Friday, October 31, 2008

There’s no ‘I’ in bureaucracy

My youngest daughter has Down Syndrome, so I am always very aware of any major news stories concerning people with DS. Quite often my bullshit meter is on high alert as well to see how people with DS are treated by the media. Mostly this is because I got sick very quickly, when we first found out that she had DS, of people telling us how “they” are such beautiful people; “they” are so loving and kind. My daughter was a week old and she had already been pigeonholed into a group – she was a plural seemingly forever denied the right to be singular.

I can remember thinking, “How do you know she’ll be lovely – she might grow up to be a total bitch?” In fact I resented that people discounted her even the chance to be a bit bitchy, or miserable, or grumpy, or anything other than “so loving; so kind”.

Now of course it turns out, that while she is only 2, I can say that she is an absolutely lovely little girl, who makes the world a better place when she smiles. But when she is at day care she’ll also let the other kids know when she is playing with a toy and isn’t really in a mood to share, so I remain hopeful that she will grow up to be a strong woman who (while hopefully not bitchy!) is not just some gormless “so loving, so kind” girl whom people will just pigeonhole. If she is loving and kind (which I know she will be) it will be because she is; not because they are.

In short, she is a person. She is an individual.

I am equally alert to stories where people use family members with DS to claim some greater knowledge. And yes, I’m looking at you Sarah Palin.

Palin’s youngest son, Trig, aside from being saddled with the dumbest name in Christendom, also has DS. He’s 6 months old and apparently this now makes her an expert on special-needs children:

As she said in her VP debate:

"To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House."

Well maybe she is. All I know is in the first 6 months after our daughter’s birth, my wife and I felt anything but expert on the needs of special kids (and in fact still don't feel that way). Similarly I don't consider myself to be an expert on car safety because I wear a seat belt every time I drive, or I’m an educational policy whiz because I went to school.

John McCain brought his usual gravy like clarity to the subject in his debate by saying Palin

"understands special-needs families," said McCain. "She understands that autism is on the rise, that we've got to find out what's causing it, and we've got to reach out to these families, and help them, and give them the help they need as they raise these very special needs children. She understands that better than almost any American that I know."

To which I wondered, when did DS mean autism? And yeah I know there is a high degree of overlap, and a number of the issues are the same, but geez, he might have well referred to his remival of a melanoma and said he has a good understanding of ovarian cancer.

Having served in a war doesn’t make someone a good president, and having a child with DS certainly doesn’t make you an expert on special needs – you may be more aware of the problems, but I certainly don’t have any more solutions than I would have had I talked to a stack of people/groups involved with DS (you know what you’re supposed to do when developing policy).

Now all of this is a round about way of getting to the issue of the day – that of a German doctor working in Horsham being denied a permanent visa because his son has DS.

Boy the media went into a spin with this. And I must admit as a father of a girl with DS I was pretty angry this morning while reading the articles. The blogs got involved – Andrew Bolt wrote a pretty measured one – he didn’t criticize the government, but just said how irrational it all was. His readers, however, mostly went in head first decrying the Rudd Government – saying if the doctor was Indian he’d be allowed to stay etc etc.

Most of them missed the fact that the decision was a bureaucratic one (the Minister certainly would not have been aware), it was subject to appeal and only then would/could the Minister for Immigration get involved and overturn it (if that didn't happen at the appeal stage). And it also wasn’t like there is a huge rush – Dr Moeller's temporary visa runs out in 2010.

However, I was glad to see Nicola Roxon getting involved very early, as the dopiness of denying a doctor to stay in a country because his son might need medical help requires leaps of logic only possible within the bureaucracy.

The real issue here is not the Rudd Government, but the Dept of Immigration and Citizenship. This dept has always had a problem with acronyms – they used to be the Dept of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, or DIMA (always pronounced as Deema rather than Dim ah). Now its acronym is DIC, but they most certainly do not use that.

This department under the Howard Government was an embarrassment to Australia, and the public service; it was the department where your soul went to die.

The problem in this case is that you can’t really allow people to migrate to Australia if it seems like they are doing it merely to use our health system. It would be wonderful if we could bring the world in, but it’s not going to happen; thus people with medical conditions are always going to have struggle through hoops to get in.

The problem with the policy is that it is unlikely Dr Moeller’s son Lukas would be a “drain on the medical system” – most intensive medical needs for DS kids are very early on when they often need operations on their hearts or bowels. But even this is not a given – thankfully our daughter did not need any such operations.

Which brings us to the real problem – the department has viewed Lukas Moeller as a plural, and not a singular.

The best voice on this was Down Syndrome Victoria executive officer Catherine McAlpine who said the decision was “disgraceful and discriminatory”:

“The Department are not looking at Lukas as an individual or seeing his potential. Instead, they are making assumptions based on their outmoded understanding of intellectual disability,” she said.

Spot on.

Look, the issues immigration has to deal with are incredibly hard, and I have a lot of sympathy for the people working in the Department. By its very nature the Department is concerned with the plurality of the nation, but if it is a department that doesn’t also have a focus on people as individuals, then it ain’t worth spit, and needs a major overhaul.

The message on this case from the Department is fairly standard, but the Minister (Chris Evans) does seem to be looking at improving things:

"A spokesman for the minister said he could only intervene after the tribunal hearing, but in the meantime the department was reviewing its powers to grant waivers on a strict health requirement for people in the skilled-migrant category seeking permanent residency.

The minister asked for advice on the issue of waivers some week ago, as he has received several requests for ministerial intervention by people with pre-existing medical conditions in the short time he has been minister."

I am sure this decision will be overturned – either on appeal or by the Minister. It’s such an obviously wrong decision.

But what is of more importance is that the Evans shakes up his department – and improves the culture of the place. Officials do need to abide by the rulings (as they did in this case) – in fact if they didn’t there would be more hell to pay. But there needs to be more scope and understanding to realise when the rules are wrong – either for individual cases or across the board – and to know that there needs to be exceptions or changes made.

I don’t criticize the Government on this – though if it turns out that Dr Moeller does have to go back to Germany, I’ll struggle to vote ALP next time round – but this is Strike One on a Department that already has a bad history, and one which needs reform. Admittedly this is a small slip because the process hasn’t even been completed – but the next stuff up by the Department should have the public wondering what Evans has been doing – he won’t be able to say he didn’t know there were problems.

Above all he has to be able to find the singular within the plural.

And Rudd should perhaps remind Evans, that if he can’t find it, there’s a few singular individuals on the ALP's Backbench at the moment that I am sure gladly would.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Election 08: Not long now...

Barack Obama was interviewed on Jon Stewart last night; but before the interview he does a great clip on the McCain campaign and the tendency of Palin to "go rogue", and also the fact that "Joe the Plumber" is an ignorant fool (and McCain equally so even thinking the guy has anything worthwhile to say).

Before that - what the hell is wrong with "spreading the wealth"? And how in the hell is that socialism? Apparently living in a free society means I keep everything I earn and bugger the rest of you. Beautiful. Fantastic. Good luck building your own road; or your own school, hospital, sewerage system... Geez America! I swear the way the right-wing nuts are going, by the 2012 election believing in democracy will be viewed as dangerously left wing.

Here's the Obama interview. His background is straight out of Yes Prime Minister. In one episode Jim Hacker is about to give a Ministerial broadcast. When it comes to devising the set he is given the following advice:

"you should emphasise the one you're not. Or the one people are in danger of thinking you're not. So, if you're changing a lot of things, you want to look reassuring and traditional. Therefore you should have a dark suit and an oak panelled background and leather books. But if you're not doing anything new, you'd want a light modern suit and a modern high-tech setting with abstract paintings"

Obama's slogan all year has been "Change". His slogan now is "Change we need!"
So check out his suit and the background to see what he's trying to emphasise...

In the interview he referred to a campaign speech with Bill Clinton. Below is Clinton's introduction of Obama. It's a good introduction by a guy who obviously would be deeply cut that Hillary didn't get the nomination (and in my opinion she would be killing McCain as well if not better than Obama).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Oscar is always wrong (except when it's right) Part I

A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly launched its "Recall the Gold" survey - which involves around 7000 forms being sent out to Hollywood insiders to redo their votes on various Oscar categories for the years 2003, 1998, 1993, 1988, and 1983.

It's a great idea. The Academy Awards are great because they get it wrong so often - how boring would it be if every year everyone thought "yep, that's the right pick". I own a great book by film critic Danny Perry called "Alternative Oscars" that looks at the Best Picture, Actor and Actress categories from 1927-8 to 1990. Sadly it is now out of print (it's not even on, but it is a brilliant read and displays how biased the Oscars are towards big serious dramas.

