Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Australia must be destroyed

There are legitimate questions any country must ask itself about the sort of place it wants to be, and the political arena is the proper place for that discussion to take place. But a few months into the existence of the Abbott Government and it is becoming coming clear that we are being taken in a direction that the government itself has never fully articulated. It is reasonable to suggest that certain elites see the election of the Abbott Government as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to kill dead the idea that a government of the people can be a force for good in the lives of the majority of its citizens. Their plan to “end the age of entitlement” is nothing more than an attempt to gut the middle class and destroy those programs and institutions that underpin the idea of Australia as an egalitarian nation.

Anyone who has paid any attention to US politics in the period of the Obama Presidency will know that his signature policy has been the introduction of a more equitable healthcare system.

They will also know that political opposition to this plan has been fierce, and that the right-wing media and the Republican Party itself has spared no effort in their attempts to get rid of it. In fact, the GOP has tried FORTY-SIX TIMES to repeal the legislation in Congress.

Why this obsessive hatred of a policy prescription that every other developed country takes for granted and sees as a cornerstone of a civilised nation?

Partly it is ideological -- there really are people on the Right who believe that government has no place helping its citizens afford health care. Go figure.

But that’s not all there is to it. The opposition is also driven by fear, and their big fear is that Obamacare will work.

You see, when you’re entire political and philosophical pitch is that government is inherently evil, that it is unmanageable, inefficient and wasteful, the last thing you need is any evidence that big, redistributive government programs work.

So Obamacare must be destroyed.

In Australia, the same forces are at work, though universal healthcare is less of an immediate target.

Yes, various conservative governments have tried to get rid of it. Indeed, the Abbott Government’s recent thought bubble about a “co-payment” for visits to the GP tells us that they haven’t given up. In their perfect world, Medicare would be gone and everyone’s health care left to the whims of “market forces”.

But in terms of prosecuting the case for the sort of Australia they envisage, attacking Medicare is not the main game.

Oddly, that role has been assumed by the ABC.

The barking mad attacks made on the national broadcaster in recent weeks by the IPA, the Murdoch press, and the government itself - from the Prime Minister down - have nothing to do with the way the ABC covered the story of asylum seekers getting their hands burnt. They are about discrediting an organisation whose very existence challenges right-wing assertions about the badness of government.

In other words, if you are going to demonise government, the best way to do that is not to highlight its failures, but to undermine its successes.

Thus: the ABC is an efficient, successful, much-loved, government-financed institution, so it must be destroyed.

These attacks on what works in our society are only going to increase, and Joe Hockey’s call for an end to the “age of entitlements” is meant to provide the frame that will allow that to happen. It is a rhetorical shift designed to cruel the pitch before the game has even started. As I’ve noted elsewhere, once “services are redefined as “entitlements”...the onus shifts from citizens expecting a certain level of state care to having to justify why they deserve anything at all.”

High on the list of institutions the Abbott government is targeting is our unique system of industrial relations. It is a system that reasonably successfully puts some power into the hands of workers, allowing them some control over their pay and conditions, while keeping things flexible enough to allow business to adapt to changing circumstances. In fact, it has delivered flexibility and restrained wages outcomes even during the worst of global financial crisis and even as pressure was put on the system by the resources boom.

As Ross Gittins has noted, “It's been two decades since we had reason to worry about excessive wage growth. This remains true despite cabinet ministers and some economists saying we have a problem.”

The Howard Government tried to destroy the system with WorkChoices and failed, and the reason it did was because the unions put up such a brilliant defence.

The Abbott Government has learned this lesson well. So instead of trying again with a full-frontal assault on workplace relations in the form of a revamped version of WorkChoices, Mr Abbott and co. are instead attacking the unions themselves.

The mooted Royal Commission is nothing more than the state declaring war on the right of workers to organise in their own interests. It is an attack on unionism itself, and the idea is to discredit the unions (and the Labor Party) to such an extent that they will never again be able to mount the sort of defence that they did against WorkChoices.

Education is also in the government sights, and it is the same principle involved as with the ABC and industrial relations: any government program that works - and thus puts the lie to the right-wing mantra about the dysfunctionality of government programs - must be destroyed.

So Christopher Pyne’s attacks on the Gonski reforms are nothing more than an attempt to undermine a more equitable funding model for education. As Ken Boston, the former director-general of the NSW Department of Education and member of the Gonski review panel has said:

At present, it is mainly the hard-working and talented children of the privileged who have access to the very highest levels of educational achievement. If Gonski is implemented, such access will be available increasingly to the similarly hard-working and talented children of the socially disadvantaged. This is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes: differences in outcomes will inevitably exist between children, but they will no longer be the result of factors such as poverty, religion or sector of schooling.

The Gonski vision of a fair go for all young Australians means that, in due course and over time, a hard-working talented young girl will come to have the same real prospect of winning a place in the university and course of her choice regardless of family circumstances and background…

Is Pyne up for that? ...Of course not.

And don’t think it will stop there. Even an apparently sacrosanct program like the aged pension will eventually be targeted. Joe Hockey had a reason for saying that, “as a community we need to redefine the responsibility of government and its citizens to provide for themselves, both during their working lives and into retirement” (emphasis added).

What is that other than a warning that the pension is in their sights?

The Abbott Government is part of an international push by a tiny percentage of the super-wealthy to discredit and destroy the very notion of government as a democratic force in the lives of ordinary people. Their “end of the age of entitlements” rhetoric is at one with the policies of “austerity” being pushed in Europe and the United States.

And as Paul Krugman has noted: “... just as the austerity drive isn't really about fiscal responsibility, the push for “structural reform” isn't really about growth; in both cases, it's mainly about dismantling the welfare state.”

Bingo.

The ideological nature of the government’s attacks on welfare becomes obvious when you look at the latest Statement of Monetary Policy from the Reserve Bank. It makes clear that we simply do not need to cut national spending to the extent that the Treasurer is suggesting. The so-called “age of entitlements” does not need to be ended because, essentially, it doesn’t exist. We are living within our means. As Greg Jericho notes,

Hockey might still continue with his hard-cutting budget, but if he’s honest, the cuts won’t really be about repairing the budget. The improved economic picture has done most of that work for him.

Yes, there are ongoing issues that any economy has to confront to stay healthy over the long term, but we shouldn’t let that basic economic reality be used to bluff us into destroying the nation in order to “save” it.

In reality, little of this argument about “entitlements” is really about economic fundamentals. It’s about ideology.

This means that the Australia we have grown up with - the one that tries to use a government of the people fulfil values of fairness and equity; that tries to balance the needs of business against the interests of workers; that accepts that access to decent health care is fundamental to a civilised nation; that recognises the same about education; that realises that the natural environment is a finite resource that needs to be managed for all of us; that understands the advantages of having a national broadcaster that is not beholden to the vagaries of a commercial market - that Australia, that nation, is under attack.

That’s what “ending the age of entitlement” actually means. It means destroying the Australia of the fair go.

Published in Weekly Email

The EastWest Link project has support only from the corporations who will profit from it and the media that supports them. Why is the Victorian government ignoring their constituents in favour of those groups?

