Accord, Mk III (Howes edition)

February 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm (Uncategorized)

 

So, a certain Paul Howes has been back in the media again, positioning himself as the moderate face of Australian unionism, seeking some kind of sensible third way to end the IR wars. It’s a good thing we have brave union leaders prepared to put the national interest ahead of their own, and put their careers on the line for practical policies that benefit all Australians, right? So, you might be asking, why aren’t there other unionists lining up to support him in his call for a “new Accord” or “Grand Compact” that could end the fighting?

 

As a union organiser for 8 years, I’ve become quite familiar with Australia’s IR system. I’ve worked under Workchoices and Fair Work, and have studied the history of the systems that came before, and dealt with their legacy impacts in a range of workplaces. I’ve also gained a pretty good grasp of how unions in Australia have changed over the past century, and what members and supporters of unions want out of them now. I know the many different ways they operate, and distribute authority. Howes is across all this, too – I’d say that he’s probably far more steeped in it than I am; and so he’s also very aware of why his proposal is anathema to the majority of unionists today. There’s an element of cynicism in his speech – wilful provocation of the rest of the movement to establish his “independent” bona fides.

 

The first, perhaps most aggravating, element of Howes speech for many, is how clearly partisan it is. Not against the LNP, but against his real rivals – the CFMEU (Mining & Energy and Construction Divisions) and the MUA. The Australian Workers’ Union (Howes’ group) is a massive odds-and-ends bin of a union, covering manufacturing, mining, agricultural, transportation, and chunks of many other industries, with a clear focus on rural and regional areas. It competes directly with the CFMEU and MUA on civil and maritime engineering construction projects, and coal mining. It’s also one of the real political gorillas of the ALP, sitting on the Centre-Right of the spectrum. This has put it in conflict with Left unions – again, (bits of) the CFMEU and (the whole) MUA. 

 

The AWU has been at a traditional disadvantage against both of these unions due to their long-standing, member-driven workplace delegate structures (variously known as lodges, branches, chapters, chapels, etc.), and generally competes with high-intensity blitzing of worksites using large numbers of paid organising staff. It’s no surprise that the union copping most of the complaints about Right of Entry use under FWA was the AWU – hundreds of visits in a year to a big site is not an unprecedented strategy for them. CFMEU and MUA do membership drives, on occasion, but generally rely on member-organisers and elected officials in the workplaces to recruit new staff members early in their careers and then maintain their membership through workplace culture. 

 

The AWU’s campaigning approach has been successful, to an extent, in cracking un-unionised, and de-unionised sites. Iron ore mines and aluminium smelters are some of their recent successes. But the paid-staff driven approach means that they must choose targets carefully, and can’t necessarily deal with an entire region that needs attention, as with the mining/LNG boom in North-Western Australia. MUA and CFMEU, on the other hand, are accustomed to their members largely managing their own affairs and calling on head office for assistance and support – meaning that they can apply uniform pressure on wages and conditions in broad areas, where members see value in it.

 

And the result has been that the MUA, especially around the Gorgon LNG project, and the CFMEU, particularly in the multi-billion dollar mining construction projects in the Pilbara, have achieved dramatic wage rises across multiple employers. The AWU have done OK, but nothing on the same scale. They’re feeling the burn in terms of angry members, defections to their competitor unions, and pressure on their lower-level elected officials. So Howes throwing these unions under the bus – for getting their members big pay rises, no less – is seen as straight up jealous bastardry.

 

Secondly, it’s obviously self-interested. The Accord, by fixing poilcy at a national level, and preventing any input except via the bureaucratic structures of the AIRC, locked union officials into a position of complete power over their membership. It was accompanied by a process of mergers to create a small number of “Super-unions” out of the hundreds of often tiny unions that existed in the 1970s; creating unions that were large enough to act as partners in the social compact, and – where necessary – take actions (such as preventing strikes or giving up conditions) against the interests of smaller groups of members who lost out in the economic reforms underway. The AWU was one of the unions formed in this period, (as were the MUA and CFMEU). There were benefits to the Accord; but there were plenty of losers, too; and the perception of unions and unions officials as powerful, faceless bureaucracies uninterested in the workers within their dominion was hugely strengthened by this period of history. The number of otherwise progressive or moderate Gen Xers who entered the workforce in the last years of this process and still tell me that unionists are parasites based on experiences in their late teens is genuinely worrying. 

 

It may not seem so from the way the media reports union activities, but many (progressive) Australian unions have been actively attempting to devolve power away from their executive to their membership since the mid-90’s. The implementation of economy-wide enterprise bargaining (as well as the focus on individual, rather than institutional, rights, embodied in the Fair Work Act) has pushed this project still further; with the results of union members’ bargaining processes now much more likely to be determined by their own votes, campaigning and actions, instead of the diktat of a far away union official. The unions that – through preference or circumstance – rely most heavily on the Award system (the system that operated during the 80’s) are the ones that most closely hew to the old top-down model of unionism – such as the SDA, which you’ll no doubt remember best for their steadfast and member-defying opposition to gay marriage.

 

So Howes’ nostalgia for a time when people like him were able to tell regular union members when they had to take one for the team is a little bit galling to those of us who joined in the so-called “organising” era. Given that he’s a man who obviously loves to display his power and influence no matter the consequences, such as in his appalling Lateline appearance during the 2010 knifing of Kevin Rudd, the idea of empowering him to overrule his membership in the “national interest” is not very appealing. (Incidentally, Gerard Henderson, who made his career fighting the “IR club” of cosy bosses and union officials, must be terribly confused about how to take all this…)

 

Thirdly, it’s not clear what the circumstances are that would justify unions making concessions to business. The 80’s was a period of rising inflation and unemployment, with serious labour market flexibility problems, and unions with genuine power to prevent change through both legislation and strikes. The labour share of income was at an all time high, and most major industries survived through tariff barriers that essentially operated as a tax on the rest of the community. There was an argument for opening up the economy then, and it was put compellingly to the Australian people, who – arguably – accepted it. 

