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.

“Carbon tax” repeal: rhetoric and reality

On 4th April, Tony Abbott spoke to Craig Huth from Max FM in Taree, and was asked about the mechanics of rolling back Labor’s carbon trading plans should the Coalition win government in September. In keeping with party policy on abolishing the scheme, this was the most interesting part of his response:

Some people say, oh but the Labor Party and the Greens will combine to oppose it in the Senate. Well, look Labor wouldn’t be so stupid in my opinion to commit political suicide twice if I may put it that way. If they’ve just lost an election which is a referendum on the carbon tax, they’re hardly going to defy the people twice on this. So, I think the chances of them supporting a carbon tax which has been the cause of their political demise are low, but look, the point I keep making is that when I say there’ll be no carbon tax under the government I lead, I’m fair dinkum Craig and if against all judgment and expectation, the Labor Party is utterly recalcitrant on this, well we’ll take the options available to us under the constitution to resolve the deadlock between the House and the Senate.

Tony Abbott is a man without nuance, and his party’s policy on this issue is wholly emblematic of the man as a politician: lacking nuance to the point of being disingenuous. Whatever happens in the election (which is far from simply “a referendum on the carbon tax”), the current state of the Senate will of course remain as-is until 1st July 2014. The Greens will retain a balance of power, and it is utter nonsense to suggest that they or Labor would simply bend to any incoming Coalition Government’s will, particularly on climate. Memories of the Coalition’s obstructive control of the Senate between 2005 and 2011 are strong in the Labor Party and both Labor and the Greens would relish the idea of returning the favour on such a high profile issue.

Knowing this, Abbott claims that he would immediately seek a double dissolution election if the current Senate declined to yield to a hypothetical incoming Coalition government’s wishes. Really? This would be a high risk strategy, and opens the door for a small-g “green” election fought exclusively on the environment. In this sort of political grudge match, the Greens would stand a good chance of winning a higher proportion of seats in the Senate, as Norman Abjorensen has alluded to. In short, this claim is more bluster than reality, and speaks to Abbott’s inexperience of the practicalities of working with the Senate in a minority government situation. Winning in September – even emphatically – does not necessarily imply that the Coalition would then hold all the cards. In the double dissolution situation the Opposition Leader is supposedly so bloody-minded about triggering, all bets would be off. A famous election victory would amount to little if a hash is made of the next one, which given the gaffe-prone nature of the Coalition’s front bench, would be a serious possibility.

A weighty question mark also remains with respect to how the Senate will be constituted from 1st July 2014, even in the event of a storming Coalition election victory. Antony Green has written a typically exceptional piece on the prospects of the Coalition winning outright control of the Senate if they win in September, in light of the current polling. In short, this seems an unlikely eventuality. The most likely positive scenario for Abbott is that the conservative heartlands of Queensland and Western Australia will offer up additional minor party senators more amenable to working with the Coalition than the Greens and Nick Xenophon. A distinct possibility, but far from a foregone conclusion – and even if that scenario were to materialise, the Coalition would need to wait until July 2014 to set about its demolition work.

In other words, the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” is not so much a plan as an election device. “Tell it like it is” Tony is “telling it like it isn’t” on this issue. The plan itself is impractical and politically unworkable. Arguably, it succeeds in its goal of offering an over-simplistic, easily digestible message to voters: “we’ll get rid it, and if can’t get rid it right away, we’ll upturn the Houses of Parliament to bloody well do it”. This is the sort of pugilistic approach that wins votes and that the near-apocryphal “Lindsay voters” have come to associate with Tony Abbott, but it not the sort of approach that is going to cut the mustard in the corridors of Parliament House should Liberal and National Party arses warm Cabinet benches.

If it comes to the crunch, the smart money suggests that the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” will get tossed out the passenger-side window many hundreds of kilometres before carbon trading does. A hypothetical Abbott Government would much prefer to live on its knees, blaming Labor and the Greens all the way, than stand the risk of dying on the altar of climate change in a double dissolution election.

Abbott on the first people: just muddling through

Tony Abbott’s address to the Sydney Institute last Friday went little remarked or reported, but offered the nation a glimpse of the Coalition’s planned approach in government to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. This strange little wishy-washy excerpt from the speech perhaps sums things up best:

In any event, “Canberra knows best” will not be an incoming Coalition government’s approach. Change will much more often be offered than demanded. People need alternatives to sticking with a profoundly unsatisfactory status quo but, most of all, they need to be taken seriously.

Indeed, there is very little evidence from the transcript that Canberra would even bother seeking to know best on indigenous affairs if the Coalition were to start warming the government benches come September. With fairness to Abbott, the speech certainly reads quite thoughtfully, with the Opposition Leader reflecting on his experiences during the Howard years, his relationships with Neville Bonner and Noel Pearson, and his personal experiences in Aurukun. But the conclusion at the end of all of this reflection seems to be that he doesn’t really know what he can do. So what he would do, it seems, is muddle along.

The Opposition Leader offers himself up in the speech as a self-anointed “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs” – as if this doesn’t befuddle the lines of responsibility between himself and the Shadow Minister, Nigel Scullion. Sound and noise, signifying little. He resurrects his political lodestar’s gambit of recognising Australia’s indigenous people in the Constitution, arguing that Aboriginal people “need to know that they never will be regarded as just a historical footnote to modern Australia”; even though the only weighty policy idea he offers to them here is to enshrine them in a line or two in Australia’s most antiquated document. He doffs his lid to both Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, as if hoping that just a bit of the national emotion two of his former opponents have conjured from within them on indigenous issues might rub off on him. He mentions four times his desire to “work with the states and territories”, perhaps in the wan hope that if he does this enough, they might cough up some ideas on how his government should seek to solve some of the problems facing Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia.

