Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The devil and the deep blue sea

The pox has been well and truly visited upon both their houses, so how do we choose between the two major parties come election time?

The election is coming. Sometime soon. Maybe.

As Barry Cassidy pointed out, it would be better for Rudd if he calls it sooner rather than later, but it’s very possible he’s so enamoured of zipping about being PM again that he may well delay beyond his best interests.

A delay may not, on the other hand, be the worst thing for the voters. It means putting off the inevitable choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, because there’s nothing inspirational in current federal politics.

Nostalgia can cover even the most despised of political leaders in something approaching glory, but it does seem that our leaders of the past had something utterly lacking in both leaders of the major parties today – a vision, some steadfastness of principle, a reason to be in politics - other than just the desire for power. Even allowing for the rose-coloured glasses effect, men like Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Menzies and Howard had a vision for Australia that they tried to enact. Individual voters may have found those visions admirable or abhorrent, but they knew what the leaders and therefore the party stood for. They knew each man would go down fighting for his vision and would not compromise beyond a certain point.

Rudd and Abbott have both demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt, that the only clear vision they have for Australia is themselves as its leader. There is no vision, no faith, no principal they will not trade for the Prime Ministership.

Rudd’s relentless white-anting of Gillard, particularly during the 2010 election, his sprint to the right on asylum seekers and his reversal on “the greatest moral challenge of our time” show there is nothing on which he won’t flip if the opinion polls suggest he should. All the flaws that led to his overthrow, his lack of consultation, micro-managing, secretive behaviour and racing policy out the door without proper thought or discussion are already showing through in his knee-jerk response to the political weight of the carbon price and asylum seeker issues.

Abbott’s support for a carbon tax when it was politically attractive is laughable in the face of his relentless “axe the tax” campaigning. His disingenuous denial of the minority government as illegitimate, when he was only too willing to form such a government himself; his relentless flip-flopping on climate change depending on his audience and his stated willingness to do anything at all to gain the Prime Ministership has damaged his credibility beyond repair. Even his stance on abortion, which was once something about which he had strong moral and religious objections, he has ostensibly let slide in his search for power.

Their respective parties, tumbling along in their wake, torn by internecine fighting, desperately trying to hold on to relevance with an increasingly disengaged public, have no one willing or able to pull the leaders or the parties back to actual their core values.

For Labor voters, Rudd’s sprint to the right on asylum seekers and the unemployed is abhorrent. Financial conservatives find Abbott’s irresponsible paid parental scheme and Joe’s Hockeynomics alarming. But, as both leaders meet in the middle and fight over the decimal points of the marginal electorates, neither of them seem unwilling to sell their arse for the Prime Ministership.

So what is the engaged voter to do?

In the 2010 election The Tribune got involved in Federal politics at the local level in our electorate of Melbourne Ports. We interviewed the candidates from both the major parties and the Greens, which was fascinating, but it made our voting choice harder, because the individual candidates were at odds with the general push of the parties they represented. In the 2013 election, this difference is even more stark and the choice even more difficult.

Michael Danby is the Labor party member for Melbourne Ports. He is a career politician, factionally aligned with the Victorian Right, led by AWU and Bill Shorten (and Rudd is unlikely to forget the part he played in Gillard’s ascension) and has been sitting comfortably in his seat for 15 years.

Danby is socially conservative, strongly religious and far more interested in what’s happening in Israel than what’s happening in Carlisle St. He was a vocal supporter of Julia Gillard and was happy to go on the record with The Tribune in 2010 on his firm belief that “Kevin Rudd was not good for Labor and not good for Australia”. Danby’s discussion of the election was very much based on party talking points at the time. Foreign affairs and asylum seekers were issues on which he could speak with knowledge and authority. His understanding of local concerns was centred on those issues. He did talk about the St Kilda Crisis Centre, he attended the opening and had a broad idea about what it would do, but it was a talking point, not something with which he was deeply involved. He’s certainly very connected with the local Jewish community, The Tribune has a number of sources citing him speaking to members of that community about the Liberal candidate being openly gay and in favour of gay marriage as a means of solidifying support against him.

The Tribune has contacted Danby’s office several times over the last few weeks to ask for examples of his engagement with the local area in recent years. At the time of publication, we have not received a response.

Kevin Ekendahl was the Liberal party candidate in 2010 and is again in 2013. He’s socially progressive, financially conservative and very much engaged at all levels of the local community. It is with some surprise that The Tribune learned he was given preselection unopposed, given his declared stance on gay marriage and compassionate attitude towards asylum seekers. Possibly it’s because the party doesn’t really believe he’s likely to win the seat, given that Danby took it in 2010 by 7.9%. Ekendahl suggests this is more likely to do with the party’s appreciation of his “monumental campaigning efforts” last time and his willingness to give his all to the campaign this time.

Obviously a hopeful candidate would need to spend a lot more time wooing the local electorate than a long term sitting member, and he’s become a familiar figure on all the main streets of the electorate over the last 10 months, as well having as a committed involvement to retail politics. But Ekendahl’s involvement in community projects goes back way before his candidature. He was a member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Melbourne well before he ran for public office. Since 2009 he has been working for Try Australia, a charity providing vocational and other support services to Aboriginal people, newly arrived refugees and disadvantaged young people.

The Tribune editorial staff saw him campaigning on the main thoroughfare of South Melbourne during the 2010 election and watched, with the expectation that he would give the brush off, as he was approached by one of the mentally ill homeless men who live in the area. An hour and a half later he was still sitting on a bench talking to the same man, still wearing his campaign buttons.

It’s hard to know whether the idea of Prime Minister Tony Abbott or Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is more disheartening to anyone with a modicum of socially progressive tendencies. The internal party disintegration and lack of experience on the Labor front bench versus the hard-right old guard on the Coalition front bench are equally difficult to choose between.

In the days when choosing between the two parties meant choosing between the left wing Labor party, the party of the workers who would fight for the disadvantaged; and the right wing liberal party, the economically and socially conservative party of small government and entrepreneurship, Danby and Ekendahl would be on the opposite side of the political divide. It says a lot about the state of both parties that they are where they are.

And it makes it very difficult to know where to cast your vote.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Rudd the contender

Rudd might actually be able to do what was unthinkable a few weeks ago – lead the Labor party to a victory in the next election.

It started as a tiny whisper, keening like a solitary mosquito as I listened to Kevin’s “I’m a contender” speech before the leadership vote.

“People want a real choice at this election,” said Kevin. “People are genuinely fearful of what Mr Abbott could do to them,” he said.

