Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend

Sep 11, 2021
Once there were liberals in Canberra

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


The pandemic’s progress

Infection rates

It is possible that infections in New South Wales are no longer growing exponentially. On Wednesday’s Coronacast Norman Swan quoted Adrian Esterman, who keeps a close eye on the virus and who was tweeting that, “it maybe looked like New South Wales might be turning the corner, maybe”.

The graph below, plotted on a log scale (meaning that exponential growth appears as a straight line), records infections in New South Wales and Victoria from the dates when the present outbreaks started. From mid-July until early August the infections in New South Wales showed hardly any deviation from pure exponential growth (dashed line), but they seem to have broken from that in the last few days. Swan cautiously suggests that increasing levels of vaccination may be starting to take effect.

It is too early to discern any trend in Victoria. When the latest outbreak occurred in New South Wales only around 25 per cent of the state’s adult population had received even a first dose of vaccine. By the time the Victorian outbreak occurred 44 per cent of the state’s adults had received a first dose. For that reason, provided its test-trace-isolate-quarantine (TTIQ) system does not get overwhelmed, it should have an easier run than New South Wales, even though the present rate of growth in infections is high.

The ACT is the other jurisdiction to experience an outbreak. Its first case was on August 10, by which stage 51 per cent of its adult population had received a first dose. Its cases are now hovering around 15 – 20 daily, and are almost entirely among younger people. Maybe the ACT can hold the case rate at around that level. Because the ACT is projected to be the first state or territory to reach the 70 per cent and 80 per cent (of adult population) targets it could provide early confirmation, or otherwise, of the results of the Doherty modelling.

Vaccination: it is a race, with different handicaps

As supplies of mRNA vaccines come on stream, the pace of vaccination is picking up, but there are big state differences. (As far as we know, Sportsbet isn’t yet offering a chance get into the game, but if, in lockdown, you’re sick of poker by Zoom you can organise your own betting ring, with daily confirmation of progress from the Department of Health.)

The media has given plenty of cover to the Commonwealth’s sneaky way of over-allocating Pfizer vaccines to New South Wales, while hectoring Labor states for not getting on with the job of vaccinating their populations and opening their borders. There may be a justification for a temporary over-allocation to New South Wales, but the real issue lies in the secrecy with which the Morrison government conducts all its programs to do with the epidemic. As Laura Tingle said before the misallocation revelation, “Transparency has never really been the prime minister’s thing. Or quite delivering on what you promise.”

The question now is whether Morrison will continue to favour New South Wales or whether he will direct attention to Victoria, in view of its strong growth in infections. GPs in Melbourne’s outer suburbs are still waiting for their first Pfizer doses.

Such partisan interventions aside, vaccination is continuing apace, and an illustration of the national dynamics of vaccination is provided in two graphs below.

The first graph shows the percentage of people, by age group, who have had at least one dose of vaccination. On the assumption that everyone with one dose will go on to get a second dose, there has been strong progress, particularly among people aged 16 to 39. Among those aged 70 to 94, first-dose vaccination levels are approaching 90 per cent, suggesting that the Commonwealth’s “80 per cent”, actually equating to only 64 per centof the whole population, not ambitious enough. Everyone aged 40 and over – about half the population – is already on track to exceed that level.

Note that both graphs, based on Health Department data, relate only to people aged 16 or older.  Now that vaccination is approved for people in the 12 to 15 age bracket, they do not even relate to the population eligible for vaccination, let alone the whole population.

The second graph is of full (two-dose) vaccination. There’s still a long way to go, even among older Australians.

Some younger people may be waiting for mRNA vaccines, because of fear of blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Department of Health has clear information pointing out the low level of risk of blood clots (and some more detailed information), and the Heart Research Institute points out that there is a high risk of blood clots associated with COVID-19.

Hesitancy by young people in accepting AstraZeneca may not be so much about AstraZeneca’s undeserved bad name as to do with the 12-week time lag to achieve maximum protection.

