Saturday’s good reading and listening for the weekend 

What people in other forums are saying about public policy


The US election

There will be a surfeit of opinion and analysis over the next days, months and years.  For now you can follow Adrian Beaumont’s comment and analysis on William Bowe’s Poll Bludger, America’s ABC News (which has an interactive map), and our own ABC’s USA Votes.

If you’re one who keeps counting the gap between the candidates’ votes and the 270 vote target, the college votes in still-unresolved states are Pennsylvania-20, Georgia-16, North Carolina-15, Arizona-11, Nevada-6.


Australia’s economy

The cost of neglecting climate change

Even though we have done reasonably well (so far) in dealing with Covid-19, it has inflicted a heavy cost on our economy. A report by Deloitte Access Economics – A new choice: Australia’s climate for growth – points out that “by 2055 Australia will experience economic losses on par with covid, getting worse every single year due to unchecked climate change”.

In order to avoid job losses through the closure of carbon-intensive activities (880 000 by 2070), and more importantly to take advantage of opportunities for new economic activity (250 000 new jobs by 2070), there have to be significant adjustments in agriculture, tourism, energy, mineral resources, manufacturing, construction and transport. That means we need significant upfront investment, in both the public and private sectors. A $67 billion investment to reduce our emissions to net zero by 2050, and to transform industries most affected by climate change, could fill the economic hole left by Covid-19.

The Reserve Bank moves in mysterious ways

On Tuesday the Reserve Bank dropped the official interest rate to 0.10 per cent.  The accompanying announcement by Governor Phillip Lowe is difficult to follow: he says that our economic outlook is stronger than the bank earlier expected it to be, but he goes on to justify the rate cut, and other liquidity-increasing measures in terms of employment:

In particular, we face the prospect of a long period of higher unemployment and underemployment than we have become used to. In the RBA’s central scenario, job creation is slow over coming months and the unemployment rate is still around 6 per cent at the end of 2022. One consequence of this is that wages growth and inflation are both likely to stay very low. In each of the next two years, we are expecting annual wages growth of less than 2 per cent.

He is also expecting inflation to remain below 2 per cent for the next two years. That suggests the RBA wants to avoid a de-facto rise in real interest rates brought on by lower-than-expected inflation. He also explicitly mentions a desire to keep the exchange rate low.

In all it’s a grim prognosis. There may be economic growth, but it will not necessarily result in higher employment or wages.

Our corporate regulator is an ineffective cop – just what many businesspeople want

ASIC – the Australian Securities and Investments Commission – has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its chair was paid more than $118 000 for KPMG to help him minimise his tax bills, and its deputy chair was paid $70 000 for housing relocation. The chairperson has stood aside and the deputy chair has resigned. Although the Australian National Audit Office raised concern about ASIC’s allowances in August last year, it appears that nothing was done until they came to light last month.

Now the business lobby has called for the laws governing ASIC’s operations to be softened, and according to the ABC’s Stephen Long, Treasurer Frydenberg is sympathetic to the idea of making it harder for a failing firm’s creditors to claim their money and to the idea that directors’ liabilities should be watered-down: ASIC has never been a tough corporate cop on the beat, but expenses saga could make it weaker.  This is in spite of the finding by the Commission into misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industryhaving found ASIC to be a weak regulator.

On the ABC’s Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue asked Ian Ramsay of the University of Melbourne how corporate misbehaviour may be better regulated – ASIC in hot water. Ramsay pointed out possible flaws in the body’s governance, and he noted that ASIC has a very wide span of responsibility – wider than in most other countries where there are more specialised regulators covering different industries and different aspects of corporate misbehaviour. (10 minutes)


Other Australian politics

“A sham to cover up corruption”

The Centre for Public Integrity describes the Commonwealth Integrity Commission Bill as A sham to cover-up corruption. In a press release it lists eight areas, including the absence of public hearings and a narrow definition of corrupt conduct – where the bill falls short of an adequate way to expose corruption.  A more comprehensive legal analysis is in its briefing paper, accessible through a link on the press release.

Retired Victorian Supreme Court judge and CPI director Stephen Charles AO QC said: “This is not a corruption commission, it is designed to protect parliamentarians and senior public servants from investigation.”

Australia’s soaring imprisonment rate – we still have postcodes of disadvantage

The late Tony Vinson, an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform, saw crime in terms of “postcodes of disadvantage” – areas of entrenched intergenerational poverty.  But we have made little progress in criminal justice reform. In fact since 1985 our incarceration rate has risen from 66 to 223 per 100 000 adults and is now much higher than in Canada and Western European countries.

