The ABC’s chief economics correspondent, Emma Alberici, did her job the other day. She wrote a well-researched analysis piece investigating whether the Turnbull government’s proposed company tax cuts would grow the economy and break Australia’s wages deadlock.
Alberici’s article came in for a lot of criticism from the Turnbull government for its one-sidedness and lack of balance. Later, the ABC took down the article from its website.
If you read her piece, you’ll see that, yes, she could have included more voices, and yes, the case for company tax cuts was forcefully argued against. But the argument and analysis was built on sound research, as Saul Eslake (one of Australia’s most senior and respected independent economists, who was quoted in Alberici’s story) has pointed out.
So, why on earth did ABC take the article down?
Part of the answer to this lies in the very editorial policies that are supposed to safeguard the ABC’s independence. The current wording of these polices function as a straitjacket on ABC journalists and make it hard for them to toe the line between analysis and opinion.
And that in turn makes the ABC look less independent.
High level of trust
One of the ABC’s greatest assets is the high public trust it enjoys compared to many of its commercial media competitors.
That trust is to a large extent built on the broadcaster maintaining and defending its independence from commercial, political and any other societal interests.
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what a public broadcaster is. But one thing it is not is a government or state broadcaster.
There are certainly examples of some public broadcasters that are. One prominent recent case was when the Polish government in practice took control of the country’s public broadcaster and turned it into a government mouthpiece.
A serious case of self-doubt
The ABC Act and the ABC Charter are the safeguards of ABC’s independence from the government of the day. This independence was challenged to unprecedented levels by the Abbott government a few years ago.
A new major challenge to the ABC’s independence is the current change, driven by One Nation, to the ABC Charter requiring it to be “fair” and “balanced” in its reporting. If you recognise these terms, that’s because it used to be Fox News’ catchphrase.
The ABC is not turning into the Polish Broadcasting Corporation, but it has clearly lost a lot of confidence lately. In Alberici’s case, it appears it bowed to government pressure when it should have stood its ground.
But getting heat from the government of the day (regardless of the particular side of politics) is an indication that a public broadcaster is doing its most important job (provided you get your facts right): holding power to account. If you bow to political pressure, you’re not doing your job.
A public broadcaster with a confidence problem is a serious issue for political and democratic wellbeing.
Globally, there are between ten and 15 properly funded public broadcasters (depending on what level of funding you define as proper) with enough funding and safeguards to be able to call themselves editorially independent. This means there are only ten to 15 large repositories of in-depth public interest journalism – globally.
So, the case is strong for the Australian public to get behind the ABC and ask it to snap out of its crisis of confidence. Then it can get on with the job of keeping power to account – just like Alberici tried to do.
The revelations that Senator Sam Dastyari warned a Chinese Communist Party-linked Labor donor that his phone was likely tapped by intelligence agencies are certainly newsworthy and in the public interest.
The Turnbull government has since flagged a raft of new intelligence laws. The legislation, to be introduced into parliament this week, will reportedly include:
banning Australian political parties from receiving foreign donations
strengthening laws on the disclosure of classified information
making it a crime to support foreign intelligence agencies
restrictions targeting foreign spies.
The public release of intelligence can no doubt have a powerful impact on the political environment, as last week’s reports about Dastyari demonstrate. The claims are certainly troubling, but when secret intelligence becomes front-page news, it is always worth looking beyond the headline.
Public intelligence is political intelligence
Classified and sensitive information is designed to be secret. When it is made public it is always for a political purpose. That purpose may be to promote a particular political agenda or to build public support for a certain policy position.
It may even be for partisan political gain, but it will always affect the political narrative. Because intelligence disclosures are so sensational, they are a very effective method of drawing attention to certain issues while distracting from others.
Intelligence that is deliberately released to the media for political purposes is known as “public intelligence”. When secret intelligence becomes public intelligence, it becomes a powerful tool of political influence.
Intelligence has an authority and influence that may not reflect its content. This is because of the psychological impact of intelligence.
Intelligence is usually classified, which makes it appear valuable. It is often collected covertly, so the public expects it to reveal hidden secrets. The result is that information from intelligence sources is treated with an unusually high degree of reverence and respect.
Intelligence also has a voyeuristic, illicit appeal. When intelligence stories feature in the news, readers are given a glimpse of a world that is normally off-limits. This is especially true for a generation raised on Bond movies, whose primary understanding of intelligence activities stems from popular culture.
Stories that feature intelligence exposes can therefore expect to have a broad audience, reaching beyond the typical consumer of political news.
Public intelligence has limitations
Despite its appeal, public intelligence has several significant limitations.
First, it is important to remember that public intelligence is incomplete. It is only a small section of a greater picture, and usually offered without context or nuance.
Intelligence reports are uncertain; the judgments they contain are always qualified. But in the process of selecting the information for publication, any cautionary judgments or concerns about sources are removed. As a result, when select pieces of intelligence are publicly released, intelligence loses its uncertainty and gains an authority and aura of truth that may not be deserved.
