Talking carbon pricing with the locals

Talking carbon pricing with the locals.
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John Quiggin

John Quiggin is a rare beast. He produces 500 academic words a day, plus endless blog posts for his two blogs. He's written on just about every policy topic imaginable, and always manages to find something fresh to say about them. In fact, I can't recall a conversation of substance with John in which didn't learn something new - whether we were talking about water, education, crime or politics.

So I was most chuffed last night when John was awarded the Distinguished Fellow award from the Economic Society of Australia, following in a long line of extraordinary economists, including Trevor Swan, Colin Clark and Bob Gregory (who gave a splendid intro about John's shift from mathematics into economics).

Incidentally, I was also delighted to receive the Young Economist Award for the best Australian economist under 40, following on from my friends/coauthors Joshua Gans and Paul Frijters. (Thanks to Justin Wolfers and Joshua Gans for very kind words, and Danielle Cronin for writing it up in the local press.)
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Why household assistance doesn't undo carbon pricing

My AFR op-ed today explains why providing household assistance doesn't undermine the effect of introducing a carbon price.
The price is right for consumer shift, Australian Financial Review, 12 July 2011

One of the most persistent myths in Australian politics has been that providing household assistance undermines the effect of imposing a carbon price. If the prices of carbon-intensive products rise by $10 and you give me $10 in assistance, aren’t we back where we started?

If there was only one product in the world, the answer would be yes. If there’s only one thing I can buy, you can be sure that’s where every dollar in my wallet is going to go. So if you put the price of that product up and increase my income, I’ll carry on exactly as before.

Yet the one-product world is a far cry from the vast plethora of options facing modern consumers, who can spend on anything from a ballet lesson to a bunch of bananas, a train fare to a television. And here’s the insight from modern economics: when you have choices, changing relative prices changes behaviour.

While we’re sometimes coy about it, government policies change relative prices all the time. When we raise the first homeowner grant, house sales go up. When we cut tax rates on superannuation contributions, more people put money into their retirement accounts. When we raise cigarette taxes, fewer young people take up the habit. And when we tax alcohol, fewer people buy it.

Yet here’s the other thing: all these taxes and subsidies also affect government revenue. All taxpayers help subsidise homeowner grants and superannuation, and all of us share the revenue from alcohol and cigarette taxes. But the revenue impacts don’t undermine the price changes.

In understanding how carbon pricing works, there’s no more critical distinction than the difference between prices and incomes. Indeed, it’s this distinction that should make us optimistic about moving to a low-carbon economy. If some supermarket prices rise, but you have more money in your wallet, you have a choice: you can either buy the same amount of the high-carbon products, or make a switch to a low-carbon product.

One of the great things about a market economy is that we can leave it up to people to decide what’s best for themselves. For example, some might decide to turn off the beer fridge, so they can spend the household assistance on a new surfboard instead.

This will parallel the choices being made inside the 500 largest emitters, where managers will look for creative ways to cut CO2 emissions in order to save money for the company. Indeed, when the US introduced an emissions trading regime in the 1990s to tackle acid rain, firms found so many innovative ways of reducing emissions that the eventual cost was just one-third of what the boffins originally anticipated. Anyone who thinks companies will shut up shop rather than find creative ways of reducing carbon emissions underrates the ingenuity of Australian businesses.

To see the fallacy in the ‘money-go-round’ argument, just think back to recent increases in households’ disposable incomes. When economic stimulus cheques were sent to millions of households during the global downturn, did families spend it all on high-carbon products? When the single pension was raised by $65 a fortnight in 2009, did pensioners put it all towards goods that produced carbon pollution? And when tax rates were cut in recent budgets, did taxpayers spend all the money on carbon-intensive commodities?

In each case, the answer is no. If you increase disposable incomes, we spent the money on the next thing we’re hankering after: a nicer brand of coffee, a new book, a visit to the cousins. The same principle holds for tax cuts and pension increases that will be delivered as part of the clean energy future plan.

By pricing carbon, we’re encouraging a shift to a cleaner economy. But assistance offers a simple guarantee to most Australian households: if you want to keep buying the same things, you’ll be able to do so. Indeed, some groups will receive a buffer – such as full rate pensioners, who will get a 1.7 percent increase in their pensions to compensate for a 0.7 percent price rise.

