Posts Tagged Australian politics

The climate science isn’t “in”

aka back and better than the same as ever

MK has been dormant since June 2013 — almost 2 years! It’s been a while since I wrote a bona fide blog post, but I miss doing that, so I figured I would, and on one of my favourite old topics (see HERE). This one is dedicated to my handfuls upon handfuls of readers.

I believe in climate change. I also am not all that bothered by it.

That attitude seems to raise a few eyebrows. Most people assume that if you believe in climate change, then you must see a desperate need to “take action” against it and, conversely, if you do not care much about climate change, then you are obviously one of those “climate change deniers” (a term that’s a little too close to “Holocaust denier” for my liking).

I don’t fall into either category. My thoughts can be encapsulated quite neatly in three points (and I think I may be paraphrasing John Humphreys):

  1. Is the climate changing? Yes.
  2. Are humans causing that? Probably.
  3. Is it as bad as we think? No.
  4. Does it warrant drastic government intervention? Almost definitely not.

As points 1 and 2 have been adequately canvassed elsewhere, and point 4 follows from point 3, I’ll concentrate on point 3 for the balance of this post. Before I do that, I should give this qualification: I’ll admit that I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do have a statistics major, so I am at least somewhat qualified to comment on the research findings that people like to throw around. And I have read the most authoritative material out there, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and the major Royal Society reviews (see HERE).

So with the power of that limited knowledge and drawing on my hours of research, here is what i think:


The future hasn’t happened yet

People have been predicting the end of the world for as long as there have been people, and that includes in this “enlightened” age of “science” that we now live in. Yet the doomsayers have been proven wrong each time.

The problem with predicting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. That may seem obvious, but it is constantly overlooked by “scientists” the world over. The standard way of predicting the future using maths, “time series analysis”, boils down to this: take what has happened in the past, figure out what the average was, and assume that the future will be the same.

This might seem intuitive — after all, the best indication of what will happen in the future that we have is what has already happened — but it is in fact an extremely flawed way of looking at the world. The best and most well known critic of the formula is probably Nassim Taleb. He makes the following criticisms:

   1. Outliers

The past is peppered with what Taleb calls “Black Swan” events and what everyone else calls “outliers”. Outliers are rare events that are different to all other events, and therefore cannot be predicted. It is impossible to predict the unpredictable, therefore any statistical projections will invariably miss the outliers, especially if it is predicting the future based on the past average.

This results in things like financial analysts missing the Global Financial Crisis (bad outlier), or Thomas Malthus predicting that all the food would run out and missing the productivity improvements of the industrial revolution (good outlier, back in Malthus’s time).

   2. Knowing it all

Time series predictions involve a degree of hubris. They assume that we understand the past and why everything in the past has happened, and can confidently reduce the infinitely complex universe into a few variables that will inevitably explain anything, and so if we know how one or two of these will behave then we can comfortably predict everything else.

We give ourselves too much credit. Our actual understanding of complex systems is much weaker than we’d like to think. “Experts” modelling complex systems mathematically are constantly even getting the past wrong, so how anyone thinks they can predict the future with much accuracy I have no idea.

   3. Proxies and correlations

Some things are easier to measure than others. Whenever an analysts wants to measure something complex that cannot really be measured they will use a “proxy variable” that would generally correlate with the unmeasurable variable. For example, it is not possible to measure “health”, so if you want to measure the health of a population, you might measure their average life expectancy. After all, if people tend to live longer, you would assume that they are healthier.

Makes sense right? Well maybe. One problem is that you might be missing some other variables that are affecting the situation. For example, maybe your “unhealthy” group are actually super fit and super healthy, but have an unfortunate habit of dying in car crashes. So perhaps life expectancy doesn’t correlate as well with health as you would expect.

But assume that the two variables correlate perfectly. That itself may be a problem.

Take this example: Christian Rudder from online dating website OK Cupid has found that regardless of gender, OK Cupid users who like the taste of beer tend to prefer having sex on the first date. That statistic is quite amusing, but no one would seriously suggest that this means that drinking beer changes the way someone thinks about sex, right?

Wrong. “Scientists” do that all the time, and the journalists who report their findings do it even more.

That example makes it especially obvious that the correlation between beer and sex is not causative. Liking beer does not cause someone to want to have sex on a first date, and wanting sex on a first date does not cause someone to like the taste of beer. More likely, there is a third factor at play that causes a lot of people who like beer to also want sex on a first date — probably youth culture or something. Or it could simply be a coincidence.

But that doesn’t stop people saying that hormone replacement therapy can help stop heart disease.

   

4. The Wayne Swan error*

Ever wondered why the government’s budget always seems to blow out? Here’s why. Say the government projects that next year’s budget will balance, with a 2% margin of error and 95% confidence. This means that there is a 95% chance that budget will be within 2% of a balanced budget (a pipe dream right now, I know).

In reality, it is almost impossible that the budget will come in below the projection — as once allocated money to spend, very few (if any) government departments will choose not spend it. On the other hand, it is quite likely that the budget will blow out, as government departments have many unforeseen expenses. So there is not so much a 95% chance that the budget will be within 2% of balanced, there is a 95% chance that there will be a deficit of 2% or less, and a 5% chance of a deficit of over 2%. I like to call that the “Wayne Swan error”, after the former Australian Treasurer who seemed to manage to blow out the budget every year that he was in office (it is also fast becoming the “Joe Hockey error”).


Getting to the point

The reason I don’t think that climate change is so bad is that the predictions that I have seen of the impact of climate change fall into all of the above traps, along with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias. Arctic sea ice at record lows? We’re doomed! Arctic sea ice at record highs? We’re still doomed!

Remember Professor Tim Flannery? The “climate expert” who predicted unending drought when we had a drought, then unending floods when we had floods? My point exactly.

