How can a Christian be complicit in incarceration, torture, and murder? With discomfiting ease, it turns out.

Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison is, as he regularly makes clear, a devout Christian.

Whenever this subject is raised people point out, not unreasonably, that he is therefore in for a heck of a time in the afterlife, since the Bible is chock-full of instructions about how Jesus Christ felt people should treat each other:

Galatians 6:2 - Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

Deuteronomy 15:11- For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Matthew 25: 34-40 - Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherits the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Mark 12:31- And the second [is] like, [namely] this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

…and so on. It's fair to say that Jesus was pretty unambiguous about how he felt about helping those in need (summation: he was fiercely pro) and also how he felt about those who harm and oppress others (spoiler: anti).

Thus people like to ask rhetorical questions like “how can Morrison reconcile his faith with his actions regarding asylum seekers? You know, who have broken no law, are asking for our help, and are locked away in subhuman conditions to rot until they beg to be returned to the tender mercies of those they fled in the first place?”

And it's a fair question, and most of the time the response is of the flavour “because he is presumably a monstrous hypocrite”. However, it's a mistake to think that Morrison's beliefs are at odds with his actions. In fact, according to the precepts of his church, Morrison's more on the side of God than that busybody do-gooder Jesus.

Morrison belongs to Shirelive, a giant Pentecostal church in the Sydney suburb of Sutherland. It's an evangelical Protestant church of the clapping-and-waving variety and falls under the charismatic umbrella of what is somewhat dismissively called “prosperity theology” - the idea that material success is a sign from God that you're doing His work.

The flipside of this doctrine is that those who are not doing well are clearly not in God's good graces. Such as, for instance, the poor, or the sick, or those fleeing persecution from repressive regimes by buying passage for their family with people smugglers and being intercepted on the high seas by Australian Customs Vessels.

You may justifiably ask how this can possibly work theologically, given everything that Jesus said about camels and the Kingdom of Heaven and needing to liquefy the rich to get them through the eye of a needle. And the answer is that it's via a handy bit of doctrinal sleight of hand.

Morrison's church believe in Predestination, the notion that God knows absolutely everything about everything from the moment of creation until the end of the world. Long before you were born He knew everything about you – what you'd do, what you'd think, who you'd meet, the very specific types of pornography you'd enjoy, everything – including whether or not you were going to Heaven or Hell.

The guts of the idea is in this passage:

Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12 - For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves... In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

The Calvinist branch of the Protestant church took this particularly to heart, coming up with a series of precepts known by the acronym “TULIP”, with each point backed up by carefully cherry-picked bits of scripture.

TULIP stands for:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Before you get too excited, total depravity is recognition that people are completely affected by sin and thus your opinion on what's right and wrong is irrelevant – after all, you're just a big old sack of sin!

Mark said “man's heart is evil” (Mark 7:21-23), Ephesians declared that we are “at enmity with God” (Eph. 2:15), Corinthians says we can't understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14).

You still think people shouldn't be locked in prison camps for asking for help? You reckon you know better than God, do you? Ba-bom: wrong! You just don't get it, because you're a sinner.

Unconditional election refers to the above idea in Ephesians that God nominates people for salvation and damnation without condition: in other words, your eternal fate is not decided by your behaviour in this life. You could murder your way through your days or dedicate your life to charity and it'll make zero difference to God since He's already decided where you're headed. Romans makes clear that some are chosen and some are not (Rom. 9:15, 21), so: boom.

Seem weird to you? How's about you just shut your sin-hole?

Limited atonement gets around that whole “Jesus died for your sins” thing: turns out he only died for the sins of those already chosen. Matthew said Jesus died for the “many”, you know, not the all (Matt. 26:28), and there was that whole separating-the-sheep-and-the-goats thing (Matt. 25:32-33). So don't go looking to the J-dog for moral authority there, Sinny McSinnington.

Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints reaffirm that only God gives grace and once given you can't exchange it for grace for others, de-gracify yourself, or return it for the cash equivalent. I'm paraphrasing, admittedly.

What's the upshot of this? Basically, it doesn't matter what you do in life, your fate is already sealed. Only God can judge whether that's fair and since it's God then yes, it is.

Calvinist ideals proved remarkably influential in the United States. Some of the Pentecostal churches have a particularly strong Calvinist influence and are predictably very big on the idea of Predestination, as befits a church that is focussed on one's individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

According to the church, not only can you not possibly understand how God works because you're neck-deep in sin, the mere act of questioning the reasoning is in itself morally dubious. As Romans 3:10-12 helpfully puts it: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

So what does this all mean for Morrison?

Well, he knows that those who come across the seas are all doomed to damnation – after all, God wouldn't have plonked them in the middle of the civil war in Syria if He didn't want to punish them for their unchangeable wickedness – and therefore locking them up indefinitely to self-harm in disease-riddled camps is perfectly fine. He's not going to examine his conscience on the subject, because the act of doing so would be an affront to God.

Meanwhile, he's on a sweet parliamentary salary with a high-profile government portfolio, a wife and kids and a lovely house in a quiet Sydney suburb. God's clearly giving him a tangible version of a spiritual high-five.

So to answer the original question: how can Scott Morrison be responsible for overseeing all these human rights atrocities and call himself a Christian? With absolute ease. And he probably sleeps better than you do.

After all, it was predestined.

Published in Weekly Email

Lost among the bustle of yesterday’s continuing Palmer sideshow, otherwise known as federal parliament, was proof that the miner’s alternative emissions trading scheme is a sham.

The ETS was brandished by Palmer last month as proof of his Damascene conversion to the need for climate action and the merits of carbon pricing.

In reality its purpose was little more than to greenwash Palmer’s coal-blackened hands and mitigate observers’ queasiness that Al Gore had been compromised into apparently sanctioning the miner’s vow to scrap the existing carbon-pricing scheme.

At the time Palmer placed caveats on what has been described as his “dormant” ETS to ensure it did not activate before Australia’s key trading partners had their own schemes in place. This was ostensibly to protect our exports from being disadvantaged by having to incorporate a carbon price when our competitors’ products did not carry a similar impost.

That’s the theory, anyway. But in reality, Palmer’s requirement for international action before reinitiating a domestic price on carbon was only ever a stalling tactic. Only a few of the countries nominated by Palmer have the prospect of a national ETS in the next few years, the others will take a great deal longer.

The true purpose of the Clayton’s ETS was exposed when it emerged yesterday that Palmer wanted to add India to the list of prerequisite countries. India relies heavily on coal-fired power to improve the living standards of its 1.2 billion people, around a third of whom live in poverty. Like many other developing nations, it is unlikely to take on an emissions trading scheme before the developed world does.

Therefore Palmer’s inclusion of India as one of the countries that must have a national scheme before Australia initiates its own, exposes his ETS for the empty promise that it is. So much for Palmer being a born-again supporter of genuine climate action.

Not that Palmer’s casual relationship with verity, consistency or the public good should come as a surprise after this first fortnight of the new crossbench-dominated Senate.

As Lenore Taylor pointed out yesterday, it has quickly emerged that Palmer’s preferred method of operating within the new Senate configuration is to cause maximum drama (and resulting media coverage), extract a few concessions and then support the Coalition anyway.

Such is the case with the regulations introduced by the Government to weaken the Future of Financial Advice reforms. Palmer initially vowed to get rid of the regulations but ended up supporting them after securing a few ‘improvements’ that consumer advocates say will do nothing to deter shonky financial advisers.

The same applies to the repeal of the existing carbon price, and by extension the perfectly good ETS that already exists in law and could be brought forward with minimal fuss.

Due to dramas completely of his own making, including the appalling bawling-out of a Senate employee, Palmer has managed to drag out the carbon price repeal debate – and keep political observers enthralled – for most of the past fortnight.

The changes he’s required the Government to make to the repeal bills, essentially to force the passing back of savings from the scrapped carbon tax to end consumers, are again minimal, but also conveniently exempt Palmer’s own energy-intensive nickel operations from having to do so.

In fact, this points to the other pattern in Palmer’s behaviour: he attaches voter relief from the harshest elements of the budget to those Government reforms that directly benefit him and his commercial interests.

Both the carbon price and mining tax repeals, which will save Palmer’s operations many millions of dollars, now also involve electricity and gas savings being passed on to consumers as well as retention of the school kids bonus, income support bonus and low income superannuation contribution.

Clearly Palmer believes the public will excuse him lining his own pockets as long as he shoves a few dollars in theirs as well.

The broader implications of Palmer’s influence on government decision-making, parliamentary process and the budget bottom line are only just beginning to emerge.

Palmer has pointed out that it’s not his concern how the Government pays for his bribes concessions, or the extent to which his reversal of budget spending cuts increases the nation’s debt.

So the Government can expect Palmer to continue to influence the Senate with the same economic recklessness and impunity that he’s demonstrated so far.

