Jan 25, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

ABC’s Saturday Extra

Geraldine Doogue and her team are back on air with Saturday Extra (from 0730 to 0900 or on their website  in case you miss it).

Birds and bushfires: Sean Dooley on how birds have been affected by the fires.

Climate grief:  The extended drought and fire season have resulted in a relatively few human lives lost but the losses to wildlife and forests have been profound. Tom Griffiths and Sophie Cunningham reflect on our changing relationship with nature.

A Foreign Affair: This month’s AFA delves into India’s contentious citizenship bill, Iran’s leadership woes and China’s plans on Myanmar.

Other commentary

If you live in or near Canberra

On the first Thursday of every month, writers to and readers of Pearls and Irritations get together for breakfast. We meet at Tilleys (corner of Brigalow and Wattle Streets Lyenham) at 8 am. Come along to the next gathering on Thursday 6 February if you’d like to get together with others interested in good public policy.

Is Morrison fit to hold high office?

The Sydney Morning Herald and associated media report on strong non-partisan criticism of Morrison and his government.

In his regular writing Ross Gittins says Morrison failed to  seize the moment and exercise leadership on climate change. Instead he has fallen back on the false idea that there is some tradeoff between “the environment” and ”the economy”, as if they are unrelated.

What we need is a leader great enough to seize our Pearl Harbor moment and turn it into a Port Arthur moment – the moment when a prime minister exercises true leadership and uses the horrible reality of death and destruction to win public support for big changes to stop such things becoming regular events.

Malcolm Turnbull states that in discounting the influence of climate change on the fire emergency, Morrison is misleading people. He rebuts Morrison’s assertion that because Australia is a comparatively small economy our actions on climate change don’t really count:

If a country like Australia is not prepared to grapple with this issue seriously –  itself being in the frontline of the consequences, and being an advanced, prosperous, technologically sophisticated country with the means to do so – why would other countries take the issue as seriously as they should.

Reporting on the Doomsday Clock event, at which scientists pushed the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight because of the threats of climate change, nuclear war and disinformation, Matthew Knott points out that Australia has been singled out for its government’s moral failure. He quotes former Californian Governor Jerry Brown: “Under its current leadership, Australia is fostering denial in an incredibly mendacious way … Until Australians throw out their current leaders they will continue this way”.

There are no “culture wars”: there’s a struggle between truth and lies

“I have become wary … of the term ‘culture wars’ as applied to public life in Australia. It implies a certain moral equivalence, as though there were a contest between legitimate arguments”.

So states Judith White on the website CultureHeist, in an article Culture and the climate catastrophe.  She outlines three big lies, all of which relate to the way we see ourselves politically, culturally and economically. These are useful reminders on the day before we engage in (or disengage with) Australia Day celebrations. She exposes the stratagems used to support and reinforce the lies, and concludes optimistically:

Like the first green shoots emerging from a scorched landscape, an alliance is beginning to take shape in the wake of this summer’s bushfires, as people of the most diverse backgrounds are moved, out of profound concern, to join their voices to those of the school strikers. In opposing the vested interests that threaten the future of the planet, artists and art lovers are going to have a crucial role to play.

Greta Thunberg and a prince at the World Economic Forum

The short version is a 3-minute video presentation where was part of a forum of teenage activists. In this presentation she went into the hard numbers about the planet’s CO2 budget – we are spending it far too quickly. The website also includes a transcript of her speech.

In a longer session, she opened a 45-minute panel discussion on action to stop CO2 emissions, with sharp criticism of those countries trying to use accounting legerdemains, such as carry-over credits, to achieve their commitments. There are at least three strong messages from participants in that session:

    • While the greatest adjustment pressure falls on the biggest emitters – USA, China and India – the needs of poorer “developing” countries can be met without their having to go down a high CO2
    • Although some companies are taking initiatives there is no way the private sector can do so as a whole without a strong lead from governments;
    • Responsibility cannot be assigned only to the countries directly contributing CO2 to the atmosphere. Emissions along the supply and distribution chain (Scope 2 and 3 emissions) have to be considered.