The interval between doses can be shortened, however, and ATAGI recommends that “an interval of between four and eight weeks between the first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca is preferred in an outbreak situation. In non-outbreak settings, the preferred interval between doses of COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca remains at 12 weeks.” The same document quantifies the benefit of a 12-week interval between doses compared with a four-week interval, suggesting that when the interval is shortened there is around a one-third loss in protective efficacy. It therefore makes some sense for younger people in states without an outbreak to hold off until they can get a vaccine with a shorter interval between doses. That may help explain why Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia all have comparatively low rates of vaccination.

To date the main impediment to vaccination has been the slow supply of mRNA vaccines: by now the media have given plenty of coverage to the Morrison government’s negligence in declining Pfizer’s offer back in June last year. Now that mRNA vaccines are coming into the country in quantity, we need to pay more attention to the way vaccines are distributed and administered, particularly to vulnerable people, hard-to-reach groups, and to hard-to-convince groups. Some of these people were identified in the original COVID-19 vaccine national roll-out strategy, and had the reasonable expectation that their needs would be expedited. For example, there are reports of pregnant women facing long delays in getting appointments for vaccination. It would be a tragedy if we have to discard unused mRNA vaccines, or delay opening up the economy, because of poorly-designed distribution arrangements.

Those “70 per cent” and “80 per cent” targets

Let’s be clear about those figures: they refer only to the population aged 16 or over. That “70 per cent” is actually only 56 per cent of the whole population, leaving 44 per cent of the population unvaccinated, ready targets for the virus. Similarly the “80 per cent” target leaves more than a third of the population unvaccinated. (We explained the arithmetic last week.)

Yet there is pressure from the usual business lobbies for states to “open up” once these pathetically low targets are achieved. The Morrison government refers to the “80 per cent” as if it is an end point in the nation’s vaccination campaign. There should be a serious effort to bring the nation to a vaccination level where we can safely live with COVID-19, as we do with other endemic diseases. But the Commonwealth seems to be handling the task as an advertising campaign crafted by “Scotty from marketing”, treating vaccination percentages in the same way that shonky retailers promote prices as “X per cent” off, where X is as arbitrary and deceptive as those “70 per cent” and “80 per cent%” targets.

In fact we can do far better.  In the ACT 95 per cent of the population aged 65 or over has had at least one dose of vaccine, on the way to full vaccination. Doing one better, on Lord Howe Island 95 per cent of the population aged 12 or more is fully vaccinated. We don’t have to be bound by the Liberal Party’s satisfaction with mediocrity.

The New South Wales “Roadmap to freedom”

On Thursday the New South Wales government launched its ridiculously named Roadmap to freedom, promising a range of concessions to the fully vaccinated once the state achieves 70 per cent double vaccination (for people over 16). Once again, we stress that this is only 56 per cent of the population, leaving 44 per cent unvaccinated. Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws warns that when that 70 per cent target is reached, the people most mobile and able to spread the virus – those aged 16 to 39 – will still be largely unvaccinated. That’s a consequence of the vaccination’s sequencing that has prioritised the older half of the population.

It is notable that on Thursday, in the state government’s daily briefing on the virus, the concessions were announced by Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, rather than by Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, health reporter Mary Ward quotes Stephen Duckett who called the roadmap an “extremely risky strategy which guarantees an increase in the number of cases and the number of hospitalisations”. He said, “This plan was developed by business for business. They said right up front ‘the deputy premier has worked with industry to develop this road map’”: One person’s freedom is another person’s going to hospital.

The health sector’s burden

Some pressure to “open up” at low levels of vaccination comes from business people seeking to replenish their working capital before there is another inevitable lockdown.  Some comes from people, particularly in small business, who still don’t understand the consequences of letting the virus loose on an unvaccinated population. In addition, state and territory governments use targets as incentives, promising freedoms once vaccination targets are met, and concessions for the vaccinated.

There is also the idea, being pushed by the conservative side of politics, that we can open up the economy at low levels of vaccination and count on the health sector to deal with the load on hospitals, as is now happening in New South Wales.

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue had a discussion with two people – Mark Duncan-Smith from the Western Australian branch of the AMA and Tony Scott of the Melbourne Institute – about our hospitals’ capacity to cope with a high level of COVID-19 hospitalisations. The 17-minute session is titled Hospitals prepare for a Covid surge, but if we slacken in our vaccination efforts it may be more of an ongoing burden than a surge. Duncan-Smith focuses on Western Australia, where hospitals are already at full occupancy, but the same goes for some other states trying to deal with many years of stinginess in Commonwealth grants to the states for hospitals.