Since Tony Abbott has called economics ‘boring’, it’s perhaps not surprising that he is in complete misinformation mode on this point, describing tax cuts to assist households as ‘a con’. Yet language sometimes reveals. When universal superannuation was introduced in the 1990s, Abbott told parliament that it was ‘a con’. Let’s see how long he’s able to rage against good economic policy this time around.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
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Eastern University Games

I spoke in parliament last week about the Eastern University Games, hosted this year by the University of Canberra and ANU.
Eastern University Games, 7 July 2011

I rise to speak on the 2011 Eastern University Games, hosted this year by the University of Canberra and the Australian National University. The games were launched in style on Sunday night and finish up today. Canberra is playing host to 19 universities from across New South Wales, the ACT and, for the first time, New Zealand. The Eastern University Games complement the Northern, Western and Southern university games being held across Australia.

There are 1,600-plus students attending the Eastern University Games, which were opened by my good friend the ACT minister for sport, Andrew Barr. Representatives from the University of Canberra and the Australian National University appropriately took an oath on their own behalves and on behalf of all athletes to uphold sportsmanlike conduct and commit to a fair and fun week of competition. Last year's champions were the University of Technology Sydney, and all other universities are aiming to give them a run for their money this year. There are 15 sports being played at the Eastern University Games: basketball; football, futsal; handball; hockey; lawn bowls; netball; both kinds of rugby, league and union; squash; tennis; tenpin bowling; touch; volleyball; and ultimate frisbee. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the ultimate frisbee players, who have played this week in blizzard-like conditions in Canberra. To them, my hat goes off—as theirs no doubt did.

The games have been accompanied by a great social program, including 1980s nights, country and western nights and hero and villain nights. What the Eastern University Games represents is the notion that student life in Australia is alive and flourishing. Camaraderie at universities is a critical part of the student experience. The friends many of us make at universities are friends who we keep for life. On the sporting field, we not only make friends but learn new skills, such as how to win with grace and how to accept losing.

The teams that are coming together this week will in some cases be wonderfully well prepared. They will be teams that have been training together every week for the past year. But there will also be teams that have come together more recently, with not everyone feeling that they know their team mates. They will not necessarily all have been playing the sport since they were kids. I pay tribute to them as well, because they are in that great Aussie spirit of diving in and giving it a go. Good luck to all of those competing this week. May the best university win.
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Carbon Pricing

I spoke in parliament last Thursday about carbon pricing.
Carbon Pricing, 7 July 2011

Labor's policy on climate change is grounded on three simple facts: (1) Australia is the largest per capita polluter of carbon in the developed world; (2) climate change is real; and (3) the market mechanism is the most efficient way of dealing with dangerous climate change. What is striking about what the member for Moncrieff likes to say about this is that Australia's emissions should not be taken into account; Australia cannot do anything about dangerous climate change. He neglects the fact that Australia's per capita emissions are the highest in the developed world. And what is particularly striking about the comments of the member for Moncrieff is that the coalition themselves are committed to a five per cent reduction by 2020. It is odd, isn't it? You would think if the member for Moncrieff really believed what he was saying, he would be arguing that Australia should not do anything and that the Liberal Party should walk away from the bipartisan emissions target. But he is not saying that. He just thinks that we should get to that target in a very inefficient way. That is the coalition's policy. By contrast, Labor recognises that we want to reduce pollution using market mechanisms. Business needs certainty, big polluters should be taxed and families deserve appropriate assistance. So our package targets the big polluters. It provides assistance to nine out of 10 households and it will cut 160 million tonnes of carbon pollution by 2020.

The Leader of the Opposition has gone into interesting territory in recent weeks. He has been repeatedly asked to name a single economist who will back him up, and he cannot name one. He cannot name a single economist who will back him. I have put that question to the member for Moncrieff from time to time and he will sort of shrug his shoulders and wriggle a little. But the Leader of the Opposition has decided he is going to come out punching on this. He said last week: 'maybe that is a comment on the quality of our economists'. Professor Joshua Gans, my good friend and co-author, who won the Economics Society of Australia award for the best Australian economist under the age of 40, put it best on his blog when he said: 'maybe that's a comment on the quality of our opposition leaders'.

