Quite a few people have pointed me to this piece by Barry Cohen which produces the unsurprising conclusion that Labor’s MPs are drawn from a very narrow range of occupations: union officials, 29; teachers, 18; state MPs and ministerial staff, 16; public servants, 14; party officials, 8; lawyers, 8. Before discussion what’s wrong with this, it’s worth pointing out that the situation is not that different on the other side of the aisle. Replace union officials with employer group officials, teachers with farmers and public servants with doctors, and you’d account for the great majority of Coalition MPs and ministers.

Whereas people once went into politics after spending a fair bit of time doing a variety of different things, political office is now part of a small set of fairly well-defined career paths. What’s mroe disturbing to me is that, at least for people who reached the heights of ministerial office, politics was almost always the last stage in a career. Now aspirants to the ministry are setting themselves up with contacts, and obligation networks for the time when they can really make big money, as consultants, lobbyists, chairmen of boards and so on. We don’t have to imagine the effect on public policy – there are already some egregious examples out there.

The only way to fix this, in my view, would be to greatly expand membership of political parties, and the only way to do that would be to give the members a real say in determining policy. Since that’s not going to happen, I don’t see a solution for this problem.

How to kill a country

That’s the title of a book-length denunciation of the US-Australia FTA, by Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thurbon and John Mathews, published by Allen & Unwin. A lot of the material will be familiar to readers of this blog, but there is an interesting chapter on quarantine. It makes the point that our quarantine laws have been successfully defended in the WTO (far from friendly to any sort of restriction on trade) but will now be subject to unaccountable bilateral processes with the US, very similar to the situation with the PBS. Even if you regard the title as a little too apocalyptic, it’s clear that this is a terrible agreement from Australia’s point of view and that, if it falls over on the issue of pharmaceuticals, that would be a very good thing.

You read it here first

Bob Carr has proposed

a new deal on federalism in the wake of the Howard Government’s big election win, offering to hand over responsibility for the health system to the Commonwealth.

In return, Bob Carr says, the Federal Government would give the states total control over schools and TAFE.

This is pretty close to what I’ve been arguing (along with Chris Sheil) for some time) though I tentatively suggested giving TAFE to the Feds.

I don’t suppose Carr gets his policy ideas from blogs, but perhaps there’s some indirect influence somewhere.

Time management tips

If you’re reading this, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re in need of time-management tips[1]. On the other hand, the idea of a blogger giving time management tips is problematic, to say the least. Undaunted by this contradiction, I’m going to offer a few. The details reflect my main activity, which is academic research but may be more or less adaptable to other kinds of jobs.
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Where have all the young fogeys gone ?

One of the features of the post-election that has struck me is its similarity to themes that emerged in the Thatcher years in the UK. For example, Miranda Devine’s claims about youthful support for the Liberals, taken down here by Don Arthur, reminded me of talk about the young fogeys who were redefining cool in the Tory mould. These people would have been in their twenties then, and in their early forties now, but, while some of the individuals who set the tone are still around, the generation they were supposed to symbolise is lost to the Tories. According to Wikipedia, the average age of Tory party members is 65.

This post by Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber makes the point that the Tory attempt to remake Britain in a free-market mould was a catastrophic failure, at least in party political terms.

. By crushing unions, privatizing state industry, trying to shift the North England economy from manufacturing to retail commerce, introducing market reforms to the welfare state, and flogging off public housing, the British Conservatives systematically tried to create a new class of Tory voters that would permanently marginalize Labour. The result was the transformation of the Conservatives into a near-permanent minority – thirteen years later, British voters still don’t trust the Conservative party anywhere near the public services.

Those engaging in triumphalism on the conservative side of Australian politics ought to learn from this lesson

Read the whole thing

Today’s Fin (subscription required) has the first in a series of articles on Australian manufacturing, by Peter Roberts. There’s an odd disconnect between the front page (and the editorial referring to it) and the body of the article. The opening includes the optimistic declaration

The Australian manufacturing sector is now made up, not of survivors, but successful competitors in home and export markets

But the main body of the article is rather less positive. It’s not surprising to learn that manufacturing has shrunk from about 20 per cent of GDP and employment in 1975 to 12 per cent today. But those who haven’t been following the news may be surprised to learn that manufactured exports are declining in nominal terms, and that as the article notes

there has been a seemingly inexorable rise in the manufacturing trade deficit … concentrated in areas such as chemicals, IT and telecommunications … From a high of $37.6 billion in 2000-01, manufacturing exports slumped to $32.9 billion in 2003-04

That’s a decline of about 15 per cent in nominal terms, more than 20 per cent in real terms and more than 30 per cent relative to GDP. Meanwhile imports have risen above $100 billion. I’ve previously looked at the stagnant export performance of the “elaborately transformed manufactures” sector, much-touted under Hawke and Keating, but this is worse than I had realised.

An economic rationalist might respond by saying that if manufacturing is declining, that must be a reflection of market forces and comparative advantage and therefore desirable. This at least a consistent position, though one with which I have some significant disagreements. But it seems silly to me to pretend that things are going well in manufacturing when the numbers clearly point to a rapid decline in all sectors exposed to competition.

Warblogging & GM

Since some readers want to debate these issues more or less continuously, I’m putting up a special-purpose post covering all issues related to the war on terrorism and the Howard doctrine (whatever you think it is) and also on Genetically Modified crops. Maybe there will be some cross-fertilisation or other exchange of genetic material.