Australia copped plenty of mention. And in case participants needed any reminder, the stage where speakers were gathered had three large static graphics: the middle and most prominent one should be familiar to us.

Another key speaker was the heir apparent to the throne of a once-powerful European democracy, who introduced his presentation saying: “Global warming, climate change, and the devastating loss of biodiversity are the greatest threats humanity has ever faced – and one largely of our own creation.” He spoke of ten practical actions towards achieving sustainable markets.  A video of his presentation (27 minutes) is on the WEF website, and the Sydney Morning Herald has published the full text.

Also on the WEF site is a report on attitudes to climate science around the world, including responses to a question “How much do you trust what scientists say about the environment?” The people of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China are the four most trusting of scientists, while the USA comes in close to last place.

Memo to Morrison et al: our authorities are doing prescribed burning

The only reason we have such devastating bushfires is that a well-organised, well-funded and powerful green movement has thwarted governments’ plans for controlled burning. A combination of controlled burning, grazing rights in national parks, tree clearing and logging in national parks will protect us from such devastating events in the future.

So goes the rhetoric of those who have always harboured hostility to national parks.

The RMIT-ABC Fact Check unit has looked at the evidence on prescribed burning. In fact prescribed burning in and on the boundaries of national parks has doubled over the last ten years. The fact-checking article is rich in graphical presentations of prescribed burning over the years, and explanations as to why there is no single effective approach to preventing destructive fires.

Institutions of capitalism taken over by tree-hugging Bolsheviks

IMF’s World Economic Outlook highlights climate risk

In its regular World Economic Outlook the IMF has made a small reduction in its prediction for world economic growth, citing lower expected growth in India and geopolitical tensions resulting from US foreign and defence policy being administered by a crazed narcissist. (Not its precise words.)  It notes the risks to the global economy posed by climate change:

Climate change, the driver of the increased frequency and intensity of weather- related disasters, already endangers health and economic outcomes, and not only in the directly affected regions. It could pose challenges to other areas that may not yet feel the direct effects, including by contributing to cross-border migration or financial stress (for instance, in the insurance sector). A continuation of the trends could inflict even bigger losses across more countries.

Morrison outraged by Reserve Bank’s acquisition of Adani’s coal mine

Perhaps that headline is a little premature, but it’s one of the possible outcomes outlined in a BIS paper The Green Swan: Central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change.  Because the basic role of central banks is to attend to financial stability they must take into account “potentially extremely financially disruptive events” associated with climate change, that may precipitate a systemic global financial crisis.

In the worst case scenario, central banks may have to confront a situation where they are called upon by their local constituencies to intervene as climate rescuers of last resort. For example, a new financial crisis caused by green swan events [i.e. highly unlikely] severely affecting the financial health of the banking and insurance sectors could force central banks to intervene and buy a large set of carbon-intensive assets and/or assets stricken by physical impacts.

IMF on inequality: the cost of a bloated finance sector

Kristalina Georgieva, the recently-appointed Managing Director of the IMF, has delivered an address The Financial Sector in the 2020s: Building a More Inclusive System in the New Decade (80 minute video and substantial transcript). She suggests that there is an optimum size of the finance sector in any country: too small a sector leaves many people, the poorest, financially disempowered; too large a sector has adverse distributional consequences. “There is a point at which financial deepening is associated with exacerbated inequality and less inclusive growth …  the growing size and complexity of the financial sector ends up primarily helping the wealthy.”

Her advice is apt for Australia, a country with one of the largest finance sectors in relation to its GDP in the “developed” world.

That Audit Report

Helen Aulby, Executive Director  of the Centre for Public Integrity comments on the ANAO’s scathing report on the Sport Infrastructure Program. She calls for a national integrity commission, “with teeth”, and “a broad jurisdiction to investigate any conduct of any person which adversely affects the impartial exercise of public office”, rather than the Morrison Government’s proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission, that will have no power to investigate or expose corruption.

