Monday, August 22, 2011

Cathy Freeman and the poem "Coming Home Strong"

I sometimes get emails from school students asking me to explain a poem of mine that they're "doing".

I tend to be pretty terse with the lazy student who emails "Hello  Mr O'Connor. I've got to write 300 words on your poem. What does it mean?" 

But something in the quality of the questions asked by one Shaya Laughlin, a 16 year-old Year 11 student,  caused me to email back some answers. She was examining one of my poems about  the Sydney 2000 Olympics -- in fact the one about Cathy Freeman winning the 400 metres.
It begins:
Coming Home Strong
for Cathy Freeman, winner of the 400m at the Sydney Games, 25/9/2000
Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving,

among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind.

Our roar rose till it seemed
sheer decibels must push you clear...

[The full text is quoted below.]

I was at the homebush Stadium on the night Cathy Freeman took out the 400 meters final. I think the race was about 8 pm; and as she ran, and afterwards as she did her lap of honor, I began jotting lines for a possible poem. I was staying with the poet Paolo Totaro in Balmain for the Games. By the time I got back from Homebush to his house it was after 9 pm, and I was fairly sure I had the makings of a poem. ABC Radio's Breakfast Program had been in the habit of interviewing me by phone while I followed the Olympic Torch Relay. So I contacted one of the producers who was still awake, and arranged for them to leave a note for the Breakfast team (who of course are early-morning people) that "Mark O'Connor has a poem to recite for you about Cathy Freeman". I then stayed up till 1 a.m., working on the poem until I thought it would do, and then set the alarm.  Early next morning the Breakfast program  phoned up, interviewed me about the race, and had me read the poem.

It generated an extraordinary response -- in fact they later kindly sent me a compilation of the congratulatory letters they received. One ran "I found myself in the unaccustomed state of being moved to tears as I drove to work this morning - the reason being Mark O'Connor's beautiful reading of his remarkable 'poem-in-progress' on Cathy Freeman and her triumph of the night before. Thank you for broadcasting that interview, and the poem." 

I had feared that having to write poems about the Olympics at such short notice might bring poetry into disrepute; but it seemed instead to increase the popularity of poetry. Many poets complain that poems are not considered news and don't get into newspapers, or at least not the more popular tabloids. Yet this poem was an exception. I received a request to publish it in the most populist magazine of all, the iconic Australasian Post, which was now in the last months of its very long life. So  the poem (with of course a large photo of Cathy)  was first printed there.

--Back to 2011.
A few days later Shayla  sent me her essay, which turned out to be quite brilliant. She can clearly become, if she chooses, a major literary critic. I responded with some more detailed comments, cautioning for instance against seeing the athlete too simply in terms of her racial identity as an Aborigine.  Shayla partly accepted this comment, and others, and incorporated them into a final version of her essay. Her analysis is not the only way in which the poem could be seen -- different readers will of course have different ideas and responses -- but it is such an impressive piece of criticism that I have asked her permission to put it on the Web.  (Take a bow, too, Shayla's teachers!) Here it is 

Coming Home Strong
“Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving, 
 among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind...”

     Inspired by Cathy Freeman’s gold medal win, Mark O’Connor wrote Coming Home Strong the night of her 400 meter victory. Born in Melbourne in the year 1945, O’Connor inherited the love for Australian nature and sport and was unofficially appointed poet for the Sydney Olympic Games. Within the introductory lines is the message of the poem, portraying Cathy Freeman’s on-going struggle to victory, which invites us to recognize on a deeper level the on-going struggle for Aboriginal recognition in white Australia – a struggle which is still so prevalent in modern society.

The title Coming Home Strong suggests a search for identity. It has an echo of the phrasing of the "Bringing them home" report and the issue of the "Stolen Generation”. Throughout the poem, Mark O’Connor writes on two different levels. On one level, he describes Cathy Freeman’s foot-race, and on a deeper level, her race for identity and recognition as an Aboriginal. The word race itself also has a double meaning and the poet effectively uses this to portray both the struggles of a running race and of an Aboriginal race. The poet states that Cathy Freeman wasn't just an Aboriginal champion; she was Australia's champion, a popular favorite. She had already won over her fellow Australians, but on the night she also needed to win her race -- and for her race. 

The admiration offered for Cathy Freeman’s overall social and personal victory is expressed by the poet by describing, through an extended metaphor, her high leveled rivals as queens and their sporting careers as castles in the first two stanzas. The sporting queens are tense quite literally in that they tense for the starter’s pistol, but also in that their royalty is so precarious, being open to repeated assaults by competitors.

In the second stanza, O’Connor states that Cathy came from behind. She did literally come from behind to win the event, so the statement is again true on the literal level. However through this line the poet also evokes Aboriginal social inequity and reveals that like many Aboriginal children, Cathy Freeman was disadvantaged due to racism and social ignorance. And of course Australians love an underdog, which she almost was, since many doubted she could stand up to both the media pressure and the strong international field. One of her main competitors, the poet recalls, had seemed to collapse under the strain. 
    In the fifth stanza, the reader is shown that the poet was one of many who admired Cathy Freeman. –such sacks of their self esteem you’d carried. So many punted their hearts on you. This focuses on Aboriginals and Australians who idolized Cathy for her strength to overcome barriers that Aboriginals face. There was no obvious reason why winning the women's 400 meters should have been more important to ordinary Australians than many other events, but at the 2000 Games it was so. Many of them admired her and rested their self esteem on her in hope for an Aboriginal social victory nationwide.

    In the next stanza, the poet stirs the reader’s imagination by use of load to refer to the Aboriginal self esteem Cathy was “carrying” on her shoulders. Yet it wasn't just the self-esteem of Aborigines but of millions of white or non-Aboriginal Australians (including many battlers for whom identification with sporting kings and queens provides self-esteem that is hard to find in their daily lives)  that she carried, with of course the risk of being rejected if she disappointed them. The poet uses the powerful word sack to create a vivid image in the mind of the reader to appeal to the senses, it also gives a sense of heaviness to the phrase. By this line, O’Connor shows that in Cathy’s victory she obtained for her people an acknowledgement so desperately ignored over the centuries.

