Category Archives: politics

RSPT – A Fair Valuation Based on True Value of New and Existing Mines

Following on from the interest generated by his last post, Mule Stable regular Zebra (James Glover) returns to the subject of the Resources Super Profits Tax in another guest post.

In a previous post I explained how the formula for the RSPT (Resource Super Profits Tax) was derived by considering the Government to be a 40% silent investor in any mining project. I showed that the correct deduction from the return on investments is indeed GBR (Government Bond Rate), as proposed, not a higher rate that includes a “price of risk”. One important thing I missed in this analysis, however, was whether the investment amount (I) was the correct basis for valuing the Government’s new 40% “investment”. I aim to show that the correct variable should actually be the Market Value of Assets (MVA) and as such the appropriate deduction from profits is several times (maybe as much as 4 times) higher for established mines.In the example given based on the mining industry “price to earnings ratio” of 14 the RSPT would only be 9% of earnings. I should emphasise this is not about having separate formulas for new and existing mines but correctly taking into account the fair, market based, price the Govt should pay for it’s 40% share of the earnings.

For new mines MVA = I (where all “=” signs should be taken to mean “approximately equal” to head off the pedants) so the proposed tax is correct in this case.

The Government says that in return for this tax take they are taking downside risk as well as upside benefit. One of the criticisms of the RSPT is that the Government is effectively nationalising 40% of ongoing mines and the GBR deduction is irrelevant as there is no serious downside risk. In the framework I propose the Government is not currently proposing to pay a fair price for this “nationalisation”. If the fair price of the Government’s stake is taken into account then the tax from existing mines is considerably lower than proposed. It may be as low as 9% of earnings. This does not require a backdown by either the miners or the Government, although the Government’s tax take might be less than forecast

If the Government is going to nationalise 40% of a mine – at a fair price – then it needs to effectively pay 40% of the Market Value of Assets (or MVA) for the mine. For new mines the Investment = Equity + Debt is pretty much set at this value. The Government RSPT tax is then:

Tax = 40% x (Earnings – GBR x MVA)

The first term is the Government’s 40% share of the earnings (here taken as Earnings before Tax). The second term is the deduction for the interest that recognizes that the funding of the Government’s share is undertaken by the mine at the Government Bond Rate or GBR. There is no good reason for the Government to pay less than the market value of this asset or MVA. For a new mine just starting up MVA = I, the investment amount, so

Tax = 40% x (Earnings – GBR x I)

If ROI = Return on Investment = Earnings/I then we can write this as:

Tax = 40% x (ROI – GBR) x I

which is the proposed RSPT formula.
For an ongoing mining operation with established operations and contracts, the market value will exceed the book value several times over. I am going to take the very simple assumption that MVA = Price ie the market value of the assets is the market value of the equity. This ignores leverage and is probably too simplistic. Price is based on share price and the number of outstanding shares. In terms of PE-ratio (the ratio of Price to Earnings as determined by the share price) we can write

Tax = 40% x Earnings x (1 – GBR x PE-ratio)

Compared to the original formula the deduction is  40% x GBR x PE-ratio x Earnings. Alternatively we can write this as 40% x GBR x I x MBR where MBR is the Market to Book ratio = MVA/I. So the original Govt funding deduction is just multiplied by MBR. The current formula assumes implicitly that MBR = 1. For existing businesses eg. banks MVA/BVA can be as high as 4 (which is BHPs current value). This gives a very simple deduction in terms of % of earnings, rather than Investment/I, of 40% x GBR x PE-ratio. Note that this is really the same formula for new and existing mines; it just makes proper allowance for the true value of established mines.

So what is the fair deduction for existing mines? It obviously varies with share price and hence market conditions. For mines which are privately held we need a proxy based on publicly traded stocks. The PE-ratio for traded mining stocks is currently about 14. So now, using GBR=5.5%, the  fair deduction for the Govt’s nationalised share for existing mines is not 5.5% (as many erroneously claim) or 22% (allowing for a 25% ROI) but 31%! Note this deduction is off the 40% so the total RSPT tax on earnings would be 9%.

So under a scheme based on a fair deduction for existing mining assets the tax should be:

RSPT = 40% x  Earnings x (1 – 5.5% x 14) = 9% x Earnings.

