Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Saturday 8/8/20

My first #MWF session began with ‘The Fifth Estate: The Future of Socialism’.  It featured Sally Warhaft in conversation with Australian Paul Adler who is Professor of Management and Organization, of Sociology, and of Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California.  The book under discussion was The 99 Percent Economy, How Democratic Socialism Can Overcome the Crises of Capitalism.  It has that title because, Adler says, it is a hopeful vision of a world where the economy no longer serves just one percent of the world’s population, as it does at the moment.

It sounds a bit dry, as stuff about the economy tends to be, but Sally Warhaft is a genius at asking the right questions, and Gene Smith, acting Director of the 2020 festival has chosen exactly the right kind of guest to discuss these issues.  Adler was an engaging speaker and the session was fascinating.

As I write, the book isn’t in stock at Readings, the festival bookstore, at the moment, but this is (part of) the blurb:

The social, economic, and political challenges we face have reached the point of crisis: economic irrationality contributes to workplace disempowerment, social disintegration, political alienation, and environmental degradation. Despair is not an option. The 99 Percent Economy provides a stirring alternative: Democratic Socialism.

Paul S. Adler, a leading business and management expert, argues that to overcome these crises we need to assert control over economic affairs through social ownership and democratic management of companies as well as the national economy. He draws on a surprising source of inspiration: the strategic management techniques of large corporations. He shows how leading companies have designed and implemented strategies that involve and empower workers, enhance engagement and motivation, increase innovation, and are environmentally and socially sustainable.

Digression (a.k.a. Lisa on her soapbox): It never ceases to irritate me when I hear people criticise privatised utilities for failing to deliver.  We were all told that privatising power companies — the post office, the banks and transport services — would be better and cheaper, but it has proven to be a delusion.  The inadequacy of these now profit-driven enterprises is at its worst when something unexpected happens: the power goes out on a wild and windy night and people wait for hours in their cold dark houses without even a cup of tea until the electricity comes back on.  They wait for hours because the power company has calculated that yes, there will always be wild and windy nights (and if they are not climate deniers, that there will be more of these extreme weather events) but that people will tolerate being without power for a certain period of time.  And they cut provision for emergency staff accordingly, and also dispose of any capacity to receive complaints from aggrieved customers.  This makes the business more profitable… and the very people complaining the loudest about the inefficiency of the workers and the power of the unions blah-blah … happily pocket their share dividends if they are shareholders and/or admire their superannuation savings. Because super funds invest in these privatised companies whether the people know it or not.

Yet, as Warhaft and Adler concurred… it’s really hard for us to imagine any other way.  Older Australians remember how it used to be, when we had a professional public service and publicly owned utilities and people had faith in the capacity of governments to deliver, but apart from a flurry of interest in Bernie Sanders from young people, recent elections have only offered a choice between two versions of neo-liberal governments.  We have all become so used to this that even the idea of anything else seems ludicrous, even though what Adler is suggesting is not totalitarian communism, but democratic socialism. It was a very interesting session.

The Coal Curse (QE 78)Next up was ‘A Matter of Fact’, featuring academic Judith Brett (The Coal Curse, see my review here) and renewable energy expert Ketan Joshi (Windfall, on order at Readings) in conversation with Graham Readfearn, environment reporter for Guardian Australia. This is the blurb for the session:

As certain branches across politics and the media push mistruths, half-truths and lies about the cause and severity of the climate crisis in Australia, identifying reliable, science-backed information is increasingly a challenge. But how do we identify misinformation in the battle against climate change, and what can we do to counter it?

I missed a little bit of the beginning because I got a phone call (note to self, turn off phone just like I would in an auditorium). I came in when Joshi was talking about misinformation being his whole career and it was fascinating to hear the topic of ‘baseload power’ and how nearly everyone who uses this term doesn’t know what it means.  It is apparently perfectly possible to achieve baseload power with renewables, but the meaning of the term has actually morphed over time into meaning a fixed and immutable reliance on fossil fuels, a feat achieved by constant repetition and a tacit agreement not to ask what it actually means in interviews.

Although Joshi is obviously on top of all this, even he was surprised by the low figures on employment in the fossil fuel industry in Judith Brett’s book. She says that they have been incredibly successful is persuading everyone that fossil fuels are essential to Australia’s prosperity.  This is in marked contrast to how blasé politicians were about the loss of the car industry which employed a lot more people.  But the core misinformation is that the climate change issue is characterised by framing it as the environment versus the economy.  But the costs of inaction on climate change are rarely raised, and nobody ever talks about the co-benefits of action on climate change e.g. electrifying public and private transport improves air quality with immediate health benefits.  Judith Brett referenced Ross Garnaut’s new book Superpower, which I now realise I need to upgrade from wishlist to must-buy.

WindfallI was interested astonished to hear Judith Brett suggest that Our Esteemed Prime Minister is not as ideological as some in his party, that he is hedging his bets.  Well maybe.  We’ll see what happens when the plans for the revival of our economy take shape… it doesn’t look good to me.  But Joshi reframed this by saying that the ‘moral burden’ often deflects debate away from action.  The moral burden is about who has responsibility for the problem, and it’s been a useful way for the deniers to muddy the waters.  In a way, we as individuals are all responsible for the problem of climate change, every time we take a plane or waste electricity or do anything else that adds to demand for a product that contributes to climate change.  But we need to be clear that the magnitude of an individual’s responsibility is of a different order entirely to that of a CEO who is a gatekeeper in the coal mining industry.  Sure, the things we do as individuals do make a difference, but not enough.  We also need to use our people power with tactics such as disinvestment in the damaging industries, to place pressure on the corporate decision-makers who have much more power to change things.

What I really enjoyed was eavesdropping on two intelligent people search for solutions to our current impasses on climate change.  I’m glad I’ve got Joshi’s book on order because it sounds really interesting.

AueMy last session for today was Becky Manawatu in conversation with Tara June Winch.  Becky is the author of Auē, which I reviewed here.  I had all kinds of trouble with the WordPress editor today which impacted on being able to take notes.  A screenshot of the blurb for the session will have to suffice for an intro:


This was an intimate session, two Indigenous writers talking about the emotional work involved in writing stories of intergenerational trauma.  Amongst other things they talked about the value of an insightful editor working with them to find that extra element from within the imagination or experience.  They also talked about the need for mentors and a support network, and Becky acknowledged that, with the flowering of Maori writing in New Zealand, things are improving.  Which is encouraging news!

PS, (the next day), for more festival goodness, visit Theresa’s blog at Theresa Smith Writes:

#MWFDIGITAL: Charlotte McConaghy – The Last Migration

#MWFDIGITAL: Kevin Kwan – Sex and Vanity

#MWFDIGITAL: Victoria Hannan – Kokomo

#MWFDIGITAL: Jessie Tu – A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing



  1. What an interesting day! And I totally agree with your soapbox digression, and I have no idea why people are surprised about how crap privatisation is…


    • And they don’t realise that the pain is self-inflicted!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had the laptop on my lap trying to write notes. I am pretty sure I won’t be able to read it in the morning..


    • LOL just as well I did mine before having our Saturday night cocktail…


  3. I keep looking at the program and see that the times for things I really want to attend are not suitable – my yoga night, my lunch or visits with Dad, and so on. So I appreciate your writing these up. I wonder if they are going to make them available later? Some of the indigenous writer ones are particularly tricky for me.

    A lot of meat here to discuss.

    I’m interested in this comment, though “the very people complaining the loudest about the inefficiency of the workers and the power of the unions blah-blah … happily pocket their share dividends if they are shareholders and/or admire their superannuation savings.” Don’t most of us retired people have income from either shares and/or superannuation? Wth the latter, if you are in a defined benefit scheme, you don’t have much control over where the money is coming from, and usually a percentage is shares (alongside bonds, property etc)? In fact in most superannuation schemes, I think, investments are packaged so knowing where every bit of the money is coming from at any one time is a challenge. You can find out what each “package” includes (eg a “moderate growth” package), but it’s not easy. Where our money is that supports our retirements is a very tricky challenge. I might be naive though …


    • Yes, exactly, and that is the point I’m trying to make: that we are oblivious to what happens to our super money and we have acquiesced to the consequences of that. I include myself in that except that I don’t whinge about the shabbiness of the services we get because I know it’s not the workers’ fault. The fault lies with the decisions made by corporations who are bound by legislation to put the interests of the company first i.e. before customers and workers, and super funds are bound by legislation to invest our money in profitable enterprises. And as you say, even if you want to invest ethically, it’s very difficult to find out about it and even harder to change it. The whole system is very complex…


      • Thanks Lisa … just wanted to make sure I understood. My investing ethically is a challenge, particularly when companies have hands in so many pies, too.


        • The State Super I had/have (which was compulsory, no choice about belonging to it) invested in Crown Casino, which made me feel sick…

          Liked by 1 person

      • Interestingly, in this month’s Choice that we got yesterday there’s a small column on Rio Tinto m “Is your super invested in Rio Tinto” is the heading. Talks about how easy it is to see ingredients on your groceries to see if they meet your dietary requirements, but not so easy to see if your investments meet your ethical investing requirements. They say that given RT’s blasting of Juukan Gorge, First State Super announced that it would no longer hold RT shares, that other companies had put RT “on notice” but how hard is to know if your company doesn’t voluntarily disclose. They say transparency legislation for super funds was proposed back in 2010 but it’s been delayed many times. Another battle to fight!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I attended the Paul Sadler event too … I really liked listening to his insights and theories. The Brits are “experts” at privatisation; the Tories basically sold off everything they possibly could (invariably to chums to make vast profits from). Those companies only have one goal in mind: to make profit, whereas when those companies are run as public services the goal is service. I still get angry thinking about the whole debacle surrounding security at the 2012 Olympics in which security had been outsourced to private firm G4S which didn’t train people and hired staff on minimum wage and then couldn’t meet its obligations so that the government had to bring in the Army to help. (Dare I mention private security at Melbourne hotels during quarantine 🤬)


    • Indeed…
      I am not sure without reading his book quite what I’m agreeing with or what label to give my preferred form of economics, but what I’d like back is what we had prior to Reagan and Thatcher. It wasn’t perfect but a lot of it worked fine. We had democratic rights, a functioning parliament and what is now derisively called The Welfare State which meant that vulnerable people were looked after.


      • Neoliberalism basically wrecked everything. Naomi Klein’s Disaster Capitalism is what really opened my eyes to the destructive nature of that ideology.


      • Yep, agree Lisa. It wasn’t perfect but it felt on the right track.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with you totally about the way that the old mixed economy delivered excellent service. Yes, the emphasis in the utilities was always on engineering and maybe not always on customer service, but we the people received efficient, long-lasting infrastructure. Of course the old utilities also had high rates of unionism and it was to break the unions that was the Right’s first objective.


    • Indeed.
      There were times when unions overdid it, with really disruptive strike action so that they lost public sympathy, but overall IMO their effect was benign.

      Liked by 1 person

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