Weekend Reading & Selected Links

9 min read

Happy weekend! Here are some links to things I've been reading or listening to that you might also enjoy:

1. My 4.5-hour podcast with former Australian Treasury Secretary Ken Henry. (At the bottom of this email, I've reprinted two of my favourite exchanges from the conversation, though it's hard to pick only two!)

2. Eliezer Yudkowsky's recent TED Talk.

3. A chart showing all the American megaprojects and grand programs over the last century.

4. 'DNA repair and anti-cancer mechanisms in the longest-living mammal: the bowhead whale', a new study that gets at 'Peto's paradox', namely, if every cell has a chance of becoming cancerous, why don't larger species (like whales) have an increased risk of developing cancer?

5. 'Microsoft Bets That Fusion Power Is Closer Than Many Think', a recent WSJ article.

Have a great weekend,  


Exchanges from my podcast with Ken Henry

1. On Paul Keating as a wielder of power [08:03]

WALKER: Do you have any Keating anecdotes that you can share?

HENRY: No. I’ve got Keating anecdotes. I’m not sure that I’ve got ones that I would share. Maybe one, which is maybe to give you a bit of a flavour for the sort of person he is. And I won’t mention… No, I’ll give you two. I won’t mention names, but I don’t think these stories have ever been told publicly and there’s no reason why they should be. And I was the only witness to these two.

On one occasion, it was shortly after I joined Keating’s office, so we were still in the old Parliament House, one of his senior colleagues, very senior minister, came in to see Paul and I happened to be sitting in Paul’s office across the desk from him. I’d been briefing him on some policy issue and the senior minister came in and said, ‘Look, Paul, I really need to talk to you before Question Time’. And I got up to leave and the fellow said, ‘No, look, honestly, it’s all right, you stay, doesn’t matter’. And Paul said, ‘What is it, mate?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, I’m taking all these decisions and I find myself waking up at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning just worrying about whether I was taking, whether I’d been taking the right decisions or not, questioning my own judgement on the decisions that I’d taken the previous day and days before.’ And he said, ‘I’m just in turmoil over it.’ And, I think, these are the precise words Paul said. He said, ‘Well, mate, it’s time to go.’


HENRY: Yeah, like, wow. And I thought, God, ’cause I don’t know anybody else, and I’m sure I’ve never met anybody else in my life who would have responded in that way. And, I mean, it wasn’t as if Paul was unfeeling at all, it was just, in fact, probably quite the opposite, because they then went on to discuss why Paul had said what Paul had said. And shortly after the minister did, he stepped down. It can come across as almost brutal, but there was more to it than that. I mean, Paul wasn’t being unkind at all, he understood the situation absolutely perfectly, but his assessment was the right one. And I’m sure that minister came to the, well, he obviously came to the same view that, 'Yes, this is the right assessment, you’re absolutely right.'

WALKER: So, the implication being that the reality of power is that you have to be able to sit with these decisions and make them confidently?

HENRY: Yeah, exactly. And if you find yourself questioning your own judgement, then this is not the place that you should be. You should not be putting yourself in this position, find a more peaceful existence, doing something else, helping out in some other way. This particular minister had a long career as an advisor and official in various capacities and a highly successful career, and was much loved by all of his colleagues, including Keating. Right. So, this was not a person without talent, far from it. Far from it. But had found himself in a position in which he was uncomfortable and in a position of power. And the power was, or the exercise of the power was, I guess, killing him – slowly, but killing him.

2. On building major new Australian cities, and Darwin as the new Singapore [3:40:55]

WALKER: What would it take for Australia to build a major new city, and where would you put it?

HENRY: Yeah, okay, so that is a question I’ve thought about.

WALKER: Oh, wow, great. Did Treasury ever look into this?

HENRY: Yeah. Oh, yeah. So when was this? Oh, goodness me.

I was Treasury Secretary, certainly at the time, and I remember having a conversation with Kevin Rudd only a few days after the November 2007 election. In fact, it was the first conversation I had with him after he became Prime Minister. And we were just talking about a whole range of issues, and I think he said something like, 'Oh, and by the way, what do you think the maximum sustainable population for Australia is?' And I said, 'Probably 15 million thereabouts.' And he thought I said 50, and he leant forward and he said, '50 million? Ah right, good.' I said, 'No, no, I said 15.'

'How can you say that — the population is already much more than 15.' And I said, 'I don’t think you can argue that human activity on this continent is sustainable, not in any way I think about it. And so I think we’d have to cut our population quite a bit if that’s all we're going to do in order to achieve a sustainable population.' And he was obviously shocked and obviously disappointed. He may even have been appalled, I don’t know. And then I said to him, 'But although that’s my view, it’s also my view that it would be possible to construct a set of policies that would sustain a population of 50 million. 5 0. That’s possible, but it would mean that we’d have to do a lot of things very differently.'

And in that conversation, I said, for example, we might have to build a whole brand new city for 10 million people, one that doesn’t presently exist. So then we subsequently in the department — and it wasn’t just in the department, there were other people involved in this as well — started exploring where you might build, not a whole brand new city of 10 million, but, say, a number of cities of 1 million, where you’d put them throughout Australia. I’m not trying to avoid the question, but here’s the thing. The reason we don’t have a very fast train in Australia from Melbourne to Brisbane is obvious, and everybody knows it. It’s because we don’t have the population that would support it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have sufficient population in total. It’s the distribution of the population that makes it ridiculous.

But if the population were distributed differently, like along a corridor that a train line might run through with maybe five stops, something like that, maybe a few more (because not every train has to be an express), then it is possible to think about those things. And so, in specific answer to your question, I think there’s a lot of spots along a potential rail corridor where you could build such cities. Of course, there are environmental issues associated with every one of those spots. So those are factors that have to be taken into account. But we don’t avoid those issues by allowing the continuing suburban sprawl in Melbourne and Sydney and Perth. Brisbane, too. All those cities that are going to become mega cities.

Maybe Brisbane won’t ever be called a megacity, but it’s going to be a big one. And Perth is going to be a big one. And Sydney and Melbourne will be called megacities globally if we don’t do something smarter. So transport infrastructure, I think, is quite a big part of it. And of course, there are other things that would have to be attended to, but I would start looking at that corridor.

[3:46:43] WALKER: That’s so interesting. Have you heard of the Bradfield scheme?

HENRY: Oh, yeah. To turn the rivers back?

WALKER: Yeah. So as you know, it was this really ambitious project back in 1938, I think it was first suggested, basically to create an inland sea in Australia by filling up Lake Eyre and diverting rivers to it. And the idea was that this would basically drought-proof much of Queensland and South Australia.

HENRY: Except that it would be salt water, right?

WALKER: Presumably, yeah.

HENRY: Well, it would.

WALKER: I’m not actually familiar with the details of how they were going to get around that particular problem.

HENRY: Well, I don’t think they were. I don’t think they thought about it.

WALKER: Right, well, that probably explains why it doesn’t exist.

HENRY: No, I don’t think that’s why it doesn’t exist.

WALKER: Might be other reasons as well. [Laughs]

HENRY: Yeah, I think there might be other reasons. [Laughs]

WALKER: Okay, fair enough. But regardless of the merits of that particular scheme, I guess just thinking on that level of kind of like crazy ambitious nation-building projects, what incredibly ambitious project are we not building currently that we should be. Outside of "new cities".

HENRY: Outside of new cities. See, I actually would start with new cities. That’s why I was so well prepared for that question.

WALKER: Oh cool. I’m glad I asked.

HENRY: Yeah, I would start with new cities, but others oh, look, the renewable energy space offers huge challenge and huge opportunity. Look, this is a gross generalisation, so it’s not it’s nowhere near close to being accurate, but to date, we’ve applied much the same thinking and policy analysis to the accommodation of renewable energy projects as we have anything else, even though we know we’ve got a pretty good sense of the size of the transformation that’s going to be required.

And of course, whenever anybody talks about it they say, "Oh, my god, we got to do what we’ve already done, we got to do it ten times over, and we got to do it within ten years," or something, things to that effect. And I know some people are thinking about an entirely new approach to this: just turn the way we think about these issues on their heads and let’s just say, okay, let’s aim to achieve that outcome, right? What are we going to have to do in order to achieve that outcome? It does bring you back to locational issues like where you’re going to locate the cities. It forces you to think about transmission infrastructure, of course, in a way that we haven’t to date thought about it.

It forces you to think about things like local electricity networks, using battery storage or whole variety of different possible pumped hydro storage or whatever. Every one of those projects would be multibillion dollar projects. They’re huge. And as a country, aside from Snowy Hydro — and not even Snowy Hydro 2.0 — it’s not of the scale that’s going to be required of some of these other projects. It’s not even big enough. It’s not. I mean, some of these projects that we are going to have to invest in will be much bigger than Snowy 2.0. What sort of policy thinking do you have to bring to projects of that order of magnitude? And it’s kind of pressing. Because it’s not as if we can avoid these challenges. So that’s another one.

Here’s another one. When I was working for the Gillard government, leading the development of the white paper on 'Australia in the Asian Century', this idea popped into my head. I was in Darwin and I thought, "Why doesn’t Darwin look like Singapore?" So that’s a good one to think about. What would it take?

WALKER: I like that.

HENRY: What would it take? What could you do? And I know what’s happened since to the port of Darwin makes some of these questions problematic. But if there’s enough money and enough will, you could build a second port of Darwin. Would it be possible to do a deal with the Singapore port authority, or whatever it’s called, with respect to entrepôt activity? You think of all those ships that sit for weeks and weeks off Singapore merely to drop their cargo, for that cargo to be sorted and then picked up by another ship to take it somewhere else. It was never heading for Singapore other than to allow for transference from one vessel to another vessel.

Darwin’s a few hours south of Singapore, of course. And if the ship would sail... I’m not sure how much additional time it would take. But I mean, if you’re going to be sitting for a couple of weeks off Singapore, why not divert to Darwin? It’ll cut your time massively. And get the activity undertaken there. Why not see the port of Darwin as an export port for some of the natural resources that are going out through the port of Gladstone? A lot of them are located in western Queensland. What would it take? You’re getting the vibe here, I can see by the expression on your face. What would it take to have that cargo sent west and then north out through the port of Darwin?

And then what are the other opportunities that would be available in essentially a tropical city in the north of Australia, very close to all of Southeast Asia? When I was consulting on this project, I visited the then Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and stood in his office and he’s got this — I’ll bet it’s still there; I’ll bet every Chief Minister of Northern Territory hangs onto this — it’s a wall map and, of course, Darwin is at the centre of it So that’s how the world is drawn. That’s how the world map’s drawn. It’s wonderful. And then there are these concentric circles identified by flight time, or maybe it’s kilometres. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter — there’s an easy translation. And it just shows how many Asian cities are closer to Darwin than is Melbourne or Perth or Sydney.

And it allows you to think about Darwin playing a completely different role as a significant Southeast Asian city with obvious connections to several very big cities in Australia, right? Yeah. There’s another idea for you.