Some home truths for Labor in WA

Clearly one should ask not the Australian Labor Party how the West was won; following Saturday’s half-Senate election, it is far more appropriate to ask WA Labor and Bill Shorten just how the West was lost so decisively and so humiliatingly. At the time of writing, Labor has managed to attract just 22% of the first preference vote in the Senate, suffering a swing against it of close to 5%, collapsing to its worst Senate election result since 1903. The Greens and Labor together look set to attract less than 38% of the combined first preference vote. On Tuesday, outgoing WA Labor Senator Mark Bishop described the result as disastrous, and it is difficult to disagree. Coming as it does in a period when Tony Abbott’s government is stuck on the back foot, behind in the polls nationally and under considerable political pressure on multiple fronts, Labor members and the general public have a right to wonder just what went wrong on Saturday and what is going wrong with the party more broadly in Australia’s largest and proportionately least populous state.

One thing is clear: this isn’t just about Joe Bullock: Labor has failed in recent years to grasp the nettle on some of the big policy issues impacting the lives of people living in Western Australia. There is a clear sense that both the Rudd and Gillard Governments tended to look first and foremost to suburban Sydney and Melbourne for approval when spruiking their policies, with people in regional Australia, the Queensland and the West left feeling like they are a few faceless men short of having meaningful representation in Labor’s party-room and Cabinet. There is a reason Clive Palmer strikes a nerve when he talks about the eastern states stripping the West of its rightful GST takings: it is yet another reminder of the palpable “us and them” sense that Labor has played a part in inculculating.

The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) is arguably the most important policy pain area introduced by Labor that impacts Western Australian voters, whether in practical terms or philosophically. The ABS estimates that in 2010-11, the mining industry accounted for 29% of economic production in WA and by 2012, over 8% of jobs. Despite the fact that the MRRT has in any case failed dismally to generate the annual revenue estimated by former Treasurer Wayne Swan, Bill Shorten has been unwilling so far to permit the Abbott Government to repeal the legislation. Nor has Shorten deigned to offer any alternative policy or even a thought bubble that conceptually tackles the issue of rebalancing Australia’s lopsided economy: Labor (and to some extent, the Greens) currently remain chained mindlessly to an idea that – whilst intellectually well-intentioned – simply has not worked for the country either politically or in practice.

Indonesia is closer to home for most Western Australians than Sydney, and even as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison continues to try his darnedest to “stay mum” on boat matters, Labor has yet to outline a convincing rebuttal to the Abbott Government’s hardline approach to asylum seekers. Polls continue to indicate that the average Australian – and particularly the average Western Australian – is not as far away from the talkback radio consensus as Labor and the Greens would like, and happy to even canvass increasing the “severity” of the treatment of asylum seekers. The Greens have a clear, principled, but unpopular position on the matter: Labor’s position by comparison is just confused. The party that implemented the flawed, draconian and failing PNG solution is also the same party that oversaw the highest numbers of asylum seeker boat arrivals in Australian territory in recent recorded history. There must be a workable middle path that discourages dangerous travel by boat, satisfies the requirements of international refugee laws, encourages regional co-operation rather than conflict and restores Australia’s international reputation as a moral society. If Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles are even looking for let alone have found this middle path, they are keeping a very good lid on it indeed, to Australia’s detriment.

Finally, there is the “carbon tax”. Labor’s WA Opposition Leader Mark McGowan is on record as opposing the fixed carbon pricing regime currently in force but supporting the introduction of an emissions trading scheme (ETS). This is a position that Bill Shorten has also adopted at a federal level, offering to support the repeal of the current carbon pricing regime on the condition that the Abbott Government introduces an ETS. This is of course a nonsense offer that the government has the moral authority to reject, an offer that makes a mockery of the mandate won by the Coalition parties at the September 2013 election. In a policy sense, Shorten’s position does not advance the debate. In a political sense, it leaves the Coalition with a cricket bat in its hand to thump the Opposition with, as it continues to rail about Labor’s unwillingness to yield to the judgement of voters in last year’s poll. The commentariat might well sniff and scoff, but for the average punter, the current fixed-price carbon regime is as much of a “carbon tax” as the ETS is. If Labor is to continue to support the introduction of an ETS, it needs to work harder at making the case for the complex system to voters, perhaps in combination with a red-blooded industry policy focused on exploding the size and scale of green energy industries across Australia, as our manufacturing sector flounders.

Yes, things may be grim now, but the national political scenario is about to shift for Labor: the sitting of the new Senate in July will break the current legislative deadlock and force Bill Shorten and his team to reconsider their policy positions – even if they do not want to. We can only hope that this change of the composition in the Senate ushers in a new mindset in Federal Labor that considers a bit more carefully what voters in Western Australia and parts of Queensland are telling them. Winning government in 2016 will be hard; winning government without anything more than desultory support in two big states will be bloody hard indeed.

MH370 and the coolabah tree

To be Australian is to travel: our compulsion to travel and our purported generosity to travellers from across the world represent fundamental building blocks of the Australian national ethos. Both our modern foundation story and the native traditions of the first Australians mark us out collectively as people who are culturally displaced; people who have been compelled (or whose ancestors have been compelled) to transition, whether by force or by choice. Our national songs still reflect this even if our current hard-nosed approach to immigration and asylum seekers do not:

…for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share…

…we are one, but we are many and from all the lands on earth we come…

…but no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home…

Viewed through this prism, Banjo Patterson’s “jolly swagman” myth is quickly demystified: he was of course Australia’s first ever backpacker!

