COVID vaccination has turned into a ‘battle of the brands’. But not everyone’s buying it

Originally published on


When we were hanging out for a COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, it was a bit like a horse race. We asked ourselves which vaccine would get over the line to win, and how quickly. Then, as multiple vaccines began reporting results from clinical trials, the race turned to which could offer superior efficacy and safety.

Flash forward to 2021, with multiple safe and effective vaccines approved, parts of the globe are experiencing “brand tribalism”. Which brand of vaccine you want, or can get, has become a hot issue.

In the United States, young vaccinators post their vaccine “team” or “tribe” preferences on social media, saying, “only hot people get the Pfizer Vaccine”.

In Britain, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine invokes patriotism as well as warm feelings about its not-for-profit roots, even as some consumers prefer the “fancier” Pfizer vaccine.

In Hungary, fraught cold war politics have resurfaced as consumers can be vaccinated with one developed in the East or West.

In Australia, we’ve seen something different. Since the move away from the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 50 announced in April, brand preferences became about safety rather than efficacy.

However, data from our research currently under peer-review and reports from elsewhere show younger and ineligible people are still stumping up to try and get vaccinated with whatever vaccine they can get.

The public isn’t so tuned in to flu vaccine brands

Having numerous brands of a particular vaccine is not new. Every year, multiple brands of influenza vaccines are used across various age groups.

One of us (Carlson) has been interviewing people about influenza vaccination for over five years, and no participant has told her they prefer a specific brand.

Things are different with COVID-19 vaccines, as people are increasingly aware of the different brands available to them and others. Through our Coronavax project, we are continually hearing brand names mentioned.

Yet some participants challenge the focus on brands. Alma*, a 50-year-old doctor, told us:

No one normally cares what brand of vaccine you get! With the flu vaccination […] people don’t start quizzing me on “what brand is this one?”

Other participants, such as 71-year-old Frank*, were critical of the emphasis on brands. When asked his opinion on under 50s receiving Pfizer and over 50s receiving AstraZeneca, he turned the tables. He asked his interviewer (McKenzie) if she had received her flu vaccination this year (she had) and whether she knew which brand she had received (she did not).

Others expressed some brand preferences, and all were very aware of the different brands.

The difference with flu vaccines, we hypothesise, is that although health-care providers are told about the different influenza vaccine brands so they can safely vaccinate people with the age-appropriate vaccine, the brands themselves are never front page news.

Flu vaccine brands are only ever sold to consumers as “the” flu vaccine. But COVID-19 vaccine brands feel like a buffet in which consumers don’t actually have much choice.

Read more:
Which COVID vaccine is best? Here’s why that’s really hard to answer

Vaccine preferences in Australia

International examples of COVID vaccine “teams” and people sharing their vaccine allegiances don’t directly translate to Australia. That’s because here, brand availability cannot be divorced from systemic and vaccine supply problems, such as not having enough of the appropriate vaccines for the specific age groups requiring them.

So in Australia, we don’t see brand tribalism as a fun expression of identity that can help orient everyone towards vaccinating.

Rather, brand preferences in Australia have developed through changing vaccine recommendations, and positive or negative news coverage.

In this imperfect scenario, governments need to keep backing the available vaccines that people can safely receive according to their age and risk profile, not encouraging people to wait for new ones.

Read more:
New AstraZeneca advice is a safer path, but it’s damaged vaccine confidence. The government must urgently restore it

Any pros of brand awareness?

One of the few benefits in the brand “team” wars is Australians are generally more aware of the science behind the development and safety of vaccines.

Most people we interviewed had recently learnt more about the science of vaccination. And most planned on being vaccinated with what was available to them, when it was (easily) available.

We hope this improved scientific literacy can help people appreciate the expertise that goes into creating vaccines, as well as the work of people like us who study their rollout, acceptance and uptake.

However, brand preference tribalism isn’t going to help Australia get vaccinated. Our unique situation of (necessary) directives about specific vaccine brands for different ages, our low rates of disease, and the increasing cut-off age for the AstraZeneca vaccine announced recently have contributed to a broken roll-out strategy.

The conversations we need to keep having about brands are difficult ones. We are on quicksand and science keeps evolving. The most important message isn’t about which team is better. It’s about having a responsive system that cares about people. It changes things up when it needs to, however challenging that makes our vaccine rollout.

Read more:
Diverse spokespeople and humour: how the government’s next ad campaign could boost COVID vaccine uptake

What we can do right now

The best thing we can do is to tone down the brand narrative within the significant constraints we face. All COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and if the disease profile of our country changes, then the recommendations about who should have which vaccine may change again. All COVID-19 vaccines protect and benefit individuals and communities.

Most importantly, all Australians benefit when we can safely reopen to the world and to our local businesses and communities. Without painful lockdowns, vaccines are all we have to look after ourselves and each other. We’re on that team.

*All names of research participants are pseudonyms.

