Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Aug 21, 2021
Would have been easier a month ago

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


The pandemic’s progress

Australia – just what the business lobbies asked for

We are now experiencing the consequences when a government – in this case the New South Wales Government – yields to the petulant demands of business lobbies, to the editorial writers in right wing media and to politicians who try to burnish their credentials as champions for business.

This is what happens when public policy is framed in terms of some trade-off between “social” and “economic” objectives. Had the New South Wales Government prioritised society’s needs rather than trying to balance those needs against the supposed needs of the economy, the economy would be in far better shape.

Had they (or the Commonwealth) taken responsibility to protect the community there would not have been an unvaccinated driver transporting international flight crew. Once an outbreak did occur, had the government acted expeditiously, Sydney may have gone through a short one or two week lockdown. But as AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver points out, the extended lockdowns are now costing the economy $1 billion a week,  so far coming to $22 billion: that’s almost $1000 for every Australian. The NAB index of business confidence, which had been showing a strong recovery, plunged into a steep downturn in July as the virus spread throughout New South Wales.

Health or economy – a false choice, writes the ABC’s Ian Verrender.  The “economy” is not some entity with a life of its own, in competition with society. A healthy economy emerges from a healthy society.

This started as a New South Wales problem, but with Victoria now struggling to contain the virus, it has become a national problem, with 60 per cent of the population in lockdowns which could endure for months. To quote Norman Swan, “New South Wales is really messing this up for everyone else, including New Zealand”.

The graph below shows our three waves of infection since the virus started to spread: it has now exceeded the peak reached in the wave in August last year – the Victorian wave.

A glance at the graph confirms that, unlike last year’s outbreak, the curve is not bending over. Within New South Wales the virus has been on a remarkably consistent growth trajectory since mid-July, with a daily compounding growth rate of 5.7 per cent. (For the mathematically obsessed the equation for daily cases is 77.293 x e0.0558 x, where x is the number of days since July 15. The coefficient of correlation is 0.98.) By our projections New South Wales is on track to reach 1800 cases a day by the end of the month. This estimate, based on a simple mathematical projection, may be optimistic: some experts are talking about 2000 cases a day by the end of the month, and according to Norman Swan there has been a rise in the test positivity rate that could show up in coming days.

The New South Wales Premier keeps referring to “light at the end of the tunnel”, and promises some magic once the state achieves “6 million jabs” around the end of the month.  (With 5.6 million injections administered so far it’s not far off that point.) But the government has been doing little to break that exponential growth: if you go on doing the same thing, you cannot expect a different result.

On Friday afternoon the Premier announced some further restrictions on mobility and on in-store shopping. These may have more immediate effects than vaccination. For every vaccine administered, even first dose vaccination, there is a small effect on the virus’s rate of reproduction, but significant benefits from vaccination, while enduring, take time to bring down the virus’s spread.

In the meantime, experts are warning about “a catastrophic collapse of the state’s health system unless something changes”, but in her media conferences the Premier has been remarkably relaxed about the state’s approach, and keeps complaining about people “doing the wrong thing”, rather than acknowledging the spread through workplaces. Perhaps she and her colleagues in the state government are only now realising that today’s hospitalisation results from infections arising two weeks ago, when infections were only half of today’s number. That’s the nature of exponential growth, and judging from the number of times Norman Swan has had to explain exponential growth and compounding, it’s apparent that many people in government are challenged by basic high school mathematics.

Of particular concern is the virus’s spread to western New South Wales, particularly among Aboriginal people. Remember that plan, promising 474 000 doses for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, in Phases 1b and 2a? We were all silly enough to believe that the Commonwealth was actually going to do something about it: we now know that the “plan” was simply a Morrison announcement, with about as much connection to reality as the old Soviet Union five-year plans. The reality is that communities in western New South Wales are struggling to get their hands on vaccines, as Pfizer vaccines have been diverted to Sydney. On Thursday’s Coronacast Norman Swan warned of the consequences when the virus makes its way into non-metropolitan areas, particularly in regions with indigenous communities.