Our relationship to travel and travellers is a condition that brings us pain as well as joy. Tim Minchin’s wonderful modern Australian Christmas Carol White Wine in the Sun is a hymn to family time together and the pain that we feel when our loved ones are on the other side of the world. The political reality of the Abbott Government’s “stop the boats” rhetoric stings many of us, in part, because it so violently contradicts our national identity – or at least – the national identity we celebrate in our songs and our history. There is a profound conflict between our mythology and the reality here: these are values that are supposed to really mean something; they are supposed to be unique to us.

This relationship also infects our political consciousness in other ways, for example, on the question of QANTAS being Australia’s “national carrier” and therefore deserving of special treatment. QANTAS is one of the world’ s oldest airlines, the brand that generations have relied upon and trusted to carry them around Australia and abroad, and a living symbol of our unquenchable national love for travel. That flying kangaroo, bolstered by decades of cunningly parochial advertising, represents more than just another company now, even if in practical terms it is just another logo. There is an emotional attachment there that has been hardwired into us through our own individual trips to the Gold Coast with friends, or to Bali, or through visiting relatives in Asia, Europe or still further afield.

It is this sort of sensibility on travel that arguably makes Australians more empathetic than most when disasters such as that which appears to have befallen flight MH370 materialise. Many of us either instinctively or through experience can relate to how it feels to be suspended in a glorified metallic can above a dark ocean, worlds away from friends and loved ones, with your life in the hands of pilots, sight unseen. Most of us can feel what it would be like if a disaster happened to us on a flight: because we have ourselves almost been there, whether in reality or in our fertile imaginations. There is a reason why Australians don’t mind an episode of Air Crash Investigations: it pushes our buttons. The tabloid media may have tried its best in the last few days to focus on the six unfortunate Australians who were aboard MH370, but such is our identification with “the traveller” that we are emotionally capable of feeling the pain of the other 233 souls on board just as keenly. The sense that “it could have been us” cuts right through, past nationality, race, colour or creed.

If to be Australian is to travel, in some fleeting moments at least, to travel is to be Australian.

Australian myth: egalitarianism and chancers

Towards the end of the year’s first episode of Q&A a few weeks back, some time was set aside for some statutory patriotic bonhomie. Perhaps it was a nod and a wink to the extraordinary recent suggestion by the Prime Minister on 2GB that the ABC sometimes “appears to take everyone’s side but our own”. Perhaps it was a hat tip to Australia Day, that fleeting carnival of barbecued meat, flags-as-capes and culture war that briefly flickered in and out of reality again at the end of January, thankfully just in time (as always) to avoid any serious national debate. In any case, after almost an hour, with Barnaby Joyce’s fluster beginning to dissipate, the fluffy topic at the program’s close provided the evening’s most evocative comments.

Nick Chapman asked:

…is being a great Australian any different to being a great citizen of any other country in the world?

The question of course turned instantly into a bar room discussion about Australian values, skewed by recent news. Comedian Akmal, alluding to our continuing toxic debate on immigration and asylum seekers, questioned whether the Aussie notion of the “fair go” only applied to some people:

Is it a fair go for Australian citizens or is it a fair go for Anglo Australians? Because unless these values extend to all of humanity, then they are not really values at all, they just – it’s a form of tribalism and I think what’s happening to the asylum seekers at the moment and the fact that most of us are not outraged by what’s going on is really sad.

Nick Cater dug out a couple of cliches (“lucky country”, “we make our own luck”) before suggesting that the values that Australia holds dear are basically the same as the values that other countries hold dear. I think this underestimates the uniqueness of the Australian “fair go” ethos, or at least the popular perception of that ethos. Barnaby waxed lyrical about flying into Sydney (strewth, would you look at that!) and the joys of going for a Malaysian curry and a few “sherbets”, as perhaps only Barnaby can do. Ray Martin offered up an anecdote about a skateboarding kid and some surfers that fell flat, but also let his unhinged lefty paternalist streak out of the closet:

That’s what being an Australian is and I don’t know whether we – often we bicker over these little things. We shouldn’t even argue about this Barnaby. We should be sorting out the farm problem because we are very rich and we are very generous and we are capable to look after these people. That’s what being Australian is.

Rich, generous and capable of looking after people. I don’t remember much about Martin-era A Current Affair, but you will not observe that sort of generosity of sentiment on commercial current affairs programs these days.

Tanya Plibersek, characteristically, provided the most moving and incisive anecdote:

My friend Tom Uren, who was a prisoner of war, talks about the different survival rates between the Australian prisoners of war and the British prisoners of war and one of the reasons he gives is that the Australians shared what they had and looked after each other. They didn’t revert to the hierarchical structures that the British officers and enlisted men stuck to in the prisoners of war camp. And I always think – and he talks about Weary Dunlop’s influence on Australians working in that way, cooperatively, together, looking after each other, the strong looking after the weak, the healthy looking after the sick and if I wanted to point to one value that I think of as not uniquely Australian but intrinsically Australian and so precious, it is that attachment to egalitarianism.

Cassandra Goldie from ACOSS followed Tanya, making a slightly rambling case for the least likely welfare reform imaginable under an Abbott Government, an increase to unemployment benefits. Its a tough gig right now, at ACOSS. She also questioned the idea that Australia really is the egalitarian sort of place we like to think it is:

Yeah. I mean, look, I think that’s how we would like to see ourselves but I think we are at a bit of a crossroads, may I say, in whether or not we are prepared to practise what we espouse we have.

