Happiness, harmony and Central Africa

Melbourne harmony singers Co-Cheol

A musician friend alerted me on Monday that not only was it his birthday, it was also International Day of Happiness. Once I’d finished doing cartwheels around the room in response to this spiffing news, I wished the dear boy a very happy birthday. As if that was not enough to get the cockles of the heart percolating, the next day She Who’ll Sing at the Drop of a Hat went down town to celebrate World Harmony Day.

So what is Happiness Day and why do we feel the need to add yet another day (and another report) to measuring contentment (e.g. the Better Living Index or Most Liveable City Index)?

The World Happiness Report first emerged in 2012, with 155 countries ranked on key factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and, perhaps most importantly, good governance.

In 2016, Norway jumped from 4th place to the Number 1 spot, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. Finland came in at 5th followed by the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand, with Australia and Sweden in 9th and 10th position respectively.

All of the countries in the top 10 had high values in the key variables. Of these, (sufficient) income, healthy life expectancy and having someone to count on in times of troubles were ranked highly. Generosity, freedom and trust were also vital, the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government. There’s more, but you’ll have to download and read the 188-page report.

Not surprisingly, the 10 countries occupying positions 146 to 155 are there because of high unemployment, poor health care, a lack of vital infrastructure, dire poverty, civil unrest, risk of famine and gross levels of corruption. They include Yemen, South Sudan, Liberia, Rwanda, Syria, Burundi and (155th) the Central African Republic.

The country which arguably could do the most to alleviate misery at home and abroad, the USA, slipped to 19th place (from 3rd in 2007). The reasons given are declining social support and increased corruption. Author Jeffrey Sachs said the paradox in the US is that income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen.

Sachs says political discourse in the US is aimed at promoting economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream ‘and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it’.

Public trust in government has plummeted to the lowest level in modern history, Sachs wrote. Generalised trust among Americans has been falling for decades and income inequality has seen the top 1% of households taking home most of the gains in economic growth.

Sachs says the data shows conclusively that chasing economic growth is the wrong approach.

“The US can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis – rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust – rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth.”

As an aside, I’d venture that the ‘Tyranny of GDP’ is unlikely to be replaced by a president whose sworn goal is to ‘Make America great again’.

Although the report was launched at the United Nations on March 20, the authors state they are a group of independent experts acting in their personal capacities. “Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization, agency or programme of the United Nations.”

The report runs to 188 pages; petite compared with the Kingdom of Bhutan’s 360-page Gross National Happiness (GNH) Survey.  Bhutan has been keeping tabs on its citizens for a good few years now, measuring their well-being not by the western standard of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but by promoting “A Compass Towards a Just and Harmonious Society.”

Harmony and how to keep everyone in tune

As for Harmony Day, one could be forgiven for scoffing when learning this is an Australian Government initiative to ‘celebrate our cultural diversity’.

Alanis Morrisette’s song Ironic came to mind that very day, as our peerless leaders were talking about watering down Section 18 of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Section 18C was added to the Act in 1995 and makes it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of a person’s race. The Coalition has backed changes to retain the offence of “intimidate” on the basis of race, but replace the words “insult”, “offend” and “humiliate” with “harass”.

Lawyer Peter Wertheim wrote in The Guardian that the government’s proposals on section 18C, if passed, will weaken and perhaps emasculate existing legal protections against racist hate speech.

Amid this somewhat ugly debate, Harmony Day celebrations nevertheless went ahead. All three Maleny district schools joined together in a park to sing five songs, including the Torres Strait song, Innanay, then repeated the performance in a space adjoining the main street.

It is worth observing how March 21, previously International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, became Harmony Day. The name change was made by the Howard Government in 1999. Read about it here.

When anyone uses the word ‘harmony’ our immediate reaction is to break into song, which we did on Wednesday night when the power went out for an hour or so. Under candlelight our fiddle-playing, harmony-singing friend started playing that stirring Irish ballad, The Foggy Dew, which I’d heard played at the Blue Mountains Music Festival as a slow march. The Seamus Begley trio slowed the song down so you could digest the words and what they mean (how Irishmen were encouraged to join the Easter Uprising of 1916 rather than support the British in World War I).