 

Today, we have low inflation, low pay increases, unemployment rising slightly, a labour market that can set prices at the individual or firm level without any fuss, and where wage rises do not flow across regions or industries (for better or worse), and unions that, on the whole, are running to stand still, with less than 20% membership across the economy and serious problems getting any traction in the lower paid, service industry occupations that are growing like topsy (largely replacing low-skilled manufacturing) and would benefit most from organised bargaining power. Even some amazingly powerful unions, like the Nurses and Teachers, are unable to achieve huge increases, because they’re stuck in the public sector where governments on both sides of the house have been more than prepared to fight them indefinitely for the sake of the budget bottom line. The Fair Work Act protects workers at the bottom slightly better, without changing any of the WorkChoices restrictions around industrial action that unions need to have genuine teeth in bargaining. So the idea that union power is causing enough of an issue (outside of construction projects in NW Australia – which, let’s not forget, are temporary: they’ll cease when the infrastructure they’re building is complete) that workers need to give something away to bribe employer groups to stop attacking their rights is fairly unhelpful. At this point in time, such a compact couldn’t be a partnership, it would be more like negotiating terms of surrender. 

 

Now that last sentence is fairly hyperbolic; I’ll accept that criticism before you make it. But it was definitely my first gut reaction to Howes’ speech – “We’re so far behind right now, what on earth is left to give?”. I suspect I’m not alone – my experience has been that most people who work in a union have found their way into the industry because they’re outspoken do-gooders who at some point just couldn’t help themselves speaking out about something in their workplace that was just unfair. We’d view the growing inequality in the populartion and spiking profit share of income in Australia as a systemic issue that requires not merely redistribution by government, but greater bargaining power amongst workers – which the Fair Work Act (at least according to ABS stats) simply hasn’t delivered. We can’t see any signs that the monied elite are willing to give anything of significance towards these objectives – in fact, they’re increasingly opposed to these objectives as an ideological imperative. To enter a fair contract, or bargain, both sides must have something that the other wants; and the value that they place on the other person’s object needs to be greater than the value they place on their own. In this case, what the potential “partners” want from a deal is a reduction on the power and control of workers over their own wages, conditions and working life; and if there’s anything a union leader feels is more valuable than that objective, then they’re not fit to be in the position.

 

So far, I’ve enjoyed living my life in a country where Jack is as good as his master, but Howes’ proposal won’t do anything to preserve that ethos, it’ll just make sure that Paul is one of the masters.

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The Electricity Series P2 – AC/DC and the Grid

August 25, 2013 at 12:28 pm (Uncategorized)

Evcricket's Energy

This is part 2 of what is likely to be a gripping trilogy of posts on how electricity is made and moved around Australia. Part 1: The basics is available here.Part 3 – Charges and Accounting is available here

Today we wind up the technicality a bit with a discussion of the differences between AC and DC power and why AC was chosen to power the grid. Once you’ve got your head around that we’ll move into how the grid is managed and why.

The Two Different Flavours of Current

In the early days of electricity research and designing networks for cities (late 1800’s), something of a war went on between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, two pretty stout minds in the field of electrical research.

Edison, seriously famous American inventor was in favour of direct current (DC) for distributed networks, mostly because he held patents in most…

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An idea of mine

April 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm (Tom)

While I’m not a member of the Greens, I have a lot of sympathy for their positions on issues. Over my voting life, I’m pretty sure I’ve put 1 next to a Green more often than an ALP member, despite having handed out for the latter party on a number of occasions. It’s possible this makes me a a hypocrite or a tribalist, although I tend to think of it as an attachment to the principles of the ALP combined with a dissatisfaction about their seeming reluctance to put those principles into practice. Anyway, it seems to me that one of the key problems the Greens face is a lack of institutional support. The symbiosis (though occasionally toxic) between the ALP and the unions is a key factor in the ALP’s longevity and ability to call upon trained and committed people for operational and leadership positions. The connections between the Liberal parties and the business and legal communities provide them with a similar bank of resources and personnel, though this broader catchment is more informally attached. The Nationals, for their part, have a steady base of support through the farmer’s federation, the CWA, and rural (non-mining) business and social groups. The Greens, however,  are limited to the occasional support of environmental groups; which are a hotch-potch of feuding, single-interest groups reliant on public charity or unstable public funding. It’s notable that most of their parliamentary representation do not have a background in organisations like Greenpeace or the Conservation Foundation, which might have provided the kind of hands-on experience and political training they desperately require; nor in ostensibly sympathetic groups like microfinance banks, environmental regulation agencies, green power businesses, internet providers or tourism operators, which might give them the kind of policy expertise (and financial support) they often seem short on in the very areas they are most committed to reforming.

If the Greens want to get beyond 13%, they’re going to need to develop not only a set of policies that appeal to people, but a party structure that’s not only capable of sustaining itself (they’ve got that), but growing, organising in areas of weakness, and marshalling and directing large quantities of money, resources and personnel during election campaigns.

Beyond a few derisory efforts at “progressive business forums” (a contested territory that Left Labor has already colonised, the Greens lean heavily on environmental groups. However, the key problem is that every such group considers itself a peak body – single-handedly assigning itself responsibility for speaking on behalf of the earth. If an environmental peak body can be said to exist, it’s arguable that it’s the Greens Party itself playing this role. This leaves them inflexible on environmental issues – unable to differ on policy with any of its constituent groups without risking their defection from the cause. The ALP can disagree with its unions occasionally (all too often, perhaps), because the ACTU acts as a buffer between them, allowing dissention without all-out war.

So, what should they do about it? In a sense, this is the wrong question – a party shouldn’t theoretically need to build its own institutions – the same community that the party represents (if it’s large and dynamic enough to be desirous of representation) should be expressing itself and organising in other ways, the most successful expressions of which would become the stable insitutional wing of the party. But since this doesn’t really appear to have occurred for the Greens, they do need to consider what kind of institutions would best support and express their particular philosophies; and how they can sustain themselves and hopefully provide financial support for the party from a position in the private sector.

Now, to that idea I first mentioned.

In Australia, right now, governments of all hues are determined to build “open markets” in areas that were once public monopolies.  Think NBN, think electricity, think primary health care, but also wheat, fish, timber, ore, and other commodities that have become increasingly federally regulated in recent years. The market structures being implemented are characterised by the artificial creation of two rigidly seperated arenas – a “wholesale” market and a “retail” market. The wholesale market is tightly regulated, perhaps dominated by a public monopoly, and players in this market are prohibited by law from intervening in or directly entering the “retail” market. The retail market, on the other hand, has a limited choice of suppliers, but can rest easy in the knowledge that their retail competitors are only able to purchase their wares at exactly the same rates, and under the same conditions as they are. The point, of course, is to protect and control supplies, while driving innovation, entrepreneurship and product differentiation at a retail level.

