Indigenous imprisonment in Australia

March 12, 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates have been steadily rising and are worse than any time in recent memory.  This is a national problem that demands a national solution.

I have just published an opinion piece on this topic in Open Forum, entitled “Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration”.

I have also re-posted the full article on this blog, along with a short addition.

I encourage you to read it.


Australian spatial economics

August 19, 2014

Even in this digital, online world, it’s no secret that all economic activity has an important element of physical space.

Economists and geographers know this. In fact, a whole field of study is devoted to it, and it’s called economic geography.

Unfortunately, the spatial dimension to our work and our consumer lives is something that government policy makers, economic planners and regulators often seem to forget or never even consider. Too many government policies and programs assume that we are all sitting in the same space – presumably (when here in Australia) within a five to ten kilometre radius of the central business district of one of our capital cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide – or perhaps Canberra (but certainly not Darwin or Hobart).

Here in Australia, about two-thirds of us live in the capital cities, making Australia (despite our “outback” and rural myths) one of the most urbanised countries on earth. Singapore, city-state that it is (with a 100 percent urbanisation), we are not. But more than 89 percent of us live in urban areas, not far behind Japan and South Korea (both at 91 percent).

So the high rate of Australian urbanisation means we can assume geography is not significant, right? Wrong. With our massive continent and our sprawling cities, we have a number of regions that experience profound and intense geographic disadvantage. Think western Sydney, western Melbourne and most regional, rural and remote areas.

The fact is that employment and economic activity is NOT evenly spread along with the population, despite our high urbanisation rate. Economic activity is particularly concentrated in and around the major central business districts, a point made comprehensively and convincingly in a report from the Grattan Institute entitled “Mapping Australia’s economy: Cities as engines of prosperity”, by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan.

The Institute summarises the situation:

More than three-quarters of all economic activity in Australia happens on less than one per cent of the nation’s land mass. In today’s services-driven economy, Australia’s cities are the engines of material prosperity.

For a long time agriculture was the backbone of our economy, as we rode on the sheep’s back. After World War Two prosperity shifted to suburbia, with manufacturing employing one in four Australians. This report shows that Australia’s economy is increasingly driven by knowledge-intensive services located in Australia’s large cities. Within these cities the most intense and productive economic activity is concentrated around central business districts and a small number of other business hubs. The way these areas draw large numbers of businesses and workers together makes them all more productive.

Key facts from the report include:
– “Eighty percent of the value of all goods and services produced in Australia is generated on just 0.2 percent of hte nation’s land mass.”
– The CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne – just 7.1 square kilometres – generated $118 billion during the 2011/12 financial year, almost 10 percent of Australia’s economic activity.

And the major reason for the intense economic activity? The concentrations are of “highly knowledge-intensive and specialised services such as funds management, insurance, design, engineering and international education”, with highly skilled workers. And it is the physical “proximity to suppliers, customers and partners” that promotes efficiency, generating “opportunities to come up with new ideas and ways of working” (report, p. 1).

So there you go. We communicate via digital means and at great distances quicker and easier than ever. But yet, we still prefer – in fact, many of us need – to be physically close in order to work efficiently. Economic planners take note.

Mapping Australia's economy

The best question

October 31, 2013

Here’s the best question I have read this week:

“Why does the richest country in the world still need anti-poverty week?”

The Ethical Jobs website asks it in an October 17th post.  I previously reported that by at least one measure – median income – Australians were now the richest people in the world.  And yet, the University of Canberra – Uniting Care report Poverty, Social Exclusion and Disadvantage in Australia (PDF document) points to distinct trends towards inequality of wealth in Australia (p. 7):

In the OECD database, of the 34 developed nations considered by the OECD in 2010, Australia ranked 26thin terms of poverty rate with 14.4 per cent of persons in poverty compared to the average of 11.3 per cent. Australia has a lower poverty rate than the United States (17.4 per cent) but a higher rate than the United Kingdom (10 per cent) and a much higher rate than the Scandinavian countries such as Denmark (6 per cent) and Finland (7.3 per cent).

