Is Federation still working?

As three of the six Australian States (and one of the two Territories) grapple with fresh COVID outbreaks, their respective lock-down measures reveal quite different responses to what should be considered a common problem. It’s not just the differences within their own borders, but also how they react in relation to each other in terms of classifying “hot spots” and imposing travel restrictions. It’s a fresh example that despite defining itself as a single nation, the Commonwealth of Australia remains a patchwork quilt, hurriedly stitched together from the remains of colonialism, under the pretext of “Federation”.

Federation feels even more of an artificial construct than the former British colonies themselves. In my view, the inconsistencies between each State and Territory in dealing with COVID, and their fractious collective and individual relationships with the Commonwealth, can be linked to questions of national identity, the legacy of imperialism, a lack of consensus on a Treaty with our First Nations people, and the failure of Republicanism to pave a way forward.

For a start, Australia tries to maintain four different codes of professional football – yet not every State or Territory is represented in the national competitions. Of these codes, one is essentially a Victorian competition, with a couple of other States brought in on merit, and a couple of the others only included after some fabricated interstate franchises. (And how long before a Victorian club has to relocate to Tasmania?)

Another football code runs an interstate competition, but only two States compete – and sometimes they compete in another State (just for the hell of it, or to try and instill “national” relevance?)

Cricket may rightfully claim to be a national sport at a professional level, but even the major Sheffield Shield competition excludes the two Territories.

These observations may appear flippant, but in a sport-loving nation, such examples might help explain why we don’t feel a very cohesive place – not all of us even get to barrack for our own State or Territory on the playing field!

There are many other examples of arbitrary differences between the States – e.g., unicameral or bicameral Parliaments; recognition of Public Holidays; the calculation of State election dates; the width of railway tracks; connectivity with energy grids; the minimum legal age for driving a car; the size of beer glasses in pubs; and the term for a “corner shop”.

Back in 1901, Federation must have felt like part of a grand scheme towards a modern era, designed to galvanize a bunch of colonies into a cohesive whole, and forge a new nation. But we don’t formally celebrate its existence with a public holiday. Rather, each State prefers to mark the Queen’s Birthday (albeit on different dates…) instead of recognizing the Act of Federation, which was supposed to confirm Australia’s independence from the UK. Not only that, but the “National Day” we do observe is Australia Day, which is highly contentious and increasingly overshadowed by its association with foreign invasion, imperial expansion and colonial oppression.

Back to COVID: recent events have shown that the “social contract” between the Commonwealth of Australia on the one hand, and the States and Territories on the other, is purely transactional. In respect to the pandemic, the Federal government has had two primary responsibilities: 1) international border control and quarantine; 2) vaccine acquisition and distribution. Although they have maintained closed borders, the Commonwealth has “delegated” quarantine arrangements to the States, with all the resulting inconsistencies and glaring mistakes. The Commonwealth has also fudged the vaccination roll-out (too many reasons and causes to go into here).

On the need for dedicated quarantine centres: while the States have taken on (or been lumped with) an unenviable task, after 18 months of the pandemic, I don’t understand why the States haven’t taken it upon themselves to build their own facilities, and then stick the Federal Government with the bill. If landlords won’t undertake essential property repairs when brought to their attention, I think most of us would agree that their tenants would have a valid case for getting the work done themselves and deducting the cost from the rent.

Except that the States don’t have that sort of leverage over the Federal Government (despite what Queensland and Western Australia might say and think).

In short, Federation is merely a way to distribute taxes levied by the Commonwealth – even then, this distribution is mired in political horse-trading and pork-barreling. The States, unable to raise their own revenue (other than via payroll tax, stamp duty, land tax and fees from providing certain services, issuing permits and granting licenses), are heavily reliant on Federal handouts. While this allocation is often dressed up in the guise of achieving minimum targets and standards, in reality funding is tied to political objectives.

I suppose even after 120 years, Federation can still be called a work in progress. Whatever the future debate on Australia Day and an indigenous Treaty (plus constitutional recognition and parliamentary representation), and whatever the prospect of a Republic, we may need to consider that the States, as currently constituted, have had their time and are increasingly redundant. Part of me thinks we might be better off by dissolving them (along with our local authorities) and re-constituting regional government and administration around the lands of the original settlers to this island. Just a thought.

Next week: Startup Vic FinTech Pitch Night

Here We Go Again…

At the time of writing, Melbourne is once again under a COVID19-related lock down. Currently, we are three-quarters of the way through a 14-day “snap” lock down or “circuit breaker”. Variously known as #lockdown4, v4.0 (now v4.1 with the added week), or simply “The South Australian One”. Along with a prevailing sense of déja vu, much of the political, media and social coverage has a very familiar ring to it – like, here we go again!

Overall, I would much rather be in Australia at the moment, compared to many other places in the world that are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. But there is no doubt that this latest lock down is once again revealing some political and structural weaknesses in the Australian Federal and State system – and the people of Victoria (and especially Melbourne) are paying a heavy price for these combined failings.