They’re nothing if not predictable, News Corp. Another day another table thumping editorial from Melbourne’s Herald Sun denouncing protesters disrupting the progress of controversial East West Road Tunnel. Just as the protesters turn up day after day in Melbourne’s inner north and attach themselves to drilling rigs in order disrupt the early stages of this divisive project, so does Melbourne’s Murdoch owned tabloid rail with righteous indignation at opponents of the project it variously labels pests, rabble rousers, ratbags and any other clichés they can think of.

They were at it again recently during Melbourne’s week long heatwave, frothing at the mouth over revelations that the police had reneged on a deal with protesters to stop drilling during the oppressive weather. While protesters had thought they’d convinced the police to disallow drilling during the heatwave, so that both they and the workers alike could stay out of the heat, Vic Pol and the drilling contractors pulled a swifty on them by secretly moving their drilling gear overnight and continuing work elsewhere without the protestor’s knowledge.

Of course the Hun was only too happy to rub their noses in it. Rather than strike a deal with protesters during extreme weather events, the paper’s editorial urged the police to throw the book at them. Instead of respecting their right to protest - a fundamental tenant of democracy - Murdoch’s Melbourne minions wanted the protestors charged and prosecuted. Apparently this tunnel is so desperately needed that democracy itself should be briefly suspended so the bulldozers and dump trucks can start rolling in.

So what you may ask? After all, the Herald Sun and News Corp’s other Australian tabloids, love bagging protestors almost as much as they love supporting Tony Abbott, denying Climate Change and running pictures of football wags. Excuse the pun, but the Herald Sun railing against the East West Link protestors, isn’t front page news.

However this particular campaign is instructive for a variety of reasons.

It’s become so shrill and persistent that one suspects the Hun knows it’s losing the argument and therefore has decided to double down rather than retreat. A quick glance at the opinion polls on both the question of whether the tunnel should be built and on the performance of the Napthine Government, show that both are on the nose with the public. Even the paper’s own letters page is often filled with negative comments the day after the project is given coverage. This then makes bagging the protestors an easy diversion for both the paper and the Government. It’s much easier to smear activists (as the Herald Sun did with an extraordinary front page attack on protest leader Anthony Main) and focus on frivolous sideshows like a protest van being parked in a disabled zone or the complaints of a fish and chip shop owner, than addressing the far more serious questions that hang over this project. Questions that not only cast doubt over the necessity of this tunnel, but also over the development of infrastructure policy in Australia and the way in which vested interests seemingly always trump the will of the public.

Let’s do a quick re-cap.

The Coalition Government was elected, somewhat unexpectedly, at the 2010 State Election, largely on the back of its plans to invest in public transport infrastructure. The Victorian Liberals committed to projects such as the Doncaster line, a rail link to the airport and the daddy of them all, The Melbourne Metro tunnel linking the inner west to the inner south. Melbourne would follow cities across the world in addressing booming population growth and traffic congestion by investing in public transport.

Not surprisingly, Melbournians who’d been cramming into trains and trams in ever increasing numbers, loved it.

Across the city, seats along major rail lines such as Frankston and Pakenham, fell to the Liberals as they swept to power for the first time this century. Finally these mythical rail projects that premiers dating back to Sir Henry Bolte had promised, yet failed to build, would become a reality. Melbourne’s suburban rail network would receive its first major expansion since before World War II. More than any of his predecessors, the new Premier, Ted Baillieu, had a mandate to build public transport infrastructure.

Yet just over three years on and not only has Baillieu been jettisoned, but the rail projects for which people have been too. And in their place is a project no one voted for, because the Coalition ruled it out in the lead up to that election: The East West Tunnel.

Like the aforementioned rail projects, The East West Tunnel has been spoken of for decades. If built, it would link the Eastern Freeway with Citylink and provide a much easier route across the city than currently offered by the chronically congested Alexandria Parade. Yet the project has never gotten off the ground because any potential benefit it may provide is simply dwarfed by the enormous cost. The most rigorous cost benefit analysis of the project was undertaken by Sir Rod Eddington in his 2008 transport plan produced for the former Labor Government. It found that every dollar put into the project would produce only 50 cents in potential economic benefits. In other words it was a complete non-starter. The Napthine Government has since cobbled together its own cost benefit analysis that somehow estimates a benefit of $1.40 for every dollar spent. We don’t know how this figure was arrived at, because unlike the Eddington analysis, the report has not been released.

This is in keeping with Government’s entire approach to the issue, where detail has been scarce and secrecy abundant. The backflip on rejecting the tunnel in opposition to embracing it in Government, has never been explained. Nor have they specified just why it has jumped the queue to become the Government’s number one project, when the Metro Rail Tunnel is still ranked as Victoria’s most urgent priority by Infrastructure Australia. Only a short form business case has been released to the public and despite Premier Napthine’s repeated claims that the tunnel will be a “congestion buster”, we don’t know exactly how this will be the case and how it will be any better at reducing congestion than the public transport projects his Government was elected to build.

And then there is the politics.

Surely, having been elected on a public transport platform they have since put on the backburner, you would think the Government would seek a mandate from the people for its change of plans and take the East West Link to the election. After all, what’s the big rush, the election is due this November.

But no.

Keen to avoid those pesky voters having a say, Premier Denis Napthine has pledged to sign construction contracts prior to the election, contracts that Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews has curiously promised to honour despite his party opposing the project.

So as it stands, The East West Tunnel is still odds on to go ahead, even if the Napthine Government is turfed out of office later this year and replaced by a Labor Opposition which publically opposes it.

Road will yet again trump rail.

Critics will point to the strength of the roads lobby – a mysterious collection of business and political interests that relentlessly and successfully promote the advancement of road projects – as being the root cause of this imbalance. A resulting effect has been that Australians have become experts at building roads, meaning knowledge, expertise and equipment are readily available and cheap, while rail suffers from the reverse. There is also a healthy dose of ideology involved. The individualist nature of car use clearly appeals to the neo-liberal right in the Coalition, News Corp and the business community, who no doubt lump proponents of taxpayer funded, collectivist, public transport, in with environmentalists as a bunch of closet communists. This probably explains the Herald Sun’s one eyed proselytising on the issue and the Abbott Government’s gleeful promotion of road projects and its outright disdain for urban rail.

All this is cold comfort for Victorian commuters and those who care about ethical evidence based public policy. Even if their wishes are validated at the ballot box, they now know unequivocally that it’s the voice of vested interests that speaks the loudest.

And they wonder why people are protesting?

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 06 February 2014

Abbott and the Oogedy-Boogedys

Abbott’s right wing agenda is not the problem, it’s prioritising feelings over facts that’s going to trip him (and us) up.

The Abbott government has been piling up missteps since the election. The latest messes with SPC Ardmona and the ABC proving yet again that they’re misreading public acceptance of an unthinking right-wing agenda and assuming that feelings will overcome facts in any debate.

This is, as I’ve written before, partly a leadership issue, but there’s another, perhaps related, underlying problem that won’t go away. It’s not that the ideology is right-wing, it’s Abbott et al’s fundamentalist adherence to the principles.

All isms are perfect in their theory, capitalism and conservatism no more or less than any other. It’s the implementation of the theories by less-than-perfect humans that always wrenches your monkey. So fundamentalist adherence to any ism, where no questioning, modification or grey areas are considered, where data and evidence must give way to blind devotion to a doctrine, is dangerous.

