Saturday’s Good Reading and Listening for the weekendJul 27, 2019
A regular collection of links to writings and broadcasts in other media
ABC’s Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue (from 0730 to 0900 or on their website in case you miss it).
BHP has made a bold move, saying it will set a target for its customers’ carbon emissions, taking responsibility for the multiplier effect. We discuss the actual and public relations impacts.
In the last week the Hong Kong protests have taken a much darker turn with attacks by triads and Beijing’s stern warnings that it won’t tolerate challenges. Where to from here? Guest: Louisa Lim
The rise of reactionary ideas and governments has been seen as a threat to the liberal left – but it’s an even bigger threat to the old style conservative right which values order and tradition. Guest: John Prideaux, US editor, The Economist.
On A Foreign Affair – guests Rodger Shanahan, Tom Clark and Gorana Grgic consider Iran, Boris Johnson, Scottish nationalism and the tensions between the Squad and other US Democrats.
Vale Graham Freudenberg
Graham Freudenberg, speechwriter to Gough Whitlam (“It’s time”) and other Labor leaders has died. “Throughout his long illness, he remained courageous and concerned for people around him, and particularly for the Labor Party that he loved” said John Menadue. Also on Pearls and Irritations Eric Walsh has written an obituary to “a modest man whose knowledge for history, literature and politics made him a national figure on the Australian political scene for nearly 50 years.”
On the ABC’s iView is a recently televised biography of Freudenberg, The Scribe “The Donald Bradman of Speechwriting”.
Polls and rumours of polls
Americans are warming to the Democrats’ policies, but this approval is not reflected in any decrease in Trump’s approval rating, according to a poll conducted by National Public Radio and its associates. A clear majority of Americans support tougher gun laws, “Medicare for all that want it”, a wealth tax, and a “Green New Deal”, but such public opinion does not translate into support for the Democrats, and Trump’s approval rating is continuing to climb.
Similarly in Australia, while polling before and after the election has generally shown little support for Morrison’s policy of cutting government services to fund tax cuts, an Essential poll shows no strong support for Albanese. Albanese’s approval rating of 39 per cent is well behind Morrison’s 48 per cent. (Morrison’s approval is stronger among retirees and those with high incomes.) In fact Morrison’s approval rating has risen since the election, even though the deceit behind his campaign is being exposed, and the public is witnessing the results of six years of Coalition’s economic mismanagement.
In a separate poll, also conducted by Essential and reported by The Guardian, 74 per cent of Australians reported that they are concerned about police raids on journalists. Coalition voters expressed less concern than Labor voters.
There is still no political party polling. (There’s probably no basis for party comparison when Labor is waving through all the Coalition’s legislation.)
Morrison’s foreign policy: “he seems drawn to Trump’s dangerous bellicosity”
That’s a quote from an article in the Canberra Times by former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh: International relations are foreign policy to Scott Morrison. Haigh, who has served in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is particularly critical of Morrison’s scant understanding of the Middle East, and the generally uncritical way he and his advisers go along with US foreign policy.
Australians want to save democracy, not do away with it
Travers McLeod, CEO of the Centre of Policy Development, writes in reply to Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation. His review is largely a confirmation of Huntley’s findings, drawing on CPD’s research. The election result does not negate Huntley’s claim that Australians have “an appetite for democratic and policy renewal”. McLeod points out that “a clear set of ideas and policies can help to build trust”, but he also points out that “ideas can also sow distrust and division”. Based on his observations in non-metropolitan communities, McLeod confirms that there is goodwill and energy to direct to problems such as climate change and the need for regional transformation. We don’t want to do away with democracy: we want to save it.
Why it’s so hard to change our constitution
Even though proposals for an indigenous voice to parliament and an Australian head of state may have strong community support, those advocating constitutional changes are reluctant to push the case because they know how difficult it is to achieve such change. Writing in Open Forum Anne Twomey of the University of Sydney explains how our rules for constitutional change developed, pointing out that federal governments need to be bound by tight constitutional rules.
The left’s last hope – corporate governance
Benjamin Friedman reviews David Webber’s The rise of the working-class shareholder: Labor’s last best weapon, in the New York Review of Books. Friedman points out that while in the US inequality has traditionally reflected differences in workers’ education and skills, the inequality that has arisen since 1990 results from “the movement of income away from employees toward whoever owns the factories and offices where they work, and the computers and other machinery they use”. Webber argues that because a large proportion of corporate equity is in US pension funds, financed by workers’ contributions, pension fund managers should concern themselves not only with the financial returns to their contributors, but also with the management of the corporations they effectively own, exercising their power to secure better wages and conditions. Friedman raises some technical difficulties with Webber’s approach, but not his principle.
(We can see the same issue at play in Australia, in the Coalition’s hysterical loathing of industry superannuation funds, even though their managers interpret contributors’ interests in a narrow fiduciary way.)
The steady drift in Australia’s wages-profit share of GDP is shown below.
Climate change: “we see this period as an escalation towards a crisis”
Who said that: Senator Sarah Hanson-Young? a spokesperson for Greenpeace? In fact it was Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP, announcing a $US400 million investment in initiatives to reduce the company’s GHG emissions. Mackenzie confirmed the firm’s endorsement of a carbon price and praised the UK Government for its nationwide emissions trading scheme.