Then we moved on to Moreton Bay, an Australian folk song about the tyranny of Captain Logan and how convicts were freed from floggings.

This is the joy of going to music festivals – you become steeped in a warm bath of melody, rhythm and lyrics and then bring it home with you.

A highlight of the Katoomba festival (apart from Sunday afternoon when the sun came out), was Melbourne acapella group Co-cheòl. These four gifted musicians held a harmony workshop on Saturday morning. Enthused, we came back to the same venue for their afternoon performance. Co-cheòl use Celtic harp, accordion and flute in their sets but they are at their best when singing four-part harmonies. No surprise to hear they were crowned Victorian State Champions and 2nd in the 2014 Aussie Acapella National Competition. Their Sunday gig was rained out, but band member Ginger Hansen told FOMM they commandeered the side room at the Clarendon Hotel and sang to anyone who happened to be there.

Earlier on Saturday, Co-cheòl had workshop participants split into four groups to learn harmony parts and spontaneously arrange the song Molly Malone (Cockles and Mussels). I was surprised that so few workshop participants seemed keen to try harmonies – a simple third, a more adventurous fifth or even a parallel fourth. I sing harmonies naturally and it was only in recent years I discovered that those vocal parts have names and a formal structure.

When organisations or governments start theorising about happiness and harmony, I tend to use music as an emotional fall-back. In my humble experience, a good dose of harmony singing, interspersed with laughter, will warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.


Government buyback could solve power crisis

Wilpena Pound solar/diesel power station SA Photo by Bob Wilson

“If you’ve got money in your pocket and a switch on the wall, we’ll keep your dirty lights on.” So goes a song by American alt-country singers Darryl Scott and Tim O’Brien about coal mining and power generation.

Their album Memories and Moments includes a version of John Prine’s Paradise, which remains the definitive song about the downsides of coal mining.

That seemed a noteworthy way to introduce the potentially dry topic of energy, be it coal-fired, hydro, nuclear or solar/wind power. This is not so much a coal vs solar debate as an examination of our National Electricity Network, which critics say is broken.

University of Queensland economist, Professor John Quiggin, wrote in a discussion paper produced for Flinders University that the solution is for governments to buy back the national grid.

He told Adelaide’s daily newspaper The Advertiser that the nation was “past the point of tinkering”.

“Some may say that a publicly-owned national grid is unthinkable. Yet it is the only coherent response to the failure of neoliberal electricity reform.”

The South Australian government appears to have partially bought into this argument by this week announcing a six-point plan to repair fundamental problems with energy production and distribution. The plan is to build, own and operate a new $360 million, 250-megawatt gas-fired power plant. The Energy minister will have the power to order a generator to be switched on if more supply is needed.

The private sector is not being completely snubbed, with plans to build Australia’s largest renewable energy storage battery (100 MW output) before next summer. The private sector will develop the storage, funded from a $150 million renewable technology fund. SA premier Jay Wetherill said in a statement his government would take control by ensuring the energy minister was given powers to direct the market.

Power bill sticker shock

It’s probably fair to say that most people never think about electricity or gas supplies until the bills hit the mailbox.

According to official government data, household energy prices increased on average by 72% for electricity and 54% for gas in the 10 years to June 2013. Electricity price increases for manufacturing businesses over the same period have been of a similar magnitude (60%) although gas prices for manufacturing businesses rose to a lesser extent (29%).

Energy price increases over the 10 years have differed across states and territories. In real terms, the rate of increase for electricity has been 30% in Perth, 41% in Adelaide, 73% in Brisbane and 107% in Sydney. For cities connected to natural gas networks, household gas price increases ranged from 40% in Sydney to 78% in Perth.

Professor Quiggin says the grid worked quite well for at least 100 years before governments began tinkering with privatisation (circa 1990).

