling part of these figures is that only 14 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated. Even among the 70+ group only 31 per cent are vaccinated: we haven’t achieved a significant vaccination level even among our oldest group.

Herd immunity is still off somewhere in the never-never. With the current strains of the virus we would have to get to a very high level of vaccination before we’re on the path to herd immunity – probably well in excess of 90 per cent. But we’re also a long way off a point where we can cautiously live with some level of virus. Some may suggest that as long as the old and vulnerable are covered we can be more accommodating, but there is accumulating evidence of the debilitating effects on many of those who survive a bout of the disease.

That means for now, and the foreseeable future, we should stick to local eradication measures.

We didn’t have to get to this point. The New South Wales Government certainly shoulders its share of blame – firstly for its lax attitude to external border risks (remember the limousine driver?), and second for its half-hearted approach to suppression of the outbreak.

But it’s the Commonwealth that’s ultimately responsible. Even if we accept Morrison’s apology and lame excuses for not having secured better contracts for mRNA vaccines last year, it’s hard to overlook the Commonwealth’s neglect of measures to secure our external borders and to protect the old and frail. Remember when the Commonwealth announced Phase 1A of the vaccination program on February 22 this year, with its impression of precision and careful planning? We were told that 678 000 doses were to be reserved for priority groups including “quarantine and border workers”, and “aged care and disability care staff”.  Australians rightly believed that the Commonwealth was actually going to do something about reaching these groups – probably through vaccinations in workplaces.  But for Morrison all that counted was the announcement. Advertising trumps administration in Morrison’s world.

Wrong messages on restrictions

On Monday night’s 730 Report, from under a square meter of Akubra, Barnaby Joyce gave his opinion on Katie Hopkins, the English right-wing comedian who had been due to appear on a commercial “reality” TV program: “You want to flout our laws, then you pack your bongo and get out of the country”.

Labor’s Jason Clare had already asked why she had been allowed to come into the country in the first place: “Why is Scott Morrison bringing in a right-wing nut job from overseas when he’s got plenty in his own government?”

On the same 730 Report segment the argument moved on to question which government had let her into the country – the New South Wales Government, under a special category for people in the entertainment industry whose critical skills supposedly bring economic benefits to Australia, or the Commonwealth’s Department of Home Affairs, who must approve an entry visa. (Remember the blame-shifting around the Ruby Princess?) Former Immigration Department Deputy Secretary Abul Rizvi, without exonerating the New South Wales Government, made it clear that ultimate responsibility lies with the Commonwealth’s pretentiously-named “Border Force”.

The segment went on to the story of an Australian who has been separated from his partner who has been waiting overseas for an entry permit for 19 months.

That’s where the basic problem lies – the unfairness of our procedures. Why are entertainers, government officials, sportspeople, and businesspeople allowed to come and go when thousands of Australians are trapped overseas, many in countries where the virus is raging? Hopkins isn’t the only entertainer to be granted such privileges.

Governments can make up rationalisations about economic benefits or about special travel arrangements that don’t affect the quota for returning Australians, but these rationalisations violate people’s beliefs that whatever measures are used must embody procedural fairness.

From a short-term utilitarian perspective these arguments may have some validity (assuming we can be convinced that there are some benefits of importing an idiot to foment social division). Similarly one may be able to understand the utilitarian approach the New South Wales Government has taken to dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks in different regions. In terms of allocating resources it made sense to go in heavily in the southwestern suburbs, where many people don’t speak English, many are mistrusting of authority, and many may source their information from extreme right-wing media, while relying on gentler approaches in the eastern suburbs.

But as Stan Grant reminds us, people in the southwestern region and their local government representatives are complaining of patronising and demeaning treatment. With justification they feel that they are being called upon to make the tough sacrifices and bear the humiliation of collective punishment, while others who were much closer to the original spreaders of the virus, are getting off lightly.

Missing in the approach of the New South Wales Government, and in the implicit message of all governments that have carved out privileges for particular groups, is a sense of shared sacrifice. There is the idea that your postcode, your occupation, or your connections, can buy you privilege.

So long as people believe that the approach taken by governments lacks procedural fairness, the best that public health officials can expect is sullen compliance rather than a spirit of cooperation.

The world

Because world figures show little change we won’t bother with the world graph, but the Europe-USA graph is revealing – of the UK folly of opening up prematurely when only 54 per cent of the population is “fully” vaccinated. So far deaths have not risen sharply, and maybe they won’t if that 54 percent covers most of the vulnerable groups. But there will inevitably be regional pockets of unvaccinated groups, and so long as the virus is raging even more powerful mutants have a chance to develop. On Thursday’s Coronacast Norman Swan went into more detail of how the UK situation may play out. It’s not very attractive.

