Shaking on it

Appearing in the Australian, July 2020

The Handshake: A Gripping History
By Ella Al-Shamahi
Allen & Unwin, $30, 176 pages, ISBN 9781788167802

Ah, what’s in a handshake? Quite a lot, according to this sparky, well-researched book. Ella Al-Shamahi is an evolutionary biologist and archaeologist who dabbles in stand-up comedy – interesting combination! – and in The Handshake: A Gripping History she looks at her subject from a variety of perspectives. Her knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of humour make for an enjoyable mix.

She is (aside from the unique CV) well-placed to do it. She was raised as a fundamentalist Moslem (in Birmingham, UK), and physical contact between women and unrelated men was forbidden. When she moved away from her faith in her twenties and began shaking hands, she was struck by the social importance of it, as well as the sheer enjoyment of an act that can bridge the gap between strangers. The handshake used to be a male-only thing but now it extends across gender boundaries.

Al-Shamahi notes that chimps and some other primates shake hands, and it seems to have the function of ‘let’s make up’ after a conflict, similar to one type of handshake amongst humans. Isolated tribes that have had no contact with the modern word often shake hands as well.

Another purpose of a handshake is to seal a deal. Al-Shamahi points to a ninth-century sculptured relief from Iraq that shows two kings shaking hands. Even now, successful negotiations in business or politics are wrapped up with handshakes all round.

But the most common form is the handshake as greeting. It probably stems from the idea of each participant showing that they are not carrying a weapon, although it is also connected to the closeness involved. The palms are intensely wired with sensory receptors, and movement of the skin releases oxytocin, a social bonding hormone. There is, says Al-Shamahi, “no room for anything other than positivity in the handshake”.

For this reason, the coronavirus-era fist-bump or elbow-bump simply do not measure up. Al-Shamahi believes that the handshake will re-emerge once the pandemic is past. She notes that handshakes have been socially or legally prohibited in earlier pandemics, like the Spanish Flu, but came roaring back as soon as possible.

But if shaking hands is somehow rooted in our DNA, how is it that there are some cultures, such as Japan and Thailand, that do not do it? Al-Shamahi speculates that there may have been protracted epidemics in the past in those countries, and as a result alternatives, such as the Japanese bow, evolved. Well, maybe. Al-Shamahi does not feel any obligation to explain absolutely everything, and her telling of the rollicking  story is the richer for it.

Of course, Al-Shamahi devotes a chapter to the right way to shake hands, including choreography, grip, the all-important eye contact, duration, and eventual release. Someone has actually developed a formula for this but Al-Shamahi takes the view that you should largely follow your instincts, with a measure of social sensitivity. “Get in with a smile and some warmth,” she advises. “The handshake is not the endgame. Human connection is. So that is how you shake hands. Godspeed.”

There have been many occasions where a handshake has resonated beyond the act itself. The 1985 handshake between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was one, signalling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Another was that between Nelson Mandela and South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar in 1995, bringing a divided nation together. Princess Diana shaking hands with a dying AIDS patient was an intimate moment that changed how the world perceived the disease.

On the other hand, there have been some real shockers. The handshake between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler ended badly for all concerned. US President William McKinley was assassinated by someone who got close under the pretence of shaking his hand. The 2015 handshake between Raoul Castro and Barack Obama was, according to Al-Shamahi, “an unchoreographed mess”. But in terms of rating awful handshakes, she gives the award to Donald Trump, whose 29-second grip on Japanese PM Shinzo Abe set something of a benchmark.

All this is good fun as well as being insightful and informative. It makes you look forward to the time when handshakes can again be a part of our lives. Start counting down the days.

Free, money and crises

Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2021

The Flip Side of Free: Understanding the Economics of the Internet
By Michael Kenda
MIT Press, $50, 249 pages

One of the traditional principles of economics is that there is no such thing as ‘free’. Kende, an academic specialising in Internet governance and regulation, asks a simple question: in the Digital Age, does that principle still hold?

Maybe, he answers, but it needs to be re-worked. The ‘free’ wi-fi in Starbucks, for example, is free for customers but the company pays a fee for it, which is presumably passed on or absorbed. But the real cost might be elsewhere. The sign-on contract (which virtually no-one reads) gives Starbucks the right to collect and use customers’ data however they choose. This is, Kende discovers, a common arrangement.

Kende sees data collection and its connection to targeted advertising as a key driver of the Internet’s evolution. Looking broadly, he also examines how open-source protocols have shaped the technology, and where it might be going. He is a firm believer in the benefits of the Internet but accepts that there are the downsides. Kende puts forward some options for reform, including legal mechanisms to stop uncompetitive behaviour from the tech giants and to provide privacy protection. Easier said than done, but nevertheless Flip Side is a fascinating account of how we got to here.

Preparing for the Next Financial Crisis
By Olivier de Bandt, Francoise Drumetz and Christian Pfister
Taylor & Francis, $94, 386 pages

Ever since the Global Financial Crisis, policymakers have sought to strengthen the finance sector, particularly the major banks. This book, aimed mainly at advanced students and researchers but likely to be of interest to many in the broad finance community, reviews the work that has been done. It finds that results have been patchy at best, with much of the good effort on debt reduction being overturned by the COVID-19 crisis. The US has done fairly well in improving the underlying health of its financial sector but even before the pandemic Europe remained in a shaky position. The sovereign debt crisis of the eurozone has been pushed into the background in the past few years but it has not gone away.

However, there has been some important progress on international agencies and standards, and most governments have developed more tools for macroprudential management. This is good news for the long-term outlook but the concluding section of the book discusses a number of emerging challenges, including cyber-risks, crypto-assets and climate change. All of these are daunting but the book’s authors believe that there are now avenues for global co-operation and information sharing that can provide a foundation for action.