There is one business model that enjoys significant tax advantages, consumer engagement, and flexibility, and which should be very much to the philosophical taste of the Greens – the co-operative.  Why not use the organisational resources of the Greens to start seeding co-operatives designed to tap into these market “grids”, and pass on the benefits of consumer control and low NGO tax rates to consumers? A renewed focus on co-operative businesses would be a great trigger to help the Greens recruit those with hands-on commercial expertise and an understanding of small business, tax and regulatory burden.

Co-ops do have a major problem – diseconomies of scale. As the size of a co-operative grows, the necessity of providing voice and a vote to its members becomes more and more of a burden – especially over basic operational matters that businesses deal with summarily. For “grid” markets, like power and internet, that’s not a problem – there’s no real economies of scale to be found (because bulk pricing from the wholesaler or vertical integration are disallowed), so growth is not an imperative. If your co-op ISP (the most obvious “first step”, to my mind) is having trouble dealing with customers in two exchanges, it makes more sense to simply split it into two co-operatives, dealing with one exchange each.

One hitch is that these “open markets” often seem to have a gateway cost – a big fixed price charged for access to the network, after which each additional customer or unit of product comes with a much smaller, variable charge. If that remains the case with the NBN, then it might fall to the Greens (or whoever funds them) to set up a “peak body” for the co-operatives – a single provider that pays the big fixed costs and onsells retail amounts to the local co-operatives. Preferably, to maintain the tax advantages, this would be a not-for-profit organisation, which would also give it more ability to advocate on behalf of its “constitutent” co-operatives, or get involved in politics (hint, hint).

The support of localised, democratic organisations, providing members with a tangible benefit that they could not otherwise access? That was the formula that saw Australian Labor parties increase their vote from 10% in the 1890s to more than 50% by 1911. And I’m pretty sure that with a bit more vision and little less entitlement, the Greens could achieve something similar.

In Australia, I could only find one internet co-op; which seems to have closed down in the last few years, unfortunately: http://www.cacom.uts.edu.au/articles/profiles/netc.html

However, there are a number in the US – it’d be worth finding out how they work, and what services they provide.

http://magnoliaroad.net/

http://www.rric.net/

 

Depending on what I’m doing next year, I might seek out a technical expert, get a NSW govt. business development grant and see if I can’t put together some kind of business plan, actually. Anyone else interested?

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Some thoughts about cooking

April 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm (Dan)

I’m a pretty confident cook. I don’t cook very often, these days, because I’m also a pretty lazy cook, but I know what I’m doing in the kitchen. I’m quite happy tinkering with recipes or inventing things entirely from scratch. I’ve made lasagne from the pasta up – the only thing I didn’t do was mince the meat, that’s because I asked my nice butcher man to do it for me.

When I’m making something I’ve never made before, I look at a few recipies for the same thing, and then forget about them all and do whatever seems right. I can pick flavour combinations that seem outlandish and horrifying, that I think will be good together, and I am rarely wrong.

I can’t bake, though. When I’m making something that needs to rise, I need recipes, and I have to follow them. This is because I don’t really eat bread or cake very often, so I don’t cook them very often, so I’m scared to make them in case they break.

Except pizza dough. I can make delicious pizza dough at any time without any reference materials – it’s easy, why would you need to look at a recipe?

The above is only a little bit so I can brag about how awesome I am (I’m pretty awesome, guys), it’s also to show that even confident cook-types can have areas where they’re uncomfortable, and those areas don’t necessarily make any sense, but they’re scary and will be avoided, or walked through carefully.

In my family, while growing up, all of us kids (me, my brother and sister) were involved in cooking meals. There are pictures of us with wooden spoons as big as we are, blue cake batter in our hair, delightedly stirring our cake monstrosities that we were allowed to put anything we wanted in, with some guidance from mum. The cakes were probably awful but we were involved in the process.

We wouldn’t be involved in chopping vegetables or boiling anything, but we’d get stuff from the fridge and the pantry, and when we were big enough to do it without making enormous messes, we’d measure and pour things, mix them, lay them out, whatever.

A great deal of this stopped, however, as we progressively hit school age. So when I was at school, the others were less involved in cooking because mum was doing other stuff as well, and by the time all of us were in school it didn’t happen often at all.

This means that I was the most exposed to cooking as a young child, and my sister, the youngest, the least. And while my brother and I have had family-adjudicated pizza-from-scratch competitions, with various styles of pizza each, in the past, he’s less of a generalist cook than I am, and my sister claimed to be unable to cook for a long time, but in the last two years or so has been doing so more and more, and is now more confident. But the general cooking skills gradient matches our ages, and also our exposure to the processes of cooking as tiny children.

Now, one family isn’t data, but it is an interesting counterpoint to the gender-essentialist view that men can’t cook and ladies can. First of all, no-one can’t cook. Cooking is easy but it’s definitely a matter of confidence, to some degree. Experience with the processes is also important, so you know, for instance, to start the rice earlier if you’re going with stovetop absorption rather than a rice-cooker for your whatever it is rice dish, but barring massive inattention or accidental use of the wrong measures for things, basically anyone can cook from a recipe and it’ll turn out.

It may, currently, be the case that more men than women claim not to be able to cook, which I think is more a fear of failure than a scientifically tested viewpoint, but I’m reasonably certain that more girls than boys are involved in the processes of cooking as children, at the moment (or 20 years ago – might not be the case for kids who are kids now, and if it’s not, the “can’t!” divide will probably vanish as they move out and start being adults).

A lady I lived with once, despite coming from a very much food-oriented culture, wasn’t really comfortable doing more than cooking rice and some vegetables, and attributes this to not being involved with the cooking side of food much as a kid. Food just appeared at the table, and you ate it (if said lady is reading this and being misrepresented in terms of skillset or upbringing, I apologise, but this is how I recall it from our discussions).

A lady I live with right now is much less comfortable with experimenting with food than I am, or at least was initially. Heather still likes to cook from the recipe but she does throw changes in, now, when she feels like it, and this is directly due to her increased familiarity with cooking in general (and also because she’s had to put up with me going “ooh! let’s put this in there, too!” for so long that it’s become part of her kitchen habits?).

