4 ways Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout has been bungled


Stephen Duckett, Grattan InstituteAustralia’s vaccine rollout has so far been overhyped and under-delivered.

The first announcement, in August last year — that Australia had negotiated vaccine deals — set the tone for the rollout of “announceables”. Within hours, this initial announcement unravelled as it became clear it wasn’t a “deal”, but in fact a letter of intent.

The federal government has made vaccine announcements thick and fast since then, with every minor milestone celebrated with media hype. It was only when vaccine announcements had to become actual vaccinations that the public became aware of the chasm between the rhetoric and the reality.

The vaccine rollout has been characterised by four key mistakes, mainly caused by our leaders giving priority to a good political story over good policy.

Bungle 1: the wrong pace

Australians started the year in the happy position of having essentially eliminated domestic transmission of coronavirus. Australia didn’t have the high daily COVID death tolls of other countries, and so didn’t have the same sense of urgency about the speed of the vaccine rollout.

But this relaxed attitude — which federal health minister Greg Hunt called “a marathon not a sprint” — has continued for too long.

Delays in the rollout come with risks. We know the virus can escape hotel quarantine, and vaccination delays slow border reopenings and economic recovery.




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Bungle 2: the wrong phasing

The first phase of the rollout included three main groups: hotel quarantine workers, health-care workers, and people in residential aged care.

Vaccination of hotel quarantine workers is especially important because it appears the vaccine protects against both severe disease and, to some extent, transmission. In these circumstances, vaccination of all quarantine workers should have been an urgent first priority. Health-care workers, especially those treating patients with COVID, was a logical second priority.

But given there wasn’t widespread community transmission of the virus, there was probably no reason for the federal government to scramble to vaccinate people in residential aged care early, especially as the vaccine was in short supply.

States should have been allocated all the vaccines to roll out first doses as quickly as possible to workers in hotel quarantine and on the health-care frontline.




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On March 22 Hunt announced the second phase, which includes more than six million people, and encouraged people to call their GP to organise a vaccination. He made this announcement knowing Australia didn’t have enough vaccines to meet demand.

GPs hadn’t been warned of the impending tsunami of calls, nor did they know how many doses they would get and when. The federal government didn’t have a robust logistics system to ensure the right doses got to the right places at the right times. GPs were, rightly, extremely angry.

The logistics nightmares continue, with the federal government persistently failing to provide clarity about dose distribution to either states or GPs.

Bungle 3: the wrong model

The federal government has seen the vaccine rollout not as a public health program but as a political issue, complete with the Liberal Party logo on a vaccine announcement. The focus has been on announcables and good news stories, with the glory to shine back on the government in the lead-up to an election.

This focus has meant the government’s initial priority was a rollout through GPs and, later, pharmacies.

Involvement of GPs was the right call — it’s good for doctors to provide a comprehensive range of services to their patients. But reliance on GPs was the mistake.

GP clinics rarely have the space for significant numbers of people waiting to be vaccinated and to be observed after being vaccinated. Mass vaccination requires large centres such as sports venues and town halls.

Despite adopting a slow, boutique strategy for rollout, the federal government still set ambitious goals. At one stage, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the goal was four million people to be vaccinated by the end of March. Here we are in April, and he has delivered less than a fifth of that.

Some of the shortfall is due to problems with international supply chains. The European Union blocked some deliveries to Australia. The federal government should have immediately shared the implications of this with the public, but delayed disclosing the reality until forced to do so at Senate Estimates a week later.

Delivery of vaccines from the warehouses to states or GPs has been a debacle. Neither the states nor GPs knew from one week to the next how many vaccines they were due, which made planning impossible. GPs booked patients expecting hundreds of doses but got a fraction of that, causing massive extra work to cancel appointments.

States ended up with doses on hand that they haven’t been able to distribute to hospitals, and came under political attack from some members of the federal government. The tension mounted and the behind-the-scenes political disputes came out into the public domain as some states defended their performance.

Bungle 4: the wrong messaging

The federal government’s original plan was to “underpromise and overdeliver”, according to Hunt. But the reverse is a better description of what has played out.

A more logical approach would have been to implement more phases, each with smaller numbers, and to make the phasing consistent with local production by CSL, which aims to manufacture about one million doses per week.

The biggest problem with the relentlessly optimistic political messaging is it makes it harder for the government to admit its mistakes, learn from them, and reset the rollout.

The government should engage with the states, not alienate them.

What’s more, it should set realistic targets to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible and be prepared to admit when it falls short.The Conversation

Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Vaccine rollout has enough problems without ministers politicking


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraCOVID-19 has an evil sense of humour. Despite Australia being mostly free of community transmission, it managed to spoil Christmas for quite a few Sydneysiders and their families and now it’s struck just before the Easter holidays.

The Brisbane lockdown was lifted but many people cancelled plans, and the Byron Bay Bluesfest was called off.

The latest disruption, though limited, reinforced the importance of rolling out the vaccine as fast as possible.

If you believe Health Minister Greg Hunt, that’s going fabulously – even though we’re way behind the original targets. If you believe the NSW and Queensland governments, and many people’s lived experience, it’s another story.

NSW reacted furiously to Wednesday’s News Corps tabloid report, sheeted home to Hunt, that focused on states failing to get enough shots into arms. Queensland was riled when senior Nationals minister David Littleproud condemned the states for doing “three-fifths of bugger all”.

Federal “spin” and blame shifting were red rags to the two states; NSW health minister Brad Hazzard declared “I’m as angry as I have ever been in this 15 months of war against this virus”. The federal government was criticised for the lumpy and unpredictable distribution of vaccine supplies.

