11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month

The Gunninghams at the cavalry charge field, south of Villers Guislain, earlier this year

One hundred years ago today, at this time, the guns fell silent. The great war was over.

We pause now to remember those that fell, that never came back, those that were scarred for life, families affected… the massive sacrifice. It was a bludgeoning war, a stalemate of forces stacked up against each other, smashing away for 4 years at terrible cost.

But within it, were personal stories. Here’s one…

At 9.35am on 1st December 1917, the Indian 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse) Cavalry were ordered to charge on horseback up a valley with the intention of capturing the town of Villers Guislain.

This was northern France, during the wider Battle of Cambrai, that had been raging for months. The battle was the first time tanks had been used in war. They were moderately successful, many broke down, so commanders still liked the fast paced nature of a horse back attack. After years of bloody stalemate, you had to do something different to break through.

My grandfather, who I am named after, Charles Harris, was on horseback that day charging up that hill. I remember him telling me how some of his regiment fell off their horses during the battle, and he wondered why this was happening as the ground (mainly cabbage patches) was not too hard going. They were being shot off their horses of course. Something that did not occur to him in the adrenaline of the moment.

As bullets whizzed overhead, the Lancers made it to the top of the hill and jumped over the trenches. Most of the fighters had fled, and some returned to their positions as the mounted cavalrymen overshot their positions, were halted and then jumped back over the trenches and retook them a second time. 3 officers and 42 ranking servicemen were killed. My granddad (‘Pop’ as we called him later) survived.

Now becoming surrounded, two volunteers rode back on horseback to get word on what to do next. One was killed, the other – Lance-Daffadar Gobind Singh – had three horses shot from under him, an action that would result in the awarding of the Victoria Cross.

The upshot of this skirmish was that the 2nd Lancers were told to retreat to their former position. They had gone too far too fast, and could not be supported. Pop and his crew had to fight their way back to their own lines.

Earlier this year, together with my two older brothers, and our families (which included three great grand children of Pop Harris) found the location of that brave cavalry charge, just over 100 years ago. I had last visited with my own parents in 1980, and when I saw the crucifix in the road, I remembered being there 38 years earlier, and how Pop had told us the cavalry turned left at this point then up the hill.

When I saw the crucifix, and the path to the left, I knew this was the place

This week, the Daily Telegraph in England, in homage to those that fought in the Great War, reprinted a series of articles and stories from the time. They chose to reprint Pop’s obituary that they had ran in 1996, when he passed away 6 days before what would have been his 100th birthday. (‘ Lest we forget: Brigadier Harris, the Battle of Cambrai veteran who charged the Germans on horseback – obituary.’)

I remember listening in awe to Pop’s stories over the years. He remembered that charge as if it had been last month, yet he was telling me the story over 60 years later.

Of course, if he’d not lived to tell the tale, he would not have had my Mum 12 years later, and neither me, my brothers, or our children would have existed.

What bravery. What a generation.

And so today, at this hour, I pay tribute to The Rev Brigadier General Charles E ‘Pop’ Harris, and all those that fought with him on that day and in that war, on all sides. May we never endure such a terrible event again. May we never forget the sacrifice of that generation, and those since.

Future Generations: 3 of Pop’s great grandchildren with poppies from the nearby field.



Busking in Perth – memories from 25 years ago

Ruff n Ready

The first time I came to Perth, WA, was exactly 25 years ago, as a busker. Christmas 1991. We had a brilliant 10 days, and – incredibly – each made enough to cover our return airfares.

At the time, I was living and working in Singapore, where busking was prohibited. Something about it being against the law to have two or more people gather together in a public place; a law that had been brought in to help quell communism in the sixties. Singapore did quite a good job of quelling communism, but that’s a different story. The strange remnant of this law (since lifted) meant that 2 fellow band members who had travelled down to Perth the year before (‘where there’s a terrific street entertainment scene‘) said we should visit this Christmas and do some busking.

Yes, I had fellow band members. I had moved to Singapore the year earlier, and somehow inveigled my way into a fairly well known (in expat circles anyway) 6-piece rock n roll tribute band (the ‘Ruff n Ready Roadshow’) which was made up of teachers, mainly from the same school I was working at. Anyway, 4 of us agreed to do it, and so we cobbled together a skiffle set of rock n roll classics, interspersed with some silly jokes and improvisations.

