The philosophical myth of neo-liberalism

In my pieces I often refer to neo-liberalism. As explained in my pieces last year, ‘Whose freedom?’ and ‘Whose responsibility?’, the neo-liberal idea of freedom is based on the rational self-interested individual and it also adopts the approach of ‘negative’ freedom (following Isaiah Berlin as explained in ‘Whose freedom?’): that is freedom from interference or coercion. It is the modern version of the old libertarian.

It is also based on the principle of property rights: that I am the owner of myself and of everything I create and I should, therefore, be free to determine what I do with that property.

Their approach, however, has a problem. Its logical and pure outcome is anarchy. That comes about because if we are each rational individuals able to make rational decisions in our own self-interest, without the need for external influences to direct us towards beneficial decisions, then there is no need for government or rules — that is total freedom from interference. Can you imagine such a world? Neither can any but the most extreme libertarians and neo-liberals. But they do like the idea of ‘small government’, minimal tax and minimal regulation.

Political philosophers have often begun with what they term the ‘state of nature’, a construct meant to envisage human society before political structures. Hobbes and Locke ended up with opposing views on that ‘state’: Hobbes thinking it was one of constant conflict and Locke seeing it as harmonious, although with the potential to lead to conflict. What they did agree was that there was a ‘social contract’ whereby people gave up some of their freedom for the protection of the state, or government. Hobbes saw that leading to the need for strong government and consistent enforcement of the rule of law to restrain the inherent conflict, while Locke saw the government as existing only because the people granted it the capacity to exist — the state’s primary role was to protect the individual’s property (including the person). Locke is considered the ‘father’ of liberalism.

For neo-liberals, however, the ‘social contract’ raises a philosophical problem because it is seen as binding the property rights of future generations. For them, if a ‘social contract’ exists to give rise to government, and a monopolistic power of protection and coercion, it should be renegotiated by each generation. Otherwise they are back to their state of pure anarchy. So they needed another way to explain how government arose and it was provided by a philosopher in the 1970s — Robert Nozick.

Nozick posited that ‘the state’ could arise from the actions of individuals. While he saw rational individuals acting ‘morally’ in the state of nature (as Locke did), there could arise occasions where some did not act ‘morally’ forcing those under attack to join ‘mutual protection agencies’:
These agencies sell security packages like a free market economic good that individuals in a state of nature would surely buy for self and property protection.
So the individuals become clients of the agency when they purchase its protection. The steps involved in those mutual protection agencies developing into a state are:

  • A mutual protection agency becomes a dominant or pre-eminent protection agency in its territory.
  • It becomes what Nozick calls an ‘ultra-minimal state’ when it gains a monopoly on force in the region, even though protection is still purchased as an economic good.
  • The minimal state emerges when the first two conditions are met but the agency also extends protection to non-clients within its territory — which then comes at a cost to its clients.
For neo-liberals, this approach follows market principles and is based on the rational self-interested individual voluntarily purchasing protection from ‘the state’. The state then also has a role in stopping people enforcing their own protection against other individuals as it has the monopoly on coercive force.

It was not just the explanation of the rise of the state but the implications it gave rise to that attracted neo-liberals.

Nozick considered that the state’s single proper duty is the protection of persons and property and that it requires taxation only for that purpose. Taking tax for redistributive purposes is on a par with forced labour:
Seizing the results from someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him … If people force you to do certain work, or unrewarded work, for a certain period of time, they decide what you are to do and what purposes your work is to serve apart from your decisions. This process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you.
So from the neo-liberal perspective, taxation, other than to provide for protection of the person and property, gives the state a property right over us and therefore is an intrusion on individual rights — someone else is deciding what to do with the results of an individual’s labour. (Hockey’s claim that we work more than a month just to pay for welfare can clearly be seen as based on this argument and seemed to be driven by the false assumption that everybody else, not just he, believed it.)

Nozick also saw no philosophic problem with inequality. As each individual owns the products of their own endeavours and talents, it is possible for an individual to acquire property rights (as long as they are not gained by theft, force or fraud) over a disproportionate amount of the world: once private property has been appropriated in that way, it is ‘morally’ necessary for a free market to exist so as to allow further exchange of the property. And the individual then has complete control as to how that property is passed on. So it is logically okay for someone to inherit a fortune having contributed nothing to gain that wealth: reward for effort or just desert do not come into it for Nozick — it is only property rights and market mechanisms that count. ‘Reward for effort’ has remained, however, in the neo-liberal lexicon to justify the extreme wealth that some, like Trump, have obtained and to allow them to argue that the less successful have simply not put in enough effort.

There is also no such thing as the ‘common good’ in this approach, only individuals:
While it is true that some individuals might make sacrifices of some of their interests in order to gain benefits for some other of their interests, society can never be justified in sacrificing the interests of some individuals for the sake of others. [emphasis added]
In summary:
The state then can be seen as an institution that serves to protect private property rights and the transactions that follow from them regardless of our thoughts of some people deserving more or less than they have.
You can see why neo-liberals and capitalists generally were happy to have such a philosophic basis for their actions (even though Nozick later retreated from some aspects of it).

