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Gough Whitlam

October 23rd, 2014 39 comments

More than any other Australian political leader, and arguably more than any other political figure, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.

Whitlam entered Parliament in 1952, having served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the War, and following a brief but distinguished legal career. Although Labor had already chosen a distinguished lawyer (HV Evatt) as leader, Whitlam’s middle-class professional background was unusual for Labor politicans

Whitlam marked a clear break with the older generation of Labor politicians in many otherrespects. He was largely indifferent to the party’s socialist objective (regarding the failure of the Chifley governments bank nationalisation referendum as having put the issue off the agenda) and actively hostile to the White Australia policy and protectionism, issues with which Labor had long been associated.

On the other hand, he was keen to expand the provision of public services like health and education, complete the welfare state for which previous Labor governments had laid the foundations, and make Australia a fully independent nation rather than being, in Robert Menzies words ‘British to the bootstraps’.

Coupled with this was a desire to expand Labor’s support base beyond the industrial working class and into the expanding middle class. The political necessity of this was undeniable, though it was nonetheless often denied. In 1945, the largest single occupational group in Australia (and an archetypal group of Labor supporters) were railwaymen (there were almost no women in the industry). By the 1970s, the largest occupational group, also becoming the archetypal group of Labor supporters. were schoolteachers.

Whitlam’s political career essentially coincided with the long boom after World War II, and his political outlook was shaped by that boom. The underlying assumption was that the tools of Keynesian fiscal policy and modern central banking were sufficient to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile technological innovation, largely driven by publicly funded research would continue to drive economic growth, while allowing for steadily increasing leisure time and greater individual freedom. The mixed economy would allow a substantial, though gradually declining, role for private business, but would not be dominated by the concerns of business.

The central institution of the postwar long boom, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, was already on the verge of collapse by the time Whitlam took office in 1972. The proximate cause of its collapse was the inflationary surge that had begun in the late 1960s and reached its peak with the oil price shock of 1973.

So, Whitlam was living on borrowed time from the moment he took office. His ‘crash through or crash’ approach ensured that he achieved more in his first short term of office (eighteen months before being forced to an election by the Senate) than most governments did in a decade. The achievements continued in the government’s second term, but they were overshadowed by retreats and by a collapse into chaos, symbolized by the ‘Loans Affair’ an attempt to circumvent restrictions on foreign borrowing through the use of dodgy Middle Eastern intermediaries.


The dramatic constitutional crisis of November 1975, and the electoral disaster that followed, have overshadowed the fact that, given the economic circumstances, the government was doomed regardless of its performance. The Kirk-Rowling Labour government in New Zealand, also elected in 1972 after a long period of opposition, experienced no particular scandals or avoidable chaos, but suffered a similarly crushing electoral defeat.

Despite his defeat, and repudiation by succeeding leaders of the ALP (and of course his conservative opponents), it is striking to observe how much of Whitlam’s legacy remains intact. Among the obvious examples (not all completed by his government, and some started before 1972, but all driven by him to a large extent)

* Aboriginal land rights
* Equal pay for women
* Multiculturalism
* Greatly increased Commonwealth spending on school education
* Medibank (now Medicare)
* The end of colonial ties to Britain
* Welfare benefits for single parents
* Extension of sewerage to Western Sydney
* Reduction of the voting age to 18
* No fault divorce

In all of this Whitlam is emblematic of the social democratic era of the mid-20th century. Despite the resurgence of financialised capitalism, which now saturates the thinking of all mainstream political parties, the achievements of social democracy remain central to our way of life, and politicians who attack those achievements risk disaster even now.

With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond. We need a renewed movement for a fairer society and a more functional economy. We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Time to terminate Cormann

October 19th, 2014 94 comments

The flap about Mathias Cormann’s Schwarzeneggerian description of Bill Shorten as a “girlie man” isn’t too significant in itself. But in the context of other developments, it suggests a couple of patterns that represent big problems for the Abbott government.

First, Cormann has joined Joe Hockey and Arthur Sinodinos in making an idiot of himself. There’s now no-one among the key economic ministers who has any real credibility left. Add to that the hopelessness of the key spending ministers (Andrews, Dutton and Pyne) and it becomes clear that the Budget fiasco was, as they say, no accident.

At this point, it’s hard to see how the government can turn the economic debate around, even given a radical reshuffle of the existing team. Their best hope is probably that attention will remain focused on foreign policy.

Second, coming on the heels of a string of similarly disastrous statements from prominent rightwing figures (Barry Spurr, Alan Moran, Aaron Lane) it’s a pretty clear indication of how the Australian right talks when they think no one is listening, or forget that they are on record, and how far out of touch they are with today’s social mores.

Essentially, they are living in a bubble where they imagine that media figures like Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Alan Jones represent the views of the majority of right-thinking people. In reality (most obviously in the case of Jones, but equally true of Bolt and Devine) these are people who make a good living by taking the views of the most bigoted 10 per cent or so of the Australian population (AFAICT, Australia is no better or worse than most other countries in terms of the prevalence of bigotry), and reflecting them back to the same audience in a more-or-less coherent form.