And this is exactly what Abbott is doing. All the oogedy-boogedys he fears are hiding under the beds of the left – unions, the ABC, action on climate change, publicly funded health and education – also have credible evidence that proves their worth. A measuring of this evidence would still allow a right-wing or conservative implementation of policy; refusing to acknowledge or consider the evidence is economically unsound, socially damaging and politically idiotic.

The decision not to provide assistance to SPC Ardmona had almost nothing to do with the merits of the assistance requested and everything to do with the Abbott government’s desire to reform IR laws. Abbott’s claims that the EBA conditions were excessive was clearly factually incorrect, but the facts don’t matter. We’re slouching towards Workchoices because unions are one of the bogeymen Abbott is determined to vanquish.

Unions are simply a means of redressing the power imbalance in negotiations between large corporations and individuals. There’s a sound argument to make that they should be limited in their approach to small business because that could shift the power imbalance too far in the other direction. However, credible evidence shows that a unionised workforce significantly reduces income inequality. Unions are, of course, as flawed in their implementation as any other structured organisation (hello Australian Wheat Board, yes I’m looking at you) and those flaws should never be ignored, but the unions themselves are not problematic - unless you have a vested interest in maintaining the power imbalance.

The Government’s submission to the Fair Work Commission is another indication that union representation of worker’s interests are clearly in their sights:

Ensuring modern awards are concise and provide only minimum terms and conditions of employment will encourage parties to bargain for enterprise agreements that suit the particular needs of their workplace – consistent with paragraph (b) of the modern awards objective and for small businesses to grow, prosper and employ – consistent with paragraph (h)

Nowhere in their rhetoric about business practices in Australia is corporate malfeasance or overblown white collar salaries addressed. In fact, acts like the reversal of Labor’s Future of Financial Advice reforms, which would reverse the opt-in and disclosure requirements for financial advisors fees, is clearly aimed at increasing corporate profits at the expense of the uninformed public.

The ABC, despite Abbott’s feelpinions about many people’s feelpinions that “the ABC instinctively takes everyone's side but Australia's” is actually the most trusted media organisation in Australia. And, despite being under-funded, it makes efficient use of the funding it receives from the taxpayers.

The scientific consensus on climate change is almost absolute, but the conservative feelings on climate change are almost equally absolute, because, to quote Adam Corner in The New Scientist:

…climate policies such as the regulation of industrial emissions often seem to clash with conservative political views. And people work backwards from their values, filtering the facts according to their pre-existing beliefs

Another warning shot across the left-wing bows was aimed at the public health care system, with the threat of removing bulk billing. Again, the evidence shows that public health care is affordable, cheaper in the long run (early treatment of most diseases is far more cost effective than late treatment) and the absence of it causes untold social, economic and personal damage.

The Gonski Report, which took over 7,000 submissions, visited 39 schools, and consulted 71 education groups across Australia has been tossed out and replaced by Pyne’s vision of more “Independent” schools and a conservative curriculum designed by the likes of Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. Again, data overwhelmingly confirms the economic and social benefits to the entire community of a high quality publicly funded education system. And again, feelings trump facts.

40 years of privatisation of health and education, demolishing unions and deregulating corporate activities in America have made a staggering alteration in the distribution of wealth. In 1973 the top 1% of the county took home 9% of the income, in 2012 they took 24%. The top 1% of America now owns 40% of the nation’s wealth, the bottom 80% owns only 7%. The land of the free has become an agrarian economy where the rich farm the poor for money.

Wealth inequality is not as stark in Australia, where the top 20% owns 60% of the wealth and the bottom 60% owns just under 20%. However, 75% of Australian household hold a net worth below the national average and the disparity is moving in favour of the wealthy.

A fundamentalist left wing agenda is obviously no more desirable than a fundamentalist right wing one, but some acceptance of facts, evidence and an intelligent rather than ideological path forward is surely going to give the most benefit to the country. The Abbott government is failing, not because it is a conservative government, but because it is an unthinking one. Most dangerous of all, Abbott doesn’t see this as a fault, he sees it as a virtue.

In his own words:

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

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

And if the evidence of polling data is at all to be relied on, the drop in voting intentions and approval ratings are a fair indication that voters are increasingly unhappy with the government they voted in.

Now all we need is a viable alternative at the next election.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Grown-Ups in Charge

No need to fear, the Grown-Ups are in charge now, Abbott tells us. He keeps using that word. We do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Hope is springing in some quarters that the Abbott government’s blundering since it took office is only because it is a) finding its feet, or b) taking out the trash. In other quarters, we’re looking at what’s been going on since September and coming to the unavoidable conclusion that it’s actually c): this is what we’ve got to look forward to for the next couple of years and of course d) then there’s Cory Bernardi.

We were told during the election campaign, and continue to be told, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that “the grown-ups are back in charge”. Abbott and his party’s grasp of the term “grown-up” seems a little at odds with the experiences of those of us who are, in fact, grown up.

A Grown-Up would listen to people who actually know something about education, for instance. A Grown-Up could be expected to honour an election promise to support the Gonski reforms. Even if the government felt the need, once in office, to amend Gonski, a Grown-Up would commission an actual study by actual education experts. Instead, we had our Education Minister break an election promise, upset state Education Ministers of his own party and snigger behind them at pressers.

The day appears to have been saved (“If only”, Julia Gillard must be thinking, “the media had gone down on me so willingly whenever my government fucked up and went into reverse”) by performing a full three-sixty, at least on the funding part of Gonski (for now). The government has promptly got down to the real business of education, by appointing the Scared Old White Men duumvirate of Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire to address the prosperity-threatening problems of girls catching up to boys on education standards and too much mention of non-white people in the history curriculum.

The Scared Old White Man theme is, well, a Theme with this government – hence Maurice Newman is appointed to an advisory council, where he can continue to lobby for more corporate welfare while screaming about dole bludgers. As newly-appointed Chair Of Anointing Rent-Seekers, he’s stepped a little outside his bailiwick and spruiked a few factual errors about Climate Change, just to give us an idea what’s going to happen to Renewables I suppose.

Scott Morrison has been doing what Scott does best, which is not talk to the media unless you count Ray Hadley and if you do I’m tipping you’re not reading this anyway. It’s possible that something resembling sense has been broadcast from Howler-Monkey central and Morrison has been told to stay away from journalists, but it’s more likely that he’s enjoying waving his middle finger at the press (and by extension all of us) too much.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt seems to have missed the bit where he’s Minister for the Environment.

And then we get to international relations, where the government seems to think that the British Tourist model of diplomacy still works in the developing (ie non-Caucasian) world: yell in English very slowly until the non-white person does what you tell them, and hit them with your cane if they don’t.

As for the G20, our Prime Minister delivered pretty much the same speech he always does, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the assembled foreign journalists. He also managed to, for the sake of yet more Labor-bashing (I’m starting to wonder which side of politics truly deserves the epithet “Government Change Denier”; Mr Abbott, you are in charge now, stop belting the Opposition and start governing) attempt a re-write/denial of the GFC and how Australia survived it.

Tony Abbott does have a brain, is capable of speaking reasonably well, and has, one would have to assume, competent speech writers and advisers on his staff. One wonders though, even allowing for the mandatory requirement at such gatherings of motherhood statements about free trade, global co operation and the like, how he was allowed to deliver such a petty, non-factual, partisan dirge.

