Monday, January 31, 2011

Two Departments?

It has got to the point that I wonder if there are two Departments of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The difference between the two can be seen in their approach to consultation.

The first is a secretive little empire that carries vestiges of the Department over the last twelve years where endless private deals were done between the Department and the big businesses in the sector. None was worse than the disastrous implementation of "functional separation" of Telstra, a policy that promised much and delivered sod all as the private negotiation between the Department and Telstra saw the policy emasculated.

The not so proud inheritors of this tradition seem to be all those directly involved in the NBN implementation. How else does one explain that submissions to the discussion paper on Universal Service in the NBN Environment have yet to be published on the Department website?

The due date for submissions was 5 November 2010. The discussion paper indicated submissions would be published as received;

Please note that the Department intends to publish submissions on its website.

However, the Department reserves the right not to publish any submission, or part of a submission, which in the view of the Department contains potentially defamatory material, or where it considers it appropriate to do so for confidentiality or other reasons.

Please note that some delays in publishing submissions may occur if a large number is received.

The other DBCDE has really embraced Gov 2.0. This is the part that has taken to releasing exposure drafts of Bills, and I think set a record with the draft ToR for the Convergence Review by actually publishing submissions as they were received, not just after closing date which is previous best practice.

All the world is made up of conspiracy theorists, but I'm usually not one.

But when a Department doesn't publish submissions when received it is hard to resist the conclusion that they have something to hide.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Friday, January 28, 2011

The flood levy

Let’s follow the logic of Tom Elliott as displayed on the 7pm Project (about 5 mins in) to its logical conclusion.

He repeated the claim about mortgages in Crikey today, saying “In a nutshell, while the government can borrow so much more cheaply than the households it's supposed to assist, there is no good reason why the flood costs should be funded at personal home mortgage rate -- which is exactly what, for most people, the proposed levy represents.”.

Therefore any taxpayer who finds themselves paying a mortgage off should ask the Government for a tax rebate because it would be cheaper for the Government to pay the debt than them.

The reality is this is a macroeconomic issue, not mere accounting. The extra money to be spent restoring Queensland infrastructure is an unplanned fiscal stimulus. Part of it is funded by replacement of other spending. But additional spending funded by borrowing is stimulatory.

Further, we know that food supply issues will result in a short term increase in inflation. Creating the overhang of a levy is a good counter-balance to the inflationary pressure.

The levy is wise decision making from competent economic managers who happened to manage to get the fiscal stimulus response to the GFC just about right.

And while we are at it, can we end the confusion between the levy and charity (see comments, also in the 7pm Project clip). Charity is to help people rebuild lives, the levy is to help the Government rebuild state infrastructure.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Price Signalling

One feature of the most recent round of bank responses to the official interest rate rise was the return of "price signalling" by the banks. This is the practice whereby they go to the media and suggest what their response might be, hoping that this informal communication can build a consensus.

Competition regulators, commentators and pundits all regard it as tantamount to collusion on price. The problem for them all is that the economic model of "competition" that we have become conditioned to supporting would not only see this as not a problem, it is actually a pre-requisite for the market to work.

The set of assumptions about a fully competitive market that lead to the mathematical conclusion of (Pareto) efficiency has as an assumption perfect knowledge by consumers and producers of what the actual price will be.

To put it another way, the fact that everyone is charging the same price is either evidence of perfect competition or perfect collusion - but the equivalence of price itself isn't deterministic of either (and could be a fluke in a less than perfect scenario).

But the "vibe" of price signalling has seen the coalition introduce a Bill that attempts to outlaw all price signalling, and the Government to publish an exposure draft of a more complex Bill that would at least be limited to markets specified by regulation.

Jennifer Hewett writing in the Oz has highlighted the kinds of damage that any price signalling law could produce.

Ultimately a core issue is just how useful it is to give the ACCC additional powers given that none of their existing powers seem to be used particularly effectively. In reality was the failure to secure a price fixing prosecution of a few petrol stations anything compared to the failure of the ACCC to act on shop-a-dockets?

