Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Coronavirus: Sweden defied zealots and never met its Waterloo

Sweden’s impressive legacy — ABBA, dynamite, Ikea, for instance — has expanded significantly in 2020, having provided the world with an example of a sane response to what’s turned out a relatively mild pandemic.

The Scandinavian nation deserves enduring credit from reasonable people everywhere for resisting the destructive authoritarian mindset that enveloped democratic nations this year. Sweden was viciously attacked by supposed experts and mainstream media all year that if it didn’t crush commerce by fiat and suspend civil liberties indefinitely, as has occurred in Europe, many US states, and of course Victoria, more than 90,000 Swedes would die.

The army of lockdown zealots will never be able to say lockdowns are essential to avert disaster, if that wasn’t already clear enough from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Historians will struggle to see a public policy disaster in Sweden. The number of deaths there from all causes so far this year, just less than 68,000, is fewer than over the same period in 2015, adjusted for population size. Far from an apocalypse, the total death rate from January 1 to September 20 is barely distinguishable from recent years, notwithstanding a jump from 2019, during which it was unusually low.

While its European neighbours, which bludgeoned their economies for months, now battle “second waves” (albeit with far lower death rates), Sweden has barely had any COVID-19 deaths since mid-July alongside a much milder uptick in so-called cases, which in any case often mean little.

The feared “exponential growth” never occurred (it never occurred anywhere). Swedish hospitals were never “overwhelmed”.

But Sweden’s GDP, which plunged 8.3 per cent in the second quarter, tanked anyway so should it have locked down too and “saved lives”? It’s a fatuous argument, faulty on its own terms, even assuming lockdowns do “save lives” overall.

For a start, its economy suffered in part because its larger neighbours, which themselves endured far bigger drops in GDP, locked down. Second, media fear-mongering left people unreasonably terrified, which, naturally, saw Swedes curtail economic activity.

In any case, looking at GDP over three months is hardly definitive. Sweden’s economy is expected to grow 4 per cent next year, twice as fast as ours, according to the Reserve Bank.

Having inflicted less economic chaos, Sweden’s gross government debt won’t rise beyond 40 per cent, according to its September budget papers, while Canberra’s debt ceiling will be lifted to the equivalent of 55 per cent of GDP along with far bigger budget deficits.

The bigger point is this: the short-term trajectory of GDP matters little. As I’ve argued for years in this column, it’s a flawed, dated measure of prosperity.

In Sweden, no one will be cowering in masks for years; Swedish police are not dragging people screaming from cars or invading homes to stop Facebook sharing. They aren’t shutting internal borders, stopping weddings, funerals or undermining children’s education. The Swedish parliament, unlike Victoria’s, isn’t using the pandemic as an excuse to increase police power. And the Swedish people never had to endure rambling, ridiculous daily press conferences for months about “cases” that belong in a scene from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

And the Swedish government hasn’t set a precedent, which will hang over business investment considerations here for a generation, that whenever a virus emerges, businesses and households will be shut down for months.

None of these factors is reflected in GDP.

There was never a health crisis in Sweden. And there hasn’t been one in Australia, either.

In the first six months of the year, there were 134 fewer deaths from respiratory diseases in Australia, which includes pneumonia and influenza, and 617 additional deaths from cancer compared with the average over 2015-19, according to the ABS’s provisional mortality statistics, released last week. Doctor-certified deaths are within the normal range.

Sweden hasn’t hitched its economic future — and the mobility of its people — to the prospect of a vaccine, either.

As our budget will make clear, forecasts of a return to normality will be contingent on an effective vaccine emerging, and one people will want to take. Given the survival rate for people under 70 is about 99.9 per cent — if they get the virus — it’s unclear how many will want to. Drug companies, under immense pressure to find a vaccine in months rather than the usual eight to 10 years, are understandably trying to wriggle out of liability if something goes wrong.

There are 243 candidate vaccines, of which nine are in stage-three trials, where the wider population testing takes place. There’s no guarantee of success. There’s been no vaccine developed for HIV, for instance.

“It is likely individuals will need two doses of a vaccine and this may need to be repeated every year,” says JP Morgan analyst David Mackie, who took stock of vaccination developments last month. “With a global population of 7.8 billion, this would require 4.7 billion individuals to be vaccinated with two doses each, separated by three to four weeks, and possibly repeated every year.”

Australia’s coronavirus elimination strategy leaves many questions unanswered. How long will we be prevented from leaving, if there’s no effective vaccine? Given the virus is contagious, is it realistic to keep it out forever (assuming it’s not prevalent here)? If not, why has Victoria imposed a 20-week lockdown on its biggest city?