Vaccination rates

The graph below includes another week’s data on vaccination by age group, up to last Tuesday. The big boost has been in the 40 to 70 age group, presumably among people receiving their second AstraZeneca shots, but no such progress is evident in younger age groups, most of whom are still waiting for their first shots.

The ABC’s Casey Briggs has compiled some highly-informative geographical data on vaccination and infection for regions within Sydney, showing encouraging growth (albeit from low base rates) in vaccination rates in some of Sydney’s most disadvantaged areas. His work is based on the Commonwealth’s report on geographic vaccination rates, which reveals extremely low rates of vaccination in Australia’s most remote regions, where there are concentrations of indigenous people.

Encouraging vaccination

At this stage, with demand exceeding supply, policymakers may not have vaccine hesitancy forefront in their minds, but we should remember that vaccine resistance will become a problem as we strive to push immunisation up to high levels. The fact that Poland was able to send a million Pfizer doses our way is welcome for us, but from another perspective it’s worrying that a European country has been unable to get vaccination past a 50 per cent level. We should keep in mind that there are strong benefits in getting vaccination as close as we can to 100 per cent: it is not a situation of diminishing returns.

Because they cannot guarantee that vaccines give 100 per cent protection against Covid-19, and because there are some vaccinated people catching the virus, public health authorities have a tough job convincing doubters. The ABC VideoLab has produced an excellent YouTube explainer I’m vaccinated: now am I safe? presenting the numbers clearly and honestly. It should convince the most sceptical to get vaccinated.

Meg Elkins, of RMIT, writing on Open Forum, draws on behavioural economics to suggest design principles to “nudge” people to be vaccinated. We can expect more powerful incentives than nudges, most probably the denial of services to the non-vaccinated. The Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania has suggested that all visitors to Tasmania be required to be fully vaccinated, and there are rumours of the New South Wales Government relaxing restrictions for those with full vaccination in the near future.

Such proposals should be put on hold for a few months. If implemented now they would cause an understandable resentment among those younger people still waiting for supplies or for their second shot to come due, possibly worsening non-compliance. And while there is a great amount of Covid-19 in circulation anywhere in Australia there is a heightened risk of vaccinated people unknowingly spreading the virus.

Freedom fighters

Who are these people coming to anti-lockdown protests, who are warning about the supposed dangers of vaccination, and who are protesting against vaccination mandates or inducements as threats to our freedoms?

Some are libertarians – as distinct from liberals who accept the need for social contracts because we do not have an unfettered right to impose dangers on others. Some are chronic contrarians. Some may be romantic anarchists. And some are “political adventurers and entrepreneurs, seeking to build new constituencies in unknown territory”.

That’s a quote from Frank Bongiorno, writing in The Conversation: Right out there: how the pandemic has given rise to extreme views and fractured conservative politics. While accepting that some of these people would classify themselves as of the “left”, he sees the menace to public safety coming from right-wing elements in these movements. “Those on the right are more consequential because they have significant media sponsors, they exploit real fears and frustrations, and they can sound reasonable when they criticise government excess and authoritarianism”.

While Coalition politicians may reasonably complain about the influence of anti-vaxxers, they should realise that they have nurtured these movements. They have conditioned voters to the idea that governments are intrinsically incompetent and untrustworthy, confirmed by their own use of lies, sophistry and secrecy. They have shamelessly pursued preference deals with parties on the far right. And they have cultivated a media landscape ripe for exploitation by conspiracy theorists and purveyors of alternative facts.

The world

Data on case numbers has never been robust, and with the growth in asymptomatic cases it is becoming even more flaky, probably vastly undercounting the incidence of Covid-19 infection. (So far, because of a low incidence of Covid-19, and a high rate of testing, Australian data is comparatively reliable.) So we are now focussing mainly on deaths where the data is somewhat more reliable. If the rate of under-reporting is reasonably steady, even biased data can still reveal information on trends.

We have updated the world-wide graph. Note that the red and black lines of cases and deaths, which were closely related with A short lag, seem to have parted company. Because the case numbers are probably significantly understated, the impression one gains is that the virus is killing fewer people. That’s not to suggest it’s less deadly: the probable explanation lies in more vulnerable people being protected by vaccination.

