Archive for November, 2007

The meltdown continues

November 29th, 2007 56 comments

While we wait for the new government take shape, we should be thinking about the first steps in policy (updated a little bit). But it’s impossible to avert our eyes from the trainwreck on the other side of politics.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed a bit by being in Queensland, where a Courier-Mail net poll has overwhelmingly nominated Mickey Mouse as the best choice to lead the State Libs (and indeed, his would be a more accurate name for the party). Not only are the eight members of the Parliamentary Party split down the middle, but they only want the job for the sake of the ex officio position on the State Executive which controls the spoils of defeat over which they are struggling (breaking news on this is that hopeless incumbent Bruce Flegg is about to stand down).

It’s easy to write this lot off as a provincial joke. But it doesn’t seem as if things are much different elsewhere

At this point, Turnbull seems like the only hope the Liberals have for change from within. If he succeeds, the party will be changed beyond recognition from that of Howard and Costello. If he fails, it’s hard to see the Liberal party surviving in its current form.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The turn of the cycle

November 28th, 2007 36 comments

Reader Stephen Ziguras has sent me this interesting graph on public preferences regarding the choice between lower taxes and more services.

It illustrates what Andrew Norton has called the issue cycle. Although our preferences differ quite a bit on this, I think Andrew and i share much the same political analysis. Voters are broadly satisfied with the moderate social democratic settlement that’s been in place for the last twenty-five years or so. When taxes go up a lot, as they did, thanks to bracket creep in the 1970s, they want tax cuts. When the quality of services like health and education gets squeezed, they want more public money spent on those things.

Those who want to argue for either a substantial enhancement or a substantial cutback in the role of the state have their work cut out for them. In this context, much of the me-tooism we saw in the recent election campaign is not that surprising, and nor is the defeat of the Liberals. There’s not much risk that the state will expand far beyond its current role, and a pretty strong feeling that lots of public services are in need of expensive repairs.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

GM Canola

November 28th, 2007 90 comments

The recent announcement that the production of genetically modifed canola will be permitted suggests that the long controversy over the GM issue is drawing to a close, with a reasonable chance of an outcome that should be satisfactory to most.

GM foods can be produced and sold in Australia, but, in general, must be labelled as such. Producers and consumers can decide to avoid GM if they want to, but those who are willing to embrace GM will not be prevented from doing so. There’s a problem here in relation to canola, since it’s mostly processed into oil for use in margarine and other products and this isn’t covered by the current labelling requirements – this should be fixed.

The policy decision reflects a pretty clear scientific consensus that the products in question are safe to consume, and also a long period of experimental work with genetic modification. With a few exceptions (notably those driven by Monsanto in the US), this work has been carried out with admirable caution, beginning with the Asilomar conference in 1975, which may be seen as the first application of the precautionary principle. Given the experience of the past thirty years, and the scientific understanding that has developed over that time, it seems pretty clear that any risks associated with GM are modest and manageable, not the potential catastrophes that worried the participants at Asilomar.

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Categories: General Tags:

Polls, pundits and punters

November 27th, 2007 16 comments

A really convincing case study often has more power than a mound of statistical analysis and, for me at least, observation of the just-completed election campaign has convinced me of the correct analysis of the predictive power of betting markets, relative to polls and pundits.

To recap, the polls (which had previously put Labor just in front) showed a big shift to Labor as soon as Kevin Rudd became Labor and stayed virtually unchanged for the subsequent year, narrowing by a percentage point or two after the campaign was called. This graph from Possum’s Pollytics tells the story.

At first no-one (neither punters in betting markets, nor political pundits, nor the public in their predictions) believed the polls. But over time, they all came around, until by election day, it didn’t matter whose predictions you used, you would have been pretty much right.

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Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Clean sweep

November 26th, 2007 42 comments

With the decision of Mark Vaile to stand down, and Alexander Downer likely to return to the backbench, if I’ve read these tealeaves correctly (BTW, is anyone else thinking “AWB inquiry” here), the Coalition will have lost its Leader, Deputy Leader, Treasurer and Foreign Minister in the space of a few days. That certainly increases the likelihood of the kind of radical restructuring I’ve been predicting/proposing.

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What should Rudd do first

November 26th, 2007 66 comments

Ratify Kyoto – it’s a stroke of a pen, needs no legislation, is a simple Yes-No decision and will have a big impact.[1]

Straight after that, though, something much harder. Rudd needs to reverse the decline in ethical standards that we’ve seen under Howard, and which began much earlier, going back at least to the 1970s. Arguably, Howard’s ultimate fate was sealed within a few days of taking office with the abandonment of what he later called ‘non-core promises’. That set the pattern for the many lies and improprieties that followed.

Unless the government acts now, before it has anything it wants to hide, the temptations of office will be too much. Some of the elements needed:

* An end to political advertising on the taxpayer’s dollar. After Howard’s disastrously counterproductive blitz on WorkChoices, this ought to be a forced move. But no doubt there are already plenty of self-rated smart operators in the backrooms thinking about how to use the resources of government in the interests of party

* A ministerial code of conduct. John Howard’s 1996 code would be a good starting point. His abandonment of this code to save Warwick Parer was a defining moment in his government’s decline and ultimate downfall. By contrast, Peter Beattie’s willingness to lose his own deputy premier and numerous other ministers has led to political success despite numerous scandals.

* A revival of the Westminster system. It’s too late to go back to the old idea of an apolitical public service, but a clear statement of the roles of ministers, departmental heads and public servants is needed. In my view, we should accept that the departmental head is the personal appointee of the minister, and they should share responsibility for the acts of the department. In particular, any information known to the department head should be presumed to be known to be minister. All public servants below that level should be permanent and apolitical

* Keeping promises. Rudd made some pretty bad promises to get in, such as matching tax cuts and keeping the private health insurance rebate. The standard approach of incoming governments in Australia has been to fabricate a crisis and dump the promises. While this has an obvious appeal, its long-run effect is corrosive, and is reflected in Howard’s downfall.

fn1. As pointed out in comments, it’s not as easy as that. But the fact that some exceptional measures need to be taken to get an immediate start on ratification will only increase the impact of the decision.

UpdateA more comprehensive guide from Miriam Lyons at the Centre for Policy Development

Categories: General Tags:

One for the true disbelievers

November 26th, 2007 24 comments

Pretty clearly, the big winners for Labor in this election, and the big losers for the government, were WorkChoices and climate change.

But WorkChoices or something like it was a forced move for the government once they got control of the Senate. Hatred of unions is (as the Libs pointed out in reverse about Labor) in the DNA of the Liberal party. A government which did nothing when it had the power would have suffered the same historical obloquy as Fraser’s.

By contrast, there was no need at all for the government to embrace climate change delusionism. The Liberal party was, arguably, ahead of Labor on this issue in the early 1990s. And while large parts of the business sector were inclined to delusionism, large sectors were not. A government that took the lead on this issue could have carried business with it. The push was driven by the conservative chatterati, most prominently on the opinion pages of the Australian, and reflected anti-environmentalist attitudes largely imported from the US Republican party.

While Workchoices made sure that the “Howard battlers” went back to Labor, climate change delusionism ensured that there was no offsetting gain within the core Liberal constituency.

Those who pushed delusionism in the opinion pages, the thinktanks, on the airwaves and in the blogosphere made a huge contribution to the downfall of the Howard government and, quite probably, the destruction of the Liberal Party. And Australia’s ratification of Kyoto may well have more impact now than if we’d signed up back in 2001.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Monday message board

November 26th, 2007 17 comments

It’s time for the first Monday message board of the Rudd era. Civilised discussion and no coarse language as always, but feel free to share the festive mood.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The Last Liberal

November 25th, 2007 84 comments

For once, my electoral predictions haven’t turned out too badly, so I’ll offer one more before we get back to policy: The Liberal Party will never again win a federal election.

This isn’t a prediction of unending Labor rule, rather an observation that the Liberal and National parties are in such dire straits that they can’t continue as they are. They haven’t got enough support, parliamentary representation or ideas for one party, let alone two.

The obvious option is a merger, but there may be other, more radical realignments in the wings. With no incumbent governments, there’s no real obstacle to a merger, except for entrenched interests in the party machines. But, in many ways, it would be better for the conservatives to start a completely new party, leaving their toxic existing structures to collapse.

I’d welcome this. Governments need to be kept in check. That requires an effective opposition, and a serious prospect of losing office. We’re already feeling the lack of this at the state level.

Update Apparently, Peter Costello agrees.

Further update Some commenters have objected that this is too strong a call to make on the basis of one 53-47 election. But of course that’s only part of it. The picture at the State level is far worse. The conservatives haven’t won a state or territory election this century, and have suffered landslide defeats at the hands of Labor governments, some of which have been mediocre at best. Of course, things could go badly wrong for Rudd or for one of the state governments. But if they don’t, it’s hard to see the Libs getting back in anywhere before the next NSW election due in 2011, and that depends on the most dysfunctional party organisation in the country getting its act together.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Oh frabjous day!

November 24th, 2007 45 comments

A thousand times sweeter than 1993. Not much more to say until tomorrow. Have a great night, everyone!

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Election day open thread

November 24th, 2007 36 comments

Rumours, anecdotes, observations, predictions … post whatever you want, sticking to civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

For what it’s worth, having predicted a Labor win from the start, I’ll stick with that, and estimate that Labor will get 80 seats.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Day after Tomorrow

November 23rd, 2007 23 comments

Reference to The Day After Tomorrow in the write-off and the subeditor’s choice of headline “Our world really will end”, made my latest contribution to the Financial Review a little more apocalyptic than I intended, but I suppose two days before an election is not the time for subtlety. And it’s very likely that unless we act soon to stop it, climate change will mean the end for large parts of the biosphere, including coral reefs, the Australian Alps, the Arctic, and a large proportion of all animal and plant species now alive.

You can read it over the fold. As I note at the end, I’ve also done a ACF report (Word doc) for ACF connecting the (fairly obvious) dots between climate change, more severe droughts and higher food prices.

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Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

Post-election Science

November 23rd, 2007 4 comments

The last BrisScience Lecture for 2007!

Come and hear Nobel Laureate winner Bill Phillips – featuring cutting edge physics AND liquid nitrogen!


At the beginning of the 20th century Einstein published three revolutionary ideas that changed forever how we view Nature. At the beginning of the 21st century Einstein’s thinking is shaping one of the key scientific and technological wonders of contemporary life: atomic clocks, the best timekeepers ever made. Such super-accurate clocks are essential to industry, commerce, and science; they are the heart of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which guides cars, airplanes, and hikers to their destinations. Today, atomic clocks are still being improved, using Einstein’s ideas to cool the atoms to incredibly low temperatures. Atomic gases reach temperatures less than a billionth of a degree above Absolute Zero, without solidifying. Such atoms enable clocks accurate to better than a second in 60 million years as well as both using and testing some of Einstein’s strangest predictions. This will be a lively, multimedia presentation, including experimental demonstrations and down-to-earth explanations about some of today’s most exciting science.
Professor Bill Phillips won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for developments of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. He currently works at NIST – the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland, USA.

Date: 26 November 2007
Time: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (Doors open at 6pm)
Venue: Ithaca Auditorium, Brisbane City Hall
Refreshments: There will be complimentary drinks and nibbles following the talk, and Bill will be available to answer any questions.
Got Questions? Contact Joel (0411 267 044 or [email protected]) or Nelle ([email protected]).

Please forward on this announcement to friends and colleagues. For further information or to subscribe to the mailing list, have a look at or contact Joel Gilmore (0411 267 044, [email protected] or Nelle Ross [email protected]). Looking forward to seeing you on the night!

Categories: Science Tags:

A day worth celebrating

November 23rd, 2007 1 comment
Categories: Life in General Tags:

The spoils of defeat

November 22nd, 2007 18 comments

Greg Sheridan pushes Tony Abbott as Deputy Leader for a Liberal Opposition.. As Mick at LP notes, it looks as if I’m going to be disappointed

Categories: General Tags:

Best blog post

November 22nd, 2007 2 comments

Over at Club Troppo, they’re running the Best blog posts of 2007 competition. Selected posts will be republished in Online Opinion. Nominate your favorites here or elsewhere in the Ozblogosphere

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Worse than you can possibly imagine

November 21st, 2007 15 comments

As Brad DeLong says, the Bush Administration is worse than you can possibly imagine, even after taking account of the fact that the Bush Administration is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Apparently, soldiers wounded in Iraq, and therefore unable to serve out their enlistments, are getting letters demanding partial repayment of their enlistment bonuses.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Have we seen the rabbit now?

November 21st, 2007 18 comments

All through the long campaign, we’ve been waiting for Howard to reach into his hat and pull out the rabbit that will astonish the crowd and turn everything around. With the election only days away, this task seems to have been left to Andrew Robb, and a very grimy and bedraggled rabbit it turned out to be.

For those who’ve tuned out, Robb attempted to parlay the alleged technical ineligibility of ALP candidate George Newhouse into a mass disqualification of any candidate for whom an Internet search turned up a supposedly current public appointment. A dozen or so were named, and the claim was that voting Labor would produce a hung Parliament and weeks of limbo.

The smear campaign (that’s the Herald-Sun’s term, not mine) didn’t even manage a single news cycle before falling apart, as it turned out to be based on the shoddiest of research.

I’m reassured by the fact that this didn’t work, and even more that the Liberals tried it. This must mean
* They don’t have anything better in reserve
* They’re desperate enough to try something that was always likely to backfire

Of course, nothing is certain until the results go up on the board. But as Crikey and others have observed, it’s all very reminiscent of 1996 in reverse.

Update: Lots of people have covered this, but no one has surpassed Possum

And, now its the bottom of the barrel. Amusingly, Andrew Robb, who pushed the first smear had to play the “shocked, shocked” Vichy policeman on this one, denying that senior Liberals were involved.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Disciplines and deterrence

November 20th, 2007 21 comments

The NY Times has an interesting piece on statistical studies of the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty. For those who want to get straight into fact-free debate, the bottom line is that the evidence is too weak to allow a firm conclusion one way or the other. What’s interesting to me, though is the way in which debates within different disciplines proceed, and the lags in transmission between them. Here I think the NYT story, while excellent in many respects, is quite misleading, presenting a story of deterrence-hypothesis economists facing off against legal critics.

That was pretty much the way things stood in the 1970s, after the publication of Isaac Ehrlich’s study in the American Economic Review claiming that one execution deterred 7 or 8 homicides. Ehrlich used multiple regression analysis (quite difficult and computationally demanding in those days, and correspondingly highly regarded) in an attempt to control for other factors affecting homicide rates and isolate the effect of the death penalty.

Over the next decade, economists learned a lot about the limitations of regression analysis. With limited amounts of data, it’s impossible to avoid mining the data for patterns which are then used to fit the model. And if you try enough specifications on weak data, you can get just about any result you want. A classic exposition of this point was Ed Leamer’s 1983 article “Let’s take the con out of econometrics” which pointed out the fragility of regression analysis on time-series data and picked, as an example, the deterrent effect of the death penalty.
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Relaxed and comfortable

November 20th, 2007 36 comments

Like most commentators, I’ve always taken Howard’s famous catchphrase “relaxed and comfortable” to have meant his government would avoid pursuing a radical ideological agenda, with the associated conflict and strife. I’m pretty sure this was how it was taken at the time, but of course that was before we learned the skills of parsing ambiguous sentences, and attuning our ears to high-frequency signals that have become so important under this government. It turns out that Howard meant pretty much the opposite of the interpretation that has become standard

This piece by Miranda Devine quotes Janette Howard as saying that:

her husband’s pledge in the 1996 campaign to make Australians “relaxed and comfortable” was meant to counter Keating’s history cringe, but the quote had been misinterpreted.

and indeed, the full quote, cited here by Carmen Lawrence reads

An Australian nation that feels comfortable and relaxed about three things: about their history, about their present and the future.

It sounded innocuous at the time but, in retrospect, it’s easy enough to see in this statement the seeds of both the History Wars, as noted by Janette Howard, and such later catchphrases as “We will decide who comes here and under what circumstances”.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Simon Jackman calls the result

November 19th, 2007 15 comments

There was a lot of speculation about the role of blogs and the Intertubes more generally would have in this election, mostly focusing on the political commentary role of blogs like this one. As it’s turned out, the campaign has been so soporific that neither blogs nor conventional media have had an awful lot to say about it. The stars of the show have been psephological blogs such as Pollbludger, Possum’s Pollytics, Mumble and Bryan Palmer. Showing the borderless nature of the blogosphere, one of the best such sites comes from the other side of the Pacific. Simon Jackman at Stanford has prepared a comprehensive pooled analysis of the polls which is well worth reading.

Categories: Metablogging, Oz Politics Tags:

Monday message board

November 19th, 2007 11 comments

It’s time, once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and absolutely no coarse language, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Climate change roundup

November 18th, 2007 57 comments

There’s too much happening on climate change to keep up with it all, so I’ll give some links

* In Crikey, Guy Pearse points out that in 1990 the Liberals had a policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. His book, High and Dry, showed where that all went. If the predicted wipeout occurs, the climate delusionists in the government’s ranks (and in its leadership) will bear a large share of the responsibility.

* The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report is finally complete, and provides a strong call for action. Here’s Howard’s response.

* Giving the lie to regular claims that the EU is not serious about cutting emissions, the EU Parliament has imposed caps on emissions from the airline industry, stronger than those suggested by the EU commission.

* A call for action from Kate Carroll of Greenpeace

* More surprisingly, the same from former NSW Liberal leader, Peter Debnam

Categories: Environment Tags:

Weekend reflections

November 18th, 2007 19 comments

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Guest post from Don Harding

November 17th, 2007 18 comments

Another guest post, this time from Don Harding, who’s looking again at the apparent conflict between betting odds on a Labor win and those in individual seats.
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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Guest post from Adrian Pagan

November 16th, 2007 41 comments

Last week the Prime Minister is reported to have said that economist Richard Blandy had estimated Labor’s plan to abolish Work Choices would destroy between 200,000 and 400,000 jobs. This claim has provoked a response from Australia’s (and one of the world’s) leading econometrician, Adrian Pagan. My one line summary: Blandy has derived this estimate by comparing levels, but has ignored the pre-existing upward trend in employment.

The full piece is over the fold – if there are any opinion editors among my readers, this would make a great contribution for the final week of the campaign.
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Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

November 15th, 2007 73 comments

It’s now looking just about as certain as any electoral outcome can be that the Howard government will be defeated, and that the Federal Liberal party will join its state and territory counterparts in opposition, possibly for several terms to come[1]. Given that the economy is doing well, and that the Australian electorate is not obviously in a state of leftwing ferment, this (still putative) outcome needs some explanation.

One striking fact, despite having received an overwhelming mandate in 1996 for a policy of making Australia “relaxed and comfortable”, the Howard government, and, even more, their supporters, see themselves as being engaged in a “culture war”. An even more striking fact is that the other side in this culture war has been just about invisible, particularly in political debate. It’s hard to see either Kevin Rudd or his smooth and scrubbed counterparts at the state level as engaged in a struggle to undermine traditional Australian culture. Even the Greens, led by Bob Brown, don’t fit the bill. And this is consistent with my day-to-day experience. Maybe UQ is riddled with extreme cultural leftists, but if so, I don’t get invited to their parties.

Yet opinion columns, talk radio and the rightwing blogosphere are dominated by diatribes against what appears, in their telling, as an amorphous mass of political correctness, environmentalism, radical feminism and general hostility to ordinary Australians and their values, which supposedly dominates not only the Labor party but all of our major cultural institutions including universities, the legal system, the ABC and even, in many accounts, the commercial mass media in which these bloviators are writing.

The pursuit of the culture war is, in my judgement, one of the main reasons that the conservative parties have become increasingly unelectable.

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Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Gary Kamiya on civilised discussion

November 14th, 2007 12 comments

For a long time, I’ve insisted on civilised discussion on this blog, to the point of banning coarse language, not because I don’t allow such words to pass my own lips but because I think it tends to encourage flaming and other such behavior. I may not have done a perfect job, particularly as I tend not to follow the kind of long-running interchange between two or three commenters where flames emerge, but I hope the place is a bit less offputting in this respect than a lot of other blogs. It’s nice to get some reinforcement in this view and here is a piece from Gary Kamiya at Salon.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Too much information

November 13th, 2007 7 comments

I installed Mac OS X Leopard on my laptop a couple of weeks ago, and tried out the spiffy new Time Machine feature which does differential backups to a hard drive. On the first run, of course, it had to back up the whole machine and I was a bit startled to see that it was copying over a million files. Of course, lots of those are system and applications files, but my documents folder, which is mostly stuff I’ve created myself, has over 250 000 files. And today I got a message from Eudora telling me (not for the first time) that my Inbox could only hold 32000 messages.

I can remember when I knew, by name, every file on the computer, and what it did. It was not that hard with a machine (128k Mac) that ran off a couple of 400k floppy disks.

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

Me too, too

November 12th, 2007 34 comments

I just got the edited highlights of Howard’s policy launch, but the commentary confirmed my impression that the main initiatives (tax-favoured savings accounts for homebuyers, rebates for parents of school students, money for childcare centres) were ripoffs of policies announced by Rudd earlier in the campaign. This kind of “me too, too, only more so” approach seems to be tactically and politically silly for a lot of reasons.

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