Understanding the left-right political spectrum

Source: Slideshare.net

We all understand the difference between up and down. We also know the distinction between north and south. But when it comes to left and right in a political sense, many of us are less clear. What does it really mean to be left-wing? How does this vary from those who lean to the right?

The terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” define opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet there is no firm consensus about their meaning. Over time, these labels have become blurred. Tony Blair once argued that the contrast between the two had melted away into meaninglessness.

The genesis of the political categories “left” and “right” date back to eighteenth century France and the French Revolution. Members of the National Assembly were seated according to their political orientation. Supporters of the king sat to the right of the Assembly president with supporters of the revolution to his left.

In line with this historic division, contemporary left-wingers are said to be anti-royalists who favour interventionist and regulated market economic policies. Right-wingers, on the other hand, are said to be monarchists who favour laissez-faire, free market economic policies.

While those on the left support higher taxes on the rich and welfare for the poor, the right favours lower taxes on businesses to help them grow. The left believes in an equal society and big government whereas the right argues that social inequality is unavoidable and that governments should play a limited role in people’s lives.

The Australian Labor Party has traditionally been seen as left-wing (socialist) with historic ties to the union movement. The Liberal Party of Australia has customarily been seen as right-wing (capitalist) with a long-standing pro-business posture. Many see this partisan profiling as outdated in describing Australia’s modern political landscape.

A case in point is the issue of Australia becoming a republic. Based on traditional ideology, you would expect this cause to be championed by the “anti-royalist” Labor Party. Yet the push for a republic has been spearheaded by a member of the “monarchist” Liberal Party.

Past prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is a Liberal blue-blood. (NB: Left-wing parties are typically associated with red, the colour of revolution, while right-wing parties are often associated with conservative blue.) He is a former investment banker who – uncharacteristically for a conservative politician – is also a staunch supporter of the Australian Republican Movement. Turnbull co-founded the movement.

In trying to discard the monarchy (via a referendum in 1999), Turnbull was seen to have taken a left-wing stance which caused some right-wing hardliners to label him a turncoat. Still, he is not the only Australian politician to be off course in a strict ideological sense. Former Labor treasurer, Paul Keating, lurched to the right economically.

Keating’s laudable economic reforms included deregulating the financial system, floating the Australian dollar, reducing import tariffs and introducing compulsory superannuation – sound initiatives that a Labor treasurer was not expected to do. It’s said tongue-in-cheek that Keating was Australia’s best “Liberal” treasurer and the architect of neo-liberalism in Australia.

Many of Keating’s reforms were based on the 1981 Campbell Inquiry Report into Australia’s financial system. John Howard instigated the inquiry when he was Liberal treasurer under prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. But Howard disappointed his traditional business supporters by implementing only one of Campbell’s 260 recommendations.

Ironically, it was Keating who introduced many of Campbell’s recommendations. He implemented a globalisation agenda which made Australia internationally competitive and opened our economy to the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly, big business embraced Keating – even though the Labor Party and corporate Australia are supposed to be adversaries.

So, how left-wing was Keating as a left-wing politician? In reality, he moved the Labor Party to the right of centre. So, the message is clear: While some may argue that ideological creeds are reflected in the policies of each party, this is often not the case.

If the truth be told, political viewpoints along the left-right scale do not fit neatly into one ideological camp. Within each camp, there are factional groups who believe that some things outweigh others. So, an individual may identify with left-wing ideals on one issue but consider themselves right-wing for everything else.

Those whose political outlook sits somewhere in the middle of the left-right divide are classified as taking a “centrist” stance. And to complicate things further, those who hold extreme political views belong to either the far-left or the far-right.

People on these outermost poles of the political spectrum often see themselves as aggrieved individuals. They are radicals who are deeply estranged from mainstream political mores. Their degree of alienation from contemporary society can be seen in their extreme ideologies.

Both the far-left and the far-right have a victim-like mentality and employ militant strategies. Their political engagement relies upon force, violation of civil liberties and disdain for democratic ideals and practices. They normalise violence in their attacks on governments, globalisation and social elites.

The far-left includes Islamic terrorists while the far-right boasts white supremacists and neo-Nazis among its ranks. These extremist hate groups engage in violent acts and display many parallels. As they have overlapping tactics and stances, some academics contend that it is misleading to classify the far-left and far-right as opposite poles.

It is suggested that a more realistic classification is provided by the Horseshoe theory. This theory asserts that the political spectrum is not a straight line with opposing ends. Rather, it is a horseshoe with its farthest outliers bending in toward each other and sharing a number of similar beliefs.

To illustrate, supporters of the extreme right and extreme left are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories even when they are contradicted by mainstream science or factual evidence. These theories include the belief that coronavirus vaccines are harmful, climate change is a hoax and the US government planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

One area where the far-left and far-right markedly differ is in their interpretation of the past. As noted in the US online newsletter, The Perspective, these interpretations dictate their political stances and calls to action.

The far-right expresses nostalgia for the past and actively works to preserve their history, regardless of what that might mean in today’s context. … Conversely, the far-left … associates the past with its ills – slavery, sexism, and other injustices. History and its institutions are not to be preserved and cherished, but rather, an embarking point from which to begin reform.

History is in the eye of the beholder and so too is populism. There is no agreed definition of populism – it means different things to different people. In political science, populism is seen as an approach that frames politics as a battle between two opposing groups. In his book, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde labels these antagonistic groups as the “pure people” (ordinary masses) and the “corrupt elite”.

Populism is not sustained by a single political ideology. Rather, it describes a style and approach to politics. Populism can be deployed in the service of almost any ideology – left or right, moderate or extreme. Populists can come from all parts of the political spectrum and they have popped up all over the world.

Think Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and, of course, Donald Trump in the US. All of these populist leaders climbed to prominence by dividing people into good or bad. Populism defines our current political age. In the words of one US journalist:

Once in power, populist leaders represent “a threat to liberal democracy” … (such as) Trump calling the press the “enemy of the people,” criticizing judges, resisting congressional oversight, claiming that elections are “rigged,” flouting laws, and claiming that a “deep state” of bureaucratic actors is out to get him to deny the will of the people he represents. It happens with other populist leaders all over the world.

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It’s axiomatic that thinking in terms of a left-right spectrum is outdated. While these binary labels may be convenient shorthand descriptors, they are too generic. People hold a range of opinions on social and economic issues and these do not fit neatly in the traditional left-right continuum.

Also, citizens care about the matters that affect them and not the political ideology that supposedly underpins a given issue. Further, humans can hold seemingly contradictory beliefs. All of this makes the political spectrum largely meaningless, but we continue to use it due to laziness. As noted in the online magazine Quillette:

Putting people into one of two ideological boxes is far easier than understanding their unique point of view. Reducing politics to a simple contest between right and left is far easier than reasoning through hundreds of issues. Humans generally prefer simplicity to truth and would rather sign up for a “side” than do the hard work of thinking.

Whether you swing left, lean right or aim dead centre, it’s incumbent on all of us to stay politically informed.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why nationalism is a threat to globalisation

Credit: David Parkins

The postponed 2020 Olympic Games – which are now scheduled to kick off in Tokyo in July – will provide an international stage for countries to showcase their elite athletes. Spectators the world over will cheer for their nation’s sportsmen and women as they vie for Olympic gold. The fierce but friendly competition will fuel national pride and expose a positive side of nationalism – the celebration of the sporting success of those representing one’s homeland.