And so in lieu of getting a form from EW (geez, if someone who has had a blog going for over 3 months isn't a "Hollywood Insider" then something is very much amiss!), I shall be taking a look back at selections in the Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor & Actress, Director and Writing categories. (I'll only point out the categories I think are really wrong, or I think are wrong enough to be bothered about, or I've seen enough of the other films/performances to actually know what the hell I am talking about.)

I won't bother with the last 2 years, because I must admit to not having seen many of the nominees from this year, and 2006 is still too close to really look back with any good overview of which performances/films have stood the test of time. And I'll come back to this at irregular times (like when I can't think of anything else to write!) and for irregular years. Admittedly my knowledge of film gets better the longer ago it is - I watch far too few movies nowadays.

Also remember with the Oscars the date is always a bit tricky - the awards held this year in Feb 2008 were actually the 2007 Oscars.

Best Picture: Crash
Nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich
Should have won: Brokeback Mountain

Easily one of the worst choices of the last decade. Crash is an anti-racist movie that seeks to show that we're all a little bit racist. It manipulates the viewer to all get out and features Sandra Bullock acting as "Sandra Bullock serious actress", it is horrible to watch. And worst of all two great films were denied the prize - Good Night and Good Luck, and Brokeback Mountain.

Both films were made for adults - they in no way dumb anything down, and they assume the watcher will pay attention, listen to the words spoken, and watch the expressions of the characters for signs of things unsaid.

GN&GL recreates the era of 1950s newsrooms brilliantly and features great performances all round. But Brokeback Mountain was the truly great film of that year.

The cinematography, the direction, the script (Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry adapting Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx - and no, I am not 100% sure how to pronounce her name), the music (what a fantastic score), and, above all, the acting is astonishing. That a movie about two gay cowboys could rise above expectations of campness to become a tragic drama about 2 men forced to lie to their families and to themselves is a great achievement. It should have won, not because it would be a "statement" but because it was a film where every aspect came together to produce a work of art.

Plus it has a requisite famous line that everyone can quote for maximum comedic effect: "I wish I knew how to quit you".

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote).
Should have won: Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain).

Ok full admission - I haven't actually seen Capote. But I find it hard to believe PSH's performance could be better than Ledger's. Ledger does so much with so little - he hardly speaks - every word he utters seems like it has been forcibly ripped out. He does all his acting through subtle movements of his eyes, his jaw. It isn't showy acting - but he disappears completely into the role - he ages well during the film, and his accent is perfect. It's as good a performance as anything Brando did.

Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was very good - and may win him a posthumous Oscar - but this is the role he deserves to be remembered for. There are not many actors who could pull off this role.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Times They are a Changin'

I have said a number of times on this blog that Obama hasn't ever really clicked for me. I liked his oratory but felt it really wasn't as good as it was being made out to be - we are so starved for a politician who will inspire us, that in lieu of a RFK, JFK or Martin Luther King Jr, we'll take a close imitation. I thought his exhortation of "Yes we can!" was a bit weak; his new slogan of "Change We Need" however seems to be right for the times.

I have not studied Obama's policies in minute detail - though from listening to all the debates I'll say I like Obama's health plan and general tax plans a hell of a lot better than McCain's. But I'm not a US taxpayer, so that doesn't really affect me at all. What does affect me is how America is viewed throughout the world, and how America chooses to use its power.

And with Obama, I believe the US is going to be held in higher esteem throughout the world, and that is a very good thing. As Bill Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention (best speech of the whole campaign), "people the world over have always been more impressed by the power of [America's] example rather than by the example of [America's] power".

And with Obama, I feel more certain that the example of America will be something worth looking towards.

Now John McCain might have been able to be a fine President; but then he chose Sarah Palin as his VP candidate. There is no way, with her as Vice President, that the US could be viewed as an example to others. She would divide the country, and divide the world against America.

Don't believe me? Well she has already divided her own party - get this from a White House aide under the first George Bush:

"There's going to be a bloodbath. A lot of people are going to be excommunicated. David Brooks and David Frum and Peggy Noonan are dead people in the Republican Party. The litmus test will be: where did you stand on Palin?"

She hasn't even won the election and already it's you're either with us or against us...

Actually it's a good test - if you were for Palin you should be barred from holding any position of power; if you were against her, you get to retain your credibility.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter. Obama is home. Forget talk of "a narrowing"; on the Real Clear Politics average of all major polls, he leads by 50.5%-43.2%. And when broken down on a state by state level, he is looking good to win 375 of the 538 electoral college votes (he only needs 270). By contrast, Clinton got 379 in 1996, and 370 in 1992; and no one looks back on those thinking they were close.

And while I am happy about this; for the most part my joy has been based on the fact that McCain/Palin will lose, rather than Obama/Biden will win. But that may be changing some - especially if Obama continues to reach the heights that he reached in his speech he made today in Canton, Ohio.

Yes it is filled with a lot of nice phrases that don't really contain much detail; but he gets you excited. He makes you hope that he might be able to do great things. Near the end he almost gets to MLK level.

It is a pretty bloody good speech.

Now, perhaps our hopes may be dashed - but I'll take that any day over not having anything to dash in the first place.

My favourite Shakespeare quote is from Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Obama is the flood; if the American voters choose to omit taking it, then it and those countries tied to it economically and in foreign policy will doubtless be bound in shallows and miseries.

He isn't the second coming, but America needs change, and if Obama can't deliver that, then no one can, or perhaps ever will.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Madonna and the Dollar

There are times when as an economist, you probably wish you could take back some of the things you have said; like say Bill Evans, the chief economist of Westpac. Here's what he said back in May:

But it is Westpac's global head of economist Bill Evans who is the most bullish, predicting the Australian dollar will peak against the greenback at $US1.01 by March 2009.
Mr Evans forecasts the Aussie will reach US99 by late this year before shooting through the magical $US1 mark in early 2009.
"It seems a huge stretch to call parity with the US dollar," Mr Evans said."However the reality is that we are almost there. In the context of regular volatility in the Australian dollar, a 6.5 per cent move from current levels would be quite unremarkable.

On 22 August, the Aussie Dollar reach a high point of being worth US$0.9754. Within a week of that is was US$0.9434; within a fortnight it was US$0.8741; and it just kept going down and down till yesterday it hit US$0.6194.

Yesterday, the RBA for only the third time since 2001 intervened in the currency market to try and prop up the $A. An exercise in futility if there ever was one. Glenn Stevens might as well try and hold back the tide, as keep the dollar from falling.

Malcolm Turnbull has predictably called for "bi-partisanship", though God knows what he expects the Government to do - the foreign exchange market is the most free-market thing going around. On a daily basis, roughly $1.5 trillion is traded, so the amount a single government (or more accurately, central bank) can do is pretty limited.

Now exchange rates going up and down always involves winners and losers. And they can also be a bit confusing (basically because we kind of do the calculations backwards).

So let's do some basic Economics. If the exchange rate is US$1 =A$1 then what cost $1 in the USA should cost (excluding freight etc) $1 in Australia. If the exchange rate is say US$1 = A$0.80, then a Violet Crumble bar that costs $1 in Australia should cost 80cents in the US. And conversely, a Mars bar that cost $1 in America, should cost $1.25 in Australia.

So when the exchange rate goes "down" to say 60 cents (which is what it pretty much is now); that Violet Crumble in America now only cost 60 cents - great if you are exporting Violet Crumbles to the USA because more people over there will want to buy them. However that Mars bar which last week cost $1.25 now will cost $1.66. Not good if you are importing Mars bars (especially if you have deals with shops to keep selling them at $1.25 - you'll lose money while that contract is operating, and once it is finished, you'll have to raise your prices, so inevitably more people will stop buying Mars bars, and switch to say Violet Crumbles).

So basically when the Aussie dollar goes through the floor like it is now, it's not a good time to buy stuff that comes from overseas - that book from Amazon that cost $40 in August when the exchange was at 97 cents, would now cost $65.

That also applies to stuff that stores have imported - like big screen plasma TVs. So get in now if you want a good deal from JB Hi Fi, because most likely they're still selling TVs they bought when the exchange rate was good, but sooner or later they'll be having to buy TVs at the 60 cent rate.

A mate a work wondered if that would also mean the end of cheap DVDs and CDs as well.

On this score, I'm not so sure. Think about how cheap CDs and DVDs can be now - if the store can afford to sell a DVD for $6.95, imagine what the profit margin is on a DVD that costs you $29.95. It doesn't cost more to make the latest DVD - the quality is no better - the fact that the latest special edition of The Godfather can be snapped up for $15, shows they can churn those suckers out for bugger all. So the price might go up marginally, but I'd expect the expensive items - plasmas and imported cars - to be the things that really go up.

