SATURDAY’s GOOD READING AND LISTENING FOR THE WEEKEND

We’re back, with links to writings, broadcasts and happenings over the last three weeks.

ABC’s Saturday Extra

Over the Christmas-New Year period Saturday Extra is re-broadcasting past programs.  Geraldine and her team will be back on Saturday January 25.

You can catch up on their website in case you miss the re-broadcasts.

Other commentary

End of year messages

Pope Francis’s Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi message highlighted the plight of people suffering around the world, particularly in the Middle East and those who are forced  to migrate because of “persistent unjust social and political situations”.

The Queen of England made reference to her country’s turmoil over Brexit. She has also “been struck by how new generations have brought a similar sense of purpose to issues such as protecting our environment and our climate”.

Scott Morrison, on his return from Hawaii three days before Christmas, spoke to firefighters and others  who have been trying to hold the line against the destructive forces of climate change. Repeating his election message, he assured them that the government’s emphasis is on getting electricity prices down“without destroying the economy or job-destroying reckless targets”.

Australia in the world news

World news about Australia is usually about the bizarre behaviour of our poisonous fauna, but this time our fires have commanded attention all over the world – attention not only to the fires themselves, but also to the lack of moral leadership from our national government:

Rick Noack, writing in the Washington Post –  Why Australia’s prime minister just defended coal, even though the country is ‘on fire’ and voters fear climate change –  cannot make sense of Morrison’s defence of the coal industry.

Richard Flanagan, writing in the New York TimesAustralia is committing climate suicide – suggests that the fires may be the Chernobyl of the climate crisis.  “The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the ruling apparatchiks were all-powerful but losing the fundamental, moral legitimacy to govern.”

The Atlantic staff writer Robinson Meyer warns that the fires may push Australia’s politics in an even more besieged and retrograde direction, empowering politicians like Morrison to fight any change at all. And so maybe Australia will find itself stuck in the climate spiral, clinging ever more tightly to coal as its towns and cities choke on the ash of a burning world. Australia Will Lose to Climate Change

Domestic responses to the fires

There is no shortage of thoughtful commentary on the political and moral failure of the Morrison Government as revealed in its response to the fires.

The blur of Coalition policy

Historian Frank Bongiorno, writing in Inside Story, describes how Morrison has squandered his already small reserve of political capital – The summer Scott Morrison’s leadership broke. He describes in detail Morrison’s aggressive behaviour towards a young woman who refused to shake his hand, and the way she was set upon by one of Morrison’s retainers admonishing her for not being a good little “quiet Australian”. (It’s hard for any writer to put the aggression of the incident into words: a videoclip of the incident tells a chilling story of a prime minister who holds the electors in contempt.)

Laura Tingle asks if the bushfires are Scott Morrison’s Hurricane Katrina moment that he cannot live down. Her article provides stunning figures on the extent of devastation – figures that don’t take into account the most recent flare-ups. (For the analogy with Katrina, you can read Douglas Brinkley’s 2015 article in Vanity FairThe flood that sank George W Bush.)

Frank Jotzo of ANU’s Centre for Climate and Energy Policy sees in the fires an opportunity for Morrison to make a face-saving change in policy. “You’ve been politically locked into a no-action position, but the bushfires give you the reason to change. The bulk of Australia’s business community will be behind you, they yearn for sensible national climate policy.”

Is Morrison the man who killed the Aussie summer?, asks Ross Gittins. “For one thing, it’s his side of politics that’s done most to sabotage the limited and belated efforts Australia has made, since the defeat of the Howard government, to contribute to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

On the ABC’s RN Breakfast Program Michael Janda records comments from Peter Strong, CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia. Strong says:

There should have been better preparation for what was predicted by many to be very bad bushfires – worse than normal. The preparation at the state level was good, but at the federal level there are people within government who firmly believe there is no such thing as climate change or that human beings don’t have an impact upon it, and they are adamant that no extra work or extra effort should ever happen, because they don’t believe in climate change. That’s where the disappointment is in my membership, and we want to hear from those climate-change deniers in the government ranks that they will now shut up, they will go and sit on the back bench where they belong and they will not interfere in developing processes to respond to this situation.  (8 minutes)

Nick Backer of SBS reminds us of Ross Garnaut’s 2008 review, which concluded that projections of fire weather showed that fire seasons would start earlier, end later and be more intense. “This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.”

