Oct 26, 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).

Lebanon protests: the demonstrations across Lebanon are just one of a series of mass protests across the Arab region. They’re all driven by anger at the ongoing disdain of governments for the rights of their citizens. Guest – Rami Khouri.

In the second of our series about Africa we look at the inroads Putin’s Russia is making in Africa – via arms sales and mining.

Last week Sydney University announced that it could no longer fund their chair of Australian literature. The news was seen as the final straw in what academics say is a sidelining of Australian studies in favour of international scholarship. Guest: Professor Ken Gelder, University of Melbourne.

A Foreign Affair  this month discusses the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in Southeast Asia, protests against South Korea’s “golden spoon” children, and how Chinese soft power fails. Guests: Dr Greg Fealy, Senior Lecturer at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne; Dr Jay Song, Indonesia expert at the Australian National University; Professor Stanley Rosen, Professor of Political Science, specializing in Chinese politics and society at the University of Southern California.

Usable sand is a finite resource, and we’re consuming it at a voracious pace. So what happens when the world runs out of sand? Vince Beiser is a journalist and the author of The world in a grain: the story of sand and how it transformed civilization.

Other commentary


Canada — Trudeau makes it back

Canada’s election has allowed Trudeau’s Liberals (not to be confused with Australia’s far-right party of the same name) to be returned. The Liberals and Conservatives gained around a third of the vote each. That was a 7 per cent fall in the Liberal vote and a 3 per cent gain in the Conservative vote, but under Canada’s first-past-the-post system, which used to favour parties of the right, the Liberals have done well this time. It has lost its absolute majority and will most probably be governing in association or in coalition with the left-leaning New Democrats.  Also the Greens did well coming off a small base.

Most notably the election reflects what is becoming a general pattern in democracies — a strong rural-urban divide. The Liberals’ vote is concentrated in the urbanised eastern provinces (where the Bloc Québécois have also done well). In Alberta and Saskatchewan the Liberals do not hold a single seat. A comprehensive analysis is in The Guardian.  

Switzerland — a green surge

In Switzerland the most notable election outcome has been a surge in the green vote.  There are two green parties — the Green Party and The Green Liberal Party, the former being more “left” on most economic issues. Their combined vote rose from 12 per cent in 2015 to 21 per cent in this election. Both the traditional “left” and “right” parties lost support — the right-leaning Swiss People’s Party dropping from 29 per cent to 26 percent, and the Social Democrats dropping from 19 per cent to 17 per cent. 

Unlike the peculiar winner-take-all traditions in “Westminster” democracies, the Swiss operate on a consensus model. All parties with a significant share of the vote are likely to share in government. The Guardian  provides a  short summary, while  more details  can be found in  Wikipedia.  Regional details, showing the urban swing to the  Greens, are in

Polls and surveys

Essential poll – Approval ratings creeping back in Labor’s favour

Last week’s  Essential Report  shows a small rise in Morrison’s disapproval and a small rise in Albanese’s approval, but these movements would be within the poll’s margin of error. Morrison leads Albanese as preferred prime minister – 43 per cent to 28 per cent – but it looks like the gap is narrowing.

On a list of party attributes people see little difference between Liberal and Labor.Almost two-thirds of people believe that both parties  “will do anything to win votes”, for example. In some areas, however, Labor seen as having better policies than the Coalition: in comparison with Labor the Coalition is seen as being “too close to the big corporate and financial interests”, is “out of touch with ordinary people” and is less likely to “look after the interests of ordinary people”. Labor, on the other hand, is seen as more “divided” than the Coalition.

Newspoll — not much to see here

William Bowe’s  Poll Bludger  reports on  Monday’s Newspoll. Apart from a consistent rise in the Green vote, it shows hardly any change in the primary or TPP vote from the May election.  In terms of “approval” and “preferred prime minister” some of the gloss is starting to come off Morrison (shallow advertising campaigns have a finite half-life), while Albanese’s ratings remain low and volatile. 

The long and multinational history of Kurdish betrayal

Writing in Eureka StreetTrump joins the game of Kurdish betrayal — Binoy Kampmark of RMIT University gives a short history of the ways previous American administrations and European governments have betrayed the Kurds over the last hundred years.

The crisis of the Republican Party

That’s the headline  of the New York Times  editorial of October 22.  It compares the party’s present situation with that of the 1950s, when its tardiness in dealing with McCarthyism saw it betray its own values and the oath taken by elected officials “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution against all enemies, domestic and foreign”. Trump has asked Republicans to uphold loyalty to him over adherence to values of decency, honesty and patriotism.

What does a sustainable economy look like?

If you’re in or near Sydney on Saturday 7 December, the  Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy  is holding a “dialogue” at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (280 Pitt Street), 10:00 to 16:00.

