Denying Reality

If you’re after some light entertainment, try asking a member of the federal opposition what they think of climate change deniers.

If you’re talking to someone in the half of the party room who voted for Tony Abbott over Malcolm Turnbull, they’ll likely try to change the subject. They know that it’s a difficult task to argue that the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, NASA and the Academy of Sciences are engaged in a vast conspiracy. But in their heart, many Coalition politicians somehow can’t come to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of climate change.

Alternatively, you might be talking to a Malcolm Turnbull supporter. They know the science is solid, but their leader believes climate change is ‘absolute crap’. So they’ll likely tell you that the Coalition is a broad church, which tolerates a variety of views.

But rejecting the science of climate change isn’t a fashion choice. It’s a fundamental question about whether you’re serious about public policy. If you believe the cranks and shonks on a matter as big as whether humans are causing climate change, why should we trust your judgement on anything else?

On some issues, we should tolerate difference. I may not like paisley shirts and ABBA, but I respect your right to love them both.

But if you can’t accept the thousands of temperature readings that show us that 2010 is one of the three hottest years on record, then you’re off with the fairies. Yes, Cori Bernadi, I’m talking about you.

If you can’t accept that every decade since the 1940s has been hotter than the preceding decade, then I have as much respect for your views as a flat-earther. Yes, Dennis Jensen, I’m talking about you.

And if you can’t cop the mainstream evidence that CO2 emissions are causing climate change, then you’ve just joined the loony right. Yes, Nick Minchin, Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella, Eric Abetz, Guy Barnett, Bronwyn Bishop, Ron Boswell and Michaelia Cash, I’m talking about you.

Australia’s conservatives didn’t always oppose mainstream science. Stanley Bruce created CSIRO.

Robert Menzies was an original fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Malcolm Fraser created the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council.

Today, every living Liberal Party leader apart from Tony Abbott accepts the science of climate change and the need to put a price on carbon. It’s time for the Opposition to recognise that if you’re not serious about climate change science, you’re not fit to govern the country.

(crossposted at the ALP blog - please comment there)
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Foreign Aid & Local Forums

'Vertical funds' are playing an increasingly important role in foreign aid these days. One of these is the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), which received an extra $200 million injection from Australia at a donor meeting in London a week ago. Kevin Rudd's speech received plaudits from those who attended (Bruce Boyd told me of a colleague at the meeting who said the announcement 'took people's breath away'). Given how well GAVI has performed in assessments such as the UK multilateral aid review, this is good news indeed.

Another vertical fund that Australia contributes to is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The fund will be holding its fourth Partnership Forum in Sao Paulo from 28-30 June, and I'll be attending as part of a parliamentarians' event on 27 June. You can guarantee that I won't be making any spectacular pledges of Australian aid, but I am looking forward to the conversation.

Flying from Australia to Brazil is messier than you might think (I'm getting there via South Africa), so it turns out that I won't be able to return in time for the community forum that I had advertised for Saturday 2 July in Downer Community Centre. I'll post details here once I've rescheduled that event. Apologies to inner north residents for any inconvenience.
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AYCC and Carrotmob

I spoke in Parliament today about the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, as well as Canberra's first 'Carrotmob'.
Climate Change, 16 June 2011

In politics, some of the most important decisions you make are the ones that outlive you, whether it is the Menzies government's decision to expand basic research through the CSIRO, the Keating government's decision to put in place a superannuation guarantee or this government's decision to dramatically improve early childhood education. Great policy is made with the long game in mind. In the case of climate change, the decisions we make today will matter more for my sons than they will for me. It will be my little boys whose world will be most affected if sea levels continue to rise and temperatures increase. Young people in my electorate, much like their peers across Australia, want a clean energy future, a future where Australia prices carbon.

This was the message 24 enthusiastic young Canberrans brought to me last week: Claire Bailey and Laura Hyde, year 9 students from Campbell High School; Kiara Creaser from Dickson College; Fehin Coffey, Sophia Rose O'Rourke, Kirk Demant and Claire Hickstepp from Orana School; Vicki Tjandra and Andrew Lovering from the University of Canberra; and Zoe Anderson, Moira Cully, Laura Hogan, Eliza Hopkins, Lindsey Cole, Charlotte Wood, Joshua Creaser, Jonathan Rosseau, Tess Corkish, Ben Huttner-Koros, Adam Huttner-Koros, Alexandra Gill, Hayley Shone, Ben Molan and Tom Sloan from the Australian National University.

