Nov 9, 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).

Ehud Yarri on the changing face of the Middle East

After the Wall: November 9 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the start of a reunification process that, arguably, still continues today. Anna Funder, author of  Stasiland  and a long-time observer of East German politics, reflects on the legacy of this event.

Retail sales are down but have we stopped buying – or just changed the way we spend? Welcome to the world of Rent the Runway, “frictionless” experiences and Insta-shopping. Guests: Clare Press, fashion and sustainability journalist, Vogue Australia  and Pippa Kulmar, co-director, Retail Oasis.

Don’t follow the leader: Lord Christopher Patten, former Governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of Oxford says we are suffering a dearth of transformational global leadership – and his own Conservative party is not exempt from blame.

In “Our Women on the Ground”, Lebanese-British journalist Zahra Hankir brings together the voices of 19 female journalists reporting on the Arab world.

Other commentary

Re-kindling the light on the hill

Those who feared Labor’s  review of its 2019 election campaign  would recommend an insipid Coalition-lite policy approach will be relieved. It’s a comprehensive document, rich in analysis and frank admissions about the party’s failings in the 2019 campaign – indeed in the whole period since the Dutton-Morrison putsch, because the party hadn’t realized how the contest had changed with the departure of Turnbull and his replacement by a campaigner, skilled in the dark arts of marketing and whose campaign would not be constrained by considerations such as truth, reason or accuracy.

The document has 60 findings about what went wrong in the campaign and 26 recommendations to guide its future presentation to the electorate. Many of its findings are already well-known: for example Labor lost badly in Queensland and in outer-metropolitan and rural electorates, while it gained support in urban regions and among the well-educated.

The only snippet of evidence not already gleaned from the AEC website and census data is the finding (#31) that Chinese Australian voters swung strongly against Labor. And there is confirmation that Labor’s policies on negative gearing or franking credits did not cost it votes: in fact voters most likely to be affected by Labor’s franking credit policy swung to Labor. But the review confirms that “economically insecure, low-income voters who were not directly affected by Labor’s tax policies swung strongly against Labor in response to fears about the effect of Labor’s expensive agenda on the economy, fuelled by the Coalition and its allies.”

What may be its strongest finding (#13) is that “Labor’s policy formulation process lacked coherence and was driven by multiple demands rather than by a compelling story of why Labor should be elected to government”, confirming what many have said about a lack of “narrative” grounded in enduring values.

Perhaps its most surprising finding (#52) is that the Coalition was much more adept than Labor at using social media. (see the second entry in this week’s compilation “act fast, break things”.)

One finding (#33) reveals a trend overlooked in most commentary so far: Labor scores a lower primary vote in the Senate than in the House of Representatives, and this gap has been widening. Unless Labor can close that gap, a re-elected Labor Government could find its reform program thwarted in the Senate. The review points out that Labor targeted too many seats (#6), but it has to have a presence in unwinnable seats if its Senate vote is to improve.

Those who were fearing (or hoping) that Labor would back off on climate change will note its statement:

A modern Labor Party cannot neglect human-induced climate change. To do so would be environmentally irresponsible and a clear electoral liability. Labor needs to increase public awareness of the costs of inaction on climate change, respect the role of workers in fossil- fuel industries and support job opportunities in emissions-reducing industries while taking the pressure off electricity prices.

“Act fast, break things”

That may appear to be a corporate motto for a team of housebreakers, but in fact it’s a description of the working methods of a pair of young New Zealanders who grew up in the ranks of that country’s Young Nationals, working to protect their country from the imagined horrors of an Ardern Labour government. Without regard to any ethical constraints about interfering in other countries’ domestic politics, they went on to sell their skills to Scott Morrison, and are now helping Boris Johnson inflict similar damage on Britain’s economy and democratic institutions.

On the ABC website Michael Workman and Stephen Hutcheon  describe their methods – methods relying heavily on short and deliberately misleading graphics on social media. Their messages were about “property tax”, “retirement tax”, “car tax”, and repetitions of Morrison’s meaningless (but effective) mantra – messages that can be taken in, but not considered or analysed, in the 1.7 seconds the average Facebook user spends on each post. (Reader warning – graphic depiction of lies.)

Morrison’s quiet Australians

Quelling the voices of dissent

One of the findings of the  Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety  (summarised last Saturday) was that nursing home staff were using medication as a means to keep troublesome patients quiet.

Writing on the ABC website, Laura Tingle considers Morrison’s  attempts to quieten other troublesome and noisy Australians, including Getup! and environmental groups that draw attention to bad corporate behaviour. In his rejection of indigenous Australians’ idea of a voice to parliament, he would obviously be satisfied if they too remained quiet.

How did we get to the point where the New York Times would call Australia “the world’s most secretive democracy”?