After 30% company tax this represent a total tax of 38%. Even if we don’t know what the PE-ratio would be for mines which aren’t publicly traded we can use an industry based proxy for the mines whose stocks are publicly traded. Currently this is in the range 13-14. If I was the miners I’d be pretty happy with that. Maybe they should have taken a closer look at the RSPT before opposing it. All the miners have to do is get the Govt to accept it should pay a fair value for its stake and the framework I propose makes that transparent.

Resource Super Profit Tax Everything Correctly Explained (R.S.P.T.E.C.E.)

This guest post from Mule Stable regular Zebra (James Glover) delves into the details of the proposed Resources Super Profits Tax.

The Australian Government (hereby known as the Govt) has proposed a Resources Super Profits Tax (RSPT) for mining companies. Superficially it appears to be a 40% tax on all profits (measured by Return On Investment or ROI) in excess of the Govt Bond Rate (or GBR, the interest rate at which the Govt borrows money, over the long-term).

The key points of this article are:

1. The GBR is the correct threshold level for RSPT,

2. If the Govt increases the threshold above GBR this will represent a subsidy of miners by taxpayers,

3. The RSPT will benefit small and marginal mining projects to get finance through partial Govt backing of risks.

So for example suppose miner Mineral Wealth of Australia (MWA) invests $1bn in the Mt Koalaroo Iron-Ore mine. MWA is a wholly owned subsidiary of Silver Back Mining (SBM). In the year following they make $200m profit or a return on investment (ROI) of 20%. If the GBR = 5.5% then the 40% RSPT means a tax revenue to the Govt of Tax = 40% x (20%-5.5%) x $1000m = $58m.

This seems very straight forward. It appears that the Govt is saying that GBR represents some “fair” level of return and anything in excess of this is a “super profit” to be taxed accordingly. Not at the normal company tax rate of 30% but a “super tax” rate of 40%. This is how it has been presented by both sides in the media. Arguments against the RSPT have focused on whether the GBR as a “risk-free” rate is the appropriate benchmark for a risky profit stream. Indeed it is not but in fact this isn’t what the RSPT is about. For example normally taxes on profits have no negative impact on the Govt if the company loses money. In the case of the RSPT though the Govt has stated that 40% of any losses can either be claimed back from the Govt (as a refund) or carried over to other projects.

So what is the RSPT? A good way to consider it is if the Govt took a 40% stake in MWA as a “silent partner”,  leaving SBM with a 60% stake. In this case we would expect the Govt to contribute $400m of the investment costs (raised presumably through issuing bonds at the GBR or equivalent). In return it would get 40% of the profit. The Govt return would therefore be 40% of the profit less the cost of funding its 40% investment ie Tax = ROI x 40% x I – GBR x 40% x I = 40% x (ROI – GBR) x I.

This appears to be the formula that the Govt has presented to calculate the RSPT and in this derivation it is quite straightforward. However the Govt appears to be getting something for nothing since it isn’t actually stumping up the $400m in investment capital. So what’s going on? A clever piece of financial engineering that’s what. The Govt avoids raising the capital itself (and hence have it be counted as Govt debt) by getting the project to raise it on the Govt’s behalf.

(You can easily skip the next paragraph if you aren’t interested in the details of mine financing costs)

Whilst MWA raises 100% of the $1bn in capital the Govt appears to get the upside (and potential downside) as if it has contributed $400m without doing so. Money for old rope you say. However consider MWA not to be the stand-alone mining company SBM, but the joint venture beween the Govt and SBM. Suppose MWA borrows $1bn in capital at its Project Funding Cost (or PFC). This PFC will be lower than the SBM’s Miner’s Funding Cost (or MFC) as the Govt is now backing 40% of all liabilities. In fact in an efficient market we deduce PFC = 60% x MFC + 40% x GBR. If MWA then allocated these funding costs accordingly it would charge the Govt its share, risk-weighted, not PFC, but GBR. If the GBR = 5% and MFC = 8% then we expect PFC = 6.8% not the 8% if SBM was the sole investor. Under this arrangment SBM’s cost of funding (in % terms) its effective 60% share of the joint project is the same as its stand alone cost of funds, as it should be.

