SATURDAY’s GOOD READING AND LISTENING FOR THE WEEKEND

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

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

As the world sees the fires

It’s not just an Australian story; it’s a world story about the consequences of failing to take action on climate change.  Australian analysts and other commentators are getting plenty of cover, such as Tim Flannery’s article  Australia: the fires and our future in The New York Review of Books.

But it is also a global story. When will Australia’s Prime Minister accept the reality of the climate crisis? is Carolyn Kormann’s article in the New Yorker. The Berlin Morning Post reports on the politics of the bushfires with no less detail than one finds in Australian media, emphasising Morrison’s intransigence, while Merkel’s Government announces its plan to phase out coal completely with compensation to affected regions.

A set of photographs in The Atlantic tells the story most vividly.

Climate change – a planetary emergency

Guess the source of the following quote on climate change:

Climate change is striking harder and more rapidly than many expected. The last five years are on track to be the warmest on record, natural disasters are becoming more intense and more frequent, and last year witnessed unprecedented extreme weather throughout the world. … The near-term impacts of climate change add up to a planetary emergency that will include loss of life, social and geopolitical tensions and negative economic impacts.

The Australian Greens? The Australian Conservation Foundation? Extinction Rebellion?

In fact it’s an extract from the 2020 Global Risks Report by the World Economic Forum (the group who arranges the annual capitalist talkfest in Davos, Switzerland). The WEF lists the top five global risks, in terms of impact, as “extreme weather”, “climate action failure”, “natural disasters”, “biodiversity loss”, and “human-made environmental disasters”.

Anyone who believes that there is some tradeoff between “the economy” and “the environment” (a tradeoff declared by Morrison as an excuse for Australia’s dismal performance on climate change) would do well to see that the authors of the WEF report make no such distinction. The diagram below, taken from the report’s introduction, shows the linkages between climate action failure and all other global problems.

Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report

 

The fires expose the failure of GDP as an economic indicator

The fires have wrought tremendous damage. They have destroyed natural resources – forests, ecosystems – upon which our economy relies. Because these resources have never been recorded as assets measured in money terms, their destruction does not feature as a loss in national accounts. But when destroyed buildings and public infrastructure are replaced, there will be a boost to our GDP. Writing in the Sydney Morning HeraldCaution required when gauging economic impact of fires – Jessica Irvine points out “… if GDP were the only thing that mattered, a sound government policy might be to urge citizens to engage in random acts of destruction”.

Talking to real climate change sceptics

Anyone who hasn’t come across some ill-informed commentary on climate change in the last few weeks must have been out of the country. There are those for whom denial of climate change is a badge of honour or a symbol of tribal identity. But there are also those who are scientifically-minded sceptics, who are turned off by some of the overblown claims, stridency and questionable arguments used by advocates for urgent action on climate change, and who have had access only to limited information.

Writing on Inside StoryInflammatory exchanges –  Jane Goodall of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University asks us to “forget the noisy debate”. She says “There’s no substitute for following these professionals [local rangers and forest ecologists] into the remote forests they have spent their lives observing and documenting. They don’t offer opinions, just detailed knowledge along with all the uncertainties that genuine researchers must acknowledge.”  That’s the form of engagement that’s going to cause people to engage with the realities of climate change.

In praise of good public policy

John Daley, CEO of the Grattan Institute, points out that in spite of the severity and widespread nature of the present conflagration in comparison with the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, which claimed 173 lives, we have coped with these fires far better. Our state government policymakers have learned from that experience and allowed the experts – the people responsible for emergency management – to re-design “the ways we monitor, communicate, and advise people to respond to bushfires”.  But dismally, such good policy process is the exception, rather than the rule, and he lists the politically-imposed impediments to good public policy, particularly at the Commonwealth level.

Is it time for nukes?

Many people consider thst the negative consequences of climate change far outweigh the environmental and safety issues around nuclear energy. But the general belief among economists is that the capital cost of nuclear energy is prohibitively high and because there would be such a lag in community acceptance and the construction of new plants,  by the time new nukes are up and running they would be uncompetitive because of the rapidly declining cost of renewables.

