Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Aug 14, 2021
Not all overpayments are equal

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress


Our Delta outbreak

Everyone who isn’t a member of the New South Wales Cabinet seems to understand the gravity of the situation.

The graph below compares the present wave in New South Wales with the wave in Victoria last year. At this stage, 57 days or almost two months since the outbreak’s first case, the case numbers in Victoria were peaking, but in New South Wales they are still on their exponential growth trajectory. The New South Wales growth rate did slow in early July (from Day 28), but even at this lower growth rate, if it is sustained, there will be almost 1600 cases a day by the end of August when the state government proposes relaxing some restrictions.

Whatever the New South Wales Government is doing isn’t working, but regardless of pressure from other state governments, lessons from the Victorian outbreak, frustration vented by law-enforcement authorities, and feedback from people observing non-compliance, the New South Wales Government seems to be obstinate in its refusal to take harsher measures.

The New South Wales Government is showing a callous indifference not only to other states and territories, but also to its own people outside Sydney. The outbreak among indigenous people in western New South Wales poses a severe threat to the most vulnerable Australians, and most frustratingly it wouldn’t have happened if the government had clamped down on unnecessary movement.

It is now clear that there are conflicting views within the New South Wales Government. We  had a peek into those conflicts when the state Health Minister muzzled the state chief health officer during a televised session. Ross Gittins notes the pressure business lobbies have brought to bear on the government: Blame the lockdown on business urgers trying to wish the virus away. “That pressure started at the top with Scott Morrison and his ministers, but was eagerly pursued by the business lobbies and business’ media cheer squad” writes Gittins. He’s not blaming the businesses themselves – they have everything to lose through the Berejiklian Government’s reluctance to deal with the virus – but he is blaming the business lobby organisations for putting partisan affiliations ahead of their members’ interests.

The state government seems to be confused and deaf to advice. Maybe it’s having two bob each way on the way to manage the outbreak. One is a hope that it can get back to zero cases of community transmission – which it cannot do unless it manages to get the case numbers on a downward trend. The other is a hope that it can somehow segue into a situation where enough of the population is vaccinated that it can handle a steady flow of cases.

The former approach would work only if the government is willing to take much stronger action, as recommended by public health experts. Many people in non-metropolitan New South Wales and in other states are calling for Sydney to be ringfenced with only essential traffic allowed in or out. That would allow other states and territories, and non-metropolitan New South Wales, to clean up cases in their regions and open up. (Because Sydney is connected to the rest of Australia only by a few bridges over the Nepean-Hawkesbury River and a narrow transport corridor through escarpment country to the south, that is a realistic proposition.) But the state government, oblivious to the national interest, refuses to countenance such a measure.

The trouble with the other approach – relying on vaccination – is that vaccination takes time to take effect, and there is vaccine hesitancy to be overcome. Every extra vaccinated person helps bring down the virus’s R value, but until very high levels of vaccination are achieved, probably in excess of 90 per cent, it has to be complementary to other measures directed to reducing mobility, not a substitute for them. Yet the New South Wales Government is promising some relaxation of its already weak controls once the state achieves 50 per cent vaccination or an even lower threshold of 6 million doses in its 8 million population. (Counting doses is not the same as counting vaccination: it takes two doses to achieve full vaccination.)


There’s progress, but mainly in the half of the population aged over 40.

When we drill into the data we find that at least 80 per cent of people under 40 are yet to receive even their first dose of vaccine and those aged under 16 are not yet eligible for vaccination. We’re a long way from those 70 and 80 per cent figures, and as experts are now warning, the present variant seems to be circulating easily among children: 80 per cent of adults equates to only 64 per cent of the population. Fortunately there is increasing community enthusiasm for vaccination, with people’s intention (or achievement) having risen from 66 per cent to 79 per cent in just the last three months, according to a survey conducted by the Department of Health.