 The enormousity of Cathy Freeman’s achievement is bought home to the reader in the eighth stanza; You have entered Dawn Fraserdom. Beware! During the Olympic opening ceremony,  although Cathy Freeman hadn't yet won her race, Cathy was given the same iconic status as Dawn Fraser.  By using beware the poet is suggesting that Cathy has entered and been accepted in the ‘White Man’s World” which is personified in Dawn Fraser. But yours was a victory that meant in the eleventh stanza also emphasizes the importance of this particular victory for Aboriginals. Mark O’Connor, coming from a white- Australian discourse, suggests that one reason Cathy was so popular is that white Australians so badly want Aborigines to do well and get ahead. He believes white-Australians are frustrated that very often it doesn't happen, no matter how they try to undo the disadvantages of the past (and present). Cathy was seen as a successful Aboriginal, which was surely one reason her win mattered so much to the media and to Australians. She was also liked as a person, and as a gutsy competitor who was known to be under great pressure, who though obviously shy allowed the media to probe her feelings, and who did not complain about the media and other pressures upon her.

   The message of the poem is also vividly presented in the last stanza. Last night at least one lost child came home makes reference to the “stolen generation”, a time when Aboriginal children were taken away from their mothers and never reunited again. On a deeper level, O’Connor portrays Cathy Freeman and overall Aboriginal children as lost socially and searching for their identity in society, yet when Cathy Freeman won that race, suddenly hope was raised for indigenous cultures, a hope for Australia to finally be integrated.

    In this lyrical poem of blank verse, which has a definite rhythm created by alternate long and short lines, there is no rhyme which brings out a sense of struggle in the poem. In the second and ninth stanza roar appears, alliteration is then noticeable in the same line for both cases.
Our roar rose       and

our huge roar was harmless

This gives the reader a sense of a rising sound and helps create images of a stadium filled with people cheering. Apart from this alliteration, the poet uses no other poetic devices of sound. This once again raises the sense of struggle as the poem is not read melodiously. This sense of struggle is present throughout the poem and terms such as hurt child, push, pain and load all add to the tense and hopeful mood.

Mark O’Connor reflects that poetry is memorable speech, on subjects of general importance. Within an Australian discourse, O’Connor thinks highly of the importance of sport; this can be seen in his other Olympic poetry such as "Thorpedo" in which he recalls Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe’s race, while making a comment on Australian pride. Mark O’Connor believes that “although Cathy Freeman did identify as Aboriginal, she had an American husband and her reality was the international world of a well-funded elite athlete traveling the globe to compete at international events. There is sometimes an excessive politically correct tendency to identify people with, and only with, the "minority" elements in their heritage and their daily life. This can be patronizing or even reductive. Yet despite saying so, I doubt that a non-Aboriginal athlete could have so captured Australia's heart.”

  The poet is still alive to this day. After his Sydney Olympic poetry, he has decided to concentrate on raising environmental issues in his poems. However his sporting literary legacy to Australian poetry has offered Australian literature a sensitive and insightful understanding of Australian social issues by using creative approaches to engage audiences.

[End of Essay]

Here's the full text of the poem:

Coming Home Strong
for Cathy Freeman, winner of the 400m at the Sydney Games, 25/9/2000
Running into that ocean roar of welcome
with the face of a hurt child striving,

among tense rival queens
whose castles are built of milliseconds,
you came from behind.

Our roar rose till it seemed
sheer decibels must push you clear.

Go Phantom!
Our own corroboree-striped Phantom,
ghost who runs in pain
- to a lap of honor with a double flag.

Your face was a book
of relief and awe that you'd won
that you hadn't cracked.
Then the pain of great tears about to start.

So tense you could scarcely see your fans
- such sacks of their self-esteem
you'd carried. So many
had punted their hearts on you.

Once you laid down that load
you knew how heavy it was
and how lonely you still could be
-but Cathy, only if you choose.

You have entered Dawn Fraserdom. Beware!
Whatever befalls, you can't hide from our love!

Happiness includes trust
in others - that gold-medal smile
when you finally twigged
our huge roar was harmless.

May some day the ghost who runs
run for pure joy!

A mob's howl can be cheap,
and athletes mere entertainers,
actors with only one line.
But yours was a victory that meant.
And what it meant will grow.

But as you sang Advance Australia Fair
I think you finally knew
that Australia would be fair.

Last night at least one lost child
came safely home. By the time
you found your mother in the crowd
you had found a family too.

P.S.   For other critical accounts of Mark O'Connor's poems see and especially Rachel Turner's Study Guide.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Updates to the book: Overloading Australia

This blog-page, from July 2011, will be the site for on-line updates to the book
Overloading Australia: How governments and media dither and deny on population,
by Mark O'Connor and William Lines

This book came out 2 years ago and is now in its 4th (updated) edition.

The book's original, and still very useful, website is at  This includes useful material on the Replacement Rate Fallacy, and on the errors of cornucopian economists, and on the Monbiot Fallacy. However that site is no longer updated.

If you merely want to order the book (it is $20 and there is no change for posting copies to you within Australia) the order form is here.

But statistics and even public debates do date. So even if you have the latest edition of  Overloading Australia you might like to look through the adjacent entries in my blog  for updates on the population debate.

It is my intention to include in this particular blog entry any corrections to the book, or important updates to its statistics, and perhaps some material that William Lines and I are planning to include in the book's next edition.

As of July 4 2011 there are as yet no updates here, but there are plenty of  de facto updates in the adjacent parts of this blog.

-- Mark O'Connor

My poetry books can be ordered from a different page:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bernard Salt abandons his “baby bust” claim

In one of the most sudden retractions in recent Australian political debate, KPMG’s Bernard Salt has abandoned his central thesis: that the impending retirement of Australia’s baby boomers will create a “Baby Bust” or a “Big Tilt” that only high immigration can prevent.

This was supposed to occur in 2011 when “of  a sudden baby boomers born in 1946 exit the workforce at a faster rate than Generation Y can enter the workforce.”

The retraction is bound to re-open debate about whether Salt is a demographer. He has on at least one occasion emphatically stated that he is not, and implied that media carelessness is responsible for him being so described; yet the back cover of his latest book calls him “Australia’s number one demographer”.

