In Praise of Bookworms

My monthly column in the Chronicle newspaper is about reading.
National Year of Reading, The Chronicle, April 2012

When Dick Adams left high school, he wasn’t able to read or write. It didn’t worry him much. As he told his local paper, ‘I was too busy playing cricket, helping my family on the farm, hunting and fishing’. But eventually, he realised that it would be hard to get far in life without reading and writing, so he found an adult literacy teacher and spent four years learning to read and write.

Today, Dick is a federal MP for the seat of Lyons in Tasmania. At Parliament House, he occupies the office two doors down from mine. He’s someone I can always trust for advice, and I know I’m not the only parliamentarian who feels that way.

Dick is also one of the national ambassadors for the Year of Reading 2012. The year encourages all Australians to enjoy reading as a life skill, to promote a reading culture at home, and to read to our children. Reading at home is great preparation for formal education – it’s also one of the pleasures that come from school. In the late-1980s, sitting in Judith Anderson's high school English class, I learned to treasure the insights into the human condition that come from the great storytellers - the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, George Orwell and Les Murray, Leo Tolstoy and Tim Winton.

These days, I’m enjoying other classics. My two year-old son Theodore loves Maisy’s Bus by Lucy Cousins and But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton. Five year-old Sebastian delights in The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. For rhythm and rhyme, it’s tough to beat Dr Seuss’s tongue-twisters and A.A. Milne’s poems, which I love reading to my children partly because my parents read them to me.

When we talk about the aims of education in Australia, politicians like me tend to talk about the importance of making sure people have the skills for work. But a great education system will also produce a nation of book lovers. When we talk about the benefits of school building, computers in schools, more resources for the neediest students, and Trades Training Centres, it can all end up sounding a tad amorphous. But what it adds up to is a better learning environment at schools.

Finally, let’s make sure we’re talking about what we’re reading. Whether it’s at a formal book club, over a coffee with a friend, or at work during the lunch break, discussions about books offer a chance to step out of the everyday and into another world. A good book is like a travelling capsule, allowing us to experience other countries and eras. Books helps make us more imaginative, and more interesting.

So, what are you reading?

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is His summer reading included Ian McEwen’s Solar, Alison Booth’s The Indigo Sky, Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender.
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Five Science Breakthroughs That Could Change Politics

I gave a speech to a group of Sydney University students this morning on ‘Five Science Breakthroughs That Could Change Politics’. The text is below.

‘Five Science Breakthroughs That Could Change Politics’*

Andrew Leigh MP
Federal Member for Fraser

Talented Students Program Breakfast
Sydney University
18 April 2012


In 1910, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was visiting Australia. In Melbourne, he gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on communications.[1] He told them his ‘dream’ was that ‘a man will be able to talk with any other in any part of the United States’. Bell criticised our use of single-wire telephones, and encouraged Australia to install two-wire circuits to avoid ‘cross talk’. And he praised the quality of Australian electrical engineers. But even the great Bell didn’t get everything right. Asked about mobile telephones, he said that wireless telephony was unlikely to compete, due to the difficulty of securing privacy.

Reading Bell’s evidence a century on, I am struck by the sense of optimism and possibility, and my predecessors’ deep interest in one of the scientific breakthroughs that would shape the modern age.

There are three reasons I wanted to speak with you about science breakthroughs. First, I don’t think it’s a topic that politicians spend enough time on. For example, a survey published in 2010 of federal politicians’ reading habits found only one respondent reading a book about science.[2] And as the climate change debate showed, even findings that are broadly accepted by scientists can be described by certain politicians as ‘absolute crap’.

Second, talking about science is good for us because it engenders a sense of awe. As Monty Python once pointed out, our galaxy, one of millions in the universe, is a hundred thousand light years side to side.[3] As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, when our sun finally gives out, the people watching it will be a higher evolutionary form of humans than us.[4] Bryan Gaensler describes ‘Oh-my-God’ particles, which have been recorded moving through the universe at 99.9999999999999999999996% of the speed of light.[5] Like the great arts, science can be beautiful and thrilling.