The blame game between Federal and State politicians is becoming a farce – most of us would rather see some effective leadership and practical solutions, as well as a bit more owning up and taking responsibility for where and when things have gone wrong. After all, the first known case of COVID19 was reported in Australia in late January 2020, so our elected representatives at levels and of all persuasions have had nearly 18 months to sort this out. It doesn’t help that our Prime Minister is generally regarded as being absent whenever there is a crisis – on the other hand, does it help to have him turn up in hi-vis and hard hat for another photo opportunity? And sometimes when he does bother to make it, he’s often made to feel unwelcome.

Here are just a few of the disconnects between Federal and State roles and responsibilities when it comes to managing COVID19:

First, the Federal government is responsible for external border control (i.e., immigration and quarantine). It’s generally argued that the Feds have failed to deliver a workable quarantine solution for anyone coming to or returning to Australia. For whatever reason (and we’ll probably have to wait 20 years before the relevant papers are released), National Cabinet in March 2020 agreed to delegate the management of hotel quarantine (HQ) to the individual States and Territories. The big question is: why did the States agree? Where there incentives on offer, or did they do so because they could see no solution coming from the Federal government? At the same time, the States have applied inconsistent border controls as between each other, and at times, Victoria has been able to suspend in-bound international flights, putting more demand on the other States’ HQ programmes.

On the other hand, Melbourne still managed to host an international Grand Slam tennis event in the summer (notwithstanding some COVID scares and cases), and our nation’s softball players have already been vaccinated prior to heading off to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic Games (which many locals want to cancel for obvious reasons). Plus, AFL teams were somehow able to travel interstate from Melbourne immediately prior to the lock down (did they get a tip-off?). Yet, at least one AFL club has breached COVID regulations, when travelling on a domestic passenger flight. I’m so glad we have got our priorities right when it comes to professional sport!

Second, health services (along with education, aged care and social services) are a strange mix of Federal and State responsibilities, services and delivery. As a result, there is bound to be some overlap and double handling, as well as some obvious gaps. The Federal government is being blamed for failing to secure and distribute adequate vaccine supplies when and where they are needed, and for failing to meet their own aspirational targets in terms of vaccine roll-out. Yet, as with so many public services, there is a (confusing) dual delivery system. Victoria set up a number of vaccination hubs – only it still hasn’t deployed an online booking system: only phone bookings (or walk-ins) are available. But the Federal delivery is via health clinics and GPs, with each service provider offering different booking systems.

Third, the vaccination roll-out (by age and priority categories) has seen the criteria move around, somewhat arbitrarily. There is anecdotal evidence that due to low take-up rates in March and April, some people within one of the priority age categories (initially 60, it was suddenly moved to 50 in May) could access a jab at a clinic or hub at short notice, as otherwise those stocks were going to waste. It doesn’t help that there was/is confusion over the vaccine requirement for certain front line workers (e.g., in aged care) and who is responsible for administering those vaccinations. Of course, since the latest lock down in Victoria, demand is outstripping supply, and it is difficult to verify data on whether anyone who was in a priority category was initially unable to access a vaccine (or was denied access) at the time they became eligible and wanted a jab.

Fourth, hotel quarantine continues to be the key weak point in the transmission chain. I’m not going to dwell on the systemic failure that led to Victoria’s second (and lengthy) lock down last winter/spring – from which we were only just starting to recover when #lockdown4 was imposed. The fact that the latest lock down was triggered by an apparent breach in South Austalia’s HQ is of some significance, as it re-introduced the Kappa “Variant of Interest” into Victoria. More worrying is the presence of the Delta “Variant of Concern”, whose precise source in Victoria is still unknown, but likely to have come from our own troubled HQ system.

Fifth, the calls for the Federal government to pay for dedicated and purpose-built quarantine facilities in each State are understandable – but I’m not sure why Victoria in particular didn’t just go ahead and build their own (and then later stick the Feds with the bill). It’s not as if there is a shortage of construction work going on at the moment in Victoria (much of it State-funded), so it would have been quite easy to pull that project together without waiting for the Feds to come to the party. After all, construction was one of the few industries to continue relatively unscathed during last winter’s lock down – and with the Federal job keeper and job maker subsidies available at the time, Victoria could easily have completed the task by now, especially with the support of a key developer such as the union-backed Cbus.

Sixth, Victoria has only just mandated a universal QR code system for checking visitors in at all business, commercial, retail and hospitality premises. Why it took so long, and why it allowed a mish-mash of third party apps and pen and paper systems is yet another example of poor IT implementation by government. (The Feds appear to be no better with their own COVID tracing app.)

Seventh, the Federal Government, via last week’s National Cabinet, appears to have established a common definition for a COVID19 “hot spot”. Again, it’s only taken the best part of 18 months, and we still don’t have consistent and national terms for defining “red zone”, “complex case”, “cluster”, “mystery case”, “complex case”, “unknown case”, “fleeting transmission”, “stranger to stranger transmission”, “primary contact”, “close contact” or “exposure site” tiers. Nor do we have a consistent framework for responding to a “hot spot”, especially when comparing Victoria to other States.