Nations that don’t lock down their populations for months have been cast as immoral, but the truth is more complex. Leadership requires balancing competing objectives, governing for the long term, and being honest with people when new information emerges.

It will require a few more years of data to work out the optimal strategies to fight future pandemics. But what’s clear already — certainly to citizens of Victoria, New Zealand, Israel, the UK and Europe — is that one lockdown, as promised by proponents, does not eradicate the coronavirus.

And let’s drop the idea Swedes care less for their elderly than we do. Sweden spends the equivalent of 3.2 per cent of GDP on its aged-care facilities, compared to about 1 per cent here.


Permitted NSW fire-prone clearing doubled

About time

The NSW government will more than double the amount of native vegetation that can be bulldozed around fire-prone homes — from 10m to 25m — ahead of the upcoming bushfire season, according to leaked documents.

The proposed amendments, contained in a cabinet-in-­confidence memo obtained by The Australian, fall significantly short of the 50m buffer sought by some senior Berejiklian government ministers, setting up further division over contentious environmental policies.

“Amendments include … 25m of vegetation clearing along fence lines according to a yet-to-be- ­approved code covering clearing in endangered and threatened species habitats, riparian ­corridors and clearing for non-­bushfire risk mitigation pur­poses,” the document reads.

Cabinet will on Tuesday consider the government’s response to the NSW bushfire inquiry that was established in July in response to the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires.

The fires, which lasted four months, killed 34 people and destroyed more than 3000 homes across the country.

The cabinet documents also reveal that funding required to put in place the inquiry’s 76 recommendations would reach $220m in 2020-21 and $1.09bn in the next four years.

The most significant costs this year would include $28m for a state strategic fire trail network, $27m for protective clothing and equipment and $18m for a tanker fleet upgrade.

While the inquiry, led by former NSW police deputy commission Dave Owens and former chief scientist Mary O’Kane, made no findings in relation to land clearing, it did make observations about the current scheme.

Under the “10/50” policy, homeowners are allowed to clear trees within 10m of their property and underlying vegetation — but not trees) up to 50m away. “Many question the effectiveness of the scheme, given many properties cleared in accordance with the scheme were still affected by the fires,” the inquiry report noted.

The cabinet submission will propose 25m of vegetation clearing to take place along fence lines “to simplify complex vegetation clearing requirements”.

“The (Rural Fire Service) case is that 25m is needed for effective firefighting regardless of the state of the boundary,” it reads.

Sources with knowledge of government discussions said moderate-aligned ministers, including Environment Minister Matt Kean and Planning Minister Rob Stokes, were pushing for as little change as possible to the existing scheme.

Others, including Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott, wanted more clearing.

Critics of the “10/50” rule contend that it has been misused by landholders to enhance development opportunities, scenic views and property values.

In its submission to the inquiry, the National Parks Association of NSW recommended repealing the rule in part because it relied on self-assessment.

The NSW Wildlife Council agreed, saying: “Allowing clearing without expert approval risks environmental considerations, threatened species and ecological communities being either disregarded or inadequately assessed.”

Mr Barilaro and the Nationals publicly brawled with Gladys Bere­jiklian over another environmental policy — the protection of koala habitats — only last month.

He has since taken mental health leave and is absent from parliament, meaning he will miss the cabinet discussion.

Mr Elliott, Mr Kean and Mr Stokes all declined to comment, citing cabinet confidentiality.

“(The) financial impacts for the state government will be substantial,” the document reads. “The plan would implement all 76 of the report’s recommendations over several years to spread financial impacts (sic) over several budgets.”

Cabinet will also discuss whether the government should compensate landowners for damage caused to fence lines, a question that featured prominently during the inquiry.

It heard that public land managers — including the NSW Nat­ional Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Corporation — were often perceived as “bad neighbours” because they did not always reduce fuel loads on their side of the boundary.


University funding reforms set to pass Senate after Centre Alliance confirms support

The new funding will prioritize STEM courses

An overhaul of university funding that will see fees for humanities courses more than double will soon become law, after minor party Centre Alliance threw its support behind the changes.

Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie confirmed on Tuesday morning the party would support the reforms, handing the federal government the crucial vote it needs to pass its Job-Ready Graduates bill through the Senate.

Ms Sharkie, the party’s education spokeswoman, said Centre Alliance had negotiated a deal with the Morrison government that would secure more places for South Australian students and more protections for students who failed first-year subjects in exchange for its support.

“These legislative reforms are by no means perfect but overall Centre Alliance recognises what the government is trying to achieve and what the university sector is calling for, which is funding certainty following the 2017 indexation cuts,” Ms Sharkie said in a statement. “Without change, many universities were at risk of significant job losses and campus closures going into next year.”

