Waleed Aly on “national identity”

Yesterday evening I attended a fundraising dinner for Lindsay Tanner held by the Melbourne FEA, held in a function room at the Moonee Valley Racecourse. The decision to attend was easy; I consider Tanner to be among the ALP’s best parliamentary performers and amongst all the current members of parliament, I think it’s a fair bet that his views align with my own as closely as anyone’s.

Lindsay spoke mainly to acknowledge the support of people involved in the evening; the keynote speech for the evening was provided by Melbourne academic and writer Waleed Aly. Aly, author of the book People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, is perhaps uniquely positioned to offer an insightful commentary on the so-called “clash of civilisations” that is vexing politicians with respect to multiculturalism today. Through his utterly cross-cultural life, one could say that Aly personifies the reasons why the “clash” that hawks are touting does not really need to be a ”clash” at all.

Aly spoke for around fifteen minutes and touched on several interesting points during his speech, which in some ways was a bit of a riff on the ideas expressed in this article for The Monthly. Possibly the most profound idea he raised related to “national identity” and how different nations conceptualise their national identity. In Europe, people generally are bound together in a rich national history of architecture, religion, and struggle: culture provides the cornerstone of people’s national identity. The United States, however, is different. Consider this excerpt from the Monthly article:

To travel, as I recently did, from Miami to Tulsa is to experience culture shock. About 60% of Miami’s inhabitants count Spanish as their first language and you can easily go for hours without hearing English. I had extraordinary difficulty getting my order taken at a Pizza Hut because I was ordering in English. Miami lives up to its occasional nickname of ‘North Latin America’. Tulsa, by contrast, offers confirmation of every small-town-America stereotype. It is where a Wal-Mart employee told me that he thought Australia was Europe’s most unique country. Beyond the ever-present flags and cable televisions, it was difficult to tell that the two cities were part of the same country.

As Aly goes on to argue, the cornerstone of national identity in the United States is not so much cultural as it is civil. Americans are united in their love for their country and its values, despite their often vast differences. It’s worthwhile contrasting this, as Aly does, with the recent Australian experience in relation to “national identity”:

In Australia, we were urged to remember that ours is a nation built essentially on the Judeo-Christian tradition, that ours is a culture derived essentially from Britain, and that we are an English-speaking nation. For John Howard, integration meant “learning as rapidly as you can the English language”. Learning English is a good idea, of course, if only for pragmatic reasons. It is something altogether different, however, for the prime minister to make it a hallmark of Australian-ness. Miami, according to this logic, is not a symbol of glamour and success, but an abomination of national fracture.

This is something more like the European conceptualisation of “national identity”; a conceptualisation that is arguably faring less well than the open-minded, open-ended modern American version. It does make one consider that Australia is perhaps quite far from being the “world leading” multicultural society that many of us would like to think that it is. Are we trying to force our multicultural citizenry into a monoculture that it is quite simply impossible to force them into?

Problem gambler

In my local Cafenatics branch I could not help but notice this excellent cartoon by Joel Tarling, on a free Avant Card:


From the collection of symbols available on the machine to the name of the machine, I think it’s a very clever piece of work no matter which way you look at it. Personally, I don’t begrudge Peter Garrett his foray into mainstream politics, and despite some recent decisions emerging from his office, I still have faith that he is pushing his point of view at every party room meeting that he can. It goes without saying that if enough people of Garrett’s stripes joined the ALP, the ALP would be a very different beast.

Would he have had a greater impact on Australian politics if he had joined the Greens? Time will tell, and I really don’t think we can say for sure one way or the other just yet.

Calling out the conference

Generally speaking, there has been a fairly muted response in the media to the 45th ALP National Conference that took place in Sydney over the course of the second half of last week. This is unsurprising. The only thing that the average person watching the news over the last few days would have concluded from conference proceedings is that Mark Arbib has the capacity to be a bit of a goose, and that political parties are boring, antiquated entities that no sane person valuing their time on the planet would dare join. The images of delegates reading magazines during proceedings, yawning, and occasionally falling asleep are as humdrum as they are damning. What use is a conference, one might ask, that has been opened up to the media and stage-managed to such an extent that debate is relegated to the substitution bench? Surely not to further advertise the fact that Australia’s political parties have somewhat advanced cancerous nodules within their ancient bowels?

