Mining boom drinks us dry

When I first began to study political science in the late 1970s, we were preoccupied with understanding the phenomenon called ”the state”.

In practice, this meant grappling with the writings of some difficult Europeans – not just Marx, but later thinkers such as Habermas, Althusser, Gramsci and Poulantzas. In those days, when the structural connections between the economy and politics were perceived to be of the first importance, puzzling about the nature of the state in capitalist societies seemed entirely natural. The Australian state seemed a particularly apt subject for study. Of the many authors whose works we read on our history, whether they were men or women of the left or not, none doubted that economic development was the main theme of the story – the economic and the political were closely intertwined.

The hand of the beholder

The Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, visited by millions every year. Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz, whose mausoleum it is, may have simply worn out after giving birth to her 14th child. But the building itself, especially in the dawn light, does not disappoint. It is magical.

High horses fall hard

Bob Carr is clearly relishing his job as Foreign Affairs Minister. He could scarcely conceal his delight when, a month or so ago, he announced that Australia’s campaign to secure one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council had been successful. Australia’s bid was supported by no less than 140 member nations.

A war worth fighting

After more than 10 long years, the war in Afghanistan must rank as one of the most frustrating Australians have ever fought. The Prime Minister is determined to see the job through, which means staying the course until our forces are pulled out in 2014. However, in private, I doubt that she, or her advisers, believe that any form of sustainable government will have been established by that time.

Time to take the creative option

One of the most difficult jobs in public administration is that of the regulator – the person (or agency) responsible for implementing the rules. Do your job too uncompromisingly, and the regulated are on your back (or complaining to the politicians). Do it too leniently, and the problems the rules were designed to deal with, are likely to multiply. And that’s your fate when the rules are well-set. Regulators often find that the system they are trying to manage evolves more quickly than their legislation envisaged. The result is that the legislation either becomes a dead letter, or is amended repeatedly, often by patching it up with bits of regulatory gaffer tape. As fast as one loophole is closed, another is discovered (or opened) by those eager to see how far they can go.

Information isn’t everything

My brother and sister-in-law have two children, plus a dog and a cat. They can just about manage the children, but the animals are something else. Recently, at midnight, the cat dragged itself up the stairs to the adults’ bedroom, and promptly started convulsing. There began a frantic visit to the emergency vet, which saved the cat’s life but just about destroyed the family’s bank balance. It turned out that my sister-in-law, in a rush as mothers tend to be, had used dog anti-flea powder on the cat, thinking that one would do for the other. My brother was indignant. Why, he demanded, had she not read the instructions? These, when reviewed, clearly stated that the product could be toxic to cats.

More zeal than sense

Why throw out a perfectly respectable source of revenue – stamp duty – and thereby narrow your tax base?

As his recent budget demonstrated, ACT Treasurer Andrew Barr is an ambitious politician who intends to leave his mark on the territory’s public finances.

Nothing wrong with that, except that the Treasurer’s plan (eventually) to replace revenue from taxes on conveyancing (stamp duty) with revenue from rates suggests more reforming zeal than common sense.

Perils of the vertical village

It seems that Canberrans are taking to apartment living. There are apartment blocks, either newly built or going-up, in Belconnen, Civic, Woden and in other locations such as Kingston. The real estate industry says the market can’t get enough of this kind of housing. But what’s the place of high-rise …

Religion’s place in Australia

Recently, Baroness Warsi, a Conservative Cabinet minister in Britain’s coalition government, and also a Muslim, criticised what she saw as a trend towards ‘militant secularisation’ in European society. By this, she meant that religion was being downgraded in the public sphere. Europe, she wrote, should be more comfortable in its …

Green, but not happy to pay

Beyond composting the kitchen scraps and making sure the bottles and paper go in the yellow bin, most of us find the going tough, Jenny Stewart writes. Despite what Shakespeare may have said, there’s a lot in a name. Canberra’s tips, once the site of weekend recreational outings with the …

Weighted figures stretch truth

The so-called obesity epidemic is a more complex picture than the statistics would have us believe.

Who’s heard of the Australian obesity epidemic? One way or another, most of us are vaguely aware of the growing fatness of Australians, if only when we ruefully try to get into last year’s swimming costume. Doctors warn of the rising incidence of diabetes and other conditions associated with being overweight.

The tricks, and trials, of measuring performance

I don’t know anyone who enjoys performance assessment, either having it done or doing it. At one stage in the public sector, many agencies offered performance pay: a salary top-up for those who were considered to have performed well. Although this practice seems to have died away, having one’s performance assessed is still important. Payment of increments, for examples, rather than being automatic as it once was, now depends on at least satisfactory performance. (Only senior people in the financial sector, it seems, are paid bonuses even when their company does badly.)

Long way to independence

The Queen’s visit serves to highlight how much Australia has change – and how much we’ve stayed the same these past 60 years.

The Queen’s 16th visit to Australia has come and gone, reminding us how much – and how little – has changed in the 60 years since she ascended the throne. Most Australians my age can remember the tremendous to-do of the first and second royal visits, the breathless anticipation, the flag-waving, and if you were lucky, the gloved hand glimpsed through the window of the passing Roller.

Forestry didn’t get it all wrong

There is a strong push to stop all logging of native forests, but is this really justified from the point of view of conservation?

I wonder if the Australian environmental movement remains pleased with its success in relation to our native forests. According to Forests Australia, the area of native forest in public conservation reserves has reached 16 per cent of the total, up from 11 per cent in 1997. This represents an increase of almost 6million hectares. Most of this forest – almost 5million hectares – was transferred from production forests operated on public land by state forestry agencies. At the same time, the area under plantation has grown steadily, with something like 900,000ha of hardwood plantation reported in production statistics for 2011.

A more productive argument

China might be central to our prosperity, but we need a more strategic approach to reaping the rewards of our resources boom.

In my lifetime, there have been three resources booms. In the 1960s and early 1970s Japanese and, later, South Korean demand drove the rapid expansion of the mining and energy sectors. The short-lived boom of the early 1980s was propelled by buoyant world demand for energy. And for the last 15 years, the motive force has been the rise – and rise – of China.

Time to refine energy security

What are we to make of the energy debate? If good public policy is the art of distilling the signal from the noise, the challenge has never been greater.

How to balance the risks of climate change against the costs of doing anything about it? And what, in turn, might these decisions mean for energy security?

For the past six months our national attention has, understandably, been focused on the carbon tax issue.

Hard path to get things right

Employers regularly take universities to task for not producing graduates with the qualities needed in the modern workplace. Chief among these, so we are told, is the capacity for independent, critical thinking – that is, being able to test arguments for logic and coherence in the process of making up one’s own mind about issues of importance.