The government needed one extra vote to pass its reforms, which will be debated in the Senate on Tuesday, after striking a deal last week to secure One Nation’s two votes.

Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff emerged as the make-or-break vote last week, after Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie ruled out her support, saying the reforms would “makes university life harder for poor kids and poor parents”.

Labor, the Greens and Independent senator Rex Patrick also oppose the bill.

With Centre Alliance’s support, the Job-Ready Graduates bill could pass the Senate as early as this week. The changes will cement a major restructuring of university funding by hiking fees for some courses, including by 113 per cent for humanities, to pay for fee cuts for STEM, nursing and teaching courses.

The government says the reforms will create 30,000 new places next year, while cheaper fees in certain fields will deliver more graduates in areas of expected job growth.

Under the amendments negotiated by Centre Alliance, South Australia’s three public universities – Adelaide University, the University of South Australia and Flinders University – will be given up to 3.5 per cent extra funding to grow the number of student places at their institutions.

The minor party said it had also secured more protections for students who, under the reforms, would be cut off from accessing HELP loans if they failed 50 per cent of their first-year subjects, through an amendment that would legislate the criteria for exemptions for “special circumstances”.

Senator Griff said the deal was “an excellent outcome for South Australia”.

“This means substantial extra funding for our three universities over four years, over [and] above current funding allocations, and an additional 12,000 students will have access to a university education over a four-year period,” Senator Griff said.

Greens education spokeswoman Senator Mehreen Faruqi slammed the deal, saying Centre Alliance had “chosen to sell out students, young people and our universities”.

“They’ve bought the government spin hook, line and sinker. They should be ashamed of condemning generations of young people to decades of debt,” Senator Faruqi said.


Police camera ruling ‘denies courts critical evidence’

Victoria Police officers cannot be compelled to release footage from body-worn cameras in civil proceedings following a County Court decision last month which has prompted calls for urgent reform of the laws that regulate their use.

The court ruling is expected to deny crucial evidence being tendered during civil trials that could prove an abuse of power or potentially exonerate a police officer against such an allegation.

It could also have significant implications for other civil cases, including Transport Accident Commission claims, where a law enforcement officer or paramedic was present and equipped with a camera.

Lawyers and civil libertarians have urged Attorney-General Jill Hennessy to amend legislation from 2017, when the cameras were first trialled in Victoria in response to recommendations by the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Robinson Gill lawyer Jeremy King warned of a serious miscarriage of justice without government intervention.

“It is in the interest of plaintiffs, police and the TAC that this gets fixed straight away,” he said.

“There is a massive black hole in the legislation regarding courts being able to access and utilise body-worn camera footage in any civil proceeding. Courts are being denied critical evidence that may determine the outcome of a case.”

Mr King is representing former prisoner Konstantin German, who claims in court documents to have been bashed by prison guards and bitten by a dog during riots at the Melbourne Remand Centre in 2015.

Two of the guards were wearing body-worn cameras, but lawyers for the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office opposed the release of the footage to the plaintiff.

In her judgment on September 25, County Court judge Sandra Davis found there were no specific provisions in the Surveillance Devices Act for the footage to be handed over in civil proceedings.

Liberty Victoria president Julian Burnside, QC, called on the government to change the legislation.

“If this is the law, then it’s wrong. Video footage from these body cameras is precisely the type of evidence that should be available during civil litigation,” Mr Burnside said.

Ms Hennessey said body-worn cameras were an important way to ensure greater accountability and create a safer environment for officers, staff and the community.

“I am aware of this case and will consider the legal implications of the ruling,” she said.

More than 8000 frontline police and protective services officers are now fitted with cameras, which are also worn by some prison guards and Ambulance Victoria paramedics.

Police claimed the technology helped provide “better and more efficient justice outcomes by streamlining evidence gathering and corroboration” at a a briefing to IBAC in February 2020.

It was also claimed the cameras would encourage “more transparent interactions between police and the community while enhancing member safety,” according to the briefing by Superintendent Jason Kelly.

However, The Age revealed last year that police officers could deactivate their body-worn cameras at their discretion and edit footage before court cases, while the Andrews government had given police the power to deal “in-house” with any potential breaches.

Gregor Husper, principal solicitor at the Police Accountability Project, said the use of body-worn cameras had failed to make police more accountable.

“It’s completely useless to members of the public wanting to allege misconduct by police. You can’t get the footage under freedom of information laws. And now the footage can’t be obtained during discovery in civil cases,” Mr Husper said.


Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don’t forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here

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