Even the most respectable science journals make outlandish predictions about mass-extinctions, rising sea levels, and economic misery based on people trying to predict the future from past averages and assuming that they understand complex systems.

Their predictions are constantly wrong. It turns out that nature is a lot more robust than we give it credit for. We forget that life on Earth has not been eliminated despite ice ages, periods of warming, super-volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and everything else that nature throws at us. I seriously doubt that the atmosphere warming a couple of degrees will mean the end of the world as we know it.

Further, as a result of nature being more robust than we think, as well as humanity’s propensity for alarmism, climate scientists’ projections are subject to the “Wayne Swan error”-style second order effects that I was talking about earlier.

Scientific papers wrongly predicting the end of the world are much more likely to be published than ones predicting that everything will carry on the way it has in the past, and are much more likely to attract attention once published. Also, scientists are more likely to miss mitigating factors than exacerbating ones, and therefore overestimate both global warming and its effects. We know what causes warming — greenhouse gas levels — but not what mitigates it. Accordingly, our measurements of warming are biased towards warmer rather than cooler, and our projections are biased towards “worst case” rather than “best case” scenarios.

The biggest problem with the way we think about projections is that people are not held to account for getting it wrong. Climate forecasts made 20 years ago have proven woefully inaccurate, yet they are somehow touted as being correct. A couple of years ago, the IPCC released a report saying how accurate their 1990 projections were, and headlines around the world said “climate predictions come true”, when what had in fact happened was that the world had consistently warmed more slowly than the IPCC’s projections, but (big woop!) the warming had been within the range that the IPCC predicted. See this graph:

Now, remember that the predictions were made in 1990. Notice how the model “predicts” that temperatures before 1990 (which would have been factored into the model) would be roughly evenly distributed around the middle line, but that temperatures since 1990 (which obviously were not known when the projections were made) have been consistently below that line.

Sure enough, according to the IPCC’s projections, the world should have warmed about 0.55 degrees between 1990 and 2010. It actually warmed 0.39 degrees. That’s 30% less than projected — a pretty dismal result really. Although I’ll admit that sea levels seem to have been rising at the top end of what was projected, despite the rise in temperature being lower than projected.

Anyway, the point is that a PhD in climate science is about as useful as a crystal ball and a red and white tent when it comes to making soothsayers. Meanwhile, both humanity and nature constantly surprise with their ability to not be destroyed by whatever calamity we are predicting at the time.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t be reducing our CO2 emissions and switching to renewable energy. But a carbon tax? No.


Taleb makes some other criticisms which are a lot more technical and would be lost on most readers without a mathematical background. I encourage everyone to read his books, where he explains his ideas in a very accessible way.

For people who do understand this kind of thing, the Wayne Swan error is this: Most models use a 95% confidence level to compute “statistically significant” findings. If you’re lucky this will be at 99%. Not only does this a priori overlook the 5% or 1% of outliers which can have a far more significant impact on whatever the model is measuring than the 95-99% of “normal” cases, another common oversight make it likely that the confidence level is substantially underestimated: namely the assumption that the error terms are random. Often, the error terms are actually non-linear, which adds unseen biases to the model.

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Public official makes precedented announcement

A senior public official today announced that over the coming months a large government department will be following more or less the same policy that it has been following for as long as anyone can remember.

“We are proud of our department’s record, and see no reason to change anytime soon,” said the official in the press statement accompanying the department’s quarterly report. “Over the next few months, the people of this country can expect more of the same mediocre services at the same almost-but-not-quite exorbitant prices.”

No party seems to be proposing any real changes to the current policy, however the announcement has sparked the storm of controversy in the political chattersphere that regularly follows these reports.

In response to the announcement, the Opposition’s spokesperson for the portfolio lashed-out at the government, saying that this was yet another example of the “brazen mismanagement” that we have come to expect, and warning that if something does not change soon, the fabric of our society might collapse.

The Minister responsible for the department backed the announcement and refuted the attack from the Opposition. The Minister said that the government has a “commendable record” in this area, and that the Opposition’s complaints were “nothing more than a self-serving political exercise”.

“If they don’t like it, they can come up with a better idea!” the Minister declared. “This is just empty posturing from an Opposition with no real ideas and nothing to do except attack the government.”

The department’s field has seen very little change over the past few decades, yet it has consistently been the subject of much debate amongst public figures. That debate is alive and kicking, as seen when the media’s go-to expert in the field expressed ambivalence about the recent announcement when interviewed on the evening news.

According to the expert, it is positive that the government has not gotten rid of any of the good work that the department is doing, but it is disappointing that the government has not taken the opportunity to take on board the changes that the expert has been recommending for the better part of the last decade.

“I’ve been telling them for years: listen to me,” the expert told Major Karnage, going on to lament that “my last three reports on this issue have been completely ignored, even though the government gave me million of dollars to conduct them.”

That expert’s regular sparring partners took their usual stance against the proposed changes.

“Those reports were rubbish!” said a renowned newspaper columnist, insisting that the “so-called expert” had no idea what the policy was even about.

Many other public officials made such comments as “why are we still talking about this?” and “seriously? That again? Don’t we have better things to look at?”

While no tangible change in policy is likely to eventuate, the issue is expected to fill many a newspaper column-inch over the coming days, as journalists find more and more public figures to give quotes that sound a little controversial when taken out of context.

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Boston Bombing: Alan Jones was right!!!

***UPDATE: turns out this was all a false lead. For my analysis of the real story, click HERE. I’m going to leave this up though, because it was funny while it lasted.