Yesterday’s revelation about Palmer’s empty ETS shows the true extent to which the miner is genuinely concerned (or not) about climate action. It’s also a strong indicator of his broader intention to serve the public good (or not) rather than personal commercial interests.

Abbott has little hope of reining Palmer in over the next few years. It make take another election and a shift in the balance of power to do that. And even then, it will be voters’ capacity to see past their own financial concerns and assess what is in the nation’s best interest that will determine whether Palmer gets away with his democratically-dangerous self-indulgence.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 09 July 2014

Morrison: criminal case to answer?

Recent events in an ocean somewhere to the North, kind of, we think, Australia, maybe, have raised questions about the legality or otherwise of some actions undertaken by the Royal Australian Navy and Customs on our behalf.

Many people have been claiming that our Immigration Minister is now an International Criminal and should be charged and tried in The Hague or wherever the International Criminal Court sits.

scott morrison

Is Mr Morrison an actual criminal? Are any of our other Ministers, or Department Heads, or our Chief of Navy, or Customs or the individuals who work for them? If they are, how can they be charged, if at all?

It is at the moment very difficult to determine exactly what is going on with the boatload of asylum seekers who are the subject of a High Court case. There are several legal questions, not least of which is trying to figure out which laws apply:

It's not clear at this stage whether it's lawful or not because nobody knows where they are or on what basis they're being kept. That will come out in these proceedings.”

Asked if he was sure the High Court had jurisdiction over the case, even though the asylum seekers may be in international waters, (Sydney solicitor George Newhouse) said: “Well the minister [Scott Morrison] certainly seems to think that he's got the jurisdiction. If he's got the jurisdiction, and they're in the hands of the Australian Navy, then certainly the High Court would have jurisdiction over them as well.

There is huge amount of law (and fact) at issue in the case of this particular boat – Maritime Law for one. If the boat is intercepted in Australian waters there are different responsibilities under law and convention that apply to the ones that apply if it’s picked up outside our territorial zone. And of course we’ve excised huge chunks of our coastline and seas from our Immigration Zone, just to muddy those waters even further.

There are also issues of legal responsibility – who personally (the Minister, the Head of Navy, the ship’s Captain), or what body (the Parliament, the Executive, the Office of The Minister or Ministers) bears the burden of culpability for an illegal act? And is that responsibility delegated by instrument?

The central point in this case though is the concept of Refoulement – returning a refugee to a place that he/she was trying to escape. I’ve copied a few chunks of Wikipedia to explain, which may seem lazy, but it references the same sources I’d be citing anyway and is a useful layman’s description of an unbelievably complex and ambiguous legal system.


The principle of “refoulement” was officially enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of RefugeesArticle 33 of the 1951 Convention contains the following two paragraphs that define the prohibition of the expulsion or return of a refugee:

1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.

and is also contained in the 1967 Protocol and Art 3 of the1984 UN Torture Convention .

Article 3 prohibits parties from returning, extraditing or refouling any person to a state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”. The Committee against Torture has held that this danger must be assessed not just for the initial receiving state, but also to states to which the person may be subsequently expelled, returned or extradited.[10]

Australia is a signatory to both conventions.

One of the grey areas of law most hotly debated within signatory circles is the interpretation of Article 33. Interdiction of potential refugee-transporting vessels on the high seas has been a common practice by the U.S. government in particular, raising the question of whether Article 33 requires a refugee to be within a country, or simply within the power of a country, to trigger the right against refoulement. This adds an extra level of complication to the process of bringing criminal cases to international courts. If such a case was successfully brought against Australia, what effect could that have on U.S. policy and practice?

It is debatable whether non-refoulement is a jus cogens (peremptory norm) of international law that forbids the expulsion of a refugee into an area, usually their home-country, where the person might be again subjected to persecution.

There is no clear agreement regarding precisely which norms are jus cogens nor how a norm reaches that status, but it is generally accepted that jus cogens includes the prohibition of genocide, maritime piracy, slaving in general (to include slavery as well as the slave trade), torture, and wars of aggression and territorial aggrandizement.

Anyone interested in a more detailed study on the law and principles of refoulement might be interested in this piece.

To narrow the Is Scott Morrison A Criminal? discussion to within a workable range, we need to make a few assumptions.

First, we assume that the occupants of the boat in question are refugees, in this case, Sri Lankan Tamils escaping prison, torture and execution because they were on the losing side of a civil war (ie, for their religious and racial status). And we assume that, wherever we have intercepted the boat, we have a legal obligation not to refouler them. Further, we assume that handing them over to the Sri Lankan Navy guarantees their immediate torture/imprisonment/execution (other than the two years’ “rigorous imprisonment” they’re already facing for leaving Sri Lanka in the first place). And we assume that legal responsibility rests with the Immigration Minister.

All that said, it appears that Scott Morrison has committed a breach of Article 33. What now? Has Morrison committed a crime triable by the International Criminal Court?

International Criminal Court

Again, referring to Wikipedia for a layman’s description of the ICC:

Part 2, Article 5 of the Rome Statute grants the Court jurisdiction over four groups of crimes, which it refers to as the “most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”: the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The Statute defines each of these crimes except for aggression. The crime of genocide is unique because the crime must be committed with 'intent to destroy'. Crimes against humanity are specifically listed prohibited acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.

So for Morrison, or any other Australian official to be tried in the ICC, it would have to be proven that the interception of a boatload of refugees and handing over of them to the very government they were trying to escape, is a Crime Against Humanity.

To date, such as case has never been heard in the ICC, which means we have no tested laws or treaties to assess as a benchmark.

Crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum, “are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of human beings.” They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.

For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(a) Murder;

(b) Extermination;

(c) Enslavement;

(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f) Torture;

(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;

(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i) Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j) The crime of apartheid;

(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health;

Let’s not discuss whether Narau and Manus Island and the whole policy falls under (k) – it’s too subjective an argument to explore here, but it certainly is, and should be, a topic for public debate. Recent polling seems to indicate that most of Australia would not agree.

So, where and how is Mr Morrison to be tried?

War Crimes Tribunals

The United Nations has been primarily responsible for the prosecution of crimes against humanity since it was chartered in 1948.

The UN has instituted a number of Ad hoc War Crimes Tribunals:

  • Nuremberg trials 1945 (following World War II)
  • Tokyo trials 1946 (following World War II)
  • International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (following the Balkan conflict)
  • International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (following the Rwandan genocide)
  • Special Court for Sierra Leone (following the Sierra Leone Civil War)

The UN is responsible for referring cases concerning crimes against humanity to the ICC. The most recent cases were brought against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (found guilty), Thomas Lubanga (found guilty) and Joseph Kony (yet to be tried).

When the ICC President reported to the UN regarding its progress handling these crimes against humanity case, Judge Phillipe Kirsch said

The Court does not have the power to arrest these persons. That is the responsibility of States and other actors. Without arrests, there can be no trials.

It appears that, even if all our earlier assumptions turn out to be true, and even if the UN decides that the case against Mr Morrison is so strong and so serious as to justify a Tribunal or trial, it would be up to us (ie, the AFP on order of our government) to arrest him.

And keep him in custody through three or more levels of court hearings, then allow him to be extradited, through at least another four courts, then answer any subpoenas for documentary evidence against him. Then abide by whatever the ICC decides.

It’s a pretty safe assumption that a Liberal government would never take such action against itself. And any Labor government, with a record only slightly less murky than the current liberal government, is equally unlikely to kick over than anthill.

So the short answer to the question of whether Scott Morrison, or any other Australian official, could be charged with an international crime appears to be “no”.

While the facts may well prove that a breach of international law has occurred, the politics, both nationally and internationally, would far outweigh any moral or legal imperative.

It’s an interesting thought, but let’s stick with what we, as a nation, do best: keep voting for the two political parties who delivered, and continue to deliver, this wretched, shameful policy.


Published in Weekly Email

“Anger is an energy” sang PiL nearly three decades and countless horrors ago. Anger is everywhere, and with good reason - the environment, social and income inequality, attacks on already-decaying education, health and welfare systems, the apparent need to protect our borders from desperate refugees. Whichever side of the fence you sit on these issues, it's easy, and most healthy, to get angry.

But anger about so many of these things seems to change nothing. And from that powerlessness, that impotence, springs Rage, the most pointless, self-harming and yet uncontrollable feeling of all.

Of all the passions, rage is possibly the worst. It’s the ugliest – the frustration that makes our face contort, jolts our bones and tears at our throat. It’s a circle of anger and powerlessness where the two feed off and strengthen each other – think of Basil Fawlty attacking his broken-down Morris with a tree branch, needing to lash out while knowing that it will achieve nothing, which only adds to the anger.

And if you’re watching what’s happened in Australia over the last few months and not feeling rage, you’re just not paying attention.