Katie Attwell receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the WA Department of Health. She is currently funded by ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award DE1901000158. She is a member of a government advisory committee, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) COVID-19 Working Group. She is a specialist advisor to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. All views presented in this article are her own and not representative of any other organisation.

Lara McKenzie receives funding from the WA Department of Health. All views presented in this article are her own and not representative of any other organisation.

Samantha Carlson receives funding from the WA Department of Health. All views presented in this article are her own and not representative of any other organisation.

View from The Hill: Nationals in crisis, with pressure on Michael McCormack’s leadership

Originally published on

The Nationals are in fresh chaos, with Michael McCormack’s leadership under intense pressure, as the party meets on Monday at the start of parliament’s last week before the winter recess.

Amid speculation about a possible challenge during what’s often dubbed the “killing season” for leaders, some Nationals sources on Sunday claimed former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce had majority support, after the defection of one McCormack supporter.

Former resources minister Matt Canavan, a strong Joyce supporter and blunt critic of McCormack, had a mixed message.

“My view is well known – the Nationals have an identity crisis because Michael has failed to deliver a clear vision,” Canavan said.

“Barnaby has mapped out such a vision and can again for the party. But I don’t think the numbers are there for him and I am just one vote. Still some of the commentary is taking on a self fulfilling character so maybe something will happen.”

McCormack told the ABC no one had told him a spill move was likely: “I’ve got no-one having called me and said, ‘It’s on.’ I have had no-one say to me, ‘There is a spill afoot.’”

He said in a weekend statement:

“I am focused as always on helping Australians to recover from the pandemic, rebuilding after the Victorian floods and the growth of regional Australia. If others within government think that they should be talking about themselves and their ambitions at this difficult and challenging time then that’s a matter for them. I’m concentrating on the issues that matter to ordinary, everyday Australians.”

Joyce told The Australian “I am not going to call a spill tomorrow.”

In a party of 21, it is proving hard for those assessing numbers to be sure of them, not least because they don’t trust all their colleagues.

There is a school of thought in the party that the speculation about an imminent leadership challenge was started as an anti-Joyce move.

McCormack came under renewed criticism within the Nationals last week when, as acting prime minister, he made some silly statements in parliament.

He said, “I would much sooner live in Australia than live anywhere else in this nation”.

In a burst of attempted sarcasm that backfired, he said in relation to the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “I actually agree with PETA. [The mice] should be rehomed into their inner-city apartments so that they can nibble away at their food and their feet at night and scratch their children at night.”

More fundamentally, militant Nationals are angry that Scott Morrison has been allowed, as they see it, to walk all over the minor Coalition partner, taking McCormack for granted and refusing to give the Nationals credit for things that affect the party’s constituency.

They are also concerned that with McCormack as leader, Morrison could move to adopt a firm target of net zero emissions by 2050, which he has been sliding towards. This is despite McCormack telling The Conversation last Wednesday the party would not endorse the target.

Resources Minister Keith Pitt and former Nationals minister Bridget McKenzie both declared last week that net zero by 2050 was not the Nationals’ policy.

It was unclear on Sunday night whether, if there were a move against McCormack, Deputy Leader David Littleproud would be a candidate.

Littleproud would not have the numbers in a three-way contest against McCormack and Joyce. He would need McCormack’s votes. He has also said he would not run against McCormack.

But if a vote of no-confidence in McCormack were carried and McCormack stood aside, that would provide a pathway for Littleproud to run.

Morrison, who is in isolation at The Lodge and will do question time remotely this week, would be appalled at the thought of Joyce replacing McCormack. Joyce would differentiate the Nationals to the maximum extent and would oppose the firming up of the net zero commitment, which Morrison presently couches as “preferably” by 2050.

Littleproud would be tougher with the Liberals than McCormack, but would go along with the 2050 target, provided there was a positive deal for agriculture.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Exclusive. Top economists call for budget measures to speed the switch to electric cars

Originally published on

Australia’s top economists overwhelmingly back government measures to speed the transition to electric cars in order to meet emission reduction targets.

An exclusive poll of 62 of Australia’s preeminent economists — selected by their peers — finds 51 back measures to boost the take-up of electric cars including subsidising public charging stations, subsidising the purchase of all-electric vehicles, and setting a date to ban the import of traditionally-powered cars.

Only 11 oppose such measures, three of them because they prefer a carbon tax.

Six of the 51 who supported special measures said they did so reluctantly, as their preferred alternative would be a carbon price or a carbon tax, rather than subsidising “one alternative out of many to reduce emissions”.

Cars account for roughly half of Australia’s transport emissions, making them about 8% of Australia’s total emissions.

Yet Australia’s take-up of electric vehicles is dwarfed by the rest of the world.

On one measure, all-electric cars accounted for just 0.7% of new car sales in Australia in 2020 compared to 5% in China and 3.5% in the European Union.