Part of the problem is that every election seems to involve a “law and order” auction by contending parties (“law and order” is one of those floating signifiers that can mean anything to anybody). Most recently we saw the LNP engaged in a “law and order” auction in relation to youth crime in Townsville. (10 minutes)

Robert Tickner, former Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Government, was on Saturday Extra describing the work of the Justice Reform Initiative, a body of prominent citizens (Tickner is the chair) set up to press for criminal justice reform, and to urge politicians to desist from “law and order” auctions. Rather, they should approach the problem using evidence-based-policy. What we’re doing now is expensive ($110 000 a year to keep someone in prison) and is letting the community down because it is not providing the safety that people reasonably expect from their governments.

Looking back on 11 November 1975

Wednesday will mark the 45th anniversary of the sacking of the Whitlam Government – our own version of the political chaos, deception, trickery and conflict that the US is now experiencing.

Between February and March this year Alex Mann and a team of ABC journalists prepared a series of seven programs The Eleventh, which have recently been re-broadcast.  (We might recall that in March a rapidly rising incidence of Covid-19 was commanding our attention).

If you have a spare five and a half hours (a long drive perhaps) you might care to listen to the whole seven episodes. They are presented as a developing story:

Episode 1 – The sweet spot – is about the issues that projected the Whitlam Government into office. It’s about the pent-up desire for reform and the backlog of issues in a country that had stagnated under 23 years of rule by one party. It covers the speed with which Whitlam – a person of “towering and beautiful arrogance” – dealt with those issues, particularly conscription and our involvement in the Vietnam War.  (37 minutes)

Episode 2 – Black Orchids – is largely about our security services, ASIO in particular, and strains in the US-Australia alliance. A terrorist bombing caught ASIO by surprise, because its cold-war obsession had left it blind to right-wing extremism. This failure by ASIO rather annoyed the Whitlam Government, and in its attempt to bring ASIO to account the Whitlam Government annoyed the Nixon Government in the USA. (36 minutes)

Episode 3 – Dangerous Circus – is about sex, Murdoch, oil and foreign ownership. Whitlam’s style of allowing ministers a fair degree of autonomy resulted in some ill-advised and potentially expensive initiatives. In this session you will hear John Menadue’s account of events. Menadue was General Manager of News Ltd Sydney (yes, there was a time when the Murdoch press was progressive), before he became Head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in which role he became close to Whitlam. (The session focuses heavily on administrative blunders in the Whitlam Government. In failing to explain the enormity of the collapse of the international order at the time, it gives the false impression that all the chaos is of the Whitlam Government’s making.) (43 minutes)

Episode 4 – The Advisor – introduces Elizabeth Reid, appointed by Whitlam as advisor on women’s matters. It’s partly about her agenda – it’s amazing to hear how blokey Australia was in that period and how much catch-up was necessary. But it’s also about the first indications of a growing tension between Whitlam and Governor-General John Kerr, as described by Reid and Menadue, both keener observers of the political landscape than Whitlam.

Episode 5 – Deadlock – is about the events leading up to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. More people were trying to warn Whitlam that Kerr, rather than following the convention that the Governor-General acts on the advice of the Prime Minister, may go his own way, and that he was offended by the idea that he was subordinate to Whitlam. Whitlam, a strong believer in the strength of parliamentary conventions, failed to understand that Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser did not feel so bound. The session covers the Senate’s blocking of supply, but ends before the final showdown. (53 minutes)

Episode 6 – The Eleventh – is the story of events on 11 November, the day of the dismissal, described mainly by John Menadue (who as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was not only an observer, but also an actor with heavy and conflicting responsibilities). It’s about mistakes of timing, incorrect assumptions about the behaviour of Fraser and Kerr, deception and betrayal. Kerr’s most egregious behaviour was to leave the Speaker of the Parliament waiting outside the gates of Government House, preventing him from informing the Governor General that Whitlam had the confidence of the House of Representatives and should by convention continue as prime minister. The snub was to allow Kerr to dissolve Parliament, acting on Fraser’s advice. (48 minutes)

Episode 7 – State Secrets – is largely about who knew what when. There is some evidence that the US may have had a hand in bringing down the Whitlam Government – it certainly had a track record of overthrowing governments it didn’t like – but the evidence is weak.  Jenny Hocking, however, has been chasing up the possibility that the Queen of England may have been involved. She describes the extraordinary situation where those responsible for our archives were preventing her, a prominent Australian historian, from having access to Kerr’s correspondence with a foreign head of state.  Since then, thanks to Hocking’s endurance in a protracted court case, more but not all has been revealed, published in her book The Palace letters: The Queen, the governor-general, and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam.

This session is 57 minutes. If you don’t necessarily want to hear all the forensic detail you may tune in at about the 47 minute mark, from where you will hear John Menadue reflect on the dismissal, an event that left him questioning his ability to trust those who are in charge of our institutions.

