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Nuclear power in Australia

June 7th, 2015 44 comments

I’ve decided to make a submission to the South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. I can’t actually submit until I find a JP or similar to witness it. This is a minor inconvenience for me, but may be a big problem for plenty of interested groups (for example, indigenous people). On the upside, I have time to ask for comments, and maybe make changes in response. This thread will be open to discussion of any issues related to nuclear power. However, in the event of lengthy two-person debates emerging, I’d ask the parties to move to the sandpits and leave room for everyone else.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Profit and public health

June 4th, 2015 74 comments

Amid the abandonment of tariff protection and the continued assaults on trade unionism, one union/lobby group has been consistently victorious. The Pharmacy Guild has managed to restrict competition so successfully that it’s impossible to open a pharmacy if it might hurt the profitability of an existing business, even if that business is failing to serve a significant group of customers. I ran into an example when I was at James Cook University in Townsville. A request for an on-campus pharmacy was rejected because it was within the market area claimed by a suburban pharmacy, more than a kilometre away and inaccessible by public transport.

Far more important to the Guild is the imperative of keeping supermarkets out of the pharmacy business. The key argument is that supermarkets are just businesses, happy to sell anything to make a buck, whether it’s cigarettes or cancer medications.

So, I was interested to read the Guild’s reaction to a proposal that medical professionals should stop prescribing homeopathic products. Whatever you might think about alternative/complementary medicines in general, homoepathy is plain quackery, combining a magical theory of medicine with the preposterous physics of water memory. Unsurprisingly, research has proved beyond any doubt that it’s no better than a placebo. So, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has formally recommended GPs stop prescribing homeopathic remedies and says pharmacists must also stop stocking such products.

The Guild’s reaction:

it is not a regulatory authority, and as such there will be no recommendation backing RACGP’s call for homeopathic products to be taken off the market.

In other words, selling medicine in the same shop as alcohol is unthinkable, but it’s entirely OK for a health professional to promote and sell water as a treatment for serious illness.

This episode demonstrates, to anyone who cares to look, that the Pharmacy Guild is (and in fact claims to be) nothing more than a rent-seeking lobby group, whose sole concern is the profitability of its members. As the Tobacco Institute of Australia would be quick to point out (if it were still around), there’s nothing illegal about that. But when profits and public health come into conflict, the Guild and the Institute are on the same side.

Going early ?

May 2nd, 2015 41 comments

According to the usually well-informed Laurie Oakes, the Abbott government is seriously considering the prospect of a double dissolution election, following the impending Budget. This makes no sense to me, not that this should mean it is unlikely to happen.

To recap, talk of a double dissolution emerged last year, in the wake of the Senate’s blocking of unpopular Budget measures. Facing bad polls, the government abandoned the double dissolution idea, then dumped most of the measures. The new budget is supposed to be pain-free and popular. But, if so, what is the need for a double dissolution to get it through

The obvious inference is that, once returned with a more compliant Senate, the government will return to its true agenda. How can this argument be refuted, given that the same agenda was explicitly repudiated before the 2013 election, only to emerge immediately thereafter?

Then there’s the question of a trigger/pretext. The only current trigger, I believe, is the bill to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. This is hardly a popular cause on which to fight an election, but more so than university deregulation, mentioned by Oakes as a possible second trigger.

Insiders generally assume that the trigger is a mere formality, of no electoral significance. But these are the same insiders who assured us back in 2010 that the Prime Ministership is in the gift of the relevant Parliamentary Party and that voters should not presume to be upset by an unexpected change. Given that it is nearly 30 years since the last double dissolution, I imagine many voters will want to know what is going on, and may have the temerity to take the constitution seriously.

Insiders are also easily impressed by a well-timed early election. Experience suggests that voters are not so impressed, and are likely to punish a government that goes early for no good reason. The most recent example was Campbell Newman in Queensland. He might perhaps have lost anyway, but he certainly didn’t benefit from running a campaign during the school holidays, despite his much-touted cleverness in “catching Labor by surprise”. Similarly, Kevin Rudd went early, when he would have done better (IMO) to take some time pointing out the weakness of Abbott’s position. And back in 1984, Bob Hawke went early to take advantage of his massive popularity, but still ended up with an adverse swing.