Everyone’s favourite Australian ‘shock jock’ Alan Jones has been widely criticised recently for these comments:

Alan Jones Boston Bombing Comments.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a conspiracy amongst students, left-wing radical students in Boston, and I think we have to think also very seriously here about our own student numbers,” Jones said on Sunrise.

“We’re very keen to have foreign students pay the way of universities in this country without a lot of discernment about who comes in. But I think the fact that we’ve been spared this kind of thing, touch wood, for so long highlights, as I said, the relentless work done by ASIO and all our police organisations.”

For example, one hipster blog had this to say:

Alan Jones Blames “left-wing radical students” For Boston Bombing – Pedestrian TV.

Australia’s leading expert in poor taste and bad timing has struck again after talkback radio host Alan Jones suggested that there could be a link between the tragic Boston Marathon bombings and radical left-wing student groups. Speaking on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, Jones was eager to speculate as to who could be behind the blast despite the assertion from US authorities that they were yet to have any suspects. …

Shut up Alan Jones!

But lo and behold, he may have actually been right about this one!

The Boston Police Department has reportedly identified the two suspected bombers as Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi:

One Boston Bombing Suspect Reportedly in Custody, One Remains at Large – Adam Clark Estes – The Atlantic Wire.

Update 3:00 a.m.: There was a mention on police scanners recently that the suspects in custody are Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi. The latter is a missing Brown student who was identified on Reddit as a possible suspect earlier this week. However, the chatter is not confirmed.

So who are these two? Well Mulugeta is proving a little elusive, but there are a few photos of Tripathi doing the rounds on social media. This one, for example:

Sunil

That would be a Che Guevara shirt that he is wearing.

Guevara is not really an icon of Islamist terrorists or of right wing terrorists, so Tripathi does not seem to affiliate with either of the groups widely believed to be behind the bombings.

Who does idolise Guevara?

That’s right: left wing radicals. Just like Alan Jones said.

Who’s laughing now?

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NSW govt announces new transport plan

Eyebrows across the state were raised today as the NSW government announced its new plan to repair the state’s ailing transport ‘system’.

The Liberal government has come under criticism recently, with numerous claims that no real progress on transport has been made since they won power in last year’s landslide election. Government officials are heralding today’s announcement as the answer to these doubts.

“We are very proud of this announcement, and rightly so,” said Premier Barry O’Farrell. “How can anyone say that this government is doing nothing now?”

Mr O’Farrell observed that this is the third new plan announced this year, noting that the previous Labor government had generally waited at least nine months between transport plans.

Former Premier Nick Greiner, the head of Infrastructure NSW, pointed out the progress that the government has made since the previous plan.

“We are completely tearing-up Parrammatta Road now.” Mr Greiner said. “This is much more radical than the tunnel under Parrammatta road that we had planned before.”

“We have also decided to focus on expediting construction of the North-West rail link.”

Some residents of Sydney were not so sanguine.

“This all sounds wonderful, but who cares if they turn Parrammatta Road into a bloody super-highway?” asked Liverpool resident Cid Ne Seider. “It’s too bloody expensive to park my f**kin’ car anyway! This lot is just as bad as the last lot!”

Coogee resident and ADF Sergeant Neve Seth Welchman agreed, saying, “you know it’s a bad sign when you go on a tour of Afghanistan and find yourself admiring the efficiency of the public transport system in Kandahar.”

NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson also condemned the report, saying that Tony Abbott is a horrible misogynist and is not fit to be Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Greens leader David Shoebridge condemned the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and called for a complete ban on commercial fishing in the Tasman.

Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian rejected these criticisms, telling Major Karnage that, “this plan is so good, the people of Sydney will not know what hit them. In fact, they may not even realise that they have been hit!”

According to Mr Greiner, Infrastructure NSW is not taking its responsibility to the people of NSW lightly.

“We have just used the windfall from cutting the education budget to launch a whole new inquiry into our planning process,” he said. “We aim to have a new plan every two months by 2015.”

Mr Greiner also said that the government are due to begin construction on the new transport system by 2020, although he stressed that this is subject to the next transport plan, due to be released in December.

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No real politicians were interviewed in the writing of this blog post.

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Why I don’t care about the Gillard-Abbott sexism war and neither should you

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

As readers will probably have figured out, I like to follow Australian politics. As you may have guessed (and those who know me would know), I also like to talk about Australian politics. People I associate with know this, so they tend to engage me whenever an issue in Australian politics catches their attention — I even have some friendships based around these conversations.

So when there is a huge scandal in Australian politics that the whole world is talking about, I expect that it will come up somewhere. Sure enough, a lot of people have been asking me about Julia Gillard’s now world-famous speech calling Tony Abbott a misogynist. My answer has surprised a few people, so I now feel the need to write a post and justify it. Simply put:

I don’t really care.

It just doesn’t really interest me. I watched a recording of the speech and got bored after a couple of minutes. Since it was such a big thing, I went back and watched the rest later, but now I just want that 10 minutes back.

So why this uncharacteristic apathy? Well, I don’t really see this as anything new. The issue that was much more important/interesting was the resignation of Speaker Peter Slipper because of the revelation of lewd and offensive text messages that he sent his former staffer.

The Slipper issue I care about. In fact, I might care enough to write a whole post on the right to privacy and the dilemmas that this kind of situation brings up (ie should someone be forced to resign over what were really private comments, no matter how offensive they were?)

Gillard’s speech? Well, the reaction says it all really. Below are a few responses from friends on my Facebook and Twitter feeds (for obvious reasons, I am not mentioning any names and have slightly edited some of the comments for length):

Wow go Julz! She schooled Abbott #likeaboss

Julia Gillard strikes me as the sort of university feminist who screams “chauvinist pig!” when you hold the door for her and “woman-hater!” if you just let it swing back in her face.

Look, I just had to post it. Fucking brilliant. I could watch this over and over again. … There should be a whole channel devoted to this one video.

