Grantham’s Wagnerian tragedy

March 10th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke, The Australian

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke, The Australian

I became convinced towards the end of 2013 that the Queensland Flood Commission had botched its inquiry and that a terrible truth about the January 2011 Grantham flood had been hidden.

Now an independent hydrological engineering study, commissioned by The Australian, has supported that claim. It points to the collapse of a levee at Wagner’s Quarry as the likely source of the destructive series of waves that killed 3 children and 9 adults with a 500 metre radius in less than hour.

Why didn’t Catherine Holmes’ commission crawl over this incident piece by piece to work out what went on and who was responsible?

As I write in The Australian this morning:

…how many pages of the 653-page floods commission report were devoted to this extraordinary event? Grantham is mentioned in just 28 of them and the two in the index hardly count. Neither do the references on three introductory pages or the nine where the word Grantham appears only in the footnotes.

The five pages that consider Grantham’s post-flood recovery, the three on the local emergency response and the one on the break in the energy supply are, with respect, side issues.

Apart from six passing refer­ences, the circumstances of the actual flood in Grantham are confined to just 1½ pages.

Local voices were heard at two community gatherings yet the commission admits “no formal evidence was taken”. Holmes’s report says the meetings were “a useful way for the commission to hear directly from members of the Lockyer Valley community what they regarded as the questions needing to be considered by the commission”.

In The Weekend Australian on Saturday, Amanda Gearing and I pieced together the human story of Grantham and the deep frustration of being let down by the Commission:

Spierling cried when she read the findings. “I’ve said it all along, I’ll say it until the day I die. I will tell you that was a huge wall of water that hit us. And it was coming from the west.”

Marty Warburton saw shipping containers, cars, a house and two bodies floating past his service station. He too cried when the original report was released and he still cries, shaken, pale and quivering, as he recalls the horrors of that dreadful afternoon.

“It’s hard not to think that they’ve got it so wrong because they want to,” he told The Weekend Australian. “We were all treated like stupid problems, basically; you know, like hillbilly hicks. They said: ‘We’ve got to have experts to tell us that.’ If the experts got it wrong, well …”









Why Governments Fail so often

March 3rd, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

The $650 billion-plus that will be spent on welfare in the next four years would be a small sacrifice if we could be certain that the money was allocated according to need, that it relieved hardship rather than encouraged it, that it built resilience instead of eroding it and helped people bounce back, I write in The Australian today.

Yet the current system fails those basic tests, as government-run systems usually do. In Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better, Peter H. Schuck concludes that most government programs are preloaded with a degree of failure.

Screenshot 2015-03-03 05.49.40

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke, The Australian

Since state welfare provision is, in essence, the socialisation of risk, moral hazard is unavoidable. Put bluntly, any means-tested welfare payment provides an incentive to be poor. Charles Murray called it the law of unintended rewards: “Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.”

The first point to make about welfare reform is that it will never produce a perfect system. It is hard to strike a balance between assisting victims of brute bad luck and making victimhood a career choice. The best that can be hoped of any program is its benefits outweigh its perverse consequences.

Yet welfare providers are disinclined to own their mistakes. Those who make a living from conspicuous altruism are usually proud of their work; they prefer to attribute failure to inadequate funding rather than flawed programs.

The electoral cycle also plays a part, writes Schuck. “Officials have powerful incentives to provide voters and interest groups with short-term benefits and hide the long-term costs of paying for those benefits.”

Welfare, like all government services, is prone to “non-market failure”, a term coined by economist Charles Wolf. In a non-market, the “product” is hard to define and difficult to measure; quality control is lacking; services are usually provided by a single agency, depriving them of the benefits of competition.

Non-markets are compromised by “internalities”, the conflict between administrators’ private goals and the agency’s public purpose, sometimes diagnosed as provider capture.

The iron law of government intervention — that the first, and sometimes only, beneficiaries of programs are the people who administer them — applies to the caring professions as much as the tax office. In the abstruse world of modern welfare the needs of clients frequently come last.


The Age of meddling

March 3rd, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

SO where did we get this ludicrous idea that governments can actually fix things? I inquired in The Australian last week.

Screenshot 2015-03-03 05.34.28From The Age, of course — or, to be precise, its erstwhile proprietor David Syme, a 19th-century pioneer of the meddlesome state.

A new book, yet to be reviewed in the Melbourne tabloid, traces the origins of paternalistic demo­cracy in Australia. It begins with the assumption that citizens and corporations cannot be trusted to do the right thing and that the government should order their lives for them.

Political historian Greg Melleuish highlights Syme’s role in spreading the dangerous notion that the state exists “to keep the excesses of human depravity in check”.  Syme used his newspaper to promote his theory of  “industrial science” that deeply influenced public policy in Victoria. It prepared the intellectual soil for Deakinite protectionism and laid the groundwork for the Harvester judgment.

Syme advocated a quite different form of democracy than the NSW model. The NSW system remained true to the English classical liberal tradition, trusting individuals to behave as responsible moral citizens. It followed Adam Smith’s theory that when individuals were left to pursue their own self-interest there was a net benefit for the common good.