Australia’s planned path out of the virus – “living with Covid”

There is a lot of hype about the freedoms we will enjoy once we reach those 70 and 80 per cent adult vaccination levels in the National plan to transition Australia’s national Covid response, as if the borders can be thrown open and life will be returned to “normal”. In reality the Doherty Institute document supporting the plan warns that at 80 per cent we are just on the threshold of bringing the virus’s reproduction rate to 1.0, and that is assuming we retain a raft of public health and safety measures and effective tracing and quarantining measures.

If we want to know what happens when controls are suddenly lifted when 70 or 80 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated, the UK provides a sobering example. In that country 76 per cent of adults are vaccinated, but it is experiencing a daily death rate of 1.3 per million population, across all ages. That would translate to about 34 deaths a day or 12 000 deaths a year in Australia. For every death there are many more people hospitalised, occupying scarce ICU units, and there are many more people suffering the long-term effects of Covid-19.

If that’s what “living with Covid” means it’s a dismal future. But if we can be patient for a few more months, and make the effort to achieve vaccination levels approaching herd immunity, we should be able to treat Covid-19 in the same way as we treat infectious diseases such as measles, where “living with the disease” means a rapid suppression through contact tracing and possibly short local lockdowns.  That seems to be the approach New Zealand is taking, as described by Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the  University of Otago.

Politicians and business lobbyists are talking about those 70 and 80 per cent levels as if they are end points, but they’re only markers along the way to an effective high level of vaccination, and sustaining protection with booster shots if necessary. That’s much closer to 100 per cent of the population than 56 or 64 per cent (once children are counted).

The task of public health authorities in getting to that level is not helped by false promises of freedom, by false information circulating on websites, or a member of the governing Coalition spouting drivel about the virus on the floor of Parliament with impunity.

Australians abroad

Let’s not forget the 38 000 Australians stranded overseas who have registered with DFAT but are still unable to return, writes Kim Wingerei – Pandemic paranoia – the penal colony strikes back at those pesky Australians who left. We’re not far off North Korean levels of restriction on our citizens’ movements. We can blame the airlines for price gouging, and we can express justified outrage when people return to Australia by yacht or by their own Gulfsteam G700, but the real problem lies with our government: “It has everything to do with the Government’s abject failure to provide proper and secure quarantine facilities”.

The world

Another week’s world data confirms that the Delta variant is still spreading, but even after allowing for a lag between cases and deaths, deaths are not rising to the same extent as they did in earlier waves.

There is no single explanation for reduced death rates. There is no evidence that the Delta variant is less deadly than earlier variants. Maybe the virus is shifting to regions where record-keeping is poorer, maybe treatments are improving, and maybe in “developed” countries some of the most vulnerable have benefited from the protection of vaccination.

The table below, showing the worldwide distribution of people and deaths, builds on a table presented last week. It adds another column contrasting the distribution of deaths in the week to August 10 with the previous week to August 3.  If the virus were doing its damage uniformly we would expect the figures in all three columns to be much the same, but we can see high variation just in two weeks, and the disproportionate incidence of deaths in South America.

When we dig into the figures a little further we see that most of the deaths in South America have been in Brazil, which alone accounted for 9.3 per cent of world deaths. Russia (counted with Europe) accounted for 7.9 per cent of world deaths and India for 5.0 per cent.

Another country to watch is Indonesia. From reported figures its case numbers are falling but its death rate is still running at about 1700 deaths a day, or 17 per cent of the world total.  That’s among a population of 274 million or 3.5 per cent of the world’s population.  The ABC’s Indonesia correspondents Anne Barker and Lucia Stein warn that Indonesia’s huge coronavirus outbreak could be the perfect breeding ground for the world’s next variant.

In most “developed” countries death rates are well down from their peaks in the initial wave and in the wave earlier this year. The graph below shows deaths in most “developed” countries. The only Asian “developed” country shown is Japan, and its death rates are much higher than in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, which would simply run along the axis if we included them on the graph.