Let me disclaim. The only state or federal Labor Party conferences I have attended in my time as a member have been in the capacity of observer, not as a delegate. I have attended a couple of Young Labor conferences as a delegate, and these in my experience tend to resemble chicken-pens overstocked with super-mutated egos, proving yet again, perhaps, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Realistically speaking, a few healthy dollops of ego can be tolerated, but what I don’t think should be tolerated are party conferences devoid of any real purpose. What was achieved? The Prime Minister and his senior cabinet colleagues are firmly in control of the reins of Federal Labor in a policy sense. There seems little likelihood that policy proposals generated by members outside of the core leadership team and presented at the conference would ever be adopted, if they were in fact presented at all. Aren’t conferences necessary for party democracy? Well, no – particularly if they really only exhibit the pretence of party democracy. Although they ended up the reaping the whirlwind after the fact, former NSW Premier Morris Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa proved through their belligerent overriding of state conference on the electricity privatisation issue that ALP conferences are not intrinsically democratic. The party platform, rather like a slowly rusting candelabra, is regarded more these days as a quixotic decorative feature than as something that actually guides and illuminates.

Clearly the modern Labor Party needs to continue to hold conferences, but they need to have a rational and meaningful purpose for the organisation. They need to mean something both for members of the party and for outside observers, granted a rare window into the world of the mob that they have elected to run the country. And what a world. Last week’s conference seemed to me to be an amalgam of supercharged press conference and a mechanism for “dealing with” the necessity of involving party members in the life of the party. Party democracy was revealed as something that one grits one’s teeth and endures, rather than encourages and celebrates. As an advertisement for joining the Labor Party or indeed organised politics generally, it was nothing short of an indictment.

Is the emissions trading scheme doomed?

After months of earnest assertions to the contrary, the Rudd Government has finally caved in to the pressure and postponed its emissions trading scheme. Although the nation’s worsening economic situation no doubt accounted for a substantial component of that pressure, its certainly fair to say that the government’s backdown represents a political victory for the Opposition. For some time now Malcolm Turnbull has been promoting the postponement cause, and despite the fact that his party has engineered yet another schizophrenic change of mind on the issue, refusing to back the government’s revised approach to emissions-trading even though it owes much to its own, it would appear that he has won this little stoush with the Prime Minister.

Personally, I think there are credible cases that can be made for either side of the debate. It goes without saying that while the economy was getting a pummeling, introducing a new, somewhat risky mechanism that threatened to impact profitability and therefore jobs for thousands of Australians was a politically dubious step to take. While I accept the fact that the climate change science demands swift and effective action, most people (myself included) instinctively feel that a delay of a year or two is probably not going to end life on Earth as we know it. In ideal conditions I would love to see action now, but we are living in far from ideal conditions. The government has already spent billions of dollars during the past nine months, stimulating the economy and sending the country into a significant amount of debt in the process. It must have a serious concern that it commands neither the requisite economic or political capital to launch the emissions-trading scheme during this time of crisis.

On the flip side of the coin, one really does have to question the Rudd Government’s commitment to climate change. The science calls for bold steps, not delays or a pragmatic watering down. I frankly don’t understand why the government has only now decided to cave in to the Opposition on this issue. If it really is the case that the economic situation is so dire that implementing the ETS would be unsustainable, the government should have known this six months ago. When economists the world over were saying six months ago that it is likely going to take over a year to get out of this slump, the government should have been paying attention and started sounding the alarm bells then. Instead, it continued to glibly peddle the line that the ETS would be implemented as scheduled, despite the fact that the global financial system was crumbling all around it. Putting the science aside completely for just a second, we would have to conclude that this exemplifies poor judgement.

While we have an Opposition full of climate change sceptics and opportunists and a government with such a wavering commitment to the issue, it’s hard to be very confident that we are eventually going to get an outcome. At this rate, I would certainly not be putting money on a functioning emissions-trading scheme being implemented in Australia any time soon – whether 2010, 2011 or 2012.

Setting a date with a bullet train

So far, I don’t think Joe Hockey has been much chop as Shadow Treasurer. He has come up with the odd good line, but I don’t think his political manner (for want of a better term) really suits the portfolio he has been thrust into. On the other side of the fence sits Wayne Swan, a man with probably less confidence or exuberance than anybody who has been Treasurer for well over a decade. Despite this, he has one key strength: the capacity to bore. Swan is a technocrat through and through, and when he hasn’t been putting his foot in it, he has been ideal for the government from a noise minimisation perspective. Hockey’s gregarious nature and his often jocular approach to managing his portfolio does not match up well against Swan’s colourless demeanour. The Opposition need sharp and incisive, not rambunctious. It needs a Nick Minchin-type on the attack.