Beyond the Olympic arena, however, chest-thumping nationalistic patriotism has a dark side. It’s understandable that every country tries to instil a national consciousness among its own citizens. But when that patriotism morphs into a sense of superiority over other countries, it leads to a combative us-against-them mindset which is a poisonous ideology. In many parts of the world, patriotism has turned toxic.

Populist politicians have been selling nationalism as patriotism by promoting blind loyalty to one’s country to the detriment of global connectivity. Claiming to speak for “the people”, populists like Donald Trump have appealed to the anger and discontent of voters, tapping into their fears about jobs, race and immigration. In the West, many people feel left behind by technological change, growing inequality and the global economy.

Events over recent years show that there has been a nationalist backlash to globalisation. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 US presidential election and the growing momentum of right-wing parties in France, Austria and Germany all attest to this. In an increasing number of countries, the radical right – a group of extremist parties united by their hatred of immigrants – has surged in popularity.

These populist parties and their followers have been variously described as racist, xenophobic, anti-Islamic and anti-refugee. Parties of the far-right focus on tradition – real or imagined – and play on a nostalgia which yearns for simpler times. They want to turn back the clock to when national cultures were not influenced by immigration (and globalisation) and jobs were the preserve of native-born citizens.

This delusional hankering for the “good old days” was epitomised in Donald Trump’s right-wing rallying cry to “Make America Great Again”. Trump mistakenly believed that this greatness would be achieved by closing borders, curtailing trade and building a wall to keep out Mexicans. We should not forget that it was this kind of old-fashioned nationalism which helped fuel two world wars.

Following their defeat in World War I, the Germans felt humiliated and this enabled Hitler to exploit people’s feelings of resentment towards the ruling elite. Hitler also promised to make Germany great again. The parallels between how Trump and Hitler came to power are instructive. The rhetoric of both men was dangerously populists in nature. Not surprisingly, historians have been comparing Trumpism to fascism. One writer recently opined that:

It hardly takes a genius to see the similarities. Hitler promised to return Germany to her former glory by weeding out the traitorous politicians who had cost her the war. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp”. Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews. Trump blamed Mexican “rapists and criminals”. Hitler’s supporters chanted slogans like “Im Felde Unbesiegt” (Undefeated on the Battlefield), Trump’s supporters had theirs too: “Build the wall”, “Lock Her Up”, and of course, his latest: “Stop the steal”.

As part of rebuilding the world after World War II, the Liberal International Order was created. Liberalism is an international (as distinct from national) worldview that opposes isolation and protectionism. The liberal vision looks for collective solutions to global problems by working co-operatively with the help of international institutions and alliances to make the world a better place. Nationalists, in contrast, want a more homogenous society and tighter controls by governments over territories and borders.

The mantra of nationalist politicians – “country first” – fuel calls to build fences and erect trade barriers. Yet since 1950, the burgeoning growth in international trade has helped make the world a more peaceful place. Free trade raises the cost of war by making nations more economically interdependent. The more people rely on trade with others, the greater the cost to all parties of a conflict.

One of the hallmarks of liberal internationalism is rule-based relations which are enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations. Under nationalism, however, we would see a more contested and fragmented system of economic blocs and regional rivalries. The desire to increase sovereign control invariably results in isolationist policies, particularly with regard to immigration.

In his final address to the UN General Assembly on 20 September, 2016 Barack Obama delivered a stinging rebuke to those who would build walls saying: “A nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself”. In the same speech, he defended liberal globalisation arguing that open markets, capitalism and democracy should remain the guiding forces of the international order.

… I believe that at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion. I want to suggest to you today that we must go forward, and not backward. I believe that as imperfect as they are, the principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law that we have forged remain the firmest foundation for human progress in this century.

It is paradoxical that the growing calls for a less open world would actually hurt the poor most of all. Since the end of World War II, free trade has lifted millions out of extreme poverty. It is irrefutable that globalisation has been good for the global poor. This point was also made by President Obama.

The integration of our global economy has made life better for billions of men, women and children. Over the last 25 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut from nearly 40 per cent of humanity to under 10 per cent. That’s unprecedented. And it’s not an abstraction. It means children have enough to eat; mothers don’t die in childbirth.

President Obama went on to say that “our international order has been so successful that we take it as a given that great powers no longer fight world wars; that the end of the Cold War lifted the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; that the battlefields of Europe have been replaced by peaceful union”.

Populist politicians are undermining liberal internationalism and this poses a threat to peace and prosperity. Less international co-operation will lead to increased distrust between nation-states and may even give rise to conflict. Nativism and its beggar-thy-neighbour policies is a backward and dangerous step for the world. In the words of the old adage, it really is a case of “united we stand, divided we fall”.

The rise of the new radical right reflects a deep social and economic malaise affecting an increasing number of nations. The past decades have ushered in an unprecedented level of socio-economic change and voters are expressing their dissatisfaction at the ballot box. Only time will tell how long this anger and resentment lasts. What is clear is that the rhetoric of the far-right has struck a chord with a critical mass of voters.

The world’s political landscape has been transformed by a nationalist movement which has gone global.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why COVID vaccines are being distributed unevenly and unfairly

Credit: The People’s Vaccine Alliance

Imagine this for a second. You’re at the beach and you notice two swimmers in difficulty. Each has encountered a beach hazard caused by the powerful surf. A rogue wave breaking along the shoreline has knocked a man off his feet and he is trying to regain his balance. At the same time, a rip current has dragged a woman out to sea and she is fighting a losing battle against the fast-moving tide.

You face a dilemma: The swimmers are 100 metres apart and you can’t rescue both at once. You quickly assess who has the greater need. While the man is disoriented, he has not suffered serious injury to his back or neck – he is unsteady, but standing. The woman, however, is clearly in grave danger of drowning – she is unable to stay afloat due to exhaustion and is slipping under the water.

The woman is far more vulnerable to the ravages of the sea, so you swim out through the breaking waves and rescue her. Bystanders commend you on saving her from certain death. As the male swimmer was able to stumble out of the water on his own, no lives were lost. Your judgment to use “likelihood of death” as a triage criterion was spot on. The swimmer most exposed to the elements was correctly identified and a fatality was averted.

Now imagine a different life-and-death scenario. This time, you are the boss of the World Health Organisation (WHO). You cast your eyes over the latest statistics on the number of COVID-19 deaths around the world. It’s clear that Brazil and Australia are navigating the virus differently. Brazil is in treacherous waters and has been unable to quell the pandemic waves. In contrast, Australia finds itself in calmer seas with little headwinds.

You face a dilemma: You don’t have sufficient doses of COVID vaccines to inoculate every citizen of both nations. You carefully assess which population is worse-off. Brazil has been unable to stem the tide of deaths and thousands more are expected to perish as a result of the pandemic. Australia, on the other hand, has done an outstanding job in containing the virus and has recorded an extremely low mortality rate from COVID-19.

As a leading epidemiologist, you know that vaccines should go first to the places where there is the greatest suffering. The primary measure of suffering is the number of premature deaths that a vaccine can prevent. As Brazil has far more reported COVID cases and deaths than Australia – in both absolute and per capita terms – it’s a no-brainer that Brazil’s needs are the greatest. Still, your decision to prioritise Brazil over Australia creates a storm of controversy.

