The hard-drinking Aussie is the stuff of legend and lore. But there’s little proof Australians drank more than other colonials and by some accounts they drank less (points made in Sidney Baker’s The Australian Language).
But, of course, we do enjoy a drink – at times a little too much – and a rich bevy of terms suggest we do it in Australian ways: merrily, tongue in cheek and with a shout or two.
Plinkity plink, let’s see how we drink – or rather the words Australians have used to do it throughout history.
Plonk, chardy and the goon of fortune
Plonk is perhaps Australia’s best-known word for alcohol. It originally meant cheap, fortified wine but over time came to mean any cheap alcohol.
In terms of origins, lexicographer Bruce Moore notes that one account links plonk to the range of sounds the liquid might make hitting the bottom of your glass (plinkity plink, plinkity plank, plinkity plonk).
A more likely story, conveyed by Moore among others, views plonk as a malapropism used by first world war diggers who misheard or had some fun with the French vin blanc “white wine”. The diggers also called or spelled white wine point blank and vin blank. And, of course, these days we drink chardy and champers, lest we give French its full due.
Australian drinkers are known to have a bit of fun with French. Last year the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary (AND) welcomed chateau cardboard to its pages, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cask wine, using chateau for a wine-producing estate in an ironic way.
Australians invented boxed wine and celebrate its invention through games (Goon of Fortune was another addition to the AND) and a rich array of words, including boxie, box monster, Dapto briefcase, Dubbo handbag, red handbag, goon, goonie, goon bag, goon juice and goon sack.
Goon is mostly likely a shortening of flagon, but might also be linked to the Australian English goom, itself linked to an indigenous word gun, meaning “water” in the south Queensland languages Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga and Gureng-gureng.
And then, of course, there’s grog, eponymous with Admiral Edward Vernon who ordered his sailors’ rum to be watered down. Vernon was known as Old Grog because of his grogram-fabric coat, and so this watered-down rum also came to be labelled.
Full as a raging bull
Australians might get on the grog or hit the grog, but there are also many other things we might get or hit. For instance, we hit the piss, slops or turps (short for turpentine) or get on the tiger, get a drink across our chest or get a black dog up ya.
The result of our hitting or getting is to be full “drunk” and there is an even longer list of things we might be full as, including a bull, a bull’s bum, a footy final, a goog, the family pot, a pommy complaint box or a seaside shitter on a holiday weekend.
The important thing is to have lively fun, or a rage with your mates, who might themselves be ragers. Rage and rager were the choice words for lively parties and revellers from the 1970s. These are probably unrelated to the obsolete homophone rager, meaning “an untamed and aggressive bull or cow”, but it’s fun to note the overlap in light of the party animal.
Before the 1970s, Australians called lively parties shivoos. Some thought shivoo was Australians having a bit of fun with French (from chez vous “your place” or shivaree “a serenade of rough music”). Others linked it to British nautical slang, and a word meaning a drunken ruckus or punch-up.
Shivoo’s most likely origin is a British dialect word (by some accounts Yorkshire or Cornwall) shiveau (with the sometimes Frenchified spelling of chevaux).
Of course, some choose to drink alone. Such drinkers are said to be dry hash, Jimmy Woodser, Jack Smithers, drinking on my Pat Malone or drinking with the flies. Pat Malone is merely rhyming slang (for alone) and it’s never quite been clear if a Jimmy Woods or Jack Smithers ever existed.
Lambing down till the horse jumps over the bar
One thing’s for sure: if you drink with mates you’ll probably be expected to shout a round or two (or alternatively stand, sneeze, carry the mail, wally grout, wally, bowl, sacrifice).
If you don’t, you might find yourself accused of an American shout, Chinaman’s shout, Dutch shout, Yankee shout or Yankee. Moreover, people might say of you (s)he wouldn’t shout if a shark bit her (him).
On the other hand, the best kind of friend is a captain, or someone who lavishly spends on drinks for themselves and their mates, perhaps at the behest of a lambers down, a pub owner who encourages people to drink lavishly (or lamb down).
Failing a captain, you’ll probably have to run a tab, or tie a dog up or chain up a pup. But after time, the publican might want to settle the score or mad dog “unpaid credit”.
A publican who wants a tab paid might point out that the dogs are barking, as this publican did in a 1937 advertisement (from Sidney Baker’s, The Australian Language):
He particularly requests that all dogs tied up at the hotel be released. This reservation specially applies to Kelpies, Alsations and other large breeds.
If you don’t have the cash to pay the publican, you might have to jump a horse over the bar, which is what one did when all they had left to pay with was their horse.
On the early evening of Wednesday, February 8, electricity supply to some 90,000 households and businesses in South Australia was cut off for up to an hour. Two days later, all electricity consumers in New South Wales were warned the same could happen to them. It didn’t, but apparently only because supply was cut to the Tomago aluminium smelter instead. In Queensland, it was suggested consumers might also be at risk over the two following days, even though it was a weekend, and again on Monday, February 13. What is going on?
The first point to note is that these were all very hot days. This meant that electricity demand for air conditioning and refrigeration was very high. On February 8, Adelaide recorded its highest February maximum temperature since 2014. On February 10, western Sydney recorded its highest ever February maximum, and then broke this record the very next day. Brisbane posted its highest ever February maximum on February 13.
That said, the peak electricity demand in both SA and NSW was some way below the historical maximum, which in both states occurred during a heatwave on January 31 and February 1, 2011. In Queensland it was below the record reached last month, on January 18.
