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.

New PM, same task

Simon Cowan

18 September 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

036627b9-4e8b-403c-bb45-a57c291a7d8fAustralia has its fifth Prime Minister in as many years. For various reasons Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and now Tony Abbott have all been removed, not by losing an election, but by losing the confidence of their parliamentary colleagues.

There was a lot of speculation on the tensions in the Labor party (primarily around Rudd and Gillard) but to be surprised that the Liberal party also removed a Prime Minister is to misread recent events.

Although some may blame opinion polling, it is clear discontent lay beneath the surface of the Liberal Party for some time. In addition to leadership speculation, calls for Cabinet reshuffles, a back-bench revolt in February, and the same sex marriage debate exposed bitter internal divides.

To use a fossil fuel metaphor; opinion polls may have fracked the seam of ill-feeling, but it didn’t create the gas.

Part of the pressure comes from unfavourable economic circumstances: Australia may once again have a new Prime Minister but it has the same old problems. Economic growth remains slow, unemployment is trending up, healthcare reform has been stymied by vested interests and the task of budget repair remains largely unstarted.

Moreover, the public is yet to accept the need for substantive reform in these and many other areas.

The task for Turnbull and his team is twofold. First he must convince the public of his reasons for removing the Prime Minister they elected, just two years into his first term. These reasons must be real, Gillard’s phrase that ‘a good government that lost its way’ never resonated.

The second task is to nurture the development of a constituency for economic reform. Budget reform is just one element of an overarching reform program aimed at reducing the handbrake of government and kick-starting economic growth.

The Abbott government never completed this step. They had not prepared the ground for the 2014 budget and paid the price.

It is too early to tell what effect the change of Prime Minister will have on the government of Australia. One thing is clear, the need for leadership on economic reform is becoming more pressing.

What are we to do about Jeremy?

Peter Saunders

18 September 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

e48be206-3ab3-434b-927b-1cb26ef04b70In Britain, the Tories think all their Christmases have come at once.  Labour Party activists have overwhelmingly chosen as their new leader a Marxist, Jeremy Corbyn, who has the support of barely 10% of his own MPs.  He has in turn appointed a shadow cabinet comprising long-term comrades like new Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, plus a smattering of faint-hearted fellow travellers from the Blair and Brown years.  He has given the agriculture portfolio to a vegan!

The Tories believe Labour under Corbyn is unelectable (some even paid £3 to register as Labour supporters so they could vote for Corbyn in the leadership ballot).

Economically, Corbyn’s Labour will be ‘anti-austerity’.  Rather than reducing the huge government deficit, Corbyn and McDonnell would force the Bank of England to buy billions of pounds of new debt by creating money (‘People’s Quantitative Easing’) to fund more government spending.  They also want to increase taxes on high earners, scrap student fees, renationalise the railways and energy supply industries, control the banks and clobber private landlords.

Foreign policy would be vehemently anti-American and anti-Israel.  Corbyn wants Britain out of NATO and says he would scrap the Trident nuclear weapons system.  He would refuse to deploy any British forces to fight in the Middle East.  He and McDonnell claim they are long-term peacemakers, but theirs is a one-eyed pacifism: in Ireland they befriended Sinn Fein/IRA (McDonnell even called for IRA bombers to be “honoured”) and in the Middle East their chums are Hamas and Hezbollah.

But are the Tories right that Labour is now unelectable?

Much of Corbyn’s program will be popular.  There is already strong support among voters for renationalising the railways, taxing ‘the rich’, bashing the bankers and scrapping student fees.  Next year the government starts cutting tax credits (top-ups for low-paid workers) and this will fuel ‘anti-austerity’ sentiment.  There is also widespread weariness with foreign wars.

The assumption that parties can only win elections ‘from the centre’ is also suspect.  Corbyn’s friend, Ken Livingstone, won the London Mayorality on a hard-left platform, and in May the anti-austerity SNP took 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster.  Emotive, populist leftism is surging across Europe; there is no reason to believe the UK is immune.

Worse, the Tories themselves could soon be in trouble.  The referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, due in 2017, is almost bound to rupture party unity (there have already been mutinous rumblings as Cameron has tried to gerrymander the voting rules).  And with China’s growth flagging and Europe tanking, another slump in the world economy seems almost inevitable before 2020, when the next general election is due.

If that happens, Britain will suffer badly, for the asset bubble — fuelled by public and private borrowing — is bigger than ever.  If and when the economy crashes, the Tories will forfeit their reputation as competent economic managers, and with the centre party Lib Dems now almost wiped out, voters will turn to Corbyn.

The fault in our stars, and on our shelves

Helen Andrews

18 September 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

c6c670e9-ca05-47fc-b805-bb0856bd97dbYou might have noticed a funny-looking new label on some items at the supermarket. No, not that squiggly iPhone barcode nobody uses. It’s the Health Star Rating label, which the Abbott government was unable to prevent the Department of Health bureaucrats from developing, although they did manage to make the labels voluntary rather than compulsory.

The Health Star Rating system gave quite a hostage to fortune by making its slogan so blunt: ‘The more stars, the healthier the choice. Simple.’ Unlike most advertising slogans, this one is a factual statement, the truth of which can be verified — or not.

ABC Fact Check has now done just that, and it turns out the Health Department marketing team would have been better off picking a vaguer slogan.

Fact Check highlights odd discrepancies, like liquorice confectionary scoring higher than plain yoghurt. Some brands of potato chips score higher than Pink Lady apples, some frozen pizza scores higher than Nutri Grain cereal.

Nutritionists blamed these anomalies on two main flaws. The first is the byzantine way the ratings are calculated. ‘Fruit content’ can earn points toward a higher rating, even when the ‘fruit content’ in question is so refined and stripped of fibre and vitamins that it’s not much healthier than straight syrup. Some fruit juices with high sugar content have been rejigged to achieve 4-star ratings in just this way.

The second flaw is more broadly conceptual. There just isn’t a simple way to rank the healthiness of radically unlike foods. Is hummus healthier than a hard-boiled egg? That’s like asking whether ice cream is more delicious than pizza – it’s not a fair comparison. The question is practically meaningless unless the foods can be put in the context of the rest of an individual’s diet. It’s certainly too complex to be boiled down to relative star ratings.

The range of food available in an average supermarket is just too diverse to be ranked along a single axis of ‘healthiness.’ That’s why there is little hope that revising the algorithm will ever produce a Health Star Rating system that can honestly claim ‘the more stars, the healthier.’