Maybe our hospitals can cope with a higher load by mustering resources, such as bringing retired nurses back to the workforce, and by contracting to private hospitals (which generally aren’t set up for highly infectious diseases). But a consequence of a high COVID-19 load on our hospitals would be that those seeking treatment for non-Covid conditions, particularly elective procedures, would be pushed aside.

Writing on The Conversation, Karen Willis of Victoria University and Natasha Smallwood of Monash explain that “Living with Covid” looks very different for front-line health workers, who are already exhausted. What people can do in an emergency is not sustainable over an extended period.

The work of a health officer

We probably know Allen Cheng by sight, because until recently he was Victoria’s deputy chief health officer, frequently appearing on TV and video sessions explaining the path of the COVID-19 outbreak.

He is now Professor of Infectious Diseases at Monash University, and has written a Conversation piece: My year as Victoria’s deputy chief health officer: on the pandemic, press conferences and our Covid future.

It’s mainly about how public officials can relate to the media. The best use of press conferences lies in “making sense of the current situation, and telling the stories and trends behind the numbers” while “apportion blame and crucify” stories, and accounts of conflicting opinions, tend to add to confusion and fuel mistrust.

Cheng is reasonably optimistic about our ability to live with COVID-19, but it will take time for the situation to settle down.

Australia’s COVID-19 shackles and tickets-of-leave

The Atlantic has an article under the provocative headline Australia traded too much liberty by staff journalist Conor Friedersdorf. “Up to now one of Earth’s freest societies, Australia has become a hermit continent. How long can a country maintain emergency restrictions on its citizens’ lives while still calling itself a liberal democracy?”

His account of lockdowns and other restrictions is generally accurate, and he does explain the government’s inadequate investment in vaccines, but he doesn’t give the full context of our failure, particularly the neglectful incompetence of the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments.

The Centre for Public Integrity has an equally provocative headline on a press release Parliamentary democracy at risk from Covid borders. But this isn’t some libertarian support of Clive Palmer’s challenge on borders. Rather, it’s about the limits of online participation by members of parliament, who have no ability “to table bills or amendments, make speeches or vote on bills”. It’s also about disadvantages faced by independents and minor parties in pairing arrangements. There is no constitutional reason why online participation cannot be made easier and more inclusive, however.

John Quiggin, writing in The Conversation, asks Do vaccination passports take away freedoms?. While Morrison has vacillated on the issue, opinion polls suggest that Australians are generally in favour of vaccine passports, but not overwhelmingly so. The public’s acceptance or otherwise depends in part on framing. If their purpose is expressed as a restriction on the unvaccinated they will meet with less acceptance than if their purpose is expressed as allowing freedoms to the vaccinated.

The first eight minutes of Wednesday night’s 7.30 is a segment on the legal and ethical issues around vaccination passports. (If you stay on you can hear a discussion on the government’s bungle of the Pfizer opportunity, and its refusal to release associated scientific advice.)  Many businesspeople are nervous about their legal vulnerability if they refuse service to unvaccinated customers. Some are determined to serve all comers, regardless of risk. Some are worried that unless they prohibit non-vaccinated customers, vaccinated customers will be fearful of patronising their businesses. And some others in small business just don’t seem to understand the issue. Alarmingly some businesspeople trying to keep their establishments safe from COVID-19 have been harassed and threatened by anti-vaxxers.

The world

Apart from a few places where COVID-19 is yet to become endemic, such as Taiwan, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia, data on disease incidence is patchy because different countries have different approaches to testing and because COVID-19 may not manifest in any symptoms. The global public health organisation Vital Strategies gives us solid reasons not to put much reliance on death counts either, because worldwide 40 per cent of deaths from any cause are unregistered, and more than 100 countries lack fully-functioning civil registration and vital statistics. Included in these one hundred are some large countries where the pandemic is known to be spreading – Ethiopia, Indonesia and Brazil. So we are giving up on those regular graphs on cases and deaths.