Malcolm Turnbull tweeted “The National Energy Guarantee was a coherent integration of climate and energy policy. It was sabotaged by the right wing of the Coalition and their supporters in the media and coal lobby and finally abandoned by the Morrison Government. It should be reinstated now”.

John Hewson identifies Morrison’s strategy. Following the advice of Morrison’s mentor John Howard, “the strategy is to get by doing as little as you can get away with in a crisis, running hard on the slogans, and avoiding too much discussion of the detail”. This follows his strident attack earlier in the New Year, which concludes: “Morrison, your imperative for 2020 is to stop playing your ill-conceived political games and to lead. It’s do or die”.

While public attention understandably focuses on the deaths of firefighters and others directly caught in the fires, John Quiggin, writing on Inside StorySlow burn – reminds us that there will be hundreds of premature deaths resulting from the particulates released by the fires. (Epidemiologists would undoubtedly know of other ways in which such savage fires contribute to premature mortality.)

Also on the personal costs of climate change, Crispin Hull points out that scientific challenges to established ways of thinking often have a tough time – think of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. And there have been vested interests opposed to science – think of the tobacco industry. But while one’s belief in evolution has little personal consequence, and one can opt not to smoke, one cannot escape the consequences of climate change. That’s why  political pressure for action is ongoing and mounting – Flat Earth, evolution, tobacco and climate hope.

Rod Lambers, Deputy Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, writes on Open Forum about 9 things being wrecked by climate change.

The Australia Institute suggests that Australia should have a National Climate Disaster Fund (as opposed to Morrison’s fund based on an assumption that the bushfires are a once-off event, rather than the probability that disasters driven by climate change are becoming more common). In line with sound economic principles of Pigouvian taxes, the Institute argues that it should be funded by a levy on fossil fuel producers.

Peter Martin, now of ANU’s Crawford School, writes on Australia’s lost opportunity to persuade the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – In fact there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely. Yes, we account for only 1.3 per cent of global emissions, but as a country “hugely respected in international forums” Australia should be able to exert leadership beyond its size. He suggests that in the past, under more responsible administrations, Australia has been highly influential in climate change fora.

There has been a lot of idiotic comment about a supposed well-resourced green conspiracy to stop precautionary burning. (In fact the Green Party is in favour of precautionary burning.) A voice of sanity, backed by good science, is Den Barber’s who spoke on the ABC Breakfast Program. Barber is founder of Koori Country Firesticks. He is a strong supporter of traditional burning as practiced by his ancestors, and he reports on his experiences on plots of forest. He advocates more frequent and less intense burning than is practiced at present. Traditional burning reduces fuel load, in fires that are not so intense as to radiate destructive heat to the canopy.  (10 minutes)

These criticisms are not partisan. Many of these same writers also point out that Labor could take a stronger line, rather than the two-bob-each-way policy it took to the 2019 election. Also, there has been little criticism of the Coalition Governments of New South Wales and South Australia. The strongest criticisms are squarely directed at Morrison and his inner circle, including a group of climate change deniers who have been disproportionately powerful in the Coalition party rooms for many years.  They include backbencher Craig Kelly who made absurd comments on British television: it should be remembered that Morrison specifically lobbied the Liberal Party’s state executive to protect Kelly’s nomination against more reasonable candidates for pre-selection.

Contrasting with those Coalition politicians who try to de-emphasise climate change and shift blame on to imagined demon “greens”, Environment Minister Susan Ley, speaking on ABC’s Breakfast Program, clearly acknowledges the role of climate change, says that she wants to be informed by experts including ecologists and other scientists, and avoids jumping to simplistic solutions about a situation she says is “not straightforward”. (11 minutes)

Ken Henry on taxes and the economy

It is now ten years since then Treasury Secretary Ken Henry handed Treasurer Swan his proposal for a package of tax reform. He is disappointed that so little of it is in place. Two reforms – a carbon tax and a mining tax – had only short lives before the Coalition abolished them. Both windbacks “have cost Australia enormously” he says in a half-hour interview with Michael Janda. Henry points out weaknesses in our tax system, a system that has become worse by criteria of efficiency, equity, complexity, consistency and sustainability, since he produced the review.