He told the ABC governments should start buying back electricity transmission networks, starting with any new infrastructure. Public ownership of the grid would remove the need to generate a financial return, he said, and this would lead to lower prices for consumers.

The problem as he sees it is that under a privatised system, the Government has to face up to the economic and political costs of electricity failures, but receives no cash in return.

He cited recent system failures in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. The South Australian Blackout on Wednesday September 28 last year occurred as a result of catastrophic storm damage to electricity transmission infrastructure. Almost the entire state lost supply, with tens of thousands of energy users still without power on the following Friday.

Meanwhile, people power emerged in Western Australia last weekend in the shape of a major swing to Labor. The incoming government is still digesting its landslide win in the state election, which on analysis may be more about privatisation of state assets than an anti-Pauline Hanson swing.

Analysis by Natalia Mast of the University of Western Australia singled out the Election Day ReachTEL poll published in The West Australian. The poll had Labor on a two-party-preferred vote of 54% to 46%. Of those planning to vote Labor, 27.2% said their main reason was “It’s time for a change of government”. Tellingly, 27% said they didn’t want Western Power privatised. One of Labor’s policies was to declare it would not sell Western Power.

The government planned to sell 51% of Western Power, promising that electricity prices would not rise as a result of the sale. The ABC reported that the government had hoped to raise $11 billion from the sale, using $8 billion to reduce state debt. The policy was endorsed by the Liberal and National parties − a relief for Barnett after the Nationals refused to support his Government’s other privatisation project, the sale of Fremantle Port.

A view from the other side

Prof Quiggin’s somewhat stark view that governments plural should start wresting back control of power assets obviously has its detractors.

Academic Paul Kerin wrote in The Australian on March 13:

“Why on earth would we want a government-owned national grid? It’s RAB (regulated asset base) value would be about $100 billion – that’s almost as big as BHP Billiton.”

Kerin, an adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide, cited the 2013 Productivity Commission report which found that government-owned grids have higher operating costs. He also said Quiggin’s proposal would create a conflict of interest with government as both owner and regulator. Kerin says private ownership per se has not caused high prices or reliability issues. But the NEM and grid businesses are “strongly influenced by poor government policy and regulatory choices (such as the renewable energy target)”. Prof. Kerin also identified energy demand ‘peakiness’ brought about by high growth in air-conditioner use.

Prof. Quiggin brought Kerin’s piece to my attention, when I asked him what his critics have to say. Quiggin has long been known for his unorthodox view of economics and willingness to commit his opinions to paper. Michael Stutchbury of The Australian described him as “an economist who is good on theory and on the far left in practice”. Ross Gittins described Quiggin as “The great neo-classical iconoclast”. A prolific writer and commentator, he is always ready to talk to journalists or pen opinion pieces.

I meant to include this when I wrote about blogging recently. Prof. Quiggin is Australia’s longest-running solo blogger, or at least he told FOMM he thinks he is. He has a self-deprecating sense of humour too. The quotes above come from a warts-and-all tongue-in-cheek Testimonials page on his website.

John Quiggin posts often and keeps immaculate archives, if you have an interest in economics and care to delve.

June 26, 2002

“My blog is just about a week old, and I haven’t found the Internet this exciting since I discovered Usenet in the early 90s. Even setting up my website five years ago was not as good.

Despite wildly varying ideological views, I’ve had a friendly welcome from bloggers across the board…It really seems as if blogs might deliver on the original promise of the Web – certainly the technology seems ideally suited for individuals and small groups. No doubt I’ll get jaded and disillusioned one day, but I hope it will be a long way in the future.”




If it doesn’t rain soon, mate

Baroon Pocket Dam March 8, 2017 (Photos by Bob & Laurel Wilson)

Conversations in the street of any Australian town often involve the weather, which over the past four months has been bereft of rain or “dry” (pronounced “droy.”

Tim: “How’s things, Harold?

Harold: “Droy, mate!”