Hunt and Scott Morrison sought to soothe; things calmed somewhat.

Morrison didn’t hide his anger at Hunt and Littleproud for their provocation.

The feds like to say the rollout is “not a race,” because we don’t have a “burning platform” like many countries.




Read more:
4 ways Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout has been bungled


But – apart from the risk of bigger breakouts – the slower the rollout, the longer we endure spot lockdowns, a closed international border, and a brake on the economy.

In the coming weeks and months, Morrison will be grappling with two very tangible issues and another which is much more elusive and for him, especially difficult. They are the rollout, ensuring the economic settings are optimal, and the “women problem”.

The rollout is basically about administration. It should get better. The vaccine shortages will ease with the ramp up of local production. The efficiency on the ground will presumably improve but how fast and to what extent remain open questions. The job will get done, but the October deadline for jabs all round looks beyond reach.

Behind the scenes, another job is in full swing – work on next month’s budget; like the rollout it is complex, albeit in a completely different and much more familiar way.

This budget, like its October predecessor, is being crafted against a backdrop of high uncertainty.

The Australian economy is recovering remarkably well from the COVID recession, climbing back up that V shape. But with JobKeeper ended, and people on JobSeeker receiving less money than before, there are big unknowns. How many businesses will close? How many workers will lose jobs? What will be the economy-wide effect on spending?

The government gets “real time” information; even so, it is framing the budget in rapidly changing conditions. On the positive side, the latest numbers indicate a better fiscal position than at the December update, which had a deficit forecast of just under $200 billion for this financial year.

Economist Chris Richardson, from Deloitte Access Economics, says in preparing the budget the government will need to consider where more “sticky tape” is required (like that already applied to the aviation and tourism industries), and what should be done about the failed JobMaker scheme (which was designed to encourage the employment of younger people).

Richardson also argues the government needs to move towards the Reserve Bank’s position in what it says about unemployment. It has said it won’t make budget repair a priority until unemployment, presently 5.8%, is “comfortably” under 6%. But the bank wants to see unemployment down to 4.5%, which Richardson maintains is the rate the government should be embracing.




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The big new spending will be on aged care, with its huge challenges. Hunt took on major responsibility for this in the December reshuffle – the rollout problem must be eating into the attention he can devote to the policy drafting.

The October budget was criticised for not containing enough for women; now Morrison has his new “lens” on them. That comes with the danger of disappointing expectations.

One of Morrison’s many problems in dealing with the women’s issue is that it extends beyond policy although good policies, such as initiatives addressing workplace sexual harassment, are vital.

Since Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office, the country has seen the eruption of a social movement that is about feelings, perceptions and attitudes as much as about specific policies.

It is about the behaviour of men – in parliament house, and everywhere else.

While bad behaviour exists on all sides of politics, the recent revelations have mainly been about the Coalition.

Last week saw the spotlight turned on Liberal MP Andrew Laming, accused of trolling constituents and taking an inappropriate photo of a woman. Laming says he won’t seek another term, but Morrison isn’t wanting to banish him to the crossbench, which would wipe out the government’s majority.

Although the allegations against him are far less serious, trenchant critics would say he should follow the example of NSW Nationals MP Michael Johnsen, who has resigned from state parliament after an accusation (which he vehemently denies) that he raped a sex worker.

Another bad week for Morrison could have been worse if parliament had been sitting, when Laming would have been front and centre. But this is only a temporary reprieve: if Laming is still on the government benches come budget week, he’ll be a distraction.

The national debate sparked by Higgins and escalated by the historical rape allegation against Christian Porter – strenuously denied by him – is seeing tough conversations in many Australian households.

It would be fascinating to know what impact it is having on Morrison’s own close-knit family, which is mostly female, including his wife, two young daughters and his mother. We heard early on about Jenny’s advice, but how’s the kitchen table discussion going?




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Yes, politicians need to change the way they treat women. But so, too, do some in the media


The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Floods leave a legacy of mental health problems — and disadvantaged people are often hardest hit


Sabrina Pit, Western Sydney UniversityYet again, large swathes of New South Wales are underwater. A week of solid rain has led to floods in the Mid-North Coast, Sydney and the Central Coast, with several areas being evacuated as I write.

As a resident of the NSW Far North Coast, which has had its share of devastating floods, many of the tense scenes on the news are sadly familiar.

Unless you have lived through it, it is hard to understand just how stressful a catastrophic flood can be in the moment of crisis. As research evidence shows, the long term impact on mental health can also be profound. And often it is the most disadvantaged populations that are hardest hit.

Disaster risk and disadvantage

In many places, socio-economic disadvantage and flood risk go hand in hand.

In a study published last year, led by the University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore in close collaboration with the local community, colleagues and I looked at population data following Cyclone Debbie in 2017. We found people living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint experienced significantly higher levels of social vulnerability (when compared to the already highly vulnerable regional population). This study would not have been possible without the support of the Northern Rivers community who responded to the Community Recovery
after Flood survey, nor without the active support, enthusiasm and commitment of the Community Advisory Groups in Lismore and Murwillumbah and community organisations.

Notably, over 80% of people in the 2017 Lismore town centre flood-affected area were living in the lowest socio-economic neighbourhoods. The flood-affected areas of Murwillumbah and Lismore regions included 47% and 60% of residents in the most disadvantaged quintile neighbourhoods.

By examining data from the 45 and Up study, we also showed that participants living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint had significantly higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. They were also more likely to have pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as poorer general health.

Research from Germany and the US has shown flood risk is often a significant predictor of lower rental and sale prices.

