One feels sorry for Emma Alberici, but that does not mask the fact that she was incompetent

Last month, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a taxpayer-funded entity, made several people redundant, due to a cut in funding by the Federal Government. Among them was Emma Alberici, a presenter who has been lionised a great deal as someone with great talents, but is actually a mediocre hack who lacks ability.

What marked Alberici out is the fact that she had the glorious title of chief economics correspondent at the ABC, but was never seen on any TV show giving her opinion about anything to do with economics. Over the last two years, China and the US have been engaged in an almighty stoush; Australia, as a country that considers the US as its main ally and has China as its major trading partner, has naturally been of interest too.

But the ABC always put forward people like Peter Ryan, a senior business correspondent, or Ian Verrender, the business editor, when there was a need for someone to appear during a news bulletin and provide a little insight into these matters. Alberici, it seemed, was persona non grata.

The reason why she was kept behind the curtains, it turns out, was because she did not really know much about economics. This was made plain in April 2018 when she wrote what columnist Joe Aston of the Australian Financial Review described as “an undergraduate yarn touting ‘exclusive analysis’ of one publicly available document from which she derived that ‘one in five of Australia’s top companies has paid zero tax for the past three years’ and that ‘Australia’s largest companies haven’t paid corporate tax in 10 years’.”

This article drew much criticism from many people, including politicians, who complained to the ABC. Her magnum opus has now disappeared from the web – an archived version is here. The fourth paragraph read: “Exclusive analysis released by ABC today reveals one in five of Australia’s top companies has paid zero tax for the past three years.” A Twitter teaser said: “Australia’s largest companies haven’t paid corporate tax in 10 years.”

As Aston pointed out in withering tones: “Both premises fatally expose their author’s innumeracy. The first is demonstrably false. Freely available data produced by the Australian Taxation Office show that 32 of Australia’s 50 largest companies paid $19.33 billion in company tax in FY16 (FY17 figures are not yet available). The other 18 paid nothing. Why? They lost money, or were carrying over previous losses.

“Company tax is paid on profits, so when companies make losses instead of profits, they don’t pay it. Amazing, huh? And since 1989, the tax system has allowed losses in previous years to be carried forward – thus companies pay tax on the rolling average of their profits and losses. This is stuff you learn in high school. Except, obviously, if your dream by then was to join the socialist collective at Ultimo, to be a superstar in the cafes of Haberfield.”

As expected, Alberici protested and even called in her lawyer when the ABC took down the article. It was put up again with several corrections. But the damage had been done and the great economics wizard had been unmasked. She did not take it well, protesting that 17 years ago she was nominated for a Walkley Award on tax minimisation.

Underlining her lack of knowledge of economics, Alberici, who was paid a handsome $189,000 per annum by the ABC, exposed herself again in May the same year. In an interview with Labor shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers, she kept pushing him as to what he would do with the higher surpluses that he proposed to run were a Labor government to be elected.

Aston has his own inimitable style, so let me use his words: “This time, Alberici’s utter non-comprehension of public sector accounting is laid bare in three unwitting confessions in her studio interview with Labor’s finance spokesman Jim Chalmers after Tuesday’s Budget.

“[Shadow Treasurer] Chris Bowen on the weekend told my colleague Barrie Cassidy that you want to run higher surpluses than the Government. How much higher than the Government and what would you do with that money?”

“Wearing that unmistakable WTF expression on his dial, Chalmers was careful to evade her illogical query.

“Undeterred, Alberici pressed again. ‘And what will you do with those surpluses?’ A second time, Chalmers dissembled.

“A third time, the cock crowed (this really was as inevitable as the betrayal of Jesus by St Peter). ‘Sorry, no, you said you would run higher surpluses, so what happens to that money?’

“Hanged [sic] by her own persistence. Chalmers, at this point, put her out of her blissful ignorance – or at least tried! ‘Surpluses go towards paying down debt’.

“Bingo. C’est magnifique! Hey, we majored in French. After 25 years in business and finance reporting, Alberici apparently thinks a budget surplus is an account with actual money in it, not a figure reached by deducting the Commonwealth’s expenditure from its revenue.”

Alberici has continued to complain that her knowledge of economics is adequate. She has been extremely annoyed when such criticism comes from any Murdoch publication. But the fact is that she is largely ignorant of the basics of economics.

Her incompetence is not limited to this one field alone. As I have pointed out, there have been occasions in the past, when she has shown that her knowledge of foreign affairs is as good as her knowledge of economics.

After she was made redundant, Alberici published a series of tweets which she later removed. An archive of that is here.

Alberici was the host of a program called Business Breakfast some years ago. It failed and had to be taken off the air. Then she was made the main host of the ABC’s flagship late news program, Lateline. That program was taken off the air last year due to budget cuts. However, Alberici’s performance did not set the Yarra on fire, to put it mildly.

Now she has joined an insurance comparison website, Compare The Market. That company has a bit of a dodgy reputation as the Australian news website The New Daily pointed out in 2014. As reporter George Lekakis wrote: “The website is owned by a leading global insurer that markets many of its own its products on the site. While comparethemarket.com.au offers a broad range of products for life insurance and travel cover, most of its general insurance offerings are underwritten by an insurer known as Auto & General.

“Auto & General is a subsidiary of global financial services group Budget Holdings Limited and is the ultimate owner of comparethemarket.com.au. An investigation by The New Daily of the brands marketed by the website for auto and home insurance reveals a disproportionate weighting to A&G products.”

Once again, the AFR, this time through columnist Myriam Robyn, was not exactly complimentary about Alberici’s new billet. But perhaps it is a better fit for Alberici than the ABC where she was really a square peg in a round hole. She is writing a book in which, no doubt, she will again try to put her case forward and prove she was a brilliant journalist who lost her job due to other people politicking against her. But the facts say otherwise.

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