Your Money, Your Investments: Preserving and Growing Your Wealth in Good and Tough Times (2nd ed.)
By Ben Fok
Marshall Cavendish, $26, 240 pages

Dr Fok is a very experienced financial adviser based in Singapore, and also a prolific writer of articles and columns. This book collects his articles into a coherent package, with an emphasis on the volatile financial environment of the past few years. He notes that in Singapore, as in many other countries, a significant part of the population is preparing to move into retirement, and he discusses a range of suitable strategies to ensure a comfortable future. He realises that many people like to do their own investing but suggests that a financial planner can provide useful guidance regarding retirement, including drawing up timelines and assessing the level of security needed.

The stock market can be a good way to generate wealth but he underlines the need to do careful research about sectors and companies. Leave derivatives and other complex products to the professionals, he advises, and look for long-term growth. When the market dips – as it inevitably, occasionally will – do not panic; hold your position and ride it out. A broad-based portfolio, with some investments in other areas, is a good hedge against downturns. The overall message is: know what you want, plan carefully, and stick to your strategy.

Downloadable Resources

Temp job advice

This interesting blog article on the Hayes Recruitment site provides advice on being interviewed for a temporary assignment or contract role, and how the process differs from an interview for a permanent position. The applicant needs to be able to show that they can step into the role immediately, often with minimal supervision. Questions are likely to focus on technical skills, with a discussion of past jobs and roles. Interviewers are also likely to ask the reasons for seeking a temp job as opposed to a permanent role. Useful advice, and the site has several related articles on non-permanent work.

Read at:
https://www.hays.com.au/career-advice/interview-tips/career-advice/interview-tips-for-contract-temp-roles


CFO future

The Corporate Reporting Survey from accounting giant EY uses the views of over a thousand CFOs and financial controllers to map the path ahead, with an emphasis on how reporting can be re-designed for the post-pandemic era. The critical issue is to balance resilience and flexibility with the stability needed to generate sustainable, long-term value for stakeholders. Related to this is the need to integrate social and environmental issues with financial reporting. Most senior finance leaders are willing to use or create innovative tools to generate new outcomes, although there is also an acknowledgement of the difficulties down the road.

Download from:
https://www.ey.com/en_au/assurance/how-can-corporate-reporting-connect-your-business-to-its-true-value


Female focus

Women Are The Business is an award-winning podcast series from the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne, focusing on the hurdles women face at work and in life. Some articles are based on academic research while others use the perspective of real-life experience. There are important pieces on the reasons for the gender pay gap, the impact of flexible work arrangements, and the expectations placed on working women. The podcast series includes interviews with prominent women in business, and the panel discussion on how to promote greater gender equality in the recovery period is particularly interesting.

Go to:
https://fbe.unimelb.edu.au/womenarethebusiness


Indonesian opportunities

Global bank HSBC is in a good position to assess the future for many Asian countries, and this report on Indonesia identifies opportunities and challenges. The Indonesian government was quick to implement a range of fiscal and monetary initiatives to combat the COVID-19 crisis, and the economy weathered the storm fairly well. The bond market is likely to do well over the next year, with large corporations, state-owned enterprises and government all seeking to raise funds to finance the next stage of the recovery.

The report includes an interview with HSBC’s Sean Henderson, co-head of debt capital markets, Asia Pacific.

Download from:
https://www.gbm.hsbc.com/insights/growth/investing-in-indonesia-a-special-report


Changes to working

Patty McCord was formerly the Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, and she now works as a consultant on workplace issues. In this Ted Talk she draws on her experience to review the changes brought about by the pandemic, discussing what is likely to be permanent. One change is that the crisis has led many people to re-consider how much of their time they want to commit to work. Another relates to the importance of good communication skills, especially if organisations are going to be flatter, more dynamic, and with a higher proportion of people working with flexible, customised arrangements.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/patty_mccord_4_lessons_the_pandemic_taught_us_about_work_life_and_balance

Down Memory Lane

On Charlatans
By Chris Bowen
Hachette, $17, 130 pages, ISBN 9780733645235

The ‘On … ’ series of books, of which On Charlatans is a part, is meant to be the opportunity to show the author as a serious thinker, a chance to put forward original ideas and survey the political environment. The publisher, Hachette, should receive credit for its willingness to do this but with Chris Bowen they struck a dud. This might be a bit surprising, because Bowen, who entered Parliament in 2004 and has held a number of interesting portfolios and positions, is often touted as a possible future ALP leader. Well, when you look at Labor’s recent leadership efforts maybe it should not be surprising.

There is a very dated feel to the whole undertaking. Bowen comes from an old Labor family – his father was a mechanic who liked a drink – and Chris does not seem to have ever really left home. Or, perhaps more correctly, his views seem to have crystalised around 1980 and have not changed since then. He still thinks of Labor as the party of the battlers and the Liberals as the party of the toffs. At least, that is how it should be, in Bowen-world. He acknowledges that Labor is in structural trouble, and he notes that the 2019 election saw a significant chunk of its traditional base defect to the Liberals. He points out that Labor-ish parties are in trouble all around the world: in the UK, in Canada, in Israel, in Greece, and so on. It was lucky that Donald Trump rescued the Democrats in the US, eh?

The reason he offers for this is an old one: Labor’s enemies cheat. Specifically, the leaders of conservative parties around the world are charlatans, selling a poisonous, volatile concoction of populism, division and fakery. This is a very flexible definition, and it expands as the book goes on, to include everyone that Bowen doesn’t like. It’s a long list, with Scott Morrison at the top. Bowen is unwilling to give ScoMo an inch, and he almost runs out of nasty things to say about him. Almost. Bowen nearly splutters in indignation at the idea that Morrison might have anything useful to offer mainstream Australia. Authenticity? Empathy? But … but that’s our thing!

It is when Bowen starts to discuss social divisiveness that the book gets a bit silly. Reverting to an earlier era, he projects Labor as the party of Bringing Australia Together and the Liberals as the Great Dividing Range. Really? Even the Hawke model of corporatism had plenty of room for venom and spite. But surely the prize for divisive leaders must go to Paul Keating, who made no bones about it. Rudd and Gillard also had nice little earners in us-against-them hyperbole, and Bowen was at the Cabinet table at the time. (Rudd is still trying to whip up populist fervour with his anti-Murdoch crusade, although Gillard had the grace to depart the stage when the curtain came down.)

