Friday, 29 May 2009

Dipping my lid to a spinner

I have to hand it to the Rudd spinners. They did a wonderful job yesterday in downplaying those stories about bonus stimulus payments being paid to the dead. "Don't mock the bereaved" was the message the PM tried to tag Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull with. "Turnbull is treading on very dangerous, sensitive ground here," the Prime Minister said. "We are talking about people who have died in the last year or so. A number of people who have suffered bereavements and suffered the loss of a loved one have appreciated greatly the payments made to their estates." And sure enough one of those current affairs television programs found a grieving widow who used the $900 cheque sent to her deceased husband to pay for his tombstone.

Women in politics (1)

A story this morning on a study by an Argentinian writer Ricardo Coler who spent two months living with the Mosuo people of southern China trying to discover how a matriarchy really works. Coler told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he expected to find an inverse patriarchy in the mountains of the Himalayas but discovered the life of the Mosuo had absolutely nothing to do with that. "Women have a different way of dominating," he said. "When women rule, it's part of their work. They like it when everything functions and the family is doing well. Amassing wealth or earning lots of money doesn't cross their minds. Capital accumulation seems to be a male thing. It's not for nothing that popular wisdom says that the difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys.

Women in politics (2)

The BBC World Service says an association of blonde women in Latvia hopes to dispel some of the Baltic state's economic gloom with a parade and ball in the capital, Riga. It hopes to field 500 fair-haired women for a weekend of events, including a concert, a fashion show and "blonde golf", said organiser Marika Gidere. "The economic situation is such that society needs these types of events," Ms Gidere, head of Latvia's Blondes' Association, told the French news agency AFP.

A hardworking and stoic generation

I confess to getting confused a bit about all this baby boomers and generation x, y and i business, never being certain when one stops and the next one starts so I was delighted to come across this helpful little chart in a release this morning from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

And surprised I was too to learn that as a child of 1942 I am classified as being a member of the Lucky Generation which was given that name because they generally perceive that they had an easier time than their parents. Personally I prefer the alternative term mentioned by the ABS of the Austerity Generation, defined as people "affected by the privations resulting from the Great Depression in their formative years, they are often regarded as a hardworking and stoic generation who seek stability and security."

Thursday, 28 May 2009

An old one but a damaging one

The Federal Opposition has been going on for months now about what a joke it was that Labor's $900 spending bonus payment was going to dead people and people living overseas. It was a natural attempt to portray the Government as a spendthrift not fit to control the public purse but while it got an occasional run in the media it failed to become a major talking point. The loot in the hand was a far greater influence on public opinion than concern about sending good money after dead bodies. But just when Malcolm Turnbull and his team must have just about been ready to give up on this particular line of attack, along came Steve Lewis whose copy appears in all of the Murdoch tabloids which makes him potentially the most influential newspaper journo in the country and certainly the one with the biggest readership.
The Lewis report rediscovered the dead men paid angle with the aid of what he described as "confidential" tax office documents putting the cost of paying the $900 tax bonus to 16,000 dead people and 27,000 expats living overseas at $40 million. "Despite racking up more than $300 billion in debt," he wrote, "the Government is sending about $25 million in bonus payments to people living overseas. Even non-Australians who worked here for at least six months – but then left – have received the cash payment."

Interest rates to stay unchanged

That's what the Crikey Interest Rate Indicator is suggesting. The market puts the probability of the Reserve Bank leaving the official rate where it is when it meets next Tuesday at 78%.

Getting the name in the paper

Give the media a survey and you are sure to get your company name in the paper. It has become rule number one for public relations hacks around the nation. Today we have a new one - a so-called Green Home and Motoring Index measuring the environmental practices of Australian households. Being a narky fellow I'm not giving a plug to the insurance company which no doubt has paid the PR people plenty but you will find details of some of the results in The Advertiser.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The politics of flu

