Central banking for all: Meanwhile in the wider world …

I’ve previously commented more than once on the relatively more healthy state of economic debate in the UK than here – which is not to say that the giant intellectual sucking sound that is Brexit isn’t already having its own disastrous impact on debate.

Meanwhile two of my favourite British commentators have taken up ideas that are close to my heart. The Economist, proposing accounts at the central bank for all and Martin Wolf urging the Swiss to vote “Yes” to sovereign money tomorrow (polls suggest they won’t) and raising my proposal of allowing citizens to both park savings with the central bank and to borrow against super safe mortgages.

I reproduce each below the fold. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy | 2 Comments

A Tale of Two Chinese Cities

Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang Chi-wa, NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner, Donghai Airlines chairman Mr.Wong Cho-Bau and Donghai Airlines Chief Executive Officer Yang Jianhong following the arrival of the first Donghai airlines flight from Shenzen, China. Picture: Justin Kennedy Source:News Corp Australia

Once upon a time (in 2010) a wealthy Chinese businessman granted a long-term lease of a luxury apartment at an apparent undervalue to a senior Hong Kong government official, and then undertook multi-million dollar refurbishment works to it free of charge. At the same time, a corporation controlled by the businessman was seeking approval for the grant of a media licence application that was effectively in the gift of the senior official.

But why should Territorians care about that story? Well, the businessman is a chap named Bill Wong Cho-bau, based in Shenzhen. He is the founder and director of a number of companies including Donghai Airlines, which only last week began offering two Boeing 737 flights per week between Shenzhen and Darwin,  In return it is rumoured that Donghai is receiving a marketing subsidy from the Northern Territory Government of up to $10 million, although the Government won’t disclose the precise terms of the “partnering agreement” – they are said to be “commercial-in-confidence”.

The senior government official concerned is former Hong Kong Chief Executive (effectively the Governor) Donald Tsang. He was Last Governor Chris Patten‘s understudy before the UK handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese control in 1997, and later followed the first Chinese-born Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa into the top job in 2005 on the latter’s retirement.

By 2010 Tsang was in his 70s and looking to retire himself. It appears he was quite keen on retiring to a three storey luxury apartment in Shenzhen offered to him by his little business mate Wong Cho-bau. Apart from controlling Donghai Airlines, Wong’s corporate interests include controlling a media company then named Wave Media which held an AM radio licence in Hong Kong but was bidding for a much more valuable digital radio licence, which he was later granted (two in 2010 and one in 2012).

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Posted in Politics - Northern Territory | 2 Comments

Donghai dong low sweet subsidy chariot

Long-ish article but a must-read in my humble opinion for Territorians interested in NT economic development (especially tourism).

The Gunner government isn’t keen to disclose the terms of its “partnering” agreement with Donghai Airlines that resulted in the airline’s inaugural flight from Shenzhen to Darwin earlier this week; apparently the first of two flights per week for an indeterminate period of time. It was full of junketing “VIPs” travelling at NTG expense, reportedly to the tune of a total $70,000. Exactly how much taxpayers’ money will be going to Donghai on an ongoing basis is a mystery, because the Gunner government refuses to tell us. I wonder how much of the $10.85 million the NTG recently announced as being committed to “cooperative marketing with domestic and international airlines” is going to support the Donghai deal? I suspect it’s probably the lion’s share. Moreover, there are also rumours that the Government is subsidising Donghai’s landing fees at Darwin Airport.

Why is this important? There are two reasons. First, the history of NTG attempts to increase the number and frequency of overseas airlinks is patchy to put it mildly, as I recently highlighted in a Twitter thread. Essentially what the subsidised airlines typically do is trouser the NTG subsidy dollars until the money stops, then cancel the formerly subsidised service/s. Historically these deals have been a waste of money. I’ll explore that proposition in greater depth below.

Secondly, we will actually need to rely on government subsidies of one sort or another if we hope to establish the type of attractions Darwin will need to entertain all those Chinese visitors so they recommend it to their friends. At the moment, during the wet season  Darwin regularly features hordes of American and European tourists from visiting cruise liners wandering bored, broiling and bemused around the CBD because few shops are open and there’s little or nothing to do.

