Wednesday, 03 September 2014

Arts, artists and Australians

In the words of OscarWilde “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

Sadly, in Australia in 2014, a great many artists and artistic companies will be forced to see things as they really are and may simply cease to exist.

The Abbott government’s May 2014 budget brought in perhaps the most stringent cuts ever seen in arts funding. And yet those in the arts were reminded how very lucky they were not to be more severely treated.

Discussing the budget in May, PM Abbott said of Arts Minister George Brandis that he “has very substantially protected arts funding generally-and literary funding in particular-from the stringencies of these times and in doing so has made himself deeply unpopular with his colleagues”. It begs the question of how far many of Brandis’ colleagues wanted arts cuts to go, with hints of Genghis Khan’s hordes running amok at a Quaker meet.

But, whether or not Senator Brandis did indeed protect the arts from further privation, it’s important to look at the facts.

Labor’s Creative Australia policy in 2013 promised to invest an extra $200 million in the arts. Instead, this government has reduced arts spending by a conservative $128 million-and that does not include cuts to The ABC or SBS.

Let’s start with The Australia Council. They lose $10 million out of their $222 million budget this year alone and a further $6. 4m in cuts each year for the next 3 years, amounting to cuts of almost $30m. This prompted The Australia Council’s CEO Tony Grybowski to say that this will mean “fewer and smaller grants to individual artists and cuts to small arts organizations”.

At the launch of The Strategic Plan for The Arts Council, Aug 18 2014, Senator Brandis said:

Creative genius, artistic ambition, cultural endeavour does not just live in the capital cities of our land. It lives in smaller cities, in the towns, among people from metropolitan areas of Australia and from country areas of Australia as well.

Well, it may live there now, but with massive cuts to The Australia Council, it may not live there much longer.

In direct contrast to Brandis’ statement, in an open letter to the government in May this year, a veritable who’s who of Australian writers said:

Cutting the support The Australia Council offers will mean the loss of libraries, galleries, museums, concerts, regional tours, writing centres and community and regional arts centres. In 2009, 11 million people visited an art gallery.

To put that in context, 11 million exceeds the combined total of people that attended AFL and NRL matches that year. Yes, the arts do matter to Australians.

And then there’s the $38 million cut to Screen Australia. That is a huge loss to a tiny and struggling industry that was already suffering from the high Australian dollar and languishing studios

Actors Equity director, Sue McCreadie, said that the cuts threaten the recent “renaissance of Australian drama…. Australians want to see local content on our screens, everyone loves it”. Well, they may love it but, they’re likely to see a lot less

And with $120 million cut from The ABC over the next 4 years who knows what that will do to high quality ABC drama, documentaries, comedy and arts shows. Not even The ABC knows, although managing director Mark Scott was adamant that “The government gave repeated commitments before and after the election that funding for the Corporation would be maintained”.

It was a tough budget and few sectors avoided hurt, but was there a political agenda in why the arts suffered particularly harshly? The arts community is, by its very nature humanist and left leaning and not beloved of conservative governments. But was there more? Certainly Greens leader Christine Milne thought so when she said “Senator Brandis is trying to dish out heavy-handed punishment to the arts community for speaking out on what is an immoral and cruel asylum seeker policy”.

Whether or not you believe there was a political agenda, the very idea that artists and art companies should seek their funding from corporate money is both insulting and compromises the very concept of what art should be - independent and creative thought and endeavour. And the arts do in fact give a great deal back to Australia financially. Australian Bureau of statistics figure show that in 2008-09, the arts contributed $86 billion to Australian GDP. Again for some context, the mining sector contributed only $121 billion, and the mining sector employs far fewer people and receives greater government financial support at both federal and state levels.

Every branch of the arts will suffer drastically from the severity of the budget’s 2014 cuts - in particular the small and regional companies, galleries and artists. In recent news, even Community TV, perhaps the least restricted and most creatively vibrant medium, is likely to be hit. They are unlikely to have their digital licences renewed in December this year and will be forced to purely online broadcast.

Regardless of political affiliation, the position of the arts in Australian society is greatly threatened in 2014.

As opposition Arts Spokesman Mark Dreydus said, in commenting on the arts policy of this government:

They have turned their backs on the people who tell our stories, who enrich our lives, who make us who we are as Australians.

11 million Australians visiting a gallery each year can’t be wrong. The arts are important to Australians and not just to our cultural identity, but to our economy as well. Politics should never get in the way of that.

Published in Weekly Email
Tuesday, 02 September 2014

Not Your Average Bio

What made Diamond Joe change from jovial, avuncular goof into angry, sulky goof?

We asked Andrew P Street to read the Joe Hockey biography so that you wouldn’t have to. You're welcome. 

Biographers, more or less by necessity, have to fall in love in with their subject. Writing a book is a nightmarishly long ordeal and Stockholm Syndrome must kick in at some point out of sheer self-preservation.

So it’s no surprise that Not Your Average Joe’s author Madonna King is clearly a fan of Joe Hockey and goes that extra mile to spin his successes as mighty victories and his failures as being the fault of lesser men (and always men) who either lack Hockey’s peerless vision or are jealous of his incandescent talents.

The problem is that it all comes across like that friend who talks about the awesome new guy they’re dating, or their hilarious colleague, but every single story makes the guy sound like a bullying jerk.

It feels a bit like King is telling the reader breathless tales of her new crush. You can just imagine her dishing over a coffee: “Joe was criticised by feminist groups on campus during his election campaign for the University of Sydney Student’s Representative Council, so when he became President he immediately closed the Women’s Room! Isn’t that hilarious?”

“Um, actually, that sounds like he was, at best, being dickishly ungracious in victory and at worst putting women at risk by eliminating a safe space for them on campus,” you would hesitantly reply.

“Oh, you just have to get to know him!” King would presumably respond with a dismissive guffaw. “It’s just his sense of humour! Like when he claimed he’d signed up 80 new members to the local branch of the Liberal Party on the North Shore and now admits that he mainly just added the names of dead people to the register and was never caught – I mean, what a caution!

Not Your Average Joe is not just a collection of heart-warming tales of revenge-misogyny and voter fraud, it's also the story of how one deeply insecure young man grew up to become the most deeply entitled and self-aggrandising treasurer Australia has ever known – which, in a field that includes such avowed Paul Keating fans as Paul Keating, is no small achievement.

Then again, most of the evidence for Hockey’s inflated sense of his own glorious significance is not contained within the covers of the book, but in the fact that there’s a book with covers within which to contain said glorious significance.

Put bluntly: why the ever-loving fuck would a man in the first year of his job say yes to the writing and publication of his biography unless he was a) utterly assured of his importance and felt there was a genuine need to capture this historic moment, or b) knew in his heart of hearts that no-one was going to remember what a Joe Hockey was after the next election, and possibly by mid-way through the current government?

The answer, told time and time again in the book, is a). Joe Hockey wanted to be PM since he was four, we’re assured. Everyone – from his unshakably supportive father to his indulgent schoolteachers to his mates on the rugby field – repeatedly and unceasingly assured him that he would be PM. The fact the wanted it when he was a preschooler indicates that his desire for the role predated having any idea what that role actually meant. This is primal gimme-I-want stuff, not a cool-headed dedication to public service.

That theme – unshakable entitlement – is what comes through time and again through the book. When he’s successful, he gloats. When he fails, he explodes.

An illustrative example is that before he was the first to be eliminated in the three-horse Liberal Party leadership spill in 2009 – the one that toppled Malcolm Turnbull and installed Tony Abbott as leader in opposition – he was so assured of his own victory that he didn’t even bother to call MPs and lobby them for their vote, as Abbott was comprehensively doing.

“That feeds the view that he has this destiny thing where he should get things easily,” said one unnamed ‘senior Liberal’, echoing the opinions expressed elsewhere by John Howard, Peter Costello, Peter Dutton, Nick Minchin and practically everyone else.

Needless to say Joe sees it rather differently.

He didn’t lose the vote: he was betrayed by Turnbull, who assured him he wouldn’t run (despite having declared his intention to do so on television a mere two days before the vote, and who gently suggests in the book that Joe’s version of events exists entirely in his own head) and by Abbott who had pledged to support Hockey (who changed his mind after they argued over giving a free vote for the Turnbull-and-Kevin Rudd-endorsed Emissions Trading Scheme).