In the rest of Europe the story is more complex. Eastern European countries, Germany, Austria and Sweden seem to have the virus under some level of control, but it is running wild in Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Portugal and Malta.

Malta, a tiny island with half a million people (the same as Tasmania) should be of special interest to us, because over May and June it brought its daily cases down to less than 10 a day, and has had only one death in the last two months. And 72 per cent of its population is “fully” vaccinated. But for the last two weeks, after lifting restrictions, it has experienced a surge in case numbers, now running at about 200 cases a day.  According to press reports, most of these cases are foreigners – British holidaymakers and students at language schools.

Data sources

See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19. The Economist has a number of articles about possible long-term changes resulting from the virus: increased suburbanisation, established online activity replacing face-to-face business, a blurred distinction between home and work, and even a resurrection of drive-in cinemas! Of interest in our region is an article on Covid-19 in Indonesia. The Scientific American has an article on the pros and cons of inoculating children: it’s a complex issue.


The rich really are different

F Scott Fitzgerald said “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

But where is the dividing line between the rich and the very rich? Is there indeed a dividing line?

Ingrid Robeyns, writing in Crooked Timber, notes that just as we use the idea of a poverty line to define the very poor, there is a dividing line towards the other end of the spectrum: There is such a thing as being too rich.  In a survey conducted in The Netherlands, 96.5 per cent of respondents agreed to draw a line around the idea of a family over the threshold: “This family has much more than they need to lead an affluent life. They never have to consider whether they can afford certain luxury spending, and even then, they still have plenty of money left to do extraordinary things that almost no one can afford. No one needs that much luxury.”  That line, on average according to respondents, is about €2.2 million ($A 3.5million) in wealth.

The Crooked Timber article has a link to the study in Social Indicators Research, in which Robeyns was the lead researcher. The families around the dividing line have a detached house with a swimming pool (a luxury in the Netherlands), a second home, a Mercedes and an Audi, and €500 K in savings.

The authors do not make any moral or normative conclusion, but they do point out that if policymakers want a basis for a wealth tax or a step in income tax levels, it is possible to establish a criteria for a cut-off that will be accepted by the community. They also point out that in countries such as The Netherlands, with reasonably good health care and other social income systems supported by the government, the dividing line is likely to be at a lower level than in a country such as the US.

Did the world change fifty years ago?

Many people identify 1980, the start of the Thatcher and Reagan years, as a turning point in economic policy, when the doctrines of neoliberalism and “small government” started to spread, and inequality in wealth and income started to rise.

A group of economists have put together a set of charts from various sources (mainly American), with no commentary apart from basic graphical annotations, pointing to 1971 as a turning point in economic policy and outcomes. WTF happened in 1971? Depending on your ideological perspective this was when the economic rot set in or when the conditions were established for the glorious triumph of Hayekian neoliberalism and government austerity.

The early 1970s saw the end of the postwar “long boom” with the confluence of three developments – the turmoil of unrest in the “west”, the end of the Vietnam War that saw a drop in spending and a loss of US prestige, and the formal end of the Bretton Woods agreement. It’s this last point, particularly the end of the de facto gold standard, that the authors of the website seem to be focussing on.

The authors are associated with Bitcoin, which in many ways is a return to the essential feature of the gold standard – a money supply that’s difficult to expand. Whatever one’s view on restricted money supply (a debate that’s been running for 200 years), there are some very informative graphs on the website.

Global progress to climate policy

Bloomberg has released the Climate policy factbook, documenting progress towards reducing CO2 emissions in G-20 countries, with emphasis on three areas: support for fossil fuels, carbon pricing and climate risk disclosure.

Notably, just in the last six months, there has been a significant increase in legislative action to set net-zero emission goals. But there are worrying figures on coal-fired power plants: between them China, India, Indonesia and Turkey have 366 new coal-fired plants under construction or announced and permitted.

Australia gets an unimpressive report card, particularly because of our government’s strong financial support for oil and gas producers. Bloomberg estimates that tax breaks to these industries cost Australia nearly $US6 billion in forgone taxes between 2015 and 2019.

Big Brother is watching you but it isn’t the government

How many Google searches have you done in the last few days? Where have you used your phone or smart credit card when shopping? Where have you driven/cycled/ridden/walked with your phone in your pocket or bag?