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Posted in Politics - Northern Territory | Leave a comment

The unbearable thinness of modern politics

There’s been a great thinning out of our political culture. Once built up from the life-world with hundreds of thousands determining party policy feeding up from branches to politicians – though leaders obviously had quite a lot of power, particularly in the conservative parties, the process is now reversed. Brand management dominates from the top and the brand managers manage as best they can, ‘positioning’ and ‘repositioning’ themselves depending on whether or not their carefully focus group tested talking points get ‘traction’ and so on.

One bit of road-kill from this thinning out of the institutions and culture of politics is that parties aren’t solid institutions with which one can do business. Neither are politicians. Of course, there was never a time when there wasn’t some mucking about, but there was a time (I’m thinking – perhaps someone can provide me with clear counter-examples to prove I’m just wrong) when agreements made in politics had some solidity. That they have next to none any more was nicely demonstrated when Tony Abbott took over as Leader of the Coalition.

As you’ll recall, Malcolm Turnbull had concluded a deal with the ALP Government to allow the carbon pricing regime through the Parliament. One might have thought that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was negotiating with the authorised representative of the Coalition when they were negotiating with its then Leader and that there might be ethical qualms about going back on this. After all, that’s a bit of a problem for an organisation if everyone knows that a deal with it might not be worth the paper it’s written on.

What seemed significant to me at the time was the more or less complete absence of any sense that there was a serious ethical issue to be addressed here.1 I thought of this when Brian Burston defended his refusal to renegue on a deal he says he thought of himself as making. Now I’m aware that he might just be saying this, but let’s take him at his word. He says that he wouldn’t follow his Great and Fearless Leader Pauline Hanson because once I make a handshake with somebody,  that’s it. I stick to my word”.

As I wrote a while back, although the political class have the lowest opinion of these strays from outside the upper middle class who keep turning up, unannounced and unexpected in Parliament, they often deliver the voice and mores of ordinary people. And that’s often of a higher standard than the political pros. Thus you’ll recall all the back-slapping of Malcolm Turnbull when he ‘faced down’ the randos with a double dissolution in which they’d probably lose their seats. Surely that would lead them to buckle in defence of their own self-interest. But that’s rare in people’s conception of what it is to do the right thing in politics. Meanwhile, amongst career politicians it’s de rigueur – it’s pretty much what makes their world go round. 2

  1. No doubt it was raised as a talking point by the ALP and by one or two journos, but, to quote John Foster Dulles in a different context, their heart wasn’t in it.
  2. I recall once talking to a cabinet minister when a particular operative was behaving in a particularly irrational fashion. He was uninterested for quite a while until I continued describing what was going on. Then he said abruptly. “So you’re telling me he’s no longer acting in his own interest”. “Yes” I said. His tone immediately changed. “We’ve got a problem”.
Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Politics - national | 5 Comments

A Vibrant Darwin CBD – vision and reality

It seems like time to review progress on the Gunner government’s quest to create a vibrant Darwin CBD. They actually appointed an assistant Minister for that noble quest (Paul Kirby) on achieving government in 2016. In terms of on-the-ground progress you’d have to say it hasn’t worked. CBD streets remain sparsely populated with both tourists and local residents; shops are still closing while others look tired and run-down; and otherwise nothing has changed except for some very nice murals on the sides of some buildings and some missing trees blown down in Cyclone Marcus.

But things seem likely to be about to change, mostly for the better, in the near future. It looks like the Landbridge Hotel down at the Darwin Waterfront will soon start construction; federal funding has been committed for an imminent start to Barneson Boulevard linking Tiger Brennan Drive to the centre of the CBD (a mixed blessing); and the NTG has called for expressions of interest to build a major water theme park (a bit like the Bali Water Bom park) adjacent to Stokes Hill. The latter is a really excellent idea and I hope they receive strong expressions of interest from suitable developers. Some NTG funding has been made available for addressing the lack of shade and shelter in the CBD, and Darwin City Council has a current program to replace existing street lighting with brighter LED lights. I hope they’re MUCH brighter, because there are quite a few parts of the CBD where it’s very dark and quite scary to walk at night. Hardly an encouragement for tourists already disconcerted by the aggressive behaviour of many “long-grassers” and drunken thugs exiting Mitchell Street’s nightclub precinct.

