Feb 15, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

ABC’s Saturday Extra with Geraldine Doogue (from 0730 to 0900 or on their website  in case you miss it).

In the UK, an almighty stoush is building between Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and the BBC (the UK equivalent of the ABC). The issue is ostensibly about license fees but critics say the real reasons are political. Guest: Claire Enders, Enders Analysis

The Atlantic’s James Fallows surveys an increasingly chaotic and fraught election campaign in the US

What is the Indian Ocean Dipole and why is it causing such havoc?

After the Berlin Wall fell, political theorists celebrated the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy. But the champagne corks may have popped prematurely, argues Ivan Krastev, author of the new book, The Light that Failed.

For Glaswegian Norman Swan, Odessa has been both a romantic and terrifying destination; members of his family were killed in pogroms there and others escaped. So what would he find when he goes back?

Other commentary

Closing the material and political gaps

Closing the Gap report

Most media have given a brief summary of the 2020 Closing the Gap Report. You can read or download the full report from the National Indigenous Australians Agency.  There are considerable variations by state, both in the extent of gaps (the Northern Territory facing the greatest challenge), and in the progress being made in their closure.  Particularly revealing is the extent of education-related gaps in remote regions.

Can liberal states accommodate indigenous people?

On the ABC’s Philosopher’s Zone  David Rutledge  interviews Duncan Ivison, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney, author of  Can liberal states accommodate indigenous people? What, to indigenous people, is the legitimacy of a political order imposed by an occupying power?  Ivison’s answer is qualified: the liberal state can gain legitimacy among indigenous people, but it is not a straightforward issue, as illustrated in the carefully-crafted Uluru Statement. (28 minutes)

Pope Francis and the Amazon

On Thursday the Vatican released a document with the wonderful title Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia, about Christians in the Amazon region – a region characterised by poverty, environmental destruction and (of particular concern to the Vatican) a shortage of priests. Most media reporting was about what it did not contain – a yielding in the church’s ban on married clergy (a ban applying to the church’s Latin rite). What they missed were the document’s statements on the exploitation of the people of the Amazon and the destruction of the planet’s life-support systems. To take one quote:

When certain businesses out for quick profit appropriate lands and end up privatizing even potable water, or when local authorities give free access to the timber companies, mining or oil projects, and other businesses that raze the forests and pollute the environment, economic relationships are unduly altered and become an instrument of death. They frequently resort to utterly unethical means such as penalizing protests and even taking the lives of indigenous peoples who oppose projects, intentionally setting forest fires, and suborning politicians and the indigenous people themselves.

On the Vatican website is the press release summarising the document, and it has a link to the document itself.

Irish election

Europe has an established pattern of traditional mainstream parties losing ground to newer green, left or liberal parties.

Ireland’s election, held on Saturday, is in line with that trend.  The two centre-right parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which have taken turns in governing Ireland for many years, both lost ground, mainly to the left-nationalist Sinn Féin which enjoyed a ten per cent swing. The Green Party also did well from a small base. A chart of swings and results is in Politico’s article – 5 takeaways from the Irish election.

Writing in The Guardian Roy Carrol reports that Sinn Féin will try to form government, but it appears that no two parties could form a coalition – even Sinn Féin, the leading party, won only 24 per cent of votes.

Carrol’s interpretation of the results is that Sinn Féin “rode a wave of anger over homelessness, soaring rents and hospital waiting lists as well as disillusionment with the traditional political duopoly.”

In view of the European trend towards multi-party democracy, it is strange that in Australia there is a widespread assumption that we are locked into a two-party system, disregarding the fact that, unlike the USA and the UK, our voting and constitutional arrangements do not constrain us to a two-party system. There is no impediment to Australia’s political landscape becoming more like that in mainland Europe.


With the release of another set of polling on Tuesday, Essential now has enough data points to make some cautious observations on political trends, although it is still not polling on voting intention.  (With the decreasing loyalty of voters, and the fall in main parties’ primary votes, the days of 2PP figures with a claim to reliability may be over.)

It seems that Morrison’s approval has been falling ever since the election. His Hawaiian holiday and gauche handling of the fire crisis only accelerated an established trend. Albanese’s approval rating, while better than Morrison’s, shows no clear trend.

On preferred Prime Minister polling, Albanese has been slowly catching up. There is a consistent “don’t know” response of about 30 per cent, which is why the two lines in the graph do not add to 100 per cent.

 The same polling asked what people thought of the idea of a budget surplus.  Most respondents believed it was more important to spend money on bushfire recovery than to fund the surplus, and they understood that the effects of the coronavirus on Chinese trade would probably prevent a surplus from being achieved. But 57 per cent of respondents believed that it was wrong for the government “to announce the budget ‘was back in the black’ before the last election.”