An argument against raising the threshold above GBR is that this will effectively lower the miners’ cost of funds, the difference being borne by the Govt and hence us taxpayers. No wonder miners are arguing so vehemently for the threshold to be raised. In fact it can be shown that raising the threshold to 11%, as some propose, and using a GBR of 5.5% would effectively reduce the miners’ cost of funds by a whopping 3.67%! If you want a formula for the Miners’ Taxpayer Subsidy(MTS) it is: MTS = 2/3 x (Threshold – GBR) in terms of the miners’ funding cost discount (paid for by the taxpayers remember); or MTS = 40% x I x (Threshold – GBR) in $ terms. For the Koalaroo mine this would represent $22m of funding cost transferred from the mining company SBM to the taxpayer. That’s you and me. You don’t see that in their ads.

From the Govts perspective the advantage to them is that the investment does not sit on their balance sheet but the project company MWA’s and in effect SBM’s balance sheet. From a financial engineering point of view all this makes perfect sense. Having said that, it was precisely this sort of clever off-balance sheet flim-flammary that got Greece (and Lehman’s et al) in trouble. We need to make absolutely sure it is properly accounted for.

Update: Several commenters have pointed out the effect on mine financing of the RSPT. Specifically with the Govt backing 40% of any losses smaller stand-alone projects will find it easier to get project finance. As discussed above the funding cost will be lower with the Govt’s partial backing. The operating profit (so called EBITDA) of the project is unchanged so this makes them more, not less, viable. This is at odds with what the miners have been saying. Even existing projects with refinancing clauses in their loans should find it easy to convince their lenders to reduce their interest payments. For large global miners such as BHP-Billiton, who issue bonds, it will be harder to disentangle the Australian RSPT benefit to their overall cost of funds and hence spreads. But the market should over time price this in with lower spreads on their bonds. With a reduced cost of funds miners will be able to leverage their existing equity across more projects and make up for the 40% the Govt now takes out of individual profits (and losses) through the RSPT.

Update: Tom Albanese, CEO of Rio Tinto was on Inside Business on ABC on Sunday May 30. It is interesting that in arguing against the RSPT he referred to the unfairness of the Govt coming in as a 40% “silent partner”, and not about the GBR threshold. He clearly understands the true nature of the RSPT. While it was self-serving he emphasised (in my terminology) the determination of Investment or “I” for existing projects. Depreciation comes into it but some of these projects are decades old and it would an accountant’s dream/nightmare to work out the correct value of I to base the Govt’s GBR deduction on. He also questioned the “principle” (his word) of the Govt forcibly coming in as a “silent partner” on projects which are clearly profitable going forward, having survived to this point. After all they are not compensating mining companies for mining projects that failed in the past. I’m afraid I have to agree with this point, though I think it is more complex than I currently comprehend. It is good to see the RSPT being debated for once without the disinformation we have seen from less eloquent opponents. After all the Govt did say at the beginning that it was these sort of aspects of the RSPT they were prepared to negotiate on, not the 40% and not the GBR threshold.

UPDATE: Zebra looks at a fair value approach to the RSPT.

The Australian Resources Tax

The recent announcement by the Australian Treasurer of plans to introduce a “Resource Super Profits Tax” (RSPT) has led to the longest discussion thread on the Mule Stable yet. A lot of the discussion turned on whether or not share investors can be considered to have lost anything when share prices fall if they have not sold their shares.

Whether or not “unrealised losses” should be considered real losses takes us back to an oft-visited topic: the nature of money. Money has many guises: store of wealth, medium of exchange and, most relevant here, unit of value. Finance has its jargon like any other discipline and when money serves as a unit of value, it is known as a numéraire. Today, however, I will not explore the theory of money any further (although, you can trawl through the Mule Stable discussion to gather some of my thoughts). Instead, I will focus on what has happened to mining stocks.

The chart below shows the performance of the S&P/ASX 300 share price and the Metals and Mining index. While not quite as broad as the All Ordinaries index, the Australian stock market is dominated by large companies and in fact the market capitalization* of the ASX 300 is around 85% of the All Ordinaries, so it does give a very good indication of the performance of the overall market. The Metals and Mining index simply consists of those companies in the ASX 300 that are categorised as being (no surprise) in the business of metals or mining. In order to provide a direct comparison, both of these indices have been scaled to a common base of 100 on 30 April. This was this the Friday before the weekend announcement of the RSPT.
Performance of resources since RSPT announcement

Performance of the Mining Sector following the RSPT announcement*

As the chart clearly shows, the metals and mining index certainly did suffer more than the market as a whole in the first couple of days after the announcement. By the end of Tuesday, resources had fallen 4% more than the ASX 300.  Since the RSPT can only serve to decrease not increase profits of resources companies, this fall would seem quite reasonable. Curiously though, this week resources closed the gap once more. In fact, the resources sector has now performed 0.35% better than the overall market!