(BHP’s shareholders clearly have an interest in the corporation’s capacity to pay dividends, which may, in the short run, be reduced as a result of this decision, they also have an interest in the future of the planet. If a corporation can consider its shareholders’ interests beyond immediate financial returns, why cannot our elected government?)
Meanwhile in Wagga, well-known as a hotbed of political radicalism and extreme green ideas, the city council voted to declare a climate emergency.
Investment advice: go lightweight on Adani
Even if you shared Matt Canavan’s and Scott Morrison’s faith in the future of coal, you couldn’t invest in Adarni’s Carmichael mine: it’s a private company within the Adani labyrinth of trusts and corporations. As such it has very little requirement to report publicly. The ABC’s Stephen Long, quoting the work of the forensic accountant Sandra van der Laan, has studied what information it has released, and finds that the Australian entity has $30 million in current assets and $1800 million in current liabilities, giving it a current ratio of 0.017:1. (Most firms, private or public, are considered bankrupt if their current ratio falls below 1:1.) Of course there are other assets in the Adani group, but those who work for its Australian operations as employees and contractors have to believe that their claims will be met. And even if its operations succeed, it’s very unlikely that the company will ever pay any substantial amount of Australian company tax.
Writing in Inside Story, John Quiggin looks at the basic economics of Adani’s coal mine. It’s a high-cost operation, because of its distance from port facilities, and because its weak liquidity means it has to pay top dollar to insurers and contractors. And more basically its business case rests on political patronage:
Adani is presumably counting on favourable access to the Indian market, where the firm’s chairman, Gautam Adani, is a prominent friend of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. But no government lasts forever, and short-term political connections aren’t a sensible basis for an investment that is supposed to last thirty years.
Boris, Brexit, and the Black Dog
That’s the title of the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night. Its attempt to cover the broad question of the rise of authoritarian governments and the specific issue of depression and mental illness – both important issues – was a muddled combination but it touched on both topics.
Its main commentator was Alistair Campbell, who was campaign director for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He opened with a warning about the present-day similarities with the 1930s when fascism arose in Europe. “I’m saying the seeds of fascism are being sown. And if we are not careful, we end up in a very dark and dangerous place” said Campbell in relation to right-wing populist movements.
The block from 20 to 40 minutes was a rich discussion about mental illness. Campbell and Geoff Gallop, who was also on the panel, have both coped with depression. They called for people’s well-being to be put at the centre of politics, as it is in New Zealand.
The last block returned to European politics (particularly the UK), before finishing with the panel’s response to the question (56 minutes in) of how Australia’s Labor Party might have improved its message to the voting public.
Is Trump a racist? The question is settled but does it have consequences?
“I think he is a racist” said Alistair Campbell on the ABC. (See the item above). “Of course he is” says Robert Reich, writing in The Guardian. The real question, says Reich “is whether the people bankrolling Trump and the Republican party are going to stop this rot before it consumes the politics of 2020, and perhaps more”. The plutocrats on Wall Street may be saying the right things on race, but they, and the rest of the Republican establishment, are still backing Trump. Their delight at his tax cuts and rollback of regulations overcomes any qualms about his racism and other moral shortcomings.
Dutton’s support for ISIS
There are about 80 Australians who have fought with ISIS, and are now in captivity in a camp in Syria. Surrounded by their fanatical colleagues, it seems to be an ideal place for their resolve to fight for ISIS to be re-kindled, and there’s no guarantee that their already stretched Kurd captors have the capacity to hold them should ISIS attack the camp to liberate them. Writing in The Conversation Greg Barton of Deakin University points out that preventing foreign fighters from returning home, as proposed in Dutton’s latest bill for temporary exclusion of Australian citizens, could be a security risk to Australia.
A modern history of Iran’s politics
There are two versions of the reasons for the hostile relations between Iran and the US. One is that Iran is simply anti-western, and has been ever since they thrashed the Greeks at the battle of Thermopylae. The other version looks to a more recent precedent, the story of the CIA having overthrown the democratically-elected Iran Government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 in retaliation for his having nationalised the foreign-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Ray Takeh provides a more nuanced account. Mosaddeq’s own behaviour, in riding roughshod over Iranian constitutional constraints and parliamentary conventions, contributed to his own downfall, and in any event the British were much more involved than the Americans.
The 2019 prize for political chutzpah
Last week we provided a link to The Grattan Institute’s report on the history and purposes of private health insurance. Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone is the latest prominent Australian to comment on the failings of PHI: “Australians are very clever, they realise when they’re being sold a dud” he is reported as saying. Even so, the myth persists that somehow our private hospitals cannot survive unless they are funded through PHI, which, in spite of its $11 billion annual subsidy, is still losing members. (Even Tony Abbott acknowledged the possibility of bypassing PHI to fund private hospitals.) But the prize for chutzpah surely goes to NIB Managing Director Mark Fitzgibbon, who said “The sensible policy approach would be to make private health insurance compulsory for all Australians with taxation devoted to subsidising the premiums for those who would otherwise be left behind.”
Taxpayer-subsidised PHI is a political scam writes John Menadue in Pearls and Irritations.
Climate change and the arts
Self-righteous-chardonnay-drinking-Balmain-dwelling urban socialists like to present the Morrison Government as a bunch of climate change-denying cretins, but the government would like to set the record straight.
Saturday’s Good Reading and Listening is compiled by Ian McAuley
Watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.