SATURDAY’s GOOD READING AND LISTENING FOR THE WEEKEND

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


That virus

By the time anyone reads Pearls and Irritations on Saturday there will be several more opinions about the origins and cures for coronavirus and another run on supermarkets for canned spinach/macrobiotic cat food/Angostura bitters …

ABC Insiders host David Speers reports on the contrast between the government’s approaches to climate change and to coronavirus. Do the principles of precaution and reliance on science apply only in selected policy contexts?

Laura Tingle reminds us why Morrison welcomes the distraction of coronavirus. His government is in serious trouble on other fronts. It’s facing the political consequences of the Coalition’s having weaponized the budget surplus and is having to deal with questions of legality and constitutionality around its pre-election boondoggles. She finds Morrison’s to be a government “not all that fussed about niceties such as the law and the constitution”. She wonders if he can hold this rabble together.


Democracy and pluralism are under assault

Freedom House has released its annual report Freedom in the World 2020, finding that “2019 was the 14thconsecutive year of decline in global freedom”.

China attracts attention for ethnic and religious persecution and for its extension of sophisticated surveillance techniques to its citizens.

The world’s two largest democracies, India and the USA, are also of concern.  They are both countries whose governments “are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”

Australia largely escapes mention and enjoys a score of 97 on Freedom House’s 0 – 100 scale – well ahead of the USA (86), but behind Finland, Norway and Sweden which all score 100.


Remember when misleading Parliament was a dismissible offence?

Mark Kenny, writing in the Canberra Times, recalls a time when deliberately misleading Parliament, even over minor matters, was a dismissible offence – A government of lies, damned lies and gymnastics. There has been plenty of pork barrelling before (although this government seems to be lifting it to a new scale), but Morrison and his inner circle have made truth-telling unfashionable, and have eroded the authority of Parliament:

By bluntly ignoring the damning public servant evidence and extensive email traffic of the sports grants program adduced in a Senate inquiry, Morrison is resetting the bar.


Elections – voters turn away from incumbent parties

Northern Territory – no joy for traditional parties

Last Saturday Labor won a by-election in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly seat of Johnston.  Labor has been crowing about its victory (52.6 per cent on a 2PP basis), while the Opposition Country Liberals (CLP) has been crowing about the swing against Labor (21 per cent) in what was once Labor’s safest seat.

What neither party is talking about is the swing against both traditional parties, shown on Antony Green’s website: the combined Labor plus CLP vote was 46 per cent.

The big winner was the Territory Alliance, a newly-formed right-wing party, who achieved 22 per cent of the vote, and was the runner-up in the final 2PP contest.

The Green vote was 17 per cent, unchanged from the 2016 election, but the Ban Fracking Party, another new party, scored a respectable 11 per cent of the vote, bringing the total “environmental” vote up to 28 per cent.  (Notably the Greens preferenced the Territory Alliance on its how-to-vote cards, but, as in the ACT, the NT prohibits distribution of how-to-vote cards at polling stations. which means parties’ preference directions exert less discipline on voters than in other jurisdictions.)

Johnston is in urban Darwin, and has a demographic profile that is not very different to  urban seats in other parts of Australia.

Slovakia – a victory for right-wing populism or a protest against corruption?

Also last Saturday in the Slovakian election the right-wing opposition party OLaNO (which translates into the “Ordinary People’s Party”) won enough support to oust the established left-of-centre Smer-Social Democracy Party. In terms of votes cast it was a fairly straight swing of 10 – 14 per cent from Smer to OLaNO, but with only 25 per cent of the vote  OLaNO’s head Igor Matovič will need to negotiate a coalition with other parties, and his own party is cobbled-together from several interest groups.

Reports in the New York Times ‘Slovakia Has Woken Up’: Governing Party Suffers Decisive Election Defeat and in The Guardian Slovakia election: seismic shift as public anger ousts dominant Smer-SD party attribute the result mainly to Matovič’s strong anti-corruption campaign, with particular attention to graft exposed in an investigation of the murder of journalist Ján Kuciac and his fiancée, who had been exposing the influence of oligarchs in the country’s politics.

Politico has a chart of swings, best read in conjunction with Wikipedia’s list of parties which includes short descriptions of their ideologies.  The liberal but Eurosceptic SaS Party lost ground, as did the right-wing (also Eurosceptic) SNS Party, while the neo-Nazi L’SNS Party held its ground with 8 per cent of the vote.

Israel – if you keep on doing the same thing you get the same result

The count in Israel’s election is yet to be finalised, but according to preliminary analysis by the newspaper Haaretz, it appears that Netanyahu’s Likud picked up a little support at the expense of the far-right Kahanist Otzma Yehudit Party, that support for Ganz’s Blue and White party is virtually unchanged, and that an Arab-Israeli group (“The joint list”) has enjoyed increased support, but none of these swings translate to a decisive victory for any party in terms of seats.  Voter turnout was up a little – no sign of election weariness. Otherwise little has changed in this third inconclusive election within twelve months.