Certainly, our-side/other-side rhetoric is one of the tools of any politician, and there is always enough to go around. But that is the point: Bowen’s picture of Australian politics simply does not match the reality. It never did.

If the book sounds foolish here then it gets positively weird when Bowen looks at US politics. His disdain of Trump is a given, and he blames right-wing commentators on cable television and social media for spreading hatred with overwrought language. Amazingly, Bowen says there is no equivalent infrastructure on the left. This is astonishing. Has he never heard of Rachel Maddow? Don Lemon? Joe Scarborough? MSNBC? CNN, surely? Apparently not. It makes one wonder whether Bowen actually knows anything about the modern world. It’s back to 1980, again. And again.

When it comes to rescuing Labor from its doldrums, there is not much on offer from Bowen. A vague reference to genuine nationalism and a commitment to “excellence in democracy”, whatever that is. Oh, and the old chestnut of the republic. Perhaps Bowen was not in the country when there was a referendum on the issue (fyi, Chris, it failed dismally). This is the smart, fair-minded guy, is it? What, then, might the others be like? It looks like Labor might be in more trouble than even Bowen might be ready to admit. Memory Lane turns out to be a dead end.

Automation, learning and doing good

Appearing in In The Black magazine, June 2021

Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation

By Kevin Roose

Hachette, 256 pages, $30

As a technology columnist for the New York Times, Roose has watched many waves of disruption come and go. For a long time he was zealous about AI, algorithms and automation but in the past few years he has become concerned over the loss of jobs and the broader social impact. The introduction for AI sometimes means people being fired but is more often felt through fewer hires and stagnant wages. The most vulnerable jobs are those with high levels of predictability. If a job has an operations manual of under three pages, he says, it will probably be ripe for automation. But he also points out that AI systems are capable of staggering errors, so a good system of human oversight is a wise idea.

The jobs that will remain are those which require adaptability, judgement, and creativity. Not all of them are high-level positions: nursing is an example of a field that is actually growing. It is best to have multiple, integrated skills and a capacity for rapport. In fact, human connection will become a critical asset. He also offers advice to business leaders: think carefully about this before you rush into something that cannot be easily reversed.

Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet

By Michelle Weise

Wiley, 272 pages, $42

With working lives that can last for fifty years or more a critical question is whether the traditional four-year university degree completed when someone is about 22 is still appropriate. Weise, an academic who doubles as an adviser to companies on their skills requirements, answers that it is clearly not. But it persists because many people have a stake in it. She proposes a technology-driven “learning ecosystem” which will allow for rolling waves of reskilling, with educators and employers working together to identify and meet emerging needs. This requires an understanding of the future job market, including possible career pathways; education tailored to both the learner and potential employers; an integration of training, skills development and existing responsibilities; and a clear, transparent hiring process. The principles would be underpinned by a robust data infrastructure, so that information can be shared between all the stakeholders, including government policymakers.

Weise believes that the outlines of a new system can be discerned in the rising levels of dissatisfaction with the current degree-based structure. Eventually, a new system will be determined by market forces. For their part, if traditional universities cannot map a path for change they will eventually find themselves without a role.

Leading Tomorrow: How Effective Leaders Change Paradigms, Build Responsible Brands, and Transform Employees

By Raj Aseervatham

Routledge, 260 pages, $43 (e-book)

Aseervatham is a project engineer by profession but in his global consulting work he has seen growing demands for businesses to move beyond making profits towards making a positive difference in the world. He identifies the key element of the transition as a generation of leaders who are willing to remake the corporate culture, building connections with stakeholders as well as undertaking collaborative projects with like-minded companies. He does not under-estimate the difficulty of this transformation, and notes that it will probably entail a personal journey for the leaders as well.

Meeting legal obligations and giving money to worthy causes is no longer enough. Investors, regulators and community activists now make up a new environment for corporate activity. Tapping into emerging networks of information and developing appropriate metrics are key tasks for leaders.

The world’s problems are too urgent for change to be incremental, says Aseervatham. Instead, radical action is needed. He believes that playing a positive social role will be supported by shareholders, who want to be proud of their company. Likewise, a company’s brand will benefit if the company acts with integrity and responsibility. A business that does good is, in the end, a business that does well.

Downloadable Resources


Looking ahead

A new report from KPMG Australia, 30 Voices on 2030 – The New Reality for Financial Services, brings together industry experts to explore issues such as changing societal expectations, new business models and regulatory frameworks. Their predictions relate to the need to clarify purpose, build novel sources of revenue, and integrate developments in digital currencies and blockchain. Another critical area going forward is managing the data environment, including resource allocation and security. Several of the experts note that the past year has shown the need for resilience, with the most successful companies likely to be those that can quickly adapt to crises and disruption.

Download from:
https://home.kpmg/au/en/home/insights/2021/02/30-voices-on-2030-new-reality-financial-services.html


Charting a path

Consulting giant McKinsey has done much to map the path to global recovery but its expertise extends into a wide range of fields, from finance and leadership to science and demographics. A tool that it offers is a daily chart, delivered by email, on a pertinent issue. The McKinsey charts database is easily searchable and there are often links to other material. Some of the most interesting charts deal with climate change and emissions pricing, as well as the impact of ameliorative steps already taken. These charts are useful for providing at-a-glance information or to enhance a presentation or report.

Go to:
Charting the path to the next normal | McKinsey & Company


Crisis consequences

The World Economic Forum, a conference of government leaders, senior business figures, and thought leaders, produces an annual analysis of global-level risks, and its most recent publication focuses on the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. The report forecasts increasing social fragmentation in the next few years, and a greater level of geopolitical instability in the medium term. This will make it even more difficult to deal with long-term concerns such as environmental degradation and climate change. The Global Risks Report 2021 also examines the impact of digitisation, which offers productivity improvements but also raises the prospect of large-scale job displacement and chronic unemployment.