When Abbott describes the plight of Australia’s first people as “the most intractable difficulty our country has ever faced”, one does get the sense that he grasps the extent of the problem. The problem is that when he uses the word “intractable”; you feel he really means it. You feel that he thinks this is a problem that can’t be solved, and that an Abbott Government’s approach to indigenous affairs would be less about change than about political damage limitation.

Freedom? Yes, no, maybe, from Canberra to Holyrood

Seventeen long years ago, Scottish nationalism stumbled upon a champion with a truly global profile; a gobby warrior hero smeared in sky blue, with the face that launched a fistful of blockbusters throughout the 1990’s. The liberties Braveheart’s producers took with history have provoked some controversy, but its success proved to be manna from Hollywood heaven for Scotland: the year after the release of the film and its Oscar triumph, tourist numbers skyrocketed. The Wallace Monument in Stirling saw visitor numbers explode from 40,000 to approximately 1,000,000 in 1996, the year after the film’s release. Mel Gibson may well have drawn and quartered his own acting career and reputation since then, but at least for a time, Scottish independence had a modern, universally recognisable personage that they could rally behind as a nation. The freedom that Gibson fought for on cinema screens, with his shaggy hair, and his abominable attempt at a Scots accent, was still a freedom that seemed worth fighting for.

Contrastingly, it would seem that the jury is still out on the particular brand of freedom that Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond is fighting for. On Monday 15th October, the Scottish National Party leader signed an agreement [PDF] with Prime Minister David Cameron in Edinburgh sanctioning a “yes/no” referendum to be held on the question of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom before the end of 2014. The referendum represents a “once in a generation” opportunity for Scottish people to decide whether or not they should remain part of the United Kingdom. As an Australian, it is difficult not to compare the unfolding Scottish experience to my own country’s recent experience. In 1999, the Australian people, in their infinite wisdom, decided in a similar referendum to vote against the formation of an Australian republic, retaining the role of the Queen of the Commonwealth realms as the country’s titular Head of State. A strange result indeed – particularly for a post-colonial Western nation with its own vibrant cultural identity, floating at the foot of South-East Asia as the so-called “Asian century” dawned. Why did Australia say “no”, and why, at this early stage, does it seem most likely that Scotland is going to say “no” in two years time?

In Australia, the 1999 referendum result was a clear product of the framing of the question. A Constitutional Convention convened by the conservative Howard Government in February 1998 provided nominal support for the push towards a republic, and indeed a preferred republican “model”, whereby an Australian President, elected by a two-thirds majority of elected members of Australia’s Parliament, would replace the role of the Queen in Australia’s Constitution. Technically, few could rationally argue that the model endorsed by the convention was not the best model. Pragmatically, this would prove to be a classic case of death-by-committee writ large. Monarchists – few in number in Australia – effectively united in an unholy alliance with supporters of different republican models to defeat the referendum and set the cause of mature Australian nationhood back decades.

In Scotland’s case, as it was in Australia’s case, the binary question put to citizens will be both deceptively simple and fearfully complex; it will contain multitudes. Faced with the weight of history, the warm enveloping tendrils of a shared British culture, and all the complicated political repercussions of the choice, do we seriously expect ordinary citizens to respond with a simple “Yes” or “No”? What an answer to be compelled to give to such a profound question! Polling on support for Scottish independence already reflects the confusion and polarisation of the electorate: support for outright independence in Scotland is hovering weakly at around 30%, which it has done for some years. Support for more devolved powers for Scotland (short of full independence), however, appears consistently 5-10% stronger, and in fact represents the most broadly popular choice for Scotland’s future. As Lesley Riddoch has lamented for the Guardian, it is surely some sort of madness a “greater devolution” option will not even be on the referendum table. Combining support for outright independence and support for “devo-max”, as it has been labelled, it is clear that a majority of Scots would like their nation to be more independent from the United Kingdom than it currently is. Sadly for Scotland, this is not the question that will be asked in 2014. This is not the question that Scots will be allowed to answer.

True democracy surely must demand more than giving citizens a choice between a few bad or uninspiring options every few years; on questions of national significance, simply asking a question is not enough. If the questions being asked of citizens by their governments are so clumsily framed as to restrict the power of the people to speak their own personal beliefs – their own personal truth – to the nation, we may well come to question just how democratic our modern brand of democracy really is.

Fainter all the time, like ghosts

Apropos of nothing, as London and the 2012 Olympics hurtle towards each other like two unstoppable meteorites of clunking great chaotic rock, I feel I should share these two excerpts from George Orwell’s little-known novel, Coming Up for Air:

Because in this life we lead – I don’t mean human life in general, I mean life in this particular age and this particular country – we don’t do the things we want to do. It isn’t because we’re always working.

It’s because there’s some devil in us that drives us to and fro on everlasting idiocies. There’s time for everything except the things worth doing.

And:

It struck me that perhaps a lot of the people you see walking about are dead. We say that a man’s dead when his heart stops and not before. It seems a bit arbitrary.

Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste – but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.

Food for thought. Enjoy the games.