The novel coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – may have been in Europe for longer than previously thought. Recent studies have suggested that it was circulating in Italy as early as December 2019. More surprisingly, researchers at the University of Barcelona found traces of the virus when testing untreated wastewater samples dated March 12, 2019.
The study was recently published on a preprint server, medRxiv. The paper is currently being subject to critical review by outside experts in preparation for publication in a scientific journal. Until this process of peer review has been completed, though, the evidence needs to be treated with caution.
So, how was the experiment conducted and what exactly did the scientists find?
One of the early findings about SARS-CoV-2 is that it is found in the faeces of infected people. As the virus makes its way through the gut – where it can cause gastrointestinal symptoms – it loses its outer protein layer, but bits of genetic material called RNA survive the journey intact and are “shed” in faeces. At this point, it is no longer infectious – as far as current evidence tells us.
But the fact that these bits of coronavirus RNA can be found in untreated wastewater (known as “influent”) is useful for tracking outbreaks. Indeed, they can predict where an outbreak is likely to occur a week to ten days before they show up in official figures – the reason being that people shed coronavirus before symptoms become evident. These “pre-symptomatic” people then have to get sick enough to be tested, get the results, and be admitted to a hospital as an official “case”, hence the week or so lag.
As a result, many countries, including Spain, are now monitoring wastewater for traces of coronavirus. In this particular study, wastewater epidemiologists were examining frozen samples of influent between January 2018 and December 2019 to see when the virus made its debut in the city.
They found evidence of the virus on January 15, 2020, 41 days before the first official case was declared on February 25, 2020. All the samples before this date were negative, except for a sample from March 12, 2019, which gave a positive result in their PCR test for coronavirus. PCR is the standard way of testing to see if someone currently has the disease.
PCR involves getting samples of saliva, mucus, frozen wastewater or whatever else the virus is thought to be lurking in, clearing all the unnecessary stuff out of the sample, then converting the RNA – which is a single strand of genetic material – into DNA (the famous double-stranded helix). The DNA is then “amplified” in successive cycles until key bits of genetic material that are known to only exist in a particular virus are plentiful enough to be detected with a fluorescent probe.
In coronavirus testing, scientists typically screen for more than one gene. In this case, the researchers tested for three. They had a positive result for the March 2019 sample in one of the three genes tested – the RdRp gene. They screened for two regions of this gene and both were only detected around the 39th cycle of amplification. (PCR tests become less “specific” with increasing rounds of amplification. Scientists generally use 40 to 45 rounds of amplification.)
There are several explanations for this positive result. One is that SARS-CoV-2 is present in the sewage at a very low level. Another is that the test reaction was accidentally contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory. This sometimes happens in labs as positive samples are regularly being handled, and it can be difficult to prevent very small traces of positive sample contaminating others.
Another explanation is that there is other RNA or DNA in the sample that resembles the test target site enough for it to give a positive result at the 39th cycle of amplification.
Further tests need to be carried out to conclude that the sample contains SARS-CoV-2, and a finding of that magnitude would need to be replicated separately by independent laboratories.
A curious thing about this finding is that it disagrees with epidemiological data about the virus. The authors don’t cite reports of a spike in the number of respiratory disease cases in the local population following the date of the sampling.
Also, we know SARS-CoV-2 to be highly transmissible, at least in its current form. If this result is a true positive it suggests the virus was present in the population at a high enough incidence to be detected in an 800ml sample of sewage, but then not present at a high enough incidence to be detected for nine months, when no control measures were in place.
So, until further studies are carried out, it is best not to draw definitive conclusions.
Last season’s bushfires directly killed 34 people and devastated more than 8 million hectares of land along the south-eastern fringe of Australia.
A further 445 people are estimated to have died from smoke-induced respiratory problems.
The burned landscape may take decades to recover, if it recovers at all.
So will the 2020 fire season kick off this month? And is last summer’s inferno what we should expect as a normal fire season? The answer to both questions is no. Let’s look at why.
First, let’s recap what led to last year’s early start to the fire season, and why the bushfires became so intense and extensive.
The fires were so severe because they incorporated five energy sources. The most obvious is fuel: live and dead plant material.
The other sources bushfires get their energy from include the terrain, weather, atmospheric instability and a lack of moisture in the environment such as in soil, timber in houses and large woody debris.
The June fires in Queensland resulted from a drought due to the lack of rain coming from the Indian Ocean. The drought combined with unusually hot dry winds from the north-west. By August the bushfires were burning all along the east coast of Australia and had become large and overwhelming.
Ahead of the fire season, environmental moisture was the lowest ever recorded in much of eastern Australia. This was due to the Indian Ocean Dipole – the difference in sea surface temperature on either side of the ocean – which affects rainfall in Australia. The dipole was in positive mode, which brought drought. This meant the fire used less of its own energy to spread.
Fire weather conditions in south-eastern Australia were severe from August 2019 until March 2020. Temperatures reached record highs in places, relative humidity was low and winds were strong due to high-pressure systems tracking further north than normal.
High atmospheric instability, often associated with thunderstorms, enabled large fire plumes to develop as fires grew to several thousand hectares in size. This increased winds and dryness at ground level, rapidly escalating the damaging power and size of the fires.
Fuel levels were high because of the drying trend associated with climate change and a lack of low-intensity fires over the past couple of decades, which allowed fuel levels to build up.
Currently, at least two bushfire energy sources – fuels and drought – are at low levels.
Fuels are low because last season’s fires burnt through large tracts of landscape and it will take five to ten years for them to redevelop. The build-up will start with leaf litter, twigs and bark.
In forested areas, the initial flush of regrowth in understorey and overstorey will be live and moist. Gradually, leaves will turn over and dead litter will start to build up.
But there is little chance of areas severely burnt in 2019-20 carrying an intense fire for at least five years.
What’s also different this year to last is the moist conditions. Drought leading up to last fire season was severe (see below).
Environmental moisture was the driest on record, or in the lowest 5% of records for much of south-east Australia.
But the current level of drought (see below) is much less pronounced.
A change in weather patterns brought good rains to eastern Australia from late February to April.
It’s too early to say conclusively how the fire season will pan out in 2020-21. But moister conditions due to a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole and Southern Oscillation Index (which indicates the strength of any El Niño and La Niña events), the lack of fuel, and more normal weather patterns (known as a positive Southern Annular Mode) mean there is little prospect of an early start to the season.
The likelihood of severe bushfires in south-east Australia later in the year and over summer is much reduced. This doesn’t mean there won’t be bushfires. But they’re not likely to be as extensive and severe as last fire season.
The reduced bushfire risk is likely to persist for the next three to five years.
But, in the longer term, climate change means severe fire seasons are becoming more frequent. If we simply try to suppress these fires, we will fail. We need a concerted effort to manage the bushfire risk. This should involve carefully planned and implemented prescribed fires, as well as planning and preparing for bushfires.
Last bushfire season should be a turning point for land management in Australia. Five inquiries into the last bushfire season are under way, including a royal commission, a Senate inquiry and inquiries in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.
These inquiries must lead to change. We have a short window of opportunity to start managing fires in the landscape more sustainably. If we don’t, in a decade’s time we may see the Black Summer repeat itself.
In July 2019, the government introduced new aged care standards to “raise the bar” in an aged care system where some nursing home residents have experienced care that is neglectful, depersonalised, uncaring, unsafe and of poor quality.
We took a close look at breaches of aged care standards from 2019 to see what effect the new aged care standards are having, and where aged care providers are falling short.
In the interactive map below you can see aged care providers that were non-compliant in 2019.
Aged care standards are the minimum standard of care the government expects nursing homes to provide.
They are supposed to ensure people in aged care have access to quality care including competent staff who listen, best-practice clinical care and nutritious and tasty food.
Nursing homes that don’t meet standards are given a notice of non-compliance. If the provider doesn’t fix the problems that made it non-compliant, then it will be sanctioned.
If assessors decide there is an immediate and severe risk to residents, nursing homes can also be immediately sanctioned. The nursing home provider must then bring the care up to standard before they can take new residents.
From 2014 until the new standards were introduced in July 2019, the number of non-compliance notices and sanctions increased steadily as can be seen in the chart below.
This was likely due to a combination of increasing scrutiny of the quality of residential care as a result of the unsafe care revealed at Oakden in 2017, and the establishment of the aged care royal commission in October 2018. A 2018 policy change meant providers were no longer warned about upcoming accreditation visits.
The new standards, introduced in July 2019, focus on “personal dignity and choice”.
They were designed to support the provision of care based on what residents want, rather than penalising providers when they let residents do something that could be considered “risky”, such as allowing someone with mild dementia to walk to the shops, or having a pet in the nursing home.
The number of non-compliance notices and sanctions in the first six months of the new standards decreased. This is likely because assessors visited fewer nursing homes in this period, and may still be learning how to interpret the new standards.
Some 6% of for-profit residential care facilities failed aged care standards in 2019, some of them multiple times. In comparison 5% of not-for-profit and 4% of government facilities failed standards.
The rate of non-compliance in for-profit facilities was 27% higher than not-for-profits, and 54% higher than government facilities.
This suggests for-profit providers in Australia are more likely to provide lower quality care. An international review has noted similar trends in other countries.
Profit margins are slim in aged care, and for-profit providers are under pressure to make profits by cutting costs. This could lead to a lower standard of care compared with not-for-profit or government providers.
The most common reasons for non-compliance in 2019 were in the area of personal and clinical care and the area of governance.
An example of a nursing home breaching the personal and clinical care standard could be if the home’s practices mean it isn’t giving medication correctly, isn’t managing wounds properly, or isn’t providing dignified help for residents using the toilet.
Homes might also breach the personal and clinical care standards if they don’t have sufficiently skilled staff such as registered nurses to care for residents with complex health needs.
A nursing home might be non-compliant in governance when it doesn’t have the right systems in place to monitor and improve its clinical care, for example in the areas of infection control or restraints. It might also be non-compliant if residents and families don’t have enough of a say in how the facility is run.
The new standards were supposed to place an increased focus on dignity and choice, supporting the identity of a person, and increasing their say in the care they receive. This means catering for residents who want to have showers in the evening, stay up late, or make their own lunch. Previously there was much less emphasis on these aspects of aged care.
It is somewhat promising that more breaches of non-compliance in the “dignity and choice” standard have been picked up since the new standards came in. But given we know care is often poor in this area and there is an increased focus on this standard, we could have expected a more significant change.
Based on the first six months of non-compliance and sanctions data for the new aged care standards, we cannot be confident the new standards are ensuring nursing homes provide higher quality care. We await more data.
Until then, aged care residents and their families should monitor the quality of care they receive, know their aged care rights, and complain if they think there is an issue.
If you or a family member are considering using an aged care provider, you can check whether the provider has breached standards via the My Aged Care non-compliance checker.
The secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, Phil Gaetjens, has criticised “significant shortcomings” in Bridget McKenzie’s decision-making in the sports rorts affair, while outlining his argument that her allocation of grants was not politically biased.
Gaetjens has made his first public comments in a submission to the Senate inquiry set up to investigate the affair, which cost McKenzie her cabinet job and the deputy leadership of the Nationals.
The government has been under intense pressure to release his report, commissioned by Scott Morrison, which was used to determine McKenzie’s fate. Gaetjens, a one-time chief of staff to Morrison, exonerated her from any breach of ministerial standards on the substance of her decisions but found she had breached them by not disclosing membership of gun organisations.
While his report remains confidential Gaetjens has set out his findings in detail, which were at odds with the Audit Office conclusion the allocation of grants had a political bias.
At a bureaucratic level, the sports affair has become something of a head-to-head between the Auditor-General and the country’s most senior bureaucrat.
Gaetjens says in his submission his advice to Morrison was based on information from Sport Australia, McKenzie, and her staff.
He says there were “some significant shortcomings” in McKenzie’s decision-making role, as well as in the way Sport Australia administered the assessment process.
These included “the lack of transparency for applicants around the other factors being considered, and the disconnect between the assessment process run by Sport Australia and the assessment and decision-making process in the Minister’s Office”.
“This lack of transparency, coupled with the significant divergences between projects recommended by Sport Australia and those approved by the Minister have given rise to concerns about the funding decision-making,” he says.
“The discrepancy between the number of applications recommended by Sport Australia and the final list of approved applications clearly shows the Minister’s Office undertook a separate and non-transparent process in addition to the assessment by Sport Australia”.
Gaetjens says McKenzie informed him her approvals were designed to get “a fair spread of grants according to state, region, party, funding stream and sport, in addition to the criteria assessed by Sport Australia”.
He rejects the Audit claim McKenzie’s approach was based on the much talked about spreadsheet of November 2018 that was colour coded according to party, and says she told him she had never seen that spreadsheet.
“The ANAO Report … asserts that the Adviser’s spreadsheet is evidence that ‘the Minister’s Office had documented the approach that would be adopted to selecting successful applicants’ before funding decisions were made. However, there is persuasive data that backs up the conclusion that the Minister’s decisions to approve grants were not based on the Adviser’s spreadsheet,” Gaetjens writes.
The evidence included the significant length of time between the spreadsheet and the approvals. Also, 30% of the applications listed as successful on the adviser’s spreadsheet did not get funding approval .
“So, on the evidence available to me, there is a material divergence between actual outcomes of all funded projects and the approach identified in the Adviser’s spreadsheet. This does not accord with the ANAO Report”, which found funding reflected the political approach documented by McKenzie’s office.
Gaetjens says had McKenzie just followed Sport Australia’s initial list, 30 electorates would have got no grants. In the final wash up only five missed out (no applications had come from three of them).
“I did not find evidence that the separate funding approval process conducted in the Minister’s office was unduly influenced by reference to ‘marginal’ or ‘targeted’ electorates. Evidence provided to me indicated that the Adviser’s spreadsheet was developed by one member of staff in the Minister’s Office, using information provided by Sport Australia in September 2018, as a worksheet to support an increase in funding for the Program.
“Senator McKenzie advised me in response to a direct question that she had never seen the Adviser’s spreadsheet and that neither she nor her staff based their assessments on it.
“Her Chief of Staff also told the Department of the Prime Minster and Cabinet that the Adviser had categorically stated she had not shown the spreadsheet to the Minister.”
Rejecting the Audit Office conclusion of a bias to marginal and targeted seats, Gaetjens says “180 ‘marginal’ and ‘targeted’ projects were recommended by Sport Australia, and 229 were ultimately approved by the Minister, representing a 27 per cent increase. This is smaller than the percentage increase of projects recommended (325) to projects funded (451) in non-marginal or non-targeted seats which was 39 per cent.”
“The evidence I have reviewed does not support the suggestion that political considerations were the primary determining factor in the Minister’s decisions to approve the grants”. So he had concluded she did not breach the section of the ministerial standard requiring fairness, Gaetjens writes.
Amid the ongoing bushfire and coronavirus crises – and the political kerfuffle surrounding the Nationals and Greens – you’d be forgiven for missing the annual release of the federal political donations data this week.
Nine months after the 2019 federal election, voters finally get a look at who funded the political parties’ campaigns.
The data reveals that big money matters in Australian elections more than ever, and donations are highly concentrated among a small number of powerful individuals, businesses and unions.
These are significant vulnerabilities in Australia’s democracy and reinforce why substantial reforms are needed to prevent wealthy interests from exercising too much influence in Australian politics.
The big story of the 2019 election was Clive Palmer, who donated A$84 million via his mining company Mineralogy to his own campaign – a figure that dwarfs all other donations as far back as the records go. The previous record – also held by Palmer – was A$15 million at the 2013 election.
There are obviously many factors in an election win, but this raises a serious question: how much influence should we allow any single interest to hold over the national debate, especially during the critically important election period?
Several other large donors also emerged at this election. A A$4 million donation to the Liberal Party from the company Sugolena, owned by a private investor and philanthropist, takes the prize for the largest-ever non-Palmer donation.
Businessman Anthony Pratt donated about A$1.5 million to each of the major parties through his paper and packaging company Pratt Holdings. The hotels lobby, which has been influential in preventing pokies reforms in past state and federal elections, also donated about A$500,000 to the Coalition and A$800,000 to Labor.
A 2018 Grattan Institute report, Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics, showed how money can buy relationships and political connections. The political parties rely heavily on major donors, and as a result, major donors get significant access to ministers.
While explicit quid pro quo is probably rare, the risk is in more subtle influences – that donors get more access to policymakers and their views are given more weight. These risks are exacerbated by a lack of transparency in dealings between policymakers and special interests.
Big money improves the chances of influence. But it also matters to election outcomes.
Looking back at the past five federal elections, an interesting correlation is evident: the party with the biggest war chest tends to form government.
It’s only a sample of five, and it’s unclear whether higher spending drives the election result or donors simply get behind the party most likely to win.
But in 2019, Labor was widely expected to win, so its smaller war chest supports the proposition that money assists in delivering power.
Money in politics needs to be better regulated to reduce the risk of interest groups “buying” influence – and elections.
Real transparency is the first step. Half of private funding remains hidden from public view due to Australia’s high disclosure threshold and loopholes in the federal donations rules.
Only donations of more than A$14,000 need to be on the public record, and political parties don’t have to aggregate multiple donations below the threshold from the same donor – meaning major donors can simply split their donations to hide their identity.
Parliament should improve the transparency of political donations by
lowering the federal donations disclosure threshold to A$5,000, so all donations big enough to matter are on the public record;
requiring political parties to aggregate multiple donations from the same donor, so big donors can’t hide
requiring quicker release of donations data, so voters have information on who funds elections during the campaign – not nine months later.
But the donations data shows transparency is not enough to protect Australia’s democracy from the influence of a handful of wealthy individuals. Ultimately, to reduce the influence of money in politics, parliament should introduce an expenditure cap during election campaigns.
Parties and candidates can currently spend as much money as they can raise, so big money means greater capacity to sell your message to voters.
Capping political expenditure by political parties – and third parties – would reduce the influence of wealthy individuals. And it would reduce the donations “arms race” between the major parties, giving senior politicians more time to do their job instead of chasing dollars.
When Australians pay their income tax, they assume the money is going to areas of the community that need it, rather than being used by the government to shore up votes for the next election.
This is why the findings of the Australian National Audit Office into the awarding of community sporting grants by cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie are serious. Not merely for the grant funding process, but also for trust in our system of government.
The Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program was established in 2018 to ensure more Australians have access to quality sporting facilities, encouraging greater community participation in sport and physical activity.
The Audit Office was asked to examine this grant program to assess whether the award of funding “was informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice”. The focus was therefore on whether proper procedures were followed.
The report was extremely critical of the way in which the A$100 million in sporting grants were awarded by Minister McKenzie ahead of last year’s election campaign.
It found successful applications were “not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious” and that there was “distributional bias” in the way projects were approved. The problem is many of the grants were awarded to bodies within marginal seats or seats the Coalition wanted to win.
This is a serious matter because it represents a politicisation of a grant system which is supposed to be undertaken on merit.
The fact the Audit Office has made this finding is important. But what happens now and what will the consequences be? Will there be an investigation? If so, by whom?
Importantly, the Audit Office is an independent body. In the absence of a federal integrity commission, it has a significant role to play in ensuring government funds are spent for proper purposes. A central part of the role of the Audit Office is to uncover and report on fraud and corruption in government decisions. But it does not have coercive powers and its report does not have any direct legal effect on Senator McKenzie.
If there is to be a further investigation of this matter, it’s likely to be taken up by a parliamentary forum such as Senate Estimates. What is more significant are the consequences of the Audit report.
The first point to understand is that the direct legal consequences of the Audit Office finding are minimal. The report made four recommendations for future reform of the sporting grant procedure. While the Audit Office is very well-regarded by decision makers and commands respect, it is not a court. Therefore its recommendations are not binding and can be ignored by government.
What is more significant are the legal implications of the Audit report.
Here the problem is the Audit Office found the minister did not have legal authority to approve the grants in the first place. This is because the legal power to approve the sporting grants is actually given to Sport Australia (under the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989).
That legislation says the minister can give written directions to Sport Australia in relation to the exercise of its powers. But Senator McKenzie actually made the decisions on the grants (rather than merely give written directions to Sport Australia).
This is, however, somewhat of a theoretical argument as it is unlikely anyone will be able to bring this matter to court to invalidate the grant decisions made. Given community sporting groups who were disadvantaged by the improper grant process are community groups in need of funding, it’s unlikely they will be in a position to bring an expensive legal action.
It’s therefore likely the consequences of this report will be political rather than legal.
Here the political convention of “ministerial responsibility” should, ideally, come into play. This gives effect to the broader principle that the Australian people give authority and power to elected politicians and those politicians must be accountable for their actions.
This means McKenzie could be asked to resign. However, the Senator has indicated she will not resign, saying “no rules were broken” and she was given discretionary powers “for a purpose” in the program’s guidelines.
And this is one of the problems with ministerial responsibility today: it largely depends on whether the relevant party feel it’s politically necessary to pressure the relevant minister to stand down.
The current strength of this principle in modern Australia has been questioned, with many saying it’s no longer effective. For instance, journalist Tony Wright wrote in 2019:
Ministerial responsibility in Canberra appears to have all but decayed to no responsibility.
So, there may be no political consequences in this matter at all.
The Audit Office of Australia is a respected, independent institution and its findings this week should have consequences.
Trust in government, which should be central to a healthy democracy, is at an historical low in Australia. Governments need to make decisions which are transparent and fair. A government that bends the rules is a danger to the rule of law and to democracy.
So for all the talk of narrowing polls, tactical voting, and possible shocks leading to a hung parliament, Boris Johnson achieved a crushing victory over Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the UK’s general election of 2019. With an 80 or so seat majority in the House of Commons, Johnson can now deliver on his core promise to “get Brexit done”.
He can also shape the broader social and economic environment in tune with the instincts of those around him. They are, almost to a man and a woman, hard-right libertarian figures with a barely concealed contempt for the welfare state, the National Health Service, social benefits and all the other elements that compose the post-war consensus.
One of the tricks Johnson managed to pull off in this election was to paint himself as a saviour of public services, and and a leader untarnished by ten years of Tory austerity policies. The British public is in for a rude awakening when it finds out Johnson’s brand of rambling One Nation populism was a cover for a much tougher and more conservative agenda than many voters realise.
So the puzzle that many commentators are trying to figure out is how it is that a right wing figure of this kind could get one over on Corbyn who pitched his entire campaign on the promise to protect the health service and promote public ownership of key sectors such as the railways and the post office?
What became clear as the night unfolded is that former Labour constituencies in the Midlands and the north of the country have been, and still are, in favour of Brexit. Johnson promised to get Brexit done, and Labour did not. For much of the electorate, this was enough of a reason to cross well established political divides and tribal loyalties.
But it’s also clear that many voters didn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn. They saw him as too beholden to sectional interests, too evasive, too metropolitan and too left wing. Johnson, by contrast, came across as a capable if lovably bumbling figure who was able to articulate not only a clear line on Brexit, but also to distance himself from the legacy of destructive Tory policies. In the end it was Corbyn, not Johnson, who proved to be political Vegemite.
This proved a winning formula across England and most of Wales. But elsewhere, the story was rather different. In Scotland, the Nationalists improved their result from 2017, often at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, and indeed the latter’s leader Jo Swinson, who lost her seat to the Scottish National Party (SNP).
This sets up an important byline for 2020 which is the matter of Scottish independence. With Brexit now almost certain to go forward at the end of January 2020, the pressure will immediately mount to allow Scotland to have another independence vote on the back of the SNP’s crushing performance.
While the picture is less clear in Northern Ireland, the overall trend was towards increased support for the nationalist parties at the expense in particular of the Democratic Unionist Party, which similarly lost its parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds.
While the dynamics in Northern Ireland are quite different from those of Scotland, the realisation that Brexit will now take place is bound to provoke a sustained debate on the need for a border poll on the future of Northern Ireland itself. This may take some years to resolve, but the line of travel is becoming clearer, and it points towards the reunification of Ireland. Johnson’s triumph may thus herald the break-up of the UK – to be greeted, it seems, by English indifference.
But the clearest takeaway remains the state of progressive politics in the UK. The centrist Liberal Democrat party had a very bad election. The Green party managed to increase its share of the vote but only managed to win one seat. The Labour Party was sent packing in many of its traditional working class heartlands in the North.
As long as progressive and left politics is spread amongst these various parties, it seems unlikely that we can expect a recovery any time soon, certainly as far as electoral politics is concerned. The Labour Party will now hunker down to decide whether it is going to row back towards the centre under a leader such as Kier Starmer, or whether it is going to maintain the more radical position associated with Corbyn, McDonnell and the Momentum faction that now dominates many local constituency parties.
With the victory of Johnson demonstrating the importance of a charismatic and effective leader, attention will turn to the next generation of Labour politicians. It is difficult at this juncture to be confident there is a serious challenger waiting in the wings of the current Labour Party who can provide an effective counterpoint to the ebullient Johnson. But it must. More of the same will not turn the tide.
The right does not have a monopoly on effective communicators and charismatic leaders. But what it does have is a keener appreciation of the dynamics of the moment: that policies do not sell themselves; they have to be sold by someone who has an ability to connect, to articulate a position that voters feel comfortable with, and which chimes with their own experience, values, hopes and fears.
Some call this populism. But the reality is simpler: this is – and always has been – the formula for winning elections. It’s a formula the left would do well to memorise.
Sri Lanka’s presidential election on Saturday comes at a critical time for the country. The government has been in turmoil since President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the prime minister last year and replaced him with former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, a move that sparked a three-month constitutional crisis.
Then came the Easter bombings this year that killed over 250 people, including two Australians. Sirisena was accused in a parliamentary report of “actively undermining” national security and failing to prevent the attacks.
A harsh crackdown on the country’s Muslim minority followed, including arbitrary arrests and detention, according to human rights groups, often with state complicity. Sinhalese nationalist politicians have also been blamed for injecting
new energy into long-standing efforts to undermine the status and prosperity of the Muslim community.
Sirisena, who is not seeking re-election, has not fulfilled many of the election promises he made four years ago. He ran on issues of economic reform and achieving lasting peace on the island following its long-running civil war. But today, Sri Lanka is still very much a divided nation.
A record 35 candidates are running for president in the upcoming election. Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the opposition party SLPP is favoured to win.
Gotabaya is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and served in his decade-long administration as defence secretary. Under their watch, the government became increasingly authoritarian and was blamed by the minority Tamils and Muslims for political violence and repression.
However, among the Sinhalese majority, Gotabaya is a national hero for orchestrating the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers rebel group in 2009 and bringing an end to the 26-year-long armed conflict.
Gotabaya’s popularity increased significantly following the Easter Sunday terror attacks, thanks to his aggressive stance on terrorism and national security. He is viewed by many Sinhalese as a strongman similar to his brother, who can guarantee their safety and produce economic growth.
However, Gotabaya remains deeply unpopular among the Tamil and Muslim communities, as well as some Sinhalese critics.
The United Nations has accused Gotabaya’s military of committing numerous abuses in the final stages of the civil war, including torture, extrajudicial killings and repeated shelling in the no-fire zone.
Earlier this year, Gotabaya was sued in the US for authorising the extrajudicial killing of a prominent journalist and the torture of an ethnic Tamil. The lawsuit also includes allegations of rape, torture and brutal interrogations in army camps and police stations between 2008 and 2013.
Gotabaya has dismissed all the allegations against him as “baseless” and “politically motivated”.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has also repeatedly denied that his government was responsible for civilian deaths during the end of the war. If elected, Gotabaya said he would not honour an agreement the government made with the UN to investigate alleged war crimes.
According to some UN estimates, around 100,000 people were killed in the civil war, though a later UN report said 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months alone.
The UN has noted that only a proper investigation can lead to an accurate figure for the total number of deaths.
For nearly 1,000 days now, the Tamil families of those who disappeared at the end of the civil war have staged a protest to demand the government provide information about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
If Gotabaya wins the election, it will do little to ease the longstanding grievances of the island’s Tamil people, let alone the escalating tensions between the Sinhalese and Muslim community.
His main contender, Sajith Premadasa, is the son of another former president, Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989-93). He has been promising a social revolution that includes everything from eliminating poverty to universal health care to tax concessions for small- and medium-sized businesses.
Premadasa has also promised to ramp up national security, including through the appointment of Sarath Fonseka as the head of national security.
Fonseka was the army chief during the end of the civil war. In 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa jailed Fonseka for suggesting that Gotabaya had ordered all Tamil Tiger leaders to be killed and not allowed to surrender. Sirisena ordered him to be released when he took power.
A Gotabaya presidency is unlikely to change the deepening relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka. Labor and Coalition governments have pursued better relations with both the Rajapaksa and Sirisena governments following the end of the war.
However, the cooperation between the two countries will become harder to justify if Gotabaya wins the election, given the allegations he faces of war crimes.
Recent years have seen a closer strategic alignment between the countries, given Sri Lanka’s pivotal position in the Indian Ocean and China’s increasing presence in the region.
Australia gave two offshore patrol vessels to Sri Lanka in 2014, and this year, sent 1,200 ADF personnel to take part in a joint taskforce in Sri Lanka – the largest-ever defence engagement between the countries.
If Australia wants to continue to position itself as a leader of democratic values, it needs to play a greater role in facilitating lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
There is an opportunity for Australia to challenge the next president of Sri Lanka to address the real concerns facing minority groups on the island, not least because they continue to seek safety and protection in Australia.
The media have been itching for a report that blamed Labor’s defeat on a dud leader. But the Review of Labor’s 2019 Federal Election Campaign, chaired by former Rudd and Gillard government minister Craig Emerson and former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, is proportionate in the blame it sends Bill Shorten’s way. Shorten’s unpopularity contributed to Labor’s defeat, but there were wider problems that cannot be put down to leadership alone.
The review is a nuanced account of why Labor lost. Its brief explanation for that loss – a combination “of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in Liberal leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader” – belies the sophistication of the report as whole.
The document does better than most post-election analysis that has so far come from within the party. Some of this has been so tendentious and self-serving that its value in either explaining what went wrong or in pointing a way forward has been close to nil.
The review suggests that central to the party’s failure was that it did not reassess its approach adequately when Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull. Rhetoric that might have made sense when the Liberal Party was being led by “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, as well as proposing business tax cuts, made rather less sense once the “daggy suburban dad” in the baseball cap was in charge.
Labor made too little of the chaos in the Coalition. Instead, the ALP made itself the issue at the election, a kind of government-in-waiting with a target on its back.
University-educated voters in the southern states, when they tuned in to Morrison, might have heard a sound something like the air escaping from a whoopee cushion. And such voters swung to the Labor Party in the election.
But voters in the suburbs and the regions, especially in Queensland, liked what they saw. So did professing Christians, who liked it even more when they saw photos of the devout believer at prayer, right arm pointing to heaven.
On the other hand, many voters saw a danger to their already insecure lives in Labor’s multitude of expensive promises – and the taxation changes proposed to pay for them. They believed Morrison when he warned them of the risks of voting Labor.
Then there was coal. The authors of the report do seem to struggle with Adani. Like just about everyone else, they know it’s a financial and environmental mess. But in terms of electoral politics, Adani is radioactive.
Labor suffered in Queensland and the Hunter Valley as a result of its ambiguity, but the authors are silent on what the party could have done differently. If it had been less ambiguous about Adani, it would have needed to take a stand. But what should that stand have been?
The report is insistent that Labor should not alienate progressive and well-educated voters for whom climate change matters a lot and Adani is toxic. But how can it avoid their alienation while also pleasing economically insecure voters in Queensland? Is this simply a matter of finessing one’s language, or do the problems run deeper?
This is perhaps the report’s weakness. It is good at setting out the kinds of dilemmas Labor faces, which the party failed to grapple with at the 2019 election. It bemoans the party’s tendency to become the vehicle for various interests with diverse grievances, at the expense of serving the needs of economically insecure working-class voters. The habit of trying to serve too many masters multiplies policies and increases the complexity of campaign messaging, while undermining the party’s ability to craft a coherent story based on the party’s “core values”.
Yet the report has little to say on what such a narrative would look like or what those core values actually are. We are told the latter include:
improving the job opportunities, security and conditions of working Australians, fairness, non-discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender, and care for the environment.
But there is nothing much here that would prompt an undecided voter to look to Labor rather than the Coalition, especially if they like the look of the Coalition’s leader better than Labor’s – as most did in 2019.
And then, when the review tries to set out what a “persuasive growth story” might look like, we are treated to the usual history lesson on the Hawke and Keating governments, whose “whole economic strategy” was about promoting “growth, and through it, jobs” (otherwise known as “jobs and growth”). For the Labor Party, it seems, it’s always 1983. We just need to find the winged keel to get us home.
Rather as the Hawke and Keating governments did, the review pushes any idea of redistribution, or of reducing inequality, to the very margins of Labor philosophy and policy. Indeed, the hosing down of such aspirations – modest as they were at the 2019 election – may well help to explain one of the strangest silences in the report: its failure to deal with the role of the Murdoch press.
The Murdoch media didn’t merely favour the government over the opposition. It campaigned vigorously for the return of the Coalition. And it is a vast empire, with a monopoly through much of regional Queensland, for instance. It is hard not to see in the review’s silence on this matter a clearing of the way for a future kissing of the ring of the familiar kind.
Still, there is much that is valuable in the review. There is its frank criticism of the deficiencies in the Labor Party’s strategising and the incoherence of its campaign organisation. There is the news that the party’s own internal data pointed to the possibility of the catastrophe that ultimately occurred – polling outside the party prompted a misreading of the readily available evidence.
The review is also particularly good on the damaging effects of Clive Palmer’s massive advertising splurge. And it makes a fair attempt to relate the Labor Party’s problems to wider international trends, such as the decline of trust, the insecurity of working life for many, the crisis of social democracy, and the search for convenient scapegoats – all of which have undermined the position of parties of reform.
Best of all, the review spares us a lot of rubbish about moving the party to the centre, or the right. It does make much of the need for Labor to reinvigorate its appeal to those groups who seem to have been most alienated at the 2019 election.
It recognises – correctly in my view – that Labor’s position on Adani performed unfortunate symbolic work, suggesting to people especially in parts of Queensland “that Labor did not value them or the work they do”.
But when your primary vote in Queensland is tracking at about 25% and you hold fewer than a quarter of the lower-house seats in that state and Western Australia combined, you probably don’t need a review to tell you something has to change.