Among the other people that Joe accuses of betraying him – in a book written by a sympathetic author who even fills several pages singing the praises of the universally loathed WorkChoices – are the following people:

Howard (for giving him bad advice about pushing for a free vote on the Emissions Trading Scheme), Costello (for not supporting his desire to be finance minister), Minchin (for backing Abbott after earlier supporting Joe), Abbott (for running against him after he said he wouldn’t), Rudd (for asking Hockey’s advice on how to be opposition leader and then applying it), Ian Macdonald (for criticising Hockey as senior tourism minister), Family First’s Steve Fielding (who agreed to a free vote on the ETS, according to Hockey, and then announced on TV that he didn’t), and pretty much everyone else.

He also gets some stories in about cool Terminator-like quips he made to the faces of Howard and Turnbull during arguments, which both men politely deny ever happened, lending weight to the idea that Hockey is first and foremost a fabulist convinced of his own greatness.

It’s at times a genuinely sobering read: much of the first act of the book covers Joe’s childhood and education, painting the picture of an isolated little boy carrying his self-made immigrant father’s dreams of greatness on his shoulders, teased for his size through school (gaining the nickname “Sloppy Joe”) and looking for camaraderie through sport, cadets and finally politics.

It’s also implied that Joe wasn’t exactly a hit with the ladies. It doesn’t help that his wife, Melissa Babbage, comes across in the book as the least sympathetic spouse since Lady Macbeth. The enormously successful and mightily wealthy investment banker met Joe at a Young Liberals function and every quote in the book suggests that she quickly assessed him as a sound, if undervalued, investment and engineered a matrimonial merger, speaking of their courtship and marriage as though they were necessary obligations to be overcome rather than the glorious unfolding of a love to last through the ages.

Mind you, he did allegedly propose to her while accompanied by a violinist playing music from The Phantom of the Opera which suggests that romance and creativity aren’t big concerns of Joe’s either.

The art of the hubrisography is a rich and noble one – why, right this minute I have two music bios on my shelf, David Barnett’s Love and Poison: the authorised biography of Suede and Tony Fletcher’s Never Stop: the Echo & the Bunnymen Story, both of which have penultimate chapters in which the respective bands express their boundless optimism for their rosy, hit-filled future which are followed by an immediate pre-publication epilogue essentially reading “…and then they split up.”

In a similar spirit, the book ends with King mentioning that Joe was photographed having a cheeky cigar with finance minister Mathias Corman just after delivering his first triumphant budget, and then suggests, as though in passing, that it remained to be seen how it would be received. Which is sort of like writing a biography of Austria that ends in 1914, mentioning that Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been assassinated in Sarajevo and idly speculating as to whether there’d be any sort of official response.

One of her closing sentences, though, was meant to reiterate how much Joe and Tones are BFFs these days, but now has a somewhat ominous tinge as they both grow increasingly testy over who is failing to win the nation’s hearts and minds: “Barnaby Joyce, who like Hockey is one of the government’s best retail politicians, says the two will rise and fall together.”

That may prove to be the most accurate line in the entire book.

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 25 August 2014

Drawing a line under entitlement

Last week Bill Shorten went public with one of the worst kept secrets in Australian politics – that he had had been under investigation for rape since September last year.

The investigation concluded with police handing their findings to the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP), who found that there was no reasonable chance of conviction. Shorten’s statement stops just short of claiming that the police investigation exonerated him, but he did say that “the claim has now been thoroughly and vigorously investigated by the police, as is entirely proper. I fully cooperated to clear my name and that is what I’ve done.” He also said repeatedly that “the decision speaks for itself” and that he is “entitled to draw a line under this”.

There’s a world of difference between “no reasonable prospect of conviction” and an investigation that “cleared his name”.

Rape allegations are the least likely of all crimes to be reported, charged, tried and convicted. One of the simplest of the (many) reasons for this is that the standard of proof required for a criminal trial is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In a rape trial, this doesn’t mean just proving that sex took place, it means that the OPP must prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the victim did not consent and that the defendant knew the victim did not consent.

The woman involved claims that the rape happened in 1986, but the first time the claim was made public was in a post on Kevin Rudd’s Facebook page in September 2013. While it is very common for victims of sexual assault to wait years, even decades, before being able to speak publicly about what happened to them, the delay does make conviction more difficult.

With no physical evidence and no witnesses, the evidence is only her version of events versus his. However persuasive her evidence might be, it would be almost impossible to provide proof beyond reasonable doubt under these circumstances. This does not, in any way, mean that her allegations are not true.

So Shorten’s claim that he has “cleared his name” or that the police investigation did so is highly misleading.

The original claim made on Facebook:

shorten rape claim

 

And again in more detail

 bill shorten rape allegation

(with thanks to kangaroocourtofaustralia for the screenshots)

There are no witnesses to the alleged rape, however The Tribune has been told that there was a reliable hearsay witness who was told about the events of that night immediately after it happened. Victoria Police media unit was unable to comment on the veracity of this or any of the other evidence against Shorten.

As much as it is true that the allegations were not disproven, it is equally true that they have not been proven. Suggesting that a simple claim of wrongdoing must indicate fault is not just dangerous, it is inimical to one of the most basic tenets of our system of law – that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Shorten should not, must not, face any legal repercussions for an unproven allegation.

Does that mean though, that he is “entitled to draw a line under this”? Shorten himself brought it into the public arena (albeit only because he knew The Australian was going to do it if he didn’t). Whatever the reason, he made the allegations public and he is not a private citizen, he is a public figure, employed by the tax payer and offering himself up as the alternate Prime Minister of Australia. It is reasonable for the public who employ him, the people he will ask to vote for him, to have questions about these allegations.

Is it reasonable for him to refuse to answer them?

Is it reasonable that he should expect the public to disregard his accuser solely because the OPP thinks the case is unlikely to get a conviction? He is asking asking for absolute trust in the face of a serious allegation, and equally asking us to disbelieve the woman who accused him without giving us a reason to do so.

Politicians from all sides have spoken in support of Shorten, and it’s easy to understand why. They all have a vested interest in ensuring that an unproven allegation of sexual wrongdoing does not spell the end of a political career. They are justified to some extent in this fear, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is in the public interest to dismiss such a claim without examination.

Do we want to encourage the idea that powerful people should be able to just “draw a line under” such serious allegations without ever having to address them in public?

It’s a fraught and complicated issue. If Shorten is telling the truth, this would truly be a terrible thing for him and his family. Rape is a hideous crime, to be unjustly accused of such a thing, particularly when the accusation will never really go away, is monstrously unfair.

Conversely, if the woman is telling the truth, she has had a hideous crime committed against her and then had it publicly disavowed by her attacker. And the public dismissal of her claim perpetuates the (usually false) idea that women manufacture rape claims and the (usually true) idea that the legal system will not give justice to rape victims. 

One of the two people involved is lying and has inflicted indescribable pain on the other and there is really no way to know which of the two is the true victim. Trial by law is not going to occur, trial by media is not going to find out the truth and both people involved are going to suffer for the allegations being unresolved.

But if Shorten wants to maintain a hold on public trust, I don’t believe that leaning on unconvincing statements from Victoria Police will be enough.

And the commentariat needs to consider its role in this too. If such allegations had been made against Tony Abbott the howls of rage would have been heard light years away. The people who pushed so hard on the claims that Abbott was violent or that he indecently assaulted a woman when he was at university cannot hide under the police statement in regards to Bill Shorten.

Rape is not a partisan crime, we do not hold the different standards for men of the left. Shorten should receive the same opprobrium that Abbott did and we should not accept his refusal to discuss the allegations against him as an indication of innocence any more than we did with Abbott.

The claims against Abbott are not as serious as the claim against Shorten, and yet they have been used against him relentlessly by leftwing writers seeking to prove that he is unfit for his office. Should we do any less for Shorten?

As I said earlier, this is a terribly complicated and terribly painful issue, but removing it from public discussion is not the way to resolve it. 

Published in Weekly Email

The controversial school chaplaincy program has received support from all sides of politics. Why? How does an unpopular, illegally funded program with no measurable outcome get such bipartisan support?

A few weeks ago I had lunch with Ron Williams, the successful litigant in two High Court cases against Federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program. I’d told Ron I’m writing an article about the motivation behind the bipartisan support for school chaplaincy. We’ve met to discuss it and Ron says he has something to tell me – something BIG.

At face value, school chaplaincy makes no sense. In what universe does a government, with full support from the Opposition, place minimally trained, evangelical Christian missionaries into secular state schools as the front-line responders to vulnerable, at-risk kids?

As we wait for our meals, I expound on my theory that chaplaincy is only tenuously connected with child welfare. I concede that, on occasion, well-meaning chaplains may well provide some helpful support and advice. But, I tell Ron, the point I want to make in my article is that, from the perspectives of both the government and its para-church chaplaincy providers, children’s welfare is tangential to the purpose of the National School Chaplaincy Program.