But in truth, the prices have got so low that we have all really become spoiled.

The other day I was in JB Hi Fi and I saw a copy of Madonna's Like a Prayer going for $10. Now in my youth, I was as big a Madonna fan as one can be before requiring institutionalisation. Back then buying a CD was a major purchase, I used to have Like a Prayer on tape, but never bothered to buy it on CD; and while I think it's a great album, standing in the line at JB HiFi I thought... $10? Nah too much.

Ten bucks is too much for a CD?! Unbelievable, and something I would never have imagined myself saying back when I was at university, pining for music.

To give you some idea how cheap that is, back in 1990 a CD cost pretty much $29.95, standard. A bit cheaper at K-Mart, but not too much. Back then a pack of cigarettes was around $3. Tonight while at Coles I had a look at the price of cigarettes and the same $3 pack would now cost around $12. Therefore, back in 1990, Madonna was worth around 10 packs of cigarettes (or 250 individual cigarettes). By comparison, buying a Madonna CD in 2008 will set you back around 83% of a pack (or about 20 cigarettes).

So if back in the 1990s you were able to buy up a shirt load of cigarettes and were able to store them so they kept all their carcinogenic properties and addictiveness, you'd be sitting pretty right now - your investment would have increased about 300%, or a 16.66% average return. But if all you cared about was exchanging those cigarettes for Madonna CDs, then your return would have gone up 1,100%.

Back in 1990, $100 bought you 33 1/3 packs of smokes, or 3 1/3 Madonna CDs. Now those 33 1/3 packs would be worth $400 - or would get you 40 Madonna CDs - or roughly 1,100% more Madonna for your cigarettes.

Of course this supposes that you can front up to JB HiFi and pay for your CDs with a pack of Winfield.

To which I say, you can't.... but the way the dollar's going who knows...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Flick of the Week: "He's from Crete; those people don't make idle threats."

This week, we follow Peter Yates, director of Breaking Away, back to 1961, when he was employed as assistant director to the great WWII action flick - The Guns of Navarone.

There are two types of WWII films - those that are deeply realistic and serve to honour the efforts of the Allied soldiers, and often try to make sense of man's inhumanity to man; and then there are those films which feature a group of men thrown together from various walks of life, who are sent on some hair-brained suicide mission and in the process of which they get to kill a lot of Nazis.

The Guns of Navarone is the champion of the later kind.

Adapted from a novel by the great master of suicide mission plots, Alistair MacLean, Guns is sadly yet another one of those that must be added to the "they don't make 'em like that anymore" list (for some reason all my flicks of the week seem to be on that list).

It stars the great Gregory Peck, as Keith Mallory a famous mountain climber - in the novel he is a New Zealander, in the film it;s left unsaid - who is now working for British Intelligence behind enemy lines in places around the Mediterranean. With his is Anthony Quinn as Stavros - his Cretan friend and enemy. Add in David Niven as an explosive expert, Stanley Baker as an assassin, James Darren fresh from playing Moondoggy in Gidget, and Anthony Quayle (who the following year would co-star in Lawrence of Arabia) playing the notional man in charge of the expedition, and you have just about the best group of actors you could ask to go blow up a German fortress.

Their mission is to sale to the Greek island of Navarone and blow up the two massive anti-ship guns that are unable to be destroyed by bombs, and which for some reason guard the only passage available for ships carrying thousands of Allied troops - the geography etc of this is all a bit hazy, and not terribly important - what you need to know is they need to do it, and that it can't be done!

But if you think Gregory Peck is going to fail, then by God you obviously haven't watched many films of the 1950s. If there's one man you can count on in the 1950s it's Gregory Peck.

Despite being one of his best ever roles, it was actually the beginning of the end for him. The following year he would star in To Kill a Mockingbird (perhaps his greatest role), but from then on he never really starred in anything anyone really cares to remember.

The film, as it must with such films, includes double crosses, red herrings, over coming impossible odds, and then doing it again. A pause for a bit of thinking about the morality of it all, and what you'll do after the war. And then back to killing more Nazis.

Now, I am not by nature a violent man, but I do love a good WWII flick; and similarly I am not really into first-person shooter computer games like Half-Life, or Quake; but give me a chance to be an Allied soldier shooting Nazis and I'll be playing Call of Duty all night long. The reason of course is simple; it's hard to like Nazis, and it's even more fun to be attacking them when they are full of "master-race" type stereotypes.

Alistair MacLean is not one for tossing up too many moral dilemmas - and there's certainly no time to worry about the German soldiers on Navarone as anything other than those who would stand up for evil - but he does throw in one question for the men involved, when the issue of a traitor in their midst becomes known. It is refreshing to see that the men are not especially Jack Bauer-like when it comes to working out who is selling them out. Peck at one point says to defeat the enemy you have to be "as nasty as the enemy", but the over-riding theme of the film is that that statement is not true.

However, most of all, The Guns of Navarone is fun. It's high adventure, with a great theme by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is almost the perfect Sunday afternoon family matinee fare.

Forget the crummy sequel with Harrison Ford (Force 10 From Navarone), get this one - I think it's about $10-$12 from Big W - and take yourself back to a time when an action film meant it must be a WWII film (and where you get to see Richard Harris do his best Chips Rafferty impersonation by playing an Australian pilot who says "bloody" a lot).

Best line:
Mallory: [Of Stavros] He's going to kill me when the war's over.
Major Franklin: You're not serious.
Mallory: Yes, I am. So is he...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ah nearly there

Well only 2 weeks to go till the US election (thank God).

Saturday Night Live this week decided to have a special Thursday election edition (which is code for milk the Tina Fey impersonation all we can before November 4). So here's Will Ferrell as George W Bush:

Over on Jon Stewart he does a quick run down of the gaffes done by Biden, Obama, Palin and McCain. (yep all four!)

Here in Australia things aren't so funny (mostly because The Chaser isn't on anymore). Peter Martin has an interesting blog about how Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop have approached the financial crisis.

Here's Julie Bishop trying to "calm" things down:“The government’s own actions have caused greater instability in the Australian financial markets than any event that has occurred overseas”.

Yep good work Julie, that'll keep any worried pensioners from trying to withdraw all their money. Total bullsh*t, but then that's her stock in trade. At no stage does she follow through with what she is implicitly suggesting - namely that the government should guarantee mortgage funds and the like (and why not - because even she knows that would be a disaster).

And then today Wayne Swan suggests people who may be in financial trouble because they can't get money out of their mortgage fund should go to Centrelink. Now that might be technically right, but it was bad politics, and gave Turnbull a bit of a free kick.

Oh well. Two weeks without parliament just might help settle everyone's nerves.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the QT: Big grill, no sizzle

Today was the day that apparently the Secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry, was going to "get grilled" by opposition Senators in the Senate Estimates Committee on Economics, due to the statement by the PM yesterday that Henry had advised the Government that the RBA agreed with the Government's 100% deposit guarantee. This contradicted a story in yesterday's The Australian, which suggested the RBA "strongly voiced concerns" about the guarantee.

Now Senate Estimates are all about the opposition going through, in as small a detail as possible, government spending and decision making - it involves primarily asking questions of bureaucrats - with Government Senators sitting beside them, but often they are not the ones being asked the direct questions. It can be rough for young players (and even some older ones), but Ken Henry, ain't one to get flustered. In fact most of this morning he looked positively bored by the experience.

The opposition does not like Ken Henry, and Malcolm Turnbull, I think it would be fair to say, has no time for him. This goes back to last year and the $10 billion take-over of the Murray-Darling River Basin. In April 2007 Henry in a speech to his Department said that the Treasury had been left out of the development of the proposal and that:

"All of us [ie Treasury] would wish that we had been listened to more attentively over the past several years in both of these areas. There's no doubt that policy outcomes would have been far superior had our views been more influential."

Peter Costello responded by saying "Treasury is no water expert. Treasury is good at Treasury", which was an extraordinary thing for a Minister to say about his own Department. Malcolm Turnbull who was Environment Minister at the time also chimed in, saying:

"Treasury don't know anything about water … This is really a political issue. All that's required is political leadership.... You've got to make judgements, but they are not judgements, frankly, that a, you know, that someone who is only a sort of financial person can make … It involves dealing with practical people, people who've got a lot of dirt under their fingernails, who work all day in the bush and know how things work."

As Alan Ramsey said of Turnbull at the time: "What an arrogant twit he can be".

Now what was the upshot of all of that? The Howard Government cut Henry's bonus pay. So much for wanting frank and fearless advice...