That’s my take, but perhaps the insiders know better.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Goodbye to CPD

April 17th, 2015 30 comments

Like Mark Bahnisch, Eva Cox and a number of others, I’ve resigned as a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. It’s a sad day, since CPD has done a lot of great work, and I’ve enjoyed being involved in it. But the leadership of the Centre has taken a decision to move to the right in the hope of being more relevant to the policy process. The most recent outcome has been a paper on tax policy that broadly accepts the Treasury view of the issue, and pushes for a broadening of the GST base, which means taxation of fresh food. This isn’t a new or innovative idea. Rather, it has been part of rightwing orthodoxy for decades. CPDs endorsement allows its advocates to claim some “left” support. That claim obviously gained credibility from having Fellows like Mark, Eva and me. So, we had no alternative but to resign.

I should clarify that, apart from a nice title and a publishing outlet, I wasn’t getting any direct benefit from being part of CPD. So, I’m making a statement rather than a sacrifice.

The Australian Sharia Lobby

April 6th, 2015 49 comments

There were a bunch of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at the weekend, sparked by supposed concerns about the possibility of Islamic sharia law being imposed in Australia. While the anti-sharia demonstrators were clearly drawn from the extremist fringe, there has been plenty of commentary on this subject from commentators generally regarded as mainstream, and from elected politicians such as Cory Bernardi and Jacquie Lambie.

The prospect of any significant legislation being based on Islamic sharia law seems pretty remote. On the other hand, those who claim to be concerned about sharia law (the Arabic term simply means ‘religious law) might want to consider the much more relevant issue of ‘sharīʿat al-Masīḥ’ (the Arabic term for ‘religious law of Christianity’).

Despite the Australian Constitutional prohibition on establishing any religion, lots of Australian laws are derived from Christian taboos, and many more have been in the past. Equally importantly, there is a group called the Australian Christian Lobby which, as the name implies, lobbies for the imposition of sharīat al-Masīḥ. Its activities are reported as if it is a legitimate political grouping, and not, as concerns about sharia law would suggest, a theocratic danger to our personal freedom.

When you look at the kind of issues being pushed by the Australian Christian Lobby, notably on their signature issue of opposition to gay rights, there’s not much difference from what you might expect from proponents of sharia law.

As I’ve said before, it seems highly likely that Christians will soon be in the minority in Australia. So, my unsolicited advice to the ACL is that they should support tolerance and civil liberties for all, rather than attempting to use the temporary majority status of Christianity to impose their version of sharia law. There’s nothing wrong with political activity being motivated by general religious values, but a lot wrong with attempts to impose your own religious taboos on others.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

How long can Abbott last?

February 25th, 2015 136 comments

Judging by the tone of media coverage, Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership has now entered its terminal phase. Everything he does and says is being judged on that basis, with every slipup a potential disaster.

But having just beaten a spill motion, and with at least moderately good news from the polls, he can scarcely be removed immediately. On the other hand, as long as he stays in office, the government is effectively in lame duck mode, with its every decision open to reversal by his successor. To take the most recent example, if Abbott were replaced by Turnbull, the attacks on Gillian Triggs would cease instantly.

The big timing issue relates to the Budget, due in May. It’s obvious that, if Abbott goes, so does Hockey, which would be highly problematic if the removal took place after the budget was delivered but before it got through Parliament. Yet some reports I’ve read suggest that a lot of senior Liberals want to give Abbott & Hockey a chance to make a success of this Budget, then dump them if it fails.

On a side issue, the fact that the Prime Ministership is decided only by the Liberal Party members of the coalition is quite a big deal. Abbott would obviously do better if the two parties merged, or even if the Queensland LNP were part of the federal Liberal party rather than the bizarre camel it is now.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Time to abandon ‘reform’ as a policy and as a word

February 12th, 2015 33 comments

In the early years of this blog, I spent a lot of time trying to find a sensible way of handling the word “reform”. But now I think it’s been corrupted beyond any hope of redemption. My conclusion is that we should never use the word, and be instantly suspicious of anyone who does. Most Australian voters have already reached this position, I think (see also, “productivity“).

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Turnbull and the Renewable Energy Target

February 8th, 2015 34 comments

At the minute of writing (1404 Sunday), it looks as if Malcolm Turnbull will replace Tony Abbott as PM tomorrow. Among his many challenges will be climate change policy, the issue that brought him undone last time around. The word appears to be that he will adhere to the platform from the 2013 election, which rules out a carbon price (tax or ETS) but gives him room to move in various directions.The assumption is that this compromise will buy both Turnbull and the climate deniers in the LNP enough time to work out some kind of solution.

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the Abbott government, in defiance of the 2013 platform, has been doing its best to make drastic cuts in the Renewable Energy Target. To the extent that the processes of government are going on during the current mess, negotations with Labor and the minor parties are still under way. Turnbull will have to decide, more or less immediately, whether to keep pushing for deep cuts.