The CPI also has an article by Stephen Charles – Your Government does not want corruption investigated – going into details of the shortcomings of the Commonwealth’s proposed body, and it has an annotated transcript of an ABC interview with former NSW Auditor-general, Tony Harris. Referring to Minister McKenzie’s interventions, in which she directed which projects were to be approved, Harris says “There is nothing in the law that allows her to be the decision-maker”.

Going even further than Harris, University of Sydney Constitutional Law expert Anne Twomey suggests that the Commonwealth does not have constitutional authority to make such sport grants.

Transparency International still gives Australia a poor score on corruption

Transparency International has released its Corruptions Perceptions Index 2019, which gives a score between 0 (rotten) to 100 (spotless). Although New Zealand’s score has been falling over recent years it leads the pack, followed by Singapore and northern European democracies. Australian remains at #12.  Notably there have been sharp falls in the UK and he USA since 2015, but the UK still ranks better than Australia.

Writing in The Guardian Christopher Knaus reports on findings specific to Australia and on an interview with Serena Lillywhite, CEO of Transparency International Australia. Our poor assessment is attributed in part to the absence of a federal anti-corruption commission and lax campaign-funding laws.

NDIS Review

If you click on to the DSS website you will find a short outline of the Review of the National Disability Insurance scheme.  The impression you may gain from that page, written in insipid bureaucratise, is that the NDIS is simply having a few settling-in problems. It’s worth drilling down into David Tune’s Report, which calls for more flexibility in the scheme’s administration (rigidities in purchasing for example) and which fleshes out what should be included in a “participant service guarantee” – essentially the contract between claimants and the NDIS.  The absence of such a contract has allowed unacceptable delays in service provision.

Tune’s inquiry was specifically into the need for a participant service guarantee. On the ABC’s Breakfast Program, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Disability Services Bill Shorten is interviewed about broader aspects of the present government’s administration of the NDIS. He is highly critical of the government’s administration. Staff ceilings have resulted in long backlogs with many people’s files being lost in the never-never while needs go unmet. Such delays result in under-spending on NDIS services, which means the government can use such savings to contribute to its goal of a budget surplus.

Oxfam on wealth inequality

Under the banner Fight inequality beat poverty Oxfam Australia has released Oxfam’s 2020 Inequality Report.  It’s an account of extremes, not only of the gap between rich and poor, but also of the gap between men and women. “At the bottom of the economy, women and girls, especially women and girls living in poverty and from marginalized groups, are putting in 12.5 billion hours every day of care work for free, and countless more for poverty wages.” Gains to holders of financial wealth are accruing faster than wages, which inevitably means that global inequality is widening.

Confirming the general finding that inequality within countries is widening, the website has some figures on Australia. One significant factor contributing to inequality, globally and in Australia, is an inadequate tax base, particularly in relation to multinational firms and the very rich. Oxfam’s call is not so much for tax-funded redistributive welfare as for tax-funded benefits of education, health care and other services that can help lift people, particularly women, out of poverty.

The case for higher minimum wages – they save lives

A group of epidemiologists and other academics have published a paper on the relationship between minimum wages and suicide – Effects of increased minimum wages by unemployment rate on suicide in the USA. Their finding is that after controlling for other variables, a higher minimum wage would result in a lower suicide rate among adults lacking post-high school education. The link above will take you only to the abstract (the full article is paywalled), but The Economist has an informative summary, including a graphic presentation of the effects of higher minimum wages.  Note particularly how it would have changed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Health and geography: where you live counts

Professor John Glover, Director of the Public Health information Development Unit at Torrens University, has produced a major study of the geographical distribution of health conditions and health risk factors in Australia. The RACGP has a short summary of his work.

On Radio National’s Breakfast the ABC’s Norman Swan has a seven-minute interview with Glover. He outlines morbidity and mortality gaps between disadvantaged and other Australians: many of those gaps are widening, and as he explains, where you live counts.