There's nothing like having your holidays ruined to make a person angry and start looking for someone to blame. Hence the elevation of swine flu back into pride of place in the Australian media today. After a couple of weeks out of the headlines this new virus is well and truly back in the headlines with an outbreak on a cruise ship setting off some interstate bickering between health department officials. That is the kind of thing that Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon hopes does not spread because the horrors of coordinating anything under a federal system of government will not stop the mob blaming her if and when things go wrong
Thankfully this A(H1N1) version of swine flu has not yet emerged as an extraordinarily virulent killer. As Australia's chief medical officer Jim Bishop.reported this morning it is essentially a "mild disease" that was responding well to antiviral drug Tamiflu. Professor Bishop told ABC Radio that modelling on a normal influenza season predicted about 10 per cent of the national population could be affected, though it was hoped measures already in place would significantly reduce that possible toll.
That just might be a little optimistic. The World Health Organisation in its latest notes on Assessing the severity of an influenza pandemic says H1N1 appears to be more contagious than seasonal influenza. The secondary attack rate of seasonal influenza ranges from 5% to 15%. Current estimates of the secondary attack rate of H1N1 range from 22% to 33%. The good news from the WHO is that with the exception of the outbreak in Mexico, which is still not fully understood, the H1N1 virus tends to cause very mild illness in otherwise healthy people. Outside Mexico, nearly all cases of illness, and all deaths, have been detected in people with underlying chronic conditions.

The WHO says that in these early days of the outbreaks, some scientists speculate that the full clinical spectrum of disease caused by H1N1 will not become apparent until the virus is more widespread. This, too, could alter the current disease picture, which is overwhelmingly mild outside Mexico.

Apart from the intrinsic mutability of influenza viruses, other factors could alter the severity of current disease patterns, though in completely unknowable ways, if the virus continues to spread. The scientists are concerned about possible changes that could take place as the virus spreads to the southern hemisphere and encounters currently circulating human viruses as the normal influenza season in that hemisphere begins.

And don't forget the other one

If you are one of those who likes to worry then don't forget that other flu outbreak - the avian variety that might not be infecting many people but is certainly killing a good proportion of them. Australia has so far avoided this version but as the map shows it is still out there to the nation's north.

As the WHO says: The fact that the H5N1 avian influenza virus is firmly established in poultry in some parts of the world is another cause for concern. No one can predict how the H5N1 virus will behave under the pressure of a pandemic. At present, H5N1 is an animal virus that does not spread easily to humans and only very rarely transmits directly from one person to another.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Bringing the curtain down

It's all spin and no tradition in the Prime Ministerial press section. Last Friday Kevin Rudd went to the Cottesloe house where a famous Labor predecessor lived and the official website records:
When the staff gets John Curtin's name wrong perhaps they deserve one of those famous temper tantrums.

Making a fool of the Foreign Minister

Stephen Smith was doing his best yesterday morning on Sky Television to bat away the curly deliveries of interviewer Keiran Gilbert about the Prime Minister vetoing the appointment of Hugh Borrowman as the Australian Ambassador to Germany. " I don't comment on appointments that we made," said the Foreign Minister, "other than to announce who the appointed diplomat is. And that follows longstanding government practice in Australia and elsewhere. Secondly, I don't respond to rumour or speculation."
The exchange continued:
I have announced an appointment of one of our senior officers to Sweden - Hugh Borrowman. He's a very good officer. He'll be a very good ambassador to Sweden. Sweden's an important post for us. From 1 July Sweden chairs the European Union. And we have tried to make much more of our modern engagement with Europe and the European Union through our Australia European Union partnership framework.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it really important though? I mean, you hear Sweden; it doesn't sound like its frontline for an Australian diplomat. And this guy's meant to be one of our senior diplomats.
STEPHEN SMITH: He's a very good officer. He'll be a very good ambassador to Sweden. Sweden is important. As I say, we're trying to modernise our relationship with Europe. Sweden chairs the European Union as President from 1 July. It's an important country and it's an important posting. I make recommendations to the Governor General and Executive Council about our appointments. Obviously, from time to time I consult with the Prime Minister. That's exactly the same practice that every government has had. But I certainly don't get into the detail publicly about gossip or speculation about people's credentials or whether they've been considered or not considered for other posts.
KIERAN GILBERT: It's being suggested that this is another example of - the Prime Minister's reported today - as an example of the Prime Minister's obsessive control of foreign policy. Do you find that?
STEPHEN SMITH: No I don't. The Prime Minister and I work very closely and very well together. I also see the suggestion that somehow there's a gap or a lag in our appointments. That's certainly not the case. The Prime Minister and I make judgements about foreign policy in our national interest. I make judgements and the Prime Minister makes judgements about whom we appoint to serious, important diplomatic posts, again, in our national interest. We're very pleased with the level and the range and the quality of ambassadors that we have.
KIERAN GILBERT: So if it's in the national interest, suggestions that it's to do with any animosity between Mr Rudd and Mr Borrowman are false? They apparently went to university together.
STEPHEN SMITH: The number of people I went to university with as well, you know… It's just, frankly, gossip and rumour. I notice there's not one sourced comment from anyone in that piece. And I'm not going to give it anything more than that.

