Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cory Bernardi on Keysar Trad

Many participants and observers of politics have concerns about how matters are portrayed in the media.

Some will maintain sections of the media report in a manner that favours the political left whilst others will say they favour the political right. (You could just as easily substitute ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ in the previous sentence.)

Personally I think the varying viewpoints are a healthy and necessary aspect of having a free press. However, sometimes what is not reported is just as telling as the political slant a particular story is given.

In recent times I have had personal experience that I’d like to share with you. It illustrates how what we are not told can be just as important as what we are. It concerns a man named Keysar Trad.

Mr Trad represents a group called the Australian Islamic Friendship Association and is the ‘go to’ guy for all matters Islamic by much of the press and as such, he regularly features in the media.

He purports to be a bridge builder between the Muslim community and the rest of Australia. By his own admission his organisation has only twelve members, yet that supposedly merits him being labelled a ‘spokesman for the Muslim community’.

However, Mr Trad has an interesting history. He has been found by a court to be a ‘dangerous’ individual whom holds anti-Semitic views. He has been a translator for a jihadist publication and excused hateful comments by Australia’s then grand mufti. I could go on but for the full picture I suggest you read a speech I gave in the Senate about Mr Trad here.

Better still, listen to this week’s radio interview between Andrew Bolt and Mr Trad here.

Given his history and track record, one can reasonably ask, why is Mr Trad portrayed by the media as the benevolent face of the Muslim community in Australia?

It’s a question I have posed on many occasions to the media outlets that feature Mr Trad as a ‘spokesman’. None of these letters have been published nor responded to - with one exception; that being from Mr John Laws.

On one hand it is perfectly understandable that media outlets don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them but it is very poor form to hold an individual out to be something they are clearly not.

However more concerning to me was the decision by the ABC to delete factual comments about Mr Trad from a recent pre-recorded television interview - ostensibly in the interests of ‘time’.

I was asked by the presenter what the Muslim community could do to better engage with the rest of the population. My response was to stop having people like Mr Trad speak on their behalf because he is discredited and ‘dangerous’. I then ran through the court judgment against him.

All of that was cut from the interview. Perhaps it really was because of ‘time’ issues but I personally suspect it was more about protecting Mr Trad’s chequered history.

It’s not the first time we have seen the reluctance of sections of the media to report on significant matters. Julia Gillard’s union slush fund is another case in point or the steadfast refusal to present a balanced ‘climate change’ case.

The media has a huge role in shaping public opinion. We need a diversity of voices representing different perspectives on important matters. However, it is just as important that we are accurately presented with the full picture, not just some idealised representation of truth.

That is truly the first responsibility of the free press.

Via email

NAPLAN: IQ versus poverty

THE release of NAPLAN data ­always brings some sort of controversy. This year it was about a ­decline in writing performance, but a longer running controversy is the persistent gap in literacy and numeracy associated with socioeconomic status.

New research by Gary Marks, published in the Australian Journal of Education, finds that student achievement in the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy had a very weak relationship with SES, once prior achievement and school differences are taken into account. By far the strongest predictor of Year 5 and Year 7 NAPLAN scores was Year 3 ­NAPLAN scores; SES and school factors were relatively weak predictors. Student achievement in all of the NAPLAN domains was also highly correlated suggesting tests measure general ability.

This research supports other extensive research by Marks showing that cognitive ability (or IQ) is the single biggest influence on student achievement. It trumps socioeconomic status and school factors, including teacher quality. But this does not mean that socioeconomic status is irrelevant. It is clear to even casual observers that children from low SES backgrounds are at a higher risk of educational disadvantage than their higher SES peers. The question is when this disadvantage emerges and how. Marks suggests the impact of ­social inequalities on student achievement may have its roots earlier in the education and child development cycle than Year 3.

SES may not be the strongest predictor of achievement but, unlike cognitive ability, it is a factor that policy affects. To reduce the influence of SES on student achievement, we have to understand the relationship. Persistent poverty is implicated, and low parental education plays a part, but an important set of research findings on SES and literacy shows the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and low achievement is most strongly predicted by non-financial characteristics associated with low SES families.

