Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend 

Jul 18, 2020

What people in other forums are saying about public policy

The pandemic’s progress

Suppression or elimination?

Most health experts are urging us to aim for elimination of Covid-19 in Australia, but the Prime Minister, the NSW Premier, and some claiming to speak for the “business community” (whatever that is) are settling for a policy of “suppression”.

In a four-minute 730 session Norman Swan, backed by other public health experts, urges us to aim for elimination because suppression doesn’t work. By way of contrast we can watch NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian – a politician who is usually clear-speaking – spend seven minutes on the same program trying to explain and justify suppression, dissembling and contradicting herself. (7 minutes)

Advocates for suppression talk about achieving some “balance” between health and economic outcomes. At best this is muddled thinking; at worst it is a move to make our approach to Covid-19 a political battleground – not on Labor-Coalition grounds (the Labor Party seems to be in permanent lockdown on this issue), but as an extension of identity politics. Real men get on with the economy and accept that a few people will die and get sick; wimps and liberals expect the nanny state to protect them from the reality of life’s risks.

A suppression strategy is unsustainable and unstable. The idea that we can have ongoing community spread of the virus, letting the health system deal with it (at great expense), while opening up the economy, is fantasy. If it has any theoretical underpinning it’s that somehow the virus’s reproduction rate can be held at 1.0 in some equilibrium. But as any systems analyst knows such a supposed equilibrium is unstable: the slightest disturbance sends the virus on a path of exponential growth. There is no stable “safe” background of community transmission. The idea of an equilibrium balancing health against the economy is as fanciful as the addicted alcoholic’s idea that he can safely get by with one or two drinks a day.

We see the consequences of suppression on clear display in Victoria and New South Wales. These respective states’ responses will probably work, but at some cost to lives and ongoing health effects for many survivors. The economic costs will be high – obviously so in Victoria because the economic effects of a lockdown are clear to see, but also in New South Wales, because people’s fear of the virus sends them back into self-imposed isolation.

And if these responses fail we will find ourselves in the dismal situation we’re witnessing in the UK and the USA. If America’s experience were replicated in Australia, scaled for population, we would so far have 10 000 deaths, an overwhelmed health system (with many more deaths because of over-committed health care resources), thousands of Covid-19 survivors suffering its long-term effects, a fearful population hunkered down trying to protect itself, and we would be only one or two per cent along the way to herd immunity – assuming survivors achieve long-term immunity (which may be a wrong assumption anyway).

Anyone who thinks that is good public policy, even in economists’ way of thinking, is deranged. “The economy” is not some sacred entity that has to be balanced against “society”. Economic activity that does not serve social ends is pointless. For the consequences of such false prioritisation see Annie Lowrey’s article in The Atlantic The terrifying next phase of the coronavirus recession: “The US prioritized the economy over public health – and got the worst of both worlds”.

But just as Trump is appealing to his base by standing up against Anthony Fauci and other health experts, Morrison and his supporters seem to have found a similar battleline in Australia, making false claims about what elimination would involve, and grossly misrepresenting its costs.

If “elimination” is defined as zero cases ever, then of course that’s not achievable. But if it’s defined as the practical absence of community transmission, then that is achievable and has been achieved for some period in every state and territory. Yet in New South Wales, where the premier says elimination is “not going to happen in New South Wales, it never will”, over all of June the state had only nine cases of community transfer, all of which were quickly dealt with (including one week with no community transfer). Why does she want to turn her back on a successful strategy?

As explained by Anita Heywood and Raina MacIntyre of the University of NSW, Eradication, elimination, suppression: let’s understand what they mean before debating Australia’s course in The Conversation,  we don’t have to make a binary choice between “elimination” and “suppression” as Morrison asserts. Bill Bowtell, one of the architects of Australia’s successful approach to HIV/AIDS, in an interview on ABC’s PM, explains why the economic costs of suppression are much higher than the economic costs of elimination. He is mystified by Morrison’s dogmatic opposition to elimination. Infectious disease expert Brendan Crabb, Director and CEO of the Macfarlane-Burnet Institute interviewed on ABC’s Breakfast program, says that elimination “must happen, otherwise Australia won’t function as a nation”. We must not release the handbrake on the Victorian measures too early. (10 minutes)

Border wars

Below is the chart for community transmission in NSW and Victoria.  It’s possible that cases in NSW (including the ACT) are on the way back down. Authorities in Victoria claim that case numbers should soon start to fall, but the figures still resemble exponential growth. As for the rest of Australia there was one case of community transmission in Western Australia on 9 July and one in the Northern Territory on 2 July.