That last comment about there being "not one sourced comment from anyone in that piece" was clearly designed to give the impression that the story of the Prime Ministerial intervention was nothing more than an invention.
It was not long, however, before Kevin Rudd stepped up to the microphone to confirm that he had put the cross through Mr Borrowman's appointment. Not for the Australian Prime Minister that longstanding practice in Australia and elsewhere of not commenting on appointments as he happily made Stephen Smith look as truthful as his press secretaries.

Getting Krudded

At the Department of Foreign Affairs they are calling what happened to Hugh Borrowman "getting Krudded" and the man now being sent off to the lowly appointment in Sweden is apparently not the only one to suffer from the Kevin Rudd style of personnel management. The PM is said to have gone through the recent list of proposed overseas postings and made substantial changes. And as for Minister Smith he is now known internally as a minister who’s more worried about his own image (the Dandy, he’s called) than policy.

Bringing in some independents?

The relentless exposure in the British media of the greedy money grabbing habits of politicians from all three of the major parties must surely be creating a climate in which independents capable of running for the House of Commons as "non-politicians" must have a considerable chance of being successful. Now Helena Kennedy might be a Labour peer but she is a far cry from the standard party hack and was elevated to the House of Lords for her work as a civil liberties campaigning barrister and as a star on some of those wonderfully intelligent BBC radio and television programs like Heart of the Matter, Raw Deal and the award-winning Time, Gentlemen, Please.

Ms Kennedy has decided to devote her energy to the cause of parliamentary reform and began with this letter published in The Observer on Sunday:

The Guardian reports this morning that Ms Kennedy is drumming up volunteers to stand as independents across the country, united in pushing for parliamentary reform. Her friends say the attempt, which would include a limit on the time MPs could sit, a bid to have US-style primaries and a new constitutional settlement, began at a meeting at her home two Sundays ago.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The gap to be closed

A new and more accurate measure this morning of the disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal people. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released new estimates of Indigenous life expectancy the quality and robustness of which it describes as being a significant improvement. The new measure shows life expectancy at birth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) Australians was 67.2 years for men and 72.9 years for women for 2005–2007. The ABS reported that the life expectancy of Indigenous men is 11.5 years lower than for non-Indigenous men, while life expectancy of Indigenous women is 9.7 years lower than for non-Indigenous women.

Exposing a "rort" that saves taxpayers money

The media really are going to extraordinary lengths to get Australian politicians implicated in the kind of expense account rorts that are battering the reputation of politicians in the United Kingdom. Yesterday we had Glenn Milne in the News Limited Sunday tabloids saying how terrible it was that the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, Jan McLucas, spends far more time in Canberra where she claims a $200 a day living allowance than she spends in her listed home of Cairns. The suggestion is that she is somehow ripping off the public purse but the waste of the taxpayer's money would actually occur if she flew home every week to Queensland.

For the round trip cost of $2710 - yes that is an outrageous sum but blame Qantas for that ripoff not Senator McLucas - she can spend 13 nights a week in Canberra. She, like any sensible person, can see little point in flying back and forth the thousands of kilometres to north Queensland unnecessarily when you end up spending nearly as much of the weekend in aeoplanes and airports as you do at home base. The surprise to me is that more ministers and parliamentary secretaries do not follow her example, especially those from Western Australia, the Northern Territory and North Queensland. Living primarily in Canberra, as Paul Keating did when he was Treasurer, would make them more efficient ministers and save us all money.