What’s keeping us awake at night – climate change or the cost of living?

Both rate as #1 in a list of issues the Australian Government should focus on, depending on how people are surveyed.  That’s the finding of the JWS Research True Issues report.

When respondents are unprompted “the environment and climate change” gets top ranking, particularly among people in non-metropolitan regions. When people are prompted with a list of 20 issues, “cost of living” comes out on top. On both prompted and unprompted responses “hospitals, health care and ageing” and “employment and wages” come out near the top. Only 22 per cent of respondents feel that the “national economy” is headed in the right direction.

In only 6 of its 20 policy categories separately listed by JWS does the Australian government achieve a score of 50 per cent or more, with “defence, security and terrorism” scoring best at 59 per cent.

In people’s assessment of the performance of government local government is seen as performing better than state government, which in turn is seen as performing better than federal government. (The same ranking is found in USA surveys.)


Selling Britain’s National Health Service

Spare a thought for capitalism. Its once-profitable industries are suffering technological disruption (media), saturation (automobiles) or extreme competition (airlines). But with an ageing population and new technologies health care is seen as a new frontier of opportunities for uncommonly high profits.

John Pilger has produced a 105 minute film The dirty war on the NHS,  available (until Tuesday 17 March) on SBS On Demand. He describes how, starting with Margaret Thatcher and continuing with Tony Blair, successive governments have been selling Britain’s beloved NHS by stealth through privatisation and contracting out, while making sure that they maintained a stated commitment to keeping the NHS.

His message is in a quote from a medical practitioner “The NHS has been re-purposed from a public service to something for profit extraction”. Pilger covers the history of the NHS in the context of the post-1945 welfare state deal (which historian Arnold Toynbee saw as a consolation for the country’s loss of empire), and he uses the U.S., with its dependence on private health insurance, as a frightening contrast to the NHS (including an interview with a lady who voted for Trump because she believed he would bring in an NHS-type system).

In Australia successive governments have been whittling away at Medicare by different means – mainly through a whopping $11 billion annual subsidy to private health insurance. But as in the UK there have also been some ill-advised attempts to contract hospital services to for-profit corporations, most recently the NSW Government public-private partnership for the Northern Beaches Hospital. The NSW Legislative Council’s report into the contract finds “It is clear to the committee that the private status of this hospital has permeated every aspect of its establishment, management and early operation.”


A health check on the National Electricity Market

The Energy Security Board has released its annual Health of the National Electricity Market Report.  Because the ESB makes particular references to security (the need for the system to operate with appropriate levels of frequency, voltage and inertia) and to reliability (the ability to avoid blackouts because of supply-demand imbalances) it would be easy for a politician in the pay of the coal industry to use the report as an argument for a so-called “base load” coal station, but that would be based on a highly selective reading.

In fact, rather than concern about “base load” (a National Party anachronism) the report is about developing technical and market systems to cope with an electricity supply that will have an increasing proportion of renewables in its mix, and which will allow for intelligent demand-side management (a possibility the “base load” mob ignore).

The report is rich in data – such as a schedule of retirement of coal-fired stations, and data on the capacity for Australian manufacturing to improve its energy efficiency. Those who prefer a 16-minute summary to a 90-page report can hear Geraldine Doogue interview ESB Chair Kerry Schott on the ABC’s Saturday Extra. We need a “less populist conversation” about energy.


Reducing emissions – let’s not forget transport

Is all that off-road grunt necessary?

Community concern about reducing emissions has understandably been focussed on electricity generation, but we should not forget the transport sector, writes Philip Laird in The Conversation  Transport is letting us down in the race to cut emissions.  Transport emissions are on a strong upward trend, because of our dependence on cars with high average fuel use and an over-reliance on energy-intensive road freight. Laird reminds us that “the government has ignored recommendations to adopt mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for road passenger vehicles. Australia is the only OECD country without such standards.”


Win or lose, can the US Democrats hold together?

Writing in the New York Review of BooksThe party cannot hold – Michael Tomasky takes us through the ideological tensions in the Democrats, which have been so strongly on display in the primaries.

To an extent these tensions are exaggerated. Those on the left criticise Clinton and Obama for their accommodation of the interests of the rich and powerful, while overlooking the reality of the restraining power of a conservative Congress.

But the tensions are real, and they stem, in part, from the way America’s two-party system has forced the Democrats to operate as a broad church. In a parliamentary system, Tomasky writes, democratic socialists like Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez would be in one left-of-centre party, while traditional liberals like Biden and Bloomberg would be in another.