Australia has no domestic car industry to protect, meaning industry policy concerns needn’t hold back the transition.

Read more:
Going electric could be Australia’s next big light bulb moment

Norway plans to outlaw new petrol car sales from 2025; Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Israel from 2030; and California and Britain from 2035.

Asked whether Australia should take action to speed the transition, eight in ten of the 62 economists selected by the Economic Society said it should.

Economic Society of Australia/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The results represent a departure for a profession whose usual advice is to avoid interfering with markets.

One participant, University of NSW professor Gigi Foster said an important question needed to be answered in order to justify government intervention: “what is the market failure here?”

The market failure was pollution, imposing costs on the community beyond the drivers of conventionally-powered cars and on the planet by pushing up global temperatures.

Broad support: subsidies for charging points

If it wasn’t to be dealt with by a carbon price, measures that sped up the switchover to electric vehicles could achieve some of the same effect.

By far the most popular measure of six presented to the panellists who supported government action was subsidising public charging points, backed by 84%.

The next most popular was removing the luxury car tax from electric-only vehicles. At present the 35% tax applies to cars valued at more than $69,152, and $79,659 for fuel-efficient vehicles.

43% supported making charging points compulsory in new homes and new car parks. 39% supported setting a date to ban the import of petrol and diesel cars.

Matthew Butlin, who chairs South Australia’s Productivity Commission, noted that much of Australia was not urban and unlikely to be served by charging points for some time.

Without government measures to speed the installation of remote charging stations, many buyers would be reluctant to go electric, even if most of their driving was in cities.

When they were in place, there would be a good case for banning the import of petrol and diesel vehicles, but not until then.

Read more:
Could electric car batteries feed power back into the grid?

Others wanted to hold off on banning the import of conventionally-powered cars until Australia had a lower-emissions mix of electricity.

Macquarie University’s Lisa Magnani said that with three quarters of Australia’s electricity generated from coal, electric vehicles created considerable emissions.

The Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood disagreed, saying “network effects” built a case for switching over early.

Network effects build on themselves

The more people switched, the more charging stations would be built and the lower electric vehicle prices would drop, driving more people to switch, and increasing the benefits of decarbonising the electricity supply.

The sooner Australia swapped over, the easier it would be to get to net zero emissions by 2050 without the need for a “cash for clunkers” style scheme to buy back polluting vehicles.

Setting 2035 as the date for banning imports of petrol-powered cars as recommended this year by the International Energy Agency would give buyers time to adjust while the charging infrastructure developed.

Read more:
Want an electric car? Here’s how to buy second-hand

Tax specialist John Freebairn said electric cars were already heavily subsidised by escaping the fuel excise used to fund roads, despite the efforts of some states to plug the gap.

Sydney University economist Stefanie Schurer argued on the other hand bulky and polluting sport utility vehicles were effectively subsidised because of the tax benefits they attracted when used for work.

Former Liberal Party leader John Hewson who heads the Crawford School of Public Policy said smoothing the transition had become urgent.

Smooth transition now “urgent”

It took only ten years from 1903-13 for the United States to switch from horse-drawn to petrol-driven vehicles, and technology take-up was quicker today, particularly in Australia.

Other economists surveyed noted that there was much that could be done to reduce harmful emissions in addition to going electric.

Sue Richardson said Australia should impose serious limits on the tailpipe emissions of new cars. Australia is unusual among developed nations in not having such a limit, making it a favoured market for high-emission cars.

Read more:
The trucking industry has begun to turn electric; cars will take longer

Rana Roy said a better approach would be to limit transport itself through remote working and efforts to encourage walking and cycling. Subsidies for electric cars could send such moves backwards.

When responses to the survey were weighted by the confidence respondents had in them on a scale of 1 to 10, support of special measures to drive the transition remained about as strong, backed by eight in ten of the economists surveyed.

Economic Society of Australia/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Detailed responses:

Peter Martin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

How Andrei Sakharov went from Soviet hero to dissident — and forced the world to pay attention to human rights

Originally published on
US President Ronald Reagan meeting with Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in the Oval Office in 1988. White House Photographic Collection/Wikimedia Commons

This piece is part of a new series in collaboration with the ABC’s Saturday Extra program. Each week, the show will have a “who am I” quiz for listeners about influential figures who helped shape the 20th century, and we will publish profiles for each one.

Andrei Sakharov was one of the most brilliant scientists of the nuclear age.

In the field of theoretical physics, he made an enduring contribution to our understanding of the universe. He also played a pivotal role in the creation of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb in 1953. A decade later, he helped instigate a move towards limiting these weapons – the atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.

Despite these achievements, Sakharov is best remembered today for another reason: his years as the Soviet Union’s most famous dissident and outspoken human rights defender.

No other individual rivals Sakharov’s contribution to the global human rights “boom” of the 1970s. When he began to discuss human rights in the late 1960s, the term was so esoteric that Western journalists often mistranslated it as “rights of man”.