Regardless of all this, shouldn’t the electricity industry be able to anticipate such extreme days, and have a plan to ensure that consumers’ needs are met at all times?
Much has already been said and written about the reasons for the industry’s failure, or near failure, to do so on these days. But almost all of this has focused on minute-by-minute details of the events themselves, without considering the bigger picture.
The wider issue is that the electricity market’s rules, written two decades ago, are not flexible enough to build a reliable grid for the 21st century.
In an electricity supply system, such as Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM), the amount of electricity supplied must precisely match the amount being consumed in every second of every year, and always at the right voltage and frequency. This is a big challenge – literally, considering that the NEM covers an area stretching from Cairns in the north, to Port Lincoln in the west and beyond Hobart in the south.
Continent-sized electricity grids like this are sometimes described as the world’s largest and most complex machines. They require not only constant maintenance but also regular and careful planning to ensure they can meet new demands and incorporate new technologies, while keeping overall costs as low as possible. All of this has to happen without ever interrupting the secure and reliable supply of electricity throughout the grid.
Until the 1990s, this was the responsibility of publicly owned state electricity commissions, answerable to their state governments. But since the industry was comprehensively restructured from the mid-1990s onwards, individual states now have almost no direct responsibility for any aspect of electricity supply.
Electricity is now generated mainly by private-sector companies, while the grid itself is managed by federally appointed regulators. State governments’ role is confined to one of shared oversight and high-level policy development, through the COAG Energy Council.
This market-driven, quasi-federal regime is underpinned by the National Electricity Rules, a highly detailed and prescriptive document that runs to well over 1,000 pages. This is necessary to ensure that the grid runs safely and reliably at all times, and to minimise opportunities for profiteering.
The downside is that these rules are inflexible, hard to amend, and unable to anticipate changes in technology or economic circumstances.
Besides governing the grid’s day-to-day operations, the rules specify processes aimed at ensuring that “the market” makes the most sensible investments in new generation and transmission capacity. These investments need to be optimal in terms of technical characteristics, timing and cost.
To borrow a phrase from the prime minister, the rules are not agile and innovative enough to keep up. When they were drawn up in the mid-1990s, electricity came almost exclusively from coal and gas. Today we have a changing mix of new supply technologies, and a much more uncertain investment environment.
Neither can the rules ensure that the closure of old, unreliable and increasingly expensive coal-fired power stations will occur in a way that is most efficient for the grid as a whole, rather than most expedient for individual owners. (About 3.6 gigawatts of capacity, spread across all four mainland NEM states and equalling more than 14% of current coal power capacity, has been closed since 2011; this will increase to 5.4GW and 22% when Hazelwood closes next month.)
Finally, one of the biggest drivers of change in the NEM over the past decade has been the construction of new wind and solar generation, driven by the Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme. Yet this scheme stands completely outside the NEM rules.
The Australian Energy Markets Commission – effectively the custodian of the rules – has been adamant that climate policy, the reason for the RET, must be treated as an external perturbation, to which the NEM must adjust while making as few changes as possible to its basic architecture. On several occasions over recent years the commission has successfully blocked proposals to broaden the terms of the rules by amending the National Electricity Objective to include an environmental goal of boosting renewable energy and reducing greenhouse emissions.
Events in every state market over the past year have shown that the electricity market’s problems run much deeper than the environmental question. Indeed, they go right to the core of the NEM’s reason for existence, which is to keep the lights on. A fundamental review is surely long overdue.
The most urgent task will be identifying what needs to be done in the short term to ensure that next summer, with Hazelwood closed, peak demands can be met without more load shedding. Possible actions may include establishing firm contracts with major users, such as aluminium smelters, to make large but brief reductions in consumption, in exchange for appropriate compensation. Another option may be paying some gas generators to be available at short notice, if required; this would not be cheap, as it would presumably require contingency gas supply contracts to be in place.
The most important tasks will address the longer term. Ultimately we need a grid that can supply enough electricity throughout the year, including the highest peaks, while ensuring security and stability at all times, and that emissions fall fast enough to help meet Australia’s climate targets.
New comprehensive research shows smoking imposes a heavy economic burden throughout the world, gobbling up almost 6% of global health spend and nearly 2% of the world’s GDP. In 2012 this amounted to US$1,436 billion (A$1,898 billion).
This is particularly evident in high income jurisdictions, like Australia, North America and Europe. Each year, smoking kills an estimated 15,000 Australians, and costs Australia A$31.5 billion in social (including health) and economic costs.
New initiatives in tobacco control are urgently needed. Plain packaging has been a success, but required steely determination by ministers to ensure continuity.
Smoking rates are declining in Australia, although the rate appears to be slowing. And there are still worryingly high rates of smoking in some populations and jurisdictions, such as the Northern Territory. In 2009 Australian researchers predicted smoking cessation rates would need to double to ensure Australian smoking prevalence dropped to the policy target of 10% by 2020.
Over a decade ago leading tobacco control expert Derek Yach, a Yale Professor and former senior World Health Organisation (WHO) executive, warned against complacency in tobacco control, and urged greater action. In 2016 Ruth Malone (former editor of the journal Tobacco Control) was still emphasising the point, highlighting current measures will not achieve an end to the tobacco pandemic. She asked,
Will caution and inertia shape another century of public health catastrophe?
We are currently experiencing a crisis of public confidence in expertise, knowledge and evidence. The new US Vice President Mike Pence once famously wrote that “smoking doesn’t kill”.