Vaccines are working

Some vaccine hesitancy may be driven by people’s (correct) understanding that no vaccine gives perfectly assured protection against Covid-19.

Unfortunately we are subject to a bias known to behavioural economists as pseudocertainty. We may rationally believe that a vaccine that gives 90 per cent protection is perceived to be 90 per cent as desirable as one that would give 100 per cent protection, but in fact we tend to discount heavily anything that we do not perceive to be perfect. That bias comes into play when we read about efficacy levels of different vaccines, which are generally in the range of 65 to 90 per cent, and when we read about the protection of vaccines reducing over time. It’s hard to convince people to take a rational, proportional approach to risk.

Countering this bias Craig Spencer of New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center writes in the Atlantic Relax, America: the vaccines are still working.  As more people get vaccinated, more vaccinated people are going to get Covid-19, but “even with Delta, the likelihood of severe illness if you’re fully immunized is still a small fraction of the likelihood for the unvaccinated”. Even if the vaccinated catch Covid-19 they are unlikely to be shedding a high viral load.

“The vaccines are still incredible, but they aren’t perfect. And they never have been” he writes.

Another reason not to stop at X per cent vaccination

Most policymakers tend to think in terms of diminishing returns from any government intervention. Chasing down the last few criminals or eliminating the toughest sources of air pollution may not be a wise use of public resources.

But there are two reasons why we should push on to achieve high levels of vaccination.  One is to achieve herd immunity: mathematically the weaker the vaccine and the higher the virus’s contagion, the higher is the level of vaccination required to reach herd immunity. That level may well be in the high 90s.

The other reason, explained in an article in NatureRates of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and vaccination impact the fate of vaccine-resistant strains – is the risk of the virus developing a more contagious or vaccine-resistant strain when a significant proportion of the population is vaccinated and controls on mobility and social distancing are being relaxed. These controls should be maintained until a very high level of vaccination is achieved.

The link above is to the Nature article. A less-academic summary of the work is in LiveScience: Vaccine-resistant coronavirus ‘mutants’ are more likely when transmission is high, new model finds. In a warning that could have been written for the New South Wales or Commonwealth governments, the author, Nicoletta Lanese writes:

[The] worst-case scenario occurs when many, but not all, people in the population are vaccinated, transmission rates are high and the virus is spreading unchecked, the authors found. In this scenario, vaccine-resistant mutants are most likely to emerge when about 60 per cent of the population is vaccinated; at that point, a large proportion of the population is protected against the original virus, so infections from that virus strain begin to wane and vaccine-resistant mutants gain a competitive edge.

Note the figure “60 per cent of the population”. That  equates to about 75 per cent of the adult population in Australia, or halfway between Phase 2 and Phase 3 in the National plan to transition Australia’s national Covid response.

The case for compulsory vaccination

While some on the loony libertarian right see compulsion and inducements for vaccination in the same category as Stalin’s Gulags, Peter Singer, writing in Project Syndicate, puts the case for compulsory vaccination. He draws an analogy with seat belt laws, enacted for the first time anywhere in the world in Victoria in 1970, and which were attacked as a violation of individual freedom at the time.

Compulsory vaccination is quite in line with J S Mill’s principle that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”, because the unvaccinated, when at large in the community, can impose harm to others.  (By the logic of a fortiori reasoning the case for compulsory vaccination would seem to be more defensible than the case for compulsory seat belts.)

On a bright note

On Thursday’s Coronacast Norman Swan reports on an article published in BMJ Global Health We should not dismiss the possibility of eradicating COVID-19: comparisons with smallpox and polio. The researchers point to the successful worldwide eradication of smallpox and the near-eradication of polio (impeded only by a handful of right-wing religious extremists.) It would take a concerted worldwide effort, involving high levels of vaccination with effective vaccines, and means to isolate those with Covid-19.

On the same program Swan reports on trials of the Moderna vaccine, which so far has proven the most effective of all vaccines against the Delta variant. It could be an excellent follow-up or booster vaccine.