Writing in Areo Shane Trotter describes the rise of Surveillance capitalism and Its challenges to libertarianism. Libertarians protest against the power of the state to override our personal choices, but tend not to notice the way corporations are increasingly manipulating our lives.

Trotter acknowledges that there is nothing new about corporations subtly trying to influence our behaviour (Vance Packard’s The hidden persuaders was written in 1957), but the smart phone and internet technologies have vastly expanded the power of corporations, allowing them to personalise their inducements. Google, he points out, is the world’s largest advertising firm, with the world’s largest storehouse of customer information. He concludes that:

there is nothing natural or inevitable about surveillance capitalism. It limits our freedom to determine who we would like to be and how we would like to behave. These companies have shown that they are likely to subvert our wills and intrude where they are not welcome. If ever federal governments had a responsibility to intervene, it’s in this situation. Governments are the only institutions with sufficient power to constrain big tech.

Australian economics

Do immigrants drive down Australian wages?

In the June 11 roundup we covered a speech by Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe, in which he mentioned temporary immigration as one of the factors that have suppressed wages in certain labour-intensive industries, such as the food trades and hospitality.

Writing in Inside StoryDoes immigration mean lower wages? – Adam Triggs disputes the interpretation of Lowe’s speech that immigration lowers wages. There is a popular view that immigrants take jobs from native Australians, and that because immigrants are willing to work for low wages they suppress wages generally. Empirical evidence does not support this view. In fact some evidence, hyperlinked in Triggs’ article, is that Australia’s skilled visa program actually increases the wages of native Australians.

Lest we see this as an “I’m right/you’re wrong” issue, we should note that the studies Triggs cites generally refer to the whole economy. But as he points out himself, even though economists and statisticians talk about the “labour force” as if it is some undifferentiated commodity, it is highly varied. Lowe was referring to one category – temporary visa-holders – in one group of labour-intensive industries.

Mathematically it is quite possible for immigration to suppress wages in one sector while increasing average wages throughout the economy; that’s not in dispute. The question we need to address is whether we want an underclass of underpaid workers – a question that was largely resolved early last century when the “basic wage” became a plank of the Australian settlement.

Can an electric ute carry 15 ewes to market?

So far most of our CO2 attention has been directed to electricity generation, but the Grattan Institute reminds us that we need to lift our game in the transport sector as well, and has published a document Towards net zero: practical policies to reduce transport emissions.

Oh what a feeling of tax-deduction

As one would expect, it calls for a much friendlier set of policies to encourage a switch to electric cars, including the abolition of import duties, the luxury car tax, and stamp duties on EVs, as well as provision of more charging points. But it also draws attention to “light-commercial-vehicles” or “LCVs” (read Toyota Hilux), to freight vehicles generally, and to aviation. Emissions from cars are falling, but emissions from LCVs are rising (presumably the Morrison Government’s incentive for a tradie to buy a new utefor personal business use is one contributing factor).  The authors also call for a 2035 target date to end sales of new gasoline and diesel powered light vehicles.

In this regard, the New Zealanders seem to be well ahead of us, with their Clean Car Discount program, with a set of temporary incentives to develop a critical mass of EVs in the country. Farmers are upset, but surely if Wal Footrot could carry a ewe and a dog on a motorcycle, his successors could carry a small mob of sheep in an electric ute.

What we can learn from the Nordics

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviewed two of the authors of The Nordic Edge: policy possibilities for Australia – Margot Wallström, Sweden’s former Foreign Minister, and Andrew Scott of Deakin University.

In the session – Nordic policies – there are two strong themes. One is that there is no reason why Australia cannot emulate the best of Nordic policies. Those countries have achieved a high material standard of living, high levels of life satisfaction, and a distribution of income and wealth that aligns with Australia’s self-image of egalitarianism. Their economies are globally competitive and structurally adaptable. The other theme relates to taxation and the size of government: there is no evidence or logic that supports the view that “small government” promotes economic growth or promotes entrepreneurship.

Wallström also takes us into the meaning of “feminist foreign policy”: it’s hard-nosed, practical and effective.  (16 minutes.)

There is a review of the same book on Inside Story.

The case for tax reform

The Tax Institute has released a major paper The case for change: A paper to prompt discussion for the future of Australia’s tax system. Its focus is on Commonwealth taxes: although some state taxes, including payroll tax and land taxes, get a significant mention.