The popular view that we Australians have of ourselves and our values is all wrapped up in mateship, toughness and the so-called “fair go”: the idea that all Australians get an opportunity to make something of themselves. Plibersek’s suggestion that egalitarianism lies at the core of these values warmed the cockles of my heart, but it is utterly fanciful. It is a romanticised view of how the left and sympathisers with Labor and the Greens would like Australia to be. Do the strong look after the weak in Australia? Largely only to the extent that the ATO forces them to, through much-maligned (by hard-working Australians who have made their own luck, of course…) progressive taxation. The strong in our country are mostly strong because they have ridden their luck, focusing their energies on looking after themselves first and foremost, and with some worthy exceptions, they generally do not concern themselves with the travails of “the weak”. Do the healthy look after the sick? Medicare has played a critical role in this over decades, and on balance Australia is surely one of the best places on Earth to get sick in. That’s not to say that – family and friends excepted – if and when you get sick and old the generosity of everyday Australians all around you is going to buffet your journey. Ross Gittins hit the nail on the head in a column last year: individually and collectively, Australians today are more overtly materialistic than perhaps was the case in decades past, and as a result our much lauded egalitarian credentials are in truth, little more than a façade.

If there is a national personae that Australia truly embraces, it is something more like that of the “chancer”: we celebrate the underdogs who work hard, take a few risks and somehow manage to “strike it rich” or do well for themselves as a result. We like a knockabout who climbs or lucks their way above “their station”. Culturally, we have a strong Darwinist streak. Australians are reluctant to begrudge the success of those who have gambled in life and won, but happy to drop the would-be “chancers” who fail like a ton of bricks. They are just failures: they should have done better somehow. We have a tendency not to understand the difficulties of those who won’t or can’t work as effectively as the best of us; perhaps it is easier to just blame the individual. Don’t have a good enough job? Work hard and get a better one. Don’t have enough money to feed the family? You should have worked harder or smarter, you should have made better choices, like I did. Are you on welfare? You must be a bludger.

This sort of mindset wilfully ignores the myriad of uncontrollable human factors that can shape the direction of a person’s life, from your genetic predisposition, through to where you grow up, who your parents are, what sort of relatives you have, what sort of friends you make, and so on. Many in Aboriginal Australia and in the sprawling suburbs of our metropolitan areas suffer from this form of rank stigmatisation. It is not just that we are all starting the race at different times: we are all running completely different races. The “level playing field” of opportunity in Australia that we pat ourselves on the back about annually may be more level than that offered by almost all other countries, but let’s not forget that it still slopes at least as viciously as that suburban street you hurtled down on your bike, back when you were growing up.

The “chancers” who play and win in life live large as heroes in our national consciousness; unfortunately for progressives, we don’t spend much time as a nation thinking about just how stacked the odds are in favour of some of them. In Australia, we are more than happy to let the victors get their spoils and to whine about subsidising those who are struggling to do so.

Alcoholics australis and twinkle-toes Barry O’Farrell

Aided and abetted by the media, a maelstrom of public discontent has emerged in the last fortnight in response to the tragic Kings Cross killing of Daniel Christie. The furor has been so potent that even New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell has been forced to do something, this week announcing a “tough and comprehensive” package [PDF] of reforms targeting alcohol-fueled violence in the Sydney CBD. Parliament is to be recalled early next week to pass the package, and with Opposition Leader John Robertson offering broad (if qualified) support for the measures, it seems that inertia-stricken New South Wales is about to experience an extremely rare legislative phenomenon: reforms demanded by the public being magicked up by a government one week and becoming law the next. Evidence-based policy-making at its finest, of course.

The package of reforms already has some high profile critics who have exulted in sticking their heads above the politically correct parapet. The Australian Hotels Association has challenged the logistical sense in effectively locking up drinkers in pubs and clubs from 1:30AM and then throwing them all out together in a flood onto the streets at 3:00AM. There’s some vested interests there, yes, but also a pretty damn sensible point. Contrastingly, Labor’s John Robertson has decided to take Laura Norder out for a few drinks in arguing that the package is not tough enough and not comprehensive enough:

The Government’s announcement is one that I welcome and one that it’s pleasing that finally we’ve seen them act. But it is an announcement with loopholes. We have lockouts with loopholes, where small bars will be exempt from lockouts, backpacker bars will be exempt from lockouts, and hotels with bars will also be exempt from lockouts.

In other words, if you want to be drunk and anti-social and violent until all hours after the O’Farrell Government proposals have been passed, all you need to do is pick the right venue in the right inner Sydney precinct. Sure, you can agree or disagree with Robertson’s overall stance on the issue, but you can’t deny that he too has a point there.

News Limited’s David Penberthy has offered his usual “boofhead libertarianism” schtick in response. The shorter Penbo: don’t blame alcohol, blame the idiots who get violent after a few drinks: you and me are entitled to get pissed as much as we want so long as we don’t “coward punch” anyone. This is the kind of mentality I would ordinarily expect to find at the bar of an RSL after (yep) a few drinks, not splashed all over the HTML and news print produced by Australia’s largest media company. But then I remember that this is News Limited we are talking about, and that by definition, even companies touting cow manure have a target market.

There are some other problems with the package of reforms worth rattling through (have a look at Kimberley Ramplin’s no holds barred skewering here). As several high profile lawyers have argued, mandatory sentence regimes tie the hands of judges, increase the risk of unfair judgments being made, and have been shown not to significantly deter would-be perpetrators. Closing bottleshops at 10PM is hardly going to stop people who want alcohol from obtaining alcohol or stop people from “king hitting”, “coward punching” or otherwise attacking other people. The introduction of free buses running from Kings Cross to the CBD arguably risks drawing disparate groups of drunken punters together in a confined area, increasing the likelihood of conflict. The freeze on new liquor licenses for pubs and clubs simply blindly favours existing establishments over those that new entrepreneurs seek to start – and for what end, exactly?