And the whispery voice inside my head said, “Choice, yes; fearful of Abbott, yes.

“Maybe Kevin can actually pull this off.”

Then Kevin declared war on property developers and Sussex Street spivs, making flamboyant hacking-off gestures in the general direction of the offending limb as he tried to head off ICAC’s inevitable amputation verdict.

As tabloids in print, radio and television heralded this first Rudd review in the inevitable second wave of such considered examinations (but not very much action), the whisper was replaced with a murmur: “That’s clever,” it said. “Possibly smoke and mirrors. But it could save a few Labor seats in NSW.

“Can Kevin actually make Labor competitive again?”

Then the opinion polls started rolling in. Newspoll, Nielsen, Morgan and Essential. All ten polls published since Rudd re-ascended less than three weeks ago showing healthy swings back to Kevin and Labor. And a counter-swing away from Abbott and the Coalition.

‘Sugar hit,” said the mutter that replaced the murmur. “Nothing more than an ephemeral, post-coup high.”

But the Little-Big man’s announcements have kept on coming. Pre-announcement announcements, parsimoniously eked to cultivated journalists, have artificially extended the media lifespan of each declaration and given them a better chance to pierce the voters’ Ashes / State of Origin / Next Top Model / Masterchef haze.

Issue by issue, policy by policy, Rudd has systematically discarded, abandoned or neutralised anything standing between him and another potential Labor vote.

Asylum seekers? Kevin (and the Indonesian President) have an international review, ahem, a Regional Crisis Summit to fix that.

Carbon tax? Kevin’s terminated it. And the measly floating carbon price that replaces it will no longer burden families (or carbon intensive industry, but let’s not mention that).

Chaotic and divided Labor Party? Kevin has a solution for that too. Make noises about changing the party rules so that no first term Prime Minister will ever again the suffer the indignity of being challenged. Gesticulate enthusiastically about giving party members a say in electing the party leader. And forget to mention the unions will likely fight tooth and nail to prevent these reforms at the National Conference (which conveniently takes place after the federal election).

In short, Kevin has pulled the tarpaulin off the 2007 federal election strategy and is taking it for another run.

“Such audacity,” proclaims the inner voice. “Such political smarts.

“It might even work.”

For in 2007, Kevin was successful by simultaneously being the things people liked about Prime Minister John Howard and not being the things they hated about The Rodent. Kevin’s strategy of limiting the points of differentiation between him and Howard led to him being accused of too much me-too-ism.

But Kevin was being careful not to scare the horses, as Opposition Leader Mark Latham had done during the previous federal election campaign. While voters were initially taken by Latham’s off-the-wall anti-politician approach, they soon tired of the novelty and became anxious about his capacity to be the type of politician they could trust to run the country.

Having learned from Latham’s folly, Kevin offered himself in 2007 as Howard-lite: another safe pair of hands but with real climate solutions (ratification of the Kyoto Protocol) and without that nasty WorkChoices.

In effect, Rudd helped voters give themselves permission to vote against Howard. He made the prospect of a new government feel like an inevitable generational change rather than wholesale upheaval.

And it is becoming clearer each day that Rudd is deploying the same tactic in 2013 – but with a twist.

This time he is telling voters they don’t have to sack the government to get a better one. He’s offering inevitable generational change without the need to send Labor to the parliamentary purgatory that is federal opposition.

Former Rudd media adviser, Lachlan Harris, explained this on Twitter the day Rudd announced his proposed party reforms:

Rudd’s strategy is giving people the change of govt they want, without having to vote out Labor. Today’s move the heart of that strategy.

In 07 Rudd’s core strategy was change PM but not Govt. In 13 it’s change Govt but not PM.

Many of Rudd’s actions since becoming leader again have been to neutralise Abbott’s advantages and emphasise the disadvantages. Hence the initiative to find another way to stop boat-borne asylum seekers, the ‘scrapping’ of the carbon tax, and the constant challenges to National Press Club debates (during which Abbott has historically performed poorly).

In doing so, Rudd is helping voters who like the Coalition’s policies but are uneasy about Abbott to give themselves permission to vote against the Opposition Leader. Want the boats stopped? Vote for Rudd. Want to scrap the carbon tax? Vote for Rudd! Want sound economic management? Yep, vote for Rudd. This tactic has the potential to draw some of the softer votes away from the Coalition and back to Labor.

In effect, Kevin clever-pants is offering himself not as the alternative to one other party leader, but two.

He’s saying “vote for me because I’m not Tony Abbott. And vote for me because I’m not Julia Gillard either. That’s two reasons to vote Labor.”

This tactic should draw votes back to Labor from the Coalition as well as some of the undecideds. However, while Rudd has indeed made Labor competitive again they still need to increase their vote to win the election and new leaders rarely improve on their honeymoon opinion poll boost.

It might be an exaggeration to call Rudd’s re-election strategy a cunning stunt. And it may yet be too late to turn the great ship Labor around before it hits the rocks.

But my inner voice is chittering excitedly now in anticipation of an election battle between two more evenly matched combatants. And it will be fascinating to see whether the one campaign strategy can deliver an election victory two times in considerably different circumstances.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Media bunnies become the hounds

There was far more to the anti-Gillard campaign than sexism and misogyny. Had Kevin Rudd been toppled by a man in 2010 we’d still have heard all the claims of illegitimacy and dishonesty, so how much of the hatred towards Gillard was because of her gender?

The debate about sexism and Julia Gillard has been raging for months and it's likely to continue on for years, mainly because there's so much evidence, both for and against the idea that innate sexism in Australian media and policies was the cause of her downfall.

It's a debate worth pursuing, because if it is true, or even if it is only partly true, women in Australia truly are facing a grotesquely unfair battle for an equal voice in Australian public life. If it’s a furphy, we’re feeling persecuted and dismissed where there is no need to do so.

The question is clouded because much of the anger towards Gillard originated with Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd's shared outrage that she was PM and they weren't. The press gallery bunnies leapt gleefully down a hole of Abbott and Rudd's devising and pulled most of the public down with them. Then the gallery became the hounds, chasing the scent they were given by the pack masters and losing sight of everything else in their desperate need to be in at the kill.

The minority government gave the Murdoch press an excuse to delegitimise her prime ministership and Gillard's warmth and dignity, apparently so clear to those close to her, was never something she could communicate on broadcast media.

Since Gillard's demise, much of the rage has leached out of the narrative. As Jonathan Green said, there's a sense that everything is now back in its proper place, the men are back in charge and now we can get on with things as they should be. Which now affords us an opportunity to consider the gender question more objectively.