For the para-church chaplaincy providers, the motivation is plain. They are, for the most part, evangelical Christian organisations set up with a single goal in mind – to make converts.

“We need to go and make disciples,” said Evonne Paddison, former CEO of Victoria’s largest chaplaincy provider, ACCESS Ministries, as she reminded the 2008 Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion conference that schools are “our largest mission field”.

And then there’s the money. Connecting school communities with churches means more tithes for the fundamentalist, evangelical churches which supply the vast bulk of the country’s chaplains. But that’s small change compared to what chaplaincy providers like Scripture Union, ACCESS and Generate (previously GenR8) Ministries have raked in. The government has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to supply chaplains to state schools, but made no stipulation about what percentage of the $50 per hour contribution goes directly to chaplains. Chaplaincy, as they might say on Underbelly, is a nice little earner.

“My theory,” I explain to Ron, “is that political support for the program serves a strategic rather than a benevolent purpose. That is, it’s all about meeting politicians’, not children’s, needs and wants.”

When I say I’m dismayed at the bipartisan support for the program, Ron reminds me that, although the national program began with the Howard Coalition government in 2007, an almost identical scheme was introduced around the same time by the Beattie Labor government in Queensland - for transparently political reasons.

In the lead up to Queensland’s 2006 election, Lyle Shelton (now Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby) announced his intention to challenge the incumbent Labor candidate, Kerry Shine, in the Toowoomba North electorate. In this buckle of Queensland’s Bible-belt, a promise of state-funded chaplaincy helped to deliver the seat to Shine over his heavily Christian-credentialed opponent.

Chaplaincy began and continues as a blatant pork-barrel pay-off to the Christian constituency.

It’s not clear whether Beattie inspired Howard or vice-versa, but in 2006, Prime Minister Howard responded to factional pressure within his party to implement a national school chaplaincy program. While the LNPs factional backers may well have been driven by religious motives, the proposal won prime ministerial support because it dove-tailed neatly with Howard’s wider political strategy.

Marion Maddox’s 2005 book, God Under Howard: the Rise of the Religious Right in Australiais a brilliant political exposé, in which Maddox convincingly explains that Howard courted the religious right and employed dog-whistling religious rhetoric, not out of any genuine religious commitment, but for base political purposes. Howard did not so much embrace Judeo-Christian values as exploit them.

Politics is a dirty game and even ideology takes a back seat to power. Factions on both sides of politics may push for certain initiatives, but their implementation largely depends on whether the ideology serves the political interests of the decision-makers. The stars have to align. In the case of school chaplaincy, they did.

Over lunch, I tell Ron I’ve been reading Mark Latham’s, recent book, The Political Bubble: Why Australians Don’t Trust Politics. I think National School Chaplaincy Program exemplifies the broader malaise in Australian politics identified in Latham’s book.

According to Latham our political system has been colonised by apparatchiks, factional warlords and fanatical ideologues. Both major parties are now heavily influenced by fanatical right-wing, Christian conservative factions. Australian political policies function to serve the power-politics of the parties and the ideological eccentricities of the factions which control them.

Religious zealots are not confined to fringe parties or to the Coalition. For example, the ALPs right-wing factional leader, Joe de Bruyn, is widely credited as being instrumental in staging the 2010 coup in which Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. It’s highly unlikely Gillard gained that support without making a few hefty concessions to the religious right.

Shortly after assuming office, ‘the real Julia’ conceded, in a radio interview with John Faine, that she was a non-believer. This off-piste remark was quickly followed by the kind of toe-curling, cringe-making damage control that only makes sense in the context of pressure from de Bruyn and the Australian Christian Lobby.

In an interview with Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby just a few short weeks after coming out as an atheist, Gillard rushed to assure him that despite her personal religious views her values derived from her Baptist upbringing. Smilingly, she assured Wallace that, under her government, the National School Chaplaincy Program would maintain its “unique flavour through its link to the Christian faith” and promised the program would continue as a chaplaincy program, “with everything that implies”.

Gillard’s obsequious demeanour and whole-hearted support for school chaplaincy is particularly interesting given that a former ALP senior policy advisor from that period assures me that, as Rudd’s Education Minister, she wanted to abolish school chaplaincy, but was overruled.

Conceived in 2006, the National School Chaplaincy Program operated from 2007-2014. To date, it has cost almost half a billion dollars, with a further three-quarters of a billion controversially committed by Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in his recent ‘austerity’ budget. Yet, after 8 years and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, there has not been a single government inquiry into its effectiveness in addressing the mental health and welfare needs of students. Not one.

Significantly, there is no recognition of the scheme in related government documents. The 2011 House of Representatives standing committee report on early intervention programs aimed at preventing youth suicides does not feature the words ‘chaplain’, ‘chaplaincy’, ‘pastoral care’ or ‘spirituality’ at all. Similarly, the Gonski Report (perhaps the most thorough assessment ever undertaken of what schools and their students really need) refers to chaplaincy only once, naming it as a “policy priority”; which simply acknowledges it is important to the government. There is no recognition in Gonski that school chaplaincy is an activity which supports better welfare or learning outcomes for children.

Tellingly, the National School Chaplaincy Program lacks support from those most closely concerned with positive mental health and welfare outcomes for children. The mental health charity Sane Australia and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists; have joined the Australian Psychological Society (APS) in opposing school chaplaincy.

The APS warns that chaplaincy is “dangerous” and referred to the LNPs recent commitment of a further $245.3 million for the program as “appalling”. The Australian Education Union insists chaplaincy is “not in the interests of our kids”, while ACSSO, the peak body representing the parents of state school children, says baldly that chaplaincy “is one of the most blatant cases of government funding furthering the aims of religious organisations under the guise of a 'support' for students’”.

So, why is it still in our schools?

As Prime Ministers from both parties have fallen by the wayside, the National School Chaplaincy Program survived because both sides of politics view it as a valuable political tool.

Chaplaincy functioned, for both the Coalition and the ALP, as a pork-barrel payment exchanged for the endorsement of religious lobbyists and fundamentalist mega-churches who promised (but may not have been able to deliver) bloc votes in marginal seats.

Frankly, it is not particularly important whether a Christian constituency exists and can deliver marginal seats in Federal elections. What is important is that politicians seem to believe it does – and act accordingly.

Kevin Rudd started courting the Christian vote well before his 2007 election. Rudd’s determination not to be out-Godded by Howard explains why Howard’s chaplaincy brain fart not only survived, but flourished and expanded under both Rudd and his successor, Julia Gillard.

Rudd was never going to abolish Howard’s school chaplaincy program. He co-opted it to serve him politically just as Howard had done. Also, I’m told that Gillard’s plan to abolish the program was rebuffed because politicians in marginal seats were nervous it would not play well in their electorates.

Certainly, the feedback the Labor party received after the 2007 election seemed to support their concerns. John Black, a former Labor senator, now CEO of political research group, Australian Development Strategies, says religious voting played the strongest role in the 2007 Federal election since the 1960s. Black is reported to have said, “The strongest correlate of the swing to Kevin Rudd's new Labor Party was Pentecostal churchgoers, alongside Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans, Salvos, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Uniting Church.”

According to Black, the geographical hot spots for these activist religions correlated with areas where Labor needed the greatest support. It goes a long way towards explaining why, despite the Education Minister’s misgivings, Labor not only continued but expanded the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Support for school chaplaincy meshed perfectly with Kevin Rudd’s publicly-stated determination not to let the Coalition “commandeer God for their own political purposes”. As Rudd once promised:

“[The ALP] will not for one moment stand idly by while the Liberals, the National Party or Family First assert that God has become some kind of wholly owned subsidiary of political conservatism in this country.”

Rudd was out to reclaim God to serve his own political ambitions. His government’s support for school chaplaincy has to be viewed in that context.

Image-wise the God card played into Rudd’s strategic positioning as a new kind of Labor leader - one with a down-home, folksy, Christian conservative image. Ron reminds me that was never the real Kevin Rudd. It was a chimera, artificially constructed to capture a particular constituency within a particular political context against a particular political opponent. Smoke and mirrors.

Importantly, it was a persona designed to captivate an audience well beyond Australia’s tiny minority of fundamentalist Christians. Against all evidence to the contrary, the idea that there is something intrinsically ‘nice’ and ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’ about Christians persists - even amongst those of us who prefer to sleep in on Sundays.