As WHO Director-General, you know that each million doses of the vaccine will likely save the lives of hundreds of Brazilians. You also know that the same million doses given to Australians is probably not going to save more than one or two people. However, vaccines are not being distributed based on need but ability to pay. Countries with advanced economies have bigger cheque books, which has enabled them to push in front of countries with developing economies.

The unfairness of this is laid bare when we circle back to the lifesaving example. Australia can be likened to the male swimmer whose situation was non-life threatening whereas Brazil is akin to the female swimmer who was in serious peril. While none of the bystanders on the beach challenged your decision to rescue the swimmer needing the most help, you are being severely criticised for choosing the nation that needs the most help.

The hypocrisy of this double standard is even more pronounced when you learn further facts about the two swimmers. The male is from Australia and the female is from Brazil. You knew this before you plunged into the surf as you spoke briefly to the distressed families of both swimmers. However, knowing the nationality of each swimmer did not cause you to favour the Australian over the Brazilian – and quite rightly so!

Race and ethnicity should not be factored into the equation when rescuing swimmers or determining vaccine allocation. All lives matter and no life can be neglected. Yet, when it comes to COVID, we are witnessing the injustice of some humans being treated as less equal than others. The sad reality is that nearly 70 poor countries will only be able to vaccinate one in ten people against COVID-19 this year. The UN has labelled this distribution outcome as “wildly uneven and unfair”.

According to a press release issued by Oxfam International, rich countries are failing the vaccine equity test:

… wealthier nations have bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021 if those currently in clinical trials are all approved for use. Canada tops the chart with enough vaccines to vaccinate each Canadian five times. Updated data shows that rich nations representing just 14 per cent of the world’s population have bought up 53 per cent of all the most promising vaccines so far.

Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, adds: “No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket. But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 for years to come”.

The world has a moral obligation to help those in greatest need first. Given this, Australia, New Zealand and other nations which are not in immediate danger of “drowning” from COVID-19, should move towards the back of the vaccination queue. But this won’t happen as rich nations are focussed on national recovery, not global recovery as they are prioritising country over planet.

The WHO labels this behaviour as “vaccine nationalism” and blames it for the lack of solidarity against a common enemy. WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned that the lopsided distribution of vaccines “harms everyone and protects no one”. Further, he believes that inoculating certain populations to the detriment of others is “medically self-defeating”.

The rising fever of inequality is fuelled by a chronic failure of national leaders to display true global leadership. The inward focus of most countries places the pursuit of domestic political goals above those beyond their borders. In fairness to national leaders, their decision to take a beggar-thy-neighbour stance is driven by citizens who expect their elected officials to look after them first and foremost. Many citizens want first dibs on COVID vaccine jabs.

Yet, it’s in Australia’s self-interest (and other rich nations too) to help ensure that every other country’s population is vaccinated. Until the fear of COVID-19 dissipates, trade and travel won’t return to normal. And health-wise, nobody is safe until everybody is safe. The strategy of every nation just looking out for itself is a path that most ethicists think is wrong.

The frenzied grab for vaccines is driven by the same selfish impulses that drove the hoarding of toilet paper. Coronavirus drives panic buying due to the fear of missing out and leads to the irrational stockpiling of vaccines, toilet paper and other essential items. Of course, no one wins when everyone adopts an “every-man-for-himself” attitude.

If we truly believe that life is sacred and worthy of our deepest reverence, we (as individuals and nations) would let poorer nations and those worst affected by COVID go first. Certainly, I would not have objected if the Australian government had delayed vaccinations until more needy nations had received their jabs first.

My view, of course, puts me in the minority as many Australians, as well as the federal opposition and some sections of the media, are critical that our rollout has not moved faster. Even though it shouldn’t be this way, Scott Morrison knows that his party’s fortunes depend upon giving the majority of Australians what they want – a jab in the arm and quickly!

Shame on us for letting the world’s most vulnerable people “drown” in a sea of COVID.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

COVID vaccines offer drug makers chance to salvage reputation

Photo Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The development of COVID-19 vaccines is a public relations coup for the pharmaceutical industry. The arrival of vaccines has boosted public approval for drug companies. Thanks to the blanket press coverage of the global race to develop vaccines, “big pharma” brands like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have become household names.

The long-beleaguered drug manufacturing sector has become the hero of the hour. COVID-19 has provided the sector with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset its abysmal reputation. Less than two years ago, there was no business sector in the US as disliked as the pharmaceutical industry, according to a 2019 Gallup Poll.

By providing the world with the ability to curb transmission of the virus, generations of ill will towards the industry seems to be melting away. Drug makers are currently basking in global plaudits – but will the adulation last? Will 2021 be a permanent reputational turning point or will past disreputable behaviour (such as price gouging and the US opioid crisis) be repeated?

One health expert has argued that we should not be under any illusion that profit, not altruism, motivated drug companies to develop COVID-19 vaccines. While no one knows precisely the extent to which these companies will profit from making vaccines, they are expected to collectively generate tens of billions of dollars in sales for the pharmaceutical industry.

Richer nations have gobbled up the majority of the global supply of vaccines, with poorer nations falling behind in the race for inoculations. This “me-first approach” is precisely the behaviour that the World Health Organisation feared and predicted. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure”.

In January, Dr Ghebreyesus criticised inequalities in the global coronavirus vaccine rollout, arguing that it was “not right” that younger adults in wealthy countries were getting vaccinated before older people or healthcare workers in poorer countries. He also hit out at the profiteering of drug companies, accusing vaccine makers of targeting locations where “profits are highest”.

Other experts have also expressed concern about vaccine nationalism and support Dr Ghebreyesus’ call for countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world. Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre in Geneva stated: “Richer countries will be able to vaccinate … their whole populations before vulnerable groups in many developing countries get covered”.

The WHO has urged countries and manufacturers to stop making bilateral deals. Such agreements have resulted in vaccine makers prioritising regulatory approvals in rich countries where the profits are the highest, rather than submitting their data to the WHO for approval. “No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population while some remain with no supply of the vaccine,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.

According to an opinion piece in the New York Times, drug companies will “make a killing” from the coronavirus. While other sectors of the business world have struggled to survive the mayhem from the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry is set to profit handsomely. Sales of treatments and vaccines will pad bottom lines and this is expected to create a windfall for the industry.

But drug companies are not the only profiteers. A December 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that executives at some pharmaceutical companies received huge paydays by selling shares around the time their companies announced positive news about coronavirus vaccines. This practice is common in the healthcare industry with executives using prearranged stock sale plans to unload shares on days when their companies release good news.

Pre-planned stock trades are not illegal and can be very lucrative. According to the Los Angeles Times article:

Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla shed 60% of his holdings in the company Nov. 9, the same day his firm announced the results of trials that showed its vaccine was highly effective in preventing the disease caused by the coronavirus. The news caused the company’s stock to jump 15%. Bourla is one of seven Pfizer executives who collectively have earned $14 million from stock sales this year …. That amount is dwarfed by sales made by executives at Moderna, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that has never brought a product to market but has produced a vaccine reported to be nearly as effective as Pfizer’s. Executives there collectively made $287 million from stock sales this year …. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, has accounted for $81 million of the sales ….