I look forward to the rude shock that the lefties who are currently engaged in self-congratulation and saying how amazing Gillard’s performance yesterday was will receive when they realise voters havn’t fallen for her BS…

Yes, Tony Abbott, you were just destroyed.

Gillard stands by Thomson after prostitute revelations. Now stands by Slipper after texts. Yet says Abbott is misogynist. #chutzpah

Amazing speech by our PM. Showing some serious leadership.

And so on.

What was really remarkable about these comments were that there was a very clear divide, but it was not on gender lines, nor was it even on the lines of people who are generally feminist versus people who aren’t. The responses that I have seen were split exactly down party lines. Labor supporters loved it, Liberal supporters mocked it.

And there is the reason why I find the whole thing boring.

Gillard’s speech was not a scathing attack on Abbott to expose his deeply held sexism, and neither was it a blatant display of hypocrisy in defence of a real misogynist.

What was it? An uninspiring partisan response to a successful partisan power-play. It was smart PR — a very clever way to divert the public conversation away from the Slipper debacle.

Abbott was trying to embarrass the government while also taking away the vote that they had from Slipper being speaker, Gillard was trying to defend her majority by recycling old allegations at Abbott.

I have annexed a breakdown of the arguments that Gillard used at the end of this post, but more important than what was there is what was missing: there was absolutely nothing about Abbott’s record in office or any policies that he has proposed which harm women, it was a purely personal attack on Abbott’s character. There is no real policy issue at all and it contributes little to the Australian debate, it’s just boring.

That is why its effect will never be anything other than to provoke cheers from Labor supporters and jeers from Liberal supporters. It was not aimed at ‘exposing Abbott’, so much as spurring-on people who already don’t like Abbott. The Liberals had a bit of a coup when Slipper’s text messages were made public and Labor countered with a clever diversion to mitigate the damage. Yawn.

Until I started this post, I had been filtering out the discussion around this issue. It has joined the categories of things that set-off my mental killswitch — like the carbon tax, Gillard “backstabbing” Rudd, and anything that uses the phrases: “clean energy future”, “working Australians”, “great big lie”, there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”, ”
fair go”, “getting on with the job” etc etc.

Now that I am done, I am free to go back to not caring. Trust me, that’s a relief.

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Gillard’s arguments:

Transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech.

He has said, and I quote, in a discussion about women being under-represented in institutions of power in Australia, the interviewer was a man called Stavros. The Leader of the Opposition says “If it’s true, Stavros, that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”

And then a discussion ensues, and another person says “I want my daughter to have as much opportunity as my son.” To which the Leader of the Opposition says “Yeah, I completely agree, but what if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”

Then ensues another discussion about women’s role in modern society, and the other person participating in the discussion says “I think it’s very hard to deny that there is an underrepresentation of women,” to which the Leader of the Opposition says, “But now, there’s an assumption that this is a bad thing.”

I have looked for a full transcript of this discussion and I can’t find it anywhere online. Abbott was not expressing a viewpoint in those comments, they were inquisitive and hypothetical. In context, they could well be completely innocuous. Then again, they may not be, but I will not make up my mind until I am shown a full transcript. A couple of soundbites extracted from a whole conversation is not sufficient to condemn anyone.

Anyway,

This is the man from whom we’re supposed to take lectures about sexism. And then of course it goes on. I was very offended personally when the Leader of the Opposition, as Minister of Health, said, and I quote, “Abortion is the easy way out.” I was very personally offended by those comments. You said that in March 2004, I suggest you check the records.

Doesn’t convince me. Whatever Abbott’s stance may be on abortion policy, there is no reason why he has to personally support it.

I was also very offended on behalf of the women of Australia when in the course of this carbon pricing campaign, the Leader of the Opposition said “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…” Thank you for that painting of women’s roles in modern Australia.

Gotta hand it to the PM, this one is pretty convincing. I am very reluctant to attribute anything to a “gaffe“, but this does show that Abbott harbours a degree of subconscious discrimination. But then, there is the whole “gaffe” issue.

And on:

And then of course, I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny of the Leader of the Opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself…”, something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair.

That I don’t agree with. I have no doubt that an unmarried male Prime Minister would be attacked on the grounds that he was unmarried.

I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said “Ditch the witch.” I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch.

Now that is just spurious. So Abbott was photographed standing next to the wrong sign at an anti-carbon tax rally, what does that have to do with anything? I have seen several prominent Labor and Green MPs standing next to the flags of terrorist organisations and nobody batted an eyelid.

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Abbott may be bully, have problem with women

The scandal over Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s character is set to explode as another incident from his past is brought to light.

Susie Somethingorother, who went to kindergarten with Mr Abbott, has gone public over an incident in 1960 when Mr Abbott – then aged three – refused to give her the red crayon. This marks the latest in a series of discoveries that seem to portray Mr Abbott as a bully who has a problem with women.

“I cannot recall precisely what I was drawing, however it may have been a picture of barnyard,” said Ms Somethingorother. “I do distinctly remember asking him very nicely for the red crayon and him shouting ‘no! I’m drawing a firetruck!’”

“The response was unnecessarily aggressive and entirely disproportionate to what was quite an innocent request. I found him very intimidating.”

Ms Somethingorother claims to have broken out in tears as a result of Mr Abbott’s conduct. She then proceeded to run to their supervisor, who castigated Mr Abbott for “not sharing like they’d discussed”.

In order to avoid further disciplinary action, Mr Abbott eventually gave the crayon to Ms Somethingorother. Shockingly, in the aftermath of the incident, the Opposition leader allegedly began referring to his former playmate as “Smelly Susie the tattle-tale”.