The Nuclear Engineering Panel of Engineers Australia, in association with Nuclear for Climate Australia, has sponsored a public address by Jacopo Buongiorno of MIT – Nuclear energy: a new beginning and what role it may play in Australia. He will go through the findings of the MIT study The future of nuclear energy in a carbon-constrained world which asserts that the costs of nuclear energy can be significantly reduced. His talk will be in Sydney on Tuesday January 28.  (Details and registration on the linked website.)

That Audit Office report

The media have given a fair run to the Australian National Audit Office report Award of Funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program. The finding is that as the 2019 election approached Morrison’s government treated the program as a Coalition slush fund to help it win the election:

The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 Election.

Also damning is the conclusion:

… there are no records evidencing that the Minister was advised of the legal basis on which the Minister could undertake an approval role, and it is not evident to the ANAO what the legal authority was.

In the interest of “balance” (i.e. moral relativism) many journalists have compared Bridget McKenzie’s transgressions with Ros Kelly’s 1994 “sports rorts” affair, but as the ABC’s David Speers points out, this affair stands out as particularly brazen, in a way “that sets it apart from its predecessors”. Its scale of pork barrelling was extraordinary, and the government actually documented its political purpose. This was no simple transgression by an over-zealous minister; it was an integral aspect of Morrison’s election strategy.  (Those who are calling for Bridget McKenzie’s scalp are asking her to be Morrison’s scapegoat).

On the ABC’s Breakfast Program Zali Steggall, Independent Member for Warringah, said that the affair highlighted the need for a National Integrity Commission.

(The question commentators are missing is why this program should have existed at all. There are no matters of interstate coordination or standards setting that may justify federal involvement in discretionary funding of community sports. Such programs should surely be the domain of well-funded state or local governments. The important issues exposed in this affair are to do with our constitutional arrangements and funding for state and local governments.)

Opinion polls – Australians have gone off Morrison but only a little to Labor’s advantage

This week has seen a highly-publicised Newspoll and a less well-covered Essential Poll.

Both tell the same broad story: Morrison’s approval and his standing as preferred prime minister have plunged: Albanese is now ahead of Morrison on both counts in both polls.

The Newspoll lies behind the Murdoch firewall, but David Bowe’s Poll bludger provides a summary of its main findings. His BludgerTrack analysis of all poll trends confirms that Morrison’s fall in approval started around four months ago: his inept handling of the fire emergency has accelerated the trend.

The Essential poll is available in full from its site, and it goes into more detail than the Newspoll. It has a table of perceptions of Morrison’s “leader attributes” which finds that 62 per cent of respondents find he is “out of touch with ordinary people”.  (Wasn’t it the “dorky dad” image that helped him in the election?)  The poll also finds that while people approved of their state premiers’ handling of the fire emergency (Berejiklian, NSW, Liberal and Andrews, Victoria, Labor) they have strongly disapproved of Morrison’s performance.

While the polls have given Albanese’s standing a boost, they have not translated into a proportionate improvement in Labor’s electoral position, which, according to Newspoll, comes in at a bare 51:49 TPP lead over the Coalition, based on a primary vote of 36 per cent for Labor (33 per cent in the 2019 election) and 40 per cent for the Coalition (41 per cent in the election).

Writing in the Conversation, Adrian Beaumont comments on the Newspoll. He also has some comment on the US Democratic primary polls, showing rising support for Sanders and Warren.

What has happened to Rise up Australia and the Australian Conservatives?

Those two far-right so-called “Christian” parties have been de-registered since the 2019 election. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Royce Millar and Farrah Tomazin quote representatives of those former parties who say that following Morrison’s election “a man of faith and values was leading the Liberals back to their traditional policy platform”. (It’s a strange claim: John Warhurst’s research reveals no previous prime minister, Labor or Liberal, had Pentecostalist affiliation.)  The claim of these party representatives is that Morrison’s election has made them redundant –  Christian right groups say PM Scott Morrison stole their thunder.

Morrison’s political judgement under question

Two articles question Morrison’s political judgement:

George Megalogenis, has an article in the Sydney Morning Herald Morrison, the political animal who missed the political opportunity to lead, comparing his stubbornness with the flexibility shown by other prime ministers, including John Howard – flexibility they used to their political advantage.

Laura Tingle finds the political conversations around the fires “bizarre”— In the face of a bushfire catastrophe, our national conversation is still run by politics,  where “a few belligerent types” are setting the limits of our political conversation. Morrison is simply digging in to defend his government’s decisions rather than proposing meaningful policy responses.