Of course, one could argue that the sector returns would have been even better over the last two weeks if the tax had never been announced. That may well be the case, but it is hard to argue that the Government had caused a terrible mischief to the superannuation savings of all working Australians when resource have, well, matched the performance of the broader market.

*Data source: Standard and Poor’s

Mule Stable demo video

Last weekend, the Mule Stable* was launched as a forum for discussions that may tie in to topics here on the Stubborn Mule, and then again may not. A number of discussion groups have already been set up there, including groups on modern monetary theory (aka chartalism), economics, and politics.

For anyone already familiar with the twitter social network, finding your way around the Stable will be breeze. But for those less familiar with the conventions, here is an introductory video showing you how to get started on the Stable. Keep an eye out for more videos explaining more advance tips and tricks you can use at the Stable, and don’t forget to sign up and join in!

If you are finding this video a bit too small, there is a larger screen version.

* Thanks again to the StatusNet developers responsible for the software that powers the Stable.

Blame Greece’s Debt Crisis on the Euro

The shadow finance minister, Barnaby Joyce, has been waxing hysterical of late about Australia’s “unsustainable” public debt. This is not a new line to take in Australian politics. Last year when the then leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, began attacking the government’s stimulus package, I argued in “Park the Debt Truck” that there was very little reason to be worried about Australia’s public debt.

This phobia of government debt is not unique to Australia. In the US, national debt is one of the primary bug-bears of the “Tea Party movement” that emerged in 2009. Widespread concern about government borrowing is helped along by the sort of simplistic fear-mongering evident in the so-called “debt clock” (and yes, I am aggrieved to say, there is an Australian version of the debt clock).

The catalyst for the current focus on sovereign debt is the crisis faced by Greece. Stimulus spending to combat the economic fall-out of the global financial crisis has led to significant growth in government debt around the world, prompting fears that Spain, Portugal, Ireland or even the United Kingdom or the United States will be the “next Greece”. This week, Business Insider published what it dubbed “the real list of countries on the verge of sovereign default”. Sourcing its information from a Credit Suisse paper via the FT Alphaville blog, they rank United States government debt as riskier than Estonian debt. That alone should raise eyebrows and suggests that Credit Suisse needs to join Barnaby Joyce in some remedial lessons in economics.

The basis of Credit Suisse’s sovereign risk ranking is mysterious. It supposedly takes into account, amongst other things, the market pricing of credit default swaps (CDS). However, they are clearly not listening too closely to the market, otherwise Argentina would be at the top of their list and the United States at the bottom (the chart below shows the actual Credit Suisse ranking). Of course, the market is not always right: just look at the tech bubble or the US housing bubble. Indeed, I know of one person working in the markets who refers to sovereign credit default swaps as a device for “taking money from stupid people and giving it to smart people”, so perhaps Credit Suisse are right not to put too much weight on these prices.

Credit Suisse Sovereign Risk Ranking*

It would appear that Credit Suisse is primarily concerned about the amount of public debt each country has (although if this was the sole criterion, Italy would rank above Greece).

Many who fret about the risk of government debt appeal to an analogy with a household budget. Just as you and I should not live beyond our means and put more on the credit card than we can afford to repay, so the government should not spend more than it earns in the form of tax. This analogy is simple and compelling. However, just as H. L. Mencken once wrote, “For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong,” this analogy is simple neat and wrong. The circumstances of the government are fundamentally different from yours or mine.

In “How Money Works” I explained the difference between money which derives its value from being convertible to something else, such as gold or US dollars, and “fiat money” for which there is no convertibility commitment. As I wrote in that post,

However, in a country with fiat money, the central bank makes no convertibility commitments…It has monopoly power in the creation of currency. So, the government simply cannot run out of money.