With this year’s Federal Budget still a month away, the sniping has already begun. Joe Hockey has come out in the media asserting that the Opposition will block the Budget if it feels that there it contains “waste” or “mismanagement”. On recent form, one would have to think that the Opposition will view at least some of the Rudd Government’s further stimulus measures in this way. It’s a pretty gung-ho approach to take when one considers the Prime Minister’s extraordinary approval ratings and the general mood of the electorate, which is predisposed to supporting the government in times of crisis. While thus far this year I have felt that the Rudd Government would serve a full three years before calling an election, despite the emergence of several double dissolution triggers, if the Opposition blocks some key planks of the Budget, I think calling an early election would be justified and even, arguably, desirable.

Ideology is such a lonely word

Kevin Rudd’s 7700 word essay on the global financial crisis, published in this month’s edition of The Monthly, was a remarkable contribution to serious political debate by a sitting Prime Minister. What isn’t remarkable given its length and lack of humor is that it appears to have gone down like a lead balloon. Mentions of the essay in the media seem generally restricted to pointed criticisms of it from members of the Opposition or their sympathisers. A few journalists (such as The Australian‘s Matthew Franklin) have even had a go at “Julie Bishoping” the Prime Minister, on the somewhat flimsy pretense that 26 words of the essay’s 7700 words were almost identical to a passage that appeared in an recent Foreign Affairs article. Err… ouch [wet noodle limply falls to ground].

For the benefit of those who haven’t splashed out on the magazine, I am going to try and offer a hopefully more level-headed summary over the fold.

Continue reading

Federal Labor, meet rock and hard place

Recent developments in Victoria and the ongoing economic turmoil being experienced worldwide have placed Labor in a difficult position with respect to its pre-election policy program. On the one hand, the Prime Minister, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner have felt compelled to act and act in a significant way by pushing Australia into public debt for the first time in some years with their $42 billion stimulus package. On the other hand, the Rudd Government was swept to office in November 2007 with one of the more ambitious (and expensive) programs of policy reform pushed out into the electorate in recent elections. Whether we are talking about Federal Labor’s so-called “education revolution”, the proposed national broadband network, or the government’s mooted overhaul of federal-state relations in health policy, we are talking about reforms that if correctly implemented, should result in a noticeable improvement in the affairs of the nation.

Considering the profound impact of recent developments, we might well ask whether the Rudd Government, its budget outlook now bleak, is seriously still in a position to deliver on all (or… any?) of its really big promises? The government’s emissions trading plan has, of last week, been sent off to another review by the government’s Economics Committee. The national broadband network, dogged by delays and controversies over wrangling with Telstra, could perhaps best be described as resident in limbo. Today the interim report of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission threw up a rather radical proposal for a new public dental scheme, funded by a substantive increase to the Medicare levy. Proposals like this might have got a guernsey by a bold government in a period of strong economic growth, but realistically what chance do they have of getting up when the government’s budget is so under the pump and the future uncertain?

It would seem almost certain that the Rudd Government is going to be heading into the 2010 election with a handful of its most visible 2007 election policies in rather troubled train or else abandoned altogether. While Federal Labor can hardly be blamed for the financial crisis furrowing the brows of leaders all over the planet, if they do not deliver on their promises in the lead-up to the next poll (or else have a bloody cogent explanation!), one could hardly blame some voters for calling them out and giving the Coalition their vote.

Should Federal Labor consider cutting GST?

In the current global economic environment, governments across the world are looking for ways to stimulate spending in their domestic economies. Consequently, the beleaguered British Government is set to temporarily cut the rate of their VAT (value-added tax) for a one to two year period, in the hope that it will stimulate spending in the immediate term. Toby Helm and Heather Stewart have the details that are at hand for the moment in The Guardian:

Alistair Darling will make a high-risk bid to lead Britain out of recession tomorrow, when he is expected to cut VAT and entice the British people to go on a pre-Christmas spending spree.

Last night, as Darling put the finishing touches to the most important financial statement of Labour’s 11 years in government, there was speculation that he might slash the rate to 15 per cent [from 17.5 per cent], a move that would cost the government about £12.5bn a year.