Thanks to Wayne McMillan for advising us of the event in his comments on one of the Pearls and Irritations  articles. Also commenting on the same article was Geoff Davies, letting us know of his new book  Economy, Society, Nature.

Measuring economic democracy

The Institute for New Economic Thinking presents a short (9 minutes) video of Robert McMaster, professor of Political Economy at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, describing the  Economic Democracy Index. It is compiled by assessing the quality of public decision-making at various levels of the economy as indicated by the extent the public is engaged in those decisions. He explains that those countries ranking highly on the index tend to have high labour productivity and low levels of economic inequality. In rough ranking Nordic countries come out on top, followed by other mainland European countries, followed by the US and the UK.

The economic power of stories

Economists know about the business cycle, but they don’t know the mechanisms that trigger economist busts.  The Economist, reviewing Robert Shiller’s book  Narrative Economics  has an article  How stories can help explain booms and busts.  The stories don’t have to be true: they simply have to be clear and credible.  The article’s authors use an epidemiological metaphor to explain how stories slowly gain traction, then spread wildly, and slow die away.

We’re paying too much for gas

Australia needs a  domestic gas reservation policy, writes Samantha Hepburn of Deakin University in  The Conversation. There is something absurd about plans, currently afoot, for Australian companies to import Australian gas back from Japan, when our manufacturers are suffering a loss of competitiveness and households are paying high energy bills, because of recent gas price rises. Western Australia has a gas reservation policy: why doesn’t the Commonwealth follow its example, even though since 2017 it has had the mechanism to apply one.

We’re still guzzling gasoline

We would like to believe that our CO2 emissions from motor vehicles are falling.  Engines are becoming more fuel-efficient, and many of us are buying smaller cars and hybrid vehicles.

1.4 tonnes of grunt

The reality is that Australia’s emissions from passenger vehicles are rising. The reason is a steady increase in vehicle weight and a shift to 4WD vehicles, as revealed by Robin Smit in his work  Real-World CO2Emissions Performance of the Australian New Passenger Vehicle Fleet 2008-2018  for Transport Emission Energy Research. Smit finds “A comparison with the EU, USA and Japan confirms that new Australian passenger vehicles are underperforming in relation to CO2 emissions (and fuel economy)” and “the difference between Australia and these regions is increasing”.

The case for road congestion charging

The Grattan Institute has issued a paper  calling for congestion charging  on our urban roads. Their proposal would see congestion charging implemented in three stages over time. First a cordon toll to enter the CBD at busy times (as in Singapore), then charges on the busiest main roads, and finally comprehensive user charging on a per km basis with loadings for congestion.

The authors work through the figures showing that because CBD workers enjoy high incomes, and because statistics show that people with higher incomes tend to drive further, congestion charging need not be regressive as many people fear.

(If some of the revenue from congestion charging could be used to offset or eliminate registration fees it may have quite positive equity benefits. Vehicle registration fees are a tough lump-sum call on the poor, and they have no connection to vehicle use.)

NSW political donations: it’s not just Labor who’s getting money in Aldi bags

Anthony Whealy, former ICAC Assistant Commissioner and now Chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, reveals that in many instances the NSW laws requiring public disclosure of political donations from developers  have been broken. He cites several cases where there has been “significant misconduct in Liberal Party ranks” in relation to disregard for these laws.

His concern is not only with NSW. He also writes:

At the federal level, our political donations and lobbying systems are out of control, with donation campaign and reporting laws considerably lagging behind the state laws. Importantly, we do not have an effective federal integrity agency with wide powers to uncover serious wrongdoing in relation to donations and improper lobbying – nor, it seems, is a truly effective body in contemplation.

Pokies, guns and money

Gambling expert Charles Livingstone of Monash University reminds us that Australia has more poker machines than any other country in the world (excluding the tiny casino-dominated states of Macau and Monaco). The gambling lobby in Australia has taken lessons from America’s NRA, writes Livingstone in Monash University’s LENS. Just as most Americans would welcome gun law reform, most Australians want to see access to poker machines limited, but the poker-machine lobby is adept at manipulating political campaigns, as it did when it sided with the Liberal party in Tasmania to run a deceitful campaign about job losses in country pubs if there were restrictions on poker machines.

How to make money when you think you don’t have enough

See a short clip of our Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe and Jacqueline Loh of AIA Investment Management, Singapore, speaking on  unconventional monetary policy ( i.e. central banks “printing money”) at a BIS forum. There is nothing new about money printing: America’s Confederate states, the Weimar Republic, Zimbabwe and Venezuela have all tried it, with predictable results of hyperinflation. This time it’s different, so the saying goes, because inflation, as measured by consumer prices, is stubbornly low. (But isn’t asset price inflation a problem, particularly housing in Australia, and what will it do to already highly-indebted households?)

