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Sunday, 20 March

19:37

Keeping Sea Lanes Open: A Benefit Cost Analysis John Quiggin

Whenever I raise the observation that navies are essentially obsolete, someone is bound to raise the cry “What about the sea lanes”. The claim that navies play a vital role in protecting trade routes is taken so much for granted that it might seem untestable. But it turns out that most of the information needed for a benefit cost analysis is available. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), the claimed benefit of keeping sea lanes open doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’ve spelt this out in my latest article in Inside Story, reprinted over the fold.

Among the beliefs that drive military policy in the developed world, the importance of keeping sea lanes open is prominent. Australia’s White Paper on Defence, released to a generally favorable reaction, took this requirement as self-evident, and justifying the expenditure of at least $150 billion on submarines. The subsequent controversy turned on the second-order question of whether this requirement was so vital as to require a rushed replacement of our existing fleet, or whether the task should be undertaken more slowly and carefully.

Australia is not unusual in its concern for trade routes. For example, a recent Politico article on European attitudes to the possible election of Donald Trump as US president concluded with the fear that ‘They might also be on the hook for indirect benefits of U.S. military spending, like the protection of commercial sea routes’

This concern is partly based on historical memory of the important role of attacks on commercial shipping in previous wars, most notably World War II. However, the primary focus of concern is not a ‘total war’ on merchant sh...

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Saturday, 19 March

13:06

A better system of voting for the Senate John Quiggin

After a fractious debate, the LNP and Greens have combined to push through changes to the system of voting in the Senate. The primary change is to introduce something like optional preferential voting above the line, replacing the system where party apparatchiks got to allocate preferences. While not perfect, this is an improvement on the old system.

It points the way to a much simpler system. I suggest scrapping the below/above distinction, and moving to a standard optional preferential system, except that we would vote for named party lists. Independents could pick a party name describing their objectives, or just run under their own names.

The main objection to this system is that it rules out the option of voting for (say) Labor candidates in an order different to that of the party ticket, which is currently possible below the line. But, as far as I know, in nearly 100 years with the current system, no candidate has ever been elected ahead of someone higher up their own party list.

Against that, it would be simple, familiar and easy to count, with a greatly reduced risk of accidental informal votes.

Wednesday, 16 March

23:50

Political Bourbonism John Quiggin

Laura Tingle had an interesting piece on political memory. in Quarterly Essay recently, and my response (over the fold) was published in the latest issue (paywalled)>. Tingle is the most insightful observer of Australian politics writing in the mass media, but she has always taken the inevitability and desirability of market liberal reform for a granted. I detect a bit of a shift in the latest piece, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.

Quarterly Essay response

Laura Tingle is right to suggest that memory is a problem in Australian politics. But, for most of the Australian political class, the problem is not amnesia. Rather, like the Bourbons, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

The key word here is ‘reform’. As Tingle observes, “reform” remains a fetish word, at least for the political class. Its continuing magical power can be seen in the recent ‘National Reform Summit’, jointly sponsored by our rival national dailies, The Australian and the Australian Financial Review, along with the inevitable participation of consulting firm KPMG (which helpfully notes its affiliation with KPMG International ‘a Swiss entity’).

The content of ‘reform’ is generally taken to be self-explanatory. Obviously, for example, anyone who suggested a tax reform that would require higher income earners to pay more income tax, or a productivity reform that involved more leisure, would not have been welcome.

As Tingle observes, the term ‘reform’ has become ‘a hollowed-out word which you attach to anything voters won’t like in the hope that it will make you appear a strong and decisive government’. The problem lies in her implicit contrast with an earlier era in which there was a consensus around a reform agenda based on ‘an obligation to explain and advocate’.

The memory of this golden era of reform is what gives the word ‘reform’ its c...

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