The now-discredited intelligence dossier on weapons of mass destruction released prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a case in point. In the aftermath of the invasion, when the weapons could not be found, it was revealed that the intelligence released publicly had been cherry-picked, that ambiguous evidence was presented as certified proof, and that the intelligence judgments had been massaged to more firmly fit the political line.
The second point to consider is that publicly released intelligence usually cannot be corroborated or contested. Even though certain pieces of intelligence may be released, the source and methods used to obtain that information are not.
This means that even if they wished to, neither the press nor the public have the means to assess the accuracy of intelligence information. We simply do not know if the information comes from a trustworthy source, or was obtained by reliable methods. However, we are not able to refute it.
Public intelligence should be viewed critically
Because of the political nature of public intelligence, combined with its limitations as a reliable source, both media producers and consumers should consider public intelligence with greater scepticism than other news items, not less.
Dastyari’s conduct should not be excused or minimised. However, when secret intelligence becomes public intelligence, it may pay for us to ask where our attention is being drawn, why that might be the case, and what we might be missing while we are looking the other way.
One of the most striking features of the Queensland election campaign is that all major parties are advocating public investment in electricity generation.
The real choice to be made is whether this investment will promote the goal of a decarbonised energy system, or whether it will seek to delay this transition and prolong Australia’s reliance on coal-fired electricity.
Labor and the Greens are advocating public investment in renewables, while the LNP and One Nation want a new coal-fired power station.
This choice, in turn, depends on attitudes to mainstream climate science. If the findings of mainstream science are accepted, a complete phase-out of coal-fired power, and its replacement by renewables, must take place over the next couple of decades. This implies a target of 50% renewables by around 2030.
The Queensland Renewable Energy Expert Panel modelled the achievement of a 50% renewables share for Queensland. The Expert Panel identified economic benefits of a renewable investment program including an average gain of 6,400 jobs.
Queensland has retained publicly owned electricity generators, primarily focused on coal-fired power. It would make sense for the public to diversify more into renewables.
Where the parties stand
At its recent conference, Labor committed to continued public ownership in the electricity sector and a 50% renewables target by 2030. The conference motion proposed a publicly owned energy corporation committed to protecting customers’ interests and building at least 1000 MW of clean energy.
The Greens propose more comprehensive public ownership with investment of $15 billion over the next 5 years to build publicly-owned clean energy and storage, estimated to create 5,500 jobs every year. The Labor-Green emphasis on renewables is consistent with the movement of the global mainstream.
Last week, at the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, 19 nations including the UK, New Zealand and Canada joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, pledged to phase out coal-fired power altogether.
In sharp contrast, One Nation’s policy is based on the claim that climate change is a hoax, promoted by the United Nations as part of its sinister Agenda 21 policy, which, according to the One Nation platform, seeks to control you and your life .
This position is, at least, internally consistent. The willingness of conservative, liberal and labour governments around the world to sign up to a common climate change policy is seen by One Nation as evidence that the UN is making progress towards its goal of world domination.
The LNP takes a more ambivalent position. While backing coal and opposing renewables, its Queensland state conference narrowly rejected a motion calling on Australia to withdraw from its Paris commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
‘HELE’ of a big gamble
The key idea used to reconcile these contradiction is the idea that we can meet our commitments using “high efficiency, low emissions” (HELE) coal-fired power stations.
HELE power stations rely on the process of ultra-supercritical generation. That sounds impressive, but the reality is more prosaic. The term supercritical refers to the fact that at high temperatures and pressures, fluids are neither liquids (in this case, water) nor gases (steam) but display characteristics of both. Supercritical boilers are 10-20% more efficient than subcritical boilers.
The first supercritical boiler was invented in the 1920s. The technology was fully commercialised by the 1990s. Coal-fired power stations built in Queensland since 2000 operate on supercritical technology.
‘Ultra-supercritical’ plants, first installed around 2000, operate at even higher temperatures and pressures, but the additional increase in efficiency is limited, by the physics of the Carnot cycle, to between 10 and 15 per cent. The HELE acronym is misleading: emissions are lower than those of 20th century plants, but higher than any other generation technology.
So, the moment any substantial carbon price is imposed the proposed power plant will cease to be financially viable and will become a stranded asset. Investment in such a project is a bet that all the world’s scientists and every other government in the developed world have got things wrong or, alternatively, that Australia can go it alone on this issue.
It’s hard to see any financial institution taking a risk like this. Given the warnings already issued by regulators about the dangers of investing in stranded assets, a loan that goes bad will leave the lender open to litigation and regulatory sanctions. Will banks be willing to lend the necessary billion dollars or so on such collateral.
Should the LNP gain office, then, their policy will face a critical test. Even with a substantial public investment, will any private firm be willing to take an equity stake in what looks certain to become a stranded asset? If not, will the Queensland public be forced to bear the entire risk?
Recently, hospital and aged care provider Catholic Health Australia (CHA) released a report sounding an alarm bell at recent increases in the number of patients in public hospitals being urged to “go private”.
