Aug 31, 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).

Brazil’s catastrophic fires are just a series of crises facing the country – but the new president seems to be short on solutions.

Will the forthcoming election in Israel manage to shift Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power?

A Foreign Affair  this month looks at President Macron’s G7 triumphs, the historical wrongs between Japan and South Korea, and how Indonesia’s Muslims plans to take their religion back from the Wahabis

If you want to have a good life, you should think about how to have a good death – so what would that entail?

 The survivor’s tale – an incredible against the odds story from the battle of Long Tan.

Other commentary

Is democracy dying?

Democracies are generally thought to die at the barrel of a gun, in coups and revolutions. These days, however, they are more likely to be strangled slowly in the name of the people.

That’s the introduction to editorial comment in the most recent Economist. The editors are understandably critical of populists who “sneer at elites, even if they themselves are rich and powerful”. They also warn of the tide of cynicism that has led citizens to hold politics in contempt and has led politicians to vandalise traditions and institutions with impunity.

George Monbiot’s explanation for the rise of populist buffoons

George Monbiot asks why democracies have turned to “extravagant buffoons” to lead their countries:

Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Matteo Salvini, Recep Erdogan, Viktor Orban and a host of other ludicrous strongmen – or weakmen as they so often turn out to be – dominate nations that would once have laughed them off stage.

He finds an  explanation in the way capitalism has changed. Entrepreneurial capitalism needs the service of a competent government, but the capitalism of rent-seekers and of multinational firms that have no dependence on any one country’s public policy seeks and thrives with weak and pliable governments.

The Coalition should thank us for helping fund their election propaganda

That’s not exactly the way the Australian National Audit Office has put it in their report Government Advertising: June 2015 to April 2019, but that’s its essential message. The ANAO is particularly critical of the advertising messages in the government’s “Powering Forward” campaign which claimed to be about helping energy users to find the most reliable and affordable energy sources and to manage their bills and usage. Although the statements “presented information as fact”, the ANAO, drawing on material provided by the Government, was unable to find that the material was accurate or even verifiable. It found “The Ministerial statement released at the launch of Phase 4 [of the Powering Forward program] contained overt political argument and could be interpreted as being directed at strengthening community support for the government of the day”.

Why did the West go to sleep as Asia woke up?

Kishore Mahbubani asks that question in his Ted Talk  How the West can adapt to a rising Asia. The West, blinded by two events – the end of the cold war and the 9/11 attacks – failed to notice Asia’s re-awakening, and failed to adapt its economies to a new world reality. Maububani seamlessly moves between what others may have traditionally categorised as “domestic” and “foreign” policies, and offers what he calls a “three m” path to policy recommendations for the West.

A brief for Morrison’s visit to Timor-Leste

Michael Leach of Swinburne University of Technology has an article in The Conversation  After a border dispute and spying scandal, can Australia and Timor-Leste be good neighbours? It includes an explanation of the processes and outcomes involved in settling a maritime boundary between our nations, pointing out our hypocrisy involving the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And of course he mentions our disgraceful behaviour around the bugging of the embassy.

On ABC’s Breakfast program on Friday Geraldine Doogue interviews former president Jose Ramos-Horta. He describes his country’s progress over the twenty years since independence, and its still huge problems in combatting poverty. When Doogue asks whether Australia’s military support in 1999 was on our initiative or at America’s urging, Ramesh-Horta diplomatically avoids a direct response. (12 minutes)

Vale David Koch

Fairfax columnist Nicole Hemmer has written an article (you couldn’t really call it an obituary) about the billionaire David Koch. He was one of the infamous Koch brothers whose donations to the Republican Party and to libertarian movements “dramatically reshaped American politics in the late twentieth century”.  She writes that the issue of “anonymous funding will plague American politics for decades, unless a future Supreme Court returns the right of free speech – and political power – to people, not corporations”.

(It’s a warning to Australia, because our disclosure laws, with their time lag, may as well not exist. In the 2019 election Palmer’s money was on full display, but we may never know where other funds – dark money – supporting One Nation and the Coalition came from.)

