I’ve been at Parliament House in Canberra today, where I’ve just been awarded a second Federation Fellowship. That means another five years of funding for me and my Risk and Sustainable Management research group. We’ll still be working on the problems of the Murray-Darling, but now with a focus on adaptation to climate change. Now it’s back home for a quiet celebratory drink.

Congratulations to all the other Fellows, but especially to my colleague in the agricultural economics profession, Dave Pannell, who will be working on dryland salinity problems, a nice complement to my work focusing on irrigation. It’s a very well deserved award.


Since we’ve been discussing beatups lately, here’s a classic example of the genre. MSNBC runs a story with the headline “Study links imprisoned veterans, sex crimes” and the lede (US pressparlance for opening sentence)

Military veterans in prison are more than twice as likely to have been convicted for sex offenses than nonveteran inmates, the government reports. Federal researchers cannot say why.

Reading on, it turns out that Federal researchers can and do say why. Military veterans are about half as likely to be in prison as non-veterans. So, the startling finding is that (drumroll) the imprisonment rate for sex crimes is about the same for veterans and non-veterans.

As one of the authors observes when she gets a word in halfway down the story

“I don’t want people to come away from this thinking veterans are crazed sex offenders. I want them to understand that veterans are less likely to be in prison in the first place.�

This is a mildly interesting finding, but presumably explained by demographics (veterans are, on average, older than the population at large, and active criminals younger) the fact that (except in desperate times like the present) the US military does not like to recruit people with criminal records.

Sea change

Just this weekend, I’ve noticed a sudden change in the tone of political commentary, suggesting that the insiders have undergone a collective change of view. Suddenly, all the stories I read are about how Howard really is losing this time (the commentary from the Costello camp is particularly acid, and a drastic change in the space of a week). It seems as if the proximate cause of all this was the failure of the mythical ‘Budget bounce’ to emerge in the opinion polls (the government got another bad one today). In addition, it seems as if a lot of commentators really were convinced that the government’s moves on IR and education would be seen as sensible political responses to public concern and not as an admission that Labor was in tune with the voters on these issues.

Interestingly, the betting markets don’t seem to have moved too much away from even money, while the polls have been giving a consistent message all year. The election will be a big test for the relative predictive powers of polls, pundits and punters.

How can you know where you stand if you’ve just shot yourself in the foot?

The Liberal Party’s new publicly-funded advertising campaign promoting the party’s revised industrial relations policies* has already done more damage to the party’s cause than any benefit they might possibly achieve. Labor has been given buckets of entirely favourable free publicity on both the substantive issue of IR and the misuse of public funds in political campaigning**. Even more striking, the label “Workchoices” has been abandoned in the ads, effectively conceding that Labor and the unions have won the policy debate. The alternative, something like “Workchoices: New and Improved!” might have been corny and unconvincing, but surely not as bad as this. Of course, without an ad campaign, there would have been no need for such a choice.

Now its time for the ads themselves. My guess is that they will be somewhere between ineffective and counterproductive. Those who have been following the issue closely can only have a negative reaction, and those who remember the previous campaign might wonder why, if all the relevant conditions were PROTECTED BY LAW last time, they now need to be protected again. But I imagine the majority of viewers will tune out in one way or another.

*As far as I know, these policies have not been enacted into law, or even placed before the Parliament, so their only real status is as Liberal policy

** If there is a change of government, watch to see if the promise to have the Auditor-General examine all such advertising is implemented in Labor’s first year. If it hasn’t come in by then it will never happen.

A monarch without a monarchy

Irfun Yusuf points out some problems with the sample citizenship test released by the Federal government. Here’s a real doozy

15. Australia’s values are based on the …

a. Teachings of the Koran

b. The Judaeo-Christian tradition

c. Catholicism

d. Secularism

The correct answer, apparently, is B, despite the clear statement in the Constitution that Australia should have no established religion. This, combined with the implicit requirement to repudiate Catholicism and Islam, violates the spirit of the Constitution and probably the letter of anti-discrimination law.

That’s by far the worst, but there’s plenty more. For example, to get full marks you have to say that Australia is not a monarchy (Q5) but that our head of state is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (regarded by most as a monarch) (9). Of course, the questions of who is our head of state, and whether or not our system is a monarchy have been the subject of sharp controversy in the recent past (for example, who should open the Olympics). I wasn’t even sure which answer was supposed to be right on the Head of State question.