Download from:
https://www.weforum.org/global-risks/reports


Cyber link

The Australian Cyber Security Centre offers a wealth of information, and one of the best ways to access it is the ACSC Partnership Program. There are three streams: network partners, for people and organisations with responsibility for and expertise in technology networks; business partners, for companies that want to be kept aware of cyber security information; and home partners, for individuals that have an interest in technology issues. The Program includes a subscription to the ACSC Alert Service, which flags new threats and problems; a monthly newsletter containing advisories and collaboration opportunities; and invitations to events co-ordinated by the ACSC.

Explore at:
https://www.cyber.gov.au/partner-hub/acsc-partnership-program


Talent search

Recruitment firm Michael Page sees demand for talented professionals growing strongly over the next year, based on survey data from over 5500 businesses in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. The data, provided in the Talent Trends 2021 report, indicates that many corporates are conducting recruitment drives and are also offering incentives to keep the people they have. The growth of contracting and work-from-home arrangements is likely to continue, even in those Asian countries where it has not been common to date. A particular area to watch, according to the report, is Chinese companies that are investing in markets outside of China.

Download from:
https://www.michaelpage.com.au

A Fake’s Progress

Beautiful Things: A Memoir
By Hunter Biden
Simon & Schuster, $33, 272 pages, ISBN 9781982151119

There are  people whose lives simply run off the rails. Sometimes it is due to bad luck. Sometimes it is the circumstances of the world at large. And sometimes it is all their own work. Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is definitely in the third category, although he spends a good part of this book trying to claim that he is in one or both of the others. It is hard, reading Beautiful Things, to know whether you are supposed to laugh or cry.

True, there were tragedies in Hunter’s life, which he recounts in the first dozen pages: the loss of his mother and sister in a car accident, the slow death of his brother Beau from brain cancer. He claims to have been especially close to Beau, who was the ever-rising star of the clan. Hunter’s respect for his brother’s memory, however, did not stop him from having an affair with Beau’s widow. And later her sister. The astonishing thing is that he saw nothing wrong with it. He never understood why his first marriage collapsed.

Even before Beau’s death Hunter seemed bent on self-destruction. Crack cocaine was his drug of choice although booze also figured prominently. He admits that he simply loved the high. There are lengthy chapters detailing his binges of drugs, drink and sex: “riding bareback on a rocket ship” is how he puts it. He is hardly the first person to slide into multiple addictions but there cannot be many who started with so many advantages and embraced the fall so voraciously. He explored numerous ways to clean up but his heart was not in it. He says that meeting the woman who would become his second wife put him on the road to sobriety. Well, let’s wait and see.

How was this life of vice and indulgence, of expensive hotels and more expensive prostitutes, paid for? Putting it simply, people kept giving him money. He says that he was eminently qualified for a board seat with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, although he fails to explain how. Likewise, a procession of shadowy Chinese firms threw funds at him, for reasons that are unclear. The publisher of Beautiful Things gave him an advance of US$2 million with little information on what the book would be about.

Hunter is unsurprised by the largesse, merely assuming that people like him as much as he likes himself. He suggests that the money from Burisma, in particular, allowed him to attend to Beau during the final stages of his illness. It is a nice sentiment, but the Biden family was already wealthy – itself an interesting story, although one for another time. And it hardly explains the long series of dubious deals that has swirled around Hunter for years.

Along the way, he found the time to father a child with a stripper, although he denied it until a paternity test provided proof. The infamous laptop – which he apparently put in for repair and then forgot about – included videos of him enjoying himself with a range of women, as well as consuming incredible amounts of drugs and vodka. There is also a tangle of financial records, including a maze of front companies and main-chance characters. He asserts in the book that the laptop was the product of a Russian disinformation campaign, although he has since admitted that it might be his. It is an odd thing to be vague about, given his detailed recollections of his crack days.

Remarkably, the legacy media in the US chose to ignore the laptop saga and Hunter’s many other transgressions, presumably because he says plenty of nasty things about Trump and various other Republicans. They must have been thinking: he might be a corrupt cokehead but he is one of us. So the reviews of the book in places like the New Yorker have been kind to the point of sycophancy. As for the book-buying public, they have stayed away from Beautiful Things in droves, despite a massive PR campaign. Most people know a fraud and a manipulator when they see one.

What does all this say about Joe? Biden senior has maintained that his son has never done anything wrong, has always been a good boy. Really? What does that tell us about Joe’s judgement, in the face of Hunter’s lurid confessions? Joe says he is proud of Hunter for overcoming his addictions but is this the sign of a loving, tolerant father or of a gullible old fool? Perhaps both. Despite Joe’s faith it is hard to see what Hunter has done with his life beyond trading on the “coveted credential” of a famous family name. Would people be so willing to shower him with cash and favours if he was called Hunter Jones? Unlikely, since he has not revealed any talents beyond self-promotion. Certainly, his abilities as a writer are only adequate.

The final chapter of the book takes the form of a letter to the departed Beau. It is rather mawkish, coming across mainly as a plea for sympathy. He seems to believe that he is automatically entitled to forgiveness – indeed, entitled to everything. And that is the dominant note of the book: it is an exercise in narcissism, the kind of selfishness that comes from a childhood and adolescence of being told that you are special, talented and important – despite all evidence to the contrary.

In this sense, Hunter Biden is typical of a certain class of person at a certain point in our times. And an object lesson of how a life can be wasted. At the age of 51, he still has time to do something useful. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

Missing the point

Appearing in  Australian Spectator magazine, May 2021

How Good Is Scott Morrison? 
By Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington
Hachette, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780733645747

Between them, van Onselen and Errington have a wealth of research and writing experience, and their biography of John Howard was both insightful and entertaining. So it is surprising, and rather disappointing, that How Good Is Scott Morrison? leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, it simply leaves a great deal out, to the point where there is a question of whether it is actually a biography at all.