Salt had been arguing his “Baby Bust”  line for months, but recently it reached a crescendo. He persuaded the ABC to put his claims to air, unopposed and as simple fact, in the ABC TV evening News program on May 24. Then on 28 May his Facebook page told his fans: “Beware the Baby Bust. See the central thesis to my new book out today The Big Tilt in The Weekend Australia at”.

Indeed this Australian article “Baby boom to baby bust” claimed that “The baby bust, the big tilt, whatever you want to call this bold new demographic world, is like nothing we have experienced before. It works silently, eating away at the consumer and the tax base.”

Salt ridiculed those opponents of Big Australia who could not see that, “This is no ‘growth-ist plot’ to ramp up the level of immigration. If 30,000 more people turn 65 and exit the productive phase in the life cycle than 15-year-olds enter, who is going to pay the taxes to support the lifestyle to which we have all become addicted?”

Over the years Salt has offered many different arguments for population growth, but of late this one has been his bedrock. It was music to the ears of the pro-growth lobby, which is well aware that it has lost round one of the Big Australia debate.

Polls show that about 70% of Australians believe we do not need more people. They can see that rapid population growth destroys other species and makes our cities crowded. Yet folk might be susceptible to the argument that we need to go on rapidly pushing up population through immigration --- just  as an emergency measure for the next 15-20 years to counter “the baby bust”. Bernard Salt was emerging as the growth lobby’s ace in the hole.

Yet less than a week later, in an article in the Australian on June 2, Bernard retracted. He admitted that there was no such generational imbalance – or rather that it was the other way. Gen X and Gen Y are not smaller than the baby boomers. They are larger! In his words
There are 4.1 million boomers, 4.4 million Xers and 4.6 million Ys in Australia.

With those words, Salt’s “Baby bust thesis” was caput!

Two questions arise.

1. How did he get his calculations so wrong? and 2. What woke him up to his error?

The first is easily answered. Here is Salt’s miscalculation, in his own words [with my comments in square brackets], from his article of 28th May 2011 in The Australian:

"THE Big Tilt is the proposition that from 2011 onwards there will be a fundamental shift in the demography of Australia.

"This is the idea that over the past 60 years the number of people entering the workforce has exceeded the number exiting through retirement. But with what some demographers are calling "the baby bust", and with the first baby boomer born in 1946 turning 65 in 2011, this means that during the 2010s more people will exit than enter the productive stage of the life cycle. [In point of fact, untrue].

"This is best demonstrated through the interplay between the 15 and the 65 cohorts. [He means that if you can count 15-64 as working years, and if you know the number of people who turn 15 in a given year, and if you subtract the number who turn 65, that gives you the number by which the potential workforce has grown. So far a demographer would agree.]

"Between 1981 and 1985 the number of 15-year-olds increased by 23,000 to 271,000, whereas the number of 65-year-olds increased by 7000 to 122,000. This means that in the early 1980s the working-age population expanded by 16,000.

[Excuse me!!

[Bernard, you should have studied demography. The correct calculation would be more like this: 271,000 15-year olds joined the workforce in 1985, and 122,000 65-year olds left it. An overall gain of 149,000 potential workers in one year alone.

"This is good news for the economy: more workers, more consumer demand, more tax. [That’s typical Bernard. Punchy but tendentious assertions that enliven his argument. Yet note his failure to distinguish between per capita GDP (which is a rough indicator of standard of living) and total GDP (“the economy”, which is not).]

"Fast forward 30 years to the 2010s. Over the four years to 2015, the number of 15-year-olds will increase by 3000 to 290,000, whereas the number of 65-year-olds will increase by 33,000 to 246,000. This means that in the early 2010s the working-age population will contract by 30,000."

[Excuse me!!
[Bernard, you’ve done it again! The correct calculation is that in 2015 the working-age population will increase by 290,000 minus 246,000 = plus 44,000.

One of the most basic skills required of a demographer is the ability to distinguish between a decline in the size of something (in this case Australia’s potential workforce) and a decline in its rate of increase. It’s the same elementary error as in the claim, quoted above, about how 30,000 more people turn 65 and exit the productive phase in the life cycle than 15-year-olds enter”.

As one demographer commented to me, “Salt does not do any labour force projections. The only data he has is an unsourced table from ABS purporting to show the net growth in the 15-64 year old group. Broadly, he is right that the numbers aged 65 are converging on numbers aged 15 -- though it will take longer than he claims.” ]


That comment “He does not do any labour force projections.” – surely one of the first things a real demographer would do  – is crucial.

It’s not just that Salt made a howler in mathematics. If Salt had tried to do a properly documented demographic calculation, with defined assumptions, he would have been forced to notice his error. And of course real demographers don’t just get their sums right. They also stay in touch with their peers, and notice if others are getting results very different from their own.

For instance Salt, in his June 2 piece in the Australian, claims as a supporter the pro-growth demographer Professor Peter McDonald. It’s true that McDonald’s first degree was in Economic Statistics, and he remains a passionate believer in economic growth. Yet McDonald publicly stated as recently as 13 May 2011 that Australia’s labour force is growing, even without immigration, by something under 100,000 a year. If Salt were properly aware of the academic demographic community, then he would know of McDonald’s calculations, and be aware that they contradict his theory.

Now to the second question.
What was it that forced Salt to admit that “Gen Y” is bigger not smaller than the boomers?

Academic demographers don’t commonly comment on what a populist like Salt writes, so he had long flown under their radar and received little criticism – yet much adulation from the big end of town and the Australian newspaper.

Yet my May 19 posting Bernard Salt is not a Demographer contained a detailed refutation of his “Big Tilt” theory. (This became a separate post on 26 May as “Baby boomers retiring. Is there really a crisis?”)

To add to his troubles, the book Dick Smith’s Population Crisis appeared in the same week as The Big Tilt. Salt found himself head to head with Dick Smith in two major ABC interviews. Dick Smith pursued him on both issues: not being a demographer, and mistaking the baby boom for a bulge in generation size rather than a bulge in the fertility rate. Salt gave ground considerably, and then published in the Australian on June 2 his admission that Gen X and Gen Y are larger than the boomers.