His ideas about the link between human rights and international peace won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and helped to make human rights a central issue in superpower relations.

When Mikhail Gorbachev, then secretary general of the Communist Party, liberalised the Soviet system in the late 1980s, Sakharov became first a leader and then a symbol of Russia’s democratic movement.

A call to protect dissidents

Sakharov’s transformation from a pillar of the Soviet scientific establishment to persecuted dissident began in 1968 with his essay “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom”.

In it, Sakharov argued the world could avoid nuclear apocalypse and ecological disaster through the “convergence” of the socialist and capitalist systems, which would each adopt the most humane features of the other.

What was needed to accomplish this historic transformation, Sakharov wrote, was intellectual freedom and an end to the crackdown unleashed in the USSR by the 1966 trial of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel.

Two years later, Sakharov joined a human rights committee created by the dissident Valery Chalidze. At Chaldize’s prompting, Sakharov started attending political trials and collaborating with others in the Moscow dissident milieu. He also began giving interviews to Western journalists and meeting visiting Western politicians.

Valery Chalidze, speaking to reporters at his hotel in New York in 1972.
Ron Frehm/AP

The Soviet authorities retaliated in the summer of 1973. They unleashed a propaganda campaign against him that was reminiscent — in its virulence and scale — of the Stalin era.

Pushing the US to make human rights a priority

Undaunted by the intensifying harassment, Sakharov threw down the gauntlet to the Kremlin by addressing an open letter to the US Congress in support of a bold human rights initiative.

Under the terms of a proposed amendment to the 1974 Trade Act (called the Jackson-Vanik amendment), a US-Soviet trade agreement would be made conditional on the lifting of restrictions on Jewish emigration from the USSR.

This legislation, which was only repealed in 2012, was fiercely resisted by then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who regarded criticism of Soviet totalitarianism as a threat to improving US-Soviet relations.

In his letter, Sakharov argued that restricting emigration made the Soviet Union a closed society that was a danger to the world. This was a historic intervention.

As Kissinger later admitted, Sakharov’s letter “opened the floodgates.” The adoption of the amendment by Congress in 1974 became a turning point in the incorporation of human rights into US foreign policy.

It was no coincidence that Jimmy Carter, the first president to embrace human rights as a diplomatic priority, began his tenure in the White House in 1977 by exchanging letters with Sakharov.

Read more:
Jimmy Carter’s lasting Cold War legacy

Sakharov and the Helsinki Process

No less important was Sakharov’s influence on the Helsinki Process, a series of East-West conferences on security and cooperation in Europe.

Launched by the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, the Helsinki Process was widely perceived as a Western defeat because it appeared to recognise Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Sakharov, however, saw it as an opportunity. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize that year, he drew attention to the fact the agreement contained

far-reaching declarations on the relationship between international security and the preservation of human rights.

This insight inspired a group of dissidents, including Sakharov’s wife Yelena Bonner, to establish the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), an organisation dedicated to monitoring the Soviet regime’s implementation of the human rights provisions of the Final Act.

Andrei Sakharov (left) with fellow dissidents and intellectuals in Moscow in 1973. Yelena Bonner is on the bottom right.
Wikimedia Commons

For nearly eight years, the MHG sent meticulous reports about Soviet violations to the follow-up conferences of the signatory states, but its most compelling evidence was the brutal repression inflicted on its own members.

Thanks to these dissidents, the Helsinki Process became what one US diplomat called “a court trial in continuous session” of the USSR and its East European satellites.

Much of this contest focused on the fate of Sakharov himself after the Soviet regime finally moved to silence him in 1980. For speaking out against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was arrested and banished to internal exile.

‘Our duty is to Sakharov’s name’

During his seven-year ordeal in the closed city of Gorky, Sakharov spoke to the world more often through hunger strikes than by words. His treatment cast a vast shadow over Soviet relations with both the US and Western Europe.

In response to the mounting pressure, Gorbachev astonished the world in 1986 by personally telephoning Sakharov and requesting he resume his “patriotic work”.

Read more:
World politics explainer: the Russian revolution

Two and a half years later, Sakharov dominated the debates of the first Congress of People’s Deputies, the Soviet Union’s first serious parliamentary experiment.

With a persistence that infuriated the Congress’ “aggressively obedient majority”, Sakharov challenged the constitutional supremacy of the Communist Party and urged his reformist colleagues to embark on the path of opposition.

They took that step in the aftermath of Sakharov’s death on December 14 1989. One day later, the future Russian president Boris Yeltsin declared:

We must come to the end of the path that Sakharov began. Our duty is to Sakharov’s name, to the persecution he suffered.

How Sakharov is remembered today

Each year, the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize reminds rights defenders around the world of Sakharov’s tireless efforts to protect human rights.