You might well think, if you were to listen to the Leader of the Opposition, that he is talking about just Australian economists. There is something specific about the Australian economics profession. But as Professor John Quiggin pointed out in the Australian Financial Review today, overseas economists are just as hostile to the sort of voodoo economics that the coalition would have you believe in. John Quiggin reminds us that Greg Mankiw, George Bush's chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, established the Pigou Club dedicated to the notion that appropriate corrective taxes are the best way of dealing with environmental challenges. Who are the radical, low-quality economists that have signed up to the Pigou Club? There is Gary Becker, Paul Krugman, William Nordhaus, Kenneth Rogoff, Larry Summers. You would expect maybe there is a 'No Pigou Club' to go up against it. Well, actually there is not. Someone tried to form one and it turned out that they could not find any members for it.

Then you might think—and we have been making this claim a little—that the opposition's policy would have some supporters among command and control economies. We have been suggesting that their climate change is effectively Moscow on the Molonglo. The sad thing is I think we now have to withdraw that claim. Even in China, as John Quiggin points out, where central planning is still very much in vogue, the Chinese Communist Party's 12th five-year plan, the one that will run from 2011 to 2015, includes market mechanisms to deal with dangerous climate change. The Chinese, with all their central planning, are far more pro-market than is the current opposition.

Of course, the Leader of the Opposition has been hitting up businesses left, right and centre with his mobile scare campaign. This is a man who is pulling more stunts than Jim Rose. The great stuntman of Australian politics has been inflicting much of this misinformation upon my own constituents. That is the great cost of things. He has been taking his mobile scare campaign to some of the local businesses near this House. He went to David Smash Repairs in Queanbeyan and said that they would face substantial costs and substantial job losses. It is a little hard to see exactly how this is going to eventuate. They are a smash repairer. They fix people's cars. Are we going to be sending cars overseas to get fixed under an emissions trading scheme? I do not think so.

Of course, there is generous household assistance. This is exactly the sort of thing that the household assistance is for. More than half the carbon price revenue raised from big polluters will go to households to cover the very small price impacts.

The Leader of the Opposition then went to Ziggy's Garden Fresh in the Belconnen Markets. He walked around there telling any shopper who would listen to him that food and grocery prices were going up under a carbon pricing regime. We can go to CPRS modelling. What does it say about the impact of the former Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on fresh food prices? It suggests the impact would have been 0.6 per cent. Let us take a kilogram of apples or oranges. That means that the price impact would have been less than 2c. A kilo of broccoli would have been 3.5c. Once we take into account household assistance, many households will be well ahead under the carbon pricing package. They will not, however, be well ahead under the Leader of the Opposition's 'subsidies for polluters' policy. As the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has pointed out, the Leader of the Opposition's subsidies for polluters policy would cost an average family $720 a year which is, if you want to talk Ziggy's Garden Fresh numbers, 241 kilos of apples.

The Leader of the Opposition then took his mobile scare campaign to Capital Doorworks, a business owned by a former Liberal Party political candidate in the ACT. The Leader of the Opposition then began his scare campaign suggesting the price of doors would go up as a result of carbon pricing. Capital Doorworks is, I can assure the House, not one of the businesses to which carbon pricing will apply. Treasury modelling suggests that the prices of products such as those sold by Capital Doorworks would rise by 0.7 per cent under the former Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the government will provide generous assistance to deal with price impacts.

The Leader of the Opposition has been taking his mobile stunt campaign, his Jim Rose campaign, to Visy. He has visited a number of Visy plants, claiming that there will be massive impacts on Visy's business. Of course, he always neglects to mention the industry assistance that will be provided. Under the former CPRS, 94.5 per cent shielding from the carbon price would mean an impact of just $1 per tonne of product. Put another way, if you had enough boxes to hold 3,000 pizzas, the cost impact under the former CPRS would be $1. I think the household assistance will well and truly cover that.

It is very difficult to know the position of the Leader of the Opposition on this because he did write in Battlelines:

The Howard government had a preference for market mechanisms because these are generally most conducive to maximising choice.

A government member: He was right.

Dr LEIGH: He was right, as my colleague points out. The Leader of the Opposition also wrote:

The Howard Government ... proposed an emissions trading scheme because this seemed the best way to obtain the highest emission reduction at the lowest cost.

