Thursday, November 27, 2014

How wrong can one politician be?

Reality is hitting the Abbott Government in the face like a swinging door in an American sitcom.

On the day after the election Andrew Robb appeared on the ABC's Insiders and I was struck by just how cocky he was. When confronted by the challenge of the budget deficit Robb said:

But the other part of it is this campaign has focused overwhelmingly on one side of the ledger. What it hasn't, what it hasn't focused on is what we can do on the revenue side.

As of today the mining boom will be rebooted, right. Under Labor it was finished because of the cost uncompetitiveness that we now have. We will change that. There's $150 billion worth of projects there to be grabbed. We can do so much. We can get Australia open for business. We'll restore an appetite for risk and investment, people's jobs will grow massively. Small business will come out from under the huge shadow that they've had for the last two years.

The mining boom has done the complete opposite of being "rebooted." ANZ economists were reported to be forecasting a slowing in the middle of this year from as early as January. 

Today the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics is reporting that investment in new mines is at its lowest level for ten years. The Australian observed:

During the height of the resources boom, it was a common complaint that the state and federal approvals process for resources projects was causing a backlog of projects ready to move into the committed stage.

But according to BREE, the backlog is now at the feasibility study stage, not because of government delays, but because of a reluctance to commit to new capital expenditure because of the slump in commodity prices.

So when Joe Hockey next blames the revenue side for a poor budget outlook he should be reminded of what Robb said. It is no wonder that one of the few changes the PM made in the move from Opposition to Government was to remove Andrew Robb from Finance.

And Robb's second prediction was all about business confidence.

The NAB Business Survey supported a contention that it would surge after the election, as it usually does when uncertainty of the outcome is removed. But trend is dipping rapidly.

Maybe all this is because Robb was so wrong about what his own PM would be like. On Insiders he also said:

He will be methodical, I mean that's what he has been. When he says there'll be no surprises and no excuses, that's the sort of fellow he is. I do think that he will … We've got a major agenda. You know, I hear what Bill says but I don't think Labor should kid themselves what's gone on here. People did vote for change.

The last six years has been marked by a highly dysfunctional government, a massive waste. In many respects the biggest mining boom in 150 years has been wasted. So many people say 'what have we got to show for it?' It's not just a question of how we are in relation to the rest of the world, it's how we have treated and responded to the great blessings that we've had as a country compared to the rest of the world. And it is those sorts of things that we've got to fix.

We've got to fix so much. Tony is a fellow who has laid out a very clear first term agenda. We've also got a series of things like a tax review, which will give us a second term agenda. And you know Tony, I think will stay true to what we said we would do coming into the election.

As Anna Burke said on Kitchen Cabinet "Government is really, really hard." 

I got into trouble for a cheeky tweet I made earlier this year responding to a claim by Christopher Pyne that the Liberals were the only truly "national" party because they don't seek to represent a sectional interest. But that isn't how they have goverened.

Too much of the Abbott Government has been implementing an ideological agenda that comes from outside the Coalition parties - mostly from the IPA and the BCA. It is a mistake to think that either of these is representative of even the business community - let alone the general community.

No wonder the Prime Minister is doing a repeat of Howard in 2007 and begging the business community for support

It is no wonder they won't support him. To thrive business needs customers with disposable income. Cutting the real wages of the defence force and public sector does nothing to help business. Wasting political capital on a GP co-payment to build a health research fund does nothing to help business. And cutting access to tertiary and vocational education does nothing to help business.

It is more than a few barnacles that need to be knocked off - this Government needs a whole new boat. I wonder if Andrew Robb has worked that one out yet.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New posts on telecommunications prices

I try to post my more serious professional work in the DigEcon Gazette blog.

Today I have posted on competition in the UK and competition in the ITU.

I wasn't subtle!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How the ABC Charter was changed "quietly"

The commercial media hates the ABC.

They don't hate it when the ABC trains staff for the commercials to post.

But they really hate it anytime the institution does anything that might impinge about the commercial media's ability to make money. And right now that means digital content.

And so the commercial media has been outraged that when faced with budget cuts the ABC hasn't cut its investment in digital - in fact it has said it will be expanded. The ABC Board found justification for this in the ABC's Charter - which is enshrined in section 6 of its Act.