That’s one of the questions addressed in Peter FitzSimons’  2019 Andrew Ollie Memorial Lecture. A remedy: “a good start would be not raiding the offices of the ABC and the homes of fine journalists, while threatening to imprison them”

A portrait of an authoritarian as a “warm and friendly daggy dad from the suburbs”

Carol Johnson of the University of Adelaide, writing in The Conversation, asks  Is the Morrison government “authoritarian populist” with a punitive bent?  Morrison’s tactic is to single out groups – welfare recipients, climate change protestors, media, even big business of late – contrasting them with supposedly more worthy Australians. “Perhaps ‘ScoMo’ is just a more personable Dutton in some respects”, she concludes.

Morrison and Frydenberg dismiss independent economic advice: that’s bad news

Fiscal vs monetary policy: Lowe 13, Frydenberg 1 but Frydenberg has the ATM code

Earlier this year The Conversation formed an economic forecasting panel. Peter Martin reports that 13 of those economists were surveyed on their views on the standoff between the Reserve Bank and the Government about ways to breathe some life into our struggling economy. All believe that the economy needs a fiscal stimulus (the RBA view): monetary policy alone (as urged by the Government) is ineffective.  We asked 13 economists how to fix things. All back the RBA governor over the treasurer. All but two say the Government should give up its goal of a 2019-20 budget surplus: the economy should not be sacrificed for the sake of fiscal rectitude.

Tax reform: Even a Liberal MP doesn’t get a hearing

Chrispin Hull reports that a suggestion by Western Australian Liberal Backbencher Dean Smith for tax reform met with a chilly rejection from Morrison.  Last chance for tax fix. Smith’s proposal is for a widening of the GST to include some presently-exempt items. That revenue could replace distortionary and economically inefficient state taxes such as payroll tax and stamp duty. Morrison, however, didn’t even consider the trade-offs, dismissing tax-reform as “too hard” – and isn’t everything OK anyway?

These are yet two more indications that the Morrison Government is a know-it-all outfit, most ignorant of what they’re most assured.

Why bother with economists and experts? Ministers know where to spend public money

“Advice provided by the Department … was largely appropriate, however the assessment processes were not to the standard required by the grants administration framework.”

“Applications were not soundly assessed in accordance with the program guidelines. The eligibility requirements were not applied in full, and there are indications of shortcomings in the assessment of the merit criterion most directly related to the program outcomes.”

The quotes above are from the Australian National Audit Office’s Report on the Commonwealth’s Regional Jobs and Investment packages. Its language is as close as officials come to outright accusations of corrupted processes.

Out of 634 applications, the Department had recommended 232 be funded. Of those 232 the ministerial panel rejected 64, while funding 68 projects that had not been recommended. The report is particularly revealing when it comes to the different treatment of projects in two adjoining marginal NSW electorates – Eden-Monaro held by Labor and Gilmore held by Liberal. (Gilmore was subject to a fierce National/Liberal contest following Morrison’s decision to endorse Warren Mundine. In spite of the Coalition’s de-facto support from the Regional Jobs and Investment Package, Labor won the seat.)

Farm prices are booming: so why is the government throwing money at the bush?

Strong demand for farm products, combined with a reluctance by struggling farmers to put their properties on the market, are combining to push up farm prices.  Mchael Pascoe, editor of The New Daily shows how  farm prices in the eastern states have been rising  by 10 to 16 per cent in the last two years. Now farmers are offered loans to help them carry on, even tough climate change (which the Morrison Government assiduously refuses to associate with the “drought”) may be requiring a fundamental change in these businesses, rather than the struggle of holding on trying to entice a yield out of unproductive land.

High prices of course do not provide an income, but they can provide an opportunity for farmers to make a dignified exit, rather than to struggle with an increased burden of debt, and to have to exit when land prices may be far less favourable.

Australia ranked as the world’s best-performed economy

The only trouble is that was in 2013, according to  Alan Austin’s research  for Independent Australia. In 2019  according to his model  we have slipped down to 28th place, just behind Belarus but ahead of Lithuania and Bulgaria. Austin’s ranking is based on 8 indicators collected by global economic agencies – income, GDP growth, median wealth, jobs, inflation, taxes, government debt and economic freedom. Lest one thinks that Austin’s criteria and weights are designed to show left-leaning governments in a good light, it should be noted that his model places Singapore in the top spot for 2019.

Polls and surveys


Not much in the regular polls this week. Essential has a poll about  horses, racing and gambling: perhaps they have found the only issues on which there is no discernible difference between Labor and Coalition voters.