All these questions should be scrapped. But if all that is left is a set of easily-memorized answers to Carmen Sandiego questions like “Australia’s national flower is …”, there seems to be little point in having a test at all.

(Via Catallaxy and Andrew Norton) Some corrections and clarifications made in response to comments

Update 21/5

As pointed at by Geoff Honnor at Troppo, Howard denies that the sample questions are genuine. Applying the careful parsing necessary with both the government and the Murdoch Press, I can come up with two possible interpretations:
(i) The Herald-Sun made the questions up, but ran a report with the natural reading that they were from a sample test made available by Kevin Andrews (‘given an exclusive insight’, ‘sample questions highly likely to be in the test’) and so on
(ii) The questions were from a sample test made available by Kevin Andrews, but since it wasn’t part of an official test, Howard feels free to disclaim them

As regards motives, (i) suggests a standard beatup, while (ii) suggests either a trial balloon or a dog-whistle exercise designed to stir up controversy (successfully, though maybe not with the reaction they hoped for). More at LP

Weekend reflections

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

Reply to Davidson and Robson

Phillip Adams and Peter Dixon have prepared a reply (over the fold) to the opinion piece by Robson and Davidson in the Australian which offered a range of incoherent criticisms of proposals to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Disgracefully, but not at all surprisingly, the Oz has declined to print it, marking yet another step in its decline.

Admittedly, the debate is so one-sided that printing the reply would have made it obvious how ill-advised it was to publish the Davidson-Robson piece in the first place. Dixon is Australia’s pre-eminent economic modeller, and Adams is his successor as Director of the Centre of Policy Studies at Monash. They have published extensively in leading economic journals on modelling and climate change, and their expertise shows. Robson and Davidson have essentially zero professional expertise on these issues, and that shows too. Of course, they have exactly zero professional expertise in climate science, and that hasn’t stopped them claiming the entire profession is wrong, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

Tim Lambert cleans up what’s left
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The bleak outlook for the Murray-Darling Basin has just got substantially worse with reports that inflows may have been overestimated by as much as 40 per cent, as a result of double counting of groundwater. Of course, as Malcolm Turnbull says in the article, the general problem is well-known to those working in the area. The Risk and Sustainable Management Group*, which I lead at UQ, has been working on it for some time, and so have lots of others. But, as we know all too well from our modelling efforts, there’s a huge gap between a qualitative understanding of the issues, and an adequate quantitative representation of flows of water and salt, not to mention the nutrients that contribute to things like blue-green algae blooms. Everyone is doing the best they can, but it will take a long time to get coherent data sets together, and time is something we don’t have.

In the meantime, policy is at a standstill because the National Party refuses to countenance voluntarily repurchase of water rights, let alone a scaling back of allocations that are, in retrospect, obviously unsustainable. Unless Turnbull can really start banging some heads together on this one, his first ministerial stint is going to end up a disastrous failure.

* I’m reposting this at the RSMG blog, which has lots of useful discussion of water and other environmental issues.

Update 18/5 It turns out this estimate is from Bill Heffernan (I had somehow inferred that the National Water Commission had produced it) and it’s an upper bound, based on the total contribution of groundwater. Turnbull has a letter in today’s Fin suggesting that the real value is 3 per cent, though I don’t think this includes capture of surface flows through farm dams, laser levelling and so on. Even 3 per cent of flows is a big deal – much more than the amount that has so far been repurchased or regained through efficiency savings.


Andrew Bolt picks up the Davidson-Robson piece I mentioned here. I know Bolt mainly from his writing about global warming and (to a lesser extent the Iraq war) where he is about as wrong as it is possible to be, in every possible way. He gets basic facts wrong, recycles long-exploded propaganda exercises like the Oregon Petition and commits just about every kind of logical fallacy known, all in an attempt to push a position that has literally no credible scientific defenders left*. He compounds all this by explaining the virtually unanimous verdict of the scientific community, including such bodies as the US National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of the UK, Australian Academy of Sciences and so on as the product either of a crude conspiracy to scare up grant money or a quasi-religious cult.

Fortunately, in the case of global warming, anyone with access to the Internet can easily check the facts, so the only people deluded by Bolt on this topic are those complicit in their own delusion, believing an implausible story because it suits their ideological or cultural/tribal prejudices. But Bolt’s opinions on general politics are routinely featured on such programs as the ABCs Insiders. As the name of the show indicates, we are supposed to accept on faith that Bolt has access to facts and insights not available to the rest of us, except through the intermediation of Bolt or his fellow-insiders.

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