Early this year there there was a sequel: Turnbull, then Shadow Treasury spokesperson, claimed that Treasury had advised the Government to recommend an $18 an hour rise to the minimum wage. Ken Henry, himself, released a statement which said:

"I refer to recent claims that the Treasury recommended to the government that it nominate a specific dollar figure in the government's submission to the AFPC on minimum wages, these claims are false."

So today in Estimates it was all about getting Henry to contradict what Rudd said yesterday. Did it happen? Nope. Not even close.

Senator Coonan was up first, she asked about the guarantee. Henry responded:

“I know there has been considerable public interest in this matter; following a rather unfortunate and fallacious story that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Australian newspaper. In respect of the advice that was tendered to the Government and that supported the decision that it took on Sunday the 12 October, Mr Stevens and I were of one mind. I tendered the advice to the Government, and the governor and I were of one mind in respect of that advice."

Next Senator Abetz had a go - at this point Henry, for the most part, rested his head on one hand, looking bored and contemptuous of those questioning him. Abetz tried to find out about discussions between Henry and the RBA Governor, Henry explained the two of them had been in daily discussion for a number of weeks (and in fact the whole issue of a guarantee on deposits was first raised back in February!), but that when it came to the decision regarding the 100% guarantee, they were in agreement on everything.

Abetz said "that to me doesn't have the ring of truth about it", at which Henry quite rightly took great offence (in fact it was the only time he looked at all anything other than bored). What Abetz was saying was that Henry had lied to the Senate committee - an offense which could have him charged with contempt. It was a huge assertion to make of pretty much the top public servant in the country.

But really, Ken Henry played Abetz like a cheap piano. After one long ramble by the Senator, Henry asked "I'm sorry was there a question in that?" It was truly beautiful to watch. Henry would run rings around pretty much everyone on either side of politics, and Abetz and Coonan (and especially Barnaby Joyce when he had a go) were certainly no match for him - especially as he seemed to have no problems with agreeing with what Rudd had said (the less you have to hide at Estimate, the easier it is to be bold).

To make himself as clear as he could be, Henry referred again to the story in The Oz:
"The story on the front page of yesterday's Australian newspaper was wrong. W.R.O.N.G. exclamation mark. "

So that's it then one would think. Either Kevin Rudd did act on the advice of the Treasury and the RBA when he implemented the deposit guarantee or Henry is lying.

So Turnbull goes on 7:30 Report tonight. Does he believe Ken Henry? Does he concede he was wrong to say Rudd didn't act on the advice of the RBA? Of course he doesn't. He doesn't believe Henry is lying, he just doesn't credit what he is saying.

Kerry O'Brien then pointed out that Turnbull said he wholeheartedly supported the guarantee "without reservations", "lock stock and barrel" when it was announced.

Turnbull says, yes, but that he thought Rudd was acting on the advice of the RBA. O'Brien pointed out that Stevens and Ken Henry have both said that Rudd had. Turnbull says.. well he (Stevens) chose his words carefully. (ie he was trying not to lie.)

Henry of course also chose his words very carefully today in the Estimates committee. He said the story was wrong, and he said Turnbull's input into the debate on bank guarantees was "unhelpful" (ie he thought Turnbull was just about trying to cause a run on the banks).

Will Turnbull admit he was wrong? Ever? Well no. Why? Well I think Alan Ramsey got it right last year.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small Town America

Jon Stewart has gotten really shirty about Sarah Palin saying small town America is the "real America". So they sent a guy to Palin's home town Wasilla, Alaska to check out "real America".

The interview with the Mayor of the town (Sarah Palin's former position) is almost too cruel.

On the QT: Malcolm's a Cottees Kid

Today was perhaps the best QT of the year - the opposition thought it had a winning strategy, and Rudd thought he had a winning response. It was also in some way highlighted everything that is good and bad about Turnbull's performance as opposition leader.

It all stemmed from a report in The Australian this morning which suggested the Governor of the Reserve Bank was not in favour of the Government's decision to guarantee 100% of all bank deposits. This did not square with Kevin Rudd's assertion in Parliament last week that the decision was made with advice from Australia's financial regulators (of which the RBA is the big one).

And so Turnbull put on his lawyers cloak and proceeded to cross examine Rudd in QT. He first up asked if the RBA had recommended that the deposit guarantee be unlimited.

Rudd responded with his line of the year - that Turnbull "had been out there today hyperventilating like a kid on red cordial". Rudd then stated that the decision was made on the advice of the Secretary of the Treasury who had said it was also the advice of the regulators.

It was a pointed shift - from seeming as though Rudd had got direct advice from the Governor Glenn Stevens, to it now being that the Sec of the Treasury (Ken Henry) had told the Strategic and Budget Committee of Cabinet that the RBA supported the measure.

Turnbull went into full-on QC mode asking next if the PM had talked to Glenn Stevens before taking the decision. Rudd said no - and he stated very clearly that at the Strategic and Budget Committee of the Cabinet meeting he "explicitly put the question to the Secretary of the Treasury, 'Is the position being recommended here that of the regulators, he [Henry] answered, "It was (and that includes the Reserve Bank)".

And so Turnbull kept on about whether the Governor had provided advice, did the Government seek his explicit advice, how did it square with earlier statements made etc etc.

It was all nice stuff from Turnbull if Parliament was a court of law. Unfortunately for him, he missed the whole point of the debate. The debate should not be whether or not Glenn Stevens provided advice, but whether or not the guarantee should cover all deposits, or only some.

The other problem for Turnbull is that this morning Glenn Stevens said in a speech:

“The Australian Government has announced a general guarantee of deposits, as a precaution to allay any public anxiety over security of their savings. It has also decided to offer to guarantee wholesale debt obligations of Australian authorised deposit-takers and authorised Australian subsidiaries of foreign banks, on commercial terms.

"This will ensure that Australian institutions, some of which are among the highest rated of the world's banks, are able to retain adequate access to term funding in an environment where banks of other countries are able, in effect, to use the rating of their governments when borrowing.

"Steps in these directions, in the context of what other countries were doing, were sensible and the RBA supported them. As is also the case in other countries, the design features of the various guarantees will be important.”

So the RBA is in favour of guarantee, and thus Turnbull's argument in QT was reduced to what did Rudd saying the RBA recommended mean - was it enough for the Secretary of the Treasury to say they did (and remember Ken Henry is a member of the RBA board), or did Rudd need to have spoken to Glenn Stevens in person.

What this meant is that by the end of QT, Turnbull was virtually calling for the resignation of Ken Henry on the basis that he may have lied to the Cabinet Committee.

Now, geez, talk about getting led astray. I don't know if Rudd put out his first response knowing that Turnbull would prick up his ears and think "Gotcha!" but if he did, it was beautifully done. Because it meant Turnbull wasted the whole QT on a point about which most in the public couldn't give a damn. No one cares if Glenn Stevens did or did not advise Rudd directly, they care about (perhaps) if he agrees with it, and more than that, whether it will work.

Turnbull asked no questions which examined the validity of the decision, just whether or not Rudd was right to say he had acted on advice.

As a series of legal questions they were excellent (if overly pompous), but as politics, they were incredibly dumb, and they allowed Rudd to perform brilliantly - because he was able to focus wholly on the fact the Government was doing something in a crisis (and reinforcing that he was a man of decisions), and also gave him a chance to get hairy chested about the confidence he had in Ken Henry. In fact by the end the whole point of QT seemed to be whether or not Ken Henry told the truth to Cabinet - and I don't need to say that 99% of the population couldn't give a stuff who Ken Henry is, or what he says to Rudd (and especially so, when it seems he has told the truth).

Malcolm Turnbull is a fine lawyer, but he is no politician - he is too interested in differences in the meanings of words instead of differences in policies.

The problem for Turnbull is last week he said the Government's economic stimulus package could reduce the falls in interest rates. Since then the CBA, NAB, ANZ and today Westpac have all dropped their rates. That's what the public cares about.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Flick of the Week: "I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!"

I couldn't be bothered with Question Time today, so let's move with Dennis Quaid from The Right Stuff to his breakthrough role in 1979's wonderful coming of age tale, Breaking Away.

I had not seen Breaking Away for close to 25 years. I think I saw it last in around 1984, when one of the TV stations was also giving the short lived series based on the movie a run. And yet despite not having seen it for that long, it had always been one of my favourite films of its type. Indeed along with The Year My Voice Broke (which unfortunately I have not seen since 1991), I think it is the best coming of age film since The Graduate.