The book really looks at only a few events: the Liberal leadership change that put Morrison in the big chair, the ‘unwinnable’ election campaign, the 2019 bushfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, these are important aspects of Morrison’s tenure as PM, but really there is not much new to say about them. Nikki Savva’s book, Plots and Prayers, on how the Liberals fumbled their way to Morrison becoming leader, and Aaron Patrick’s book on the election, The Surprise Party, were comprehensive and considered. Van Onselen and Errington seem to have mainly sorted through two years’ worth of press clippings, rather than delve deeply into the formation of their subject’s political personality.

There is almost nothing on Morrison’s upbringing and adolescence in the Sydney suburbs, for example. His university days are virtually ignored (he studied economics and geography). The influence of his family is passed over (his father was a local political figure, as an independent). His periods as the head of Tourism Australia, and as director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, are mentioned but not really examined.

Perhaps the most surprising omission is Morrison’s tenure as Immigration Minister. It was here that he established a reputation for whatever-it-takes determination, and it was here that he first moved into the public eye. But how did he go from stop-the-boats tough guy to daggy-but-likeable ScoMo? That is a big jump, after all, and just brushing it away as a series of marketing manoeuvres tells us nothing.

True, Morrison never had the sense of destiny or the charisma associated with, say, Bob Hawke, or the raw drive and ambition of someone like Tony Abbott. When he saw his chance for leadership by riding through the middle he grabbed it, as would be expected. That’s about it.

Van Onselen and Errington assert that Morrison does not have much in the way of core beliefs, although they also note that ideology does not play particularly well in Australia. He often makes grand pronouncements that are not followed up. He is very good at taking all the credit and shifting all the blame. Well, guys, that’s politics for you.

Yes, Morrison made a thorough mess of handling the 2019 bushfires, leaving the country for a holiday in Hawaii at the worst possible time and, when he eventually returned, looking generally uninterested in the plight of victims. But he seemed to learn the lessons, and when the COVID-19 crisis hit he moved quickly and with personal involvement. Tough decisions had to be made with imperfect and contradictory information but he generally got it right. Any sense of fiscal rectitude went out the window as the government struggled to stop the downturn turning into a collapse. Hypocrisy? Maybe – or maybe the most appropriate response to unprecedented circumstances.

Van Onselen and Errington give all due credit to Morrison, whose pragmatism in this case turned out to be the best path. They go so far as to say that his approach, and the broad public support for it, will make him a sure bet in the next election. Perhaps, although the 2019 election demonstrated how unpredictable campaigns can be.

The issue, they argue, is what he will do after another win. Will he undertake courageous reform or opt for the quiet life of administration? Essentially, they don’t know. Peter, Wayne, here’s a news flash: the point of a biography is to provide informed analysis. Leaving the question hanging makes one wonder about the point of the exercise.

How Good Is Scott Morrison? could have, and should have, been a much better book. Instead, it feels like a rush job, although the publishing timeline suggests it was not. If Morrison wins the next election, maybe Van Onselen and Errington will provide a revised and updated version. Let’s hope they make a better job of it if they do.

A Fake’s Progress

Beautiful Things: A Memoir
By Hunter Biden
Simon & Schuster, $33, 272 pages, ISBN 9781982151119

There are  people whose lives simply run off the rails. Sometimes it is due to bad luck. Sometimes it is the circumstances of the world at large. And sometimes it is all their own work. Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is definitely in the third category, although he spends a good part of this book trying to claim that he is in one or both of the others. It is hard, reading Beautiful Things, to know whether you are supposed to laugh or cry.

True, there were tragedies in Hunter’s life, which he recounts in the first dozen pages: the loss of his mother and sister in a car accident, the slow death of his brother Beau from brain cancer. He claims to have been especially close to Beau, who was the ever-rising star of the clan. Hunter’s respect for his brother’s memory, however, did not stop him from having an affair with Beau’s widow. And later her sister. The astonishing thing is that he saw nothing wrong with it. He never understood why his first marriage collapsed.

Even before Beau’s death Hunter seemed bent on self-destruction. Crack cocaine was his drug of choice although booze also figured prominently. He admits that he simply loved the high. There are lengthy chapters detailing his binges of drugs, drink and sex: “riding bareback on a rocket ship” is how he puts it. He is hardly the first person to slide into multiple addictions but there cannot be many who started with so many advantages and embraced the fall so voraciously. He explored numerous ways to clean up but his heart was not in it. He says that meeting the woman who would become his second wife put him on the road to sobriety. Well, let’s wait and see.

How was this life of vice and indulgence, of expensive hotels and more expensive prostitutes, paid for? Putting it simply, people kept giving him money. He says that he was eminently qualified for a board seat with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, although he fails to explain how. Likewise, a procession of shadowy Chinese firms threw funds at him, for reasons that are unclear. The publisher of Beautiful Things gave him an advance of US$2 million with little information on what the book would be about.

Hunter is unsurprised by the largesse, merely assuming that people like him as much as he likes himself. He suggests that the money from Burisma, in particular, allowed him to attend to Beau during the final stages of his illness. It is a nice sentiment, but the Biden family was already wealthy – itself an interesting story, although one for another time. And it hardly explains the long series of dubious deals that has swirled around Hunter for years.

Along the way, he found the time to father a child with a stripper, although he denied it until a paternity test provided proof. The infamous laptop – which he apparently put in for repair and then forgot about – included videos of him enjoying himself with a range of women, as well as consuming incredible amounts of drugs and vodka. There is also a tangle of financial records, including a maze of front companies and main-chance characters. He asserts in the book that the laptop was the product of a Russian disinformation campaign, although he has since admitted that it might be his. It is an odd thing to be vague about, given his detailed recollections of his crack days.

Remarkably, the legacy media in the US chose to ignore the laptop saga and Hunter’s many other transgressions, presumably because he says plenty of nasty things about Trump and various other Republicans. They must have been thinking: he might be a corrupt cokehead but he is one of us. So the reviews of the book in places like the New Yorker have been kind to the point of sycophancy. As for the book-buying public, they have stayed away from Beautiful Things in droves, despite a massive PR campaign. Most people know a fraud and a manipulator when they see one.