It identifies well-known distortions in our tax system. On some distortions, such as the treatment of capital gains and “negative gearing”, its findings and suggestions align with reforms proposed by the Labor Party at the 2019 election. Some others, such as the possibility of a wealth transfer tax and reform of GST (either to raise the rate or to broaden the base), have been too hot for any party to raise.

One of its main concerns is the tax treatment of superannuation, in relation to the complexity of superannuation taxes and the way in which the system is excessively generous to those with the means to take advantage of tax concessions for superannuation and retirement incomes.

It points out that in comparison with similar countries our total taxes in relation to GDP are low – a fact well-known to anyone who takes the time to look at the data, but not one the Coalition parties ever mention. It also points out that in comparison with other countries we tend to be heavily reliant on personal income tax.

Some may note that it makes no mention of a “carbon tax”.  Presumably that’s because although it’s commonly called a “tax”, a price on carbon, even if administered through the tax system, is really a user charge (for the external costs of CO2) and not a tax – a distinction that seems to be beyond the intellectual capacity of Coalition ministers.

The paper is hardly “good reading”, but it is a useful reference document, because it provides the historical context of different taxes, and in many cases it gives a set of options for consideration rather than hard recommendations. For those without a couple of days to spare digesting its detail, the ABC’s Michael Janda has a short summary of its main findings.

It would be unfortunate if the reaction of the government, the opposition, or welfare groups were to demand that certain reforms in the document be “ruled out”, as has been the fate of so many tax reform proposals in the past. For example, a rise in the GST in isolation would be inequitable, but it could be part of a package that collects adequate taxes from the well-off to fund better public services, removes inequities in our present systems, such as incentives that make housing unaffordable, and makes the tax system more allocatively and administratively efficient.

We should pay more tax

Writing in The Conversation Peter Martin points out that when COVID is behind us, Australians are going to have to pay more tax. His conclusion is based on projections in the Intergenerational Report, which assume that by some neoliberal miracle government spending will rise more slowly in the next 40 years than it has in the last 40 years, even though there are clear and already-identified needs in aged care and health care.

This isn’t one of Martin’s best pieces of work. For a start he uses OECD figures as a point of comparison, which show total taxes to be about 34 per cent of GDP, but the OECD is no longer a useful reference point for countries like Australia, now that it includes low-tax-low-income countries such as Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Turkey. In fact, among high-income OECD countries, average taxes are closer to 40 per cent of GDP. Also Martin considers only Commonwealth taxes, on which the Coalition has set a cap of 23.9 per cent of GDP – a figure presumably revealed during a séance to establish contact with Friedrich Hayek.

But in Australia state and local governments also collect taxes, bringing our total taxes up to around 29 per cent of GDP. One consequence of the Commonwealth’s ceiling, along with a relative decline in GST revenue, is that in order to make up for the Commonwealth’s tax shortfall, states are having to rely more and more on inequitable and distortionary taxes, such as motor vehicle registration, and under-funding or abandonment of services.

Those shortcomings do not negate Martin’s conclusion, however. If we want to sustain a decent society with a high material standard of living, we must pay more taxes.

Australian politics

What would the Coalition’s anti-corruption body do?  Not much

The Centre for Public Integrity, in association with Guardian Australia, has looked at 40 recent political controversies – car parks, vaccine contracts, conflicts of interest, politicians’ personal benefits paid by corporations, and many others – and has found that all but two would fall well short of the threshold the Coalition’s proposed anti-corruption body requires even to begin an investigation: Coalition’s proposed anti-corruption commission would have no power to investigate recent controversies.

If you would like to go beyond the Centre’s general conclusion, and look at the Coalition’s corruption in more detail, the Centre’s website has links to The Guardian’s full list.

Specifically on the car park rort, Inside Story has an article – Rolling out the barrel – querying why the Commonwealth is involved in projects such as car parks, change rooms and other matters better handled by well-funded state governments. More details of the car park rorts, revealed in the Auditor’s appearance before the Senate, are covered by Yee-Fui Ng, writing in The ConversationThe “car park rorts” story is scandalous. But it will keep happening unless we close grant loopholes – and in an article in The Guardian by Sarah Martin and Paul Karp – Car park scandal: same staffer from prime minister’s office was involved in sports rorts.  At least there is some efficiency in using the same process to identify electorally-sensitive seats.

Bad behaviour on the hill

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission, has released a progress report of the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces.  It’s mainly about methodology and the purpose of the review: “The Commission will not investigate nor make findings about individual allegations of bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault as part of the Review”. Rather it is about the culture of the place, with the aim of recommending ways to improve the safety of those workplaces.