Daniel Christie’s death was tragic and sadly, Barry O’Farrell’s response so far has been as well. This package is a knee-jerk “tough on crime” grab bag of nonsense measures designed to appease the media whilst completely avoiding the underlying problem. Let’s cut to the chase: Australia has some serious issues with alcohol. Alcohol consumption nationally might well have trended down in recent years, but this is not a short-term problem: we have had some serious issues with alcohol as a nation for decades. Australia is far from alone in having these issues, of course, but arguably we do stand alone in our stridency: drinking beer has been craftily transformed by local liquor marketeers into a bonafide patriotic act, to the extent that we even commemorate great feats of beer drinking (take a bow, David Boon and Bob Hawke). Not getting pissed? Unaustralian. Not impairing your decision-making on a night out? Unaustralian.

The World Health Organisation asserts that alcohol is directly responsible for 2.5 million deaths per year and is the world’s third largest risk factor for premature mortality, disability and loss of health. The cumulative effects associated with prolonged alcohol use according to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) include cardiovascular disease, cancer (particularly oral but also liver, colon and breast cancer), diabetes, obesity, and cirrhosis of the liver. The NHMRC also suggests alcohol is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related death and hospitalisation in Australia. In truth, it is impossible to quantify the true impact of alcohol abuse but if you factor in its involvement in car accidents, domestic violence, broken families, stunted development, marriage breakdowns, gambling losses, the development of psychological disorders, and yes, the occasional “king hit” outside pubs, it starts to become pretty significant. In the last two decades, Australian governments have successfully made tobacco the bete noire vice of Australian society, to the point where smoking is on the brink of eradication. The near eradication of alcohol abuse if not use is surely a desirable goal from a society POV: do we have the foresight to legislate to make alcohol Australia’s bete noire vice for the next two decades?

Alcohol, to pickpocket Karl Marx, is modern Australia’s opiate of the masses. It is an opiate that the red-blooded Australian man, in particular, will be loathe to ever let governments attack, despite the widespread trauma its abuse can cause. Liberal Australians as one have marveled at the stupidity of Charlton Heston’s infamous stubbornness on gun laws, but that tenth schooner of beer? It will quite literally only be taken from our cold dead hands.

UPDATE: Michael Pascoe adds his own brutally scathing comments on O’Farrell’s reform package in the SMH.

One hundred days

Monday marked one hundred days since the Abbott Government was elected by the Australian people. To commemorate this profoundly moving and meaningful anniversary, the Prime Minister’s Office has issued The First 100 Days of Government [PDF] and an accompanying press release summarising the Coalition’s progress on the actions it promised to undertake within this timeframe if elected.

This is, well, an unsurprising development. The Rudd Government undertook a similar exercise [PDF] after winning office in 2007, no doubt designed in Opposition primarily to help convey the urgency and energy the incoming government would bring to the table if elected. 100 is a nice round, memorable number: a century, a ton, just a touch over fourteen weeks, around a week over three months. Sure, it doesn’t mean a damn thing chronologically to any of us, and it typically means little in legislative terms, because the Senate and House of Representatives terms do not align, but it’s a nice shiny round number that newspapers can splash in a large font across their front pages and television news presenters can read off their autocues with effortless gravitas. Today marks one hundred days of the Abbott Government, viewers! One hundred days. Wow.

Leaving aside for a moment the sophistry of the number, it is hard not to contrast the upbeat, sanitised fluff of the Abbott Government’s report with reality. Yes, pre-election promises were made, but nobody actually cares all that much about most of the actions listed in the document or whether they were undertaken with the first hundred days. Few will sleep better than they have for six years knowing that Tony Abbott’s first overseas trip as Prime Minister was to Indonesia. The life expectancy of people living in Kellyville will not have climbed during the last few weeks as the Coalition dramatically and unprecedentedly ensured that Bruce Billson was sworn in as a Minister for Small Business in Cabinet.

What people do care about is that so far, the Coalition has governed amateurishly; they have had a stinker. Tony Abbott and Alastair Cook are basically interchangeable at this point. As the Poll Bludger notes, opinion polls incredibly have Labor ahead of the Coalition by 4 to 5 percentage points, just *cough* one-hundred days after the Coalition’s comfortable election victory. Gaffe has followed gaffe. There has been an embarrassing backflip (followed by a front flip) on the promise to honour the Gillard Government’s Gonski schools funding agreements with the states. After campaigning rabidly against Labor on the dangers of debt, Treasurer Joe Hockey has moved quickly to scrap the debt ceiling completely, leaving the door open for profligate public spending in the next couple of years. The ham-fistedness of the government’s communications with the Indonesian government and more recently with Holden Australia have left a lot to be desired, threatening to make difficult situations even worse for the country. The traditional, dozy Australian holiday period can just not come quick enough for this government.

Any gaggle of muppets can argue that they are performing admirably according to their own arbitrary timeline and carefully curated handful of meaningless metrics. Tony Abbott might not have much to learn from the English cricket captain at the moment, but Alastair Cook should probably have considered taking a leaf from the Prime Minister’s book: instead of promising to retain the urn, he could have instead just promised to keep a first slip in position when in the field during the first four days of the First Test.

I am sure then that the English public would have been satisfied that their cricket team’s performance targets had then been met.

Why does Cameron want permanent austerity?