The wages of entitlement

February 17th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

TROUBLE is brewing in the entitlement industry, I write in The Australian today.

Public servants at the Department of Human Services are so angry at the government’s derisory pay offer that they have taken off for lunch. The 1.15 per cent rise on the table falls somewhat short of the 12 per cent the Community and Public Sector Union thinks its members are worth. What’s more, the department wants to add nine minutes to the working day, requiring staff to stay at their desks for a full 7½ hours. No wonder they’re upset.

Last week DHS staff escalated the dispute by switching their email accounts to bounce-back while they took co-ordinated meal breaks. Unmoved, the department is refusing to budge.

Just how productive are the 30,000 DHS workers who administer the nation’s biggest welfare programs? Arguably a little too productive. Last year they redistributed $159 billion of other people’s money, about 10 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product. That means each staff member doled out about $5.3 million in welfare in 2013-14, or 62 times what they are paid.

It’s not public service salaries that are sending us on the road to Athens, it’s the quantities of cash they are spending. The budget cannot be returned to surplus by simply cutting bureaucracy, as Finance Department secretary Jane Halton pointed out on Friday.

The government’s running costs were on track to fall to 6 per cent of total spending in 2017-18, Halton told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. “Evidence suggests that (inefficiency) is not the major source and major driver of growth in government outlays,” she said.



Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right

February 4th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Three months before the 2013 election Kevin Rudd called Tony Abbott “one of the most extreme right-wing conservative leaders or politicians that the Liberal Party has thrown up.” 

He may have been close with “conservative.” But “extreme right wing”? Clearly not.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 4.37.02 am

Eric Lobbecke, The Australian

As I write in The Australian week, Abbott the attacks on the Prime Minister are coming from both Left and Right:

… incredibly, the militant, kamikaze Right has now fallen for the Left’s delusion that electing Abbott was a mistake. Like the Left it seizes on the slightest evidence that seems to back its hunch that the PM is really not up to it.

Imposing GST on imported mail-order fripperies is an insult to the memory of Milton Friedman, complain the armchair dries. Having persuaded Abbott to drop his paid parental leave proposal, they demand that he abandons his ideas about childcare too.

So there’s Abbott, stuck in the middle, a human figure with all his failings who took his party back into power and is doing his level best to lead a reforming government from the centre.

It is clear Abbott is not a Chicago School purist, but having fought the Fightback! campaign as John Hewson’s press sec probably scared him for the life. And anyway, reform in Australia always happens from the centre – our electoral process won’t allow it any other way.

His self-righteous, self-regarding critics would do well to reacquaint themselves with Gough Whitlam’s admonition of the Victorian Left in 1967 — “Certainly the impotent are pure.”

Or, if they would rather hear it from Bob Menzies, they could start with the 1954 speech Democracy and Management: “In seeking for perfection, we can, if we are not careful, waste much time and energy.”



Thanks Mr Shorten, we’ll get back to you on that.

January 27th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments


Will Bill Shorten be able to get as far as an election without being forced to address the structural fiscal crisis?

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

So far, as I write in The Australian today, Labor under Shorten appears to suggest that the government is just making the debt problem up as an excuse to be mean to poor people.

It is hard to believe that he’ll be able to get away with this for long. But then again, journalists seldom challenge the Leader of the Opposition. The words “debt” and “deficit” have not appeared in Bill Shorten’s official interview transcripts for almost eight weeks. Not, in fact, since Leigh Sales gave him a touch-up on ABC’s 7.30 on December 3.

The transcript is worth reading. Shorten’s response, as abridged by Bill Leak in a memorable cartoon this month, ran as follows:

“We’ve got to go for growth, and the way you go for growth is you spend money … if you’ve got growth you’re creating national wealth then a lot of pressure comes off the budget so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to built the infrastructure of the future … you’ve got to have the skills and training of the future … it’s about the future… if you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”


Also in The Australian today, the Opposition’s Andrew Leigh suggests Labor tax its way back to surplus:

Since coming to office, the Abbott Government has thrown out significant sources of revenue like the carbon price and the mining tax…  If Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey had made more sensible decisions on all these fronts, today’s budget outlook would likely be much less bleak…

The bottom line is this: if the Abbott Government hadn’t scrapped the carbon price and the mining tax while splashing out on an unfair parental leave scheme and an ineffective carbon plan, the budget would be comfortably back in surplus in 2017-18.







January 21st, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

A bloke in a checked shirt takes issue with my dreary column about Bill Shorten and frightbat feminists. He complains in The Guardian:

Screenshot 2015-01-21 06.08.34What do the Australian’s columnist Nick Cater, video game hate group #Gamergate, Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik and random blokes on YouTube have in common? Apart from anything else, they have all invoked the spectre of “cultural Marxism” to account for things they disapprove of – things like Islamic immigrant communities, feminism and, er, opposition leader Bill Shorten.

To everyone who has clicked through to my blog over the last couple of days via The Guardian‘s handy link, welcome.

