Nov 30, 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).

What happened at Westpac and could it happen again? Guests Edmund Tadros, Australian Financial Review and Hugh Harley, Adjunct Professor, University of Sydney;

Are we finally entering the year where desalination proves its worth? Guest: John Thwaites;

A Foreign Affair this month looks at Impeachalooza, why there are so many stories leaking from China and the appointment of Ahok to Indonesia’s oil and gas giant;

Meredith Lake’s multi-award winning book The Bible in Australia: A cultural history reveals the contested role the Bible played in the hands of bashers, immigrants, suffragists, writers, artists and indigenous Australians.

Last Saturday Geraldine interviewed Peter FitzSimons on James Cook.  His most recently-published book is James Cook: The story behind the man who mapped the world.

Other commentary

The end of silence – the 2019 Boyer Lectures

On Sunday Rachel Perkins will deliver the third of her three Boyer Lectures, titled The end of silence. They present a frank account of Australia’s history – the history of Australians “whose ancestry runs deep into the roots of the country” and of those Australians with more recent roots – including Perkins herself whose ancestry is in both lineages. It’s a history that includes the violence of colonisation, and the extraordinary achievements of her father, Charles Perkins. The title “The end of silence” is a reference to the yet-to-be-respected call in the Uluru Statement.

Labor and the economy – Albanese’s Speech in Brisbane

Albanese’s speech starts on aspiration – “aspiration to lift others as we lift ourselves”. Anyone who still believes that the Coalition has a better grasp on the economy than Labor can find the evidence and argument to the contrary clearly laid out in his speech (in a way that Labor didn’t make so clear before the election). He clearly dispels any idea that meaningful action on climate change would involve some compromise on economic and employment objectives.

A speech at this stage in the electoral cycle is necessarily more open than one in a campaign, but Albanese makes it clear that Labor’s priorities are to restart a long-dormant process of economic reform.

Yet, as opinion polling points out, in spite of overwhelming evidence and expert opinion on the Coalition’s economic failures, the public continue to believe in its economic competence. Alan Austin, writing on the Independent Australia site, traces one source of this belief – the ABC. His article Kelly-Frydenberg love-in dupes viewers points out that Fran Kelly, the host of ABC TV’s Insiders, refuses to challenge the Coalition on its economic policies.

(Until recently Kelly was the host of Radio National’s influential Breakfast program. On that program she handled most issues professionally, but on economic issues she hardly ever challenged Coalition ministers’ sophistries and lies. It seems, from Austin’s analysis, that the Coalition is still able to exploit her economic weakness.)

“Authoritarianism unchecked can lead to fascism”

That’s a quote from Kerry O’Brien’s Address to the 2019 Walkley Awards. It’s a warning that shouldn’t have to be made in a healthy democracy, but not all is healthy in our democracy, where the Morrison Government refuses to heed appeals for protection of basic press freedoms, and where investigative journalism is portrayed as the work of the enemies of the people.

Morrison takes Australia further down the authoritarian path

Writing in Crikey Bernard Keane comments on Morrison’s phone call to the NSW Police Commissioner in relation to the Angus Taylor scandal:

Scott Morrison’s improper intervention in the NSW Police investigation of the growing Angus Taylor scandal is yet another example of the police state that has been created in this country, by this government.

Crikey is paywalled (well worth dropping your Fin or Australian subscription and taking one for Crikey), but you can listen to Schwartz Media’s 7am podcast  Defending Angus Taylor, where Paul Bongiorno gives an account of Morrison’s defence of Angus Taylor. He finds it extraordinary that Morrison is not bothered about being seen interfering into a police investigation into one of his ministers. He concludes that “Morrison is showing a dangerous hubris – he’s right and everybody else is wrong”. (14 minutes)

What does GDP have to do with our economic well-being?  Not much

Next Wednesday, when the ABS releases the September quarter national accounts, there will be a great deal of squawking about the GDP figures.