But, as we have done before, we can have an occasional look at what is happening in “developed” countries, where records of deaths and vaccination are likely to be reasonably accurate. Below is a scatter diagram – similar to the one we presented on August 21 but updated – showing countries’ vaccination levels and the death rate over the past seven days.

In a world where all countries had the same mechanisms for test-trace-isolate-quarantine, the same border controls, homogenous populations without pockets of vaccine resistance, and the same trigger points for public health and safety measures, we would expect to see some negative relationship between vaccine levels and deaths, but among these countries, similar in many ways, the relationship is weak.

As before, the USA stands out from all other high income “developed” countries, and while death rates for most of these countries is tending to stabilise, clustering around 0.5 deaths per day per million population, deaths are still rising in the USA, France and the UK, and are remaining at a high level in Israel.

To put these international figures into perspective, although the diagram shows our death rate at around 0.25 daily deaths per million, all of our 48 deaths last week were in New South Wales, suggesting a daily rate of around 1.0 per million in that state. It is hard to imagine our health care system coping with such a high rate in the long term.

When looking at other countries’ experiences to imagine where we may come to as our vaccination levels rise, we should realise that in most European countries and the USA there has been a great deal of exposure to COVID-19 in earlier waves, which means that even among the unvaccinated proportions of their populations there is a degree of protection from prior exposure.


There is a great amount of interest in Israel, because it got an early start on vaccination. Some people attribute its comparatively high death rate to the waning effectiveness of vaccination, and they cite figures revealing that a significant proportion of people contracting COVID-19 have been fully immunised. Writing on the ABC website health reporter Olivia Willis explains what’s happening in Israel. The high level of deaths is almost certainly due to the country having lifted restrictions far too early, when vaccination levels were (and still are) only about 62 per cent.  (Note that this refers to the whole population, and is just below the misleading “80 per cent” or real 64 per cent, touted as the threshold for our opening up.)

She also explains the phenomenon of a high proportion of vaccinated people being infected: that’s because there’s a reasonably high proportion of vaccinated people in the population. If the whole population were vaccinated, and if COVID-19 were still endemic, then every person infected would have been vaccinated. She also reports on disaggregated studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing severe illness. She quotes Doherty Institute’s Sharon Lewin’s interpretation of Israel’s figures: “In Israel, when you look at the age-adjusted numbers for vaccination, the chance of you being hospitalised if you’re over 60 is reduced 40-fold if you’re vaccinated compared to if you’re unvaccinated.”

COVID-19 isn’t the only killer

The Global Fund is an international financing and partnership organisation directed to combatting AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other epidemics. Its recently-released Results Report reveals that “the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on the fight against HIV, TB and malaria in 2020”. Health authorities, already struggling to deal with patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis and with AIDS, are losing ground on all fronts as they try to cope with the extra burden of a wave of people with COVID-19.  In addition they are having to deal with more complex co-morbidities.

Data sources

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

Australian economics

The unseen workers

The Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility has analysed the way 37 of the ASX 100 companies report on their workforces, and has found a lack of information to guide investors and other stakeholders on the working conditions of people employed through labour-hire companies or on contracts – Falling through the cracks? Labour hire, contracting and outsourcing risks across the ASX100.

They warn that companies relying on indirect employment through such arrangements expose themselves to a number of risks, including:

  • poorer occupational health and safety outcomes;
  • Increased possibility of involvement in modern slavery, labour exploitation and wage theft;
  • lower levels of worker engagement and loyalty;
  • loss of human and intellectual capital;
  • reduced workforce development, due to less access to training and skills acquisition.

A boring statement from the Reserve Bank

The Reserve Bank’s statement on monetary policy doesn’t seem to say much. It’s mainly an  unsurprising explanation of its decision to keep interest rates just where they are. Included in the statement is an assurance “that it will extend the bond purchases at $4 billion a week until at least February 2022”.  At first sight that seems to be uncontentious: because the virus situation in New South Wales and Victoria has delayed any economic recovery the Bank should be expected to maintain its stimulatory programs.