Minister For Social Services, Kevin Andrews, also ignoring facts:

welfare spend

tells us that welfare spending is becoming unmanageable, so savings must be found. As always those savings will be found by scraping more dollars from those who can least afford it (and before you accuse me of being partisan, yes I know what Gillard did to single parents, most of them women, on the same day as the Glorious Misogyny Speech).

Because my boss is more entitled to seventy five thousand dollars for getting pregnant than my office cleaner is entitled to a couple of hundred for caring for her disabled son. Because my boss’s boss is more entitled to tax concessions on his million-plus super fund than my barista is entitled to a small co-contribution to hers.

He can do this because the country has become complacently accepting of the lie that unemployed, disabled, homeless and old people are that way because they choose to. You could blame ACA and the rest of the tabloid media (rich people telling middle class people to be afraid of poor people), but it’s actually moved beyond that: rich people now farm poor people and hand the by-products to middle-class people.

As I write, the government has done yet another about face, this time congratulating the ABC (rather than accusing it of treason) for its joint investigation with Fairfax into corruption in the building industry. The Prime Minister has just announced that he intends a Royal Commission Into Unions, because union bosses have allegedly been bribed.

The problem here is the Unions who received the bribes, not the companies who paid them and to suggest otherwise would be some kind of class warfare.

So to recap, we’ve got an Education Minister who’s at war with education, an Environment Minister who’s handing vast slabs of his portfolio to miners, whalers and fossil-fuel producers and users, an Immigration Minister who, well, does anyone know what Scott’s up to any more? A foreign Minister who’s taking the lead of the far right in the US and Israel and a Treasurer who screamed for three years about debt and has borrowed, um, just a bit, since gaining office.

Beware of whatever the, until now mostly silent, Health Minister says next.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Original Baby Bonus

The rights of property have always been more earnestly considered than the rights of the human being. The criminal who injures or appropriates another man’s property is more heavily punished by law than the man who brutally injures or thrashes his own wife or children.

These words from Rose Scott echo as strongly in 2014 as when she wrote them in 1904. In her paper Legislation Affecting Women and Children for the National Council of Women in NSW, Scott details the myriad ways the laws of the time impacted on women.

Now that women have a vote and a distinct power in regard to the laws of the land, we must hope that they will gradually awaken to the fact that election time, with all its false ideals, is the least important time in the work of legislation, and that the ever watchful organisations who keep knocking at the doors of all parties in Parliament with requests for better legislation, will at last be heard if only for their much speaking!

And speak they did. Although much of Australian history has been recorded as though they didn’t. As though women’s voices were strangely silent, as though they were passive subjects to the mighty blokes who were forging their way across the continent, digging up gold and getting rid of those pesky blacks.

But they were there, in huge numbers; organising, educating, campaigning, writing, speaking. They agitated for legislation that specifically looked after women and children, they set up kindergartens and pushed for women in the police force. The laws they won, then defended from attack, underpin much of our current welfare system, a system now derided as propping up lazy dole bludging single mothers, instead of giving important security and recognition to the work women do and did.

The work of having babies and of raising children was central to their concerns and they wanted that recognised as work. As having economic as well as social value, not just to women but for the entire nation. Their activism fitted neatly into anxieties about what kind of nation Australia was building, and what kind of Australians were being made. Making white babies became a national obsession.

In 1919, Lilian Locke-Burns wrote:

In no other part of the world is so much being done by the State in the way of providing for mothers and children as in the Australian Commonwealth. And yet how...little we realise the true position mothers of the community would occupy in a properly organised social system where the economic independence of women was fully recognised and assured!

Locke-Burns was right to point to the significant legislative agenda that she and many other feminists had been able to achieve in the early days of the Commonwealth.

In 1912, the then Labor Government, passed into law a radical new idea - a Maternity Allowance of five pounds (about five weeks wages) for women who had a child. The Allowance was paid to both married and unmarried mothers, leading to claims that the payment would “condone immorality, lead to an increase in illegitimacy, undermine marriage and destroy the family.”

The payment was intended to recognise the work of having a baby as having value and to help pay for medical costs. High death rates for women were part of the arguments used in support of the legislation, as well as the anxiety about wanting more white babies. The 1904 Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald as finding that:

The commission speaks of the false and pernicious doctrine that personal interests and comfort are the essential aims of life, and a belief that this checking of the birth-rate is the panacea for the ills of life. Bad as these reasonings are they are in their essence selfish, and they strike at the welfare of the white race in Australia.

Bad white ladies, selfishly not having white babies.

The Maternity Allowance, with no means test, and available to unmarried women was starkly different to other developing welfare systems that were usually based on a social insurance model. Australia’s baby bonus was paid directly to women, not given via their husbands and was funded through general revenue. And the payment was made even if the child died, as they far too often did. The allowance was for the mother, for her labour, to recognise the cost to her body.

But the payment was only available for some women - valuing only some mothers. The legislation spelt out the overt racism of the early Commonwealth’s commitment to a White Australia. Mothers who were “Asiatics” and “Aboriginal natives of Australia, Papua or the islands of the Pacific” were explicitly excluded. Their bodies and their labour were not to be included in this push to make the state recognise that having babies is hard work.

Given this early grounding in privileged motherhood, can anything really be gleaned from the political campaign to have the work of mothering given a financial value?

Australian feminists used their long campaign for the vote to argue for overtly maternalistic welfare measures. They used language of women’s innate nature to advocate that the state needed to recognised that their rights as citizens intersected with their rights as mothers.

Labour activists also took up this as an argument for women to be financially able to raise their own children. For working class women, jobs outside the home were hardly emancipatory when they had their work at home too. Locke-Burns issues a clarion call in 1919 calling for “One Woman, One Job” where “a mother will not be expected to combine half a dozen occupations to the serious detriment of herself and the children.”

The Maternity Allowance, as it was in 1912, was seen as a way of entrenching the rights of women as citizens, with their motherhood of value to the state. Of course, this also just reinforced the exclusions from this citizenship even further - giving birth to white babies was of such national importance that the Prime Minister could stare down delegations from church groups predicting the end of the moral earth.

Australia’s approach to recognising some women’s work in legislation was remarked on around the world. A US Department of Labor study characterised Australia as “the first country to institute a system of national aid to relieve the financial burdens of childbirth without requiring some direct contribution on the part of the wage earner.” The Philadelphia Enquirer commented in 1912 that the payment was even available to undeserving mothers.

Australia did not go down the social insurance path of welfare provision as many other countries did. The insurance model was predicated on co-contributions and/or some link to employment. Instead, allowances were based on citizen attachment, for those that were granted this right. Feminists at the time made the argument that citizen mothers had the right to have their labour also recognised because it was work.

But the Maternity Allowance was only a small part of these women’s agenda. Believing that “women’s training tends to direct their interest to Social Welfare (which covers health, food, housing, care of children, care of sick, care of poor, preservation of family and home life)” groups also worked to advocate for an ongoing state income that would recognise the work of mothers, and allow independence from a husband. Arguments about the fundamental nature of Woman, as a nurturer or moral protector, seem quaintly old-fashioned, yet the radical idea that the work of care should have value is more relevant than ever. Jessie Street wrote in the 1930s that “just as working men appreciate the right to their own money, so should wives appreciate a similar right. How can we make it possible for a wife who is working in her own home to have the right to her own money?’

When the Maternity Allowance was challenged in the 1920s, as wasteful and expensive, representatives from over 120 women’s groups held a conference in Melbourne where they affirmed both their entitlement as mother citizens to the payment, but also used their considerable political white baby-making clout to make sure that the political consequences of any change was made clear.