And more simply if we really believe there is market power allowing banks to make "super profits" then an alternative regulatory mechanism is merely to confiscate the super profit by taxation, rather than by litigation.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Simpson and his donkey

The latest award of a Victoria Cross in Australia has led to yet another story about the VC and alluding to the attempt to award one to Simpson of donkey fame.

It reminds me of a story I heard, and I think it must have been in 1990 celebrating 75 years since Gallipoli. At a slap up dinner at the War Memorial with the few remaining diggers, one pointed to the display of Simpson and said gruffly, "we shot him".

On questioning the digger revealed that Simpson's wanderings kept identifying the Anzac positions to the Turks. As he wouldn't stop, the troops "fragged" him. Guests at the dinner turned to miltary officials and asked "could this be true".

The answer was, they were afraid, that the evidence suggests t was indeed true. But that Simpson was such an iconic hero there was no value in setting the record straight.

That could explain the strong military opposition to the award. Certainly the Wikipedia item suggests Simpson was avoiding more dangerous tasks - hence hardly qualifying as "courageous".

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Australia Day

I had a great Australia Day celebrating in the morning at the Woggan-ma-gule Farm Cove Morning Ceremony.

But it does make me want to comment on a letter to the SMH last week. It said;

I invite my fellow Australians to reject Dan Murphy's offer (double-page advertisement, January 20) to celebrate our national day by buying two bottles of New Zealand wine for $15.

My problem is I think New Zealand has as much right to celebrate Australia Day as, say, Tasmania. 26 January celebrates the founding of the colony of NSW by Governor Phillip (or the invasion).

The first Governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, was first appointed as Lieutenant Governor reporting to NSW Governor Gipps in 1839. He only became a full Governor reporting to the UK in 1840.

That's the same sequence for the creation of the colony of Tasmania.

If we do think it has something to do with Federation, then I draw your attention to s6 of the UK Act that establishes the constitution;

"The States" shall mean such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia, and South Australia, including the northern territory of South Australia,...

It might take our Kiwi cousins a few more than the one hundred and ten year delay so far....but they'll join us in the end.

Meanwhile the day finished with a cup of tea and a nice home-made lamington. We decided we couldn't have both lamingtons and pavlova - so we'll save the latter for Waitangi Day.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On regulation and deregulation

Please excuse me, this blog post is more a reminder to me, or a fragment, rather than a complete item.

I once gave a speech in which I said that some words just uttered on their own are able to evince strong emotions in audiences, but that effect different people in different ways. I the USA "liberal" is such a word, in Melbourne you can try "Collingwood".

"Regulation" is just such a word.To some in business, economics and politics it is a word that stands for stiffling innovation, restricting freedom and discouraging enterprise. To others, especially in marginal groups and the downright disadvantaged (and those who care about them) it represents an essential feature of the world to protect the vulnerable from corporations and reckless capitalism.

Unfortunately, the former view tends to dominate public discourse. Even following the GFC, when a lack of regulation is seen by some to have been a cause, President Obama can announce an attack on regulation in the cause of creating jobs. The NY Times described it as:

...the latest in a series by Mr. Obama to claim the ideological center, and in particular to signal to businesses that he wants to work more closely with them on policies that could help create jobs.

Formally the President issued two memoranda, one on Presidential Memoranda - Regulatory Flexibility, Small Business, and Job Creation
, the other on Presidential Memoranda - Regulatory Compliance
. He backed these with an Executive Order on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.

They make interesting reading. In particular the two memoranda. The first makes a point of emphasising the regulatory burden placed on small business might be out of proportion to the business' ability to comply. The second instructs agencies to publish on their websites in 120 days their compliance program.

The NY Times story makes it clear the order covers the Federal Communications Commission.

In Australia a particular issue for firms is that regulators don't provide guides on compliance obligations, they tend to expect firms to read all the laws and regulations and then comply. (There are some governance differences that in part explain this, but generally Australian regulators prefer not to interpret the law for others).

So Obama's thrust with these pieces isn't so much order “a governmentwide review” of federal regulations to root out those “that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive,” as described, but seek regulations that minimize the compliance cost. There is a difference.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Column 8

As a blogger I get to publish whatever I like. But it is still rewarding when someone else publishes something - no matter how small.