And then a few days ago when thinking about what film I'd write about next, I thought Breaking Away would be a good one. I even worked out that I would mention I hadn't seen it for so long. Then I switched on Foxtel, and found that the movie was due to start playing on the Movie Greats channel in 5 minutes time. A marvelous coincidence, and even more wonderful, because the film was as good as I remembered.

It is set in Bloomington, Indiana, and concerns 4 local lads who have graduated High School, but have not made it into Indiana University (which is located in the town). The 4 are a mixture of types - Quaid's character is the ex-high school quarterback who was never quite good enough to get to college; Daniel Stern (who would go on to star in the Home Away and City Slicker films, and more importantly as the adult voice of Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years) is a typical kid who is not quite good enough to get to college, but is no dolt; Jackie Earle Haley (he of Bad News Bears fame) as "Moocher" a guy destined to pretty much be... well I guess a loser; and finally Dennis Christopher, as Dave, the only one of the 4 with any real future. He is obviously bright enough to get into college, and is also a champion cyclist, but he feels the ties of his high school friends tough to break.

He also is going around pretending to be Italian.

Since winning an Italian-made racing bicycle, he has taken to learning Italian, and talking English with an accent, calling his father "Papa", shaving his legs (like all top cyclists do), and falling in love with a college girl (who thinks he is an exchange student).

It is a beautiful story - Dave's Dad, played as a typical small town American Dad of the time, is at his wit's end; his mother understands Dave's need to work through whatever he is working through, even if she doesn't quite understand why he is doing it as an Italian. The interaction between the three of them is wonderful - Paul Dooley, as the Dad, was robbed not have even been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor (unbelievably the kid from Kramer versus Kramer got a nomination!).

But as good as that interaction is, even better is that between the four mates. Quaid is brilliant as the never-gonnabe who knows he is destined to see young quarterbacks come to the college, and who knows it will never be him running on the field. Stern as Mike, who knows he's probably not destined for much, but who lacks the bitterness of Quaid, is also very good - his reaction at the end of the climactic scene evokes a good deal of pathos. The character of Moocher is probably the least well drawn, but he is representative of so many kids in small towns who won't ever get out, and probably wouldn't know what to do even if he did.

Apart from exploring those relationships, the film is an excellent sports film. Dave trains to be a top cyclist, races against his beloved Italians, and then, with the other three lads, races in the "Little Indy 500" cycling race held on the university, as a team called the "Cutters" after the derisive nickname given to the locals by the college kids in view of the fact most of the locals worked in the stone quarries and cut the stone for the buildings on the university campus.

Do they win the race? Well get it on DVD and find out. (*or read below)

The film is full of a number of sweet moments - Dave serenading his college girlfriend, the lads fighting the college frat boys in a bowling alley (with Mike having a bowling ball stuck in his fingers), and Dave racing a semi-trailer along the highway as Mendelssohn's "Italian Symphony" plays.

It's a coming of age movie where the focus is not sex, or filled with kids who talk like they are the most knowledgeable people going around (yes I'm looking at you Juno).

Add it to the file of they don't make 'em like that anymore, and add it to your must see again list.

Best line:
Dad: He's never tired. He's never miserable.
Mom: He's young.
Dad: When I was young I was tired and miserable.

*of course they do.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tina Fey would still make a better VP

Sarah Palin turned up on SNL this weekend. She was ok, but really more Tina Fey would have been better.

Before watching you need to also watch this classic little skit from last week titled Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals. It is very stupid, but also quite brilliant - the type of skit you keep watching because it is so perfectly stupid:

It provoked this response from Wahlberg:

Someone showed it to me on YouTube. It wasn't like Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, that's for sure. And "Saturday Night Live" hasn't been funny for a long time. They've asked me to do the show a ton of times. I used to watch it when Eddie Murphy was there and Joe Piscopo and Bill Murray. I don't even know who's on the show now.

He also said he wanted to punch the comedian Andy Samberg in the nose.

And with that, here's Fey and Palin:

and then the sequel to Wahlberg:

Australia really needs a good comedy show.

Silver balls, hot dogs and beer.

The early to mid 1990s were truly a grand time to be in your late teens or early 20s.

The Simpsons had started, Beverly Hills 90210 (the real version) was a happening, Melrose Place was just around the corner, Twin Peaks was brilliant for one season, U2 were putting out Achtung Baby, grunge had taken hold, you could kit yourself out in a druggy shirt from Big W and be thought to have a sense of fashion, guys who couldn't grow beards were able to give sideburns a go, Tom Cruise was still a decade away from going nutso, Bill Clinton was a young, bold Presidential candidate, John Howard was an old, washed-up politician consigned to the scrapheap, and above all else, it was a golden age of pinball.

The 80s were dominated by video games - space invaders and Pacman, quickly replaced by Galaxia, and the mighty Galaga, before ending up with car simulated driving games like Pole Position. Pinball games at this time were rather staid and dull, but there were stirrings in the late 80s.

In 1989 a game called Earthshaker came out that at certain points in the game would vibrate to simulate an earthquake.

Then in 1990 the brilliant Funhouse was released by Williams Electronic Games.

Now I became acquainted with Funhouse while at university in Adelaide. The greatest take-away/hamburger shop in all the world, The Blue and White Cafe on O'Connell Street in North Adelaide had the game. At 60 cents for one game and 3 for $1, it was perfectly priced for poor uni students, and was incredibly addictive. It featured a Luna Park type face which you needed to hit a certain number of times to open its mouth. Getting 3 balls swallowed would start multiball.

When you are at uni there are three people you need to be on a first name basis with - the person who pours you your beer at you local pub, the barista at your regular coffee shop, and the guy who makes you your hot dog with the lot, or yiros meat and chips, or hamburger at the local take away.

I spent a hell of a lot of my Austudy to be able to get to the point where on a crowded Thursday night at around 12:30am, I could enter the Blue and White Cafe, which was crowded with students from every college around North Adelaide, and instead of wait 15 minutes to get to the front, I could put up a finger, and Tony behind the counter knew I was after a hot dog with onion, bacon and cheese. It only happened once, but by God it was worth it.

What also was worth the money was that Tony was also an great pinball player and occasionally, when my mates and I would be sitting outside having done a 2am minimum chips and sauce run on a Tuesday night, if it was quiet and Tony had been playing pinball, he would sometimes let me know he had just got the replay on Funhouse and it was mine if I wanted it - a 60 cent free game of pinball, if that wasn't worth spending $2.50 every single night of the week on hot dogs, then I wasn't studying an Economics Degree!

And then one day in 1991, my mates and I ventured in to the Blue and White and Funhouse was gone. It was replaced by a Terminator 2: Judgement Day game. It cost $1 a go, or 3 for $2. Sorry Tony, we said, shaking our heads. Can't do it. We be but poor students, $1 a game is just being plum greedy.

Tony, ever the sage, tilted his head and said "oh look, it's pretty good". Oh we laughed, and said we'd humour him - just this once, just to show that we are good loyal customers - one game (there's a dollar I'll never see again!) never again I says, too expensive, too much, too... hey this ain't bad...

It was just the beginning. Pinball was about to hit an absolute peak. Video games were quickly becoming passe - especially as the great Sega Mega Drive meant you could play them at home. And soon pinball game were taking over hamburger joints, video arcades and pubs.

Best of all, was pinball while at the pub with your mates. Three guys could stand around and chat and rest a beer while taking it in turns playing - 3 for $2, what an absolute bargain! And pinball, unlike video games, is social. You can chat while playing pinball, whereas video games generally involve immersing yourself in the game. Plus the table of a pinball allows for spectators in a way that video screens of the past did not.

From 1992 to 1996 a plethora of great games were produced. Any major film blockbuster needed a pinball game. There was The Simpsons game (not real good, lacked imagination), Star Wars (came out in 1992 - I liked it, but it wasn't around in many places), Lethal Weapon 3, and Johnny Mnemonic - have never seen the film, but I can't believe it could be better than the game.
But the one game that really set the world of pinball on fire came out in 1992. Terminator 2 was the first to use a dot matrix screen (kinda of like a basic video game screen) as the scoreboard, but the one that made use of it and which also featured the most inventive game play thus far, was a little gem called The Addams Family. This game was the Sgt Peppers of pinball. Once played you could never go back to the old games. It shaped the future (well the next 4 years at least). It used stacks of phrases from the movie "That's the spirit Thing, lend a hand" "The Mamushka!" "It's Cousin It!". Getting a ball locked for multiball caused a plastic hand (Thing) to emerge out of a box and pick it up. It had different gameplays based on aspects of the game - my favourite was hitting Cousin It, which meant hitting certain bumpers giving you a bonus score for each hit (all the while an animation of Cousin It was bouncing around on the screen.