Public hospitals may encourage their patients to “go private” because it allows them to bill the patient’s health insurance and Medicare for costs incurred, rather than having to dip into their own limited budgets. Patients may be persuaded to use their private health insurance after being assured by the public hospital of no out-of-pocket costs, or being promised added extras such as a private room.
The report argued this trend may harm the private hospital sector by affecting profitability and investment decisions. It may also harm the interests of public patients if public hospitals discriminate in favour of treating private patients.
While aspects of these concerns may be valid, there may also be some benefits to public hospitals treating more private patients.
A look at the figures
The report is correct that the numbers of private patients in public hospitals are increasing, at an average of 10.5% per year since 2011-12. Public patients in public hospitals and private patients in private hospitals have also been increasing, but at slower rates of only 2.7% and 4.5% per year respectively since 2011-12.
But percentage rates of change can be misleading. In raw numbers, the increase in public patients in public hospitals (527,467) and private patients in private hospitals (576,135) has actually outstripped the raw increase in private patients in public hospitals (287,473). This is because public patient numbers are increasing from a much larger base (over five million) than private patients in public hospitals (less than one million).
Concerns with this trend
The CHA report notes several concerns with the trend of increasing private patients in public hospitals. They note anecdotal evidence of public patients being pressured to “go private” with incentives including drinks vouchers, better food options and free parking. While these reports may seem concerning, it’s hard to base any change of policy on anecdotal reports.
More worrying is the suggestion that publicly-admitted patients in public hospitals are being discriminated against, for example by being made to wait longer for treatment. The CHA report cites data from an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, which shows waiting times on public hospital waiting lists for public patients (at 42 days) was more than twice that of private patients in public hospitals (20 days).
But this difference is hard to interpret. There may be many differences in diagnosis and disease severity between public and private patients, which may explain the waiting time gap. So we can’t conclude this is evidence of any form of “discrimination” against patients without private health insurance in the public hospital system from these figures.
More robust evidence from public hospitals in NSW in 2004-05 does show private patients were prioritised over public patients. In this study, waiting times for elective surgery were found to be considerably shorter for private patients, despite having similar clinical needs as public patients.
Differences in waiting times between public and private patients were found to be largest for patients assigned to the lowest two urgency levels. In these cases, waiting times for public patients were more than twice as long as for private patients.
There is further evidence, also from NSW public hospitals, that public and private patients may be treated differently when they are assigned to an urgency category for waiting lists for elective surgery. The study suggested private patients were more likely to be assigned into more urgent admission categories, which corresponds with a shorter maximum wait for admission into hospital.
This study also found private patients were likely to receive more medical procedures while in hospital, but found no difference for length of hospital stay or, importantly, for mortality rates.
One claim of the CHA report is that there has been relatively “stagnant” growth of activity of private patients in private hospitals, potentially affecting their profitability and investment decisions.
First, the figures don’t seem to back this up. The increase in numbers of private patients in private hospitals is actually higher than the increase in numbers of private patients in public hospitals.
Second, even if private hospitals were losing business to public hospitals, it could be a welcome demonstration of competition in the health care market. The trend may be explained through public hospitals providing better amenities, higher quality, or lower costs than private hospitals.
There are some arguments to support continuing the practice of public hospitals admitting private patients. There can be efficiency gains to the health system given that the fees and charges for private patients in public hospitals are usually lower than those in private hospitals. So this form of competition could lower the costs in the health system as a whole.
Additional revenue raised by public hospitals could also support the continual provision of services and programs for public patients, which may have been curtailed due to budget cuts to the public hospital system.
The public hospital system is often seen as unfairly treated by the private sector in how it bears costs for training junior doctors (which takes place overwhelmingly in the public system), and treating the most severely ill patients. From this perspective, it seems only fair to allow public hospitals to take their “share” of the more profitable private patients.
Why we need better data
It’s important to figure out whether private patients are receiving preferential treatment at the expense of public patients. One study found abolishing preferential access for private patients and admitting patients according to when they were listed for an elective procedure would only lead to a small improvement in waiting times for public patients.
This is because long waiting times for public patients are primarily due to budget constraints in public hospitals, and not because private patients are skipping the queue.
The available robust evidence on the treatment of private patients in public hospitals is from more than a decade ago, and it’s unclear if the disparities between how public and private patients are treated have improved or worsened.
One reason for the lack of high quality research on this topic is the restriction on access to detailed hospital data in Australia, which we need for robust studies. If we had access to more detailed data, we could better understand what’s happening now, and ensure timely access to high quality hospital care for both public and private patients.
Peter FitzSimons has plenty of critics in Australia, as do many other journalists and public figures, and dare I say ‘celebrities.’ I find much of what Peter has to say refreshing, sensible and very good, though as with others whom I agree with on many occasions, there are times I disagree with him and on some issues we stand worlds apart. His attacks on Christianity is one of the areas I disagree with him and this article I cam across, linked to below, offers some useful thoughts on this area.
They aren’t bad this lot. The Queensland government has just awarded themselves a $57 000 pay rise and are now seeking to block a pay rise for public servants. I probably shouldn’t express what I think of this Queensland government in public. The link below is to an article that reports on the public outrage in Queensland.