You can read more  about those events in John Menadue’s 1999 book Things you learn along the way, particularly the chapter “A job on the line”.


The pandemic’s progress

Victoria and New South Wales

Nationally over the last two weeks, out of 156 new cases, all but 42 have been in hotel quarantine. Of those 42, 18 have been in New South Wales, 23 in Victoria, 1 in South Australia.

As at Friday morning Victoria has gone a clear week without any new cases being detected, but New South Wales is still dealing with cases in southwest Sydney.

USA and Europe

Again we have had to expand the axis to accommodate Europe’s rising cases. Daily case numbers in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg are all more than 500 per million population. The strain circulating most strongly in Europe seems to spread from farm workers in Spain, and spread through Europe by returning holidaymakers.  The only European country with a significant fall is Ireland, which is now two and a half weeks into its Victoria-style restrictions. Other countries are belatedly heading back into restrictions, which will be harsher and more costly than would have been the case had governments moved earlier when the trajectory of leaving the virus unchecked was evident.

The USA is still on the way up, particularly in inland states that came off lightly earlier in the year. On Thursday the USA recorded 109 000 new cases, with a concentration in the midwest – that’s a daily rate of 300 per million. Trump’s unmasked rallies have probably helped the virus get a move-on.

Our region

Finally, a graph of daily cases in our region. Note the radically different Y axis: Australia’s curve appears as a steep rise in this graph but is no more than a blip on the graph above.

Cases are on the rise in Japan in certain locations. In this short article from the Japan Times, note the reference to “groups of foreign nationals living in Japan”.

Introducing Dr Tarun Weeramantrhi of the Australian Public Health Association

On Saturday Extra Geraldine Doogue introduced Tarun Weeramantrhi, newly-appointed president of the Australian Public Health Association. He outlined the case for public health – always squeezed for funds within the health budget.  (In view of its high returns, and its public good characteristics, why is public health competing with hospitals for funds within the same budget line item?) He reminded us of the dividends from public health even when there is no pandemic.  He also offered an explanation for the success in keeping Covid-19 out of aboriginal communities: they had already had some exposure to the 2009 H1N1 virus, and the administration and delivery of aboriginal health programs is often through public health professionals, unlike the situation in urban Australia.

He stressed that we need to value our front-line workers more – those who are most likely to be exposed to viruses. And we need to maintain capacity to respond to pandemics: as we have seen, capacity in contact-tracing for instance cannot be ramped up overnight. Unfortunately “a lasting effect of a virus is amnesia”.

Sources

Sources of generally reliable information and analysis about Covid-19 are on a separate web page.  This week there is a short article about vaccines on the Harvard Gazette website, bringing some balance to the polarised views that vaccines will allow an immediate return to life as normal or that they are bound to be useless.


Public ideas

Liberty and equality are fine, but don’t forget fraternity

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Fratelli Tutti (“All brothers”) calls on us to commit to the public good, not only through impersonal mechanisms such as income redistribution, but also through a genuine sense of fraternity and social friendship. “We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life. Indeed, there are markets where individuals become mere consumers or bystanders.”

Many people associate Christian morality with “family values” – an inward-looking orientation with affection and care ending at the surrounding white picket fence. But Pope Francis’s vision is expansive: it is a call to embrace communitarianism, but not in the oppressive, authoritarian models manifest in systems such as communism, not in the soul-destroying model of capitalism, and not in the false global consciousness that allows us to espouse universal values while ignoring those in our own communities with whom we don’t want to relate.

Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.

It is an exhortation to all of us, not only in our personal lives, but also in our political lives. He notes and is particularly critical of political populism:

… when individuals are able to exploit politically a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power. Or when, at other times, they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. This becomes all the more serious when, whether in cruder or more subtle forms, it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws.

Writing in The New Statesman What the left can learn from Pope Francis, Adrian Pabst has a short summary of the Pope’s encyclical.  His moral message:

Fraternity is at the heart of the social fabric binding together communities and countries. The left needs to recover ethical traditions to be a force for good – gaining and retaining power to offer people a more dignified life.

(The New Statesman allows one free article a month, but you can register to get access to three articles.)

What is to be done

On Thursday’s Late Night Live Phillip Adams interviewed Barry Jones.  The wide-ranging discussion was about the need for fundamental change in our and similar societies, as we are confronted by “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” – demand on resources through population growth, climate change, pandemics, and the related problems of racism and state violence. Jones reminded us of the immense power of four people (three men, one woman) who are impeding Australia’s transition away from a low value-added, high-carbon extractive economy. His passion, as articulated in his most recent book What is to be done: political engagement and saving the planet, is to see Australians not just in jobs (the Morrison Government’s objective), but in good jobs.