Data sources

See our separate web page of hyperlinks to generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19, including data on vaccination and the WHO Covid-19 epidemiological updates.

Australian politics

Corruption and leadership failure

At first sight the Morrison Government’s pathetic response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Berejiklian Government’s incompetence in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak seem to be connected only by the extent of serious damage they are doing to the Australian economy, but writing in Crikey  – Berejiklian and Morrison offer a one-two punch on non-leadership  (paywalled but also accessible through MSN) – Bernard Keane sees close connections:

Both were of governments that refuse to lead, that refuse to even govern in the public interest, because of the toxic influence of powerful business interests that provide a steady flow of funding to the Liberal Party, that offer the prospect of lucrative post-political employment, and which are run and assisted by former political staffers and even former political colleagues.

He goes on to note another common characteristic: “the Morrison and Berejiklian governments are both deeply corrupt”.

Climate change

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the physical science of climate change has been reasonably well-covered in the media.  There is a short summary of the report on The ConversationThis is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know –  prepared by a group of scientists from the CSIRO, the ANU and the University of Melbourne.

To summarise it even further: it’s serious; it’s all happening faster than modelled in previous reports; and we all need to be thinking about 2030, not just 2050. As Mark Kenny writes in The Conversation, it’s easy for politicians to talk about 2050, but dealing with what we need to do by 2030 is far more challenging. We cannot duck it: we must face our wilful political blindness on climate.

There’s no point in going over the partisan politics of Australia’s response. Morrison is stuck on his “technology not taxes” mantra (marketing people love meaningless alliteration), and even though the vast majority of our 227 Commonwealth Parliamentarians probably want to see a strong Australian response to the IPCC’s findings, a tiny minority is holding the whole country hostage. Such is the absurdity of our “Westminster” two-party convention.

Heightening that absurdity is the fact that the blocking minority is mainly from rural electorates. But even a quick glance at the IPCC’s projections shows that all of Australia is likely to suffer a significant fall in soil moisture, the key condition for agricultural productivity. Even if these politicians aren’t too worried about sea-level rise and bushfires, surely they have some concern for our rural industries. Or are they really a miners’ party masquerading as a country party?

Lest we believe this idiocy has permeated the entire Coalition, there are voices of sanity in the Liberal Party. It was heartening to hear New South Wales Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean on Tuesday night’s 730 Report discussing his and other states’ initiatives in their industrial transformation to clean energy, and what he believes the Commonwealth should do.  “I think we need a new brand of politics” he said.

Dealing with overpayments

Many of Morrison’s critics see his behaviour as that of a marketing executive out of his depth, but when we look at the way his government has handled overpayments of Covid-19 relief, it’s not clear that he even has the gift of good public relations. Luke Henriques-Gomes, writing in The Guardian, contrasts the way the government is claiming back $32 million of overpaid income support paid to 11 000 people, with the way it has waved off $22 million of support that retailer Harvey Norman didn’t need, or $20 million of support for Wesley College that used the windfall to reduce its fees: Centrelink orders jobkeeper recipients to pay back $32m, while profitable businesses allowed to keep funds.

Andrew Leigh, Member for Fenner in the ACT, calculates that $13 billion of “Jobkeeper” went to enterprises with rising earnings.  Some firms, including Toyota, Domino’s and Iluka have refunded overpayments, but the vast majority have simply kept the payments.

Murdoch’s Sky News – “a market for crazy”

Google’s YouTube banned the Murdoch-owned Sky News from posting for a week, based “on local and global health authority guidance, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 misinformation that could cause real world harm.”

Commenting about Sky News, one former prime minister said:

Any self-respecting media organisation in the middle of a public health crisis and a consequential economic crisis would not pump this irresponsible nonsense out through their mainstream media organisation in pursuit of an ideological, political and, dare say it, a commercial agenda.