“It is a clear sign that Tony is a bully and hates women,” Ms Somethingorother said.

Another of Mr Abbott’s kindergarten classmates, who chose to remain nameless, corroborated Ms Somethingorother’s story.

“I don’t recall the precise incident in question, however that does sound like something Tony would have done. He was quite the schoolyard terror,” said the source, who claims that Mr Abbott always refused to let other kids play with his Flinstone Phone.

Mr Abbott has denied all allegations, however he initially claimed to have no memory whatsoever of the incident. As many “experts” have pointed out, if he does not remember committing the deeds in question, it is not clear how he can be sure that they never happened.

“Surely if he had genuinely not done it he’d remember not doing it,” observed the Age’s political editor.

Labor MPs have expressed serious concern over the incident, saying that it proves Mr Abbott is not fit to be Prime Minister, that he is a homophobe, that he hates women, that he eats children, and that he is “just a bad, bad man”. They also accused Mr Abbott of running a “relentlessly negative campaign”.

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Huge victory over Rinehart by Fairfax and its supporters

Fairfax Media

 

Remember when Gina Rinehart was being viciously attacked for buying shares in Fairfax by people who were trying to ‘preserve Fairfax’s editorial independence’ and were ‘concerned’ that she would have ‘too much control’?

Well, I guess it’s time to congratulate the ‘why is Gina Rinehart so fat and greedy?’ brigade, it seems that Australia’s most wealthy and successful businesswomanperson has been driven away from Fairfax, possibly for good:

Gina Rinehart seeks to downsize Fairfax stake.

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart is looking to further cut her stake in Fairfax Media, offering to sell around 117 million shares, or 5 per cent of the company, sources with knowledge of the sale say.

Broking firm Morgan Stanley is acting for Ms Rinehart. It has been approaching potential institutional traders offering the stake at 50 cents per share.

Yup, showed her!

… hooooooold on just one second.

How much per share?

Fairfax shares closed at 51 cents, down 9.7 per cent, just off an all-time low of 49.5 cents hit earlier this month.

Waaait.

So that means…

Earlier today, Fairfax … slashed the value of its newspaper titles by $2.8 billion and posted a steep loss, saying it saw no early turnround in the worst advertising conditions in more than 30 years.

If I’ve got this straight (and I do), Rinehart is selling her shares for 10% less than she bought them for. The dramatic drop in share price is because Fairfax is bleeding money and will go out of business unless it can pull some kind of miraculous turnaround out of a place that I’d rather not name.

Sounds like what Fairfax could use is a massive injection of capital to keep it afloat for a little while. You know, like, say, a multi-billionaire who can absorbe a loss of tens of millions of dollars deciding to by-up as many shares as possible.

Yeah, that would do the trick.

Oh, wait a second…

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Malcolm Turnbull on gay marriage: so near and yet so far

There has been a lot of attention on Turnbull’s recent Michael Kirby Lecture but I only just got around to reading it. Overall, it’s very hard to fault him – he systematically goes through the different arguments against legalising gay marriage and quite convincingly debunks them. Whatever your views on gay marriage, it is worth reading as food for thought.

HOWEVER, he did not quite follow his reasoning to the logical conclusion – a conclusion that I reached a while ago. And no, I am not saying “so near and yet so far” because he said that he wanted civil unions rather than pushing a bill on gay marriage at this time. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Reflections on gay marriage – Michael Kirby Lecture 2012 | Malcolm Turnbull MP.

So there is a clear distinction already between what constitutes a valid marriage in the eyes of the state and in the eyes of the Church.

Of course this distinction is more clear cut in countries where a marriage is recorded by a civil official at a registry office or town hall and then, subsequently, by a religious ceremony where one is conducted. I don’t doubt that explains why the legalisation of gay marriage has been less controversial there.

In Australia however ministers of religion are authorised to perform both the civil function, on behalf of the Commonwealth, and the religious one on behalf of their denomination.

My point here is that the question as to whether same sex couples’ unions should be termed a marriage by the state is not one which calls for a religious answer. No denomination can be compelled to recognise any particular form of marriage – it is entirely up to them.

So here’s the question: if that is true (which it is), WHY IS THE STATE STILL TRYING TO DO JUST THAT? And why is Turnbull supporting it? So long as the state figures it should be defining the word “marriage”, there will be problems that will be unnecessarily divisive and create a lot of avoidable public outrage. Why not let people who get married define what “marriage” should mean for them?

He only briefly supports state-regulated marriage substantially once, like this:

Study after study has demonstrated that people are better off financially, healthier, happier if they are married and indeed, I repeat, if they are formally married as opposed to simply living together. [13]

And his footnote said this (my bold):

[13] There is widespread evidence that marriage leads to better mental health, greater wealth accumulation, more stable households and better well being of children raised in a household. A 1998 study by the RAND Corporation, for instance, found that the median household worth of married households was almost four times higher those who were never married, with a median wealth of U.S.$132,000 compared to $35,000. Lupton, J., & Smith J., (1999), “Marriage, Assets and Savings”, available online here. The study measured 7600 households containing a member born between 1934 and 1941 (so between 51-60 years old). A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found varying levels of serious psychological distress according to different the different categories of marital status. Among adults aged 18–44 years, 6 per cent of those who were divorced or separated experienced serious psychological distress compared with, 3.6% of those living with a partner, 2.5% of never married adults, and 1.9% of married adults. Schoenborn, C., (2004), “Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999–2002”, available online here. The study also found married couples enjoyed much greater physical wellbeing…

Did you see what was wrong? Turnbull is a highly-educated and very intelligent person, so I am a little disappointed that he would be making such a basic mistake.

Those results are not causative – they do not necessarily show that getting married has any benefits at all. What they could just as easily indicate is that people who are generally more wealthy, and who have better mental and physical health are more likely to get married and, if married, are less likely to be divorced.