That whole approach adopted by the neo-liberals, and their economists, ignores the evidence that humankind is a social animal (see ‘Whose responsibility?’ linked at the start of this article). I won’t reiterate that aspect but want to consider the evolutionary psychology theory around ‘coalitions’ — which are also part of our social being. Basically it says humans have an evolved tendency to form coalitions, a stronger tendency in men than women according to the researchers. It also leads us to recognise categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. For prehistoric humankind, this may have been an essential element for survival: an ability to recognise those whom one could trust and rely on from those who may pose a threat or, at the least, not provide support or assistance when needed. It also included a major element of reciprocity: I will support others in the coalition because I know they will in turn support me.

Modern experiments have suggested that the need to form coalitions can over-rule ‘race’ as a categorisation. That has led some to suggest that ‘race’ is merely a form of coalition that can be over-ruled by circumstances. (Categories based on age and gender are not affected in the same way.)

The reciprocal nature of coalitions has been tested against ‘game theory’. In game theory it is said there are three basic approaches: co-operate with opponents to maximise group benefits (but at the risk of being suckered); free-ride (try to sucker co-operators); or reciprocate (co-operate only with those who show signs of co-operation but not with free riders). Economists talk about an equilibrium being achieved in which individuals adjust their behaviour in order to maximise their own gains; but evolutionary psychology says that these approaches will not be equally represented in society, that there are ‘evolutionary stable strategies’ hard-wired into the human brain (which can be over-ridden but remain a default position). In recent experiments, the evolutionary approach has come out on top. In a series of four-player games 63% were found to be reciprocators, 20% free-riders and 13% co-operators but, more importantly, the researchers were then able to predict the result of further games because most individuals did not change their strategies (or did not adjust their strategies to maximise personal gain as the neo-liberal economists predict) — the missing 4% in those numbers could not be readily fitted to the three categories which, I assume, means they did change strategies and that may also suggest that only 4% of the population utilise the neo-liberal position. If reciprocity is such a highly valued approach, then it supports the view that we are hard-wired to identify and participate in coalitions and are also hard-wired to identify ‘cheaters’ or ‘free-riders’ — which is what governments are appealing to when they refer to ‘dole bludgers’ and ‘welfare cheats’ when cutting social welfare payments.

Political parties themselves are a coalition and have a coalition of supporters. Those coalitions are quite strong: Obama can be elected as a Democrat despite his race. That is one reason the old adage of ‘never discuss politics or religion’ has some validity. It is to enter into a discussion in which coalitions are already strongly formed and expressing your opinion may only identify you as an outsider.

We must also remember that coalitions can be flexible. People can come and go, or join a different coalition. Coalitions may also disappear completely if the reason that gave rise to them no longer exists or its leader falls and the coalition fragments.

Politics and religion, however, are now institutionalised, so they can continue irrespective of their original purpose and irrespective of movements in the coalitions associated with them. In evolutionary terms we looked to physically strong, reliable and trustworthy leaders if we were to join a coalition in the first place — it may have been to raid a neighbouring village. In our institutionalised coalitions, changes of leadership do not really change the structure of the coalition but we still carry that evolutionary approach and see a change of leader as a potential threat to the coalition – á la the public reaction to Rudd being dumped. The Turnbull ascendancy has been easier. The major difference would appear to be that Abbott was already in a position where he was no longer seen as a trusted and reliable leader of a coalition, although he was attempting still to portray himself as a strong leader — one out of three wasn’t good enough!

What I find fascinating is the contradiction between the two approaches I have described. Despite a natural propensity to form coalitions and engage in reciprocity, the neo-liberals continue to tell us that we function as individuals seeking only our own advantage. From the evidence, it is based on a philosophical myth that ignores the way humans actually behave. It is a construct of an ‘economic being’ that appears to have little relationship with reality.

It leads to businessmen expressing their natural humanity by forming coalitions, locally, regionally and nationally, while at the same time fighting the very existence of workers’ coalitions (unions).

We have our current government, itself derived from coalitions (the Liberal and National parties as separate coalitions of like-minded people who have the same or similar goals — their formal ‘coalition agreement’ so as to govern is a different matter). Although arising from coalitions, in the evolutionary sense, the government insists it should treat us only as individuals and ignores the coalitions we may form.

Despite insisting on the economic individual as central to policy, Abbott commonly resorted to the ultimate coalition — nationalism — to justify his leadership: there were people out there ‘coming to get us’; we had ‘Team Australia’; and you were either with us or against us and, if against us, may lose your citizenship. A blatant appeal to our evolutionary trait of identifying ‘us’ and ‘them’. While Turnbull may not play the nationalism card, he has made it clear that his will be ‘a thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market’, exactly the foundations of the neo-liberal approach. As this was from his oral victory speech, it is not clear whether he meant ‘liberal’ or ‘Liberal’, and I did note that different on-line media sites used those different forms of the word, but it does not change the point that, either as a Liberal or liberal, he is promising a neo-liberal approach.

Stressing individuality supports the success of the rich businessman (like Turnbull) but leaves the poorer individual helpless (and, ironically, more dependent on government or community support). It basically matches Nozick’s view that inequality is irrelevant.