It was a game that required thinking, timing, skill.
After Addams Family came some other fantastic games that built upon its legacy. The pirate themed, Black Rose; Getaway:High Speed II with its turbocharge loop, the woefully boring Fish Tales, The wide-bodied Twilight Zone, and the brilliant Star Trek: The Next Generation, World Cup Soccer (complete with a goal keeper you had to try and get the ball past). All were brilliant, but my favourite, and the one which swallowed the most of my dollars was Judge Dredd. It was based on the comic book, not the movie, and had so much going on - with loops and ramps and different modes, that each game was pinball chess.

Now I was fortunate that my girlfriend at the time (and now wife) also loved pinball. Not being one to sit by idly while all the boys played pinnies at the pub, she began to play, and she was seriously good. Once in 1995 we were on holidays in Melbourne and in a video arcade one night we decided to play one of the best later years game - WHO Dunnit it was a truly inventive game that had as one of its aims, the solving of a crime. To unlock clues you had to do certain things - hit a ramp, or make a loop shot. We were both playing unbelievably well this night, so well that we were getting extra balls and multiballs on our extra balls, and replay after replay. And then suddenly the machine went bezerk. Every ball in the machine came flying out of every hole and we were playing the ultimate multiball ever. What we hadn't known, was that the machine had a feature that at midnight it would start "Midnight Madness" which was pretty much every feature lit, and every ball being used.

Have to say it was one of the highlights of the trip (well we had just seen the Crows get beat by Richmond).

By 1996 pinball was well on its way down. Video games were getting much better graphics, and Generation X had grown up (a tad) and were out of uni and no longer spending money down at the Blue and White (well at least not as often).

In 1996 two games - Junk Yard and Tales of Arabian Nights came out. They were good games, but they signalled the end. They were trying too hard - there were too many features, too many gimmicks, trying too hard to be a kind of video game as well as pinball, and the scoring had gotten stupid - for Addams Family you would be looking at around 30 million points to get the replay; with Junk Yard, needing a billion points wasn't out of the question.

And alas as with all things, the Golden Age was over. Billy would cheat on Allison just one last time; Grant Show would go off to a burgeoning movie career, U2 would decide to try something different and bring out a pop album, and The Simspons would err, well they would keep going (ok not everything comes to an end). But according to wikipedia there were only two pinball companies left in 1997, and by 1999 production was all but over.

A great loss. Now it's all Guitar Hero (a game I first saw in Japan in 2001 and thought "will NEVER catch on in the west") and games where you have to dance. I don't know what uni students do now at a pub. But those nights standing round the pinball shooting the breeze, matching shouts of pints with shouts of games, screaming "get the extra ball!" finding the edge of just how far you can rock the machine before hitting the tilt, and then praying to get the match at the end in the vain hope of a free game, are treasured memories.

Now the internet being what it is, a few weeks ago I came upon a great little site called (rather unimaginatively) the internet pinball database. They have a top ten ranked by users of the site, and I have to say I violently disagree with it.

Thus without further ado here's my top ten. A list which will mean everything to those who know, and nothing to those who don't.

1. Judge Dredd - if only for the "Sniper" and the "Bad Impersonator" modes.
2. WHO Dunnit
3. The Addams Family
4. No Fear - great 1995 game with heaps of features, ramps and fun
5. World Cup Soccer - one of the first with an over-arching objective (that of reaching the Cup Final)
6. Star Trek: The Next Generation - it featured among the many modes, "Q's Challenge", which always began with this little passage:
Q, "Bonjour mon capitaan!"
Picard, "Q, what are you doing here?"
Q, "Why don't we play a little game?"
Pickard, "Q ... we don't have time for your games."
7. Apollo 13 - based on the movie - where else can you hear Ed Harris in a pinball game?
8. Black Rose - had an excellent scoring feature involving firing "broadsides"
9. Funhouse - most likely very dated now, but where it all began.
10. Tales of Arabian Nights - the last fun gasp of a great period.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On the QT: I have a Yen for Walking on Both Sides of the Street.

Today in QT the opposition again went after the Government to come up with the forecasts on which it based its decision to spend $10.4 billion.

Obviously they think because the Government hasn't it makes Rudd and Co look rash because they spent money without any concrete forecasts. They may be right, but I think they're just showing how short term they are.

They figure of $10.4 billion doesn't need a concrete forecast. Here's why. On Tuesday, in interview with ABC journo Chris Uhlmann, the one and only genius of all things financial, Malcolm Turnbull, when asked about the rumoured Government economic spending package, said the following:

UHLMANN: How much money do you think would be needed to make a difference in the economy? If we are expecting a slowdown next year, how much would be needed?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well the Australian economy’s GDP is around $1.1 trillion and most people, well most economists would say that fiscal stimulus needs to be of at least half a per cent of GDP to make a difference. So you’re talking about something in the $5 billion range. Anything less than that, I mean everything has an impact but to have a meaningful impact it would have to be in that $5 billion plus range.

So just off the top of his head, Turnbull was able to say $5 billion was the minimum - anything less and it'd get swallowed up with no impact.

Now let's see what the most recent forecasts going around (bear in mind you don't just whip up an economic forecast each week) were saying. The IMF World Economic Outlook released only last Friday revised down the growth of pretty much the entire world. It revised down the major advanced economies' growth to fall from 1.2% in 2008 to 0.1% in 2009. For the newly industrialised Asian economies (ie India and China among others) the growth fall is now predicted to go from 4.0% t0 3.2%.

Now that was last Friday. Also last Friday (now known as Black Friday) the Australian Stock market went down 8.2%, the Japanese stock market fell 9.62%, the US Dow Jones - nearly 10%, and London 9%.

Now remember "the world and everyone in it are going down the sewer" figures projected by the IMF were worked out before Black Friday.

You don't need to be an economic Nobel Laureate (or even the great Malcolm Turnbull) to know it means the IMF figures suddenly start looking optimistic, and in reality likely to be too high.

So the Government could have done two things. It could have waited for a report done on the Australian economy - maybe wait a month till the revised budgetary figures, or it could actually do something now, so that any monies expended could get put out before Christmas (it may surprise some to know, but it does take a certain amount of time to get $10 billion out into the economy).

All year the opposition has criticised the Government for holding reviews. This was Brendan Nelson in his Budget Right of Reply speech:

this Government, puts media spin ahead of substance, bureaucratic doublespeak ahead of people and more than 100 reviews, inquiries and committees ahead of decisions.

Now I happened to think reviews are good (even if the PR is bad) - it's a nice change to have decision based policy. But this is not a case of normal times. The house is on fire - start turning on the hose and letting rip with the water; don't wait to be told by the fire department how bad the fire is.

And so the Government would have looked at the IMF Report on the weekend (remember it held an emergency meeting of senior figures on Sunday), noted the pretty much 1% fall in growth across the western world; thought, well the IMF was predicting a drop in growth for Australia of 2.5% to 2.2%, let's assume that's probably now out of date given what's happened. In short, we need to do something.

But what? Well it would have looked at the same IMF Report which stated:

On the assumption that it can be implemented immediately and efficiently, government investment has a larger effect than other measures. This is because it has a direct effect on aggregate demand, whereas the effects of taxes and transfers depend on propensities to consume. (It also noted, this is also true for government investment, but in this case the effect on output is much more long lived, because government infrastructure capital has productive
benefits that depreciate only slowly over time.

So the Government knows it must do something immediately to increase aggregate demand. Hmmm ok...who spends money rather than saves it? I know! Pensioners and low-income households! Righto lets give them a payout. Now you know the other problem... the housing market has gone to hell, what will encourage people to buy houses? I know! Raise the first-home buyer's grant - a terrible idea in good times, but great now as we'll only let it last for 9 months.

Alright let's do the figures

I'm betting they said right, 1/2% of GDP would be a stimulus in normal times, this ain't normal, we need more. So let's go with 1% of GDP (especially given the standard expectation of about a 1% drop in growth) - so that's around $10b.

Hmm, ok how about we give single pensioners a $1000 payout, and couples $2000, $1000 per kid for low-income earners, and how about we double the home-buyer's grant?

Ok what does that give us? Not quite there yet? Ok let's make it $1400 for single pensioners, and couples can get $2,100.

What?! We're still short?! Well hell we don't want to create another dopey housing bubble... but I know, let's triple the home buyer's grant, but only for those who are buying a new home.

Let's see what does that look like?
$4.8 billion for an immediate down payment on long term pension reform.
$3.9 billion in support payments for low and middle income families.
$1.5 billion investment to help first home buyers purchase a home.

Hmm lacks something... ok let's make it look like we're doing something for jobs - ok:
$187 million to create 56,000 new training places in 2008-09.