Third, I’m immensely proud of what science has achieved. The stump-jump plough transformed nineteenth century agriculture. The winged keel allowed us to end the US’s 132-year hold over the America’s Cup. Spray-on skin helped burns victims. My own electorate contains CSIRO, who invented wi-fi and ultrasound; and ANU, the workplace of Brian Schmidt, who shared the 2011 Physics Nobel Prize for his work showing that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

Read more
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The Drum - 12 April

I had my first appearance on ABC News 24's The Drum yesterday evening where I was fortunate enough to be able to talk about one of my favourite topics - why Canberra is the best city in Australia. We also discussed the COAG Business Advisory Forum, the efficiency of a carbon price compared with the complexity of paying polluters, and skills training.
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The Art of Choosing

My op-ed in today's Sydney Morning Herald discusses new research about how to make better decisions.
Spoilt by choice: how data ruins decisions, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 2012

In a share-trading experiment, two groups of university students were pitted against one another. One team saw only share prices, while the other team could also consult experts and media reports. The result? The better-informed team ended up reacting to rumours and gossip, made too many trades, and earned half as much as their less-informed classmates.

In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer discusses a host of situations in which too much information leads us to make worse decisions. Guidance counsellors who can only see test scores do a better job of predicting whether students will perform well at university than when they can also draw upon essays and a personal interview. In the case of back pain, doctors who obtain an MRI scan are more likely to misdiagnose the patient as having disc abnormalities, and more likely to erroneously prescribe intensive medical interventions. Doctors are now advised not to get scans done on patients with non-specific lower back pain.

In the standard economic model, more information is never a bad thing. Yet studies like these are forcing economists to now incorporate ‘cognitive costs’ in our models. Similarly, another set of experiments suggest that having more choices can make us worse off.

Psychologist Sheena Iyengar made her reputation with an experiment which found that a tasting booth showing 24 jam flavours drew more customer attention, but one with 6 varieties sold more jam.

In her book The Art of Choosing, Iyengar gives examples of shampoo and cat litter companies who increased sales by reducing their product range. With fewer choices, employees are more likely to sign up for matched savings plans. Iyengar even finds that 3 year-olds who are allowed to choose from among a hundred different toys are less happy than children who are told to play with a single toy.

One of the surprising findings in the literature on choice is that we tend to get more enjoyment out of expensive products. After buying an expensive caffeine drink, students did better on a test than if they had purchased the same drink at a lower price. When subjects were asked to drink samples of cabernet sauvignon in a brain scanner (which must rank as one of the most agreeable neuroscience experiments of all time), researchers found more activity in the prefrontal cortex when the bottle was labelled $45 than when it was labelled $5.

We also have a strong tendency to discount the future. In an auction of sports tickets, the sale price was twice as high when bidders could use a credit card than when they had to pay cash. Conversely, when employees are given the option of putting their next pay raise into savings (a program called ‘Save More Tomorrow’), many jump at the chance to bind their future selves.

So how can we use this research to make better choices? Lehrer maintains that for simple choices (e.g. which vegetable peeler to buy), we should be guided by our rational brain. Go for functionality and price, and damn the colour scheme. Conversely, he makes the case that for complex items (e.g. which car to buy), there are too many dimensions to the problem for our rational brain to cope with. In such instances, we shouldn’t be afraid to let our emotions choose.

As a person who has been completely blind since childhood, Iyengar has to rely on others for many of her aesthetic choices. She argues that we should do the same, recognising the limits to our uniqueness. Asked ‘How similar are you to others’, most of us say ‘not very’. Yet when the question is posed as ‘How similar are others to you?’, most of us say ‘very’.

Iyengar contends that we will make better decisions if we draw on the experiences of others. We might ask: do people who make this choice look to be happier and more satisfied? Whether it’s studying restaurant customer ratings, reading book reviews on, or asking the advice of workmates, the collective savvy of other consumers can help us make better choices.

So there you have it. Beware of excess information. Narrow down the number of choices. Don’t look at the price tag before judging quality. Pay cash if you’re worried about overspending. Use your rational brain for small choices and your emotional side for big decisions. And remember to get by with a little help from your friends.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
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Coming Talks

I'm speaking at a few public events in the next month or so. Here are a few of them.