Logically, the government cannot have it both ways: we are either all individuals, in which case nationalism has no place and business coalitions should be ignored, or we are all members of various coalitions, from the nation state to local groupings, and the government should recognise those coalitions, engage with them and recognise them in policy. Instead it engages with the business coalitions but insists the rest of us are mythical individuals and Turnbull’s words in his victory speech suggest that is unlikely to change.

What do you think?
Heavy, ay? If the economic individual created by neo-liberalism is a myth, where does that leave the philosophic basis of the Liberal party? Should a Liberal party even exist? — it is, after all, a coalition. Should government policy, as Ken suggests, focus on groups, the coalitions we naturally form, rather than the individual? Would that work? Let us know what you think.

Next week 2353 looks at some of the turmoil created by Turnbull’s ascension to prime minister in ‘Pass the popcorn’.

The silent majority

It’s not a secret that former Prime Minister Abbott is a ‘committed Christian’. Former Prime Minister Rudd also wore his Christianity on his sleeve — frequently shown on the Sunday night news answering questions outside a church in his electorate. Both are entitled to their beliefs, as are the 30% of Australians who consider their religion to be important in their lives.

None of us should really care if politicians choose to spend some time in a Christian church on a Sunday morning. We should be concerned, however, about the way religion is creeping into public life. Around half of Abbott’s federal cabinet was Catholic — and, as with other belief models, there are different ‘levels’ of belief. Abbott’s Defence Minister Kevin Andrews was much more (small ‘c’) conservative and could not support issues in which the Catholic Church’s formal teaching was overturned —such as same sex marriage. Newly minted Prime Minister Turnbull is a (small ‘l’) liberal Catholic who morally and ethically has no difficulty claiming to support issues such as same sex marriage while being a regular Catholic churchgoer. The Saturday Paper reported on a speech by the Liberal Party hopeful before the Canning by-election, who proudly claimed growing up in Victoria and accompanying his religious minister father on trips around the parish, as well as the work he and his wife do with their church group, as examples of why he would be a good member of parliament.

Former Prime Minister Menzies founded the Liberal Party in the 1940’s as a secular party in which people would have a forum to debate and discuss ideas — the best to be implemented in government — so why has that changed? The Saturday Paper discusses research from Paul Pickering (from the ANU) dating from 1998 where he compared the first speeches of the 1975 and 1996 cohorts in Australia’s parliament. (Both years were when the Coalition regained power from the ALP: in 1975 Fraser defeated Whitlam, and in 1996 Howard defeated Keating.)
“The rise of concern with the family appears to go hand in hand with an increase in religiosity in Australian politics,” wrote Pickering. “Where God received only one reference in the first speeches of the 1975 cohort … the first speeches of the ‘Class of 96’ contain numerous references to God and Christian principles.”

Pickering’s analysis highlighted something else, too, which he described as a “shrill chorus of anger”. He cited numerous examples of new members railing against “minority groups”, about “thought control and social engineering”, and about “political correctness”. And against government itself. Tony Smith, who replaced Bronwyn Bishop as speaker, warned against “the insidious rise and rise of the state”, which he likened to a “great praying mantis”.

There were no such expressions 20 years prior, Pickering noted. He characterised the class of ’96 as “the children of the ‘common sense’ revolution”.
Some of those who are overtly Christian frequently claim that, due to their faith, they have a higher understanding of morals and ethics than the 70% who claim to have no religion. Demonstrably, it’s a fallacy.

Josh Duggar was an Executive Director of Family Research Centre (FRC). His parents are Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, parents of 19 children, who preach their belief in their god across the USA. He is married with four children.
Among the many initiatives he was involved in with the group were ones that firmly campaigned against equal rights for LGBT Americans, the legalization of same-sex marriages and a woman's right to choose.

In his role as Executive Director of FRC Action, he said in one interview that he was committed to 'taking the message of faith, family and freedom all across America.'

Josh also bragged that his family was the 'epitome of conservative values.' His opposition to gay marriage while at the FRC was based on his belief that it threatened family values.
Josh Duggar resigned his position with FRC after his name and details were found in a list of 37 million customers hacked from the Ashley Madison website — that promoted ‘cheating’ on customers’ partners.

If you have the time you could also search for information on the rise and fall of Jimmy Swaggart, as well as ponder the link between tithing and the growth of the property portfolio owned by Hillsong, which started 30 years ago in a church hall in Sydney and now spans the world.

People with religious beliefs are not all bad. The Political Sword has previously published an article on our TPS Extra site about the work of religious people who have genuinely dedicated their entire adult lives to helping others. Some religious people find other ways to promote their beliefs, such as the Anglican church in Gosford New South Wales. Rod Bower, the priest at the church, regularly changes the signboard outside the church and seems to have a rather good ability to make pithy comment on current events, comparing them to genuine Christian values. One of his recent signboards is pictured at the top of this article and quotes Abbott in the dying days of the Gillard government, a statement that came back to haunt him towards the end of his prime ministership. Apparently the CEO of Transfield was not happy with one of the recent signs — ‘HESTA divests Transfield. Good on ya’ —and asked to speak to the Bishop who supervises the Gosford Anglican Church:
Bishop Thompson said the Transfield chairwoman was "concerned to engage with the church in the light of Father Bower's messages".
He supported his priest, even if Transfield saw him as troublesome.
It seems that those with a strong religious belief have the same range of human behaviour as anyone else. Some live their values on a daily basis; others are found on websites that promote cheating on their partners. So why do some of the 30% with religious beliefs attempt to claim moral superiority and dictate terms to the 70% who don’t have a strong Christian religious connection? Are the silent majority ‘less worthy’ people because they don’t regularly darken the door of a Christian church?