To put it mildly, respondents were not too impressed by the government’s handling of the sports grants, but just on half (49 per cent) believed that McKenzie’s resignation should be the end of the matter. That poll suggests that Morrison may have gotten away with using a minor conflict-of-interest issue to deflect attention from his government’s systemic corruption, but it was conducted before the ANAO’s appearance before the Senate.

Trump’s contempt for principled behaviour undermines democracy

As many predicted, Trump has interpreted his survival of impeachment as a licence to behave as a dictator unconstrained by the law or by long-standing political traditions. One of his first moves was to fire those diplomatic and national-security officials who dared to uphold their constitutional oath and, without any partisanship or prejudice, testified in the impeachment proceedings.

Writing in The Atlantic Impunity Is Triumphing Over Integrity – former Deputy Secretary of State, William J Burns describes their “quiet dignity, steady resolve, and steely professionalism”. He goes on to write:

The integrity of those proud professionals stood in sharp contrast to a bullying president and the empty swagger of a secretary of state who serially fails to abide by his own lectures and stand up for his people, let alone what they stand for.

The consequences of Trump’s vindictive behaviour can be global:

The power of our example – however much we may have exaggerated it over the years – was always more important than the power of our preaching. But that example today only feeds the arguments of our adversaries, emboldens authoritarian leaders, normalizes racists and xenophobes around the world, and unsettles our allies.

Boris Johnson’s “simplification of democracy”

In trade policy Britain’s Brexit may not be particularly consequential: Johnson’s government is in no rush to break from EU trade regulations. But in his desire to break from mainland Europe’s liberal traditions Johnson is embarking on a domestic political transformation – towards “simplified democracy” – Johnson’s program is radical, writes political journalist Ferdinand Mount in The London Review of Books. “Simplification of democracy” is a program of consolidating power in executive government, and weakening civic institutions and conventions than put a check on executive power.

The overall goal is often described, and with justice, as a sort of national populism, of the kind practised by Orbán, Bolsonaro and Erdoğan. But the mechanisms by which this new style of politics is to be delivered and entrenched are peculiar to Britain.

Murdoch welfare

Shareholder activist Stephen Mayne, writing in Michael West Media, describes how the Murdoch men looted $1.4 billion in salary from public companies.  The companies are those incorporated as News Corp and Fox Corp, public companies in which the Murdoch family (correction – Rupert and his sons) manage to control 40 per cent of the voting rights – enough to ensure effective control over the boards – while holding only 17 per cent of equity.

More on those Australian Electoral Commission donation figures

Last week we reported on political donations revealed on the AEC website.  If you were a conspiracy theorist you would believe the Commission has deliberately made it hard to dig through their data because it’s highly disaggregated. (You need to download it into the mother of all spreadsheets before you can start to wring any sense out of it.) That’s probably why it makes little news.

Drug dealers donated generously to Labor

There was a degree of bipartisanship in political donations in 2019. But the Pharmacy Guild went with the betting markets, giving $591 000 to Labor and only $183 000 to the Coalition, as pointed out by John Elder in New Daily, in an article headed by a picture of two sad-eyed pharmacists, presumably fearing that the Morrison Government will seek revenge for the Guild’s ideological asymmetry.

Elder’s article points out that in 2020 there will be a re-negotiation of the “Community Pharmacy Agreement”, which may help explain why this was the highest donation for 20 years. The two pharmacists pictured needn’t worry: the Community Pharmacy Agreement is negotiated behind closed doors and presented to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Remuneration Tribunal as a fait accompli – a “sweetheart deal” to use the industrial relations terminology of a past era. Pharmacists have enjoyed bi-partisan coddling, not only in terms of the regulated dispensing fee, but also in terms of mandated restrictions on competition.

Campaign spending – Cui bono?

Stephen Mayne has been digging through the donation figures– Quid Pro Quo: who paid who before the Election and what do they want? on the Michael West website. He points out huge discrepancies between parties’ total receipts and the totals of disclosed donations: the National Party for example declared total revenue of $3 million while donor disclosures returns come to only $1 million. How many donors make multiple contributions just below the disclosure threshold? What counts as a “donation”?

He analyses “Political campaigner returns”, a new category that includes Getup, which received $14 million, but only $1.2 million from donors who gave more than the $13 800 disclosure threshold, including a few “quiet Australians” who gave generously. Also disclosed are donors to a group known as Coal 21, who raised $17 million. In spite of BHP-Billiton’s announced policy of getting out of thermal coal, BHP Mitsui Coal appears on the list of donors.

Mayne notes the bipartisan quietness over the AEC returns. He also notes the general silence from the commercial media: why would they want to see limits on campaign expenditure, most of which goes into media advertising?

A donation that blows apart the politics textbooks

We all know how political donations work: they’re market exchanges – money for access and influence.

If you have 14 minutes to spare you will find a story that goes against this prevailing political wisdom:  Rick Morton’s The love story behind Australia’s biggest political donation, on Schwartz Media’s 7am.