Check out the figure on this same page (7):  Australian poverty levels jumped substantially from 1995 to 2010.  It is not a good thing that we are approaching American percentages.

A high level of median household income – as we have in Australia – clearly does NOT mean an equal society:  the 50% below the median can be way below, while the 50% above the line can be way above.  Much work needs to be done.




Remoteness Index of Australia

October 31, 2013

I am one of a small number that gets excited by a good map (the former town planner/geographer in me), but there is a great one of geographic remoteness in Australia as part of this document about families in rural and remote Australia, published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies:

Remoteness map of Australia

As I discussed in my recent post on rural and remote poverty, the key thing to remember is that almost every single indicator of well-being – educational attainment, health outcomes, families in crisis, etc (even telecommunications access) – declines as you move “outwards” in Australia from major cities to inner regional to outer regional to remote to very remote. This map shows it very well (although it does not include state boundaries on it, which would be helpful), and can be very helpful in determining which regions have compounded problems.

The good and the bad about living in Australia

October 16, 2013

There are some consolations about living in Australia.

Our wealth (yes, guys, we are one of the two richest countries in the world, per capita).  Our sunshine.  Our beaches.  Our health system (Americans, eat your heart out).  Our high dollar (at least for me, when I buy books on Amazon or travel to the USA).  Our relative safety and low crime rates.  Our general absence of paranoia.  The variety and quality of our food.  Our scenery.  Our genuinely multicultural society.  Our literacy rates.   Our weather.

There are some downsides, too.  The agonisingly long – and expensive – airplane rides to get anywhere in North American or Europe.  Our rapidly warming part of the world (is it global warming that Sydney has had its hottest September and October EVER?).  Waiting a week or so for my copy of The New Yorker.  Our hideously expensive broadband internet.  Our expensive books.  The status and poverty of our Indigenous inhabitants.  The fascination with cricket (hey, its my post; I can write what I want).  Our unwillingness to get really serious about public transit.  The delay in getting some of the best and quirkiest films and television shows.

Depending on how you see it, the Queen (along with the Royal family) is both an upside and a downside.  At the moment, more up.  That may change.

So here is the funniest ‘you can’t watch this video clip’ message I have seen.  But this is the deal.  You can ONLY see this message if you live in Australia:  go to The Colbert Report website.  And try to watch a clip.  You can if you are in the USA (I am less certain about other countries).

But if you live in Australia, you get the following message on screen:

Sorry but this video is unavailable from your location.  It’s one of the detriments of living under a monarchy.  But in case you can’t give up your vegemite and move to America, watch clips from The Colbert Report on

(Except The Comedy Channel website does not really show any Colbert Report – exclusive to FoxTel subscribers ….)

At least the message is funny.

Colbert Report

Are Australians the richest people on earth?

October 13, 2013

The Credit Swisse Global Wealth Report 2013 was released on 9 October 2013 and indicates some perhaps not-so-surprising news for Australians:

In US dollar terms, household wealth in Australia grew rapidly between 2000 and 2013, apart from a brief interlude in 2008. The average annual growth rate has been 13%, but about half of the rise is due to exchange rate appreciation. Using constant exchange rates, wealth has grown on average by just 3.3% per annum since 2007. Despite this recent slowdown, Australia’s wealth per adult in 2013 is USD 402,600, the second highest in the world after Switzerland.  Even more strikingly, its median wealth of USD 219,500 is the highest in the world.

You read that one correctly:  in terms of median wealth, we Australians top the world, beating number two Switzerland.

Remember that when it comes to wealth, the median – the halfway point in a distribution – is probably a much more accurate measure than “average”, which takes all figures and divides them.  In other words, one Gina Rinehart – the richest woman in the world, worth estimated between US$17 billion and Aus$22 billion – can make up for a whole lot of poor people when it comes to an average.  But with a “median”, if she is at the top, she is equivalent to the poorest Australian – in other words, one cancels the other out, and median is between them, but the “average” would be approximately one-half of Rinehart’s wealth.

Are these Australian wealth figures wrong?  Probably not.

Yesterday’s (October 12) Australian reports figures from Colliers International that commercial rentals on “Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall have leapfrogged Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone to become the eighth most expensive in the world.”