In The Australian today they howled:

The ABC’s foray into digital media services has been going on for a decade. But it was only last year that the Gillard government quietly changed the ABC charter to formalise the digital surge by Scott. Digital is now “a core function” of the ABC according to its board. Clearly, the charter needs a rewrite, to rein in the excesses of such digital mission creep and to refocus the board on the role of a modern public broadcaster.

In the AFR yesterday they howled:

Last year, the ABC’s Charter was quietly changed in Parliament to formally allow it to provide digital media services, which in fact it has been doing since the 1990s.

For reference, the legislation that amended the Charter was the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Act 2013. This was far from legislation that was dealt with quietly.

It was part of the six bills in the media reform package introduced by Senator Conroy that caused howls of outrage, that Bob Carr claimed was the basis of his changing his leadership support and led to the aborted leadership challenge of March 2013. Seldom has a package of amendments achieved so much attention.

That News, Fairfax and the rest of the commercial media failed to note the change to the Charter reflects their continued limited understanding of the process of Government and of governance in the public sector.

The inclusion of the amendment to the Charter (together with the amendment that said the only broadcaster that could be funded for an overseas service was the ABC) shows just how much smarter Senator Conroy was than his opponents give him credit for.

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Mr Abbott and White Ribbon Day

Yesterday in relation to the cuts to the ABC and SBS Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare put to the Prime Minister a question from the1957 movie called Witness for the Prosecution. In the movie Charles Laughton plays a crusty old barrister called Sir Wilfrid, and in cross-examination he says to the witness, 'Were you lying then, are you lying now, or are you just a chronic and habitual liar?'

Yesterday the Prime Minister attended an event where Police Commissioners made a stand against violence on women. In Mr Abbott's brief remarks he said:

I speak as the father of three daughters, as the brother of three sisters, and I say that nothing is more horrifying than the knowledge that there are women and children right around our country today who are living in fear because of some male who is in their household and instead of being the love of their life, the apple of their eye, or the hero of their being, that person has become their tormentor.

Domestic violence isn't the only violence women have to suffer. Some even have to suffer it in student politics.

Let's just recount what we know about the allegation (first made by David Marr) that a young Tony Abbott threw a punch at Barbara Ramjan. The ABC carried a neat summary that basically says Mr Abbott first said it would have been "profoundly out of character had it occurred" but subsequently states that "I have no recollection of it - because it didn't happen."

Mr Abbott then said he expected more smears to surface as part of an orchestrated campaign by a Labor dirt unit. This proved to be false prophecy.

What we do know is that since Mr Abbott's denial a witness to the punch did come forward - referred to in David Marr's update of the book.

What's more both News Ltd and Andrew Bolt have apologised to Ms Ramjan for claiming that she made up the claim.

Perhaps it is time for Mr Abbott to also apologise - and White Ribbon Day would be a good day to choose!

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Television rots your brain

When I was younger we were warned that television rots your brain.

Now Baroness Susan Greenfield tells us that digital technologies and social media do the same, as summarised in her book Mind Change: How digital technologies are changing our minds. As Susan (that's what she asked us to call her) was the guest on this week's QandA I rocked along - and even asked a question.

The question I wanted to ask Susan but didn't get chosen for was in her original field of study - degenerative brain disease. The question was, simply, in the light of the Government's proposed health research fund whether we spend too much researching cancer and coronary disease and avoiding death, and not enough on the degenerative diseases that affect people for a long time alive.

But that isn't the kind of hip topic they like on QandA.

As I have the luxury of this blog I thought I might explore the issue I raised at greater leisure. (At the time of writing the transcript hasn't been posted so I'm relying on my recall from last night and one reviewing.)

Firstly I had never really paid much attention to Susan before last night. I only bought the book on Kindle on my way in on the train and read bits of it (actually using the Kindle app on my iPad). And it was the fact that I'd read her comments on how multi-tasking and continuous input/output processing were putting pressure on the ability to think that I cared.

Unfortunately things all got a bit blurred on TV last night between two disparate strands on digital technologies. The first was at the level of sociology and psychology and the concern about how the technology changes social interaction - the chain that leads to the whole discussion about narcissism.

The second and more interesting is that digital technologies and social media actual change the way we think. In essence being more immediately reactive rather than reflective, and dare I say, cognitive.

As readers of my columns in iTnews and the AFR would know I am very concerned about the decline in STEM skills. That concern suggests a question "Are students finding maths and science harder than it used to be?"

That's why I'd highlighted in the book as I read Susan's comment that the "ability to make connections where they didn't exist before, to connect the dots, could account for talents in a number of academic areas, including philosophy, mathematics, science and music."

