Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Channel past generations’ stoicism

Tom Switzer

22 January 2021 | Ideas@theCentre

We all know 2020 will go down as a terrible year: a global pandemic with lives lost, a government-induced recession to fight the virus, enormous debt and deficits, business uncertainty, cancelled holidays, closed borders, families kept apart …

Concern about those issues is wholly understandable and we are right to focus on them. However, things could be worse.

Indeed, it may help us get through these dark days if the Australian people keep a sense of proportion by placing our angst in a broader global and historical context. For many nations, things are far worse and nothing on the horizon suggests we face sufferings of the kind that were commonplace generations ago.

Notwithstanding our troubles, we should remind ourselves that Australia has suffered 909 covid deaths.

This is tragic. But contrast this with Belgium (the headquarters of the EU). It has less than half of Australia’s population (11.5 million), yet has recorded more than 20 times more deaths (18,821 deaths). According to the Washington Post: “So many Belgians are sick or quarantining that there aren’t enough police on the streets, teachers in the classrooms or medical staff in hospitals.”

Or take the US (415,000 deaths), Britain (93,000), France (71,000), Spain (54,000), Italy (83,000), India (152,000), Brazil (212,000) or Indonesia (26,000). Throughout 2020, many of these nations (and states) imposed harsher lockdowns than Melbourne.

Now, step back and put our contemporary predicament in a broader historical context. This year’s health and economic troubles have looked pretty paltry alongside those of our grandparents and great-grand parents.

Those were the days of a world war (62,000 Australians were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner), a much deadlier pandemic than COVID (we suffered more than 12,000 deaths during the Spanish influenza in 1918-19) and then a Great Depression (many did not find new employment until World War II).

Yes, the coronavirus crisis continues to threaten many Australians with distress and disappointments. Normal programming in our daily lives may not resume until late next year.

However, we should recognise that the sacrifices demanded from us have been infinitely smaller than those of past generations in crises of war and depression. And when this crisis is over, responsible governments should do everything to ensure a true return to normal.

If they fail, future historians may view the general prosperity and freedom we’ve taken for granted in recent decades as an aberration.

Biden may mean trouble

Salvatore Babones

22 January 2021 | Ideas@theCentre

Joe Biden represents a ‘return to normalcy’ in American foreign policy, but that may mean trouble for Australia.

He has repeatedly stressed his commitment to working ‘with’ allies to achieve American goals, not made commitments ‘to’ allies to help them with their own challenges.

He comes to the presidency amid great expectations for a return to more normal American foreign policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a more benign international environment for Australia.

The United States has global priorities and responsibilities, but in The New President: What Biden’s foreign policy agenda means for Australia, I outline the three main areas of concern in particular where the Biden administration’s policy choices are most likely to affect Australia: China policy; climate policy; and digital platforms.

On China, Biden is more likely to seek Australian support for American policies than to offer specific help to Australia. On climate, control of Congress gives him a free hand to pursue more aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets. And on digital platforms, Australia’s maturing plans to regulate American internet giants runs directly counter to the interests of some of Biden’s biggest campaign donors.

The big shock of Biden’s foreign policy is likely to be his administration’s strong support for Big Tech. The Australian government plans to force Google and Facebook to pay for posting news snippets, but Google and Facebook were among Biden’s biggest campaign supporters and have placed executives on his transition team.

Netflix and Disney+ are also likely to ask Biden to pressure Australia not to impose local content rules.

Australia has long benefitted from being overlooked in American policymaking. It may find itself the target of an uncomfortable amount of attention over the next four years.

Australia benefits most when it is ignored by the United States; the greatest threat to Australia is that Biden will finally give it the attention it craves.

Incentives key to Covid suppression

Robert Carling

22 January 2021 | Ideas@theCentre

The bossy, patronising attitude of the overweening nanny state has been on prominent display in our governments’ management of the SARS-COV-2 pandemic.

Even New South Wales — which is generally credited with finessing suppression of the virus and eschewing the heavy-handed tactics of other states and territories — has at times hectored and harassed its citizens. The latest manifestation of this is Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s threat to keep restrictions in place unless testing rates exceed 20,000 per day.

It is unclear where such an arbitrary threshold comes from — not long ago the ‘magic number’ was said to be 30,000 — but let’s suspend scepticism, give hard-pressed health authorities the benefit of the doubt, and accept that 20,000 is in the public interest. How is this best achieved, given that the rate has recently averaged well below 10,000?

Nobody is compelled to get tested. People will respond to the incentives they face. There is an incentive to get tested if they have symptoms. They may also come forward in large numbers if they perceive a clear and present danger in the community, as 70,000 did in one day at the peak of the northern beaches scare.

But in general, they will not respond to appeals to civic-mindedness if they see no benefits to themselves and think, quite rationally, that the 20,000 will surely emerge from the ranks of 8 million other candidates on any given day. And they will not respond well to being threatened like children who are told that Santa won’t visit unless they behave.

If 20,000 — or any such magic number — is to be reached and sustained, the government will need a smarter approach than threatening the people that elected it. Better explanations would be a good start.

Paying people to get tested would be going too far, but what about a lottery scheme in which all who are tested on any day that total numbers exceed 20,000 go into a draw for a substantial cash prize?