These young Canberrans presented me with a petition signed by 700 people supporting a price on carbon and investment in renewable energy. They did so under the umbrella of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. The AYCC has been determined to see Australia act. They have been dogged in their determination and unwavering in their commitment to ensure youth throughout Australia have their voices heard. It is often said that young, progressive activists are anti-market, that they are hostile to economics. But Australia's young climate change activists show how wrong this is. The AYCC activists I met with understand there is no contradiction between economic growth and environmental preservation and that a market based mechanism is the most efficient way of tackling dangerous climate change.

Speaking of markets, I want to use this opportunity to commend the organiser of Canberra's first 'Carrotmob'. Modelled as the environmental equivalent of a flash mob, Carrotmobs attract extra shoppers in return for the store owner's commitment to spend the extra revenue on improved energy efficiency. I commend Ren Webb and the other Carrotmob organisers who helped Ainslie IGA manager Manuel Xyrakis accumulate an extra $12,000 to spend on reducing his store's carbon footprint.

Thousands of Australians, young and old, support market based mechanisms for tackling climate change. It is time for all members of parliament to get on board. We need to price carbon now.
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ACT Community Living Project

I spoke in Parliament today about the ACT Community Living Project.
ACT Community Living Project, 16 June 2011

On Monday, 13 June, I had the pleasure of attending a barbecue to raise funds and awareness for the ACT Community Living Project. CLP is a not-for-profit community organisation seeking services for people with a disability, particularly those with a moderate to severe intellectual disability, many of whom have physical or health issues. The group also includes people with autism.

The event was held at Magnet Mart Gungahlin on a crisp Canberra winter's day. CLP had organised balloons and face painting for the kids, hot soup, coffee and sausage sandwiches. My four-year-old son, Sebastian, and I helped David and Kay behind the counter and then he sat and chuckled at me while I had my face painted with the CLP logo. I acknowledge CLP president, Esther Woodbury, and CLP coordinator, Allison McGregor, for their hard work in promoting CLP and pay tribute to CLP and the 350 Canberra families it supports for family members with an intellectual disability.

CLP recognises the need to provide people with an intellectual disability with a choice of accommodation, access to lifelong education, meaningful work or voluntary activities, quality health care and the chance to be socially included. I am pleased to support its work to raise funds for CLP and to raise awareness of the important issue of supporting people with an intellectual disability.
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Tim Harford’s latest book is a cracker (Adam Smith meets Malcolm Gladwell). It’s titled Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Some choice quotes:
An enterprising civil servant… decided to bypass the regular commissioning process and order the new plane as ‘a most interesting experiment’. The plane was the Supermarine Spitfire. … it is only a small exaggeration to say that the Spitfire was the plane that saved the free world.

He studied… statistics on the death of corporate titans and compared them with half a billion years of data from the fossil record. The timescales were different, but the relationship between the size of an extinction event and its frequency proved to be exactly the same. … If companies really could plan successfully – as many of us naturally assume that they can… then the extinction signature of companies would look totally different to that of species. In reality, the signatures could hardly be more similar.

Margaret Thatcher famously declared, ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ Tony Blair was proud of the fact that he didn’t’ have a reverse gear. Nobody would buy a car that didn’t turn or go backwards, so it is unclear why we think of these as desirable qualities in Prime Ministers. … But whether we like it or not, trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not.

The Soviet failure revealed itself much more gradually: it was a pathological inability to experiment.

And so Mario Capecci became a street urchin at the age of four and a half. … In 2007, Mario Capecci was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for this work on mouse genes. As the NIH’s expert panel had earlier admitted when agreeing to renew his funding: ‘We are glad you didn’t follow our advice.’

scientific societies shifted from chiefly awarding prizes to mostly handing out grants… Grants, unlike prizes, are a powerful tool of patronage. Prizes, in contrast, are open to anyone who produces results. That makes them intrinsically threatening to the establishment

[Archie] Cochrane … was a prisoner of war in a German camp in Salonica when the prisoners were struck by a severe outbreak of pitting oedemas – a horrible swelling up of fluid under the legs. … he improvised a trial with the only two potential treatments at his disposal: his personal store of vitamin C tablets and some Marmite… He divided twenty severe cases into two groups of ten… one young German doctor … studied the data. He was deeply impressed by the care of the clinical trial and the incontrovertible results.