The public has largely bankrolled the hunt for COVID-19 vaccines. Yet, even though taxpayers have footed the bill for much of the research and development, we have no say in how vaccines are priced and distributed. This is at the sole discretion of pharmaceutical companies which will use government granted legal monopolies – in the form of patents – to charge whatever price they wish.

Allowing drug makers to get rich from a global health emergency does not sit well with the average citizen. As we Aussies like to say, this arrangement fails the pub test. Patents should not come before patients. Picking up on this theme, Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian (UK), published an opinion piece, The Covid vaccine will benefit humanity – we should all own the patent, wherein he stated:

Pfizer and its German biotech partner, BioNTech, stand to make an astonishing £9.8bn (in 2021) from a coronavirus vaccine. Suggestions that pharmaceutical companies should not profit from the world’s most severe crisis since the second world war were dismissed in July (2020) as “radical” by Pfizer’s CEO …. But Pfizer’s claim to “have never taken any money from the US government or from anyone” does not stand up to scrutiny. … Essentially, pharmaceutical companies are global monopolies, which are given the right to charge whatever the market is willing to tolerate for the new medicines they produce.

Many believe that the current drug development model is broken as it does not deliver affordable drugs to the masses. This is exactly what happened when a treatment for HIV infection was developed over two decades ago. The drug was expensive at a whopping US$15,000 – per person per year – making it completely unaffordable to people in Africa. While AIDS sufferers in the West were able to afford the breakthrough treatment, millions needlessly died in Africa from the AIDS epidemic. The drug company blocked access to a low-cost generic AIDS medication to protect its investment.

Another fundamental flaw of the medicine patent scheme is that it motivates innovation only if potential patent-holders believe that they can make a substantive return on their investment. From a shareholder perspective, this is fair and understandable, but not always in the best interests of society. An example is the 2018 decision by pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, to cease research on a treatment for dementia as it did not stack-up financially.

This dashed the hopes of millions suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and those at risk of developing one of these devastating diseases. The need to generate value for shareholders saw Pfizer re-allocate R&D funding to other areas. But this was cold comfort to patients and their families affected by neurological diseases.

Not surprisingly, there have been calls for future coronavirus vaccines to be treated as global public goods with equal access for all, without profit. We have a golden opportunity to reshape the biomedical research and development system in a way that prioritizes people over profits. The belief that monopolies and high prices are a “necessary evil” in financing the development of new medicines needs to be challenged.

The current medicine patent system is flawed and governments must do more of the heavy lifting regarding financing research into new drugs. This might be a bitter pill for drug companies to swallow, but a welcome tonic for the masses. With research costs paid upfront by governments, most drugs would be available for the same price as a bottle of generic aspirin.

I’ll leave the final word on this contentious topic to The Guardian’s Owen Jones: “Rather than being a PR triumph for big pharma, coronavirus should serve as a reminder of the disastrous consequences of leaving a life-saving industry in the hands of a profiteering monopoly.”

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect a leopard to change its spots.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Will globalisation create a world without borders?

Photograph: Nasa/AFP/Getty Images

The most famous photograph ever taken of our planet is called Earthrise. It was snapped by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 as the Apollo 8 spacecraft rounded the dark side of the Moon*. The now iconic image shows the world as a singular sphere, suspended in a desert of darkness. Earthrise changed how we see our blue-white planet and ushered in a collective awareness of the Earth as a whole, transcending borders and boundaries.

When the Earth is observed from space, you see one beautiful and fragile planet, not 195 sovereign nations. Nation-states are represented on maps by lines of demarcation which enclose and define territories. In reality, the Earth has no borders that divide the planet’s terrain. The physical world, of course, is interconnected. We are all part of Mother Earth – an indivisible, living community which is interrelated and interdependent.

All of us share the same natural resources – air, water, soil, minerals, plants and animals. Our three basic needs – food, clothing and shelter – largely come from these natural resources and their production is common to all cultures. Yet, we live in a world of “national tribes” who see themselves as different and disconnected from one another. But these tribes experience common issues that extend beyond artificial borders.

The challenges humanity faces – like climate change, global pandemics, natural catastrophes, international crime and rampant terrorism – are increasingly transnational in nature, which is why they cannot be addressed by any single government. As individual nation-states are too small to fix shared global problems, coordinated and collaborative action among governments, non-government organisations (NGOs) and international organisations is increasingly required.

Nation-states have also seen their power diminished by decades of global commerce. Capitalism has spread to the remotest parts of the world with transnational flows of goods, data and money. Borders no longer fulfil their historic roles as barriers to the movement of people, commodities and capital. Even so, the prediction that nation-states – as autonomous, independent entities – will collapse under the combined onslaught of monetary unions, global television and the Internet is hotly contested.

While many scholars have prophesied the decline and eventual demise of the nation-state, others fiercely contend that it does have a future and will not be superseded by a new world order. Three main schools of thought dominate the academic debate on globalisation theory – the hyperglobalist, the sceptical and the transformational. Drawing on the work of renowned political theorist – the late Professor David Held (et al.) – these perspectives can be described as follows:

  • Hyperglobalists argue that the world is heading towards a form of global governance which will increasingly see nation-states relegated to the role of decision-takers and not decision-makers due to the existence of international organisations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
  • Sceptics strongly resist this view and believe that the intensification of international activities has reinforced and enhanced state powers in many domains and that national governments will continue to shape the nature of world politics with their borders remaining effective.
  • Transformationalists narrow the scholarly divide by presenting the middle ground that globalisation is creating new political, economic and social circumstances which are serving to transform state powers and the context in which states operate.

I’m a proponent of the transformationalist view. While I embrace the belief that nation-states will not vanish in the foreseeable future, I acknowledge that their powers are receding**. Globalisation has caused the erosion of the state’s authority and made it less important and central. So, I stand with transformationalists in believing that states will continue to dynamically evolve in response to changing socio-economic and technological trends.

These trends have already altered the political landscape with nation-states coexisting with a patchwork of non-state actors. We are moving towards a more distributed power structure as the world increasingly turns to experts outside of government to guide and shape state decision-making. This transfer of power is evident in the proliferation of international standards over recent years which most governments have simply incorporated in their national laws.

An example is the work of the International Accounting Standards Board. It sets transnational financial reporting rules which corporations around the world follow, making it a powerful de facto global regulator of accounting standards, even though it is a private-sector body.

Many believe that an even more powerful body is the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. This Committee, which is headquartered at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland makes decisions which affect every man, woman and child on the planet. Yet few know of the existence of this unelected group of central bankers and banking supervisors.

The Basel Committee does not possess any formal supranational authority and its decisions do not have legal force. Yet its views hold great sway, enabling it to impose stringent rules and standards on the global financial system. The Economist magazine described central bankers as “more powerful than politicians, holding the destiny of the global economy in their hands”.

Beyond accounting and banking, non-state actors address every conceivable issue and operate in virtually every part of the globe. From buying bananas at the supermarket (the World Trade Organisation governs how bananas are traded) to obtaining medicines at the chemist (the World Health Organisation issues standards for prescription drugs), international laws impact our daily lives.

Imagine flying overseas to watch a major sporting event. The operation of the plane that transports you is regulated by the International Civil Aviation Authority. On arriving at your destination, you drive to your hotel by following standardised road signs developed by the UN Convention on Road Traffic. Following check-in, you phone home and this global connectivity is facilitated by a treaty on International Telecommunication Regulations.