In the United Kingdom, there could well be austerity without end. In a recent bullish speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, UK Prime Minister David Cameron offered up a glimpse of what the future might hold if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015: a government of “austerity in perpetuity”.

Martin Kettle suggests in The Guardian that this speech may have been the moment of hubris that loses the Conservatives the next election.

For many people across the English-speaking world, “austerity” does not mean quite what it once meant — simplicity, restraint, beauty. In much the same way, “rationalism” in the Australian context no longer holds the same positive connotations when paired with the word “economic”.

It is not just in the English-speaking world that this has changed: if you happen to be a young Madrileño struggling to find work, one of the almost 26 per cent of the Spanish population still unemployed, austeridad is a curse.

In Greece, the Greek term for “austerity” can hardly now be separated from the growth-strangling measures imposed since 2010 at the behest of the IMF and European Union, measures that have at times seemed to threaten the very existence of the modern Greek state. As of October 2013, Greece’s annual GDP is still in decline (after five prior straight years of decline) and its debt as a percentage of annual GDP remains in the vicinity of a colossal 170 per cent.

The “austerity medicine” has been forced down Greek and Spanish throats since 2007 and plenty more besides. In Cyprus, the Ukraine, Portugal, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland and perhaps soon Slovenia, fiscal austerity programs have been administered under the instruction of the European Union and the IMF, in exchange for bailout funds to service national debt and/or shore up their domestic banks.

That growth in the European Union has subsequently flatlined since 2011 can hardly be viewed as mere coincidence, and the advisory role of the IMF has accordingly fallen under increased scrutiny in the last couple of years.

The response has been a truly spectacular feat of intellectual acrobatics. As reported by Alan Kohler in October last year, the IMF has since admitted to mathematical error in calculating the effect of austerity on growth estimates and in effect, executed “a full intellectual U-turn” on austerity.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has led the political damage limitation exercise. Further mea culpas have emerged this year, seemingly burying “fiscal austerity” permanently, at least in the brutish form it has taken in the aftermath of the GFC as a salve to national debt crises.

The truth is more complicated: as Australian economist John Quiggin observes in his book Zombie Economics, even when proven to be wrong and dangerous, ideas are very hard to kill and “expansionary austerity” now has its own chapter in the latest editions.

In France, President Francois Hollande finds himself and his Socialist Party in the ironic position of being criticised by the IMF for pushing austerity too far. The United Kingdom, once the IMF’s austerity poster child, provides a case in point: under the Chancellorship of George Osborne, fiscal austerity staggers relentlessly on even as it bleeds to death.

Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was elected in 2010, the government has junked its touchy-feely “Big Society” moniker in favour of a program of cuts so deep they could well be labelled “Cruel Society”. They have resulted in the widespread closure of libraries, reductions to and closures of local government services supporting children, the disabled and the elderly, and a reduction in patient access to NHS specialist services across the country.

The Cameron government has also introduced the “spare room subsidy” or bedroom tax targeting public housing residents with more rooms than they need, and also instigated an intrusive and demeaning program of outsourced work capability assessments designed to force anyone who is plausibly capable of some kind of work (in the imagination of a bureaucrat) off welfare.

The UK economy has stagnated over the last few years, with annual GDP growth not touching 2 per cent since 2007, missing growth and debt reduction targets on consecutive occasions. Unemployment has remained high, over 7.5 per cent since 2009, and ratings agency Moody’s made the historic decision in February this year to downgrade the UK’s credit rating from AAA to Aa1.

Government debt as a proportion of GDP has also continued to increase steadily since 2010. Despite all this, Chancellor George Osborne remains determined as ever to stay the course — surely now for political reasons as much as empirical reasons — though boosted recently by recent economic figures for 2013 Q3 (growth up to 0.8 per cent, unemployment down to 7.6 per cent).

Despite the evidence, the immediate future of austerity as a response to debt is hard to predict. On the one hand, the IMF’s intellectual backflip seems likely to discourage governments from embracing austerity measures in the years ahead. On the other, for governments that are wedded politically to the doctrine, it seems that no amount of expert advice or economic analysis will convince them to alter their course.

Despite Australia having one of the lowest government debt to GDP ratios in the developed world, the effects of Tony Abbott’s appointment of Maurice Newman to his Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council will be watched with interest in the months ahead, particularly given the lilt of some of Newman’s recent comments about the minimum wage.

At least – thanks to Cameron – it seems as though voters in the United Kingdom are going to have a clear decision to make at the 2015 election: you can vote for Keynes, or you can vote for “the Cruel Society”.

This piece was first published in this form at New Matilda.

Beyond Kevin, beyond Julia, beyond Kevin

It was the morning of Saturday, 24th November 2007, in London. A powerful sense of impending euphoria had made it difficult to sleep. There was no plastic Christmas tree in the corner of the room, and no presents to rip open (and I wasn’t seven years old), but that remains for me the only comparable feeling. I can recall some anxious fumbling through the channels of a friend’s Sky-connected flatscreen TV, a gleeful visit to the local Starbucks; I confess: I was almost certainly wearing a Kevin07 shirt at the time. The results, as they rolled in, were delicious. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted. It was the end of a small-minded, cold-hearted era that had gone on far too long for Australia’s good.