So even before disaster strikes, residents in flood-prone areas may be more likely to battle with financial and health issues. Our study showed disaster affected people also had the fewest resources to recover effectively. When floods arrive, the impact on mental health, in particular, can be acute.




Read more:
Underinsurance is entrenching poverty as the vulnerable are hit hardest by disasters


Floods and mental health

A flood can be extremely stressful in the moment, as one rushes to protect people, property, pets and animals and worries about the damage that may follow. Can you imagine clinging to a rooftop in the rain in the middle of the night and waiting to be rescued?

The damage caused by floods causes enormous financial pain, and can lead to housing vulnerabilities and homelessness, especially for those without insurance — and research reveals a pattern of underinsurance in disadvantaged populations across Australia.

Even if you are lucky enough to have insurance, waiting to have your claim assessed and approved, then dealing with a shortage of tradies can take a real toll on your mental health. The waiting and the uncertainty can be especially hard.

Other flood research by colleagues and I, led by the University Centre for Rural Health, showed business owners whose homes and businesses had flooded were almost 6.5 times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Business owners with insurance disputes were four times more likely to report probable depression.

Flood affected business owners whose income didn’t return to normal within six months were also almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Lack of income can clearly cause stress for the individual, their family and their larger network. Small businesses play an important role in rural communities and employ a large number of people so the sustainability of local businesses is crucial.

We also found the higher the floodwater was in a person’s business, the more likely the person was to experience depressive symptoms.

People whose business had water above head height in their entire business were four times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Those who had water between knee and head height in their business were almost three times more likely to report probable depression. All this adds up to an increase in mental health issues that often follows a flood.

Six months after the flooding, business owners felt most supported by their local community such as volunteers and neighbours. However, those that felt their needs were not met by the state government and insurance companies were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Preparedness and awareness

So, what can be done?

Firstly, we can boost preparedness. Risk and preparedness education may be especially needed for people who have recently moved to flood-prone regions. Many who have moved to regional areas recently may not be aware they live in a flood zone, or understand how fast waters can move and how high they can reach. Education is needed to raise awareness about the dangers. People may need help to prepare a flood plan and know when to leave.

Secondly, supporting people and local businesses after a disaster and assisting the local economy in its recovery could help reduce the mental health burden on people and the business community.

Thirdly, mental health services must be provided. A chaplaincy program was implemented in Lismore by the local government to assist business owners with emotional and psychological support after Cyclone Debbie and ensuing floods. This program was largely well received by business owners for having provided psychological support and raising mental health awareness.

However, the ongoing lack of mental health support remains an issue, especially in rural areas, and is exacerbated by disasters.

Fourthly, insurance disputes and rejection of insurance claims were among the strongest associations with likely depression in our research. We must find ways to improve the insurance process including making it more affordable, improving communication, by making claims easier and faster and boosting people’s understanding of what’s included and excluded from their policy.

No single organisation, government or department can solve these complex problems on their own. Strong partnerships between organisations are crucial and have been shown to work, as is direct and real-time support for flood-affected people.




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This story was updated to add more detail about the author’s research funding, collaborative partners and affiliation. It is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Sabrina Pit, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, Honorary Adjunct Research Fellow, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Retirement incomes review finds problems more super won’t solve



Robyn Mackenzie/Shutterstock

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

It would be a waste if the Friday’s mammoth Retirement Incomes Review was remembered only for its finding that increases in employers compulsory superannuation contributions come at the expense of wages.

That has long been assumed, and is what was intended when compulsory super was set up.

Compulsory super contributions are set to increase in five annual steps of 0.5% of salary between 2021 and 2025.

These are much bigger increases than the earlier two of 0.25% in 2012 and 2013.

And the wage rises they will be taken from will be much lower. The latest figures released on Wednesday point to shockingly low annual wage growth of 1.4%.

Should each of the scheduled increases in employers compulsory super knock 0.4 points off wage growth (which is what the review expects) annual wage growth would sink from 1.4% to 1%.




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Workers bear 71% to 100% of the cost of increases in compulsory super


Private sector wage would sink from 1.2% to 0.8%, in the absence of something to push it back up.

Because inflation will almost certainly be higher than 1%, it means the buying power of wages would go backwards, all for the sake of a better life in retirement.

The review presents the finding starkly. Lifting compulsory super contributions from 9.5% of salary to 12% will cut working-life incomes by about 2%.

And for what? It’s a question the review spends a lot of time examining.

Most retirees have enough

The review dispenses with the argument that the goal of a retirement income system should be “aspirational”, or to provide people with higher income in retirement than they had in their working lives.

It finds that for retirees presently aged 65-74 the replacement rates for middle to higher income earners are generally adequate.


Source: Australian Tax Office

Many lower-income earners get more per year in retirement than they got while working.

If the increases in compulsory super proceed as planned, this will extend to the bottom 60% of the income distribution.

They’ll enjoy a higher standard of living in retirement than while working (and will enjoy a lower standard of living while working than they would have).

Most retirees die with most of what they had when they retired, leaving it as a bequest. They are reluctant to “eat into” their super and other savings because of concerns about possible future health and aged care costs, and concerns about outliving savings.

The review quite reasonably sees this as a betrayal of the purpose of government-supported super, saying

superannuation savings are supported by tax concessions for the purpose of retirement income and not purely for wealth accumulation

It’s the pension that matters

The pension does what super cannot. It provides a buffer for retirees whose income and savings fall due to market volatility, and for those who outlive their savings. 71% of people of age pension age get it or a similar payment. More than 60% of them get the full pension.

If there’s one key message of the review, it is this: it is the pension rather than super that matters for maintaining living standards in retirement, which is what the review was asked to consider.