So let’s catalogue what is happening right now:

Clive Palmer: about to come into his own in the senate with a party already so fractured and disjointed that Palmer United qualifies as Australia’s most dangerous fault line. But let’s ignore that, because Palmer’s trickster comedic turn is the closest we get to a topical news show in Australia (Billionaire fauxdiot says “You are very naive when it comes to politics, my girl“ to experienced political journalist. LAUGH TRACK).

The independent panel that selects the ABC’s board stacked with hostiles as a corrective rather than balancing measure, putting the national broadcaster under threat.

Bill Shorten: an opposition leader whose success in the polls can be directly attributed to the fact no one hears from him. Which is actually a good thing because his opposition to the Government is as well camouflaged as his media presence.

In Asylum Seeker shipping news, a goddamn newborn was sent to Christmas Island. A fucking three year old is still currently missing at sea. Who will help her? Not the Abbott Government.

An at-sea 4-question asylum “enhanced assessment” process that makes my Tinder hookups appear researched in comparison.

A Prime Minister who has perfected the ability to goosestep his feet straight into his own mouth has described Australia as “unsettled or, um, scarcely-settled“ ignoring around 68,000 years of pre-invasion history and established trade relations, not to mention a landmark 1992 court case that established the Australia was not an empty land and was rich with settlement.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison: a man so bereft of empathy for the human condition we need to consider if this organic meat computer is the first form of AI able to pass a Turing test but fail the three laws of robotics. His latest callous creation, Border Force, offers all the entertainment of a Masterchef invention test using fascism as the hero ingredient.

This would have been a longer list had I not had a rage stroke and needed a lie down before covering the thorough rogering given to welfare, the poor, the aged, the ill, people with disability, indigenous or anyone without the good sense to have been born white, healthy and preferably with a dick.

Australia has long been told rage is useful. Rage gives us pluck, it carries us through those long valleys of desperation. Maintain the rage, we’re told, the bluster that will give us energy through the trek.

Rage is the white cell rush from alienation and disagreement. It’s an alienation that Australians know well, having moved from perpetual colonial underdog to pedigree equivalent that insists it’s still the same trampled canine.

Right now, rage isn’t working for us. Tens of thousands can vent their spleens on the streets but it won’t stop Scott Morrison or Tony Abbott behaving like Voldemorts who haven’t yet spitefully cut off their noses. No amount of retweeting will bring Bill Shorten out of the Witness Protection Program. No memeifying a Janet Albrechtsen quote will dissolve both the houses, restore funding to the ABC and make QandA good again.

Our rage performance is much like the public grieving, a contagion of unrestrained emotion that does little but make noise for those happy to play deaf. Our cacophony won’t break down systems of oppression, it won’t bring back a missing 3 year old from a Minister’s sea of “operational matters” or give the media the space they need to place politicians under the unstinting examination they deserve.

Rage lacks the energy to fuel long-term change, it’s a short burst that momentarily inflames and expands the lungs. But ultimately, the energy that fires us extinguishes, only fast-cooling embers left behind, wisps of smoke curling toward the sky and dissipating.

Because our fury is much relief as it is a defence against fully comprehending the abuses of power conducted in our name.

To fully arrest and thwart the arrogant cruelty currently on display in Australia, our commitment to change must last beyond social media. It must go further than wintry afternoon’s instagramming witty protest banners and high-profile mischief.

Though fun, this release and entertainment isn’t a complete cycle for change. It’s like the prewash setting – over in a minute and doesn’t seem to do much. When rage is used properly, it can be a release to purge the head before the real work for change begins, a cleansing fire to burn off the emotions.

As philosopher Dr Damon Young recently told me “rage is a kind of medicinal outburst, which lances the wound but doesn't stop the basic disease”.

But while we rage (perhaps the trained response to the sound of a dog whistle), we change nothing. We hurl our bodies against the ramparts of that which we rage against, bruising and damaging ourselves while those we wish to change look down on us in amusement, if they bother to look at all.

“Rage is almost always weak - that's why we rage. Compare with the calm brutality of the government”, says Dr Young. “No raging there.”

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 09 July 2014

Interview with a Minister

A King’s Tribune exclusive: Ben Pobjie was granted an interview with Immigration Minister, Christian and saviour of the not-drowned, Scott Morrison.

I’ve only just entered Scott Morrison’s tastefully-appointed Sutherland villa and I’m already wrestling with a dilemma. It’s quite a coup for the King’s Tribune to have scored an exclusive interview with the notoriously shy Immigration Minister, and I don’t want to say anything that might upset him and cut the interview short; but some things simply cry out for attention. Treading as carefully as I can, I ask Morrison why the façade of his house is entirely covered with a photograph of Chuck Norris. To my relief, he smiles graciously as he answers:

“It’s just a reminder, to always be focused on the most important thing: getting the job done.”

I nod understandingly as the Minister speaks for ten minutes on the subject of Mr Norris and how good he was at getting jobs done.

“So you see, I never want to forget the lessons he taught me,” he finishes, striking a kung fu pose as he pours me a drink. It’s at this point that I notice that the lounge room is littered with broken pieces of wood. I don’t want to spend all day on the subject though, so as I sit on his plush leather sofa, I move the conversation towards Morrison’s early life.

The Minister is forthcoming, describing in vivid detail his years at Cronulla’s prestigious St Darren’s Boys’ School, where he says discipline was “tough but fair”. He shows me a scar on his bicep where his English teacher set a Staffordshire bull terrier on him for running near the toilets. Common practice in those days, he says experiences such as these taught him to respect rules stringently. “For example,” he offers, pointing to a sign on the wall above my head reading “NO SHOES ON THE CARPET”, and punching me viciously in the stomach.

“I don’t just preach my philosophy; I live it,” Morrison says as he helps me up.

This brings us to what might be described as the seminal moment in the Minister’s childhood: the death of both of his parents in a freak boating accident. Morrison himself disputes the appellation “freak”, but it is difficult to think of one more apt when describing such an occurrence as the day that Mr and Mrs Morrison Senior were riding ponies along the Colo River when an ancient Chinese dhow fell out of the plane transporting it to the National Museum and crushed them both.

Morrison becomes emotional when recounting the story, his eyes tearful yet steely. “That was the day,” he says, his jaw set firmly, “that I decided I would never in my life cease my fight against boats, and the evil and violence they do to man.”

This has been a running theme throughout Morrison’s life: as a young man he was arrested several times for swimming into Sydney Harbour and attacking ferries with knives and axes; and at university he was president of the Student Anti-Rowing League, which would spend weekends picketing regattas.

It’s not difficult to see a common thread throughout Morrison’s career: Christianity. “I always try to live my life in a Christlike way,” he muses, throwing a bible at my head to illustrate. “Jesus, as you know, hated boats,” he adds, pointing out that the Saviour would rather leap onto the water and run across it than stay on a boat. Once again, I nod.

What does the Minister see as Jesus’s position on asylum seekers? Morrison opens his bible – not the one he threw at me, the one he keeps in his pocket – and shows me the passage in Luke where Christ feeds the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, with particular attention paid to the verses where Jesus refuses any bread or fish to those members of the multitude without correct paperwork.

“There are any number of stories just like that,” the Minister insists. “Think about the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they have arrived through the proper channels’. Or when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and offers him a financial incentive to go back where he came from.”

So the government’s current border protection policies are based on Jesus’s example? “Absolutely,” Morrison enthuses. “That’s the only reason I’m doing it, to be honest: I’m simply driven by my Christian faith to live a godly life in all ways possible.”

There can be little doubting the Minister’s piety: much of the artwork on his walls is Christian in nature, and later on, as he takes me on a tour of the house, I note the presence of many authentic Catholic instruments of torture on display in the pool room. He also interrupts the interview to force me to kneel beside him and chant hymns for three hours before resuming, which some might see as fanatical behaviour, but in Morrison it seems a simple and heartfelt expression of faith.

When we do resume, and as the Minister lightly flogs himself – “keeps me in trim,” he says brightly – I ask him about the criticism he has received from some sections of the community. He scoffs.

“What you have to realise,” he explains, “is that I am in the business of saving lives. With Labor in power, people were drowning at sea, thanks to Kevin Rudd’s ‘Let’s Drown People At Sea’ policy. But with Operation Sovereign Borders, my sinister helmeted strike force has managed to completely reverse the Rudd-Gillard killing spree and usher in a new era of people not seeing photographs in newspapers of things that happen at sea. We’ve managed to save so many lives, by stopping the boats, the boats, the boats, the goddamn BOATS!” – here Morrison became agitated and took some minutes to regain his composure.

