If at first you don’t succeed… Well, surprise, surprise. Someone doing business in China had dealings with people who were connected with the governing Communist Party. As if there was any other way! And some of those dreaded communists were part of the military establishment. Given that the People’s Army is a major owner of Chinese enterprises, the amazing thing about anyone seriously trying to deal in that country would be that they didn’t.

And so the Melbourne Age ‘s investigative team goes on with its series of articles quoting unnamed Defence Department officials concerned about Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s relationship with businesswoman Helen Liu who they believe has had links with China’s military intelligence agency. This morning’s rewrite contains but one new addition to the conspiracy theory from the paper’s informant suggesting that Australia’s security is somehow at risk:

The official said he and his associates were struck by apparent parallels between Ms Liu and Katrina Leung, a Chinese-American businesswoman who over almost 20 years operated as a double agent for the Chinese Ministry of State Security and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In 2003, Ms Leung was acquitted of espionage in the US. She was later convicted of a tax-related offence.

Ms Liu a double agent. Now that’s an interesting twist. Perhaps Joel Fitzgibbon was her ASIS controller and the Labor Party is infiltrated from the top down by a shady Australian intelligence service. That’ll be a good read. I can’t wait for the next Age installment.

Who is drinking less? If binge drinking by the young is a growing problem then there has to be a lot of older people drinking considerably less. Official figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics out this week show there has been virtually no change in alcohol consumption per head over the last decade.

In 2007-08 the figures put the apparent consumption by people aged 15 and over (the ABS chooses 15 to our figures can be compared with those of other countries) at just under 10 litres per head. It was slightly down on apparent consumption in the previous year and on a par with the figures for every years since 1986-97.

What has changed over the last decade is the form in Australians take their alcohol. Beer is the big loser down from 5.3 lals (litres of pure alcohol) per head in 1996-97 to 4.6 lals in 2007-08. The wine share grew steadily until 2003 but has since levelled off.

Where the increased consumption has come from is in spirits and in ready-to-drink forms of alcohol which are largely, but not entirely, spirits based. Between them spirits and RTDs now contribute 2.3 lals per head to the total whereas a decade ago it was around 1.8 lals.

Despite the figures showing total alcohol consumption remaining steady, the media continues its fascination with stories of alcohol abuse with the Sydney Daily Telegraph showing the way the morning with this headline:

Headline of the day: Afganistan’s Only Pig Quarantined in Flu Fear — Reuters (via the vigilance of The New Republic)

Annette Beacher is in shock. “I’m in shock,” said TD Securities senior strategist Annette Beacher just after 11.30am this morning. The Australian Bureau of Statistics March figures showing employment up and unemployment down was not what she and other economic analysts expected. “There’s absolutely no economic justification for a bounce in employment. I’m just ploughing through the ABS report to see if there’s a new standard error, but I can’t see anything so I’ll have to treat the data with scepticism,” Ms Beacher was quoted by Business Spectator as saying. “Given unemployment is expected to rise in the current environment as growth is slowing, this could be an outlier.”

Or it could be just another example of how pointless it is to take any notice whatsoever of what Ms Beacher and her ilk keep predicting.

Yesterday the panel of economists paid extravagant sums by financial institutions were way out in their forecasts of what the retail sales figures would show. This is how Reuters reported the predictions of its panel before today’s employment numbers came out:

And here is the Reuters summary of the actual numbers:

What the ABS reported was that seasonally adjusted employment increased in March by 27,300 to 10,798,900 with full-time employment up 49,100 to 7,672,700 and part-time employment down by 21,800 to 3,126,200. Unemployment decreased by 35,300 to 614,600. The number of persons looking for full-time work decreased by 17,800 to 443,500 and the number of persons looking for part-time work decreased by 17,400 to 171,100. The participation rate fell by 0.1 percentage points with the result being unemployment decreased by 0.3 percentage points to 5.4%. The male unemployment rate decreased by 0.2 percentage points to 5.5%, and the female unemployment rate decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 5.3%.

Now, if you are still interested in the predictions of economic experts, let’s conclude with Ms Beacher’s confident assertion that the data did not alter her fundamental view of the economy. She still expects interest rates to bottom at two per cent and gross domestic product (GDP) to fall by 0.7 per cent in the March quarter.

Peter Fray

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