But damn, we are Labor, so we better not forget infrastructure, and the IMF report did say that is needed for long term growth. Ok how about:
Accelerate the implementation of the Government's three nation building funds and bring forward, the commencement of investment in nation building projects to 2009?

Beautiful. Ok, what's the price tag on this sucker? $10.4 billion? Is that 1% of GDP?
Yep. I like it! - Lock it in Swannie.

Now look maybe we need more info, but personally, in this instance, I'm quite glad to see the Government criticised for doing something, rather than being criticised for having sat around waiting for a report.
Chris Bowen is the Assistant Treasurer, and is pretty good in QT. Today he was on fire, and then he had a slip up. He was referring to how Costello had last year predicted a financial tsunami if China floated its currency; he then pointed out that China had not floated the yen. Ooops, he recovered somewhat, but the damage was done. Yen/Yuan, it's pretty close, but in QT pretty close doesn't cut it, especially when you are letting rip at the incompetence of the opposition.

I will give Bowen some points though. Yesterday he referred to Turnbull's economic strategy as the Kath'n'Kim strategy - "ie Look at moi! look at moi!". Today he followed it up by saying of Turnbull: Even the American version of Kath and Kim had more credibility than the leader of the opposition last night; it was a joke.

But alas, the Yen/Yuan slip up robbed him of the moment.
The phrase of the Government today was that Turnbull is "trying to walk both sides of the street". Rudd said it, Swan said it, Tanner said it, Gillard said it, Roxen said it, Bowen said it. Geez guys, come up some different versions. How about "like the investment banker he is, Turnbull is hedging his bets", or "Turnbull has so many positions on the stimulus package he's a one man kama sutra manual".

But, in truth the man is an economic pretzel. Here's what he said on Today Tonight on Monday:
Well you know they’re all estimates, there’s no doubt the Government forecasted a decline in employment, an increase in unemployment in the Budget back in May and there’s nothing that’s happened since then that would make one feel more optimistic. So having said that we are in a very unpredictable situation, nothing that’s happened in the last month would have been forecast three or four or let alone six months ago

Now let's see what he said on Wednesday in his speech to the nation:

"With the benefit of hindsight, government should have acted a lot earlier. Regrettably, Mr Rudd's government missed the warning signs at the beginning of the year".

Yep the Government should have seen warning signs at the beginning of the year on things that no one could forecast even three months ago.

Explain the logic of that one to me Malcolm and you got my vote.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On the QT: You say bi-partisan, I say fence sitter

Malcolm Turnbull is in full support of the Government's economic stimulus package. He just questions the reasons why it was done, the specific spending aspects involved, and whether it will have any benefit. Other than that he's all for it. Bipartisan all the way you see.

So first up today Turnbull queried how the government came up with the idea to spend $10b - suggesting he thought the figure was plucked out of the air (which isn't surprising, given that was standard operating procedure under Howard).

Julie Bishop followed up by asking the same question to Swan. Swan muttered "I thought they supported the package, but obviously not".

Bishop then asked Swan whether he had been given advice from either Treasury or the Reserve Bank on whether the package will increase inflation or lead to interest rate increases. This was a continuation of Turnbull's position yesterday wherein he:

backed the strategy and said it would help cash-strapped pensioners but noted it was fiscal concerns, not compassion, that had prompted the government to act.

He also questioned whether existing homeowners might end up bearing the brunt of the bonus for low-income Australians.

"We trust that the government has taken into account advice from Treasury and considered the impact that this stimulus may have on the Reserve Bank's ability to continue reducing interest rates," Mr Turnbull said.

"But nonetheless we're not going to argue about the composition of the package or quibble about it. It has our support."

So good, no quibbles, he just thinks it will stop interest rates from going down, and that probably the Government hasn't taken into the advice of Treasury.

It's the usual Turnbull shite: impossible to disprove. If interest rates next month go down by 0.25% he'll say they would've gone down by 0.5% and there is no way to say they would or wouldn't have. It's straight out of the Howard play book - eg his 'interest rates will be always lower under a Liberal Government" pledge. Impossible to disprove, because a Labor and Liberal Party will never be in Government at the same time in the same economic situation, and that is the only way you can truly compare.

Next up was the avuncular one, Joe Hockey asking Tanner about housing prices. This was a tad odd, firstly because it was unclear why he was asking Tanner and not the Minister for Housing, Tanya Plibersek. But Hockey had a cunning plan.

Tanner basically told Hockey he was a dill and said housing prices were falling, demand for housing was dropping, so the first home buyer grant would help strengthen the market (I must say I have some issue with the increase in the grant - I think it should only have been increased for purchases of new homes).

Hockey then sprung his "trap". Looking for rather pissed off for some reason (perhaps like someone who after 11 months still hasn't got used to being a powerless nothing on the opposition front bench...), he asked Tanner whether he still agreed with what he said last year on Lateline, when he said of the first home buyer grant that:
"simply throwing subsidies at people - like increasing the first-home owners grant - would tend to feed straight into prices and be counterproductive."

Tanner started smiling halfway through Hockey's question - (just about everyone on the Government side does) - and Rudd, pondering the Lib's line of attack, muttered to those behind him that "gee I wonder what they'll do when they oppose something".

When Tanner got up he said "Listen dopey" (ok he didn't, but I would have). What he actually said was that if he had been asked on Lateline last year whether the Government should inject $10.4b into the economy he also would have said it should not. He then ripped Hockey a new one during which the camera cut to show Costello mouthing off. That would be Peter Costello who said today that he:
criticised the plan, saying it is not the right measure to avoid an economic downturn.
"If the purpose of this is to avoid recession, this is not the dimension required at all," he told Fairfax radio.
"If you were really worried about averting a severe downturn or a recession, dramatic and aggressive interest rate cuts is the prescription."

Which just proves what an economic fool he is. Now look, I'm not saying Costello couldn't find his arse with both hands, a flashlight and a map drawn by a proctologist, but let's just say that taking advice on interest rates from the guy who presided over 10 interest rates in a row, and who during those rates rises kept dolling out tax breaks and one-off bonus at a time of pretty much full-employment would be a supremely dumb thing to do.

The equally dumb things about the Liberals 'concern' about housing prices going up due to this package is they contradict Turnbull's view from yesterday where he said:
he thought it "very unlikely" the supersized grants would overheat the housing market.

But still the fence-sitting suits Turnbull and the Liberals. If the package doesn't help and we go into a recession, Turnbull will be ecstatic. If the package works, he'll say that it was a good thing he told the Government what to be wary of to ensure it didn't happen.

Truly the man is an economic genius. In his right of reply speech (God knows why he was given one), he says the Government should have acted sooner, and that it missed the signs of the crisis. Yep Malcolm, you know it all.

But lets get the view of others in the economic world:
Fran Kelly on Radio National this morning interviewed economist Nicholas Gruen. She (ever the fan of Malcolm Turnbull) asked about the risk of the package being inflationary. Gruen responded:
"I'm not too worried. I actually think that's one of the things that is very impressive... I was more doubtful that the Government would be as nimble as it has been... it seems to be doing a sort of September 11 response to events of the last three weeks and I think that makes sense.. we've been racking up surpluses in the tens of billions of dollars for years, and what's the point of that if you're not going to spend that money when it looks like a sensible thing to do. I think this rhetorical line that everything's changed is basically right."

Kelly then asked "Have we seen the last of the interest rate cuts?"
Gruen replied: "No, I think we'll get more"
Kelly: "And this won't be likely to dampen that prospect?" (I guess no, doesn't mean no to Kelly)
Gruen: "Oh in a small way of course it does, but I think we'll be working both sides of the street for a while [i.e both fiscal and monetary policy working together]".

Ok, Gruen used to work for Keating. Let's get someone from the more Liberal Party side of the economy - like say banks!

What does the NAB Chief Economist, Alan Oster, think?
"We have a budget surplus of around $7 billion and the next financial year it goes into a deficit of $10 billion,” he said.
"And I don't have any problem with that. The bottom line is that you have surplus in good times and in tough times you use them.”
Mr Oster said he would also support the government borrowing money to fund infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy in such an environment.
"That's exactly what you should do in some ways. Yesterday was a short helicopter drop of money. Next year is going to be a very good time to do infrastructure programs that are productivity enhancing."

Ok, I'm convinced - even more so because Barnaby Joyce has again come out against it. Chris Bowen in a Dorothy pointed out that this morning Joyce said

"We had to look after the pensioners, but $10 billion, we could have put in the desalination plants for Adelaide ... we could have put an inland rail (in) but it seems we've bought Christmas presents,"
"I'm worried about when big chunks of money turn up in one fell swoop just before Christmas, because a couple of weeks later you see a lot of Australia's $10 billion scattered around the floor with 'Made in China' on the back."