I tell Ron about a function I attended recently. I was introduced to a friend’s wife – a woman, her husband told me, who was no more than a nominal Christian. When I mentioned my involvement in the effort to remove chaplains from schools she launched into a vehement defence of the scheme.

“The more chaplains in our schools, the better!” she insisted.

Puzzled, I asked her why. She seemed surprised by the question, but responded, “Well … they’re Christians so they’re nicer people, aren’t they? And I think the more our children are exposed to nice people, the better off we’ll be.”

“Sure. But it’s not just about nice,” says Ron, his fork poised over his beer-battered snapper. “It’s about values. Howard and Bishop were pushing the line that our schools lacked values – that without religion [specifically Christianity], there was a crisis of values in our schools, a moral vacuum.”

It’s a time-honoured political trick: create the illusion of a crisis then provide the means to fix it. At a time when the world was still reeling from the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a crisis of Judeo-Christian, Western values created a useful moral panic which justified a suite of unpalatable, regressive social and economic policies - including the Howard government’s draconian and decidedly un-Christian crack-down on asylum seekers. Kindly chappies in every school yard was the embodiment of Howard’s promise to make Australia comfortable and relaxed.

Faced with this, Rudd needed to be seen as someone who would defend the values that were, allegedly, under threat. Accordingly, Rudd styled himself as a new kind of Labor leader. The strategy was to make it easy for swinging voters to traverse the gap between the two contenders; closing the distance between Rudd and Howard from a gaping abyss to an easy step. It worked. Kevin-O-Seven romped home the 2007 Federal election. Whether the Christian constituency delivered him the election is arguable. What is important is that Labor acted then, and afterwards, as if it mattered.

Money, religious zealotry, power, factions, ideology, image-making and vote-buying: these are the interests which underpin the bipartisan political support for school chaplaincy. And, on the altar of these base concerns, the real welfare and mental health needs of ordinary Aussie kids are sacrificed.

Despite the political shenanigans which have seen chaplaincy funded until the end of December, Williams insists the National School Chaplaincy Program is as dead as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue parrot – no matter how many taxpayers’ dollars keep it nailed to its perch.

He’s annoyed by questions about what the government will do to resurrect it:

“What the government does or doesn’t do about chaplaincy is out of my hands,” he says. “I can’t foretell what they’ll do. And this idea that I’ve been playing some kind of political whack-a-mole has become a meme! Everyone seems to expect that no matter what the High Court says, the government will find a way to keep this thing alive. They might – but it’s not inevitable; in fact, the only options available to them now are bureaucratic nightmares.”

“Sure, they might fund chaplaincy through the states, or they might come up with some shonky work-around we haven’t anticipated. But, it will have to be an entirely different program to the National School Chaplaincy Program – the program I fought against. That’s over. It’s dead.”

“OK. So what are you going to do next?” I ask, because it’s clear that whatever happens about school chaplaincy during the next sitting of Parliament, Ron Williams still has a fire burning in his belly to address what he describes as “possibly the most outrageous stunt ever foisted upon the taxpayers of Australia”.

Williams leans forward in his chair, his dark eyes resolute with determination.

“There has to be a Senate inquiry,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. I’m pushing for a Senate inquiry.”

“Really? Do you think you’ll get one?”

“I’ll get a Senate inquiry if I have to visit every single senator personally and tell them my story,” he replies.

Williams has meetings already organised, and he’s not going in without back-up. Already, whistle-blowers are coming out of the woodwork, prepared to testify about the questionable (and possibly illegal) actions of politicians, bureaucrats and the para-church agencies which provide chaplains to schools.

Even now, Ron is receiving calls from former chaplains who were appalled to be taught how to get around the prohibition against proselytising – an activity even former education minister, Peter Garrett, belatedly admitted was all too common.

Former senior public servants have also flagged their willingness to testify about the dubious ways in which the program was implemented and administered.

As Williams steps up his push for a Senate inquiry and publicises the reasons he believes it is necessary, he expects many more people will step forward. For example, a recent survey by the New York based gay rights lobby group, All Out, elicited thousands of complaints about the homophobic treatment some students experienced at the hands of school chaplains.

Among other things, a Senate inquiry would hear that, in the lead-up to the first High Court Challenge, the Gillard government quietly changed the penalty provision in Section 26 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 that might, otherwise, have seen Education Minister, Peter Garrett and Finance Minister, Penny Wong, facing jail time for disbursing money from Consolidated Revenue without proper authority.

A Senate inquiry might also reflect upon the ethics, if not the legality, of $37 million of taxpayers’ money, paid illegally to para-church organisations for the period July-December 2014, being waived by Finance Minister, Matthias Corman.

Williams may wish to tell the Senate about damning role descriptions that disappeared from the internet in the lead-up to his first High Court case, or ask the Senate to consider why documents submitted to the High Court refer to the incumbency of chaplains who, he can prove, never existed.

And then there’s the fancy footwork performed by the Gillard government in circumventing the first High Court decision on chaplaincy funding. A Senate inquiry may consider why, when many politicians (including current Attorney-General George Brandis) voiced their misgivings about the legality of the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act No. 3 (2012) , all parties (including the Greens) voted in favour of it.

Ron Williams’ efforts in the High Court have established that, from its inception, National School Chaplaincy was illegally funded and administered by the Federal government. Experts agree, overwhelmingly, that school chaplaincy does not serve the best interests of children. The government has not presented, nor even looked for, any evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that chaplaincy served the factional, ideological and political interests of both the Coalition and the ALP. Williams can show that both the ALP and the LNP have been more than willing to flout the law and thumb their collective noses at the High Court, public accountability and democratic process in order to keep chaplains in schools.

After lunch, I drive Ron to the Transit Centre to catch a bus back to Toowoomba. It’s his wife, Andrea’s birthday and he’s planning a celebration with her and their six kids.

“Oh, Chrys!” he says as he steps out of the car, “There’s something else! I can’t tell you about it just now, but it’s BIG and it’s going to help the push for a Senate inquiry. When I can talk about it, you’ll be the first to know!”

Stay tuned.

The National School Chaplaincy Program - Australia's most outrageous political stunt from RonnieWilliams on Vimeo. 

Published in Weekly Email
Monday, 18 August 2014

No politics in their politics

I’ve been thumping my fist on tables and yelling about the government since the grunge was a lad. And I used to love it. The heated debates, the personalities, the ideologies, the intricacies of parliamentary process and the real world effects of politics have never staled in their infinite variety.

Until now.

There’s nothing left to debate with proponents of the Abbott government because there’s no politics in their politics, no argument in their argument and no evidence in their evidence.

Tony Abbott himself succinctly described everything about the current government that makes politics so dispiriting:

To a conservative, intuition is as important as reasoning, instinct as important as intellect. A way of life has far more demonstrative power to a conservative than a brilliant argument.

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

That’s a disturbing enough as a basis for any of a personal philosophy, but Abbott et al are using it as a basis for government policy. Implicit in this is that they feel no dissonance in rejecting evidence-based advice that proves their policies won’t achieve their stated aims.

As Abbott pointed said, it is the nature of conservative governments to ignore science and evidence in favour of their feelings about the status quo. This was less of a problem under John Howard, whose strongest feeling was that middle class Australians should be leading a comfy little life, falling asleep in from of the telly with their slippers on. It meant he may have ignored or dismissed the difficulties experienced outside middle Australia, but he knew enough to not act punitively against them.

The feeling that underpins the Abbott government is anger; the sullen, retributive anger that comes from a perception that someone has done them wrong. The someone, of course, was Julia Gillard, who usurped their rightful place of power. "That woman" stole government from them, not once but twice, and the rage that powered them throughout their time in opposition was not dissipated by their win last September or by the fact that Gillard is no longer in public life.

Gillard’s disappearance and their resumption of their rightful place in government has robbed them of a specific target, so the anger is now scattered indiscriminately across all the perceived enemies. It’s a partisan grapeshot attack against all the causes “of the left”: the sick, the elderly, the poor, the marginalised, the unemployed, the Greens, the renewable energy sector, refugees, women, aboriginal people, people with disabilities, rowdy university students, the ABC and the list goes on and on and on. In their us and them approach to the electorate, the us seems to consist only of the fellowship of the rich, white men they meet at IPA dinners.

The Gratten institute and the AMA have been clear that the government health policy will not decrease medical costs, if it has any effect on costs it will increase rather than decrease them. Adding to the picture of punitive rather than corrective cuts are little tweaks like cutting payments to people suffering from dementia and their carers (because those dementia sufferers, they’ve gotta learn to lift and not lean).