He relates the deficiencies in our tax system to our deteriorating economic performance. Without being categorical, he suggests that the present downturn in our economy is not just cyclical or a response to external shocks, but that it is probably secular (i.e. long-term and structural). Our revenue base is inadequate to finance needed public goods, and while some may grizzle about having to pay more tax, “people are going to lose out big time if we don’t have tax reform”.

Towards the end the interview turns to the banking sector. (Henry was Chair of the NAB.)

Polls

On his Poll Bludger site William Bowe has published Newspoll’s disaggregation of its November survey of voting intention, with findings by state (the three largest only), education, income and age. The polls reveal that:

  • Labor has recovered a little in Queensland, but its polling in that state is still poor, while its vote has hardly moved in New South Wales and Victoria;
  • There is a very strong age gradient in voting – among those aged 18 to 34 the TPP support for Labor is 57:43, while for those aged 65 or over the TPP support is 39:61 in the Coalition’s favour;
  • In line with historical trends the Coalition leads among those with high incomes and high levels of education. (Note that those who analysed the 2019 election found swings towards labor among those with high incomes and high levels of education, but these were not enough to flip the historical pattern.)

What was Trump thinking about when he directed Qasem Soleimani’s assassination?

Foreign Affairs has three articles on the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on January 3.

Emma Sky of Yale University analyses the situation in terms of the developments since 2010, as then Iraq Prime Minister Muri al-Maliki pursued sectarian policies, creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS. Once ISIS was defeated, Iran-backed Shiite militias who had been fighting alongside US and Iraqi troops turned on the US. Sky concludes that “Allied with both the United States and Iran, Iraq now finds itself as the frontline battleground for these two foes”. The assassination can only strain the US-Iraq relationship even further.

Kelly Magsamen of the Center for American Progress (formerly National Security Council’s Director for Iran under Presidents Bush and Obama) analyses Iran’s likely reactions – which “will unfold over time” – and considers the choices faced by Trump. “At each decision point, Trump will have only bad options to choose from. He has left himself with no diplomatic channels, a divided international community, and a skeptical Congress.” (It turns out that events are unfolding a little faster than Magsmen predicted.)

Ilan Goldberg of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security asks if Iran’s response to the Soleimani strike will lead to war. He believes that Iran “will carefully and patiently choose an approach that it deems effective, and it will likely try to avoid an all-out war with the United States”.  The battleground is likely to be Iraq, and whether the US stays or withdraws, there will be consequences not only in Iraq but also throughout the Middle East.

Americans want strong gun control but it isn’t going to happen

In our 21 December roundup we reported on the survey Public opinion in the age of Trump: The United States and Australia compared. Shaun Ratcliff and Zoe Meers, co-authors of the survey, have an article on the ABC website considering the issue of gun control in more detail. The public in both countries are in favour of stronger control, so what explains the difference in public policy? The answer lies less in the constitutional “right to bear arms” than in institutional factors: gun control is much more an issue of partisan difference in America than it is in Australia, and the NRA has huge resources to deploy.  (In Australia’s case the coal lobby comes to mind as our equivalent of the NRA.)

An observation on America’s best public schools

Many Australians, conditioned by images of mass shootings, have a negative impression of America’s public schools, and those a little more familiarity with the country know the huge disparities in that country’s public education, because school education is funded largely from local taxes. Poor areas have poor schools, rich areas have rich schools. But at least Americans are much more committed to their public schools than Australians: only about ten per cent of American young people attend private schools compared with about thirty per cent in Australia.  Those yellow school buses symbolise a shared commitment.