That leaves me with a dilemma. This was written down by the Leader of the Opposition in Battlelines and the most recent claims were things that he said. So, given the guidance that the Leader of the Opposition gave us in the last election campaign, I suppose we should probably favour the things that are written down. But then he sends out press releases as well. I am a bit confused by that because it is something he said but it is written down. Do I believe this or do I believe the book because it has a nice solid binding around the outside?

Frankly, the Leader of the Opposition is all scare and no facts in this debate. The carbon pricing scheme is the right scheme to deal with dangerous climate change. We will provide appropriate household assistance and Australia has a bright future ahead of us under a carbon pricing regime.
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Democracy in Malaysia

I spoke in parliament today about democratisation movements in Malaysia.
Bersih 2.0
7 July 2011

Elections are the best way we have yet devised to choose representatives of the people, and to hold leaders accountable. Malaysia has a parliamentary system, one that has now functioned for more than 50 years but without the ruling National Front ever having experienced defeat at the national level. Belief in the integrity of the electoral system is crucial for Malaysia's stability and prosperity.

Bersih—which literally means clean—is a coalition of organisations that believe that the government appointed electoral commission must urgently address policies, regulations and procedures that allow electoral outcomes to be corrupted and the wishes of the people to be no longer accurately reflected in parliament. Whilst it is understandable that the ruling National Front sees itself as 'the government' and utters forebodings that its defeat would harm the country, Malaysia is a much more prosperous and advanced country than its naysayers might suggest.

Bersih 2.0, led by a former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, has agreed to forgo the major street demonstration scheduled for 9 July and accept a compromise to hold its rally in a stadium. I hope Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will order the immediate release from detention of MP Jeyakumar Devaraj and all those who have been arrested simply for wearing yellow or expressing support for the process of electoral reform.
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Majura Parkway Funded

Terrific news today that the Majura Parkway is going to be funded, in a 50/50 split between the federal and ACT governments. This is something I've been pushing for since before I entered parliament, and I'm delighted to see it's now going to become a reality.

Here's the joint media release from federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese and ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher:

More than 40 years after the first line appeared on a map, construction of the long awaited Majura Parkway will finally start next year and be completed in 2016.

Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese today said the project had secured the backing of the Gillard Labor Government and would receive $144 million in Federal funding, matching the ACT Government’s contribution dollar-for-dollar.

“Recommended by Infrastructure Australia and set to be built with monies from our Building Australia Fund, the Majura Parkway will make it easier for Canberrans to get around their city as well as well as taking trucks off local streets,” said Mr Albanese.

“Construction of this new road is an investment in Canberra’s future, with Infrastructure Australia putting its long term economic, social and environmental benefits at close to $1 billion.

"Funding for the Majura Parkway builds on the record capital works program we initiated in our very first budget back in 2008.  Together with the Gallagher Labor Government, we’re building the modern, well planned transport infrastructure befitting Canberra’s status as our nation’s capital.

“This confirmation of funding for this project is the culmination of a persistent and passionate community campaign led by local MPs including Gai Brodtmann, Andrew Leigh, Mike Kelly and Senator Kate Lundy.”

The Majura Parkway will be an 11.5 kilometre long duplicated road with seven bridges and three interchanges at the intersections with Fairbairn Avenue, Federal Highway and Monaro Highway.

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said the Majura Parkway upgrade means increased accessability for motorists from Canberra’s north into the city and southern suburbs.

“It will also play a key role in distributing freight in a safer way by diverting heavy vehicles around the city and avoiding populated areas and on major arterial roads like Northbourne Avenue,” the Chief Minister said.

“Some 2,800 commercial vehicles and 18,000 passenger vehicles currently use Majura Parkway and this figure is expected to double in the next 15 years.

“There is no doubt Canberra is a growing city and the agreement between the ACT and Federal Labor Government’s shows a strong and constructive working relationship that can deliver for all Canberrans to improve daily life.

“This project of national significance will benefit Canberra as a freight hub and Australia’s national capital, but will also improve commute times in and out of Canberra on a daily basis for thousands of people who live and work in the ACT.”