Another former prime minister commented that the Murdoch media has “monetised a market for crazy” and that its broadcasts are “no longer consistently reality-based”.  He mentioned three absurd but dangerous themes: Covid-19 isn’t real, climate change is a hoax; and Biden stole the US election. (This second prime minister’s comments are on last week’ Saturday AM, starting at 11:20 running through to 21:40.)

Both former prime ministers commented that digital platforms such as YouTube are not subject to the same regulatory rules as traditional broadcast media administered by the communications regulator (Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA), but that does not give them licence to drown the nation in lies.

The point was made that the problem of media concentration dates back to 1987, when the Hawke Government permitted Murdoch’s News Ltd to take over the Herald and Weekly Times.

Writing on Inside Story, Margaret Simons looks at the reach of Sky News. It may be trying to create the impression that it is “taking the country by storm”, but Simons, having analysed available data on audiences, is unconvinced, and drawing on research by the University of Canberra News and Media Research Centre she notes that its audience is small and in comparison with other media it scores poorly on trustworthiness. She suspects that “Sky News is often background noise in homes and venues where the TV is always on.”

The union of the states

State governments have generally been politically savvy in judging voters’ attitudes to dealing with Covid-19. Proposals by political parties on the “right” to open up their economies and to go easy on lockdowns have not gone down well with the public.

Writing in Inside StoryIt has to be worth it – Peter Brent points out that state governments are doing well politically:

As the months roll by, more and more state and territory governments seem to be hogging that Covid authority, providing the reassurance and security that voters crave. As long as our second-tier government is getting things right, does it really matter who is in Canberra? They write the cheques, and anyone can do that.

At the same time Morrison is doing himself no favours with his ill-considered and inconsistent utterances on Covid-19, usually delivered stridently.

Brett’s view is in line with the Australia Institute’s work State revival: the role of the states in Australia’s COVID-19 response and beyond, which cites strong support for the way state governments have handled the pandemic. The key point is in the words “and beyond” in the title. “With the states newly emboldened, further action on climate change, changes to federal-state financial arrangements and reform of National Cabinet could all be on the agenda”.

On a related matter, the standing of “National Cabinet”, constitutional expert Anne Twomey writes about the judgment by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, determining that “National Cabinet” is not covered by the conventions of cabinet confidentiality –  Nowhere to hide: the significance of national cabinet not being a cabinet.  This was in response to FOI action taken by Senator Rex Patrick. Twomey’s article in The Conversation goes into the meaning of “cabinet” itself – a term defined more by convention than by any legal or constitutional provision.

Friends and neighbours

In 2011 Barack Obama, speaking to the Australian Parliament, declared that the US was “turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region” – a commitment repeated by subsequent presidents, including Biden.

Writing in Foreign AffairsAmerica still needs to rebalance to Asia – Zack Cooper and Adam Liff suggest that rhetoric has not been matched by action. While the US has remained involved in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US, this grouping omits the 650 million people of Southeast Asia, and more specifically America’s relationships with Thailand and the Philippines are weak.


The scope of economics

There is an image of economics as something detached from other social sciences. Indeed there is a common view that economics is not a social science at all, generally reflected in comments such as a supposed need to “balance economic and social objectives” as if they are separate.

Two readings we link this week are about the scope of economics – one asserting its position in the social sciences, and the other calling for more geographic diversity.

The first, by Richard Holden of the University of New South Wales, places economics well within social sciences: Vital Signs: if you want predictions, ask an astrologer. Economists have better things to do, published in The Conversation. Those better things are about developing a deep understanding of questions in public policy “by combining rich data with clever empirical methods”. By contrast, macroeconomic forecasting (for example the projections incorporated in the Commonwealth’s budget papers) is best left to the astrologers.

The other, Economics has another diversity problem, is a short article by Dani Rodrik in Project Syndicate. He isn’t referring to gender or racial diversity: rather he is concerned by the dominance of US and western economists in leading economic journals. He notes, for example, that “East Asia produces nearly one-third of global economic output, yet economists based in the region contribute less than 5 per cent of the articles in major journals”.