What does all this say about Joe? Biden senior has maintained that his son has never done anything wrong, has always been a good boy. Really? What does that tell us about Joe’s judgement, in the face of Hunter’s lurid confessions? Joe says he is proud of Hunter for overcoming his addictions but is this the sign of a loving, tolerant father or of a gullible old fool? Perhaps both. Despite Joe’s faith it is hard to see what Hunter has done with his life beyond trading on the “coveted credential” of a famous family name. Would people be so willing to shower him with cash and favours if he was called Hunter Jones? Unlikely, since he has not revealed any talents beyond self-promotion. Certainly, his abilities as a writer are only adequate.

The final chapter of the book takes the form of a letter to the departed Beau. It is rather mawkish, coming across mainly as a plea for sympathy. He seems to believe that he is automatically entitled to forgiveness – indeed, entitled to everything. And that is the dominant note of the book: it is an exercise in narcissism, the kind of selfishness that comes from a childhood and adolescence of being told that you are special, talented and important – despite all evidence to the contrary.

In this sense, Hunter Biden is typical of a certain class of person at a certain point in our times. And an object lesson of how a life can be wasted. At the age of 51, he still has time to do something useful. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

What leaders read, dealing with disruption, and boiling frogs

Appearing in In the Black magazine, 2021

Burnout Survival Kit: Instant Relief from Modern Work
By Imogen Dall
Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $25

Like a frog being boiled, we can become used to ever-increasing levels of work-induced stress – except that at some point it becomes too much, and crashes in on us. Eventually, the frog is cooked. Dall, a writer who has personal experience of near-burnout, has good advice on how to recognise the signs. Panic attacks are a sure indication that things are slipping, and she shows how to create a space of personal calm, with breathing exercises and coping statements.

A slow build-up of stress, usually involving insomnia, anxiety and depression, is more difficult to deal with. It requires understanding the causes and getting away from them, with scheduled breaks and some digital de-toxing. She suggests that you give yourself ‘permission slips’ – a way of allowing yourself to do things you enjoy (“to drink wine in the bath” is a good one). Make a point of connecting with family and friends, she says, and talk about anything but work.

For the longer term, knowing when and how to refuse unwanted projects is important. It might even be necessary to downshift or to change careers. Fine, says Dall. After all, no-one ever died wishing they had spent more time at the office.

The Leader’s Bookshelf: 25 great books and their readers
By Martin Cohen
Rowman & Littlefield, 232 pages, $64

Cohen is interested in why certain individuals are outstanding in their fields, and he provides an answer in the way they approach the books they read. The people he discusses are avid readers and always have been. Investor/philanthropist Warren Buffett consumes hundreds of books a year, while Barack Obama counts Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls as a lifelong favourite.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, share a fascination with the novel Dice Man, about the balance between risks and rewards. Steve Jobs’ reading focused on a search for meaning in life, and he often returned to Be Here Now, a collection of aphorisms connected to Eastern philosophy. Evelyn Berezin, a pioneer in the tech sector, credits the early sci-fi magazine Astounding Stories as providing a ‘conceptual grid’ for seeing things differently. Oprah Winfrey, who treats reading as a path to authenticity, cites Gary Zukav’s The Seat of the Soul as her inspiration.

Cohen covers a great deal of ground, and includes summaries of the books mentioned. The recurring pattern is that highly successful people read widely and intensely as a way to not only build knowledge but also to understand the world, their culture, and themselves.

Power-Up8: Discover the 8 Critical Capabilities to Navigate an Unpredictable World
By Debbie Craig
KR Publishing, 310 pages, $38

The end of the COVID-19 crisis might be on the horizon but disruption of some sort is going to be a permanent part of our lives, says Craig, a South African consultant. The silver lining of the pandemic might turn out to be that it has underlined the necessity of developing the right mindset to deal with unpredictability, and the importance of working to make the world a better place.

Craig lists eight changes in thinking, with the themes of avoiding complacency, enhancing social responsibility, and acting with self-awareness. It begins with a level of self-examination that can be difficult but Craig offers useful guidance on the questions to ask, and there are several diagnostic tools in the book. She draws on a wide range of resources, and looks at the experiences of people who have mastered the practice of imaginative thinking.

A part of the creative process is being willing to move out of the zone of the known. This means acknowledging the possibility, and probably the reality, of occasional failure. Don’t be afraid of it, Craig says; only be afraid of not learning from it. Embracing change is never easy but in the end it is the only way forward.

Downloadable Resources

Banking troubles

The end of the COVID-19 crisis may be in sight but the long-term implications for the banking sector are very problematic, according to the latest McKinsey Global Banking Annual Review. The immediate issue is severe credit losses, which are likely to continue into 2022. Then, with a muted global recovery, the sector will face continuing pressure. The study sets out several possibilities: in the base-case scenario, US$3.7 trillion of revenue will be lost over the next five years. Most of the major banks are sufficiently capitalised to survive but any solid recovery to balance sheets is a long way off.

Download from:
The old one-two: Banks could lose $3.7 trillion in revenue over five years | McKinsey & Company

Expert insights

This weekly podcast is a spinoff from Harvard Business Review magazine, and it provides a searchable collection of research and insights. Rather than free-flowing interviews each podcast focuses on a specific topic, a format which allows for in-depth analysis and discussion. Contributors include academics, authors and industry figures. The subjects range from organisational effectiveness to culture to branding to career development. Episodes that are particularly worth catching are the discussions by author Martin Lindstrom on how to inject common sense into bureaucracy, business coach Mimi Nicklin on managing across generational divides, and academic Marissa King on different methods of networking.

