The latest in anti-plastic bag hysteria


It seems we might be about to get another burst of anti-plastic bag hysteria. In recent days both the Queensland and NSW Governments have discussed the possibility of implementing plastic bag bans, and federal environment minister Greg Hunt placed the issue on the agenda at a Ministerial roundtable on Monday.

Some Australian jurisdictions have already banned so-called “single use” bags. Instead, shoppers get slugged 15 cents for more robust bags that in theory are not ‘single use’, but their very solidity makes them less useful in many ways than the more humble ones. Of course, the humble ones also cost consumers nothing, although I am still waiting for a consumer activist to spring to their defence.

Australia is not the only country where the convenience of getting your shopping in plastic bags is under threat. In 2014, California became the first US state to pass laws banning the plastic bag. Some US cities had already done so. In Austin, Texas, even the local Resource Recovery Group had to admit that the net result of the ban, once greenhouse gases involved in making reusable bags and other impacts were taken into account, was not what they expected – it turned out worse for the environment.

A comprehensive study of plastic bag bans was undertaken by the Reason Foundation in 2014. It found that:

In sum, over the past 30 years, decisions by consumers and retailers have dramatically shifted consumption toward bags with superior environmental and cost characteristics, namely those made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. By banning HDPE plastic bags, legislators have been reversing this trend, to the detriment of the environment and consumers.

You can read the full Reason Foundation report here. Australian governments should read it too.


Fifty years since Victorians stopped having to skol their beers

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the six o’clock swill in Victoria.

Laws to close pubs at 6pm had been introduced in most states as a temporary measure during the First World War on the basis of helping the war effort. However, as with so many temporary regulations, it stayed in place even after the original rationale had passed. Arguments by the temperance movement for tighter restrictions on the operating hours of hotels had been gathering strength from the 1890s and, once early closing had been implemented, the wowsers fought hard to keep it.

Of course, in practice six o’clock closing did not reduce the amount of alcohol being consumed. It just meant that large quantities of beer were drunk in an unnaturally short period of time, hardly an ideal way for alcohol to be consumed. For half a century, Australians would head straight to the pub as soon as they knocked off work and, standing several deep at the public bar, get through everyone’s shout by 6pm. It certainly made doing overtime a particularly unappealing proposition.

After the passing of the six o’clock swill, 10pm closing became the Australian norm until, in the 1980s, further liberalisation took place. However, we should not imagine that the swill is just a historic curiosity. Many of the same forces which fought to keep the swill can still be heard today, challenging the right to have a drink.


Trump and Corbyn: Two of a kind

trump_corbynDonald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, who respectively hope to become US President and British Prime Minister, this week demonstrated even more explicitly than usual that they are profound and worrying enemies of freedom.

Trump’s comments about keeping Muslims out of the United States reflected a collectivist view of humanity that has no place in a liberal, democratic society. The fact that a small element of Islam is committed to radical extremism in no way justifies collectively punishing the law-abiding majority of followers of the faith.

Corbyn has a similar collectivist view of humanity, but in his case regularly taking the side of militant Islam against the West. Then this week, Corbyn reverted to more traditional hard-Left form by quoting approvingly the former Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha.

Describing Hoxha as a “tough ruler”, Corbyn quoted his phrase that “this year will be tougher than last year”. Hoxha is believed to have killed, tortured or imprisoned at least 100,000 Albanians during his reign from 1944 to 1985. Corbyn’s remarks were too much even for the left-wing New Statesman.

While recent Australian political history may have been uninspiring, we can at least take some solace from the fact that we have not had such extreme enemies of liberty as Trump or Corbyn reach such prominence.


Historic home demolition could be FIRB’s fault

The leafy suburbs of Australia’s major cities are full of laments about historic homes being knocked down and replaced by McMansions or units.

One of the chief recipients of blame for this phenomenon is overseas buyers, particularly the Chinese. However, an article about a historic federation home slated for demolition in the Melbourne suburb of Kew has highlighted the fact that one of the causes of demolitions is actually a measure designed to restrict foreign ownership.

Current foreign investment rules only allow foreign investors to buy residential property if they intend to construct a new dwelling on the land. They cannot buy property just to live in, or rent out, the existing dwelling. This distinction is designed to increase the housing stock and stimulate the building industry but, as with so many government regulations, this one is having unintended consequences.

Kew locals have perceptively pointed out that the restriction is one reason for the spate of demolitions of historic homes in their neighbourhood. The particular house in this case was recently renovated and has a tennis court and swimming pool, so would seemingly be very liveable for the new overseas owners, who bought it for $9.4 million.

However retaining the historic home is not an option for the owners when FIRB rules state that “the existing dwelling must be demolished and continuous substantial construction of the new dwellings must commence within 24 months”. Further, if the owners fail to comply, FIRB will take a dim view of any application for residency they might subsequently make.