So far 345 people have made submissions, 72 per cent from women. Disappointingly only 16 of those submissions have been from current or former Commonwealth Members or Senators.

We can be confident, however, that cultural change is assured. Should they have any interest in the matter politicians will be offered one hour of training on the issue of sexual assault.

Julian Assange – a phone call from Morrison could do

On Late Night Live Julian Assange’s fiancé and mother to his children, Stella Moris, gives an update on Assange’s condition and the appeal lodged by the US Government against the UK court finding that he should not be extradited: Stella Moris on why Julian Assange should be freed. It’s an account of deliberate persecution by the UK authorities, particularly his detention in a maximum security jail when in normal legal circumstances he should be out on bail, or subject to no charges at all.

She notes that there has been a great deal of international pressure applied to the British and American Government to drop action against Assange, and she suggests that if the Australian Government were to take up the case with Biden the US Government would drop the charges. She suggests that Australians should bring pressure on their members of parliament – or perhaps more realistically, those seeking to be elected. (18 minutes)

Political tribalism

Americans’ tribal religious identifications

Between 2006 and 2020 the proportion of Americans identifying as “White evangelical Protestant” has fallen from 23 per cent to 14 per cent, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and cited in The 2020 Census of American Religion published by the Public Religion Research Institute. Over the same period other Christian religions have also seen declining affiliation, but at a slower rate.

On Late Night Live David Smith of the United States Studies Centre and the University of Sydney explains these trends – Evolving evangelicals (13 minutes). The fall in “white evangelicals” probably has little to do with religious belief but a great deal to do with identity – am identity that incorporates social conservatism, opposition to liberalism, rejection of science and Enlightenment values, and a support for Trump.

Smith explains the strange situation that saw “white evangelicals” throwing their weight behind Trump, whose behaviour is some distance from that of Jesus, while many conservative Catholics are turning against fellow-Catholic Joe Biden, described by Smith as one of the most religious presidents ever elected. Religious conservatives were comfortable with Trump, not because of his behaviour, but because he fought to support their conservative values.

He goes on to explain how vaccination has become a strong issue of partisan identity; vaccination is now associated with the imagined plot to overthrow Trump. Vaccination rates, that initially rose so quickly to their present level (56 per cent partial, 48 per cent full), are now slowing. There is strong resistance to vaccination in poor Republican states, even though Republican state governors are urging their people to be vaccinated.

Smith is one of the authors of the 2020 book How America compares, along with Rodney Tiffin, Brendon O’Connor, Ross Gittins and Anika Gauja.

A portrait of a populist

Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro was once a trade union activist.

That’s one of the revelations in the ABC’s Rear Vision program The Trump of the Tropics—Jair Bolsonaro, a story of his adult life up to the present day. He never slotted easily into any one of Brazil’s many political parties. In fact he ran as the anti-politician politician – all politicians are self-serving bastards, so elect me. His support base has been partly in the military (his “trade union” activism was on behalf of young officers), and in more recent times among evangelical “Christians”, mining companies and agribusiness companies.

His rise to power seems to rest on dissatisfaction with former president Dilma Rousseff who was impeached and removed from office over disputed allegations of corruption.

Tribalism in Australia

Crispin Hull writes about tribalism in the Covid response. He writes about the asymmetric way politicians and the media have dealt with the Victorian and New South Wales lockdowns. “Rationally, the response to both lockdowns should have been the same. We should deal with the pandemic with evidence-based science, not political allegiances”. But tribalism – identification with one’s “Labor” or “Coalition” mates – has influenced the way governments have handled the pandemic and the way people judge the performance of their governments, state or federal.

Hull points out that while we see tribalism influencing the way we deal with a pandemic, it is also in play in the way we deal with the far greater problem of climate change.

Risk perception in public policy

Climate change and vaccination

Those who study human behaviour know that most people have great difficulty in dealing with risk.  We subjectively over-estimate the likelihood of airplane crashes and terrorist attacks, and often under-estimate the likelihood of less obvious risks with higher probabilities.

We see this in play in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine. Writing in The New Daily, Alan Kohler notes that the risk of dying from a blood clot associated with AstraZeneca is around 0.00044 per cent (or 1 in 230 000). Yet even that tiny risk has resulted in a significant (and in this case dysfunctional) behavioural response.

“The risk of catastrophe and even extinction as a result of global warming is a lot higher than 0.00044 per cent”, he points out, but as yet there has not been a strong behavioural response. We seem to believe that so long as we are all on track to net zero emissions by 2050, we will have capped warming to 1.5 degrees, thereby dealing with climate change.