The rest of the world

The chart below for selected countries is updated from last week.

The USA has now overtaken Brazil, and we are only two weeks into the post-4 July holiday period. This is no “second wave”: it’s simply an extension of the outbreak so far as it sweeps across the country.

This may be the last time we report on the USA, because, as in many less-than-democratic countries, Trump has demanded more control over the data. It is to be no longer sent to the country’s Centers for Disease Control, but is to be collected by the White House.

It’s hard to see in the graph, but the most recent data from the UK suggests that cases there may be picking up again.  You can see a seven-minute video by China’s CGTN – Has the UK come out of coronavirus lockdown too early? – where experts point out that in both the UK and the USA there has been too great a rush to open up, with strong advice from Dr Bharat Pankhania of Exeter Medical School. (Viewer warning – crowds of English people enjoying themselves by the seaside.)

In other European countries the line for the EU remains flat, but there are differences between countries. Infection rates are falling in Germany and Italy but rising to high levels (high by European standards) in Bulgaria, and Romania.  Sweden’s rate is still high, but it is well down from its peak.

Note that Australia on the way up has caught up with the EU on the way down.  If Melbourne were recorded as a country its new case rate would be around 50 new cases per day per million.

Information sources

These are on a separate website.  This week we have added the Financial Times site Coronavirus – free to read. (Most of the FT site is behind a strong paywall.) For example it includes Martin Wolf’s challenging article Democracy will fail if we don’t think as citizens.

The Australian economy

June labour force – mixed performance

The ABS has released labour force data for June.  It shows a strong rise in part-time employment, an increase in hours worked, a rise in the participation rate, and a fall in full-time employment, all resulting in a rise in the unemployment rate from 7.1 per cent in May to 7.4 per cent in June.  These numbers look healthy enough until we realise that there are many people kept on payrolls by “Jobkeeper” and that it wasn’t until late June (22 June) that Victoria started to respond to that state’s outbreak.  A back-of-the envelope calculation, substituting the Parliamentary Library’s estimate of the number of people on income support payments (1.64 million) for the ABS “unemployed” figure (0.99 million), suggests that our unemployment rate may be about 12.3 per cent.

How a tax cut would help the economy (the German economy that is)

Cutting taxes for the wealthy is the worst possible response to this economic crisis is the self-explanatory title of John Quiggin’s comment in the Conversation. He is commenting on the Morrison Government’s reported plan to bring forward the income tax cuts currently legislated for 2024-25. These are the cuts of most benefit to those with incomes above $120 000 – particularly those with incomes above $200 000.  As anyone with basic economic knowledge knows, to stimulate a weak economy the most effective policy is to help the poor, who will spend any increased income, not the already well-off who will put their extra income into retiring debt and investing in speculative ventures. Or, as Quiggin points out, if they do spend it, luxury cars are an attractive option. Last month sales of Mercedes Benz, Audi and BMW cars have all risen, while sales of cars bought by lesser mortals have fallen.

How a foreign power intervened in an Australian election – and sought to cover it up for 45 years

The head of state of a foreign power had a part in our prime minister’s sacking

Australia’s monarchists may claim that the Kerr-Palace letters  indicate their claim that we have been well-served by our quaint constitutional arrangements. But whatever spin they put on the situation, the fact remains that Australia’s Governor-General, holder of an office with the power to appoint the prime minister and suspend parliament, sought advice from servants of a foreign country – a country with its own interests that align only partially with Australia’s – before sacking our elected prime minister. And it is clear from the correspondence that the Palace sought to reassure Kerr about his plan to dismiss the government.

The Palace’s defence that the Queen of England had no part in the process is based on the fantastic notion that the queen’s private sectary is somehow free to act as an independent agent – an issue covered in Jenny Hocking’s Pearls and Irritations article pointing out that  the Queen had been drawn into the process.

On The Conversation is an article by Chris Wallace of the University of Canberra, ‘Palace letters’ reveal the palace’s fingerprints on the dismissal of the Whitlam government, in which he makes it clear that the Queen’s private secretary speaks for the Queen herself. The letters also make it clear that the Palace and Kerr conspired to resolve the crisis in a way that favoured the Coalition.

Whatever way it is presented, it’s a case of a foreign power intervening in our electoral process, by invitation from a holder of high public office. In principle it is little different from Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US election.

The events leading to Kerr’s treachery

A chronicle of the events around Kerr’s treachery is in the chapter “A job on the line” in John Menadue’s autobiography Things you learn along the way. He also has the transcript of a podcast interview about the dismissal with Alex Mann earlier this year.