But the ABC’s Ian Verrender picked up the fact that this $4 billion is actually down from $5 billion in previous months: the nank is actually reducing stimulus. On the same two-minute video he also explains that banks are now offering new customers variable-rate loans at low interest rates, while increasing interest rates on fixed-rate loans.

In a period when nominal interest rates are very low, variable-rate loans are a trap for naïve borrowers. The Reserve Bank’s signals are subtler than a political dog whistle – no one wants to spook the market – but the day of financial reckoning is getting closer for individuals and businesses carrying a lot of debt.

Climate change and the farm sector

Climate change means Australia may have to abandon much of its farming is the title of a Conversation article by Andrew Wait of the University of Sydney and Kieron Meagher of ANU. “The findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest Australia may have to jettison tracts of the bush unless there is a massive investment in climate-change adaptation and planning” they write.

They point to research by the CSIRO, showing the already significant adverse consequences of climate change on farm profits in most grazing land in mainland Australia. The consequences of climate change are to be felt not only by farmers, but also by all who live in inland communities.

Gender and public policy

The Women’s Safety Summit: was it all just words?

Taxpayers would be horrified if they knew the cost, in person-hours, in preparing a speech for a minister or prime minister. Scores of public servants and ministerial staff are involved, ensuring that every base is covered, that nothing is said that could come back to bite the government, and that the governing party’s spin is included, no matter how logically absurd it might be. Nothing resembling a coherent narrative emerges from the process.

So it is with Scott Morrison’s speech to the Women’s Safety Summit. As a sea of waffle, a few token bits of money, and a few existing programs re-presented, it contrasts strongly with a short statement by five state and territory ministers for women calling for practical action including housing for women escaping violence, paid family violence leave, attention to the special needs of indigenous women, and funding for frontline services.

Someone managed to sneak into Morrison’s text a reference to the cultural and economic conditions that lead to gendered violence: “There is still an attitude, a culture that excuses, justifies, ignores or condones gender inequality that drives, ultimately, violence against women”. Otherwise the speech is about preventing violence against women within existing social and economic structures, and there is no further mention of inequality.

Someone else put in the statement that Morrison has “received hundreds of letters and emails from women sharing with me their stories about the violence, including sexual assaults that they have personally suffered, or sharing the stories of family and friends.” Really? Anyone who has had the slightest exposure to Canberra’s bureaucratic machinery knows how correspondence from constituents is handled. Only a tiny fraction makes it to a prime minister’s desk.

Grace Tame, in an interview on the ABC’s RN Breakfast program – the Morrison government still doesn’t get it when it comes to women’s issues – took particular issue at this piece of faux sincerity. She also drew attention to the Commonwealth’s half-hearted response to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry. Most importantly Jenkins had recommended that the Fair Work Act include a positive requirement for employers to recognise and act to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, but this, and some other recommendations, were rejected.

There are changes to be made to workplace cultures, there should be more support for women (and men) who endure the indignity of sexual assault, but we should not overlook the continued presence of institutions where misogyny is nurtured, particularly single sex schools and men’s clubs.

The case for gender-equal parental leave

Not many “developed” countries are as stingy as Australia when it comes to parental leave.

Danielle Wood and Owain Emslie of the Grattan Institute have written the case for more substantial and gender-equal parental leave – Dad days: how more gender-equal parental leave would improve the lives of Australian families. “The payoffs of the successful schemes are clear: greater parental satisfaction, improvements in child development, higher rates of workforce participation, and greater economic security for women.”

Emslie has a separate short article: The best present for fathers would be more paid parental leave.

September 11, 2001 and its aftermath

Did the 9/11 attacks change the world?

The Lowy Institute has brought together six experts to assess the legacy of the 9/11 attacks: September 11 20 years on. In a written version of a formal debate the experts are asked the question “September 11 changed America, but did it change the world?”. Three respondents agree, three disagree, and each short essay is followed by a critique from the opposite side and a response from the writer.

The world has certainly changed. There has been 20 years of conflict and bloodshed in the middle east. The US has slipped in its relative economic and military power and in its influence and prestige. The idea that the world was on an unstoppable path to democracy has been exposed as a false hope as social-democratic movements have lost ground to authoritarianism. Globalisation has given way to isolationism and nationalism in many countries.