We need a proper anti-corruption body, not Porter’s toothless, spineless model

Commenting on the huge amounts of money that have gone to political parties over the last twenty years without disclosure – $1 billion – Geoffrey  Watson, Director of the Centre for Public Integrity, interviewed on ABC Breakfast, reveals shortfalls in our political fundraising laws, and ways people get around even those weak laws. Citizens should be able to participate in our political process but not use their money to influence it.

The absurdity of Porter’s proposed integrity commission is that in order for it to investigate a case it would need to be satisfied that a crime has been committed, but it is the body that is supposed to do the investigation to find if a crime has been committed.  In giving the impression we have an anti-corruption body it would do more harm than good.

Labor and the Coalition both come out poorly in their lack of support for a strong anti-corruption body. (12 minutes)

The Australian economy isn’t looking too flash

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Writing in Inside Story Adam Triggs, Director of Research at the Asian Bureau of Economic Research at ANU, points out that while the economy generally ticks along regardless of government policy, the fires and now the coronavirus call for a strong fiscal response. He is not sure that the government will step in:  Why we can’t afford passive government. “The government has squandered the political opportunities that arose from these crises. Will it squander the economic opportunities as well?”

Weakening expectations

The Guardian’s Greg Jericho makes a similar plea for a significant fiscal stimulus: The stumbling Australian economy needs rescuing.  The most revealing aspect of his article is a chart showing how in the 21 months from May 208 to February this year estimates of this year’s economic growth have been progressively revised downwards from 2.25 per cent to 2.00 per cent.

Wage theft – just a few “bad apples”? – no, it’s endemic in the restaurant industry

Richard Robinson and Matthew Bremmer of the University of Queensland write in The Conversation of their research into wage theft in the restaurant industry: All these celebrity restaurant wage-theft scandals point to an industry norm. Wage theft takes three forms: unpaid overtime, not paying correct penalty rates, and making those looking for jobs do free work trials.  That “unpaid overtime” isn’t just the occasional twenty minutes as the last guests leave: it’s more like 20 hours a week.  Cash payments and neglect of superannuation contributions are also common. The common excuse for under-payment is the complication of the award, but it doesn’t take a great deal of accounting or legal sophistication to understand that undocumented cash wages are illegal.

Militarising climate change

Canberra Times journalist Nicholas Stuart has an article Militarising climate change is about seizing the political agenda. He sees deployment of the military to handle climate-related emergencies as “a radical strategy to seize back the climate change agenda and position the Coalition for success at the next election”. It’s a fundamental and expensive re-vamp of the military, and does not lessen the need for a new outfit to handle climate-change induced catastrophes.

Is one-vote-one-value enough to ensure fair participation in political life?

Drawing on the work of John Rawls, Chang Che, writing in Quilette, asks Is Democracy Compatible with Extreme Inequality? His interpretation of Rawls is that “Simply stated, political equality demands that citizens who are similarly talented and motivated should have an equal shake when it comes to influencing the direction of government.” He goes through the evidence of political inequality related to economic inequality – capacity to donate to parties, access to public platforms, name recognition and other political opportunities that come with high levels of financial wealth.  (As an Oxford student he might have mentioned the disproportionate number of graduates from that university in political and public service employment.)

Government accountability

Strangling accountability

The Centre for Public Integrity is hosting the inaugural National Integrity Forum: Strangling Accountability on Thursday 19th March at the University of Sydney. The notice for it should be on their web page.  Otherwise there is an Eventbrite page for registration.

There have been two reports by publicly-funded agencies into ministerial behaviour.

Report by head of PM’s Department clears McKenzie of ANAO charge of political bias




 Australian Federal Police report on investigation into energy minister’s use of forged documents




What makes a successful protest?

That’s a question the ABC’s  Paul Barclay puts to four people – Patricia Turner, Bob Brown, Peter Edwards and Verity Burgmann on a Big Ideas program – A history of popular protest in Australia. They cover protests over land rights, apartheid and other forms of racial discrimination, gay rights, conscription, green bans, land rights, anti-war concerns, and development, going back to 1916. Around the middle of the program (29 minutes) is a discussion about present assaults on political expression by the Tasmanian, Queensland and Commonwealth governments.

Men consistently outperform women – at self-promotion

The National Bureau of Economic Research has published a research paper by Christine Exley and Judd Kessler: The gender gap in self-promotion. In applying for promotions men tend to overstate their abilities, while women understate their abilities.  On the NBER website all you will see is a vague summary, but the Harvard Gazette has a transcript of an interview with Christine Exley, where she explains the study’s methods and main findings. She is surprised at the depth of women’s discomfort with self-promotion.

(There are studies revealing that for some positions the time-honoured process of interviewing people for promotion works to the detriment of modest but able applicants, and results in a waste of talent.)

How to shift your policy on climate change without losing face

Aware of the overwhelming pressure of public opinion, some Coalition politicians would like to distance themselves from the idiocy of their past statements on climate change.  A short video provides some guidance on how to explain a Pauline conversion.

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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