It is also cost-effective compared to the growing budgetary cost of the super tax concessions.




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The age pension costs 2.5% of GDP and is set to fall to 2.3% of GDP over the next 40 years as the super system matures and tighter means tests bite.

Treasury modelling prepared for the review shows that if more money is directed into super and away from wages as scheduled, the annual budgetary cost of the super tax concessions will exceed the cost of the pension by 2050.

There’s a real retirement income problem

A substantial proportion of Australians, about 30%, are financially worse off in retirement than while working, and they are people neither super nor the pension can help.

Mostly they are older Australians who have lost their jobs and cannot get new ones before they before eligible for the age pension or become old enough to get access to their super. Often they’ve left the workforce due to ill health or to care for others and are forced to rely on JobSeeker, which is well below the poverty line.




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Forget more compulsory super: here are 5 ways to actually boost retirement incomes


It’s much worse if they rent privately. About one quarter of retirees who rent privately are in financial stress, so much so that the review finds even a 40%
increase in the maximum Commonwealth Rent Assistance payment wouldn’t be enough to get them a decent standard of living in retirement.

No recommendations, but findings aplenty

The review was not asked to produce recommendations. Instead, while noting that much of the system works well, it has pointed to things that need urgent attention.

It finds that pouring a greater proportion of each pay packet into the hands of super funds is not the sort of attention needed, and in the present unusual circumstances could cost jobs as employers who can’t take the extra cost out of wages take it out of headcount.

The government will make a decision about whether to proceed with the legislated increase in compulsory super in its May budget, just before the first of the five increases due in July.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

False positives, false negatives: it’s hard to say if the COVIDSafe app can overcome its shortcomings



Shutterstock

Dinesh Kumar, RMIT University and Pj Radcliffe, RMIT University

The Australian government’s contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe, has been touted as crucial for restarting the country’s economy and curbing COVID-19’s spread.

But until more data are collected, it’s hard to estimate how effective the app will be. Nonetheless, there are some predictable situations in which COVIDSafe’s design may mean it will struggle to fulfil its purpose.

False positives

COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth to digitally “trace” people with whom a user has come into contact, with the aim of alerting anyone who has interacted with a confirmed COVID-19 case. But this technology carries a risk of “false positives”, wherein a user may be falsely alerted despite not actually having come into contact with the virus.

This is because Bluetooth radio waves pass through walls and glass. They can only measure how physically close two people are; they can’t tell whether those people are in the same room, in different rooms, or even in different cars passing each other.

In a high-density apartment building, depending on the strength of Bluetooth signals, it’s possible COVIDSafe could falsely alert plenty of people.




Read more:
As coronavirus forces us to keep our distance, city density matters less than internal density


The Department of Health has acknowledged this complication, saying:

If this happens and one of the contacts is identified as having coronavirus, state and territory health officials will talk to the people to work out if this was a legitimate contact or not.

Nonetheless, this process may cause unnecessary distress, and could also have negative flow-on effects on the economy by keeping people home unnecessarily. False positives could also erode public trust in the app’s effectiveness.

False negatives

On the other side of the coin, COVIDSafe also has the potential for “false negatives”. Simply, it will not identify non-human-to-human transmission of the virus.

We know COVID-19 can survive on different surfaces for various periods of time. COVIDSafe would not be able to alert people exposed to the virus via a solid surface, such as a shopping trolley or elevator button, if the person who contaminated that surface had already left the scene.

COVIDSafe is also not helpful in the case of users who become infected with COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic. Such a person may never get tested and upload their contact data to the app’s central data store, but may still be able to pass the virus to those around them. More data is needed on asymptomatic transmission.




Read more:
Why do some people with coronavirus get symptoms while others don’t?


And regarding the decision to classify “close contacts” as people who have been within a 1.5m distance for 15 minutes – this may have been based on research from Japan for when people are in an open space, and the air is moving.

However, this research also showed micro-droplets remained suspended in the air for 20 minutes in enclosed spaces. Thus, the 1.5m for 15 minutes rule may be questionable for indoor settings.

Downloads vs usage

Recently, Iceland’s contact tracing app achieved the highest penetration of any such app in the world, with almost 40% of the population opting in. But Icelandic Police Service detective inspector Gestur Pálmason – who has overseen contact tracing efforts – said while it was useful in a few cases, the app “wasn’t a game-changer”.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said on multiple occasions COVIDSafe requires a 40% uptake to be effective.

Since then, federal health minister Greg Hunt has said there’s “no magic figure, but every set of people that download will make it easier and help”. This was echoed more recently by Department of Health acting secretary Caroline Edwards, who told a Senate committee there was no specific uptake goal within her team.

Past modelling revealed infection could be controlled if more than 70% of the population were taking the necessary precautions. It’s unclear what science (if any) was forming the basis of Australia’s initial 40% uptake goal for COVIDSafe.

This goal is also lower than proposed figures from other experts around the world, who have suggested goals varying from 50-70%, and 80% for UK smartphone owners. But the fact is, these figures are estimates and are difficult to test for accuracy.

A survey conducted by University of Sydney researchers suggested in Sydney and Melbourne, COVIDSafe’s uptake could already be at 40% – but lower in other places.
Shutterstock



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In some places 40% of us may have downloaded COVIDSafe. Here’s why the government should share what it knows


Demographic bias

There are many other uncertainties about COVIDSafe’s effectiveness.

We lack data on whether the app is actually being downloaded by those most at risk. This may include:

We also know COVIDSafe doesn’t work properly on iPhones and some older model mobile phones. And older devices are more likely to be owned by those who are elderly, or less financially privileged.