evaluation experts such as Esther Duflo and Edward Miguel have criticised the evaluation of the Millennium Villages. They may be working brilliantly and they may not, but without a randomised trial it’s going to be difficult to know.

the Inland Revenue Service recently increased the rewards people could earn by reporting suspected tax evaders, and the number of tip-offs increased sixfold

The differences between a carbon permit scheme and a carbon tax are insignificant relative to the differences between having some kind of carbon price and not having one. [See also Peter Martin's column, which quotes Harford on carbon pricing.]
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My wife Gweneth is curating an exhibition at the Gallery of Australian Design in 2012 on the links between landscape architecture and public health.

If you have worked on design projects that promote healthy living (including schools, hospitals, prisons and parks), Gweneth would love to hear from you. Details here.
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Live Exports Suspension

I spoke in parliament last night on the issue of live animal exports.
Live Animal Exports, 14 June 2011

The image of our stock men and women is deeply etched on the national psyche: the laconic stockmen rocking easily in the saddle, cajoling and guiding the herd; the alert and agile stockman darting through the bush, bringing a bolter back or displaying campdrafting skills at the local rodeo.

The resourcefulness and resilience of Sara Henderson, who successfully ran Bullo River cattle station, inspired us all with her campaign against breast cancer even as she herself was dying from the disease.

The government, those who raise the cattle and those who rely on the cattle care deeply about the welfare of these animals and ensuring they are treated humanely every step of the way.

Following evidence of animal mistreatment, the decision was made to suspend trade to Indonesia. This was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision.

The live export trade will only recommence when we are certain that the industry complies with supply chain assurances. The industry must be based on animal welfare outcomes, transparency and verification. The Australian and Indonesian governments have agreed to work together to establish a transparent, verifiable system that will account for cattle from Australia right through the supply chain.

The humane treatment of animals is a universal value that transcends international boundaries. It is the community standard. It is the government's standard. It must be the industry's standard.

Under World Trade Organisation rules, Australia has the right to take actions to ensure that Australian cattle are treated in accordance with international standards of animal welfare. I was horrified, as all Australians were, by the Four Corners footage.

We cannot turn away from this.

That is not the Labor way.

It is not the way of this government.

That is why the government is working with the industry and with animal welfare organisations to make sure that the cattle those in the industry rely on and care for are part of a supply chain that respects the animals' welfare.

Halal killing should only be done after animals are stunned. This is the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry for those that rely on meat exports for their livelihood and way of life, such as the Indigenous stockmen and their families who work in 82 Indigenous cattle stations across Northern Australia, providing economic and employment opportunities.

We know that in the short term the suspension will have an impact. The government is committed to the long-term future of the industry, an industry that is vital to many Australians and their communities.

We all identify with the spirit of our stock men and women, and the care they have for their cattle. Banjo Paterson wrote of this in his poem With the Cattle:

'The plains are all awave with grass,

The skies are deepest blue;

And leisurely the cattle pass

And feed the day long through;

But when we sight the station gate,

We make the stockwhips crack,

A welcome sound to those who wait

To greet the cattle back:'

If anyone is left in doubt as to the indelible mark left by those who work the land, look down at your feet or the person's next to you. There is a good chance they will be wearing a pair of RM Williams shoes, shoes designed by a stockman for stockmen to enable them to apply their trade in caring for their cattle.

The pundits like to find conflict in every story. In the case of live exports, the debate has been portrayed as city versus country, Bondi versus Barcaldine, naive animal lovers versus heartless farmers.

But the debate is more than that.

We are more than that.

Over the past fortnight, I have received more than 500 emails on the issue of live exports and engaged in numerous conversations with constituents here in the bush capital.

Australia is made up of urbanites proud of their cattle industry and people on the land horrified at what they saw on their TV screens.

Ours is not a country divided. Most want a strong cattle industry, but never again do we want to see cattle mistreated. I am confident that we can achieve both outcomes.
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Drug Action Week 2011

My speech at the launch of Drug Action Week 2011.
Launch of Drug Action Week 2011
(themed ‘Looking After Your Mind’)

Thank you for braving a Canberra winter morning to be at Parliament House for the launch of Drug Action Week 2011.