In Russia, however, his legacy remains contested. The Putin regime marked the centenary of Sakharov’s birth this May with a commemorative coin and a statement that praised Sakharov’s contribution to national security, but ignored his years as a dissident. A public exhibition that was intended to draw attention to Sakharov’s activism was blocked by the Moscow authorities.

This obstructionism is a tribute to Sakharov’s enduring importance for many anti-Putin democrats, like the twice-poisoned Vladimir Kara-Murza, who honour Sakharov as the embodiment of Russia’s democratic tradition.

Robert Horvath does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Concerned about the latest AstraZeneca news? These 3 graphics help you make sense of the risk

Originally published on

Yesterday’s announcement the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine would now only be recommended for the over 60s has highlighted the many ways we think about risk.

The decision reflects a greater understanding of the real, but extremely low, risk of the clotting disorder called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia (TTS) for people aged 50-59, who are now recommended to have the Pfizer vaccine.

But errors in the way we perceive these extremely small risks, called cognitive biases, reflect the fact that when our brains evolved we did not have to grapple with risks this small. So we struggle to make sense of them and perceive these events as being much more likely than they actually are.

This can lead us to make decisions, such as not having a vaccine that could potentially save our life. And the misperception of the likelihood of TTS is one of the main reasons many are hesitant about receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.

So let’s start with what we know about the risk of dying from TTS associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed the traditional way, with words and numbers. Then we’ll present the same numbers graphically.

Read more:
Australians under 60 will no longer receive the AstraZeneca vaccine. So what’s changed?

What’s the risk of dying from TTS?

Initially, we thought about 25% of people with TTS associated with the vaccine would die. But as we learnt more about how to recognise and treat these rare blood clots, the risk of dying from it has changed. In Australia, mortality is now down to around 4%.

This is a low risk of dying from a syndrome with a small likelihood of occurring. So we can express TTS risk in another way.

Two people in Australia have died from TTS after 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine delivered. This makes the likelihood of dying from this syndrome about 0.5 in a million, or if you prefer whole numbers, about 1 in 2 million.

Read more:
A balancing act between benefits and risks: making sense of the latest vaccine news

And now, with graphics

Here’s one way of representing 1 in 2 million visually. This figure shows just how small this risk is. Are you ready for some scrolling?

The Conversation, CC BY-ND

As you can see, the risk of TTS is so small it is almost too small to communicate effectively in this format.

Perhaps even more visually powerful is to compare the risk of dying from TTS to other risks we face in our lives, using a risk scale. This allows you to compare a range of risks and put them into perspective.

As the risk of TTS is a one-off risk normally associated with the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, one interesting comparison is with other one-off risks, such as adventure sports.

As you can see, the risk of dying from TTS is far lower than many activities some of us get up to at the weekend.

But not all of us spend our weekends scuba diving or rock climbing. So let’s look at the more common risks we take in our everyday lives but do not pay much attention to.

This is not a perfect comparison, as the risks are averaged across the whole population, across the entire year. But it’s useful nevertheless.

So the risk of dying from TTS after the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is similar to the risk of being killed by lightning in a year in Australia. And this pales in comparison when compared to other risks, such as the risk of dying in a car accident.

So what happens next?

One of the challenges for public health has always been putting the risks and benefits of our health choices into perspective. This task is even harder when the risks involved are so small.

Using visualisations like these is one way to effectively communicate just how small the risk of TTS is and also put this risk into perspective by comparing it to other risks we incur in our lives.

When you fully appreciate how small the risk of TTS is, the decision to have the AstraZeneca vaccine to protect yourself and others becomes a much easier one to make.

Hassan Vally does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The limits of advocacy: arts sector told to stop worrying and be happy

Originally published on

Most people with an interest in art and culture in Australia believe it is in deep crisis, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think the crisis predated the pandemic. COVID-19 has smashed every sector involved in live events and on-site attendance. But art and culture stand out as receiving little government sympathy and less support.

This underwhelming response comes off the back of a 19% per capita cut in federal funding over the past decade and the declining visibility of the “arts” in its host ministry. Many in the arts sector are convinced they are in the middle of a “culture war”.

Having tried spruiking economic impact, jobs and growth, AI-resistant “creativity”, all to no avail — what’s next for a sector battling for survival?

Past failures

Two recent reports — the first from the think tank A New Approach (ANA), the second from John Daley, ex-Director of the Grattan Institute — argue the problem is art and culture’s own failure to effectively “advocate” for their worth as legitimate targets of public funding.

That might come as a shock to a sector that since 1994’s Creative Nation has been pushing the importance of its economic contribution, turbo-charged by the adoption of creative industries rhetoric from the UK after 1998 (think: “the creative economy”).

Clearly, the economic approach hasn’t worked. According to Daley, this was always barking up the wrong tree, with arguments made “by people who don’t believe them to people who don’t believe them”.