More from the Canberra Times.
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Australian Student Prizes

Congratulations to the 12 ACT students who won Australian Student Prizes today - James Cribb, Thomas Emerson, Swaranjali Vijaya Jain, Harrison Steel, Daniel Steemson, Jessica Carly Thomson, Aisha Marie Woodruff, Luke David Heinrich, Daniela Lisacek, Judy Mengzhou Wang, and Wenray Wang. Here's a media release.
MEDIA RELEASE - Fraser student wins national education prize

Federal Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh today congratulated a local student whose academic achievement has earned them a 2010 Australian Student Prize.

The Australian Student Prize is awarded annually to 500 young Australians in recognition of their excellence in academic achievements, with winners nominated by state and territory education authorities.

Judy Mengzhou Wang was among this year’s winners.

“The Australian Government promotes excellence in our schools, and Judy is among the nation’s highest achievers,” Andrew Leigh said.

“The Australian Student Prize is a way of recognising and rewarding these students and I congratulate them for their achievements.”

The Prize is also awarded to members of the 2010 Australian Mathematics and Science Olympiad teams who won medals in mathematics, informatics, physics, chemistry and biology.

Each Prize includes a certificate and an award of $2000 from the Australian Government.

Winners for the 2010 school year included 12 students from the Australian Capital Territory, 154 from New South Wales, three from the Northern Territory, 97 from Queensland, 43 from South Australia, 11 from Tasmania, 132 from Victoria and 48 from Western Australia.

A full list of 2010 Australian Prize Winners is available at

Further information about the Australian Student Prize is available at:


7 July 2011
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Launching Jemma Purdey's biography of Herb Feith

I was proud tonight to launch Jemma Purdey's fine biography of the late Herb Feith. We had around 120 people in the Main Committee Room at Parliament House, which was testament to the number of people Herb's life touched.

Book Launch of Jemma Purdey, From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith
Andrew Leigh MP
Parliament House
6 July 2011

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today, and thanking those who have worked hard to organise today, particularly Louise Crossman and Nik Feith Tan.

Jemmy Purdey, family and friends of Herb, internationalists all – thank you for coming today to celebrate Herb’s life and Jemma’s fine book.

Let me begin with a story.

When I was in grade six, the teacher asked our class to do a history project. The aim of the project was for each student to do their own primary research. Some students interviewed their grandparents. Others wrote about how their suburb had developed. One student wrote a history of the Holden Commodore.

I interviewed Indonesian-Australians about the mass killings of communist sympathisers in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. My assignment wrote about the terror of neighbours using the purge as an excuse to settle scores, about bodies floating down rivers, and about how Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt noted with satisfaction that 500,000 communist sympathisers had been ‘knocked off’.

To this day, I still wonder what my teacher made of it.

Looking back, I don’t remember precisely how this topic came about – but I have a feeling that my parents Barbara and Michael (who are here tonight) might have had something to do with it. It wasn’t just that we lived for a year in Malaysia and another three years in Indonesia – it was also that ours was a household where batik shirts were normal, where Far Eastern Economic Review and Inside Indonesia sat on the coffee table, and where we talked non-stop about ideas. I thought of my childhood when I read in Jemma’s book an account of a Feith family holiday:

'Dad’s in a gay mood and we’re all having a merry time. There have been plenty of discussions too. Mum and Dad have been reading an extremely interesting work by Martin Buber on Jewish Mysticism and that’s been one of our many topics of conversation … then we’ve had a few more battles on the old subject of whether morality is prudential and relative or absolute … By and large I think we’ve managed to keep off politics.'

Reading Jemma’s splendid biography of the great Herb Feith, I feel like a movie extra watching a blockbuster. (Look, there I am – behind the potplant!)

Herb’s friend Lance Castles – who crops up so often – was our next door neighbour in Banda Aceh. I remember Herb staying with us in Jakarta in the early-1980s. And it was Herb who encouraged my father to do his PhD at Cornell rather than ANU – opening my eyes to the chance that I might also study in the US, where I ended up meeting my wife Gweneth.

Incidentally, I can’t help noting that Herb and Betty met on the tennis court, the same place that my grandparents met. This struck me as coincidental until I realised that both Betty and my grandparents were Methodist – and when you don’t drink or dance, it rather cuts down the possible venues at which you might meet someone of the opposite sex.

Herb Feith was larger than life in so many ways. As a child, he would bend down – looking at you with his penetrating brown eyes – and ask serious questions. When someone made a joke, he would always be the last one still laughing. There’s something appealingly vulnerable about this – I noticed the other day that the Dalai Lama does it too.