Again I say if the pensioners spend the money on Christmas presents - GOOD! The Government should just about send out the cheques on 8 December with a Harvey Norman catalogue attached.

Joyce would have had a point if it was 12 months ago, 18 months ago, 2 years ago. But when demand is going down the toilet, the job of the Government is to do what it can to give it a boost. The Howard policy was to give demand a boost to stop his polls from going down the toilet. But a desalination plant to help a financial crisis? Please Barnaby, don't make it too easy for the Government.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On the QT: Buddy can you spare $10 billion?

This morning on AM Malcolm Turnbull tried to trump the Government by suggesting the expected financial stimulus package should be around $5 billion. This had been the figure bandied about in the media, so it was a good guess by Turnbull trying to sound like he got in first.

And then Kevin Rudd came out with the figure of $10.4 billion.

Turnbull had suggested the package should bring forward the tax cuts planned to be delivered in next year's budget.

Rudd didn't do that, instead he gave out big one off payments to pensioners, low-income families, and carers. And most surprising of all is that he increased the first-home buyers grant to $14,000 and to $21,000 for new home buyers.

As a Labor supporter the package is a tad hard to swallow - it smacks of Howard economics. Howard loved "one-off" payments, and loved the first-home buyer's grant. He hated spending money on infrastructure. The big problem with his strategy was these one-off payments became expected, and were essentially used as electoral bribes. The first home buyers grant I believe helped fuel the housing bubble, and thus increased housing prices well beyond inflation.

Any Labor Government worth its salt must spend money on infrastructure. If it doesn't it might as well give the keys to the Lodge back to the other mob.

When Rudd won office, one of the things that was most heartening was the accent the Government placed on infrastructure spending; I hoped the budget surplus would go towards the building of roads, railways and ports etc etc etc (and NOT be flitted away in one-off payments).

But times are different now. This $10.4b is no election bribe - there is no political need to do it (in today's Newspoll the ALP remains ahead 55-45; ie no change since Turnbull took over); and unlike Howard's spending there is an economic need for it.

A few episodes ago in The Hollowmen, the PM's office was trying to come up with a big ticket item for the budget - one that would make people go "wow!". Well $10.4b does that - especially when it is outside the budget process and not in the run up to an election. It seems pretty clear that Treasury was getting some pretty bad forecasts for the year ahead.

So while, I don't particularly like it, it seems to be the right thing to do. My only hope is that Rudd does not get addicted to these "one-off" payments, and instead keeps his focus on the long term.

I believe this will be the case because of what was announced today with the package (but neglected in most of the reporting):

Nation Building
The Rudd Government will fast track its nation-building agenda to help shield Australians from the global financial crisis.
The Government will accelerate the implementation of the Government’s three nation building funds. Government Ministers will bring forward their interim Infrastructure Report so that work can commence in 2009 on projects in the key areas of:
* Education and Research;
* Health and Hospitals;
* Transport and Communications.
To fast-track these projects, the Government will be seeking referral of the legislation for the Nation Building Funds into a Senate Committee this week.

All I can say is, let's hope the $10b keeps the economy going, but what I'll be keeping an eye on is the above. If Rudd carries through on that commitment, he'll be a PM worthy of voting for again.
After yesterday's boredom of MPs going through a pretense of trying to pretend to act as though things were too serious for petty politics, today was all about petty politics. It was great!

Rudd is a bit like Shane Warne - who performed best on the pitch when things outside the game were going to hell - Rudd performs best in QT when things in the real world are in crisis. He loves a crisis. He is typical of workaholics - too little to do leads to boredom - he wants to have to call every leader on the planet; he wants to have to stay up working all night. And when he is doing that he also comes into QT upbeat and eager to answer every question.

After some by-the-numbers questions from Turnbull on pensions and growth figures, he turned to what would be their theme for the day - namely the Liberals trying with all their might to say the only reason the Government was able to spend $10b was because of the fine work done by the Howard Government. Hockey went off his nut with "hear hears" as Turnbull asked Rudd whether it was true that the Budget surplus was due to the Coalition government establishing the future fund, paying off government debt etc etc.

Rudd got up and asked, what about the extra $390b the Howard Government got due to the resources boom that it didn't spend on infrastructure? "And", he said to Turnbull "Not everything on planet earth is the product of his [Turnbull's] personal wisdom and initiative".

Rudd in a burst of pique then also said that if Turnbull wanted to be economically responsible, to go next door to the Senate "where the Greens are acting responsibly, Senator Xenaphon is acting responsibly, where Senator Fielding is acting responsibly, and where the Liberal Party of Australia is acting less responsibly than the Government of Cuba". It was a somewhat bizarre analogy, and it certainly caused a good deal of hubbub. It also signalled the end of Act 1 of today's QT.

After a good Dorothy by Tanner on the budget surplus, up came Julie Bishop to have a go at Swan.

Sounding like she had swallowed an Economics Theory text book (or at least someone who had done a bit of searching on wikipedia) she first asked Swan about reforms to the Basel II process. It was most likely an attempt to try and catch him out like he was earlier this year on NAIRU. But that was then, this is now. And Swan actually laughed to himself in wonder at what was Bishop on about, whereupon he gave a quick lecture on the whole process and came across knowing more about it than Bishop ever could.

Bishop's next question was about the cutting of funds to APRA in the budget (actually a good question). Swan dodged it pretty well, but I'll give Bishop credit for at least pitching one at a good length. The only problem with the delivery was that it allowed Swan to bring up the HIH Royal Commission of which Swan will always delight in bringing up due to the Turnbull connection.

Bishop's final one was on the "commercial paper market". It was dumb. Swam slapped it away with contempt. Lindsay Tanner walking past the dispatch box muttered, "why don't you get her to say what the "commercial paper market is" - which makes you think the Government doesn't hold Bishop's economic knowledge in a great deal of awe. Indeed most of her questions today sounded scripted by Malcolm Turnbull.

Act 3 then began after a Dorothy by Tanya Plibersek on housing (lots of waffle about how good was the raising of the home buyers grant). Turnbull asked Rudd if banks should now pass on the full amount of the interest rate cut.

Rudd, obviously refreshed from his rest in Act 2, speculated that as a former merchant banker he should know better. At which point Turnbull called out that he does know better. Rudd scornfully drew attention to it saying of Turnbull that "Oh, he knows better than the RBA, he knows better than APRA, he knows better the Secretary of the Treasury, and he knows better by his own admission than anyone on God's earth on this question".

Anthony Albanese then had a Dorothy which allowed him to bring up the new Leader of the National Party in the Senate, one Barnaby Joyce who went on radio and said of the $10.4b package (yes the one that Turnbull had announced the opposition fully supported) and said "I do have a concern that if you pay people in lump sums it can end up against the wall", which demonstrates that he is a fool given the focus of the package on pensioners and carers (not really good politics to suggest those groups will just blow it all on booze), and secondly, the whole bloody point of the package is to get people spending money. He is a dill. But then he's the best the National Party has.

For Turnbull's final question (which followed a useless one from Abbott on pensions - but then Abbott is getting progressively more useless as the year goes on) he asked Rudd essentially a repeat of his earlier question on the surplus asking if the money was wasted on tax cuts... defending Australia in the war on terror etc. It got more hear hears from Hockey, and a lot more derision from Rudd.

It allowed Rudd to bring up any wastage of the Howard Government. First up he talked about the advertising on Work Choices.

His next bit makes me think someone in his office is a reader of the PollBludger Blog. Over the past few days a number of the bloggers on that site have taken to referring to Turnbull as "The Rainmaker" which sprung out of his claims that he was the one responsible for causing the banks to drop interest rates by 0.8%.

One of the bloggers (Bushfire Bill) pointed out that his claim was much like a "Rain Maker" scam wherein: The con artist (a "rain maker") convinces the mark to pay him to make something happen. If it happens, then the mark is convinced it is because he paid the rainmaker; if not, then the rain maker says he needs more money to do it.

This mention quickly led to the bringing up of Turnbull's pumping $10m into a "rainmaking scheme" last year, and a mention of the the nickname Rain Maker by blogger Possum Comitatus.

And then what happened today? Rudd with Gillard's and Albanese's prompting - signalling that they had probably discussed it before QT - says of the vastness of the Howard Government's waste, "and that's before we get onto the Rain Maker... how much was it? $10 million?"

The PM's Office taking tips from blogs? I knew there was something good about all those 29 year olds working for him.