This is not just about something that happened 45 years ago

Many people misunderstand the task of historians. Hocking’s relentless campaign was neither about satisfying some curiosity nor about a forensic whodunnit. Rather it is about our constitutional arrangements.

Our parliamentary democracy is changing. The “Westminster” two-party system is crumbling. The combined Labor plus Coalition vote is falling, the Coalition itself is brittle, governments are unlikely to enjoy a Senate majority, election margins are tightening, and the number of independents and minor party MPs in the House of Representatives is increasing. It seems almost unavoidable that our head of state, like his or her counterparts in many other democracies, is going to have to be involved in the formation of governments. But as the Kerr case demonstrates, we may not have the sovereign power within our democracy to resolve such issues. We urgently need constitutional reform.

We are disengaged with questions about our governance, however, a disengagement that no doubt serves the present power elites.  William Bowe reports on a (paywalled) survey on the question whether respondents wanted an “Australian as our head of state”:  52 per cent voted  yes, while 32 per cent voted “no” and a further 16 percent were “don’t know”.

Polls and surveys

Essential – has Morrison’s popularity peaked?

This week’s Essential poll includes updates to its monthly rating on Morrison and Albanese. Maybe Morrison’s approval has peaked – we will need a couple more months’ data to be sure that there is something more substantial than sampling error at play.

There is also a set of questions on coronavirus. The hitherto slow reduction in concern has reversed. Respondents were surveyed between Thursday 9 July and Sunday 12 July – after Daniel Andrews announced a Melbourne lockdown on Tuesday 7 July, but before Gladys Berejiklian asserted on Tuesday 14 July that her government would not entertain the idea of eliminating the virus.

The survey also asks people about how they assess governments’ responses to Covid-19. The governments of Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia all enjoy improved approval, while the governments of Victoria and New South Wales have slipped markedly.

Booze and other drugs

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has published the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. It’s generally a story of more responsible use of alcohol and other drugs, particularly among young people. Some may be surprised to find that two in three 14-17 year olds have never consumed a standard alcoholic drink.  We hear about young people using methamphetamines, but in fact they are the drug of choice of older people. The survey is worth a glance in order to dispel a few myths.


Poles go to the polls again

On Sunday Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, from the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, narrowly won re-election (51.1 percent to 48.9 per cent) against his rival Rafel Traskowski, Warsaw’s liberal mayor, in the country’s presidential run-off election. Turnout was 68 per cent. Voting patterns followed familiar liberal-conservative lines – urban vs rural, young vs old, educated vs uneducated, and in Poland’s case west vs east (the areas on the German side of the country are more liberal than those on the Russian side, and Duda is strongly anti-German/anti-EU). On last Saturday’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue interviewed Martin Krygier of the UNSW on Poland’s election. He attributes some of the country’s swing to the authoritarian right to a disappointment with post-communist life.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is critical of the country’s electoral processes. The campaign was marked by “negative campaign and mutual vilification”, and more seriously, the governing Law and Justice Party had a significant advantage through the state-owned public broadcaster whose coverage was marked by “homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.

Pawel Zerka and Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations consider foreign policy aspects of Duda’s re-election – Poland under Duda: A divided country, dividing Europe. Relations with the European Commission will become more fraught, as could relations with the US if Trump loses office.

Shock result in Singapore – People’s Action Party wins with a mere 61 per cent of the vote

In Singapore’s election on Friday 10 July the People’s Action Party achieved its 15th consecutive term in office since 1959. It suffered an eight per cent fall in popular vote, and its parliamentary majority has been reduced from 74 to 73 seats.  Writing in the South China Morning Post, Singapore journalists Kok Xinghui and Dewey Sim see the result as a significant achievement for the opposition Workers’ Party.

Across the Pacific

Trump trails – except among one demographic group

The Pew Research Center has a poll Public’s mood turns grim; Trump trails Biden on most personal traits, major issues. Most of its findings could be reasonably guessed by impartial observers of America, but what stands out is the suddenness of an onset of anger and fear in the country.  People’s attitudes to Trump are polarised: he’s either “great” or “terrible” to most people, while Biden is seen as “good”, “average” or “poor” – clustered around the centre.

In relation to age and education the usual factors apply: young people, women and the more-educated lean toward Biden. If an election were held today Trump’s vote would trail Biden’s by 10 per cent (44 to 54 per cent), but among those describing themselves as “white”, a majority (53 per cent) would vote for Trump. (It’s hard for outsiders to grasp the extent of “racial” identity in the US.)

Unpresidented times – Trump’s “demented solipsism”

Writing in The New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole, picking up on a misspelling in one of Trump’s tweets, writes about Unpresidented times.