Letters to the editor at the SMH are relatively simple - though my publication record isn't what it used to be. My most recent was a very short one on 24 December. (Actually the editor got into trouble for that as it was jointly signed by Margaret and I, but only my name appeared even though the letter used the first person plural pronoun.)

Column 8 is far harder, an event achieved yesterday. To save you following the link:

''The Australian Communications Industry Forum went one better than the BBC; it actually formed a committee called the Electronic Information Exchange (Inter-Operator), or EIE(IO),'' writes David Havyatt, of Eastwood (Column 8, Friday). ''The first person nominated to serve on the committee was a Mr McDonald. You reported this in March 2003 as possibly an urban myth. I can assure you it wasn't. I was the chair of the committee. But yes, Mr McDonald sent a delegate to the meetings.''

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Friday, January 14, 2011


As a follow-up to my post about the Abbott/Joyce call for more dams.

The Wivenhoe dam above Brisbane was built for the purpose of mitigating flood waters - that's why they talk about it being at 189% of "capacity" as it is designed to only temporarily house excessive water.

The LNP proposed that the dam level be increased earlier this year - that is reduce its capacity to hold the sudden inflows that otherwise become flood waters.

Yes you can build dams as flood mitigation - sometimes. But you can't build dams as flood mitigation but keep them full to use for agriculture.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Monday, January 10, 2011

Closing the circle

In a post a couple of days ago on the Wakefield fraud I mentioned an earlier post in which I discussed some research on using facts to change beliefs.

Just to close the circle that post was titled "Political Belief". Vic N was also right - it was in July just under six months ago. Thanks loyal reader!

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

What do they teach at Riverview

Apart from being coalition front benchers, Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce share two things in common. The first is that they were educated at St Ignatius College Riverview. The second is that they seem prepared to say anything they can in their mission to "oppose".

Joyce led with a media release just before Christmas. He gives the illusion that a plan to dam Eastern flowing rivers and feed them West into the Murray-Darling catchment could provide more water for both irrigation and environmental flows.

He repeated this nonsense just after new year in the SMH. This time he even noted that he was watching the flooded Darling feeder ruiver, the Balonne.

He even gets around to putting some figures in - noting that the river was carrying 300,000 megalitres a day, while Sydney Harbour holds about 500,000 megalitres. The flodds at Rockhampton were reported as sending two Sydney Harbours of water through every day.

That is an impressive amount of water, but exactly how are we meant to dam this? The only example of a dam Joyce gives was of the Nathan Dam built to support some specific industrial (mining) water needs. Its capacity is 800,000 megalitres - or just about 16 hours of the flow through Rockhampton.

Where exactly is the space to house this vast quantity of water? As the flows of the Balonne through St George show there is a limited capacity for the river system to be used to rapidly disperse the water.

The ideal space is of course the great water table of the Artesian Basin. I suspect but don't know that the best way of getting water down there is to let it spread across the surface as widely as possible and seep down.

His leader Tony Abbott has fallen for this nonsense and proposes a coalition frontbench working party on a strategy.

Perhaps the reason for this outbreak of insanity isn't just that the coalition is desperately trying to wedge the country independents from the ALP. Maybe it is the education of these two that is the point in common.

Do they teach any science or geography at Iggies, or just religion and rhetoric?

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Friday, January 07, 2011

Scientific Fraud and Vaccination

Interesting reports today about the British Medical Journal laying the boots in over the article in The Lancet of 1998 that linked autism to triple-antigen vaccination.

This is not the first time we've seen fraudulent medical research. The great Dr William McBride, having identified the link between thalidomide and birth defects, cfalsified his data in an eagernesee to (wrongly) claim another drug was causing defects.

At least McBride was simply misguided and over eager. The author of the autism study, Andrew Wakefield, was reportedly;

The findings had been skewed in advance, as the patients had been recruited via campaigners opposed to the MMR vaccine, the journal added.