At the time, in Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, it seemed that Labor had elevated and united its two brightest talents: the folksy, popular communicator with the feisty, intellectual firebrand. Perhaps they did, but a lot can change in six years. Go on, search for “Rudd and Gillard” in your preferred search engine. See if you can find a trace, a morsel, a crumb of their initially productive partnership. Try to think to yourself for a moment about the achievements of their governments, without finding yourself waylaid by the leadership innuendo and soap opera froth; the brutal replacement of Kevin Rudd in June 2010 with Julia Gillard, the subsequent relentless hounding of Gillard by the man she replaced, the eventual rational yet absurd caucus admission that Gillard must in fact be replaced by the man she replaced. At this point I am not sure if it would have really mattered if Labor had, during its time in office, eliminated poverty in Australia, built an impervious boat-frying force field around the nation’s circumference, and managed to transcend time and space by colonising Jupiter. Stirred on by the media, the situation with the leadership had become incredulous – a laughing stock – and I am not sure you can blame some voters for being sick and tired of that.

In this context, perhaps it is not surprising that an open, democratic leadership contest between two factional heavyweights feels like a breath of fresh air. As it turns out, the faceless men have faces, and this time, we’ll even let you pick one! Politically, you might agree with one more than the other, but the beauty of this contest for Labor is that either Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese is wholly capable of leading the party forward. But yet, the spectres of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd cycle, like some god-awful ten-volume fantasy book series written by cult author Mackenzie J Clouddancer, very obtrusively remain. Kevin of course will remain in parliament, but almost certainly not stewing and seething and plotting a return to his throne, not that anybody would dare put it past him, given priors. Julia, by marked contrast, has acted with consummate dignity since being dumped from the leadership, putting the Labor Party’s fortunes at the election ahead of any natural instinct to defend her political legacy or to seek some form of revenge against those who discarded her.

Well, until now, anyway. In a coup for the Guardian Australia, Julia Gillard has written a 5000 word essay that seeks to remind us of Labor’s historic achievements, why the party is important, why the party got it wrong by replacing her, and why the new leadership rules are wrong-headed. To be perfectly honest, I think the piece is misjudged; perhaps it is just too soon. A fair proportion of the essay re-iterates the historic achievements of Labor and revisits arguments waged during the election campaign – which if people are not familiar with by now, they really haven’t been paying any attention at all. To be honest, even I have had enough of this sort of shit. The people Julia is reaching out to are not likely to read a 5000 word essay. Indeed, much of the piece reads like the long post-campaign speech of the ghost of a leader who was but will no longer be.

The central argument of the essay is that Labor needs to embrace “purpose”, which Gillard best defines at the start of her piece:

Purpose matters. Being able to answer the question what are you going to do for me, for my family, for our nation, matters.

Believing in a purpose larger than yourself and your immediate political interests matters.

Labor comes to opposition having sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about its sense of purpose.

This “cynical and shallow” message, of course, refers not particularly subtly to her removal from the leadership by the Federal Labor parliamentary caucus. She picks up on this again towards the end of the essay:

The answer to the question, “Why do I support this Labor leader?” should not be because he or she polls well or because the rules say I am stuck with them. The answer has to be found in actual and informed consent that this person represents what I believe in and has the leadership capacity to pursue it.

I don’t think many people would disagree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, but on the other hand I think it is plain silly to ignore the fact that one of the most powerful and compelling possible answers to the “Why do I support this Labor leader?” question is: “because I think he/she can capture the support of the Australian people, and I think he or she can win”. Personally, it goes without saying that I agree with most Labor members of parliament, most of the time. In general, their beliefs overlap in a satisfactorily proportional way with mine. It remains the case that one of the most important tasks of a Labor leader is to win elections, as cynical and as pragmatic as that sounds. The greatest of Labor leaders have tended to be those who have won the support of the Australian people to such an extent that they have defeated the Opposition at several elections and earned the right to pursue their political agendas over multiple terms. This is not a quirk of history or statistics. In politics, leadership is not just about policy, or having the most moral virtues, or the best one-liners, but earning and keeping the support of the public.

Julia Gillard achieved a lot during her time as Prime Minister – proportionally, perhaps as much or more than any other Labor leader in history. But she cannot deny that particularly towards the end of her term this year, she lost the support of a decisive proportion of the voting public. She would have lead Labor to a crushing defeat in the election two weeks ago, a defeat at least as decisive as the one it suffered, but most likely even more so. The polls proved beastly for Labor’s first female prime minister – as did Kevin Rudd – but it would be churlish of her not to realise that those catastrophic numbers she was getting were not just numbers. They were not just spin and electoral gimmickry. The sad truth is that all along, there were real people behind those polling numbers, and those people had lost faith with what Labor was offering. They had lost faith with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.

For better or for worse, the Australian people wanted Julia to leave, and Kevin Rudd only hastened that process. Labor must not allow itself to be dictated to by opinion polling, but turning the other cheek out of pride or in the vain hope that polls are immaterial would be equally as egregious an error.

Westminster dispelled: President Kevin Rudd?

The tenor of the mainstream media’s election banter has changed dramatically since Julia Gillard was evicted from Yarralumla by her colleagues close to a fortnight ago. Kevin Rudd has returned to lead Labor armed not with a fistful of changes in party policy, but simply with a different image, and the easy confidence that comes from knowing that a significant number of people out there in suburbia australianus still fancy him as a leader. He knows this not just because he (ahem) rates himself or that the pollsters tell him so , but because of his assiduous use of social media and his typically amicable interactions with ordinary Australians across the country. We know this because if the polls (and particularly the inimitable Poll Bludger) are to be believed, Labor is now looking seriously competitive with the Coalition for the first time in 3 years. What seemed to be inevitable – Tony Abbott moving into The Lodge in September – no longer feels inevitable.