A central feature of Trump’s practice of malign minimalism is the erasure of American history. It is not just that his own ignorance seems almost total. It is that Trump is obsessed with a pseudo-history in which the past exists only as prelude to his own greatness and to the unique evil of his enemies.

O’Toole sees the faults in Trump’s presidency in terms of three strands of unfinished business on the national agenda.  The first is the Civil War: George Floyd’s killing “is just one more episode in the unending consequence of the shredding, in the aftermath of the Civil War, of the promise of equality for black Americans”.  The second is the Vietnam War, in which Nixon encouraged the “silent majority” to acquiesce in his deception and lies. Nixon thought he could do whatever he chose to do, but was caught, while Trump knows he can do whatever he chooses to do, because Republicans in the Senate don’t stand up to him. The third is the “war on terror”: the unfinished business is about dealing wth home-grown terrorism such as “white supremacism” and the “threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights”.

Let’s not forget Mitch McConnell

As Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell plays a role similar to that played by our own Mathias Cormann. Trump and McConnell are the twin tribunes of America’s ruin – vote them out writes Robert Reich in The Guardian.  Reich lists McConnell’s zealous congressional support for some of Trump’s most outrageous policies – demanding that the nation “reopen” while Covid-19 cases and deaths rise, stoking racial tensions, blocking legislation to extend unemployment benefits while “siphoning federal money intended to dampen the economic crisis into the pockets of his cronies and family.”

Reich’s article is a reminder that on November 3 there is an election for 33 of the country’s senators as well as the presidential election. Just as it did to Obama, a Republican-controlled Senate could see its task not in terms of reviewing legislation but in terms of destroying the legitimacy of a Democrat president – echoes of the way Coalition-controlled Senates in our country have dealt with Labor governments.

A politicised intelligence service

Brett Holmgren is a former senior director of intelligence programs on the National Security Council staff in the Obama administration and a former CIA analyst.  Writing in Foreign PolicyTrump’s new Director of National Intelligence doesn’t understand his job – Holmgren provides a scathing assessment of the performance of Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe. Judging by his performance in the two months he has held the position, it appears that he sees his job as helping the president politically rather than advising him on security issues and keeping the public informed about threats.

The issue is the astonishing amount of public relations work with an apparent political motivation to help Trump, even if it means undermining and tarnishing the reputation of the intelligence community that Ratcliffe now heads.

Are Trump and Johnson fascists?

They “have some characteristics that were peculiar to fascism, such as their constant excitation and mobilisation of their base through polarisation, their culture wars, their promiscuous lying, their fabrication of enemies and their rhetoric of betrayal” writes George Monbiot – Something wicked this way comes. In some other ways they are very different from the monsters of last century, however. Their support base, for example, is among the old while Europe’s fascists mobilised a base of young supporters. But new technologies have brought them means of mass indoctrination that Joseph Goebbels could hardly have dreamt of.

Australian politics

Mike Pezzullo gives us a glimpse inside the sausage factory

„Je weniger die Leute davon wissen, wie Würste und Gesetze gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie Nachts“ – a statement attributed to Otto Bismarck roughly translates to “the less people know how sausages and policies are made, the better do they sleep at night”.

In a half-hour interview on Saturday Extra, Home Affairs boss Mike Pezzullo takes us on a guided tour of the sausage factory, discussing how the Department deals with issues of security and secrecy. If you are hoping for an exposé of the government’s national security blunders you will be disappointed, but he does give an insight on how a public servant in his position – and by extension those who work in the Department – consider secrecy and security. Geraldine Doogue suggests that public servants have a reflexive tendency to secrecy and over-classification, but Pezzullo claims that secrecy is often needed to protect sources, rather than to withhold information from the public.

He acknowledges the inertia of traditional ideas about security – ideas based on hard borders and explicit military threats, which do not accommodate the reality of technological developments when dealing with “sophisticated state actors”. Also we tend to overlook threats of low probability but high consequence. During the interview there was mention of his list of Seven gathering storms, presented to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last year.  The usual suspects – extremist Islamist terrorism, transnational organised crime and cyberattacks are all there (but are other forms of right-wing terrorism?). He includes  “deliberate subversion of our democratic institutions and social cohesion” (but doesn’t mention that some of that subversion is by his own political masters).

How Rio Tinto came to blow up sites of cultural significance

A Pearls and Irritations reader has asked us to link to an article by Glynn Cochrane, former senior advisor to mining giant Rio Tinto “Rio Tinto’s aboriginal desecration shows folly of rote ESG”.  (ESG is an acronym for “environmental, social and corporate governance”, whatever that means.)