What’s more, COVIDSafe can’t fulfil its contact tracing potential until it’s downloaded by a critical mass of people who have already contracted the virus. At this stage, the more people infected with COVID-19 that download the app, the better.

A tough nut to crack

Implementing a contact tracing app is a difficult task for our leaders and medical experts. This is because much remains unknown about the COVID-19 virus, and how people will continue to respond to rules as restrictions lift around the country.

Predictions of the disease’s spread have also shown a lot of variation.

Thus, there are many unknowns making it impossible to predict the outcome. The important thing is for people to not start taking risks just because they’ve downloaded COVIDSafe.

And while the government pushes for more downloads and reopening the economy, ongoing reviews will be crucial to improving the app’s functionality.The Conversation

Dinesh Kumar, Professor, Electrical and Biomedical Engineering, RMIT University and Pj Radcliffe, Senior Lecturer, Electrical and Computer Engineering, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America now solves problems with troops, not diplomats


Monica Duffy Toft, Tufts University

Is America a bully?

As a scholar, under the auspices of the Military Intervention Project, I have been studying every episode of U.S. military intervention from 1776 to 2017.

Historically, the U.S. advanced from a position of isolationism to one of reluctant intervenor, to global policeman. Based on my research since 2001, I believe that the U.S. has transformed itself into what many others view as a global bully.

I do not use the word lightly. But if, by definition, a bully is someone who seeks to intimidate or harm those it perceives as vulnerable, then that is an apt descriptor of contemporary U.S. foreign policy.

The decline of traditional diplomacy

Venezuela is indicative of a larger problem facing U.S. foreign policy, which currently favors troops over diplomats.

During a January press conference addressing the crisis in Venezuela, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s legal pad notes indicated that he felt that sending 5,000 American troops to Colombia was the preferred method to solving the presidential crisis in Venezuela.

What began as social, economic and political crisis under former president Hugo Chávez has continued into the presidency of Nicolás Maduro; who is now being pressured to step down through mass civic protests and constitutional challenges. The U.S. has struggled to respond effectively. Part of the difficulty is that the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since July 2010.

Historically, as a reward for those with deep donor pockets, political appointees made up only 30% of U.S. ambassadorial appointments, leaving 70% of the posts to career diplomats. Under the current administration, that proportion is nearly reversed.

The professional corps of foreign affairs bureaucrats has also diminished. According to the Office of Personnel Management, under the Trump administration, the State Department lost some 12% of employees in the foreign affairs division. Its remaining diplomats are increasingly isolated from the formation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, with foreign policy being established much more often by the executive branch, and then implemented by the Department of Defense.

From the perspective of conservative U.S. political elites, U.S. diplomacy has not suffered. Rather, its quality has shifted from often hard-headed and hard-won negotiations among career diplomats in possession of in-depth local knowledge – what we political scientists think of as traditional diplomacy – to what I have elsewhere referred to as “kinetic diplomacy”: “diplomacy” by armed force unsupported by local knowledge.

Examples from recent history

Looking at the overall use of U.S. armed force abroad, it’s clear that the U.S. has escalated over time as compared to both small and great powers.

In our database, we note every hostile incident. We rate each country’s response on a scale from 1 to 5, from the lowest level of no militarized action (1), to threat to use force, display of force, use of force and, finally, war (5). In some cases, states respond; in others, they don’t.

Over time, the U.S. has taken to responding more and more at level 4, the use of armed force. Since 2000 alone, the U.S. has engaged in 92 interventions at level 4 or 5.

Consider Mexico. Data from the Military Intervention Project reveal that the U.S. has been far more likely to attempt to resolve conflicts with Mexico by the use of armed force than has Mexico in its disputes with the U.S.

Granted, the U.S. has become dramatically more powerful in military terms than Mexico, but power in the more traditional sense is not as critical in interstate relations as it once was. Increasingly, smaller states have been able to frustrate the objectives of larger ones.

Nevertheless, our data make clear why so many Mexicans had come to think of America as a belligerent bully.

With Mexico, for instance, the U.S. frequently resorted to the use of force. Often, Mexico didn’t even offer a response to armed U.S. action. From 1806 to 1923, Mexico engaged in 20 interactions with U.S. with varying levels of hostility, while the U.S. engaged in 25, and with higher levels.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. levels of hostility have continued to increase. In fact, during the Cold War, the U.S. was relatively less hostile. But once the Soviet Union and its bloc went bust, the U.S. began to engage its armed forces more intensely and more frequently.

Just as with Mexico, U.S. resort to force against Iran is consistently higher than Iran’s use against the U.S. While our database records 11 hostile engagements from Iran directed at the U.S. from 1953 to 2009, the U.S. intervened in Iran 14 times.

Of course, Mexico and Iran are relatively small powers compared to the U.S. But what of China?

As with Mexico and Iran, the U.S. resort to force is much more consistent and at higher levels toward China than vice versa. From 1854 to 2009, the U.S. intervened nearly twice as much in China as China did in the U.S. Our database records 17 incidents for China and 37 for the U.S.

Tanking US global reputation

Is kinetic diplomacy – bullying – an effective way to advance U.S. national interests?

In terms of the country’s global reputation, being a bully is not paying off. A February survey revealed 45% of global respondents viewed U.S. power and influence as a major threat to global security, with the largest shares originating in South Korea, Japan and Mexico – notably all U.S. allies.

The U.S. is now seen globally as a bigger threat to global prosperity and peace than China and Russia.

The U.S. is seen as a threat not simply because it has expanded its use of armed force abroad over time, but because at the same time it has abrogated a number of its own core principles of legitimacy.