I would put my money on the latter being the case, rather than the former – I see no logical reason why the piece of paper proclaiming you to be “lawfully wedded” would make one iota of difference to your income or wellbeing, however I can definitely understand why a couple in good health and with steady incomes would be more likely to spend their lives together happily than a couple living paycheck to paycheck while battling psychological illness.

STATE MARRIAGE is a harmful institution. Legal interests should be attached to demonstrated co-dependency and not on a ceremony conducted by an official with a license. Marriage should be conducted by the clergy, or by some kind of communal leader, or whoever the hell else wants to do it – that is not something that the Federal Government needs to have anything to say about.

Turnbull is definitely on the right track, he just needs to take that extra leap.

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Mental asylum: on refugee processing and protections

There have been two undeniable tragedies over the past few days as two boats carrying asylum-seekers have capsized en route from Indonesia to Australia (fortunately, the latest one seems to have been rescued fairly effectively and the loss of life was far less, although there was still one dead and three still missing). As most readers would know, this has re-sparked the gigantic debate about Australia’s asylum-seeker policy – which has reached a fervour not seen since… the last time this happened.

There seems to be consensus that the government has to “do something” to “stop the boats”. Just what that means exactly is under fierce debate. There are three main options being pushed, so I figured that I would summarise these for all you lovely people and then give some quick thoughts on the right way to go.

1. The “Pacific Solution”

This is the Liberal Party’s pet policy – they want to replicate what was done under then Prime Minister John Howard and then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock. This solution is designed to provide strong disincentives for people to attempt to reach Australia by boat.

It’s kind of a two-pronged assault. Firstly, anyone who arrives in Australia unlawfully and then claims asylum will be given a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) – meaning that they are permitted to remain in Australia until it is no longer dangerous for them to be in their country of origin, at which time they will be deported “home”. This is supplemented by opening an Australian-administered asylum-seeker detention centre on a tiny Pacific atoll called Nauru, so that no one who tries to reach Australia unlawfully by boat will actually reach Australia and there are no guarantees of ever getting there.

2. The “open arms” solution

I call it that with my tongue in my cheek. This is the line being pushed by the Greens and various “refugee advocates”. At its core, the argument is that any form of offshore processing of refugees is cruel and so we should process them all in Australia and let them into the community as soon as possible.

Typically, for the people who are advocating it at least, this is a very nice and well-meaning policy but is a little detached from reality and would create huge problems if put into practise. The biggest problem is that, contrary to this narrative, not all “boat people” are just really nice, desperate people who are fleeing horrible persecution to make a contribution to our great, multicultural nation. Some of them are that, but some aren’t. In fact, the easier it seems that it is to get into Australia, the more likely it is that people who are not genuine refugees will come over.

Once someone destroys their travel documents (as these “boat people” are want to do), it is very difficult to figure out exactly who they are. This results in a small but significant number of these asylum seekers fleeing not persecution for their race, religion or politics, but for their involvement in organised crime – or even terrorism. Ignoring that element of them is dangerous, it would take just one bomb on a major piece of infrastructure and the public reaction would mean that our borders are sealed permanently (not to mention the horrible loss of life that it would inevitably entail).

3. The “Malaysia Clusterfuck Solution

This was the brainchild of the Gillard Labor government and requires a little background. The most important thing to know is that the Pacific Solution worked – boats had essentially stopped coming in 2007 when Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister. The new ALP government then set-about dismantling the Howard/Ruddock policies, which they had been calling “inhumane” for years, and boats promptly began coming again and have been increasing ever since.

When running for the 2010 election, Julia Gillard – aware of the political difficulty that these boatloads of asylum seekers presented for her government – announced an “East Timor Solution”. This claimed to provide the same effect as the Pacific Solution, but was supposed to be somehow different because East Timor is a signatory to the Refugee Convention (a weak argument as the Nauru centre was Australian-administered, so it was not really material whether or not Nauru had signed the Convention). Regardless, it transpired that Gillard had not seen fit to run this little idea past, you know, the East Timorese. Suffice to say it didn’t go very far.

After East Timor collapsed, the government was desperate for a solution and began floundering. They then had the genius idea of announcing that they would negotiate a solution with Malaysia after they approached Malaysia, but before they had actually negotiated a solution. Malaysia was calling all the shots and they knew it, so they eventually agreed on a kind of asylum-seeker trade: they send 4,000 Burmese Christians in exchange for 800 (presumably) Iranian and Afghani Muslims from Australia. They hate Christians, we hate Muslims, everybody wins.

After the huge outcry in Australia regarding the way refugees are treated in Malaysia (let’s just say that it involved caning of bare buttocks), the government did get Malaysia – not a signatory to the Refugee Convention – to agree to respect the refugees’ rights. In an explicitly non-binding agreement.

Problem for the government was that the Convention is annexed to the Migration Act and explicitly referred to in the provisions allowing asylum-seekers to be processed offshore, so the High Court ruled that the decision to implement the Malaysia Solution was not made according to the power conferred on Chris Bowen, the Immigration Minister, which requires that the rights and protections of refugees under the Convention are respected. The government then tried to remove these protections, but this was (thankfully) blocked by pretty much everyone else in Parliament.

