The Information Action Ratio is the place to go… A monarchist’s take on the death of the Queen

Nobody was expecting much from public debate, and we seemed to get less than even that.  By the time we had a Senator telling another Senator to go back to Pakistan, we should have known that we’d reached a new low point.

The public discourse about the death of Queen Elizabeth II passed through several phases quickly.  First, we heard that she was under observation.  Then we heard she was dead.  We moved quickly to how the death of a 96 year old who recently lost their partner was actually an example of a failure of pandemic policy.  And then rapidly to who could write the most tasteless shitpost on social media.

Continue reading “The Information Action Ratio is the place to go… A monarchist’s take on the death of the Queen”

Quick Post: Notes on housing, residential tenancy law, and property managers

A rather good article by Slate and thread on Twitter by Henry Grabar about the housing crisis in the United States prompted me to procrastinate with some notes of my own about the situation in Australia.  The unifying theme between the Australian and North American arguments is the need to think through the history of how we arrived in our situations.  There is a tendency to look at housing problems as a ‘view from nowhere’ problem: a problem has emerged and now we need a solution.  The Grabar article and thread show part of the pathway to the current situation in the United States, and also show how things have worked (to greater or lesser extent) in the past.

The history of residential tenancy law in Australia is very different from that of the United States.  The United States has had a history of extremely varied living arrangements that we have not really seen in Australia.  The history of tenancy law in Australia, on the other hand, was about controlling rents and evictions; it was comparatively recently that tenants were considered consumers who should enjoy consumer protections.  Between 1978 and 1999, States and Territories began to codify residential tenancy law with greater protections for tenants.  Tenants were paying for a service; there should be protections that recognise their status as consumers.  Recent shifts in discussion about residential law reform have had a focus on improving the lot of long-term tenants, but I think this overlooks the unfinished work of consumer protection.

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The effect is all wrong; Plain to see I’m not moved… Do we really care about misinformation this election?

The Federal Election has been called!  If you thought the last 18 months had been bad in public debate, the next six weeks is going to be unbearable.

The fundamental puzzle is the extent to which we care about political debate being a rational exchange of ideas, or does the end justify the means when it comes to ‘our side’ winning the election?

Continue reading “The effect is all wrong; Plain to see I’m not moved… Do we really care about misinformation this election?”

Quick Post: Did federalism survive the pandemic?

I’m waiting for a pizza to arrive at my office, so here is a quick argument about Australian federalism now that we’re emerging from the ‘roni.

Back before he was Prime Minister, Tony Abbott wrote a book that was supposed to be his political manifesto.  In it, he argued strongly in favour of stripping powers away from the States and conferring them upon the Commonwealth (he specifically wanted a referendum that would allow the Commonwealth Parliament to go through a relatively simple process to give itself powers).  When he formed government, he did a massive backflip and converted to the way of States’ Rights.  There was a big audit of all the things that the Commonwealth did that should be sent to the States.

The audit delivered its report and it mostly collected dust.  There wasn’t the appetite for getting the States to do things.

Scott Morrison appears to believe, quite genuinely and not unseriously, in the federal system and devolving powers back to the States.  There are some exceptions to this belief, most notably about cyber-issues, particularly the digital economy.

For whatever reason, people forget what happened back at the start of the pandemic.  Trump and Johnson were largely disinterested in managing the outbreak.  For whatever reason, a lot of the online AusPol crowd think that the Morrison government did similarly.  In fact, Australia was criticised for how rapidly it shut down the border.  Dutton wanted to use Christmas Island as a quarantine station; the State Premiers criticised him, with McGowan claiming (quite awkwardly) that Christmas Island was no place for Australians.  Berejiklian thought that NSW would use hospitals for quarantining, causing a minor spat with the Commonwealth.

There are good reasons to believe that one of the reasons that Australia did so well during the pandemic was because of this early overreach.  We don’t share a major land border with another country, so once the Commonwealth went hard on the border, Australia was likely to do well (which it did).  The question that emerged was how to handle the ongoing aspects of the pandemic.

Enter Mr Federalism, the Prime Minister: these are matters that are more obviously within the legislative remit of the States and, therefore, the States should handle them.

So what happened?

Continue reading “Quick Post: Did federalism survive the pandemic?”

Never for money, always for love… Authorising political content and the mysterious lack of anonymous right wing Twitter accounts

Bit of a secret–don’t tell anybody–but there’s an election coming up in 2022.  And so I found myself noodling with some questions of electoral law.  The one that has captured my imagination is the requirement to authorise political materials.

I want to present to you an idea that does not have a neat, tidy resolution.  Reasonable people can disagree about how they want their political system to handle this.  On one side of the scale, think about the mischief that arises from people being able to pump political material into the public square anonymously: people spinning political content to look apolitical or otherwise neutral.  I think most people want to be able to check the source of serious political claims.  On the other side of the scale, think about the extent to which a person should be required to give up their privacy just to participate in political activities.  We often think about the big ticket items here: what if people want changes to laws that negatively affect LGBT Australians without ‘outing’ themselves to their family?  But we don’t need to be nearly that dramatic: what if you just want to advocate for this or that policy without maniacs trying to get you sacked from your job?  Or what if you just want to run a blog about economics on the side without the Press trying to doxx you (the Greg Jericho case)?