(Is it possible that Morrison has no interest in political or policy flexibility? Does he believe his personal qualities, which saw him win the unwinnable election, mean he is best off sticking to his simple dogmas?)

An explanation for Morrison’s intransigence: he’s accountable to the coal lobby

Greenpeace and former Australian journalist Michael West have come together to produce a 15 minute documentary Dirty Power, exposing the close relationships between the coal industry and Morrison’s Government, particularly his inner circle of ministers and advisers. Besides exposing this crony network it also explains the way the industry has mounted well-funded campaigns to derail previous governments’ moves to take action on climate change. “Unless enough people know about this, and enough people care, and get involved in the political process, the power of the coal lobby will continue” states West.

A short and easy lesson in Australian macroeconomics

If you have an hour and a half to spare, you may find Joseph Walker’s interview with former Reserve Bank Governor Ian Macfarlane of interest, on Walker’s Jolly Swagman website. The first 25 minutes are about characters in Macfarlane’s biography Ten remarkable Australians.  Then they get into serious economics.  Macfarlane takes us through a potted history of changing economic ideas and changing macroeconomic policy concerns – foreign debt, inflation, full employment, housing affordability and so on. He stresses that over his time as Governor (1996 to 2006) there was a realization that the sources of economic risk had shifted from the real economy to the financial economy.

Taiwan’s election – a rebuke to the Kuomintang

As reported in most media Taiwan’s election last Saturday saw a resounding victory for Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who won 57 percent of the vote against 37 percent for Han Kou-yo’s Kuomintang (KMT). Voter turnout was 75 per cent.

Such was the domination of the country’s relationship with China that it’s hard to find coverage of other issues. Sarah Cheng, writing in the South China Morning Post reports that the KMT had internal divisions and failed to attract younger voters. Opposition to same-sex marriage (passed by the DPP Government last year) was one of its policy stances. Bloomberg has an informative infographic on the election revealing that the DPP did very well in Taiwan’s densely-populated regions, while the KMT did well in the country’s less populated southeast. The rural-urban division is an established pattern in the world’s democracies.

Writing in Inside Story Rowan Callick describes the election outcome in terms of broader changes in East Asian politics:

During their formative student years, many of Australia’s current leaders saw much to be admired in the rise of China, whereas they often saw Hong Kong as a decaying colonial outpost and Taiwan as a bastion of US-led imperialism. Today, any observer with experience of the region has been forced to turn that view utterly on its head.

Callick goes on to describe Taiwan’s history and politics. Whatever the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang may assert, Taiwan is not part of China.

UK’s election – a rebuke to the bureaucrats

Writing in the New York Review of Books David Graeber of the London School of Economics  reviews f the political forces that led to the UK election outcome – The Center Blows Itself Up: Care and Spite in the ‘Brexit Election’:

The center of British politics has become a smoldering pit. The country is now being governed by a hard-right government placed in power by its oldest citizens, in the face of the active hatred of its increasingly socialist-inclined youth.

Using YouGov analysis of voting figures he points out the extent of the age divide in the UK:

… if only Britons over the age of sixty-five were allowed to vote, the Labour Party would be all but wiped out, whereas if only Britons under twenty-five were allowed to vote, there would simply be no Tory MPs whatsoever.

His analysis of political divisions in the UK covers the vicious and false attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for alleged anti-Semitism – “a textbook application of Karl Rove’s famous principle of swiftboating: if one really wishes to discredit a political opponent, one attacks not his weaknesses, but his strengths”. He also goes into a somewhat speculative but illuminating analysis of class divisions and antagonisms, citing the growth of what is seen as a parasitic class of administrators and bureaucrats, as a burden on workers providing real goods and services including health care and education. Populist politicians such as Trump and Johnson are able to mobilise support around opposition to this bureaucratic and parasitic class.

Human Rights Watch on China

Human Rights Watch has released a report highly critical of China, noting that China’s contempt for human rights and other countries’ weak response pose a global threat. It mentions the particularly “nightmarish situation” in Xinjiang, home of ethnic majorities, but its criticism is much broader, putting paid to the idea that economic prosperity leads to liberalisation:

The Chinese Communist Party has shown that economic growth can reinforce a dictatorship by giving it the means to enforce its rule—to spend what it takes to maintain power, from the legions of security officials it employs to the censorship regime it maintains and the pervasive surveillance state it constructs. Those vast resources buttressing autocratic rule negate the ability of people across China to have any say in how they are governed.