Our first port of call was Council House to get the required $2 busking license. It showed some red dots on a CBD map of the city, which denoted where we could busk and off we trotted. We saw one small stage set up in one of the malls, and set to work. Everyone pretty much ignored us, and by the end of day 2, we had not much to show for it.

Oh well, we thought, at least we’ve given it a go. And we are hardly street performers anyway. We’d do 20 or so dinner dances in Singapore, but this live performing to Christmas shoppers malarky was a different ball game. One upshot of actually performing on the street was meeting other performers, many of whom do it for a living, and do very nicely thank you. They can sense when it’s a good time to do a show, know exactly how to build up a crowd and milk it for all it’s worth. People I met that week, I would meet a year later in Covent Garden in London, or in Edinburgh at festival time.

The person I was staying with said that by performing on a stage, Perth people might think we were paid by the council, so the next day we went and found a spot outside Myers’ main entrance in the central shopping mall. There was a steady throng of people there, who were happy to stop and listen. Suddenly the money started pouring in. People would sing along, laugh at our silliness (we looked a picture in our multi coloured teddy boy outfits and greased up hair – the photo above shows us in Fremantle that same week), and would generally get the idea that it was time to pay up when we ended each set with the Motown/Beatles standard ‘Money, (that’s what I want)’ .

On one occasion, the Salvation Army lady was standing near our audience getting donations for her tin, so we decided to donate a whole set’s worth to her. You should have seen her face.

Never change a winning formula, we thought, so we played there for most of the week pre Christmas, and a few days after. In between, we did a day in Fremantle (not so good tippers that lot), and also got booked to play on stage in Forrest Chase for the Carols by Candlelight and were entered into a busking competition (we came second!).

All the while I was struck by Perth’s beauty: the clean streets, stunning blue skies, bright sunshine, great coffee and beautiful beaches. The friendliness of the people and their genuine warmth (we were asked to play at so many parties & corporate gigs, but it was always the week after we’d left). ‘I’m going to live here one day‘, I thought. And so it would prove, about 5 years later. For 2017 denotes the 20th year that Lisa and I moved to Perth. We’re set here for life, and every year about this time, when I find myself walking through the mall or Forrest Place, I always remember the time, a quarter of a century ago, I first landed here, and strummed a tea chest base for 10 days and sampled my first (of many thousand) flat whites.

Merry Christmas Perth, and a Happy New Year. You’re beautiful.

Clinton won 2 million more votes


For those you left numb and disbelieving over the recent election of a President Trump, consider that Hillary Clinton won the 2nd most number of votes ever in a Presidential election and 2 million more than her opponent.

Of course that did not get her elected, due to the quirks of the electoral college system. It’s actually a system I admire in that it forces nominees to travel around the country (or at least the dozen or so swing States) rather than just rack up votes in their most populous areas.

Unfortunately for Clinton, she racked up some amazing votes in States she was always going to win, and others she was bound to lose, mainly around the coast. She won California by 3 million votes, which would not have meant any difference to the electoral college outcome compared to winning it by just solitary vote. She lost Texas and Arizona, but scored far better there than Obama did 4 or 8 years earlier. It did not matter, she still did not get one solitary electoral college vote from these places. Nor did Obama.

A week on, we can see a clearer picture. Trump’s narrow path to victory lay in flipping Clinton’s so called ‘blue wall’ of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where he collectively won the combined 3 States by only 107,000 (less than 0.1% of the total votes case). They are worth 46 electoral college votes. Add that 46 to Clinton’s likely 232 votes and she sails over the 270 winning post, and is President.

She lost Michigan by less than 12,000 votes. The fact that Clinton won 2 million more overall does not matter one jot. Trump threaded the needle by the slimmest of margins where it mattered.  He was very fortunate, a few tens of thousands of votes the other way and we’d be analysing things very differently.

I say ‘fortunate’ because the electoral college map was always stacked against him, and he was pandering to a diminishing number of the electorate – whites. They represent 72% of the population, and falling. The majority of babies born in the US today are non white. In the 1980s, whites made up 84% of the population. Trump had to win a huge proportion of this vote to win, and he had to win them in the right places, which is what he (just) did. You might call it a brilliant strategy, maybe it was. It did not make for a pretty campaign, but it worked. It all had to come off for him, and it did.