New ways of thinking emphasise individual responsibility and de-emphasise population measures that regulate corporations. This is also having an impact on our health, and has led University of Melbourne’s Rob Moodie to call for change, saying:
The only evidence-based mechanisms that can prevent harm caused by unhealthy commodity industries are public regulation and market intervention.
The tobacco industry is also actively evolving, for example through taking over e-cigarette production and sales.
Reform through endgame strategies and charismatic ideas
The tobacco endgame concept moves thinking away from the mere control of tobacco towards plans for ending the tobacco pandemic, and foresees a tobacco-free future. The unifying term “endgame” includes those policy approaches which orient researchers and decision-makers toward this goal.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan championed endgame strategies in 2013 and urged a focus on precision, impeccable science, feasibility and realism.
This idea was first proposed in Singapore, and followed up in Tasmania. It’s a supply-side measure that would, from January 2018, prohibit the sale of tobacco products to any person born after the year 2000.
More broadly, Australian smokers do want the government to regulate the industry more heavily, as they believe the tobacco industry is partly responsible for the predicament they find themselves in.
Regulation of markets and cigarette engineering
The regulated market model proposes the tobacco market be controlled by one agency, which tenders to manufacturers for tobacco products and then distributes to retailers. This would, in effect, make tobacco a controlled substance, like methadone.
Reducing palatability of tobacco products, and the banning of filter ventilation and other elements of cigarette engineering have been proposed in Australia for some years. The idea of reducing addictiveness by lowering nicotine content is attractive, particularly as it would assist existing as well as beginner smokers.
The federal government contracted two consultants to provide reports on cigarette palatability and engineering in 2013. Late on Friday 27 January 2017 the heavily redacted documents were released under FOI. However, it is possible to see the extent of comprehensive research that has been undertaken.
No regulatory decisions have been made by the Department of Health or the Australian Government about potential new tobacco product content regulation controls or revised disclosure requirements for tobacco products.
There is no independent regulatory oversight or quality control on the content of cigarettes themselves, and no recall provisions.
The ‘sinking lid’ – an idea from New Zealand
Another supply-side reduction proposal is to require regular reductions in the amount of cigarettes made available for sale and to increase prices. This is the “sinking lid” idea. Strong border controls and geographical isolation are prerequisites in order to reduce the potential for smuggling. Therefore island nations and states are ideal places to experiment with this proposal. Considerable support exists for this approach.
Together, these endgame proposals to lower tobacco use should be actively explored and implemented as appropriate by governments around Australia. The economic and social costs of tobacco smoking remain enormous, and it’s time to take action.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is discovering the political cliché “change the government, change the country” might have bigger implications for Australia’s relationship with the United States than anticipated.
We might re-engineer the cliché to read “change the government, change its foreign policy”, and thus how America manages its relationships with friends and foes alike.
If it has not already dawned on Turnbull and his foreign policy advisers then it should have: a new American administration like no other in recent memory will require a rethink in how Australia calibrates its relations with Washington.
Not since the Gough Whitlam’s Labor government of 1972-75 has such a potentially awkward relationship existed between Australia and its principal ally, or to use another description, custodial power.
Whitlam parted company with his predecessors in his testy interactions with the Richard Nixon White House. Whitlam felt under no obligation to espouse a “pro-American” perspective on matters relating to the war in Indo-China in particular.
Many Australians found this refreshing.
While it was inevitable that a moment would arise when Australian and US interests would find themselves out of kilter, it has perhaps come more quickly than anticipated, driven by the arrival in the White House of a man untethered from principles that have guided American foreign policy for generations.
In Trump’s Inauguration speech there was one passage that should have given Turnbull and his advisers pause, even if these words might be dismissed as a rhetorical flourish:
We assembled here today are issuing anew decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only American first, America first.
Protection will lead to greater prosperity and strength.
The latter observation could hardly have been more antagonistic to the free trade principles and practice on which Australian prosperity rests, or for that matter be regarded as anything more than an affront to America’s own history.
In 1930, Congressmen, Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored legislation that raised punitive tariffs on some 900 imports, and in the process added poison to the well of slowing global trade, as The Economist put it.
Smoot and Hawley did not cause the Great Depression or add significantly to it, but the legislation represented a populist response to political anxiety.
Nearly a century later, an American president appears to hold the view that an “America first” approach – or a form of isolationism – will serve his own country’s economy well and those of its friends.
This view, even if you accept that the trade liberalisation pendulum has swung too far, is not sustainable if economic growth globally is to be nurtured.
Otherwise, disaster beckons, including a global entrenchment that will serve no-one’s interests, including America’s.
Trump’s stroke-of-a-pen end to America’s involvements in the liberalising Trade Pacific Partnership gave expression to his antagonism towards trade deals generally and spelled a pause in American leadership of a laborious process of opening markets and reducing trade barriers.
From the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs Trade, to the formation of the World Trade Organisation, to progress towards open markets under the Uruguay Round – alongside a plethora of bilateral trade deals – an era of liberalising trade has underpinned global prosperity.
So, the question becomes: how should the Turnbull government respond to these new circumstances in a way that serves Australia’s interests, and in an environment in which the world is in disarray? And it is likely to become more so if the early stages of an idiosyncratic Trump administration is any guide.
Policymakers need to think outside the narrow confines of what has been regarded as “America first” policy postures that have dictated Australia’s foreign policy choices, to consider what might be regarded as a less dependent relationship on our security guarantor.