It also notes that “several countries that once often could have been counted on to defend human rights have been missing in action”, with particular reference to those national heads of government, such as Donald Trump, who scoff at “globalists” who try to stand up for universal standards of human rights.

In its relationship with China the US must decide its core interests

That’s Kishore Mahbubani’s main message in an interview with a Global Times reporter Yu Jincui.  The US must decide between attending to the wellbeing of its 330 million American people, or maintaining its economic and military hegemony. If America cannot get used to a world where it is no longer number one, its allies, including Australia, are going to face hard choices. He concludes with some insights into the differences between Singapore and Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly he finds that Singapore has been much better governed than Hong Kong.

How America squandered its cold war victory

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, author of The limits of power: the end of American exceptionalism, has an article in The Guardian Freedom without constraints: how the US squandered its cold war victory.

The cold war had given Aericans a sense of purpose; with its ending they were left disoriented. Into that space there came a new political and economic consensus around globalised neoliberalism, American hegemony, freedom (or perhaps unconstrained individualism), and presidential supremacy. Its purpose was “to cement the primacy of the US in perpetuity, while enshrining the American way of life as the ultimate destiny of humankind”.

To put it mildly, they screwed it up. Bacevich lists 23 indicators pointing to the emergence of  groups who feel left behind by this consensus. He cites Obama’s quote: “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”, and goes on to point out that “Donald Trump’s detractors charge him with dividing the country when, in fact, it was pervasive division that vaulted him to the centre of American politics in the first place.”

(Is our situation somewhat similar? Our alienated groups may not cling to guns or bibles, but they can unite under other symbols – denial of climate change, ownership of large SUVs, and identification with Morrison’s celebration of mediocrity and anti-intellectualism.)

Government by ignorance: an insight into the Trump presidency

Our own federal government gives us some insight into the consequences of incompetence, corruption and cronyism, but in Trump’s administration these shortcomings are even worse. In an interview with David Runciman and Helen Thomson, on Talking Politics, Michael Lewis, author of The fifth risk: undoing democracy,  describes how Trump has turned his ignorance into a political asset. Trump doesn’t want to know about the complexities of public administration because (like Morrison) he knows it all. Lewis describes some of the consequences, such as what happens when Trump gets his hands on the US meteorological service. The people who are most hurt by his policies are those most dependent on well-run government services, but these are the people who voted for him. When will they realise that he doesn’t care about them at all? (38 minutes)

In defence of ideology

“The term ideological is often slung about as it was an insult”. So writes Logan Chipkin in Areo – In defence of ideology. He asks what can be intrinsically wrong with having a coherent set of explanatory ideas?  Similarly labelling a public idea as far left or far right has little meaning except as an implicit insult, as if there is something intellectually and morally pure about an imagined centre. “If we are to continue to solve problems in society, we must mature beyond dismissing ideas because they don’t fit the profile we would like them to have. Reality is austere, and so are our best explanations of it.”

(Perhaps his short essay could be compulsory reading for journalists who seek “balance” in their reporting.)

Threats to religious freedom and pluralism

Published in the American Catholic magazine Commonweal is John Gehrig’s interview with Melissa Rogers – Rethinking religious liberty. Rogers was executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama. She warns that public discussions on religious liberty have become polarised, and have turned to de-facto calls for persecution of religious minorities, such as Trump’s Muslim immigration bans. Governments have a right to legislate on aspects of the behaviour of faith-based organizations, but they have no right to privilege a set of religious beliefs.

Why morals matter in foreign policy

The prevailing wisdom on foreign policy is that states act in their self-interest and that it is naïve for people to expect otherwise. Harvard’s Joseph Nye, himself a foreign policy realist, writes that the situation is not so simple: there are many situations where politicians can and should make moral choices without compromising on self-interest. Why morals matter in foreign policy, Project Syndicate.

If you go down to the woods today you may be in for a big surprise

Australia’s fauna have a fearsome reputation in other countries. A Scottish journalist sends a warning to tourists who may be tempted to wander into Australia’s forests.

 

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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