Meltdown continues at the Oz

Just about everyone has piled on to this silly piece by David Burchell attacking political bloggers (more precisely, it seems, settling personal scores with unnamed but easily recognisable enemies, as in previous Oz attacks on bloggers)

So, just a couple of asides from me. First, it’s amazing and depressing that the Oz seems determined to continue trashing its reputation, already in tatters from its embrace of global warming delusionism, and the thrashing it took from pseph-bloggers in the leadup to the 2007 election. Australia could use a good national newspaper but it doesn’t have one (the Fin doesn’t really count in this context), and only radical changes from the top down can bring the Oz anywhere near delivering on this aim.

Second, at this point, the idea of “bloggers” or even “political bloggers” as a category has largely ceased to have any meaning. Just about everyone who writes on politics has some sort of blog (even if it isn’t named as such, a regular column, published on the net and allowing comments is, for all practical purposes a blog). Burchell might as well attack “typers” for lacking the gravitas of those who still compose their articles with a quill pen.

Of course, what he means in this context is clear. Well-established commentators who have an established position in old media are OK. Upstarts who write with no authority from anyone are not, particularly if they attract an audience.


Exams are just finishing up at the University of Queensland and the grim business of marking is well under way. I’m an observer of the process these days, since my research fellowship doesn’t involve running any courses (though I give a fair number of guest lectures in economics, political science and other subjects). Back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a student, the whole system of examinations and marks was one of the big targets of radical critique; even if relatively minor in the great scheme of things, exams loomed large in our lives, and seemed like a symbol of much that was wrong with society.

That kind of debate seems to have disappeared entirely. While a variety of alternatives to exams have been tried, the pressure to cut costs has driven most Australian universities back to near-total reliance on exams, and, within that, to heavy use of multiple choice and short-answer tests.

But I’m more interested in looking again at the fundamental question of why universities and schools spend so much time and effort on assessment. One possible explanation, is that they provide useful feedback to students on how they are doing, and to the university itself to guide things like admission to later courses. I don’t buy this at all. Feedback provided after you’ve finished a course isn’t much use, after all.

Is it to provide a service to employers? If so, couldn’t they run their own tests? Or is to give students a spur to effort? I guess the last of these is closest to the mark.

Photo mosaic for union rights in Zimbabwe

Among the many groups being persecuted by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe are trade unionists. Here, via Eric Lee at Labourstart is one small way to help them in their struggle. From the UK TUC

Take action now to support Zimbabwean trade unionists on trial – We need your photo now!

On Monday 23 June, just days before the Presidential run-off election, Lovemore Matombo and Wellington Chibebe, President and General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) will be in court to face charges of ‘spreading falsehoods prejudicial to the state’ – or rather, telling the truth about violence in Zimbabwe. As part of their bail conditions they have been banned from addressing political or public gatherings for almost the whole election campaign. These charges and bail conditions are clear breaches of free speech and freedom to associate.

We are urging people everywhere to protest at attempts to silence these men, and at the state-sponsored violence and intimidation which has intensified since the first round of elections in March.

If Lovemore and Wellington aren’t able to address a public gathering themselves, you can help them to with this campaign action, but you’ll need to hurry.

We are making a giant photo mosaic of Lovemore and Wellington, using pictures of hundreds of their supporters from around the world – and we want to use your photo as one tiny part of it. We’ll get this printed on a large banner as a focus for the London demonstration on 23 June, and will make the image available to other international demonstrations and to the media.

This is a last minute campaign, so we need to get your photos in immediately.

Update The last minute has passed, unfortunately. I got an email in reply saying “Thanks for your email, however we’ve had now to stop accepting new photos in order for us to prepare the mosaic. There are still things you can do to help…

Contact the Minister of Justice in Zimbabwe, asking for the charges to be dropped. Visit for more information on how to do this.”

The power of persuasion

That’s the headline for my article in today’s Fin, which follows:

After a messy and unedifying process, the Iemma government has finally reached an agreement with the Opposition to proceed with the privatisation of the New South Wales electricity industry. The price of the deal has been acceptance of the Opposition demand for an inquiry by the Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat.

In most cases, inquiries into policies on which the government is already determined are little more than rubber-stamps. Whatever the desired result, a suitably distinguished former judge or some other eminent person, with appropriately written terms of reference, can usually be relied on to deliver it.

But Auditors-General are a sturdy breed, among the few groups of public officials who have offered significant resistance to the politicisation of the public service over recent decades.

Read More »

Bad news on the Murray

Grim if unsurprising news from this Leaked report on the state of the Murray-Darling river system. The failure of the autumn rains (again) has wiped out the modest benefits from the (already fading) La Nina event. The problem has been generated by a long history of bad policy, but, at this point, even the best water policy in the world won’t help if it doesn’t rain.

The implications for places like the Coorong are dire. It seems likely, in view of problems like the buildup of acid sulphate soils, that the barrages separating the Lakes Alexandrina and Albert from the sea will have to be removed (this is being staved off by emergency measures for the moment). But the barrages were constructed as an early response to the expansion of irrigation upstream, which reduced flows and, as a result of sea water inflow, threatened to turn predominantly freshwater lakes into salt water (characteristically of such interventions, the barrages overcorrected, eliminating the occasional salt water phases, and changing the ecological balance in the lakes). So, the only sustainable response is to increase flows in the whole system which will require substantial reductions in extractive uses.

But, if the repeated failures of the autumn rains, and the higher frequency of drought represent a permanent climate change, it seems likely we will have to accept both substantial ecological damage and reduced agricultural output. My research group at UQ has been working on this for the Garnaut Review and we should have a report out fairly soon – some of the scenarios are indeed grim.