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia are all examples of countries with fiat money with floating exchange rates. None of these countries can ever be forced into default. Contrary to the alarmists, none of these countries are reliant on China (or anywhere else) for their money. Here is a simple thought experiment: when China “lends” the US government money by buying Treasury bonds, where does that money come from to buy the bonds? From US dollar mines by the Yangtzee river? No. All of the money comes from China taking US dollars as payment for their exports. So China is “lending” the US government money that was all created in the United States in the first place. While any of these countries could decide for political reasons not to repay their debt, that is extremely unlikely in current circumstances. So the United States, United Kingdom and Australia and indeed many other countries with fiat money and free-floating exchange rates should all be considered to pose an extremely remote risk of sovereign default.

But what about Greece? Unfortunately for the Greek government, ever since they joined the European monetary union and adopted the euro as their currency, they lost the power to create their own money. While the US government cannot run out of dollars, the Greek government certainly can run out of euros. To make matters worse, they are subject to the tight controls of the Growth and Stability Pact as part of the Maastricht Treaty which severely restricts their ability to use the sorts of stimulus measures Australia, the United States and others have turned to in the face of economic downturn. In fact, their national debt levels are already well over the Pact maximum of 60% of their gross domestic product.

Like the other members of the monetary union, Greece is effectively operating on a gold standard only substituting euros for gold. In A Tract on Monetary Reform, John Maynard Keynes referred to the gold standard as a “barbarous relic” and the European Union is now learning how right he was. They adopted a common currency with an eye on the benefits of streamlining commerce between member countries, but without understanding the implications for times of economic crisis. The Union is now in a bind: do they allow Greece to fail, only to see Portugal, Spain and others tumble in its wake? Or do they ignore the rules of the Pact and bail Greece out, a course of action which would doubtless leave Ireland feeling that their fiscal austerity measures were an unnecessary hardship? In all likelihood, they will find a way to dress up a rescue package with all sorts of tough language and pretend that the union is as strong as ever. The fact remains, that the euro is the real reason Greece finds itself facing a debt crisis.

But what of Estonia being less risky than the United States? The Estonian kroon is pegged to the euro, so despite not yet being part of the European currency union, Estonia has chosen to give up sovereign control of its currency. As long it goes down this path, Estonian government debt has to be considered a far riskier proposition than US government debt. Clearly Credit Suisse’s sovereign risk analyst does not understand this. Little wonder it is lost on Barnaby Joyce.

* India, which ranks between Egypt and Italy, is not shown in the chart because no CDS data is provided. The “CDS spread” represents the annual cost of buying protection against an event of default. This cost is measured in basis points (1 basis point = 1/100th of a percentage point). For example, in the chart above, the CDS Spread for Australia is reported as 50 basis points (i.e. 0.5%). This means that to buy protection against default on $100 million of Australian government bonds would cost $500,000 each year. A typical credit default swap runs for five years.

No hiding the cost of emissions reduction

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins has an opinion piece entitled Mealy-mouthed pollies see voters as a bunch of suckers. In it he argues that politicians are not to be believed when they start talking about taxes: they are more interested in playing issues for their electoral effect than actually saying what they believe about a tax. After all, if Labor really believed all their arguments against the goods and services tax (GST) back in the days of Kim Beazley‘s 2001 “Rollback” campaign, wouldn’t you expect to hear something from the current Labor government about the GST?

Perhaps this goes some way to explain why no politician in Australia is brave enough to enunciate the unavoidable fact that if, as a nation, we want to reduce carbon emissions, there will be a cost.

This is true regardless of whether your scheme of choice be Labor’s proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS), a carbon tax or the latest offering from the coalition, an emissions reduction fund. The reason is simple. The bulk of Australia’s power generation is sourced from coal-burning power-stations and this is because coal is cheaper than any other source, including natural gas, solar, wind or geothermal. Achieving a meaningful reduction in Australia’s carbon emissions will require a gradual phasing out of coal-burning power stations, replacing those reaching the end of their life with generators using more expensive alternative sources. Ultimately someone, somewhere must bear this cost if the shift is to occur.

Some would argue that “the big polluters have to pay”. That is easier said than done: these polluters would want to preserve their profit margins and so in practice any additional costs imposed on power generators and other industrial polluters would be passed directly on to their customers anyway.