“You see,” he resumed, “it’s the boats killing people, so by stopping the boats, we’re stopping the deaths. I make no apology for that, and if you expect me to make an apology, you’re some kind of lunatic. I’m not in the apology-making business, I’m in the life-saving business, and every refugee who doesn’t come here on a boat, that’s a life saved. Every refugee who applies for asylum through correct processes, that’s a life saved. Every refugee who stays where they are, that’s a life saved. Every refugee who spends the rest of their life in a refugee camp, every refugee who gives up their futile efforts to infiltrate sovereign nations’ borders, every refugee who just accepts whatever they’ve got coming….that’s a life saved. There are about fifty million refugees around the world today,” at this point the Minister was jabbing a finger into my chest, spittle flying into my eyes, “and if we make sure none of them get to Australia, that’s fifty million lives I’ve saved. Have you ever heard of a greater humanitarian?” he screamed, urinating on a special edition DVD of Schindler’s List. “Have you?”

I confess I have not, and after a brief, intimate embrace, I take my leave, shaken but oddly inspired by the experience of meeting a man who bears such a heavy burden, yet manages to do so without losing his humanity or sense of humour. As I reflect on my last glimpse of Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister – shirtless and crawling nimbly across his front lawn on his belly, yelling for the deer to stop hiding and meet their fate – I can’t help but feel a little bit safer. For no matter what you might think of immigration policy in this country, there is no doubt that it is in the hands of a man who truly believes that his hands have immigration policy in them. And that’s something you can bank on.

Published in Weekly Email

The Abbott Government is systematically reshaping Australian society. Their agenda isn’t just about rewarding the rich at the expense of the poor. Nor is it simply an anti-science agenda that ignores expertise, particularly in the area of environmental concerns, so that the great extractors can continue on their merry way. Nor is just old white men longing for a time when they were the daddies and women knew their place. The Abbott Government is all those things, but it is important to understand that it is also operating in a global system that fundamentally alters social relations. Under such circumstance, getting rid of the Abbott Government isn’t enough.

The picture of Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Corman outside Treasury smoking cigars the day before the Abbott Government brought down its now-infamous austerity Budget resonated like an omen.

Nothing quite says “the ugly face of capitalism” like the image of self-satisfied white males sucking on fat cigars, and the Budget that followed once the cigars were stubbed out exceeded many people’s worst expectations.

The community experienced the measures outlined in it, not as the attack on “entitlement” that the Abbott Government insisted it was, but as an attack on something fundamental about Australian society.

It has been encouraging to see just how much opposition the Budget has produced. Yes, the polls have registered our concerns, but more importantly, there has been - and continues to be - a wave of street protests that have the potential to not only help people maintain their rage, but to generate the sort of grassroots opposition that leads to lasting change.

We’ll see.

As arresting as the image of the cigar-puffing duo might’ve been, though, there is an argument that that image of “ugly capitalism” is outdated and that we have to get our heads around a different idea of what capitalism means in these first decades of the new century.

In what follows, I want to flag some recent analysis that attempts to understand just what is happening.

The main point I think we should take away from the discussion - and by “we”, I don’t just mean the progressive left, but the electorate more generally - is that getting rid of the Abbott Government is not enough. Real change is only going to come when certain underlying structures are dismantled.

So, you know, deep breath.

In her latest book, Expulsions, sociologist Saskia Sassen, argues that global capitalism has morphed into something new. The book is an attempt to document the rise in global inequality and to tease out the continuities and breaks from what has gone before. So although it shares many features with the creature of earlier times, contemporary capitalism, she argues, is fundamentally different.

Rich individuals and global firms by themselves could not have achieved such extreme concentration of the world’s wealth. They need what we might think of as systemic help: a complex interaction of these actors with systems regeared toward enabling extreme concentration.

Such systemic capacities are a variable mix of technical, market, and financial innovations plus government enablement.

They constitute a partly global condition, though one that often functions through the specifics of countries, their political economies, their laws, and their governments. They include enormous capacities for intermediation that function as a kind of haze, impairing our ability to see what is happening — but unlike a century ago, we would not find cigar-smoking moguls in this haze.

Today, the structures through which concentration happens are complex assemblages of multiple elements, rather than the fiefdoms of a few robber barons.

As she goes on to note, the earlier iteration of capitalism “was far from perfect: there were inequality, concentration of wealth, poverty, racism, and more. But it was a system with a capacity to generate a growing middle sector that kept expanding for several generations, with children mostly doing better than their parents.”

This is what I think someone like Joseph Stiglitz misses in the sort of analysis he offers in this New York Times piece. Stiglitz is one of the few mainstream economists who at least tries to argue against the sort of austerity measures that governments are inflicting on their citizens, and for that he deserves great credit. But he wants to voice his opposition from within the economic orthodoxy and so, in pieces like this, he seeks to rescue that orthodoxy from a more fundamental criticism. Speaking of the debilitating inequality that now undermines American society, he therefore argues that, “it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide [but] our policies and our politics.”

Well, yes, policy and politics are obviously part of it. But what he argues for in that piece is basically to restore the regulations of a previous era which, while it has a superficial appeal, is utterly pointless if the underlying structures of capitalism have changed in the way Sussen (and those below) suggest.

It is the way in which the economic system no longer needs to generate a broad middle class that is the arresting aspect of her analysis and which is absent from Stiglitz’s. That is to say, when the key elements of an economic system are finance, extractive industries like mining and logging, and knowledge and technology-based activities rather than manufacturing, the middle tier of workers tends to disappear thus creating the sort of social and economic polarisation we are seeing:

As the leading sector in market-based economies for much of the twentieth century, mass manufacturing created the economic conditions for the expansion of the middle class because it facilitated worker organizing, with unionization the most familiar format; it was based in good part on household consumption, and hence wage levels mattered in that they created an effective demand in economies that were for the most part fairly closed; and the relatively high wage levels and social benefits typical of the leading manufacturing sectors became a model for broader sectors of the economy, even those not unionized nor in manufacturing.

Once this middle disappears - structurally disappears - the social justification for redistribution of national income in the form of welfare disappears with it and the winners in this system - the one percent, if you like - are increasingly begrudging in their willingness to pay taxes to support social services. As Ken Davidson wrote in The Age this week:

The (Abbott) government and its ideological supporters say that with an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, the country cannot afford to fund a welfare system which allows the aged, the sick, the unemployed and the dysfunctional to participate in the affluent society. What they really mean is that they are not prepared to pay the necessary taxes to ensure this participation.

The structural disappearance of the middle class in even advanced free-market democracies is also at the heart of this recent piece by Nils Gilman. He argues that the modern state is being hollowed out and that what we are left with is a “criminal insurgency” below, and a “plutocratic insurgency above”.

“During the social modernist era (1945–71),” he says, “virtually all states—whether capitalist or communist, industrialized or developmental, great power or post-colonial—aimed to legitimate themselves by serving the interests of middle classes whose size they sought to expand.

“Both capitalist and communist accumulation strategies were based on the nurturing of industrial laborers, who were expected to work for a living and who in turn were told that the state not only would steadily improve their standard of living but also cushion them from misfortunes through various forms of social security.”

But this model has passed, or is passing. Drawing on Thomas Piketty’s work Gilman notes:

The accumulation regime that predominated during the heyday of social modernism depended on a new class of workers who could afford the goods they were producing. The great fortunes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were built on the backs of worker-consumers in primarily inward-looking national contexts. By contrast, today’s plutocrats thrive by selling their goods and services globally; their success is dramatically less connected to the fortunes of their fellow national citizens than was that of previous generations.

Moreover, the two signature types of massive wealth accumulation in the early 21st century have been high technology and financial services. Neither of these industries relies on masses of laborers, so their productivity is detached from the health of any particular national middle class. The result has been a dramatic rise in inequality within countries, even as wealth inequality transnationally has narrowed.

And Sassen makes the key point (contra Stiglitz):

These trends are not anomalous, nor are they the result of a crisis; they are part of the current systemic deepening of capitalist relations.

In other words, the gutting of the middle class is not a glitch, it is a feature of the system.

The final piece I want to consider is a book by Philip Mirowski called Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. In it, Mirowski teases out a point that others have often hinted at, namely, that the logic of neoliberalism has so invaded our understanding of even non-economic activity, that it has more or less normalised itself as our way of understanding the world.

The key to this “everyday neoliberalism” is the shift from collective concerns to a focus on individual identity, and Mirowski lists some of the ways in which we become attuned to that shift, not necessarily because of some sort of false consciousness (that is, ignorance of what is happening to us), but because of the ubiquity of neoliberal structures:

Not many people can be bothered to actually read Hayek or Buchanan or Milton Friedman or (even) Ayn Rand; but a whole lot more people drink fair trade coffee from time to time, watch Big Brother or Jerry Springer; have a Facebook page they desultorily update; contemplate whether to buy insurance; find themselves short until payday; are worried enough to check their FICO score; spring for a lottery ticket at the checkout; feel conflicted at the sight of a scruffy panhandler; worry about the foreclosure sale down the street; commiserate with friends over what to think about the British summer of riots in 2011; take medication to lose weight; or anguish over whether to visit a fertility clinic.