Who knows whether these owners might demolish anyway, but next time you see a beautiful historic home being demolished, please consider the real culprit might be the federal government, not the overseas owners.


Enrol now or else!


Alex Greenwich MP

Almost every parent will at some stage applied the “if you don’t do a) you won’t get b)” formula with their children. Most parents also realise that, at some point, they need to stop the “if you don’t tidy your room you can’t watch TV” or “if you don’t eat your vegetables you won’t get dessert” routines and trust that, as their children reach adulthood, they can work out for themselves whether they want tidy rooms or vegetables.

However, at the same stage in young people’s lives that parents are moving away from using the formula, the independent member for Sydney in the NSW parliament, Alex Greenwich, wants the government to spring into action and adopt it.

At a recent meeting organised by the pop culture website Junkee, Greenwich suggested applying the formula to enrolling to vote. Under Greenwich’s plan, young adults would not be allowed to get a driver’s licence, or proof of age card, unless they have done the political equivalent of tidying their rooms and eating their vegies, by proving that they are on the electoral role.

Paradoxically, Greenwich is a supporter of lowering the voting age to 16, believing that young people have the maturity to vote, but then he wants to infantilise them, by saying that they need to be forced onto the roll.

Greenwich has suggested that one reason why young people were reluctant to enrol was fear of getting fined if they failed to vote. Of course, the obvious solution to this problem would be to make voting voluntary. However, politicians like Greenwich never err on the side of people making their own decisions when the opportunity to dream up a more coercive solution is available.


The problems with a sugar tax


Professor Chaloupka

Taxpayers in Western Australia have copped a double whammy from the visit to Perth of University of Illinois at Chicago professor Frank Chaloupka.

Firstly, their state’s Health Department has helped fund Chaloupka’s trip. Secondly, Chaloupka wants to increase their taxes, specifically to introduce a sugar tax.

As Healthway’s 2015 Visiting Fellow, Chaloupka is busily addressing conferences and talking directly to government and health officials. It should be noted that Chaloupka is not a professor in any health related field, but rather a professor of economics, hence his focus on taxation. He is pushing a sugar tax claiming that children and low-income groups needed to be discouraged from consuming a major driver of obesity.

However, there are significant problems with a sugar tax. If targeted at low-income groups, it is a highly regressive from of taxation which may produce perverse health outcomes. It will also be the thin end of the wedge for, if we get a sugar tax, there will surely then be calls for a salt tax, a general junk food tax and even a red meat tax.

The push for a sugar tax is certainly not unique to Australia. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently addressed a Health Select Committee at Westminster. As well as arguing for a whole suite of advertising restrictions, he wanted a sugar tax imposed for at least three years.

Of course, the likes of Chaloupka and Oliver never argue for restrictions on what they eat themselves or what can be cooked in high class restaurants, only on what others can consume. And it is no coincidence that so-called ‘public health’ advocates link children and low income people in their demands, because they seem to want to infantilise all of society.


Bet on stupid ideas in Gambling Awareness Week


Poker machine participation rates in Victoria have declined by 50 per cent since 1999.

That is one of the interesting facts which can be found on the website of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (VRGF), a statutory body set up by the Victorian government “to foster responsible gambling”.

Much of the material produced by the VRGF contains sensible advice on how to avoid becoming a problem gambler. However, this week the VRGF is running Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, and the special week has prompted a spate of public reports and commentary.

Given the decline in poker machine participation rates, it is perhaps unsurprising that the VRGF’s main focus has been on gambling’s big growth area, sports betting. Equally predictable is the fact that much of the commentary has been predicated on the assumption that sports betting is a social evil which should be subject to ever tighter regulation.

A report on “The Marketing of Wagering on Social Media” has allegedly found that wagering companies are using cartoon characters to make impressionable kids grow up thinking gambling is “cool and fun“. Victorian gambling minister, Jane Garrett has weighed in with her concern about sports betting ads contributing to “the normalisation of gambling as part of sport“.

Sports betting’s status as the main source of gambling concern has been caused not just by its growth, but because, unlike the pokies or the races, it intrudes much more into the world of non-gamblers who, like Minister Garrett, see ads for it while watching televised sport.

These ads may sometimes be irritating, but that does not mean that there is anything abnormal about betting on sport.


Any excuse for a moral panic

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 25: Fremantle fans celebrate after a goal is scored during the 2015 AFL First Preliminary Final match between the Fremantle Dockers and the Hawthorn Hawks at Domain Stadium, Perth, Australia on September 25, 2015. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media)

Last Friday night at the football a man assaulted a woman. Alcohol advertising should be banned during daytime sporting telecasts.

Now, while most people might think that the assertion in the second sentence does not logically flow from the facts in the first, John Rogerson, CEO of the Australian Drug Foundation, was eager to link the two.

In an interview on ABC Radio’s PM programme, Rogerson managed to use one incident at one football match to push a range of anti-alcohol arguments. He advocated changes to the taxation and marketing of alcohol, and emphasised the need to remove the exemption which allows alcohol ads during televised sporting events, but not general programming, before 8.30pm.

While the assault by a spectator on an off-duty policewoman during an AFL Preliminary Final at Subiaco Oval was an ugly incident, part of the reason it got such saturated coverage was because of the rarity of such occurrences at major sporting events in modern Australia. In this case, the perpetrator was arrested, charged with a variety of offences and banned from the stadium for life, which is all as it should be.

There were also 11 other people evicted from the ground for less serious misbehavior and a couple of idiots leaning over the fence to abuse opposition players were highlighted on the television coverage. Not a great look, but hardly an excuse for the kind of moral panic we have seen in the past few days, with a mixture of general laments about the state of society today and the more specific agendas of the likes of Rogerson.

After all, while a tiny minority of the Perth crowd were behaving badly, more than 40,000 others were not. As a Hawthorn supporter who was there at the ground with a couple of my children, we experienced no untoward behavior from the home fans. Some people around us were drinking, some people weren’t, but all of them seemed capable of both making this decision for themselves and behaving in a responsible manner.

However, no matter how many people behave well, the vigilantes of the Nanny State will use any excuse to try to impose more restrictions on everyone.


Longer terms don’t mean better governments

Andrew Forrest, Chairman, Fortescue Metals

Andrew Forrest, chairman, Fortescue Metals

In the past couple of weeks, the perennially flawed arguments for longer parliamentary terms have been rolled out again.

First, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced her support for moving from three to four year terms in her jurisdiction. As Queensland is the one remaining state with three year terms, it is perhaps not surprising that its politicians are keen to get job security to match their interstate counterparts. The opposition was quick to say it had always supported the idea. The local Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesperson offered support for the move claiming that “a three-year term is not a sufficient term to allow the government to facilitate good economic planning for private and public sectors”.

Then there was business leader Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest who suggested that Australia should adopt five year fixed terms for the federal parliament. His argument was that short terms were one of the reasons why Australian politics has been dysfunctional in recent years. (FreedomWatch readers in the UK can watch Forrest’s full interview here.)

However, you do not have to go back too far in Australian political history to see that length of political term has little to do with whether a government governs well or not. When Hawke and Keating were reforming the Australian economy in the 1980s they not only had three year terms, but Hawke kept dashing off to early elections. Conversely, it is hard to see what benefit accrued to anyone in Victoria in 1991-92, or New South Wales in 2010-11, by getting the fourth years of long-discredited and dysfunctional state Labor governments.

In 1998, John Howard went to an early poll to secure a mandate for major tax reform. Under Forrest’s five year fixed term idea, Howard would have had to wait another three years before he could secure such a mandate, which he clearly needed as it was reversing his previous position.

People arguing for longer terms always seem to suffer from a surfeit of optimism. They imagine four or five years of a good government using all that time implementing the sort of reforms which particularly appeal to them. However, the rules around governance should not be developed with the best case scenario in mind. What is much more important is having in place a system where citizens can remove a bad government when the need arises.

Forrest’s address, where he raised the idea of five year terms was delivered in Britain, and cited its fixed five year terms as an example for Australia to follow. This seems slightly ironic, given that one major party in Britain has just elected the hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. While the conventional wisdom is that Corbyn is unlikely ever to become prime minister, even the remote possibility that he might does serve to illustrate the point that business people such as the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and ‘Twiggy’ Forrest need to be careful what they wish for.

When designing political systems, it is always best to imagine your political opponents in power rather than your allies.


Motorbike helmet cameras – let the riders decide


A man went to court this week to challenge a $289 fine for infringing Victorian road rules. He got a little bit of good news as the fine was reduced to $150, but he is still out of pocket and has had three demerit points added to his license.

Clearly from the size of the penalty it was not a particularly serious offence. So was the driver just a little bit over the speed limit, or making a turn without indicating? No, the man in question, Max Lichenbaum, is a motorbike rider and his offence was, believe it or not, having a camera attached to his helmet. Not that having a camera in your helmet is necessarily an offence, but apparently this particular camera attachment did not comply with the arbitrary standards imposed by VicRoads.

The defendant’s main argument against the fine was that it was impossible to know what VicRoads’ standards are. Mr Lichenbaum’s lawyers made valiant attempts to get hold of the standards but could not do so, either by phone or by visiting the VicRoads offices. However, while the magistrate accepted the standards were currently not accessible to the public, he could not be sure that this was the case at the time of the offence in March 2014. They may have been available in a library which was open to the public on the ground floor of the VicRoads building but which has subsequently closed.

Clearly there is a problem here, both with a specific lack of transparency about these rules, but also with the fact that so many aspects of modern life are subject to laws, regulations and standards. Continue Reading →


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