Torrens University has mounted a six minute YouTube video  (reposted from the ABC) where Glover explains his work and findings. It’s not just that people with adverse health risk factors happen to live in the same regions: the physical and geographical features of those regions count.

These press releases and interviews are based on Glover’s major project, an interactive atlas of health and its determinants in Australia. The map below is of rates of adult male obesity by local government area in NSW – one of the literally thousands of output choices you can make with a few mouse clicks.  We didn’t have room for the legend: the darker green the higher the rate, and grey is at the top of the scale.

A separate link takes you to notes providing data sources and definitions.

He is preparing some fact sheets to which we will be providing links in coming weeks.

Why do American Christians feel besieged when they’re enjoying unprecedented legal rights?

Writing in The Dispatch, senior editor David French considers the anomalous situation that Christian Americans feel so besieged when court decisions over the last sixty years have been in the direction of improving religious liberty –  Liberty Gained and Power Lost.

His analysis is that over the same period Christians, particularly those members of the once-dominant Protestant religions, have lost power, influence and respect. “The sense of cultural decline and cultural exclusion has made millions of Christians feel as if they cannot speak their mind and still maintain their jobs, their standing in the community, or the regard of their secular peers”.  Because among “white” Americans there is an alignment of religious belief with support for the Republican Party, it has become difficult for Americans to come to any consensus on religious freedom, debate about which has been subsumed by partisan conflict. Are we seeing something similar in Australia?

Morrison has been “called by God to lead Australia”

For the last sixty years, journalists and other commentators have steered clear of writing about the political beliefs of politicians. The old sectarian wars were over, and apart from some specific issues such as abortion, there was little evidence of any way in which politicians’ religious views had a strong bearing on public policy.

Writing in The Monthly  (one free article a month, more if you register), James Joyce looks at Pentecostalism – The devil and Scott Morrison. Unlike Stephen Vincent Benet’s play, Joyce’s article is a description of the moral theology shaping Morrison’s beliefs and behaviour, covering the way Morrison is able to reconcile his beliefs with the teachings of Christianity. He stresses that Morrison’s faith, which denigrates nonbelievers, which sees the end times in certain terms (so why worry about climate change?), and which ascribes righteousness and sanctification to the saved “is contrary to the teachings of mainstream Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church”. Joyce’s analysis gives some insight into the strength of Morrison’s self-belief, overconfidence, insensitivity and stubbornness.

Polls and surveys

Surprise: we’re becoming more concerned about the environment

William Bowe’s Poll Bludger cites two polls by different organisations using different techniques, which both show growing concern for the state of the environment and climate change in particular.

His entry – Poll respondents with attitudes – also shows support for Australia Day remaining on January 26.

He also has a link to his own work (behind the Crikey paywall) into the Sport Infrastructure Program. His painstaking local region-level research into the program’s 684 grants reveals that in aggregate they had no net positive or negative effect on the Coalition’s vote. (That is yet another confirmation of earlier research showing that programs with discretionary boondoggles for supposedly politically sensitive regions have no effect on voters.)

Australians are an untrusting lot

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer has just been released. It’s a survey of the extent to which citizens of 28 countries trust four institutions – media, non-government organizations, business and government.  The 28 countries are all reasonably well developed, but not in the sense that “developed” has become a synonym for “rich”.  Tellingly China, India and Indonesia score highly in terms of trust in these institutions, while the Anglosphere democracies surveyed (US, UK, Ireland, Australia) score comparatively poorly.  (There are many ways such a result could be interpreted). Across all countries NGOs come out on top for trustworthiness, followed by media, business, and government at poor last place, The surveys find that mistrust is correlated with inequality:

Distrust is being driven by a growing sense of inequity and unfairness in the system. The perception is that institutions increasingly serve the interests of the few over everyone. Government, more than any institution, is seen as least fair; 57 percent of the general population say government serves the interest of only the few, while 30 percent say government serves the interests of everyone. [worldwide figures]

One aspect surveyed was “fear of being left behind”, which has become a significant issue among political commentators. That fear seems to be most marked in low-income democracies. Another aspect was trust in capitalism: it scores poorly, and is a long way from what people would like to see in the business sector. In the nine business sectors for which citizens’ trust was surveyed, “technology” scored best and “financial services “ scored most poorly.