Except in rare and much resented cases like libelling people on account of their race, the Bolts and Devines are protected by the rules of free speech and the fact that they serve the interests of the Murdoch press. But that’s not true for politicians, thinktankers or participants in public inquiries. In these venues, as I know from my own experience, anything you say can and will be used against you. Unfortunately, for the Australian right, the racist, sexist and generally nasty stuff that goes down a treat at Young Liberal meetings and similar can no longer be laughed off when it gets out in public.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Independents to block asset sales in Qld

October 16th, 2014 9 comments

The ABC reports that eight independent and minor party MPs in the Queensland Parliament have agreed to vote against the government’s asset sales plan (spuriously called a lease). This has several implications

* Most obviously, if neither major party wins a majority at the next election, the asset sales won’t go ahead
* Since most voters don’t like asset sales, this increases the likelihood of existing independents holding their seats and perhaps of others winning seats, so that a minority government becomes more likely
* Polling isn’t very helpful here, since the “two-party preferred” measure isn’t relevant in these circumstances, and the sample size is too small too tell us about which seats will go which way
* In the event of neither party winning a majority, the chance of a Labor minority government is enhanced by the fact that asset sales will be a key issue
* Everything is further complicated by the fact that, if the LNP lose their majority, Campbell Newman will almost certainly lose his seat in the process

I don’t bet on elections any more after I couldn’t collect my winnings from Intrade (long story), but a bet on Annastacia Palaszczuk as the next premier looks a lot more promising than it did yesterday (of course, there’s always the truly bizarre possibility that some other Labor MP could challenge here – they need to rule it this kind of nonsense ASAP)

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Missing in action? Bill Shorten’s ‘small target’ strategy is his only option

September 29th, 2014 106 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Guardian. Opening paras:

Throughout his first year as opposition leader, Bill Shorten has adopted a “small target” strategy, which has been the subject of considerable criticism. “Missing in action” has been among the kinder phrases used.

The criticism has only intensified with Shorten’s endorsement of the Abbott government’s commitment of troops to a new Iraq war, and Labor’s support for a slightly amended version of the government’s anti-terror laws, explicitly sold as reducing our freedom.

Much of this criticism misses the point, harking back to a largely imaginary past in which the big issues of the day were thrashed out in parliament, and particularly in the presentation of alternative policy platforms by party leaders.

In reality, some version of the small target strategy is effectively forced on the main opposition party by the way in which our political system and media now operate. This in turn means that serious criticism of government policy must come from elsewhere.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Australian states are losing their AAA ratings. Should we panic?

September 29th, 2014 14 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in Crikey. Paywalled, but I’ve reposted over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

The Go8 knows nothing about the US university system

September 25th, 2014 30 comments

I’ve just downloaded the submission of the Group of Eight (the body representing vice-chancellors and presidents of Australia’s leading research universities to the Senate Committee of Inquiry into the government’s higher education reforms. The core of the argument in favour of a shift to a US-style system is as follows

deregulation offers institutions a way of opening doors to the future. In the words of Professor Warren Bebbington, Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide
higher education in Australia could be transformed into the most dynamic system in the world. It would have the rich variety of the US university landscape, but without the crippling debts that American students suffer… In the US, nearly half of all students… attend teaching-only undergraduate colleges offering only Bachelor degrees. Without research programmes, these colleges do a first-class job of teaching: through small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme. Students have an unforgettable, utterly life-changing educational experience… [yet] such institutions are scarcely possible in Australia currently.

At a recent national press club address, Professor Ian Young, Vice Chancellor of The Australian National University and chair of the Group of Eight, spoke of a system where students contemplating university were offered a variety of choices, in terms of learning style, or aspirations, of practical skills or exploration of ideas, of social networks or intimate teaching styles, of research-intensive training or immediate vocational outcomes. A system that is well within our grasp if we have the vision to accept a more flexible approach to higher education

This is a truly stunning display of ignorance. The institutions described by Professor Bebbington are what is called in the US “liberal arts colleges”, elite private institutions educating a tiny fraction of the US student population, similar to the Ivy League and charging as much or more. A typical example is Wellesley, alma mater of Hillary Clinton, with 2000 students and annual tuition (including room and board) of $US 59 000 [^1]. The non-research institutions actually attended by nearly half of all US students are second-tier state universities along with a variety of private institution (for-profits like Phoenix, Christian colleges and so on), none of which offer “small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme”. They operate in old and overcrowded buildings relying heavily on overworked and underpaid adjuncts. Some do a great job under conditions of extreme financial stringency: others are disaster areas where the vast majority of students don’t complete their courses. Very few are comparable with even the bottom tier of the Australian public university system: former teachers colleges and CAEs that were converted to university status in the 1990s.