Don Arthur posed an interesting question on Twitter last week: would the backlash against a female prime minister have been so gendered if our first female PM had been a conservative? Would Prime Minister Bishop (Julie or Bronwyn) have suffered the same level of hatred?

Would the undoubtedly misogynist sections of the media (hi Alan Jones, Chris Smith and Ray Hadley) have been so vocal and polarizing against Prime Minister Bishop? The right-wing media would be unlikely to take such a position against one of their own, they may have been uncomfortable with female leadership but they are more likely to have masculinised her (our very own Iron Lady) than have attacked her for her gender.

It's hard to pinpoint a left wing equivalent of Alan Jones or The Australian. David Marr or Crikey's Bernard Keane are probably the strongest voices of the avowedly left-wing media and, whatever their prejudices, it's impossible to imagine them taking a gendered stance against a putative Prime Minister Bishop.

Another interesting question posed on twitter last week was from Van Badham: the leaders of Australia's major political parties for the last 112 years have all been men. How would the right-wing commentariat react if it were all women for the next 112? What if, in addition to that, 75% of the parliament, 70% of the media and 90% of senior corporate Australia were women? What if men were overall paid 17% less than women and the work most strongly associated with their gender was routinely devalued? How would men live in a world where arts and entertainment was dominated by women's stories, where men were just sidelines, existing only to move the primary female character though her journey? If 87% of men's violent deaths were at the hands of women? If women were an ever-present sexual and physical danger to men? What if men's bodies and clothes were a constant source of derision or objectification that always trumped any achievements they might make?

It's impossible to imagine outside science fiction, but the reverse is so acceptable that to even mention it is whiny; ‘playing the gender card’ to evade ‘real debate’.

This is the world in which Julia Gillard, flawed as any person or politician is, attempted to be our first female prime minister.

In hindsight, the litany of gendered hatred against Gillard is quite horrifying, but it didn't start with the same crescendo with which it ended. It was a long slow build, fuelled by right-wing anger at a left-wing government, the colossal failure of the mainstream media to resist the manipulation of the Opposition’s campaign of negativity and the Rudd camp's campaign of destabilisation. Each step down the path was picked over by social media as the Twitterati wept and cackled and moaned, giving a far wider audience to the right wing trolls than they could ever have managed on their own. Each egregious example of misogynist abuse lowered the bar, making way for the next one as, step by step, we decried the Prime Minister’s earlobes, jackets, bottom, cleavage and sexuality.

Regardless of your politics, it was a heartbreaking, demoralising journey for the whole country, driven as it was by social conservatives who think of women as the ‘housewives of Australia’. In the end, the judgement of Gillard herself (that sexism ‘does not explain everything about my time in the prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership’) is probably closest to the truth. What seems more likely is that it was not the source of all the opposition to her being prime minister, but it became the means of expressing objection to it. Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and their willing puppets in the media would still have hounded a male prime minister who’d taken Rudd’s job, but they would have had to find another way to express it.

Published in Weekly Email

Brian Harradine is now only a memory, but other right wing conservatives could soon step into his place. What will that mean for women’s access to safe, legal abortion?

Many women are scared of a Tony Abbott government.

They're not being unreasonable. Abbott is not just (another) middle-aged white man. Whether you liked Gillard's misogyny speech or not, it listed a history of comments that would strike fear into the heart of progressive women across Australia.

That wasn't the first time that progressives have used Abbott’s own words against him. In the lead-up the 2010 election, GetUp ran this very effective video featuring women reading out quotes to the viewer.

And it's not just his words, either. In 2005, as John Howard's Federal Health Minister, Abbott famously refused to approve the abortion pill RU486, which eventually lead to the parliament (on a conscience vote) stripping the health minister of his veto power.

It was these fears that recently forced the Coalition into ruling out any changes to abortion laws. Indeed, they have also had to go so far as to specifically rule out doing any deals with John Madigan, the conservative Democratic Labor Party Senator who still has at least 3 years to run in the Senate.

How much trouble, you might ask, can one senator really make? He's only one out of 76, right? Well, yes. The problem is that his one vote could be incredibly important to the Coalition post election. As this excellent post from Anthony Green shows, Madigan's vote may the one vote needed to get legislation over the line.

So what pound of flesh might Madigan demand in exchange for his vote on, say, repealing the Carbon Tax? Developments in NSW over the weekend may give us a clue.

Barry O'Farrell swept to power in NSW 2 years ago, winning 69 of the 89 Lower House Seats. In the Upper House, the Coalition managed to scrape together 19 of the 42 seats. Two other right leaning parties each hold 2 seats: the Shooter and Fishers, and the Christian Democrats, lead by Fred Nile.

This means that the Coalition has to bring those two minor parties along to pass any legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. Those two parties hold a great deal of power, and they have not been afraid to use it.

Earlier this year, the Coalition passed legislation to privatise Newcastle Port, an important source of revenue to fund the Coalition's ambitious infrastructure promises. The sale was supported by the Christian Democrats who, it appears, now want payback.

Last Thursday the Crimes Amendment (Zoe's Law) Bill 2013 was introduced in the NSW Upper House. What the bill seeks to do is to create a new offence of ‘Harming or Destroying a child in utero’ as well as widening the definition of ‘Dangerous Driving Occasioning Death’ to include destroying ‘a child in utero’.

In order to understand the importance of these changes, we need to step back and understand the law relating to pregnancy and abortion a little better.

Firstly, abortion law in Australia is complicated. This piece by Amy Gray summarises the position in each state. The position in NSW is a little strange: abortion is illegal unless it is necessary for a medical, social or economic reason. However, as a matter of practice, abortion is not prosecuted for terminations before 24 weeks’ gestation.

Things started getting complicated just under a decade ago. In NSW, ‘grievous bodily harm’ means a ‘really serious injury’: generally broken bones or permanent disfigurement. Consequently, the offence of (for example) ‘Recklessly Inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm’ is a serious one, carrying 14 years imprisonment. In the same way, ‘Dangerous Driving Causing Grievous Bodily Harm’ carries a maximum of 7 years in gaol.

The Crimes Amendment (Grievous Bodily Harm) Bill 2005 (also known as Byron's Law) widened the definition of grievous bodily harm to include ‘the destruction (other than in the course of a medical procedure) of the foetus of a pregnant woman’.

The change was brought about after a horrific case where a man punched a pregnant woman in the stomach and then stamped on her abdomen six or seven times after she refused to have an abortion. The law was dubbed ‘Byron's law’ in memory of an unborn child who was stillborn after a dangerous driving incident in which the mother was seriously injured.