There’s a further problem. Turnbull can’t simply drop the issue and leave things as they are. Abbott’s obvious intention to destroy the scheme has had a chilling effect on investment, particularly in the wind sector. Under the current rules, fossil fuel generators need to offset their generation with certificates from renewable generators. But it now seems unlikely that there will be enough certificates by 2020, which would result in the triggering of penalty clauses. So, the scheme needs some kind of change.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member put out a report just before Christmas last year, suggesting that the target date of 2020 be shifted out, and that the duration of the scheme be extended past 2030. That’s one possible solution, though not the only one.

The problem for Turnbull is that any realistic solution will instantly enrage the climate deniers, while continuing on the current path will put him in the position of owning Abbott’s broken promises.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Lib/LNP leadership schadenfreude thread

February 3rd, 2015 146 comments

When I posted on the Liberal leadership, I assumed that the right wing of the Liberal party was organized enough to persuade Abbott to go quietly and to install Bishop rather than Turnbull to replace him. Neither assumption looks safe now, and my overestimation of LNP organizational capacities has been shown up by the fiasco in Queensland. So, I’ll sit back and enjoy the fun, leaving you to offer whatever thoughts you have on the topic, or on related issues.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Queensland election outcome (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

February 1st, 2015 87 comments

We just had an election in my home state of Queensland, and the outcomes will be of some broader interest, I hope. The governing Liberal National (= conservative) Party has (almost certainly) gone down to a surprise defeat, going from 78 of 89 seats at the last election to a probable 40 or 41 this time. The key issues were broken promises (particularly regarding job cuts) and government proposals for privatisation.

This can be seen either as a reversal or a repeat of the last election when the governing Labor Party went from 51 seats to 7. That election was also fought on broken promises and privatisation, but with the roles of the parties reversed (Labor had won an election opposing privatisation, then immediately announced it would go ahead).

Among the actual or potential ramifications

* The first instance of a woman Opposition Leader defeating an incumbent government at state or national level in Australia (there have been examples in the much smaller territory governments, but I think this is the first case at State level. The more common pattern has been for a woman to get a “hospital pass” when it is clear that the government is on the way out.
* At the national level, the replacement of the current conservative prime minister Tony Abbott
* The abandonment of the biggest coal mine project in Australia

Looking internationally, the outcome can be seen as a defeat for the politics of austerity and maybe as an example to suggest that Pasokification can be reversed, under the right circumstances.

Finally, I’ll link to my analysis of the asset sales, which got a reasonably prominent run during the campaign. It probably didn’t change many minds, but it helped to counter the barrage of pro-privatisation propaganda.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

LNP needs a Plan C

January 30th, 2015 104 comments

There’s been a lot of discussion about the fact that the Queensland LNP needs a Plan B, in case they are returned to government, but Campbell Newman loses his seat of Ashgrove.

No one seems to have noticed that they really need a Plan C, for the case when neither party wins an absolute majority, which would almost certainly imply a loss for Newman. A couple of points arise here

* Both Newman and Labor leader Anna Palaszczuk have ruled out a minority government. But with Newman gone, some other LNP leader might say his position was inoperative

* The Governor needs to call on someone to attempt the formation of a government. That could be Newman, Palaszczuk, some other LNP figure or even an independent.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Abbott, Knight and Bishop

January 27th, 2015 104 comments

In making my predictions for 2015, I was tempted to predict that Abbott would last out the year, mainly on the basis of inertia, but decided it was too risky (Commenter Fran B sensibly went the other way). I’m already glad of that: even before Sir Phil, it seemed as if he was on the skids.

Assuming Abbott goes (still not certain, but looking more likely with every hour), Julie Bishop looks like a sure thing to replace him. She has looked pretty good as Foreign Minister (if you’re willing to overlook a massive cut in foreign aid), but that’s relatively easy, largely a matter of not messing up. If she does take over, she’ll need to do more than that.

To demonstrate that there’s a real change, she’ll have to break with Abbott on some major issues. Presumably that will include dumping Hockey and the most unpopular of the 2014 budget measures, but most of those are already dead.

