Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend 

Sep 18, 2021
A khaki election looming?

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


That AUKUS deal

It’s about more than submarines

In the short period since the announcement of a new security partnership by Joe Biden, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson, most commentary has been about our commitment to nuclear-powered submarines, the cost of scrapping the $90 billion contract with the French, and jobs in South Australia. It takes time for more basic commentary to emerge.

On 7.30 on Thursday Kevin Rudd addressed the defence and foreign relations aspects of this deal. He raised the issue of defence sovereignty: are the submarines to be assets of the Australian navy or some assets shared with and under the control of other powers? And what obligations have we incurred in exchange for access to US nuclear technology? He draws attention to the security risk in pushing out our timeline for upgrading our submarine replacements. He also criticises Morrison’s unnecessarily provocative megaphone diplomacy in his announcement of the deal. The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen is another to draw attention to the strings attached to the deal. He sees it as a risky bet. Aukus: What will nuclear-powered submarines mean for Australia?  (2 minutes.)

Writing in The Conversation Patricia O’Brien of ANU, now a visiting fellow at Georgetown University, addresses the regional and geopolitical aspects of the deal: The AUKUS pact, born in secrecy, will have huge implications for Australia and the region. She notes, for example, that New Zealand has not been included. And she asks “why did the UK return to the Indo-Pacific arena in this way, having essentially left it, in strategic terms, in the 1950s?”

That’s an important question. We have learned to live with ANZUS, but why, and under what conditions, are we becoming involved with the UK — a country with very different defence and foreign relation interests to ours? In our rough deal with France are we being drawn into some ancient UK-French conflict, and what will this do for our defence relationships with mainland European countries? After decades of Australian governments, Labor and Coalition, having built up defence and security relationships with countries in Asia, are we scrapping those relationships?

Then there is the secrecy around the deal — a deal involving a fundamental defence re-alignment, and a huge financial commitment, binding governments for decades to come, made a few months before an election, without public debate or parliamentary scrutiny. On the ABC’s RN Breakfast on Friday Hamish Macdonald asked Simon Birmingham about these aspects, but got no more than politely evasive answers — it appears that he may have been kept in the same darkness as the rest of us. It’s telling when the finance minister cannot even give a rough estimate of the cost of the deal.

The pandemic’s progress

The good news comes from New South Wales where reported cases are no longer growing. The bad news comes from Victoria where cases are still on a path of strong exponential growth, doubling every seven days. (The equation for Victorian case numbers is 8.5086e0.0972x, where x is the number of days since August 5. The coefficient of correlation is 0.9705.)

It’s too early to claim that the New South Wales curve is turning around, or even flattening, but something has arrested the exponential growth.

A too-easy conclusion is to credit vaccination: from mid-August to early September the percentage of fully vaccinated 16+ people in the state rose from about 25 per cent to 40 per cent (it is now just on 50 per cent). That may appear to be an impressive leap, but after we take into account the fact that it refers only to people aged 16 or older, when we consider who remains to be vaccinated, we see that the percentage of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people of all ages has shrunk from 80 per cent to 68 per cent over that period: it’s still large. In view of the Doherty Institute findings that vaccination levels are an important but not particularly sensitive variable, the level of vaccination in itself does not seem to be a plausible explanation for this change.

Another possible explanation is that fewer infected people are being tested and therefore fewer cases are being revealed, but New South Wales is maintaining a high rate of testing. Another is that the same awareness driving people to be vaccinated is also encouraging them to be more cautious and compliant in their behaviour. And another explanation, perhaps the most plausible, is that trace-test-isolate-quarantine (TTIQ) measures may be becoming more effective. This could be as a result of more but smaller and more containable outbreaks occurring.

Those 70 and 80 per cent targets

Even though people from aged 12 upwards are now eligible for vaccination, politicians and journalists are still talking about the “adult” (16+) population, and are often failing to make even this qualification. Nor are they referring to the most important variable in driving demand for hospitalisation and deaths, the proportion of the population unvaccinated.

For that reason we are re-presenting the table matching the “adult” percentages to the 12+ percentages, the whole population percentages, and, most importantly, the percentage of Australians unvaccinated.

Note that the 70 per cent “adult” level is where the New South Wales government is promising to lift many restrictions, even though at that point 44 per cent of the state’s population will still be unvaccinated. Also notable is that the state government says it will lift those restrictions on the Monday after that target is reached, even though vaccines take about two weeks to take effect, and some people will have had a compressed (less than the recommended 12-week interval) second AstraZeneca dose. One possible consequence of opening up before vaccinations have had their full effect is that some people who are notionally “fully immunised” will become seriously ill or die, supposedly providing “evidence” for anti-vaxxer claims that vaccinations are useless.