The long campaign for an income that recognised raising children as work was ultimately unsuccessful, but the idea that it is work, and mostly women’s work, remains relevant. As does the anxiety of exactly who is having babies. This coming year will feature long debates about paid parental year that may benefit from listening to some of the women of Australia’s history.

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 23 January 2014

Leading Abbott

There are contradictions a-plenty in the new government. At the heart of them all are the contradictions within its leader.

Too much political thinking is about winning or holding government, rather than about what might be done once you’re there. If our current prime minster had spent more time thinking about how to govern before winning the next election he might have turned out to be as effective a prime minister as he was an opposition leader.

Tony Abbott on Kevin Rudd, May 2010

Tony Abbott is the first Australian Prime Minister to be elected with negative net approval ratings at the election. It’s an odd achievement, a reflection of his abilities as a wrecking ball rather than as a statesman. Whatever the reasons for his win though, he’s now defeated all but his most formidable opponent – himself.

Abbott’s entire public life has been a series of unresolved internal conflicts. The aspirational leader always in search of a mentor, the conviction politician who’d sell his arse to win, the mad monk described by John Howard as an “arch- pragmatist”, the political attack dog with strong family values, the physically awkward athlete, the inarticulate Rhodes Scholar, the student politics thug with a vocation for the priesthood, the journalist with a profound distrust of words. The only thing he’s ever sure of is that there’s something wrong with every stance he takes.

His ascension to the liberal party leadership was as much a surprise to him as it was to the rest of the country. Two days before the ballot Abbott was still expecting Joe Hockey would be the next leader and, again, he was conflicted:

Climbing into bed late on Sunday night, I couldn’t decide whether to be disappointed or relieved that the next leader would not be me

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

Abbott’s hat was thrown into the ring as Nick Minchin’s last ditch assault on Turnbull’s liberalism and Hockey’s vacillation. A man as intensely competitive as Abbott would certainly never refuse an opportunity to win, but he’s far more at ease being a trusted leader’s rock solid right-hand man than he is being a leader himself, and the pressure has resulted in a palpable discomfort. Every time he speaks in public his brain is playing Russian roulette with his mouth. This is nothing new for Abbott, but now it holds terrors that didn’t exist when John Howard was there to rescue him from the consequences of what Annabel Crabb described as “speech that was an Aero bar of unsupervised thought bubbles”.

Battlelines was an attempt to overcome his inability to articulate a position. As he said himself: “words can sometimes let you down” but his hope that time and consideration would perform magic didn’t quite come to fruition. The book is a drab series of non sequiturs and unnecessary quote marks. Occasional moments of lyrical prose or a glimpse of what could be a vision for the future are weakened by conflicting beliefs and uncertainties. More than anything else, it demonstrates Abbott’s intellectual insecurity.

It’s interesting that the issue to which Abbott nailed his colours is one on which he has no real conviction. He’s always been ambivalent about climate change, mostly because he has no experience, interest or expertise in science and, as a result, is deeply suspicious of its findings. He is determinedly, proudly conservative and, to him, science and conservatism are incompatible.

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

Tony Abbott, Battlelines

The conservatives in his party who share his fear of evidence over feelings took the ETS as their banner issue and Abbott trailed along in their wake. The issues that truly do move him – federalism, welfare reform, industrial relations – had little or no mention while he was in opposition or since he took government.

Great leaders don’t have to be great visionaries or stuffed full of reforming zeal. It’s easy to be dazzled by Keatingesque charisma into believing that a true leader has a blazing vision of the future towards which we are all dragged for our own betterment. John Howard’s vision of a relaxed and comfortable Australia falling asleep in front of the television wearing a brown cardigan and slippers, gave us ten years of proof that this is not case.

But a successful leader must inspire, by fear, respect or love, or a combination of the three, a willingness to follow. And an understanding that stepping outside the clearly delineated lines of control would not be tolerated. The Coalition under Howard maintained unity for so long only because Howard would have it no other way.

The Coalition in opposition was not being led by Tony Abbott. A mob rampaging towards a single goal is not under control of a leader, they just happen be charging in the same direction; but this only becomes apparent when they arrive at their destination, destroy the object of their hatred and then disperse into chaos.

Abbott’s leadership in opposition seemed strong, only because the then opposition were unrelenting in their hatred of Julia Gillard and the Labor government. Whatever doubts or divisions existed within were put aside in the interests of beating the enemy without. On the surface, that looked like Abbott showing strength in leadership, but it was a thin veneer.

The proof of that is explicit in Abbott’s first 100 days. His approval rating has dropped even further, his ministers are behaving like scattered cats and his government’s agenda has been constantly derailed by idiotic mishandling of issues like the national debt, MP’s entitlements, relationships with Indonesian and China, the GrainCorp take over, the Gonski row, undignified squabbles over Holden and Qantas and, now, their tentative reaching towards the Medicare third rail.

None of this is particularly surprising, and the negative perception has nothing to do with partisan differences; it’s a personal failing of the leader to lead, not a failing of ideology. Abbott has shown that he has dedication, discipline and a strong motivation for self-improvement, but that this has never been enough to overcome the internal conflicts and self-doubt that hold him back. And after three years of the entire party set to full howler monkey they are in desperate need of a strong pair of hands and a calm voice if they are to avoid the shame of a single term in government.

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 23 January 2014

2014 with a Bang!

2014 is going to be a bumper year in politics. And that’s only looking at what we already know is coming.

That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.

There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.

We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway - it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.

Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.

Capping off an already jam-packed month, the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit will also hand down its interim report at the end of January. This exercise, like other inquiries launched since the federal election, is the way the government floats unpalatable actions – such as cuts to family assistance payments and ‘more efficient’ ways to fund the NDIS – without having to shoulder any opprobrium for having come up with the idea in the first place. After monitoring how voters respond to these ideas the government will likely incorporate the least politically damaging (for them) into the May federal budget.

Federal parliament resumes in February and will sit for most of March.

A week of every political wonk’s favourite performance art, the Senate Estimates hearings, will also take place in late Feb.

Next cab off the rollercoaster rank will be the first of three* state elections for 2014. One of the few remaining Labor Premiers, South Australia’s Jay Weatherill, faces a fixed-date election on 15 March. The most recent opinion poll (held in November) shows the 12 year old government is trailing 54-46%, though it will be interesting to see if Weatherill can convert South Australian voters’ angst over Holden into additional votes for Labor.

The other remaining Labor state, Tasmania, will hold an election on or before 7 June. On the past two occasions (2006 and 2010), the election has been held on the same day as South Australia. Polls indicate a strong result for the Liberals, allowing them to prevail over the 16 year old Labor government and form a majority government. This is significant for a state that has been governed by minority governments for most of the past 25 years. Tasmanian psephologist Dr Kevin Bonham reckons the Palmer United Party would have to poll around 12% to have any chance of picking up a Tasmanian seat under the Hare-Clark voting system that is used in that state. PUP is polling at around 5%.

Both state elections, while interesting for politico-geeks, will likely have fewer implications for federal politics than the Griffith by-election. But a number of other pivotal points in March could send some parties careening over the edge.