The really big break would be to return to some kind of bipartisanship on climate change. There’s some precedent, given the way she stood up to him over going to the Lima meeting. But it would entail a break with the (numerous) denialists and tribalists in the party room and the broader party apparatus (including the Murdoch Press and bodies like the IPA). Still, if she could carry it off, she would be a force to be reckoned with.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Queensland election

January 27th, 2015 38 comments

In the opening days of the Queensland election campaign, I thought the most likely outcomes were either a narrow LNP victory or a minority government of some kind*. But the campaign has been a disaster for the LNP and for Campbell Newman in particular. He is now in the ludicrous position of refusing to answer any questions, except to repeat scripted lines about jobs. And he is suing and being sued by all sorts of people, mostly from groups traditionally associated with the political right.

The big issue has been asset sales, and again the LNP strategy has been bizarre. Having cut services in breach of all their promises, they are now promising to restore them (notionally funded by the proceeds of asset sales) but only in electorates where the LNP wins. Labor has avoided matching these promises, and has offered a package that’s fiscally sustainable in the medium term, even if it doesn’t really address the fundamental problem of inadequate revenue. With public opinion solidly against asset sales, that should be enough to neutralise the LNPs perceived superiority in economic policy.

Newman’s main calculation, I suppose, is that holding an election in January ensures no one will pay any attention (though he had the hide to say that this is the most important election in Queensland’s history), and that may be right. Still, I now think that an outright LNP win is unlikely and that there is little chance of a minority LNP government being formed. There’s even less likelihood of Campbell Newman being re-elected in his own seat.

Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has also (very foolishly, IMO) ruled out a minority government, but I doubt that she would be willing to follow through with another election if she had the option of forming one.

* I’m avoiding the silly phrase “hung Parliament”. By analogy with a “hung jury”, this implies a Parliament that is unable to produce a workable government. In reality, the existence of a disciplined majority, effectively at the command of a quasi-presidential leader, has generally produced bad government, particularly in a unicameral system like that in Queensland. By contrast, minority governments have often run their full term, and been more transparent and open than their majority counterparts.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

No pennies for Tenpenny

January 26th, 2015 68 comments

Following up on my earlier piece about anti-vaxer Sherri Tenpenny, I’m pleased to report that all the commercial venues that were booked for her potentially lucrative “seminars” have cancelled. It appears the bookings were made by her Australian contact, pro-disease advocate Stephanie Messenger, under the name of a bogus anti-SIDS charity. Apparently, charges of to $200 a head were proposed.

What free speech issues arise here? As I argued previously, I don’t support a ban on Tenpenny visiting Australia, and having come here, she should be free to organize and address public meetings, open to anyone to attend (and heckle!). But there’s no reason to permit her to make money out of her evil lies. As regards potential venues, if they take her money, they are complicit in her activities.

It’s worth observing that this balance only works if there is a substantial public sphere in which freedom of expression is guaranteed, leaving private businesses to make their own choices on matters like venue hire. The privatised world favored by propertarians is one in which freedom of speech and thought is subordinated to the rights of property owners. In the US, for example, the absolutist opposition to government restrictions on free speech goes hand in hand with the right of employers and landlords to sack or evict anyone whose opinions (or even abstinence from favored political organizations) they don’t like.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Shorten and Abbott revive the Republic

January 26th, 2015 63 comments

Bill Shorten’s call yesterday to reopen the republic debate struck me as uncharacteristically brave. Now, with Abbott’s bizarre decision to confer an Australian knighthood on a foreign prince, it looks prescient, or perhaps well-informed.

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Living to 150: A quick reality check

January 19th, 2015 97 comments

Our fact challenged Treasurer, Joe Hockey raised some eyebrows when he suggested that we need to reform Medicare because children born today might live to 150. He got some support from University of New South Wales faculty of medicine dean Peter Smith, who cited the increase in life expectancy over the last century, from 55/59 (for men and women respectively) in 1910 to 80/84 today.

There’s an apparent paradox here: If life expectancy is 80/84 years today, how can a newborn child expect to live 150 years. The answer is that “life expectancy” is nothing of the sort. It’s the average age at death if current age-specific mortality rates remain unchanged. On average, people born in 1910 actually lived well beyond their “life expectancy” because death rates fell through their lifetime. So, if medical progress continues, people born today may live, on average, well past 80/84.

But how much more? Unfortunately, on past indications, not much more. Most of the 20th century extension of life expectancy came from a reduction in death rates for the young. A 65-year old in 1910 could expect to live to 76/78 (since death rates don’t change much over a decade, that’s an actual expectation not just a statistical construct). Today, that’s increased to 84/87, from 11/13 years of extra life to 19/22. For Hockey to be right, over the next 100 years or so, the conditional expectancy has to rise five-fold, to 85 years. The basis for all this, it seems, is a 2011 press release of the kind we see every week or two announcing a breakthrough that might, perhaps, lead to a cure for this or that disease.

But even in the unlikely event that this extension of life occurs, what possible relevance could it have to the amount we should pay for medical care today? Even under current rules (which would certainly change with extended life expectancy) Hockey’s hypothetical Methuselah wouldn’t be eligible for the age pension until 2085 and (given the anti-aging breakthrough he hypothesises) wouldn’t seriously burden the health care system until well into the 22nd century. Coming from a government that dismisses concerns about climate change as a problem for the indefinite future, this solicitude for Treasurers yet unborn seems misplaced.

Update Via Twitter, I discover that the source of Hockey’s claim is someone called Aubry de Grey, who is obviously in the tradition of wealthy British eccentrics, with his own foundation, journal and so on; a much more appealing instance of this kind of thing than Lord Monckton, but still not to be taken seriously.

Further update Defending Hockey’s silliness, Mark Kenny makes the point that what Hockey actually said (restating de Grey) was that it is “remarkable that somewhere in the world today, it is highly probable, a child has been born who will live to be 150″. This shift from mean to maximum helps the demographic plausibility of Hockey’s case, but only marginally (we still need an advance of nearly 30 years on 122, the longest lifespan ever recorded), but it makes the argument even weaker. Suppose that some child in, say, China is going to live to 150. What possible impact can that have on our health system. More generally, what can it matter to the budget if a handful of people live very long lives. It’s the average (measured by numbers like life expectancy at 65) that matters. As an indication of the minuscule scale of the fiscal problem posed by those with very long lives, there are currently only about 4250 Australians aged over 100, amounting to about 0.02 per cent of our population.

Yet further update It’s worth pointing out that, with pension age eligibility rising from 65/60 when the age pension was introduced around 1910 to 70/70 by 2035, men will have lost half of the extra retirement years gained from higher life expectancy and women the whole gain. The big problem we face is underemployment of prime-age workers, not the fact that we aren’t dying early enough.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Anti-vaxxers: so friendless that free speech is enough to defeat them

January 9th, 2015 42 comments

That’s the headline the Guardian used for my latest piece on calls to deny a visa to pro-disease advocate Sherri Tenpenny. Discussion welcome, but I’d like to stress one particular point about the case for free speech

On considerations of equity alone, we should not be excluding people on the grounds that they advocate views that are wrong, dangerous and unpopular [antivaxers], while admitting those whose wrong and dangerous views have powerful backing[climate science deniers].

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Australia: If you don’t love it, leave

January 7th, 2015 139 comments

I’ve seen this slogan, with an Australian flag, on bumper stickers, and Google reveals that it a similar T-shirt was the subject of controversy not so long ago.Ifyoudontloveit

I have a couple of thoughts on this

First, this supposedly patriotic slogan was imported from the US, where it has been around for decades. In this respect, it’s similar to the recent innovation of having a single performer sing the national anthem at sporting events (adopted in the US because The Star Spangled Banner is virtually unsingable). This has displaced the Australian tradition of either standing silently or singing as a group while the anthem was played.

Second, I’d encourage the slogan if those who spouted it were expected to act accordingly. That is, the moment they complained about any aspect of Australia (for example, Muslims, dole bludgers, greenies and so on) they would be issued with a deportation notice and told to find a country they could love as it is.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Queensland election

January 6th, 2015 139 comments

Watching TV last night, I was struck by the deluge of publicly funded government propaganda ads. Today, the reason was revealed as LNP Premier Campbell Newman called an election for 31 January, running several months short of a full term. Most insider comment seems to view this is a clever move, catching the Opposition off-guard and so on. My view would be that they are more likely to lose votes from people who expect a holiday from politics at this time of year.

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Broken promises and budget anger …

December 4th, 2014 108 comments

this chaotic mess won’t be fixed with the usual political script

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The Guardian. It’s over the fold

Read more…

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50 years later

November 20th, 2014 15 comments

I once read a remark about the kind of bank advertisement that shows a proud young couple outside their first home, to the effect that it would be better to show them middle-aged, making the final payment on their 25-year mortgage, at which point the home would truly be theirs.

I have the same kind of reaction to the Queensland government’s (publicly funded, I believe) ads showing “ordinary Queenslanders” celebrating the fact that our public assets are going to be leased rather than sold under the government’s plan. Most of those in the ads are young (20s and 30s, I’d say). Even so, many of them will have passed on by the time the lease first comes up for renewal in 2064.
Read more…

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Gough Whitlam

October 23rd, 2014 62 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.

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Time to terminate Cormann

October 19th, 2014 98 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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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