Little wonder then that the so-called Cabinet-elect is becoming a little restive; Malcolm Turnbull used a remarkable proportion of his Sir John Monash Oration at the Jewish Museum last week to have a dig at the leadership style of Labor’s revived Prime Minister:

I observed the Rudd government from close range, but from the outside, but there are important lessons in political leadership to be drawn from it. There is no doubt that concentrating too much authority in the Prime Minister and his office, the micro-management of policy from that office clearly resulted both in ill-considered decisions (NBN, pink batts, school halls) and inexplicable delays.

Turnbull goes on to argue that Rudd’s controlling nature and the inexperience of his front bench team will compel him to run a presidential campaign, and if elected, a somewhat dysfunctional presidential-style government, just as he did before the knives of his colleagues came out for him in 2010. By way of contrast, he harks back to the Howard years as a golden age of “traditional cabinet government”, during which the Prime Minister consulted generously with colleagues, and allowed ministers to get on with their portfolios with a measure of independence, free of prime ministerial diktats. It is this sort of “traditional cabinet government” that Turnbull argues Tony Abbott and his team will deliver if he leads the Coalition to victory in September.

I don’t take issue with the Member for Wentworth’s assertion that “traditional cabinet government” is in Australia’s interests; I might even be prepared to wave through the notion that the Howard Government – at least during the zenith of its effectiveness – operated as much or more in the spirit of this style of governance than the Rudd or Gillard Governments have managed since 2007. On the other hand surely only the most one-eyed 2UE listener would contend that the Coalition’s performance in Opposition under Tony Abbott suggests they are on track to restore the “noble glories” of Westminster decision-making to Canberra. The Opposition Leader’s relentless negativity has dominated his tenure as the nation’s alternative Prime Minister, and what little in the way of coherent policy the Coalition has communicated so far this year has been funneled through him. He has, thus far, astonishingly refused to debate Kevin Rudd, even though the Prime Minister has allowed him the luxury of choosing the debate topic.

Normally, an Opposition Leader would jump at the chance to get him or herself on the same platform as the Prime Minister in a direct personal confrontation; normally the more bites an Opposition Leader gets at the cherry, the better. Not for Tony. Abbott has not run and is not running a presidential campaign – he is running an anti-presidential campaign, shouting the loudest sound bites, tearing at Julia Gillard (at times without a shred of civility) and appealing to the lowest common denominator, whilst carefully avoiding any substantive confrontations that might expose him to undue risk. Which now, evidently, includes any event that puts he and Rudd in the same room before the dreaded Worm and the nation’s television viewing hordes. Clearly, he fears that in the eyes of the voting public, he might not be able to help coming off second-best to the Sunrise kid. This is a game of chicken he doesn’t want any part of.

There is another more significant systemic problem with Turnbull’s pitch for “traditional cabinet government”. Recent events have given further credence to what most of us accepted sometime back – in the eyes of the public, Australia’s system is essentially a presidential one tarted up in Westminster system silk. A significant slice of voters who were not planning to vote for Gillard Labor are apparently prepared to vote for Rudd Labor. These folks haven’t changed their mind because of anything substantive Rudd has offered in a policy sense, and they certainly don’t prefer Rudd’s proposed ministerial team. In short, they prefer Rudd as a person, as a leader; as president. Pollsters are fond of telling us it is the two-party preferred numbers that matter on polling day. They are right, as a matter of fact, but when pure personality has the power to toggle the two-party preferred numbers by somewhere in the vicinity of of 10% (larger than the margin of most recent elections), the question of what really is the most decisive factor on polling day becomes a lot muddier.

So sorry, Malcolm. The sorts of voters that the Coalition needs to convince in September could hardly care less about the Westminster tradition and the seductively archaic charms of “traditional cabinet government”. If the Coalition are indeed to win, they now need to sell Tony Abbott as a convincing president. If they fail to do this, they risk losing what seemed very recently to be an unlosable election.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Whither dignity in an age of political hate

It has been a torrid couple of weeks: for Julia Gillard, for the honour of representative democracy and for all of us who kidded ourselves into believing that misogyny wasn’t rife in Australia. It goes without saying that a male Prime Minister would never have received the treatment that Gillard has endured in the last couple of weeks. The meat-headed mate-o-plex that dominates the Australian suburbs and the media establishment does not piss on its own, and when primary school-level intelligence meets visceral hatred, the results are guaranteed only to disgust.

How did we get to this place, where we have so much hate for the people we collectively chose to represent us in the nation’s parliament? I am not Howard Sattler; indeed I would prefer Julia Gillard to lead the country more than any politician from any other political party. But then, I’m not so blinkered that I don’t see the flipside: during the long Howard years it was hard to couch my dislike for John Howard or even more shallowly – his wife – in purely intellectual terms. We are talking about something more than pure politics or policy here. We are talking about hate, across a broad gradient of increasingly inappropriate shades, from braindead chit-chat about “rangas” to a high profile radio announcer asking the Prime Minister if her long-term partner is gay. If there ever was a modicum of dignity associated with representing your local community in Canberra, it feels a lot to me like it has been bar stooled, tabloid headlined, vox-popped and tweeted into extinction.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Helen Mirren star in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre in London. The central conceit of the play is the magisterial ordinariness, almost, of The Queen, in her relationships with various British Prime Ministers over the last sixty years. The Prime Ministers are depicted as troubled souls; figures of jest for our amusement. Mirren plays the role of amateur psychiatrist with aplomb, and the audience is made to feel as though they can relate more to their monarch than the people actually chosen for high office to whom she offers potted advice and polite conversation. The dignity of the role of the Queen is clearly sacrosanct; beyond question. What dignity each Prime Minister enjoys as they appear on stage is swiftly destroyed as we delight in their foibles, chuckling at the general patheticness of these neurotic (mostly) men in suits passing briefly through the revolving door of government.