This change meant that if you assaulted a person in such a way that caused no or little harm to them directly, but brought about the ‘destruction of the foetus’, then you had inflicted grievous bodily harm on the woman.

It was an awkward compromise between the desire to provide an appropriate penalty for serious offences and recognize the harm caused without giving personhood to foetuses.

Things have continued in the same way since. In essence, if a person causes the death of a foetus, then we punish them as if they had destroyed an organ in the body of the pregnant women. It doesn't make a lot of sense when one considers first principles, but everyone seemed happy enough with the arrangement.

Everyone, that is, apart from Fred Nile.

Fred Nile says that when he agreed to pass the Newcastle Ports bill, the government agreed to pass Zoe's Law through the Upper House, but retained the right to amend it in the Lower House. The government has subsequently denied that any such deal was made.

Zoe's law is named after Zoe Ball. Her mother was 8 months pregnant when a drug-affected driver ran her down on Christmas Day, 2009. Zoe's law meant he could be charged for causing grievous bodily harm to Zoe's mother, but not manslaughter (as her parents wanted).

Nile's law would end the awkward situation where causing the death of a foetuses would be regarded as injuring the mother. The new section entitled ‘Harming or Destroying a child in utero’ creates specific offences that deal directly with the harm caused. On a purely practical level, it makes more sense than pretending that the death of a foetus is injuring the mother.

Of course, the problem is that his bill is not about tidying up the criminal law, and it's not about delivering comfort for the parents of Zoe Ball (who Nile did not even bother to contact before introducing the legislation), who do not support the legislation in its present form.

Whilst the legislation provides a specific exemption for ‘anything done in the course of a medical procedure, or anything done by or with the consent of the mother of the child in utero’ it is a powerful ideological statement.

The expression ‘child in utero’ becomes an expression known to the law. The death of foetuses in violent and dangerous acts will now be punished in a similar way to the death of humans.

Whilst this may seem like legal quibbling, those who value a woman's right to choose are right to be fearful of this change. It is powerful for the same reason that the law has been dubbed ‘Zoe's law’—the way we describe things fundamentally affects the way we think of them.

This is why it is ‘Right to Life’ rather than ‘anti-abortion’, and why those who support abortion prefer the term ‘Pro Choice’. The law on abortion in Australia is not going to be altered by a frontal assault of legislation and enforcement—public opinion needs to be moved first. I have no doubt that Fred Nile sees this change as an important step in that direction.

If John Madigan does have the balance of power from July next year, his approach may well be similar. This piece from Leslie Cannold in The Age explains more about what the Coalition government and Madigan may be able to do.

Will they do it? Abbott has said he can ‘rule out any deals.

Which is interesting. Because look what O'Farrell said in 2011:

‘I'm not going to sell our plans, our policies, our principles for minor parties.’

You be the judge.

Published in Weekly Email

Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Are they the dark stain on our national soul? Is this ‘just how people are’, or is there something else at play?

Writer and series creator David Simon once described his HBO television series The Wire in these terms:

‘The Wire depicts a world in which capital has triumphed completely, labour has been marginalized and moneyed interests have purchased enough political infrastructure to prevent reform. It is a world in which the rules and values of the free market and maximized profit have been mistaken for a social framework, a world where institutions themselves are paramount and every day human beings matter less.’

Over five long, gruelling and enthralling seasons, Simon and his team offer a view of life in the city of Baltimore that calls bullshit on the American dream, and, while it is hard to draw an exact parallel with Australia (thank heavens), the show should linger on the edge of our consciousness as portent of a possible future.

There but for the grace of universal healthcare, free education, a minimum wage, the pension and the rest of the egalitarian safety net of our secular, multicultural nation go we.

The Wire concentrates in particular upon the inertia and corruption at the heart of certain key institutions, and the one thing that should’ve become apparent during the last few years of appalling things happening in the public sphere in our country is that much of what concerns us is driven by the quotidian corruption of institutions: the sexism, the racism, the child molestation, the lying that passes itself off as journalism.

I think it’s important to focus on these institutions because we live in the world that they create and perpetuate, and it is only by reforming them that we can hope to make things better. ‘

This view puts me at odds with many other commentators who see almost any outbreak of overt sexism or racism into the public sphere as not so much an institutional matter but as somehow a reflection of a dark stain on our national soul.

Journalist Jonathan Green, a writer I admire a great deal, but with whom I disagree on this point, put the case succinctly in a recent column:

‘Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves … that it, in every sense, represents. We provide the clay they work with.

If there wasn’t a vote in hate, fear and prejudice then there would be no gain in pandering to any of them. The great Australian shame is that not only are there votes to be had here, but that this is the heartland in which our political game is lost and won.’

There is a superficial appeal to this sort of reasoning. However, the reason the church, the media, the police and defence forces, not to mention politics, are so hard to reform is not just because they are filled with horrible, corrupt people—or that they are somehow reflecting the desires of a horrible, corrupt general public—but because they are self-preserving mechanisms that become more important than the people they are meant to serve.

Anybody who has worked in even a moderately sized organisation knows the truth of this; of just how hard it is to fight an ingrained culture.

To call them ‘mirrors of society’ is to fall into the trap they set, one that allows them to resist reform and so perpetuate the very attitudes that appal us. Once you assume that this is ‘just how people are’ you have conceded the game to the status quo.

Jeff Sparrow expressed the alternative view recently when he wrote:

‘it’s worth recalling Pierre Bourdieu’s famous caution that public opinion should be understood as “artefact, pure and simple, the function of which is to dissemble that the state of opinion at any given moment is a system of forces and tensions and that nothing is more inadequate for representing the state of opinion than a percentage”.’

The point is: there is no such thing as public opinion of the sort that Green and others rely on to make their case. It is not one thing. It is in a state of constant flux and ‘measuring’ it simply isolates one aspect of it at a given moment. The creation of such ‘opinion’ is done via polling and other methods that are controlled by various institutions and that, by their choice of questions and their monopoly over interpretation, tend to hew to certain institutional norms.

As Sparrow says:

‘That’s not to dismiss anti-refugee sentiment (for instance) as a sleight of hand produced by unscrupulous pollsters. But it does suggest that the debate depends a great deal on how politicians pose the question.’

‘Today’s attitudes are not innate but rather were created by a series of political decisions, not least by the bipartisan embrace of the war on terror.’

Let’s put it another way: if racism and sexism and all the rest of it really are just an intrinsic part of the national character, something eternal and elemental in our DNA; if, as Green and many others argue—or presume—politicians are simply reflecting our true selves back at us, then there would be no hope for change.