Federal politicians

As part of its Democracy 2025 Project, the Museum of Australian Democracy commissioned a study  How Australian federal politicians would like to reform their democracy (Gerry Stoker, Max Halupka, Mark Evans). It is based on structured interviews with 98 members of Federal Parliament (43 per cent of MPs). It finds that in responding to this anonymous survey, politicians say they are concerned to strengthen the performance of representative democracy. (But may party loyalty perhaps be a greater concern?) Populist measures, such as postal plebiscites, don’t find much support.

Tellingly, the survey finds that for politicians the biggest “dislike about Australian democracy” is media misrepresentation, while for the general public it is the poor behaviour of politicians, followed by poor leadership.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that 76 per cent of the MPs surveyed believe “parties and candidates should be limited in how much money they can spend on election campaigning and how much they can accept from donors”. Politicians don’t seem to like being in thrall to big donors. (This finding begs an obvious question.)

On the issue of donations, the Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths have some figures on the  donations and expenses  of four independents who ran in 2019 (two were successful, two failed). The amounts are high, and the candidates tend to rely on reasonably large contributions from a small number of donors. But these figures are trivial in comparison with the amounts Clive Palmer spent to help the Coalition in this year’s election: see page 75 of the  Labor election review.

Participation in the MOAD survey was voluntary, which means there may be a degree of selection bias (e.g. it may cover the views only of the most concerned politicians). Coalition members were significantly under-represented. Presumably they’re reasonably satisfied by the way our model of democracy works for them.


One aspect of the ABC’s Australia Talks project has been analysis of Australians’ attitudes to religion. There is no website giving clear numerical results, but Andrew West of the Religion and Ethics Program has given  some summary data  on the ABC  Breakfast Program  (7 minutes). “About 15 per cent of Australians think Australia would be better off if we were more religious: 85 per cent of people don’t think that”.  The survey finds that most Australians (particularly older people) believe that religion is a private matter, and that Australians have lost trust in religious leaders. More surprisingly most people believe there is religious discrimination in Australia.

While Andrew West covers some multicultural issues uncovered in the Australia Talks project, the ABC has a rich web item  Religion in Australia is unlike anywhere else in the world  illustrating religious ceremonies – Hindu, Islam, Orthodox Christian, Vietnamese Caodaism, Sabian Mandaeism … (sorry, no Pentecostal ceremonies). It also has some religion data from the 2016 Census.

Why do “evangelical” and “born again” US Christians support Trump?

In the 2016 election 81 per cent of “white” American voters describing themselves as “evangelical” or “born again” voted for Trump, and in spite of his behaviour, they still support him.  On the Religion and Ethics ReportAndrew West interviews Professor John Fea of Pennsylvania’s Messiah College. Fea is among the minority of evangelicals who did not vote for Trump, but he  explains why  others did vote for him.  (30 minutes. Don’t be misled by the program’s title – it only touches on al-Baghdadi.)

If you want to live longer it’s easy: be rich

Writing in The Saturday Paper  Mike Seccombe reports on  The fatal cost of Australia’s rising inequality. There is a six-year difference between the top and bottom 20 per cent of the population, he reports, and drawing on various sources, he warns that the gap is widening over time. For the poor, factors that lead to bad health outcomes – lack of exercise, poor diets, high stress – are not a matter of choice: they are a result of a lack of opportunities enjoyed by more fortunate people.

(Schwartz media allows one free article a month. If you are hungry for good journalism, particularly if you live in one of the regions where Murdoch dominates, the Saturday Paper fills a big gap.)

Britain’s election: the case for minority government

Why I want another hung Parliament  is the self-explanatory title of an article by renowned economic journalist Martin Wolf in the Financial Times. Wolf “would not trust the Tories or Labour with a majority”, but he would be enthusiastic about a “hung parliament” – a possibility in view of the low voter support for the Tories (35 per cent) and even lower support for Labour (25 per cent) in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

(It is notable that Britain, like Australia, is one of a handful of democracies where the winner-take-all model prevails, and where journalists and politicians use the quaint term “hung parliament” when a party fails to gain a majority.)

It is possible that you will hit a paywall with the FT. If you do, a reasonable coverage of Wolf’s article, from a “remain” perspective, is given by Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK: A hung parliament may be a good outcome from this election.

Eastern Europe – re-erecting the Iron Curtain

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991 Romania 3.4 million people, most of them under 40 years old, have left the country and moved westward.  That’s in a country with a population almost the same size as Australia: imagine losing every young person from Melbourne or Sydney.

Writing in Zeit Online,  A New Mental Barrier Is Dividing Europe, Ivan Krăstev reports how population loss in Eastern European countries is becoming “fertile ground for populist politics”, and how in countries with authoritian governments, such as Poland and Hungary, there is strong support for measures that would make it illegal for citizens to leave for extended periods. Also, in a positive feedback loop, the loss of young and liberal-minded people is strengthening the electoral base for those same authoritarian governments.