Writing in The GuardianIt’s time to retire metrics like GDP. They don’t measure everything that matters – Joseph Stiglitz warns:

It is clear that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we assess economic performance and social progress. Even worse, our metrics frequently give the misleading impression that there is a trade-off between the two; that, for instance, changes that enhance people’s economic security, whether through improved pensions or a better welfare state, come at the expense of national economic performance.

This is not an abstract argument about the meaning of national accounts. Writing in Common Dreams John Queally, drawing on Stiglitz’s work, concludes that unless the obsession with GDP comes to an end:

…there will be little chance of adequately fighting back against the triple-threat of climate destruction, the scourge of financial inequality, and the crises of democracy now being felt around the globe.

Queally’s piece Everything is not fine promotes Stiglitz’s new book, co-authored with Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Martine Durand, Measuring what counts: the global movement for well-being.

Polls and elections

Newspoll – no significant move in party votes, but we seem to be turning off Morrison

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on the latest Newspoll, which shows a 51:49 TPP lead to the Coalition and figures on primary votes that suggest there has been no statistically significant movement from the May election results. It reveals a poor net approval for Morrison:  43 per cent approval, 52 per cent disapproval, while Albanese’s ratings are 38 per cent approval, 42 per cent disapproval.  (Are Australians starting to see Morrison in a clearer light – someone whose only political aspirations are to hold the top job and to earn the respect of his tribe by keeping Labor out of office?)

The poll suggests that Morrison’s lead as preferred PM is narrowing. That may well be so, but unless poll-to-poll swings are very large and sustained over a number of periods they are best ignored. Each poll has a margin of error, and numbers suggesting a difference between successive polls have a vastly amplified margin of error.

Most Coalition voters do not believe “climate change is happening and is caused by human activity”  

That’s one of the findings of the latest Essential Report, which surveyed people on their beliefs on climate change, policies to address climate change, and whether they believed the recent bushfires are linked to climate change. The partisan differences are stark: 60 per cent of Australians believe we are not doing enough to address climate change, but only 46 per cent of Coalition supporters believe we are not doing enough.

On climate change there are unsurprising age differences. There are also gender differences: women are significantly more likely than men to accept the science of climate change, to believe we are not doing enough to combat it, and to understand the high probability that the bushfires are linked to climate change. The poll also asks if people believe it is appropriate to raise the issue of climate change in the context of the fires: on this question there are very large partisan and gender differences.

The same poll surveys attitudes to “Medevac”. That is the legislation, passed in February against the wishes of executive government, allowing medical practitioners to have more say in determining appropriate medical treatment for people in offshore detention. The Dutton-Morrison Government wants to repeal it. Only a small proportion (22 per cent) of those surveyed believes it weakens our borders. Even among Coalition supporters only 29 per cent believe it weakens our borders.

Hong Kong district council elections

These are about more than dates of trash collection and the price of dog licenses. Rather they are a proxy for the contest between the pro-Beijing camp and the democracy movement.  According to Holmes Chan, writing in the Hong Kong Free Press, turnout was 72 per cent of eligible voters – “a 25 percentage rise when compared to the previous District Council election four years ago”.

Tony Cheung’s analysis in the South China Morning Post summarises the results:

Of the 452 seats up for grabs, the pro-democracy camp netted 392 – comprising 347 pan-democrats and 45 independents who are friendly with the camp. The pro-establishment camp had to settle for the remaining 60.

This compares with the same broad group holding just 126 seats in the previous election.

Apart from bland reports of the elections having been held, there does not seem to be a great deal of information in official Chinese media.

The popular reach of Chinese media in Australia

Writing on the ABC website, Wanning Sun, of the University of Technology Sydney, gives an account of Chinese-language (mainly Mandarin) media in Australia. These media include local translations of  mainstream English-language media, print and online, and online media from China that many Australians of Chinese origins access.  She found that many believed that Chinese Government media is no more or less credible than Australian mainstream media.