Among the principles that have been abandoned: The U.S. maintains it has a right to treat “enemy combatants” outside the rules of the laws of armed conflict, while insisting its own armed forces not be subject to international investigations.

It has detained people without trial, sometimes indefinitely and without legal representation.

It has even allowed its chief executive – in this case President Barack Obama – to order the execution of an American citizen abroad without trial.

It has separated young children from their asylum-seeking parents in order to deter other families from seeking asylum, regardless of the validity of their asylum claims.

In short, the U.S. has surrendered its moral high ground. That makes any U.S. use of armed force increasingly appear illegitimate to the residents of other countries, and increasingly our own.The Conversation

Monica Duffy Toft, Professor of International Politics and Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Populism’s problems can be fixed by getting the public better-informed. And that’s actually possible


Ron Levy, Australian National University

Many commentators have been alarmed at the electoral wins of ultra conservative leaders around the world, as well as policy decisions such as Brexit made by a popular referendum. They see these as signs of a rising populism.

In its benign forms, populism can simply mean ordinary citizens’ desire to see their interests and preferences better reflected in policy making. It may also mean greater direct involvement in government by the people themselves.

But in its more dangerous manifestations, populism can mean a reckless, extreme distrust in governmental expertise. It can be under-informed, and divide communities between “us” and “them”. And – in its impatience to see change – it can tear down useful democratic values and institutions such as inclusivity and a neutral judiciary, which safeguard our rights in a democracy.




Read more:
The pathologies of populism


There is at least one way we could harness the populist trend and turn it in a more useful direction: deliberative democracy.

As the name suggests, deliberative democracy aims to promote not only democratic majority rule, but also deliberation. This means well-informed, inclusive and reflective decision-making. While populism gives a greater role to ordinary citizens in the affairs of government, deliberative democracy models can improve this by ensuring citizen input is robustly inclusive, reflective and well-informed.

So far, deliberative democracy is the best answer we have to the challenge of populism.

Deliberative democracy at work

One form of deliberative democracy is to enlist ordinary citizens in deliberation, such as in the case of citizens’ juries. Here, randomly-picked groups of citizens are invited to attend a series of organised sessions, where they become well-informed on a specific policy matter before advising governments on the best way forward.

This model has been used hundreds of times around the world, including in the ACT (on matters such as housing) and South Australia (on nuclear waste).




Read more:
City calls on jury of its citizens to deliberate on Melbourne’s future


To many, such an approach seems fanciful. Their cynicism is based on the assumption members of the public couldn’t possibly deliberate about public matters thoughtfully. But many studies show that creative approaches to democracy, such as citizens’ juries, can increase how well ordinary citizens deliberate about the matters put to them. Citizens’ juries can be informed, inclusive, thoughtful, fair and intellectually supple.

Citizens’ juries have a particular kind of democratic legitimacy. Since they are randomly-selected, and often demographically representative of the larger population, the public tends to see jury members as “just like me”, which creates more trust in the process.

But citizens’ juries have limitations. One is that the process has so far only included a handful of citizens at one time. And some critics will insist that only a vote in which all eligible voters can participate confers democratic legitimacy. This is where the referendum can be used as part of the deliberative democracy model.

Referendums can provide a neutral, democratically robust input into matters of public interest that politicians cannot resolve themselves. They can, for example, spur governments to act where a clear majority of the population has a considered view, but the government is divided and therefore powerless to act on that view.

Think of climate change mitigation, as well as other environmental matters such as coal seam gas mining and fracking.

But when a policy matter is put to a referendum or plebiscite – in which all eligible citizens could vote – it is a hard task to bring most of the people up to speed. It is far easier to inform people on a citizens’ jury, which might include just 50 people.

The conundrum is therefore that the citizens’ jury is deliberative but (according to some) democratically insufficient, while a referendum or plebiscite is more democratically robust but not always deliberative. But we can take useful steps toward making referendums or plebiscites more deliberative.

Around the world a number of academics, including the author, have proposed the “deliberative referendum”. Those who doubt referendums can be deliberative may prefer the term “informed referendum”.

The deliberative/informed referendum

Reforming a referendum or plebscite to make it more deliberative can be done through several methods – some already common. They include:

Voting online or at computer voting stations, which is already in use in many places. This can permit more interactive voting than a mere yes/no vote. In a new approach, before they could cast their votes, voters are asked to interact with a 15-minute tutorial informing them of the relevant issues. For instance, a vote on a local housing development plan would canvass environmental, economic and social arguments for and against greater urban density.

Multi-option voting would depart from the traditional yes/no vote, presenting voters with several options and avoiding the artificial reduction of complex matters into a binary choice. Preferential voting could still allow a single option to emerge with majority support.

Value-based voting could take place, meaning one set of ballot options put to voters would concern not just final choices, such as urban density levels adopted in a city plan, but also the values underlying them. Voters could rank values such as environmental sustainability and economic development. This would encourage voters to think more thoroughly about their final choices.

Citizens’ juries should be held in the lead up to a referendum. This has happened in many cases, such as in the recent Irish abortion referendum. A citizens’ jury could help to inform the broader public about the issues at stake. As a neutral body, the jury would write the questions on the ballot and the content of the information tutorials.

An optional measure would be a political misinformation law enacted to prevent politicians and others from uttering false statements likely to mislead voters. This method has been common, most of all, in Australia. Granted, around the world it has been subject to challenges under constitutional free speech and communication guarantees. But in Australia political misinformation laws were upheld by judges who cited the value of accurate information for voters.

Robust anti-misinformation laws would have been useful in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, which had a number of whoppers. For instance, campaigners greatly overstated the costs to the UK of both staying in and leaving the EU.