Five countries, with only 15 per cent of the world’s population, accounted for half of the world’s deaths last week.

Some may be surprised to find the USA on that list. At 51 per cent of its total population its vaccination rate is only a little below Australia’s short-term target of 70 per cent of the adult population, which equates to 56 per cent of our total population. But last week the USA had 5151 deaths, which, scaling for population, would equate to about 400 deaths in Australia.

Because that begs the question whether there is any relationship between vaccination and death rates, we have looked at data for a sub-set of “developed” countries – high-income OECD countries (excluding low-income OECD countries), plus high-income non-OECD countries (not including oil-rich countries). We might expect to see a negative relationship between vaccination and deaths, but the real world, even in these “developed” countries, is much messier, as revealed in the scatter diagram below.

We have marked in green island countries with strong border controls – countries pursuing policies of local elimination.  (OK Korea isn’t an island, but the DMZ is a pretty solid barrier.)  What remains is a group dominated by mainland European countries with reasonably high rates of vaccination and daily death rates well below 1.0 per million, with three outliers – France, the UK and the USA. (There is some noise in the death rates near the axis – Austria, for example, had only 6 deaths last week.)

There is a great deal of commentary on America’s situation: we have provided many links to articles about the US in previous weeks. It’s a big country with a diversity of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, and it’s a warning to our Commonwealth and state governments not to become obsessed with one figure without considering regions (including regions within cities) or other communities with close interactions.

But what explains the UK and France? We can speculate. Any explanations from Pearls and Irritations readers are welcome (E-mail address at the bottom of the webpage).

Most of us will encounter Covid-19 at some stage

Ed Yong, writing in The Atlantic, describes how the pandemic and people’s responses will probably proceed in the USA: How the pandemic now ends. (Yong’s scenario is broadly similar to the most likely scenarios Norman Swan outlined in Wednesday’s Coronacast, except that Swan gives more emphasis on the need to vaccinate the world.)

The Delta variant has certainly changed the medium-term outlook. Because the original variants had a low reproduction rate, there seemed to be a fairly leisurely path to herd immunity through vaccination, but all has changed. Herd immunity is impossible with the vaccines we have now, Yong points out.

The pandemic ends when almost everyone has immunity, preferably because they were vaccinated or alternatively because they were infected and survived. When that happens, the cycle of surges will stop and the pandemic will peter out. The new coronavirus will become endemic—a recurring part of our lives like its four cousins that cause common colds. It will be less of a problem, not because it has changed but because it is no longer novel and people are no longer immunologically vulnerable.

He warns of difficulties along the way, particularly the illusion of relying on predetermined vaccination targets – X per cent of the adult population for example. The virus can still do terrible damage among unvaccinated groups in highly-vaccinated populations.

The US has a particular problem with vaccine hesitancy: in spite of ample supplies of high-quality vaccines, vaccination rates are levelling off with 51 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and only an additional 8 per cent partially vaccinated (an indication of intention).  So far in Australia there is no sign of our vaccination rates plateauing, but a reading of Yong’s expectations for the US suggests that we should be paying more attention to overcoming vaccination resistance and hesitancy, which could impede us in getting to the point of being able to live with the virus.

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.


It’s all so clear now in a way it wasn’t a week ago.

With the benefit of just a few days of hindsight, there is plenty of analysis about the now-so-clear failures of the Afghan army, the way most parties under-estimated the strength of the Taliban and turned a blind eye to the corruption of the Afghan Government, and America’s inability to understand what was going on beyond the confinements of Kabul. An example is Michael McKinley’s Foreign Affairs article We all lost Afghanistan.

Then there more specific articles on why the Afghan military capitulated so quickly: Bryan Bener and Paul McLeary in PoliticoThe $88 billion gamble on the Afghan army that’s going up in smoke; Patrick Wintour in The Guardian –  A tale of two armies: why Afghan forces proved no match for the Taliban.

Stan Grant, writing on the ABC website, describes how the Taliban patiently and methodically managed the conflict, drawing on Mao’s rulebook for asymmetric warfare: The Taliban’s Mao-inspired return to power in Afghanistan shows the US is failing to heed the lessons of history. They may not look too flash on a parade ground, but the Taliban are a highly disciplined, determined and battle-hardened force.