  • Sydney, 18 April, 7.30am - Sydney University Talented Students Program Breakfast on 'Five Science Breakthroughs That Will Change Politics' (not sure whether this one is public)

  • Canberra, 19 April, 5.30pm - Speaking on foreign aid, at the launch of the ANU Development Policy Centre's annual report

  • Sydney, 1 May, 5.30pm - Sydney Institute on 'Why inequality matters, and what we should do about it'

  • Canberra, 16 May, 5.30pm - Radford Institute on 'The Economics and Politics of Teacher Merit Pay' (based on this paper)

  • Sydney, 18 May, 12.30pm - McKell Institute on 'What do we eat after the low-hanging fruit? A brief economic history of Australia, with some lessons for the future'

And further down the track:

Where I can, I'll post the speech texts on the blog.
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Sky AM Agenda - 12 April

Kieran Gilbert hosted Kelly O'Dwyer and me on the Sky AM Agenda program this morning. We discussed the Gillard Government's ongoing committment to deregulation and meetings with business leaders today. Other items up for debate were monetary and fiscal policy and the carbon price and its reduction of complicated requirements for business.
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Potentially Popular Podcast on Populism

In a recent forum at the ANU Crawford School, I joined Reframe author Eric Knight,'s Rebecca Wilson, Liberal MP Joshua Frydenberg and Big Ideas host Paul Barclay to discuss the topic 'Beyond Populist Politics and Policies'. A podcast of the show (from ABC Radio National) is now available.
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Good Games

My column in the local Chronicle newspaper is on the new R18+ rating for computer games.
Support for R18+ rating for games, The Chronicle, 3 April 2012

One of the fastest-growing pastimes in Australia is computer gaming. According to one recent survey, 95 per cent of Australian homes with children under the age of 18 had a device for playing games.

Over the past generation, we’ve moved from clunky arcade games like Pacman and Space Invaders to games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, with slick graphics and millions of players interacting with one another. No longer are gamers just teenage boys. Today, nearly half of all gamers are women, and the typical Australian gamer is aged 32.

But while many Australians love computer games, parents also want to know that their children are playing games that are appropriate for their age. That’s where the proposed R18+ rating comes in. At present, most other nations have a video game rating of R18+, but at present the highest rating for Australian games is MA15+.

Not having an R18+ rating for games causes two problems. First, some games are refused classification, so cannot be sold in Australia. Second, some games that are only available to older people overseas can be purchased by younger people in Australia. For example, Call of Duty (a game that warns of intense violence and strong language), has an M17+ rating in the United States, but an MA15+ rating in Australia. When the Attorney-General’s Department held an inquiry into the proposal, it received over 58,000 submissions, with 98 per cent supporting an R18+ rating.

Parents understand how quickly children pick things up from their environment. A friend of mine told me about her 11-year-old boy who was watching a TV show and he said one of the characters was snorting coke. His mum asked, ‘How do you know that?’ He replied, ‘I know it from Grand Theft Auto.

The Gillard Government is introducing an R18+ classification because it helps prevent children and teens from accessing unsuitable material. But it also lets adults make their own decisions about the computer games they play.

While some might yearn for an era when children played more backyard soccer and fewer computer games, mass usage of computer games is here to stay. Perhaps the most optimistic vision of how gaming might shape our society is a book by game designer Jane McGonigal, titled Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

McGonigal proposes a variety of ways in which games can help us be happier in everyday life, stay better connected with those we care about, feel more rewarded for making our best effort and discover new ways of making a difference in the real world.  For example, a game called The Extraordinaries challenges its players to take two minutes to write a short text message of encouragement to students in Mexico, Venezuela or India, who are about to take an important exam. At their best, computer games aren’t just fun – they can help build a better world.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is
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Sky AM Agenda - 5 April 2012

On Sky AM Agenda today, I spoke with presenter Kieran Gilbert and my regular counterpart Kelly O'Dwyer about public service jobs, the value of foreign aid, and the importance of the presumption of innocence in our legal system.

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Mapping the Northside Now Online

At the Belconnen Arts Centre tonight, we launched the online version of the Mapping the Northside exercise, in which people nominated their favourite spots on the north side of Canberra. To see the results on Google Maps, click on the link below.
View Mapping the Northside in a larger map

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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.