Sunday, August 22, 2010

Election Reflections

I found two things fascinating last night - the speeches from the major party leaders, and the goals of the rural independents.

Gillard started out by congratulating the independent and Green MPs who now hold the balance of power. She named all 5 of them individually and expressed a desire to work with them. Gillard had immediately shifted into negotiating mode, flattering the independents and seeming to relish the backroom dealing that lies ahead.

By contrast, Abbott began by celebrating the swing to the Liberal Party and thanking the voters for their support. Only right at the end did he briefly mention the independent and Green members, and he didn't utter any of their names. Clearly Abbott wanted to keep campaigning as long as he could.

All of the independent MPs were interviewed by phone,* with both Windsor and Oakeshott naming "stable government" as their top priority. The use of the exact same phrase indicated they had spoken and established a common goal, but at the time I couldn't work out what exactly they meant. This morning it hit me - the three rural independents (Windsor, Oakeshott & Katter) will negotiate for fixed parliamentary terms. They'll promise to support a minority government for the full 3 years, in return for the PM promising to call the next election in August 2013, along with a referendum on fixed terms. Windsor made exactly that deal in a similar situation, after the 1991 NSW state election, and he'll try to do it again. It will allow the independents to hold the balance of power for the maximum possible time, and either major party will take any chance to be in government rather than in opposition for the next three years.

Getting ahead of myself here, but fixing the electoral cycle in its current state would make for an interesting dynamic. For this election the new House of Reps will take over in September / October and the new Senate will take over next July. A fixed term deal could set that arrangement in stone, meaning that every election would be followed by 9 months of a lame duck Senate.

*Nobody sent a camera crew to film the new kingmakers! I didn't see a hung parliament coming; it's some comfort that the TV networks were equally blindsided.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sexist Observation on the Election Debate ...

... but relating to the listeners rather than the speakers.

I tuned in to the Channel 9 footage of the debate, so I could watch the "worm." This is a line graph scrolling across the bottom of the screen, showing the real time responses of a studio audience, either favourable or unfavourable. A total gimmick, but so was everything Gillard and Abbott said.

As an added wrinkle this year, there were separate worms for female and male opinions. The two genders mostly agreed, but the women reacted more quickly. In response to a popular or unpopular statement, the female line jumped up or down within seconds, while the male line trended in the same direction over half a minute.

I'm not sure what that means. Are women more volatile and less reflective? Are men too lazy to press a button on an audience reaction meter?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Football World Cup Predictions

I've got a feeling the African teams will do well, much like the Asian teams in Japan/Korea 2002. Also, I can't help thinking that Australia's team was at its best 4 years ago.

So those predictions were pretty vague. Time for some detailed programmatic specificity, so that I can be proven wrong in a month's time.

Champion: Argentina (they'll be too scared of their coach's reaction not to win)
Runner-up: Netherlands
Losing semi-finalists: Cameroon, England

Group A qualifiers: Mexico, France
Group B qualifiers: Argentina, South Korea
Group C qualifiers: England, United States
Group D qualifiers: Germany, Ghana
Group E qualifiers: Netherlands, Cameroon
Group F qualifiers: Italy, Slovakia
Group G qualifiers: Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire
Group H qualifiers: Spain, Chile

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Unsafe as Houses

I've been reading a bit about the Henry review of Australia's taxation system, and I'm disappointed that it didn't eliminate the tax break on investment property. That would have been a great way to let some air out of our housing bubble, which has been one of the few around the world not to burst. Prices haven't declined much lately and the price to rent ratio is 56% above its long-run average. It's like Australia got the one empty barrel in a game of Russian roulette, but our luck can't hold out forever.

I know quite a few friends who borrowed to buy a second property, then rented it out to pay the mortgage. The tax incentive plays a big part in this - mortgage payments on investment properties are tax deductible. Most of their money is tied up in a leveraged, illiquid investment, with the potential to cause trouble in a severe recession. They could easily lose their tenant, see the property value decline below the mortgage value, and be stuck in a situation where they can't cover the repayments, or get out from under the mortgage by selling.

I think people under 35 are particularly at risk here, because we were children or adolescents during Australia's last major recession in the early 1990s. We just haven't experienced widespread sackings and the chaos that follows. It's quite possible that Australia's boom will last another 5 or 10 years, but that's only going to make the bursting of the bubble more painful when it happens.

While borrowing to buy your own house brings advantages besides just accumulating capital, borrowing to buy additional houses or flats is pure property speculation. It's a pity that our tax system will continue to encourage it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

One Last Day of Summer

I managed to see a world championship sporting event today - for free and by accident!