But surely none of us believe that? Surely the whole history of the world shows that things can change?

The genius of The Wire, the reason it is great literature, is that it allows its characters to exist as fully-formed human beings who live in a particular set of circumstances and it shows just how hard it is—whether you are a police commissioner cooking crime stats or a corner boy slinging dope—to escape the logic and limitations of the structures in which you exist. It doesn’t forgive them their trespasses, or posit that ‘society is to blame’, but it does recognise that their good intentions are constantly challenged by the power of an institutional inertia much more powerful than the better angels of their nature.

So great is that inertia, so powerful are those institutions, so difficult do they make it for alternative views to gain traction, that you start to understand why Thomas Jefferson was inclined to say, ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’

It simply isn’t good enough to point a finger at ‘public opinion’ and suppose that that alone tells us all that we need to know.


Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Recycled rhetoric

There’s nothing new under the sun. Particularly in politics.

Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott might remain sceptical of climate change, but at least he recycles. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of a federal election date this year, Abbott said:

‘This election will be about trust. Who do you trust to reduce cost-of-living pressures? Who do you trust to boost small business and to boost job security? And who do you trust to secure our borders?’

Presumably this was designed to appeal to voters who supported the Howard era of government. It borrowed heavily from this John Howard 2004 election speech:

‘This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust. Who do you trust to keep the economy strong, and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia's behalf against international terrorism?’

This is not the only case. In the Australian Parliament in late 2011, Abbott called the Gillard Government’s Carbon Tax legislation ‘the longest political suicide note in Australian history’. Whether this was an unconscious rendering of a phrase previously used to describe a Liberal Party policy, or an attempt to purposefully reclaim and redirect the phrase is unknown—but the phrase was recycled. Doyen of Australian political science, Professor Malcolm Mackerras (of the famed Mackerras electoral pendulum) used the phrase ‘the longest suicide note in history’ to describe the Liberal’s Fightback policy in the 1990s.

So it’s a little disappointing to see criticism of Abbott’s view that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare’, as though it is a subversive threat to legal abortion based on conspiracies that Abbott wants to impose his religious beliefs on secular Australia. Nobody wants abortion to be commonplace or frequent. Abbott’s words in fact almost exactly echo those of United States President Bill Clinton, who in 1996 stated that ‘abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.’ Needless to say, there was no concern that Clinton brought religion into policy.

In any case, Abbott is by no means the first politician to recycle old rhetoric, or borrow from others. In March 1997, Brendan Nelson apologised to the parliament for using a number of parts of a paper on the supply of migrant doctors, published the year before by sociologist and immigration expert Dr’Bob Birrell. In September 2008, Julie Bishop delivered a speech using words directly taken from the Wall Street Journal (later the same month she was involved in a second plagiarism incident relating to printed work). And in the United Kingdom, then Tory leader, now Prime Minister David Cameron made repeated statements using words from then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s speeches.

Perhaps before the Internet, politicians could get away with such borrowing. The progress of technology and communication means that time has passed. Someone engaged in politics and policy can frequently place the quote, then write and publish the connection within a relatively short space of time.

This means that even trans-national borrowing in the Western world of politics can be noticed. The Australian Labor Party’s 2007 (and beyond) ‘working families’ is no doubt inspired by the term ‘hardworking families’ in the United Kingdom in 2005, and long-term use as a US Democratic Party phrase. And UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg’s use of the phrase ‘alarm clock Britons’ in 2011 has echoes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 ‘La France qui se lève tôt’ (‘early rising France’).

In 2010, Julia Gillard’s answer to a question about her personal faith on ABC radio shortly after she became Prime Minister was distinctly like an interchange involving fictional Senator Arnie Vinick in the cult television series The West Wing. Vinick was questioned by reporters on an invitation to church from a particular high-profile religious leader. He answered:

‘I respect [the Reverend], and I respect his church too much to use it for my own political purposes. That's exactly what I would be doing if I went down there this Sunday. The truth is that it would be an act of political phoniness.’

Contrast that to the Australian Prime Minister’s response, which was:

‘I’m of course a great respecter of religious beliefs, but they’re not my beliefs. I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel. And for people of faith, the greatest compliment could pay to them is to respect their genuinely held beliefs and not to engage in some pretence about mine ... I never thought it was the right thing for me to go through religious rituals for the sake of appearance.’

While not a direct lift, it does prompt speculation about the inspiration for her remarks.

Of course, there are many instances involving political speech plagiarism of a higher order. In 2008, the Canadian Globe and Mail reported that in 2003, then-future Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a speech on the Iraq War that was remarkably similar to one of then-Prime Minister John Howard’s speeches. In May last year, a British Conservative MP’s speech on a Private Member’s Bill was lifted almost word-for-word from Wikipedia—not a good look from an education Minister.

The rudimentary test for plagiarism per se is not attributing the source. So while Sarah Palin was accused of plagiarising her words in 2009, her efforts to mention the source of her discourse rule out a charge of plagiarism. In any case, it seems that in the United States, politicians are forgiven for their almost commonplace copying of words and ideas.

To a certain degree, the public should expect that particular words and phrases will be repeated, such as we heard with ‘big new tax’ or ‘moving forward’. There is a high degree of discourse in Western democracies, and over time, reiterations will naturally occur. In his memoir, A Figure of Speech, former Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg admits that he was a ‘great recycler’ of speeches and themes. And because political staffers frequently write their politician’s speaking notes, it is likely that many politicians can legitimately claim that they didn’t know they were plagiarising.

Politicians are nonetheless accountable for what they say. Regardless of whether they write their speech or not, where some of their words are lifted from others without an effort to quote or mention the source, politicians could run into trouble—because somewhere, people will notice. It’s unfortunate for Tony Abbott that some have not noticed the source of the words he used to describe his stance on abortion, instead choosing to foment anxiety about the separation of religion and state.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Managing the protest vote

While it's almost certain that Tony Abbott will be our next Prime Minister, the size of his majority (and thus the effectiveness of the ALP and Independents in Opposition) isn’t so certain. The protest vote will be a huge factor—many voters will need to be convinced to either punish Labor or limit Abbott's mandate. Managing this message is vital if the ALP and the Greens are to hold any sway for the next three years.

Any Australian election campaign follows a fixed pattern. Daily photo opportunities masquerading as policy announcements are interspersed with debate stoushes and then the debates themselves. Somewhere in the final two or three weeks the campaign launch is held. And also around that time, the expectations game begins.