Is it a fear of the unknown that makes traditional Christian values seem safe to a proportion of the 30%? Most Australians are of European descent and there is still a significant number of the Australian population who, at formative periods of their lives, were told that the Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Greek or Vietnamese nations were the enemy due to war or massive immigration at some point in our history. To an extent the people from the Middle East are being characterised in a similar way today as they have a different culture and religion from our European ‘norm’, as do the majority of refugee seekers. Psychologists have demonstrated that it doesn’t take much for a person to demonstrate xenophobic tendencies more or less ‘on demand’.
Researchers are discovering the extent to which xenophobia can be easily — even arbitrarily — turned on. In just hours, we can be conditioned to fear or discriminate against those who differ from ourselves by characteristics as superficial as eye color. Even ideas we believe are just common sense can have deep xenophobic underpinnings. Research conducted at Harvard reveals that even among people who claim to have no bias, the more strongly one supports the ethnic profiling of Arabs at [US] airport-security checkpoints, the more hidden prejudice one has against Muslims.

But other research shows that when it comes to whom we fear and how we react, we do have a choice. We can, it seems, choose not to give in to our xenophobic tendencies.
Self-professed ultra-conservative Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has frequently commented on the dangers of Islam:
A frequent commentator on the ‘dangers’ of Islam, Bernardi has the Koran on his iPad but acknowledges he hasn’t read it, except for the passages he quotes to advance his arguments. He doesn’t know the ‘five pillars’, or basic tenets, of the Islamic faith. He claims his warnings about Islam are based on the “unique perspective” he gained while travelling in Europe where, he says, Muslim migration has led to “almost unprecedented levels of social unrest”.
He goes on:
“I keep saying this is not about Muslim people,” Bernardi insists. “A lot of Muslims eat pork, there’s a lot of Muslims who don’t pray five times a day or go to mosque, there’s a lot of Muslims who decide to drink alcohol. There’s a lot of Muslims who are terrific people, that are fantastic, like people of any faith.”
In other words: Muslims are fine, as long as they don’t practise their beliefs. In Bernardi’s maiden speech he —
extolled the importance of a strong economy, small business, the defence industry and entrepreneurship, and derided the “new culture of rights” in Australia. He thanked his mother for staying at home to raise him, hailed “the sanctity of human life” and marriage as “a sacred bond between a man and a woman”, and pledged: “I shall be guided by my conscience, my family, my country and my God.”
There is a large leap of faith (sorry about that) required to make any logical sense out of those quotes and how they can be the belief system for one person. Bernardi is guided by the sanctity of human life and is guided by his particular version of god. Yet he likes Muslims who effectively forgo the tenets of their particular religion to fit into Bernardi’s particular version of a ‘normal’ society. The terrifying thing is that Bernardi seems to have gained significant assistance from the American Tea Party.

To be fair, Bernardi isn’t the only one with this peculiar mindset. The Psychology Today article referred to earlier in this article reports on an experiment performed by an American researcher:
Psychologist Markus Kemmelmeier, at the University of Nevada at Reno, stuck stamped letters under the windshield wipers of parked cars in a suburb of Detroit. Half were addressed to a fictitious Christian organization, half to a made-up Muslim group. Of all the letters, half had little stickers of the American flag.

Would the addresses and stickers affect the rate at which the letters would be mailed? Kemmelmeier wondered. Without the flag stickers, both sets of letters were mailed at the same rate, about 75 percent of the time. With the stickers, however, the rates changed: Almost all the Christian letters were forwarded, but only half of the Muslim letters were mailed. "The flag is seen as a sacred object," Kemmelmeier says. "And it made people think about what it means to be a good American."

In short, the Muslims didn't make the cut.

Not mailing a letter seems like a small slight. Yet in the last century, there have been shocking examples of xenophobia in our own back yard. Perhaps the most famous in American history was the fear of the Japanese during World War II. This particular wave of hysteria lead to the rise of slurs and bigoted depictions in the media, and more alarmingly, the mass internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry beginning in 1942. The internments have become a national embarrassment: Most of the Japanese held were American citizens, and there is little evidence that the imprisonments had any real strategic impact.

The targets of xenophobia — derived from the Greek word for stranger — are no longer the Japanese. Instead, they are Muslim immigrants. Or Mexicans. Or the Chinese. Or whichever group we have come to fear.
The Howard, Rudd and Abbott governments were past masters at the art of creating xenophobia, using terms such as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘boat people’ for refugee seekers who have every right to seek asylum in Australia. Sure, some of them don’t follow the same holy book as Howard, Rudd or Abbott claimed to do but neither do 70% of Australians who completed the last census. It is too early to determine if the Turnbull government is going to display any more genuine Christianity and humanity in relation to refugees, although there doesn’t seem to be any real impetus for meaningful change.