There is little disagreement on these points, but there is disagreement about the influence of the 9/11 attacks, and America’s reaction, as a contributor to these developments.

The legacy of the 9/11 attacks, the “war on terror”, and “Operation Enduring Freedom” is significant, but it should not be overstated. The re-emergence of China was already in progress in 2001. The final essayist, Andrew Bacevich, reminds us of world threats that have little to do with 9/11: “disease, the climate crisis, the deterioration of the natural world, cyber-criminality, economic inequality, insecure borders, and extreme partisanship reflecting the absence of an operative conception of the common good.”

Can America learn?

“What should we, America and its allies, have done differently, following the most devastating terrorist atrocity in history?” asks Bloomberg’s Max Hastings: Afghanistan’s fall is 9/11’s latest unlearned lesson.

“Nothing” is not the correct answer. America should have gone after the terrorists who planned and perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. Overthrow of the Afghan Taliban was a reasonably proportionate response. But from there on America became involved in a self- destructive series of moves that involved projecting its power to the Middle East and the world, nation-building, and invading a country – Iraq – that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

He refers to Toby Harnden’s recently-published book First casualty: the untold story of the CIA mission to avenge 9/11 describing the gung-ho adventurism in the early months of the Afghan campaign – that’s where it started to go wrong. He also refers to David Kilcullen’s 2009 book The accidental guerrilla: fighting small wars in the midst of a big one, which throws some light on the reasons young Afghanis joined in the conflicts.

How will America respond to the next terrorist attack?

Joseph S Nye, Dean Emeritus of Harvard’s Kennedy School, has a short article in Project Syndicate What difference did 9/11 make?. Has the US learned from the 9/11 attacks that it should not be goaded into a costly over-response to terrorism? “Looking forward, when the next terrorist attacks come, will presidents be able to channel public demand for revenge by precise targeting, explaining the trap that terrorists set, and focusing on creating resilience in US responses?”

The Taliban in Texas

Few would disagree with Jesse Jackson’s portrayal of the Taliban:

The Taliban scorn democracy. They see their opponents as heretics and heathens. The Taliban are bigots, rejecting people of other religions. The Taliban enforce a religious zealotry with suppression of women a central tenet. The Taliban invoke religious law to supplant the civil law. The Taliban reject modernity, scorn science, and seek return to a fundamentalist society that never was.

Writing in Common Dreams he finds that the same descriptors can apply to the Republican Party in Texas: The Texas Taliban Wing of the Republican Party. He refers to the Texan government’s voter suppression laws, its endorsement of Trump’s stolen election claims, its use of vigilantes to report on breaches of its newly-enacted abortion laws, its denial of global warming, and its attempts to ban local authorities and school districts from enforcing mask mandates.

Our place in Asia

Inaction on Myanmar

In June the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade presented an interim report Australia’s response to the coup in Myanmar, recommending that Australia should “continue to pursue the restoration of civilian rule in Myanmar as a foreign policy objective”. That’s hardly controversial, but it went on to recommend that the government consider strong measures against the military regime, including sanctions on senior figures in the Tatmadaw (the official name for Myanmar’s armed forces) and their business entities, an arms embargo, and an investigation of human rights violations.

Australia’s official response to the coup, however, has been to wait for an ASEAN response.

A group of 64 current and former members of parliaments in our region – Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Timor-Leste – has written an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressing “deepest concern” at Australia’s policy to wait for action by ASEAN. They point out that ASEAN’s response to the coup so far has been weak – even accommodating – and they urge Australia to join with other countries to impose sanctions and to engage formally with Myanmar’s democratically-elected representatives.

Public ideas

The anti-democratic right

In Brazil thousands of fanatical supporters of right-wing populist president Jair Bolsonaro have come on to the streets to support him in a conflict with the nation’s Congress and Supreme Court.  Bolsonaro’s conflict with the justice system relates to the jailing of several of his supporters for inciting violence and disseminating false information on websites. He has also dropped strong hints that he has no intention to abide by the results of next year’s election, should it go against him. For generally-reliable sources you can read our own ABC’s account or Deutsche Welle’s account of the demonstrations and the related constitutional issues.