Listen to at:
https://hbr.org/2018/01/podcast-ideacast

Capturing carbon

Bas Sudmeijer heads a team within global consulting firm BCG developing options for carbon capture and storage to combat climate change. In this TED Talk he discusses proposals for a network approach: partnerships between local governments, national governments and companies that would share the cost and geological resources needed to collect and store carbon emissions underground. He looks at several trial projects that have been successful, noting that the technology is readily available. The cost would be significant but no greater, says Sudmeijer, than many other infrastructure projects that have been undertaken around the world in the past seventy years.

Watch at:

Job hunting mistakes

In an interesting article, specialists from Hays Recruiting examine the most common reasons for not landing a desired job. A mismatch between your online CV and your real-world interview is a regular failing, as is not backing up claims with solid evidence. All jobs now have a digital element so it is important to demonstrate your tech knowledge and your ability to upskill. The Hays specialists also suggest that any inappropriate material on your Facebook page should be deleted, as employers will look at your social media. One more piece of advice: be sure to turn off your phone during the interview.

Read at:
https://www.hays.com.au/career-advice/job-hunting/10-reasons-why-you-didnt-get-the-job

Challenges for boards

A report from Deloitte, Leading in a Brave New World, has found that most company boards in Australia have risen to the challenge of the pandemic, and that there will be positive and permanent changes. Resilience and social responsibility have moved up boardroom agendas, as well as long-term planning. The chairs of 46 ASX100 companies were interviewed for the study, with questions including immediate responses and the impact of the crisis on corporate strategy. The report was structured to reflect Deloitte’s Respond, Recover, Thrive model, with an emphasis on unlocking a ‘new normal’ in which organisations can grow and succeed.

Download from:
https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/risk/articles/leading-brave-new-world-how-boardroom-changed-better.html

Change, blunders and blockchain

Appearing in In The Black, March 2021

Reimagine Change
By Ciara Lancaster
Grammar Factory, $33, 234 pages

Dealing with transformation and managing crises is the new paradigm for work but most of us have not yet adapted, according to change capability consultant Lancaster. We are trying to impose stability on an increasingly dynamic system, and the common result is mental exhaustion. Lancaster, a former executive at Deloittes, came close to burnout so she knows the signs of change fatigue, and she sets out a framework for personal reconstruction and growth. The first steps are understanding the warning signals and overcoming the defensive instincts hard-wired into the brain. She draws on behavioural science research and the views of thought leaders to illustrate her points.

In the second half of the book she examines the processes of mental change, with advice on how to slow down, develop resilience, and “re-code” thinking. Allow yourself to be creative at work and home, she says. Re-connect with loved ones and with enjoyable experiences, and make time to improve fitness (which includes getting enough sleep). At the end of the road is a sense of flow and the true humility that good leadership requires. The journey is not always easy and takes time but it is essential for survival in the modern world.

Who Blunders and How: the Dumb Side of the Corporate World
By Robin Banerjee
Sage Publications, $33, 312 pages

What were they thinking? It is a recurring question in this book, which focuses on the reasons for decisions which were undeniably foolish. Banerjee, a senior executive, casts a wide net, looking at American, European, Indian and Japanese cases. A root cause is what might be called the victory disease, when companies that experienced early success with a product line became arrogant and complacent. Kodak failed to recognise the emergence of digital technology, Nokia missed the importance of software innovation, Blackberry did not realise how fast the telco business was changing.

In other cases companies that had generated a lot of cash went on an M&A binge without examining the value propositions. Others put incompetent people into key positions because they were related to the founder.

Several, when faced with a serious public relations problem, did the worst possible thing: they denied it, and then lied. This underlines a point that Banerjee emphasises. When you make a blunder, admit it, seek ways to remedy it, and devise a system to prevent a recurrence. Everyone makes mistakes, and the real point is what you learn from them. What worked yesterday might not work today, and it will certainly not work tomorrow.

The Definitive Guide to Blockchain for Accounting and Business
By Saurav Dutta (editor)
Emerald Publishing, $72, 320 pages

Professor Dutta currently heads the School of Accounting at Curtin University in Western Australia but he also has an broad background in financial research. For this guide he has put together a strong team combining practical experience and academic knowledge. The aim is to provide both a primer for people with little understanding of blockchain technology as well as a guide to new challenges for those with more experience.

As a starting point the chapter on terminology is useful, as are the sections dealing with tokenisation and internal controls. Several contributors discuss the transparency that underpins blockchain and examine the role that cryptocurrencies play. A number of security problems connected to blockchain have recently emerged; they are serious but there are solutions available, and much depends on the robustness of the initial design.

In his concluding chapter Professor Dutta looks at future opportunities. He sees that finance professionals can make important contributions on the tax and regulatory issues around blockchain. He also identifies the health, energy and maritime sectors as areas where blockchain systems can be effectively developed. It adds up to a comprehensive package in a field which is likely to become a key element of the financial landscape.

Downloadable resources

Crisis management
Guiding an organisation through a crisis involves a number of counter-intuitive steps, according to leadership expert Amy Edmonson. In this TED talk she argues that leaders should not pretend to have all the answers but should focus on transparent and ongoing communication. In a crisis leaders must be willing to act even though they have limited and conflicting information. Edmonson believes that honesty is more likely to engender trust than a show of strength, and leaders should be able to adjust their moves as circumstances change. She points to New Zealand PM Jacinta Ardern as a good example of crisis leadership.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_c_edmondson_how_to_lead_in_a_crisis

Showing skills
After a difficult year companies have begun to hire professionals again but landing the right job has become more difficult. This blog post from recruitment firm Michael Page shows that while elements such as an impressive CV, a compelling cover letter and strong interview skills are still crucial, employers are also asking candidates how they can contribute to business recovery and continuity. Ways to respond to this include showing customer skills, an understanding of digital trends, and a capacity for critical thinking.

The post includes links to other articles dealing with common interview questions, salary negotiation and building a personal brand.

Read at:
https://www.michaelpage.com.au/advice/career-advice/starting-out/how-navigate-job-search-future

Successful start
A McKinsey survey shows that only 20 percent of start-ups launch successfully and scale up, and only 24 percent of incumbents’ new ventures become viable companies. This article suggests ways to overcome the most common pitfalls, including understanding the customer base before launching, observing market preferences, and using a beta program or wait list to drive early interest.