Unfortunately the actions of people such as Howard, Rudd or Abbott demean the community service performed by religious organisations such as the Anglican church in Gosford or the people we looked at some time ago in this article on TPS Extra. It’s also interesting that Catholic and Anglican Bishops are ‘pragmatic’ about the introduction of same sex marriage, yet the people paid to make these decisions are kicking the can down the road, one would assume to avoid upsetting a proportion of the 30% of the population that find religion important in their lives.

How do the religious political conservatives justify their belief that the majority of citizens in a country should be bound to their beliefs? It would be interesting to hear how Howard, Rudd, Abbott, Bernardi and so on can justify their actions with the teachings in their preferred holy book of ‘Do unto others as you wish them do to you’ (Luke 6:31).

What do you think?
Who is the real silent majority? — the committed Christians or the 70% (as 2353 points out) of Australians who are not regular church goers or have no religion. And are the 30% now trying to impose their views and values on the rest of us? Does it become a problem when such people are in our parliament, and leading our nation, and making decisions that influence the future of our nation?

Next week Ken will expose ‘The philosophical myth of neo-liberalism’.

Another failure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs

What is wrong with this paragraph from a report in July regarding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander work-for-the-dole scheme?
A Territory community’s work for the dole program is about to collapse, with accusations a Sydney-based company stands to keep receiving funding while nothing happens on the ground and jobs hang in the balance.
Yes, another Aboriginal project is in danger of collapse. And, yes, the government appears to be doing nothing. But the big one that is ‘wrong’ to me is the reference to ‘a Sydney-based company’. What is a Sydney-based company doing running a work-for-the-dole scheme in a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal community? How does it effectively manage the scheme from 4000kms away? The fact the report suggests that the scheme may be about to collapse, even though the Sydney company is still receiving funding, indicates to me that perhaps it cannot manage from that distance.

That is a result of a process begun in the Howard years, and continued unfortunately during the Labor years, that put many services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities out to a bidding process (not formally but effectively a tender). Even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations could bid to provide services to their own community, or even to all communities in a local area, bids from distant organisations often had a price advantage. Ability to deliver the service to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a culturally appropriate manner was part of the considerations but price was still a driving force — a government attempt to constrain funding.

In those circumstances, much depends on the people assessing the bids. In my day, many public servants working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs would have said that the condition regarding the ability to deliver the service in a culturally appropriate manner was paramount and as long as the price wasn’t outrageous that would over-ride pure price considerations — in economic terms, we were prepared to pay a premium for appropriate services. Many younger people who have grown up in decades of neo-liberalism and economic arguments of ‘price efficiency’ may take a different view.

The scheme that report refers to is now known as the Community Development Program (CDP) and is a result of a long history going back to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program in 1977. And there is a slightly longer history necessary to explain how CDEP came into being.

For a long time many Aboriginal people in remote areas had been employed in the cattle industry but were paid what was called a ‘training wage’ or ‘allowance’. In 1965 the then Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation Commission ruled that Aboriginals should be paid award wages under the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. Were the station owners happy to pay award wages? Of course not, and the result was widespread unemployment for Aboriginal people in northern Australia. At the time Aboriginal people could not receive unemployment benefits if they were living on missions or reserves (which many stockmen would have returned to after losing their jobs) and there was still a ‘work test’, which basically meant that work had to be available but one was unable to obtain it — that continued to mean that many living in small remote communities where there was no available work were not eligible for benefits. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had only become eligible for social security benefits in 1966 and the requirement regarding missions and reserves wasn’t removed until 1976. But with so many then unemployed, and as the rules changed and the number eligible for and receiving unemployment benefits grew, the elders, in particular, became concerned about this ‘sit down’ money and the social problems it was causing in communities. So in 1977, CDEP was introduced.

Under CDEP, an amount equivalent to the unemployment benefit that otherwise would have gone into a community, plus a component for on-costs, was paid to the local Aboriginal organisation and people could then earn the equivalent of their dole by undertaking local work — the original work-for-the-dole scheme. Over the years a number of problems arose.

One was that CDEP was used to provide work in municipal services such as waste disposal, generator maintenance, road maintenance within the settlement and so on. That has led in more recent years to the commonwealth government demanding that states and local government take on that role as they do for other citizens. The jobs still need to be done but the commonwealth is insisting that the cost is met by the states (it is that which gave rise to the decision in WA to consider closing many small, remote communities).

Another was that as CDEP was expanded beyond remote areas, some Aboriginal organisations used CDEP labour to support the development of local businesses (as was intended under the original guidelines). In small regional towns the non-indigenous businessmen felt that gave Aboriginal businesses an unfair advantage. Unions were also concerned that non-award wages could be paid for work that was covered by awards. Under Keating, the new rule was that CDEP should be paid at award rates (where an appropriate award existed) and people work only as long as was required at the award rate to earn the equivalent of the dole. That also meant they were covered by normal industrial conditions, including health and safety, payment of superannuation, and so on. If organisations or businesses had the money, they were allowed to provide ‘top-up’ wages for extra work, without the person losing their CDEP entitlement.