None of this is an argument to weaken Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS alliance, nor our alignment with what we have always regarded as America’s better angels. But the time has come for a reassessment.
Trump’s ascendancy to power reminds us there is no such thing as permanent alliances, simply permanent interests.
Australia is not obliged to make a choice between its security in the form of its treaty arrangements with the US and its commercial interests, namely with China. But it does need to move to a position where it gives itself more flexibility in addressing its security and other challenges.
In other words, arguments for greater self-reliance – including defence preparedness – grow by the day.
How Turnbull achieves such a shift will prove a test of his diplomatic and leadership skills, and indeed his understanding of our country’s history. After relying on great and powerful friends for our security, we may be entering a new and distinct phase.
Whatever judgements might be made about the likely trajectory of a Trump administration, early days suggest that what he said on the campaign trail will guide his actions in office.
So when he talks about a form of isolationism summed up by the phrase “America First” he must be taken at his word, until demonstrated otherwise.
This poses obvious challenges for Australian policy. Do we gravitate towards the sort of world defined by Trump – with its risks of a return to a 1930’s isolationism or perhaps a form of 19th century mercantilism – or do we assert our own separation from such a worldview?
Are we seeing the end of “pax Americana”, in which the US proved to be the indispensable cornerstone of global security in the rebuilding of Europe, the containment of the Soviet Union, and a security presence in Asia post the Korean war that has enabled an extraordinary economic transformation in our own region to our advantage?
Turnbull needs to ask himself whether it is in Australia’s national interest for institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to be weakened.
Is it in Australia’s interests for there to be a confrontation between the US and China on trade, or security in the South China Sea?
Or a return to a ground war in the Middle East that would demand a larger commitment from Australia with unknowable consequences?
Lessons might have been learned from an earlier disastrous intervention.
Finally, Turnbull should resist pressure from his the right wing of his party, salivating over the arrival of an authoritarian in the White House.
Turnbull was derided over his initial response to Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP, in which he said China may wish to fill the gap as if, reflexively, he needed to fall in line with Washington.
While the TPP may be dead, Turnbull and his ministers shouldn’t be blamed for trying to keep alive an idea that would have provided a basis for a liberalising trade and investment zone in the Asia-Pacific.
Contrary to the views of its critics, the TPP was always about more than simply a trade liberalisation mechanism. It was also aimed at providing a framework for further action in counterpoint to China’s growing dominance.
Finally, Turnbull might consider the example of former Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who politely declined when he came under pressure to join George W. Bush’s cavalry in the invasion of Iraq.
Chretien, as leader of a country that shelters under a US security umbrella and is a fellow NATO member, said “no”, or “non” in his native Quebecois.
Last time we checked the sky had not fallen in for Canada.
The relationship between European settlers and native Australian foodstuffs during the 19th century was a complex one. While the taste for native ingredients waxed and waned for the first century of European settlement, there’s ample evidence to demonstrate that local ingredients were no strangers to colonials’ kitchens or pots.
British settlers needed to engage with the edible flora and fauna of the continent almost immediately upon arrival. The journals of First Fleet officers record not only their reliance on native food, but the relish with which they enjoyed it. For example, First Fleet surgeon George Worgan noted in his diary a feast held to celebrate the King’s birthday:
We sat down to a very good Entertainment, considering how far we are from Leaden-Hall Market, it consisted of Mutton, Pork, Ducks, Fowls, Fish, Kanguroo, Sallads, Pies & preserved Fruits.
But despite the colonists’ reliance on native ingredients to supplement their diet, they were regarded with deep suspicion. Cooks – mainly women – relied on traditional British methods to transform these raw materials into something that they deemed culturally recognisable and appropriate.
Journals and other written accounts record these efforts. Kathleen Kirkland, a migrant who settled in Australia in the 19th century, wrote about the kangaroo soup, bush turkey and parrot pie she prepared for New Year’s Day 1841. She also praised the wild mushrooms from which she made a ketchup.
A contemporary of Kirkland, Louisa Meredith, describes eating kangaroo, wattle bird and echidna, although admitting that her tastes were not shared by all. But at least enough agreed with her that Phillis Clark, who was born in Tasmania in 1836, could compile a manuscript cookbook of recipes copied from other books and newspaper clippings. This personal collection contained a number of dishes featuring native ingredients like kangaroo, as well as detailed instructions for butchering the animal.
These examples notwithstanding, the settlers went to considerable trouble to maintain British food habits, in order to maintain a British identity.
Mrs Allan Macpherson, who settled in northern New South Wales in 1856, recounted that a dish of rock wallaby had a “very close resemblance to the hare” specially when cooked the same way and eaten with currant jelly. This application of European cooking techniques made it impossible to “distinguish them apart”.
Suspicion extended to traditional Aboriginal food practices such as using cooking vessels made from from bark or tree gnarls and wrapping food in leaves. They were disdained entirely, even if the ingredients used by Indigenous Australians were not.
In a section dedicated to game meats, Abbott featured recipes for kangaroo, emu, wombat and other native fauna. There were a number of recipes for “kangaroo steamer”, a dish that had been popular for at least almost half a century across the colonies.
Kangaroo steamer was a colonial adaptation of the traditional British dish of jugged hare and involved slowly cooking kangaroo meat with bacon and other seasonings. The dish would be cooked in a glass jar or earthenware vessel and sealed so it could be stored for an extended period.
