Oct 5, 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).

A year after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in a consulate in Turkey, big questions remain about the perpetrators, lack of accountability and the political implications. Guest: Martin Smith of PBS’s Frontline.

Giant digital platforms have brought us a world of global news and entertainment – but they also threaten cultural sovereignty. How should societies respond? Mark Thompson, former head of the BBC and now CEO of the New York Times  has navigated the digital tsunami twice … and he has some advice …

Once again talk of building dams to guard against drought is back on the agenda – but critics argue that there is no good reason – economic, environmental or otherwise – to back a dam.

We talk of Britain’s colonisation of India, but author and historian William Dalrymple says it’s more accurate to see it as a ruthless corporate takeover – staged by the East India Company against the once mighty Mughal empire. The tale of capitalism gone wild holds lessons for our own time.

The Pick – our regular monthly segment in which guests recommend what they’re reading, watching and listening to.

Other commentary

A guide for public servants: what to do when your bosses are lying

Dennis Grube, author of Megaphone Bureaucracy: Speaking Truth to Power in the Age of the New Normal, writes in Inside Story  about the  situation faced by Britain’s public servants – and by extension Australia’s public servants – when there is a conflict between “serving” and “blindly obeying” the elected government. How civil servants are adapting to a hyper-partisan world. As conservative governments come to treat public servants as their political agents (as Morrison has made explicitly clear in Australia’s case), public servants come under greater pressure to set the public record straight when their political masters are misleading the public through lies, obfuscation and sophistry.


Essential Report

The latest Essential Report  covers four areas of public opinion:

Morrison’s visit to the USA: we’re in favour of  “a good relationship with the US President, whoever they might be”, with 77 per cent support and little variation across party affiliation. Most Australians believe that Morrison has shown good diplomacy skills, but on this question there are sharp (and predictable) partisan differences. Just on a third of Australians believe that “the Trump presidency has been good for Australia”, a question on which there is also a strong partisan division. Coalition voters seem to be pretty relaxed about a strong Trump-Morrison relationship. The only break from this general support for Morrison and his closer relationship with Trump is that a clear majority believe he should have attended the Climate Change Summit while in New York (70 per cent), with hardly any partisan difference.

State of the economy: we’re split into three almost equal slices – good, poor and unsure. Men and younger people are more positive about the state of the economy than women and older people. In considering the importance of economic indicators, the top concerns are the unemployment rate (25 per cent of respondents) and the cost of living (“the cost of household bills”) (22 per cent). Neither GDP growth nor the “national surplus” are of significant concern.

Involvement in the Middle East:  we generally support military involvement in the Middle East, and are not particularly worried about the possibility of conflict.

Personal safety: terrorism, car accidents and the effects of climate change all score around 20 per cent as our biggest concern. In line with other findings, younger people and women are more concerned by climate change than are older people and men.

Newspoll – not much to see here

The latest Newspoll, the fourth since the election, shows a steady 51:49 TPP lead for the Coalition, but with both main parties down a little on primary vote. Poll-to-poll movements should be interpreted with caution, but what does seem to be established is strengthening support for the Greens. One Nation support is also rising, but this may simply be at the expense of other far-right parties. Morrison maintains a strong lead over Albanese as “who would make the better PM”.

Support for formula E

Would the rev heads go to a car race without the squeal of internal combustion running at  15 000 rpm?  According to an Australia Institute poll, 51 per cent of South Australians would support a “Formula E” race: that is an electric car race similar to Formula 1, but battery-powered.



Last Sunday Austrians went to the polls. Deutsche Welle  describes the outcome as a “landslide” for conservative leader Sebastian Kurz and his People’s Party and a loss for the far right.

In part the outcome could be seen as a swing from one right-of-centre party (the FPÖ) to another on the right (the ÖVP). The FPÖ had disgraced itself in a sting operation in which Vice Chancellor Strache appeared to be accepting bribes from a supposed Russian oligarch. That’s what brought on an early election. Austria also seems to be following a pattern observable in other European democracies – strengthening support for greens parties, growing support for pro-business but socially-progressive parties, and a poor showing for traditional social democratic parties who had been the dominant force in postwar Europe.

Austria, elections, Green parties, FPÖ, Österreich
FPÖ surrounded by green.

The main issue in the election was immigration. On this issue the two parties on the right seem to have been on a unity ticket, but to differentiate itself the FPÖ was also running a scare campaign warning that a “black-green” coalition (ÖVP – Grüne) jeopardises the country’s future.  Such a coalition is one of the possible outcomes: also on the cards is an ÖVP- NEOS coalition. Unlike the situation in Australia, where our dominant conservative party couldn’t imagine reaching across the electorate, it is common in mainland European democracies for coalitions to form across traditional “left-right” boundaries, rather than the “winner take all” model seen in Westminster systems.


Also last weekend another landlocked country, a little to the east of Austria, held an election. For a number of reasons, described by Michael Saft  writing in The Guardian, voter turnout in Afghanistan was low – around 20 per cent, particularly among women who did not consent to be photographed as part of the process, or who were intimidated by the Taliban. According to Aljazeera  both main rivals Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are claiming victory, but results won’t be announced for at least two weeks.

Australia’s right-wing extremists

Published on the Asia & the Pacific Policy Society website is a one hour podcast discussion on right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism.  The ABC’s Chris Farnham interviews Kristy Campion of Charles Sturt University and journalist Alex Mann. Campion defines right-wing extremism – it is not simply an extension of normal right-wing politics – and goes through a hundred-year history of similar movements in Australia. Mann describes some of the present movements, and their local and international linkages. The discussion moves on to consideration of terrorism generally – the tactics and beliefs of jihadists and of right-wing terrorists have a great deal in common. Finally there is discussion on gender: the extreme right are not only angry unemployed young “white” men.