He largely avoids the question “is Sanders unelectable?”. But he is pessimistic about the long-term unity of the party:

In sum, Democratic unity, even in victory this fall, is well-nigh impossible to envision. One faction in the party will claim that it has vanquished not only Trump, but the other faction. And if the outcome is defeat…


Afghanistan: Peace in our time – or long enough for the US to get out

Last Saturday a bunch of men, some bearded, some clean-shaven, sat down in Doha, Qatar, to hammer out an agreement between the United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban movement that will see a withdrawal of US troops.

Saigon 1975 all over again

An editorial in the New York Times reflects on America’s engagement in Afghanistan and the agreement – not a peace agreement, or even a cease-fire – A war without winners winds down (alternative link). Its message is that it’s hard to see what there is to show for America’s costly involvement over so many years, but did America have any other choice but to withdraw? (The Afghan Government was not present at the meeting: they have to negotiate their own relationship with the Taliban.)

How half the Afghan population sees the agreement

Afghan women have a different view of the deal. On the ABC’s Breakfast Program Fran Kelly interviews Wazhma Frogh of Afghanistan’s Women and Peace Studies Organization. She points out that there is nothing about rights or democracy in the agreement. Afghan women are scared — “We are scared for our lives so we try to remain quiet”. What comes across is a sense of betrayal by the US (and by extension, by Australia).  (7 minutes).

Our part in the mess

On the Australians for War Powers Reform site is a three-part series War in Afghanistan: 18 years of lies and obfuscation. Much of this series is based on previously-classified material the Washington Post wrestled from the US Government under a FOI lawsuit, and published last December, revealing “a behind-the-scenes consensus the war was not well-managed. There was no strategy, no real plan, no real knowledge who the enemy was.”

Part 1 gives an overview of Australian experience in the Afghanistan War.

Part 2 contains quotes from Australian politicians and officials, interspersed with private remarks revealed by WikiLeaks cables, and the occasional candid remark from a politician or military leaders. (This was posted as a stand-alone piece by Michelle Fahy in Pearls and Irritations earlier thus week.)

Part 3 by AWPR President Paul Barratt AO summarises the real story behind the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan – a story that “casts a very different story on the whole ill-conceived project”. He concludes “The lesson in all this is that Australia should never enter a military conflict just for the sake of showing up.”

Don’t expect an outbreak of peace

Writing in Foreign Affairs Tricia Bacon considers the agreement that the Taliban “would guarantee that Afghan territory will never be used by terrorists” – Is the Taliban Making a Pledge It Cannot Keep?

The Afghan Taliban is the central hub in South and Central Asia around which other militant organizations revolve. Its insurgency enjoys substantial ideological authority and support. But this privileged position does not translate into control over the Taliban’s partners, who would need to be persuaded to relinquish their external ambitions—an unlikely proposition. And so to keep its pledge, the Taliban would have to be willing to either turn its back on longtime allies or use force to restrain them. Both scenarios are difficult to imagine.


Ideas of a Greek philosopher

Former Finance Minister in Greece’s Syriza Government (and former economics lecturer at the University of Sydney), Yanis Varoufakis, is in Australia to promote his film Adults in the room, based on his involvement in the 2015 dealings between Greece and the EU when Greece was on the verge of bankruptcy.

His interview on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live  covers much more than Greece’s economy, however. Varoufakis’ coverage of Julian Assange’s treatment might have you questioning the notion that Britain’s justice system operates on high standards of ethics and human rights. He explains what Trump and Sanders have in common, and why he believes Sanders – “a very decent man” – is the only Democrat to be assured of beating Trump in the November election. And he explains how capitalism has sown the seeds of its own destruction, but not in the way Marx predicted. (53 minutes)


Two events in Sydney

Thursday March 19 – National Integrity Forum “Strangling Accountability

The Centre for Public Integrity has an all-day forum at the Sydney University Law School, with a stellar cast of jurists, public policy and political experts, and journalists, on topics including anti-corruption agencies, royal commissions, secret governments and the roles of democratic institutions.  See the event and registration details on their website.

Monday March 30 – the John Menadue Oration

Again a reminder that the Centre for Policy Development is hosting the 2020 John Menadue Oration. Professor Megan Davis, Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous and Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, will address the question “Can Australia deliver?”.  See the event details on the CPD website, which includes a link to the Eventbrite registration page. (17:30, Monday March 30)

(We’re not really Sydney-centric: it’s just that these events, which we feel would be of interest to Pearls and Irritations readers, happen to be on in Sydney.)


Geographically bewildered Republicans

Border Force officials at Australian airports are having to deal with a growing number of Trump supporters who believe they have arrived in Africa.


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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