Consider the maths for Obama in 2012. He lost the white vote 39% to 59% to Mitt Romney, but he won the non white vote by a whopping 60 points. That adds up to 50.2% of the total vote, and 47.8% for Romney. Plus Obama won them in the right places – Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin,  … the blue wall. Clinton already knew (weeks out) she was well behind in the first two and Florida was on a knife edge, but she did not realise she was behind in the other 3, until it was too late. She never even visited Wisconsin. Trump won all 6 and shot to more than 300 electoral college votes.

So it was wafer thin. Yet Trump won fair and square, that’s the system.

So, we are left with two very large amorphous groups of the electorate – one, so annoyed at their lot, GFC, their changing country (they don’t like change, hence ‘Make America Great Again’ appealed)  and everything else that they would cast a vote for someone they may not like, but who was telling them he would blow up the system (#draintheswamp), throw the whole lot out and only he could fix it because he was the ultimate outsider. They were more likely to be white, non college educated and rural. And then there’s another large group, which is larger, who did not vote this way, a coalition of college educated, city dwelling whites and non-whites who appreciated Obamacare and wanted more affordable college education. Both these two policies only appealed to a minority on Clinton’s side, and did not interest the others.

After 8 years of Obama, they wanted change, and Clinton could not run on change. Trump could, and did. Boy, did he. After 8 years of W Bush, the country wanted change, and Obama personified it. Brilliantly. After 8 years of Bill Clinton, and the scandals that ended it, the country wanted change, and Bush was change. 8 years earlier Bill had represented a cool, younger change to the old and crusty Bush senior. Reagan was change from the washed up Jimmy Carter, who in turn had been change from the Watergate-plagued 1970s Republicans…

So the wheel has turned. It has not resolved the issues, nor the divisions. But the other side will have their turn for now. I wish Hillary all the best in her retirement. As Donald himself says, she deserves a vote of thanks for her 30 years of service. I hope Trump ends up being better than we fear, because the world could do with a little less fear and uncertainty right now.

We’ll see. I reckon it will be fascinating watching, no matter what. Get the popcorn ready.

UPDATE (Dec 23rd 2016) – Clinton won 2.9 million more votes than Trump)

Predicting the Future, the US Election and other distractions


I must confess I am a bit of an addict when it comes to the US Election. As such, I am a frequent visitor to two of the best websites that try to make sense of what is going on, FiveThirtyEight and Politico.

The US Presidential election is an incredibly long examination process for what is probably the most important elected position on the planet. As we have seen this cycle, pretty much anything that can come out, will, including past video indiscretions or stacks and stacks of embarrassing emails. Lies have been told, and doubled down on, and trebled. News, in itself, has splintered into factions, meaning anyone can gather the ‘truth’ they want, about each candidate or the other.

The presidential decision gets cast over a relatively long term period (about 18 months), and as you can see from the chart above, the US has pretty much made up its mind, that, like her or not (and I quite like her, to be honest), the US will elect it’s first lady President in its 240 year history as it’s 45th President. 70 or more other countries have already had female head of states before the US, but it looks like the US will cross that bridge come November the 8th this year.

The probability of this occurring is now approaching 87% confidence levels according to FiveThirtyEight’s model (which takes all scientific published polls in all states and nationally and runs tens of thousands of ‘mock’ election outcomes to see what % of those outcomes yield a victory for one side or another, updating in real time). 538 predicted the last two presidential elections and margins of victory almost perfectly, and indeed predicted the winner in each of the 50 states as well.

The chart above shows that when the US public ‘has been watching’ (notably during the 2 conventions in July and then the first two debates in September and October), Hillary Clinton has pulled away from Donald Trump. Only for a brief period after the Republican convention did Trump pull to a tie with Clinton, and for most of the time he’s been less then 25% chance of winning. He’s now sitting at a tad over a 13% chance, 3 weeks out. It’s all over, red rover.

This gap is quite astonishing in many respects. Firstly, because Hillary is such a divisive figure in the US, one of the most unpopular and derided candidates ever to hold office. Her unfavourability rating tops 55%, but of course that is only topped by The Donald himself who has plunged the heights (if that’s the right expression) of 65% unfavourability. (‘Anything you can do, I can do better’.)

So it’s the battle of the least worst candidates. And it’s a race to the bottom, as we’ve seen. Any reasonable Republican candidate might have given Hillary a good run for her money this year (and she has raised a ton of money, more than anyone previously). But Trump’s blustering, unpredictable style, which got him enough attention and support during the Republican primaries, has been a disaster in the general election (where a more sensible, calm, dare I say, Presidential, Trump may have been more attractive to the undecideds and ‘swing’ voters).