And, said the BMJ, Wakefield had been confidentially paid hundreds of thousands of pounds through a law firm under plans to launch "class action" litigation against the vaccine.

However, as Leo Shanahan notes simply exposing the fraud won't suffice. Your average conspiracy theorist just finds the counter evidence to be more evidence of conspiracy.

I know I had a post here earlier in which I picked up something from Vic N on an item which researched the fact that telling people the truth can resultb in just strengthening their belief in the conspiracy - I'd link to it now if I could find it (memo must start tagging blogposts)

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Public Sector Unions

Australia has a great tradition of labour politics. The world's first government by a worker party was formed here under the Australian Labor Party.

The UK and the dominions share the idea of the workers party as a "labour" party. In other places they are known as social democrats, and in the US the closest you find is the totally inaccurate term "liberal".

A key object of labour parties was always the betterment of outcomes for workers, usually by redressing the power imbalance between worker and capitalist to create bargaining power, address workplace health and safety and to improve security in old age and from risk (health/unemployment).

However, from the late twentieth century a big shift occurred. Labor governments found that the union base on which they relied was increasingly made up of unions representing public sector employees. These unions expected "largesse" from Labor governments - the worst example of surrendering to this was the Cain/Kirner Government in Victoria.

The NY Times has reported growing concern in US States with budget difficulties that there is a need to address the power of public sector unions.

This does not contradict the view of Paul Klugman that it is too early to declare victory against recession in the USA and start balancing budgets. But Klugman's call for a large scale public works program cannot be fulfilled in a society where public sector unions are in control of work conditions.

I've made reference to one Australian state Government. But the other Government now facing the dilemma is New South Wales. Treasury refused to fund the North-West Rail and instead backed the Metro project because the latter was outside of State Rail and hence existing transport unions. Meanwhile nurses are launching a campaign on staffing ratios on the eve of a State election. Their problem is that the coalition has no need to make a deal on supporting their staffing call to win the election, but the nurses are simply adding to the pain that NSW Labor will suffer.

The great progressive parties of the left need to break their union links and union reliance. The cause of the workers in general is not the same as the cause of the remnant unions, and certainly not the unions of public sector workers.

PS The only union I was ever a member of was the old ACOA, the Federal Public Service Union for clerks. Interestingly that union first became active in the late 1970s. Until that sort of era unionism was far more associated with the private sector than the government sector. That is the subject I guess for another day.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est


I've been struggling for a few weeks now on how to write a column that captures the essence of what the "smartphone" revolution really means. The bit that interests me is yet another demonstration of how open systems trump walled gardens.

But there are two other twists. Mobile phones have long been a worry for prison authorities - but the NY Times reports that smartphones have made the problem far worse.

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”

Thankfully the ACMA has decided not to authorise jammers as a solution. There probably are good network based detection systems that could be deployed with appropriate legislative support that cellphone use in certain geographic areas was "notifiable" (a bit like contagious diseases) and then other powers used to assess whether the use is legitimate or not.

The smartphone itself has enabled "futurist" Ray Kurzweil to claim accuracy for a host of his predictions for 2010. Kurweil himself is more famous for his book forecasting something he calls The Singularity. This is the concept that the ongoing exponential growth in all aspects of ICT processing and power as captured by Moore's Law and Cooper's Law (and of course Havyatt's Law - "What Intel giveth Microsoft taketh away")results in a predictable point at which machines are smarter than man.

Actually it misses a couple of important points. The most significant is that the brain actually is reconfigurable and also that it operates using multiple connections (it is the original neural net) and that the way it responds depends on factors including the concentrations of different chemicals at the synapses.

On the flip side he assumes a limit to computing from how small transistors can be made. This makes an assumption that as humans we remain constrained to manipulating the quantum universe we know - the particles of the current standard model. Personally I'll bet that string theory as we know it today is a blind alley - but that there will be a theoretical explanation to unify some of the fundamental forces and explain black matter and energy. Chances are that these discoveries will ultimately result in the ability to manipulate the universe at this level.

Meanwhile, just enjoy all the graphs at the back of the first Kurzweil link. These should be tempered with the various critiques of the empirical data.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est