So to me it was a bit of a recursive exercise when Susan had talked about the impact of the tech on thinking to have a non-scientific answer.

Now, let me remind readers that though I am a great fan of science, I am not a great fan of the phrase "the science says" as I observed in the context of climate science. Science is "privileged knowledge" built by a repeated process of application of theory to observable events and adapting, or even abandoning, the theory id the results are anomolous.

Real world science is done by real people and so all the characteristics that Tom Kuhn identified as normal science abound, there is group think. The fact that a paper appears in a peer reviewed journal does not mean the paper's method, data and conclusions are correct - just that they are not totally wrong.

And quite frankly, despite the way I framed my question, one person's personal experience can be enough to destroy a well verified theory. If I see the first black swan it is my experience that confounds the the previous "law" that all swans are white.

But that wasn't what was happening last night. As I said part of the difficulty was that there were two simultaneous strands of discussion going on - one about the overtly social impacts and the other the neuroscientific.

And I wasn't expecting the lawyers and economists to argue science with the scientist. I was, however, expecting that they might acknowledge that it is science. It is the inability of the non-scientific to recognise science when they see it that is of concern.

I wasn't really trying to pick on Laura John, but I was critical of the lawyerly debating tricks. To respond to science with "Susan makes some good points..." and then disregard anything Susan actually said indicates Laura has a great career ahead of her.

James Patterson was as equally dodgy, but then again he is a disciple of the totally falsified (to use the Popperian term) theories of neo-classical economics. (And in fairness to my former boss Albo - he said he supports markets over a command economy, but he doesn't believe in the infallible self-creating market of neo-classical theory).

Finally I wasn't necessarily myself making a call on the science that Susan is referencing. But I do want to comment on the criticism made by Tony Jones on air and in the Facebook discussion that Greenfield has not done any peer reviewed research here and that if she believed the theory she should.

That is an incorrect understanding of the process and progress of science. It is the discussion of the outcomes of many pieces of research that creates new patterns, new theories. It is the kind of discussion Susan is leading that establishes research programs. (And to be fair to Susan - that is exactly what the blurb on the book says "What could this mean, and how can we harness, rather than be harnessed by, our new technological milieu to create better alternatives and more meaningful lives? Using the very latest research (up to the end of 2013), Mind Change is intended to incite debate as well as yield the way forward."

My very simple conclusion on limited evidence is that yes the higher use of digital technologies by young people mean their brains - at least their minds - are very different from those of my generation. To say they are different does not alone say they are better or worse. There are good reasons to think they are worse (the behavioural characteristics and thinking being two examples), but there are also reasons to think they are better (multitasking does get through voluminous quantities of stuff).

And if they are worse, the only solution isn't to say that social media needs to be used less. There are other options including that the processes by which ethics are learnt need to adapt (e.g. because you can't see the reaction you need to think harder about the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated), or utilising the increased I/O approach to increase thinking by algorithm rather than proof.

What isn't appropriate is to decide to do nothing simply because you don't like the conclusion - that's what climate change deniers do.

(Did TV rot my brain? Yes and no. My experience of the world is far more visual than was my parents - and that includes from Vietnam on seeing the horror of war directly. But the trade off has been he decline in descriptive language. And you can see that on the nightly news - what is defined to be "newsworthy" is something they have footage of. Completely inconsequential car accidents in the US are featured more highly than an earthquake in a developing country because that is where they have cameras.

But TV also created a world of drama not previously matched, especially comedy. I find the whole world a lot more amusing than I would have without these opportunities. Satirical writing and black ink cartoons are no match for Mad As Hell.

And finally when Albo used his analogy of the person at the concert watching their device record the event I was reminded of the Leunig cartoon of sunset.)

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Andrew Bolt - still demented and unhinged?

There is a special place in the Universe reserved for Andrew Bolt. It is a place in which conspiracy theories run deep, and things that were once black are now white, and those that were white are now black.

This isn't Orwellian speak of "blackwhite" - it is more Humpty Dumpty, but not that words mean exactly what he wants them to mean, but because events happen because of causes that only Bolt can divine.

Today in his column Bolt returns to one of his favourite themes, bagging the ABC. The column was mostly a repeat of his introduction to an interview with The Australian's Media Editor on his News Corp produced TV show.