Politicians and spokespeople for industry associations seem to be hanging too much on that 70 per cent, without appreciating the qualifications in the Doherty model about the outcomes when that rate is achieved. If there are baseline public health and safety measures (such as capacity limits), if there is optimal trace-test-isolate-quarantine (TTIQ), and if some other public health and safety measures are in place, then all being well, it should be possible to bring the virus’s transmission potential (the virus’s effective R rate) down below 1.0. Over six months there would be only 88 hospital admissions and 13 deaths nationally.

But those are all highly sensitive variables: if only “partial TTIQ” is operating, there would be 12,337 admissions and 1457 deaths. Also, the outcomes at 80 per cent “adult” vaccination, if there is only “partial TTIQ”, are not a great deal better — 6951 admissions and 761 deaths.

Optimal TTIQ is hard to achieve. Politicians may talk about “gold standard” TTIQ, but the quality of TTIQ is only partially under government control. The first element in the chain — testing — is largely up to individuals, and as more vaccinated people circulate through the community with asymptomatic infections, more people will catch Covid without realising they have it and therefore not get tested. And as mobility increases contact tracing will become more difficult. In the ACT, where the case load is small and there is high compliance with QR codes (public servants are easy to herd), contact tracers keep finding mystery cases unrelated to others.

And there is the possibility, because of outbreaks in certain regions, particularly densely-populated urban regions, that contact tracing will become overloaded. Once it does get overloaded there can develop a destructive cycle of positive feedback: poorer TTIQ → higher cases → poorer TTIQ → higher cases, and so on, until drastic action, such as a very tough lockdown, has to be taken. The Doherty modelling is based on steady situations, rather than the wild rides that occur when such feedback loops get established.

That’s why the Grattan Institute has urged policymakers to go for at least 80 per cent of the entire population before opening borders and lifting restrictions significantly. That’s the level Singapore has achieved, and a little higher than Denmark has achieved so far. The Victorian branch of the AMA is calling for that state’s restrictions to stay in place until two weeks after 80 per cent of people aged 12 and over are vaccinated, equating to about 72 per cent of the entire population. Raina MacIntyre warns that New South Wales risks a second larger Covid peak by Christmas if it eases restrictions too quickly.

To see how other countries are dealing with vaccination levels, the diagram below is an update of last week’s scatter diagram of vaccination rates and deaths in high-income “developed” countries. It requires a little explanation.

The green markers denote island countries that have no significant background of immunity from earlier exposure to COVID-19. And on the X axis are marked Australia’s two targets “70 per cent” (actually 56 per cent), and “80 per cent” (actually 64 per cent).

A scatter diagram does not prove a case, but it lends support to the idea that if we want to enjoy the conditions now being experienced in countries with low death rates — and therefore low demands on hospitals — we should be going for those higher rates recommended by Grattan, and already achieved by Denmark and Singapore. It’s rash to be categorical — countries differ in their levels of restrictions, in their levels of compliance and in their geographies — but a glance at the red markers on the diagram suggests that there is some downward-sloping relationship between death rates and vaccination. Even if we achieve a national daily death rate of 0.5 per million, that would still be 13 a day or 4700 a year. That’s about the same as the number of deaths from diabetes and four times the number of road deaths.

Another lesson we can learn from other countries is that getting to 80 or 90 per cent won’t be as easy as getting to 60 or 70 per cent. Inga Ting and her ABC colleagues have a graph showing when our states and territories should meet those 70 and 80 per cent “adult” vaccination targets — the ACT on October 9 and October 22, Queensland, at the other end, on November 15 and December 5. But she carefully qualifies those estimates, because they are based on current rates of vaccination. Experience in other countries — including some shown on her site — suggests that vaccination levels tend to plateau out at unsatisfactorily low levels. Ting’s dates also remind us that there can be no simultaneous opening up across all states, as some politicians are seeking.

Advisers to governments, including the head of the government’s vaccine taskforce, are warning of the effort we will have to take to get to the high vaccination rates to allow us to get to “Covid normal”: Vaccination experts weigh in on how we can get to 80 per cent Covid jabs on the ABC website. We cannot simply rely on making vaccines on a come-and-get-it basis (one of the shortcomings of our entire rollout), or on an overall numerical target. We must bring vaccines to where people can reach them, in workplaces and in regions. Some people may react to financial incentives, others to persuasion from peers.

Extraordinarily, in a reflection of the brutality of our worst working conditions, some people report that they cannot take leave from work to be vaccinated. (Perhaps the Senate could insist on exposing the names of such employers.)

On the ABC’s RN Breakfast on Thursday Cassandra Goldie of ACOSS warned of the need to seek out vulnerable people – fears of COVID-19 vaccine inequalities. Unfortunately, in spite of the Commonwealth’s capacity to match data — for example to pursue Centrelink debt — we are not doing enough to identify those groups who need special vaccination attention. It’s not only a question of equity; it’s also about the safety of the whole nation. (Nine minutes.)