Others would prefer to rely on people opting to reduce their own emissions. One avenue for this currently open to Australians is provided by the GreenPower program. Established by Commonwealth Government in 1997, GreenPower allows energy retailers to provide their customers with an accredited “green” option. This allows households and businesses to buy some or all of their power from lower emission generation sources. Needless to say, these options cost more than the standard offering. According to the 2008 GreenPower audit, 947,268 customers were using a GreenPower product, representing around 10% of Australian households. While this may appear at first glance to be an impressive take-up in 10 years, digging into the figures a little deeper gives a different picture. For many of the retailers, close to 90% of the retail customers have elected to buy the cheapest GreenPower product which only sources 10% of the householder’s power from alternative sources. For businesses the number using the 10% option is even higher. So, relying on customer choice alone, the GreenPower program has only resulted in a shift to lower emission sources of about 1 or 2%.

Both emission trading schemes and carbon taxes aim to provide a far bigger shift by closing the price gap between cheap but carbon-intensive power sources and the more expensive alternatives. Economically the key difference between a tax and a trading scheme is that the cost of carbon imposed by a tax is fixed by the government, while the price imposed by a trading scheme would vary with supply and demand.

Most economists are attracted to trading schemes, pointing out that the problem with a tax aimed at reducing emissions is that you do not know how high to set the tax to get a desired reduction in emissions. While government can progressively tweak the tax to get to the target, it still requires significant guesswork. In contrast, under a trading scheme, the emissions target can be set in advance and then an appropriate number of “emissions permits” are issued (at which point, some environmentalists get queasy at the thought of providing business with the right to pollute, but that is an emotional distraction). These permits can be bought and sold, so any polluters unable to reduce their emissions to the level of the number of permits they have can purchase additional permits from others who can achieve greater reductions. In the process, the price should automatically adjust (thanks to the famous–or infamous–invisible hand of markets) to a level that achieves the desired reduction target. Any emissions not backed by permits are subject to punitive financial penalties set at a sufficiently high level to make the purchase of permits preferable.

For carbon taxes the price is known in advance, but the amount of reduction achieved is unknown. For a trading scheme, the reduction is known in advance, but the price is not.

That is the theory at least. In practice, both approaches have enormous practical complexities, not least the challenges of monitoring compliance. Furthermore, the trading scheme proposed by the Labor government, known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), is not quite as pure a trading model as economists would like since it comes with a price cap. This means that, while the market is allowed to determine the price of carbon, the price cannot trade above a pre-determined level. Under the proposal, the cap would be set at $40 per ton of carbon for the first few years. This means that if the market price of emissions was in fact higher than $40 per ton, the CPRS scheme would in fact operate more like a fixed-price carbon tax.

As for the coalition’s reduction fund, it resembles a carbon tax approach to some extent in that it does not impose a particular emissions target. But the key difference between the reduction fund and either a carbon tax or a trading scheme is that it would be up to the government to determine the most promising approaches to reducing emissions and offering financial inducements to pursue these approaches. So it involves the government “picking winners”, to use a phrase favoured by free-market enthusiasts who consider markets far more efficient than governments at making decisions about allocation of scarce resources and, presumably, the best approach to dealing with climate change. To see the Labor government advocating a market solution and the Liberal/National Party coalition advocating a government-led approach is perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the current climate change debate.

While there are many reasonable discussions that could be had about the relative merits of all of these schemes, sadly the debate driven by the politicians is far more likely to be which scheme is or is not a “great big new tax”. The fact that a trading scheme is not a carbon tax does not somehow mean than taxpayers and other consumers will not end up paying for the emissions reductions. Equally, the money in a reduction fund has to come from somewhere and, since the scheme is being advocated by a party with a deep-rooted fear of government deficits, it is safe to say that it will come from increased taxes, reduced public spending elsewhere or a combination of the two. Again, someone will pay.

The last Federal election and opinion polls held before and since then all suggest that, recent visits by Lord Monckton notwithstanding, the majority of Australians want something to be done about reducing our country’s emissions. Is it too much to ask of our politicians to stop shouting “It’s a tax!”, “No it’s not a tax, yours is!”? I hope it is not, but in the process, everyone else has to accept the fact that reducing our emissions will come at a cost and do not believe any politician who tries to claim otherwise.