Methinks a staffer spurned

The Milne column attempting to finger Ms McLucas perhaps illustrates the rather catty nature of some of those in the political advisory business. At Crikey recently our attention was drawn to the fact that there was something quite unstable about her employment practices with the suggestion that her entire staff had turned over in 18 months. I let that information go through to the keeper but I wonder if Glenn had the same disgruntled informant?

Some welcome opposition

The prime ministerial spinners could not have arranged it better. Having a pair of trade unions come out and attack the budget plan to gradually increase the eligibility age for the old age pension would be just what Kevin Rudd wanted as he seeks to portray his tough but fair image.

Not so welcome spinning

What was definitely unscripted this morning was the story in the Age that the PM personally intervened to prevent the appointment of the departmentally recommended Hugh Borrowman as Ambassador to Germany. According to the yarn, "insiders blame the decision on a murky personal history shared between the Prime Minister and Mr Borrowman, who have known each other since attending Australian National University. Mr Borrowman is said to have dissented from the often arbitrary decision-making process taken by Mr Rudd since coming to office."

Friday, 22 May 2009

The travelling man

This Prime Minister Kevin Rudd continues to be a perpetual motion man. He is just never at home as he flits around the country promoting his budget and announcing some good old fashioned pork barrel spending. Yesterday it was the turn of Geraldton in Western Australia with money for a port development. No wonder the Opposition is uneasy about the size of the budget deficit. It is providing campaign bribes on a scale the country has not seen before.

Senator as hero

It made a bit of a change this morning: a politician being hailed as a hero by one of the tabloids instead of being castigated for rorting the parliamentaryexpenses.
Northern Territory Senator Nigel Scullion was given the hero's role for stopping his taxi when he noticed a woman in distress on the Stuart Highway south of Katherine. Along with two fellow Senators travelling with him he gave chase to a man who the woman said had tried to rape her through the dense scrub for some time before losing him.
Down south politician praising was replaced by the more common politician bashing. The Sydney Telegraph found "secret frisbee funds" and the Melbourne Herald Sun had a supposed tax rort.

Not much to laugh about

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown does not have much to laugh about. The headlines for him seem to just get worse. After a week of scandalous stories about MPs rorting their expenses he has been confronted to a new twist in the global financial crisis saga. One of those dreaded ratings agencies is threating to take away the United Kingdom's AAA credit rating and the coverage, like this from the finance pages of the London Daily Telegraph is not a pleasant read.

Tough times for comedians

That Monty Python man Michael Palin has been bemoaning the difficulties of making jokes about Al Qaida. He told an interviewer from Der Spiegel this week that Political correctness is intimidating people. "And I'm not just talking about terrorism," said the comic. "Sometimes you get the impression that you're not allowed to make jokes unless you've read the small print. But that's not possible. Humor has to be spontaneous. Laughter is a kind of a libertarian thing. I hope it remains that way."

The actress wins

The Gurkhas can stay in the UK. The officer's daughter actress Joanne Lumley has done her Dad proud and toppled the British Defence bureaucrats who did not want to pay the bill to allow Gurkhas to settle in the country they had fought for. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, sounded the retreat, says The Times, only hours after the Prime Minister had outlined the new settlement rights proposal to the actress during a breakfast meeting at 10 Downing Street. Ms Smith told MPs that she expected the change would lead to up to 15,000 Gurkhas coming to Britain over the next two years. They will be allowed to bring their partners and any children under 18.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The herd stumbles on

The search for a real live Australian members of parliament scandal to match that in the UK goes on with the Sydney Morning Herald joining the fray this morning with an attempt to suggest that it is scandalous that there is no record kept of the $8 million-a-year in electorate allowance paid to MPs. Herald journalists Phillip Hudson and Matthew Moore have "discovered" that no official agency monitors how much of each $32,000 allowance is kept as income by MPs, how much is spent on voters or what it is spent on. It is almost reluctantly that they concede that the Taxation Commissioner has the right to check just those things.
Meanwhile, across town, the Daily Telegraph has given yet another run to a perennial tabloid favourite - MPs who employ wives and relatives on their staff. 