America’s Nazis

Journalist Wayne Madsen has been studying the history of the New York-New Jersey Amerikadeutscher Bund, an organisation established by Hitler’s deputy Führer Rudolph Hess, and strongly supportive of Hitler’s New Germany. In his article The America of Trump’s Father: an Aspirational Fascism Reigned in New York, published on the Strategic Culture Foundation website, he gives a short history of one of its more active members who was arrested for participating in a KKK march, who owned thousands of apartments rented to “whites” only, and whose son has achieved high office.

A bad year ahead for America’s foreign policy

Having spent so much of America’s goodwill, having been so pre-occupied with relationships with Venezuela and North Korea, having lost the foreign policy adults from his team, and having sent so many confusing signals on foreign policy (particularly in relation to  China and Iran), the Trump administration is in a weak negotiating position. That’s the message in Hal Brands’ article Reckless Choices, Bad Deals, and Dangerous Provocations  in Foreign Affairs.  The situation is fraught with risk in an election year when Trump will be seeking some foreign policy achievements. There is some good news for any incoming administration, however: American public opinion seems to be turning away from Trump’s isolationism back towards support for America’s postwar role in taking a more active part in global security and economic affairs  (even while our own prime minister is embracing a Bannon-inspired anti-globalisation policy).

Skidelsky – learn where those economic doctrines come from

Professor of Political Economy at Warwick University (and noted biographer of Keynes) Robert Skidelsky has produced a five-minute animated video  on the importance of economic history, published by the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Throughout history economic ideas have been subject to dispute, but in recent times the economics profession has tended to converge on a single economic model – a model which is becoming “less and less congruent with the facts”. The events of 2008 revealed deep flaws in that single model, but economists still adhere to it.

Mazzucato – digital monopolies

The digital giants have been able to position themselves as monopolies, extracting massive economic rents (excess profits) from customers, and in a way traditional monopoly utilities never managed, they have been able to manipulate customers’ choices and lifestyles. “Do we really want to live in a society where our innermost desires and manifestations of personal agency are up for sale?” asks Mariana Mazzucato writing in Project SyndicatePreventing digital feudalism.  She reminds us of Adam Smith’s ideal: a “free market” is one free from economic rents, not one that is free from state control.

Lobbyists are bad for your health

That’s the message in an article in The Conversation  by Peter Miller, Gary Sacks and Narelle Robinson all of Deakin University. Politicians who become lobbyists can be bad for Australians’ health. The tactics they use are those they have learned from the tobacco industry, relying on persistence over time, rather than brute force – “water dripping on stone”. They recommend more transparency and longer delays before ex-politicians can take up lobbying work.

Should we worry about income gaps within or between countries?

Most economists concerned with equity on a global level have been guided by the principle that whatever the inequities within rich countries, the poor in rich countries are better off than even the moderately well-off in poor countries. Writing in Social Europe, Dani Rodrik questions this conventional wisdom  that prioritises closing income gaps between  countries over closing gaps within  countries, because income gaps in rich countries have become so wide. Such extreme inequality has contributed to populist nationalism, he points out. But he concludes that there need not be a tension between domestic and international objectives:

Economic policies that lift incomes at the bottom of the labour market and diminish economic insecurity are good both for domestic equity and for the maintenance of a healthy world economy that provides poor economies a chance to develop.

Vulnerable private renters

The Productivity Commission has released a research paper Vulnerable Private Renters: Evidence and Options.  It concludes that our private rental market “works well for most people, most of the time”, but the paper provides a cornucopia of evidence that shows many households to be stuck in situations of rental stress. Unsurprisingly it finds that private renters have much shorter periods of tenure than renters of public housing. But it doesn’t analyse the detrimental effect such mobility has on communities. This turnover is almost certainly driven by private investors taking advantage of tax incentives and responding to pressure from property spruikers.

The social capital of stable communities cannot be built on policy incentives favouring fast turnover of properties.  Although the term “options” appears in the title, the Commission’s self-imposed constraint not to consider “broader housing market-policies and interventions” rules it out as a useful source of policy advice. But as a data source it could be a valuable document.

It’s official – there really are reds under the beds

Between half and three quarters of our banknotes are held “as a store of value in safes, under beds and at the back of cupboards”, according to Reserve Bank Governor Phillip Lowe, explaining the Bank’s decision to go ahead with new notes, including the familiar red $20 note. That was revealed in his speech at the Bank’s Board dinner  on October 1, in which, without any conviction, he announced that the Australian economy has reached “a gentle turning point”. There was more conviction of his broad conclusion, that:

… the key to a return to more normal interest rates globally is addressing the factors that are leading to the low appetite to invest, relative to the appetite to save. This is mainly a task for governments and businesses, not for central banks.

That’s a quiet call for structural reform. Even if he had made it louder, it’s unlikely that anyone in the Morrison Government would be listening, having just won an election on the basis of opposing structural reform.

Are there any adults in the room?

“An internationally recognised 16-year-old Swede who is fluent in several languages and responsible for a rapidly changing global consensus towards climatology, is an idiot, according to a lot of old people.”  So commences the Betoota Advocate  commentary on Greta Thunberg’s performance. Readers may find the article breaks from The Advocate’s reputation for farce, but it is right in keeping with that reputation, for the farce is about the people who ridicule and patronise her, including our own Prime Minister.

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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