But in his article The climate change panic button is coming Kohler points out that there is no certainty that even if we achieve zero emissions warming will be capped at 1.5 degrees. The climate change models are probabilistic models, about both the extent of warming change and the consequences of warming.

Will events such as the floods in Germany and China, and the record-breaking heatwave in western Canada jolt us, and the governments we elect, out of our comfort zone and make us appreciate the real and imminent risk of warming? When we do react to the risk the shock may be as abrupt as the shock of lockdowns to deal with Covid-19 – and more consequential.

How “rational” risk analysis can work against vaccination

The influence of anti-vaxxers is well-known, but theirs is not the only contribution to vaccine hesitancy. As vaccination rates rise people will note that the hospitalisation and death rates are falling, and assess that their personal risk is reducing.

That’s the logic underlying what Daniel Engber describes as America’s “Great Vaccination Decline” in his Atlantic article Vaccination in America might have only one tragic path forward. His article has links to findings that the reason most Americans get vaccinated is to reduce their personal risk of illness. If the pandemic is receding, why bother?

If this is so then only the shock of new outbreaks is likely to push hesitant people towards vaccination. But the vaccination level to achieve herd immunity is getting much higher, because the current variants are highly contagious.

He does not really draw his essay to a conclusion, but we can infer that we cannot achieve herd immunity unless we think like a herd – in terms of collective risk rather than individual risk. Engber’s article describes how, in broad terms, Democrats are inclined to think in terms of collective risk, while Republicans are inclined to think in terms of individual risk.

Polls and surveys

Newspoll – Labor primary vote consolidating

The media have reported on the latest Newspoll, emphasising Labor’s rise in TPP vote to 53:47, but not too much weight should be placed on one month’s opinion poll, and even less on TPP estimates. There does seem to be a trend in Labor’s favour however, up from a primary vote of 33 per cent in the 2019 election to around 38 per cent now.

The Coalition’s support has been more volatile, falling from 41 per cent at the election to around 40 per cent now. That’s much less than Labor’s gain, but in the election the Coalition did well from a strong preference flow from Clive Palmer’s UAP who won 3 per cent of the vote.

Newspoll figures are available from William Bowe’s Poll Bludger site. His Bludger Track also has informative trend estimates of primary and TPP votes.

Essential – Labor ahead, more on Covid-19

Essential’s fortnightly poll has questions on voting intention and a number of questions relating to Covid-19.

On voting intention its poll goes back only to February this year. Labor’s primary vote has held at around 36 per cent while the Coalition’s has slipped a little to around 37 per cent. Note that Essential separates the “undecided” in its report, resulting therefore in lower figures for both parties than are shown in Newspoll. It has a number of questions on Morrison’s attributes: his ratings, which were holding up reasonably well over 2020, have slipped significantly in the last three months. One telling figure is that 59 per cent of respondents think that he is “out of touch with ordinary people”.  Is the dorky dad image receding?

On the way governments have handled Covid-19, the states get a much better mark than the Commonwealth, as shown in the chart below.

Most people believe New South Wales Government was too slow in moving against the latest outbreak, but there are strong partisan differences: Coalition supporters tend to go along with the New South Wales Government. People in states other than New South Wales definitely think the New South Wales Government has been too slow. There are also gender and age differences – women and older people tend to believe that the response has been too slow.

There is a set of questions relating to vaccination intention. Unsurprisingly there is a jump in enthusiasm for vaccination. Around 40 per cent among most age categories are waiting for the Pfizer vaccine to be available and even 30 per cent of people over 54 are waiting for Pfizer.

Finally there is a set of questions about life returning to normal.  On most dimensions people are pessimistic about conditions returning to normal within a year. Tellingly, only 31 per cent of respondents believe the vaccination rollout will be completed within a year. An even lower proportion think there will be easy international travel within a year.

Coming events

Australia Institute webinars

Wednesday 28 July, 1100 AEST: Marian Wilkinson, Richard Denniss and Allan Behm on “Feeling the heat: Australia under climate pressure”

The webinar is free, but registration is essential. See the Institute’s seminars webpage.

The big picture

If you want to get some feeling for the cosmic significance of humanity and the planet we live in, we recommend this video prepared by the European Southern Observatory. (Use a computer with a big screen, and run it a second time to see when you can first see the galaxy NGC  1637 – probably around 20 seconds.)

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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