Pensioners, particularly the aged and people with disabilities, for whom paid employment is no longer an option, are also under attack by the Abbott government. Reducing their ability to maintain basic living conditions serves little purpose and again, seems needlessly cruel.

The Business Council of Australia, not commonly among the critics of a Liberal government, have expressed concern that the 40 applications a week requirement will cause far more problems than it will solve.

Welfare groups and credible researchers have provided unambiguous evidence that work for the dole schemes and forcing young people off the unemployment benefits will increase not decrease the welfare burden.

Economic modelling, commissioned by the government shows that removing renewable energy from Australia’s energy mix will actually increase electricity cost in the long term. Despite this, Abbott is still hoping to remove the RET and continues to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the real cause of skyrocketing electricity costs.

Morrison’s Stop the Boats crusade has strayed so far from their original claim of “saving lives at sea” that Morrison, an allegedly devout Christian, is being accused of child abuse by the Catholic Church.

The changes to higher education funding will place such a burden on the professions so fundamental to a functional society – like nursing and teaching – that shortages will become a serious problem within only a few short years.

The ABC is consistently shown to be one of Australia’s most trusted media organisations. Reducing funding to the ABC might benefit the Murdoch press, but will do nothing for Australian democracy and cultural life. Particularly in rural communities.

Abbott’s ludicrous Paid Parental Leave scheme, which despite its gender neutral name, is aimed specifically at the women’s vote that has so eluded him, won’t have any significant effect on women’s work force participation. If such a thing was indeed the aim, investing money into the childcare system would be far more effective.

Unions, which may well be as corrupt as the corporate sector, or indeed the political class, are the subject of a royal commission. One that was aimed at Julia Gillard and, in absence of any proof of wrongdoing on her part, has expanded to include all unions. Union membership in Australia has decreased in recent years, primarily because the outcomes they fought for are now enshrined in law. Most Australians (at the moment) no longer need unions to ensure they are provided with paid sick leave, holiday pay, protection from unfair dismissal, safe working conditions and fair remuneration. It might be amusing if the Abbott government’s attempts to dismantle those legislative achievements instigated a revival of the union movement, but the damage to Australian workers and the overall economic well-being of the nation won’t be quite so funny.

Which flows perfectly into the lack of politics in their politics. Howard was the consummate politician. He knew how far he could go before the Australian public would refuse to follow him and used that knowledge to maintain one of Australia’s longest lasting governments. It wasn’t until the end, when too much power clouded his vision, that he lost sight of the relaxed middle class that kept him in the Lodge.

Abbott, Hockey, Pyne and Brandis have never had that clarity of vision. Since Howard’s demise their time in opposition was notable only in its ability to polarize and stultify debate of complex policy by endless repetition of divisive tabloid-style slogans. Had the media applied the same level of scepticism to the coalition that they applied to the Gillard government, Abbott would have been laughed into obscurity at the last election.

With the opposition still hiding under their beds, the media has nothing left to do but pick through the government’s scattered cats approach to policy and politics; for the first time, Abbott and his ministers are facing some semblance of media scrutiny. And under that lightest of touches, their house of cards is crumbling. As I’ve written before, Abbott is not a proficient or even willing leader, it’s difficult to see how the coalition under his leadership can reassemble itself into a coherent, skilled government. The only factor that might carry them into a second term is that the Opposition doesn’t appear to be doing much better.

 

Published in Weekly Email

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell, Director of Strategy, Liberal Party

To: Eric Abetz, Minister for Employment

 

Hi Eric,

In response to your query, yes I believe there has been some science done since the 1950s. I would definitely advise looking some of it up before making comment. I agree, maybe nothing has changed, but just to cover every angle, you know?

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Eric Abetz

 

Hi Eric,

Please see attachment titled “How women work” for comprehensive diagram of the female body. Not sure how you’re going to use this, but hopefully it’s what you need.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia

 

Hi Tony,

Got your email. That is a nice drawing of you in army clothes. Your drawing has gotten much better. Yes, I think Margie will love it. But no, I don’t think you should take it to your next press conference. Some journalists don’t like drawings.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: George Brandis QC, Attorney-General

 

Hi George,

In answer to your query, no, I don’t think a good analogy for metadata is “invisible ink”. It’s up to you, of course, but I personally would advise deleting from any upcoming speeches any reference to the government “holding up a candle to your phones”. I also don’t think it would be great to refer to metadata as “the sticker on your apple” or “not the computer, but the ghost who lives inside the computer”. If you would like a really good working definition of metadata I am sure you can find one on the internet.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: George Brandis

 

Hi George,

No, the internet. It’s on your computer.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Eric Abetz

 

Hi Eric,

Got your email. Yes it’s true that abortions and breast cancer both happen to women. No, I don’t think that qualifies as “a link”.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Joe Hockey, Treasurer

 

Hi Joe,

I looked it up. Yes, poor people DO have the vote. So yes, you probably can’t just tell them to sod off.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Tony Abbott

 

Hi Tony,

Just a heads-up: I’ve stopped the release of your official statement listing all the world leaders you could beat in wrestling. Wanted to submit it to a quick fact check before putting it out there.

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: George Brandis

 

Hi George,

Have you remembered to plug it in?

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Joe Hockey

 

Hi Joe,

Thank you for the photo of your car, it is, as you say, very nice. I’m sure you’re right when you say a poor person (BTW, that’s how you should probably refer to them in public, not just “a poor”) probably couldn’t afford it. However, there are actually cheaper cars on the market as well. If you like I could organise a trip to a car yard so you can see for yourself.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Tony Abbott

 

Hi Tony,

No I’m not saying that. I am sure you are excellent at wrestling, it’s really more of a strategic thing. In regard to the other matter you mentioned, I have to be brutally honest here: it would make my job a lot easier if you didn’t try to swim to Iraq.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Eric Abetz

 

Hi Eric,

In my position I don’t think I can offer a reliable opinion on who God might or might not want to punish. But yes I suppose it is possible that He might want to punish women. And yes I suppose some of them might be naked. Nevertheless I do strongly advise against mentioning this in any public statements.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Eric Abetz

 

Hi Eric,

Yes I’m sure God wants to punish Mia Freedman. But no, I don’t think we can actually draft legislation against her.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: George Brandis

 

Hi George,

No, not a real mouse. I’ll send someone over to show you.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Joe Hockey

 

Hi Joe,

I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but yes I believe there are quite a few poor people in Australia right now. And yes, it is legal for them to breed.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Tony Abbott

 

Hi Tony,

I promise I never said anything about your muscles being “like a girl’s”. Probably just press gallery gossip. No, I don’t think an appropriate response would be an invasion of China.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Joe Hockey

 

Hi Joe,

Congratulations on your trip to the western suburbs and your safe return. I agree, much glory to God for protecting you. Yes it is true that your house cost a lot more than those houses you saw. This doesn’t actually mean, though, that housing is more affordable for poor people than for rich people. I know it’s complicated, it’s an economics issue really. I’ll send you a pamphlet.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Tony Abbott

 

Hi Tony,

No I don’t think we should invade Germany either. It’s not really the choice of country that I’m objecting to here, Tony.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: George Brandis

 

Hi George,

No, metadata is not “a special cage we put monkeys in”. Honestly I think you’re getting further and further away here. Please do not issue any more statements on metadata until you’ve been properly briefed by our experts. As to the other matter, you might have broken it by putting your coffee mug in it – it’s not actually a cup holder.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Eric Abetz

 

Hi Eric,

No, I don’t think dead babies come back as ghosts. In particular I don’t think this is a point you should raise during Question Time.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Tony Abbott

 

Tony, I absolutely forbid you to publicly announce your intentions to “punch ISIS in the face”. I’m serious Tony.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: George Brandis

 

Oh for Christ’s sake. You can’t get metadata with a screwdriver. I’ll send a repairman. Sit on your hands till he comes.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Eric Abetz

 

No we do not have capital punishment any more. And certainly not at a stake. Go have a lie down.

 

 

MEMO

From: Stan Purtell

To: Joe Hockey

 

Look, why don’t you stick that cigar in [REDACTED]?

 

Published in Weekly Email

Energy efficiency and government programs run by bureaucracies. Mutually exclusive concepts? It would seem so. 

Recent times have been tough for those interested in government supported action in energy efficiency. The large and successful Energy Efficiency Opportunities (EEO) program was finally euthanised in the recent federal budget and the Victorian government have dropped their ‘white certificate scheme’, the VEET, after a review found the scheme imposed more costs than savings on Victorian taxpayers.