On this site we normally stick to articles written in the last few weeks, but such is the extent of the shock we thought it may be useful to dig up some earlier writings by those who were never convinced by the official spin – spin such as we find from the White House on July 8, during a press conference on the drawdown of US forces:

Journalist:  Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?

Biden:  No, it is not.

Journalist:  Why?

Biden:  Because you –  the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped – as well-equipped as any army in the world – and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.

Biden cautiously did not say the Afghan army would prevail, but his reference to troop numbers clearly conveyed that impression. Biden’s defenders stress that he inherited a mess from the previous administration, including Trump’s capitulation to the Taliban in “peace” talks.

Some warnings we came across include:

One article written in June, when everything seemed to be so secure, is by Dan De Luce in NBC News –  Without U.S. contractors, the Afghan military will lose its main advantage over the Taliban — air power.

General Frank McKenzie, warning that Afghanistan’s military will certainly collapse once all US soldiers are withdrawn, reported in the Military Times in April.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, in an article published in Democracy Now in April, summarising a report he presented ten years earlier, warning that the war was unwinnable: Active-duty army whistleblower Lt. Col. Daniel Davis: U.S. deceiving public on Afghan war.  This isn’t the opinion of a disgruntled soldier: Davis based his report on interviews with 250 US and Afghan soldiers. “Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.”  His 2012 article Truth, lies and Afghanistan is available in the Armed Forces Journal.

Christina Lamb, who has a review in Foreign Affairs of historian Carter Malkasian’s book The American War in Afghanistan. Her review – Chronicle of a defeat foretold. Malakasian stresses the way the Americans didn’t understand the Afghan culture, and the way the conflict cannot be understood without considering the part played by Pakistan.

Fred Halliday, writing in the Irish Times in 1996 – A cold war in tragedy in Afghanistan that the world forgot – describes the discipline of the Taliban, and the (now conveniently forgotten) role of Pakistan in nurturing them.

These are mainly American perspectives. Writing in The Conversation William Maley of the ANU describes How Joe Biden failed the people of Afghanistan — and tarnished US credibility around the world.  He goes over the same broad analysis as the above writers, but he adds the domestic politics of the withdrawal: it won’t cost Biden many votes among war-weary Americans. Globally, however, it is a disaster for the US:

It is hard to see how Biden can emerge from this disaster without his credibility shredded, but the greater loss is to the credibility of the United States, which increasingly appears a fading power internationally (as well as a failing state at home).

For no great gain, it sold out the most pro-western government and public in the region to a brutal terrorist group, all this after having long promised the Afghans that they would never be abandoned.

(Even if you don’t read the article, take a look at the picture of the bright-faced adolescents posed in the back of a pickup truck – adolescents who in another world might be on their way to a B&S ball in country New South Wales, or on their way to a surf beach. But the group is all male, and they are all carrying deadly infantry weapons. Victors or victims?)

On Late Night Live, in his regular session on American politics, Phillip Adams and Bruce Shapiro remind us about how America got involved in Afghanistan in the first place, through arming the Mujahedeen to drive out the Soviets. Their grandchildren, the Taliban, have now succeeded in driving out the Americans. Shapiro refers to “20 years of collective delusion”, and America’s inability to learn from its own history. Afghanistan unravels.  (15 minutes.)  On the same program, on the following evening, UK journalist Ian Dunt, commenting on the way the UK Government has abandoned its supporters in Afghanistan, suggests that in the eyes of the world the “West” as a whole has dealt its credibility and moral authority a blow in the way it has handled the end days of the Afghan war. (12 minutes.)

The US Government has obviously been taken by surprise. The official line will probably be about an “intelligence failure”, but that is too simple. Even while most people on the ground – Afghans in the countryside, mid- and low-ranking American soldiers on deployment, journalists who took the risk of travelling outside Kabul – understood that America was not in control and that the Afghan government had no legitimacy, the political establishment in Washington seems to have been taken in by its own spin. Although the context is different, we cannot help thinking of the way the Morrison and Berejiklian governments have been dealing with Covid-19.