The fact that the vice-chancellor of a prominent Australian university can display this kind of ignorance about the US system is pretty startling, the fact that he is quoted with approval by a body representing the VCs of our eight leading universities even more so. Universities are (among other things) billion-dollar businesses, and their chief executives are paid accordingly. A basic part of any business is understanding the competition, especially if you plan to emulate them. Bebbington’s description of the US non-research university sector is as if a car company CEO were to describe the Trabant as an affordable German luxury car, and suggest marketing it in place of the drab offerings of Holden and Ford.

[^1]: Of course, hardly anyone pays full fare at these institutions. There are all kinds of schemes to offset the cost. Still, a middle class family thinking of sending a child to Wellesley would regard the much-discussed $100 000 degree as an incredible bargain.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Post-School Education in Australia: The Case against Deregulation

September 19th, 2014 8 comments

That’s the title of my submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry into the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.

You can read it here

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

This is the model ? (updated and corrected)

September 16th, 2014 14 comments

The QS World University Rankings have just come out, and, as you might expect the top places (11 of the to 20 and 17 of the top 50) are dominated by US universities. By contrast Australia has five universities in the top 50 (ANU, Melbourne, Sydney, UQ and UNSW) So, you might think, this is a pretty good argument for following the US model. You get a different story, however, if you look at undergraduate enrolments (conveniently listed in Wikipedia)

I calculate that the 15 US universities in the top 50 have a total undergraduate enrolment of 210 000 (that’s dominated by a few public universities: Michigan, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Wisconsin-Madison, as well as Cornell which is partly public). By contrast, the five Australian unis enrol 148 000.

Adjusted for population, Australian students are about ten times as likely as Americans to attend a top 50 university.

Of course, the figures should be adjusted for fee-paying international students, who constitute a much larger share of the Australian student population than in the US. On the other hand, international enrolments at the top US universities are also increasing. And since many of them haven’t increased enrolments since the 1950s, the number of places for domestic American students is actually declining.

Note: I previously used the 2013 rankings. I’ve updated to the 2014 list, which includes UNSW and two more US universities. The ratios don’t change significantly as a result.

Further note In comments, reader Aldonius points to more accurate enrolment stats than I got from Wikipedia

109K domestic undergrads; 135K total (80% domestic) for ANU, Melbourne, Sydney, UQ and UNSW
723K domestic undergrads; 926K total (78% domestic) For all Oz universities

Here’s my US list

MIT 4528
Harvard 7200
Stanford 6980
Yale 5414
Chicago 5134
CalTech 978
Princeton 5336
Columbia 8365
Cornell 13935
JHU 6023
Michigan 27979
Duke 6495
Berkeley 25951
Northwestern 8459
UCLA 28674
NYU 19401
Wisconsin 29504
Total 210356

And for Australia

ANU 10231
Melbourne 38000
Sydney 32393
UQ 34228
UNSW 33000
Total 147852

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Three misguided beliefs of the Group of Eight universities

September 12th, 2014 8 comments

That’s the headline for a piece in the Conversation,looking at the arguments of the Group of Eight “sandstone” universities in favor of deregulation. Readers will be unsurprised to finde me in disagreement.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

The Australian Heartland

August 31st, 2014 41 comments

A while ago, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a conservative/libertarian/denialist thinktank, got into a lot of trouble by putting up billboards with pictures of people like the Unabomber who, Heartland claimed, were climate change believers. A lot of corporate sponsorships got pulled, and Heartland’s insurance research group broke away en masse to form a new, non-denialist group, the R Street Institute.

The Institute of Public Affairs is Australia’s Heartland. Not only does it share the same positions (anti-science on tobacco, climate change and the environment, pro-corporate hackery and so on) there are close organizational ties. The IPA promotes Heartland events like its annual climate change denial conference (a bit more on this over the fold), and IPA Fellows such as Bob Carter have joint affiliations with Heartland.

And, lately, the IPA has run into its own version of the billboard scandal. Not long ago, IPA fellow Aaron Lane (former president of the Victorian young Libs) whose IPA output consisted mostly of low-grade attacks on unions and workers, was a Liberal party candidate in the Victorian state election. Lane was dumped, and lost his IPA gig, when he was found to have posted a string of homophobic and sexist tweets. A much bigger blow was the sacking of longtime Director of the IPA Deregulation Unit Alan Moran, over a string of tweets, of which the most damaging was one saying “Is there ever anything but evil coming from Islam”.

Quite a few interesting points arise here.
Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

We forgot to tell you we were tapping your metadata

August 11th, 2014 40 comments

The Abbott government has reached the stage where it can’t take a trick, even with things that ought to be surefire winners for a conservative government. We saw this not long ago with the attack on dole bludgers. And it’s emerged again with the attempt to cover the retreat on Section 18C with new anti-terror measures (or, in the government’s telling the dumping of 18C to secure support for the anti-terror measures).

After the Brandis fiasco, the government wheeled out the chiefs of ASIO and the AFP to explain that there was nothing to worry about: police were already storing and searching our metadata on a massive scale (300 000 requests last year) and just wanted to ensure this continued.