That’s the problem in broad brushstrokes. Privacy is important and people and their families shouldn’t be ‘fair game’ just because they want to engage in democratic culture, but we also know that there’s a threshold at which people are producing a lot of very partisan, very political content and we want to be able to verify the source of the content.  From this broad sketch, we fill in the details about the problem and end up with a range of reasonable opinions…

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Put your fate in your hands, take a chance, roll the dice… The Australian Research Council is not worth saving, @ARC_Tracker

[This is a heavily redacted version of my original draft]

Australian academics were given a free kick in the research funding policy debate recently.  The acting Minister for Education, Stuart Robert, rejected the recommendation from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to fund a handful of research proposals.

Unlike nearly everything in research funding policy, it became headline news.  People from beyond the academy had more than a passing interest in what was going on, and it was an opportunity to bring the public on board for extremely overdue reforms of the ARC.

Instead, we blew it.  Describing the decision as a use of a ‘veto’ (which it isn’t, but poetic licence for advocacy is forgivable), Australian academics began describing the Minister’s decision as using ‘God-like’ powers, a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, and–most surprising of all–a threat to liberal democracy.  It was embarrassing, and academia made itself look unnecessarily feeble, pathetic, and precious.

If making decisions on funding recommendations is a ‘God-like’ power, we truly have reimagined the Lord as a mere conjurer of cheap tricks.  And if deciding funding outcomes is a ‘God-like’ power, do we really want the ARC making those calls instead of an elected official?  More importantly–as I’ll argue here–do we really want either Ministers or government panels telling universities how to spend research funds?

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Quick Post: Getting the intuitions right about the Hillsong ‘breach’

When you adopt a police-first strategy for dealing with the pandemic, you need to declare what is now an offence.  This can get tricky because what you really want is for people to use their good commonsense and to limit the possible spread of the disease by asking themselves ‘Should I do this thing that might spread the disease?’  Unfortunately, you don’t get to make an offence ‘Doing something that defies basic reason’, and so you have to specify, fairly clearly, what it is that you want to have as an offence.

In NSW, this is done through Public Health Orders.

When you see a big, flashy news story that says ‘So and so was a prize idiot and did something that completely defied commonsense’, people want to intuit the content of the relevant Public Health Order instead of having a good old read.

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We have a knack for turning days into weeks… ‘Individual responsibility’ shouldn’t be controversial

It’s 2017 and you’re getting ready for work.  You notice that you’re not feeling crash hot. Bit of a scratchy throat.  Maybe a bit congested.  You wouldn’t say no to a few more hours of sleep.  You have a bit of evidence in front of you to suggest that you’ve got the ‘flu–more precisely, you don’t know that you’ve got the ‘flu but there is a significant risk that you have it.

So what do you do?  You have a lot of work deadlines coming up.  You can’t really afford a day off.  Maybe you’re casually employed or otherwise precarious.  You weigh it up based on a range of options.

In 2017, there were 1,181 laboratory-confirmed deaths as a result of the ‘flu. Despite this, we still treat it as a matter of personal or individual responsibility to assess the risk.  What’s the alternative?

Continue reading “We have a knack for turning days into weeks… ‘Individual responsibility’ shouldn’t be controversial”

I was cautioned to surrender; this I could not do… When should allegations result in resignations?

Forget ICAC and the Register of Member’s Interests, for a moment.  Let us distract ourselves from questions about Gladys Berejiklian and Christian Porter.  The recurrently anachronistic King Arthur sits at his round table with knights whom he has appointed for their outstanding character, noble virtues, and exceptional integrity.  King Arthur himself feels that he can govern only if he maintains unimpeachable moral authority, and it is on this basis that he has been able to resist challenges from those who wish to claim the throne.

One day, a meeting of the Round Table is suddenly interrupted: a man bursts into the room and makes astounding allegations about Sir Lancelot.  Should Sir Lancelot resign his position?  Should King Arthur sack him?

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Blackened roar, massive roar, fills the crumbling sky… No, Australia was not offered ‘millions of doses’

The Federal ALP lodged an FOI request to obtain the documents relating to meetings between the Commonwealth Government and the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer.  There had been reports in the Press–all stemming, it seems, from the ABC’s Norman Swan–that Pfizer had offered Australia a sweet deal to be an early trial site for Pfizer.  The story made absolutely no sense, and everybody from the Commonwealth and Pfizer denied that the story was true.  Despite that, it lived on in folk memory among the extremely online crowd.

The documents obtained by the Federal ALP under FOI were provided to Nine and News Corp media outlets (scroll to the bottom and then work your way up the documents).  Pfizer asked for a meeting with the ‘Minister and/or Departmental leadership’.  The public servant in charge of the whole of government strategy, Liza Schofield, attended the meeting as requested.  After accepting the invitation, Pfizer asked for a non-disclosure agreement to be signed.  Generally (and I speak from a lot of experience here) the practice is not to sign up to non-disclosure agreements for fairly obvious reasons (they can conflict with duties of public servants).  Pfizer said not signing the NDA would be fine: they’d modify the meeting to be at a lower level of confidentiality in response.

Nothing so far is unusual or odd here.  What is unusual is that the word ‘millions’ does not appear in the documents released in this package.

Apparently, in a letter dated 30 June–right at the start of the exchange about having an exploratory meeting–Pfizer wrote to the Health Minister and said:

We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021.

And this has caused journos to lose their minds.

Continue reading “Blackened roar, massive roar, fills the crumbling sky… No, Australia was not offered ‘millions of doses’”