Eswar Prasad and Ethan Yu of Cornell University, writing in Project Syndicate, aren’t so enthusiastic about over-reliance on monetary policy, particularly when it is combined with tight fiscal policy as in Germany and Australia. Countries adopting austere fiscal policy cannot go on free-riding off the stimulus offered by those few countries with expansionary fiscal policies: it’s just not sustainable. They ask  Can synchronised stagnation be stopped? – a title that hints of the destructive cycle of synchronised devaluations and protectionist policies of the 1930s.

How to combat poverty – one aspect at a time

The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has gone to three researchers – Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer – for their work on fighting poverty. The press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences summarises their research into the most effective way to combat global poverty:

In brief, it involves dividing this issue into smaller, more manageable, questions – for example, the most effective interventions for improving educational outcomes or child health. They have shown that these smaller, more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed experiments among the people who are most affected.

A  more detailed account of their work, with a focus on Michael Kremer, is in the Harvard Gazette.

How to combat poverty in Australia – it’s not difficult

Ross Gittins writes  Politicians are too poor at their jobs to fix poverty.  He gives some figures from the Salvos, who keep records about those using their financial counselling services: the number of people seeking help has increased by 40 per cent over the last five years; 60 per cent of those seeking help are women; housing and debt stress are major concerns.

He asks why the government has not acted on the Finance Sector Royal Commission recommendations about the predatory practices of payday lenders?. Why cannot a government that has been so generous to the rich increase Newstart?

Coming from a Christian background himself, he is puzzled by Morrison’s moral principles. “It never ceases to surprise me that a prime minister so ready to proclaim his Christian faith is so hard of heart when it comes to people on benefits (age pensioners excepted)”.

When did we come to see refugees and asylum-seekers as “illegals”?

On the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society website is a podcast of Julian Burnside being interviewed by Sharon Bessell of the Crawford School, on  Changing attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers. Burnside sees the events of 2001 – the Tampa incident and the 9/11 attacks – as the turning point, when John Howard was able to use the demonization of refugees to the political advantage of the Liberal Party (with help from the Murdoch Press). He reminds us that in the 2013 election campaign the two main political parties, unfettered by any constraints of moral principles, engaged in a contest to outdo each other on ways to be cruel to refugees. And he reminds us that it was Immigration Minister Scott Morrison who directed staff in the Department to deliberately mislead the public by calling refugees and asylum seekers “illegals”.  “Given enough power, governments behave appallingly” says Burnside.

The interview with Burnside is part of a one-hour podcast, starting about 11 minutes in, ending 48 minutes in. (The first 11 minutes are a general discussion about populism and Syria.)

The dark art of political manipulation

“In every age there have been political hucksters, using aggression, lies and outrage to drown out reasoned argument” writes George Monbiot  on his website. “But not since the 1930s have so many succeeded. Trump, Johnson, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison, Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolas Maduro, Viktor Orban and many others have discovered that the digital age offers rich pickings.”

He describes the psychology of political manipulation used by these populist demagogues. It involves raising people’s anxieties, because when we feel threatened we cannot hear the considered voices of reason.  No matter how carefully-considered and well-argued are the messages of opposition parties, they won’t be heard.

Morrison’s art of political manipulation

While George Monbiot simply includes Morrison as one in his list of hard-right populist manipulators (see above entry), political scientist Rodney Tiffen, writing in Inside Story –   The Morrison Playbook – identifies his outstanding capacity for distraction and deception. Morrison refuses to acknowledge the existence of policy options or contingencies:

He prefers to talk as if no reasonable person could contemplate anything but the course he has embarked on — as if his side is all pro and the alternative is all con, and the choice is between common sense and absurdity. This absolutist rhetoric projects certainty and decisiveness, and aims to close down debate.

Too many slogans, not enough explanation from government

Last week’s leak of “talking points” demonstrates not only the shallowness of the government’s policy agenda, but also its patronising attitude to the people it claims has given it a mandate.

Speaking at an awards ceremony in Parliament House, former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne spoke out against politicians’ use of dumbed-down communication. “It will take honesty to recognise that slogans may sell, they do not persuade. It will take courage to recognise that slogans sell by appealing to emotion not thought or reason”.

(Parliament House has not made available the full text of his comments: perhaps they are too close to a description of the behaviour of Morrison and his ministers. Some non-metropolitan papers have given them reasonable coverage, such as this report  in the Northern Daily Leader.)

Clarity on Trump’s Middle East policy

To clear up any misunderstanding, Huffington Post, with help from The Daily Show, provides  an explanation  of Trump’s Middle East Policy. It has a coherence that the left just doesn’t want to understand.

(Sorry we cannot bring you the Daily Show  except through the Huffington Post’s  little window. Under so-called “free trade agreements” there are geographic restrictions on US media content.)


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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