Tim: “Got 10 points last night – hardly worth measurin’.”

Harold: “How’re dams holdin?”

Tim: “Nothin’ but mud and mosquitos.”

Mrs Harold: “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate, we’re gonna move back to the town.”

The latter is the narrator’s refrain from one of my songs; the laconic farmer, chin up as usual, watching the ABC. He’s being harassed by the banks, making do with pumpkin scones and home brew and tells the wife that if she must pay bills, pay the one with the lawyer’s letter – today.

Australian farmers are well-used to the vagaries of the weather – droughts, floods and, when it’s too dry, fires; not to mention the bastardry of banks. We’re not in drought as such, but a period of what the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) calls “rainfall deficiencies”. Much of Queensland, where we live, has been rain-deficient since the end of October.

The Bundaberg region has just this week been drought-declared, after enduring its hottest summer since 1897. So things could be worse.

“Areas of serious to severe rainfall deficiencies are present across greater south-eastern Queensland,” BOM’s website states. “Scattered localities around central eastern Queensland are also experiencing (rain) deficiencies and this extends into parts of northern New South Wales.”

A particularly hot summer in much of New South Wales and southern Queensland exacerbated the effects of below-average rainfall.

The other day, we took a trip down to our local water reservoir, Baroon Pocket Dam, which is currently at 46.5% capacity. Lake McDonald, near Noosa, is at 53.5%. Our local newspaper, the Sunshine Coast Daily, published a dramatic aerial photo of Lake McDonald last week. Doonan resident Dave Yabsley employed a remote-controlled drone to capture images that showed once-full patches of the dam reduced to puddles.

Our eyewitness report (and photos), from Baroon Pocket paint a less dramatic but equally serious picture.

However, SEQWater, the statutory authority responsible for supplying reticulated water in South East Queensland, says its network of 12 dams is at 71.2% capacity. So, overall, we are not in bad shape. As an SEQWater spokesman said, “We are at least another wet season away from having to consider water restrictions.”

SEQWater spokesman Mike Foster told the SCD that in our immediate area, drinking water has been pumped up from North Pine Water Treatment in Brisbane since February 7.

Now there’s a bit of information for local residents, especially those who complained loud and long (e.g. me – Ed.) when SEQWater first built the pipeline to pump water 96 kms from Baroon Pocket Dam to North Pine (Brisbane). The rationale at the time was to top up Brisbane from the (normally) rain-blessed hinterland. Now, in our time of need, we see that water flows both ways, although in this instance, uphill. I doubt local songwriter the late Mark Gillett had that scenario in mind in 1986 when he wrote his award-winning song for the environment, “Watching the Obi Flow”.

SEQWater may be confident, but what about the 186,000 people in the SEQ catchment who live outside of areas serviced by town water? They have to rely on rainwater tanks and/or bores, and if the tanks run dry, they have to pay for someone to have them re-filled. It’s a bit of a gamble, as one decent rainstorm will top a tank up quite nicely. As for bore water, this will decline also, if there is not enough rain to feed the aquifer.

The BOM is predicting a dryer and warmer than average autumn (March to May) across much of Australia.

Australian climate patterns are being influenced by the long-term increasing trend in global air and ocean temperatures.

“Without a strong influence from the Indian or Pacific oceans, secondary climate drivers contribute more to the outlooks.”

Bureau records show that autumn rainfall has been in decline over much of southeast Australia for 22 of the past 26 years.

Or as our over-extended farmer sings in “Mate”:  “They say El Nino’s here to stay and I can’t prove ‘em wrong, we oughta get old Bill Scott out here and sing that bloody song.”

 The reference is to the late folklorist Bill Scott’s much-covered folk song “Hey Rain!” about Innisfail (north Queensland), one of the nation’s wettest towns. Here’s a well-known version by Penny Davies and Roger Ilott.

Innisfail and nearby Tully aren’t just wet, they (usually) have a wet season − a monsoon − which in 2017 has delivered 1,768mm over 53 days. That’s just under Maleny’s annual long-term average of 1,868mm.