Engaging with Indigenous food methods
One of the few cookbook writers to fully engage with Aboriginal people and their food methods was Wilhelmina Rawson. Born in Sydney, Rawson spent long portions of her life in northern and central Queensland.
This book holds the distinction of being the first cookbook written by a woman in Australia. From the outset, Rawson noted the abundance of edible native ingredients that her readers could rely on such as kangaroos, bush turkeys and bandicoots. She urged her readers not to think of these foods as ingredients of last resort but rather, to consider them as a “sumptuous repast” not far from their kitchen.
Rawson’s adventurous palate extended beyond fauna and included such things as wild mushrooms and the young shoots of the rough leaved, fig tree which had been pointed out to her by Aboriginal informants.
In her 1895 book The Antipodean Cookery Book, Rawson noted that “I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the edible ground game” and that “whatever the blacks eat the whites may safely try”.
Rawson’s relationship with Aboriginal people was complex and nuanced. Demonstrating an understanding of the dispossession of land occurring in Queensland at the time, she wrote sympathetically of
The lessons white men should learn from the blacks before the work of extermination which is so rapidly going on has swept all the blacks who possess this wonderful bush lore off the face of the earth.
Here she was voicing common sentiments about the predicted demise of the Aboriginal race. Rawson’s long periods of living in remote rural locations throughout Queensland had most likely placed her in closer contact with Aboriginal people than cookbook writers who lived in towns or cities.
British settlers, especially those living away from metropolitan centres, consumed native ingredients both out of choice and out of necessity for most of the 19th century.
However, this consumption was mediated by deeply held cultural prejudices. The transformation of native ingredients into recognisable British dishes can be regarded as part of the broader colonising process taking place.
Whether you’re a boatie or not, everyone realises the importance of keeping the water on the outside when you go sailing or fishing. The less leaky the boat, the less you have to rely on devices like bilge pumps to stay afloat.
What does this have to do with houses? Well, Australia’s homes are notoriously “leaky” – allowing the uncontrolled flow of heat into and out of the building. Our answer has been to put in more and more pumps, in the form of air conditioning. This is often promoted as a feature, rather than an indication of a poor-quality building!
This creates problems for everyone.
We all know that some houses are hotter than others in heatwaves, and that well insulated and designed homes cost a lot less to operate throughout the year because they don’t rely heavily on air conditioners or heaters to provide comfort.
Pumping heat from one place to another takes a lot of energy, which makes air conditioners particularly power-hungry appliances. The more leaky the house, the more heat needs to be pumped out. On hot days, when lots of aircon units are operating at the same time, this creates a challenge for the electricity infrastructure.
It costs money to build an electricity network that can handle these peaks in demand. This cost is recovered through the electricity unit cost (cents per kilowatt hour). We all pay this cost, in every electricity bill we get; in fact the cost of meeting summer peak demand accounts for about 25% of retail electricity costs. This is more than twice the combined effect of solar feed-in tariffs, the Renewable Energy Target and the erstwhile carbon tax.
This means that people living in houses that are built to handle their local climate are effectively subsiding those who live in poorer-quality buildings and relying solely on the air conditioning to stay cool. Perhaps even less fairly, those who struggle to afford air conditioning and have to cope with overheating are also paying this subsidy via the electricity they do use. All this is because many people still live in leaky, poor-quality buildings.
Does this mean that air conditioners are evil and should never be used? Of course not – there is a role for very efficient air conditioners (heat pumps) in extreme weather events. But it does raise some interesting questions. Can we design and build homes that are great to live in and don’t cost the Earth to run? And, if so, why aren’t these homes the norm, rather than the exception?
You get what you ask for
The good news is that comfortable, quality homes that put minimal strain on the electricity grid are certainly possible. What’s needed is a combination of design that takes account of the local climate, appropriate building materials and quality construction practices. Some homes consume less than a quarter of the energy of their contemporaries in the same climate – it’s just frustrating that they aren’t more common.
In the past, the housing industry would say that it’s simply building the homes that people want – that Australians are mainly interested in size and location, not energy performance. Recent research, however, seems to indicate that the perspectives of real estate agents and other property practitioners could be limiting how, or if, they promote energy efficiency and other sustainability features to potential clients.
Are Australians still mesmerised by the surface bling of granite benchtops, a theatre room, or automatic gadgets? Are we starting to consider weightier issues such as operation costs, resilience and comfort? Or are we waiting until the first heat wave or the first electricity bill to realise just how good or poor our purchase decision was?
Some savvy buyers – before they sign a contract – are starting to ask about insulation, but not the more fundamental questions, like “how hot does this room get?” or “can I afford to run this house?”.
The housing sector seems to assume that if you don’t explicitly ask for something, it is not important to you. They also seem to assume that the building regulations set the standard – despite the fact the building regulations are minimum requirements, not best practice for comfort and value.
Some also actively lobby for lower standards, arguing that energy efficiency has “questionable benefits” and that requiring information to be passed on to consumers is an “unnecessary burden”.
Buyer beware – you’re on your own
What does this mean? When buying a used car or a new phone, it’s relatively easy to get the information you need – and there are quite a few consumer protection laws in place. But when we inspect a home for sale or rent, we can see the number of rooms, test the taps and light switches, and measure how far it is to the shops or school or work, but there is a huge amount we can’t see and are not told.
A real estate agent is not acting in the prospective buyer’s interest (or even necessarily in the seller’s). The seller wants the highest price in the shortest time, and the agent wants the biggest commission for the least effort. And contrary to practices in the European Union, no one is obliged (in most parts of Australia) to tell prospective buyers or renters about the home’s running costs.
