Oz for Dummies: Week 37, 2021
Update on the Porter affair at the end.
(September 13–19) Different models make different predictions — who’d thunk it! / No-trade-off econs and public-health alarmists united, again / NSW still leading the way, with Victoria still following the NSW playbook, time-delayed by about 4–6 weeks / Porter finally on the ropes / How to max the number of enemies in one brilliant strike / Lies, damn lies, and ABS statistics
Even before the week had really started, an interview Sunday morning on Insiders ABC, “Australia’s Australia’s flagship political discussion program”, made a considerable splash. Said Waleed Aly, one of Oz’s more sensible public intellectuals and talking heads: “The politician’s job is not to follow health advice. Their job is to take health advice, consider it, place it in its proper context.” That apparently was news to many. As maybe it had to in world where every premier hides behind “health advice” but somehow the adopted policies widely differ. Cue NSW and Victoria on the one hand, and Queensland, Western Australia, and New Zealand on the other.
Aly saying the obvious was a fitting start for a week where it finally dawned on many that models, and modelling, are four-letter words. The Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter, for example, noted that the models that he paraded in his piece, and that currently vie for the public’s attention, paint very different pictures of life after the pandemic and, more importantly, offer very different ways how to get there. Different models make different predictions? Oh my! (And no daily presser to give us guidance!? The end must be nigh!)
On cue, a new & noisy advisory group calling itself somewhat pretentiously (but quite in character) OzSAGE questioned the NSW roadmap out of the current lockdown, now headed in its 13th week. One just had to look at the econs in the group (no-trade-off specialists Edmond and Holden) and the epi/public-health types (notorious alarmists Blakely, Crabb, Duckett, MacIntyre, etc.) to be assured that this motley crew is not likely to provide “independent advice”. Former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth called the group scientists “who found themselves on one extreme of the risk spectrum.” He also said, and quite correctly, so: “They say ‘nobody left behind’. Now, we could take that approach. But it would mean you’d have to extend restrictions. There would be a significant imposition on people’s freedoms — who have done the right thing and are vaccinated — based on this philosophy that we can’t possibly open up until we’ve spent the next six to 12 months vaccinating everyone who hasn’t been vaccinated.”
The modelling for the group, we learned, was done by Raina MacIntyre who still has to miss an opportunity not to be alarmist, one notorious example being her latest exhortation in The Conversation, another example being her exhortation last year to shut down Sydney over year’s end because Sydney was allegedly facing a superspreader event. Not so sage after all. One would think that with a record of getting it consistently so wrong, she would eat some humble pie and let others do the modelling. Alas … As Nick Coatsworth pointedly noted, in response to a modeling effort by Burnet Institute’s Brendan Crabb, “Absolutely, it was restrictions with no evidence base rather than vaccines that have 90% effectiveness and are known to reduce transmission. At what point do we ask whether the model is built to fit the proposition?”
Meanwhile the NSW’s government sensibly gave a rat’s ass about the (social) media headwinds and stayed more or less its course, looking at the data, making debatable but overall sensible and data-driven decisions, and walking that tight rope of encouraging people to keep up their guard, while also indicating that there will be light at the end of the tunnel. That light became indeed clearly visible this past week when the Reff finally dropped below 1 and the moving averages hit a peak, all of that with consistently high testing rates. The 7-day average for NSW is almost 150,000 a day, almost three times the testing that Victoria does. All of this on the back of a vaccination drive that saw 80 percent of those above 15 get jabbed once by mid-week and 50 percent jabbed twice before the weekend. And these numbers are by no means a reflection of vaccination hesitancy but supply shortages (of Pfizer and Moderna) and the chaotic messaging over the Astra Zenica vaccine. NSW, in other words, is well on its way to have 70 percent of those above 15 being double vaxxed well before mid-October, at the current pace possibly very early October. Which should trigger some meaningful relaxation of restrictions in particular for those fully vaxxed. Can’t wait.
Victoria, currently on a cases trajectory similar to that of NSW 50 days ago, continues to do basically what NSW has done since it realized that it would not be able to contain this outbreak. In fact, everything that the Andrews government talking heads announce these days in their pressers sounds very familiar: vaccination as the way out, ever so slight easing of restrictions when numbers are low, promises of more freedoms ahead when certain vaccination targets are reached. The ACT is struggling to contain its outbreak and might soon also have to adopt the NSW playbook.
What happens in NSW in October will be closely watched by everyone from Victoria and ACT to Queensland, Western Australia, and ArdernLand. While the Doherty Institute modeling — by far the best documented (as incompletely documented as it is)— will continue to provide food for thought as well as ammunition for tweets of online bullies and demagogues, in the end the state government in NSW will show Australia the way out of a mess for which no-trade-off-econs as well as epi-public-health alarmists are as much responsible as a federal government that has failed vaccine procurement 101.