Carly’s Law

Fifteen-year-old South Australian Carly Ryan was murdered in 2007. The 50-year-old man found guilty of her murder had used fabricated online identities to attempt to seduce the girl and, when she ultimately rejected his advances, he used another identity to lure her to a beach-side town where he bashed and drowned her.

Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon now intends to introduce a private member’s bill which would make it an offence for an adult to misrepresent their age online for the purpose of meeting minors. Carly’s mother, who plans to establish a foundation to promote awareness of the risks children face online, has said she supports the bill.

The story of Carly Ryan is terrible. Just hearing the story triggers a shiver of disgust and horror and those who are parents themselves may well be worrying about the risks posed to their own children by shadowy online stalkers. Politicians are human too and react the same way. Indeed Nick Xenophon’s reaction follows a common pattern that has emerged around the world in recent decades.

The pattern starts with a terrible crime committed against a child. This is followed by extensive and sometimes lurid media coverage. A politician will then call for new laws to “prevent this happening to others”. It would be a brave politician who would argue against such a law and thereby risk appearing insensitive to the plight of the victim and the grief of their distraught family. So they do not oppose it and new laws are passed. The pattern is clearest in the United States. The archetypal example is Megan’s Law. In 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a repeat sexual offender. Her name has since been attached to laws introduced across the country requiring a public register of sex offenders. Other examples fitting the pattern include Jessica’s Law in Florida which imposes a minimum 25-year sentence on sex offenders. Nick Xenophon’s “Carly’s Law” could well be another in this sequence.

But, how effective are laws like this in curbing the criminal behaviour they are targeting? Continue reading

Left, Right and Climate Change

In the wake of the singularly unproductive COP15 Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, I have been reflecting on the polarisation of views on climate change along political lines. Whether or not human activity is leading to climate change is a question of scientific fact: it is either happening or it is not. So knowing someone’s politics should not help to predict their attitudes towards climate change, and yet it does.

It is not conclusive of course. Most people do believe that climate change is occurring and this includes people of a full range of political views. But, climate change skeptics seem to sit overwhelmingly on the right side of the political spectrum, while those most concerned about the effects of climate change are largely left of centre. Why is this?

Some would offer conspiracy theories to explain the dichotomy. The Australian Liberal senator Nick Minchin is an outspoken critic of climate change and in November last year he claimed that the left has been intentionally stirring up fears about global warming. While his comments elicited a storm of angry responses, including from his then party leader, Malcolm Turnbull, these views are widely held among skeptics. Indeed the controversy about climate change within the Liberal Party and its coalition partner the National Party was an important contributing factor to the downfall of Turnbull from his leadership position a few weeks later. For another conspiratorial slant, Ian Plimer regularly argues that academics are pushing the idea of climate change simply to help boost their research grant money.

Continue reading

Is Australia taking its fair share of asylum-seekers?

In Crikey this week, Bernard Keane made the point that Australia accepts a disproportionately small number of asylum-seekers given our population size. So, where exactly do we rank in the world in terms of generosity towards displaced persons? The United Nations Refugee Agency provides a wide range of statistics about refugees and asylum-seekers. The latest monthly data gives the number of asylum-seeker applications by country for 2009 up to and including August. The chart below shows a ranking of the 44 countries who reported accepting asylum-seekers over this period. Australia finds itself well down the list in 20th place. Mind you, the United States ranks a few spots behind us and, despite having a better reputation when it comes to taking refugees, New Zealand is even further behind. Malta is by far the most welcoming country for refugees.

Asylum-seekers per capita

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Taking It Too Far: Verb and Adjective Clouds

I will freely admit that I am now going overboard, but commenter Lettuce All Rejoice asked what the Rudd word cloud would look like if it was broken down into nouns, verbs and adjectives. Fortunately, the Stanford Natural Language Processing Group make a statistical parser freely available for download. So, I used this to parse the speeches of Rudd and Turnbull and then filter for different parts of speech. Since the original word clouds featured nouns so prominently, I will restrict myself to verbs and adjectives here. After this I am done with word clouds. For now at least.

Wordle: Rudd VerbsRudd Verb Cloud

Wordle: Turnbull verb cloudTurnbull Verb Cloud

Wordle: Rudd Adjective CloudRudd Adjective Cloud

Wordle: Turnbull adjective cloud
Turnbull Adjective Cloud