At this point I would draw the curtain of charity -- except that Salt did not admit that he had previously claimed the reverse. Instead he stridently titled his article Let Dick have his say, but case for growth is overwhelming

Salt also made it sound as though he was originating the discovery --- rather than being forced to concede it -- that there is not and will not be any sudden decline in labour-force due to Gen Y being too small to replace the boomers.

By my measure,” he wrote magisterially, “there are 4.1 million boomers, 4.4 million Xers and 4.6 million Ys in Australia.” He even suggested that he had not been particularly prominent in propounding the Baby Bust theory: “The idea of holding up net overseas migration to offset the retirement impact of the baby boomers is not a Bernard Salt invention.”

Salt then dug a deeper hole for himself by arguing that if he is not a demographer then neither is Bob Birrell, whose results Dick Smith had cited: “Professor Birrell's CV shows degrees in history, economics and sociology, not in demography.” Salt ought to be aware that in the academic world demography is a category within sociology, and that Birrell has been publishing detailed research articles on the interactions of demography, economics, and society in peer-reviewed journals for several decades.

Salt then tried to resile from his admission last year that he is "not a demographer at all" and suggested that if people accept him as a demographer then he can be considered one. He even offered the odd argument that:

I... was admitted to the Paris-based International Union for the Scientific Study of Population three years ago. The IUSSP is a professional body for demographers.

Sorry Bernard, No. The IUSSP includes many demographers, but I am reliably informed you don't need to be one to join. You just need to get a member to nominate you. The main obstacle is that you do need to pay a very hefty fee.

One might also ask why, two years after this supposed elevation, he was stating publicly that he was "not a demographer at all".

Salt also uses another odd argument: that it's alright to call yourself a demographer when you're only writing for the business community: "Business calls anyone who deals with population, workforce or market numbers a demographer, including pollsters." Similarly on his Facebook page he told Kate Case who asked about him being called a demographer "The Australian column is pitched to the business community so the editor gives me the tag of demographer. I tag myself as KPMG Partner."
Perhaps it's all the Australian's fault?

From there Salt passed to arguing, “I have advised business and government on demographic issues for 25 years and have written a national weekly column on the subject for eight years.”

This, though intended as a self-recommendation, is perhaps better taken as a reflection on the way business, government, and Murdoch’s Australian newspaper favour the belief that population growth is good.

And without admitting that his main argument about the baby boomers was in ruins, Salt tried to transpose back into the old plain-vanilla variant of the aging population scare:

The issue is not the 10 per cent jump from boomers to Xers; it is the 60 per cent jump between pre-boomers and boomers. We are used to providing services to, say, 2.5 million retirees now; the funding required to deliver the same services (let alone to ramped expectations) to boomers in retirement will be 60 per cent higher. Who's going to pay for that?

The answer is of course that this is largely an imaginary problem, as Dr Ben Spies Butcher recently pointed out in his , “The myth of the ageing ‘crisis’” and as the government’s recent report on sustainable population makes clear. 

We are moving towards a “normal” population in which there will be roughly equal numbers of people in each ten-year age group (up to those ages at which people begin to die off). Yes there will be more people too old to work --- but fewer too young. That is no economic disaster, since the young are far more economically dependent than the old. (In simple terms, grandparents mind children; children don’t mind grandparents. And remember that even now Australia each year has twice as many births as deaths.)

Many in the Property Council, and among those big employers who demand a surplus of workers to keep down wages, believed the aging population argument would prove that current or somewhat higher levels of immigration are needed and justifiable. Justifiable because they will significantly solve our aging "problem".

But they won't. The government's Productivity Commission has already looked into this argument, and has reported its findings in a recent submission to the Minister for Population.

The Commission says that to delay the aging of Australia's population for 40 years to deal with baby boomer retirements "would require a net migration-to-population ratio of 3 per cent per year, leading to a population of around 85 million by 2044-45." (!!!!! ) That's more than twice the Big Australia figure of 35.9 million in 2050 that so alarmed Ken Henry. They add, "It follows that, rather than seeking to mitigate the aging of the population, policy should seek to influence the potential economic and other impacts." Professor Peter McDonald has produced a similar calculation. How come Bernard doesn't know about this?

In any case, this older and simpler version of the aging population scare is one over which Salt has no special ownership. The failure of his Baby Bust theory threatens to leave him a guru without portfolio.

Back in 2004 when the Property Council asked him to explain his success as a “property guru”, Salt obligingly explained that the secret was to be impartial and fearless:

In order to be a property guru you cannot have a vested interest. A guru must be an advisor, not a developer.... I do think that gurus can set the agenda. All you need is a genuinely good and new idea that has a commercial edge. And all the better if that concept is pitched to a rising market.

Well Salt’s Baby Bust idea was certainly pitched to a rising market, or at least to a property and developer audience that wanted to believe any reasons he could offer them for thinking it was not selfish to demand a continuation of Big Australia.

But, to paraphrase Dr Johnson, the parts of Salt's big idea that are true seem not very new, and the parts that are new now seem not to be true.

- - - - -
Nola Stewart on the Online Population Forum points out that in concentrating on Bernard Salt's dubious demography I have passed over his tendentious economics. This is deliberate, since he has got public attention by claiming to be a demographer rather than an economist. However Salt commonly uses tendentious economic assumptions that tend to conceal the holes in his demography. Thus his June 2 article shows him sliding out of discredited demography to take cover in tendentious economics.

Salt invites us to believe our prosperity depends on the number of taxpayers we have.  (See also his “Big Australia is a taxing problem”). This might be true if Australia had limitless resources, so that our productivity and wealth depended simply on the number of workers. Yet, as Nola puts it:
Nowhere does his argument touch on environmental limits or the fact that all money to support the retirees comes from the environment, by the productivity of the Earth in agriculture, mining, forestry and fisheries.  He presumes it comes from work alone.  It comes from work plus these Primary Industry 'resources', which are finite.  If population in a given area goes up exponentially then, since the area is finite, resources per capita must decline like the mirror image of the population graph.  Our worry then is not how many people exist in what age groups but what the resource depletion graph looks like. 

Dr John Coulter adds that the extreme simplicity of Salt's populist writing makes it difficult to know if he could grasp such issues:
The fallacy is, as is usual with Salt and others of his kind, the bald assertion with no justification that, "Economic prosperity in this era has been delivered and ensured by population growth derived from the 1950s baby boom and by a program of intercontinental immigration.”

Typical of Salt's economic confusion is his claim that "We have become addicted to a tax subsidised lifestyle." Probably what he means to say is that we need to pay high taxes to maintain our level of infrastructure. However the infrastructure argument is deadly for him, since Jane O'Sullivan and others have shown that the cost of expanding our infrastructure for an expanded population is the main reason we have trouble covering the costs of infrastructure! (For instance the main reason everyone’s electricity bill is going up is the need to extend the electricity networks to more suburbs.)

As well, we don’t in fact have a surplus of jobs (let alone desirable jobs) over workers, so the number (or even the proportion) of  Australians in their working years may not be crucial.  And it’s not only workers who pay taxes. Everyone who consumes pays GST. And so called skilled immigrants (a bureaucratic category that in fact includes the dependants the alleged skilled workers bring with them!) may not on average be any more skilled than the existing workforce. And in many or perhaps most cases they do not even work in the trades or areas for which their skills were allegedly in short supply.

I could go on, but “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bernard Salt in Damage Control: re-edits his website

My posting Bernard Salt is not a demographer seems to have spooked Mr Salt. He has re-edited his website at to remove the admissions to which I drew attention.

I am going to leave that original posting of mine essentially unchanged, while dealing here with Salt's present (or future) attempts to re-edit 1. his website and 2. his facebook page (see below). I plan to keep on record some of the material he has removed from public view.

First, the story to date, in 5 short paras: ...

Big business in Australia spends a fortune on trying to convince us that we need to grow our population at at least four times the average annual rate of developed nations. It sees this as a source of extra customers, larger and cheaper choice of workers, and of course as a way to make huge sums through property speculation/investment.

We have both overt population growth lobbyists (e.g. BCA, HIA, the Masterbuilders, etc ) and what might be called  non-overt growth lobbyists who  are often presented as independent experts and who may declare no vested interest. 

 Bernard Salt describes himself on his website as a KPMG partner who heads "KPMG’s Property Advisory Services practice … a ‘Centre of Excellence’ in demographics as it relates to the business sector."
Yet few ordinary readers know this; and the seemingly endless stream of pro-population-growth articles he places in the media (currently he averages at least one a week) are often by-lined "Demographer Bernard Salt".

My original posting argued that this is unacceptable granted (a) that Salt has actually advertised on his website that he will write pro-development brochures "on commission" for developers,  and (b) that he himself has publicly recognised that he cannot and should not be called a demographer.

His embarrassment, revealed in this audio clip from last year's Future Summit, suggests that he thinks he may have a problem here.

However my posting gave him the benefit of the doubt, and suggested that he may be the victim of careless journalists or assistants, and noted that he has often taken care not to describe himself as a demographer. The obvious implication was that he should now be consistent and take care to publicly disavow any such claims made for him by others.

I am afraid he seems to be going the other way.  Let's look at his responses. In my original posting of 19 June I wrote

  Take a look at Bernard Salt’s website, where he describes his and/or KPMG’s advisory     services. At, in words that require no comment, he writes of himself:

“Bernard Salt also writes on commission brief ‘article-like’ overviews of development projects. This work is often published by the client as a brochure or booklet. These one-off publications written by Bernard Salt often receive wider media coverage. To view these overviews please visit the Reports page.”

This paragraph had been there for months if not years. I had checked it quite recently. Yet on Saturday 28th May  I discovered that Salt had removed this paragraph from his "Advisory" page.

However if you google phrases from it, you can still find it online in slighter older versions of the same website as cached by the various search engines. For instance, as late as 2 June 2011, it could still be found here.  And on 24 June I found it here.

A little later in my original posting I had written:

Among the samples anthologised there, you can find for instance the arguments he produced to justify what some would see as the destructive development of Merimbula, a pleasant seaside town on the South Coast of NSW.

This piece, paid for by the Carrington group, is titled “Marvellous Merimbula”. It contains some demographic and financial research, though with a strong brochure-ish feel, including praise of a proposed development’s leading-edge architectural design and a finding that it will provide the town with desirable “beach chic”. The main point of the research is clear from the final paragraph:
Merimbula is a pretty Cinderella town that has to date been overlooked by the property industry. Merimbula is a town whose time has finally come.

On 28 May I also discovered that the "Marvellous Merimbula" report had vanished from the Reports page of Salt's website.

However Salt or his webmaster had failed to remove it entirely. You could still (as of 29 May) find it online at -- though you needed to know the exact URL to go there. I mentioned this fact, and provided the link.

By 2 June, Bernard had removed even this page! (There's not much doubt he's reading my blog.)

However, as of 2 June 2011, a google search for "Bernard Salt" + "Marvellous Merimbula" still turned up several cached versions, like
this one. Or this.

It still contains the brochurish sentences of pro-developer rhetoric I had quoted -- seemingly incompatible with seeing Bernard as an impartial or unfee'd expert. To quote Bernard himself: "In order to be a property guru you cannot have a vested interest. A guru must be an advisor, not a developer." 

And those sentences I've quoted above are not the only ones!  Here are some more:
Aroma's coffee shop and pavement tables is a direct lift from the culture of Paris' Left Bank....The leading-edge architectural design of Merimbula's Coast  development injects "city sophistication" into a seaside village. Here is a prime example of how urban chic meets the beach: it is no less than an entirely new concept "beach chic".
The cached versions of this Merimbula article will before long disappear from the internet search engines like Google, but I have downloaded a copy and am happy to email it to anyone who wants to see it. And it is still on line here.


Meanwhile, I was sent Giuseppe Tauriello's article in the Adelaide Advertiser, about how Salt was targeted by activists when he appeared at at a "Sustainable Communities Symposium" (sic) in Adelaide.  (Someone has dated this PDF, as it appears on line, "8/7/2011, but I believe it in fact appeared on 8 June 2011.) The Property Council, which arranged this event had billed him as a demographer, and the protestors objected.  

Tauriello claims Salt told him "I have in no part presented myself as a demographer". However Michael Lardelli of Adelaide University suggested to Tauriello that Salt's assurance might be equivocal.

 Salt's Facebook page is called "Demographer Bernard Salt".

This facebook page, like Salt's main website, has been much re-edited. In particular, several postings have vanished since Kate Case asked him why he was calling himself a demographer.

Bernard seems to have realised that his own attempts at justification (and her rejoinder)  might do him more harm than her initial query. So his current policy seems to be to leave up the initial query but remove most of what followed. 

 In fact the page has been changing so fast I may not be able to keep up with it -- he has more motivation to keep changing than I to keep recording. But here are the public postings that I have recorded, in sequence:
Kate Case
 At the DAVOS Future Summit conference in Melbourne on 25 May 2010, you apparently stated :

"I’m not a demographer at all and I’m sure real demographers . . . er . . . I’m sure real demographers er . . . are amused by that tag in the media. I’m actually a historian. I have a master’s degree in urban history, specialising in Australian urban history, so a very good sense of where we’ve come from and where we're going to."
Yet here you are using it as your description. What gives?

May 26 at 7:39pm · Like · Comment

[Currently -- 7 June 2011 -- this is the only part of the exchance I can still find on Salt's Facebook page -- or am I missing something?  Salt's reply can however be found cached on the search engines like Google. -- M O'C]

Salt replied on the 2nd of June

"Bernard Salt Demographer wrote "Hi Kate, sorry for the delay in responding. I have been busy with the new book. I have no qualms about expalining to the world what my academic qualifications are and are not. The fact is that i am known, rightly or wrongly, in the business and media community as a demographer. The Australian coumn is pitched to the business community so the editor gives me the tag of demographer. I tag myself as KPMG Partner. Thisfacebook page was set up as a forum for comments for, dare I say it, fans of column and which is tagged Bernard Salt Demographer. Simple really. I suggest you also read my column today as Dick Smith has had similar concerns. And to be fair there is confusion on this issue. Dick refers to Professor Bob Birrell as a demographer (which i think is fair since his body of work is clearly demographic). In either case I would be very pleased if you would come to the dinner as my guest. Hope this response provides all the answers you were looking for.
Kind regards,
Kate, see today's column at It's the Bernard Salt versus Dick Smith book fest. See my column in today's Australian at"

[I have added the underlining for emphasis. Note the suggestion, which also appears in his article of 2 June in The Australian, that it's alright to use the term demographer more loosely when you're writing for the business community. MO'C ]


Kate Case responded:

I guess my objection stems from someone calling themselves something but it is not acknowledged that they don't actually have a formal qualification in that field. And yet they are labeled as that in media articles, interviews and even in a column they write for a national newspaper. Usually such titles would be reserved for an appropriately qualified person, someone who has done advanced study in that specific area, published articles in peer reviewed journals etc wouldn't they?
You seem to be saying that your editor and others have arbitrarily decided to call you a demographer, and that is ok, because that is how you are generally known in the public arena. But you are only known as that because, presumably, at some stage, you must have called yourself that. Your facebook page is very explicit in its use of the label. The medias' continued use of the term must have your approval, implicit or otherwise.
Dick Smith has just written a book on population, does that mean he can now call himself a demographer?
Bob Birrell has a PhD in Sociology and has headed up the Centre for Population and Urban Research since 1991. He has served as Federal government advisor and served on the Commonwealth National Population Council from 1987 - 1993. Recently he was a member of the independent Review of the General Skilled Migration Program which reported in May 2006. (from Monash Uni website)
I don't know whether all of the above makes him a demographer in the strictest sense of the term. But as an academic, he would have to be independent. He's not employed by a corporation which has a vested interest in promoting their own agenda, and that of their clients.

 With respect, Bernard, the work you do for the corporate sector means that you can't claim to be independent. Obviously your clients and your employer are going to want to promote population growth, that means more bucks for them. Your promotion of that same growth is totally in line with their interests. This is why your continued use of the title "demographer" (with all its connotations) is inappropriate.
Thanks for the offer of dinner, it would be most interesting to discuss some of this in person. Alas, I am in Tasmania, so a bit out of the question. I hope it goes well.See More
 Friday June 3 at 7:42pm


Salt replied:

Bernard Salt Demographer wrote "Thanks Kate. The bottom line is this. Business call people like me demographers. I write a column in the business part of the paper. This facebook page is an extension of the column. I freely and repeatedly explain that I have no 'demographic qualificatgions' including on this facebook page, in my coliumn yesterday and as you yopurself cited a year ago at the Future Forum. I am hardly putting up a charade. I find it odd that you would be so hard line on the demographic qualification line with me but happily accept Bob Birrell the sociologist as a demographer because of this body of work. Are you aware that i have written and have had published by the AGPS research reports on internal migration, that I have advised Tony Burke on population, that I have advised Anna Bligh on demographics, that I was asked by government to represent the population stream at the 2020 summit. Let me also say that my views on Australian demographics are my own. By your logic the only people commenting on this issue would be academic demographers employed by government or universities. In a democracy everyone gets a say; even those whose views you may not like.

My offer of coming to dinner still stands; I am in Tassie quite regularly; if you would like to discuss this personally of if you would like to hear me speak there drop me an email at"

Kate Case replied:

"No I'm certainly not saying that people can't comment on this issue if they are not a demographer, of course not.  Only that labels should be accurate, especially ones that relate to qualifications.  I don't believe I said that I accepted Bob Birrell as a demographer, I only pointed out his relevant professional experience and the fact that his academic position makes it incumbent upon him to be independent.  

By the way I was somewhat amused (bemused?) by your call in the article for the business community to be more vocal, when we saw such an orchestrated and coordinated barrage of commentary hit the media in the immediate aftermath of Tony Burke's report.  They're not exactly being shrinking violets when it comes to getting their message out there :-)  

Thanks again for taking the time to respond."

Salt replied:

 "Thanks Kate. I really do appreciate your feedback. I thionk we've both aired our views. I am serious about inviting you along to one of my Tasmanian presentations. And the dinner. But I appreciate tyhat you might not like to fork out for an airfare to hear me speak. Then again the offer is there."

[Note by Mark O'Connor: Salt's remarks about Bob Birrell fail to help his cause.  On Birrell's very real qualifications to be called a demographer see my other posting: Bernard Salt abandons his "baby bust" thesis. ]


I have taken the precaution of downloading the cached copies of the pages Salt has altered, so that I can demonstrate the comments in my original posting are accurately based upon what Salt has revealed about himself.

In another worrying sign, Salt published a piece in The Australian on 2 June 2011 called "Let Dick Smith  have his say, but case for growth is overwhelming". 

In this he expresses concern that

Salt then tries to resile from his admission last year that he is "not a demographer at all" and suggests that if people accept him as a demographer then he can be considered one. He even offers the odd argument that:


Recent revelations about Salt have come at an awkward time for CEDA, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. CEDA had given Salt pride of place (as an expert speaker) in its advertisements for a major conference on Australia's future (20-21 June 2011, Hotelm Realm Canberra).  Indeed the reverence with which the big end of town treats advocates of growth and of "business as usual" helps explain, if not excuse, Salt's view that it's alright to call yourself a demographer (or at least to let others do so) if you're only talking to the business community.

Christopher Dorman who attended that CEDA conference described it as
"The big end of town, as they say.  Government ministers falling over themselves to be seen there.  No less than 4 government ministers and the Shadow Treasurer."
Dorman asked Salt some questions about his claim that Generation Y is not big enough to replace the baby boomers in the workforce. He reports that Salt did not defend his claim but skipped across to the plain vanilla version of the Aging Population scare, as described in my posting on the supposed Baby Bust crisis.  One wonders how many members of CEDA noticed.


One of the problems Dick seems to have with me, as evidenced by his ABC documentary Population Puzzle, screened last August, is that I am not trained in demography.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Baby boomers retiring. Is there really a crisis?

 This began as an out-take from my posting Bernard Salt is not a demographer.

In this, I mentioned how much Bernard Salt  relies on a demographic argument about the baby boomers, and noted that if valid, it would go far to prove his point: 

Salt claims the huge bulge of the baby boomers are now reaching retirement age. Their old-age pensions will overload the smaller generations that follow them into the workplace, producing a shortage of workers and a need to increase taxes.  Hence, he claims, at least for much of the next 20 years we will need to continue with high immigration.

 This is an argument that goes down very well in the business world, where Salt is a much loved speaker. Managing a company is a quarter to quarter, or a year to year, proposition. Few CEOs are much focussed on 20 years ahead, and most know they are unlikely to be still there in 20 years. An argument that gives them an excuse to go on demanding that government provide them with more customers and hence more profits, even if this means monstering the environment and driving up greenhouse emissions, for just another 20 years suits them fine.

And the argument that we must contend with an acute temporary spike in retirements and pensions is also convenient for Salt. It gets him off the sharp hook of Dick Smith's counter-argument: that bringing in more immigrants (so their taxes can pay the pensions of the existing population)  is "a giant Ponzi scheme". After all, migrants get old too.

But is Salt's claim true?  Here's how he puts it in his  Demographic outlook for the Australian Nation: Notes for an address to the Pacific Institute, 15 March 2011, admiringly quoted on Henry Thornton’s blog.

 Big Australia as his notes put it, “Shores up tax base - supports boomers in retirement”.
Skills Shortages:  The Australian nation passes through a fault line in 2011 when all of a sudden baby boomers born in 1946 exit the workforce at a faster rate than Generation Y can enter [Note that "can"; in a moment it will turn into an implied "will"] the workforce.  More exiters than enterers to the workforce means a slowdown in the rate of growth in the tax base. [If you read carefully, he's not actually saying the "tax base" won't grow.]  We have become addicted to a tax subsidised lifestyle. [This seems to be a confused reference to the high cost of modern infrastructure -- but Salt neglects to mention that, since 2% of infrastructure comes up for replacement each year, a 2% annual increase in population doubles our infrastructure bill.]  Also, baby boomers paid tax all their working lives but the government of the day didn’t provision for their retirement. [Perhaps because rapid population growth faced governments with impossible infrastructure bills.]  We have a short term retirement liability in this nation. [In fact it would be a very long-term one if we took Salt's advice, since few migrants bring superannuation with them.]

[Pardon my interpolated comments, but they do help to suggest how very flaky Salt's arguement is.]

This argument occurs repeatedly in Salt’s other articles. For instance “At least until the mid 2020s - in order to offset the impact of retiring baby boomers - Australia needs strong growth based on an average of 180,000 migrants a year.”

In an article called “Inconvenient Truth on Ageing”  in The Australian of 4 February 2010 “Demographer Bernard Salt” claimed the real problem the 2010 Inter-generational Report addresses is that “from 2011 onwards more baby boomers exit than Generation Ys enter the workforce.”

Salt's article doesn't make clear which demographic projection he is using that shows this will begin to be the case from 2011. Perhaps we are meant to take it on his own authority.

In January 2010 Salt told the Property Council,  in an article in urging them to be less “timid” in standing up for their own  interests (“Is the Property Council too timid?”):

My response throughout the frenzy [he means the 2009 “Big Australia” debate] was to calmly and rationally explain that this nation needs strong population growth to grow the tax base at a time when baby boomers are exiting the workforce.
We have no choice. Either we ask Generation X and Generation Y to pay more tax per capita, or we ask baby boomers to ease up in their demands in retirement.

Could I suggest that neither of these options will fly?  The only way to offset the impact of the baby bust next decade is to grow the tax base through immigration. That’s why we need a big Australia, at least in the short term. And, make no mistake, this trajectory is good news for the property industry.

Going nuclear, tight water restrictions, and abandoning “outdated notions” like “the garden State” are all according to Salt just a necessary price to pay for solving this crucial problem of the retiring baby boomers.

Indeed in an article in the Australian on 19 May 2011 he scolds Population Minister Tony Burke for not incorporating Salt’s pet theory into the government’s population strategy:

I was surprised to see scant regard in the report to the impact of the retirement of the baby-boomers generation. Oddly, this demographic faultline that affects the nation and others in this decade does not seem to have been a factor in the Sustainable Australia document.

Salt’s suggested remedy is — you guessed it — to continue growing Australia’s population at four to six times the average growth rate of advanced countries. (Not that he mentions that comparison -- or asks why other countries have not adopted his remedy.) In fact similar ideas were offered to a British parliamentary committee, but were rejected as special pleading. See Sir Andrew Green, “Devastating demolition of the case for mass immigration”.)

Similarly, in Australia the economic expert Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, dismisses such claims as false. See his  "The myth of the ageing ‘crisis’", The Conversation, April 26 2011. He says "It is true that the [Treasury] reports predict a deficit in the future. However, much of this is unrelated to ageing. The biggest growth in spending is in health, and most of this is related to technology, not demographics." He adds "Given the imprecision of the estimates, the current figures do not suggest any evidence that there will ever be any deficit due to population ageing".

 BUT ---  the crucial problem is that Bernard Salt, the man jumping up and down about this huge demographic “problem” is not a demographer, and may not understand some basic points about demography.

Yes, the baby boom represented a maximum bulge in the birthrate per woman (or per couple) but not necessarily in the total number of children born!

In the USA for instance, it is well known that both Generation X (the children of the baby boomers) and Generation Y (their grandchildren) are larger “cohorts” than the Baby Boomers.  I have not been able to find evidence (and have not seen Salt produce evidence) that it is significantly different here in Australia.

So he may be making a simple mistake in demography. If so, it is one that I dissected (before I had ever heard of Bernard Salt)  in a 1995 talk on “The Replacement Rate Fallacy”   for Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor.

In this talk, to clarify the issues for those with no head for demographic abstractions, I told the story of my maternal grandparents’ family. Their four children all became parents during the baby boom, and averaged 5 children each, producing 20 children in all.

But we 20 baby boomers were more moderate. We averaged only 2.6 children each, producing (with our spouses) 52 children in all – a smaller birthrate, but a larger generation. And the next generation, if those 52 people average 1.9 children each (the current Australian average) will also be larger than our generation.

To put the point in more general form, Dr Katharine Betts of Swinburne University commented recently on the Australian Population forum:
It is often said (by Salt and others) that the Australian labour force faces an unusual and one-off shock through the retirement of the baby boomers: people born between 1946 and 1964.
For the purposes of this note I’m redefining them as those born between 1946 and 1965, and thus aged 45 to 64 in June 2010. This is because the ABS publishes the data in five year age-groups and redefining the boomers in this way makes the arithmetic easier.
When you hear about the wave of boomer retirements it’s easy to imagine a great bulge working its way through the population pyramid, and then swamping the pension system. But it’s not a great bulge. Twenty five per cent of the population was aged 45 to 64 in June 2010. The cohort coming after them of those aged 25 to 44 made up 28.5 per cent, and those aged 5 to 24 made up 26.5 per cent.
So now that we have moved into the demographic transition (low birth rates and low death rates) it’s normal to have a population pyramid with relatively straight sides, and any block of people in an age group which includes a twenty-year age span will include around 25 per cent of the population. I attach a table with the relevant data.

 And the pain for Bernard Salt’s absurd argument doesn’t just end there. For one thing, the boomers are not all going to retire in a block. Many will work on well past age 65; but many others have already retired, and quite a lot of them as much as a decade ago.

For instance, most of my age cohort at the Australian National University in Canberra went into the Commonwealth Public Service and were semi-compulsorily retired at age 54 years and 11 months – because the public service has too many employees, and the younger ones were cheaper than the older. 

Just as importantly, the workplace is not some passive tunnel that workers enter and leave at a rate determined by the turnover of the generations. Employers actively select and hire people when and as they need them. 

And despite ambit claims by some employers who would like a surplus of workers to select among, there is little evidence that workers rather than jobs are in short supply.  (Ask anyone who has a teenage child trying to find work. Or who is trying to get re-employed in middle age. It's hard to get so much as a job interview for anyone over 35.) That's why Julia Gillard and co. were chanting "Jobs, jobs, jobs" before the last election.

The whole claim that there aren’t enough workers to replace the retiring baby boomers has been trounced by the Australia Institute’s recent calculation showing that Australia’s real unemployment rate is more like 15% -- or even 20% if you add a further 5% who would like full-time work but can only find part-time. In an age of computers,automation, and gigantic mining and construction machinery, it’s no surprise that jobs are not plentiful -- although big emplyers keep pretending the reverse.

In March this year (2011) 17.6 per cent of young Australians (aged 15-19) were recorded as unemployed, compared to 13.3 per cent in March 2008. As Dr Betts remarks, this looks less like a growing shortage of young entrants to the labour market than a growing "longage".

Mind you, the very notion that working years are 15 to 64 (on which Salt bases his calculations) is pretty absurd. 20 to 64+ would be more like it today, and with retirement age being increased towards 70,   20 to 69 may soon be the figure. 

Citing the traditional 15 to 64 exaggerates the proportion of the population that is too old to work, while greatly minimising the proportion that is too young. And of course all such calculations become academic when we can't, as at present, employ all those in their working years. A bread-winner out of work often means a whole family on social security, and is far more expensive than a person on the old age pension.

To complete the rout of this absurd argument, Jane O’Sullivan provides credible evidence that the alleged costs of pensions etc for this aging population of baby boomers are about one thirtieth, that’s right, one thirtieth of the infrastructure costs of the migration program that Bernard Salt proposes as a financial remedy for the problem. “Can we really be so stupid?”, she asks.

  (For further refutation of Salt’s varied and tendentious arguments for population growth see Sheila Newman’s Bernard Salt page at CanDoBetter.)

Conclusion: Salt’s arguments for Big Australia are often based on dubious demography. Many, like this one, scarcely deserve discussion until some real demographer can be found to endorse them, rather than to dismiss them as one of the world’s most senior demographers appears to have done.  See Dr Joseph Chamie's analysis of what he calls Ponzi Demography.

This argument began as a side-issue in the posting Bernard Salt is not a demographer, to which you might wish to return.