Unfortunately the article is paywalled in both places where it’s published – the Financial Review and the Financial Times. The article presents the background to Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up two ancient aboriginal rock shelters when it expanded its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara. Cochrane explains that there is no shortage of environmental scientists, anthropologists and others in the firm, and following its disaster in Bougainville in the 1970s, the company had improved its practices in dealing with traditional owners. But in recent times it has turned to a paper-based compliance culture, ignoring its in-house expertise.

In searching for a more open reference to the issue of compliance with Western Australia’s laws on sites of cultural significance, we came across this informative infographic by Reuters, showing that of 461 applications to disturb and destroy sites, 460 were approved—and the single rejection was for a site that had already been damaged.

What a bloody waste

Still fit for purpose

Imagine what one could do with a $500 million construction stimulus to the Australian economy. Improve urban public transport, build 2500 public housing units?

Or spend it in Canberra, a city relatively untouched by the coronavirus, and with a reasonably well-performing construction sector, on a massive re-modelling of the Australian War Memorial.

Quite apart from its fiscal stupidity, the idea of re-modelling the War Memorial has been highly criticised by the Australian Institute of Architects as wasteful and unnecessary in their submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, mainly because it has not been subject to a design competition and because it would involve demolition of the heritage-listed Anzac Hall.

Living with our neighbours

Can we have a grown-up policy towards China?

On The Conversation, Andrew Podger, now of ANU, reviews the recently published book by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg Hidden hand: exposing how the Chinese Communist Party is shaping the world.

Podger’s review is generally positive. For example the book reminds readers that “China and the CCP are not one and the same”. But missing is “a balanced discussion of the central debate about the appropriate approach to be taken in the West’s relations with China”. Rather than trying to “contain” China, and viewing China simply as “our enemy”, we should have an approach more in line with conventional diplomatic practices – to “engage and constrain”. Podger writes “while increasing investment in defence may well be justified, boosting our spending in diplomacy is even more important”.

Malaysia’s assault on press freedom

Five Australian journalists are facing the prospect of imprisonment in Malaysia on a charge of exposing that country’s treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Peter Greste sees this in the wide context of that country’s move to intimidate journalism more broadly – “They’re interpreting uncomfortable journalism as an attack on the state” . (3 minutes)

The Melbourne Press Club has issued a short statement “calling on Malaysia to immediately cease its criminal investigation”.

Other public policy

A planet of the old – Earth in 2100

Imagine global population, now 7.6 billion, peaking at 9.7 billion in 2064 before falling back to 8.9 billion by the end of this century. Imagine China with just half of its present population by the end of the century.

These aren’t fanciful musings. They are base line scenarios in a set of population projections published in The Lancet –  Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100. In most high- and middle-income countries the net reproduction rate is already below replacement level (Africa provides the standout exceptions).  Many countries, including southern and eastern European countries and Japan, have already reached peak population.  Slowing and reversing population growth is attributable to trends in female education and access to contraception.

Of course there are many variables to be considered. One alternative scenario sees all countries meeting UN sustainable development goals, which would see world population falling to 6.3 billion by the end of the century. The scenarios for Australia may surprise readers until they consider the part played by immigration.

Don’t let coronavirus distract us from the nuclear threat

Thursday July 16 marked exactly 75 years since the first atom bomb was exploded in New Mexico. (It was dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later.)  On Late Night Live Phillip Adams has an extended interview (53 minutes) with William J Perry, former Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration – The atomic bomb turns 75. It’s a story of missed opportunities for elimination of nuclear weapons, at least one situation where the world came perilously close to all-out nuclear war, and risk: not the risk of a nuclear first strike but the risk of catastrophic error.  And we learn along the way that Trump has sole authority to initiate a nuclear strike.

Two biographies of a historian

At a time when some may question the relevance of a historian devoting her efforts to understand an event that took place 45 years ago (the prime minister’s dismissal), Mark Mazower, writing in the New York Review of Books, reviews two biographies of Eric Hobsbawm.  One, Eric Hobsbawm: a life in history is by Cambridge scholar Richard Evans, and the other, Meet me in Buenos Aires: a memoir, is by his widow, Marlene Hobsbawm. Mazower writes “Hobsbawm belonged to a generation that emphasized the intellectual’s responsibility to help create an intelligent citizenry”.

Coronavirus in New South Wales

With extensive contact-tracing, a team of dedicated journalists has found and interviewed a New South Wales truck driver who has not been to the Crossroads Hotel at any time in July.

Watch out tomorrow, Sunday, for Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environment round up.

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