Who’s where in the vaccination race

A fellow called Ethan has done the service of constructing a regularly-updated website of COVID-19 vaccination rates by postcode and council/local government area (LGA) in New South Wales. Among the most highly-vaccinated areas are Sydney’s prosperous northern suburbs — no surprises — but there are also high vaccination rates in some western Sydney suburbs and in some rural regions, often adjacent to regions with very low rates. There is no simple predictor of what regions will show high or low rates. The experience of COVID-19 should dismiss forever the simple model that Australia can be divided into the capital cities and the “regions”. Our whole country, including our capital city conurbations, is a patchwork of distinct regions.

Our 2020 report card

Overall we did well in managing COVID-19 in 2020. In its report The first year of COVID-19 in Australia: direct and health effects the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare compares our performance with that of other countries. It finds:

If Australia had experienced the same crude case and death rates as Canada, Sweden or the United Kingdom, by early April 2021 there would have been between 680,000 and 2 million cases instead of the 29,000 that did occur, and between 16,000 and 48,000 deaths.

But we could have done better:

Conversely, If Australia had the same crude case and death rates as New Zealand, there would have been around 18,000 fewer cases and 780 fewer deaths.

That’s the broad picture. Had our government attended in time to our vaccine needs we would now be largely through a safe transition from local elimination to managing COVID-19 as an endemic disease.

The AIHW reminds us that 75 per cent of deaths in 2020 were of people in aged care — another Commonwealth responsibility — and that health care workers were 2.7 times as likely to contract COVID-19 as the general community. It also points out that:

People living in the lowest socioeconomic areas had COVID-19 mortality rates 2.6 times higher than for people living in the highest socioeconomic area.

This last finding reminds us that if we want to reduce death, distress and the burden on our health care sector, our approach to vaccination has to be more directed than simply relying on gross targets of X per cent of the population.

When it all went wrong

From November last year, when the big Victorian outbreak was squashed, until early June this year, Australia was essentially living Covid-free, with only 450 locally-acquired cases and three deaths over that period. Because the Commonwealth government had failed to secure adequate supplies of suitable vaccines, a policy of local elimination was the most sensible way to keep the economy functioning until vaccines were available.

That run of good fortune ended on June 11, when an unvaccinated limousine driver, not wearing protective equipment, was transporting international air crew and caught the Delta variant of COVID-19. His infection set off the wave now spreading through New South Wales and Victoria. The driver was not breaking any rule: although there were stated policies about securing our borders, the New South Wales government hadn’t done anything about regulating vaccination or personal protection for border workers.

The ABC’s Video Lab has a 30-minute video Outbreak: How Australia lost control of the COVID Delta variant. It’s a story of neglect and mismanagement by governments, and of idiocy by people disregarding lockdown regulations. It’s also a story of politicians who think they know better than to follow professional advice, and of a catastrophic failure when seven of our eight premiers and chief ministers work together in the national interest while one is determined to break ranks.

Is it meaningful to talk about an acceptable level of deaths?

Like 8 billion other people in the world, Australians have a 100 per cent death rate. Public policy intervenes to keep us safe from avoidable deaths, however, particularly deaths that rob us of years of healthy lives. But in no domain can they go for 100 per cent safety: we don’t have the resources.

As an example in motor vehicle safety, a benefit-cost approach within limited resources sees good returns from compulsory seat belts, speed limits, grade-separated interchanges, air bags, cabin strengthening, rear vision cameras and so on, but as we get to the harder cases each measure becomes more costly. So we don’t reduce highway speed limits to 80 kph, or upgrade the Eyre Highway to freeway standard, even though these measures would save lives. There is a cutoff point, and with a few diagrams on a whiteboard a university lecturer can point out that we implicitly put a dollar value on each life, or on each life-year, saved. There comes a point where we do not commit further resources to save lives. And sometimes lives saved in one domain can result in deaths in other domains.

That’s an easy discussion in a classroom, or around a conference table in a government department, but any discussion on the cost of a life saved, or an acceptable level of deaths, is difficult in the public domain, particularly in the case of COVID-19 which kills with so much suffering and without the comfort of loved ones.

Two essays, both by well-respected economists, address these difficult questions in relation to COVID-19. John Quiggin, writing in Inside Story, asks What about other avoidable deaths? We can do better than accepting a certain level of deaths as an inevitability and giving up on trying to do better. Peter Martin, writing in The Conversation, points out that Delta is tempting us to trade lives for freedoms — a choice it had looked like we wouldn’t have to make. Re-opening will mean a certain number of ongoing deaths from COVID-19, but we shouldn’t blunder into prematurely lifting restrictions as some are demanding. He also points out that just as mandated restrictions have negative consequences for businesses, so does people’s fear when they see death rates rising as a result of restrictions having been lifted prematurely.

