The accidental senators

The first sitting day of the new Senate on Monday 7th July heralded the start of a new era in Australian federal politics; an era that looks set to be shaped by arguably the least democratic Senate in modern political history.

As recent negotiations between the Abbott Government and the Palmer United Party on the carbon tax and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) legislation have shown, Clive Palmer and his team of political novices have effectively been gifted carte blanche by our electoral system to pass and block legislation as they please. In practical terms, this means of course that legislation will be passed as Clive pleases. Under 5% of the national Senate vote was enough to deliver the mining magnate and former Queensland LNP life member three crucial cross-bench Senators and considerable sway over the balance of power.

The Palmer United Party is hardly the only beneficiary of the manipulation or “gaming” of the electoral system that has occurred in recent elections. The Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm, bolstered by his party’s first position on the Senate ticket in NSW and some confusion about the name of his party, was elected to the Senate despite his party receiving only 3.91% of the first preference vote nationally. Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party was elected in Victoria despite his party only receiving 0.5% of the national first preference vote. Similarly, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP)’s Senator John Madigan was elected to the Senate in Victoria in 2010 despite his party receiving only 1.06% of the national first preference vote.

There is a catalogue of injustices here: consider the conflict of interest concerns that Clive Palmer somehow magically by-passes by not being a Senator, the simple dumb luck and trickery that has seen David Leyonhjelm elected, or the dark arts exploited by preference whisperer Glenn Druery that resulted in Ricky Muir’s election. This is a collection of representatives whose political agendas and ideals were not endorsed by or likely even vaguely considered by the Australian electorate, but who have been given a greater say than they deserve by statistical circumstance and in Palmer’s case, mega-bucks. The Greens have a known agenda to those who vote for them. Labor and the Coalition (when leaders don’t change their agenda after an election) have a known agenda and ideology to those who vote for them. These Senators will arguably exercise more control over the political agenda of the country for the next couple of years than those from parties who received 10 or 20 times the number of votes as them. How can this possibly be fair?

There is still a reasonable counter-argument to be made: it is fairly widely considered by voters that the major party duopoly that Labor and the Coalition have enjoyed in modern Australian political history is bad for democracy and bad for government in Australia. One could argue that the injustices that our electoral system has allowed to occur actually have the effect of enlivening the Senate and giving voices outside the political mainstream more of a say in Australian public life. This is a worthy goal, but statistical anomalies and the “Clive Palmer effect” clearly do not represent worthy means. If we are going to encourage diversity in our electoral system, it should be less by accident than by design. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians who have the personal wherewithal to pump millions of dollars into their election campaign, creating what is effectively a shell party in support of their own personal interests and ego. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians whose only serious claim to it is that their party has a name cunningly similar to another party. Power should not accidentally be given to Australians who use statistics and dodgy deals to cheat their way to a Senate quota rather than contest an election in the spirit the AEC intends.

The Senate plays a vital role in our democracy as a house of legislative review but daftly, the Abbott Government has recently flagged that it intends to dump intended reforms to how the Senate is elected. If key positions are to be stacked with individuals and entities that have no legitimate moral claim to be there, our democracy stands to be seriously diminished.

Budget 2014: Dishonest and cruel

In the lead-up to Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s inaugural budget speech last night, Twitter offered up a typically anarchic deluge of three-word phrases (#ThreeWordBudget) summarising the budget for 2014-15.

Some were witty.

Some were cutting.

Some were in earnest.

The Treasurer and the Prime Minister would have you believe that “contribute and build” is a fair and reasonable three-word synopsis of their first budget. If you believe that, you’d probably believe anything. Given the volume of election promises the Coalition is seeking to renege on, the extent to which it has squibbed its own illusory “debt crisis” and its plans to extract much of its “contributions” from some of the least fortunate people in Australian society, a fairer three-word description of the budget would be”dishonest and cruel”.

Dishonesty

Let’s first consider the Coalition’s fundamental dishonesty in delivering this budget, starting with the pre-election promises it has broken. Just days before the September 2013 poll, Tony Abbott made an explicit pledge to the Australian people on national television regarding funding cuts:

“No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.”

Quite astonishingly, the Coalition’s first budget either explicitly breaks or creates conditions encouraging governments to break every single component of that pledge:

  • Planned needs-based Gonski school funding is to be reduced by tying federal government contributions to CPI.

  • Planned hospital funding provided by the federal government is being cut by $1.8 billion over four years.

  • Pension rates are to be reduced from 2017, with calculations to be based on the CPI rather than by the average male wage.The pension age is also to be increased to 70.

  • No announcements were made regarding an increase to the GST, but the proposed cuts to federal education and health funding have led Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to speculate that this is a debate the states may now be blackmailed into kickstarting.

  • Base funding of both the ABC and SBS is to be cut by 1% over four years.


  • Tony Abbott also made consistent promises in a series of interviews and press conferences prior to the September 2013 election on tax, well documented by ABC FactCheck. The phraseology used by the then Opposition Leader varies, and is certainly open to semantic interpretation, but fundamentally the Australian people had every right to believe that a Coalition government would not introduce any new compulsory contributions to public revenue, regardless of what they were called or how they were framed. In the budget, two such measures have been announced:

    • A 2% “deficit levy” on Australians with incomes over $180,000/year, imposed from July 1st until 2017.

    • A $7 Medicare “co-payment” for each visit an Australian makes to a GP.

    The Coalition has not just been dishonest in relation to its pre-election promises. The primary reason offered up by the Abbott government for the cuts, new taxes, tax increases and welfare claw-backs in the budget is the “budget emergency” the government alleges was left behind by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. That Federal Labor left behind a federal budget in deficit is not in dispute; nor is the more general observation that Treasury has a mid-term structural revenue problem on its hands. However, numerous spending and revenue decisions outlined in the Budget seem to suggest that the Coalition that does not really believe that the “budget emergency” is much of an emergency at all. For example:

    • The pre-stated Coalition decision to abolish the MRRT (<$500 million) and carbon taxes ($7 billion), significantly reducing government revenue

    • An additional $245 million to extend the school chaplains scheme for another five years

    • An additional $20 billion to establish a new national medical research fund, funded by the new Medicare GP visit “co-payment”/tax

    • A presumed increase of over $1 billion to fund the Coalition’s proposed Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme. Detailed costings for the slightly cut-down (maximum benefit payable reduced from $150K to $100K) scheme, expected to start in July 2015, were not confirmed in the budget.

    • $5 billion in new roads funding

    The words “crisis” and “emergency” imply there is a burning need to get the budget back into surplus as soon as possible: these new spending measures and abolitions of revenue streams suggest that the Abbott government does not think that is necessary. More generally, as economist Stephen Koukoulas has outlined – thanks to its proposed new spending and tax measures, the Abbott government arguably looks set to preside over a “bigger government” in real terms than Labor did under Rudd and Gillard during 2007 – 2013.

    Cruelty

    The Abbott government’s “contribute and build” budget theme is coupled with a narrative arguing that Australians from all walks of life need to contribute to address the “budget emergency”. As the Treasurer helpfully instructed in his budget speech: “we are a nation of lifters, not leaners”. Everyone must lift. Leaners are to be left by the wayside, even if they are fundamentally unable to “lift”. The already mentioned $7 Medicare co-payment is a regressive consumption tax which proportionately impacts people on low incomes and those who need to visit their doctor frequently more than others. For people struggling to make ends meet, it also acts as a disincentive to visit the doctor. Throaty cough? Worried about that strange chest pain? You’d better write it off as indigestion and think twice about visiting your GP, because if you are sweating on your next payday arriving to cover food, rent, or petrol costs, you simply might not be able to afford the visit.

    Perhaps the single most controversial and draconian initiative announced in the budget is the government’s plans to prevent people under 30 from accessing unemployment benefits for the first six months of their unemployment. Under the proposed cyclical regime, recipients will effectively only be allowed to receive six months worth of unemployment benefit support per year. The mind can only boggle at the potential repercussions of this policy. What do you do as a young person if you can’t get a job for that six month period? Sponge off family and friends, destroying your relationships and steering them into financial stress as well? A lot of young people due to circumstances beyond their control don’t have that option or would not consider that option seriously. Do they have to beg for money during that time? Live on the streets? Slash their wrists and be done with it? Unemployment may currently remain at relatively low levels (5.8%), but is expected to rise in the next year, and anybody who thinks it is easy to get a job without experience or skills in today’s brutish economy is clearly out of touch with the real world for people living in suburban and rural areas. A young person can easily apply for 100 jobs within a short timeframe with the best intentions and not get a single positive response. If the Abbott government has its way, they may not even be able to afford to attend the interview if they are lucky enough to – at long last – receive that elusive phone call.

    Other budget measures target – either intentionally or unintentionally – other marginalised groups within Australian society. Sole parents and parents with disabled or high needs children will be hit hard by proposed changes to Family Tax Benefit B (FTB-B), which will now cut out once the youngest child in a family reaches 6 years of age. Farmers and people living in rural and regional areas who rely heavily on the use of their cars to live and work will be hardest hit hard by the re-introduction of excise indexation. Furthermore, the ACT economy and other regional areas hosting federal government offices look set to suffer in the coming years, as cuts in the budget directly result in the loss of over 2000 additional federal government jobs.

    The only saving grace for struggling Australians is that this budget still has a long way to go before becoming legislated reality, and is certain to face some stiff (if mixed) opposition in the Senate from Labor, the Greens and indeed the Palmer United Party. This is a budget and a government in desperate need of civilising.

Royals, semantics and republican Labor pains

We did but see them passing by; regrettably for some, they took around ten days to pass completely.

Yes, of course, it was nice for the country to host the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son. Yes, the royal convoy delighted well-wishers and monarchists at heart across the nation, sprinkling stardust on the everyday lives of those they met. But what of the rest of us? Having yawned and gagged our way through an extended royal edition of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”, we need no longer imagine a dystopia where news and current affairs are abolished and reality television shows are the only entertainment put to air. There is something whimsical about watching the future foreign kings and queen of your country, decades removed, being awkwardly compelled to meet and greet sporadic mobs of awe-struck locals. The results appeared – at least to me – like an outbreak of religious fervor writ small, with subjects reaching excitedly over barricades and worming their way through crowds seeking to speak to or even touch the sacred flesh of the blessed ones. What small talk did they make with well-wishers, journalists pondered live on air, as much to themselves as anybody watching? What is the Duchess wearing today? Let us speculate in the public domain at great length on these critical matters!

In the aftermath of this curious episode, what we are all left with is a Coalition Government apparently striving to outrage every conceivable demographic in society with its impending Budget, and an Opposition Leader publicly musing that his party needs new policies. Yes Bill, yes. Bill Shorten does have a tricky game to play over the next year or so, needing on the one hand to outline enough plans for the future to keep the public interested, whilst not allowing himself to be gazumped by the Coalition in the run-in to the next federal election. That does not mean he can not present any concrete plans now. Moreover – joining some fairly obvious dots – reviving the campaign for an Australian republic in conjunction with the Australian Republican Movement seems like a pretty sturdy mast to nail Labor’s colours to.

Tactically, this is not an issue which a government lead by Tony Abbott can outflank Labor on. Any push towards re-opening the republic debate is guaranteed to be opposed by the Prime Minister, and equally guaranteed to divide support amongst some of his most senior Ministers (for starters: Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Chris Pyne – all republicans). The Prime Minister would undoubtedly argue that talk of a republic is a flippant move in the shadows of Australia’s Phantasmal Sovereign Debt Crisis (TM), but assuming that Labor also provides a robust riposte to the Federal Budget, the republic debate offers both the possibility of answering a question the majority of Australians want dealt with and providing yet another rich contrast between Labor’s vision and the backwards-looking myopia of the current Prime Minister.

Recent polling on support for a republic is admittedly quite negative – but the veracity of any polling conducted in conjunction with a royal visit is highly questionable. In the current context I find it difficult to believe that the average disconnected Australian would leap to mouth off about dear old Wills and Kate and Georgey or their mob generally when phoned up by a pollster. Weasel words are also muddying the waters. A majority of Australians understand that retaining the British Queen as our titular Head of State instead of an Australian chosen by Australians is illogical and simply not right for a country purporting to stand on its two feet: there is no question of this. It is, however, perfectly understandable for someone to hold this view, but still profess support for the monarchy (or the “royals” personally), and a dislike for the idea of becoming “a republic”. The cult of celebrity, as ARM member Raff Piccolo has observed, deeply intertwines with these conflicting beliefs. There is a semantic morass here that needs to be waded through, but it is a morass that we must wade through as a country, sooner or later. They are lovely people, the monarchy is a historically delicious British institution, but they are not Australians and the “Queen of Australia” is an anachronistic concept that fails to pass the laugh test. And yet, we are stuck with it.

Nevertheless, there is the very real prospect that the 2016 election could coincide with a cosmic political alignment in support of the republican cause. At the current rate of knots, only a brave or foolhardy pundit would tip a comfortable victory for a government led by Tony Abbott at the next election. The Prime Minister’s recent twists and turns have boosted support for Labor federally and even revived the fortunes of the Australian Republican Movement, which saw its membership base skyrocket after Abbott’s unilateral decision to restore the British honours system here. If Labor wins the next election, it is highly likely that both the Prime Minister and the newly anointed Opposition Leader (whomever they are) will support the republican cause. The continuing reign of Queen Elizabeth II should not and would not prove an obstacle; privately Her Majesty must surely be baffled by our prolonged bout of constitutional laziness. Presiding over the final gentle release of Australia from its colonial bonds would be a fitting and worthy act for a legendary monarch whose reign may be approaching its twilight years.

There is a wave coming, and it is Bill Shorten’s to ride if he is bold enough.

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.