Big business doesn’t have to lobby governments: it already runs the show

Crikey’s Bernard Keane draws our attention to Cornelia Woll’s article in American Affairs Corporate power behind lobbying. Drawing on academic research, Woll demonstrates that corporate lobbying is far less effective than many of us may believe. One reason is that noisy corporate campaigns tend to be responded to by campaigns organised by countervailing interest groups – that’s why “quiet politics” (as explicitly favoured by Morrison) – is far more effective in securing corporate privilege than loud lobbying. Her main message is that corporations don’t have to put too much effort into getting their way because they are already so powerful. The 2008 bail-out of the finance sector, for example, was a government initiative: bankers didn’t have to beg for it. (An Australian example would be the eagerness of successive governments to subsidise private health insurance.)

Has the Bureau of Statistics become the Department of Truth?

When the ABS releases the results of a new survey most journalists lazily cobble together an article from the short summary on the Bureau’s website: few take the trouble to look further by analysing the data.

Readers may remember our puzzlement in the posting of Saturday July 20 when the ABS released its income and wealth survey. We wrote “The ABS media release is headed ‘Inequality stable since 2013-14’, but that’s not what the figures reveal’.”

Frank Stilwell and Christopher Shiel too were puzzled, as was  Paul Karp of The Guardian. Stilwell and Shiel have an article in The Conversation  about how once-independent government agencies are  downplaying growth in inequality. They reveal the drafting process in the Bureau, in which words about a significant increase in wealth inequality were edited out of the press release.

Many commentators on inequality look only at income distribution, and it is true that income distribution, while becoming more unequal, has not shown any dramatic shift so far this century. But over time income inequality, combined with rises in asset prices, builds up into significant wealth inequality, as shown in the figure below. Unsurprisingly we don’t hear much from Morrison or Frydenberg about wealth inequality.

The Department of Home Affairs – what it’s like on the inside

We know how Dutton’s strangely-named Department of Home Affairs treats refugees and asylum seekers. It’s not all that pleasant on the inside either, according to an article by the ABC’s Matthew Doran, who has gotten hold of the findings of the most recent Australian Public Service Employee Census. It finds that workers in the Home Affairs Department have the lowest levels of job satisfaction in the public service. Only a quarter said they felt valued for their work and only a third said they believed their executives to be of “high quality”. These results are strongly at variance with the public service as a whole.

For any publicly-available results we will have to wait until later in the year when the Public Service Commission produces its regular State of the Service report, which is unlikely to draw much attention to problems of public service politicisation.

Philip Lowe from Jackson Hole, Wyoming: it’s up to governments, not central banks 

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe has made a presentation at the annual Economic Policy Symposium organised by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, at which the world’s central bankers come together. Much of Lowe’s speech is technical (e.g. about the psychology of inflation targeting), but he also talks about “the elevated expectations that monetary policy can deliver economic prosperity”. Monetary policy cannot do the heavy lifting: in fact it can do nothing if all countries engage in monetary easing at the same time. Rather the onus is back on governments: reduce political shocks, give economies a fiscal boost (particularly through infrastructure provision), and engage in structural reform.

(Our Prime Minister wasn’t in Wyoming to hear Lowe’s advice: he was in France trying to get noticed among those who had gathered for the G7 meeting, where he did manage to get time with the interim prime minister of one of Europe’s fading kingdoms.)

Gonna get along without you now

Had the G7 Summit issued a communiqué,that could have been its title, for Trump’s behaviour showed he clearly didn’t want to be there. Writing in The Atlantic  Peter Nicholas describes the dynamics of the gathering – how Trump went AWOL from the meeting on climate and how he was put out by Russia’s exclusion from the forum. “The summit appeared to be organized in ways that diminished the likelihood of a Trumpian tantrum” he writes.