Screenshot 2015-01-21 06.58.27‘It takes a fair bit to offend me these days but Nick Cater’s new book The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class has done the trick.’ 

Mark Latham






Friends of the fishes

January 21st, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

The eco-creeps seem determined to turn Queensland into the place where the people of La La Land go for their sunshine break, I write in The Australian this week.

Their spurious campaign to link the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef with mining in the Galilee Basin is infecting the Queensland State Election with a dishonest crusade by GetUp! to unseat Campbell Newman.

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

The campaign to make Labor the party that supports coral and brightly coloured fish is as absurd as it is disingenuous. Palaszczuk has pledged to stop dredging spoil being dumped in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but how is another question. The High Court’s December 1975 ruling on Gough Whitlam’s Seas and Submerged Lands Act locates the continental shelf under commonwealth, not state, jurisdiction. In any case, since Tony Abbott’s government promises to introduce its own legislation to that effect, Palaszczuk’s gesture is pure moral posturing…

Labor is investing heavily to build its reputation as the saviour of the reef, guessing that it will play well in the gentrified suburbs of Brisbane, including Ashgrove, where the Premier is struggling to retain his seat. It is a dangerous game that obliges Labor to enter a shadow alliance with ecological warriors who want to destroy the state’s coal industry, and much more besides.

GetUp!’s effective endorsement of Annastacia Palaszczuk is absurd when you consider that it was a Labor government that opened the Galilee Basin to miners and pushed the expansion of the Abbot Point coal loading terminal:

Beattie and Bligh, despite their thriftless habits, understood that wealth had to be created, not just redistributed. They recognised that Queensland was sitting on some of the greatest untapped coal reserves in the world, allocating tenements in the Galilee Basin and announcing plans to expand the coal terminal at Abbot Point.

In June 2011, Bligh announced a $6.2 billion expansion, with a capacity to ship almost 300 million tonnes a year. Six months later, she went further, announcing that Abbot Point would be supersized to a $9 billion project producing 400 billion tonnes of coal and loading 1300 ships a year.

The Labor government in Canberra bent over backwards to help, making 33 of the 34 approval decisions the development needed. Infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese told the ABC it was one of the best industrial developments he had ever seen.

Memo to Palaszczuk: the Greenies are not your friends. Labor’s job is to support jobs and prosperity, the very thing the eco-warriors want to stop.



Backlash? What Backlash?

January 14th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Clooney at the Golden Globes

Clooney at the Golden Globes

Brendan O’Neill pulls apart the contrived theory of Islamphobia today in Spiked! He’s right: it’s not Islmaphobia that George Clooney should fear, but Islamism itself.


… as the bodies of the four Jews were being prepared for the flight to Israel, George Clooney told a bunch of fawning journos how worried he is about ‘anti-Muslim fervour’ in Europe. It’s surreal; real through-the-looking-glass stuff.


The cognoscenti nightmare of the backlash that never comes muddies our thinking on Islamism, says O’Neill.

If Europe really wants to pay tribute to the journalists and cartoonists massacred in Paris last week, it could do worse than ditch the term ‘Islamophobia’. For this empty, cynical, elitist phrase, this multicultural conceit, has done an untold amount to promote the idea that ridiculing other people’s beliefs and cultures is a bad thing. In fact, the widely used but little thought-on i-word has pathologised the very act of making a judgement. It has turned the totally legitimate conviction that some belief systems are inferior to others into a swirling, irrational fear — a phobia — worthy of condemnation and maybe even investigation by officials…

Europe… is so riven by relativism, so allergic to making moral judgements, that even saying ‘Islamic values are not as good as Enlightenment values’ is now treated as evidence of a warped, sinful mind, as a crime, effectively.

Daniel Pipes in The Australian today says the Islamists cannot win:

In sum, self-indulgence and strategic ineptitude are the hallmarks the Islamist campaign. The catastrophe of the Islamist program is matched by the ineptitude of its tactics. I conclude, its fate will be the same dust-heap of history where fascism and communism can be found.

Like those two other totalitarianisms, it promises terrible destruction and many deaths before ultimately failing. The war will be long and painful but in the end, again, the forces of civilisation will vanquish those of barbarism.



The world after Charlie

January 13th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Islam struggles with pluralism – the simple ability to live and let live. That much is clear from last week’s slaughter at the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, I write in The Australian today.

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman, The Australian

The slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, more than any other jihadist attack on a Western target, has illuminated the fault line that divides Islamism from the rest. The enemies of harmony in France were not Marine Le Pen and her chums in the French National Front but the jihadists themselves. It was they who sought to punish free speech with bullets, they who shot men armed only with pens and they who targeted shoppers in a Kosher supermarket because they hated Jews.

The Islamists forgo the right to membership of the civilised world not because of their exoticism but because of their intolerance.

Unlike other major religions, Islam in its fundamentalist form cannot simply live and let live. It despises personal liberty and cannot cope with pluralism.

The rough justice prescribed for infidels across significant parts of the Muslim world tells of a faith that has little capacity for diversity. The act of apostasy — the renunciation of one’s religion — is a criminal offence in 23 Muslim countries.