 “Look at the jobs that would be lost” – the last economic refuge of scoundrels

When a business is on its last legs, because of financial mismanagement or because it has run foul of the law, its last line of defence is about the jobs that would supposedly be lost if the creditors or law enforcers moved in.

Peter Martin, writing in The Conversation, reminds us that Crown Resorts is warning about dire consequences to its 20 000 employees and to Victoria’s public revenue if it were to lose its licence: Casino operator Crown plays an old business trick: using workers as human shields.

It’s a logically-flawed defence, he points out. If Crown loses its licence Melbourne’s casino will still be there (unfortunately), run by someone else, employing people and paying taxes. Martin reminds us that we are often fooled by threats from businesses to close down or to move offshore.

The most egregious example was when Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest threatened to move out in response to the Rudd Government’s super profits tax, as if no-one else would have taken over their operations even if they had walked away.

Economic prospects

Perhaps the Reserve Bank Statement on Monetary Policy doesn’t qualify as “good reading”, but it’s laden with economic information from government and non-government sources. Some of its ten sub-documents are about the Bank’s bond purchasing program – “quantitative easing”.  One document appearing this time is about commercial property, particularly in relation to remote working: remote working is here to stay, and it’s likely to have effects on the way we live in our cities.

The Reserve Bank’s medium-term outlook can be summarised by this extract from the Governor’s statement to Parliament:

There are a number of factors that make it likely that the pick-up in wages and inflation will be gradual. These include: enterprise agreements that run for a number of years; a business mindset that is very focused on cost control; inflation expectations that are low; relatively high ongoing rates of underemployment; and that it will take some time yet before the spare capacity in the economy is fully absorbed. Together, the factors help provide a basis for expecting that Australia can sustain an unemployment rate in the low 4s, but time will tell.

Unemployment – adjusting the official figures

The ABS, in its long-standing monthly figures of unemployment, uses a quite restricted definition of unemployment. To be classified as “unemployed” someone has to work less than one hour in the survey week, be ready to start work in a short time if work becomes available, and be actively looking for work.

Saul Eslake has made a submission to the Senate Select Committee on Job Security, titled The effective rate of unemployment. He makes a recalculation over the last 18 months (the Covid-19 period), taking into account discouraged job seekers, people who may have worked part of the week but who became unemployed during periods of high labour mobility, and people who were employed but were working “zero hours”.  This last category usually refers to people on leave, but over the Covid-19 period it also refers to people on programs such as “Jobkeeper”.

His adjusted measures show “effective unemployment” leaping to 18 per cent in April last year (the official rate was 6 per cent), and subsequently falling back to be only a little above the official rate by May this year. Eslake’s measure rose in June, and will inevitably rise as a result of the New South Wales outbreak.

Lost opportunities

When we look at the economic wreckage from the pandemic we are inclined to contemplate “if only …” counterfactuals. If only the Morrison Government has not been so stingy and bought more mRNA vaccines early on; if only they had spent a few million dollars on proper quarantine facilities; if only they had made an all-out effort to vaccinate border workers.

All of these involve spending significant amounts of public money – perhaps hundreds of millions, in order to stave off much higher costs in the broader economy.  Estimates are rubbery, but the economic cost of the New South Wales lockdown is almost certainly in the order of $10 billion so far. It doesn’t require much in the way of sophisticated modelling to realise that public spending to avert such consequences has high benefit-cost returns.

We are inclined to blame sheer administrative incompetence for the Commonwealth’s failure to take such initiatives: when considering the general performance of the Morrison Government, incompetence should never be ruled out. But ABC business reporter Gareth Hutchens, drawing on the views of the Blueprint Institute’s chief economist Stephen Hamilton, suggests that such false economies are almost an inevitable outcome of the way policymakers approach public spending: The destruction in this economy? It could have been prevented.