Goodness knows how many times a variation on this theme has featured over the years but from memory I wrote it more than once when I was at the Tele many years ago. These days I admit the error of my youthful ways for I would prefer an MP employ a relative rather than one of those pushy young would-be politicians.

An incentive for budget surpluses

The good citizens of California have come up with a novel way of encouraging their state politicians to produce a budget surplus. They voted at a referendum on Tuesday to prohibit wage increases for legislators and statewide officeholders in deficit years. From now on, near the end of each fiscal year, the state finance director must determine whether the state's general fund is expected to run a surplus or a deficit. Declaration of a deficit would mean the California Citizens Compensation Commission is not permitted to raise the salaries of top elected leaders.
The six person Commission certainly got the message. The day after the referendum its members voted 5-1 to slash the salaries of elected state officials by 18% citing pay cuts and layoffs being imposed on rank-and-file state workers in a desperate attempt to stop California's government going bankrupt. The Commission wanted the cuts to apply immediately but the State Attorney General ruled that would be illegal and that the new lower rates could only apply to those elected from January next year.

Judging the government

That Governments are judged by what happens not by what someone says will or might happen seems to have escaped this Opposition. The whole current attack on Labor and its Budget is based on an assertion that the assumptions underlying forecasts of future Budget deficits are far too optimistic. Well forecasts by economists about what will happen years ahead are invariably wrong but experience tells us they are just as likely to be too pessimistic as too optimistic. As to the general public, I doubt that the vast majority of voters have a clue what the politicians are talking about nor any desire to find out. What will be will be and it is the reality come election day which will determine whether the government is thrown out or not. Currently the Owl's Australian Election Indicator puts the chances of a Labor victory at 63% with the Coalition at 37%.

A new edition with political wisdom

I am indebted to The New Republic for reminding me of the many words of wisdom of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu via a splendid review in its current edition of the recently published Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology edited and translated by David Hinton. 
To give but one example:
Never bestow honors
and people won't quarrel.
Never prize rare treasures
and people won't steal.
Never flaunt alluring things
and people won't be confused.
This book review is one of those rare ones that has had me off and ordering so I can read the full version of Hinton's translation of the High T'ang poet Li Po's "Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon" from which these lines come:

Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine. No one else here, I ladle it out myself.
Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends
though moon has never understood
and shadow only trails along behind me.
I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 475 pp., $US45

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

If at first you don't succeed, try another poll

Any poll at all will do for The Australian apparently when its own pollster fails to provide the answer required to suit the ideologically correct story line. Hence this morning's page one headline:

This week, as the Owl outlined earlier in the week, Newspoll inconveniently found that the Federal Labor Government had increased its lead over the Opposition at a time when the Oz wanted a story showing that an unpopular budget had resulted in a decline in support. Not satisfied with yesterday's misleading headline and some very selective reporting of the reputable Newspoll, this morning it has elevated to stardom the internet-based What the People Want poll that has no track record to speak of. What it does have though is a finding that agrees with the paper's prejudices. 
According to What the People Want, support for the Coalition in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's home state of Queensland is now 10 percentage points higher than at the 2007 Federal election. On this basis the political correspondent Matthew Franklin has concocted a yarn that would do the paper's political editor Dennis Shanahan proud. Franklin simply glosses over the national finding of his new favourite pollster that Labor leads the Coalition by 10 percentage points.

Envious of our pommy peers

Oh how we Canberra political journalists envy our British peers! They have a real honest to goodness scandal to cover about grasping politicians cheating on their expense allowances that has brought down the Speaker of the House of Commons. And we have to be satisfied with carping about whether members of parliament should be allowed to get a meagre pay rise. There is no justice but at least at the Sydney Daily Telegraph they tried this morning to redress the balance. Taxpayers, it exclaimed, are paying off federal politicians' mortgages to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars a year with a growing number of politicians buying homes in Canberra to live in during parliamentary sitting weeks - but are still claiming travel allowances.
It was hardly news really. It was to avoid the very kind of scandal that has brought the Westminster Parliament in to such disrepute that our Federal Parliament long ago adopted a system of giving MPs a flat rate allowance for every day they spend in the national capital. They can use it to stay where they want. The only surprise to me is that only one in five politicians chooses to buy their own sleeping quarters in Canberra rather than rent or stay in a hotel.