Sadly, the diligent person who maintained Maleny rainfall records passed away in spring last year, so recent rainfall data is not available on BOM’s website at present. According to records kept by a Stanley River Road resident, we received 415.8mm between November 1 and February 28 and 14mm for March thus far.  Compare those paltry summer falls with the Nov-Feb long-term average (1,206mm). In our big wet (2010-2011) Maleny received 646mm in December and 999.5mm in January – for a four month tally of 1,938mm.

Meanwhile, Iran faces ‘water bankruptcy’

I was distracted from this provincial stream of thought by a foreign news report that shows Australia’s not the only country where drought and excess water use causes problems. Iranian environmental policy expert Kaveh Madani told the New Internationalist Iran had exhausted its surface water supply and depleted groundwater by 70%. While the Iranian government is responding with engineering solutions (transporting desalinated water to drought-affected areas), Madani says citizens should be encouraged to reduce water consumption.

Kerman Province, which once accounted for 70% of Iran’s $1.5 billion pistachio market, has been hardest hit by the water crisis.

Mohammad Reza Bakhtiari, former head of the Kerman Regional Water Authority, said groundwater withdrawal in Kerman was six times the acceptable average. He told the Financial Tribune that annual rainfall had dropped from 250mm per annum a decade ago to 204mm over the past four years.

“At present even providing the residents of Kerman (pop 2.93m) with potable water is a challenge,” he told Iran’s English language economic daily.

A confronting article in the Guardian Weekly stated that famine could kill 20 million people in Somalia, South Sudan, northern Nigeria and Yemen within six months. This includes 1.4 million children at “imminent risk of death”. Drought in 2016 and a poor prognosis for the spring could put up to half of Somalia’s population at risk, due to acute food shortages.

But as a man from Lightning Ridge said to me yesterday: “We’ve always had droughts – it’s just a cycle.”

I’m sure that will be of great comfort to those facing famine.





Australia’s hardship index

“The Potato Index” Photo by Pat Joyce https://flic.kr/p/asBkcN

There’s an Aussie saying – ‘they’re doing it tough’, which can mean any variation on the theme of hardship, be it financial, emotional, physical or all three at once.

When the word ‘hardship’ is employed, it typically means financial struggle: in other words, privation, destitution, poverty, austerity, penury, impecuniousness and so on.

If you search the word ‘hardship’ online you will find a range of links purporting to explain (if you are doing it tough), how to apply for an early release of superannuation.

If approved, your super fund will pay a lump sum which, in 2015-2016, averaged $13,519 (or about $520 a fortnight for a year).

The Department of Human Services has been administering these payments since 2011, which makes sense because to apply for a hardship payment you need to have been on a Commonwealth benefit for 26 weeks or more. Also you need to prove the degree to which you are doing it tough (‘cannot meet reasonable and immediate family expenses’). Centrelink with its data cross-matching abilities is probably in the best position to do this job, though frankly you’d think they have enough to do, what with answering 50 million phone calls and all.

Members make the application direct to their super fund. The Department of Human Services assesses applications and makes a recommendation to the superannuation fund when release conditions are satisfied. The final decision to release benefits is made by the fund/s.

Little Brother’s part-time job

Our head of research, Little Brother, stumbled across these statistics in the department’s annual report while looking for something else. In 2015-2016 there were 29,379 hardship applications, a 65% increase on the 19,367 applications made in 2014-2015. The Department (let’s call it Centrelink), fully or partially approved 51.6% of these claims, a big drop from the level of approvals in previous years.

Nevertheless, the total of hardship payments was $204.95 million, an 11.5% increase on the previous year.

Australian superannuation funds have paid out $539.71 million in early release hardship payments over the past three years. Funds usually make only one payment per person per year. The Courier-Mail reported in January 2016 that some super funds, including Sunsuper, REST and Super SA, had closed the door on early release applications. Given the big increase in applications in 2015-2016, it would seem that other super funds, which still consider applications, have gained new members.

