Monday, March 30, 2015

Today by Sean Kelly

Why is it so?
Don’t believe everything you hear about the NSW election

Image by Giacomo Spazio (Flickr).

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was once asked to explain why magnets repel each other. He answered by saying that as soon as you start asking “why”, you have a problem. If you are asked, for example, why Aunt Minnie is in the hospital, you have to explain that she went out, slipped on some ice, and broke her hip. But then you have to explain why, when someone breaks their hip, they go to the hospital. Then you have to explain why ice is slippery, which leads to explaining why water expands when it freezes but other substances don’t. And on and on . . .

That’s a long way of saying that all of the people trying to explain why the NSW election played out the way it did, and hence what it means for the state of politics in this country, are kidding themselves – and kidding you.

First up: Labor. Labor picked up 14 seats and wants us to believe that it’s a sign of revitalisation, that – in the words of Opposition Leader Luke Foley – the campaign “breathed new life into the state Labor Party”.

Foley is right only in the sense that a man in intensive care is better off than a man in a morgue. Labor were always going to win some seats back after their spectacular 2011 defeat. Trying to argue that they won 14 seats, rather than, say, eight, for any particular reason is a mug’s game. Labor may well have run a good campaign – Foley was an improvement on his predecessor and their campaigning apparatus is strong – but you can’t base that conclusion on the result.

Second: all those commentators arguing Premier Mike Baird’s success shows that a strong leader clearly prosecuting his case can still get difficult reform (in this case, the privatisation of electricity assets) over the line. Actually, the only lesson you can take from this result is a much more prosaic point: a popular leader fighting an election they were always going to win should take reform to the polls so they can claim a mandate for it afterwards.

Finally: anyone who claims that Baird now has a mandate to sell those assets. Mandate arguments are always rubbish. Every time. Any election is decided on a range of issues.

That said, there’s not really an alternative. Leaders take a swag of policies to the election, voters vote for the leaders. Parliamentary democracy is a blunt instrument – but it’s all we’ve got. Baird promised to privatise; now he must do so. Voters will get another chance to judge him in four years’ time.

Speaking of reform, federal treasurer Joe Hockey this morning released Treasury’s awkwardly titled Re:Think tax discussion paper (which, if anything, suggests we should be investing more in literacy education), containing a ripper discussion of how pizzas, pizza subs, pizza pockets and bakery-style pizza rolls are taxed differently. No discussion of how pineapples on pizzas fare.

The paper seems aimed at making the case for lowering income tax and corporate tax rates, and expanding the GST. Peter Martin has a typically excellent explanation of why the paper’s claims about Australia’s high income taxes are wrong. Laura Tingle explained last October why it will be very, very difficult for the Coalition not to raise the GST, though Hockey today is sticking to the government line that some level of support from the states, community and opposition would be needed (though exactly what this is remains unclear).

In a case with echoes of the Geoff Shaw debacle in Victoria, the new Queensland Labor government faces its own crisis after the premier expelled one of its MPs from the party for not declaring his criminal past.

A new American book examines the different ways rich and poor parents raise their kids, including physical affection and time for “nurturing”, and the impact that has. One depressing example: family background is now a better predictor of whether a child will graduate from university than Year 8 test scores. It’s the type of argument more often made by conservative academics, so it’s interesting that it’s coming from a renowned liberal.

Finally, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of discussion of the role that Mike Baird’s handsome face played in his election victory. Economist (and now federal Labor Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh) once wrote a paper on this. Apparently a one standard deviation increase in a candidate’s beauty is associated with a 1½– 2 percentage point increase in a candidate’s share of the vote.

I’m taking over today from Russell Marks, long-time editor of this section. I want to thank him for handing over such a terrific endeavour as he heads to pastures of hopefully at least equal greenness. If you want to watch the whole Feynman answer – it’s brilliant – you can find it here. Not very political, though. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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