Energy efficiency is a tricky problem for government to fix, with program success linked to the amount of energy saving targets. There is a fixed cost in any energy efficiency project, the cost of analysis is largely fixed, and for the project to be worthwhile this fixed cost must be recouped through savings. This is easier for larger energy users, where a 0.5% saving might represent $100,000, compared to a household where a similar effort might save $50 a year. I have been in a meeting with a big user where we told them their carbon tax liability would increase their costs by $20m a year, and they replied “that is below our threshold of concern”.

Knowing this, governments have come at the problem from two different directions; from the top-down, teaching the big energy users to manage their energy better, and from the bottom-up, making it hard for consumers to buy inefficient appliances. The VEET and similar schemes in the ACT and NSW attempt a third way, essentially creating a market to trade saved energy. It is a complex and bureaucratic solution and I expect it will be largely unsuccessful because it doesn’t engage with the core problem.

Energy efficiency in economic language is considered an information barrier problem. There are projects out there that, if implemented, would recoup the initial investment in an attractive period, but they are not pursued because we don’t know how what they are or how to go about implementing and evaluating them.

The EEO program worked on this barrier with a great deal of success. It taught corporations the fundamentals of managing energy use, with benchmarks for leadership, record keeping, data analysis and decision making. It led the proverbial corporate horse to water, some of them drank freely and others denied that the water even existed. Statistics gathered by the program suggest that it still has access to energy saving opportunities, but these are blocked by corporations still unwilling to put in the time and effort. Those who are going to succeed probably already have, those who are not might be beyond help. For either case the program ended on the 30th of June 2014.

The bottom-up methods use regulation to sidestep the information barrier. Customers are unable to compare the energy use of appliances at the time of purchase, so the appliance manufacturers are compelled to test their energy use and either meet benchmarks or report their performance. The benchmarking is covered by the Minimum Energy Performance Standards program, energy use reporting is captured by the Energy Rating labels that have been used for more than 20 years. This information is intended to give consumers a way to make informed decisions, and it is successful to that end. Other barriers remain, like customers buying purely on price and not considering operating costs, or where their decision is limited by other criteria, like matching the colour of other appliances.

The white certificate schemes represent a third way, and attempts to solve a different problem. One of the barriers identified in business surveys was that the savings from an energy efficiency project are in the future. Money is spent, then recouped over time. Raising the initial capital was often a barrier. The white certificates then become a way of receiving those savings before they occur. It is conceptually similar to the Renewable Energy Target, where energy retailers are compelled to purchase enough units of renewable energy to cover a percentage of all the electricity they sell each period. White certificates create a market for future-saved-energy, lowering the barrier to implementing the project in the first place.

It is an astonishingly bureaucratic solution and mostly shifts the risk of energy efficiency from consumers to retailers, without creating any lasting impact on energy use. Because consumers, households in particular, don’t know how to calculate the energy saved by a project, there are factors already prepared for common opportunities like changing a lightbulb or draught sealing doors. Because the risk is placed on the retailers, they generally do the work as well. Many people many will have experienced these visits by a energy retailer - a van rolls up, you get some lightbulbs changed, a draught sealer across the bottom of the front door, you sign some paperwork and the van goes again. Your house has just implemented energy efficiency projects and the retailer has generated their required certificates. The householder generally learns as much about energy efficiency as a trip to the dentist teaches us about dentistry.

The root cause, which which EEO was established to address, is not touched. Your capacity to make informed decisions that improve your energy use is not improved even slightly. This will not generate lasting savings or a ‘culture of energy efficiency’ as is the goal of EEO. Mostly it generates some positive public relations for the retailer and easily quantifiable metrics for government to assess their performance against.

And this is the root problem of energy efficiency and government. Success or failure is determined by performance against easily determined metrics. “We made 100,000 pieces of paper in the last financial year at a cost of $1 million dollars therefore the program was a success”.

But we know from experience with big energy users that this sort of prescriptive problem solving doesn’t work. Lasting change comes from teaching people how to make their own decisions and giving them the confidence to do so. The remaining challenge in energy efficiency is teaching a lot of people how to make their own choices, and this is hard and deeply unfashionable for government to engage with. How do you quantify Household Understanding of Energy Use? What metric fully captures a household that has learnt to open and close windows and curtains strategically?

This is not what is shown in the review of the VEET, but reading between the lines you can see it. The program didn’t deliver the savings anticipated for the amount spent and was likely to cost more the longer the program ran. Changing lightbulbs teaches us nothing, but generates easily understood metrics. For government of any stripe to have a lasting impact on the remaining energy efficiency challenges will require a different way of designing and assessing programs to what we have tried in the past. And given that the root cause is that we don’t understand energy, I can’t see that happening any time soon.

 

 

Published in Weekly Email

Amid the wreckage of the Abbott Government’s first Budget, and their increasingly tortured and desperate attempts to sell it, The Prime Minister’s recent trip to Tasmania went largely unreported. A fact for which he should probably be grateful. Tasmania’s manifold economic issues are not going to be solved by felling more trees or encouraging more young people to migrate to the mainland.

During his Apple Isle sojourn, Prime Minister Abbott was pressed on what solutions he had to address Tasmania’s chronic youth unemployment problem and the exodus of young people from the state. To put it mildly, his response didn’t inspired much confidence.

For hundreds and hundreds of years people have been moving in order to better their life.

People came to Tasmania in order to better their lives.

I don't think we should be necessarily heartbroken just because some people choose to move.

It was another example of Tony Abbott’s penchant for the glib, illogical, off the cuff statements that enrage his opponents and frustrate his supporters. Faced with the question of how to stop young Tasmanian’s migrating to the mainland – a key factor in the state’s ongoing economic malaise - Abbott’s response wasn’t to reassure the locals that his Government had a plan to address it, but rather to push them onto the next available flight. Unlike the wink however, this can’t be palmed off as a faux pas or mistake, because it’s effectively what the policies of his Government will do.

This week the details of one of the harshest features in a particularly harsh budget have been released; the changes to unemployment benefits . These changes will see the unemployed denied benefits for 6 months, during which time they’ll have to apply for 40 jobs a month in order to qualify. They would then be booted off benefits again if they haven’t found work or begun study in the next 6 months. Along with burdening the unemployed with an endless cycle of pointless job applications just to qualify for a barely adequate stipend, once they do qualify they’ll be made to work for the privilege, with the revival of the Howard Government’s Work For The Dole scheme.

Unsurprisingly these measures have appalled the welfare sector, who’ve claimed they will lead to an explosion in poverty, homelessness and crime. More telling though has been the response of some Coalition friendly groups, such as the Council of Small Business of Australia who are worried about the mountain of paperwork all these job applications will cause their members.

Even The Business Council of Australia, which represents the big end of town, have expressed concern, with the CEO Jennifer Westacott conceding on Budget Night after the measures were first announced, that they were ‘pretty tough’.

Tough they may be, but when applied to Tasmania - with a nation leading youth unemployment rate of 17% - they seem almost sadistic.

But it gets worse.

Another feature of the policy is to force young people to move to where jobs are available by denying them the dole if they refuse. With an economy in the doldrums, those jobs are unlikely to be in Tasmania, which will only serve to supercharge the existing problem of young Tasmanians fleeing to the mainland. This in turn will exacerbate what is already a nasty Catch 22.

While it’s fashionable in some quarters to regard Tasmania’s economic woes as a recent fad brought about by the previous Labor/Greens Government, the reality is they are long term, deeply ingrained and go far beyond partisan politics. They stem from the fact that Tasmania is a sparsely populated and isolated island, situated off the coast of a larger sparsely populated and isolated island. It doesn’t possess the natural resources that underpin the wealth of other far flung places like WA, and its low population base and isolation make service and manufacturing industries uncompetitive as well as deterring other investors who may spur economic growth. As a result it has a small, aging, low paid and unskilled workforce, which produces a small tax base that struggles to support the existing population with quality social services such as health and education. And thus you have the ongoing problem of young people wanting to leave which makes the existing problems worse.

It’s a witch’s brew that has confounded politicians and economists for decades and led to a variety of wacky proposals, including such gems as turning Tasmania into a tax haven – a sort of antipodean Cayman Islands. A slightly less fanciful proposal was to turn Tasmania into a giant airport departure lounge by declaring it a duty free zone, a proposal long championed by the late Tasmanian politician and father of the current premier, Michael Hodgman. Alas, both plans hit the fence, due to a not insignificant document called the Australian Constitution. It will also likely prohibit the more recent idea to have Tasmania become part of Victoria, something suggested by former Victorian Premier turned media tart, Jeff Kennett.

However unlikely and unsuccessful these thought bubbles are, at least they involved some vision and imagination, something entirely absent from the plans both the new State and Federal Liberal Governments have for Tasmania.