It’s a good line, but not quite right. Artists might not work primarily for money (which is lucky), but the belief that art and culture are a crucial part of Australia’s post-industrial economy, and that this should bring government recognition, is deeply ingrained in the sector. Hence the consternation when these arguments did not cut through in 2020.

Read more:
Friday essay: the politics of dancing and thinking about cultural values beyond dollars

Don’t worry, be happy?

What will convince hard-nosed policymakers in Treasury departments then? Daley’s answer is simple: the arts produce “happiness”. He suggests this is the metric the arts should use to demonstrate their value. It is highly unlikely this will sway policy, where employment metrics have failed. Worse, it simply misdescribes what art is.

Reducing art to “happiness” ignores centuries of debate about its complex purposes going back to Aristotle.

Does “happiness” really describe the dark energies and ecstatic highs of popular culture? The anger and joy that Shakespeare provokes? And “happiness” didn’t drive funding of our biggest contemporary cultural investment — the new War Memorial — with its gravitas, solemnity, and confrontation with the meaning of death.

The problem is not specific to “happiness”, which is just the next word in a chain of key terms leading the sector a merry dance around the abattoir walls to its next funding cut. Rather it is the concept of “advocacy” itself that isn’t right.

Building on shared values

Advocacy works best in situations where basic values are broadly shared. Then issues can be raised and agendas pushed in a melee of healthy civil debate. When that consensus breaks down, when there is no common value ascribed to arts and culture in the first place, advocacy breaks down too.

Health and education need no “advocates” per se (though this consensus too is showing signs of stress). When art and culture need to advocate for their very existence, they are already in deep trouble.

This problem can be seen in its political dimension in the ANA’s latest report, Imagining 2030. Taking their cue from sectors like sport, defence and agriculture, they suggest the “cultural and creative industries” need a coherent economic plan as a basis for advocacy to government.

So it’s back to the old approach: framing art and culture as an industrial sub sector, calculating its financial worth, and trying to fit into Australian Bureau of Statistics parameters. The difference is that now the pitch is to be made to “middle Australia”, says the ANA.

Nowhere in this report is middle Australia defined, though elsewhere the sourced “focus group” is described as “middle-aged, middle income swing voters from suburban and regional Australia”.

Read more:
Jane Austen, Monet and Phantom of the Opera – middlebrow culture today

Call and response

We all know what this means. From Robert Menzies’ campaign slogan of the “forgotten people” in 1942, through John Howard’s appeal to Australian “battlers” in the 1990s, to the present government’s Trump-like culture war against “the elites” — it is a rhetorical figure in Coalition attacks on those it perceives to be its opponents.

The democratic impulse of opening up the arts to everybody becomes an entreaty to the “sensible centre”. Those outside it can be ignored.

Read more:
What happens when your arts minister suffers from cultural cringe?

In this call-and-response with the government, ANA shows what can happen to advocacy in an age of political polarisation — you end up where you may not want to go. Deploying the term “middle Australia” aligns ANA with the political territory of the Coalition. But where sport, defence and agriculture play squarely to Coalition constituencies, art and culture does not.

“He found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself”, as Franz Kafka wrote about gaining a truthful perspective. From this vantage, those in art and culture better get used to their worth depending on how many jobs they generate for tradies — with utes getting tax cuts, but not TV drama — and whether funding them passes the pub test in the Coalition’s marginal seats.

Read more:
Artists shouldn’t have to endlessly demonstrate their value. Coalition leaders used to know it

Bad advocacy could save the arts

If we want to avoid walking down an ever-narrowing policy path to a final cull, we need to assert arts and culture’s fundamental value, not play advocacy roulette with government terms du jour.

This means peak bodies saying things governments don’t like to hear, and risking accusations of biting the hand that feeds them. It means robustly maintaining that art and culture are inseparable from social citizenship, and essential to the foundations of our common life. It’s a risk that must be taken.

The Wilds, recently cancelled along with the Rising festival in Melbourne.
Rising/Eugene Hyland

Read more:
Wesley Enoch: the 2021 budget must think big and reinvest in the social capital of ideas

And new ideas are out there. Regen Melbourne, a network of more than 40 organisations and 600 individuals, has added art and culture to its “doughnut economics” model of community engagement to create a vision for a liveable sustainable city.

Similarly, the Reset arts and culture collaboration in Adelaide (with which we are involved) places culture at the societal foundation, along with health, education and basic services.

These initiatives might be “bad advocacy” with the current government, but in the long term they are art and culture’s best hope.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Stolen wages: Northern Territory class action will hold the Commonwealth to account

Originally published on

Alan Lambert, CC BY-SA

This article contains names and images of people who have passed.

On August 23 1966, Vincent Lingiari and his fellow Aboriginal stock workers walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. Their action, in pursuit of fair working conditions, wages and land, was supported by unions across the country, and lasted nine years – the longest in Australian history.