This is not a purely Brazilian matter. Bolsonaro and his supporters have been emboldened by Trump’s conduct in the US election and the ongoing strong support he is still enjoying from his followers. It is notable that one of the people recently detained and questioned by Brazilian police is Jason Miller, an American who was a senior adviser to Trump.

The illiberal left

Those who take offense at crude or racist language, or who criticise media companies for giving a platform to right-wing shock jocks fomenting class or racial hatred, are accused of being beholden to a “cancel” culture or an obsession with “political correctness”. When demonstrations turn violent, politicians and the partisan media often blame people on the “left”. The most extreme accusation is that the January 6 insurrection in Washington was organised by the left whose followers dressed up in pro-Trump regalia.

But within the ranks of those who claim to be liberal or on the left, there is an authoritarian and censorious movement. It stifles public debate, undermines academic freedoms, and in kangaroo courts subjects people to reputation-destroying summary justice for daring to question the left’s pet shibboleths or for having committed some supposed sexual transgression.

If we’re looking for an organised movement, like the fascists or communists of earlier times, or for some underground organisation, we won’t find it. Rather, in a process that the Marxist Antonio Gramsci described as applying to the right, it’s a culture taking hold in universities and other institutions to establish norms of behaviour. In her essay  The new puritans, The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum describes this culture in which “anyone who accidentally creates discomfort – whether through their teaching methods, their editorial standards, their opinions, or their personality – may suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of not just a student or a colleague but an entire bureaucracy, one dedicated to weeding out people who make other people uncomfortable.”

Applebaum paints a dismal picture. But surely the very duty of a teacher or social commentator is to take people out of their intellectual comfort zone, to help them question orthodoxies or the conventional wisdom: he or she who doesn’t is probably better fitted to a life as a car salesperson than as an academic or journalist. Does this emerging order mean that to be on the “left” is to be bound by a drab and meaningless orthodoxy?

And even if people do transgress reasonable norms of behaviour – an insensitive joke, a gauche sexual advance – do we not have a tradition of acknowledgement, apology, forgiveness and redemption?

Applebaum is author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

How pork-barrelling works

Most mere mortals, guided by a sense of morality and a sense of shame, would be deeply embarrassed by being caught out in a corruption scandal, but as we have seen with sports rorts, car park rorts and shonky land deals, Coalition politicians seem to emerge unscathed from damning audit reports.

We may ask why the Commonwealth persists with small local projects, better left to the states, if all they do is to bring on the ire of the auditor-general and the opprobrium of responsible media?

Writing in The Monthly Richard Denniss offers a convincing explanation for the enduring attraction of pork-barrelling. A reasonable person concerned with the wider public interest may see an account of pork-barreling as a condemning exposé, but for the politicians involved it is a tangible demonstration that they are doing something for their electors. The opprobrium is simply a cost of doing business, and any publicity is good publicity.

Denniss also has advice for the media: don’t persist with gotcha questioning – it goes nowhere. Rather, “Go on air later, play the offending comments and carefully correct them”.

(See Schwartz Media Help for advice on paywall access to The Monthly and other Schwartz Media publications.)

Steering, not rowing

In 1993 a book titled Reinventing Government: How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector, written by consultants David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, started circulating among university schools of public administration and public service departments. Its essential message was that governments should do nothing themselves: rather they should contract service delivery and even policy advice to the private sector. That message was encapsulated in a catchphrase “steering, not rowing”.  Government was to steer, while the real work was to be left to burly oarsmen in the private sector. Its prescription was based neither on argument nor on evidence, but on what Marxists would recognise as historicism. It’s a movement that needs no justification other than the fact that it’s happening. The tide of history was carrying along the practices of whittled-down government, privatisation and contracting out. Those who failed to take it at its full would miss out on great fortune (great fortune for consultants it turned out).

Government needed no expertise of its own: the ideal public servant was the generic manager who had no particular skills or profession. This de-skilling went under the neologism “New Public Management”.