And Herb was fabulously eccentric. Jemma notes that he became a vegetarian in the 1970s, but her book doesn’t mention a crucial fact: because he was making the choice for political reasons, he still ate chicken bones. As a child, I distinctly recall watching with wide eyes as Herb said ‘well, if you’re not going to eat those bones, I’ll have them’, and then devouring the bones.

Herb’s most famous achievement was to pioneer a volunteering scheme that has now become Australian Volunteers for International Development, sending more than 10,000 volunteers to developing countries in the past 60 years.

From a young age, Herb helped others. In high school, he went door-to-door collecting for war-ravaged Germans and other Europeans. With his friends from the Student Christian Movement, he collected for the Christmas Bowl appeal – perhaps causing his Jewish mother to raise an eyebrow.

While still at Melbourne University, Herb wrote to both the Indonesian and Australian governments suggesting that a voluntary technical assistance scheme, building on the goodwill of the Colombo Plan, might be a good idea. His own secondment in Jakarta to the Indonesian Ministry of Information showed that it was possible for an Australian to work in such a position. Back home, the Student Christian Movement – and subsequently the National Union of Australian University Students – were strong supporters.

In the end, the momentum for the scheme was overwhelming. Jemma recounts the story of Don Anderson – newly returned from seeing Herb at work in Indonesia – giving a speech in Canberra to an audience that included Robert Garran and Robert Menzies. Menzies is reputed to have muttered to Solicitor General Kenneth Bailey ‘How much will it cost?’. A figure was made up on the spot, and turned out later to be roughly accurate. In 1952, the Australian and Indonesian governments signed the agreement that formally created the scheme. Herb was then aged 22.

Yet there were still challenges.

  • Some officials at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta were patronising, while others even tried to talk Herb out of the idea (though some, such as Alf Parsons, were strong supporters)

  • The salary was modest – volunteers were given a bicycle to get around, and paid the same rate as a local working in the same position.

  • Finding new positions was a constant challenge – in the early days, volunteers had to find the posts that would be occupied by the next wave of scheme volunteers

There were also the challenges that Australians today still feel when going to a developing nation – whether to give to beggars, how to develop genuine friendships with local people, the feeling of being overwhelmed at the scale of the challenge, and the sense of what Herb once called ‘whitelessness’.

And yet, there really is an ‘Australian model’ of volunteering. Jemma tells the tale of Herb and some early volunteers joining a group of American volunteers on a day-trip to Bogor. While the Americans drove, the Australians and Indonesians piled together into a local bus. When they arrived, the Americans had brought an elaborate picnic, including tablecloths. The Australians had a simple meal of rice and vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves. It brought amusement from the Indonesians who joined them, but it was symbolic too. As Herb wrote in 1954, ‘these young people assert by the way they live, that racial equality is real. By having natural and friendly relations with Indonesians on the basis of mutual respect’. Indeed, Herb’s subsequent PhD thesis was dedicated to his friend Djaelani, a Jakarta servant who lived in one of the city’s many slums. Jemma’s account of Herb’s early days in Indonesia should be compulsory reading for every young Australian setting off to volunteer in a developing nation.

The other big theme in the book is the value of individual liberties. Jemma recounts Herb’s early years growing up in a Jewish family in Vienna. At the age of seven, his mother held him up to the apartment window to watch the city’s synagogues burn – the infamous Kristallnacht. During his life, Herb spoke out against anti-Chinese and anti-Communist attacks in Indonesia, against the hanging of Ronald Ryan, against apartheid in South Africa, and against the Vietnam War. Protesting against uranium exports, he was kicked in the stomach by a Victoria police horse. As pro-Indonesian militias began to wreak havoc the day after the East Timor referendum, Herb held the hand of an elderly village woman and berated the Indonesian militia men who were threatening her. The same Herb who had looked out upon the fires of Kristallnacht six decades earlier now stood up to protect a woman who might otherwise have fallen victim to another ethnically motivated atrocity.