Offshore in general

So here comes the real analysis (woohoo!). The most common argument against offshore processing (chiefly the Pacific Solution) is that it made no real difference and the number of unlawful arrivals in Australia is just a reflection of global trends (see, eg, this). This claim has absolutely no basis in any fact or evidence. The numbers speak for themselves really. Consider this table first from the Australian Parliament:

Year No arrivals
1999 3721
2000 2939
2001 5516
2002 1
2003 53
2004 15
2005 11
2006 60
2007 148
2008 161
2009 2726
2010 6555
2011 4565

Now, look at this table from the UNHCR:

Share of main receiving countries of asylumseekers in total number of applications

Countries 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
United States 15% 13% 13% 15% 17%
France 9% 9% 11% 13% 12%
Germany 6% 6% 7% 11% 10%
Italy 4% 8% 5% 3% 8%
Sweden 11% 6% 6% 9% 7%
Belgium 3% 3% 5% 6% 6%
United Kingdom 8% 8% 8% 6% 6%
Canada 8% 10% 9% 6% 6%
Switzerland 3% 4% 4% 4% 4%
Turkey 2% 3% 2% 3% 4%
Austria 4% 3% 4% 3% 3%
Netherlands 2% 4% 4% 4% 3%
Australia 1% 1% 2% 3% 3%
Greece 8% 5% 4% 3% 2%
Norway 2% 4% 5% 3% 2%

That is very clear evidence that Australia’s number of asylum seekers has not been keeping up with global trends. To the contrary, the number of asylum claims in Australia relative to the rest of the world has tripled since 2007. I don’t need to bother with more sophisticated statistics (although many have), anyone who looks at that data without blind bias can see that something made Australia far more attractive to asylum seekers in 2007 than it had been before.

On the other hand

I now have to write what is possibly the most difficult thing that I have ever written on this site.

Here goes…

Greens leader Christine Milne has a point.

Australia takes a negligible number of asylum seekers from Indonesia and Malaysia (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60p/a) – the two sources of these boats. Both of these countries are not good places for refugees and in Malaysia they are actually persecuted, meaning that they still have refugee status and (as mentioned before) it is illegal to deport any refugee back there.

Disincentivising the journey is all very well, however it will not work so long as the incentive to come is still stronger. The refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia know that they have almost no hope of ever being resettled, they cannot go home and they cannot stay where they are. Getting on a boat is their only hope and while that remains true, they will continue to come.

The solution requires that incentive to be changed as well. Australia needs to substantially increase the number of refugees that we take from Malasia and Indonesia, it’s as simple as that. Once we are taking several thousand a year, they will know that they would probably make it here eventually if need be and the UNHCR camps would look more appealing than our detention centres.

To summarise

Given all of the above, here is the ideal solution in my opinion:

Combine the Pacific Solution and the surprisingly lucid Milne solution. Have a processing centre on Nauru (which, by the way, does great things for the impoverished island nation as well) but also commit to taking a few thousand asylum seekers from Indonesia and Malaysia each year. It will make the boat journeys seem unappealing while providing another option for the truly desperate people in Indonesia and Malaysia.

And no deportation to Malaysia. I was almost throwing my iPad against the wall this morning while Gillard was on it trying to sell that solution as though it is really the humanitarian thing to do. She was advocating for the removal of all the refugee rights under the Convention as ratified in Australian legislation, simple as that. It is disgraceful and inhumane – no amount of spin will change that. The principle of non-refoulement lies at the very core of the refugee framework, which means that you cannot deport someone fleeing persecution to a place where they will still be persecuted. According to Gillard and Bowen, refoulement is the humane choice. Go figure…

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Threat to press freedom: it’s not Rinehart, it’s the Greens and the ALP

Part II of my comments on the Gina Rinehart saga, this time focussing on press freedom. The first one, focusing on her as a female business leader, can be found HERE.

GINA RINEHART has bought 20% of the shares of Fairfax and is demanding three seats on the board. Listening to the way some people are talking about this, you could not be blamed for thinking that press freedom is over in Australia. To refute that claim, I would first like to juxtapose the following. First, a quote from our esteemed Foreign Minister Bob Carr and one of his colleagues in the Senate:

Greens seek laws to block Gina Rinehart | The Australian.

“We’re not being coy or raising this in the abstract — it’s about whether it’s in the public interest for a change of control to occur at Fairfax,” [Greens] Senator [Scott] Ludlam said. … “People seem to be frozen in the headlights,” he said. “I think it’s important we take action rather than wring our hands and let the market take it where it will.”

His comments came as Foreign Minister Bob Carr entered the media ownership debate, warning that a Rinehart takeover of Fairfax would “degrade” the quality of the publisher’s mastheads.

“I think Australians would be entitled to be very, very concerned. I think it would be impossible to separate her position as a controlling influence on the board, if it comes to that, a controlling influence, from the way the paper behaves,” he said. “The independence of Fairfax, which has been its glory, its boast, its pride, would be diminished.”

Second, something that a Pakistani journalist wrote a year ago (read the full story, it’s very good):

Pakistani Journalists, Dying to Tell the Story – NYTimes.com.

WE have buried another journalist. Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative reporter for Asia Times Online, has paid the ultimate price for telling truths that the authorities didn’t want people to hear. He disappeared a few days after writing an article alleging that Al Qaeda elements had penetrated Pakistan’s navy and that a military crackdown on them had precipitated the May 22 terrorist attack on a Karachi naval base. His death has left Pakistani journalists shaken and filled with despair.

And third, a news report from earlier in the week:

NGO fears for missing Iraqi-Kurd… JPost – Iranian Threat – News.

An Iranian journalist who advocates ties between Israelis and Kurds has been missing for 11 days, NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Wednesday, expressing concern for his safety.

“We fear the worst and we urge the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government’s authorities to do everything possible to find Mawlud Afand,” the group said. “And we therefore call for an immediate investigation into this journalist’s disappearance.”

NOW I would like to take a second to ruminate on the freedom of the press. The freedom to express any view is possibly the most  important aspect of any democracy. Without the ability to make an informed choice based on accurate information, “democracy” is meaningless – you can vote, but you have no idea who or what you are voting for. The press play a vital role in scrutinising the government and reporting on its activities to the general population, as well as conveying the discussion and debate surrounding ideas in public life.