Finally, the latest lock down again reveals weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Australia’s manufacturing capabilities and supply chains (in terms of producing and distributing sufficient vaccines). It’s also shown up economic fragility with many people living pay cheque to pay cheque, and many small businesses, especially in retail, tourism and hospitality, will not manage to bounce back from a fourth shut down.

Next week: How about that AAA rating?

Facebook and that news ban

On February 18 this year, Facebook decided to “ban” news content in Australia. This meant that Australian Facebook users (including media companies) could not post news content or links, nor could they access local or overseas news. The move was a preemptive strike (and a somewhat crude negotiation tactic) by Facebook in an attempt to circumvent the Media Bargaining Code, which requires social media and search engine platforms (specifically, Google and Facebook) to pay news providers for the use of their content. Despite the gnashing and wailing among some sectors of the Australian community, the world did not end. And while Facebook has somewhat relented (following some concessions from the Federal government), the story has generated some useful debate about the power of certain tech platforms and the degree of influence or control they exercise over what we see on our screens each day.

Image sourced from Wikimedia

Personally, I did not find the ban an inconvenience, because I rarely use my Facebook account, and I certainly don’t rely on it for news or information. Instead, I prefer to access content direct from providers. One result of the ban was more downloads for Australian news apps such as the ABC and Inkl. Another (unforeseen?) result was a block on information posted by public and voluntary sector bodies, including essential services, health, community and charitable organisations.

Regarding the former, this can only be a good thing. Seriously, if we are relying on Facebook for news content, THAT is the real problem. As for the latter, it suggests a lot of organisations have become over-reliant on Facebook to reach their audience.

Meanwhile, Google (which had already struck a deal with Australian media companies) was eagerly promoting the number of Australian “partner publications” it offers in its News Showcase. This was something of a U-turn, because Google had threatened to remove search in Australia in response to the same Media Bargaining Code. While that might have been drastic, nevertheless, other search engines are available.

It was also interesting to see Microsoft (no stranger to anti-trust action during the so-called browser wars) promoting BuzzFeed via Twitter on the day of the Facebook ban. I also received a number of e-mails from various organisations reminding me that I could still access their content direct from their website or via their newsletter. These moves to re-connect direct with audiences started to make Facebook look very silly and petulant.

Just as there are other search engines besides Google, other social media platforms are available – so why do so many people appear to be against the Media Bargaining Code, and would prefer to give Facebook a free monopoly over which content they read?

I have written previously about Facebook’s relationship with “news”. For those people who felt “cheated” that they couldn’t access news, they should realise that a “free” social media account comes with a price – the consumer is the product, and is only there to serve up eyeballs and profiles to be sold to Facebook’s advertisers. In short, Facebook only sees news as a magnet for its own advertisers, so it seems only fair that they should pay for this piggyback ride on someone else’s content. (And we all know what else Facebook does with our personal information, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed.)

Some commentary suggested that Facebook is providing a type of “public service” by enabling links to news stories – so much so, that they question whether it is equitable to force Facebook to pay for the privilege, under the new Code. In fact, some argued that Facebook should be charging the media companies for linking to their stories, since this drives traffic to third-party news sites, which in turn generate advertising income based on their own readership. But this overlooks the reality of the economic bargain being struck here: Facebook might like to argue that it is doing you a “favour” by serving up news content in your personal feed; whereas, the social media giant “curates” what you see in your feed purely to generate ad revenue.

Alternatively, if news content has no value to Facebook, why has it been happy to distribute it for “free” all these years? Because, I repeat, they know full well that without readers and content, they can’t sell advertising. Maybe Facebook should invest in journalism and create their own news content? Oh wait, they don’t want to be regulated like a newspaper. Remember in 2013 when Facebook said it wanted to be “the world’s newspaper”, but then they realized they’d have to comply with media laws (libel, racial vilification etc.) and quietly dropped the plan?

In short, Facebook is not interested in being a news publisher (nor being subject to relevant media laws) but they are happy to “leverage” third-party content. Now, they will have to pay a fair price to use that content.

The conclusions from this Facebook episode (and some clumsy messaging from the Federal government) are pretty obvious:

  1. There is no such thing as a free lunch – a “free” social media account comes with a price; and there is also a cost attached to using someone else’s content
  2. Taxation of tech company revenues like Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix and Amazon should be at the point of sale and consumption (i.e., where the consumer value is created and the income is generated, not where the revenue is recognised).
  3. Other search engines and social media platforms are available and content can be accessed direct from the source (but we’re probably too lazy to change our habits….)
  4. In part, this is about the continued demise of the 4th estate – no-one wants to pay for content, so social media platforms are getting a free ride having already destroyed the newspapers’ classified and display advertising business model
  5. But it’s also about the attention economy – consumers are the product when it comes to social media, so perhaps we should get paid more for our own time spent looking at ads?
  6. As ever, tech outstrips legislation – the law lags behind and is playing catch up
  7. And politicians really don’t have a clue how to go about this…..

Next week: Rebooting the local economy

Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..