You leave your hotel and use your credit card to buy a jumper and this transaction is governed by technical requirements issued by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council. With your jumper to keep you warm, you then watch an international sporting event where athletes are subject to mandatory drug testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Globalisation has spawned the growth in organisations that regulate and control activity on a global scale. This has made non-state actors a worldwide phenomenon and there is no turning back the clock. These actors are essential to the smooth working of our globalised world. Nonetheless, nation-states still have an important role to play and will survive, albeit in a different form.

We often forget that nation-states (countries) are late comers to history. The fact is that we didn’t always have passports and borders – they are relatively new. Jamie Bartlett, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on politics, points this out in an essay he wrote for the digital magazine Aeon.

If you’d been born 1,500 years ago in southern Europe, you’d have been convinced that the Roman empire would last forever. It had, after all, been around for 1,000 years. And yet, following a period of economic and military decline, it fell apart. … To the people living under the mighty empire, these events must have been unthinkable ….

We are just as deluded that our model of living in ‘countries’ is inevitable and eternal. Yes, there are dictatorships and democracies, but the whole world is made up of nation-states. … Try to imagine a world without countries – you can’t. Our sense of who we are, our loyalties, our rights and obligations, are bound up in them.

It’s true that systems based around national sovereignty struggle to deal with complex companies, sophisticated technologies and social movements. It’s also true that economics and information have grown beyond the authority of national governments. Nonetheless, it is premature to write off nation-states as they still function under globalisation and will continue to exert significant influence over the daily life of their citizens.

The rumours of the death of the nation-state have been greatly exaggerated.

*Anders remarked that despite all the training for an exploration of the Moon, the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.
**Even though I would like to see nation-states superseded, they will stubbornly continue to exist.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why we should celebrate even in tough times

Credit: AAP, Brendan Esposito

Each year, Sydney puts on one of the world’s most spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks displays. The iconic pyrotechnics event is watched by one billion people across the globe. Late last year, there was controversy over whether the 2020 fireworks should be held while bushfires ringed greater Sydney and raged throughout other parts of Australia.

Those who called for the fireworks to be cancelled argued that going ahead would send the wrong message. An online petition – which was supported by more than a quarter of a million people – stated that “with Australia facing drought and now catastrophic fires, decimating towns as it tears across our country, the thought of spending MILLIONS of dollars on a fireworks display when it could be used to support and rebuild our country instead is infuriating”.

In response, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, argued that holding the fireworks would help unite the community and that pulling the pin “would be of little practical advantage to those who have lost so much in the bush[fires]”. She added: “We are going through really tough times now and it brings us together to celebrate a New Year with hope. It’s a really important time to be together to support each other”.

The fireworks were not scrapped but went ahead to the delight of millions of people. Those who were against the fireworks display taking place remained adamant that it was the wrong thing to do. However, a woman who lost most of her possessions to a bushfire, pleaded that “the bright distraction of fireworks” be retained. The woman was previously in favour of shutting down the fireworks.

The bushfire crisis is a stark reminder of life’s ups and downs. Throughout our lives, we all experience challenges and some – like the bushfires and the current coronavirus – are extremely difficult. But we need to make space for joy even in the midst of a disaster. Indeed, a little happiness can help our struggles as positive emotions provide relief from stress.

The fireworks which ushered in 2020 distracted millions of Australians from their troubles and gave them something to celebrate. Tough times can seem easier when we focus on something other than our immediate hardship. Life goes on and so did the fireworks which metaphorically brightened the smoky-grey haze over Sydney. But it did not quell the fire of opposition from those who disagreed.

Equally, there are those who disagree with the recent decision by the NSW Government to proceed with the upcoming New Year’s Eve fireworks during the present pandemic. Announcing the decision, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Sydney’s fireworks would go ahead “in one form or another” as they are a symbol of hope and optimism which is “important for our soul and for positive thinking about next year”.

Everyday around the world, governments make spending choices. As is the case with fireworks, not all citizens agree with government spending priorities. What constitutes effectiveness in the use of public resources is hotly debated. For example, there’s the old chestnut about how much funding should be allocated to the arts versus public welfare programs.

Many believe that the composition of public spending should be tilted in favour of the neediest in society. A bias towards policies which assist poverty reduction sits well with this cohort. These individuals argue that spending money on the arts should take a back seat to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and supporting the unemployed.

The problem with this argument is that there will always be people in need and fiscal interventions cannot totally eliminate poverty, no matter how much money is thrown at it. That’s why we should provide funding to the arts because, like fireworks, they are a celebration of life. Government funding of cultural activities enables people from all walks of life to enjoy the arts, which disproves the claim that they exclusively benefit the elite.

Of course, controversy about funding is not limited to the arts but can be found across many other sectors including sport. The allocation of public funds to build new stadiums and facilities is greeted with disapproval in some quarters. Such venues are seen as a drain on the public purse and a waste of money. But how do you put a value on the social good created by sport?

We celebrate our sporting champions and delight in their success. Sporting triumphs bring us together and help us put aside petty disputes as we unite as one proud nation. Sport not only entertains but provides physical activity and that is an important point for those who say that health funding (more hospitals) should take priority over sports funding (more sporting fields). If more of us exercised and played sport, we’d be healthier and there would be less demand on the health system.

The value of the arts and sport, and many other things, can’t be measured in dollars and cents alone. However, whenever there’s an economic squeeze, funding for the arts, sport and other “non-essential” activities are the first to go. Viewed through the eyes of an economist, these budget choices involve trade-offs and opportunity costs.

A trade-off occurs when we sacrifice one thing for another such as when you have only enough money to buy a car or take an overseas holiday, but not both. Trade-offs, in turn, create opportunity costs – one of the most important concepts in economics. Whenever you make a trade-off, the thing that you do not choose is your opportunity cost. As you decided to buy the car, your overseas holiday was your opportunity cost.

Because resources are scarce and needs unlimited, governments always face opportunity costs. For example, the opportunity cost of the government spending an extra $5 billion on defence equipment might mean that $5 billion less is available to spend on education. In a perfect world, it would be great to be able to do both, but that is often not possible. But that does not mean that penny-pinching spending decisions should be made about things like fireworks.

The amount spent on fireworks and other public celebratory activities – such as Australia Day – is just a drop in the bucket compared to other areas of government expenditure. With regard to the Sydney fireworks which greeted 2020, the reported cost of staging them was $5.8m. This outlay was absolutely overshadowed by the $130m generated in tourist dollars for the NSW economy – an outstanding return on investment.

Celebrating and commemorating special events is not a waste of money which is why I am more than happy for some of the taxes that I pay to be allocated to celebrating the human spirit – even during a pandemic. Three cheers to the NSW Premier for agreeing to stage this year’s fireworks.

Let’s inject some happiness into our COVID-19 affected world.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why the problem with democracy is voters

Credit: memegenerator.net

It never ceases to amaze me how people around the world complain about their governments. Yet citizens of democracies – via the ballot box – determine who holds political power. So, it’s largely our fault if we end up with poor political leadership.

Voters have a track record of choosing idiots, authoritarians and demagogues for elected office. These leaders invariably turn out to be incompetent and dishonest and thrive on emotion-driven discourse. They hoodwink people into supporting them by exploiting voters’ credulity and prejudices.

Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves. As a society, we crave quick fixes and instant gratification and expect politicians to solve all of society’s ills at the snap of a finger. That’s why politicians who pander to the immediate demands and desires of voters are rewarded by the electorate.

We jump quickly into the arms of political charlatans, but fail to embrace sensible and rational candidates with policies that have an eye to the future. Such long-term outcomes are rejected by “here-and-now” voters who are selfishly focussed on “what’s in it for me”.

Voting (free and fair elections) is the cornerstone of a true democracy. Yet, in many nations around the world, much of the public is disengaged from politics. Citizens are not politically informed and this is dangerous as voters do not make informed choices at the ballot box.

Donald Trump owes his victory to the uninformed. Indeed, he is on the record as proclaiming: “I love the poorly educated”. Political ignorance accounts for a large part of Trump’s success. His followers believe virtually any lie he tells – no matter how outrageous.

When voters know little, they choose the politician with the highest emotional appeal. Trump and other populists play on this, which is why millions voted for him against their best interests. Trump appealed to the anger and discontent of middle-America, tapping into their fears about jobs, race and immigration.

Leaders like Donald Trump prove that doing or saying unintelligent things is no barrier to being elected. “We have unserious and unfit leaders,” according to a columnist for The Washington Post, “because voters are unserious and too often reject sensible, fit candidates for office”.

That voters are poorly informed and make irrational decisions is no surprise to renowned political scientists – Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. These two academics co-authored the acclaimed book – Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

The authors’ core belief is that people cast their votes for no particularly good reason and that incumbents often get rewarded or punished for events beyond their control. They illustrate this point by tracing the electoral impact of a random event:  a dramatic series of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916.

In what has become the most famous example in the book, they note that voters on the New Jersey seashore blamed President Woodrow Wilson for the shark attacks in the summer of 1916. As a result, Woodrow Wilson lost his home state in the presidential election.

The beachfront towns – which relied on tourism – were negatively impacted by the attacks. Even though Wilson was obviously not responsible for the string of shark-related fatalities, he was the incumbent, and people vote against incumbents when things are bad.

This, of course, is illogical. As Achen and Bartels declare: “Punishing the incumbents for events beyond their control makes no more sense than kicking the dog to get back at a difficult boss at work” … yet “… governments are punished willy-nilly for bad times”.

At the polling booth, election-year natural disasters (droughts, floods, etc.) and the performance of the economy in the months prior to the election, have a major impact on whether an incumbent or challenger wins an election. If things are going well – whether they’re controllable or not – they’ll reward the party in power. If not, they’ll look for someone else to lead them.

Achen and Bartels assert that most citizens are unable to evaluate sensitive information to reach an informed opinion whether times have been good or bad under the incumbent government.

Citizens are unlikely to know whether crime has gone up or down, only whether gruesome murders appear in the local news. Their judgments about the seriousness of environmental threats are virtually uncorrelated with those of experts. Even in the domain of the economy, where detailed statistical information is plentiful … voters may fixate on current conditions to the neglect of the incumbent’s full record.

The book lays waste the comforting view that citizens cast votes based on rational choice – the so-called “folk theory of democracy”. Voters don’t have anything like coherent preferences. Most people pay little attention to politics and vote irrationally and for contradictory reasons.

Also, the majority of voters are too shortsighted to choose economic policies that will produce long-term prosperity. This, in my opinion, is most evident in the irrational attitude of many citizens to government debt. The ill-informed are seduced by populist politicians who promise to balance the national budget. (See my recent post on Modern Monetary Theory).

Our harmful misunderstanding of economic policy is also evident when interest rates rise and fall. Interest rates go up when things are overheating and go down when times are tough. It is ironic, therefore, that nit-picking oppositions are critical when interest rates rise (a sign of a strong economy) and glory-seeking governments take the credit when interest rates fall (a sign of a weak economy).

Most economic truths are counter-intuitive. Yet an ignorant public cannot help but endorse intuitively appealing policies in any given instance, since it has so little information to go on. In the words of the US based think-tank, The Cato Institute:

It is little wonder, then, that incumbent politicians are able to take credit for good economic times – regardless of the success, failure, or irrelevance of their economic policies – and that presidents cursed with bad economies usually are booted from office, even if their policies have been sound.

Downright misrepresentations and blatant disregard for facts have always plagued politics, and this holds true in Australia as well. During the 2016 federal election, Australians were falsely told that the Liberal Party was going to privatise Medicare and that the Labor Party’s carbon price would lead to $100 lamb roasts.

As few expect politicians to tell the truth, we are not particularly surprised when half-truths and downright lies are exposed. It’s often said, however, that politicians lie because voters do not want to hear the truth. The truth often offends and no one wants to hear things that they find confronting. As noted in the online magazine, Psychology Today:

It is decidedly better for politicians to tell people what makes them feel comfortable. Why should politicians be the purveyors of bad news (and decrease the likelihood of getting people’s votes) when they can tell fairy tales with happy endings (which, of course, everyone wants) and come out the victor.

I believe that education is the key to a more literate electorate. We teach our kids “hard” subjects like maths and science, so there’s no reason why we can’t add politics and economics to the curriculum. The next generation of voters – unlike many of those who are about to cast a vote in the US presidential election – must be able to discern if political candidates are pulling the wool over our eyes and just marketing political and economic snake oil.

As things currently stand, Winston Churchill’s words still ring true: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Who should be first in line for COVID-19 vaccines?

Credit: University of Pennsylvania – Penn Medicine News

The pandemic has forced governments to answer many tough questions and the virus is currently posing another: Who should be at the front of immunisation lines when vaccines against COVID-19 become available? This vexing decision has come into sharp relief as policymakers grapple with how best to allocate doses for scarce vaccines.

Even if in the coming months some vaccines are declared safe and effective, there will not be enough for everyone who wants a shot right away. While many individuals and groups will argue that they should be at the top of the distribution list, determining who should be given priority access to limited supplies is challenging politicians and epidemiologists.

Bio-ethicists have weighed in on the debate as the mass vaccination of almost eight billion people won’t happen overnight. It is widely believed that a phased-in approach – which must be fair and equitable – will be required. But deciding how to apportion supplies of the first batches of coronavirus vaccines – and who will follow the initial jumpstart phase and in what order – is the subject of ongoing debate.

From a health equity perspective, there will undoubtedly be disagreements over vaccine rationing, regardless of what priority ranking is introduced. Prioritisation decisions will be fraught as players (the young, the old, pregnant women, health care workers, those in front-line jobs, people of colour, individuals with pre-existing conditions, etc.) jockey to be early recipients of the drug. Some will claim that it is a matter of life and death that they receive an early jab while others will refuse immunisation all together.

Of course, for nations to distribute vaccines, they must firstly obtain supplies from vaccine manufacturers. Will manufacturers just sell their product to the highest bidders? Or will they take a global perspective and ensure that supplies are rolled out to all nations – even poorer ones? The correct course of action was outlined in a recent article by Bill Gates.

During a pandemic, vaccines and antivirals can’t simply be sold to the highest bidder. They should be available and affordable for people who are at the heart of the outbreak and in greatest need. Not only is such distribution the right thing to do, it’s also the right strategy for short-circuiting transmission and preventing future pandemics.

Though no final agreement has been reached on a single, global distribution framework for COVID-19 vaccines, two main proposals have emerged. A number of experts have argued that health care workers and high-risk populations (the over 65s) should be immunised first. In contrast, the WHO has suggested that countries receive doses proportional to their populations.