Unfortunately, the environment has changed since the revelations made by Edward Snowden and others on the extensive (and, in aspiration, total) surveillance of communications by the US NSA. It seems likely that the end result of this will be a rolling back of the extreme surveillance powers grabbed by the authorities over the last decade.

And, while I’m at it, can we stop talking as if we are facing a massive existential crisis because of the threat of terrorism. For most of the 20th century we were threatened with invasion or nuclear annihilation, and we managed to maintain our liberties. We should do the same this time.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

IPA unsure about free speech

August 10th, 2014 26 comments

The reaction of the Institute of Public Affairs to the Abbott governments backdown on the race-hate proviions Section 18C has been, by its own admission, intemperate (“white hot anger” is the description they used; I think I also saw “ice-cold rage”.

By contrast, the IPA has been much more ambivalent on freedom of speech. I noted a while ago, this piece suggesting that environmentalists who questioned the viability of the coal industry could be prosecuted either under securities legislation or as an illegal secondary boycott. This view isn’t unanimous however. Following some Twitter discussion (must get Storify working properly for things like this) Chris Berg pointed to a piece he’d written arguing against such a use of secondary boycott legislation (and against such legislation in general).

I was, naturally interested in how Freedom Commissioner and former IPA fellow Tim Wilson would respond to proposals to suppress free speech coming from his former organization. However, my Twitter interactions with him were thoroughly unsatisfactory. His initial response to my suggestion that he had been silent was rather snarky

um, go and read the transcript of the last senate estimates I appeared at

I did so, and found only a brief statement that he would be looking at the secondary boycott issue. Pressed, he said the issue would be discussed at the the Free Speech 2014 conference. The day came and I couldn’t find anything relevant in reports of Wilson’s remarks. So, I tweeted again and got the response “Mark Dreyfus just talked about it!

Indeed Mark Dreyfus (Shadow Attorney General) gave a great speech. But I was still interested in what Wilson had to say on the topic. Alas, my tweet on this went unanswered. Judging by a previous response, Wilson intends to duck the issue.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Three cheers for Stephen Parker

August 9th, 2014 35 comments

The last time I heard news of Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, he was standing up to the Oz and its editor Chris Mitchell who had threatened to sue journalist and UC academic Julie Posetti for accurately reporting remarks made by a former Oz journalist in a public conference. That episode is worth remembering any time anyone suggests that the Oz is a newspaper (in the traditional sense of the term), let alone an advocate for free speech. It is, as I’ve said many times, a dysfunctional blog that is, for some reason, printed on broadsheet paper.

In this instance, Parker was doing exactly what you would expect of a university leader: defending an academic doing her job from outside interference. Sadly, in Australia these days, that can’t be taken for granted. The rise of managerialism has thrown up a number of VCs (or now, in the US mode, Presidents) who would instinctively side with Chris Mitchell in such a dispute.

That kind of outright betrayal of university values is still not the norm. On the other hand, given the financial pressure under which all universities have been operating for years, it is unsurprising that most VCs have been keen to support proposals for “deregulation” of fees, even though, as is inevitable with this government, they are poorly thought out and certain to be inequitable in practice. The lead, as I mentioned, has been taken by Ian Young of ANU. Others have their doubts, I think, but have kept quiet.

I’m happy to say that Parker has been the first to break ranks on this issue, writing in The Age that

An earlier generation of vice-chancellors would have stood up for students. I say, reject the whole set of proposals, on their behalf, and then let’s talk.

I hope his bravery leads others to follow.

Categories: #Ozfail, Oz Politics Tags:

Team Australia

August 7th, 2014 84 comments

George Brandis’ spectacular live meltdown over metadata retention has distracted attention from the abandonment of the government’s plans to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, prohibiting the kind of racial abuse dished out by the likes of Andrew Bolt and Fredrick Toben. Abbott’s rationale is that a purist attitude to freedom of (racially divisive) speech is something we can’t afford, given the need to unite against terrorism.

Obviously, neither Bolt nor Toben is a member of Team Australia[1]. Each makes it their primary business to stir up hatred, in Toben’s case against Jews and in Bolt’s case against (among many others) the “muslims, jihadists, people from the Middle East” he sees as responsible for Abbot’s backdown. The striking conflation of religion, geographical origin and terrorism is typical of Bolt’s approach.

Horrible as he is, though, Toben is not a serious problem. His Holocaust denialism is universally reviled, and it is a sign of strength, not weakness, in our democracy that he is free to walk the streets. Repealing the constraints imposed on him by 18C would only emphasise this.

Bolt is another story. It is his case that led the government to seek the repeal of 18C, and that motivated George Brandis’ gaffe (that is, a politically inconvenient statement of an actual belief) that people have a right to be bigots. Far from being reviled, Bolt has been embraced and coddled by the government, to the point of having exclusive access to the Prime Minister. He enjoys a well-rewarded position in the Murdoch Press. Even casting the net wider among our so-called libertarians, I’ve can’t recall seeing a harsh word against Bolt. He’s a tribal ally and his bigotry is either endorsed or passed over in silence.