Two related but separate activities will focus on preventing micro parties from doing preference swap deals similar to those in 2013 that saw some Senators elected with only a few thousand primary votes. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has introduced his own legislation to reform preference flows and force parties to release preference deals lodged with the AEC before the election. Xenophon’s legislation was referred to a Senate committee for review soon after its introduction in November and the committee will report back to the Senate on 5 March. Both Labor and the Coalition are expected to support the legislation.

Meanwhile the parliamentary committee conducting the traditional review of the federal election, including the role of micro parties’ preference deals, will receive public submissions until 7 March but won’t report until around mid year.

The full report of the Commission of Audit will also be released at the end of March, paving the way for all manner of political nasties to materialise on the Coalition Government’s to-do list. Tony Abbott has previously committed to seeking a mandate at the next federal election before implementing any industrial relations reforms that may arise from the audit. As John Howard learned before him, revoking that commitment would be akin to Abbott riding a rollercoaster without a seatbelt.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. If the Australian Electoral Commission gets its way, the re-run of the WA Senate election will occur in April. It’s feasible the Xenophon reforms on preferences deals will have been legislated by then, effectively locking out those pesky micro party candidates. Tony Abbott needs to secure three of the WA Senate positions to have the best chance of negotiating the passage of the carbon price repeal bills with the crossbenchers and has accordingly signalled his intention to turn the election re-run into a mini-referendum on the carbon tax.

Abbott may also favour a WA Senate vote in April so that it is over before the May federal budget, which Joe Hockey has already billed as a ride through the House of Horrors thanks to ‘the previous Labor Government’s incompetence’. The extent to which Hockey can convince voters that the ‘unavoidable’ spending cuts are Labor’s fault and not the Coalition’s will set the scene for the second half of the political year that commences with the new Senate on 1 July 2014.

With so many factors yet to be determined in the first six months it’s almost impossible to tell what federal politics will be like from July this year: it could be anything from a pleasant cruise in the sunshine to a hurtling decent into darkness. Either way, it will be an interesting and challenging year. Strap yourselves in.

*Victoria will go to the polls on 29 November 2014.

Since going to print, the Griffith by-election has been called for 8 February and the Commission of Audit has been granted a two-week extension for their first report, which is now due in mid-February. The Tasmanian Government has also called an election for the same day as South Australia, on 15 March.

 

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 23 January 2014

Keating Recalled

Russell “Kidneys” Seppelt was one of the most influential members of the Keating cabinet during a momentous time in Australian political history. As Minister for Allergies he was responsible for many important reforms, including the Pollen Act 1994; but it was as Keating’s close friend and confidante that his presence was most keenly felt. In this extract from his soon-to-be-released autobiography, Shooting From The Kidneys, Seppelt reveals some of the secrets of the Keating inner sanctum.

What many people don’t realise is just how insecure Keating was, as a man. I still recall the day he became Prime Minister in 1991: he rang me that night in a blind panic. “What the twat am I going to do, Kidneys?” he sobbed. “I have literally no cocking idea what a Prime Minister does.” He was in quite a state. I told him to calm down and breathe into an electric coffee jug – this was an old technique we used to use for relaxation – and said I’d be right over. I brought with me Robert Menzies’ famous book How To Be A Prime Minister, and I remember a long, hard night of studying. We were exhausted by morning, but it was worth it: Paul Keating was ready to be PM. During the next few years, keen observers during Question Time or press conferences would’ve noticed Paul glancing down at a book before answering some questions: the book was my copy of Menzies’ masterpiece. Sometimes people ask me if I regret giving the book to Paul, suggesting that had I kept the book I might have been Prime Minister myself. To them I say, what’s more important, the Prime Ministership or friendship? So far answers are coming in at about fifty-fifty.

Of course, Keating grew into the role – there were some teething troubles early on. I remember one cabinet meeting where he declared his plain for a national sausage scheme. “No child should ever be without a sausage!” he thundered, becoming quite emotional. He handed out photocopied drawings of sausages he’d done himself to us all, and put up an overhead projection of a happy child eating a sausage. His scheme would have involved government workers delivering one sausage to every child in Australia every morning. I think it was Dawkins who raised the first protest, pointing out that the cost would be prohibitive. Paul replied that the sausage scheme would be fully funded by a tax on big-game hunting. This produced a long and awkward silence in the cabinet room, broken when Kim Beazley asked whether sausages were really a priority. This made Paul furious: he hurled a yardstick at Kim’s head and called him an “obstructionist vulval wart”. That was the first of many times in the first couple of years that we were forced to shoot Keating with a tranquilliser dart for his own safety.

Of course, little did we know that years later the Liberal Party would resurrect the national sausage scheme but call it the “GST”. Just another Keating idea that the Libs now claim as their own. It’s getting ridiculous really. Recently I even heard Tony Abbott claiming that he is an “adult”. Well now, it was Paul who came up with the whole idea of being an adult, in his famous Pennant Hills speech. Shameless.

Anyway, Paul got better and better. I like to think I had some small part in his improvement. The turning point, I think, was late 1992, when I sat him down for a heart-to-heart. It was following a particularly bad press conference, when Laurie Oakes had caught him on the hop with some pointed questions about his recently announced plan to bomb Antarctica. He just wasn’t across the policy detail at all: he couldn’t even remember why we needed to bomb Antarctica, despite having been briefed on it the day before. As a consequence he had begun rambling, dragging the press conference out for four hours and ending up in an obscenity-riddled rant against Princess Diana.

Afterwards he was disconsolate. I found him at the Lodge, sitting in the garden in only his underpants, firing his service revolver at possums while Annita brought him tumbler after tumbler of lemonade. I sat with him for a while, listening to the breeze in the trees and the screams of the stricken possums, and eventually gave him the pep talk I felt he needed. I told him, you are Paul Keating. You’re the man who re-organised the entire Australian economy, who revolutionized politics in this country. You’re the man who took Hawke to the top, and then brought him down again. You’re the man who stayed up all night drinking champagne out of strippers’ shoes and still managed to electrify the United Nations General Assembly with a rousing speech on wheat embargoes in the morning. You’re the man who survived eighty days alone in the Gobi desert living off spider monkey meat. You, I told him, can DO this.

From that moment on, he was a new man. The steel returned to his eyes, he went off the lemonade cold turkey, and in our frequent late-night chats he seemed excited about politics again.

Of course Hewson helped. “Kidneys,” Paul once confided to me, “when I look at John Hewson I feel like a feral dog looking at a three-legged sheep. This strange mixture of hunger, excitement and sexual arousal. I just want to leap on his back and bite his throat out.” After one unfortunate incident at the Midwinter Ball, we agreed that Paul should only do so in a figurative sense, and he did it very well.

The 1993 election campaign was a glorious time. It seemed like anything was possible, and the spirit of freedom was running rampant. At one point Ralph Willis rode naked on a horse down the main street of Albury and nobody seemed to care, such was the fervour for democratic debate in the community. I played my own modest part in our victory, of course, coming up with the idea of bombarding Hewson with prank phone calls and live animals in his letterbox: many people believe this was tipped Hewson over the edge into madness and secured our majority; I couldn’t possibly say for sure, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Nobody gave us a chance in that election: Glenn Milne famously declared that if Labor held onto power he’d put his penis inside a porcupine. We thought it was just a drunken boast as usual, but he was as good as his word. Less gracious was Michelle Grattan, who after tipping against us went into a huff and sat in a campervan outside Labor HQ for three weeks, throwing oranges at anyone leaving the building.