We weren’t taught about it in primary school, but European settlement to Australia was inextricably linked to substance abuse.

So important was rum in the early colonies that it took the place of currency.

According to Russell Ward in The Australian Legend, ‘no people on the face of the earth ever absorbed more alcohol per head of population’ than Australians in the 1800s.

Indeed, Australia’s only successful armed takeover of government is the ‘rum rebellion’ of 1808, in which William Bligh was deposed.

It says something about the place of alcohol in this country, doesn’t it?

While the British have the Magna Carta, the Irish have their Easter Rising, and the Americans have the Boston Tea Party – we have the rum rebellion.

And yet Australia hasn’t always been behind the rest of the world when it comes to drugs and alcohol.

We were one of the first countries in the world to introduce Random Breath Testing, which has saved thousands of lives over recent decades.

We were among the first to introduce a Drug Court – recognising that you’re more likely to cut crime if you treat addiction as well as punishing wrongdoing.

That pragmatic approach – let’s see what works – is the hallmark of a successful treatment strategy. And it’s sensible, evidence-based policies that we’re pursuing today.

Drug Action Week

That brings me to Drug Action Week. This year, Drug Action Week will run from Sunday 19 June to Saturday 25 June.

The Australian Government has supported this very worthwhile annual event over a number of years and we are pleased to be involved once again.

Events such as these are valuable in helping improve awareness of the harm associated with drugs and alcohol, and their effects on our families, friends and the community.

Drug Action Week 2011 will see about 700 events taking place in the coming days.

These will include conferences, theatre events, youth group activities, remote Indigenous community concerts, outdoor movies, sporting events and other festival events.

This year’s theme is Looking After Your Mind. The aim is to draw attention to the links between drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.

The risks to young Australians and to vulnerable communities of a binge drinking culture also feature in Drug Action Week 2011.

All of us – health workers, NGOs, governments, and the general public – must recognise the needs of people whose health is affected by both drugs and mental illness.

The facts speak for themselves: 35 per cent of people who use drugs also suffer from mental illness.

This Government has delivered on mental health, with a record $2.2 billion five-year reform package to drive fundamental reform in our system so that more lives are not needlessly lost.

A highlight of Drug Action Week 2011 will be the National Drug and Alcohol Awards in Sydney on Friday 24 June.

The awards will recognise and promote the achievements of those who work to reduce drug-related harm.

These awards, which this year are being coordinated by the Australian National Council on Drugs, are supported with funding from the Australian Government.

National Drug Strategy and related initiatives

Awareness activities like Drug Action Week support Australia’s National Drug Strategy.

The aim of the strategy is to build safe and healthy communities by minimising the health, social and economic harm related to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

It lays the foundation for a broad range of Government initiatives to reduce the demand for alcohol and other drugs, to reduce their supply, and to minimise their harm.

This is the year of action on mental health – and it will be a major factor in the Government’s second-term health agenda.

Investments in mental health in this year’s Budget build on existing arrangements by the Council of Australian Governments to improve services for people with drug and alcohol problems and mental illness.

In the sphere of drug and alcohol treatment services, the Australian Government is working towards the development of a new quality framework and funding model for services, including in the area of comorbidity where mental illness and substance use issues coincide.

In addition, the Government is investing in improved infrastructure and service delivery so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in regional and remote areas will have better access to drug and alcohol treatment services.  The plan is to both expand existing services and establish new ones.


Ladies and gentlemen, drugs and alcohol affect all parts of Australian society, and it takes a collective effort to reduce their harmful effects on our family, friends and community.

Those Rum Corps roots that I spoke about will always be part of Australia’s history.

But so is that spirit of restless innovation – that finds problems, talks about them openly, and looks for practical solutions. We see that spirit in Australia’s traditional owners, and in those migrants that have come to this land since. That same can-do attitude underpins my belief that we can do more to reduce the harm done by drugs and alcohol – and that we will do so guided by good sense. Facts and evidence – not ideology and dogma – are the Australian way.

I commend the work of ADCA and its partners in bringing together  organisations and individuals across Australia to collaborate in this effort, and have great pleasure in officially launching Drug Action Week 2011.
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My AFR op-ed today is on dental care.
The Economics of a Smile, Australian Financial Review, 14 June 2011

The smile is one of the great puzzles of evolutionary psychology: why should people indicate pleasure by showing their teeth? Among chimps, a silent bared-teeth display is used to appease dominant members of the troop. But humans are the only species that also use smiles to signal happiness.