A measure of the economic decline

Import figures out today from the Australian Bureau of Statistics give a clear measure of the extent of the country's economic decline. Comparing imports for the three months to the end of April this year with the same period last year shows a decline of 1.6%. Midway through last year Australian imports were growing at an annual rate of well over 20%

Headline of the day

Lap dancers, cocaine did not cause credit crunch

A good year to be in public employment

It is not only because you are more likely to keep your job than someone in private employment that the last year has been a good one to be in public employment. Official figures this morning from the ABS show that in the last year the Public sector wage price index rose by 1.1% compared to 0.9% for the Private sector, with the All sectors index recording a quarterly movement of 1.0%. The highest quarterly movement (1.1%) was recorded by Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. Through the year changes ranged from 3.9% for New South Wales and South Australia to 5.4% for Western Australia. This is the eighth consecutive quarter in which the through the year change for Western Australia has been above 5.0%. Quarterly movements for the March quarter 2009 for the Public sector were greater than those of the Private sector in every state and territory with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

A contest revived

Japan once again looks like having a close election contest later this year with a new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Yukio Hatoyama, doing well in the first opinion poll since he replaced previous DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. The poll , conducted for the Mainichi Shimbun at the weekend, had 34 percent of the public saying that Mr Hatoyama would be most suitable as prime minister, compared to just 21 percent supporting incumbent Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Last month the Mainichi polling had Prime Minister Aso rating better than his then opponent Mr Ozawa who was embroiled in a scandal over illegal fund raising.
Swapping the candidate at the top of the ticket has clearly restored the DPJ's chances of winning at the election which must be held before 6 September this year. If Mr Hatoyama is successful it would be only the second time since 1955 that the Prime Minister was not an LDP member. In the mid 1990s the departure of Mr Ozawa, a long time LDP stalwart,  resulted in its only loss of power since its inception. 
The Japan Times describes the climate in which the election will be held as being one where "poverty is becoming a major problem that is threatening the basic social fabric of this nation."  In an editorial this morning the paper says 'what is particularly worrisome is the replication of poverty as children from low-income families are unable to benefit from higher education. The government needs to work out effective support measures for low-income families, especially single-mother households, to prevent the nation heading into what members of the government's Council and Economic and Fiscal Policy have termed a 'society of lost hope.' ''

The Democrats try an internet revival

With the departure of its last Senators nearly a year ago, the Australian Democrats seemed to be a dead and buried political party, and perhaps it is, but that is not stopping its rump of enthusiasts from having another shot. The old party email list has been resurrected and the website is being revamped. The next 18 months will be an interesting test of whether the internet can provide salvation for a political party with neither money nor parliamentary members. 

A shrinking lead?

You can just sense the disappointment at The Australian when the fortnightly Newspoll figures came in last night. The Fairfax lot had got a great run all day with their AC Nielsen poll showing a decline in both Labor's vote and the Prime Minister's popularity. And now their people had come in with a finding that the support for the Government had gone up and not down. Talk about rotten spoil sports! What's a sub to do?
Well forget about the support for the parties for a start. Accentuate the negative. Give the Coalition punters some hope. And hence this headline in the print version giving an exagerrated importance to a small decline in Kevin Rudd's personal approval rating.

Over on the website they thought that could be toughened up a bit. Change the Rudd word to Labor and hey presto our poll findings are every bit as dramatic as Neilsen's
Until, of course, someone had a look at the actual figures showing the backlash trimming to be an increase of four points in Labor's primary vote and a one point improvement in two party preferred terms

Monday, 18 May 2009

Back to square one

One major opinion poll now has the Opposition Coalition back to round about where it was when Malcolm Turnbull became Liberal Party Leader last September. For the life of me I cannot see how this is being portrayed by some as a mighty achievement. 
The AC Nielsen poll puts the two party vote at Labor 52% to the Coalition 48%.  The poll taken by Nielson closest to when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Brendan Nelson put the figures at Labor 51% and the Coalition 49%!
Full details of the Nielsen polls since the last election are on the politicalowl website