It started with a warm, sunny holiday Monday. This prompted me to cycle to Dee Why, although I cheated a bit by taking the Manly ferry and bypassing the steep hills of the lower north shore. The northern beaches aren't flat either, but riding from Manly to Dee Why was a pretty trip and a bit of an exploration. I had just enough energy for a brief swim - the water was surprisingly warm, and the waves were a good size.

Then I was able to watch one of the contests on the women's world championship surfing tour, which was taking place a little further along the beach. It was particularly impressive to watch the athletes gliding and turning over the waves, after I'd just spent twenty minutes wimping out and diving under all of them. There was a crowd of a few thousand enjoying the surfing, as well as a food festival and a band.

One other amusing part of the day is that I simultaneously have salty surf hair and squished helmet hair.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Worst Anti-Drug Ad Ever

I just heard a radio ad aiming to discourage cannabis use. It had a male voice talking about how he had been a good swimmer, but then threw it all away because of weed. It finished up with the line "If it wasn't for marijuana, I could have been, you know, famous or something."

Now there might be good reasons to avoid marijuana, but saying it will ruin your swimming career is a pretty poor argument. Surely even the potheads remember Michael Phelps' 14 Olympic gold medals, and also his famous bong photos?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Putney Punting

I've gone on a fair few cycling expeditions this summer, taking advantage of all my spare time. Maybe it was the perfect weather, or feeling a bit loopy after not sleeping well the previous night, but I decided to go on a last long ride before starting work on Monday. So I made a circuit that included the Putney Punt.

It's a real anachronism - a little cable ferry that carries up to 15 cars across the Parramatta River between Mortlake and Putney. It became totally redundant when the six-lane Gladesville Bridge opened in 1964, only a couple of kilometres downstream, but some sort of heritage order keeps the ferry running. It's even toll-free!

I first cycled to the north side of the river by way of Drummoyne and the Gladesville Bridge, and then made my way across to the ferry's embarkation point. I forgot to bring any sort of map, and received rather vague directions when I asked in Putney, but was lucky enough to find the right headland on my first try. I even had a few minutes to wait for the ferry to leave, and watch a pelican circling overhead.

There was another wildlife moment as I rode home along the shore of Exile Bay. I passed a cormorant swimming almost submerged, with only its head poking out of the water. Then a large fish, about the size of a big carp, leapt out of the water for a second or two. It was as if the birds and the fishes wanted to challenge my ideas about their natural elements!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bill Impresses Me All Over Again

I've been reading "The Merchant of Venice" this week, the first time I've read Shakespeare in a while. What really struck home was the way he scatters brilliant asides - clever lines that aren't strictly necessary, but give the audience something to consider in addition to the main plot and themes.

Here are a few examples, just from the first half of one play:
"I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching." I, ii, 16-19
"I like not fair terms and a villain's mind." I, iii, 81
"... For lovers ever run before the clock." II, vi, 4
"All things that are, are with more spirit chased than enjoy'd." II, vi, 12-13
"... I fear you do speak upon the rack, Where men enforced do speak anything." III, ii, 32-33

Other drama sometimes manages this trick, but often the words of wisdom are culturally specific (e.g. "... don't make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice," from The Simpsons). Shakespeare's insights are much more universal.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Climate Change Optimism

I just came across the most hopeful article I've read on climate change for ages.

The one paragraph summary is that there is already a limited cap and trade program involving ten states on the east coast of the U.S. Another seven states in the western U.S. are negotiating to set up their own separate cap and trade program by 2015 (along with four Canadian provinces). At that stage, American industry groups might start to lobby for uniform national regulations, rather than having to deal with a variety of carbon emissions regulations across the country. That has occurred in the past with other pollution measures.

That suggests to me a plausible route to a global agreement on climate change:
1. The more environmentally conscious American states restrict emissions of greenhouse gases.
2. The U.S. congress imposes national regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, at the behest of industry lobby groups that want uniform environmental laws across the country.
3. The U.S. then insists that other countries control greenhouse gases, and threatens trade sanctions if they don't comply. Major greenhouse gas emitters bring in these controls, because they don't want to risk losing the American market.

Why I could see this happening is that it doesn't rely on heroic, selfless gestures. Step 1 is already in progress, step 2 assumes an American government dominated by selfish lobbyists and step 3 assumes that the U.S. is a domineering superpower. Surely even the most jaded left-wing pessimist would concede those two points.

Of course this process might lead to quite weak global regulations, that don't emerge until some time in the 2020s. Hopefully it will be enough to spur big improvements in renewable energy and efficiency that cut greenhouse gas emissions in time. It's a bit of a long shot, but I'm revising my outlook from "Climate change will almost certainly end our civilisation in the latter 21st century" to "Climate change will probably end our civilisation in the latter 21st century."