As Jones and Adams were discussing public ideas, the USA was in the throes of a tribal conflict over the disputed election outcome. To quote from What is to be done:

Liberal democracy currently faces its greatest existential crisis since the 1930s: it is being displaced by emotive and often poorly informed populism internally, and a strident nationalism externally.


Elections

Queensland – pollsters failed to predict the Labor vote

It’s hardly news that Labor did well, but they did better than the pollsters expected. William Bowe’s Poll Bludger reports on a Newspoll one week ahead of the election that underestimated Labor’s primary vote by 3 per cent. Swings are shown in the table below, based on the count on Wednesday morning, with 76 per cent of the vote counted.

As was  pointed out in Pearls and Irritations after the ACT election two weeks earlier, in every one of 15 consecutive elections up to that point the Liberal Party vote had gone backwards. Does the success of the LNP in Queensland suggest its long drought is over?

But this was a swing to the LNP, an amalgamation of the Liberal and National parties. We have looked at the vote in the urbanised south-east corner of Queensland (Brisbane, Gold Coast, Logan, Ipswich and the Sunshine Coast) – seats which, if there were separate parties, the Liberal Party would contest but not the National Party. In this region the LNP primary vote has fallen by 0.2 per cent, while it has risen in the rest of the state – in seats that a separate National Party would be expected to contest.  Within Brisbane the LNP vote is down by 1.3 per cent. The 2.1 per cent swing to the LNP statewide is partly explained by the fall in the One Nation vote.

The other Georgia

In Georgia (the small ex-Soviet nation squeezed between Russia to the north and the warring Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south) the governing Georgian Dream Party, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, claims to have won the election, with 48 per cent of the vote at last Sunday’s election, ahead of 46 percent for a group of parties assembled as an opposition. According to Max Fras of the European Institute in a pre-election comment, the contest is one between two illiberal groups, but both seek to strengthen their relationships with Europe rather than with Russia.


Opinion polls

Essential on premiers, horses, and other matters

This fortnight’s Essential Report has another swagful of surveys.

On our ratings of the way governments have handled Covid-19, all governments, state and federal, score a net “good” – 81 per cent for Western Australia, 55 per cent for Victoria, with others in between. The federal government still gets a “good” rating, but it has slipped from around 70 per cent in June, to around 60 per cent now, and the Victorian Government seems to have had a bounce since restrictions were eased.

The survey asks people in four states about their approval or otherwise of their premiers, comparing this period’s results with results two weeks earlier, presumably seeking evidence of shifts in our assessment of Gladys Berejiklian after her ICAC experience and of Andrews as the Covid-19 infections lessened and restrictions were eased. Unfortunately the sample sizes are too small to draw any inferences about changing opinions. But we seem to love our premiers dearly.

There are questions about our support or otherwise for “an independent federal corruption body to monitor the behaviour of our politicians and public servants”.  Of course we want one, and interestingly strongest support (88 per cent) comes from Coalition voters. The idea, peddled by the government that now is not the time to set up a corruption watchdog, does not wash – most of us want it now.

There is a set of questions on horse racing, there having been some big racing event in Melbourne on Tuesday. About 60 per cent of people aged under 55 have some interest in horse racing, but there is little interest among older people.

Finally we are asked what we think of Biden and Trump, with predictable responses. (It would be interesting to have the same questions put to Californians to see if there is any difference.) On the statement “someone who will strengthen the US relationship with Australia” 27 per cent believed Trump would, while 42 per cent believed Biden would.


Coming Events

Uluru Statement from the Heart – an update

The Balmain Institute is hosting a session with Pat Anderson AO, an Alyawarre woman and Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman, who will recount the long tradition of Aboriginal activism leading to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with an update of its current status (and will take your questions).

Thursday, 12 November, 1900 AEST. Register with the Balmain Institute for this Zoom event.

Two Australia Institute webinars

On Monday 9 November, 1300 AEST,  the Australia Institute is hosting a webinar Why Australia needs the Climate Act, about a bill to be presented by Zali Steggall, independent member for Warringah.  Presenters will be Zali Steggall, former Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett and Director of The Australia Institute’s Climate & Energy Program, Richie Merzian. Register through the link above.

On Wednesday 11 November, 1130 AEST, it will host a webinar How childcare reforms could help power the economic recovery, with Jay Weatherill, former South Australian premier,  and Kate Carnell, former ACT chief minister. Register through the link above.


Keeping elections honest

International observers

Increasingly, rather than relying on “developed” countries to send observers to scrutinise elections, bodies monitoring elections are sending observers from “developing” countries to monitor elections in countries with flawed and corrupt political systems.


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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