That remarkable struggle, known to many Australians through the song “From little things big things grow” by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, culminated in the Whitlam government passing the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976, which granted parcels of land to Aboriginal communities.

Less well-known, however, is the upshot of the station workers’ campaign for fair wages. That remains unfinished business.

Last week a class action claim was lodged in the Federal Court against the Commonwealth government seeking redress for the non-payment of wages to Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory from the 1930s to the 1970s.
This is the first class action on stolen wages against the Commonwealth, which administered the territory until 1978.

Aboriginal stock workers were excluded from being paid award rates until 1966, when the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ruled they should be paid equal wages under the Cattle Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. Pastoral companies were given until 1968 to restructure their labour practices.

But this proved a limited win. Cattle stations never resumed the mass employment of Aboriginal workers, turning instead to motorised mustering techniques. Nor did they pay compensation for profiting from decades of low or withheld wages.

The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918.
National Library of Australia

In these practices the Commonwealth government was complicit through its 1918 Aboriginal Ordinance, which provided powers to territory officials (called “Aboriginal Protectors”) to govern all aspects of Aboriginal peoples’ lives, including their employment and wages.

Commonwealth complicity

The class action (filed in the Federal Court on June 10) seeks compensation from the Commonwealth for wages of Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory held in trust accounts from 1933 to 1972 and never paid.

The action alleges the federal government breached multiple duties of care by using its powers to require Aboriginal people to work for no or inadequate wages through discriminatory laws in the Northern Territory.

Non-payment of wages to Aboriginal workers was widespread in Australia. It was especially prevalent on pastoral stations, and also occurred in the pearling industry and on government settlements and church-run missions.

Sometimes the money was put into a “trust fund”. Sometimes it was simply not paid, on the pretence the employer was providing rations, shelter, clothes or store credit.

Station worker Big Mick Kankinang recalled the paltry provisions when he was interviewed in the late 1970s:

But we been working for bread and beef. We never got money then. We been working for blanket, boot, hat, shirt and trousers, that’s all.

Hobbles Danayarri, interviewed in the 1980s, described how Aboriginal workers were treated on the Victoria River Downs Station, the biggest cattle station in the Northern Territory:

Don’t give them good tucker, don’t give them good beef. They can work free […]

Hobbles Danayarri, photographed in 1980 by Håkan Ludwigson. This portrait was published in Ludwigson’s book Balls and Bulldust, featuriing images of life on cattle stations in the Northern Territory.
Håkan Ludwigson, CC BY

At its peak the Victoria River Downs station covered 41,000 square kilometres. Like Wave Hill – and the Cattle Creek, Helen Springs and Morstone Downs stations – it was run by the Vestey Group, a British family company that leased vast tracts of land at “minimal rents” in exchange for building an abattoir in Darwin. The company sold its leases in the 1990s. It continues (as Vestey Holdings) to be a significant player in the food industry.

Minor redress

Campaigns protesting unpaid wages and effective enslavement go back to the early 1900s.

Two decades before the 1966 action by Lingiari and his comrades, for example, 800 Aboriginal pastoral workers in Western Australia’s Pilbara region walked off stations demanding wages and fair working conditions. Their strike lasted three years, from 1946 to 1949.

Over the past two decades, Aboriginal people have sought compensation for wages owed as historians have unearthed documents and recorded testimonies adding to evidence that governments and corporations weren’t holding anything in “trust”, but knowingly stealing wages for their own gain.

This has led some state governments to initiate redress schemes. New South Wales has offered payments from $1,000 to $24,000, Queensland up to $9,200 and Western Australia $2,000.

Read more:
Was there slavery in Australia? Yes. It shouldn’t even be up for debate

Previous and ongoing claims for wages

These paltry amounts have precipitated class actions against the Queensland and Western Australian governments.

The Queensland action, initiated in 2016, led to a settlement in 2019, in which the state government agreed to pay $190 million to more than 10,000 claimants (both workers and descendents) for wage earned but never paid from 1939 to 1972.

That’s an average of about A$19,000 per claimant – a “disheartening” return, as the son of one claimant put it for the exploitation his mother endured from a young age.

Read more:
The new Mabo? $190 million stolen wages settlement is unprecedented, but still limited

The West Australian action was initated in 2020 and is still in process. The law firm running the claim, Shine Lawyers, has said it expects to end up representing tens of thousands of claimants.

Shine is also running the Northern Territory class action. Costs are being funded by Litigation Lending, a specialist class-action financing company that is also funding the WA action, and funded the Queensland claim.

What does wage justice look like?

The Northern Territory class action, though not the first such case, is still a landmark, putting the federal government in the dock.

It’s safe to assume the government will want to settle. The only question is for how much. For a just settlement, compensation should be more than the money owed.

In other areas of compensation, courts award “exemplary damages” to punish a wrongdoer for perpetrating a deliberate and egregious harm and send a message to others. Justice must also reflect the “transgenerational disadvantage” arising from this systemic wage exploitation. It has also impoverished workers’ descendents, just as the profits of the Vesteys have benefited their descendants.