Herb was fundamentally right on issues of human rights. And he was probably correct to criticise some economists for devoting too little attention to Suharto’s repression of democracy (indeed, the same could be said of some China scholars today). Yet, I think that he perhaps underplayed the importance of economic integration in reducing poverty and infant mortality. Contrary to what ‘dependency theory’ suggests, rising incomes in developed nations are a boon, not a hindrance, to reducing world poverty.

Indeed, I would have loved to engage Herb on the issue of economic globalisation precisely because he was so strongly in favour of immigration – an issue close to my own heart. Among the maiden speeches of new members of the House of Representatives, one thing that stood out for me was that nearly every Labor member spoke warmly of the migrant experience, and the benefits immigration has brought to Australia. Perhaps it’s that we instinctively regard the Australian project as an international one. Maybe it’s that we tend to identify a little more with the misfit and the outsider. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the things that makes me most proud to represent the Labor Party.

And yet – as you might expect of a party formed to protect the rights of Australian workers – our history is far from unblemished. Jemma reminds us that one reason Australia only took 5000 Jewish refugees before the outbreak of war was statements like that of Labor Senator John Armstrong, who said in 1938 ‘I urge the Government to take steps to prevent the unrestricted immigration of Jews to this country’. Jemma also reminds us of the way that the White Australia Policy was used to rip families apart. Indeed, Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell was shocked when the High Court ruled that he could not deport an Indonesian woman who had six children with her Australian husband.

It was injustices such as these that Herb sought to right. As he once said ‘it is the changeability of every situation, the fact that at every turn there is the opportunity to help in a way which however small appears in some way fundamental’.

The wonderfully energetic and eccentric Herb Feith died too soon. And yet with this splendid biography, his ideas, his energy and his passion for making a difference are there for many to see.

As Tony Reid wrote, ‘He seemed to know everybody worth knowing in Indonesia and what’s more to be loved by them in a way that opened every door… whenever I was in the field I had the model of Herb in my brain as the way it morally could and should be done’.

May this be so for many generations of Australian volunteers to come.

Here's Jemma's speech:

  • Good evening everyone. It is wonderful to see so familiar faces here tonight including many of Herb’s friends, colleagues and family.

  • An occupational hazard of the biographer is that we can’t stop ourselves imagining our subject’s views on situations and events. So not surprisingly, I can’t help but try to imagine what Herb would have thought of this event this evening.  His biography - written by a woman he fleetingly knew as the postgraduate student of one of his early students and colleagues – being launched by a member for parliament he knew as a boy; in Canberra at Parliament House. As his biographer, I can only draw from the substance of my investigations of Herb through his letters, scholarly work and conversations with his friends, families and colleagues, to find the answer – as indeed I did so many times in the course of writing his life! I think he would have approved. Herb was not hostile to the idea of his biography being written – although autobiography was not something he was comfortable with so much. As I write in the introduction to the book, he threw little of his written records away (many boxes of which, reside just a short walk from here at the National Library) Indeed, Herb assisted his friend Bob Hadiwinata to begin such a project. I don’t think he would have considered it unimportant or insignificant either, that the author of this particular version of his life follows a generational line of Indonesia scholars that began with him and his peers in the 1950s in Australia. I would not be here, would never have taken the route to Indonesian Studies scholarship if not for the pathbreaking work of Herb Feith, Jamie Mackie, John Legge and others in the Australian academy in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. My teacher and mentor at Melbourne University, Charles Coppel (Herb’s own student and colleague at Monash in the 60s), not only encouraged me in my pursuit of deeper exploration and understanding of an Indonesia I became fascinated with as an undergraduate, but also encouraged me to undertake this special task – to write Herb’s life story. I’m so pleased his confidence paid off and he felt he could write the words that the publishers have featured on the book’s cover!

  • I think too, that Herb would have approved very much and indeed been extremely proud of Andrew Leigh’s involvement tonight (for which I personally thank him deeply). As he mentioned, Andrew also represents this generational progression of Australians who are Asia literate and dedicated to understanding our neighbours, following his father and mother, Michael and Barbara.

  • Andrew recently spoke in the parliament about Jamie Mackie, another foundational figure in Asian studies, and great mentor of mine. Jamie loved that he and I were both from small towns in northern Victoria who ended up studying Indonesia and was always a great encouragement to me during the process. As Andrew highlighted in telling Jamie’s story, and I hope my biography of Herb has also shown,  these two exceptional intellectuals and academics were not content to reside within the comfortable milieu of the academy, but like many others of their peers in post-war Australia they saw their roles as much as visionaries and activists walking in protest marches, writing petitions, supporting refugees and encouraging a new generation of Australians to experience and strive to better understand the world, its problems and our place within it.