Instead, the Donald has pandered to his base, especially after the 2005 Access Hollywood tapes came out, which showed him bragging about his sexual assault on women (‘I can do anything, they let me…’ etc). He has spiralled out of control ever since, throwing blame around everywhere – at the media, Hillary, the FBI and even at his own party. The very people he needs to win to bridge the gap (female suburban voters, Latinos, African Americans and moderates) are precisely the groups he has antagonised with his ‘Mexicans are rapists’, ‘the Blacks live in poverty’, attacks on the Gold Star family, a Latino former Miss Universe and other such riffs.

Come election day, it looks like Clinton will garner  49% of the vote with Trump back on 42%. Given that either major party is pretty much guaranteed 40% of the vote, you can see that Donald J Trump has not managed to grab that all important middle ground, while Clinton has.

Some of Trump’s party are shaking their head in bewilderment and can’t wish November the 9th come soon enough. Many have given up on the Presidential race altogether and are now battening down the hatches trying to prevent the Senate from tipping Democrat (which 538 now estimates will happen with 74% certainty, as they only need to win a net 5 seats) or possibly even the House as well (where Democrats need to win a historic 30 seats to put the 76 year old Nancy Pelosi back as Speaker).

The most likely outcome is a comfortable Hillary win as President (probably 340 electoral college votes, with Trump back below 200), a Senate majority for the Democrats but the House will remain Republican. For many in business, this is a workable outcome, as it might dampen down some of the anti-business things Clinton has been talking about, yet allow her to govern. Although divisive, she may be more experienced at getting things done than Obama, who took up to 6 years to get much of his agenda passed (barring Obamacare, which was pushed through in his first 2 years when he had majorities in both houses.)

Barring an incredible turn of events (and we’ve seen pretty much everything thus far), we will be hailing Madam President come Jan 20th 2017, with former President Bill Clinton back in the White House as ‘First Gentleman’. Historic times indeed.

The intolerance of difference

celebrate difference

In a recent post, I argued there was one proven way (borne from research) that dealt with bullying, but it was not easy to do. You had to deal with all 4 sides of bullying behaviour: the bully, the victim, the bully’s acolytes and the majority who carry on with their lives.

I’d now like to step back and discuss what causes bullying behaviour in the first place. What explains persistent and aggressive behaviour against a weaker group by another larger, stronger group?

It’s intolerance of difference, pure and simple.

Bullies play on the herd mentality, that bond that makes people stick together in a group of sameness. This group pours scorn and blame on a smaller group ‘that looks different’. Perhaps these victims dress different, pray different, eat different, speak different, act different. Some things, or many things, are different about them. And it’s this intrinsic ‘different-ness’ that becomes the reason to pick on them.

We are naturally scared of things we don’t understand. It’s an understandable, human response. Ever since our cave-dwelling days, we have been wired to distrust anyone that comes into our area that is not from our tribe. Safer to assume they will attack us, take our food, our jobs, destroy our neighbourhoods. You tended to live longer that way. Survival of the fittest.

Whether it’s the red-haired chubby 9 year old being picked on by taller, slimmer jocks, or whether it’s Hanson’s ‘Asian invasion’ of the late 90s (or her ‘Muslim invasion’ of the mid 2010s), what is common to all this behaviour is a majority privileged group putting down a smaller ‘different’ group, and blaming them for all their own ills.

What is also common is a complete falsehood with the facts. Asians did not invade Australia, nor are we being swamped by Muslims (less than 2% of the population). And anyway, what is actually wrong with having a nice variety of people and cultures on our country? What a boring, staid place it would be if it were all the same. How insular and sad that country would be. We’d all be missing out on some amazing experiences, many of which we take for granted today, that only came about through immigration and ties between countries (such as open trade).

Of course the two-faced nature of the ‘anti immigration’ debate is that those proposing it are indeed immigrants themselves, in their own generation or not many generations before. They should be more honest in their arguments (but of course they are not) by declaring: ‘I got here first, I like it, and I don’t want anyone else coming in and getting what I enjoy.’

If we only ‘stopped the boats’ (full of fleeing refugees, by their very nature the most downtrodden, weakest people on the planet), or ‘reduced immigration’ or ‘banned head scarves’ then somehow everything would be back to how it was. The implication is that it is too easy to get to our country, and we’re being overrun. A country of 24 million, with a land mass of 7.7 million sq kms, one of the largest countries on the planet.

Quickly you see the same four groups forming – the bullies shout from their safe positions as shock jocks, Alt Right politicians, Senate seats, news opinion pulpits or press columns, while their supporters jeer from the stands (‘Trump tells it like it is!’). Half a million voted in the recent election for Hanson’s party. Suddenly all your issues can be blamed on them, those that look and act different to us, those same people fleeing the horrors of Syria or African war lords. Meanwhile the victims line up for scorn, and have little recourse to a fair hearing. At the same time, the majority sit by, possibly disagreeing but not intervening.

One wonders why we don’t celebrate difference, rather than have a preconditioned aversion or suspicion to it. Multiculturalism brings the world together, creates better understanding and forms ties between peoples. You are less suspicious of people you have met and interacted with. 20,000 Syrian refugees are not going to ruin Australia (or the US for that matter) any more than the Vietnamese boat people did in the 1970s. In fact, many went on to form businesses, not for profits and councils and do great work in our communities. It makes a society richer, more understanding and inclusive. Ultimately, this makes us and the country safer. What puts a country at risk is tribalism, with people bleetingly following their one eyed herd.

In the 1990s I taught at the United World College of SE Asia in Singapore. There were students from 60 different nationalities in the school, over 1500 in all. Over 8 years, I saw no bullying behaviour. Instead, I saw celebration of difference, proudly proclaimed on ‘UN Nights’ and every day with kids just getting on with each other, forming friendships and understanding each other’s cultures. In fact, it was not even an issue. Put different cultures together at an early, formative age and they will have peace, argued Kurt Hahn, the founder of the United World Colleges. They were set up in the 1960s, a few years after the horrors of the Second World War, precisely for this reason. There are now 16 such colleges around the world. None (sadly) in Australia.

I am looking for the politician or leader to celebrate difference.

To plot a different path. To talk about what unites us, rather than play on what naturally can scare us and rub salt on divisions. To talk to our better angels, not our worse demons.

This is not for some trendy tree-hugging bohemian reasons, this is actually for our own (and everyone’s) betterment. A safer future, a surer world, confident in itself, able to stand up to bullies.

Perhaps Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is the best example of this in practice. He personally welcomed the first group of Syrian refugees. When he was asked about the risk of letting in Syrians, he corrected the interviewer, saying ‘They are Canadians, and we will protect them, as we do all Canadians.’

Let’s use the power of the people to make this happen. Let’s call out those who pander to the lowest common denominators. Love trumps hate.

CEOs sleep out for the homeless – 2016


The CEO Sleepout last Thursday night was another humbling and thought-provoking experience for me, plus the other 100+ WA CEOs who braved the cold and hard concrete floors of the WACA, armed only with a thin piece of cardboard, a sleeping bag and a pillow.


My spot for the night

I found the same spot I had used 6 years earlier, and actually got more sleep than I anticipated (2 or 3 hours maybe?). While some wanted to be on the grass outside (the dew and wet would make that very uncomfortable), I snuck down to the bowels of the Lillee Marsh stand to claim a quiet spot next to the cafeteria. It was warmer than expected, although a cold breeze came though in the early morning lowering the temperatures to single digits.

In all, the 104 CEOs of Perth (and their generous supporters) outdid all other capital cities other than Sydney in terms of donations.

Money goes to the St Vinnies, and is put to good use. Homeless shelters, places where homeless people can get a shower, clean their clothes and sleep the night, are provided for the 9,500 who sleep rough every night in Perth, part of the 105,000 across the country. Mental health services, support, social justice advocacy and partnerships are provided.


Talks from the homeless and a panel discussion educated the CEOs on the issues confronting homeless people

The stats are saddening – homelessness starts young. 40% were homeless before aged 15, so they are at school. Often the school is unaware.

Over half start out their homeless journey coach surfing at friends or relatives (63%). Usually it has been spawned by parental conflict and/or domestic violence which means they are on their own. If no other options are available they go to a street or a park (16%). They have basically left home, and have nowhere else to go.

53% have mental health issues, 20% have attempted suicide in the past 6 months. 84% are unemployed. Only 31% complete year 12.

James Lush interviewing Barry Felstead on ABC radio. Barry raised $120k+

James Lush interviewing Barry Felstead on ABC radio. Barry raised $120k+

Youth homelessness takes up a disproportionate amount of GP time and costs, so too hospitals, emergency, law courts and victim assault services. Usually they are the victim. Being out on the streets is not safe. (At least we CEOs were perfectly safe, the odd discomfort for one night our only issue.)

All of this costs the tax payer $750 million a year, yet the amount of money provided for homelessness overall is far less.

Research shows that the simple fact of providing shelter greatly reduces their instances of crime, victim assault, suicide and mental health issues and greatly improves their chances at school and in getting a job.

It starts with a place to call home.

Then, if education and training can be provided, their life can be changed for the better, and they can join society on an equal footing.

All power the CEO Sleepout and the Vinnies. Well done and thanks to the CEOs and their supporters. Thanks for over 50 generous souls, I raised over $5,800 for the cause, more than double what I raised when I last did the sleepout in 2010.

You can still give to the cause (up to the end of August), so please donate if you can – the cause is so important, and the money goes to great use.

Economic growth set to continue


I’ve lived through a few recessions in my time. I still remember getting the candles out (yes, really) during the miner’s strike of the early 1970s in England. I was 9. It was fun – as a family we knew when the power cuts were coming to our little town, and when to get the candles ready.

The oil price shock brought on by the Arab-Iraeli war a year later would plunge the world into recession as oil prices quadrupled. The same happened again after the Iranian revolution 7 years later, which, combined with strict monetary policy plunged the UK into deep recession and mass unemployment (reaching 4 million at one stage). Another miner’s strike, this lasting just under a year, was finally defeated by the government of the time, who had cut taxes and deregulated the stock market ushering in a surge in share prices, which promptly collapsed on ‘Black Monday’ (a day that coincided with a hurricane sweeping across southern England, which closed our school for the day – I was now a teacher). The resultant interest cuts forged a strong recovery which only resulted in a deep recession in 1991. The UK had suffered through 3 major recessions in 20 years, one every 7. I taught this as an economic rule – a recession every 7 years.

By then I had moved to Singapore, which was enjoying two decades of non stop double digit GDP growth. I moved to Perth, Western Australia, just as the Asian economic crisis hit in 1997.

[If you, dear reader, see my exit just prior to these two recessions as anything but pure coincidence, please be assured I am not writing this post from my own island.]

And so to Australia, whose last recession was in 1991. 25 years of continuous economic growth has seen the country become a confident and influential player on the world stage. The 12th largest economy, boasting some of the best places to live.

With budget season now behind us, the latest figures predict our economy will continue to grow for at least another 5 years (albeit slower at 2 to 2.5% a year), which will stretch our period of non stop growth to 3 decades. Quite an achievement.

No doubt people will argue about whether we have invested this growth correctly, have built the infrastructure and society we want, which looks after as many as it can, and allows families to live in peace, and prosper. Some have got richer than others. 105,000 people still live on the streets, homeless. It’s not perfect by any means.

Government budgets are in deficit as the ‘mining boom’ ended and built-in spending programs have persisted. Billions of dollars of government spending cuts are blocked in the Senate (hence the double dissolution election coming up), and surpluses are many years away. Federal government debt has risen to just under 40% of GDP (in WA, state government debt has blown out to $40b or almost 100% of WA GDP).

Taxes in Australia are about the same as in other developed countries, but are more slanted towards direct (income and profit tax) than indirect (GST, taxes on cars, alcohol and cigarettes).

Meanwhile inflation is negligible and predicted to stay around 1%. The most recent quarter, it even went negative (hence the recent cut in interest rates to a record low of 1.75%). Interest rates could go to 1.5% later in the year, or even next month.

Unemployment is around 5.5-6%, and may rise a little more, but is unlikely to go much higher. A threat of a recession is small (we’d need something in excess of 8.5% unemployment for that).

Many WA businesses are feeling the pinch, and have been so for about 3 years. The real estate market has gone nowhere, and is still oversupplied in terms of the number of properties for sale or rent. Population growth in WA has slowed as those that came here for the ‘mine building’ boom have returned home.

Most people and businesses have ‘got used’ to the new normal of 2016. It’s no longer 2012, or 2006. The drag from mining and commodity prices is easing. Other industries are showing brighter signs, and everything feels a little more steady, if cautious. You have to work harder now for every dollar, every deal. [This is where the good sales people and good businesses prosper.]

Much depends on China. If China continues to grow, at 5% or 7% or even more, then what China wants, WA has. The US economy has improved, and the UK is one of the strongest in Europe. A few possible speed bumps are spread out in front of us: the threat of a ‘Brexit‘ and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. Both these, and especially the latter, have grave consequences for world growth. And, make no mistake, we all live in the same world. While the chances of both happening are less than 50%, they are not zero by any means.

For now then, it looks like Australia will continue to grow, almost inexorably onward. It’s blue skies over the Great Southern Land…

The democratic circus

Cassius and Brutus

Many of us have been shaking our heads at the political ‘system’ and politicians for years now, and we’ve had more examples in recent days of how low things are sinking to.

A front runner for Republican nomination for President of the USA has his rallies cancelled after inciting people to violence in previous rallies (“Get that protestor out of here”  “He should be leaving here in a stretcher”), running one of the most divisive campaigns in history (“Mexicans … are rapists”  “Ban Muslims from entering the country”), and brazenly contradicting previous statements and positions as the mood takes him. That he continues to lead in most of the polls, and win most of the races, is because, as Cassius once argued “… the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves…”.

If Trump’s antics were shamed for what they are, if he had stronger opponents who can rise, Obama like, above the fray, and a media that would do its job rather than revel in the show, then he would have seen his run peter out months ago. Instead, every cancelled rally, every call from the establishment and Wall Street to shoot him down just cements his appeal to those who want to be told that America ‘can be great again’ and that the root cause of every problem is someone else (the Mexicans, the Muslims, Wall Street, the press…).

The real leader, the honest person, realises that for any problem there is a solution within. The worst sales person or manager blames the outside for their problems (“the economy”  “the stoopid client”) and wallows in any success as of their own making. It should, as Jim Collins eloquently proved in Good to Great, be the exact opposite.

Over the weekend, a seemingly stupid idea was broached to dump the elected WA Labor leader (one year out from a State election here in WA) for a retired federal politician. Someone somewhere stuffed this up right royally as the retiree, Stephen Smith, well intentioned maybe, did not have the support for the move, and the whole thing was snuffed out within a day. Overall, a bad look all round, and potentially wounding for the Labor party, and with the incumbent Liberal Premier not riding too high in the polls either, it seems the public have few options to turn to. Which, of course, heralds in the weirdos.

Politics, in the age of twitter, has been reduced to repeating slogans ad nauseam. Political debate, such as it is, has been condensed into bite sized pieces for the evening news, or more likely, the Facebook newsfeed. Gone is policy. It’s the politics of the breakfast cereal token, instant gratification, low quality and disposable.

5 Prime Ministers in 5 years. An elected State leader waltzing in on a landslide in Queensland, only to be summarily thrown out again less than 3 years later.

But, it’s all down to us. And it reflects us. The fault is not in our stars.

The new normal

Everything's just fine

It’s been an interesting few weeks already in 2016, with celebrity deaths (Bowie, Rickman, Frey…), jittery stock markets (down 7% one week, up 5% the next, down 2%, up 3%…) and the worst heatwave in 80 years (heralding in the Chinese New Year of the Fire Monkey). And it’s only Feb 14th, Valentine’s Day. Where’s the love?!

So I’d like the pause at this point and say ‘Hold on! It’s going a bit crazy, and we all need to calm down.’ (to echo Larry Hagman’s character Fred Picker in the Primary Colors.)

The period from about 2002 through to 2012 was an unprecedented super cycle of ‘once in a generation’ proportions, not known since the late 1960s. As an MD of a junior miner told me this week, “It’s terrible at the moment, but it only reminds me of the time 15 years ago when we picked up these mining assets for a song. Maybe I should have remembered that and got out of the game a couple of years ago!”

Meanwhile, the mass media has been forced into a corner shouting headlines to get attention. Less and less of us are paying attention, so they shout louder and louder. I turned on the news today and it was just one murder or death after another. Is this what the news has become now? Preying on our emotions, to get and hopefully hold our attention?

So, Picker style, I just ask everyone to calm down. We live in great times of enormous wealth. We are incredibly fortunate and need to count our blessings. Yes, the super cycle finished in late 2012. Get over it, it’s gone. Love it while it lasted (although during that decade it was damn hard getting a plumber, or persuading a teenager to go to university), but it’s gone, along with the cashed up bogans and tripling in property prices. Thank goodness, say I.

We are back to normal, where you have to work hard for a living, work smart for a sale, and become more and more productive to stay competitive.  You may have to work longer than you’ve been used to of late, with less people in your company doing the same amount of work in total. Pay rises may be small, at best. Many will feel fortunate to have a job. People out of work may have to take longer to get a new one, or might look to set up something for themselves. Some companies will shrink, some may pack up, but most will carry on OK. Some, on the cusp of a new wave, a new industry, will grow and attract new talent. It’s the way of things. It’s how markets work. Either extreme is not healthy. No need to scream, it’s the middle ground for a while, and that’s perfectly fine.

No recession for Australia, say the experts

Alan Oster

On Friday I attended an Economic Outlook breakfast, hosted by RSM, with NAB chief economist, Alan Oster. Here are my notes… it’s more positive than you might have guessed (which was the main take away.)

The headline is that there will be no recession in Australia in 2016, continuing an amazing 24 year run for our economy. Basically, mining (9% of the economy) is worse than people think, and everything else (especially services, 50% of the economy) is better than people think.

Globally, world GDP growth should be around 3%, which is short of the long term average of 4% that “the world needs”, but it’s not terrible. Things “are OK” in China and US, and this is important as these two nations drive the world economy.

In the US, interest rates will (finally) rise, slowly, and “it’s about time”. They can’t be zero forever. US inflation is at 1% unemployment is down to 5% (both inside target range).

China industrial output and steel are both down, but services are up. Iron ore and commodity prices are falling as demand is dropping and supply is rising. Iron ore prices are set to go to $33/t (but they were $23/t 10 years ago). China is not about to blow up; the tertiary sector (50% of economy) is growing at 8% a year and rising.

Meanwhile, India is growing at 7%, Japan has slipped back into recession, Latin America is in recession, the Asian tiger economies exhibit weak growth, and Europe is OK but not great.

Here in Australia, “there will be no GDP problem”, as LNG exports are set to add 2% to GDP growth on their own. Growth is switching to services away from mining services. Housing is OK but apartments market is over supplied. The RBA will not cut rates, and are unlikely to be able to raise them in 2016 as they don’t want to worsen the Sydney and Melbourne and property booms.

Mining investment is falling as we move to the export phase. The Aussie $ is moving to 63 – 73c range. The labour market is doing better than predicted, and most of the currency adjustment has already happened. The lower A$ is helping mining exporters (receive a better price).

When we ask businesses about their confidence (“how do you feel?”) we see that it is OK, not terrible but not great either. When we then ask “how are you going?” businesses are actually doing much better than major media reports. ‘How are you going’ is what businesses have done and are doing, not just ‘how they feel’.

The strong sectors are personal and recreational services (30% of economy) and are doing very well. The consumer has money. The Aussie consumer has ability to buy a house, get a lawyer, take a holiday in Australia … and is doing so.

Retail is actually quite good, and we’re in for a good Christmas. WA has good conditions but low confidence. Health and social assistance has added 370,000 jobs in Australia. Manufacturing has lost most ~ 100,000 jobs.

Australia did not save up to GFC but since has been saving and will continue to do so. Their spending “should be” at 4% growth but is at 2%. Property is strong in Syd/Melb and weak everywhere else; which means controlling it with interest rates is impossible. The Chinese are buying apartments that we might think are small but they think are fine, and it’s a safe place to put their money so the Chinese government can’t see it. Expect a marked slowdown but no crash in property in 2016. Perth has already lost the most in the property market in 2015, compared to any other Aussie capital city.

So, there will be no recession in Australia as exports are going to be strong; domestic demand is growing; non miners are doing better than everybody thinks. Unemployment will fall below 6% – the services sector is employing everybody.

Inflation is low – as forecast; which gives room for RBA to cut rates if they need to. But RBA does not want to fire up Syd/Melb property markets. Interest rates rise may rise, but not til 2017 and then only slowly to 3.5% from their current 2%.

Agriculture is a growth industry but is only 1.5% of economy. The “dining boom will not replace mining boom”. It cannot, it’s not big enough.

What would derail this positive view? If unemployment somehow gets to 8.5% we are in trouble. Our debt is serviceable as long as we have jobs; we have 3rd largest super in world; if you counted super (“which I know I can’t!”) then we have no debt. Debt will be an issue if we get into recession, but I don’t think we’ll get there, so we’re fine.

China is the least likely country to run out of cash; so whatever happens they have ability to keep going. It’s hard to think of a scenario that could make China fall over.

For all the slides to accompany his talk, click here