The problem lies in the way governments have prioritised fiscal management (the bookkeeping task of managing public revenues and expenditures) over economic management (the efficient allocation of the nation’s resources).

How to collect more tax

Crispin Hull is one of many Australians annoyed that in its backdown on income tax cuts for the rich, negative gearing and capital gains tax, Labor has squandered its opportunities to provide much needed public services when it is next in office.

But not all is lost, he argues in his post Tax can be a revolting topic. He lists several precedents where governments have quietly done away with tax rorts without too much fuss.

With Labor’s 2019 reforms off the table for now, Hull’s preference seems to be for a “Buffett tax” – a 30 per cent tax rate on all income over $1 million before deductions. Even right-wing populists in the Senate would find it hard to vote against it.

Public ideas


Most of us have probably heard about the “lost wallet” experiment as an indicator of trust.  The researchers “lose” wallets with a small amount of money in different cities around the world, and see how many are returned to their owners or reported to authorities. The researchers confirm what most travellers know – that you’re better off losing your wallet in Zurich or Oslo than in Mexico City or Istanbul. (Australia ranks behind Northern Europe and New Zealand on the lost wallet test.)

Tony Ward of the University of Melbourne has looked for factors that may help explain the range of results. He notes that even among countries with similar incomes there are big differences. But he finds that inequality is the dominant factor explaining two-thirds of the differences between countries in social trust levels, with perceptions of corruption explaining much of the remainder. “All up, equality and corruption perceptions appear to explain 82 per cent of the differences in trust and trustworthiness between nations.”

His article in The Conversation Equality and fairness: vaccines against this pandemic of mistrust summarises his research and has links to other sources, including evidence that the higher the level of social trust in a country the lower is its Covid-19 death rate. Social trust operates through norms of cooperation with strangers and a willingness to follow government guidance and rules.

In passing he notes that between 2012 and 2020 Australians became much more likely to believe that there is corruption in public life.


August 6 and August 9 were the 76th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the ABC’s God Forbid program James Carleton discusses The ethics of going nuclear with a philosopher (Tim Dean), an economist (John Quiggin) and a campaigner against nuclear weapons (Sue Wareham).

The discussion starts with the deontological and moral consequentialist perspectives of the 1945 bombings. It moves on to the ethics of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, and concludes with a discussion of the case for and against use of nuclear power – fission and fusion – to replace power from greenhouse gas emitting sources.  (57 minutes, including a quiz)

The religious right – if it’s so noisy why is it not more influential?

Conservatives who identify themselves as “Christian” (probably often as a cultural or tribal identifier than as a theological commitment) are prominent in the Coalition parties, but they have not been successful on their main issues – same-sex marriage and abortion.  (On other moral issues to do with social justice they have been remarkably silent.)

Writing in The Conversation David Smith of the US Studies Center looks at the rise and fall of the “Christian” right in Australia: A “Christian nation” no longer: why Australia’s religious right loses policy battles even when it wins elections. He also explains how and why Australia’s churches have shifted their stances on religious freedom, from opposition to support.

Perhaps it has been the Census question on religion that has aroused interests in the way we describe our beliefs.

Social sin

A few weeks ago (June 26) we covered the way the Coalition joined with Pauline Hanson’s panic about “critical race theory”, as if it were a weapon designed by the left to indoctrinate schoolchildren with a “woke” culture. In fact no-one proposes to include critical race theory – a theory covered in university politics courses – in school curricula. The likely explanation for Hanson’s concern is a desire to keep any serious consideration of racism out of school classrooms.

Writing in Eureka StreetCritical Race Theory and the question of social sin – Andrew Hamilton explains that critical race theory is an area of academic inquiry, rather than a dogma, and that its main avenue of inquiry is about the extent to which racial discrimination is entrenched in our practices and institutions, even while our social norms and laws reject racism.