In these thousand and one little encounters spread over a lifetime, the average person begins to absorb a set of images, causal scenarios, and precepts that begin to add up to something approaching a worldview.

I might mention in passing that street artist Bansky articulates a similar concern in his comments about the appropriation of public spaces by corporations:

The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit…. The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff…. Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you. It’s yours to take, rearrange and reuse. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head….

Both Mirowski and Sassen also point out that, despite the neoliberal rhetoric of being anti-government, government is actually a key player in the neoliberal project. Mirowski notes the penchant of the likes of Hayek and Milton Friedman for authoritarian governments in South America, but in Australia we only have to look at the Abbott government to see that what they try and pass off as “deregulation” and “freedom” is often accompanied by draconian countermeasures designed to discipline and punish, everything from the treatment of asylum seekers to making unemployment benefits conditional on the use of a debit card that can only be used in government-approved places:

“We would say, you can have a debit card that precludes certain expenditure. It could, for example, preclude expenditure on alcohol. You get a card, go to the bottle shop and they say ‘sorry, transaction declined’,” [Minister Kevin Andrews] said on Network Ten’s Bolt Report on Sunday morning.

Claims of deregulation are a particular furphy. As Mirowski says, “deregulation always cashes out as reregulation”, something we saw under the Howard Government with WorkChoices. The supposed “deregulation” of the workplace laws was actually an eight-hundred-page policy document that simply re-regulated the workplace in favour of business at the expense of workers.

What I’m groping for with all of this is some overarching understanding of how an unpopular government led by an despised prime minister can, in a democracy, still do tremendous damage to our social fabric and bring about changes that few people want.

The short answer, as per the above discussion, is that they can do it because they and we are embedded in a social and economic structure that is global in nature and that, therefore, makes diffuse, and difficult to combat, the underlying power structures that generate it.

It is enabled by governments who have entered into a devil’s bargain with the private purveyors of that system on the promise of economic growth, even as the growth that is generated is not of the sort that allows for a strong middle class to be sustained. Sassen notes that the definition of “growth” is simply adjusted to exclude troublesome factors:

There is a de facto redefinition of “the economy” when sharp contractions are gradually lost to standard measures. The unemployed who lose everything — jobs, homes, medical insurance — easily fall off the edge of what is defined as “the economy” and counted as such. So do small shop and factory owners who lose everything and commit suicide.

And so do the growing numbers of well-educated students and professionals who emigrate and leave Europe all together. These trends redefine the space of the economy. They make it smaller and expel a good share of the unemployed and the poor from standard measures.

Such a redefinition makes “the economy” presentable, so to speak, allowing it to show a slight growth in its measure of GDP per capita.

What is left out of these measures showing a return to some growth is that a significant portion of households, enterprises, and places have been expelled from that economic space that is being measured. The expelled become invisible to formal measurements, and thereby their negative drag on growth rates is neutralized.

What’s more, the whole nature of control over this system is depoliticised, that is, taken out of the sphere of a public contest of ideas, and is normalised as something over which we have no control and to which there is no alternative.

It ultimately fractures social relations, stressing individual reinvention and blame at the expense of collective action, and thus robs us of the key weapon any society has to organise itself in the way it sees fit.

Australia is not at the extreme edge of these transformations in the way that, say, Greece or Spain is. As is often noted - as we try to reassure ourselves as things fall apart - we avoided the worst of the financial crisis. This mantra rings through our public rhetoric like an incantation uttered to ward off the fiscal demons we know are waiting to run over us.

But the logic of what has happened at the extremes is every bit as embedded in our economy as it is in those, like Greece and Ireland and Spain, who have more or less collapsed under the force of it.

In other words, we are not immune, and incantations ain’t going to save us.

What has saved us thus far is not just large scale government intervention into the sacred operations of the market-based economy, but an underlying belief that such interventions can work, and more importantly, a belief that government actually has a role in acting on behalf of all us to protect us from what the likes of the financial crisis has wrought.

It is exactly that belief that is being attacked by the Abbott Government.

They don’t say it clearly, but the entire logic of their “end of entitlements” and “bring the budget back into balance” rhetoric is to reject political action of the sort that saved us. It is a total dismissal of the idea that politics has any role in shaping economic outcomes in an equitable way, while at the same time providing the regulatory environment which is ultimately to the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Theirs is deeply ideological and interventionist government even as it is presented as a benign, hands-off slasher of “red tape”.

The net effect of all this is exactly what we are seeing in Australia at the moment. A growing brutalisation of the poor, a rhetoric of work as the only measure of worth and personal fulfilment, a mistrust of any activity that can’t be valued in a market, and an intellectual winner-takes-all mentality where counter arguments are not only rejected but struck out of contention by the government defunding any organisation that doesn’t sing from their hymn book (on this latter point, see my recent article, here).

And, of course, growing inequality.

This trend does not begin with the Abbott Government nor is it likely to end with it. Paul Keating’s neoliberal reforms set us on a path that ultimately outpaced any of the Labor-values amelioration he put in place, while Julia Gillard, as much as any public leader we’ve had, was a champion of work as our true measure. “We believe life is given direction and purpose by work,” she declared in front of the US Congress. “Without work there is corrosive aimlessness. With the loss of work comes the loss of dignity. This is why, in each of our countries, the great goal of all we do in the economy is the same to ensure that everyone who can work does work.”

And who knows where a Shorten government would finally settle on the spectrum of “acceptable” economic policy.

In noting that, I’m not saying that the Coalition and Labor are the same thing. Clearly Labor is more willing to enact policy that aims at redistribution and some sort of pushback against the inequalities that, as we’ve seen, are inherent in the economic system to which most of our elites and political class subscribe.

What I am saying is that it is as well to be aware of the true nature of that economic system, how it is a different beast to what might be conjured by the image of a cigar-smoking Treasurer, and realise that simply changing governments does not necessarily alter the underlying conditions.

Published in Weekly Email
Sunday, 29 June 2014

When Cliev comes to town

In one weird press conference, Clive Palmer and Al Gore have determined the course of clean energy policy in Australia for the next few years. Comprehending these changes requires an understanding of the emissions problem we are trying to fix, and the tools available to do this.

Australia has some of the highest per-capita CO2 emissions in the world, driven primarily by the appalling emissions of our electricity sector. Generation emissions account for over a third of our total emissions and are the largest single contributor. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries together are close to 20%, then mining, manufacturing, construction and transport, and residential tail off from 12% to less than 10%.

Our electricity sector emissions are very high in world standards, the highest by some measures. Much of this can be attributed to our brown-coal burners, particularly Hazelwood and Yallourn in the La Trobe Valley and, to a lesser extent, Loy Yang, Playford and Colinsville. The coal they burn is soft and moist, up to 60% water in some cases and is therefore hopelessly inefficient to burn through a coal boiler. As a result, Hazelwood, almost the highest emitting powerstation in the world, emits about 1.4 tonnes of CO2 for every mega-watt hour of electricity produced, where one of the new black-coal burning, supercritical plants in Queensland achieve closer to .8 tonnes per MWh.

For Australia to make a lasting impression on our emissions we need to reform our electricity sector. We also need to limit and lower our total emissions, but we will struggle to do that without lasting changes to our generation mix.

The carbon price was designed to work on this problem and losing it is a disaster. The carbon price added a production cost to higher emitting electricity and so changed the order that plants are dispatched into the market. This is a complicated transaction which I have described elsewhere, and plenty of indicators suggest that it was working as planned.

emissions electricity australia

Figure 1 From Pitt and Sherry's CEDEX report 

Since there is no international competition in the electricity sector, the impact of the carbon price does very little to our international competitiveness as long as electricity users are compensated the amount collected by the tax, which is pretty much what was happening. Now that the carbon price will be removed we have the absurd situation of the price impost being removed while the compensation remains. Repeat after me: the age of entitlement is over.

Replacing the carbon price with an internationally traded ETS is not as useful. The international price on permits is too low to drive change in Australian generators and so doesn’t work on the root problem. My preference is for a carbon price on the generators and an ETS for the rest of the economy.

The carbon price prioritises lower carbon generators. This is a stop-gap measure only though, as the long-run goal is an electricity sector powered entirely by renewables. This is what the Renewable Energy Target is working towards and absolutely must continue doing. Renewable electricity generators need long-term certainty and a robust RET provides that. The incumbent generators have benefited from state-ownership and extended lifetimes, which distort the market so much that it is impossible for renewables to compete on price.

Hazelwood was supposed to close in the 1990s but its contract was extended so the state government could sell it. 15 years later it is still running, burning the cheapest coal deposit in the world. The RET provides a mechanism to side-step this sort of meddling and the benefits of incumbency to provide certainty that we are progressing to a 100% renewable energy grid. The RET must stay and be increased beyond 2020. 50% by 2030 seems achievable to me, and modelling released as part of the RET review suggests this is economically desirable.