CDEP had also expanded into urban areas where it was meant to focus on preparing people for mainstream work. The rationale, however, was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be more likely to use an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service than go to a job centre. Under Howard that was abolished. Eventually CDEP was again restricted to remote areas but that was also abolished in the NT during the intervention. When it was brought back, it returned to being a straightforward work-for-the-dole scheme and was rejigged as the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) under which people worked 16 hours a week for their Newstart allowance. Many people left the scheme (some received other welfare payments) and the ‘sit down’ money problem was re-created. That has now been rejigged again as the CDP in remote areas.

What have all these changes achieved? — very little.

The original idea was to provide some work in areas where there was little or no work available; it could provide activities that would combat social problems (such as ‘night patrols’); and projects could include economic ventures, town management activities, social advancement and environmental improvement.

In considering work in remote areas, it is interesting to note that non-indigenous people in remote areas have the lowest unemployment levels of any location in Australia, lower than urban and regional areas. That arises from the fact that most whitefellas don’t stay in remote areas unless they have work — as soon as the work ends, they leave. Aboriginal people, on the other hand, are bound by their culture and the need to maintain ‘country’ to remain there. That is why it is so difficult when governments talk about the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be in employment. Jobs are scarce in such areas. I have personally witnessed examples where communities took on more people in the available positions than was actually necessary: that led to the funding for the positions being spread over more people so that they each received less than they were entitled to — which also led to problems, with people complaining of being underpaid. They were being underpaid but it was a genuine attempt to provide work to as many people as possible and keep young people in the community.

As CDEP moved between departments its purpose changed: at one time being little more than a welfare program, at another taking on stronger employment aspects. A more detailed political history of CDEP is provided in an address by Will Sanders here.

What seems to have been lost in many of the changes are the social benefits of the original scheme.

By the time ATSIC was managing CDEP, it was viewed as the one program over which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities actually had some control. All the talk of self-management meant little when the use of almost all of the funding that went into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was governed by external decisions. CDEP allowed communities to make decisions about what work they would support, what work they viewed as important for their community — in some communities it could include undertaking traditional activities. (Many Aboriginal artists in the NT were receiving CDEP ‘wages’ before it was abolished.)

With the bidding process and organisations from 4000kms away winning contracts to provide the services, support for the social aspects of the program seems to have disappeared. We are almost back to a 1930s ‘guardianship’ model where we seem to believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities cannot make decisions in their own self-interest and cannot manage money. That has been a Liberal mode since the Howard years. When Herron came in as the first minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the Howard government, ATSIC was directed to audit every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation to see if they were ‘fit and proper’ bodies to receive government funding. The new government believed there was waste and inefficiency, if not outright rorting. Only 60 out of 1,122 organisations were found to have breached funding conditions and the majority of breaches were for minor matters such as late submission of financial returns (there was no identified fraud): it was pointed out that the conditions were often so detailed that it was difficult not to breach some of them but 95% of organisations had managed it. The audit had been conducted by an independent organisation, KPMG, but it was not the result the government had wanted. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner later compared the outcome of that audit to an audit of mainstream companies:
In contrast, “a 1997 survey of company fraud showed that roughly half the 490 large Australian companies surveyed had experienced significant fraud in the last two years”.
The audit also recommended:
… training for administrators of Aboriginal organisations for example, in financial management expertise, but noted that budget cuts imposed on ATSIC in the 1996‒1997 Commonwealth budget had resulted in the termination of the Community Training Program, significantly reducing “the capacity of ATSIC to fund management training in organisations”.
So even for what problems there were, the government had effectively cut the capacity to do anything about them. The approach underlay the government’s attitude to CDEP — it could not understand why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations should have control of the money and, as shown earlier, the current approach means that money is again often controlled by outsiders.

Under the new CDP, people will be required to work 25 hours each week: a Christmas shut-down, some holidays and cultural leave are now included but weren’t in the original proposal. The CDP model pays lip service to ideas coming from the community but still insists getting people into jobs is the key outcome. I just do not see that there will be enough jobs. During the mining boom, which was seen as a possible source for Aboriginal employment in remote areas, I pointed out that modern mining is not labour intensive and even if every single mining job (including management positions) in remote areas was given to an Aboriginal person there would still be thousands unemployed — mining was not the answer.

The current minister Nigel Scullion’s description of the new CDP sounds eerily familiar to the original guidelines for CDEP:
In many communities there will be opportunities to establish businesses that can support the needs and desires of local people. Some communities will want activities that support critical issues like housing repairs and maintenance. In others, there may be a need to support older members of the community in aged-care facilities or their own homes, or to support children in school.
Even where jobs are available in remote areas, they tend to be jobs that rely on government funding, such as ‘shire’ work, environmental work, even work in schools. Yes, they are ‘real’ jobs but as we have seen so often their tenure can be precarious when governments change.
Most of these jobs are currently filled by people from outside of communities. There is no reason local people cannot be skilled up to take on these jobs.
Those words from Scullion are true but they have been said since the 1970s. The reason that approach has not had great success in that time is that it doesn’t recognise the Aboriginal perception of work. A traditional Aboriginal person may see a job as a way of getting money to meet an immediate need: once that need is met, the job is superfluous until another need arises.