For a republican, the contrast between how people still view the ancestors of jumped up dukes and duchesses from Hanover and how they view today’s politicians is pretty troubling. It represents nothing short of a crisis of democracy. The bile that Julia Gillard has been exposed to since taking office is a clear representation of that: how many Australians, I idly wonder, would if given the opportunity take joy in spitting in the face of their Prime Minister? Or indeed, for that matter, Tony Abbott? A flotsamy question to be sure, but by way of comparison, there is little doubt that the vast majority of the same collections of people would be reduced to quavering child-like excitement in the presence of Her Royal Highness. Of course what she personally has ever tried to do for us or indeed been institutionally capable of doing for us in her role, nobody can really tell us.

It is tempting to whisk together the issues raised here into some prescription for Julia Gillard, but the reality is that this is a much bigger problem. It transcends in its own way “the patriarchy” and the problems confronting women in politics. It is of more fundamental concern than even – clenches teeth – whether Tony Abbott takes up residence in The Lodge in September or not. It is a problem stretching far beyond our land girt by sea, asking serious questions of so-called advanced parliamentary democracies across the globe. Without some dignity in public life, without some appreciation for the role governments can play in shaping the future of the nation and indeed the human race, this will only end in profound public disenchantment in democratic government. This spells doom for leftist social democracy as we know it, unless we start making the case for a new strain of democracy to supercede it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Trolling coal: jobs, climate and the Iron Lady

The pre-recorded televised tributes have ended. The street parties are over. In Britain, the outrage that swelled in some quarters over the Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s faux state funeral has died away, leaving in its wake the dull, tedious thrumming of politics as usual. Still, the polarisation of the British people remains, festering beneath the surface. Thatcher’s staunchest defenders remember her as her country’s most important and impactful post-war Prime Minister; her staunchest detractors, as some kind of demonic caricature: a milk thief, an unemployment generator, a life destroyer. Everyone else – particularly those who tend to tack left – has been cast intellectually adrift in their attempts to fairly place in history a woman who shattered the glass ceiling, but in the process laid the popular foundations of the modern economic orthodoxy that so many of us today reject. Like it or lump it: you can’t deny that it’s a Thatcherite world out there today.

One of the often glossed over sticky points for the left on Thatcher’s legacy is of course coal. The Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan makes the point for the Telegraph:

What I find bewildering is why the mine closures are cited now as evidence of Tory wickedness. No one, with the exceptions of the SWP and the BNP, wants to recreate a state-owned coal industry today. Indeed, the people who complain most bitterly about the pit closures are generally those who are most against burning coal.

It is on this issue that the Greens and indeed a decent swathe of the Labor Party find themselves in rather closer political proximity to the Iron Lady than they might like: in recent years, the Greens have been vociferous opponents of both coal-fired power and investing in clean coal technology at the expense of cleaner and more renewable energy sources. The Greens would in an ideal world like to see all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations closed down, something that the Baroness indirectly took a step or two towards in the United Kingdom in the early 1980’s through her program of mine closures. Admittedly, climate change was not in the forefront of anyone’s mind in those days, but the fact remains that if Thatcher was alive and in power today in Australia, closing coal mines across the country, it could, in a strange twist of fate, be perceived as something like a progressive policy. Imagine that: Christine Milne and Margaret Thatcher, arm-in-arm.

In truth, Thatcher’s closure of the pit mines and the reaction of both the blinkered right and the blinkered left to them shines a light on the violence that the oversimplification of issues can bring to bear on ordinary working people. Daniel Hannan is apparently “bewildered” by the outrage still felt by people, decades after the Conservative Party’s role in shutting down unprofitable mining operations across the country. I find his bewilderment bewildering – but then I am sure that Hannan and many others like him will never know what it is like for whole families and whole communities to lose their livelihoods in one swift stroke. He is, at heart, a Eurosceptic who is nevertheless more at home in Brussels than Sheffield; make of that what you will.

Similarly, when the Greens talk about the “transition” to a low carbon economy, it seems to me that there is potentially a great deal of trauma concealed within that rather unfairly peaceful word. If Australia were to scale back its export of coal to China and India on principle, for example, and to commence the shutdown of its existing coal-driven energy industry, how many thousands of jobs would be lost? How many communities near coal mines and coal-fired power stations would be rent asunder? Are the people who are dependent on coal industry for their livelihoods just to be collateral damage in the nation’s drive towards a low carbon economy, much in the same way that mining communities reaped the whirlwinds of Margaret Thatcher’s war on unions and unprofitability in the 1980’s?

I appreciate that tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs stand to be created in the green energy industry in the coming decades – but clearly, it is not simply going to be a case of governments picking up people working in coal mining and energy jobs and dropping them neatly into green energy jobs, as if they were so many Lego figurines. Communities and brown energy workers will need support from government and industry, including compensation and retraining to help them adapt to the “new energy world” that is to be shaped by the increasingly interventionist role that the Federal Government may play in the energy market in the future. It is this sort of detail that gets lost in the sorts of black and white “coal is evil” or “coal is Australia’s economic future” messages that have tended to emanate from all of Australia’s political parties in recent times.

Can Australia reduce its emissions effectively without unleashing the unsympathetic economic trauma of the like perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government on mining communities across Britain? Only time will tell, but the signs are not that promising, and the playing field in any case looks set to be flipped end over end all over again come September, creating even more uncertainty.