Yet what if the sight of your teeth makes people recoil? A 2006 New York Times article quoted Laurie Abbott, a 51 year-old diabetic lost all her teeth and could not afford to replace them. ‘Since I didn't have a smile,’ she said, ‘I couldn't even work at a checkout counter.’

Tooth decay begins when bacteria – fed by mouth sugars – eats through the enamel. As writer Malcolm Gladwell describes it, the cavity blossoms as it enters the dentin. When it hits the centre of the tooth, an insistent throbbing begins and the tooth starts to turn brown. Left unchecked, the tooth eventually becomes soft enough that a dentist can scoop parts away with a hand tool. Tooth decay has been described as one of the worst pains imaginable.

Some people say that the only reason they began abusing alcohol or hard drugs was to get momentary relief from their aching teeth. Dental problems can have other knock-on effects too. When your teeth are hurting, you’re less likely to have a good night’s sleep or eat fresh fruit – potentially compounding other health problems.

Although plenty of researchers have speculated about the relationship between dental health and earnings, few studies have been able to demonstrate causality. The poor are less likely to see a dentist, so it’s hard to know whether tooth decay causes poverty – or whether it is simply a marker of disadvantage.

In ‘The Economic Value of Teeth’, Columbia University economists Sherry Glied and Matthew Neidell use an incisive strategy to bite into the problem. Across the United States, the decision to fluoridate was driven primarily by local politics, not the initial quality of people’s teeth. The researchers find if you grew up drinking fluoridated water, you were more likely to have all your teeth as an adult (the subjects in their study grew up before fluoridated toothpaste or supplements became commonplace).

Using this natural experiment, Glied and Niedell then go on to analyse earnings. They find that women who drank fluoridated water during childhood earn more than women who did not, with the effect concentrated among those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (puzzlingly, the researchers found no impact on men’s wages). The impacts are large, with the researchers estimating that losing a tooth costs the typical woman 3% percent of her hourly wage – largely because of consumer and employer discrimination. Bad teeth may be one reason why economists have documented a clear relationship between physical beauty and wages.

Such research implies that one way of reducing earnings inequality would be to improve dental care for low-income people Australians. Yet the historic trend has been in the opposite direction. In a recent paper, Sydney University’s Edmund FitzGerald and coauthors look at whether people had visited a dentist in the previous 12 months. They find that among teens from affluent households, the share who saw a dentist has stayed steady about three-quarters of the population since the 1970s. But among the poorest teens, the share that saw a dentist dropped from 56 percent in 1977 to 33 percent in 2005.

Given the evidence on how much teeth matter for earnings, it’s vital for policy to help fill the gaps.

One solution would be to stop asking low-income and middle-income Australians to fund the dental care of the rich. Under the 30 percent Private Health Insurance rebate, the taxpayer pays nearly one-third of a millionaire’s dental bill. This inequity is one reason that we are moving to put a means test on the rebate – a reform that has so far been blocked by the Opposition.

At the same time, the government is moving to improve public dental care by closing a poorly-targeted federal dental program to fund one that’s targeted at low-income households, and by funding more internships in public dentistry.

If we were creating a national health insurance system from scratch today, there would be a good case for it to cover dental care. But given the system we’ve inherited, getting from here to there would be an operation akin to pulling out all the teeth and replacing them with a set of dentures. Fixing the cavities is likely to be a better option.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.

I couldn't manage to work in Bryan Caplan's blog post on the topic, but highly recommend it nonetheless.
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Facts of the Day

on average in each working hour around 1,550 people move from being jobless to being employed, and about 1,530 people leave employment and become jobless

At the same time in any given period very large numbers of people move into different jobs, and from full to part-time work (and vice-versa), without actually changing employment status. This means that the extent of changes in the labour market must be much greater than even that suggested by these simple gross flows data.

(From Bruce Chapman and Kiatanantha Lounkaew, How many jobs is 23,510, really? Recasting the mining job loss debate.)
I AM a huge fan of randomised trials. Last year at Google the search team ran about 6,000 experiments and implemented around 500 improvements based on those experiments. The ad side of the business had about the same number of experiments and changes. Any time you use Google you are in many treatment and control groups.

(From Hal Varian, discussing randomised policy trials)
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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.