Keeping the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is also a win, and should be easily defensible given that it makes the government money. The CEFC provides loans to clean technology projects, half of which must be renewables. This is addressing two related problems; that the traditional finance sector doesn’t want to invest in renewables because they don’t understand them and there is little regulatory certainty in their use, and to help first-of-type projects demonstrate their worth and create some ‘market pull’. By providing finance, rather than grants, they motivate the applicants to ensure their projects succeed by finding a sound financial return, rather than a development path based on continued government assistance.

The future of ARENA is uncertain at this stage, and I am not fussed either way. ARENA provides grants for renewable energy projects, typically demonstrating or exploring some technical aspect which needs work, like hybrid powerplant integration (like a wind and diesel system) or energy management. I am not fussed because government has a terrible record of implementing projects with direct grants, it creates the wrong impression of the sector as one requiring constant handouts and also fuels the lie that we need to invent new technologies to combat climate change.

ARENA would not be necessary if we had regulatory certainty in renewables. If we knew that clean energy would continue to be recognised in 10 years there would be no need for grants. ARENA is a negotiated compromise between certainty and government wanting to sit on the fence and does very little to address the root problems with clean technology.

I also loathe handouts for renewables, which is an unpopular view among my contemporaries. It creates the impression that this is some cottage industry, surviving only on the benevolence of government, when the truth is that there are many cost-effective project opportunities around Australia where renewables can provide cheaper electricity than what we have now. There are places in Western Australia where providing electricity costs over $1/kWh, compared to the recent solar auction in the ACT where project proponents accepted 17c/kWh for twenty years. Coupled with a big battery that electricity could be supplied for half what it currently costs, without inventing anything new or demonstrating new technology. The barrier is not a little bit of money from government.

The Climate Change Authority also survived Clive’s little brain fart, but to what benefit is hard to gauge. The CCA provides advice on Australia’s targets, costs and trajectories, but it is not binding. They have been suggesting sensible targets since their inception which have been roundly ignored. I suppose it offers some credibility as a state-sanctioned voice for the rational, but I haven’t seen much impact from their efforts. That said though, they released an excellent paper this week on vehicle fuel efficiency standards which has already had an impact on the debate. Perhaps a continued focus on this sort of techno-economic analysis of efficiency performance could make a valuable contribution.

Lastly, and fantastically, Direct Action is dead. I never believed that the Liberals wanted to implement this policy and for once we can agree on an outcome. It was very badly designed and essentially amounted to government handouts for things big emitters should have been doing already. There were no emissions targets, no solid framework for decision making and little consideration of the root problem being addressed. The arguement that something is better than nothing really doesn’t stand up in this case. A billion dollars a year would have gone to high emitters for projects that were probably cost effective already. It would not have reformed our electricity sector, nor provided certainty for renewables. All it provided was a figleaf of action and a bucket of cash to dole out to their favourites. It was a stupid policy conceived by someone who should have known better. That it ever made the light of day spoke very strongly to the Coalition’s commitment to action on climate change: it was a problem they never believed in and had absolutely no interest in attempting what is required. I hope it stays dead now.

Killing Direct Action, keeping the RET, CEFC and CCA can all be counted as wins. The RET review has now largely been neutered meaning the RET should survive until the next election. Losing the carbon price is a disaster and sets back progress in that sector by as much as a decade. Getting a price on carbon that reflects the urgency of the situation in our generating sector should be the focus of our policy efforts until the next election, and might be the sort of thing about which it is worth writing to our local members.

Published in Weekly Email

Clive Palmer and his eponymous united party will be pivotal figures in Canberra over the next 3 years. Despite his claim that he is only interested in the good of the nation, how well equipped (and well intentioned) is Palmer for the role he will play in national affairs?

Later today, Clive Palmer will unveil how his Palmer United Party will vote on key elements of the budget, ahead of a meeting tomorrow with Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ‘discuss’ the budget’s passage through the Senate.

There will be no rhyme or reason to the decisions, other than what is best for PUP, as Palmer ruthlessly uses his party’s pivotal votes to build the popular support needed to bring the Campbell Newman government down at the upcoming Queensland state election.

Yes, that’s right, Palmer’s main game is Queensland, not Canberra. Palmer famously parted with the Liberal National Party, of which he was a generous donor and life member, after falling out with the Newman LNP government over arrangements for his coal interests in that state. Palmer has subsequently been accused by Premier Newman of trying to use his political donations to secure preferential treatment, and the matter is now before the courts.

After leaving the LNP, Palmer cobbled together a novelty party with the singular purpose of transforming voter dissatisfaction with the major parties into a vehicle for personal revenge against Newman.

Having created the party, bought the candidates, and thrown a medium-sized fortune into television advertising during the 2013 federal election and subsequent WA Senate election re-run, Palmer landed a decisive role in the Senate that will either consolidate or cruel his ultimate run for political dominance in Queensland.

It’s not enough to be throwing one’s weight around in Canberra of course – one must also be seen to be doing so.

Hence Palmer’s very own version of the Concours d’Elegance, in which he arrived at parliament in a different luxury car over a succession of days, to the delight of television camera crews and journalists who were looking for something, anything to add colour and movement to their political stories.

As a result, Palmer was duly reported (and featured on television screens across the country, including Queensland) as saving taxpayer dollars by eschewing the government-funded car that normally ferries parliamentarians to their place of work.

In short, Palmer is a master at securing the best free publicity that money can buy.

Free publicity is the motivation behind Palmer’s outlandish statements too, although such utterances run the risk of inviting observers to ponder where the buffoon ends and the canny politician begins.

Palmer’s attack on the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, is a good case in point. His ill-informed and sexist use of Credlin to denunciate the Government’s paid parental leave scheme may have played well in the homes of the older, disaffected Liberal and National voters that are receptive to Palmer’s hokey style, but it struck a discordant note among the younger, more progressive political journalists in Canberra on whom Palmer is dependent for his high political profile.

In fact, the gloss may be starting to come off the Palmer cavalcade before it even rolls into the national capital. Media exposure of the Senators-elect who’ll comprise the PUP voting bloc has quickly shown them to be a motley crew of hard-to-control crusaders (in the case of Jacqui Lambie) and agonisingly inept ingénues (in the cases of Dio Wang and Ricky Muir). The remaining PUP Senator-to-be, Glenn Lazarus, continues to be as inscrutable as, well, a brick.

Any inclination by the media to dismiss Palmer and his MPs as political lightweights will be exacerbated by the growing realisation that the billionaire may well be as cunning as a shithouse rat but he’s also an economic illiterate. Palmer has done well to hide this deficiency to the extent that he has, but his budget reply last month and keynote speech to CEDA this week left no-one disabused of the fact.

This could prove to be a real issue for Professor Palmer, as Treasurer Hockey is wont to call the self-made man in an effort to emphasise Palmer’s lack of tertiary qualifications (and fondness of using the honorary title bestowed on him by the Bond University).

Economic literacy is a prerequisite for political credibility in Canberra, and the deliberate or accidental flaunting of ineptitude when it comes to economic matters can be a fast-track to political oblivion. Palmer’s massaging of economic truths in his federal election and WA Senate election advertisements was treated with some leniency by the media, given that most campaign advertising consists of rubbery facts and hyperbole.

But the pseudo-economics now being bandied about by Palmer as an alternative to the Abbott budget is variously misguided, fanciful or wrong. It should be of concern to all voters that Palmer’s economic ignorance, combined with his mercenary pursuit of the popular vote, will influence which budget measures will survive and which will be blocked in the Senate.

Perhaps a glimmer of this realisation is evident in the most recent Essential Poll, which reports that 26 per cent of respondents believe PUP holding the balance of power in the Senate will be good for Australia, while 39 per cent believe it will be bad.

The same poll also found that Palmer is consideredby voters to be arrogant, aggressive, erratic, out of touch with ordinary people, superficial and narrow minded.

Even so, Palmer remains in the box seat, manipulating the media, his MPs and even the Abbott government like so many marionettes.

Thanks to Palmer, our polity has come to this – dependent on the whims of a political trickster who is ultimately focused on little more than building a political army and arsenal to wreak sweet revenge on his opponents and detractors. With any luck, voters will have worked this out well before Palmer faces his next election.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bail and acceptable risk

There is always a conflict between the interests of impartial justice, tabloid journalism and the very real pain experienced by victims of crime. Stuck in the middle of these three forces are state governments attempting to legislate in the interests of all their constituents.