Our treatment of people fleeing Afghanistan

Those who were around in 1975 will remember America’s undignified retreat from Vietnam, particularly people’s desperate clamour to get on to evacuating aircraft. John Blaxand of ANU, writing in The Conversation, suggests that In Kabul’s “Saigon moment”, Australia faces the shame of repeating its mistakes exiting the Vietnam war.  He reminds us that “in Saigon in 1975, Australia basically turned its back on locally employed staff and refused to repatriate them” and asks if we are doing better this time.  “The scenes unfolding at Kabul airport suggest that perhaps what was done to help those who helped us was a case of too little, too late.”

The Saigon analogy cannot be pushed too far. The regime that unified Vietnam in 1975 was hardly a model of liberal democracy, but it is committed to the prosperity of its citizens, it has established peace and a secular order, and it has not engaged in a jihad against women.  The other difference lies in the Fraser Government’s generous approach to refugees, including the 2500 people who came to our shores by boat. That was before the Liberal Party threw its moral compass overboard.

The Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International have called on the Australian Government to give more security to those Afghanis in Australia on temporary protection visas, to make more refugee places available to Afghanis, and to help them get their relatives out of the country. Morrison’s response:

I also confirm that those who are IMA’s [“illegal” maritime arrivals], those who have not come to Australia the right way and are on temporary visas in Australia, they will not be offered permanent residence in Australia. That will not change. I want to be very clear about that. I want to send a very clear message to people smugglers in the region that nothing’s changed. I will not give you a product to sell and take advantage of people’s misery. My Government won’t do it. We never have and we never will.

Morrison put in an impressive performance, but for crass insensitivity he was upstaged by Peter Dutton, who suggested that those who had supported our armed forces in Afghanistan could pose a security threat to Australia.

The Centre for Policy Development, which has been working on migration issues for some years through its Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration, has put forward a case for Australia to take 20 000 Afghan refugees, as part of a program to reduce people smuggling and human trafficking through orderly processes involving countries in our region. It also points out the economic benefits to Australia in such an intake.

The Australian economy

Carbon-friendly farming

Early adaptors in the bush (1983)

On last week’s Saturday ExtraGeraldine Doogue spoke to three people involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farming, as a segment in the series Tackling transitions: stories from the frontlines of the transition to net zero. Some are involved in carbon farming, for example sequestering carbon through tree planting, and rejuvenating land damaged by past soil erosion. Such measures are useful in the medium term but land is rejuvenated and forests are planted only once. Ongoing contributions to make farming carbon neutral or even carbon positive include better use of fertilizers, use of feed supplements for cattle to reduce methane emissions (a significant contributor to our greenhouse gases), more carefully managed grazing practices, and less use of fossil fuels in farming – including going off grid for electricity.

BHP offloads its dud assets

The financial press has given plenty of cover to BHP’s decision to offload its oil and gas assets to Woodside. It has already gotten out of thermal coal, but for now will remain a producer of metallurgical coal. Writing in The Conversation John Quiggin explains what drove BHP to this decision: BHP’s offloading of oil and gas assets shows the global market has turned on fossil fuels.  It will be interesting to see how many BHP shareholders hang on to the Woodside shares they will be issued as a result of this arrangement. Some, no doubt, will consider Woodside’s role in gaining access to East Timor’s oil and gas reserves, which is still a live issue in the trial of Bernard Collaery.

On the ABC’s program The Economists Peter Martin and Gigi Foster discuss BHP’s re-structuring with Geoff Summerhayes in the broader context of firms’ awareness of climate change. Summerhayes describes the ways regulators, insurers, financiers, and corporations are incorporating climate risk into their decision-making, and how there have developed, markets in which carbon is priced, in spite of the Commonwealth’s opposition to pricing carbon.  (The program is in two parts: Summerhayes’ part runs for 15 minutes, starting at 15:30.)

It’s clear that people in the finance sector and in corporate boardrooms have a much better grasp on the need to deal with climate change than the people in and influencing the Morrison Government.

