Brown Study

Brown study

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

Everyone was supposed to burst into howls of protest when the government announced last week that it was abolishing 20 advisory bodies. Well, now I know what that 1960s song ‘Sounds of Silence’ meant. There were no protests at all so far as I could see. I suspect it was because most people thought the abolition of these bodies was well overdue. Certainly, that was true of the three committees in my field that got the chop — the International Legal Services Advisory Council, the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council and the International Pro-Bono Advisory Group (anyway, why should there be a committee promoting Bono?) No doubt the people on these bodies were well-meaning and doing their best. But as is so often the case, the position captures the individual and all such committees eventually end up being groups of self-appointed apparatchiks flying around the country to pointless committees, lauding it over their colleagues, making pompous speeches, going to ludicrous conferences in Sweden and proposing ever-expanding regulations — with staff paid by the taxpayer.

The lack of uproar suggests that the cuts did not go far enough and the government should have gone further. As Machiavelli and I pointed out long ago, you get the same amount of protest for a big cut as you do for a small one; there is no sliding scale of outrage. Why not use the current mood for economising to start a bit of real cutting: how about selling just one ABC station or just one of its subsidised magazines that have driven private sector competitors out of business? And having abolished, for instance, the three legal services committees, why not let private enterprise do some of the work from which it is shut out? Why, for instance, should public servants have a monopoly on mediation of disputes in federal tribunals when there are hundreds of private mediators who would cheerfully do the same job?


There is a new grading for movies in Sweden that Anne Summers should take up with Julia Gillard in their next fawning interview. It is called the Bechdel test: every movie must have at least two named female characters and they must talk to each other about something other than a man! It has produced a mixture of glee and confusion in progressive quarters, with the Guardian (who else?) wondering how it would rate ‘the loathsome Margaret Thatcher biopic whitewash The Iron Lady’. Nor do I hold out much hope for Pride and Prejudice where all the girls talk about all the men all the time. I also hope it is not extended to the opera: I have just been to the opening night of Wagner’s Ring cycle where everyone on stage will be talking for 19 hours about what a bastard the king of the gods is. But most concern should be held by women in the Greens and the ALP; they still seem mesmerised by Tony Abbott and cannot answer a simple question without talking about him. The good news is that the Bechdel test is not a Swedish government rating, although it is the sort of thing you can imagine them doing. At the moment it is just being applied by a single chain of cinemas. Business is apparently a bit quiet.

Another illusion shattered. I have long thought that Fair Trade really did work and that the oppressed coffee growers of Africa and Asia got a better price for their product through that noble institution. As you know, the idea is that we pay an extra 10 cents for our latte while we get our moral guidance for the week by reading (not buying) the Age. However, I was listening to the BBC and heard one of those old-fashioned economists who had actually dug up a few facts and went to look at things to see how true were the claims of the Dutch charity that started Fair Trade and now claims its unqualified success. It seems that the whole thing is a giant hoax or at least that the claims made for its success are highly dubious. The main conclusion reached is that the scheme costs consumers £1 billion a year in the extra prices they pay for coffee. But the money produced is paid to the exporters in the coffee countries who have a curious reluctance to pass it on to the growers. In addition, there are enormous costs of accreditation, staffing and administration and not a cent has been paid to the poor growers.

I hope Joe Hockey’s Commission of Audit looks at the cute new way that public authorities and private companies have of expanding their empires at the taxpayers’ expense. There is a new online newspaper in Australia, the New Daily, part of the Crikey stable. It buys its news from the ABC rather than at commercial rates from the private sector or by paying journalists. So, we pay $1 billion in taxes a year to the ABC; the public broadcaster uses those funds to go into the private market and, protected by the government, sells its product to a private company that builds up a private asset and keeps the asset and the advertising revenue it produces. This is already done for Yahoo! and other private companies: the lead item on Channel 7’s website recently carried an ABC journalist’s byline. Oh, yes, the ABC keeps the money to abuse the government and promote its own Green, refugee, and hysterical climate change agenda. As a taxpayer I am thrilled that I am subsidising Crikey and the Greens.

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