From an ethical perspective, both of these strategies are “seriously flawed” according to Professor Ezekiel J. Emanuel from the University of Pennsylvania. He states:

The idea of distributing vaccines by population appears to be an equitable strategy. But the fact is that normally, we distribute things based on how severe there is suffering in a given place, and, in this case, we argue that the primary measure of suffering ought to be the number of premature deaths that a vaccine would prevent.

Professor Emanuel led an international group of 19 health ethicists from around the world (including Australia) to develop a three-phase plan – the Fair Priority Model – for vaccine distribution. In their proposal, as noted in a news release by Penn Medicine, Emanuel and his co-authors point to three fundamental values that must be considered when distributing a COVID-19 vaccine among countries:

Benefiting people and limiting harm, prioritizing the disadvantaged, and giving equal moral concern for all individuals. The Fair Priority Model addresses these values by focusing on mitigating three types of harms caused by COVID-19: death and permanent organ damage, indirect health consequences, such as health care system strain and stress, as well as economic destruction.

Preventing deaths is seen as the most urgent of all three dimensions and is the focus of Phase 1 of the Fair Priority Model. In Phase 2, two metrics that capture overall economic improvement and the extent to which people would be spared from poverty are proposed. Finally, in Phase 3, countries with higher transmission rates are initially prioritised.

With regard to preventing deaths, the Model begins by calculating the number of years of life that will be added in a given country by the delivery of, for example, a million vaccine doses. Peru, which has experienced high COVID-19 mortality rates and the US, where the virus has killed over 200,000 people, would likely be on the priority list.

“But take New Zealand, giving them a million doses, you’re probably not going to save but one or two people literally. So, they would be low on the priority list,” said Emanuel. The group of 19 rejects the argument that its policies would reward bad management, such as in the US, which leads the world in the number of virus deaths and cases.

“You shouldn’t penalise Americans because Donald Trump can’t seem to manage this pandemic,” he reasoned.

Emanuel and his collaborators – as outlined in the Penn Medicine release – also object to the WHO’s plan, which begins with three per cent of each country’s population receiving vaccines, and continues until every country has vaccinated 20 per cent of its citizens. While that plan may be politically tenable, it “mistakenly assumes that equality requires treating differently-situated countries identically, rather than equitably responding to their different needs,” argues Emanuel.

Health care workers and others most vulnerable are traditionally first in line for a scarce vaccine. But many are calling for geography to play a greater role this time round and to give COVID-19 vaccine priority to people where the outbreak is hitting hardest. Still, the fear remains that many nations will prioritise their own populations first. The resultant uneven scramble may see countries with the greatest need for vaccines being unable to put in place an early and critical ring of protection around their borders.

Another idea that has been floated is to give priority to “super-spreaders”. A trio of US academics believes that after taking care of essential workers, “vaccinations should be given to the biggest transmitters of the virus – mostly the young – and only then to the most vulnerable”.

One of the lessons from past pandemics is that vaccinating likely asymptomatic spreaders early can avert multiple infections with others. The academic trio note that very few of the COVID-19 super-spreaders are elderly. Rather, it is younger people who have a much greater propensity to resume social lives at school and in other venues.

While the strategy of vaccinating the young to protect the old is counterintuitive, there is ample evidence to suggest that this is the right approach. According to UK researchers, immunising those around the elderly may help protect them. It is also instructive to note that a vaccine against COVID-19 may not be as effective in older people who are most at risk of suffering complications and dying from the disease.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for international co-ordination on COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that effective treatments are widely available and appropriately distributed. With many nations likely to adopt a nationalistic approach, there is a high risk that the most vulnerable will not get the life-saving interventions that they need.

Deciding who gets first dibs will be a challenging and contentious task. Most nations are expected to adopt a tiered approach to vaccine distribution. Regardless of the allocation plan adopted, it needs to be transparent and perceived as fair by a majority of the general public.

Of course, fairness – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Why Australia should provide free and universal childcare

Source: Free clipart

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced that families could access free childcare. This temporary crisis measure was designed to protect livelihoods. “This virus is going to take enough from Australians without putting Australian parents in that position of having to choose between the economic wellbeing of their family or the care and support and education of their children,” Mr Morrison said.

The PM essentially nationalised the childcare system making it an “essential service”, but the relief package only covered the period to 12 July. Many believe that the emergency arrangements should have been made permanent. I join the chorus of voices calling for continued government funding of childcare and believe that it should be considered an essential service, both in good and bad times. Parents rely on dependable childcare so that they can work.

The arguments for early childcare are well-known and universal. Infants and toddlers everywhere are naturally curious and observant and can take in vast amounts of information. Children learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in their lives. From birth to age six, a child’s brain is like a sponge, continuously absorbing everything around them.

Enrolling a child in a daycare centre or preschool facility enhances this cognitive absorption process. Early education and care exposes children to numbers, letters and shapes. It also helps them develop social and emotional skills such as getting along with other children, sharing and contributing. Early learning settings assist children develop the skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

But childcare is not cheap and Australia does not provide free and universal daycare and preschooling and this places a financial burden on working families. Many Aussie households struggle to pay the fees, while for others it is completely out of reach. Childcare affordability and accessibility are significant issues in Australia.

In contrast, Scandinavian nations have the most family-friendly childcare policies in the world. The Swedes and the Danes enjoy heavily subsidised access to daycare facilities regardless of income. The French benefit from similar arrangements with the government providing inexpensive municipal daycare, tax breaks for families employing in-home childcare workers and free universal preschool beginning at age three.

Childcare options in Britain changed in 2017 with the introduction of free and universal early education for children three and four years of age. According to government data, 94 per cent of British parents have taken the government up on its offer of free education. The offer provides a guaranteed 15 hours a week of free childcare or preschool for 38 weeks a year.

More and more nations are discovering that early childhood education is one of the best investments a country can make to prepare children for learning and give them a chance to thrive later in life. It lays the foundation for a child’s future and has long-term impacts on health, education, job prospects and well-being.

Experts agree that supporting early childhood education is a win-win for everyone. One such expert is Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, from the University of Chicago. Professor Heckman argues that the best way to reduce deficits and strengthen the economy is to invest in quality early childhood development. This creates better education, health, social and economic outcomes which increase revenue and reduce the need for costly social spending.

He developed the “Heckman Equation” which is based on the notion that spending on education and training has its biggest impact early in life. The science of brain development reveals that the first few years of life play a critical role in shaping future emotional, cognitive and intellectual skills. Kids who get consistent nurturing care are more likely to succeed in school, stay clear of trouble with the law and have productive lives in the workforce.

Another academic who has weighed in on the early education debate is Edward Melhuish. He is a professor at the University of Oxford, a visiting professor at the University College London and a visiting professor at the University of Wollongong’s Early Start Research Institute. In an article Professor Melhuish wrote for The Guardian, he stated:

Those countries that are planning for long-term economic growth are investing in early childhood education and care, because the jobs of the future will be for those with the most skills, and the foundations are laid in early life. China is an example of a country that has greatly increased its investment in this area.