Wages stagnating, people not bothering to look for work

On Wednesday the ABS released the Wage Price Index for June 2021, confirming that the rate of nominal wage growth continues to fall. In real (CPI-adjusted) terms, wages have barely risen (by only 0.07 per cent) since June 2019.

The following day it released its monthly Labour Force data revealing a fall in the unemployment rate, explicable by a fall in the participation rate, particularly in New South Wales, and masking a rise in underemployment.

House prices – how long before the law catches up?

According to standard economic theory, in a comparatively unregulated situation prices are set by the invisible hand of the market.  In housing, on the demand side there has been a fall in immigration and on the supply side there has been a great deal of building activity to catch up with a backlog of supply. Demand is down, supply is up, so house prices must surely be falling.  Q.E.D.

But it isn’t like that, as Alan Kohler explains in a two-minute video. House prices are set by the level of repayments people can afford, and with interest rates set at low levels for the next couple of years at least, people are piling into the market to trade up or to buy “investment” properties.

We might ask how long before the laws of supply and demand kick in once again. “Investment” properties don’t give much return in terms of rental: the reason people are buying them must be an expectation of continuing capital gain. As Herb Stein said “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.

The far right

The hate pandemic

Covid-19 has provided yet another opportunity for racists and others to level false accusations against identifiable minorities, purportedly responsible for spreading the virus. In a Project Syndicate article – Curbing the hate pandemic – former Canadian Attorney-General Irwin Coulter and his colleagues Ahmed Shaheed and Brandon Silver point out that this wave is simply the latest manifestation of hatred directed against minorities – hatred that is often the driver behind physical violence. But in spite of its consequences the perpetrators generally carry on with impunity. The authors call for targeted sanctions against individuals inciting hatred and discrimination.

One target of hatred from the far-right has been Greta Thunberg. Writing in The Atlantic Yasmeen Serhan describes the torrent of abuse that has been directed at her, in part because she has become a symbol for issues even beyond climate change. “Inherent in the attacks against Thunberg is a desire not only to undermine her credibility and her activism, but also to use her as a proxy for other left-wing movements.” Because her activism is rooted in science rather than politics, and because of her personal authenticity, her detractors find it difficult to discredit her.  When the far right picks fights with a teen.


Our focus on the Taliban may have distracted us from another far-right movement that has taken over a country – the military in Myanmar. Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, reminds us that Six months after the coup, the world has failed the people of Myanmar. There has been a plethora of condemnation from governments but little action. He calls for more concrete and coordinated action involving a ban on arms sales, blocks on funding the junta, and action by firms that are buying gas from junta-controlled enterprises.

Alistair Cook and Mely Caballero, both of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, writing in East Asian Forum –  Moving beyond the politics of recognition in Myanmar – describe the problems in implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar, problems worsened by disagreement in the diplomatic world about recognition of the military government. “While the world of diplomacy is defined largely by the nuanced positions states take for national interest, actors must balance this ambiguity with the need to invest in a more substantive and consistent agenda to find a political resolution and support the people in Myanmar.”

Manny Maung of Human Rights Watch draws to our attention the Covid-19 surge in Myanmar’s prisons, where inmates are dying of the virus.  Only a small number of prisoners have been protected through vaccination.

The rest of the world

Prospects for world cooperation on Covid-19 and climate change

The Lowy Institute has a 40-minute conversation with Jeffrey Sachs On global cooperation and sustainable development in the time of Covid-19.

The first part is about the capacity of the US to exercise global leadership. It’s improved since Trump left office, but the US remains a fragile and deeply-divided democracy, and the Biden preference for cooperation among democracies is not adequate to address global issues. Global cooperation has to take place through several different mechanisms, including regional forums. He sees the G20 as a more useful forum than the G7 because it is more inclusive.

The second and main part is about how cooperation on vaccine production and distribution has failed. The virus is a global problem, requiring a global solution, particularly because  variants can emerge anywhere in the world. It’s a global problem that should be solved by a global public good, and indeed governments through universities and institutions such as the National Institutes of Health in the US have funded the intellectual property of mRNA vaccines, but the IP has been given to private monopolies and oligopolies, who are behaving in just the way economics textbooks predict.