After Tony Abbott won office last September, the Tasmanian Liberals followed suit in March this year, making Will Hodgman Premier and ending 16 years of Labor rule in the state. As with many incoming governments, hubris abounded and both the Federal and State Libs made all sorts of wild claims about how a change of administration would be the magic panacea for Tasmania. Instead all we’ve seen is the aforementioned Ayn Randian fantasies of the Federal Government and a State Government who seem to think the only way to revive the Tasmanian economy is by jump starting the moribund forest industry.

A common denominator in both these approaches is the redoubtable Senator Eric Abetz, the most senior and influential figure in the Tasmanian Liberal Party and a key powerbroker on the hard right of the Federal Coalition. Along with being a significant factional player and a driving force behind the new Hodgman Government in Hobart, Abetz also happens to be the Federal Employment Minister and therefore has responsibility for the ‘earn or learn’ measures. One would imagine that, coming from Tasmania, Sen. Abetz would be aware of the damage his policies could have there. And surely, having been a Minister in the Howard Government, Senator Abetz would know that the previous incarnation of Work For The Dole did nothing to help the unemployed into jobs. But alas, as the Senator proved in a trainwreck interview on Lateline on Monday night, facts, logic and evidence based policy aren’t his strong suit.

It’s an approach which could also explain the bizarre attempts by the Hodgman Government to resuscitate the state’s forestry industry, despite little evidence that there remains an international market for Tasmania’s old growth timber and the importance of forestry to the state’s economy long being overstated. No, the State and Federal Libs ploughed on with their attempt to have vast tracts of Tasmanian old growth forest removed from World Heritage Listing, an unprecedented move which was resoundingly slapped down when put to a vote in Paris.

More successful has been their quest to rip up the historic Tasmanian Forest Peace Agreement, which passed through the Lower House of the Tasmanian Parliament and now only needs approval by the Upper House. This is despite resistance from various pressure groups, including the forestry industry themselves.

Both these moves have Senator Abetz’s fingerprints all over them. His dislike of the Greens and the environmental movement is legendary and it’s no surprise to see him using electoral victory to poke them in the eye. As for claims that this reckless forestry-at-all-costs approach could hurt Tasmania’s much larger tourism industry, which relies on its pristine environment to attract visitors, the Senator sees no conflict. When commenting on a proposed tourism venture at an old woodchip mill in Triabunna on Tasmania’s East Coast, he told John Van Tiggelen of The Monthly that he couldn’t see any reason why the two couldn’t co-exist.

A tourist would be interested to learn how we do forestry in Tasmania and learn that the woodchips are made from the leftovers... it’s a great story to tell.

This is the beauty of Government by ideology. Facts don’t matter. Evidence doesn’t matter. Rather than changing your policies to suit circumstance, you simply re-imagine circumstance to suit your policies. Thus the Liberals are now living in a world where having no income for 6 months will help you get a job and where tourists will travel to the end of the earth to see trees shredded into woodchips.

The trouble for Abbott, Abetz and Hodgman is they seem to believe their resounding election wins mean Tasmanians want ideological crusades. Which, of course, they don’t. Tasmanian voters turfed out Labor governments it felt were no longer listening or were incapable of addressing myriad problems that affect the state’s very viability. Early indications are that they’re unimpressed with the new governments who seem more interested in pursuing vendettas and dogma than solutions. Unless they change tack, a few Liberal MPs may soon be dusting off their resumes and making some pointless job applications.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 30 July 2014

My 40th job application

To: Mr Eric Abetz
Minister for Employment
Bolgia 8, Malebolge, 8th Circle
Canberra

Dear Minister,

I wish to apply for the role of statistician, which I presume to be currently vacant, in your office.

I’m applying for this role because, in addition to being the 40th job application I will have filed this month in order to get my dole payment, your stated reliance on “anecdotal data” leads me to believe the statistician role in your office would only be part time.

In fact, part time would be perfect, because I am a single mother who can’t afford childcare thanks to your government dismissing the Productivity Commission’s suggestion to divert Paid Parental Leave funding into the under resourced child care system.

With keen time management skills honed from “seek(ing) a job of a morning and of an afternoon”, I am confident my ability to pad work out with meaningless tasks will be fully synergistic with a government that has only been able to pass 6 legislative bills since coming to power 10 months ago.

I don’t believe my complete lack of experience as a statistician will be a drawback, thanks to your preference for “anecdotal evidence” over actual data.

I do, however, have wonderful experience as a lifter (but not as a leaner). You should see how many reports stating Work for the Dole schemes are counterproductive for welfare recipients and employers I can lift and put in the bin. I won’t recycle them though. Only leaners rely on paper previously used by honest taxpayers. That’s not me, Betzy. We should totally have a team building session where we lift trees from the Tasmanian forest (you know, the one we tried to “unlock”) and take them back to Canberra to make more paper for things like “Real Solutions”.

Additionally, I have no formal qualifications as a statistician. I trust this won’t be an issue because no one can actually afford education anymore. I do know Latin, however, so feel free to have me stand as your proxy in any meetings with Christopher Pyne. Most of my Latin knowledge is based on prayers but I’m sure it won’t change the outcome of our conversations.

In addition to Latin, I have great communication skills and can answer most questions with a stock “there is no doubt that all the social data tells us...” without referencing any of the data or studies or even listening to the question. This skill really comes in handy and also allows me to keep meetings to a minimum by saying “no”, “Howard Government” or “LA LA LAAAA I can’t hear you” repeatedly.

With regards to salary, I’m used to living below the poverty line on Newstart’s $245 per week, though I hear there is an extra $20 potentially available to people on the Work for the Dole scheme - just the thing to help me afford the cost of living in Canberra where starting rent for a 1 bedroom unit is $220 per week. That would leave me with $40 a week to live on. Or should I just squat in that rental Abbott doesn’t live in and cost $3000 per week?

Yes, of course, I would move for this job, Minister - I’m no “job snob”. It doesn’t matter that I live in Melbourne - I know you believe in moving for work because “where there are jobs available, you should seek that employment, even if it is not necessarily the employment of first choice”. Trust me, working for you would be my last choice.

I look forward to discussing this exciting opportunity with you further.

Yours sincerely,

Amy Gray

 

Published in Weekly Email

The attack on flight MH17 and the Australian Government’s response to it is one of those moments that brings us up against some very particular difficulties with the whole notion of democratic politics and our role as citizens. It is an event that transcends the sometimes petty divisions of our national politics and is one of those moments that we tend to see through the wide eyes of our shared humanity rather than the blinkered eyes of our divided political loyalties. But is that actually possible?

No-one should give a shit about the politics of those who died in the criminal attack on flight MH17, and our response to the loss should not be coloured by partisanship either.

And yet, the whole infrastructure of national mourning is mediated through political structures - first and foremost, the office of the Prime Minister - and this presents difficulties.

I don’t think we look to the prime minister for comfort at times like this, so much as we desire that whoever is power at the time of such an attack uses the power of the office in the pursuit of justice (beyond merely good foreign policy).

Of course, some comfort comes from that pursuit, but only to the extent to which the holder of the office can speak outside his or her usual political role.

In the immediate aftermath of such an event, we expect a prime minister to address parliament, to invite the leader of the opposition to do so too, to include the opposition in security briefings and intelligence sharing, to organise and perhaps speak at some sort of memorial service, to be available to those most directly affected by the tragedy, and, in the case of flight M17, to demand answers from those responsible.

Much of this is not inherently political, and some of it is specifically designed to rise above politics-as-usual (sharing roles and information with the opposition, for example). Some of it, though, is political, as is the office of prime minister itself, which means even relatively neutral actions have the potential to be coloured by political interpretations.

What’s more, the big temptation for any given prime minister is to co-opt such moments for political purposes. Indeed, it is the transcendent nature of such events - that they exist above and beyond mere partisanship - that makes them so tempting to exploit.

The desire to move from hated politician to national statesman is almost overwhelming in such moments, and this is the transition Tony Abbott is currently trying to negotiate.

Abbott himself is aware of the sensitivities, and by implication, is aware of his own unwelcomeness, or at the very least, the unwelcomeness of what he represents as a political figure. He has said:

“My intention is to call all of the families of victims who would like a call from their Prime Minister. Some may want calls, some may not. I do not want to intrude on anyone’s grief, but I want them to know their Prime Minister is available to them in a time like this.”

There is something almost sad about him feeling the need to say that, underlined as it is by his invocation of himself as “their” prime minister. He is acknowledging that at least some of the bereaved families might not consider him to be “their” prime minister, and look, kudos to him for recognising that.