It’s impossible in these circumstances, for the government to be taken seriously when they mouth the (apocryphal) Voltaire line about defending to the death speech with which they disagree. The repeal of 18C was clearly intended as an endorsement of Bolt, and not a statement of bare toleration. That position is now untenable, and it’s too late to switch back to Voltaire.

In summary, those on the right lamenting the continued existence of 18C ought to reflect on the fact that it’s their own overt or tacit endorsement of bigotry that’s brought this about. If they cleaned house, and dissociated themselves from the likes of Bolt, their claims to be supporting free speech might acquire a little more credibility.

fn1. I was going to add Sheikh Hillaly to this list. But based on this report, he seems to have joined the Team.

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Stafford by-election

July 20th, 2014 32 comments

Another big loss for the Newman LNP government here in Queensland, with a swing of nearly 19 per cent in the Stafford by-election. I did my little bit for this, speaking at a public forum on asset sales. However, since only the Labor and Green candidates showed up, and no-one in the crowd seemed inclined to vote for the LNP or Family First anyway, I doubt that my contribution to margin was noticeable.

Like Newman’s previous drubbing, this by-election was caused by the resignation of the sitting LNP member. However, whereas in the previous case, the resignation resulted from personal financial scandals, the member for Stafford was a doctor who resigned as a result of disagreement with Newman’s health policy. So, the outcome may fairly be interpreted as a rejection of the government’s approach, both in terms of policy substance and authoritarian style.

There is so much disillusionment with politics at present that just about anything can happen. My own guess is that the state election, due in March next year, will see Newman lose his own seat of Ashgrove (held on a margin of 5.7 per cent) and that no party will secure a majority. After that, who knows? Informed or uninformed speculation welcome.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Hoist by their own petard

July 13th, 2014 36 comments

Tristan Edis has a nice piece in Climate Spectator contrasting the many statements made by Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt (echoed by Bolt, Blair, Devine, McCrann etc) before the election about the impact of the carbon tax on the price of everything from airfares to supermarket goods with the reality that this impact was minuscule. The implication is that removing the tax won’t have anything like the broad effects on the cost of living that Abbott has promised.

It was this gap between rhetoric and reality that produced last weeks fiasco and the Senate, and may yet derail the government’s entire policy. Taking the government at its rhetorical word, Clive Palmer wanted the ACCC to ensure that all major firms, including airlines and supermarkets, rolled back the cost increases imposed as a result of the carbon tax. Greg Hunt assured everyone that the legislation would do so but it turned out there was no specific reference to anything but electricity. This was for the obvious reason that, in other industries, there was no cost increase to roll back.

All of this gives Clive Palmer, if he wants it, the opportunity to make whatever mischief he chooses. There’s no real way the government can deliver on its rhetoric about reducing the cost of living, so he can demand whatever he wants in the way of add-ons to their legislation.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

With Reformicons like this, no wonder the Reactobots always win

July 6th, 2014 41 comments

Over the fold, a piece a posted in Crooked Timber on the miserable position of the “Reformicons” – conservative writers who are trying to put some intellectual lipstick on the pig that is the Republican Party.

This isn’t a problem in Australia – there are, as far as I can tell, no intellectually serious conservatives left at all. The dominant thinktank is the IPA, a mirror of the US Heartland Foundation, which is utterly discredited, even on the right for its embrace of delusionism on everything from economic policy to climate change.[1] Quadrant, once a serious publication, is now a sad joke.

And then there’s the Oz. Enough said.

Read more…

Core promises (repost from 2008)

May 18th, 2014 55 comments

Now that Tony Abbott’s ‘fundamentally honest’ has joined John Howard’s ‘core promises’ in the lexicon of spin, I thought I’d repost this piece from 2008, urging Kevin Rudd to keep his (unwise and damaging) promise to adopt most of Howard’s proposed tax cuts.

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Australian right a dumping ground for failed US ideas

May 16th, 2014 63 comments

It’s been obvious for quite a few years that the Australian rightwing commentariat takes most of its ideas from the US Republican party. A more recent development is that they seem to be importing ideas that have already failed in their home country. I mentioned Voter ID recently. My Twitter feed has also been full of factoids along the lines “48 per cent of Australians pay no net tax”, being pushed by Miranda Devine and others. Obviously these are derived from the “47 per cent” line made famous by Mitt Romney in 2012 [1]. We all know how that went for Romney, and of course we also know what’s wrong with the factoid. I’ll talk a bit more about the specifics over the fold, but it’s worth asking what’s going on here.

The most obvious point is that the Australian right hasn’t had any new ideas in 30 years or more. Everything in the recent Commission of Audit report (a more coherent version of the ideology reflected in a distorted fashion in Hockey’s Budget) could have been (and often was) taken from the 1996 version, and everything in the 1996 report could have been found in documents like Wolfgang Kasper’s Australia at the Crossroads published in 1980, and similar documents. Everything useful in this set of ideas was implemented decades ago: what remain are the items that are either permanently untouchable in political terms (eg road pricing) or unworkable for one reason or another (eg handing income tax back to the states).