Another discussion is on the ABC program The Economists, where Stephen Duckett of the Grattan Institute and Peter Harris, former Productivity Commission chair, discuss with Peter Martin and Gigi Foster how the community may understand the costs and trade-offs in suppressing the virus until a level of vaccination is achieved — “Mugged by reality”: COVID choices that are hard to make.  (30 minutes.) The site has links to many articles and reports on COVID-19 in Australia.

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.


The cost of oppressing women

The Economist has a leader and two articles on the position of women in society: Why nations that fail women fail and Societies that treat women badly are poorer and less stable.

Societies with policies, practices and attitudes antithetical to women’s interests, such as “unequal treatment of women in family law, early marriage for girls, patrilocal marriage, polygamy, bride price, son preference, violence against women” — all prominent in societies based on male bonding — tend towards violent political instability. An excess of unpartnered men, resulting from polygamy and abortion of daughters, is a source of unrest and violence.

The articles draw on the work of Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen: The first political order: how sex shapes governance and national security worldwide.

(The Economist sits behind a paywall, but you can register to receive up to three articles a week. The two articles above cover the same ground, the second more thoroughly than the first.)

On the same issue of gender is an article in The Atlantic, Colleges have a guy problem by Derek Thompson. He examines why American colleges and universities now enrol roughly six women for every four men, and considers the wider implications for such a gender imbalance in education. He quotes Richard Reeves, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who is writing a book about men and boys in the economy, who warns, “If male identity is seen, by some, as being at odds with education, that’s a problem for the whole country”. Historian and economics professor Claudia Goldin of Harvard University considers how this imbalance will play out when combined with the phenomenon of associative mating — graduates marrying graduates. Thompson fears that negative male attitudes may pass through generation to generation.

Some of Thompson’s explanations are specific to the conditions of Afro-Americans, but he points out similar gender imbalances are occurring in other countries.


How do governments manage the tension between allowing people the right to make their own choices and getting them to act in the public interest — or even in their own interest when it comes to saving for retirement, wearing seat belts and getting vaccinated?

For his work in this area Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. His 2008 book Nudge, co-authored with Cass Sunstein, introduced the idea of “libertarian paternalism”, by which governments, through the way they structure “choice architecture”, can guide people to make wise decisions without depriving them of their autonomy.

One form of nudge is through use of defaults with provision to make other choices. For example when we stay in a hotel we may be told that the cleaners do not normally change the towels every day, but we can ask reception to change them if we wish. In some countries the default is that on death one’s organs are available for transplant, but there are opt-out provisions if we object to organ transplant.

Thaler explains the workings of choice architecture on the ABC’s The Economists: Nudging, the pandemic, climate change and retirement saving. He also modestly plugs his and Sunstein’s latest work: Nudge: the final edition. The ABC site has links to many other writings on behavioural economics.

The consequences of global warming

Global warming is such a bother. The ski season is shortened, the grape varieties regulated under France’s appellation contrôlée are no longer suitable for their regions, and coffee prices are soaring.

A Pearls and Irritations reader reminds us that it’s actually more serious, as we have already experienced with bushfires in Australia. In Madagascar, savaged by back-to-back droughts, “whole communities are teetering on the edge of starvation” says World Food Program executive director David Beasley. “Families are suffering and people are already dying from severe hunger. This is not because of war or conflict, this is because of climate change”. Children are suffering malnutrition; people are leaving their homes in search of food; others are foraging for wild food.

Writing in The Conversation, Chris Funk of the University of California explains that in five of the last six years Madagascar has experienced poor or very bad wet seasons: How climate change contributed to Madagascar’s food crisis. By studying records of ocean temperatures he and his colleagues are left in no doubt that climate change has been a major causal factor of Madagascar’s misery. (Some of the same phenomena — El Niño, La Niña, and the Indian Ocean Dipole — are also affecting Australia’s rainfall patterns.) Their modelling suggests that these extended dry periods in Madagascar will continue into the future.

OECD calls for tax and expenditure reform

On Wednesday the OECD released its Economic Survey of Australia. It’s reasonably optimistic about Australia’s recovery, but it draws attention to our poor productivity performance: “The economy was exhibiting signs of structural weakness when the pandemic hit,” it states.

One major recommendation, that may escape the attention of Murdoch journalists, is that climate change policy needs to be strengthened. Another they may miss is that the unemployment benefit should be raised. It points out that our unemployment benefit in relation to normal wages is close to the lowest in the OECD, and is below the poverty line.