Chinese-language media in Australia may neither be merely a blunt tool of the Chinese government and its state media, nor just a ventriloquist for mainstream English-language media. Rather, wedged between an anti-Chinese public rhetoric in Australia and anti-Australian responses in China’s state media, this sector seems to exist profitably by actively giving voice to PRC migrants’ sense of ambivalence towards both Australia and China.

On ABC Breakfast Max Chalmers interviews Maree Ma, General Manager of the independent Australian  Chinese language newspaper Vision Times, and other experts,  on the coverage and possible biases in news sources in Chinese. Are Chinese Australians getting the full news?

The political reach of Chinese scholars

“China’s universities today are now deeply invested in an interdependent global system of research and educational collaboration. Since the Chinese Communist Party seems intent on instrumentalizing that system to influence global opinion of its governance and ideology, and to police foreign academic opinion it deems inimical to its interests, it was inevitable that foreign scholars would become vulnerable to such policies”, writes Shaun O’Dwyer of Kyushu University in The Japan Times, 26 Nov.

The effort by the party-dominated Chinese government to control the narrative on discussions of China by foreign academics is of interest to many countries, including Australia. O’Dwyer discusses an unusual case involving a Japanese scholar detained for two months in China for possessing inappropriate books which he had bought at a bookshop, but released after two months under a combination of good timing and appropriately channelled pressure.

A revolt against the revolts

So far the story of mass discontent has been one of the rise of populists in reaction to the failed promises of neoliberalism – generally a populism of the “right” (Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Johnson, Morrison, Orbán, Trump), but also of the “left” (Chávez, Maduro). These populists have ridden a wave of discontent, but they have let down those who swept them into power and have engaged in new levels of government corruption. Writing in The New York TimesThe revolt against populism – David Brooks looks at the latest rounds of protests. “The overall message is that the flaws of liberal globalization are real, but the populist alternative is not working”.  He asks “what’s next?”.

Daphne Halikiopoulou, Associate Professor in comparative politics at the University of Reading, UK, provides a concise summary of the flaws of current populism. Writing in Social EuropeResisting the seductions of populism – she explains how populism seeks to bypass and undermine democracies’ intermediary institutions, designed to preserve the rights and liberties of all citizens when there emerges a supposed political majority based on mass movements:

Societies consist of different social and attitudinal groups, with diverse—often conflicting—preferences. Without institutions which reconcile rather than exacerbate these preferences, democracy stands on precarious ground.

 Why private health insurance is in a death spiral: blame private hospitals

Stephen Duckett and Kristina Nemet of The Grattan Institute have published a report Saving private health 1: Reining in hospital costs and specialist bills, essentially recommending that private hospitals learn from and adopt the cost-saving and efficiency-improving methods of public hospitals. As in public hospitals there should be an “efficient price” which bundles all costs – medical practitioners, medications, prostheses, accommodation and so on – presented as a single bill to patients or their insurers. “Private hospitals would have to absorb any excess costs from doctors – or charge patients a declared and upfront fee to cover those costs”. They estimate this would save $2 billion a year in private insurance premiums.

(We wish Duckett and Nemet luck, but as pointed out by many contributors to Pearls and Irritations, when hospitals and medical specialists are funded by a number of private insurers, none of which have enough market power to enforce price reductions or efficiencies, premiums will keep rising. Duckett’s and Nemet’s research strengthens the case for Medicare to be the nation’s sole health insurer, funding private and public hospitals on the same basis. John Menadue’s latest contribution on the scam of private health insurance is in this week’s  Pearls and Irritations.)

Pharmacies are in no death spiral

Next year the Seventh Community Pharmacy Agreement will come into place. This agreement, negotiated in secret between the Commonwealth and the quaintly-named Pharmacy Guild, determines how Australia’s 5700 retail pharmacies are paid for dispensing PBS medicines and providing some quasi-medical services.  Lesley Russell of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney, writes in the Conversation about the way the Pharmacy Guild has managed to wield so much political power that it not only commands high returns for doing what other shopkeepers do, but also secures a number of anti-competitive privileges, such as locational rules that give each pharmacy a neat geographical monopoly and block new entries.