More importantly, our view of regular work, five days a week for 48 weeks (allowing for annual holidays), is not appropriate in the still traditionally-oriented communities. There is much traditional business to attend to and that can take time: and, in the event of a death, most, if not all, workers will stop work for a time as traditional mourning activities (‘sorry business’) take place. If there are important jobs that need to continue every day, Aboriginal people themselves know that they are better off having a whitefella in that job who does not have to stop work for as long: it is probable the person would be required to stop but would likely be excused from the full mourning period and, of course, is unlikely to be directly involved in the actual ceremonies of ‘sorry business’.

I have an example concerning an Aboriginal man I knew personally. He had worked as a town clerk in a predominantly Aboriginal community and he had worked as a teacher at a distant location. It was while he was teaching that a death occurred in his home community. He returned home for the ‘sorry business’ but was then found by the elders to be responsible for the death: his absence had led to him not performing his ceremonial obligations and this had broken the ‘balance’ between life, land and spirit, contributing to the death. He was exiled to the bush for six months — which obviously meant he was unable to fulfil his whitefella-work obligations. In such circumstances, how can we demand that Aboriginal people take on work as we see it? How well does an organisation 4000kms away understand such circumstances; how well can it respond in a timely way when ‘blackfella business’ has to take precedence?

The only real answer to this problem is a completely different model that does not put a whitefella-style job as the ultimate outcome; a model that recognises traditional lifestyles and accepts them; that allows people to work when they want to but attend to traditional activities when they are obligated to. It would be a model that is entirely different to anything we have seen so far, that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as important enough to maintain. Perhaps recognition in the constitution will allow a basis to consider such a model but it will also require a change in mind-set of politicians and public servants.

The words of Canadian singer-songwriter, James Keelaghan, are an appropriate ending for this piece, and would make an apt plea by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to us whitefellas:
Take a walk under my skies
Try to see it once the way I do
If you look out through my eyes
You’ll find a different point of view
What do you think?
‘When will they ever learn?’ We have had a commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agency since the 1970s, now over 40 years, and still there are seemingly intractable problems. But are many only ‘intractable’ because they are viewed from a whitefella perspective? Is Ken right in suggesting that more attention needs to be paid to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective?

Next week 2353 goes ‘where angels fear to tread’ to discuss the modern influence of religion in politics in ‘The silent majority’.

Pluto and the conservative mindset

In 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh found a ninth planet in our solar system and, after a time being known as ‘Planet X’, it gained the name Pluto. Contrary to popular belief, the planet wasn’t named after the Disney character or the nuclear element plutonium; rather the planet was named after the Roman God of the Underworld as suggested by an 11 year old girl from England who was given £5 as a reward for her effort.

By the early 2000s, advances in the design and accuracy of astronomical instruments demonstrated to scientists that Pluto didn’t qualify as a planet as it didn’t meet the criteria:

  • It needs to be in orbit around the Sun — yes, so maybe Pluto is a planet.
  • It needs to have enough gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape — Pluto…check.
  • It needs to have “cleared the neighbourhood” of its orbit — Uh oh. Here’s the rule breaker. According to this, Pluto is not a planet.
Where Pluto apparently fell down is that it is located in the middle of a belt of small planet-like objects — so it hasn’t ‘cleared the neighbourhood’ of other objects.

There was considerable coverage of the downgrading of Pluto when it occurred and New Mexico in the US actually legislated that when Pluto traverses the skies of the state of New Mexico, it is still a planet!

One of the scientists who made the declaration that Pluto didn’t make the cut as a planet was Neil deGrasse Tyson. As well as a host of scientific awards, Tyson won the (US) People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive’ award in 2000 and an Emmy nomination in 2014. Charlie Pickering recently interviewed Tyson on the ABC’s ‘The Weekly’ and discussed some of the notoriety he gained as a part of the panel of scientists that decided that Pluto was not a planet, but a dwarf planet. There apparently were two groups of people: those that accepted the decision realising that over the 70 years since Pluto was discovered advances in technology had made a re-evaluation of the planet status warranted; while the second group had a number of issues with the decision primarily due to the letter writers learning that there were nine planets in the solar system — ranging from Mercury to Pluto — and no one had the right to change the basis of that absolute truth.

So why is The Political Sword suddenly interested in a discussion from around 10 years ago on the status of a (dwarf) planet that is located on average 39.5 Astronomical Units (the distance from the sun to earth is one AU) from the sun? Basically — we’re not. We are interested in the discussion between Tyson and Pickering on the science behind it. While some could accept the change in status for the dwarf planet formally known as Pluto, others could send Tyson a letter 10 years later saying that they had now researched the matter for themselves, decided Tyson was correct and apologised for calling Tyson a ‘poo poo head’ some time in the noughties (the discussion starts at around 1 minutes 43 seconds into the YouTube clip linked above).

Tyson talked about the distinct difference in the way the brain works in people. Some are able to take on new facts as they are determined and others don’t seem to have that ability. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call those that will take on board the research of others as progressives, and those that believe the facts are immutable as conservatives. The example of progressive and conservative thinking has been done to death in regard to the environment, so let’s look at the economy instead.