The article also notes that successful ventures plan around weekly rather than quarterly cycles and utilise social media as well as paid advertising. These strategies can not only underpin a successful launch but also form the basis of a durable operating model.

Read at:
https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/derisking-corporate-business-launches

Tax law
Once upon a time the Australian Tax Office was a somewhat secretive organisation but that has changed radically. Its website has a great deal of information for finance professionals, and in particular the legal section provides a valuable database. It has a number of search options to find legislation, cases, interpretations and policies that the ATO uses when making decisions. There is a list of fact sheets for employers, and guidance on policy issues that are currently being developed. The ATO also offers a subscription service that allows clients to see when the database information has been updated or revised.

Go to:
https://www.ato.gov.au/Law/#Law

Sustainable finance
The Sustainable Financing and Investing Survey 2020 conducted by global bank HSBC has found that capital market participants are attaching greater importance to sustainable finance than a year ago, even as they have had to navigate unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, more than half of investors and three-quarters of issuers say the pandemic has made them realise they had paid insufficient attention to social issues.

The bank has also released research showing that stocks of large companies with strong environmental, social and governance ratings have outperformed the global average by 4.7 per cent since mid-December 2019.

Read at:
https://www.hsbc.com/media/media-releases/2020/hsbc-survey-of-issuers-and-investors-finds-largest-share-believe

In the land of the blind

Appearing in Australian Spectator magazine, February 2021

Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage

By Dan Crenshaw

Twelve, $41, 256 pages, ISBN 9781538733301

Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another 

By Matt Taibbi

Tantor, $12 (e-book), 304 pages, ISBN 9781682192122

Somehow, American culture has got itself into a terrible mess of division and acrimony: elites against mainstream, progressives against conservatives, blue states against red states. They have always been an argumentative bunch, our American cousins, but the level of conflict has reached such heights that the whole system is starting to totter. How did this happen, and what can be done about it?

These two books, in their own ways, supply some answers. Crenshaw, for one, cuts a distinctive figure. A former Navy SEAL officer, after a close encounter with an IED in Afghanistan he now wears an eyepatch and carries some scars. As a Republican congressman for a Texas district, he has been marked as an up-and-comer. Fortitude shows that he is not just another partisan hack but a well-read person who thinks carefully and looks to his military training as a source of strength. With one eye he sees more clearly than many people can with two.

He depicts the outrage culture of the left as a critical threat to American society (although he also has pointed things to say about right-wing cable television demagogues). The kids of the snowflake generation were raised to believe that they were special and entitled, and that their feelings were definitively important. Crenshaw takes particular issue with those who equate comments they do not like with physical attacks. Merely silly, says the man who knows a few things about real violence.

A central problem is social media. Immediate and anonymous, it has become an echo chamber for vitriol and craziness. Doing some research about an issue and listening to the other side is seen as a sign of weakness. If you look hard enough for insults, says Crenshaw (quoting Barack Obama), you will surely find them. Politics becomes a matter of hunting heretics rather than seeking converts.

The extension of this is a culture of victimhood, with extra points for those who can claim membership of the largest number of oppressed groups. This would be amusing if it were not so dangerous, especially when it turns into a belief that your ends are so noble that any means – any means – are justified. There are no reasonable opponents, only enemies so evil they must be destroyed.

Where did outrage culture and victimology come from? Yes, it is certainly fuelled by social media but Facebook did not create it, and neither did Trump. Crenshaw admits that he is not sure where the circle started but speculates that ‘helicopter’ parenting had something to do with it. Over-protectiveness led to a generation without the mental toughness to move outside the little world that they know. Crenshaw, himself a parent, recognises the desire to keep one’s children safe but emphasises that coddling them is not the answer. Let them be kids, he says, even though that will include some skinned knees and bruising mistakes. Don’t be forever telling them that the world is a dangerous place and they live in a toxic culture, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This leads Crenshaw to advice for escaping the outrage trap. His solution is for people to look within themselves, to develop their inner resources of resilience, courage and tolerance. Before you start shouting about something find out the background and the details. Context, consideration and clarity are the antidotes to permanent anger. Be willing to agree to disagree, rather than automatically attribute the worst of motives to the other side. And do not instantly look to government for the solution to every problem. Maybe an answer is in your own backyard.

Does this make him one of the marines of morality, wanting everyone to shape up and march in lockstep? By no means. America’s long history of social innovation and progress is built on dissent, debate and a willingness to question the status quo. But, says Crenshaw, to do so with respect and compromise.

The idea of seeking out differing views brings us to Matt Taibbi and Hate Inc., a book of essays that started out as online articles. Taibbi, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine, sits firmly on the left but he has considerable common ground with Crenshaw. He is likewise deeply concerned with the fractures within American society but his focus is on cable television. He notes that his colleagues wanted the book to be a hatchet-job on Fox and were horrified when he extended his criticism to the far-left MSNBC and its most famous talking head, Rachel Maddow (in fact, the cover features equivalent pics of her and right-winger Sean Hannity).

Taibbi has fun recounting some of Maddow’s more ludicrous anti-Trump conspiracy theories but he has a deeper point to make. In particular, he notes that there is now no professional penalty for getting things utterly, hilariously wrong. Even though all of Maddow’s theories have been thoroughly debunked she has never admitted to error, and her paycheques keep getting larger.

Taibbi attributes this to the corporations that run the cable networks, who have found that polarisation is good for profits. Maybe, but it does not explain why there is an appetite for extreme views in the first place. Taibbi assumes that companies can create demand but this is by no means clear. Nevertheless, he has interesting things to say about the interaction of media and politics, and he has a sense of humour usually missing from the cultural warriors of the left. His solution? Turn off the  television and do something useful instead.

Regrettably, American-style extremism is now infecting Australia. Fortitude and Hate Inc. offer important insights, so perhaps that awful road can be avoided. We can’t say we weren’t warned.