The Green wave

There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction when a political party's safest seats become its most vulnerable. It is one of those occasions when we should be forgiven for the tall poppy syndrome. Members sitting on two party preferred margins of 10 per cent and more are just so smug that watching them campaign when they realise that the normal rules of preference distribution do not apply is a positive delight. So it was on Saturday night as the results of the Fremantle by-election for the West Australian state parliament came in.
Fremantle for yonks has been as safe Labor as a seat can get but there were signs at last year's statewide poll where the Labor Government lost office that things were changing. A large swag of left of centre votes went not to Labor but to the Greens. Labor, with 38.7% of the votes, still won comfortably on the conventional two party measure from a Liberal polling 30.2% of the primaries and a Green on 27.6%. But that narrow gap between Liberal and Green introduced a vulnerability; if a Green snuck ahead of the Liberal then preferences would push Labor back to second place.
At Saturday's by-election there was no official Liberal candidate but a motley collection of independents provided a conduit for Liberal voters to mischievously torment Labor by directing preferences to a Green if they were not prepared to vote for one directly. And so it came to pass that the Labor primary vote remained virtually unchanged on that the previous year while the Green vote rose to over 44 per cent on primaries and to around 54% after preferences.
There will be a lot of nervous Labor members both state and federal throughout the country who study this result with alarm. The chatterati who have moved into inner city Labor strongholds are increasingly inclined to flirt with candidates further to the left than those led by the self described economically conservative Prime Minister. The theoretically safer the seat the greater the chance that their support for a Green will result in a Labor defeat. All that is required is for Liberals either not to contest such seats or to run dead enough in them to ensure that a Green outpolls them.

An Election Indicator triumph

The major election of the weekend - that to choose the winner of the Eurovision song contest - saw the clear favourite on the Owl/Crikey Election Indicator fiddle home to victory. The Indicator a fortnight ago had Norway well in front of the field and so it proved with Alexander Rybak a clear winner. The favoured Congress Party led coalition was also successful in India.

None of the above

For a real assessment of the regard in which people hold politicians, have a look at this result from a survey published at the weekend in the UK's Independent:

Friday, 15 May 2009

Interest rate reduction a slight favourite

The Owl/Crikey Interest Rate Indicator gives a 60% probability of the Reserve Bank lowering rates at its meeting tomorrow. Opinion is divided between whether a 0.25% or a 0.5% cut is likely with both assessed as 27% chances with an even greater cut rates only a 6% chance. That the Bank will decide to leave rates where they are is put at a 40% chance.

Wayne Swan the punter's friend

Malcolm Turnbull is a sceptic but Jonathan Xiong is not. While the Opposition Leader last night was preaching doom and gloom for a debt laden Australian future, the vice president and senior portfolio manager at Mellon Capital Management Corp. in San Francisco was placing bets that the Wayne Swan budget will work. Mellon Capital, one of the world's biggest and most adventurous financial gamblers, thinks the Australian dollar will rally the fastest among the world’s most-traded currencies as economies revive. “This is a true economic recovery play,” Mr Xiong, who oversees $18 billion for the firm which describes itself as the originators of value-based tactical asset allocation, told Bloomberg. “The Australian dollar is our favorite position relative to the Group of 10 currencies.” Australia’s currency is now the fund manager’s biggest long position against the greenback, Xiong said. 

Interest rates to stay steady?

The higher official interest rate in Australia than in most developed economies is no doubt an attraction to Mellon in punting on Australia's future and the market expects that advantage to continue. The Owl's/Crikey Interest Rate Indicator has no change at the June Reserve Bank board meeting as the most likely outcome.

Too clever by half

The very dull and boring reply to the budget by Malcolm Turnbull will not be troubling the Labor Party too much. Whilever the Opposition is not prepared to say what it would actually do to reduce the debt it claims to be so bad it will make very few if any converts. The rhetoric about Labor spendthrifts will just pass over the heads of most voters who so far do seem to have grasped the Labor message that these are unprecedented economic times that have little to do with anything this government or the previous one has done or not done. The Kevin Rudd taunts to say what your lot would do will end up further damaging the Opposition Leader's standing.
There will be no great regret either in the Labor camp if the legislation changing private health insurance is finally rejected by the Senate. In the overall scheme of things the amount of money is not going to make a huge difference to anything but rejection will help drive home the point that Team Turnbull is every bit a squib when it comes to hard, cost-cutting decisions, as the Government.