I didn't watch past the start of Markson's opening statement - it was the most egregious example of interview subject being in violent agreement with interviewer that is usually so mercilessly (and correctly) mocked by Gerard Henderson in his more lucid critiques of some ABC presenters.

Apart from the usual diatribe about the ABC not having enough balance, no right wing voices and it is way too unfair on the right, Bolt ended with a classic.

Not for Bolt any acceptance that John Howard appointed a Chair and Board Members to curtail the ABC. No acknowledgement that the Howard Government appointment current MD Mark Scott, nor that his career began as a NSW Liberal Party staffer.

The resilience of the ABC is because it actually fulfils its charter.  Do the commercial media really want the ABC to compete with them for the majority audience? What would Fairfax Media or Macquarie Broadcasting to think if Radio National were to program 702 as a clone of 2UE or 2GB?

Gerard Henderson once criticised the replacement of one ABC presenter with another because the original presenter wasn't rating well enough "did not rate well enough in inner-suburban Leichhardt. Meaning, apparently, that she did not appeal to Green-voting-leftist-luvvies or to the Labor left and, horror-of-horrors, was just too middle class." 

But if that is the audience, is it not right to appeal to it? 

The one thing that is certain is that no Minister of any government has had any success (nor should they) in trying to direct the editorial approach of the ABC. 

That is, according to Mr Bolt, until now!

He ends his column:

How much longer will the Abbott Government endure the ABC’s insults and abuse of power? Why so meek in response? Is it because ambitious ministers of the Liberals’ Left know that defending the ABC guarantees them the ABC’s support in any leadership battle against Abbott or, say, a Scott Morrison?

If so, may I suggest Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull be replaced by a minister more prepared to enforce the ABC’s own charter on an ABC now completely out of control?

There we have it - Malcolm Turnbull has entered into an implicit pact with ABC management to back him in a leadership context. This being the same Minister that Mark Scott has attacked in the last month over the ABC budget cuts.

But this is Bolt land - the land in which any dinner becomes a plot, the Bolt that Minister Turnbull wisely noted "borders on the demented" and "is quite unhinged."

Please spare us all from both this kind of right commentator just as I wish to be spared from sermonizing leftists commentators who will patronise every progressive cause.

The best commentators are those who can start with "Its complicated" and end with clarity. Ideological diatribes of either ilk are simply pointless - and Andrew Bolt is a master of the art.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Politics and our future

The latest IPCC report says that the world will need to stop using fossil fuels by the end of this century. Even The Australian reported it!

Managing our climate future will require reducing reliance on fossil fuels by 80% by 2050. Managing the CO2 load will also require the use of bio-mass to take more of the gas out of the atmosphere.

The question is no longer if this will need to occur, but how it can.

And this, ultimately, is the great shame of the mismanagement of the politics of climate change in Australia. The book Power Failure makes a compelling case that the Rudd government wasted the opportunity to take action through a number of related elements. The first was to spend too long preparing a detailed policy in the background without continuing to bring Australians on he journey. The second was to fluff the originally drafted proposal so that what was first rejected could not be reintroduced in unmodified form. The third was to try to play politics on the issue and embarrass the Coalition rather than bring them on the journey.

The consequence was a policy that was rejected by the Senate on Greens votes, rather than one being passed using Coalition votes given that both major parties went to 2007 with an ETS as policy.

The initial failure was then compounded by Rudd's post Copenhagen funk, and then ultimately the deal brokered with the Greens being exactly the one that as easiest to attack.

But far bigger was the failure to paint the response to climate change in economic terms. Irrespective of whether Australia "took action" - played to by the whole we are such a small proportion crowd - the world IS going to take action by consuming less fossil fuels.

Neither Tony Abbott nor Christine Milne is right on coal. It is neither a friend of humanity nor an evil to be stopped immediately. It is somewhere in between, a historically important energy source with a significant role to play in our immediate future, but it is not a sustainable long term source.

As a major coal producer our interest is in utilising the resource for now, but preparing our economy for the point in the middle distance future where it needs to be replaced.

While the Gillard Government talked of a "clean energy future" it was never translated into the important part - making the investments today to replace

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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Australia leads the US

THE US Federal trade Commission is suing AT&T for speed throttling customers on its "unlimited" plans.

All you can say is that the ACCC has been there and done that!

Nevertheless the ACCC continues to need to prosecute providers.

I keep hearing telcos complaining about over-regulation and the need for regulation to be pitched at the "average" consumer yet issues like this keep occurring. Go figure!

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