In the same article, Professor Melhuish noted that there is a powerful economic case for state funding:

Using taxpayer money to help parents into work is not necessarily a drain on the treasury, rather it can lead to more revenue. A UK think tank has published a report suggesting that a 5% increase in maternal employment in the UK could be worth £750m (AU$1.6bn) annually in increased tax revenue and reduced benefit spending.

Professor Melhuish believes that a high-quality early childhood education and care system should be considered as part of the infrastructure for a country’s long-term economic and social development, to be developed in much the same way as, say, roads. This view is increasingly holding sway among OECD countries. An OECD report, Starting Strong III, begins:

A growing body of research recognises that early childhood education and care (ECEC) brings a wide range of benefits, for example, better child wellbeing and learning outcomes as a foundation for lifelong learning; more equitable child outcomes and reduction of poverty; increased intergenerational social mobility; more female labour market participation; increased fertility rates; and better social and economic development for the society at large.

Professor Melhuish believes that Australia should follow the research and provide free universal childcare and I concur. Early childhood education will improve educational and whole-of-life outcomes for Australian children, as well as increased workforce participation. This provides a double dividend for the Australian government’s investment.

Still, some child-free individuals, together with parents who elect to stay-at-home, will object to their tax dollars being used on childcare for other people’s offspring. Yet these same people are seemingly comfortable with state funding of primary and high schools. This, I believe, is because childcare is viewed as “preschool babysitting” whereas it should be seen as “preschool education”.

By relabelling early childcare, the notion of public money being spent on the very young should be more palatable. State subsidies for childcare facilities are a common good and, in my opinion, are no different from the principle behind free state schools. Childcare provides a healthy return on investment, so undervaluing childcare is a false economy.

All revolutions take time and childcare is no exception. It is my hope that sooner rather than later Australia will have the political appetite for more spending on preschool care and education. The approach by Scandinavian countries to universal childcare is a source of policy inspiration and a sensible policy tool for Australia to adopt. It’s also a smart investment.

Our children deserve the best possible start in life.


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

Search for COVID-19 vaccine brings nationalist element to worldwide crisis

Source: The National – Shadi Ghanim

A global competition is underway to defeat the novel coronavirus. More than 140 vaccines are being tested, according to the World Health Organisation. Australian researches are leading several major clinical trials that might help control the spread of the disease.

But in the battle to be the first to find effective protection against COVID-19, nobody wins unless everyone wins. That’s the view of American epidemiologist and CEO of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, Dr Seth Berkley. In an opinion piece Dr Berkley wrote for Fortune Online, he expressed concern that the search for a vaccine has morphed into a geopolitical battle.

… regardless of which vaccines succeed, if we don’t take a more global and multilateral approach, one involving unprecedented collaboration, where countries work together with global health agencies toward COVID-19 vaccines and where the rewards are shared, then ultimately we all stand to lose. Because with infectious disease, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Dr Berkley is not alone in flagging that a lack of international cooperation is driving nations to race against each other and not the real enemy – the virus. Writing in The New York Times, a team of senior correspondents observed:

China, Europe and the United States have all set off at a sprint to become the first to produce a vaccine. But while there is cooperation on many levels – including among companies that are ordinarily fierce competitors – hanging over the effort is the shadow of a nationalistic approach that could give the winner the chance to favor its own population and potentially gain the upper hand in dealing with the economic and geostrategic fallout from the crisis.

Vaccine nationalism and a “my-country-first” approach to vaccine allocation also trouble Thomas J. Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He warns that such behaviour creates the potential for a deadly zero-sum game which will have profound and far-reaching consequences.

Without global coordination, countries may bid against one another, driving up the price of vaccines and related materials. Supplies of proven vaccines will be limited initially even in some rich countries, but the greatest suffering will be in low and middle-income countries. Such places will be forced to watch as their wealthier counterparts deplete supplies and will have to wait months (or longer) for their replenishment. In the interim, health-care workers and billions of elderly and other high-risk inhabitants in poorer countries will go unprotected, which will extend the pandemic, increase its death toll, and imperil already fragile health-care systems and economies.

World powers are working at breakneck speed to secure vaccine stocks and score some reputational kudos. But an excess of national pride and one-upmanship are threatening to overwhelm the common good. The jockeying for position and public posturing by nations was the focus of an article in the July 7 edition of POLITICO Magazine.

In China, where a vaccine victory could turn a country that started the virus’ spread into the savior of the world, the virologist and major general leading the country’s vaccine project has been hailed as a “goddess” on social media….

In June … President Emmanuel Macron announced that (French pharma giant) Sanofi would be dramatically ramping up operations in France to put “Sanofi and France at the heart of excellence in the fight … to find a vaccine.” Invoking the “genius of Louis Pasteur,” Marcon  (sic) hailed France as “a great vaccine country.” …

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, Britain is celebrating the news that its own Oxford scientists are “sprinting fastest” to develop a vaccine, in the words of an April 27 New York Times article – though the news site Irish Central took pains to point out that the lead scientist is Irish, not English….

And then there’s Trump, who stood in the Rose Garden in May and stated definitively that “America is blessed to have the most brilliant, talented doctors and researchers anywhere in the world. And now we’re combining all of these amazing strengths for the most aggressive vaccine project in history. There’s never been a vaccine project anywhere in history like this.”

Of course, governments aren’t chasing the vaccine trophy just for prestige and scientific accolades. Beyond the hubris, it’s about getting first dibs on any breakthrough drug for the benefit of their own people. Many world leaders are driven by nationalist impulses and the demands of their anxious populations to get a jump-start on eliminating the virus and bringing their economies back to life.

While it’s still uncertain which countries will get the first inoculations, what is clear is that there will not be enough vaccine for quite some time, even with the unprecedented efforts to manufacture billions of doses. A report in The Washington Post noted:

… the nationalistic priorities of individual nations could thwart the strategic imperative to tamp down hot spots wherever they are on the planet – including poor countries that cannot afford the vaccine. The United States in particular could be left in the cold if vaccines developed here as part of a go-it-alone approach turn out to be less effective than those produced in China or Europe. The scenario public health experts fear most is a worldwide fight in which manufacturers sell only to the highest bidders, rich countries try to buy up the supplies, and nations where manufacturers are located hoard vaccines for their own citizens.

While richer nations look set to win the battle to find a COVID-19 vaccine, they will lose the war against the spread of the virus if poorer nations remain unprotected. Just immunising a few populations against a universal threat won’t be sufficient for global trade and travel to resume. Yet there remains a high risk that the most vulnerable will not get the lifesaving interventions that they need.

African nations were pushed to the back of the queue in gaining access to an antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV and they may well suffer the same injustice regarding COVID-19 vaccine delivery. To help prevent history from repeating itself, the United Nations has declared it a “moral imperative” that everyone has access to a “people’s vaccine”.

A press release issued by UNAIDS in May, cited an open letter signed by “140 world leaders, experts and elders”. The letter demands that all vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and available to all people, in all countries free of charge. The letter states:

Now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives, or to leave this massive and moral task to market forces. Access to vaccines and treatments as global public goods are in the interests of all humanity. We cannot afford for monopolies, crude competition and near-sighted nationalism to stand in the way.

Like climate change, pandemics are transnational issues that no country can solve alone. Both highlight the need for closer international cooperation and coordinated global action. Yet most nations have acted independently from each other during the pandemic rather than in unison. The world needs to heed the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, Laurie Garett:

“Without equity, pandemic battles will fail.”


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting