What next ?

I’ve had my say on the election, and don’t intend to engage in post-mortems. The only question of interest for me now is: what to do next?

I can’t see any useful contribution I can make to Australian politics for the moment, though I’m happy to take suggestions. Serious policy development is going to be off the agenda for some time, and I’ve got nothing new to say about political strategy or day-to-day politics.

‘But the big issues I’m interested in (climate change, and the choice between socialist and Trumpist futures) are global and long-term. I’m going to spend some time thinking and writing about them. I want to put forward some possible visions for the long term (2050 or 2100) future, while maintaining urgency about the threats we face right now.

Adani’s moment of truth

The political campaign against Adani’s Carmichael mine has failed. That’s a big shift from the last Queensland state election, where the state government gained support in the south-east and held on to it in North Queensland. Obviously, Bob Brown’s convoy was counter-productive, perhaps disastrously so, and this failure will undermine any future direct action campaign in the region.

Given the election outcome, the approvals made by the Federal government will stay in place, and the Queensland state government is under immense (I would judge irresistible) pressure to expedite the remaining processes.

But we have been here before. Most of the approvals[1] needed to begin work were completed in 2016, at a time when both the Queensland and Federal governments were highly supportive (Anna Palaszczuk cut the ribbon at the opening of Adani’s Townsville regional HQ in 2017). At the time, I wrote

In summary, we appear likely to find out what happens when a dog catches the car it has been chasing. Adani and its backers have been denouncing green tape and “lawfare” as the only obstacles to the bonanza they have on offer. Now, the legal and administrative obstacles are gone, so they have only to line up the money, rehire the contractors and announce the starting date. My guess is that this will never happen.

That’s still my guess, three years later. The economics of the scaled down project still don’t stack up, and the problems with finance and contractors are even greater now than in 2016. However, there’s nothing more I can do to influence the outcome, so we will just have to wait and see.

Update: I meant to add that, if the project does go ahead, it will almost certainly involve a substantial injection of public money, which will not be recovered. Adani has plenty of form in this respect.

fn1. Obviously, not all of them. But if Adani had wanted to start work in 2016, they could have done so, and, given bipartisan political support, would certainly have found a way to deal with any remaining clearances. In fact, they announced they would be starting work then, and reannounced it in 2017.

The day after

Like everyone else, I expected a Labor victory in the election. I expected good things from that, and I see lots of bad consequences from the actual outcome.

Still, my personal disappointment is muted by the fact that I found the campaign so utterly depressing. The shift to positivity I noted a couple of weeks ago only lasted for a day. I saw the positive ad I wrote about only once. By election day, like the majority of the Australian public, I just wanted it to be over.

The lesson I draw from this election, and from Clinton’s failure in 2016, is that negative campaigning doesn’t work for the left. It hardens the resolve of the other side, and obscures the fact that most people agree with you on the issues.

But that’s not the lesson that the political class, (for whom the two sides are always interchangeable) and especially the hardheads who ran the campaign, will learn. They will conclude that the small target strategy has been vindicated once again.

Economics in Two Lessons, reviewed

The first proper[1] review of Economics in Two Lessons has appeared, in Inside Story. It’s by Richard Holden[2] and really gets the point of the book.

The final paras:

Chapters twelve to sixteen deal with what policymakers should do, and here Quiggin’s passion is evident. Moreover, what comes through perhaps more than anything is a sense of balance. There’s what we might want to do and then there’s what the immutable laws of economics — so neatly laid down in the preceding chapters — will let us do. Whether it’s the distribution of income, full employment, or protecting the environment, constraints exist.

But those constraints offer guidance. Quiggin notes, for instance, that “the best way to help poor people, at home and abroad, is to give them money to spend as they see fit, rather than tying assistance to particular goods and services. In other words, it is better to fix the inequitable allocation of property rights in the first place than to fix the resulting market outcome.” Whatever the topic, the framework disciplines and sharpens the policy thinking.

There is little doubt that Quiggin’s Economics in Two Lessons will be an instant classic and feature on university reading lists around the world. It should also be compulsory reading for policymakers and public commentators, who all too often lack a framework for thinking clearly about the costs and benefits of markets. The good news is that Quiggin has one — and he’s happy to share.

Read More »