The third part is about cooperation on climate change and other environmental problems. For Australia he has a simple message: stop coal.

Sachs’s voice is that of a traditional American liberal who has a great deal of affection for Australia. There is, however, one ageing Australian (now an American citizen) he mentions several times who is doing great damage to thwart progress on vaccination and climate change.

Julian Assange in Catch-22

The International Federation of Journalists has a short article about the extradition threat faced by Julian Assange. The UK High Court has ruled that the US can expand the basis of its appeal against extradition. If the author, Tim Dawson, has summarised the case accurately, the US seems to be arguing a Catch-22 case against Assange: because he is still alive he could not be at any risk of suicide.

Forget about the left-right divide: it’s age

We live in a society where a wealthy retired couple can enjoy a tax-free $200 000 income, subsidised private health insurance, and freedom from any concern about house prices – a lifestyle financed by the hard work of the taxpaying young. In the pandemic the same spoilt cohort of baby boomers has had the first opportunity to be vaccinated, while the young, who tend to be out and about in jobs with more social contact, are still waiting for vaccination. It’s much the same in the USA, writes Robert Reich: How the system is failing young people.

Journalism in a pandemic

On last week’s Saturday Extra, Geraldine Doogue interviewed Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, who is soon to join Britain’s Prospect magazine. The interview ranged widely around the topic Why the pandemic is good for journalism.  Rusbridger believes that in response to the pandemic the public have sought reliable and non-partisan information, to the benefit of public service broadcasters such as Britain’s BBC and our ABC. (18 minutes.)

Polls and surveys

Essential poll – we’re losing confidence in governments

This fortnight’s Essential poll surveys people on their opinions on Commonwealth and state governments’ responses to Covid-19, on vaccines, on the personal impact of Covid-19, and on the IPCC Report on climate change.

People’s assessment of the Commonwealth’s response to Covid-19 since the beginning of this year is shown in the chart below. On this question the poll has some disaggregation by state: people in New South Wales and Victoria are particularly annoyed with the Commonwealth.

People’s assessment of their state government’s performance has generally held up, except in New South Wales.

On vaccines there is a promising fall in the proportion of people who say they would “never” get vaccinated – now only 8 per cent.  A slightly higher proportion – 10 per cent – say they would never get their children vaccinated.

There is strong support – 75 per cent – for mandatory vaccination in occupations with a high Covid-19 transmission risk.  In response to the statement “The government should indemnify employers who provide Covid-19 vaccinations to their employees through workplace vaccination programs” there is 68 per cent agreement.

On expectations of adverse climate-related events – bushfires, floods, droughts and so on – people’s awareness is high.  Supporters of the Greens are much more aware of these risks than Labor supporters, who in turn are more aware than supporters of the Coalition and other parties.  Are these differences surprising? They should be, because the questions are about understanding scientific phenomena rather than about political ideology. It is understandable that people supporting the Coalition may be more inclined than those supporting the Greens to believe that the government is doing enough to address climate change: that’s a question of opinion. But the differences revealed in the Essential survey are abut questions of verified scientific facts. These partisan differences suggest that contempt for science is becoming a partisan identifier.

Other questions in this fortnight’s poll are mainly about people’s concerns about Covid-19 – worth a glance but the questions asked are open to many ways of interpretation.


Sydney Business Insights (University of Sydney)

Tuesday 24 August, 10:00 AEST, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler will be in a live conversation to launch Nudge: the final edition. You can register on the site.

Thaler’s work is particularly relevant for those concerned with the way policymakers in a democracy may encourage behavioural change for the collective good, without infringing on people’s desire for agency and autonomy.  It’s a timely contribution when governments are grappling with vaccine hesitancy.

Australia Institute webinars

Wednesday 25 August, 15:00 AEST: “Trading away Australia’s climate ambition” with former European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström and journalist Michael Brissenden.

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

iPad possibilities

Americans have led the world in digital technology and Germans have led the world in mechanical technology. See how a German has brought together the best of digital and mechanical technology in creative iPad apps.

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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