The rules of the expectations game are simple: make the voters think the election outcome is finely balanced and that every single vote counts. This is a time-honoured way of managing the protest vote. It’s preferable for any political party to be perceived as the underdog at that point in the campaign, running slightly behind, than to have an unassailable lead.

Election outcomes that are seen as a sure thing can lead voters into thinking they can afford to lodge a protest vote against the inevitable outcome, safe in the knowledge they won’t be responsible for altering its certainty. When enough voters think they can harmlessly protest in this way, they can inadvertently tip the election pendulum and produce unexpected election outcomes.

The most recent examples of this phenomenon happened at the State level in the 1990s. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett entered the 1999 state election campaign with a seemingly unassailable lead but lost to fresh-faced newbie Opposition Leader Steve Bracks because he hadn’t bothered to manage the protest vote. Victorians who voted against The Jeff mostly likely just wanted to give him a boot up the arse, not throw him from office altogether. And yet that’s what they ended up doing.

A similar fate almost befell another Liberal Premier in 1991. New South Welshmen and women came close to tossing out Nick Greiner that year when he called a snap election to capitalise on a strong lead in the polls and was predicted to be easily re-elected. Greiner ended up with a minority government instead.

While one could argue that the fate of two former Liberal Premiers has little import for the current Leader of the Federal Liberal Party, it’s clear Labor has commenced the expectations game early and is attempting to manage the protest vote against Abbott. It’s mostly a ‘saving the furniture’ strategy but with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in for one of those ‘unexpected’ election results.

Gillard supporter and potential future Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Friday:

‘There is no doubt in my mind that if the polls are correct Tony Abbott would win in a landslide. So the question then is, what does an Abbott government look like if the polls are correct and stay this way?’

Admittedly, Shorten later backed away from this statement, worried that it was being depicted as a sign of no confidence in Gillard, but it was clearly part of a strategy to mobilise a protest vote against Abbott.

While not going as far as Shorten, his Gillard-supporter Cabinet colleagues followed the same strategy earlier in the week. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said Abbott would cancel construction of the NBN to new premises should he win the September federal election. Industry and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said Abbott would not scrap the carbon tax.

Their subliminal message is that although Abbott’s election is inevitable, it’s not too late to voice your protest and rein in his post-election power.

Greens leader Christine Milne is employing a similar strategy, conceding an Abbott victory even before votes are lodged in the hope of gaining enough protest votes for the Greens to keep the balance of power in the Senate.

Granted, these attempts at marshalling the protest vote may be an entirely misguided strategy. Perhaps Kennett and Greiner are not the relevant case studies; see contemporary State Liberal Leaders such as O’Farrell (2011), Newman (2012) and Barnett (2013), who all converted huge poll leads into landslide election results.

Each of these leaders tapped into voter disenchantment with a tired and discredited Labor Party. Each leader offered a clear alternative. And each promised stable and competent government. Voters responded by flocking to them in droves: O’Farrell’s Liberals achieved a 14.16% swing, Newman got an 8.05% boost, and Barnett stormed home with an 8.71% increase. Abbott appears to be in for an equally impressive tide, currently tracking at around 6%.

The similarity doesn’t end there. Each of the successful State Liberal triumvirate led their opponents as the preferred Premier leading into the election, but not all had a higher net satisfaction rating (with Barnett, the only incumbent Premier of this group, trailing his Labor opponent).

The other distinguishing feature of these three elections is how the Green vote diminished over time. The 2011 NSW election (seven months after the Greens saw their highest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election) saw the minor party’s vote increase by around two percent. But by the Queensland election in 2012 the Green vote was coming off the boil, with a one percent swing against them. This had deteriorated to a three percent swing against them at the WA election in 2013.

This downward trend in support for the Greens suggests a growing level of disenchantment with them that will be reflected in this year’s federal election result. Having reached a peak of 11.8% in the House of Representatives and 13.1% in the Senate at the 2010 election by providing a lightning rod for the protest vote, the Greens are now registering 9% for the HoR and 11% for the Senate in the most recent published polls.

Labor voters who turned to the Greens in protest in 2010 are now turning away again. The lightning rod has turned to lead. Fifty percent of voters now believe minority government has been bad for Australia and only 25% support the independents and Greens having the balance of power in the Senate. This means the protest vote will be looking for a new home at this election. The smart money will be on the party that manages them the best.

Former Labor State Secretary and Minister, Graham Richardson, will go down in history as Australian politics’ greatest protest vote-wrangler. The second preference strategy he devised to save Labor’s bacon in 1990 cleverly acknowledged voters’ anger with the Hawke Government by saying ‘we don’t deserve your first preference vote, but please give us your second’. This strategy, paired with preference swaps and a strong marginal seats campaign, delivered Labor victory with more seats than the Coalition but less votes.

The protest vote is a fickle beast, beholden to no-one and difficult to manage. This year it will be more unpredictable than ever, even taking the Coalition’s strong lead into account. For Labor, effective management of the protest vote could turn a rout into a respectable loss. For the Greens, it could mean salvation from irrelevancy and impending oblivion.

And for Tony Abbott, good management of any protest will secure him a place in the history books as the only Liberal Leader to take his party to victory despite one of the highest disapproval ratings ever.

As well as a thumping mandate to do pretty much whatever he pleases.

If you'd like to read some vintage Drag0nista, her ebook is available here

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 12 June 2013

One day it could be you!

Jack Lange told Paul Keating 'In the race of life, always back self-interest: at least you know it's trying'. As we have lost faith in our politicians, their opinion of us has dropped, to the point where no policy is sold to us on its merits, rather they frame their message around the only question they think matters: 'What's in it for me?'

It could. Can you imagine? You! Or maybe someone you really care about! How can you not support this policy?

It's become somewhat of a catchphrase in politics, and certainly a great deal of op-ed writing. Why should you be in favour of Disability Care? Because one day you might be disabled!

How about investing in teachers? Because one day your children will be at school, and someone is going to have to teach them. And how about this new police power? Imagine if someone committed a crime against you, wouldn’t it be great if the police could solve that crime without having to worry about things like Search Warrants?

Politicians seem to have given up on selling policies on their merits and resorted to transparent attempts to personalise every issue.

It's not like I'm immune to the urge, despite it being a long-held pet-hate. I've seen those same words appear on my screen over the years and winced on every occasion. It grates in a populist, simplistic, talkback radio kind of way, suggesting that the reader is too self-centred to possibly support anything that is unlikely to have a direct pay-off for them in the future.

The question that's been bouncing around my head for some time now is this: are we, the voting public, smarter than that?