Early language and literacy ­acquisition make a major contribution to later school achievement, and are influenced by genetic and environmental risk factors. Children in low-SES families are at higher risk of cognitive deficits from preterm birth and low birth weight. Children growing up in low-SES families are less likely to have homes that instil alphabetic and print knowledge and cultivate oral language skills such as vocabulary. Low-SES children are less likely to attend good preschools.

The effects of these characteristics and experiences are cumulative and interactive, creating wide language and literacy disparities as early as 18 months and evident on the first day of school.

The bad news is that these gaps usually persist and even grow throughout children’s school lives. At the individual level, low SES is associated with low parental expectations and poor school attendance. At the school level, SES effects are associated with school practices, the quality of teaching, and the school’s academic culture. These effects show up in ways not necessarily measured by NAPLAN or tertiary entrance scores, such as lower rates of school completion.

The good news is that effective initial and remedial literacy instruction and high-quality secondary schooling can mitigate the effect of SES. Children from low-SES backgrounds are the most adversely affected by low-quality instruction, but they benefit most from excellent instruction.

It is true that the correlation between SES and educational outcomes does not prove causation. It is also manifestly true that low SES does not destine a child to poor achievement. Yet the research in this area is building up good evidence of the predictive pathways, showing how these factors accumulate and interact across time to multiply the impact of disadvantage on some children.

Acknowledging that the relationship between SES and educational outcomes is attributable, in part, to other variables, does not negate its effect. Rather, identifying the factors that translate socioeconomic disadvantage into educational disadvantage, and understanding the processes by which they work, is the key to reducing its impact.


Watts happening? Electricity demand falling as prices continue to rise

That demand falls as price rises is not inherently surprising but there are some complexities in the matter

We know the two great certainties in life are death and taxes, but many thought there was a third: the inexorable rise in consumption of electricity. As the population grew and each of us got a little more prosperous each year, we'd use more power. The mighty electricity industry was built on that certainty.

Except that electricity consumption has been falling for the past four years. To say this has taken the industry by surprise is an understatement. For well over a century – even during the Great Depression – the quantity of electricity used in Australia each year was greater than the year before.

So what has caused our power consumption to fall rather than rise? The biggest single reason is the introduction from the late 1990s of regulations to increase the energy efficiency of refrigerators, freezers and many other residential and commercial appliances, and to increase the energy efficiency of new buildings.

Saddler estimates this explains 37 per cent of the 37 terawatt-hour shortfall from what might have been.

The next biggest part of the explanation is structural change in the economy away from electricity-intensive industries. Over the year to September 2012, three major NSW industrial power users – Port Kembla steelworks, Kurri Kurri aluminium smelter and the Clyde oil refinery – were partly or completely shut down. This explains 10 per cent of the 37 terawatt-hour shortfall.

The evidence also suggests that power consumption by other major industrial users has been little changed over the three years to 2012-13. Saddler estimates that this failure to grow explains a further 14 per cent of the shortfall, taking the total contribution from structural change to almost a quarter.

The next most important part of the explanation is the response of electricity users, particularly residential users, to the higher prices they were being charged. Saddler finds that after 2010 there was "an abrupt change in consumer responsiveness to higher prices".

This was the time when the possible effect of a carbon tax on electricity became a major political issue thanks to the efforts of Abbott and his "sceptic" mates. At the time, retail electricity prices were rising spectacularly, mainly because of a huge increase in spending on upgrading the transmission and distribution networks (poles and wires) to cope with an expected ever-rising peak demand on hot summer afternoons.

Saddler finds evidence to support his argument that all this carbon-tax-related fuss about the high cost of electricity caused many households to be a lot more conscious of what was happening to their power bills and to respond by finding ways to cut their usage – to the extent that they "have managed to completely offset the effect of higher prices on their household budgets by reducing consumption".

This highly unusual jump in the short-run "price elasticity" of electricity explains 19 per cent of the shortfall, he estimates.

He further calculates that the growth in output from rooftop photovoltaic solar and other small, distributed generators accounts for about 13 per cent of the shortfall. This, of course, is a fall in the demand for electricity supplied by the major, mainly coal-fired generators, not a fall in the use of electricity as such.

Saddler notes that for the past three years the annual peak demand has been falling, not increasing, despite the huge investment to cope with ever-rising peaks. When will this additional capacity, which is now built and for which all electricity consumers are paying – and will continue to pay for some years to come – be required, if ever, he asks.