Getting along with the USA

Writing in the Northern Daily Leader  (in other publications but paywalled) that well-known radical left politician  John Hewson points out the stupidity of our joining “Trump’s so-called ‘coalition’ to focus on freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz.” The only other countries to have joined the US in the so-called ‘coalition’ are Bahrain and the UK. Other European countries are not in it. Our involvement serves no national interest: our military-strategic priorities should be in our own region he points out.

In an echo of our having been dragged into the Iraq war on the basis of a non-existent threat (remember “weapons of mass destruction”), Clinton Fernandez, writing on Michael West’s website,  points out that Wikileaks cables reveal that Iran presents no threat to Australia and hardly any to the US. Iran’s military strategy is defensive, says Lieutenant-General Ronald Burgess of the US Defense Intelligence Agency.

Polling in Australia: we don’t think much of Morrison orAlbanese

The most recent Essential Report shows that Morrison’s net approval rating (48 per cent) continues to be ahead of Albanese’s (38 per cent), although both seem to have suffered an uptick in their disapproval ratings.  Coming from a long way back Albanese is slowly picking up his “preferred prime minister” rating, but the main message from the poll seems to be that the electorate, particularly women, don’t think much of either.

The poll asks people about their attitude to the political influence of the USA and China on Australia. To sum it up we seem to be more positive towards the Americans than to the Chinese, but we would like both to keep out of our politics.

It also asks NSW respondents about their support of or opposition to removal of abortion from the criminal code and re-classifying it as a medical issue. There is 71 per cent support and 17 per cent opposition, with a significant gender difference but little evidence of age difference.

Polling in America: even Republicans are coming to love unions

In the USA the Gallup Poll finds that community approval of unions, which dipped sharply around ten years ago, is now near a fifty-year high, at 64 per cent. Most notable is a change of support among Republicans: in 2009 their approval was only 29 per cent but it is now 45 per cent.

Commenting on these findings, Common Dreams writer Jake Johnson points out that because of this growth in support unions will play a stronger role in the 2020 elections than they have in past elections.

Where there is no vision, the people perish”

Christians will recognise this as a quote from the Book of Proverbs. It is also a message for Labor from Professor Adrian Pabst, on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report, urging Labor to re-connect with people with religious conviction. He reminds us that Labor’s values are in line with Christian social morality, but that it has allowed itself to be portrayed as a party of aggressive secularism, a portrayal that has cost it support among voters of all religions. In the 2019 election Labor presented a series of specific policies lacking any underlying moral narrative. (28 minutes)  Pabst has written a book  Story of our country: Labor’s vision for Australia.

On the same program Kate Harrison of the Anglican Deaconess Ministries has a broadly similar message for Labor: its campaign had too many details without a sense of moral purpose. She is joined by Michael Wear who was an adviser to Barack Obama on outreach to religious communities. They have a message not only for Labor, but also for religious believers. Religion is not an “identity” defined by a tribe who come together to sing and clap every Sunday. Rather it is about beliefs and morality. Believers should beware of political parties who try to capture their vote on the shallow basis of identity. (15 minutes).  Wear is author of  Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.

Porter’s religious discrimination bill

Over the next month we can expect to hear a great deal of opinion on Porter’s religious discrimination bill. (Submissions close on October 2.)  In The Conversation  is an article by three law academics (Liam Elphick, Amy Maguire and Anja Hilkemeijer) explaining the bill’s more important details and its context in relation
to other anti-discrimination legislation.

Make your next trip a tour of libraries

National Library during Canberra’s Enlighten

Perhaps you could plan your next trip, domestic or overseas, around seeing as many libraries as possible. That’s a hint from Sturt Kells of Latrobe University, writing in Open Forum, In praise of the library. He promotes Library Planet as a useful guide. Or, if the exchange rate is stymieing your travel ideas, you can simply enjoy the luscious pictures in his article.


Global real-estate

There is little basis for the rumour that Donald Trump has made a bid to buy Queensland north of the Tropic of Capricorn, but it does seem to be true that  Denmark has recently been active  in the global real-estate market.

Saturday’s Good Reading and Listening  is compiled by Ian McAuley


Watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.






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