Under our system, some of the weight of such moments is meant to be borne by the Governor General, precisely because that person is our head of state and apolitical, as opposed to the person of the prime minister, who is our head of government and deeply political.

But from what I can see, the Governor General has had almost no ongoing role in all of this. Yes, he was present and spoke at the memorial service, but I don’t get the sense that he is assuming any supra symbolic role as a national figurehead as events develop.

This speaks, I think, to the irrelevance of the office of Governor General to most Australians, something that I don’t think would necessarily be cured if we simply turned the GG into a President. (Though it might also have something to do with the fact that the incumbent, Peter Cosgrove, has already had his wings clipped over another humanitarian incident where the government thought he was stealing their thunder.)

Anyway, in moments such as these the state and the nation demand the existence of a non-political leader. In fact, the prime minister needs such a person to inure him against claims of self-aggrandisement and political opportunism.

So if the office of prime minister is too political, and the Governor General too irrelevant, what do we do? In a national disaster, who speaks for us?

Tony Abbott’s inclination seems to be - when he wants to indicate that he is rising above politics and is trying to take a more neutral role - to reach out to the military.

Abbott apparently has great faith in the idea that most Australians will accept the authority and integrity of military (or former military) personnel as the go-to guys when he needs gravitas and apolitical cover.

Indeed it is telling that the person he chose as Governor General is a former military General, Peter Cosgrove. (Cosgrove not only had the military background, but the imprimatur of former PM, John Howard.)

And there was no surprise to see Abbott deploy another former military person, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, in the wake of the attack on flight MH17.

FORMER Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has been sent to Ukraine as Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “personal envoy” at the head of a 45-man team to ensure “justice is done”.

The former defence force official, who also led Australia’s failed search for the wreckage of missing Malaysia Airlines MH370, is already in Kiev, the Prime Minister said today.

The prime minister also said:

"Marshal Houston will ensure the Australian effort is handled with authority and coordination."

In other words, the prime minister not only chose him for his expertise, but sought to frame him as some sort of authoritative national representative at the scene.

The trouble is such a use of the military (even if they are retired) tends to have the reverse effect: it doesn’t lend neutrality to government actions so much as it tarnishes the independence of the military and makes them seem to be the tool of partisan politics.

This has been most notable with the case of Lieutenant General Angus Campbell who has fallen victim to this and has damaged his reputation and that of the military more generally as a non-partisan symbol within Australian society. His involvement in Scott Morrison’s set-piece, non-interview, “border security”, unpress conferences, where he has been wheeled out as a human shield for the minister, is simply a bad look. (Especially when he has subsequently been appointed as Chief of the Army.)

The question becomes, when the office of prime minister is occupied, as it is now, by a person who is not only overtly and unapologetically political, but also deeply unpopular, is it possible for him to “rise above” his partisanship and speak for the country as a whole?

Is it possible for those who dislike him politically to accept him as a uniting national figure in a time of national emergency?

Well, no.

I think Tony Abbott is trying hard, in this instance, to overcome his instincts as a political operative. His response to the attack on MH17 has been reasonable and he has tried to fulfil the sometimes conflicting duties the office and the role of prime minister bestow upon him. He is a naturally awkward person and a poor orator, so some of his word choices have been bad, but I haven’t sensed any malice.

What’s more, he has been absolutely right to call out Vladimir Putin for his and Russia’s role in this crime, and to demand not only answers about what happened, but dignity and respect for the victims at the site of the downed plane.

Abbott’s good work in this regard was even acknowledged by former chief-of-staff to Julia Gillard, John McTernan:

Have to say @TonyAbbottMHR stood out in his angry and moral denunciation of Putin's evasions. What a leader should do.

But Tony Abbott is a politician, a particularly ferocious one at that, and it is that very ferocity and single-mindedness that wins him plaudits from those on his side of the aisle. But he pays a big price for this. Perhaps we all do.

Having established himself as just that sort of political animal, it is impossible for his opponents not to suspect his motives and to set the bar very high when it comes to giving him the benefit of the doubt. It is also impossible for him to wriggle out of that skin and leave it behind.

As Dr Tad said on Twitter the other day:

Jeebus. Abbott is really trying to make #MH17 into what 9/11 was to Howard. Not going so well in my estimation.

Mine either, and the reason is pretty obvious.

Tony Abbott has simply put too many people offside, broken his trust with the electorate on too many matters, ridden roughshod over the concerns of too many people who don’t happen to hold to his particular narrow view of good governance, and he takes too much pleasure in the political woes of his opponents for him to suddenly be embraced in the non-partisan way a situation like the attack on flight MH17 usually demands.

Fans of Tony Abbott may well point out that I could just as well be describing Paul Keating with that paragraph and maybe that’s fair enough. But I think this government’s, and this prime minister’s partisanship, actually goes much deeper.

The Abbott Government, more than most, has made a sport - largely for their own amusement - of many of the opportunities for the sort of appointments and funding decisions that have traditionally provided a chance for governments to reach out beyond their immediate base.

Everything from positions on the appointments panel of the ABC, to ambassadorial roles, to the commission of audit, to the creation of the role of a so-called Freedom Commissioner at the expense of a Commissioner for Disability Discrimination seem to have been taken less for reasons of good governance than as a way of rewarding friends and supporters, of ensuring the government only hear opinions that accord with their own, or simply to get up the nose of their political opponents.

The same attitude is apparent in the installation of Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House and the partisan way in which she has chosen, with Tony Abbott’s support and blessing, to interpret her role in that traditionally independent office, and in how she runs Question Time.

It has extended to defunding or severely reducing the funding for everything from the CSIRO, to the ABC, to the Refugee Council.

And it is apparent in the fact that one of their first actions as an incoming government was to establish a one-sided royal commission into their political enemies in the trade union movement and another into the workings of Kevin Rudd’s home insulation scheme.

It even went so far as to have Mr Abbott break with years of convention and provide cabinet-in-confidence documents to the pink batt royal commission.

This is a government and a prime minister that has taken petty partisanship to new heights (depths, I guess) and taken a winner-takes-all approach to government. This is a political party that has, at almost every point, been willing to abandon the niceties of political decorum, dating right back to their time in Opposition.

Tony Abbott, at least initially, did a good job responding to the international tragedy of flight MH17. But so what? How much praise should he get for mere competence? Or for not overtly exploiting the moment for political gain? Surely we should expect nothing less?

Well, not according to key sections of the media. Once again, they seem to think that it is their job to bear him aloft so that we-the-people may more properly gaze admiringly upon him. It is more than passing strange to watch them, as the story unfolds, positively will Mr Abbott’s modest achievement into some sort of heroic turning point.

News.com.au, for instance, wondered breathlessly if this was Mr Abbott’s “seminal moment”. They ran the headline, “Tony Abbott’s handling of Malaysia Airlines MH17 incident sees a spike in his approval rating” over a story that showed no such thing.

The AFR offered this spin:

Tony Abbott’s handling of the MH17 atrocity is being universally admired. It has failed to have any instant impact on the government’s lowly poll ratings in the latest Australian Financial Review/Nielsen poll. However, his approval and disapproval ratings improved slightly.

In The Age, Michael Gordon dissolved Viagra in the Kool Aid and engorged the flaccid:

Having been firmer and sterner than all other leaders in his initial response to the MH17 catastrophe, Tony Abbott is now cautioning against ''facile optimism'' in the difficult days ahead.

The man whose blunt language articulated the world's initial shock, anger and outrage and set the tone for subsequent responses, now appears to be opting for a more measured and nuanced approach.

And Annabel Crabb, writing in The Drum, joined the cheer squad:

One year ago, one would not necessarily have expected a toe-to-toe between Vladimir Putin and Tony Abbott. One would not have anticipated these beyond-dreadful circumstances. And one would not, perhaps, have expected Australia's 28th prime minister either to have attempted so much, or to have got it so right.

Seriously? Are we so desperate to have a national leader that we can admire, one in whose presence we do not cringe in shame, that we will alight on the slightest act of competence and blow it up into a “seminal moment” of world admiration?

Maybe that’s what this whole event tells us, that there really is a great, big, fat leadership hole in the middle of our national politics and that we - and most especially, the media - are desperate to see it filled.

As I said, I’m more than happy to give Tony Abbott his due on this, but it will take more than a passing act of adequacy to convince me that he has changed in any sort of fundamental way.

If he wants to be taken seriously on those occasions that demand the prime minister be a figure of national unity, then he has to begin by being less divisive on the all those occasions that don’t.

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