It seems that there is perpetually some area of Law Order that is creating a kerfuffle in NSW. The latest debate is centring on the New Bail Act that was proclaimed earlier this year

Bail is a vexed topic for government. Aside from sentencing, it is the area of the criminal law that attracts the most attention and criticism

In short, the Bail Act defines whether and on what conditions persons who have been charged with offences can be released, pending the determination of their guilt or innocence, or alternatively, whether and on what conditions they should be released pending sentence

On one hand, there should be some natural resistance to persons accused of offences being denied bail and held in a gaol. Such a person has not been proved or pled guilty. As such, we should be slow to take away their freedoms based purely on an accusation of wrongdoing by the state. No doubt any ordinary person would be outraged to be punished before their guilt or otherwise was determined

Of course, that is not the way that many people would prefer that things work. Frequently we see faux-outraged politicians laying into lawyers, magistrates or judges because someone has been released on bail pending the hearing of their matter.

That is not to say that accused persons should never be kept in custody pending the hearing of a matter. There are frequently times where there is a clear risk of further offending or flight from the jurisdiction, which would justify keeping a person in custody. An obvious example would be a foreign national accused of drug smuggling, or a person who police suspect, upon firm grounds, of being involved in a series of break and enters. The police are right to, on behalf of the community, argue that the courts should deny such a person bail

It is quite wrong, however, to start from the presumption that a person should be denied purely on the basis of the seriousness of an allegation made against them.

This was the fundamental problem with the old NSW Bail Act. The act deliberately and laboriously provided a specific series of presumptions that applied for any offence with which a person might be charged. At one extreme, most persons charged with minor offences have a “right to release on bail”. Moving up the ladder, some offences had a presumption in favour of bail. There were further categories where there was no presumption, where there was a presumption against bail being granted, and finally a small category of offences were bail should not be granted unless it was shown that there were “exceptional circumstances”

This system was not satisfactory for a number of reasons. For a start, it placed the focus primarily on the alleged offence, rather than the accused person. The web of complex, interwoven presumptions created confusion for all parties, and frequently made the system seem more than a little arbitrary

The new Bail Act seeks to remedy this situation by directly addressing the question “for what purpose it is being argued that a person should be denied bail?” The new Bail Act focusses on whether there is an unacceptable risk if the person is released on bail

The unacceptable risks must be one of the following:

- A risk the person will fail to appear in court

- A risk the person will commit a serious offence whilst on bail

- A risk the person will endanger the safety of victims, the individual or the community, or

- A risk the person will interfere with witnesses or evidence.

If the person poses an unacceptable risk in one of the above categories, the court is then to consider whether the risk can be ameliorated through bail conditions. For example, a risk that the person might flee the jurisdiction could be dealt with by confiscating their passport. A risk the person might commit a serious offence could be limited by forbidding contact with certain persons or from being in certain locations

No doubt people will still be denied bail under the new act. However, the decision to deny people bail is now being made based on an assessment of the potential consequences if they are released, rather than a blunt categorisation of the offence they were alleged to have committed

This subtlety has, however, been somewhat lost on the media, which immediately focused on the perceived injustice of persons accused on serious offences being released pending trial

In this Sydney Morning Herald article, the family of an accused murder victim complained about the victim’s husband and accused murderer being released on bail pending his trial.

The allegation was that in 1997 he has killed his wife. Whilst the details of the application have been suppressed (no doubt to preserve the accused’s right to a fair trial) it seems likely that the arguments advanced by the defence suggested that the age and nature of the allegation meant that there was no unacceptable risk if he was to be released on bail. It may well be that the prosecution was unable to articulate in any meaningful way how it was that the accused person posed a risk to the community

Without wanting to sound insensitive to the pain being suffered by the family of the victim, it is unclear from the reports precisely what it is that the community is to be afraid of if this person was accused pending trial. Is there any evidence suggesting that he is likely to offend again if he is released pending trial? Is there any evidence that he will interfere with witnesses, or that he will not appear at his trial? If not, he should not be pre-emptively punished before his guilt or innocence is determined

He has not been excused from punishment - if he is found guilty there is little doubt he will spend a long, long time in gaol. As he should. All that the court has determined is that it is not appropriate to begin punishing him until a jury decides that he is in fact guilty of the crime for which he has been charged

Obviously this legal argument is cold comfort to victims of crime and their families. It would be unfair to expect anything different.

But the legal system is not, and should not, be constructed on the feelings of victims. People should not routinely be pre-emptively punished unless there are compelling reasons to take a different approach

It remains to be seen whether the NSW government can hold its nerve in face of what is likely to be a sustained attack from the usual suspects.

UPDATE: Just two days after the above piece was published, the NSW Premier and Attorney General announced that the new Bail Act was to be "reviewed". The AG was quoted as saying "We will ensure that the new Act is applied as the government intended."

Published in Weekly Email

Part of the reason the country - if not the world - is drifting rightwards and disappearing into the unegalitarian vortex of late capitalism is because conversations about the economy, about politics, and about democracy are not just dominated by right-wing blowhards but are driven by right-wing ideas. Everything from balanced budgets and carbon taxes to “entitlement abuse” and immigration are discussed according to right-wing understandings of what is and isn’t desirable. If progressives want to change things, they are going to need to start presenting their views and beliefs, not just as responses to right-wing practices and talking points, but as tools for shaping debates and writing policy. They are going to need to change the national conversation.

It was the Occupy Wall Street movement that made equality a global political issue. Recently, the issue has been given some intellectual heft by French economist Thomas Piketty with his book Capital in the 21st Century. And now, even the IMF - one of the homes the sort of neoliberal policies that entrench economic stratification around the world - is warning that “rising income inequality is weighing on global economic growth and fuelling political instability.”

Nice of them to notice.

Here in Australia, it was the first Abbott/Hockey Budget that put the issues of equality and fairness front and centre.

With some justification, we think of ourselves as a nation in which the “fair go” is a defining national characteristic, a precious social value, even if it is one that we more or less take for granted.

The Budget made us realise that taking it for granted was no longer an option.

Australians were a bit like the eye of Sauron, focussed elsewhere and distracted by other battles. But when the Budget dropped, we were suddenly aware that our Gollumesque prime minister was standing on the edge of the precipice and was about to fall arse-backwards into the cracks of doom, taking our precious with him.

It’s been quite a moment in our political history, and it is one that should give progressives great hope.

So overwhelmingly negative has the general response been to the unfairness of this Budget that The Weekend Australian felt the need to editorialise some steel into the Government’s spine.

“The Coalition must win back friends and crush its enemies”, they bellowed in their print edition, reminding us once again, not only that they see their role as to rally the Abbott Government behind an agenda they helped create, but that while progressives resile from confrontational language for fear of appearing untoward, or of being accused of engaging in a class warfare, the right positively relishes it.

The Government must crush its enemies!

The Budget backlash has also removed the “balance” bullshit from the eyes of some establishment commentators.

Ross Gittins, for example, seems to have rethought his original attempts to play down the unfairness of the Budget. As I noted on these pages a few weeks back, his column the day after the Budget was full of mealy-mouthed exhortations that we not get too upset about things, writing stuff like:

This budget isn't as bad as Labor will claim....

and that

It's undoubtedly the toughest budget since John Howard's post-election budget in 1996, but it's hardly austerity economics.

This week, however, (with no acknowledgement of the shift in his position), he was saying something quite different:

But even if the budget passes intact, it contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Pensions heading inexorably below the poverty line? Pressure throughout the public sector for wages - including for nurses, teachers, childcare and age-care workers - to rise no faster than inflation, while private sector wages continue rising in real terms with productivity growth?

The vice-chancellor herd given total control over how high uni fees (and graduate debts) rise, including whether they make training for jobs as nurses, teachers and even government lawyers financially untenable?

This budget is unsustainable because the wider implications of its measures haven't been thought through. By knocking back its worst features, the Senate will be doing the Coalition (and the nation) a favour.

It’s a hell of trip from it’s “hardly austerity” to it’s “heading inexorably below the poverty line” and “this budget is unsustainable”, don’t you think?

The point is, we’ve had our wake-up call. Even Ross Gittins has, apparently. So the question is, what do we do next?

Well, there is a hint in my opening sentence: “inequality” has been embraced as a topic worthy of even the “very serious people” because of a street protest.

Yes, it’s lovely that we have Piketty’s book, and it’s terrific that the IMF is paying attention, but the agenda was set by a bunch of concerned nobodies standing on street corners around the world.

As British academic Chris Bertram said on Twitter when the effect of Occupy was becoming apparent: “Not in the mood for sneering superiority from ‘intellectual’ bloggers re occupy. [Occupy changed] the agenda, you didn't.”

The idea that strikes and protests can be a powerful force for change is something that has gotten lost in progressive circles. I know I’ve been going on about this in various articles for a while now, but we need to remind ourselves.

Even in the US, where Abbott-like economics have had longer to establish themselves and thwart all resistance, progressives are starting to realise what they have to do. As US activist Sarah Jaffe pointed out in The Washington Post recently:

McDonald’s might raise its wages, according to its recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wal-Mart is considering supporting an increase in the minimum wage, or at least that’s what spokespeople for the company have been floating in recent interviews (though at other times the company has denied this).