The victory party was magnificent. Paul made an excellent speech before breaking into a blistering rendition of “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”. I remember going to the toilet halfway through the night and finding Laurie Brereton and Ros Kelly in a half-dressed embrace. Graham Richardson was squatting in the corner clad only in a leopard-skin pouch, and the three of them just stared at me as I entered. Eventually Laurie beckoned me with a finger and I excused myself. The evening ended up with the entire caucus in a conga line down Oxford Street, kicking homeless people as we went along and finally collapsing in a sweaty heap outside an all-night kebab shop. Of course in those days the press was discreet and didn’t report on things like that.

But after 1993 things changed somehow. Paul seemed jaded and restless. Often he would talk wistfully to me of wanting to travel, of yearning for the Alps and wanting to hunt a chamois before he died. In Question Time he seemed distracted: when a backbencher asked him how the Australian government was helping keep Australian families strong and prosperous, he said, “by eating out your mum” – and didn’t even remember saying it afterwards.

I think Downer did it for him really. A man who loved the thrill of the chase and the roar of the cannon, it was difficult for Paul to get enthused about beating Downer, who in his first interview after becoming Opposition Leader told The Australian that his hobbies included failing and crying like a girl. Paul tried to get his bloodlust up: during one parliamentary debate he even shot Downer with a crossbow; but the passion was gone and he was spending more and more time in his workshop, building life-size wooden marionettes that he claimed would one day be able to take on almost all the regular duties of the Australian Defence Force.

When John Howard took over the Liberal leadership the writing was on the wall. Howard’s first public statement simply consisted of him holding up a glossy doctored photograph of Paul French-kissing Idi Amin, and it all went downhill from there. The voters had stopped listening to Paul, and everywhere he went people would yell insults at him, throw garbage, and in several cases bite his legs. His announcement of a $70bn fund to pay single mothers to learn beekeeping fell flat, drowned out in the news cycle by Howard’s admission that he had tried heroin. He refloated the sausage scheme, but cabinet again rejected it. Probably the lowest point came at the 1996 campaign launch, when the planned opening act – Nick Bolkus’s human cannonball performance – backfired horribly. It didn’t help that immediately afterwards an obviously drunk Con Sciacca took the stage and denied the Armenian genocide before vomiting on Annita’s face.

Defeat came as no surprise, but in many ways it was a relief, I think, to Paul. “I’m finally free,” he told me in an emotional encounter the next day. “Free to pursue my first love,” he added cryptically, holding up a single tennis shoe and a large yam. We shook hands and he wished me luck in my next endeavour (see chapter eight, “Nancy Sinatra and Me”). Then he leapt aboard his Vespa and sped away down Anzac Parade.

Opinion is of course divided on Keating’s time as Prime Minister, but I think he was a force for good. His introduction of the Veal Tax streamlined fiscal policy enormously, and he helped open up Australian society and prepare us for the twenty-first century with his important social reforms, including his Mandatory Public Nudity laws, and the legalisation of being Asian.

But of course to me he was more than just a Prime Minister. He was a friend, a confidante, a steadfast comrade in arms. I like to remember him, not as the statesman bestriding the world stage, but as the gentle man stroking my hair as I fell asleep in tears after the 1994 World Cup Final.

It’s now been 17 years since Paul Keating was reported missing. I can only wonder where he is now. Anyone with information on his whereabouts should contact police on the number printed on the back cover of this book.

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 23 January 2014

Say a Single Word

Politics is all about relationships, but politicians forget that they have a relationship with the voters too. Even more, they forget how much damage mistrust does to those relationships.

“It’s only words”, wrote American playwright and essayist David Mamet, “unless they’re true”.

I don’t know if there ever was a golden age in which it was required that a person’s word carry moral gravitas to the degree that one would be and feel shamed, if one did not adhere to a stated undertaking. I know there have always been individuals for whom their word is their honour and the measure of their character. In current political life though, such individuals are thin on the ground as our politics are polluted with lies, half-truths and spin, and politicians, it appears, become increasingly estranged from the concept of truth.

In personal life, it’s alarmingly destabilising to encounter someone who does not mean what they say. There’s a continuum of distress ranging from mild disturbance to shock and disbelief, depending on the importance of the relationship and the amount of trust invested. Most of us, though we may not think or speak much about it, have a need for truth and truthfulness that is never so apparent as when it is denied.

Ideally, one surrounds oneself with people who are basically truthful, if only because life can become entirely unmanageable if nobody’s word can be relied upon. There’s an unspoken contract holding civilised society together, based on the assumption that people will generally speak the truth. That this still holds in personal life is evident from the distaste and shock felt when lies are revealed as such, however in political life the standards are apparently much lower. That politicians are frequently liars is the status quo. In the words of one of the world’s most passionate lovers of words and truth, poet and musician Leonard Cohen:

Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied, everybody got this broken feeling like their father or their dog just died…

Everybody knows some politicians lie. A lie does have the capacity to break apart a life, sometimes permanently, in any number of ways from the emotional to the practical, and the lies of politicians are as capable of breaking feelings as are the lies of those more intimately connected. No wonder then, that humans and the societies we construct have a deep need for truth and truthfulness in order to function well, individually and collectively.

Not all politicians are liars, but many of the most prominent do unashamedly lie, leading me to wonder if there is a correlation between political success and dishonesty. Perhaps this has to do with an impoverished and managerial politics, one concerned more with careers and allegiances than with serving a country and its people. Political vision has come to mean little more than devising strategies that will result in parties and individuals gaining and maintaining power, rather than envisioning the wellbeing of the citizens politicians are elected to serve.

It’s increasingly difficult to muster outrage at blatant political lies, so frequent have they become that many of us are too exhausted to take a moral stand against them. There is, among people of my acquaintance, a weary and cynical expectation that politicians will lie, that in politics language will be used not to inform and enrich the lives of constituents, but to manipulate and exploit solely for the purpose of acquiring power. The aspiring politician no longer recommends, if she or he ever did, “think not what I can do for myself and my party, but what I can do for my country”.

The rot does start at the top. The visibility of politicians is one argument for demanding they speak the truth. Everybody knows. Everybody hears. Everybody is witness to political mendacity, manipulation, and propaganda. Everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich, that’s how it goes, everybody knows. Like it or not, politicians set a tone. When lying is acceptable in political discourse, it becomes less the exception and more the rule in other areas of life. A validated erosion of language subtle and not so subtle is underway, words are traduced. Words, the most powerful means of communicating truth, are co-opted in the service of mendacity and all speech is debased as a consequence. Untrustworthiness becomes the default position. Promises become core or not core. Prime Minister Tony Abbott once declared, in an act of unexpected and radical deconstruction, that the only statements to be taken as “gospel truth” are those he’s written down. The spoken word counts for little or nothing in the Prime Minister’s ethical universe, yet the spoken word dominates in politics: it is the primary means of political communication.

The list of untruths from all sides of politics is a long one and all sides use language as a means to an end, to deceive in the service of power. In the hands of powerful liars, language becomes a devastating tool of personal and societal destruction. As but one example, think of the lies used to justify our invasion of Iraq, and their consequences.