Those same journalists are unlikely to miss the finding that Australia relies heavily on income tax, or the suggestion that we should change our tax mix to collect more from GST and less from income tax, but it’s informative to read the full statement under the heading “Tax reform is needed”, for it addresses our unjustified tax breaks for private pensions and capital gains, and the need for our tax system to improve housing affordability:

Australia’s heavy reliance on taxation of personal incomes adds to the vulnerability of public finance to an ageing population. Fortunately, there is a clear path for tax reforms that will provide a more sustainable tax base, enhance economic growth and promote other government priorities like improving housing affordability and reversing the trend toward rising income and intergenerational inequality common to many countries. The authorities should increase the Goods and Services Tax rate or broaden the base, offsetting any regressive effects through additional personal income tax cuts (especially for low and middle-income workers), reducing private pension tax breaks and reducing the capital gains tax discount. In addition, more state governments should replace stamp duty with a well-designed recurrent land tax.

The failure of our housing market

On Tuesday the ABS brought out its latest capital city property price indexes. The mean dwelling price in an Australian capital city is now $836,000. In the most seriously hit markets, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, it’s between $0.9 and $1.1 million. The two graphs below, drawn from that data, paint a picture of a colossal failure in the housing market.

The first is of price movements for established houses, in the three months to June and in the year to June. (The rise in apartment prices has been a little slower.)

The second is also of established house prices, going back to 1986, and adjusted for CPI inflation, with annotations pointing to policy changes and developments that have contributed to housing price inflation.

On the ABC’s PM there is a short (four minute) session on the drivers of this inflation with quotes from a number of experts, in the context of a current parliamentary inquiry into housing affordability.

A Treasury official, John Swieringa, concedes that recent government schemes to support first home buyers have increased demand, but he stops short of saying that they have reduced housing affordability. Policy makers grapple with record property price growth… with few solutions.

The main driver of current housing price inflation is low interest rates, but it’s not the only driver. Saul Eslake calls for an increase in housing supply, tax reform, and the abolition of grants pushing money into the demand side, “in particular elevated cash grants to would-be home buyers that end up in the pockets of vendors and tax preferences that enable property investors to elbow aside would-be first home buyers.” Eslake also provides a history of grants to buyers in a short chat (two minutes) on Tasmanian radio.

Such has been the politicisation of the public service that Treasury’s reluctance to call out the causes of housing price inflation is understandable, if not excusable, but even the Reserve Bank, independent of executive government, seems to be unconcerned about housing prices. In a speech to the Anika Foundation on Tuesday –  Delta, the Economy and Monetary Policy – Governor Philip Lowe acknowledged the problem of affordability and the associated problem of high household borrowing, but he did not see it as the bank’s responsibility to dampen demand through raising interest rates or imposing curbs on lending.

In fact in the same speech there is a presentation of the recent rise of house prices as a real rise in household wealth. It is extraordinary that economists can call inflation a real rise in wealth. Unless you have given it a major renovation over the last year, the value of your house — the shelter, comfort, location, and other amenities it provides — is unchanged or even reduced a little with normal wear and tear.

Western Australian exceptionalism

In the 1890s, while the rest of Australia was experiencing a depression, Western Australia was enjoying a gold rush. In 1900 it came close to voting against federation, and in 1933 it actually voted to leave the federation ¯ a move disallowed only by the UK Privy Council back in those days when we were even more attached to the UK than we are now.

In another demonstration of exceptionalism the state government has managed to present a surplus in the state government budget — not just a token surplus but a whopping $6 billion for 2021-22 — making it perhaps the only jurisdiction that isn’t an oil-rich sheikdom to run a surplus in these troubled times.

Saul Eslake has a short analysis of Western Australia’s fiscal situation. The first couple of pages are about budget details, but from there on he explains how the state does so well, not only from iron ore royalties, but also from grants under generous revenue-sharing arrangements. In terms of public finance, oil and iron ore aren’t much different — in fact iron ore probably has a more secure future than oil. The picture Eslake paints is of an iron-ore sheikdom with an undeserved welfare supplement paid for by the rest of Australia.

The world of work

On Thursday the ABS released monthly labour force data for August. In view of the lockdowns many may be surprised to see a seasonally adjusted fall in the unemployment rate from 4.6 per cent to 4.5 per cent, but this is explained by a significant fall in the participation rate (from 66 per cent to 65.2 per cent) and a steep rise in the underemployment rate (from 8.3 per cent to 9.3 per cent).

While the ABS reports on short-term employment conditions, the Productivity Commission has produced a research paper Working from home, looking at both the jump in working from home as a reaction to COVID-19 (from 8 per cent to 40 per cent of Australians), and at longer-term trends, such as the effects of working from home on our settlement patterns. We may believe that it’s only professionals and clerical workers who have been working from home, but the commission reveals that many technicians and sales people have also been working from home. Managers in large firms are more likely to see working from home as an ongoing pattern than managers in small firms.

For those who simply want an overview of the issues, there is a short speech by commission chair Michael Brennan on The working from home evolution. Isn’t it strange that so many people go backwards and forwards from one building to another every day when they can do it all in the same place? But as Brennan points out, workplaces and the urban centres where they are located are places where people find review and supervise one another’s work and develop ideas in random encounters. There are good reasons for congregating around CBDs where there is plenty of company and coffee.