So, it’s scarcely surprising that they need to import from abroad. But the US Republicans aren’t in any better state. Their big causes a decade ago were the culture war (primarily equal marriage which was seen as wedging the Democrats), climate denialism and the Global War on Terror, which was transmuted into the invasion of Iraq. Most of our current rightwing commentariat (Bolt, Blair, Devine etc) cut their teeth on this stuff, and have never really outgrown it.

The Repubs are now in a state of complete intellectual collapse, unable to produce a coherent position on anything, from immigration to health care to budget policy. They survive only on the basis of tribal hatred of Obama. Since that doesn’t sell well in Oz, the local right is forced to live on discredited failures like Voter ID and “47 48 per cent of the population are takers”.

It’s the combination of tired economic rationalism and imported tribalism that makes the Abbott-Hockey such a mess, and the efforts of its remaining defenders so laughable.

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Mean and tricky

May 14th, 2014 40 comments
Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Bahnisch is back!

May 14th, 2014 24 comments

I missed the memo, but Mark Bahnisch, formerly of Larvatus Prodeo is back, at the (much more sensibly named) New Social Democrat. Not posting often, but I still have a lot of reading to catch up on. This, on the Budget and the crisis of Australia’s political class, is superb.

Categories: Metablogging, Oz Politics Tags:

Don’t Follow Leaders, Watch The Parking Meters

May 13th, 2014 78 comments

The dispute over the Greens apparent intention to oppose a more progressive tax system has heated up again, on Facebook and elsewhere, especially given indications that the proposed return to indexation of petrol excise will be passed, as it should be. In combination, if pursued, these policies can be presented, with some justice, as pandering to the self-interest of the stereotypical Greens voter: high income, inner city, with no need to use much petrol.

I haven’t seen anyone defend the pro-rich tax policy on the merits, but I’ve had vigorous pushback from people whose views I would generally respect, taking the following lines

* Labor is doing the same thing, why pick on the Greens
* The policy may be right, but it’s being advocated for the wrong reason (deficit fetishism)
* The policy may be right, but it’s being put forward by the wrong people (evil Abbott government)
* This is only a small step, we need something much bigger and more comprehensive

I’ll respond to these points over the fold, but for the moment I want to observe that these excuses, or minor variants, can be and have been made for every policy sellout in the history of politics. No one gives them the slightest credence when they are put forward by people who aren’t close allies.

The fact that so many intelligent people are willing to buy this sort of case when it’s put forward by the Greens is evidence of the proposition that none of us is immune to the kinds of biased thinking that have completely corrupted the intellectual base of the political right. Fortunately, I think, the left as a whole is more self-critical, so that this kind of reasoning gets a tougher run. But for me, this emphasises the importance of not being aligned with any political party to the extent that loyalty clouds my judgement on the issues. That doesn’t immunise me from various kinds of biases, but at least it helps with problems like this.

Read more…

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Voter suppression comes to Oz

May 13th, 2014 11 comments

I’ve been commenting for a while on the descent of the Australian right into tribalist politics, largely imported from the US Republicans. Even people you might expect to be unaffected like this, such as Joe Hockey, come out with tribal shibboleths such as his statement that wind turbines are offensive[1]. A striking instance of this is the campaign for voter ID, now being pushed by the Murdoch press. Those involved in this shameful exercise include Clive Palmer, Jarrod Bleijie and the Liberal party apparatus, none of which is surprising. More depressing is the fact that Malcolm Turnbull is part of the push. It really seems that there is no hope for a sane and decent conservatism[2] in Australia.

This Republican strategy for suppressing voters works well in the US where registration and voting are both voluntary and (for poor and black people) as difficult as the Repubs can make them (though of course, they have nothing on their own former incarnation as Southern Democrats, in the years before the Voting Rights Act. It’s hard to see this working to suppress votes in Australia, unless voting is made voluntary. Even if you are sent home for not having ID, the requirement to vote is still there. More generally, the whole ethos of Australian electoral systems has been to promote voting[3]

In any case, the timing of this latest foray into tribalism looks pretty bad. US courts are striking down voter ID laws following the obvious evidence that they suppress legitimate voters rather than stopping fraudulent ones. In many cases, the proponents of the law have been unable to produce a single instance of in-person voter impersonation (the only kind of fraud stopped by ID laws).

fn1. As, I think Fran B commented on my Twitter feed, George Brandis will doubtless note that “but they have a right to be offensive”! Brandis, another supposed “wet” has been busy outing himself as a conspiracy-theoretic climate denier
fn2. AFAICT, self-described libertarians are no better on this
fn3. Howard tried some dirty tricks to stop newly eligible 18 years olds from voting, but this is tinkering at the edges.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Leadership

April 29th, 2014 26 comments

I’ve never been a fan of the idea of leadership[1][2]. This hagiographic portrait of Campbell Newman by Griffith University political scientist Paul Williams illustrates the problem. He describes Newman’s approach to policy execution as following the army’s ” “Task, Group, Individual” paradigm” and is fulsome (in all senses of the word) in his praise, concluding

Whether you support or oppose Newman’s policy choices, the evidence is the Premier is not engaging in random reactionary politics but, rather, adhering to a considered leadership plan. In the end, that’s all anyone can ask.