The only shopping districts ahead of Sydney are New York City’s Fifth Avenue (at number one) and Madison Avenue; Hong Kong’s Queens Road Central, Canton Road and Causeway Bay; and Zurich’s Via Monte Napoleone.

Meanwhile, research due to be released shortly by the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and conducted by Dr Nicholas Biddle concludes that “more than a third of Indigenous Australians (36.6%) live among the most disadvantaged 10 percent” of Australians, and “only 1.7 percent live among the top 10 percent”.  The Australian has graphed this disadvantage, and I reproduce their graph below:

Indigenous disadvantage graph Biddle - The Aust(Graph reproduced from The Australian.)

The smallest gap?  In Sydney’s “lower north”.  More on this in a later post.  But clearly not every Australian is sitting up with the Swiss in median income, or buying their goods on Pitt Street Mall, one of the most expensive in the world.

BRW Australian Rich List released and the rich are still very rich

May 23, 2013

This is definitely my week for F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American author whose book “The Great Gatsby” is the source material for Baz Luhrmann’s film opening next week here in Australia.  (It’s also my week for observing how wealth is unequally distributed.)

Fitzgerald reportedly said to fellow writer Ernest Hemingway “The rich are different from us.”  To which Hemingway reportedly replied, “Yes, they have more money.”  (Some versions have Fitzgerald saying “the very rich”.)  For a full discussion of how and when this was said, go to Lionel Trilling’s essay on Fitzgerald, which was published in his classic book The Liberal Imagination.  You can find a copy of this essay at this very odd Russian website.

Well, this saying came back to me when I received the emailed press release yesterday with an announcement of the BRW “Rich List” for 2013, which will be formally released later today – Thursday 23 May 2013.  I reproduce part of the media release below.

  • Gina Rinehart remains the richest Australian – topping the 2013 BRW Rich 200.
  • # 2 is Frank Lowy, and # 3 James Packer.
  • Total wealth of the Rich 200 is down $4.4 billion to $176.8 billion but when Rinehart is excluded, total wealth rises by $2.7 billion to $154.8 billion.
  • The average wealth per person on the Rich 200 has fallen to $884 million, down from $906 million last year.
  • Cut-off rises $25 million to $235 million.
  • Chinese-based property developer Hui Wing Mau debuts at 7th spot on the list with a $4.82 billion fortune.
  • 14 women make the cut-off for 2013 BRW Rich 200. Therese Rein drops off after debuting last year.

The biggest fall has been felt by the richest Australian of all time: Gina Rinehart.  Rinehart retains her firm grip on the top spot despite the fall in her wealth to $22.02 billion from $29.17 billion last year.  All of the five biggest falls on the 2013 BRW Rich 200 (on both dollar value and proportional bases) are from the mining sector.  Among them are Fortescue Metals Group’s Andrew Forrest, who is down $2.23 billion to $3.66 billion and political aspirant Clive Palmer, down to $2.2 billion from $3.85 last year.

A former number one, Frank Lowy, moves from third last year to second on the 2013 BRW Rich 200 after gaining about $400 million. His $6.87 billion valuation is underpinned by some modest growth at his shopping centre business Westfield Group.  One of the big movers on this year’s BRW Rich 200 is James Packer. His wealth has risen to $6 billion from $5.21 billion on the back of strong growth in his gambling interests taking him to the #3 spot.  Anthony Pratt has had another good year at #4 on the BRW Rich 200. The family-owned flagship business Visy continues to achieve strong results here and Pratt’s US-based box making business Pratt Industries is growing quickly.

Top 5

Gina Rinehart

$22.02 b

Frank Lowy

$7.40 b

James Packer

$6.00 b

Gambling, investment
Anthony Pratt & family

$5.95 b

Manufacturing, investment
Ivan Glasenberg

$5.61 b


Although we are not as unequal as the USA, wealth is still very unevenly distributed in Australia.  As Australian economics journalist Peter Martin succinctly puts it:  we Australians “think the rich have too much – but we’ve no idea of how skewed the distribution really is.”