So, yeah. Being uncomfortable with cooking isn’t a guy thing for any non-cultural reasons. There’re ladies who “can’t” cook and there’re guys who cook all the time. There are people who are masters of a few particular dishes that they know inside out, and there’re people who will give anything a shot based on a vague description someone gave them of a meal they ate when they were drunk, 19, and in Burma somewhere. They all exist in every gender and the only reason that there’s different numbers of each gender in these classes is because different genders are brought up with different expectations and experience in cooking in general.

Science fact. So there.

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I dream of homeschooling.

February 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm (Julia) (, , , , , )

I know that’s not very fashionable. I know that the phrase “homeschooling” brings to mind weird, undersocialised fundamentalist christian kids, or a borderline Flowers in the Attic thing. But I think that’s not all there is to it.

I had a shit time in school. That’s fair enough, so did most people. I constantly felt completely alone an isolated, that I wasn’t cool, that I wasn’t fun, etc. I still have these feelings of extreme anxiety – when things are bad, I feel as though I am utterly unspecial to my friends, that no one really wants to hang out with me, that I am a second thought for them. This is pretty stupid, but I spent 13 years having this drilled into me.

“Julia, you shouldn’t wear black so much, you look weird.”

“Julia, you read too much.”

“Julia, it’s okay if you want to talk around me, but don’t do it so much around my friends. You say weird things, and it’s embarrassing.”

Those were helpful statements from my friends. I’m not going to mention the things said to me by my enemies, highschool sucked for everyone, you can probably fill in the blanks yourselves.

I don’t want this experience for my kids.

Here’s a blog post by a woman who was un-schooled, “I used to be the prettiest girl in the world”. I want my children to have that level of self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. Especially if they’re girls, because it is SO HARD to be proud of yourself if you’re a girl. Hard for boys too, but man – modesty is bullshit.  I would like my children, during their formative years, to be largely unconcerned with conforming to whatever aesthetic ideal has been set by the media and the cool group at their school. I want them to be able to express interest in whatever they like without having to worry that they’ll be seen as uncool. I want them to try on different identities and feel out their own sense of self, unhindered by constant negative pressure to conform to… whatever.

However, it’s not just personal development that makes me want to homeschool my kids one day, it’s largely the horrendous failings of our educational system. As a teacher, I’ve seen what it’s like. Teachers are overworked and undersupported. They teach enormous classes full of hugely diverse kids, and are expected to deliver lessons that cater to all of them. They are trapped by the very strong limitations of the syllabus. I do not understand how kids manage to be enthusiastic or passionate about learning in our current school system.

I would love to homeschool my kids. I am passionate about what is called cross-curriculum content, but basically means learning skills over a variety of disciplines. I believe the boundaries of disciplines are largely useless at school-age, and the focus on subject areas means kids learn to hate certain subjects and the skills that go along with them. Having a hard time with one aspect of maths means you decide you’re no good at maths as a whole. Finding one aspect of history boring can mean you write the whole subject off.  Cutting yourself off from these skills at such a young age is a tragedy.

I would love to teach my kids about fractions using baking. I would love for them to read Asimov, then discuss the ethical and metaphysical  implications of robots (are they human? are they not? Is it okay to have them as slaves?), and then maybe build a robot. Maybe a model, maybe something with some cool electronics. I would love to teach them history and physics together by building working models of medieval siege engines.

In the classroom, it is hard for me to feel amazing and inspiring. I am so limited by the curriculum, by the school timetable, by the resources available in state schools, by the lack of interest of the kids, by the overbearing bureaucracy that seeps into every aspect of school education. Sorry, kids, we’re doing textbook work today because I’ve got to write your term reports, so I don’t have time to create interesting lessons. Sorry, kids, there’s no time to teach you about the protest movement, music and counter-culture during the Vietnam War, we’ve got limited teaching hours for this topic. Sorry, kids, we can’t derail this lesson into a discussion of gender in ancient greece, we’ve got to stay on track so we can finish the topic in time for your exam.

This is not how learning should be. Students should not have to work hard to stay interested. Teachers should not have to unprioritise inspiring, engaging lessons.

This is not just a failing of the state school system. I’m currently employed as a tutor for two kids, a brother and a sister, who are in year 6 and year 7 respectively at two of Sydney’s most prestigious private schools. I don’t tutor them, per se. I extend them. I provide an interesting, engaging counterpoint to what they’re learning. I provide the one-on-one time they need. I link what they’re learning to their other interests.

They shouldn’t need me to do this, not with what their schools charge. The schools have amazing resources – drama rooms, art supplies beyond a public school teacher’s wildest dreams, huge and beautiful grounds – but they lack diversity. Everyone is upper middle-class. The kids I tutor complain because their mother won’t buy them iPads or designer clothes, like their friends’ mums do. The 12 year old girl felt stressed about attending a year 6 school dance at a nearby independant boys’ school because her mum wouldn’t fork out for a proper formal dress. Instead, she went in a lovely sun dress. She isn’t even interested in boys yet, but was extremely concerned about not wearing the right thing in case her friends judged her. The boy attends an Anglican school and his mother is increasingly concerned about the overbearing religious aspect of his education.

I think about education all the time. I love it. I love getting young people to understand things. The Eureka! moment is amazing to watch. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been unable to extend a student within class due to the millions of limitations placed on us.  And I’m afraid of putting my own hypothetical children in this system, where they become faceless, where they can’t pursue their interests, where they can’t direct their own learning.

Already, there are so many fantastic educational resources on the internet, and in the next decade, this will only grow. By the time I have kids of schooling age, the internet will be full of everything I need to teach them. My own skills as an educator would add to this – when utilising online resources, you can’t really just sit a kid in front of a computer and let them go. I know how to structure activities using resources so that the students actually gain knowledge.

One of my favourite sites, which I’ve used for the year 7 History curriculum, is the British Museum’s Ancient Greece site. On my second prac, I created a worksheet for kids that required them to use this site as research, and to analyse the information and present it in new ways. They loved it. I don’t get to teach fun classes like that enough. Educational experiences using awesome websites and interactive resources shouldn’t be a sometimes food. They shouldn’t be a special treat, a break from the norm of textbooks and whiteboard notes. Homeschooling would give me the chance to create holistic, memorable educational experiences. My kids could spend their formative years loving learning, and loving themselves.

And so what if they were weird and undersocialised at the end of it? So was I, when I finished high school. And I certainly wasn’t the most awkward person to ever start university. I think, largely, the concept of age-based peers is completely overrated. Some of the teachers I’ve gotten on best with have been lovely middle-aged nerds who use comic books in English classes, rather than the women my age who just want to talk about Masterchef. So, yes. I attended a variety of different schools (a k-2 infant’s school with a focus on early childhood development, a multilingual school where I did a third of my classes in German, a small-town state public primary school where my teacher created a whole program just for me because I was brighter than everyone else, a state highschool where I was invisible and unhappy, and a private Uniting church school with a seriously amazing extra-curricular program. I’m still a total spaz when it comes to socialising with people my own age, and I’ve had to work very, very hard to overcome the damage school did to my self-esteem.

So why not homeschool? Why not save everyone from that? Why not totally avoid being told I’m a bad mother for NOT letting my kids wear designer clothes? There are extracurricular activities available outside schools, surely my kids could socialise through those?

I just can’t really see any overwhelming arguments FOR sending my kids to a normal school. Does this make me a filthy hippy? Possibly. I just think of the whole thing, thirteen years of trying desperately to fit in, and I kind of feel it’s not worth it.

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I really like Christmas.

December 12, 2010 at 7:27 pm (Julia) (, )

Here is a post about Christmas traditions. I’m writing this because, well, I’ve got a lot of Christmas traditions, as you’re all aware. I wanted to write this for you not because I think my traditions should be your traditions – but because having traditions is important. More accurately, having traditions that you like and look forward to is important. I’m excited for Heather and Abby, starting new traditions of their own, getting to decide what THEY want. So far it’s mostly been discussion of cocktails and video games – and because Dan is involved, ham. This is by no means how I would do Christmas, but that’s what’s so glorious: it represents what’s important to you. You have a holiday which is, for secular folk, about being with people you love, about celebrating and reflecting on the past year, and about preparation for the next. Traditions and feasts are important in all cultures. Christmas, in the northern hemisphere, is nearly at the same time as the Winter Solstice, so it ties in nicely with communities coming together to give thanks that they’ve made it through the worst of the winter and knowing that the sun will come back.

 

Fortunately, in Australia, we have summer christmas. Summer christmas is GLORIOUS – once you accept that it’s summer. You can still have roast meats, but concessions must be made to account for the hot weather. In my family, we do this by eating dinner outside, on a trestle table, under the trees.

My fellow AP5 contributers have all experienced the glories of Millthorpe in summer, and I’ve told you all about my deep love of Christmas there. I think, in recent years, my love of Millthorpe Christmas is tied closely to my love of Millthorpe NYE. I have been thinking about my traditions at each one, and feeling overjoyed. Fresh fruit, and cream. Breakfast fry-ups. Time to talk with all of you, one on one.

BUT you all know our traditions. I love the fact that I have traditions with you, my darling friends. I hope they continue. So this is about some of the other traditions my family has, because I am feeling sentimental today and I wanted to share them with you.

I have already baked the Christmas cake with my mum, in my parents’ tiny flat in Potts Point. We used to bake the cake together each year, weeks in advance. When I was an undergrad I would come up a few weeks before Christmas to bake the cake with her, but over the last few years that hasn’t happened. It was lovely – although in my mother’s usual haphazard way, we needed to go to the shops four separate times to get things we’d forgotten. We use Mrs Beeton’s rich bride or christening cake recipe. We halve it – and it still usually makes three cakes. It’s an epic recipe. It was lovely to do this again with my mum.

I have had many phonecalls with my dad about Christmas lunch itself. On Christmas day, it’s my job to set the table, but this is a massive project. White table linen, every year – my dad doesn’t believe in big lunches without white tableclothes. We have a menu, so I’m bringing up some lovely paper for it.

Here’s the menu from last time I was home for Christmas, in 2010:

Why yes, that IS some middle-class shit right there. Anyway, dad has been reminded that I don’t eat smoked salmon, but also now knows I don’t like rockmelon with prosciutto. He’s made sure to order extra pork skin to accommodate the endless hunger my sister and I have for crackling. I love phonecalls with my dad about Christmas lunch, because there were a few years where he and I didn’t have many safe topics of conversation at all – but Christmas lunch was always one of them.

I grew up in a secular family, and so Christmas has never been about going to Mass or thinking about Jesus or anything like that.  Therefore, most Christmas songs don’t really hit close to home for me. I love the old carols, because my mum sings them, and I love Handel’s Messiah, because my mum always puts it on at about 10.30 on Christmas day (when she’s in the kitchen), and blasts it loudly through the house. When my great-uncle Theo was still alive, I would walk through, on the way to taking linen out to the table in the garden, and I would be stopped by mum, Theo and Mary, and asked to sing the tenor part of the Hallelujah chorus. Not the main bit that everyone knows, but the “and he shall reign for ever and ever” part, which is pretty good fun. An important part of this tradition is that my mum puts it up so loud that you can hear little else through the whole house, and various other people come and turn it down again. Then she turns it up, etc.

Look, here, the Messiah:

This year will be extra special, because of Francis and Amelia. I don’t know how that will affect things, but I’m excited to find out. Tom and I will get to play Auntie and Uncle, and that’s still pretty new for us. Seeing them at Christmas makes me think a lot about the traditions I want when we have kids, and how I want them to experience Christmas, hence this long and sentimental post.

The only thing I’m sad about in regards to going to Millthorpe for Christmas is that I won’t be spending it with you, lovely friends. You are the people who I love the most, other than my Tom. You’re all such an incredibly important part of my life, and I hope that in a few years’ time when Tom and I (hopefully) have a kid, that you’ll all be around to help build amazing traditions. I hope that you enjoy Christmas this year, whatever you do. I hope that you get to do your favourite traditions, and that you can cut out anything you don’t like about Christmas. I hope you only spend it with people you think are rad, and I can’t wait to see you all in Millthorpe.

 

Tim Minchin has produced what I believe to be a perfect summation of my Christmas experience, so I put it here for you. I think Percy and Tab will love it most of all, and so it is a little anniversary gift to them. I hope the two of you have an amazing Christmas together this year, your second Christmas as a married couple. I hope you create traditions that you love and that you bring back every year.

(A side note: happy anniversary, Percy and Tab! Although you are not related to us, we love you like family, and we are so happy that you’re so in love with each other. You have made it through a pretty difficult first year of marriage, what with that terrible outbreak of The Kemp. We salute you.)

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Internet adventures! (Mostly terrifying)

November 24, 2010 at 7:08 am (Percy) (, , , , , , , , )

So I’m going to try this blogging thing, and try to do it a bit more regularly, and a bit less polished.

You see, I think I come across so many weird and wonderful things on the internet, ranging from the cute to the downright disturbing.

OR BOTH

Most of the time, Tabitha is the only person who sees some of this, and my collection is vast. Time to share.

My number one source is, of course, Space Ghetto. I have been with this community a long time, mostly as a lurker. But some days, they are a goldmine of goodness. Some of these things are from there, so props to those guys.

(If you are reading this from work, you should probably stop right now and GET BACK TO WORK)

(But read this later, it’s awesome)

I love two things about this. Firstly, I had no idea he loses his shit in so many ways in so many movies. It seems like he should be more famous, or at least more memorable. But most of all I love the perfect syncing with the music!

Some extremely strong language, but I think it’s quite nice absurdism. A mildly hilarious thing is blown out of all proportion and taken to the maximum extreme. Like this dog:

Also,

The Picture and Text formats are two of the three primary methods of memetic transfer on the internet (the other one being YouTube videos), and again I’d bundle this humour in with the absurdism of the previous video. There is just an endless way to put them together, and I think it’s fascinating.

So pretty!

Also pretty. I have discovered that while I like to wear black, I really like colours in most other things. The more, the better!

Whilst not true of today (oh man) I do like the fact that I’m at an age and level of financial stability that I can actually spend a day, every now and then, doing NOTHING. So refreshing.

Now here are two videos from Natalie Tran of the communitychannel YouTube channel. She’s the most subscribed to channel on YouTube, and her channel has had well over 40 million views. Her comedy is great and her audience interaction is really noteworthy as well.

Do you like text over a nebula?

I’m glad it’s not me who’s been creeped out by Jimmy Wales’ face:

As is traditional over on the ghetto, I leave you with this:

The best 15 seconds you’ll have today!

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I do not think it means what you think it means…

November 14, 2010 at 4:10 pm (Tom) (, , , , )

Instead of staring at my longer, unfinished post about why partisan politics is destroying the usefulness of economics, I thought I’d post a quick one about the misuse of a particular economic theory.

The Free Market

You’ve almost certainly heard of the concept of a “free market”.  Most people chalk this up to one Adam Smith, the father of classical liberal economics; although as far as I can tell, the phrase is actually attributable to John Stuart Mill, writing about 60 years after Smith’s death (and not about economics, either). It describes a situation where individuals have complete power to buy and sell property and services to other individuals at will; bound only by government enforcement of the laws of contract and private property. The advantage of a truly free market, Smith argued, was that the “invisible hand” of the market would set prices at the correct level. Subsequent economists like Ricardo and Cournot cleared up what he meant by this confusing statement, introducing the supply/demand curve and explaining the mechanism behind it.

Simply put, (and in the absence of all other stimulus):

1. People buying in a market will look for the lowest possible price amongst the sellers. If the lowest possible price is above the amount they’re willing to pay, they drop out, and are no longer buyers.

2. Sellers will look for the highest price amongst the buyers. If the highest possible price is less than they’re willing to sell for, they drop out.

3.  Prices will move to the point at which the number of sellers is equal to the number of buyers.

4. At this price, this is neither a surplus nor a shortfall, so it is the most efficient and stable state.

So far, so good. It hangs together, it can be proven logically and by experiment; and from the late 1700’s to today, it’s been a centrepiece of anti- or minimal-government thought. Basically, the wisdom of crowds is superior to the wisdom of bureaucracies.

However, there is a key problem with the theory – it relies on information symmetry. For it to come off without a hitch, every single one of the buyers and sellers needs to have complete knowledge of every other transaction and possible transaction able to take place in the market at any given time. That way, they can compare all the options, and come to the perfect, rational decision. Obviously, this isn’t possible in practice, and where one party has access to better information than the other, they can take advantage of this to get a higher or lower price than the model says. This problem is the source of much of the consumer protection law of the 20th century; which was a project begun by the British common law, and continued by the Liberal party in the UK, the Republicans in the US, and the Menzies-era Liberal Party in Australia.

Efficient-markets Hypothesis

However, where the theory causes real problems is when you’re buying and selling money itself.

The global economy is worth about $61.06 trillion US dollars. That’s an estimate of every single economic transaction taking place all over the world. Of that, the world stock market is now worth $36.6 trillion dollars (measured at one of the lowest points of the financial crisis, it’s picked up since then). So a little more than half the world’s economy is listed on a sharemarket somewhere.

However, average daily turnover of the foreign exchange market alone is $3.98 trillion US dollars; and the total value of derivatives is $791 trillion US dollars. That’s more than 11 times the total value of the world economy.

So the vast bulk of transactions made every day in the finance industry aren’t for tangible things. They’re making and taking bets about what happens in that “real” economy, the tiny little $36.6 trillion dollar nub that deals with the measurable, regulated, material world. They’re buying and selling a chance to make more money.

At the start of the 20th Century, there were two schools of thought that rebelled against this emerging financial capitalism. Broadly, they were called Fascism and Communism, and both seem to have largely died out – but their unifying thread was the complete rejection of speculative earnings. They both argued that this kind of trading was unproductive, parasitic, and, after the 1890 and 1929 stock market crashes, dangerous, too.

The answer from economists was to develop the Efficient-markets Hypothesis. This says that in financial markets (where people are buying a chance at more money, rather than an item they need to consume or trade), the market is actually dealing in information and trading risk. The price someone is willing to buy or sell for is dependent on their knowledge of what’s likely to happen to that price in future; so the market price will move quickly to reflect all available information about the item. So if you’re trading in the market, you don’t really need to know what you’re buying or selling – if you have an idea as to whether the price is going to rise or fall in future, that’s all you need to know, because the market will always get it right. Government, by “regulating” will just slow down the wealth creation process, and add the risk of the market getting it wrong.

You see where this is heading, right? In the leadup to the financial crisis, new types of derivative products flooded the newly deregulated US exchanges – most famously “sub-prime” mortgage bundles, but these weren’t the only culprits – food and fuel futures and foreign exchange bets played a role too. Since a downturn in the US economy in about 2000, the US federal reserve had been giving out loans at near 0% interest – certainly below the rate of inflation, and this free money found a place to go.  A massive bubble built, but because people knew that the market couldn’t get it wrong, there was no reason to check out what they were buying.

And then, disaster. There are plenty of reasons the EMH doesn’t work in practice, but the key problem is that it’s using Adam Smith’s old theory in a context stripped of the things that make it work. Why? Because until the market fails, it makes a lot of people a lot of money. And when it does, it turns out they can shift that failure on to the taxpayer or consumer.

Built-in Market Failure

But even where the market is of a type that Smith could have forseen, the problem of information asymmetry remains strong. The theory argues that where buyers and sellers have differing levels of information, there is an incentive to improve it; so as they do so, the market returns to equilibrium. OK, good answer, but what about  markets where a large number people only buy occasionally; but a small number of producers sell all the time? It’s very much in the interests of those producers to have all the information, but the time and energy involved in collecting it as an individual makes it prohibitive. What if, even better, the producers can invest money to misinform, selectively inform, or otherwise manipulate the buyers? We call this sort of thing “advertising”.

A pretty good example of a free market vs an efficient market is the US pharmaceuticals market and the Australian one. In the US, medicines are sold subject to a check from the US Food and Drug Administration; doctors then have leeway to prescribe whatever drug they wish. Consumers, in addition, are able to request particular brands or drugs from their doctors, and in some states regulation prevents doctors from refusing to prescribe these alternatives, if it’s appropriate to the patients’ condition. There’s public assistance for the poor and the elderly, but everyone else pays full price. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars a year marketing to and influencing both consumers and doctors; with very little regulation. This is a deregulated market in action, and in 2009 constituted 17.3% of their economy (public + private spend).

Australia, on the other hand, bans direct-to-consumer advertising and severely limits marketing to medical professionals. Doctors can specify what is prescribed by brand, and can refuse to prescribe anything they don’t think is worthwhile. It also operates a subsidy for medicines called the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which dramatically reduces the prices of drugs considered by an expert panel of scientists to provide good value-for-money. You can still buy the other drugs; but they’ll cost you the full amount, just like in the US. This is a highly regulated market; and in 2009 constituted 9.1% of our economy (public+private spend).

The American market is clearly more free; so why is it more expensive and greatly less effective?

Well, the trick is that the word “free” doesn’t just apply to governments. By limiting the information that the sellers can put into the marketplace, and by adding a major and highly accurate price signal to the matket in the form of the PBS, the Australian system actually corresponds more closely to what liberal economists would term a “free” market.  It’s not the removal of regulation that makes markets work efficiently, it’s the removal or minimisation of market distortion; and business is just as capable as government of distorting a market – in fact, that’s pretty much their job.

So next time someone tells you that free markets are more efficient, check that they actually know what they’re advocating – the strict regulation of corporations, consumer protection, banning advertising or inexpert buyers, government guidance to market participants, the removal of distortionary incentives like yearly executive bonuses and sales commissions and possibly the closure of most of the global financial system.

Inconceivable!

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No, I won’t make you a sandwich.

October 27, 2010 at 2:29 pm (Julia) (, , , , , )

I play online games quite a bit, over Steam. Mostly it’s L4D2, or TF2. L4D2 I tend to play only with my close friends – people I know in real life. The larger servers on TF2 mean that I’m often playing with strangers. Sometimes I stack a team with my friends, sometimes I don’t.

I also use my microphone. A lot. I like talking – sometimes to tell people what’s happening in the game, or to ask questions, sometimes just to dick around. However, sadly, I have a very obviously non-adult-male voice, as do the two women I game with most frequently.

The first thing that happens is that people try to guess whether we’re female, or young boys. We’re different, you see. The norm in online gaming, they believe, is to be a post-pubescent male. After establishing that we’re female, the other players seem to split three ways.

1. People who don’t care either way, and just continue playing. These are my favourites. They’re the people I’m mostly likely to accept friend requests from. People who enjoy the game, like having a chat and a bit of fun, and who enjoyed playing with me, but aren’t going to get weird about it. They’re well-adjusted and mature, and tend to be people like myself and my friends – adults who are unwinding with a bit of fun.

2. Young men who get kind of… obsessive. They’re fascinated with the concept that women are on the internet, and you can tell, over the course of a few rounds, that they’re beginning to imagine themselves in love with us. They are lonely, and they are a bit sad, and I feel kind of sorry for them. I won’t accept their friend requests, though – that way lies madness, and angry steam messages because you were logged on and they tried to talk to you and you were AFK and they assumed you were ignoring them. No thanks.

3. Men who have a seething hatred for all womankind, and choose to express it using incredibly violent, vitriolic, sexist language. People who will tell you how much they hate you, simply because of those two X chromosomes you’re carrying around.

This post is about that third group.

Last week, Heather told me about a particularly negative gaming experience she’d had, in which men on a TF2 server hurled huge piles of abuse at her, including the phrase “Speak when you’re spoken to, bitch.” That’s a particularly violent example of the kinds of things one hears as a female gamer, but jesus, it made me pretty angry to hear about it.

The issue here is not that gamers like this are making TF2 a less woman-friendly place, and therefore cutting off their nose to spite their face. I mean, sure, that’s an issue, but that’s kind of a male-centric one.

My issue with this is that the men who talk like this are the most fucking gutless idiots on the face of the earth. They are the worst kind of internet tough guy.

Can you imagine these young men, late teens, early 20s, in a real-world situation, using that kind of language? I’m a teacher, and while I’ve copped some abusive language, I’ve never heard anything quite like that. Imagine them using that in the workplace, to a superior, or even to just a colleague. Imagine them trying to tell a female student in a tutorial, or a lecturer, to speak when she’s spoken to. Imagine them saying that to their mother.

We have social rules that clearly state that behaviour is inappropriate. They know it – there’s no way they can’t. And I know a lot of you are thinking, well, what do you expect, it’s the internet, people behave badly there.

No. There is no excuse for that kind of behaviour. The internet is becoming an increasingly important means of communication – young people are doing most of their socialisation on it. Hell, I do most of my socialisation on it. It’s where I get my news, where I plan my social events, where I unwind with my friends at the end of the day. Imagine if Heather and I were on the bus, having a conversation, and a guy behind us started telling us to speak when we were spoken to, or that old chestnut, to make him a sandwich.

I would call the cops. If someone was harassing me like that in public, I would get the five-oh on them. That behaviour is completely inappropriate, and it’s not okay on the internet either.

The shitty thing is, though, my opinion doesn’t matter. Douches like that guy have managed to transform the internet, and online gaming, into male space. Women are told to show tits or GTFO, as though the whole internet is one of those “exclusive” but seedy men’s establishments where women are only allowed in if they’re taking their clothes off. ‘Fraid not, guys.

But if you are a lady and you encounter behaviour like this (and you will), even your actions are limited. If you go off at them, you’re a raging bitch feminazi lesbian who needs a good dicking to sort her out. If you leave the server to find one where you can play without being subjected to verbal violence, you’re a whiny crybaby. There’s only one way to make them happy, and that’s to giggle, to get sexually suggestive (in a non-threatening way) and tell them you’ll make them that sandwich, while wearing a french maid’s outfit. This is because by making it male space, they also get to redefine people’s reactions to their awful behaviour in ways that fit their skewed worldviews. And in turn, it makes women feel as though we’re playing those roles. Leaving a server feels like losing. Getting angry can feel like losing. Either of these actions are, of course, totally justified. No one should stay somewhere they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. And no one should be made to feel bad for defending themselves.

Strangely enough, I, and all the women I know, don’t really feel like stroking the egos and confirming the world views of a bunch of pathetic, angry losers who have, for some unknown reason, complete and total rage for my entire gender. Because that’s what it is, at the end of the day. It’s not just because it’s acceptable behaviour on the internet – it’s because for some reason, they want to treat women with that level of contempt and disrespect. You only do it on the internet if it’s how you want to act in real life.

What the fuck is that about? People will say things like “oh, they’re just mad because they can’t get girlfriends” or “they’re lonely basementdwelling losers” and so on, but the truth is, some of these guys have jobs and girlfriends and friends and lives and yet they completely and totally hate women.

Remember that guy I used to know, the one who ended up being the worst person in the entire world? He was a guy whose complete hatred of women developed over time. I figured it was largely a joke, but then, no.  He spent a lot of time at the bodybuilding forums, and you want to see some misogyny? Go there. It is mindblowing how much they hate women. Now, not hating women is a pretty key element for any person I’m friends with. I need all my friends to be people who have decent gender politics. I don’t think this is completely unfair. And I don’t hate men – I love them. I don’t think all men are dreadful people. Hell, until I started using the internet, I hadn’t really experienced that level of total hatred for women. I don’t know why some men can hate women that much. I know I don’t want to be around women who hate men that much, either. That’s a lot of hate to be carrying around with you all the time.

The internet is normalising this kind of behaviour. It’s not normal. If it’s not appropriate to say it in real life, it’s not appropriate to say it on the internet.

Finn showed me this video. Have a look at it. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but while you watch it, consider the fact that during my hundreds of hours of online gaming, I’ve had most of those things said to me (the female version, anyway).  I’ve had random strangers threaten to rape me. I’m not particularly afraid because, well, they don’t know where I live, but I want you all to seriously think about what kind of person actually says these things to another human being, actually attempts to verbally intimidate them and silence them and make them feel bad about themselves simply because of a factor like gender. Think about if you’d tolerate that kind of behaviour in your workplace, at your uni, in your home.

Now; do me a favour. If you’re a guy, and you’re gaming, and you witness behaviour like this, speak up, even if you don’t know the people involved. If someone does something dreadful like this, make your opinion known. Tell them it’s not okay. Help reduce the shitty misogynist culture of gaming; it’s the right thing to do. Ladies: I’m sorry that this happens. I hope you keep playing, because fuck, these games can be so much fun. If you feel like you can speak up, speak up. There are good guys on the internet – I know, I game with them all the time. Or, you know, you could just ask for a sandwich for yourself.

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Posterity and comparison

October 17, 2010 at 2:38 pm (Monday Morning links, Tom)

I sort of just realised that twitter doesn’t keep things hanging around forever; so I thought this might be a good place to record a set of twitter posts I made during the last election campaign about the journalists & sites I was actually interested in reading.  I don’t have much hope for next March’s NSW election in terms of policy debate; but it’ll be interesting to see if actual issues make an appearance, and who covers them; not to mention the next federal election in 2013 or so.
Tom Fischer
FPTom Tom Fischer
If you, like me, are really getting sick of the way this election is playing in the press, I recommend the following:

»

My top two blogs of the campaign: Grog’s Gamut: http://tinyurl.com/22v7tzh, and Meganomics: http://tinyurl.com/25c8h5p
»
Goanna on the Fairfax National Times is hit-and-miss, but at least has a sense of perspective http://tinyurl.com/25ud48c #newsthatdoesntsuck
»
Ross Gittins is one of maybe 3 economics writers in Australia who actually know economics: http://tinyurl.com/2akf89a #newsthatdoesntsuck
»
Laura Tingle is worth reading, (http://tinyurl.com/2e8l53l) though most of her stuff is paywalled at AFR #newsthatdoesntsuck
»

And Crikey for the nitty-gritty: Bernard Keane http://tinyurl.com/23t4p74 and Pollytics http://tinyurl.com/4kxar4 #newsthatdoesntsuck
»
And the ABC’s Election Live feed is second only to twitter for updates through the day – http://tinyurl.com/28k8a4u #newsthatdoesntsuck
»
TheDrum: sadly weak on serious analysis, but is worth reading for it’s sharp comic columists http://tinyurl.com/ycdbalu #newsthatdoesntsuck
»
Lastly, the twitter feeds you need are: @latikambourke, @TurnbullMalcolm, @howespaul, @samanthamaiden, @annabelcrabb #newsthatdoesntsuck
3 Aug Favorite Reply Delete
Are there any other places you found useful for serious political/policy news?

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