Good question.


The problem with green corporate welfare

The government's detractors appear to have reasonable claims that some of their announced measures, such as more stringent job-seeking activity tests for Newstart recipients amid a more tightly regulated labour market and persistently slow economic growth, may need amending. But when invoking the argument that government policy measures will hurt low-income earners, these groups rely upon a highly selective citation of those policy issues exerting the claimed effects.

Strangely silent are the opposition, the Greens, most Senate crossbenchers, and the Bust the Budget crowd about how some long-standing government policies effectively serve to line the pockets of renewable energy suppliers and other crony eco-businesses, more often than not at the expense of poorer members of our community.

Even worse, the influential Greens have long supported economically wasteful and morally dubious green corporate welfare (as reflected in spending measures, tax concessions and regulatory mandates)  as a political imperative, and have won undertakings from successive governments to implement these perverse exercises in redistribution.

Moves by the Abbott government to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, backed by a $10 billion fund from taxpayers to bankroll renewable energies, low-emissions technology and energy efficiency ventures, has already been frustrated by opposition in the Senate.

The very mission of the CEFC is confused by statements, on the one hand that it aims to assist those projects that cannot attain finances through conventional financial channels, but on the other claiming to only finance projects that can repay investible funds and also achieve a positive rate of return.

It is reasonable to presume that clean energy projects expected to repay borrowings and achieve a good return will be funded by banks and other financial institutions as a matter of course, thus the CEFC threatens to crowd out private financing in its quest to pick politically attractive, yet economically dubious, winners.

There is also active political resistance against the proposed abolition of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, bankrolled by taxpayers, to the tune of $2.5 billion, in order to redistribute funds towards renewable energy project proponents and other speculative green high-rollers.

And this is not to mention all the other expenditures littered across other federal government portfolios, unrelated to environment or industry functions, and state government green programs including solar feed-in tariffs adding about 3 per cent to the average household electricity bill. Thankfully the carbon tax is now an unwanted relic of the past, its abolition in itself the subject of drawn-out political intrigues in the Senate. But it would be a mistake to conceive of green corporate welfare as being limited to the fiscal aspects of governmental activity.

The former Howard government introduced renewable energy requirements for electricity supply in 2001, with the goal of sourcing 20 per cent of Australia's energy from renewables by 2020, including 41,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity for larger wind and solar farms and 4000 gigawatt-hours for rooftop solar installations.

Since unconventional renewable energy technologies generate electricity at costs well in excess of conventional, coal-fired generation, regulatory targets mandating that renewable energies make a greater contribution to the supply mix leads to, other things being equal, upwards pressure on electricity prices passed through to the consumer.

It is estimated that the renewable energy target, currently subject to a government review, and even speculated as a candidate for abolition, adds another 3 per cent to the average electricity bill paid by householders.

Therefore, such green policies effectively transfer wealth from households and other consumers, including through higher electricity prices, to the big renewable industry players, all in the name of addressing climate change trends that Australian taxpayers alone cannot hope to resolve, even if they yearn to do so.

As University of Sydney academic Lynne Chester noted in a 2013 study, rising energy costs have led to low-income families forgoing basic material comforts, such as heating, and confronting other pressing hardships, a true indictment of the impact of green corporate welfare policy if there ever was one.

Randall Holcombe and Andrea Castillo, in their book Liberalism and Cronyism, explain that green-friendly policies typically serve as nothing more than old-fashioned crony capitalism dressed in the new garb of environmentalism, essentially as an appeal to current political fashion.

Environmental policies, in their words, "all share the common characteristic of putting government representatives in a position to choose the economic winners and losers.

 Modern environmental policy therefore resembles industrial policy in the sense that the government selects which firms should be favoured under the law."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has asked Senate crossbenchers, and presumably other parties, to identify alternative savings as part of a fresh round of budget negotiations to secure some political order to fiscal proceedings.

If the opponents of the first Abbott budget genuinely wish to see an end to political privilege, and truly care about the interests of the poor, they should offer green corporate welfare, together with all other forms of fiscal and regulatory favouritism for traditional industries, as the first item for the chopping block.


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