The good news is that hardship payment recipients have been spending on average $3.45 million a week over the last three years. This money was almost certainly spent in Australian supermarkets and other retail stores. Crikey, it may have even stimulated (part-time) employment.

A report by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) found that Australia has failed to reduce the level of overall poverty in the community over the 10 years to 2014.

The 2016 Poverty in Australia report found that 13.3% of the population (2.99 million people) were living below the poverty line in 2013-14. Alarmingly, there was a 2% percentage point rise in the number of children living in poverty to 17.4% (731,300 children aged 0-17).

The internationally accepted poverty line is defined as 50% of median household income (adjusted for housing costs). In 2014, the 50% of median income poverty line for a single Australian adult was $426.30 a week (or $343.00 for income after housing costs). For a couple with children it was $895.22 a week (or $720.22 after housing).

ACOSS chief executive office Dr Cassandra Goldie commented that the majority of people living in poverty receive social security payments as their main source of income.

“At the same time, a third of people living in poverty rely on wages as their main source of income. The evidence is clear that a job does not guarantee an adequate income.”

Australia ranked 14th in OECD poverty survey

Despite its strong economic performance, Australia’s 2014 poverty rate (12.8%), ranked 14th highest of 36 OECD countries.

We’re well below the United States (second-highest at 17.5%, just ahead of Israel), but much worse than Denmark (second-lowest at 5.4%).

If I may editorialise now, the number one culprit in the growth of Australia’s poverty level is the high cost of housing, closely followed by unemployment or under-employment. One could also argue that Commonwealth income support payments are not keeping up with the real cost of living.

The real state of unemployment in Australia depends on whose data you believe. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the unemployment rate in January at 5.7%. Roy Morgan Research, which has been keeping its own tabs on unemployment since 2005, says the figure was 9.7% in January and was above 10% in seven of the 12 months in calendar 2016.

Analysis provided to the ABC in October last year showed how brutal the poverty spiral can be in some capital cities.

The ABC said an acute shortage of affordable housing in Melbourne was adding to the numbers of homeless people. It was also forcing welfare recipients to seek accommodation on the suburban fringes, where there are fewer jobs and services.

The ABC cited an average rent of $340 per week for a one-bedroom flat in Melbourne – $11 more than the $329 per week paid to a single person on Newstart (including rent assistance).

Newstart is Australia’s unemployment benefit. Fortnightly payments range from $528.70 for a single person with no children to $894.80 for a couple with children.

In the example given, a single person on Newstart is paying $680 a fortnight to rent a one bedroom flat in Melbourne. Even with rent assistance, said single is unable to live in Melbourne without sharing accommodation.

In 2013, the Commonwealth Government had a $3.6 billion budget for rent assistance and made payments to 1.29 million people. These rent assistance payments ranged from $87.07 to $130 per fortnight.

The fundamental problem with so-called hardship payments is that they do not solve the underlying problems – unemployment and a lack of affordable housing. Early release superannuation payments amount to breathing space for recipients, a cash buffer to cover expenses that are either being ignored or deferred. And as we all know, expenses like traffic fines, a broken tooth, broken or lost spectacles, non-PBS prescriptions and indexed insurance premiums come along when least expected.

One potato, two potato

One of my correspondents once defined poverty as the “Potato Index”. By this, he meant that two days before the next cheque was due, the household was out of potatoes. Should he buy one organic potato or two? So he’d walk around the village, checking potato prices at the local outlets.

“Hmm, looks like one potato,” he’d say, “or half a pumpkin.”

This conversation came back to me this week when shopping for ingredients for leek and cauliflower soup.

Cauli is out of season, though, so when I found one, $14.99 seemed a less than sensible purchase. The national emblem of Wales, on the other hand, cost only $1.79.

“What did you buy that for? It wasn’t on the list,” asked She Who Makes Lists.

“Research,” I muttered. “Besides, we can make leek and potato soup.”