For the record, my view on Iraq is that elections must go ahead in January come what may, and that the occupation forces should be withdrawn as soon as possible thereafter. On GM foods I favor stringent safety testing and compulsory labelling, and would like to see more effort put into developing products that would actually benefit people in poor countries and less into political point-scoring.

Having set this thread up, I’ll keep it running as long as needed, and will move or delete comments on these topics from posts on other issues.

A cultural shift to the right ?

Quite a few commentators have argued that the leftward shift I have described on economic issues in Australia has been matched by a shift to the right on cultural issues. The strongest proponent of this claim has been Jack Strocchi, but the same point has been repeated here and elsewhere. The problem is that culture is a big field, and it’s not clear exactly what we are talking about. So I’ll try to discuss some more specific points.

I’ve previously discussed multiculturalism and republicanism and see no reason to change what I’ve written on these topics.

Next, as argued below, I don’t think we are seeing a great religious revival, particularly a fundamentalist[1] Christian revival. Still the census figures give marginal support to the idea of a shift to the right. By far the most significant development in Australia in this respect is the gradual shift away from nominal Christianity, represented by growing proportions of people declaring “no religion” at the census. After rising steadily until 1996, this proportion fell slightly in the 2001 Census, a fact recorded with some satisfaction by George Pell, who apparently sees Satanists as preferable to atheists (I guess there’s just a trivial change of sign involved).

fn1. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not too concerned with theological distinctions here. I’m using “fundamentalist” as shorthand to refer to religious groups with a strong emphasis on traditional sexual morality, little concern with social justice, and a willingness to get involved in the conservative side of poltiics. If anyone can suggest a better one-word description, I’ll be happy to adopt it.
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Religion and politics in Australia

Now that the prospect of Family First holding the balance of power in the Senate has receded (though not in a good way!) there are a few questions I’d like to raise. Reading all the stuff about the rise of movements like Family First, it struck me that I’ve been reading and hearing about this kind of thing for a long time, in two forms. The first is with reference to the growth of conservative/fundamentalist/pentecostalist/evangelical[1] church groups either within or at the expense of mainstream denominations. The second is the idea that these groups will exert increasing political influence, as they do in the United States.

I’ve been hearing the second claim at least since Fred Nile was elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 1981. Even before that, the Bjelke-Petersens drew heavily on support from conservative church groups. And, while the base for the DLP was within the Catholic Church, it had a broadly similar policy position. It’s my impression that there’s a fairly reliable support base of 5 per cent of the population for this kind of politics, and that this proportion hasn’t changed much in many decades.

On the first question, I don’t have any good information, but my impression is that the news stories tend to focus on dynamic and expanding churches, ignoring the fact that there is contraction as well as expansion going on. I don’t think the census gives the kind of breakup that is needed here, but maybe readers are better informed than I am.

While I’m on this topic, Don Arthur has raised some more general issues of interest, to which I hope to respond soon.

fn1. For my purposes, the distinctions here aren’t critical except as they bear on attitudes to political activism or quietism

One more election postmortem

Looking at the discussion following their election, there are few points I think still need to be made or restated.

First, although the outcome came as a surprise, it’s about what would have been expected on the basis of historical experience in the absence of any knowledge about the parties, their leaders and so on. Particularly at the Federal level, Australians don’t tend to change government in the absence of a recession or other policy failure[1]. The realists like Ken Parish who predicted Labor’s defeat on this basis were right. I noted the general pattern, but thought that the government’s weaknesses were enough to give Labor a good chance. As it turned out, Howard’s decision to match Labor on health and education, combined with the messup over forest policy, wiped out any gains Labor might have made.

Second, over and above the benefits to an incumbent government from economic growth, I think the Liberals have benefited from the real estate boom. Even allowing for a fair bit of ideological crossover, it’s clear enough that the Liberals are more likely to act in ways that help property investors and encourage rising property prices for homeowners. More generally, in all the English-speaking countries, there has been a big expansion in debt-financed consumption, reflected in large trade deficits and supported by high and rising property values. The question of whether this is a sustainable model is a critical one. I’m on the record as saying it is not, but there are plenty of highly qualified people who take the opposite view, most notably Alan Greenspan. Among Australian bloggers, Stephen Kirchner has been most supportive of this view and critical of reference to the property price boom as an unsustainable bubble.

Third, it follows from this that I don’t think the election represents some sort of terminal crisis for Labor. Although several of the Labor state governments have hit rough patches at present (and this hurt Labor federally), Labor still looks like the natural party of government in most states. And, as I’ve already noted, Howard had to move a long way to the left to win, promising to preserve Medicare, assist state schools, expand the TAFE sector and so on.

It will be hard for Labor to win Federally in the absence of a recession or slowdown. But that’s a fact about Australian politics, not a fact about Labor.

fn1. Labor’s defeat in 1996 is sometimes presented as a counterexample. But it’s clear that the 1989-90 recession and the interest rate policy that caused it had not been forgotten then – as Howard showed, it hasn’t been forgotten even now. Labor should have lost in 1990 and 1993, but the Liberals mucked things up both times. 1996 was a referendum on Keating’s whole career, not the period after 1993.