Writing on the ABC news pages, Australian novelist and teacher Eleanor Limprecht reports on her positive experience of her children’s education at a public school in Virginia , in what is essentially a suburb of Washington DC.  The schools in her district spend about twice the amount per student than schools in New South Wales, and the difference shows. While she does not advocate that our schools should follow America’s local funding model, she is highly critical of our funding arrangements which are seeing the middle classes desert public education.

“We haven’t given rational economics a fair go”

That’s a quote from Michael Pascoe, Contributing Editor to the New DailyThis is how govt can create a fairer, more sustainable Australia. He argues the case for ‘rational economics”, taking human needs into account, as opposed to “economic rationalism”, and accounting systems that cover only what happens in monetised transactions: “If a tree burns in a forest, does anybody price it?”. The fires expose the paucity of our economic accounting systems:

The 2019 election game of targeting the unknown total cost of Labor’s climate policies was economically irrational because it ignored the bigger question: what was the price of climate change and, therefore, what was the cost of not reducing emissions more?

Australia’s median income is just on $50 000

The ABS has released a survey of personal income, based on Taxation Office data. (That means it would cover most adults other than those with incomes below the tax-free threshold and without imputation credits.)

Australians’ median income before tax in 2016-17 was $48 360, compared with a mean income of $62 594.  (For those feeling rusty on high school stats, the median refers to the person exactly at the centre of the distribution, while the mean is the average, calculated by dividing total income by the number of people.  In income distributions the mean is always higher than the median.)  In view of the political fuss over negative gearing and imputation credits it is revealing to find that Australians’ median income from investment (shares, investment properties, bonds) was only $214, while the mean investment income was only $8774.

In terms of strict political economy, that means a government could impose very high taxes on all investment income above, say, $250, while keeping 50 per cent of voters on side.  But of course the ABS is not equipped to measure the effectiveness of scare campaigns and Coalition lies about changes in taxes.

On the ABC website Danielle Grindlay of ABC Wimmera points out that in non-metropolitan Australia median incomes are much lower than in capital cities: in the non-mining states non-metropolitan median incomes are $5000 to $7000 lower than in the capital cities. Her site has a small quiz where you can guess where you stand along the income distribution spectrum by entering your income. (Typically most people are hopeless at guessing where they stand: we all tend to think our income is much closer to the median than it really is.)

Are you overworking? Finland is heading towards the 32-hour week

Sanna Marin, Finland’s newly installed prime minister is proposing to put the country on a 32-hour work week. Writing in Quartz, Michelle Cheng describes Marin’s proposition and points to evidence that a reduction in the working day does not result in a proportionate reduction in productivity: that last hour of work is probably your least productive.

Are you part of the crowd who still believes in facts?

Writing in Areo, David Sharp of the University of Edinburgh has a review of Matthew McManus’s The rise of post-modern conservatism.  His review starts with a description of postmodernism and an explanation of how it has been appropriated by the right. He is critical of the left for putting its energy into identity politics:

… for it seeks no structural change and requires a constant state of victimhood to remain relevant. Perhaps most worryingly, its emphasis on identity and the relativism that entails opens the door to a reactionary, right-wing identitarianism, far more aggressive and threatening than its leftist counterpart.

This has allowed the rise of postmodern conservatism which “sees politics as a competition, a power struggle, rather than an arena of debate, argumentation or policy-making. And it also requires enemies, constantly, because changes to the old ways are the result of bad guys like feminists, cosmopolitan elites and immigrants (often in league with each other).”

His review goes into a philosophical critique of aspects of McManus’s work – worth skipping unless you are really into Derrida and Foucault – before coming back to practical advice for the left, urging them to take a role in re-engaging people with political processes.

And do you believe in rationality?

“It is sometimes said of working-class Republicans [think of supporters of the Coalition] that they vote against their own interests, probably because their rationality has been distorted by manipulative politicians and media strategists.” Writing in QuillettePolitics and Rationality: On the Uses and Limits of Science – Crispin Sartwell of Dickson College, Pennsylvania, examines this proposition, and finds it may encapsulate the idea that our interests are defined purely in economic terms.

Finally a distraction

If the fires are getting you down, there’s always the cricket.

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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Ian McAuley is a retired lecturer in public finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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