Reflections on the Big Day Out

Overgeneralization about “generations” is a cliche of lazy writing and analysis, and one that John Quiggin rightly mocked years ago. Nevertheless, there are some cultural experiences that are shared in the memory of, if not a “generation”, at least some substantial fraction of it. And for a substantial fraction of Australians between the ages of 20 and 40, the annual Big Day Out music festival was one such. With the announcement that the festival is going to go “on hiatus“, at least for 2015, a number of writers have reflected on the music festival’s history.

Powderfinger’s drummer, Jon Coghill, tells a few tales, partly from a performer’s perspective, and Fairfax have collated some of their reviewers’ favourite moments. While I didn’t see arguably the most famous, festival-defining set of all – Nirvana’s performance at the first Sydney-only BDO in 1992 – some of the sets referred to were indeed wonderful. The anarchy of Iggy and the Stooges was, in hindsight, obviously well-planned and practiced, but boy was it entertaining. Wolfmother, a retro-hard rock act who sounded something like a cross between Sabbath and Zeppelin, had the misfortune to follow Iggy if memory serves me correctly. Fine musicians as they were, they seemed so insipid on that far off stage after Iggy’s performance. Other musical highlights were the result of stumbling on bits of musical history. Who was that old guy belting it out on the RRR stage? Joe Strummer with his band the Mescaleros, performing Rock the Casbah. And Kraftwerk playing the “dance tent” known as the Boiler Room? Mindblowing. It may have confused the hell out of the giggling e-ed up thirteen year olds in fairy wings, but The Robots sounded even better live in 2003 than it ever did on the album.

For many of those reminiscing about the festival’s end, I’m sure those musical moments will feature. But alongside those, the Big Day Out undoubtedly sticks in the mind as the first music festival many of the writers attended, and as well as the rock’n’roll (and many other musical genres), the other two members of the trinity of “youthful rebellion”, sex and drugs, also likely featured. I don’t have any great tales to tell here, but if you’re interested the Burnet Institute can give you the goss complete with peer review and the odd inferential statistic. For what it’s worth, the smell of marijuana in parts of the Melbourne Showgrounds was so thick you could get stoned walking past, some years. By contrast, the ravers who packed out the Boiler Room did like their ecstasy – the happy vibe may have been chemically-induced, but it made that environment a terrific place to be, even if you weren’t partaking. It also felt amazingly safe and respectful; I do wonder in retrospect about the safety of those happy-happy-happy teenagers outside it, but it’s hard to imagine a less threatening place for a thirteen-year-old girl to be jammed into a crush of thousands than the Boiler Room of the early Big Days Out.

Of course, the moshpits on the main stage were not so safe, with teenager Jessica Mihailik’s death in a crush in 2001 changing the festival forever. The D-Barrier, a crowd control fence allowing the security guards to control the numbers close to the stage, may have been necessary, but it was a symptom of what seemed to me to be an increasingly aggressive, frankly unpleasant vibe in sections of the crowd at the BDO. Rather than loved-up ravers or chilled-out stoners, we had lunkheads fired up on too much VB and Jack Daniels. Australian flags started to surface around this time too. By the time of my last BDO in 2006, I didn’t want to be anywhere near the front of the main stage; yes, I was getting older, but like Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Party, I don’t think I’d changed that much, instead, the Big Day Out had changed. Regardless, the Big Day Out ran for another seven years. A disastrous 2012 festival with thousands of unsold tickets, and a 2014 festival where headliners Blur pulled out, were the proximate causes of its end.

Others have pointed to some of the deeper reasons behind the end of the Big Day Out. From its start, the festival’s original promoters tried to pick a wide variety of bands, from a surprisingly wide variety of genres. “Alternative” may have been the core of the festival in the 1990s, but everything from German glam-metal provocateurs Rammstein to a set by Kamahl could be found somewhere on the many, many stages. But as Jon Coghill observed:

The BDO also tried to mix metal bands with dance bands, punk bands with hippy bands, mainstream bands with hip hop bands. Often they got it right, but sometimes the combinations failed to gel, on stage and off. On top of that, boutique festivals that concentrated on one genre of music started to compete, and the BDO seemed to lose itself and its purpose.

When the Big Day Out began in 1992, Nirvana were everywhere – broadcast television and radio, including the newly nationwide JJJ. While it’s easy to scoff now, at the time it was a revelation; a national radio network devoted to youth culture, and compared to the insipid offerings of commercial radio and television it was incredibly exciting. It even played songs with naughty words in them! Yes, it was rock-heavy, with programming decisions reflecting the tastes of white male program directors who took their guitars terribly seriously. But it did feature a wider variety of music than anything we’d heard to date, and while there were specialist music programs most of the programming featured a limited playlist, but one that had a bit of everything. And so the teenagers of that era, me included, heard a fairly limited set of artists from a variety of genres.

And it and the Big Day Out fitted together like hand in glove; a festival and a radio station, both with a rock bias, but throwing a collection of other genres into the mix.

Now, in a world where algorithms can generate a “radio station” featuring as narrow a range of musical forms as you can imagine, the intra-generational zeitgeist seems, at least to this non-teenage gent, weaker than it has been since the inception of broadcast media. The teenagers of today have the entire smorgasboard of nearly a century of recorded music available to them, and can sample as narrowly and deeply as they wish. Is it any wonder that a music festival that attempted to be all things to as many people as possible is no more?

In any case, while I have a slightly misty eye for some of the music, the practicalities of such a huge event are something I don’t think many will miss. Queues for everything. Standing for hours in the hot sun hoping like hell you’ve applied enough sunscreen. Being jostled, constantly. The lengthy walk home when you can’t get onto the jampacked public transport. And, especially, the meatheads.

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Fuel efficiency standards – a no-brainer

I’m very pleased that I will be posting at Brian Bahnisch’s Climate Plus on climate policy and possibly other matters. I will crosspost content here.

The (possibly reprieved) Climate Change Authority has continued to produce high-quality analysis that a sane federal government should examine very closely, and its latest report is no exception. It advocates for a mandatory emissions target for light vehicles (that is, vehicles you can drive on a car licence) sold in Australia, and proposes some design principles and options for implementation.

The proposed scheme would establish “fleet-wide” emissions targets for manufacturers, with an adjustment for vehicle footprint; that is, the target for a particular vehicle is adjusted by the size of that vehicle. As the report puts it,

The standard should differentiate obligations based on the size (footprint) of the vehicle, ensuring equity across suppliers while maintaining consumer choice and maximising flexibility. This approach ensures that the option to lightweight vehicles,
a major emissions reduction strategy in new vehicle design, is maintained.

I’m a bit ambivalent about this, and it shows one of the weaknesses in this kind of regulatory mandate as compared to alternative approaches like simply increasing fuel taxes. All things being equal, smaller vehicles are more fuel efficient than larger vehicles; encouraging people to make the switch away from vehicles than they need would actually be a good thing. But a flat target would encourage manufacturers who sell an above-average proportion of small cars to not do anything, as they will be able to meet their targets without actually improving their vehicles beyond business as usual.

In any case, what is most striking about this is how out of step with global practice Australia is; most other OECD countries have an enforceable fuel efficiency target of one kind or another. As Evan Beaver pointed out on Twitter, it was mostly another aspect of the multitude of small-beer decisions taken to protect the Australian car industry. Since the demise of Corolla production, Australia’s domestic producers have exclusively churned out large vehicles, mostly with large, not particularly sophisticated petrol engines. When combined with Australia’s low levels of fuel taxation, this further encouraged Australians to indulge their long-standing penchant for large, powerful and thirsty vehicles. The consequence of this is one of the most fuel-inefficient light vehicle fleets in the world, matched only by the USA with its love for Ford F-150s and Chevy Suburbans.

One of the great things about doing this is that it’s actually a net win for the country even ignoring the social costs of climate change; the extra costs of more fuel efficient technologies in vehicles are more than outweighed by the lifetime value of the fuel savings. As a society, the report estimates that rather than paying costs to avoid carbon emissions, every tonne of carbon emissions avoided through this policy would also result in a net saving of over $350. You might wonder why this policy is actually necessary; the short answer is that both consumers and businesses seem to undervalue emission savings when considering a new vehicle purchase. I’d prefer to fix this with fuel taxes and congestion charging, but if that’s not on the table it’s a reasonable alternative.

Even within a model range, the savings by simply changing the mix of drivetrain variants available are substantial. The Climate Change Authority compared the fuel efficiency of models available in both the UK and Australia, and found that, on average, the most efficient models available in Australia emit 20% more emissions than the most efficient models available in the UK. That probably overstates the difference between the typical models sold in Oz and Blighty, as many of the economy specials sold are heavily compromised to the point of impracticality and sell in tiny numbers. But even if you assume a 5% difference in the economy of your average Pommy Toyota Corolla and the Australian equivalent, that adds up to a lot of money.

Based on the data in the report and my assumption that Australian fuel usage is 5% higher than it might otherwise be purely because of the engine variant choices within a model range due to the lack of fuel economy targets, this results in Australian consumers and businesses burning about 1.2 billion litres more petrol than they otherwise might. At the current fuel price, that’s 1.8 billion dollars a year, every year, wasted, in that long and ultimately futile attempt to keep the Australian car industry alive.

The demise of the Australian car manufacturing industry represents an opportunity to fix a number of boneheaded transport policies. It would be nice if this anomaly was one of them.

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Four rather impacted wisdom teeth out at age 37 – my experience

I haven’t put a blog post here for a long time, but it seems like a good location for a permanent record of a recent experience.  I hope it’s useful for anyone facing having a common but often feared surgery that’s usually the province of much younger people.  The short version is that – at least for me – it’s been nowhere near as bad as many of the horror stories you sometimes hear.
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Project 10000’s financing model – does it stack up?

The Victorian ALP has released its transport plan, Project 10000, so named for the 10,000 construction jobs that are supposed to result.

The plan, in short, appears to be largely a return to what the Brumby government had in mind before losing office, though the most expensive project, Melbourne Metro, is dependent on federal funding that is unlikely to emerge from a car-obsessed Coalition government. The plan calls for a raft of level crossing eliminations, widening of the remaining sections of the Tullamarine Freeway, the “Western Distributor” toll road to improve road access to the Port of Melbourne, and increased funding for outer-urban and regional road maintenance. There’s no support for the East-West link. I’m not sure how seriously their opposition can be taken, given that if things happen according to schedule the contracts will be signed by the time of the 2014 election and they’ve already stated that they won’t renege on any such.

As usual, the rail advocates are screaming that signalling is a higher priority than Metro. Cycling advocates have spotted the complete omission of cycling from the document. And by far the most sensible way to use transport infrastructure more efficiently – congestion charging – doesn’t get a look in. It’s something that really needs to be considered for the public transport system as well as the roads.

But, in this post, what I really want to look at is how the infrastructure projects, including the big ones specifically mentioned and the smaller ones, are to be paid for. Aside for the federal funding for the Metro, and the tolls on the Western Distributor, it seems that everything will be paid for out of something called the “Victorian Transport Building Fund (VTBF)”.

Politicians and some voters seem to love dedicated funds for this, that and the other. It’s in large part a wank; governments can and do pull money into and out of such funds all the time. But, in any case, what’s perhaps more important is where the dollars coming in to the VTBF are supposed to come from. Two sources of funding are mentioned.

The second of the sources mentioned actually makes some small amount of financial sense. If level crossings are eliminated, in many cases that means a chunk of rail track has to be placed underground. The land above that newly-built underpass will, in many cases, be a valuable asset that can be sold. The question is of course how much that land is worth; I don’t know, but I’d also observe that the plan doesn’t even attempt to estimate its worth either. But, still, as a method of recovering some of the cost of doing the underpasses it’s not totally crazy.

But the plan to pay for transport infrastructure by leasing the Port of Melbourne – well, it does smell of funny money, just not in the way that state Treasurer Michael O’Brien is claiming.

The Port of Melbourne is currently run by the Port of Melbourne Corporation, a government-owned corporation. The prices it charges, as a monopoly, are regulated by the Essential Services Commission. It pays a CPI-indexed fee – $75 million in 2012 – to the government. On top of that, however, the Corporation makes a tidy profit each year – around $60 million, some of which has been retained, and some of which is returned to the government as a dividend. The commercial aspects of the PoMC are run to maximise profit within its regulatory constraints.

Given the constraints it operates under – which can’t change significantly whoever operates the port – and the fact that it is already run along commercial lines, it is not at all clear to me why it would make financial sense for the government to sell or lease the port. The government’s gross debt might fall, but it would lose an income-producing asset, and the financial position would stay the same. The only reason a sale would make sense is if the port is being run inefficiently.

It’s not quite as crazy as the insane plan to privatize HECS debt, which would be a gift to the private sector courtesy of the Abbott government, because there may be some scope for a commercial buyer to run the port more cheaply. But, even so, it’s hard to see the difference substantial enough to pay for a large crossing elimination program.

If governments want to pay for infrastructure, there’s no shortage of people willing to lend them money at cheap rates. Can we stop playing accounting games and pay for that infrastructure the cheapest way possible – borrow the damn money, and if necessary raise taxes to pay off said borrowings?

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Back in purple

Sorry for the paucity of posts – real life, and specifically preparation for another semester of teaching, intrudes!

However, I’m excited that Larvatus Prodeo has been revived for the 2013 federal election, and I’ll be contributing posts there for the next few months.

I may still have the occasional post here for material that doesn’t fit on LP, however.

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Well, thanks to Russia’s corrupt cops and dodgy insurance, we have an abundance of footage of the most damaging (and spectacular) meteorite impact in at least a century:

Inevitably, there is a bigger, more damaging asteroid out there with our name on it, and sooner or later one will hit a major city.

While there is some dark amusement in certain political circles at conservatives suggesting that funding for climate change mitigation be cut to pay for asteroid defence, that shouldn’t preclude some more serious consideration of whether we can or should be doing anything about the risk.

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Failure, perhaps. But costly?

This kind of headlinedrives me more and more up the wall:

Gillard’s school plan a costly failure

A $16 million federal Labor commitment to stem the shortage of maths and science teachers by fast-tracking bankers, accountants and engineers into classrooms has been an expensive failure with just 14 participants recruited.

I agree that it didn’t work. But costly?

As it turns out, that only $8 million will actually be spent on the program by the time it winds up, as $8 million will be redirected to another teacher recruitment program.

In the context of a $360 billion federal budget, 8 million is chicken feed. And in a budget of that size, there are guaranteed to be dozens of programs of similar or greater magnitude that don’t work perfectly. In fact, there should be a certain proportion of programs that don’t work; governments should experiment with new ideas, keep and possibly expand the ones that work and discard the ones that don’t. Which appears to be what has happened here.

As the actual report goes on to explain, the failure of the program relates to a number of things – states requiring that teachers be fully qualified in the traditional way before entering the classroom, potential recruits not being willing to work in the schools that actually require more teachers, and difficulties of transferring across state boundaries. Perhaps some of these things were knowable beforehand, but the unwillingness of recruits to work in the required areas? I doubt it.

If the government had been warned that the program was unlikely to work and proceeded anyway; if the program was hundreds of millions of dollars rather than tens, or if they hadn’t repurposed the money once it was clear it was misconceived they might deserve a bollocking for incompetence. But at this stage this seems entirely like the normal business of government. Running headlines supporting Christopher Pyne’s preferred narratives is not only misleading, it is ultimately corrosive to good government, by encouraging such risk aversion that governments never try anything that might be a good idea.

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