I’m not certain we are. The eternal problem faced by the person pushing the expert's solution is that, sometimes, good policy is counterintuitive. Perhaps most of the time.

Intuition is, of course, a terribly fickle mistress. We all have preconceptions, prejudices and hard-wired ideas about how it is that the world works. They may have their roots in what our parents taught us, what our friends believe, or our own personal experiences extrapolated out to define the world; but whatever the cause, they can be almost impossible to shift.

Politicians and opinion writers who know how to feed into those preconceptions are seldom punished for it. As the cliché goes, no one ever went bankrupt underestimating the buying public.

This is what is happening whenever someone tries to sell a policy on the basis of ‘common sense’—they're asking you to ignore what the guy with the PhD is saying. The research might say this, but you know better! Ignore the egghead!

It's a staple of talkback radio and tabloid newspapers which is why the Coalition is likely to have the advantage in the ‘common sense’ stakes— lower taxes (more money in your pocket), less benefits to the poor (you went out and got a job, why can’t they?) and fewer laws and regulation (because freedom!). It's a focus on the individual rather than the community; looking after yourself before you worry about anyone else.

By contrast, Labor is resorting to ‘One day it could be you!’, putting the same focus on the listener, leveraging our apparently inward looking perspective, trying to convince us that they are the party that deserves our support.

Lower taxes, stopping boats, the NDIS, either (or a new) version of the NBN, whatever: neither side of politics (although I’m deliberately leaving The Greens out of this) put much heart into selling a policy as For The Common Good. Seemingly not trusting our better natures, they launch their appeal to our self-interest.

The problem for Labor is that this approach is always going to come second to the immediate gratification promised by the Coalition. It's true that people, on average, are inherently selfish, and unlikely as a whole to support something that will help others at a cost to themselves.

A focus on ‘One day it might be you’ gets Labor one step closer to tapping into the natural desire to look out for number one - but it seems unlikely to compete.

Is there a solution for them? Certainly it's not by reference to experts—the natural Australian reaction to those who think themselves better than others means that we are so unlikely to accept that someone who knows a lot about something could possibly do better than our own common sense.

It may be that there isn't a solution—perhaps Labor are going to have to spend their remaining time in power giving the voters just enough instant gratification that they don't mind the more outwardly-focused, equality-based policies that get sneaked through in the mean-time. A tax cut for you, a bump in foreign aid for the world, and everyone gets to go home happy.

It's not an ideal solution, but you have to be in power to make a difference. And policies continues to get more and more complicated, and as our society becomes more fragmented, more disparate and, as a result, more inwardly-focused, it may be the only way to get anything good done.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 05 June 2013

The Federal Racism Commissioner

Ben’s exclusive, in-depth interview with Australia’s Federal Racism Commissioner is a must read for anyone concerned about the quality of care our government provides for racism in this country.

‘Of course there are good days and bad days,’ says Roland Entwhistle, leaning back in his taxpayer-funded swivel chair. ‘I think anyone who works in public service feels the pressure of having to serve his country. But there’s also an enormous honour that comes with it, and when I’m feeling wrung out, I always remind myself of that.’

Entwhistle doesn’t make the claim idly. As Australia’s Federal Racism Commissioner, he is responsible for the maintenance and regulation of racism throughout the entire nation and its dependencies. When it comes to racism in Australia, the buck really does stop with him, and he’s acutely aware of what that means.

‘I try to avoid controversy wherever possible,’ he says candidly. ‘My job isn’t to make big headlines to generate media circuses. I want racism to run smoothly in Australia: if one citizen feels that domestic racism is going off the rails, that’s on me.’

Clearly Entwhistle takes his job seriously. He is the fourth Federal Racism Commissioner, a position created by Paul Keating in 1992 in response to public criticism that racism in Australia ‘lacked class’. Although Entwhistle pays tribute to his predecessors — ’they were good men, who really did enormously important groundwork in bringing racism into the twenty-first century’ — he himself had introduced many modern ideas to the job.

One of these is the new Federal Racism app, available for iPhone, iPad and Android, which provides handy hints on racism, a daily inspirational quote from a famous historical racist, and perhaps most important of all, the ‘Find-A-Racist’ feature. This allows the user, when caught in a location with little or no racism, to locate their nearest fellow racist using GPS technology, and travel to him or her via the most direct route for fellowship and comfort.

‘Racism in the past hasn’t been as scientific as it could have been,’ Entwhistle explains as he takes me on a tour of FRC headquarters. We pass by the Racism Lab, where a team of Australia’s most qualified race scientists do vital research into new racism techniques. Their current major project is GMR, or genetically modified racism. The Commissioner explains its importance: ‘The fact is there’s a lot of resistance to racism these days, and if we want racism to survive and thrive, we have to try to find ways of producing hardier racists, who can exist under a variety of conditions.’

As I look through the glass window into the lab, where one team of scientists is injecting jojoba extract into white children’s brains, and another dangles Indonesian shadow puppets in front of a row of strapped-down RSL members, I marvel at how far the science of racism has come even since my own youth, when racism was mainly something learned at home from unqualified parents and tradesmen.

The key to the New Racism is data, as Entwhistle explains when introducing me to Emma Fitzcarraldo, the FRC’s head statistician. As she tells me, having accurate figures is vital to the Commission’s work. ‘A lot of people think it’s just a matter of the more racism, the better,’ she says, ‘but racism is a lot like hunting: if you just go out shooting animals willy-nilly, you’ll soon have nothing left to hunt. It’s the same with racism, and that’s why we try to keep racism in Australia to a reasonable level, so as not to overload the system with prejudice.’ It’s also, as Entwhistle informs me later, why he reversed the previous Commissioner’s policy of granting licences for minority-hunting.

Fitzcarraldo, dressed fetchingly in a long white coat and purple thigh-boots, shows me an enormous chart on one wall of her spacious office. Here is noted the distribution and frequency of all manner of racist incidents and slurs.

It’s an impressive operation, and the commitment of the Commissioner and his staff to the cause of racism is beyond dispute. But there have been rumblings in certain parts of the community as to the place of the Federal Racism Commission in a modern economy. Many commentators are now suggesting that publicly-funded promotion of racism might be seen in some quarters as somewhat racist. I put the question to Elvin Protogore, Deputy Commissioner in charge of Blogs. He shakes his head confidently. ‘We get that a lot,’ he admits, ‘but the fact is that the Racism Commission has so many protocols and procedures put in place to ensure that our cultivation of racist attitudes and actions is done in a completely non-discriminatory way. For example we are an equal-opportunity employer. And certainly we manage to deliver a quality racism service far more cheaply than a private provider could.’