Importantly, Hamilton relates critical race theory to the Christian idea of “social sin”. He explains how Catholic moral teaching has expanded the understanding of sin “to account for the destructive, unconscious attitudes of groups enshrined and perpetuated institutionally in economic, legal and policing systems”.  This is the same perspective as taken by critical race theory.

While Hamilton cites the deliberations of Roman Catholic theologians and Vatican councils, the idea that morality relates not only to our individual behaviour but also to our social behaviour is in line with most mainstream Christian religions – Anglican and Protestant.  But there are some who, in the name of “Christianity”, confine the notion of morality to a narrow range of personal behaviours, often to do with sexuality, as if our collective lives are not matters of moral concern.

Dealing with doubt

How do we deal with the unexpected?  Probably less than rationally.  In a short essay in Eureka Street Tying off the threads of doubt Brian Matthews notes that people “often turn to myth, the occult, each other, to their until then untested and unimpressive leaders, or to a hoped-for apparent miracle to explain what seemed otherwise beyond explanation”.  Does someone have a different explanation for Morrison’s election in 2019?

Hillsong – The life of Brian

The Hillsong Church has been in the news for many of the wrong reasons – the awkward relationship between founder Brian Houston and Scott Morrison, its property branch having been hit with orders to rectify significant defects in an apartment complex it owns, and charges that Houston has allegedly been concealing information about child sexual abuse committed by his father.

In an interview with London-based journalist Elle Hardy, the ABC Religion and Ethics Report provides some background on Hillsong, outlining the extent to which its global empire is built around the high-profile and charismatic Houston: The future of the Hillsong empire after charges against founder Brian Houston. While Houston himself is closely associated with Morrison, Hillsong congregations may not be from the same demographic as Morrison’s branch of Pentecostalism: young and recent immigrants are prominent in Hillsong’s congregations.

The impression one gains from the interview is of a large and commercially successful business empire, positioned in the entertainment industry. Apart from the notion that members of Hillsong have a special personal relationship with God, counterbalancing the way its megaservices provide people with a sense of connection to a community, little that could be classified as theology comes into the picture. (10 minutes.)

Elle Hardy is author of a forthcoming (November) book that looks at Hillsong’s influence:  Beyond belief: how Pentecostal Christianity is taking over the world.

Polls and surveys

Morgan and Newspoll – Labor still creeping ahead

William Bowe’s Poll bludger reports on the latest polls from Morgan and Newspoll, both pointing to a 6 to7 point two-party lead for Labor. The Morgan poll has disaggregations by state, suggesting that Labor is pulling ahead across the country, but these sample sizes are necessarily small. Both Newspoll and Morgan have Labor and the Coalition level pegging on primary vote: Newspoll on 39 per cent, Morgan on 37 per cent, the difference accounted for by a higher Green vote in the Morgan poll. Either way, Labor is consolidating its lead: the primary votes in the 2019 election were 41 per cent Coalition, 33 per cent Labor.

Germany – the land of political liaisons

If you’re interested in electoral politics in democracies you might find it worthwhile to register with The Economist to read their report on opinion polls for next month’s federal  election in Germany: Who will succeed Angela Merkel?.

No points for guessing that the Centre Right CDU/CSU is well ahead, but not enough to have a majority in the Bundestag.  For second place the Social Democrats and the Greens are about level pegging at around 19 per cent – impressive for the Greens, dismal for the Social Democrats.  Other parties that look like getting over the 5 per cent threshold are the free-market Free Democratic Party, the hard-right Alternativ für Deutschland, and the communist party Die Linke.

The article goes on to speculate on possible coalitions to form a government.  Perhaps, with an Australian lens, we might expect the Christian Democrats to look to the right for a coalition partner, as our Liberal Party consistently does with the National Party, but that is not a likely outcome. It’s not the way a representative democracy works.


Australia Institute webinars

Tuesday 17 August, 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.)

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

Life is tough, but joy is free

See a group of 12 young people, somewhere in the slums of Uganda, enjoying themselves in the rain.

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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