Read more:
Australia’s stolen wages: one woman’s quest for compensation

Which raises the issue of whether only governments should be paying compensation.
Should corporations that owe their current fortunes to past exploitation not also be expected to redress injustices committed in living memory?

Indeed Samuel Vestey, the “British Lord Vestey” referred to in “From little things big things grow”, died only in February.

“Good ownership is good for business. Good for everyone,” says the website of Vestey Holdings. “Our business is a partnership between the family and colleagues, with everyone fairly rewarded for their contribution to our collective success.”

It (and other corporations) may yet be required to put its money where its mouth is by compensating generations of Aboriginal people for their unpaid, involuntary contributions to those companies’ success.

Thalia Anthony receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

‘We have filed a case under your name’: beware of tax scams — they’ll be everywhere this EOFY

Originally published on


The end of the financial year is near. So all of us — especially those scrambling at the last minute to get their receipts in order — should keep an eye out for the accompanying onslaught of tax scams.

Posing as the Australian Taxation Office in particular has been a key vehicle for scammers to target victims, with considerable success over the years.

According to an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission report, scams targeting Australians last year cost an estimated A$851 million. Reported financial losses over the past five years show a clear upward trajectory.

Reported financial losses from scams over the last five years (data from ACCC)
Author provided

And while this is clearly concerning, it only represents a proportion of the overall problem, as many victims are unlikely to report being scammed.

Bargaining psychology

Scams come in various forms. Often they will use social engineering to convince victims to reveal personal information or to participate in their scheme. They rely on the same emotional triggers marketers use to encourage purchasing.

The excitement of chasing (and getting) a good deal leads to a feeling of self-satisfaction that’s hard to resist. Bargain-hunting, in other words, makes us feel smart. But it doesn’t mean we are smart.

Read more:
Why are there so many text scams all of a sudden?

Criminals rely on this to bypass a potential victim’s rational brain and appeal directly to their emotions. Scams will often frighten victims with threats of financial or even criminal penalties.

Scammers will use any event or entity as an opportunity to undertake fraudulent behaviour. The ATO therefore presents them a valuable opportunity, as having to interact with it at some point is a near-universal experience for Australians.

Scams based on the ATO are so common that the body has a dedicated page to alert taxpayers with examples from the preceding two years.

Phone scams in particular have attracted a lot of attention. The ATO has even provided a real example online to warn the public.

ATO81 KB (download)

Tax time is the perfect opportunity for scammers, as taxpayers are often time-poor, working to a deadline and are conscious of the legal consequences of failing to comply.

Scammers rely on victims behaving impulsively.

Receiving an email, SMS or voice call at this time of year with a tax-related matter has an air of legitimacy (we expect them) and a sense of urgency (we don’t want to be fined).

But illegitimate demands for payment and requests for information can lead to huge financial losses and identity fraud.

How to spot scams

While the ATO does phone and send text messages to individuals, it will never ask you to make a payment to nullify an arrest warrant, nor will it threaten you with revoking your Tax File Number, as is done in some scams. It also won’t ever call you using prerecorded messages.

These messages are known as “RoboCalls”. They can range from sounding quite genuine to being almost laughable. In either case, if you ever wish to follow up you should contact the ATO directly. Do not respond to the message, and do not provide any information.

Moreover, don’t trust an email or website based simply on its appearance. Anyone can copy the ATO’s website and branding.

Requests for unusual payment methods, such as via Western Union or cryptocurrency, are also indicators of a tax scam. Similarly, any requests to pay your tax with gift cards should be reported.

If you are suspicious of a communication you’ve received, the best way to react is to not react. Take a breath, count to five and ask yourself whether what you’re looking at seems legitimate. Is it unusual in any way?

Scammers rely on victims acting quickly on impulse. Pausing and reflecting is the best weapon against social engineering. Take time to consider who the message is from. What are they asking you to do, and why?

The ATO provides a useful set of examples and advice regarding how scammers try to convince victims of their legitimacy.

What to do if you get scammed

If you know you’ve been scammed, or suspect you may have been, the first step is to contact the ATO (always using the phone number on the official website). You can also report the incident directly via the ATO’s report a scam page, or through ScamWatch.

If you’ve already lost money to scammers, unfortunately there are limited options because most scams send stolen money to offshore accounts, making recovery almost impossible. If you’ve bought gift cards you can talk with the retailer, but most are non-refundable.

If you have made a funds transfer or credit card payment, you should contact your bank to see if the funds can be recovered (and speed is crucial here).

Year after year, we can’t avoid doing our taxes. But if we’re careful, calm and aware, we can at least avoid being taken advantage of by scammers.

Read more:
$2.5 billion lost over a decade: ‘Nigerian princes’ lose their sheen, but scams are on the rise

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.