Referendums on Australia becoming a republic, and on Brexit (again), may be on the horizon. Other cases, such as the urban density example, are perennially unresolved matters in localities around Australia – in part because governments cannot decide whether to favour homeowners, developers, environmentalists or other groups. Even societies experiencing war often turn to referendums to try to jolt them out of their entrenched cycles of violence.

Referendums and plebiscites can be democratic circuit-breakers in a system of government that is in theory dedicated to serving the public, but that in many cases falls short.




Read more:
Australia’s public servants: dedicated, highly trained … and elitist


Of course, there is still a risk the circuit-break may end up merely giving greater voice to a coarse populism, which knows it wants to tear down elitism and expertise, but not what to replace them with. However, work on deliberative referendum design suggests we needn’t be quite so fearful of populism. At least sometimes, and to some degree, populism can be remade so the public can have a more deliberative input into government decision-making.The Conversation

Ron Levy, Associate professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The problems with small satellites – and what Australia’s Space Agency can do to help


Duncan Blake, University of Adelaide

Australia is part of the global explosion in space industries – including the design and engineering of satellites smaller than a loaf of bread.

But we’re at a point now where we need to take the next step.

The growing number of small satellites orbiting Earth presents some unique challenges, such as interference with communication networks, the buildup of space junk, and the legal questions that arise if something goes wrong.

Australia’s new Space Agency can play a vital role in coordinating our government policy around these issues.




Read more:
Yes we’ve got a space agency – but our industry needs ‘Space Prize Australia’


Acceleration in small sats

Since Sputnik 1 in 1957, there have been 8,303 registered space objects. Only 20 of those, so far, have been registered to Australia, but five satellites have been launched for Australia in just the past four weeks (although not all of them have been registered yet).

Fleet Space in Adelaide had two satellites launched from New Zealand, one from India and one from the United States. The University of New South Wales in Canberra had the M1 satellite launched on the same rocket as the Fleet Space satellite from the US.

Globally, there are almost 1,900 active satellites in orbit. That number is set to increase rapidly in the near future – regulators in the US alone have recently approved more than 12,000 new satellites to be launched into space over the next decade.

In Australia, Fleet Space plans to launch 100 satellites over the next decade.

The volume is growing, but the satellites are shrinking. We’ve moved from satellites the size of buses, to those similar in size to a washing machine, to cubesats (10x10x10cm), and even smaller still.




Read more:
We’re drafting a legal guide to war in space. Hopefully we’ll never need to use it


Australia has committed itself to secure a large proportion of a global space market worth more than A$400 billion, tripling the Australian space industry from A$4 billion to A$12 billion and growing many thousands of jobs in the many new space start-ups in Australia.

That’s great news for the Australian economy, and the new Australian Space Agency has the mandate to make that happen.

Here’s where we need new policy around satellites to meet the challenges involved.

1. Congestion in signalling networks

Communication with your satellite is essential, even if communication is not its main purpose – to get data from remote sensing satellites, navigational satellites, experimental satellites, or just to track it, control it and monitor its status. But the use of radio frequency by small satellites has been hotly contested.

Big satellite manufacturers and operators, and others, oppose the allocation of frequency to small satellites through the international regulator – the International Telecommunications Union and its domestic equivalent – the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA).

Notwithstanding that big satellite manufacturers and operators have a commercial incentive to oppose the disruptive upstarts, they have a point.

Small satellites don’t use less bandwidth in proportion to their small size (although they may transmit with less power). So, by their sheer number, they represent a significant risk of congestion and interference in the electromagnetic spectrum – leading to mobile phones not working properly, WiFi networks being degraded, and maybe even failure of your Netflix account.

The ACMA is seeking solutions to those potential problems, but if the solutions involve imposing significant technical and financial burdens on new space start-ups, these companies may go offshore to find better solutions – a loss for Australia.

2. The problem of space junk

Small satellites add to the space debris problem in outer space – because a significant proportion of them fail and not all of them follow international best practice (such as it is) on the operation of small satellites.

For example, US company Swarm Technologies went ahead with the launch of several very small satellites known as “Space Bees” via a launch on an Indian rocket even though the US Federal Communications Commission had previously declined to grant them a licence, on the basis that they were too small to be tracked, thereby making collision avoidance impossible.

SpaceFlight, a company that finds and facilitates launch opportunities for satellite operators, facilitated this opportunity for Swarm Technologies, and it was SpaceFlight that facilitated launch opportunities for the five Australian satellites launched in the last four weeks.

To be fair, Swarm Technologies and SpaceFlight have taken good steps to earn back the confidence of regulators in the US and globally, but it does demonstrate the need for clear and enforced best practice standards.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of consensus internationally on what those standards should be.

In Australia, our Space Agency has yet to decide on the content of subordinate legislation (Rules) under the new Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 that may commit Australia to best practice standards for small satellites.

Again, there is a difficult balancing act – if the standards are too lax, there is a greater possibility of something going wrong and we lose reputation, influence, bargaining power and the opportunity to optimise international conditions for Australian commercial and other national interests.

If they are too strict, new space start-ups may find them unpalatable, and move their operations offshore – and the prospect of new jobs and economic growth in the industry dissipates.

3. Mistakes can happen

What happens if something does go wrong? Who bears the liability?

Under international law, in the first instance, liability rests with any state that launches, procures the launch or whose facility or territory is used for launch. Ultimately, that means the taxpayer.

A small satellite could conceivably be responsible for a failure at launch, or a collision in orbit, where there is infrastructure worth many hundreds of billions of dollars (not least, the International Space Station). Thankfully, the probability of any such failure or collision is generally extremely small.