Reality has a way of asserting itself and the reality of the developments in NSW will show the way out. Yes, people will die — people always die in a pandemic, and as a matter of fact they die in the tens of thousands even when there is no pandemic, of coronary heart disease, dementia, cerebrovascular disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary, and may other nasty diseases —but deaths are not the only thing to take into account and it is time that the national conversation is finally had that we should have started sometime around April last year.
Greg Dore, ironically a colleague of Raina MacIntyre at the UNSW Kirby Institute, tweeted Friday, “As NSW sensibly opens-up at 70–80% eligible full [needle icon], other jurisdictions will be watching closely. If there’s a major surge in cases & hospitalizations, the “they’re letting it rip” brigade will be out in force. If not, others will definitely follow, particularly VIC.” To which my response was, “That’s exactly how it is going to play out. Only there will not be a major surge in hospitalizations (b/c vaxx percentages) and hence VIC will follow the NSW playbook once more. Delayed by about 50 days.” I take bets.
/ Porter finally on the ropes
Former Attorney General, and current industry and science minister, Christian Porter, who tried to weasel his way out of historical rape allegations (which he strenuously denied), and then decided to go after an ABC investigative journo with a defamation suit (since settled) only to learn that discovery processes can turn very ugly indeed, updated this week the parliamentary register of MPs’ interests, revealing that he accepted major funds from a “blind trust” to help him pay his legal bills. He also claimed that he had no idea who was behind the generous donation which is unbelievable and demonstrates, once more, that Porter specializes in bad judgement. The general public outcry that followed, had Morrison order his department to see whether this arrangement breached the ministerial standards code. It’s telling but not surprising at all that this government needs that kind of advice when it should be obvious that any such arrangement is indeed an affront to transparency. One wonders how far Morrison is willing to go … surely the political damage here is not worth it?
/ How to max the number of enemies in one brilliant strike
Morrison, #ThatFellaDownUnder, had another carefully crafted marketing opp — many flags and virtual shoulder to shoulder with the heads of US and UK — somewhat deflated when Biden seemed to forget his name during the press conference in which the AUKUS pact was announced, a clear attempt to send a strong signal to China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, that his various micro aggressions have duly been noted. Apparently Morrison committed Oz to buy at least 8 nuclear-powered subs (rather than the dozen diesel-fuelled ones contracted with France). Much has been written about the AUKUS announcement (good commentary here [Crowe] and here [Hartcher] and here [Shields] and here [Knott] and here [Murphy] and here [CNN] and here [Hurst]) and its repercussions. The French were predictably snubbed and not amused which, given they lost tens of billions of dollars of business (and took a humiliating hit to their reputation), was to be expected. It was also predictable that China would not like the idea, and it is predictable that this new submarine agreement, while possibly just a poking of the aquatic bear, will further torpedo agricultural and educational export markets. Which probably does not help the Morrison government’s standing with those sectors. Since, in contrast to the federal politics editor of the Daily Telegraph, I never took a high-school class in geo-politics, I won’t add to the commentary that exploded in the wake of the announcement and remain agnostic about the merits of this development. It is quite possible that the deal was designed to win Morrison the election, as Michael West has argued. Alas, that — while appropriately cynical — seems too simplistic a take.
/ Lies, damn lies, and ABS statistics
Despite a 146,000 drop in the number of people in work around the country, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported Thursday that the official jobless rate fell by 0.1 percentage points to 4.5 per cent last month. Allegedly this is the lowest jobless rate since November 2008. This followed a(nother) reported drop by 0.3 percent the month before. Seriously? That anyone takes these numbers serious boggles the mind, as does the fact that a bunch of well-paid bureaucrats get away with that kind of utterly useless data. I suspect the RoyMorgan un(der)employment estimates of 9.2 (8.2) percent are much closer to the truth. They certainly seem to capture the reality better in my neck of the woods (Darlinghurst — Surry Hills) where the devastation is on shocking display that the most recent three months of lockdown have wrought.
And that’s the wrap for week 37 of 2021. All facts, no spin. Oz for Dummies.
Update 20 September 2021:
Porter has resigned as minister for industry and science (but will remain on the back benches). His conscience, that pathetic and weird beast, made him do it.
“I am not prepared to seek to break the confidentiality of those people who contributed to my legal fees under what are well-known and regular legal structures, including the confidentiality attached to the Trust contribution.”
“Ultimately, I decided that if I have to make a choice between seeking to pressure the Trust to break individuals’ confidentiality in order to remain in Cabinet, or alternatively forego my Cabinet position, there is only one choice I could, in all conscience, make. Consequently, I provided the Prime Minister with my resignation earlier today. It is effective immediately.”
“I have previously stated my determination to contest the next election in Pearce and have nominated for preselection, and I have no intention of standing aside from my responsibilities to the people of Pearce.”