Well, no.

* We would reasonably ask that Newman should adhere to his election commitments which promised public servants their jobs would be safe.
* We could reasonably ask that basic rights like freedom of association should be preserved
* We could reasonably ask that our government should not spend millions of dollars of our money pushing claims about asset sales that no economist (not even strong advocates of privatisation) accepts.

If “leadership” meant persuading the public of the merits of particular policies, there would be a lot to be said for it. But, invariably, “leadership” means ramming through policies that voters don’t want, and hoping they will forget by the next election. In these circumstances, I’d prefer random reaction to a considered plan to do the opposite of what you promised.

fn1. One of its sadder outings was Labor’s doomed 1996 election campaign, which for some reason added a full stop to the word for its slogan. The sight of a “Leadership.” banner sagging to the floor on election night said it all.
fn2. I’ve long had the idea of writing a book on “followership”, on the general model of The Good Soldier Schweik. The key idea would be that a good follower makes sure that the leader is between them and whoever is shooting at them.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Joining a sinking ship

April 26th, 2014 39 comments

According to news reports, Education Minister Christopher Pyne is going to reprise his successful Gonski exercise of last year with an attempt to remodel the Australian university system along US lines, as recommended by former Howard education minister David Kemp and his adviser Andrew Norton. In particular, he hopes to expand the role of the private sector.

Apparently none of these people have read the stream of reports coming out of the US making the points that

* Whereas the US was once the world leader in the proportion of young people getting university education it now trails much of the OECD (including, if I got the numbers right, Australia)
* US university education, even in the state system, is ruinously unaffordable
* The top tiers of the US system are increasingly closed to students from all but the top 5 per cent (or less) of the income distribution
* The US has the most inequality and some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world
* For-profit education in the US is a scam, based on exactly the mechanism promoted by Kemp and Norton, namely access to public funding/

The US tertiary education system is now like the US health system: world-beating for the 1 per cent, high-quality but incredibly expensive for the top 20, unaffordable or non-existent for the middle class and the poor. And this is the model the LNP wants to emulate

Categories: Economic policy, Oz Politics Tags:

Polls and punters

April 15th, 2014 21 comments

I’ve written a few times about the idea that betting markets provide a more accurate guide to political outcomes than do polls or ‘expert’ judgements or statistical models (which usually incorporate polls along with economic and other data). The problem is that, close to an election, they all tend to converge. So, the best time to do a comparison is early in the election cycle. Right now there’s quite a sharp contrast. The polls have had the (federal) ALP and LNP just about level for months, but the betting markets have the LNP as strong favorites.

One possible explanation is that governments generally do worse in polls than in election, so that the polls underestimate the government’s support. I’ve heard this claimed, but never seen any systematic evidence to support it. Another possibility is that market participants know something that’s not reflected in the polls. I’m sceptical on this.

The final possibility is that betting markets this far out from the election are thin and inefficient. If that’s right, then the odds for Labor look very favorable. I’m not going to bet myself (I did OK on my one foray into the US Republican primaries, but the hassle involved was too much to make it worthwhile), and I’m not giving betting advice.

Still, I’d be interested in responses from those among my fellow economists who’ve claimed efficiency properties for betting markets. I guess Andrew Leigh is precluded from commenting, and Justin Wolfers is a long way from the action in Oz, but I’m sure there must be others willing to jump in

Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

Freedom of speech (if you’re a boss or a bigot)

April 6th, 2014 87 comments

Hard on the heels of the fiasco over the “Bolt clause” in the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act[1] comes the news that the government is prohibiting public servants in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from criticising it in any medium, even anonymously, and urging colleagues to dob in violators. Except for the handful of people who took the government’s talk about free speech seriously, there’s no surprise here. But I’d like to respond to this from the “Freedom Commissioner”, Tim Wilson of the IPA, who says

“Ultimately public servants voluntarily and knowingly choose to accept these limits on their conduct when they accept employment”.

On the contrary, it seems clear from the report that, at a minimum, the interpretation of existing rules (allowing free comment in general, but not on matters related to your own work) is being tightened. For example, the kinds of comments made by Greg Jericho under the pseudonym Grog’s Gamut, which were considered acceptable in the past, now appear to be proscribed.

More generally,it’s important to remember that Wilson, like all propertarians, is no friend of free speech. Propertarians may oppose governmentally imposed restrictions on the speech of people who have no dealings with the government, but the standard position is that any employer, or landlord should be free to sack or evict, anyone they don’t like for any reason, including their political views. Of course (echoing Anatole France) the position is one of majestic equality. If you don’t like the views of your boss, or landlord, you’re entirely free to quit your job, or move out (but not of course to sleep under a bridge).