This is an interesting development because it raises a few questions about the Australian Labor Party’s stance on the local GST. Historically, of course, Labor opposed the introduction of the GST at the 1998 election and fought a second unsuccessful election campaign in 2001 on a policy of GST “rollback”. Now that the GST has been in place for practically a decade and is firmly part of the architecture of federal-state funding, it would appear unlikely that the Rudd Government would seek to manipulate it at this juncture. Cutting the rate of GST in Australia would have considerable implications for state funding, given that all revenue generated by the tax flows through to the state governments. In short, for the rate of GST to be reduced, one would have to think that the existing federal-state funding framework would need to in the least be padded by some non-GST contingency funding from the Federal Government – or perhaps reframed altogether.

The other part of the puzzle worth considering is whether lowering the rate of GST would realistically have any effect on consumer spending at all. Let’s say that the rate of GST was cut by the Federal Government tomorrow from 10% to 5% – an astronomical 50% cut. Consumers presumably would have more money in their pockets every week as a result of their reduced weekly spending – money that may or may not then be reinvested in more goods and services, stimulating the economy. Given present consumer confidence and the vast uncertainty that still exists with respect to the global economic situation, it is questionable as to whether cutting GST would actually result in a positive outcome, a fact that Peter Mandelson points out in the Guardian article with respect to the proposed British VAT cut.

In any case, it would appear that the Rudd Labor Government could not realistically afford a rate cut of anything like that magnitude without going into deficit. The revenue generated for the states from the GST in 2008-09 was projected at $45.5 billion, meaning effectively that funding such a 50% GST rate cut would cost in the ballpark of $22.75 billion; a figure already exceeding the now optimistic total budget surplus of $21.7 billion projected back in the May Budget. Without some credible evidence suggesting that cutting the rate of GST even by a small amount is definitely going to deliver results, it would be a highly risky endeavour for the government to pursue it.

A scandal a day keeps supporters away

Just when one thinks that things seriously can not get any worse, they get worse for NSW Labor. NSW Assistant Health Minister Tony Stewart has jeopardised his position and indeed further jeopardised the Rees Government by managing to somehow involve himself in a scandal at a recent Garvan Institute dinner. Stewart has been accused of verbally and physically abusing one of his staffers at the dinner, with the result that the staffer in question was moved to another office, and a formal complaint regarding Stewart’s behaviour was raised to Rees today. Stewart has been removed from the ministry pending an investigation into the matter.

Regardless of whether Tony Stewart is really to blame for all of this or not, the fact that this whole issue has erupted is a further unfortunate indictment of the NSW Labor Government. When members of the government and their staffers can’t find a way to get along during their day-to-day business without causing a needless scandal for their government, you have to wonder if anything is actually being accomplished for the people of New South Wales. In political terms, the Garvan Institute dinner that Tony Stewart attended was a free hit for him and his staff, and a free hit for the Rees Government. How it has resulted in this latest bad news story quite simply beggars belief.

When friends, family and colleagues talk to me in the lead-up to the next state election, soliciting honest advice from me on why I think they should vote for NSW Labor, I am really sad to say that on the government’s recent form, I don’t think I will be in the position to be in the slightest bit persuasive.

It’s soft-core smear, but smear all the same

If we needed any more proof that NSW Labor has struggled to take a trick over the past couple of years, the amazingly short tenure of Matt Brown as NSW Police Minister has provided it. Freshly minted Premier Nathan Rees had more than enough on his plate already (indeed – probably enough for a few lifetimes), and the last thing he needed was the silly and needless scandal that has erupted over the last few days.

Politics is a tough business, and I don’t think anybody reasonable would begrudge Matt Brown or any politician from letting off some steam from time to time. Unfortunately, we live in a political age when the media and political operatives (in this case, Imre Salusinszky from The Australian) across the country are remorselessly on the hunt for “news” that can be construed in any way as controversial. Brown should have been aware of this, and should have put his noggin to good use instead of acting the way that he allegedly did during his post-Budget party.

Rees, of course, made the right decision in presumably forcing Brown to resign from his post. One wonders whether the Premier should demand an even more stringent level of disclosure, given the abysmal track record NSW Labor has had with regards to resignations and embarrassing incidents over the past decade in power. Perhaps the new Premier should force any member of parliament who is implicated in a scandal that breaks before he hears about it to resign not only from any ministerial duties but from parliament altogether, forcing a by-election.

In New South Wales in particular, the Labor Party desperately needs a public image overhaul. It can simply not afford to endure any further absurd scandals of this nature; it’s time for the Premier to lay down the law to his colleagues.