It seems that strikes and multiyear pressure campaigns by low-wage workers have some impact on their employers. McDonald’s even admitted as much; the SEC report noted “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality” and worker actions were affecting their public image. Labor organizing, often declared dead on arrival, is having some impact. Even President Obama’s decision to raise the minimum wage for workers under future federal contracts was inspired by seven different strikes by low-wage workers at places such as the Smithsonian and the Pentagon.

Another US example is the recent successful minimum wage negotiations in Seattle. The minimum wage was raised there after a committee that included government, business and worker representatives agreed on a proposal.

But in examining how that committee even came into existence, one thing was very obvious. As unionist David Rolf put it:

“The process was a good process,” SEIU’s Rolf said. “But I think the real lesson here is an organizing lesson not a process lesson. For progressives, the lesson is change the direction of the wind.”

That means strikes and protests and candidate forums and election-year leverage, the kind of on-the-ground organizing work that can turn the middle-out message Hanauer described into a tool that shapes debate and writes policy.

Or consider this Australian example. The employees of Apple’s stores recently “negotiated” a pay deal that left them with a lower base rate than employees at Coles supermarkets.

What was the difference between the workers at Coles and those at Apple? Well, as Peter Lewis from Essential Media tweeted:

Memo Apple geniuses - difference is Coles workers have a union agreement

Organised resistance matters. And a key to the success of organised resistance is public protests of various kinds. Remember this the next time someone in the political or media elite tells you that street demonstrations are too old fashioned or too rude or too alienating.

As I’ve noted before:

What we all have to remember is that politics is about power and power is about the status quo. It is only by upsetting the status quo that we will ever get the change that the polls (opinion and electoral) indicate we are seeking.

This means more demonstrations, more strikes, more letters to editors and local MPs, and more of all the other sorts of legitimate protest that are the essence of democratic practice.

Indeed, part of the reason the reaction against the Abbott/Hockey Budget has been so virulent, sustained and far-reaching is precisely because of demonstrations coordinated via social media and rolled out on the streets of capital cities, and even in the studios of the ABC.

Without such public displays of disapproval, the government might just about have got away with it.

Without them, the national conversation would have been - just as it was before the election - much more dominated by the right wing apologists in the media and their “balanced” counterparts in the rest of the fourth estate.

The lesson we should learn, therefore, is that progressives simply have to change the national conversation, and that public protests facilitate this. They have to shift the discussion from deficits and entitlements to fairness and prosperity for all.

In a sense, this means talking more about ends rather than means. It means enunciating a vision of a democratic nation where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, not a winner-takes- all non-society where the market decides everything.

If we define the ends, the means will take care of themselves. That is to say, if your goal is a well-educated, healthy and prosperous nation where we all have a fair go at a decent life, then it becomes more or less impossible to make the case that what is needed is to add co-payments to doctor’s visits, or deregulate and charge market interest rates on higher education fees, or to allow the unemployed to go without benefits.

Those sorts of “solutions” only make sense in an environment where we buy into the neoliberal logic of austerity and inequality.

Let me run with a thought.

I’m not sure if this is true, but my feeling is that changing the agenda is actually more important than changing the government. Maybe this is just a harm minimisation strategy, but given who is currently in power, and given that electoral history suggests that they are unlikely to lose power after just one term, then at least making it as near as impossible as we can for them to implement the sort of unfairness inherent in their first Budget is an important interim step.

Because make no mistake, implementing such measures not only does harm in and of itself, it shifts our whole understanding of what an economy is supposed be for so far to the right that we end up arguing amelioration (student scholarships, or “emergency assistance” for the unemployed, for instance) rather than actual progressive reform.

Think of it this way.

If the question is what sort of country do we want? and the answer is, one in which everyone has a fair go at living a decent life, then a significant percentage of what the right argues simply disappears into the obfuscation from which it came.

It is very hard to argue that everyone is going to get a fair go and the opportunity for a decent life if your agenda consists of stuff like lowering taxes on the rich, charging much more for healthcare and education, chucking young people off the dole, lowering the dollar value of the pension, and all the rest of the right-wing agenda.

The other advantage a focus on ends brings is that it provides a rallying point. It is almost impossible to get passionate about technocratic means (however ultimately important they might be). Means tend to be bloodless. But ends are a different matter. The prospect of a decent life and a fair go is something that can rally a broad coalition of support.

Academic Jason Wilson noted the other day that right-wing policy advocates were more successful than their left-wing counterparts because they argued with more passion. He suggested this needs to change:

Rather than keeping up the pretence that expertise is post-political, some left thinktanks might think about how they too can combine policy nous with consistent appeals to the kind of values that activate political passions. There is a willing audience right now for the message that inequality hobbles democracy and that everyone benefits when we limit the power of wealth. In insisting on the values of equality and democracy, they could focus less on informing the ALP, and find ways instead to twist its arm. They could also pick some more messy fights.

For heaven’s sake, Clive Palmer is currently making better progressive arguments against the Budget than Labor is. This is not because he is progressive - don’t make me laugh - but because he isn’t scared of being accused of being a dreaded “leftist” or a “socialist” in the way that Labor is.

One of the reasons we Australians have, until very recently, been a bit complacent about the shift to the right is because many of us still tend to think that there is something inherently egalitarian about Australian elites, even those who identify as conservative. And it is true, that in the post-war period, until, say, the mid-80s, there was a case to be made that rising wealth was, to use the cliché, lifting all boats.

But the logic of late capitalism has changed, and it has drastically undermined those sorts of presumptions.

The middle class that arose during that earlier period of capitalism and democratic governance is now being gutted. In her new book, Expulsions, sociologist Saskia Sassen puts it this way:

People as consumers and workers play a diminished role in the profits of a range of economic sectors. For instance, from the perspective of today’s capitalism, the natural resources of much of Africa, Latin America, and central Asia are more important than the people on those lands as workers or consumers. This tells us that our period is not quite like earlier forms of capitalism that thrived on the accelerated expansion of prosperous working and middle classes. Maximizing consumption by households was a critical dynamic in that earlier period, as it is today in the so-called emergent economies of the world. But overall it is no longer the strategic systemic driver that it was in most of the twentieth century.

She goes onto say that:

Today’s is a form of primitive accumulation executed through complex operations and much specialized innovation, ranging from the logistics of outsourcing to the algorithms of finance. After thirty years of these types of development, we face shrinking economies in much of the world, escalating destructions of the biosphere all over the globe, and the reemergence of extreme forms of poverty and brutalization where we thought they had been eliminated or were on their way out.

Just as importantly, Sassen notes the way in which it is now more difficult to identify the culprits for the rise in inequality:

Rich individuals and global firms by themselves could not have achieved such extreme concentration of the world’s wealth. They need what we might think of as systemic help: a complex interaction of these actors with systems regeared toward enabling extreme concentration.

Such systemic capacities are a variable mix of technical, market, and financial innovations plus government enablement. They constitute a partly global condition, though one that often functions through the specifics of countries, their political economies, their laws, and their governments. They include enormous capacities for intermediation that function as a kind of haze, impairing our ability to see what is happening—but unlike a century ago, we would not find cigar-smoking moguls in this haze.

Today, the structures through which concentration happens are complex assemblages of multiple elements, rather than the fiefdoms of a few robber barons.

It is these sorts of transformations that are leaving Australia vulnerable, and we currently have a government less willing than any in our history to stand against such forces and more than willing to let wealth gush upwards, with little or no desire to redistribute it on the basis of a fair go for all.

Under such circumstance, politics as usual simply isn’t going to be enough.

In other words, while it is perfectly understandable that those disaffected with, and alienated from, the Abbott government are, by default, arguing for a double dissolution to get rid of them; or are pining for Julia Gillard; or are turning their lonely eyes to Malcolm Turnbull or Clive Palmer; or are waiting for the ALP to reform itself root-and-branch-stacking, the fact is, none of that is going to solve the problem.

The ALP is not going to save us. Julia Gillard is not going to save us. Clive Palmer won’t either, and for god’s sake, neither will Malcolm Turnbull.

But maybe they can help if progressives can drive the conversation and help set the political agenda.

If you really believe in a fair society, that the direction Mr Abbott and his one percent are taking the country is wrong, then you are going to have to communicate in no uncertain terms that what is happening - as represented by Budget - is not acceptable.

And here’s the simple truth.

You can’t beat Mr Abbott - and the pro-unfairness crowd that supports him - with money. They have most of the money.

You can’t beat them with backroom deals. They inhabit the back rooms and have their lips permanently attached to the ears of the powerful.

Even voting itself isn’t enough. You only get to vote once every three years and the electoral systems props up the major parties by channelling any protest votes to them via preference deals.

All you’ve got is feet on the ground, your ability to organise in sufficient numbers to upset their status quo, and your passion for a better, fairer nation.

Is that enough? Of course it is.


Published in Weekly Email