Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Snippets - a crabby Sunday morning

I suspect my regular readers have probably had just about enough of discussions on Aboriginal issues and indeed long posts for the present. So this morning's post is simply Sunday Snippets in place of the normal Sunday Essay.

First of all, a post on the New England Australia Can you help us find Captain Thunderbolt? updates the search for a full copy of this missing film. David Donaldson who inspired the search in the first place is getting frustrated at the apparent lack of action. Can you help?

Here in Australia both PM Gillard and Opposition Leader Abbott are talking about the need for welfare reform, to get people off benefits and into work. Adele Horan had a thoughtful piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Reform needs to break the cycle, that points to some of the difficulties involved.

I said yesterday in Saturday Morning Musings - Aboriginal identity that I seemed to be in a cranky, irritable, mood at the moment. You can see this in my writing. But we do seem at present in Australia to have a whole series of issues running that are in fact interlinked but are dealt with as though they occupy separate silos.  

Tony Burke's bullshit, another piece on the New England blog, discussed Minister Burke's reported approach to regional development. For those who don't know Mr Burke, he is Commonwealth Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.There, that's a mouthful.

The original report said in part:

Mr Burke, who is approaching his 12-month anniversary in the portfolio, said the country was at a unique stage in its history because the mining boom meant the growth in regions was commercially driven rather than led by government.

"We have a really different opportunity because regionalism is being market-driven," he said.

I normally don't use words like bullshit, but Mr Burke's remarks as reported annoyed me, in part because they were historically inaccurate.

Mr Burke wants to take action that will remove impediments to increased housing supply in fast growing mining areas, while Opposition Leader Abbott wants to move unemployed young people to those areas. The two are obviously linked in that severe housing shortages and high rents in certain places mean that the ordinary worker can't actually afford to live there. So we have the phenomenon of FIFO, the fly-in, fly-out worker, something that PM Gillard has also been complaining about.

  The problem with policies expressed in terms of generalities such as the "country was at a unique stage in its history because the mining boom meant the growth in regions was commercially driven rather than led by government" is that it acts to conceal reality.

The mining boom itself is concentrated in particular places with their own features. To make sense of Mr Burke's comments we actually need to know just which areas he is talking about. We need to localise.

In fact, not all fast growing areas are mining areas, but that's another story.  

Another gripe post during the week on the New England blog was Sydney's past asset grab, now electricity prices go sky-high. I wrote that post from a purely New England perspective, however there are broader issues. 

According to the report in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Many low-income families in NSW will be forking out 10 per cent or more of their disposable incomes on electricity bills after increases of up to 18.1 per cent announced by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal yesterday. Its chairman, Rod Sims, said the electricity price increases would be difficult for many families.

The huge increase in electricity prices is partly associated with past poor maintenance, but is also linked to the way the renewable energy targets worked in practice. I don't properly understand the second. When the problem first emerged in NSW, it seemed to me that there had been a fundamental failure in policy design that should have been avoidable. That would still appear to be the case.

The difficulty now is that the very size of the increase is creating major flow on effects. For example, it makes the task of welfare reform just that much harder since it reduces the real disposable incomes of lower income earners. Problems here are compounded by rising food prices.

Rising food prices are a major global concern just at present because of the way they are pushing more people into abject poverty. This is not just a personal tragedy for those involved, but has significant political repercussions. Most Australians are wealth enough to absorb the increases without real pain, but for those on lower incomes rising food prices add to difficulties.      

At present, a single unemployed person gets $A237 a week. In many parts of Australia, you cannot find a place on the private rental market place for that price.

Friday night's ABC Stateline program carried a story - its not on-line - on the systematised rip-off of some overseas students living around Macquarie University. Youngest, who watched it with me, was really upset because Macquarie is her university.

Essentially, the story said that the tight rental marketplace around the university meant that private operators were creating illegal boarding houses that allowed them to cram up to ten or so students into a three bedroom house charging each student $180-$200 per week for very poor conditions. This is not unique to Macquarie University, but applies elsewhere as well.

Unless a single unemployed person has some form of family backing, they are in a very similar position. Unless they can get social housing, the only real choices are the street or some form of what used to be called doss house accommodation. 

The whole thing also makes it harder for the Government to craft and sell its proposed carbon tax since this will add to prices. Yes, there will be some form of compensation, but this is hard to sell in advance.

Again localising, the reports suggest that the relative immediate increase in NSW electricity prices will be greatest in regional NSW, that is in the electorates of Messrs Windsor and Oakshott, the country independents on whom the Government's survival depends. These are also electorates with strong anti-climate change movements. In all the discussion around the carbon tax, a final result could well depend on a simple equation - how it affects certain people in Port Macquarie, Armidale, Manila or Tamworth.

To my mind, there is a certain delicious irony in the possibility that decisions made in NSW in 1995 about electricity upon the recommendations of the NSW Treasury, decisions that dismissed local concerns as irrelevant in the broader scheme of things, now risk failure of a major national initiative.

In Web 2.0, people talk about the long tail. The same is true in public policy.

And in all this as Australia focuses on how best to use the mining cornucopia shimmering on the horizon in the heat haze, the Australian dollar reaches heights not seen for many years. Non-mining exports are down, imports up. Consumer spending is soft, company profits down. Economic growth is slowing. The Australian Government faces a major budget problem because tax receipts are down.

in my presently crabby mood, I cannot help noticing the apparent gap between the froth and bubble of political discourse at the top and what actually appears to be happening on the ground.

It may well be that Federal Labor would have been better off losing the last election, letting the Coalition flay away. Certainly, I don't envy Ms Gillard in her current task.    


The Australian has a pretty good report by Sid Maher, Cool climate in Windsor's heartland, that captures the range of views in Tony Windsor's New England electorate. The economy including prices and health are top of mind issues.

Interestingly, on another current national topic, Armidale is the site for the initial mainland NBN broadband roll-out. An article in the Armidale Express on rising house prices - Armidale house prices are rising somewhat faster than in Sydney - attributed part of the rise to treechangers attracted to the city by the broadband.      


Winton Bates said...

For a moment, Jim, I thought that the 'delicious irony' would get you out of your crabby mood.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a fair bit to be crabby about at the moment.

Jim Belshaw said...

I am feeling less crabby now, Winton. There is too much of it about!