But isn’t the Racism Commission all about racism, I press him? ‘No,’ he answers emphatically. ‘I mean yes, obviously. But not just about racism. It’s about balance. Without a Federal Racism Commission, the scales would be tipped completely in favour of non-racism. And while non-racism has its place, it’s up to us as public servants to ensure that it doesn’t get out of hand.’

Still, this is an uncertain time at the FRC. Staff are nervous and afraid of the future. Ominous questions have been asked at Senate Estimates, and the Opposition has stated that the continued funding of the Commission ‘will come under serious review under a Coalition government’. As yet they have not even appointed a Shadow Minister for Racism, never a good sign; although a spokesman defended this oversight, pointing out that responsibility for racism was included in the remit of the Shadow Immigration Minister, as well as the Shadow Defence Minister, the Shadow Treasurer, the Shadow Education Minister, the Shadow Trade Minister, the Shadow Foreign Minister, the Shadow Industry Minister, and the Shadow Environment Minister. So perhaps they have it covered. Nonetheless, Entwhistle sees storm clouds gathering.

‘The current annual budget for FRC is $367 million,’ he notes. ‘Now obviously that is an absolute shoestring. But on that tiny allowance, we deliver efficient, high-quality racism to the entire country, and this is a diverse and widely-scattered population, so that’s no mean feat. But we really can’t afford to cut any closer to the bone without compromising the service. If the next government believes that we are a valid target for budget cuts, then the Federal Racism Commission might end up disappearing altogether.’

It’s a troubling thought, and one paid scant attention by the mainstream media. Entwhistle admits he would like more press coverage to bring attention to the underfunding of Australia racism. ‘The question is,’ he says soberly, ‘do we really want to live in an Australia without racism? If not, it really is time to make some noise.’

But for Entwhistle, all he can do is get on with the job he is doing, of ensuring fair and equitable access to racism for all Australians, and hope that those same Australians don’t forget all he’s done for them when it comes time to decide on this nation’s future.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 05 June 2013

The glorified baby bonus

Paid parental leave won’t make a difference to the entrenched social and market forces that created the gender pay gap. Here’s one simple suggestion that might.

Andie Fox wrote a somewhat muddled piece for the Guardian yesterday entitled The case for generous parental leave. She discussed the “big end of town’s” opposition to the extraordinarily generous paid parental leave plan offered by the coalition and compares the less expensive but more evenly distributed parental leave scheme introduced by the Labor government. She also discussed the various difficulties faced by working women with children. Her argument (I think) was that paid parental leave is necessary for women, it should be generous, but that other assistance (for women) is needed to close the gender pay gap.

Men, it seems, are not relevant to the discussion. Neither are they involved in the solution. 

On paid parental leave, Fox claims:

There is also a greater good with generous paid parental leave. It keeps women attached to the workforce. As a nation, it makes economic sense to support generous paid parental leave for everyone because it fosters growth, generates tax revenue and reduces retirement welfare expenditure.

This is predicated on the idea that paid parental leave will keep women in the work place and support their earning capacity. However, a study done on Labour Market Effects of Parental Leave Policies in OECD Countries has found that this is not necessarily the case.

A balanced use of leave entitlements by both parents after childbirth is good for gender equality and improved female labour market outcomes. Although fathers are frequently entitled to leave days for their exclusive use, mothers are, by and large, the main users of parental leave. The upshot is that, in many countries, parental leave policies effectively perpetuate existing gender differences in the provision of care and unpaid household chores.

The development of parental leave policies in most countries appears to have had a positive, albeit marginal, role in the rise of female employment, although women pay a price in the form of reduced earnings progression.

Paid parental leave, as I have argued before, is a short-term fix, nothing more than a feminist cause celebre that makes a symbolic nod to the significant gender differences in wealth, without addressing the cause.

Fox’s article, however, indirectly supports the underlying cause.

women who stay around long enough to reach leadership positions gain the power to make policy changes that can improve the lives of women with less advantage.

Only if you’ve felt the anguish yourself - of a meeting running so late that you missed the chance to see your sick baby before the nanny put him to sleep for the night - do you push hard for earlier meetings. And only then is it possible for the secretaries, who lack the power to change things but who also attend your meetings, to leave in time to see their babies.

Six months leave with a newborn is valuable to a senior woman in a law firm, but if returning to work means nothing less than a 60 hour work week, then workplace flexibility is what you really want for the long haul.

You can then forgive women struggling in low pay jobs who think focusing on the advancement of the most advantaged women and investing in this kind of trickle-down feminism is not what would most benefit their working lives. What these mothers need right now is affordable, high quality childcare and workplace flexibility.

Notice who she is talking about? Not once in her article does Fox make mention of the fathers of these babies. Not once. Every problem associated with childcare is a woman’s problem. Women can be lawyers or secretaries (seriously? Secretaries?) but men cannot be parents? Men cannot take some of the role of caring for children and the reduction in earning capacity this entails. That’s only an issue we talk about for women.

This is feminism?

Raising children and family finances are not solely women’s issues. Removing men from the discussion of how people balance childcare needs with income/career demands only perpetuates the gender roles that are the root cause of the gender wealth discrepancy.

And as long as childcare is seen as a women’s problem it will always be a problem only for women. Men will continue to be removed from the issue as they get on with the important business of building their careers.

Governments cannot legislate away thousands of years of social mores, but perhaps an effective solution to the long term impact of childbearing on female wealth prospects would be to offer flexible working conditions to both men and women across the entire public sector.

What would happen if every state, territory and federal government department offered flexible working hours, part time jobs and job sharing for both men and women? Not just to women, but to everyone. And not just for white collar jobs. What if every public service job in every police force, railway station, school, hospital, jail, aged care facility, Centrelink office and government administration department in the country was available as a part time, flexible hours or job sharing position? What if those options were available all the way up the chain, from the most entry level position right up to Department Secretary level? At a large enough proportion of total that people taking advantage of this option could not be viewed as the malingering minority and have their career suffer because of it?

What if men as well as women were encouraged to take these jobs and participate in childrearing? What if public servant position were created solely to assist with schedule management, so that both parent could arrange their jobs around family commitments and sharing the burden of income and childrearing equally? What if both men and women wanting to pursue other options outside work – further education, artistic or entrepreneurial endeavours, were also encouraged to take up such options?

What would be the flow-on effect to the private sector in a competitive labour market?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I’d be far more interested in knowing what they are than I am in the difference between the Labor and Coalition offerings on a baby payment designed to perpetuate gender stereotypes in income generation and childrearing.

Published in Weekly Email