There have been successes and failures in state government attempts to ensure that home buyers and renters have access to information about comfort and running costs at the time of purchasing or renting. Queensland’s Sustainability Declaration, introduced in 2010, was very short-lived, with an incoming government declaring it “useless red tape”.
These schemes not only make it easier to identify homes that cost less to run, but can also drive demand for energy-efficient renovations and put downward pressure on electricity prices.
The distribution of information about housing in Australia is flawed. Real estate agents, valuers, financiers and electricity industry operators are making decisions based on very little or no information about how the quality of houses impacts on their clients, their business processes and electricity infrastructure investment.
Most importantly, owners and renters are not being informed about the quality of the houses they are buying or renting, and the impacts that particular dwellings will have on their health, comfort and wallets.
What can you do?
So is the housing sector right? Do you care about the quality of the building you live in? What is a sensibly designed and well-constructed house worth to you? What dollar value do you put on your health, safety and comfort? What value is there for your family to able to cope with heatwaves, or to pay off the mortgage sooner because of the money you save on power bills?
You don’t need to wait for government to act. If you are looking at buying or renting a new home or apartment, ask to see the energy certificate for the dwelling. Such a certificate would have been created
as part of the building approval process.
It could also be useful to ask for a thermal imaging report and air leakage report. These are tests the builder can have done to prove his quality of construction.
For existing homes, you can ask the seller for a Universal Certificate, or a copy of their energy bills, or evidence of features they have installed to enhance the comfort of the house (such as receipts for insulation or window tinting).
And next time you’re visiting a friend or neighbour with heat radiating from the walls, windows and roof, and the aircon cranked at full blast, enjoy the nice cool air – because you’re helping them pay for it.
As I visited a wildlife park in New South Wales in 2011, the keeper at the daily “dingo talk” confidently told us that “pure dingoes don’t bark”. After five years studying dingoes’ vocal behaviours, I can tell you that this is a myth. Dingoes do bark!
While travelling around Australia to study dingoes, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with all sorts of people. One thing I realised is that the “dingoes don’t bark” belief is widespread – and it isn’t the only unproven dingo myth out there.
Lots of people in Australia take these three myths as hard facts:
“pure” dingoes don’t bark
“pure” dingoes are all ginger
dingoes are “just dogs”.
But none of these are actually true and here’s why.
Myth 1: dingoes don’t bark
Anyone who has been around dingoes for long enough will tell you that they do bark, but not like domestic dogs. Dingoes’ barks are generally harsher, and given in short bursts.
Domestic dogs will bark anytime, anywhere, for anything (often to their owners’ or neighbours’ chagrin). This is not the case with dingoes. They will generally bark only when alarmed – such as when researchers trap them to fit a radio tracking collar, or if you stumble across one in the bush.
Dingoes can also bark if they get very excited (about food, for example) but this is quite uncommon. The rarity of these events probably explains the prevalence of the “no barking” myth – wild dingo barking just doesn’t happen often enough for most people to witness it.
Another associated misconception is that captive dingoes will learn to bark from listening to domestic dogs. Although humans are very good at learning new sounds – indeed, that’s how we acquire our language – most other species (including canines) can make only a limited range of vocal sounds, and can’t learn new ones.
So the fact that captive dingoes bark actually confirms that they have barking abilities right from the start. It is, however, possible that by listening to nearby domestic dogs, captive dingoes learn to bark more often and in more situations than they otherwise might.
It is easy to see how this myth might harm efforts to protect dingoes. Imagine a well-meaning pastoralist shooting or baiting anything that barks, in the mistaken belief that it’s not a dingo.
Myth 2: all pure dingoes are ginger
The “typical” dingo that people picture in their minds – think Fraser Island – will be ginger (or tan) with white feet and a white-tipped tail. But dingoes, like people, come in a variety of shapes and colours.
Importantly, although ginger dingoes make up about three-quarters of the population, there is genetic evidence that their coats can also be black, black and tan, black and white, or plain white.
There is also a lot of variation in the size and shape of white patches and these may even be absent altogether. It’s often thought that dingoes that lack ginger fur or white patches are dingo-dog hybrids, but this is not necessarily true.
Like the no-barking myth, misconceptions about coat colour can potentially harm dingo conservation. If we were to protect only ginger dingoes, we would unwittingly reduce the natural genetic variation of the population, making it more vulnerable to extinction.
Myth 3: dingoes are just dogs
This is perhaps the hardest belief to address, because it can vary depending on whether we look at their behaviours, ecology or origins. But this concept is arguably even more relevant to their conservation and management.
So is a dingo a dog? Although dogs’ evolutionary origins are still unclear, we know that dingoes are descendants of animals domesticated long ago somewhere in Asia and then brought to Australia. Dingoes are thus an ancient dog breed and so, yes, dingoes are dogs.
However, we also know that dingoes arrived in mainland Australia roughly 5,000 years ago and have since been isolated from all other canines right up until European settlement. Some experts argue that this makes them distinct enough to warrant protection from hybridisation with domestic dogs.
As dingo researcher Ben Allen puts it, “pure ones need to be distinguished from hybrid ones somehow, and it is the pure ones that have conservation value as a species”.
But as fellow dingo expert Guy Ballard points out, dingoes are undeniably a type of dog, so arguably all that really matters is that their function as top predators in the ecosystem is preserved.
But there’s a catch (as Ballard has acknowledged): we do not know whether dingoes, feral dogs and hybrids behave similarly – or in other words, whether all three can perform the same ecological role.
Until we know more, the best approach to safeguarding dingoes and their role in the ecosystems might be to view and treat them as completely separate and distinct from other free-ranging dogs in Australia.
Far from being “just dogs”, dingoes really are unique dogs.
‘I was told that I did not learn respect at school. I learned one thing: I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia—not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination. This was the country that you people wedded yourself to, and even as it walked out on you and joined the Common Market, you were still looking for your MBEs and your knighthoods, and all the rest of the regalia that comes with it. You would take Australia right back down the time tunnel to the cultural cringe where you have always come from.’
– Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, Hansard transcript of extract of Question Time in the House of Representatives on February 27, 1992. See his full answer here.
The gambling lobby’s influence in overriding popular opinion and the public interest in Australia is well-known. But is its electoral power exaggerated? A look at this year’s ACT election suggests that perhaps the gambling industry is less influential than it appears to be.
One crucial weapon in Big Gambling’s lobbying arsenal is its threat to campaign against MPs at elections.
Former politicians describe the fear generated by threats of being targeted at elections: that the gambling industry will bring such financial resources to bear in an election campaign that proponents of gambling reform will be defeated at the ballot box.
The 2011 campaign against federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s poker-machine reform agenda provides evidence of this electoral fear. Aided and abetted by a conflicted media, the gambling lobby boasted of a A$40 million war-chest that would “eviscerate the government’s ranks of ministers and parliamentary secretaries at the next election if no compromise was reached” on Wilkie’s reforms.
A marginal seats campaign was promised, in which vulnerable government MPs would be targeted with vast electoral resources to blast those who did not acquiesce to Big Gambling’s wishes out of office.
History shows this campaign was successful in spooking the Gillard government. It reneged on its promised reforms well before the 2013 election. This gave the gambling industry an easy victory without an election being fought on the issue.
We don’t know if the gambling industry’s promised electoral strategy would have been successful because it has never been tested. Its great success has been in the fear it generates among politicians well before any election is called.
However, there are good reasons to think the industry’s popular support is lacking. For one, poker machines are wildly unpopular in the electorate. In 2014, 86% of ACT residents stated a belief that pokies do more harm than good, and a majority would like to see the number of machines reduced.
Similarly, a national study conducted during the gambling reform debate in 2011 found 74% in favour of mandatory pre-commitment.
What happened in the ACT?
With such little popular support for Big Gambling among voters, the wisdom of fighting an election campaign over pokies is questionable.
The 2016 ACT election finally put this question to the test. The issue was the Labor government’s decision to allow the Canberra Casino to purchase 200 pokie licenses from ACT clubs, allowing the machines in the casino for the first time.
Lobby group ClubsACT promised to campaign hard on the casino issue, arguing it was a threat to the clubs sector’s viability in Canberra. But ACT Labor did not back down prior to the election, and decided to face a concerted electoral campaign by the gambling industry.
ClubsACT, which is reliant on pokies for the majority of its income, launched a campaign against Labor and the Greens. It reportedly spent $185,000 funding the creation of a new political party, Canberra Community Voters (CCV), headed by lobbyist Richard Farmer. Most of this money was reportedly spent on TV advertising.
CCV’s signature issue was the future of clubs in the ACT. While it always seemed unlikely that it would gain seats in the Legislative Assembly, the political strategy appears to be one of diverting primary votes away from Labor and the Greens, and directing preferences to the Liberals.
A second front of attack was launched directly through the clubs themselves. During the months leading up to the election, banners and beer coasters appeared in Canberra’s community clubs bearing the slogan:
Imagine Canberra without community clubs.
And, on election day, text messages were sent to club members, imploring them to “save your community club” by voting Liberal.
But this much-feared campaign amounted to very little. CCV received just 1,703 first-preference votes, or 0.7% of validly cast votes, at a cost of $109 per vote. Clubs in the ACT collectively have more employees than CCV received votes.
If the clubs’ claim of 200,000 members across the ACT is taken at face value, then less than 1% of members voted according to their wishes. Ultimately, the sitting Labor government was returned for a fifth term. The Liberals, the supposed beneficiary of the clubs’ campaign, received a swing against them of 2.2%.
While it is impossible to know exactly what role the gambling industry’s campaign played in this election, the clubs’ monopoly over pokies clearly wasn’t a decisive issue. Few voters were swayed to change their vote by the clubs’ arguments or CCV’s advertising blitz. In the final analysis, the clubs’ willingness to spend almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars on campaigning came to little.
This should embolden governments around Australia that have a mind to deal with the social fallout caused by poker machines. Poker machine reform remains very popular in Australia. What we now know is that the gambling industry’s much-vaunted electoral power is more bark than bite.
Business here and households here, already we’re paying twice the cost of the US for electricity. – Craig Kelly MP, chair of the backbench environment and energy committee, ABC Radio National Breakfast interview, December 6, 2016. (Listen from 7.38)
Converting 10.44 US cents at A$1/US$0.74 – is the equivalent of 14.11 cents Australia.
So using these sources (in Australian cents) we have 14.11 cents in the USA and 28.72 cents in Australia. Therefore I think to say that “we’re paying twice the cost of the US for electricity” (on average) is pretty much right on the money.
It’s definitely true that Australians pay much more for their electricity than US citizens do (and Australian prices are set to rise even further, according to the Australian Energy Market Commission.
Using OECD data, there’s one measure that says it is twice as much – or at least it was twice as much as recently as 2014. Another measure – a better measure, in my view – shows Australians pay about 50% more than US citizens do for their electricity.
As Craig Kelly notes in his full response, there is significant variation in electricity prices across states and territories in Australia and in the United States, so comparing the two is not a simple matter. The Australian Energy Market Commission’s annual Electricity Price Trends report shows that retail prices in Australia vary from 18.44 c/kWh in the Australian Capital Territory to 29.75 c/KWh in South Australia.
The wholesale price is the cost of generating the energy that is sent to the grid. Retail prices are what householders are more used to talking about. Retail prices factor in extra costs like transmission and distribution (“poles and wires”), retailer margins and other levies (such as Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Energy Target costs). In other words, it’s what we’re paying on our power bill.
Let’s examine the data.
A tale of two measures
The two measures I have used to compare prices in the US and Australia are called “market exchange rates” and “purchasing power parities”. Craig Kelly’s calculations rely on market exchange rates, so we will start with that one.
Market exchange rates simply means converting the price in one country’s currency to that of another country’s currency, as Kelly did. This measure of comparison is more volatile than purchasing power parity exchange rates.
Using market exchange rates, OECD data show that Australian electricity prices have, in recent years, been approximately twice as high as electricity prices in the US. Recently, the gap has narrowed. In 2015, using market exchange rates, electricity prices in Australia were about 70.3% higher than in the US.
The Australian Energy Market Commission projects that Australian prices will rise even further in coming years.
That broadly supports what Kelly said. But if we use purchasing power parity exchange rates, the data show that Australia’s prices are approximately 50% higher than the US.
Purchasing power parity exchange rates, or PPP, factor in inflation and the cost of living in a particular country, and eliminate differences in price levels between countries. This measure allows a cleaner, less volatile comparison between the US and Australia.
The chart below compares the retail prices of electricity in Australia and the United States when adjusted for cost of living differences using purchasing power parity.
As the above chart of the OECD data shows, household prices of electricity are about 50% higher in Australia than in the US when you use purchasing power parity data.
Why are the prices so different?
As this chart shows, data from OECD indicate there has been a substantial divergence between Australian and American electricity prices since about 2008.
As noted in the preliminary report of the Australian chief scientist Alan Finkel’s review of the National Electricity Market, household energy bills in Australia increased 61% on average between 2008 and 2014.
The main reason for this is the cost of maintaining the electricity network – essentially, the poles and wires that deliver the power. Network costs represent between 45% and 55% of a typical electricity bill. This has been the largest contributor to Australia’s increasing prices over the past six years.
Some observers have said that the “gold-plating” of the network came about because of a regulatory regime that encouraged over-investment in poles and wires. This was been partly driven by an effort to shore up electricity supply and an overestimation of demand.
The Productivity Commission reported that, in New South Wales, network costs accounted for 80% of price rises in 2010-11 and 50% of price rises in 2011-12.
Is it really that simple?
Not really. Energy economics is far more complicated than can come across in Kelly’s quick quote or this short FactCheck.
While the Australian price is higher, this doesn’t necessarily mean the cost is higher: Australians use much less energy than Americans. This is because as prices increase, energy productivity and energy efficiency also tend to increase. In total, most countries actually spend a similar proportion of GDP on energy costs.
This holds surprisingly consistent across a range of countries. For example, Japan has high energy prices, but also has high energy efficiency and productivity. Consequently, it spends practically the same amount of GDP on energy cost as the US.
So prices may be higher for individuals, but that doesn’t mean the economy-wide costs are higher. All that said, Kelly was talking about the prices for individuals and business, so that’s what this FactCheck is focused on.
If we compare Australian and American electricity prices using market exchange rates, Craig Kelly’s comment is correct: Australia’s electricity prices were essentially double those of the United States as recently as 2014. In 2015, using market exchange rates, the US prices were about 70.3% higher.
If we compare the prices using purchasing parity power exchange rates – which I’d argue is the more accurate reflection of the costs of living in each of the countries – Australia’s prices are about 50% higher than the US.
Overall, Craig Kelly’s broader point is correct: Australians pay a much higher price for their electricity than Americans do. – Dylan McConnell.
I agree with the author’s position that purchasing power parity comparisons are less volatile and more representative of the relativity based on actual living costs. It is true Australian households pay a much higher electricity price than Americans.
There’s one important point I’d add. There is a baseline cost of having a house or business connected to electrical supply, regardless of how much electricity is used. This is called the fixed supply cost. The more electricity a household or business uses, the more the fixed supply cost is diluted in the overall electricity bill. This brings down the cost per kilowatt-hours (kWh).
American households use about twice as much electricity as Australian households. According to the US EIA, average US household electricity consumption in 2015 was 10,812 kWh. 2014 data for Australia shows average Australian household electricity consumption was 5,772 kWh (down from 6,819 kWh in 2008. At 25 cents/kWh that is a saving of $307 for Australians for using less electricity over time).
So we would expect Australian household electricity prices to be higher, because an average Australian household uses less electricity and the large fixed supply costs must be spread across a smaller amount of consumption. This raises the cost per kWh. But because Australians use less, their annual bill may be lower.
Further, in recent years, Australian energy retailers have been raising their fixed supply (or baseline) charges. So small users pay much more overall per unit of electricity they use.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that larger businesses often negotiate much better deals on their electricity prices than householders can. – Alan Pears.
Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.