As for the government, the principle applying to public servants apply equally to pensioners, road users, beneficiaries of national defence and so on (that is, everyone). You knew what you signed up for when you decided to stay here, rather than doing the decent libertarian thing and seasteading or moving to Mars. So, if the government chooses to impose conditions on your political activity, you’ve got no right to complain.

Update It’s been pointed out in comments that the directive, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet applies only to staff in that department and not, as I originally read it, to the Commonwealth Public Service as a whole. It appears to be a tightening of existing restrictions, but not, as I suggested above, a wholesale removal of freedom of political opinion. I’ve edited the post accordingly.

Even though the original post was overstated, the general trend is clear, as Jeff Sparrow points out here. The government is seeking to remove any restrictions on the speech of its powerful friends, while tightening restrictions on its enemies, in keeping with its general tribalist approach to politics.

fn1. So-called because the aim was to create room for racially offensive lies by people the government likes (such as Bolt) while ruling out lies the government dislikes, such as the Holocaust revisionism of Fredrick Toben. It turns out that drawing a legally watertight distinction between Bolt and Toben is more difficult than the government expected.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Climate denial and the decline of the IPA

March 28th, 2014 43 comments

The Institute of Public Affairs has long been a major source of anti-science climate denial, following naturally from its earlier role as the leading denier of the health risks of passive smoking. While intellectually disreputable, this aspect of the IPA’s output seemed not to pose a problem for its broader role as an advocate of market-oriented economic policies. Indeed, given the frequency with which free-market economics and anti-science nonsense on all sorts of issues go together, the two seemed like a comfortable fit.

Over time, however, major corporations have become more wary of being linked to climate denialism, with the result that the IPA has become increasingly dependent on wealthy private donors like Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, whose definition of “free market” appears to be “lots of free stuff for Gina and Rupert”. In particular, Rinehart and her front group Australians for Northern Development are pushing the federal government to offer a tax holiday for Northern Australia, where most of her business interests are located. The IPA has delivered in full for Gina, including

* Joint work with ANDEV pushing the case for massive tax expenditures
* Prominently announcing that Ms Rinehart, arguably Australia’s greatest corporate welfare queen, had received a “2012 Visionary CEO Award”[1].

To get a feel for the kind of nonsense the IPA is now espousing, listen to this interview with the head of ANDEV on RN Bush Telegraph. It’s a display of rent-seeking that would have been considered brazen back in the days of ‘protection all round’. Particularly absurd, and offensive, is the suggestion that an income tax holiday designed to attract lots of (non-indigenous) workers to Northern Australia will somehow benefit the indigenous community.[2]

Of course, as long as Tony Abbott is in office, the fact that the IPA has lost all intellectual credibility won’t be a problem. But in the long run, the embrace of climate denial is exacting a high price for the IPA, as for US counterparts like Heartland.

fn1. I can’t find anything about this award on Google, except for an apparently unrelated gong given by a US outfit call qad.com. It appears to be an instance of the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence, except that IIRC, Burns gave the award to Homer, not himself.
fn2. Compare Rinehart to Andrew Forrest, who at least makes efforts to employ indigenous people, and criticises Rinehart for not doing the same.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Send in the clowns

March 26th, 2014 80 comments

I’ve been working on a post about how to respond to commentators like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, and about the suggestion that they should simply be dismissed as clownish entertainers, to be ignored rather than criticised. But now that the Abbott government has turned into a clownshow (or maybe one of those medieval theatre restaurant shows) it’s hard to know what to do.

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Bolt and the right to be a bigot

March 24th, 2014 104 comments

The ABC News report on the government’s legislation to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, motivated by the Bolt case, makes interesting reading. Foreshadowing the legislation designed to prevent future cases of this kind, AG George Brandis notes that it defends “the right to be a bigot“.

Brandis didn’t draw the obvious implication, but he didn’t have to. Bolt has made a career out of pandering to the bigotry of his audience. As with others in the crowded field of rightwing journamalism, it’s not clear whether Bolt himself is a bigot, or whether he just plays one on the Internet, but the act is loud enough to please his ignorant and bigoted readers, and skilful enough to earn him plenty of friends among people who should know enough to be ashamed of themselves.

I don’t have a fixed view on the legislation in question, but my feeling is that racial bigotry should, at the least, be an aggravating factor in cases of individual defamation. If that rule were applied, the plaintiffs in the Bolt case would almost certainly have received substantial damages in individual defamation actions, given the findings that Bolt’s racially loaded claims about them were factually false and “not made reasonably and in good faith”.

Update I should have mentioned that “bigot” is a euphemism for the R-word, which our defenders of free speech insist must never be applied to anyone, with the exception of one person who is excluded here by virtue of Godwin’s Law.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, Oz Politics Tags: