The NSW treasurer says a slashed share of GST will cost his state $11.9 billion. But where did he get this figure?

NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey caught the headlines yesterday, courtesy of a blistering speech condemning the latest GST carve-up. New South Wales, he claimed, would be A$11.9 billion worse off over the next four years, leaving both the state’s coveted AAA credit rating and budget surplus in tatters.

The lost dollars, Mookhey said, could have funded 19,000 healthcare workers, 19,000 teachers or 16,000 police officers.

This is certainly a lot of revenue to lose in one hit. But it is not immediately clear where the state treasurer got this number from.

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So how much less?

The new GST carve-up will see NSW receive $310 million less next year compared to this year.

But since 2021-22, Australia’s GST has been allocated under a new equalisation arrangement. We’re currently in the transition period, meaning each year states are compensated with “no worse off” payments to ensure they don’t receive less cumulative GST than they would have under the old system.

If NSW’s “no worse off” top-up payments are taken into account, the difference is only $188 million.

Mookhey could argue that the annual movement in GST payments is not the point. The issue is how much GST was factored into his budget last May. That was $1.2 billion more than what will now be received in 2024-25 under the updated distribution.

Yes, that’s a lot of money to lose, but multiplied out over four years, it’s still well short of $11.9 billion.

Short-changed on population

So, where exactly did that bigger number come from?

NSW’s beef with the GST carve-up is most likely that it receives much less than it would get if those revenues were distributed according to population share, instead of according to service delivery needs between states and territories.

NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey wants GST to be distributed on something closer to a per capita basis.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Next year, for example, with 31.2% of the population, NSW will only receive 27.1% of GST revenues. In dollar terms, the difference is equivalent to about $3.6 billion, which multiplied out over four years, would come to $14.4 billion.

This is the only figure that comes anywhere near the amount suggested by the treasurer. But it’s misleading. Distributing GST by population alone ignores different service delivery needs between states.

NSW certainly copped a big drop in its assessed need relative to the average of all other jurisdictions in the latest GST update. But if history is any guide, its relative position is likely to go in the opposite direction sometime over the next four years.

The point here is we are talking about a future situation that may never arise – hardly a solid basis for a political fight.

But what’s really fair?

The treasurer’s speech gives the impression the latest GST carve-up is the source of the problem. In reality, Mookhey has taken aim at the way we try to even up the financial capacity of the states and territories. The current system of distribution allows us to ensure each Australian citizen, no matter where they live, is able to receive similar levels of government services without paying more than the average person.

For the foreseeable future, there will always be a significant gap between an ideal equal per capita distribution and what a wealthy state like NSW actually gets from the GST. That’s not because of the latest carve-up, it’s just the way it is.

The $11.9 billion GST “budget bomb” is the kind of fiction our political system could well do without. Money has not been lost, nor have jobs. They have simply been redistributed from NSW to South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory. Because of service needs, these jurisdictions receive a bigger share of GST funds than their share of the national population.

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Spending, not income, likely the problem

What about the NSW budget’s bottom line? In the NSW Treasury’s December budget update, Mookhey estimated that next year he would deliver an operating surplus of $475 million, down from the $844 million estimated last May. Most of the slippage occurred in 2023 after the budget was brought down.

While GST revenues will be down compared to what was budgeted in 2024-25, revenues in total are well above budget, by $490 million. The problem is not revenues, but expenses, which have blown out by close to $1 billion, mainly due to the impact of rising interest rates on outstanding debt.

Any budget problems the state now faces are not only because of lower-than-expected GST revenue, but at least equally because of NSW Treasury’s failure to control expenses.

Is NSW’s credit rating on the line? Not really. One of the three big credit rating agencies has already downgraded it with little, if any, impact on the state’s borrowing costs.

Were the other two agencies to follow suit, it likely wouldn’t make a difference. As Mookhey himself recently pointed out, rating agency assessments are becoming less important than was once the case.

So why the uproar? It is all just part of an annual parade of treasurers – usually from NSW and Victoria – fronting the media and calling for a bigger slice of the national GST pie. It may also be an attempt by Mookhey to soften up the public for a credit rating downgrade, one that is ironically unlikely to matter. Läs mer…

Elon Musk vs Australia: global content take-down orders can harm the internet if adopted widely

Do Australian courts have the right to decide what foreign citizens, located overseas, view online on a foreign-owned platform?

Anyone inclined to answer “yes” to this question should perhaps also ask themselves whether they are equally happy for courts in China, Russia and Iran to determine what Australians can see and post online in Australia.

This is the problem with global “take-down orders”, an issue we now must confront in light of the Australian eSafety commissioner demanding that social media platform X (formerly Twitter) remove videos of a violent stabbing at a church in Sydney.

X agreed to prevent access to the content in Australia. However, at an urgent federal court hearing late Monday, the commissioner demanded a full removal, with an interim measure of blocking the posts globally.

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Do global take-down orders work?

There can be no doubt that a global take-down order can be justified in some instances. For example, child abuse materials and so-called revenge porn are clear examples of content that should be removed with global effect.

But it is far too simplistic to seek to justify a global take-down order just by saying that any platform operating in Australia must comply with Australian law, as shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham said in a Sky News interview this morning.

After all, international law imposes limitations on what demands Australian law can place on foreigners acting outside Australia.

It is also too simplistic to just focus on efficiency, as was done in the context of so-called geo-blocking – the use of geo-location technologies to block users from a specific location. Attempts to block online piracy sites, for example, have famously been ineffective.

Of course, a court order requiring X to take down certain content globally is more effective than a court order requiring X to geo-block such content so that users in Australia cannot access it.

But that efficiency argument applies equally to Iran’s draconian blasphemy laws or the Chinese laws that make it an offence to compare Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh.

Even if X removed the content on a global basis, those Australians who are hell-bent on viewing the footage in question would be able to find it somewhere else online. In other words, there is no realistic way to fully ensure the content cannot be accessed at all.

Ordering X to use geo-location technologies to block Australians from viewing the content would be sufficient to prevent the general Australian public from coming into contact with the video. Doing so would also show respect for the fact that different countries have different laws.

National eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant speaks to the media during a press conference in January 2023.
AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi

An unusually poor ‘test case’ for free speech

Elon Musk, the American billionaire owner of X, has chosen to approach the matter as a fight for free speech in the face of “censorship”. Such a move would no doubt gain support among the conspiracy theorists and online trolls in his audience. But for the broader Australian public, this must appear like an odd occasion to fight for free speech.

There can sometimes be real tension between free speech and the suppression of violent imagery. For example, some news reporting from military conflicts may be deemed too graphic by some, while others view it as a necessary tool to illustrate the level of violence being committed.

Here, there are no such complex considerations. There is simply no arguable value in keeping the videos online. Consequently, while removing the content can be described as censorship, it is hard to understand why anyone would object to this censorship.

After all, not even the staunchest free speech advocates would be able to credibly object to all censorship. (For example, consider the publication of child abuse materials or Musk’s credit card details.)

The path forward

In the end, we must recognise the internet is a shared resource. All countries, including Australia, should be very careful in how they apply their laws where it can have a “spill-over” effect impacting people in other countries.

Global take-down orders are justifiable in some situations, but cannot be the default position for all content that violates some law somewhere in the world. If we had to comply with all content laws worldwide, the internet would no longer be as valuable as it is today.

We must also start being more proactive in how we regulate the internet. Rushed reactive lawmaking rarely leads to good long-term outcomes. This is a field in which we need international cooperation – this will take time.

Finally, the platforms must act maturely. While other platforms responded to the eSafety commissioner by swiftly blocking the content, X decided to fight for the “right” to display violent extremism in action.

The fact Musk views this as a suitable battleground for free speech shows that we have a long way to go in finding solutions to the regulation of the internet.

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Regulating content won’t make the internet safer – we have to change the business models Läs mer…

Elon Musk says ‘disc replacement’ worked for him. But evidence this surgery helps chronic pain is lacking

Last week in a post on X, owner of the platform Elon Musk recommended people look into disc replacement if they’re experiencing severe neck or back pain.

According to a biography of the billionaire, he’s had chronic back and neck pain since he tried to “judo throw” a 350-pound sumo wrestler in 2013 at a Japanese-themed party for his 42nd birthday, and blew out a disc at the base of his neck.

In comments following the post, Musk said the surgery was a “gamechanger” and reduced his pain significantly.

Musk’s original post has so far had more than 50 million views and generated controversy. So what is disc replacement surgery and what does the evidence tells us about its benefits and harms?

What’s involved in a disc replacement?

Disc replacement is a type of surgery in which one or more spinal discs (a cushion between the spine bones, also known as vertebrae) are removed and replaced with an artificial disc to retain movement between the vertebrae. Artificial discs are made of metal or a combination of metal and plastic.

Disc replacement may be performed for a number of reasons, including slipped discs in the neck, as appears to be the case for Musk.

Disc replacement is major surgery. It requires general anaesthesia and the operation usually takes 2–4 hours. Most people stay in hospital for 2–7 days. After surgery patients can walk but need to avoid things like strenuous exercise and driving for 3–6 weeks. People may be required to wear a neck collar (following neck surgery) or a back brace (following back surgery) for about 6 weeks.

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Costs vary depending on whether you have surgery in the public or private health system, if you have private health insurance, and your level of coverage if you do. In Australia, even if you have health insurance, a disc replacement surgery may leave you more than A$12,000 out of pocket.

Disc replacement surgery is not performed as much as other spinal surgeries (for example, spinal fusion) but its use is increasing.

In New South Wales for example, rates of privately-funded disc replacement increased six-fold from 6.2 per million people in 2010–11 to 38.4 per million in 2019–20.

What are the benefits and harms?

People considering surgery will typically weigh that option against not having surgery. But there has been very little research comparing disc replacement surgery with non-surgical treatments.

Clinical trials are the best way to determine if a treatment is effective. You first want to show that a new treatment is better than doing nothing before you start comparisons with other treatments. For surgical procedures, the next step might be to compare the procedure to non-surgical alternatives.

Unfortunately, these crucial first research steps have largely been skipped for disc replacement surgery for both neck and back pain. As a result, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about the treatment.

There are no clinical trials we know of investigating whether disc replacement is effective for neck pain compared to nothing or compared to non-surgical treatments.

For low back pain, the only clinical trial that has been conducted to our knowledge comparing disc replacement to a non-surgical alternative found disc replacement surgery was slightly more effective than an intensive rehabilitation program after two years and eight years.

Many people experience chronic pain.
Yan Krukau/Pexels

Complications are not uncommon, and can include disclocation of the artificial disc, fracture (break) of the artificial disc, and infection.

In the clinical trial mentioned above, 26 of the 77 surgical patients had a complication within two years of follow up, including one person who underwent revision surgery that damaged an artery leading to a leg needing to be amputated. Revision surgery means a re-do to the primary surgery if something needs fixing.

Are there effective alternatives?

The first thing to consider is whether you need surgery. Seeking a second opinion may help you feel more informed about your options.

Many surgeons see disc replacement as an alternative to spinal fusion, and this choice is often presented to patients. Indeed, the research evidence used to support disc replacement mainly comes from studies that compare disc replacement to spinal fusion. These studies show people with neck pain may recover and return to work faster after disc replacement compared to spinal fusion and that people with back pain may get slightly better pain relief with disc replacement than with spinal fusion.

However, spinal fusion is similarly not well supported by evidence comparing it to non-surgical alternatives and, like disc replacement, it’s also expensive and associated with considerable risks of harm.

Fortunately for patients, there are new, non-surgical treatments for neck and back pain that evidence is showing are effective – and are far cheaper than surgery. These include treatments that address both physical and psychological factors that contribute to a person’s pain, such as cognitive functional therapy.

Read more:
Surgery won’t fix my chronic back pain, so what will?

While Musk reported a good immediate outcome with disc replacement surgery, given the evidence – or lack thereof – we advise caution when considering this surgery. And if you’re presented with the choice between disc replacement and spinal fusion, you might want to consider a third alternative: not having surgery at all. Läs mer…

What doesn’t kill you makes for a great story – two new memoirs examine the risky side of life

In the final pages of her memoir Datsun Angel, writer and filmmaker Anna Broinowski identifies the book as a “call-to-arms critique [of] the eighties patriarchy”. She questions whether women like herself – that is, the well-educated, sexually liberated beneficiaries of second-wave feminism – are really better off than their 1940s counterparts.

Given the many terrifying encounters her young headstrong protagonist endures at the hands of men as she seeks to make her independent way in the world, it is a question worth considering.

Review: Datsun Angel: A True Story Adventure Inside the Savage Heart of 1980s Australia – Anna Broinowski (Hachette) & Excitable Boy: Essays on Risk – Dominic Gordon (Upswell)

Broinowski – or “Bronco” as some wanky auteur from the Sydney University Dramatic Society labels her – is a first-year law student in search of her tribe. It definitely isn’t the “duckbill loafer” crowd, who sit around the lecture theatre trading professional lineages the way Bret Easton Ellis characters trade business cards. But it isn’t quite the avant-garde art crowd looking for anonymous vaginas to cast in their latest 16mm masterpieces either.

Anna Broinowski.
Hachette.

After a series of awkward attempts at finding her place on campus, and feeling thoroughly cynical about the surrounding city’s intrinsic phoniness, Broinowski embarks on an 8000-kilometre, month-long hitchhiking trip to Darwin and back with her good mate and partner in disillusionment, Peisley.

Reconstructed from the travel diary the author kept at the time, the adventure is everything you could possibly hope for in a road trip – provided you (or your daughter) aren’t the one taking it.

Datsun Angel proves the old adage about time and tragedy making for champagne comedy. Kidnapped by amphetamine-fuelled truck drivers intent on raping and then murdering her – or murdering and then raping her – Bronco is saved by a tinny-swilling entrepreneur, whose “crowning achievement was establishing dwarf-throwing as a pub sport in Queensland”. She is passed on to a Vietnam vet driving a stolen Commodore, who has to be roused from slumber with a broom handle because his first instinct upon waking is to strangle.

Structurally and generically, the book follows a well-trodden path. It self-consciously situates itself as a cross between the substance-induced exuberance of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, and the provincially impassioned politics of Australian novelist Xavier Herbert.

Tonally, I could not get comedian Julia Zemiro’s voice out of my head while reading (maybe because her name is on the front cover), but the critical thinking on issues of class, gender, race and sexuality owes a debt to the forefathers of the 1980s Arts degree: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Umberto Eco.

I will perhaps be accused of reading something that wasn’t there (or even more egregiously, of projecting my own discomforts and biases), but beneath the explicit critique of the patriarchal power structures of Australia’s oldest university I sensed an implicit critique of the modern HR department that has since been erected over the top. For all her progressivism, there is a note of nostalgia ringing through Broinowski’s recollections. Datsun Angel harks back to a looser – dare I say, more enjoyable – university experience.

Written four decades after the fact, in a time when online consent modules are compulsory requirements at the institution where Broinowski once studied (and now lectures), the stories in this book offer a hedonistic counter-narrative to the one now used to swaddle newly enrolled students. The narrative promises, against well-intentioned assurances to the contrary, that what doesn’t kill you will, at the very least, make for a good story later on.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the target reader for this book is a tertiary-educated, middle-class mother of two, whose young-adult children, currently enrolled in university, roll their eyes and scoff with embarrassment (and a touch of pity) every time Mum gets that wistful look in her eyes and says, You two wouldn’t know the half of what I used to get up to!

Broinowski goes part way towards acknowledging as much when she ends her postscript with: “If you’re male and reading this, kudos. I hoped you would. Please pass it on.” For what it’s worth: I am. And will!

In all seriousness, though, I suspect the real barrier to a more general readership will be one of class and, by extension, education rather than gender. Like many campus novels, you’re either in on the joke or you’re off doing something more productive with your time than reading books. Despite her best efforts (forcing esoteric Freudianisms into the mouth of the truck driver, whose idea of high culture amounts to Kevin Bloody Wilson playing his guitar north of the fifth fret), many of the academic references are likely to be lost on those who failed to obtain a distinction average.

There were a few anachronisms that caught my eye. I am pretty certain “giving zero fucks”, for example, was not something you could do prior to this millennium. And I failed to appreciate the mystical significance of the Datsun angel who visits his aura upon the book’s title and several of its chapters.

But these superficial reservations aside, Datsun Angel is a book that delivers on the promise to take its reader “inside the savage heart of 1980s Australia”, and one that never forgets its chief purpose along the way either – to entertain.

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Detachment

Excitable Boy: Essays on Risk is the debut collection from Melbourne reprobate turned serious writer, Dominic Gordon. 38-year-old Gordon may be living the life of a distinguished man of letters these days, but this is certainly not the case for the adolescent version of the author we encounter throughout the book.

Young Dominic spends his time cutting security tags off Ralph Lauren polo shirts, punching on with strangers at parties he wasn’t invited to in the first place, lighting train station bins on fire for the sheer fuckery of it, jerking off in public places, and vandalising private property while high on drugs purchased with money stolen from unattended cash registers.

For this delightful individual, who boasts of being so out of touch with civil society he doesn’t know who the Prime Minister of Australia is, the word “reprobate” is probably too esoteric. Let me borrow one instead from the middle-aged Elmore Leonard fan whom Gordon encounters in the State Library Victoria early in the book: “dickhead”.

Yes, that about captures it: the protagonist of Excitable Boy is an unequivocal, grade-A dickhead.

Fortunately for Gordon (and dickheads more generally), the affliction may be chronic, but it need not be terminal. And as a host of reformed dickheads – from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Thomas De Quincey to Luke Carman – have proven, there is no panacea more effective, or alluring, than creative nonfiction.

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As the book’s title suggests, the essays have been brought together under the theme of risk. This denotes an overriding structure or cohesion that I felt somewhat lacking from the work as a whole. The essays are quite repetitive on certain issues, for example, indicating the idea of a collection came quite late in the writing process.

But it is an appropriate enough umbrella topic, given the protagonist’s penchant for putting himself in harm’s way. While some of this behaviour comes across on the page as a little tiresome (tagging train carriages with his black graffiti marker or doing drugs yet again), there are moments that succeed in making good on the shock that the title page seems to promise.

Take the episode in which the 15-year-old Dominic loses his virginity after a course of hormone treatment taken to combat late-onset puberty:

Around the time of the injections, we moved from Footscray to an apartment in Balaclava. One night I was riding my bike home from a friend’s house, through the park, and I saw half a dozen guys appear from the shrubs … I slowed down to see what was going on … literally a second later, a middle-aged guy with a tan and no pants on, emerged from some shrubs right near me. I wasn’t gay, but that didn’t seem to stop me … He walked right up to me with a condom in his hand and told me to fuck him … I put my bike down, went back into the shrub and fucked him.

There may be a corner of the city in which this passes for a healthy sexual awakening, but I found it truly disconcerting – all the more for the detached tenor of the retelling.

Detachment characterises much of Gordon’s storytelling as he kicks his younger self around the back alleys of Melbourne like a half-squashed can of Monster Energy Drink. It is never quite clear what the root cause of his disaffection is exactly, but it causes a deep cynicism toward systems of authority and other rigid social structures – like narrative.

To be honest, I still haven’t made my mind up if Gordon’s aversion to Aristotelian catharsis is one of the book’s virtues or vices. Christos Tsiolkas, who provides an introduction, calls this style of writing “raw”. But is it raw like punk music, or is it raw like a chicken kebab purchased from the takeaway joint two doors down from the punk bar where some unit just got his face smashed open with a schooner glass while waiting in line at the trough? Good raw or not-so-good raw?

Gordon appears well-aware of the fine line he is straddling here. In an essay titled Graff: The Writer’s Reality (“graff” is short for “graffiti”, in case you’re unhip enough to be wondering), he observes:

We made it! But made what? Back then, I didn’t have a clue why I really did what I did. That level of self-awareness wasn’t available, and even today it’s blurry.

Blurry is an appropriate description of the level of self-reflection Gordon grants his narrator. He is a figure capable of recounting key events from his life with impressive precision, but he has no time, patience or interest in meditating upon these events – and certainly no interest in learning from them.

In creative writing parlance, he is what you would call a shower, not a teller. In teenage delinquent parlance, he is a hectic risktaker, not a thinker.

Ultimately, I felt the book struggled a little with all its unmediated detail. Flannery O’Connor diagnosed this syndrome more than half a century ago when she declared (albeit in relation to fiction):

Fiction writers who are not concerned with concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called “weak specification” … However, to say that fiction proceeds by the use of detail does not mean the simple, mechanical piling up of detail. Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you. Art is selective.

It is often difficult to gauge what overall purpose the details are serving in these essays, beyond fidelity to memory. This may be the way the author intended it – “Author note: many names have been changed in this book but nothing else, because it all happened” [my italics] – but a tougher edit would have served the collection as a whole by allowing the more poignant details to shine through. Läs mer…

Many Australians face losing their homes right now. Here’s how the government should help

An important principle was invoked by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week in defence of the government’s Future Made in Australia industry policy announcement.

“There is a role for government sometimes in just providing […] support to get over the hump”, Albanese said, for otherwise sustainable companies facing rough patches in the quest to diversify Australia’s manufacturing base.

That same principle underpins the HomeKeeper program I proposed in The Conversation last year. The idea is to help mortgage-stressed owner-occupiers avoid losing their home.

If it’s a good idea for companies, why not for responsible and otherwise financially-viable Australians at risk of losing their homes in a cost-of-living crisis?

HomeKeeper is modelled on the pandemic-era JobKeeper program, but applies key lessons from flaws in JobKeeper’s design.

Crucially, it’s not a handout. Nor is it a contingent loan, the shortcomings of which Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) debts have made painfully clear.

Rather, it’s government help through a small equity stake with positive returns for taxpayers when HomeKeeper help is no longer needed.

Mortgage-stressed owner-occupiers could get some breathing space to recapitalise, with government making their mortgage payments direct to the home-owner’s bank up to a modest (say $25,000 overall) ceiling.

In exchange, the government would own a small equity stake in the property, equal to the value of the mortgage aid as a proportion of the property’s market value at the time. Government would get its proportionate share back at market value later, when ownership of the property next turned over – or sooner if the homeowner chose.

Good for the homeowner. Good for taxpayers. Good in the way it stops already way-too-long rental queues and homelessness from worsening.

Read more:
We all know about JobKeeper, which helped Australians keep their jobs in a global crisis. So how about HomeKeeper?

People need help now

HomeKeeper would be of most help to lower income families who often don’t have a “Bank of Mum and Dad” to help them “over the hump”, as Albanese puts it, during temporary difficulties.

With a relatively low ceiling on the overall assistance, it would make a real difference to families of modest means but be of no real help, and therefore of little interest, to McMansion owners needing large scale assistance to avoid forced sales.

Crossbenchers see the benefits. Independent MP for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, canvassed HomeKeeper in parliament in December noting, “the assistance would go straight from the government to the bank, ensuring it didn’t add to consumption and inflation”.

ACT Independent Senator David Pocock backed HomeKeeper last week in his additional comments in the Senate Economics Legislation Committee report on the government’s Help To Buy Bill 2023.

Pocock noted that taxpayers would be winners from the policy too.

Given expectations that house prices will generally continue to rise for the foreseeable future, the taxpayer would typically benefit to that extent from the repayment; that is, reflecting the size of the government’s equity stake acquired via temporary mortgage payment support.

Pocock wants the government’s Help To Buy mechanism amended to enable low- and middle-income earners “facing mortgage repossession and possible homelessness to remain in home ownership” via a HomeKeeper-style program.

Establishing HomeKeeper is more important than ever because the monetary policy script isn’t following the arc politicians and policymakers planned.

Internationally and nationally, inflation is easing, but more slowly and fitfully than hoped.

Predictions that cuts would come sooner rather than later have been dashed more than once when reported United States economic data was stronger than expected, or when markets were affected by upticks in international conflict.

Throughout, Australia has been expected to begin cutting rates last among the world’s industrialised economies, since it was last to begin ramping rates up and the economy kept pumping along strongly.

Tightening the budget screws, the Albanese government is counting on multiple rate cuts in the run up to the next federal election, due to be called by next April, to put voters in a better mood.

At 31%, Labor’s support risks sliding into the 20s according to RedBridge Group pollster Kos Samaras.

Albanese’s net approval rating is barely ahead of Peter Dutton’s. Both are negative, suggesting a “pox on both your houses” sentiment among voters.

Relying on interest rate relief to arrive isn’t enough

Fiscal policy is doing its bit to help turn the tide on interest rates. Sustained effort by Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Senator Katy Gallagher has turned around the dire budget balance and debt mountain inherited from the Morrison government.

The latest IMF figures on G20 nations, released this week, show Australia now has the second strongest net budget balance and fourth lowest net debt in the industrialised world – a remarkable effort.

Yet interest rates in Australia are not falling.

What’s more, even without further rate increases by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) this year, the average mortgage rate is set to rise anyway according to research by the RBA’s Domestic Markets Department’s Benjamin Ung.

Little wonder then that mortgage stress is extensive and worsening. Nearly a third (31.4%) of mortgaged owner-occupiers are “at risk” of mortgage stress according to the latest Roy Morgan survey. Nearly one in five (19.7%) are “extremely at risk”.

Many mortgaged owner-occupiers are at and beyond the end of their tether as more and more of them face voluntary self-initiated house sales or, worse, forced sales by their banks.

In his McKell Institute lecture in February, Chalmers declared he was committed to “relief and reform”, not one or the other.

Monetary policy pinch points don’t need to, and shouldn’t, throw financially responsible and otherwise viable mortgage-stressed owner-occupiers onto the rental queue or into homelessness.

Monetary policy in Australia should be reformed by supplementary humane, modest and economically effective policy to stave off collateral damage in the housing market during the worst part of the cycle.

Next month’s budget is an opportunity for the government to move beyond its “I feel your pain” rhetoric to a HomeKeeper-style policy for this particular group of temporarily squeezed Australians.

It will be too late for those who have already lost their homes.

But it could prove decisive at the margin to save a lot of others currently weighing up whether tents or cars are their best bet for shelter as the banks move in on their homes. These Australians don’t deserve to be incidental victims in government’s pursuit of the worthy goal of low inflation.

Read more:
What happens if I can’t pay my mortgage and what are my options?

HomeKeeper isn’t meant to be a total solution to our hydra-headed housing woes. Rather, it’s a way to keep key elements of it from getting worse.

It can save real people whose foothold in society is temporarily, and often unexpectedly, precarious from tipping into a social security system that can’t cope with the challenges it already has.

Losing that foothold happens quickly. Regaining it takes a long time, if ever. The longer it takes, the more damaging to individuals and families, and the more costly it is to governments.

Albanese is right – sometimes there’s a role for government in providing help to get over that hump. Läs mer…

Curious Kids: who makes the words? Who decides what things like ‘trees’ and ‘shoes’ are called?

Who makes the words? Why are trees called trees and why are shoes called shoes and who makes the names? – Elliot, age 5, Eltham, Victoria

Good question Elliot!

Let’s start with the first part of the question: who makes words?

Well, there’s no official person or group that’s responsible for making words. New words are invented by all of us getting creative. Mostly, it’s a matter of reusing words, or parts of words, and transforming them into new products. Language is the ultimate recycler!

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Curious Kids: what did people use before toothpaste was invented?

Creating words out of ‘tree’ and ‘shoe’

There are five main ways of building new words.

One is to add things called “suffixes”, which are letters we add to the ends of words to change their meaning slightly. By adding a “-y” to “tree” and “shoe”, we can make “treey” (to describe something with lots of trees) and “shoey” (to describe people drinking from a shoe, an odd but old tradition). There are also things called “prefixes”. These are letters that go at the front of a word. For example, the word “subtree” describes a kind of shrub, and “overshoes” are something worn over ordinary shoes.

It’s also possible to combine whole words to make new ones. We can even put “tree” and “shoe” together to create “shoe-tree”, which is a block of wood we put into shoes to keep their shape. These types of words are called “compound words” — they are often written as two words (“apple tree”), but sometimes one (“shoelace”). English has never sorted out the rules here.

A third process, and one that’s really popular these days, is “blending”. This is when we mix words together (sometimes they’re called “frankenwords”, itself a blend of “Frankenstein” and “word”). Here are two made-up blends based on “tree” and “shoe”. They don’t exist — yet (perhaps they’ll take off!).

Treerific (“tree” has been squished with “terrific” to convey something wonderful that is related to trees)
Shoenicorn (“shoe” has been squished with “unicorn” to mean an unicorn with magical shoes)

Trees weren’t always called ‘trees’.
Shutterstock

Words and parts of words can combine and recombine to create a never-ending number of new words. Out of blended “treerific”, I can build “treerifical”, “treerificalise”, “treerificalisation”, “treerificalisational” and so on. The number of words is endless. But of course we can’t invent too many of these because it’s difficult to keep track of all the “-als”, “-izes” and “-ations”!

English words are also flexible. For example, “trees” and “shoes” are objects (called “nouns”), but we can turn them into doing words (called “verbs”) too — “to tree” (plant with trees) and “to shoe” (put shoes on).

We can also build words from the first letters of other words. These are called “acronyms”. Each letter in the word “tree” could mean “tall rustling evergreen entity”. Of course, this isn’t true, it’s just an example. In fact, most acronyms are names (for example, your school might introduce something called “TREE”, short for Tactical Response Emergency Evacuation).

Finally, English is also a word pirate that steals words from other languages — more than 350 in fact. Words like “tree” and “shoe” weren’t stolen but thousands of others have been, like “forest” and “sandal” to give just two (about 700 years ago, we pinched “forest” from French and a little later “sandal” from Latin). This term for this is “borrowing” — curious, because English has no intention of ever giving these words back!

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Who created the alphabet? A historian describes the millennia-long story of the ABCs

Early examples of trees and shoes

Okay, so what about the second part of the question: why are trees called trees and why are shoes called shoes? This is a trickier puzzle, because both are among the oldest words in the English language.

Here’s a very early example of “tree” from an ancient poem written more than a thousand years ago. In Modern English, the sentence is “I saw a wondrous tree” but as you can see, the English in this poem looks very different:

Iċ ġesāwe syllicre trēow

At this time, there were lots of words for trees and also for different types of shoes (including what we now know as “sock”, originally a kind of slipper). Many of these words didn’t survive, but “shoe” (originally “sco”) did, even though shoes look very different now than they did hundreds of years ago.

Shoes used to be called other things, like hemmings.
Florence Mary Gardiner/Project Gutenberg, CC BY-NC-ND

Both “tree” and “shoe” can be traced back to the parent language of English, called “Proto-Germanic”. This was spoken about 2,500 years ago, but unfortunately nothing survives of the language, or perhaps people weren’t into writing things down back then. Even so, we can do some detective work to recreate the ancient words they grew out of: “tree” comes from something like “trewo-” and “shoe” from “skōhw-”.

We can go even further back in time to the grandparent of English — a language called “Proto-Indo-European”. About 6,000 years ago, the word “tree” probably looked like “dōru-”.

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Curious Kids: what came first, the chicken or the egg?

The very beginning of trees and shoes

How language started is a big mystery.

For centuries, people have wondered how words like “tree” and “shoe” were invented. There are lots of ideas around, but we’ll never know for sure because people have been speaking for more than 30,000 years. That’s a very long time!

Only one thing is certain. Humans are the only animals that can create a never-ending number of new words. Remember what we could do earlier with just the two words “tree” and “shoe’!

Hello, Curious Kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au Läs mer…

We’re only using a fraction of health workers’ skills. This needs to change

Roles of health professionals are still unfortunately often stuck in the past. That is, before the shift of education of nurses and other health professionals into universities in the 1980s. So many are still not working to their full scope of practice.

There has been some expansion of roles in recent years – including pharmacists prescribing (under limited circumstances) and administering a wider range of vaccinations.

But the recently released paper from an independent Commonwealth review on health workers’ “scope of practice” identifies the myriad of barriers preventing Australians from fully benefiting from health professionals’ skills.

These include workforce design (who does what, where and how roles interact), legislation and regulation (which often differs according to jurisdiction), and how health workers are funded and paid.

There is no simple quick fix for this type of reform. But we now have a sensible pathway to improve access to care, using all health professionals appropriately.

Read more:
How do you fix general practice? More GPs won’t be enough. Here’s what to do

A new vision for general practice

I recently had a COVID booster. To do this, I logged onto my general practice’s website, answered the question about what I wanted, booked an appointment with the practice nurse that afternoon, got jabbed, was bulk-billed, sat down for a while, and then went home. Nothing remarkable at all about that.

But that interaction required a host of facilitating factors. The Victorian government regulates whether nurses can provide vaccinations, and what additional training the nurse requires. The Commonwealth government has allowed the practice to be paid by Medicare for the nurse’s work. The venture capitalist practice owner has done the sums and decided allocating a room to a practice nurse is economically rational.

The future of primary care is one involving more use of the range of health professionals, in addition to GPs.

It would be good if my general practice also had a physiotherapist, who I could see if I had back pain without seeing the GP, but there is no Medicare rebate for this. This arrangement would need both health professionals to have access to my health record. There also needs to be trust and good communication between the two when the physio might think the GP needs to be alerted to any issues.

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The physio will see you now. Why health workers need to broaden their roles to fix the workforce crisis

This vision is one of integrated primary care, with health professionals working in a team. The nurse should be able to do more than vaccination and checking vital signs. Do I really need to see the GP every time I need a prescription renewed for my regular medication? This is the nub of the “scope of practice” issue.

How about pharmacists?

An integrated future is not the only future on the table. Pharmacy owners especially have argued that pharmacists should be able to practise independently of GPs, prescribing a limited range of medications and dispensing them.

This will inevitably reduce continuity of care and potentially create risks if the GP is not aware of what other medications a patient is using.

But a greater role for pharmacists has benefits for patients. It is often easier and cheaper for the patient to see a pharmacist, especially as bulk billing rates fall, and this is one of the reasons why independent pharmacist prescribing is gaining traction.

It’s often easier for a patient to see a pharmacist than a GP.
PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock

Every five years or so the government negotiates an agreement with the Pharmacy Guild, the organisation of pharmacy owners, about how much pharmacies will be paid for dispensing medications and other services. These agreements are called “Community Pharmacy Agreements”. Paying pharmacists independent prescribing may be part of the next agreement, the details of which are currently being negotiated.

GPs don’t like competition from this new source, even though there will be plenty of work around for GPs into the foreseeable future. So their organisations highlight the risks of these changes, reopening centuries old turf wars dressed up as concerns about safety and risk.

Read more:
How rivalries between doctors and pharmacists turned into the ’turf war’ we see today

Who pays for all this?

Funding is at the heart of disputes about scope of practice. As with many policy debates, there is merit on both sides.

Clearly the government must increase its support for comprehensive general practice. Existing funding of fee-for-service medical benefits payments must be redesigned and supplemented by payments that allow practices to engage a range of other health professionals to create health-care teams.

This should be the principal direction of primary care reform, and the final report of the scope of practice review should make that clear. It must focus on the overall goal of better primary care, rather than simply the aspirations of individual health professionals, and working to a professional’s full scope of practice in a tram, not a professional silo.

In parallel, governments – state and federal – must ensure all health professionals are used to their best of their abilities. It is a waste to have highly educated professionals not using their skills fully. New funding arrangements should facilitate better access to care from all appropriately qualified health professionals.

In the case of prescribing, it is possible to reconcile the aspirations of pharmacists and the concerns of GPs. New arrangements could be that pharmacists can only renew medications if they have agreements with the GP and there is good communication between them. This may be easier in rural and suburban areas, where the pharmacists are better known to the GPs.

The second issues paper points to the complexity of achieving scope of practice reforms. However, it also sets out a sensible path to improve access to care using all health professionals appropriately.

Read more:
Pharmacists should be able to work with GPs to prescribe medicines for long-term conditions Läs mer…

Vastly bigger than the Black Summer: 84 million hectares of northern Australia burned in 2023

It may come as a surprise to hear 2023 was Australia’s biggest bushfire season in more than a decade. Fires burned across an area eight times as big as the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires that tore through 10 million hectares in southeast Australia.

My research shows the 2023 fires burned more than 84 million hectares of desert and savannah in northern Australia. This is larger than the whole of New South Wales, or more than three times the size of the United Kingdom. The scale of these fires is hard to comprehend.

The speed at which these fires spread was also incredible. In just a few weeks of September and October, more than 18 million hectares burned across the Barkly, Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

I presented this research into the 2023 fires at the International Fire Behaviour and Fuels Conference this month in Canberra. I described the scale of these fires, why they occurred, and how fires could be better managed to help protect remote but ecologically and culturally important regions of Australia.

2023 fire spread in North Australia animation, drawing on North Australia Fire Information from firenorth.org.au (Rohan Fisher)

Why did this happen?

Fire and rain are closely connected. Rain triggers grass growth. When it dries out, grass becomes fuel for fires.

For example, you can see the pattern of more fire following wet years repeating at periodic intervals over the past 20 years of fire in the Northern Territory.

In this way, La Niña is the major driver of these massive fires in the desert.

Although 2023 was a massive fire year, 2011 was even bigger. In the NT alone, more than 55 million hectares burned in 2011, compared with 43 million in 2023.

When fuel is dry and weather conditions are extreme, lightning strikes tend to start more fires across savannah and desert rangelands.

Lightning across Australia in late 2023 using data from Andrew Miskelly at Weather Zone (Rohan Fisher)

It has been variously suggested in the media and on social media that these fires are part of a “normal” cycle, a consequence of climate change, or largely the result of arson. Such simplifications fail to grasp the complexity and history of fire management in desert Country.

The main driver of these fires was the very large fuel loads. These wet growing seasons are part of the natural cycle. While climate change can make fire conditions more extreme, in this case it’s not the main cause. However, the scale of these fires was not “normal”. can we briefly say more on this last point?

Read more:
Fire is a chemical reaction. Here’s why Australia is supremely suited to it

How can fires be managed?

For many thousands of years, Indigenous people managed fuel loads across these vast landscapes.

The sophisticated use of fire in Australia’s highly flammable tropical savannas has been recognised as the world’s best wildfire management system.

Traces of this long history of traditional fire practice can be seen in aerial photos of desert Country from the 1940s. Research analysing these photos has shown extensive and complex “fuel mosaics” spread like patchwork quilts over vast parts of the WA deserts.

The term mosaic refers to having many patches of vegetation of different ages, some recently burnt with sparse cover, some long unburnt with old, large and connected spinnifex clumps and small trees.

This provides habitat for a broad range of animals, because different species prefer different amounts of ground cover. It also hinders the spread of fire because areas subject to more recent fire have insufficient fuel to carry new fires for many years.

Aerial image from the 1940s showing a complex mix of burns through spinifex in the Great Sandy Desert.
National Library Australia, CC BY

Efforts have only just begun to bring good fire management back into these landscapes in a coordinated and large-scale way.

In 2022–23 Indigenous ranger groups conducted extensive burning operations. They travelled more than 58,000km by air and road, burning from cars, on foot and dropping incendiaries.

These burns were astoundingly effective. Even though large fires still ripped through these deserts in 2023, by mapping the fuel reduction fires and overlaying the spread of subsequent wildfires, we can see the 2023 fires were limited by previous burns.

For example, the fire spread animation below shows fires moving through a complex mosaic comprising fuel of different ages. One fire can be seen moving more than 600km from near the NT border almost to the coast south of Broome. The fire weaves around previous burns and cheekily finds small gaps of older, continuous fuel.

Animation showing fire spreading through the Great Sandy Desert in 2023 (North Australia and Rangelar)

So without these earlier smaller controlled burns, the out-of-control fires would have been larger.

In the Great Sandy Desert of WA, the complex mosaic of spinifex of different ages persisted after these fires. The Indigenous Desert Alliance puts this down to more controlled burning in the past couple of years than in the ten years prior.

Read more:
Invasive grasses are worsening bushfires across Australia’s drylands

The fires of greatest concern to government agencies were the Barkly fires that threatened the town of Tennant Creek. These fires were large and fast-moving, feeding off fuel in a vast area of unmanaged country east of the town.

Here, a lack of land management increased disaster risk. The fire only stopped when it encountered four-year-old burned areas from lightning strikes.

The summer of 2023–24 was very wet across the Barkly and Tanami regions in the NT. Bushfires NT chief fire control officer Tony Fuller has warned of another big fire year to come as we head into the northern dry season of 2024.

Read more:
Indigenous rangers are burning the desert the right way – to stop the wrong kind of intense fires from raging

Preparing for the future

Desert fire management is still under-resourced and poorly understood.

Ultimately the only effective way to prevent these massive fires in very remote parts of Australia is through a long-term, well-funded strategy of using fire over our vast desert landscapes to control fuel, as was done during previous millennia.

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Our planet is burning in unexpected ways – here’s how we can protect people and nature Läs mer…

Opening statements are the most important part of a trial – as lawyers in Trump’s hush money case know well

Though Hollywood movies about courtroom dramas often glamorize the closing arguments given by lawyers, in reality the opening statement is likely the most important single event of a trial.

Such was the case in the hush money trial involving former President Donald Trump and alleged payments to porn star Stormy Daniels when lawyers for both sides presented their opening statements on April 22, 2024, in New York.

In this case, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged the former president with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records as part of an effort to influence voters’ knowledge about him before the 2016 presidential election. Trump entered a plea of not guilty.

During his opening argument, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told the jury that Trump was part of a conspiracy to conceal negative information about him in order to help get him elected. “Then he covered up that conspiracy by lying in his New York business records, over and over and over again,” Colangelo said.

For Trump’s defense, lawyer Todd Blanche was direct. “President Trump did not commit any crimes.”

Blanche explained that Trump was “not involved and unaware” about the specifics of the hush-money payments because he left it all to Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer who is expected to testify for the prosecution. Blanche described Cohen as being a “criminal” who was “obsessed” with Trump and looking to take personal revenge.

How will these contrasting opening arguments play on the jury?

Academic psychologists tell us that between 65% and 75% of jurors make up their minds about a case after the opening statement. What’s even more incredible is that 85% of those jurors maintain the position they formed after the opening statement once all evidence is received and the trial is closed.

More often than not, it is too late by closing arguments to win over the jury.

This phenomenon comes as no surprise to veteran trial lawyers. They are aware of two theories that define how jurors – indeed, people generally – process information: the concepts of primacy and recency.

These ideas suggest that jurors best remember what they hear first and what they hear last. It is vitally important, then, for lawyers on both sides to start their opening arguments with a bang.

The psychology of jurors

I have taught a course on trial advocacy for the past two decades at Harvard Law School. Part of my curriculum is to teach budding lawyers how to deliver effective opening statements.

If the idea is to win over the jury by the end of the lawyer’s opening statement, how, in practice, is that done?

Trial lawyers steeped in the research know that juries respond to a well-considered theory of the case, punctuated by a pithy theme.

A theory of the case is a brief, three- to five-sentence statement akin to what is known as an “elevator pitch.” The theme is a short, pithy summary of the theory of the case that is easy for a juror to remember. Often the theme is the first sentence out of the lawyer’s mouth, followed by a fuller description of the theory.

Indeed, in my class at Harvard, the very first skill I teach is how to develop theories and themes. In order to effectively convey a theory in a case, many lawyers start their opening statements with “This is a case about…” and then fill in the specific details.

So it went on the first day of Trump’s trial.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and fraud,” Colangelo, the prosecutor, told the jury. “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks during a news conference about former President Donald Trump’s arraignment on April 4, 2023.
Kena Betancur/Getty Images

In stark contrast, Trump’s defense lawyers said: “There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.”

Though prosecutors have tried to put a “sinister” spin on this, Blanche said jurors will learn it’s not a crime.

In each example, the jury is given enough information to frame the evidence they will hear throughout the trial.

After both sides have finished their openings, data shows that more than two-thirds of the jury will have come to a decision that will persist through the remainder of the trial.

Why do juries tend to behave this way?

Research also has taught trial lawyers that if you connect the jury with your theory of a case at the beginning of the trial, jurors will process all the rest of the evidence – whether potentially helpful to the prosecution or to the defense – through the prism of that theory.

The importance of opening statements cannot be overstated. They set the tone and offer the jury a framework to understand the upcoming months of testimony they are about to hear.

Material used in this story was originally published on April 22, 2024. Läs mer…

Passover: The festival of freedom and the ambivalence of exile

The Jewish holiday cycle is, to a large extent, an exploration and commemoration of the experience of exile. The fall festival of Sukkot, for example, is celebrated in small booths, temporary shelters that recall the Israelites’ experience sheltering in tents while wandering in the desert for 40 years after fleeing slavery in Egypt. The story of Purim, a springtime festival, takes place when ancient Jews lived in exile in the Persian Empire – and illustrates the precariousness of life as a minority.

And then there’s Passover, which begins on April 22, 2024. It marks the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt – the first step toward redemption. The theme of freedom dominates the holiday.

Passover is the only holiday that marks the transition from exile to wandering, and not to homecoming, highlighting the complexity of exile – the focus of my recently published book, “Exile and the Jews,” co-edited with Marc Saperstein.

As a literary scholar, I look to novels and memoirs for examples that illustrate exile and its aftermath from different perspectives. Here I focus on those from the Jewish communities of Egypt and Iraq, sites of the two major exiles in Jewish history.

Into the unknown

In her 1983 novella “The Miracle Hater,” the late Israeli novelist Shulamit Hareven depicts the Hebrews in their passage from Egypt and their first taste of freedom. Writing a modern “midrash” – a rabbinic genre that elaborates on a biblical text – she reimagines the story of Exodus.

Whereas the biblical description centers on heroic leaders like Moses and Joshua, Hareven concentrates on the unnamed masses: the Jewish slaves who have just crossed the Red Sea, now faced with life in the desert and becoming a new community.

‘The Flight out of Egypt,’ by Richard Dadd.
Tate Britain/Wikimedia Commons

Hareven’s narrative elaborates on the uprooting wrought by the Exodus, exploring the unexpected ambivalence with which the Hebrews face their newfound freedom. They have fled oppression, but that means leaving everything familiar to wander, seemingly endlessly, in the great unknown of the desert.

Israeli writer Orly Castel-Bloom weaves family lore, history and some alternative history into “An Egyptian Novel,” published in 2015. She both invents and lays claim to the one family who did not join the exodus in ancient times but remained in Egypt throughout the ages. Although they are merely a passing mention, their existence gives the reader pause to wonder if indeed any of the Hebrews stayed behind.

Many Jews did stay behind after the next major exile in Jewish history, which began when Babylonia besieged Jerusalem and deported residents of the conquered city in 586 B.C.E. When Persian king Cyrus the Great issued an edict almost 50 years later inviting the Jews to return to Jerusalem and the land of Judah, only a minority did so. Those who remained in Babylon became the root of the diaspora and established the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world.

‘Out of Egypt’

More recently, Jews have lived in both of these sites of ancient exiles: modern-day Egypt and Iraq. While those in Iraq could claim a history of hundreds of years, those in Egypt were more likely to have moved there within the last few generations.

In his 1995 memoir “Out of Egypt,” novelist, essayist and professor André Aciman – best known for the book-turned-film “Call Me By My Name” – writes movingly and memorably about living on the eve of exile.

By the early 1960s, Jews found themselves less welcome in Egypt. Aciman details the harassment his family endured – anonymous phone calls, surveillance, seizure of the family business by the government – before they were given orders to leave.

“It never occurred to us that a seder in Egypt was a contradiction in terms,” he wrote in The New York Times, describing the Passover meal his family held the night before their departure. The Egypt of the Exodus story seemed far from the Egypt of Aciman’s childhood, the one he loved.

Writer André Aciman attends the Salerno Letteratura festival on June 18, 2022, in Italy.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Looking back at that last meal, the novelist wondered just what was being celebrated, and which departure of the Jews the Seder was commemorating. “The fault lines of exile and diaspora always run deep, and we are always from elsewhere, and from elsewhere before that,” he noted.

In “Out of Egypt,” the irony of the family preparing to leave on Passover is not lost on the author, the reader or, one suspects, the characters themselves. After a rather dismal attempt at a Seder, the narrator wandered through the streets of Alexandria, mourning a place that had become home. Until this moment, the idea of Egypt as a place of exile had not occurred to him; the idea of Israel being a place of return foreign.

On that last evening, the narrator walked the promenade along the waterfront and was offered “fiteer,” sold on street corners in honor of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. It is not kosher for Passover, when leavened grains are forbidden, but the boy enjoyed the fried dough, the taste of which he recalled with pleasure many years later.

The blend of cultures, foreign and local, shows the family to be not unlike other cosmopolitan-mongrel Jews living in Egypt at the time. The city was “so inseparable from who I was at that very instant,” the narrator recalls. “And suddenly I knew … that I would always remember this night.”

Jewish women in Egypt bid each other farewell at the Cairo airport in 1956.
Max Scheler/Picture Post via Getty Images

It is a poignant account of the very personal nature of exile. And yet it is an experience potentially shared by everyone in the Jewish community. Exile is a place unknown, over the edge of the precipice.

Into Iraq

The Passover holiday is also at the center of British journalist Tim Judah’s visit to Iraq to cover the 2003 American invasion. He was the first of his family in many years to “return” to Baghdad. His father’s family had left Iraq in the 19th century for India in the wake of persecutions during Dawud Pasha’s reign.

Noting that his visit would coincide with the holiday, Judah set out to meet as many of the estimated three dozen Jews who still lived in Iraq. The journalist found faint traces of the once-thriving community: palimpsests of stars of David in brickwork, a Hebrew inscription in Ezekiel’s tomb. At the time of Iraq’s independence in 1932, Jews comprised a plurality in the capital; business came to a standstill on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

A Jewish girls school in Baghdad, photographed in the late 1800s.
Culture Club/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

The rise of Arab nationalism, the establishment of the state of Israel and shifting geopolitics led to the mass emigration of the Jewish community in the early 1950s. By 2003, the few Jews Judah found lived in trepidation and ramshackle homes.

“I tried to picture my forebears, in the fields or perhaps in the shops or the market, but I couldn’t,” Judah wrote in Granta magazine. “A cold grey dust filled the air. Wrecked cars and burnt-out tanks littered the road back to Baghdad. … So my ancestors lived here for 2,500 years? So what? My pilgrimage was over. I will never need to do it again.”

Judah’s pilgrimage leads not to a renewed sense of belonging but a break. His family’s uprooting is complete.

And so it goes, the cycle of exile and remembrance, uprooting and rerooting. With the Passover holiday, those free can celebrate their freedom, and those who are rooted, their rootedness. Yet at the same time, families around the Seder table can remember those who are not yet free, and those still suffering from being uprooted. Läs mer…