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Posted in Environment, Politics - Northern Territory | 1 Comment

Unloading the Duelling Constitutional Six Shooters

As far as I can tell, the position of the Australian Republic Movement ever since the failure of the 1999 Republic Referendum has effectively if tacitly been that there is no point in another referendum while the current Queen remains on the throne. Certainly the ARM’s current “plan” (such as it is) suggests such a strategy. It envisages a possible referendum in 2022 when the Queen will be 96 if she lives that long. More likely Charles will be on the throne. The ARM hypothesis seems to be that the reverence in which the current Queen is held was a significant reason why the Republic Referendum failed in 1999. Presumably the hope/supposition is that Charles will rapidly show himself to be such a buffoon as King that Australians will be much more receptive to voting for a republic than they were in 1999. But does that have any substance? The 1999 Referendum failed within a couple of years of the death of Princess Diana, a time when the Queen was widely reviled by her own subjects including Australians. Things had recovered a bit by 1999, but it isn’t evident that the Queen was especially revered.

Similarly, although Charles seems to be a tad eccentric, it’s unlikely that he will emerge in his 70s as the Renegade King and immediately alienate his subjects. More likely he will act under the close guidance of senior Royal Household advisers, just as his mother did in her early years on the throne.

In my view the ongoing seeming stability and complacent acceptance of constitutional monarchy by most Australians (although a recent poll showed increasing support for a republic) has much more to do with a belief that the current Australian system is itself stable and durable. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” remains the prevailing view. However that attitude itself flows from a fairly abysmal level of ignorance about our Constitution on the part of most Australians. There are numerous deficiencies in the Constitution, not least its failure to embrace First Nations peoples, the grossly defective disqualification provisions of s 44 and lack of protection of basic rights and freedoms.

However the potential instability flowing from the lack of clarity of the relationship between  the royal Head of State, her Australian representative the Governor-General and our elected governments is in my view the most serious problem, even though it has only manifested itself in practice once since Federation.

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Posted in Law, Politics - national | 30 Comments

John Burnheim on theory and practice in understanding the world

In an exchange, John Burnheim sent me an email which seemed to me to be the effective condensation of a lot of good thinking. It certainly chimed with my own thoughts. So I suggested he clean it up and I’d reproduce it here, which I reproduce below. Because it is the conclusion of three emails, the first from him, followed by my response, I reproduce those two previous emails immediately below his final email – which is immediately below:

Don’t despair. Just face the problem that the more we know the more difficult it is to handle our problems. Give up looking for a kit of tools each of which has a specific use and collectively can do anything you need to do. Even in physics the variety of models that turn out to be relevant to some apparently simple problems tend to keep on multiplying. complications.

For much of my life I have been a devotee of sailing as “the poetry of motion” and a fascinating set of problems of design involving a host of diverse considerations, ranging from structural and accommodation problems, the capabilities of various materials, through hydrodynamics of flow, the interactions of hull with waves, to the aerodynamics of sails, each of which involves a different sort of theorisation, but also the impossibility of getting exact measurements such as might enable the relevance of variations of design to performance to be calculated from the theory, which itself is often an approximation. What theory does is to enable us to design ways of testing a particular way of dealing with a problem that identify its weaknesses.

Nobody who knows anything about such design problems imagines that progress will take us towards a single model that incorporates and integrates all those factors, or even that some of the apparently well establishes theories of such things as laminar flow are as simple as we have supposed. An old friend of mine, Tom Fink, was at one time prof of aeronautics engineering at Sydney University. He was very critical of the reliance of his Cambridge teachers on empirical generalisation in aerodynamics and set out to get the theory right. He once announced to me with pride that he had solved the problem of supersonic flow in TWO dimensions. I said “Surely it’s at least a three-dimensional problem. He replied that even though that was true, the development was a big step forward, and not without its practical use in circumstances where you could treat the third dimension as given, assign values to it and see what happens. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Science | 5 Comments