When I am lied to I am denied the right to know the truth. Truth is taken away from me, and my life is the less for that. Lies abuse and oppress. Lies are another’s will to power exerted over me, and I am forced into a universe of falsehood and deception that I must expend my energy resisting, or else succumb, battered and defeated, to pervasive mendacity. If I did not have to do this, I would have energy to burn in other endeavours. How tired does the dishonesty of our political leaders actually make me? How much of a toll does listening to their lies take on my everyday life? What does it mean to my wellbeing, when I must daily deal with the anger and indignation aroused by those who govern my country using a language I love as a means to further their own cause, without regard for truth?

I doubt that many of our politicians have been influenced by post- modern concepts of meaning as fluid, and the Derridean challenge to the existence of a central Truth. Yet many of them are poster boys and girls for these concepts: meaning has never been so fluid as when it’s in the hands of political spin masters, and truth of any kind is rendered irrelevant by words that pay it no mind, or are employed with the intention to obfuscate and deceive.

All I have is a voice, to undo the folded lie…

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone…

W.H. Auden

Some of us have bigger voices than others, broader platforms, but contesting the lies of authority is a possibility for everyone who is able and perhaps, given the state of our politics, an urgent responsibility.

It is possible, in the personal sphere, to chart the unravelling of a life in which lying words have played a significant part, both when they are experienced by the actor and the acted upon. The act of lying has its price: the liar does not escape the consequences of her or his untruths. It is hardly possible to lie to others without eventually coming to believe the lie oneself. As Dostoyevsky put it:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man [sic] who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, ceases to love.

This is as relevant in the public sphere as it is in the private. A politician, if he or she is to be effective, ought to be able to love in the widest possible sense. One would hope that love of one’s fellows and a desire for their wellbeing might be a motivating factor for aspiring politicians. One would hope such a love might be at the forefront of their minds. You can say I’m a dreamer, but one can hope. The politician who uses words to purvey the lie and not the truth, will sooner or later be unable to distinguish between the two, will cease to respect self and others, and will become incapable of the love of others and society that is absolutely necessary for good governance.

If the words of politicians cannot be trusted, they have failed in their most basic task. The question is: how have we come to be governed by those for whom words are nothing more than a means to an end? If it’s true that a people have the government they deserve then our democracy is indeed the tyranny of the majority, and what is our individual role in allowing the establishment of such an unsatisfactory state of affairs?

As Orwell noted: “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.

Viva la revolución.

This article is from the King’s Tribune Summer 2014 magazine, which includes an exclusive extract from Tim Dunlop’s book The New Front Page and articles from Brocklesnitch, Amy Gray, Jo Thornely, Stephen Herrick, Mat Larkin, Upulie Divisekera and many others. The full list of articles and contributors is here

You can buy the limited edition paper copy here Subscribers will received a $5 discount (select Summer Issue 2014 from the drop down membership list, available only until sold out) or the Kindle version here.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Commissioner for Corporate Rights

It's hardly surprising that the appointment of IPA policy director, Tim Wilson, as Australia’s new Human Rights Commissioner met with such opprobrium from Greens and Labor supporters. It's even less surprising that George Brandis and the Abbott Government couldn't give a pair of foetid dingo's kidneys about complaints from Labor and Greens supporters.

What is interesting, although possibly still not surprising, is what the appointment says about the Abbott Government's utter disdain for the very idea of Human Rights.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s website describes their origin and purpose:

The Commission was established in 1986 by an act of the federal Parliament. We are an independent statutory organisation and report to the federal Parliament through the Attorney-General.

    • Our statutory responsibilities include:
    • education and public awareness
    • discrimination and human rights complaints
    • human rights compliance
    • policy and legislative development.

we do this through:

    • resolving complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights under federal laws
    • holding public inquiries into human rights issues of national importance
    • developing human rights education programs and resources for schools, workplaces and the community
    • providing independent legal advice to assist courts in cases that involve human rights principles
    • providing advice and submissions to parliaments and governments to develop laws, policies and programs
    • undertaking and coordinating research into human rights and discrimination issues.

Senator Brandis said Wilson was ''one of Australia's most prominent public advocates of the rights of the individual, who had published and broadcast widely on the topics of personal freedom, liberal democratic values and the rule of law”.

According to Tim Wilson's website, he published 15 articles in 2013. Three of them were about the evils of the Carbon Tax; eight were protesting the regulation of Food Warning Labels, Prices, Media, Supermarkets, Local Government, Trade Deals and Marriage, two articles moaned about the Nanny State and one was about the bad manners of LGTBIQ activists.

His website records 22 articles from 2012: 10 of them about the carbon tax and the rest were ideological, political or economic arguments against various activities of the Gillard government.

There's maybe a loose argument to be made that this is advocating for the rights of individuals, but there's a much stronger argument that it's a history of advocating for corporate freedoms and an ideological narrative. Either way, there's very little in the way of Human Rights advocacy.

Brandis made the reason for this appointment quite clear:

... I have asked Mr Wilson to focus on the protection of the traditional liberal democratic and common law rights, including, in particular, the rights recognised by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 19 of the ICCPR states:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

It's a single mention of the concept of free speech in a document that is based on “the inherent dignity of the human person” and that “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The rest of the document deals with individuals rights to life free of threat, torture, unlawful detention, slavery and injustice.

The obvious connection in Australia is the detention of asylum seekers. The Australian Human Rights Commission has investigated mandatory detention issue in the past. It had this to report:

The Commission acknowledges that use of immigration detention may be legitimate, in some circumstances, for a strictly limited period of time. However, in order to avoid detention being arbitrary, there must be an individual assessment of the necessity of detention for each person, taking into consideration their individual circumstances. A person should only be held in an immigration detention facility if they are individually assessed as posing an unacceptable risk to the Australian community, and that risk cannot be met in a less restrictive way. Otherwise, they should be permitted to reside in the community while their immigration status is resolved – if necessary, with appropriate conditions imposed to mitigate any identified risks.

Australia’s mandatory detention system does not provide a robust and transparent individual assessment mechanism to determine whether the immigration detention of each person is necessary, reasonable or proportionate. The detention of unlawful non-citizens is not an exceptional step, but the norm – and it is often for lengthy periods.

Also, under Australia’s international human rights obligations, anyone deprived of their liberty should be able to challenge their detention in a court. To comply with article 9(4) of the ICCPR, that court must have the power to order the person’s release if their detention is found to be arbitrary.

Currently, in breach of its international obligations, Australia does not provide access to such review. While people in immigration detention may be able to seek judicial review of the domestic legality of their detention, Australian courts have no authority to order that a person be released from immigration detention on the grounds that the person’s continued detention is arbitrary, in breach of article 9(1) of the ICCPR.

The Tribune has not yet been able to find anything written by “Australia's most prominent public advocates of the rights of the individual” on this topic, but we are more than happy to publish a correction should we have missed something.

Government appointments are always going to have some basis of partisanship, as they should. The agenda and vision on which the electorate chose a government can only be prosecuted by those who adhere to it. Protests by the opposing side on ideological grounds are a healthy part of democracy.

This appointment is something more than ideological differences though, this demonstrates at best a complete ignorance of the very meaning of human rights, and at worst, gleeful disdain for the concept.

One can only imagine the unhinging that would occur in the right wing dovecotes if a Labor government had appointed Paul Howes as the Human Rights Commissioner based on his advocacy for a single article in one of the seven documents that make up the human rights treaties to which Australia is a signatory:

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 22

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Published in Weekly Email