But who accepts that risk of liability on behalf of the Australian taxpayer? For non-governmental operators, it is the Australian Space Agency.

Government operators are largely exempt from the legislation. Australia’s Department of Defence has been involved in the recent Buccaneer cubesat and the M1 cubesat, and CSIRO has recently initiated a project to acquire its own cubesat.

An artist’s impression of CSIROSat-1 CubeSat.
Inovor Technologies

There is the possibility of different standards within government and relative to the private sector. Australia’s Space Agency does not currently have a strong mandate to coordinate across all space activities in which our nation participates.

In the case of the Buccaneer cubesat and the M1 cubesat, the University of New South Wales in Canberra – which built and arranged the launch of the satellites – is subject to control by the Space Agency under legislation.

In other cases, the Space Agency will have to engage and influence others through excellent communication and soft influence. So far, the staff and leadership of the agency have managed that with great skill.

But there’s more work to be done.




Read more:
It’s not clear where Trump’s ‘Space Force’ fits within international agreement on peaceful use of space


The Conversation


Duncan Blake, PhD candidate, law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: Australia’s stubborn growth problems are moving at a geologic pace



File 20180405 189813 tcu293.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Unfortunately for the RBA, the health of the economy is not measured on the Geologic Time Scale.
Alfonso Silóniz/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a regular economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.

This week: Interest rates remain on hold as the RBA talks up employment growth, green shoots remain in manufacturing, and China strikes back in the Trump-led trade war.


On Tuesday, the RBA left official interest rates unchanged at 1.50% for the 18th consecutive meeting, tying their all-time record. They will break that record next month when they do the same thing.

And the official statement by governor Philip Lowe sounded like it came from a guy who had gone from crossing his fingers to crossing his toes as well. For example:

“The Australian economy grew by 2.4 per cent over 2017. The Bank’s central forecast remains for faster growth in 2018.”

Um, why? The same macro model that got 2017 wrong is now going to get 2018 right?

Or this one:

“The unemployment rate has declined over the past year, but has been steady at around 5½ per cent over the past six months. The various forward-looking indicators continue to point to solid growth in employment in the period ahead, with a further gradual reduction in the unemployment rate expected.”

But a few months ago, those same forward-looking indicators were saying the plateau in the unemployment rate wouldn’t happen.

And finally (but only because I have space constraints):

“Notwithstanding the improving labour market, wages growth remains low. This is likely to continue for a while yet, although the stronger economy should see some lift in wages growth over time.”

If “over time” is read analogous to “life in the Mesazoic Era evolved over time” then I suppose that may be right.

Unfortunately for the RBA, the health of the economy is not measured on the Geologic Time Scale. Stubbornly low inflation, persistently hopeless wage growth, and with the Australian population growing at 1.6% p.a., that 2.4% GDP growth number looks pretty weak. The real question is whether the RBA is not cutting rates because it thinks monetary policy is ineffective at this level, or because it’s scared of fuelling (further fuelling?) a (the?) housing price bubble.




Read more:
What economics has to say about housing bubbles


ABS data released Wednesday showed a drop in building approvals in February. Total dwelling approvals were down 6.2%, driven by a 16.4% drop in apartments, compared to a 1.9% rise in houses. For the 12 months to February 2018, that puts the total down 3.1%, again driven by a large (14.8%) drop in apartments and a rise (6.1%) in houses.

This is all evidence that demand – often from offshore – has dried up in one important sector of the market: apartments. It is still too early to know what the fallout will be, but this is exactly the kind of pattern one sees in property markets when the music has stopped.

The Australian Industry Group’s Performance of Manufacturing Index, released this week, hit a record high of 63.1 index points for March. Perhaps more importantly, the survey indicated that capacity utilisation was at a record high of 81.2%. This matters because it suggests stronger employment and wage growth in the sector.

On the other hand, manufacturing is about 6.5% of GDP, so even strong growth in the sector has a relatively modest overall effect. But, as they say in baseball, you can’t boo a home run.

US jobs figures continued to impress, with payroll processor ADP releasing figures Thursday Australian time that the economy added 241,000 jobs in March. The official figures from the BEA come out Friday US time, with market expectations at an addition of 185,000. So if the official figures line up with ADP, this will be further evidence of strong employment growth.

Trump trade war update

This week, China struck back, again. The Trump administration recently instituted roughly US$50 billion worth of tariffs on steel, cars, automotive and aircraft parts, consumer products like televisions, and other goods. Almost immediately, China responded with tariffs of a similar value on 106 types of American goods.




Read more:
America’s allies will bear the brunt of Trump’s trade protectionism


Those 106 types of goods include soybeans and others produced in the Trump heartland. This was a cleverly designed, targeted measure, designed to hurt Trump politically.

His response:

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That reveals his mercantilist view of trade: that it’s a zero-sum game rather than something that increases the size of the economic pie and makes both countries better off. But hey, maybe he has a big reading backlog and isn’t up to 1817, when David Ricardo pointed this out with his theory of “comparative advantage”.

The ConversationLet’s hope it does, and President Trump gets the message that he needs to knock this off. All he is doing is making America poorer. And the game theory of it is worse. Tariffs beget tariffs.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian Politics: 27 July 2013


The Gonski reforms for education in Australia continue to cause problems for the ALP, with several states and territories refusing to sign up. The links below are to articles covering stories on some of the states that refuse to sign up.

For more visit:
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/education/nt-rejects-federal-schools-deal/story-fn59nlz9-1226686542820
http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/no-deal-barnett-refuses-to-budge-on-schools-20130726-2qpji.html