Double dissolution chances fading

If private health insurance is the only major budget element that the Coalition helps reject in the Senate then the chances of a double dissolution will diminish. Calling an early election is always a risk and a worsening of unemployment does not necessarily mean that a government suffers. Just recall the Hawke and Keating wins in the midst of recessionary times. In tough times people are wary of taking a risk about the unknown team. They wait for the good times to punish - just ask John Howard.

What's good for General Motors ...

Hopefully this is not a time where General Motors leads and the rest of the United States follows because it is looking increasingly likely that the once great car company will end up in bankruptcy proceedings. The GM Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson said overnight that “it is probable” that GM will end up using the bankruptcy process. The market had already reached that conclusion with the probability rated a 90 per cent chance on the Intrade prediction market.
And if you fancy a little speculation on the chances of either the United States or Israel dropping a bomb on Iran before year's end -

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Budget passes readers by

Liftouts, wrap arounds, page after page of budget coverage in newspapers throughout the country. Newspaper websites full of the same material. And, by all of the indications, studiously ignored by the readers. Take a look at this morning's list of the top five most read items on the eight major newspaper sites:

Temporary Federal Government decisions

The longest temporary change in Australian economic history started in 1942 when the Commonwealth took over income tax from the States. The then Federal Government promised that the switch was only for the duration of the war. Makes you wonder about temporary budget deficits doesn't it?

A strange third party endorsement

Politicians just love third party endorsements. They think favourable comments from someone they can describe as an independent expert helps convince the public of the merits of their own actions. Kevin Rudd was at it yesterday in question time. 
The Opposition squirm, he told the House of Representatives:
about the fact that for the question of our temporary budget deficit for a temporary debt that will flow to the economy, we will have a temporary debt for Australia which will be the lowest by a country mile compared with all other major advanced economies. Furthermore, when you look at when our temporary debt will reach its height at 13.8 per cent of GDP, that will represent about one-seventh of the debt of the major advanced economies across the world. I would simply draw the attention of those opposite, as they try to score political capital out of this point and this necessary intervention in the economy at this stage, to what Standard and Poor’s have said overnight. They said:
Tonight’s Commonwealth budget is consistent with Australia’s triple A long-term rating for the country. The triple A rating is the highest rating assigned by Standard and Poor’s.
They go on to say: We— that is, Standard and Poor’s— believe the deficits and associated borrowings do not alter the sound profile of the country’s public finances. This is underpinned by the strength of the government’s balance sheet, which provides flexibility to absorb debt levels and cyclical deficits of this nature.
That is what the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has concluded about the budget we delivered last night.
If you are wondering what a ringing endorsement from a ratings agency is worth then these words about the origins of the world financial crisis might help:

Its origins go back to the beginning of this decade, with the collapse of the dot com boom.

US authorities responded with aggressive cuts in interest rates.

That opened up an era of cheap debt that was accompanied by increasing financial complexity and a greater appetite for risk.

Financial products – from basic sub-prime home loans to complex financial derivatives – were built on the shallow foundations of a cheap debt economy.

Loans were advanced to millions of people, especially in the United States, with no realistic prospect of them ever being repaid. 

And those loans were financed through complex financial products that were understood by neither investors nor regulators.

The balkanisation of risk, the attenuation of risk sought the impossible dream of the elimination of risk and responsibility – so that ultimately nobody believed they carried risk and responsibility.

And through it all, the ratings agencies blessed these products as safe investments – ratings agencies that have yet to face their own day of reckoning – and the products they sanctioned continued to proliferate.

Yes, that was the verdict on ratings agencies of our very own Prime Minister addressing the National Press Club in Canberra back on 15 October last year. Strange, then, that he now so values an endorsement by one of them. Perhaps it's a case of beggars can't be choosers.