  • So what of the chosen location, Parliament House in Canberra? Herb was a social activist and a political scientist and so a great deal of his time was preoccupied with what was going on in this place especially in terms of Australia’s foreign policy. In the course of my research, I must say I was somewhat surprised by how seldom he communicated directly with members of parliament, or with bureaucrats at DFAT. Indeed, for some periods of his life, it was not a place with which he wanted any contact at all – his assistance to East Timorese in support of their clandestine activities for example, required this sort of distance. As Andrew mentioned, as a young Australian in Jakarta in the 1950s he and his fellow volunteers preferred not to identify with the embassy and its activities. But as a political scientist, Herb was also aware more than most, of the power of the influence that could be brought by this place and never took lightly his approaches to senate committees, parliamentarians and ministers on various issues over the years, including on East Timor, West Papua and United Nations reforms on self-determination claims.

  • Moreover, key aspects of his life, as is the case for many of us, were directly impacted by decisions made here; including the founding agreement between the Indonesian and Australian governments here in Canberra, to support the Graduate Employment Scheme in 1952.

  • But going back even further than that, it was the debates that took place and decisions made here in Parliament House in 1938 concerning the granting of visas to Jewish refugees, that decided Herb’s fate as a young boy escaping the pending horrors in Nazi Europe with his parents, Arthur and Lily. On 22 November 1938 not long after Kristallnacht, the Minister for the Interior, John McEwen, confessed to the parliament that he was overwhelmed by the desperate stories he was hearing each day from those pleading for visas for their friends and relatives.  The government’s earlier decision to lower the monetary guarantee that must be put forward by applicants or their sponsors opened the gates a little wider for some and the refugee quota was increased to 15,000 Jews over three years.  A week after McEwen’s speech in parliament, the Feith’s visa application was sponsored and approved and Herb became one of only 5,000 Jews granted entrance visas to Australia before the war commenced in September 1939. The Feiths were remarkably lucky, but it was too little too late for Australia’s effort. The public debate and bureaucratic dragging that went on then and which prevented many more Jews from finding refuge in Australia in 1938-39 sadly reflects debates of today. Right up until the last day of his life Herb cared deeply about protection of asylum seekers and refugees and oppressed minorities, and was critical of the inaction of governments to take leadership in humanitarian ways to alleviate such suffering.

  • Can I conclude by expressing my deep thanks again to Andrew for launching the biography tonight and acting as our host here in this special place; and to his staff, particularly Louise, for making it happen. My most sincere thanks to Nik, who voluntarily took over a great deal of the coordination for the event and for his kind words earlier as family representative. I have taken the opportunity in the acknowledgements section in the book to thank the many who made this work possible and such an honour to complete over the years, but I must again thank Betty, David, Annie and Rob Feith for so generously sharing Herb and their lives with me. And the Australian community of world-leading Indonesianists for their ongoing work and deep knowledge of Indonesia. We have a wonderful resource in these scholars and their students in the Australian academy, which should not be underestimated. For making the research and this book possible my thanks also to the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies and Arts Faculty at Monash University, the Australian Research Council, National Library, and Australia Indonesia Institute. Finally, thanks to my family for their great support, some of whom, like all of you, have braved the Canberra winter to be here tonight.

  • Thankyou all for coming and I hope you enjoy reading the story of this remarkable life as much as I have enjoyed the privilege of writing it.

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Book Launch of Herb Feith's Biography - Wednesday, 6th July 2011

I was proud tonight to launch Jemma Purdey’s fine biography of the late Herb Feith. We had around 120 people in the Main Committee Room at Parliament House, which was testament to the number of people Herb’s life touched.
Book Launch of Jemma Purdey, From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith
Andrew Leigh MP
Parliament House
6 July 2011
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today, and thanking those who have worked hard to organise today, particularly Louise Crossman and Nik Feith Tan.
Jemmy Purdey, family and friends of Herb, internationalists all – thank you for coming today to celebrate Herb’s life and Jemma’s fine book.
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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.