“New Public Management” fitted easily with the “small government” ideology of the Howard and subsequent Liberal governments, but it also infected the Gillard-Rudd administration. One of the worst manifestations of the application of its ideas was the home insulation {“pink batts”) disaster, overseen by a couple of senior public servants with no more than a lay person’s knowledge of physics, engineering or construction.

We once had a Commonwealth government that did things. North Head Quarantine Station.

Eclipsing the home insulation fiasco, however, has been the Morrison government’s deadly hash of vaccination and quarantine services.  Writing in The Monthly, John Quiggin covers the Morrison government’s administrative failures by reference to “New Public Management” and the ideas of Osborne and Gaebler. His article Dismembering government explains not only the failure of vaccination and quarantine, but also failures in aged care, technical education and other areas. By now about the only people on the Commonwealth payroll who can do anything to do with the real physical world are the armed services.

Quiggin’s analysis also provides some explanation of the Commonwealth-state power shifts we have seen during the pandemic. He writes:

The disastrous impact of new public management has been felt throughout the developed world. In Australia, however, it has been much more evident at the national than at the state level. The nation-state capacity of the Commonwealth government is a shadow of what it was in the mid 20th century. By contrast, the states have maintained their core services, such as health and education, and have, if anything, upgraded their policy capacities.

(See Schwartz Media Help for advice on paywall access to The Monthly and other Schwartz Media publications.)


Mental health of the young

Mission Australia, in collaboration with the Black Dog Institute, has produced its fifth biennial youth mental health report: Psychological distress in young people in Australia. As a regular publication it is not specifically directed at the effects of COVID-19, but because its surveys were conducted over April to August last year, the period of the first and second waves of COVID-19 and associated lockdowns, when there was no certainty of a vaccine being developed, COVID-19 clearly plays a strong role in its findings.

In 2020 27 per cent of young people (15-19) reported feeling psychological distress, compared with 19 per cent reporting psychological distress in 2012. Significantly the rate of psychological distress was much greater among young women than among young men. It had also risen disproportionately among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people with disabilities, and people of non-binary gender.

On RN Breakfast Fran Kelly interviews Jennie Hudson of the Black Dog Institute. She explains that although there was a step increase in 2020, the trend of increasing psychological distress among young people was in train well before 2020. She also reports on an increasing incidence of sleep problems and inadequate physical activity. (Seven minutes.)

In a different context Crispin Hull refers to another non-Covid issue raising anxiety among young people – climate change. He reports that conservative backbenchers in the Coalition have called for a boost to the school chaplaincy program to quell young people’s “exaggerated alarm” over climate change: Chaplain idea an insult to youth.

Fake news

Writing on the Croakey website, Jennifer Doggett and Nicole MacKee have an article pulling together information on fake news relating to COVID-19 in Australia and beyond, and on initiatives to counter it in Australia. Epidemiologists join global fight against “fake news”. Fake news on vaccinations, often drawing on out-of-context snippets from reliable sources, is particularly targeted towards the most disadvantaged in the community, and finds an easy target among people who mistrust government.

On Late Night Live on Wednesday Night, Jonathan Green had a session How to talk to a science denier with Lee McIntyre from the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. It’s a hard task but it can be done if one establishes a trusting relationship. (15 minutes.)

Polls and surveys

Morgan – strong showing for Labor

Roy Morgan reports strong support for Labor in its poll published on September 1, based on surveys in late August. Labor support is 38.5 per cent (33.3 per cent in the 2019 election) and Coalition support is 37.5 per cent (41.4 per cent in 2019). It calculates a two-party lead of 54.5:45.5 for Labor but the usual caveats apply to two-party calculations.

It also has estimates of people’s voting inclinations by state, but these would have a larger margin of error than its national poll, which was on a telephone and on-line sample of 2735 Australians.


Australia Institute webinars

Tuesday 14 September, 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 webinars are free, but registration is essential. See the Institute’s webinars webpage.

In memory of Mikis Theodorakis

Mikis Theodorakis died last week, at the tender age of 96. He is honoured in this land not only by the Greek diaspora in Melbourne – see the Big Fat Greek Flashmob in 2018 at the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival – but also by people who came to this land many thousands of years ago – such as the Yolngu dancers from Elcho Island.

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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