Nor are Australia’s banks in a death spiral

There is no shortage of superficial media coverage of Westpac’s latest transgressions but not much that goes into systemic issues. Writing on the Independent Australia site Biony Kampmark goes into details of the bank’s deliberate rejection of international standards on money transfers, and of successive Coalition governments’ permissive attitudes toward the finance sector.

From another perspective Louis de Koker of La Trobe Law School, speaking with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, describes Westpac’s inconsistent treatment of people sending funds overseas. Their controls were detrimental to people sending small remittances to their families in developing countries, while they left the door open for those sending money associated with child exploitation. He also makes the point that if, as a result of investigations and charges, Westpac receives a heavy fine (probably more than $700 million based on the Commonwealth Bank precedent) that will be passed through to customers and shareholders (i.e. superannuation funds), while most of the bank’s highly-paid executives will bear no significant consequence.

Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer has gone and Chair Lindsay Maxstead is on the way out. As Ben Butler points out in The Guardian, Hartzer’s punishment will be to “be paid $2.69 million for doing nothing for the next twelve months”. (It’s convenient for the Government to see public anger directed at these individuals – no doubt they deserve it. But will they be the sacrificial scapegoats for our collective behaviour in glorifying finance and in allowing the finance sector to have grown into a huge parasitic overhead on our economy?)

Writing in The Guardian, Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute asks us to “imagine if the government were as keen to deregister banks that broke the law as it is to deregister unions”.  Why not a big stick for Westpac and the banks? They’re acting like Marvel villains.

Road user charging: are we game to consider cordon tolls?

The 2010 Henry Review into taxation came out strongly in favour of road user charging. Although road user charging has strong support from economists, and although even automobile associations are open to the idea, every government, federal and state – most recently the Morrison Government – has treated road user charging with the same enthusiasm they may be expected to show to a proposal to apply a special tax on football.

The Grattan Institute’s Marion Terrill has come up with a carefully-researched plan for applying peak-time cordon tolls applying to vehicles coming into the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne: $5 to enter in the morning peak, $5 to leave in the afternoon peak.  Her modelling looks at effects on the road system: on most roads traffic would move more freely. She also looks at the equity effects, and reveals that those who drive to the CBD to work are overwhelmingly high-income and tend to live in inner or middle suburbs. Her work reveals significant net benefits from cordon tolls, mainly in saving of travel time, and these estimates are based on conservative assumptions: she does not consider the savings in being able to defer road upgrades.

Japan maintains its lead as a maker of production machinery

Perhaps you wonder what to do with old bank statements, share dividend notifications and other documents you don’t want blowing around at a landfill site. Maybe you need a Nakabayashi NSC-7510 Mark III paper shredder, that managed, in just 30 seconds, to shred an 800-page guest list to Shinzo Abe’s annual party to observe cherry blossoms. For the salacious details of why the Abe Government is so keen on shredding its guest list you can read The strange tale of Japan’s prime minister, official documents and a very large shredder by Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi  in The Washington Post.

Fires in NSW and Queensland

This is a map designed by a PhD student at the University of New England, compiled from data provided by government agencies – Geoscience Australia, NSW Topo Maps, and NSW RFS. (Use a topographic base map to get the best impression of the relationship between landforms and fires.)

Barnaby Joyce manipulates the coal price

Dissatisfied with the miserable world price for thermal coal, which is being pushed down by saboteurs building competing solar and wind plants, Barnaby Joyce been selling coal at a small exclusive auction.

Planning your next trip

If you’re concerned about travel security, before you start looking at DFAT specific country briefs, you might care to glance at the Travel Risk Map. Only six countries get an “insignificant” risk rating: they’re all in the northern hemisphere and most of them are rather cold.


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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