Remembering  September 11 — refugees

While the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 were commanding world attention, another drama, also to do with the Taliban, was playing out in our region. On August 24, 2001 a group of 433 asylum-seekers, mostly Afghan Hazaras fleeing persecution by the Taliban, crowded onto a people-smugglers’ boat in Indonesia, setting out for Australia. Two days later, its engine having failed, it was perilously close to sinking in a storm, before all passengers were rescued by the Norwegian container-ship Tampa. The captain, Arne Rinnan, headed towards Christmas Island to put the refugees ashore, but was refused entry to Australian waters, and when he sought medical help from Christmas Island, armed commandos stormed the Tampa, after jamming its radio communications. The asylum seekers were bundled onto the Australian navy landing ship Manoora and after it sailed around for several days seeking a port, the asylum seekers were dumped on Nauru.

As Peter Mares writes in Inside StoryA line in the water — this was to be the start of our hard line against asylum seekers arriving by boat. For those seeking a full account from those involved at the time the ABC’s History Listen has a 53-minute segment — Seachange: 20 years on from the Tampa Affair. Philip Ruddock, immigration minister at the time, and Kim Beazley, opposition leader at the time, both provide weak rationalisations for their behaviour.

For prime minister John Howard, trailing in the polls and facing an election two months later, the 9/11 attacks and the Tampa incident gave him an ideal opportunity to tap into deep currents of voters’ racism and fear, already stoked by right-wing talk show hosts. He wasted no opportunity to put the re-election of the Liberal Party ahead of the need to rescue 433 desperate people, the need to stop the people smugglers’ trade, the need to maintain civilised relations with Norway, and the requirement to adhere to binding treaties. Also following the Tampa incident and before the election, there was the notorious “children overboard” affair, involving another refugee boat where on the weak pretext that they had been misinformed, both Howard and Ruddock lied about the refugees’ behaviour, leading to Howard’s despicable statement, “I don’t want in Australia people who would throw their own children into the sea”.

Howard’s exploitation of the incident had two serious adverse consequences. For Australia it meant the re-election of his government — a government that was to squander the benefits of a mining boom and thwart any prospects for structural reform. For the world it set a precedent in the way countries deal with asylum-seekers.

ABC journalist Jim Middleton was in Washington on September 11 2001 accompanying prime minister John Howard. The terrorist attack has left a lasting impression on his memory, but so too has a question he put to Howard on the following day, while the Manoora was still seeking somewhere — anywhere but Australia — to dump the asylum-seekers. Writing on Pearls and Irritations and Inside Story, Middleton recounts how he asked whether Howard’s newly found awareness of Al Qaeda’s brutality might soften his hard line towards those refugees. (Spoiler: it didn’t.)

On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviewed journalist and author David Marr and Anne Henderson of the Sydney Institute about our policies towards asylum seekers who come by boat: Tampa‘s judgement 20 years on. Both are critical of our policies, particularly indefinite mandatory detention. Marr is particularly critical of the way politicians have tapped into people’s racism and fear of immigrants. He levels criticism at both Coalition and Labor politicians, particularly at Rudd for his assertion that no-one who comes by boat will ever settle in Australia — an assertion Morrison has re-affirmed in relation to refugees fleeing Afghanistan. (18 minutes.)

Both Mares and Marr take apart the line, pushed so strongly by Howard in the 2001 election campaign, that offshore processing has been effective in “stopping the boats”. The boats have stopped because people in Indonesian ports know that they will be intercepted and turned back.

Marr concludes with outrage at the practice of jailing innocent people as a means to achieve deterrence — or even worse, to achieve the re-election of a government. By most established moral precepts it is fundamentally wrong to inflict suffering on innocent people in order to achieve some other end. Referring to mandatory detention Marr says, “It’s jail, it’s deliberately jail and the audience for that cruelty, I am afraid to say, aren’t the people smugglers, but Australian voters, and it continues”.

The Coalition’s war on learning

“JobKeeper” was designed to preserve the jobs of dog walkers, pubic hair removers, management consultants and bankers, but universities and their employees were specifically excluded, even though they were losing revenue from overseas students unable to travel to Australia.

Eliza Littleton, of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, has studied the consequences for universities: An avoidable catastrophe: pandemic job losses in higher education and their consequences. So far in 2021, 40,000 jobs have been lost in the tertiary education sector: 35,000 from universities and 5,000 from vocational educational institutions. That’s almost 20 per cent of the sector’s workforce.

Students will bear some of the consequences in terms of larger class sizes, particularly in tutorials where casual staff tend to be employed, and the enduring costs will be borne throughout the economy.