The survey partitioned respondents into an “informed public” (generally people with post-high school education) and the “mass population” (everyone else).  In every country the “informed public” were more trusting than the “mass population”, and in no country was this gap stronger than in Australia (which may explain something about our 2019 election).

The link above will take you to the barometer’s main page. For the detailed report click on the “global results” or find it directly from this link.

Why do Trump supporters support Trump?

That’s the headline of a New York Times article by Anand Giridharadas, which is a review of Micheal Lind’s book The new class war: saving democracy from the managerial elite.  Lind states that in the post-Depression-post-war period there was a “peace treaty” between the classes for several decades, which collapsed apart with the emergence of the neoliberal “managerial elite”. Giridharadas quotes from Lind:

When the dust from the collapse cleared, the major institutions in which working-class people had found a voice on the basis of numbers — mass-membership parties, legislatures, trade unions and grass-roots religious and civic institutions — had been weakened or destroyed, leaving most of the non-elite population in Western countries with no voice in public affairs at all, except for shrieks of rage.

Giridharadas is sceptical of Lind’s description of the “managerial elite” in which he lumps schoolteachers and billionaire entrepreneurs together, and points out that Trump himself is hardly of the working class. (But isn’t everyone finding it hard to find a single, non-offensive adjective to describe those who support Trump, Morrison, Bolsonaro, Putin and Johnson?)

The left – its past and future

In Foreign Affairs James Cronin of Boston College has a review of Isser Woloch’s book The Postwar Moment: Progressive Forces in Britain, France, and the United States After World War II.

The review is essentially a summary of Woloch’s work. After the 1935-45 war the left was in government and united, with programs that “shared a common rhetoric, a sense of possibility, and very similar demands for jobs, economic and social security, housing, and health care.”  But over time the left became less united and did not have the mobilising force of a clear failure of the capitalist order:

For Woloch, the advance of progressive forces before and during the postwar moment was mainly a response to the crises of the Depression and the war, and the petering out of progressivism once those crises had passed was predictable.

The 2008 financial crisis may have provided a rallying point but it led mainly to unchallenged austerity. He concludes with optimistic speculation:

… the new populists’ sheer nastiness and inability to govern might well unify the left to an extent that was not possible prior to their ascent. The enemies of progressivism might once again prove to be its inadvertent allies.

Foreign Affairs has some open content and some content that requires registration (three articles a month) or subscription. See their paywall FAQs. It is not expensive.

Why the left keeps losing

That’s the title of an article in the New Statesman by political philosopher John Gray in an analysis of December’s general election in the UK. In his article he shows how Johnson captured Labour’s working-class heartland, but he wonders how he will hang on “while the cultural elite remains wedded to progressive values”.

Gray has a challenging view of “progressivism”, which he describes in terms of a detached intellectual elite trying to impose a new world order on the masses “with scraps of faux-Marxism and hyper-liberalism”, while junking “the values that have guided human civilisation to date”.  It’s a view that conflates what people classify as the “left” and the “right”, implying that Johnson (and by implication other electorally successful populists) has won office without any clear ideology. According to Gray it’s the same insipid centrism that Blair inflicted on  Britain’s Labour Party. “Gramsci’s belief that the working class makes history has turned out to be right, at least in Britain, but not in the way he and his disciples imagined” he writes.

Don’t worry, a well-informed politician tells us that the bushfire smoke isn’t coming back

Atmospheric scientists say that some of smoke from the bushfires will circle the globe and come from the west. In the interest of balance we should consider the equally worthwhile view of Craig Kelly.


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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