There are, however, some justifiable limits to free expression. For example, it is illegal to say or do something that encourages another person to commit a criminal act. Preserving the “glory” of a media company that is about to go insolvent, however, is not a justifiable reason to begin limiting the freedom of expression.

Fairfax is going out of business. That is extremely important and seems to have been entirely ignored by the ALP and the Greens. At the current rate, there will be no more fairfax in a decade. When people express concern at Rinehart’s control of Fairfax, they really only care about the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. The lamentations for our society’s debate are coming from a particular kind of inner-city elite that doesn’t generally listen to Fairfax radio (or anything that’s not the ABC) and certainly does not read any of its rural papers.

The Age and the Herald are not making any money. They have lost their revenue from classified ads and have suddenly discovered that no one actually wants to pay for their articles. They are now going to tabloid format and anticipating being phased-out completely, as well as firing all their senior editorial staff and cutting 1,900 other staff members – and that’s without Rinehart. Why is that? I think the Australian said it best:

Fairfax papers must speak to mainstream Australia | The Australian.

The myopia that predominates at Fairfax has seen its broadsheets cater, almost exclusively, to a conclave of left-leaning professionals, public servants and activists situated in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. Rarely do they report on the shift of economic power to the north and the west of the country. They do not understand the mining boom and ridicule the idea of workers from the states in which they publish chasing the opportunity to work in the most dynamic area of the economy. Their reporting of Aboriginal Australia is confined to Redfern or St Kilda rather than exploring the important stories that can be found across the continent. Too often they focus on inner-city anti-development protests rather than life in the sprawling suburbs where most people live. A cafe opening in Western Sydney that serves “good coffee” is considered a novelty. They editorialise in favour of the latest fads and praise the Greens, who, the Herald argued, had inherited the “mantle of leadership in progressive politics”. Both papers usually champion negativity, embrace a culture of complaint, oppose economic progress and push the limits of social reform. They have missed most of the major political stories in recent years, such as the discontent over the resource super-profits tax or the lead-up to the coup that felled Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership.

Simply put, Fairfax in its current form is not a viable business and it has to radically transform or perish.

RINEHART, HOWEVER, has spent somewhere in the region of $200mln on Fairfax shares. That, to Fairfax, was a sorely needed cash injection. Fairfax shares have dropped from over $5 in 2007 to around $0.60 today, who knows where they would be without Rinehart? She bought the company valuable time and could potentially have kept it afloat.

Think about that. Fairfax’s metropolitan papers’ current editorial policy is beloved by the kinds of people currently in power (left-leaning, highly educated, wealthy, inner-city elites) but not popular enough amongst Australians in general for them to actually buy any papers. Rinehart is investing heavily in this company and would therefore benefit from the company becoming profitable and would have a duty to prevent the company from going insolvent. She is being asked to commit to having no say over the editorial policy whatsoever. That seems absurd.

It is natural that a person who holds 20% of a company should have some representation on the board – after all, the company’s success is her interest. Fairfax’s main product is determined by its editorial policy, so the board should have a say in what that is and how it is produced. No company directors could sit by and watch their company continue to produce a highly unprofitable product – this is actually a breach of their duty as company directors. They have a right, and indeed a duty, to prevent this.

WHICH LEADS me to another point: Rinehart has a multi-billion dollar mining company to run, she’s not exactly going to be spending her days in the Herald newsroom commissioning articles and reprimanding disobedient journalists. I also very much doubt that she will be going through each edition before it goes to print and vetting every article. The actual degree of editorial control she can/will exercise is highly questionable, especially as certain columnists, editors and correspondents are strongly entrenched in Fairfax and are key selling-points. I very much doubt that the Fairfax opinion writers can effectively be “silenced” by Rinehart – more likely, they would jump ship.

Therein lies the most important point, which is also worth putting in bold: no one is being forced to buy Fairfax papers. Who cares if they become glorified mouthpieces for Hancock Prospecting? The audience will move on. From where I sit, there is no shortage of aspiring journalists or new media outlets. The media is probably less monopolised now than it has ever been before.

If the Age and the Herald go the way that the ALP/Greens are predicting, their current writers and editors will find work elsewhere and their audience will follow. The Fairfax papers would never be able to compete with the News Ltd papers in the right-wing tabloid market, so they would become completely unviable and would probably be shut down.

THE REAL threat to freedom of the press comes not from Gina Rinehart. As a result of the Rinehart bid, both the Greens and the ALP are advocating some kind of “fit and proper person” test to be implemented for someone to control a media company. Essentially, they are making it illegal for Rinehart to control Fairfax because they don’t like her views.

That is blatant government censorship. Who the hell gave Stephen Conroy the right to choose who can and cannot own press outlets? The people who can decide whether or not Gina Rinehart’s views are worth listening to are those who opt to buy her papers, not our elected representatives. It’s not exactly like having some influence over Fairfax would be tantamount to a media monopoly, there are still plenty of outlets out there to vilify Rinehart (the ABC is going nowhere, so we can hear about how fat, ugly and greedy she is for the next decade).

This is complete government overreach. This is an open assault on our democracy. This is putting into place a system whereby the government can prevent anyone who disagrees with them from having a podium to express their discontent. The problem in Pakistan and Iraq is not that the “wrong” people own the media, it’s that the government is intervening to prevent people from expressing anti-government views. Sure, this legislation is not the same as journalists disappearing and turning-up dead, but it is symptomatic of the same kind of thinking: that “we are unpopular, but we are right and we are in power, so we can stop them from talking because they’re wrong”.

That is extremely dangerous. Australians need to wake up and see where the real threat is.

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