Another adverse consequence for students is a squeeze on Commonwealth-supported student places. Mark Warburton of the University of Melbourne examines the Commonwealth claim that there would be 27,000 extra domestic students places this year and 49,000 by 2023, under the “job-ready graduates” changes: The rhetoric and reality of Job-ready Graduates. He explains that in fact the amount of support offered by the Commonwealth is not sufficient to provide subsidies for any additional student places.

Government policy towards universities is the topic of a 27-minute discussion in Toby Hemmings’ Think: Business Futures series – The crisis in Australian universities. Roy Green of the University of Technology Sydney business school, Alison Barnes of the National Tertiary Education Union and Warburton discuss shortcomings in government policy. Green reminds us that in the 1980s around 80 per cent of university funding was from taxpayer sources, but it has been sliding downward since: it is now 30 per cent. This is out of step with other “developed” countries.

The other strong point made by participants is about the government’s funding policies that discourage students from studying social sciences and the humanities. It’s naïve and short-sighted for policymakers to believe that such prioritisation is in our economic interests. Quite apart from their value in enriching our lives, the social sciences and humanities allow us to take advantage of opportunities in a changing world. A well-supported university system is one of the key requisites to save us from becoming a commodity-based economy.

The weirdly dysfunctional ways of New South Wales Labor

Senator Kristina Keneally is one of Labor’s better performers in calling the Morrison government to account. She has served as premier of New South Wales and has done her time as a candidate in a hard contest in an unwinnable seat in the federal House of Representatives. In 2018 she was appointed to the Senate to fill a casual vacancy caused by Sam Dastyari’s resignation. So with this track record how does the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party handle her pre-selection for the next Senate election?

It shoehorns a member of the conservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association into nomination for the top Senate position. Because of a weird rule about factions Keneally cannot be nominated for the second position. So she is left with the third and hard-to-win third position.

It gets weirder. Keneally has decided to run for a House of Representatives seat — the safe seat of Fowler in western Sydney, where Tu Le, a well-known lawyer and community advocate, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in western Sydney, was already lined up for nomination. In view of the rough treatment inflicted on people in western Sydney in the lockdown, in view of Labor’s inadequate ethnic diversity, and in view of the concentration of immigrants in her region, Tu Le would seem to be a well-chosen candidate.

On the ABC’s RN Breakfast Alison Carabine interviews Tu Le: Fowler community “disappointed” by the decision to parachute Keneally into the seat. She explains that about three-quarters of the people of Fowler are migrants and refugees, with strong attachment to the region. The possibility of her election raised political consciousness among the people of Fowler, but they are now disappointed that an outside candidate is being imposed upon them.

We hear from the interview that Tu Le learned only from the media that she had been pushed aside. She does not explicitly criticise the Labor machinery, but anyone listening to her would realise that she is warning that the decision to bring in someone with no local connection will cost Labor votes. (Nine minutes.)

That interview is followed by a short (four minute) interview with Guardian political reporter Amy Remeikis: Parachuting Keneally into Fowler damages Labor’s diversity claims. She acknowledges Keneally’s good performance record and abilities, but the way she has pushed out a strong local candidate is not good politics.

No, Andrew, independents can and do serve the public interest

On the ABC’s 7.30 in a short (five minute) session on campaigns by grassroots independents, Andrew Bragg made the extraordinary statement, “an independent member can’t be a member of the government. That is a fact. So people who want to see particular initiatives, whether they be policy initiatives or local initiatives pursued, then they need to have a member in their area, that is a member of the government.”

In fact there is nothing in our Constitution constraining any elected senator or representative from executive government, and our Constitution, as is the case in most democracies, makes it clear that it is parliament, not executive government, that governs the country. In any event independents can exert significant leverage — ask Julia Gillard. Bragg, like so many other politicians in large parties, seems to have trouble understanding that executive government operates with the consent of parliament.

In our roundup on August 28 we drew attention to the successful Voices for Indi campaign, and pointed out that there are at least 33 other “Voices for” or “Voices of” movements in Australia, most of which have come together in the last two years. Cathy McGowan has written a handbook about how to get elected and how to be effective once elected: Cathy goes to Canberra: doing politics differently. The 7.30 segment referred to above, and an accompanying article on the ABC website, describe the vigour and enthusiasm of “Voices of Hume”, “Voices of Indi”, and “Voices of Groom”. High margins enjoyed by sitting Coalition members don’t deter them.

Bags of money

“Can you imagine: somebody turns up to a politician’s office wearing a mask, a hood over their head, and presents a bag of cash,” said Malcolm Turnbull about the anonymous donation to Christian Porter. On the ABC’s RN Breakfast program Fran Kelly interviewed Geoffrey Watson about the legal and integrity issues in this donation: Anonymous donations and the “malignant influence” of money in politics. Morrison has sought advice on the appropriateness of Porter’s acceptance of the donation, but no-one needs advice on whether it is proper for a cabinet minister to accept money from a secret donor. Watson sees the whole episode as indicative of a much more serious disease in the political realm, including the malignant influence of money, particularly dark money, in politics. (Nine minutes.)