Why are so many people taking to the streets?

Algeria, Bolivia, Britain, Catalonia, Chile, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Pakistan – all have seen mass protests in recent weeks.

Writers for The Economist  ask  is there any unifying theme? They consider two competing ideas – widening inequality and the downfall of capitalism – but because each situation seems to have its own causes, dismiss any such generalities. They suggest that smartphones have made it easier for people to organise a demonstration, and they point to a large youth demographic, but those factors don’t explain why people come out on the streets.

They offer possible explanations particularly relevant to mature democracies, particularly countries with winner-take-all political “Westminster” systems. One is that “people may be feeling unusually powerless these days, believing that their votes do not matter”.  Another is “perhaps related growth in intolerance, a breakdown in the bargain at the heart of Western-style democracy—that losers, who may often represent a majority of the popular vote, will agree to accept rule by the winners until the next election”.

Accidental heroes – America’s ambassadors to Ukraine

As yet you may not have heard a great deal about Marie Yovanovitch and William Taylor, former and present US ambassadors to Ukraine, but they will become subjects of increasing international attention as they testify in the Trump impeachment hearings.

These are the public servants who refused to cooperate with Trump’s proposal to exchange military aid for Ukraine for cooperation from the Ukrainian Government in finding dirt on Joe Biden’s son.

Writing in the  New York Review of Books, Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia and now a professor at Stanford, describes them as career officials who, when faced with the choice of serving country or advancing the personal interests of the president, “put country first.”

McFaul’s article  goes well beyond a defence of two officials. It is a defence of public service generally, particularly the State Department where he finds men and women demonstrating extraordinary professionalism, energy and dedication. He contrasts those qualities with the slapdash and disrespectful approach of Trump and his inner circle, who “have taken disregard for our career diplomats to a new level, one of outright trashing”. Trump’s idea was “to do the entire job of diplomacy around the world himself—with maybe an assist from his son-in-law Jared Kushner”.

Inside Trump’s Tweetosphere

Bismarck is reputed to have said “Je weniger die Leute davon wissen, Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie nachts“ – the less that people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better do they sleep at night. Perhaps the motto for our times could be “the less we know about how Trump’s tweets are generated, the less we have to worry about the shaper of US policy”.

But a group of New York Times journalists disturbs our sleep by  bringing us   a look inside the Trump tweet works – the processes (a degree of randomness), production figures (now above 250 a week), the quality control processes (minimal), market size (66 million followers, two thirds of whom may be virtual), and the market feedback (a distinct disconnect between “likes” and approvals.)

Motoring news

Peak car?

It’s hardly news that the world’s automobile manufacturers are having a hard time. Writing in Business Insider, Ben Winck  asks whether the industry’s downturn is simply an aspect of current tough economic conditions, or whether it may be looking to a “peak car” phenomenon in the foreseeable future. A number of factors to do with demographics and urban design are pointing to saturation in wealthier countries, and markets in developing countries may not be picking up the slack.

How private schools contribute to road congestion

Writing in Open Forum  The hidden traffic impacts of private schooling  Matthew Burke of Griffith University has studied the commuting patterns of school children, and has found that , on average, “private secondary school children are travelling 7.8 km each way, on average, to get to and from school”, noting that travel to school corresponds with the morning peak. The reason has to do with catchment areas. (If you are sceptical about Burke’s finding, compare a peak-hour morning commute during school holidays and when schools return.)

Stock market news 

When trading opened on the ASX on Wednesday Medibank Private shares plunged by nine per cent, while their rival NIB also fell sharply – by five per cent. Prices have subsequently only partially recovered. According to Medibank Private executives, as reported by ABC finance reporter David Chau, Medibank’s share plunge followed realisation that the company had under-estimated the volume and unit cost of claims, particularly in relation to “replacement body parts”.

This is yet another reminder, as pointed out by many contributors to Pearls and Irritations, that private health insurers lack the means to exercise strong control on usage or service providers’ prices – the sort of control a single national insurer is able to exercise.

If I pick your fruit, will you put mine back?

That’s the title of an  exhibition  at Sydney’s Carriageworks, exhibiting the art of John Vea, a Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) based artist who works with sculpture, video and performance art. The exhibition depicts the experience of Pacific Island people – unseen and unrecognised by shoppers – who work as laborers in Australia and New Zealand on temporary visas to plant, harvest and pack crops in exchange for minimum wages.

The exhibition runs until Sunday December 15.

Three crowded minutes of political enthusiasm

It is just two years since Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s Prime Minister. See  her run through  her government’s list of achievements over those two years.  It is also a little over a year since Scott Morrison became Prime Minister; see a  similar website  for his government’s achievements.


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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