The Taliban’s broken promises

The Taliban’s public statements about amnesty for former security workers and public servants, a prohibition of house-to-house searches, and women’s rights, don’t match with the reality observed on the ground.

These are some of the dismaying but unsurprising findings revealed in a statement last Monday by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. She reveals several details that are not necessarily picked up by the media. Most notably, in several locations girls over 12 have been prohibited from attending school, and there is an under-representation of Pashtuns in the all-male “caretaker cabinet”.

Polls, surveys and elections

Essential — we’re in no rush to “open up”

Apart from one question related to the Women’s Safety Summit (which finds we don’t think it will do much to curb violence against women and children), this fortnight’s Essential Report is entirely devoted to COVID-19.

We’re in no hurry to open international or state borders. Only 26 per cent of us understand the prime minister’s plan to open up and a further 39 per cent understand it but have no confidence in it.

We are generally in favour of mandatory vaccination for certain workers (e.g. health workers) and certain occasions (e.g. travel by air) but not for everyone. On these questions there are significant partisan differences: Coalition voters are most strongly in favour of vaccination mandates, followed by Labor voters, Green voters and “other” voters.

Just over half of us are concerned about the adequacy of our health systems to cope with a surge in cases. One surprising finding is that 39 per cent of us believe that “people vaccinated against COVID-19 should be prioritised for medical attention over unvaccinated people”. (Similar views are becoming evident in other countries.)

Perhaps the most important finding is that only 6 per cent of us say “I’d never get vaccinated”. There are partisan and regional differences however: 15 per cent of “other” voters and 8 per cent of people living in Queensland say they would never get vaccinated. Where small percentages are involved surveys carry a significant margin of error, but we are seeing these same partisan and regional differences in other surveys.

In general, across all questions, support for vaccination is strongest among Coalition voters.


It’s not an election but a change in prime minister just weeks before a general election due before the end of November. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s personal approval rating has tumbled to 27 per cent, leading him to announce that he will not contest the election. On last week’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue and Rikki Kersten of ANU’s Australia-Japan Research Centre discuss the reasons for Suga’s fall from favour: Sayonara Suga. The expected boost from a successful Olympic Games didn’t eventuate. Instead the public are annoyed about the government’s handling of the pandemic. (10 minutes).

(The outbreak of the Delta variant coincided with the Olympics, with infections in Japan peaking in late August. Over the course of that wave daily infections averaged about 140 per million population — about the same rate as in New South Wales. Around half of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated.)


Most observers see the outcome of Norway’s election on Monday as a significant swing to the left. The Labour Party actually experienced a small drop in support but the ruling Conservative Party and other parties on the “right” suffered greater falls, while smaller “left” and “centre” parties did reasonably well, allowing Labour to pull together a coalition government with a large majority of seats. Up-to-date results are available from Politico.

Writing in The Guardian Jon Henley notes that inequality and climate change were the major campaign issues: Norway election result: Labour celebrates but coalition talks loom. Deutsche Welle notes that Labour wants to see gradual, rather than immediate reduction in the country’s reliance on oil and gas, but in a coalition government there will be parties further on the left pushing for faster action: Norway election: Conservative PM concedes after left-wing opposition victory.

Morocco — more liberal but not necessarily more democratic

Although it is a monarchy with a king holding many powers, Morocco is one of the few Arab countries to hold reasonably free elections. In elections on September 8 the governing Justice and Development Party (PJD), a conservative Islamic party, lost heavily to the National Rally of Independents (RNI), a more secular and liberal party.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this as a swing to the “left” or towards democracy. Al Jazeera has a 24-minute presentation by three political experts: What is behind the PJD’s defeat in Morocco’s election? The issues were mainly about economic management — the failure of living standards to have improved significantly over the last few years.


Australia Institute webinars

Wednesday September 22, 1100 AEST: “The Nordic Edge: Media diversity with Sarah Hanson-Young”. Do the Nordic countries offer lessons Australia could learn from to ensure we have a diverse media with a strong focus on public interest journalism?

The webinars are free, but registration is essential. See the institute’s webinars webpage.

UTS Vice Chancellor’s Democracy Forum

Friday 24 September, 0930 AEST. The author of Don’t be evil: how big tech betrayed its founding principles and all of us, Rana Forhoorar (Global Business Columnist, Associate at the Financial Timesand CNN’s global economic analyst) will explore with Emeritus Professor Roy Green, the economics of Big Tech and its importance to the future of democracy around the world.  Register on the UTS website.


OK — Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has become a bit hackneyed but it would be hard to find a rendition as lively as this one by The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields performed in Wales’ National Botanical Gardens.

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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