There is an argument that Australia, together with the rest of the developed world, is entering the post-industrial economy and experiencing the end of capitalism. The development of the post-industrial economy is linked to the supply and availability of information. Building consumer goods, digging fossil fuels out of the ground and other activities that have sustained the Australian economy for a century are becoming, and will be part, of the ‘mix’ in the future. Australia will, however, gain a greater proportion of its national income from activities that involve the ‘sale’ of our knowledge and skills.

For example, motor vehicle manufacturers have decided that it is no longer profitable to screw their products together in Australia. While this will cause considerable grief for those who have been employed (in some cases for decades) in manufacturing Holden Commodores or Ford Falcons, General Motors, Ford and Nissan will still have considerable workforces based in this country for the foreseeable future — despite the media reports. The difference is that the work performed has a greater technical and intellectual input, be it designing and testing vehicles for worldwide markets or casting items with a great deal of complexity for a number of global vehicle models.

You are reading another demonstration of the information age — The Political Sword. This blog, along with our other site TPS Extra, is put together by a small group of people that live somewhere between Brisbane and Melbourne using the internet, email and the very occasional phone call to co-ordinate the information and work flows that are necessary. This blog is accessible in most parts of the world, costs us very little to publish and you nothing to read. Prior to the internet, someone with very deep pockets would have had to fund the printing and distribution of this article — and even then it would have not been accessible around the world at the same time. Prior to printing, records were usually kept by monks who spent their entire lives recording history. Today, information is all around us and the storage of it is cheap.

So how is the current government handling this structural change in the Australian society and economy? Rather than accepting that coal is a fossil fuel that some suggest may soon be a ‘stranded asset’, the government is attempting to change the law so that a large coal mine can be developed in Central Queensland. When the newly blackshirted “Border Security’ promise to check people’s visas on the streets of Melbourne was cancelled due to community protest, ‘our’ Prime Minister claimed they ‘should not be demeaned’.

The current government promised to stop the boats. When it was determined by others, based on information retrieved from elsewhere in South East Asia, that the boats hadn’t really stopped as claimed, our government responded that it doesn’t comment on ‘on water’ matters and tightened independent access to the charmingly named ‘Offshore Processing Centres’ (where processing refugees for settlement in Australian seems to be the last item on the agenda).

Australia over the years has entered into a number of trade agreements that in theory allow better access to markets and lesser trade barriers. Australia along with a number of other countries around the Pacific Rim have been negotiating a trade agreement for the past couple of years. If you are an Australian, you have no formal way to access the proposed agreement, which may contain clauses that override our national interests for corporate interests. If you are a stakeholder and live in countries including the USA, you do.

The ALP started a process when in power of creating a world class telecommunications system across Australia that would allow all Australians to access information on the internet much faster than most can today using digital cable to each household and known as the National Broadband Network (NBN). One of the current Government’s claims before the election was that the system that was under development was more than needed. (Stop fast Internet anyone?) While the rollout of digital cable continues at a snail’s pace, a recent Senate enquiry has determined:
The Australian people are being kept in the dark by the minister and NBN Co on the cost and rollout timeframe of the NBN.
It has been demonstrated in the past that in any period of uncertainty, those that take the lead do better. Mark Zuckerberg has made billions in the past decade or so by providing a system (Facebook) for people to freely and easily converse with their friends and soak up information — even if the information are the problems that can only be experienced in a first world economy, such as photos of last night’s dinner. Others with a large volume of resources such as Google have tried to manufacture rivals, with limited success.

So how does our government attempt to keep pace with the change to society that we are currently experiencing? In short, they are trying to keep the genie in the bottle. This is where the discussion between Charlie Pickering and Neil Tyson at the top of this article kicks in. You may recall they discussed how some people could accept new facts and assimilate them while others couldn’t. The Abbott government seems to be of the latter mindset. Above are a couple of examples of reactions to events that in the stated views of Abbott or his ministers are inimical to Australian society. There are plenty more, such as same sex marriage, education standards, tax reform and so on.

Conservative leaders in Australian politics were not always so intent on keeping the status quo. It seems that conservative leaders from Menzies to Bjelke Petersen could analyse new information and make decisions based on the material at hand. While the ALP started the Snowy Mountains Scheme, construction continued through the 23 years of Liberal rule from 1949 to 1972. While some changes were made, the NSW Liberal premiers continued the construction of the Sydney Opera House and surprisingly Bjelke Petersen’s National Party introduced and funded rail electrification at 25Kv to the Queensland rail system. At the time 25Kv electrification was new and is better technology than the 1500v systems in New South Wales and Victoria.

Abbott is a Rhodes scholar. Despite how and why he achieved the honour, he got there. There are two possible options for his reluctance to meet and adapt to the societal norms of the 21st century: either he believes that the ‘large C’ conservative values will win him power at the next election or he genuinely is one of the people that Tyson claims can only understand the rote learning he experienced decades ago.

The last 100 plus opinion polls would suggest that his performance does not meet the expectations of the Australian community. It could be argued that opinion polls are just opinion — but those that conduct the polls have businesses to run and frequent large discrepancies from reality would quickly end the pollsters’ business operations. So it could be said that you would have to be living on another planet to bet on (large C) conservatism as a winning strategy as Abbott seems to be doing.

The other option is therefore more likely. Abbott came from nowhere to cause a hung parliament in 2010 and win the 2013 election. In the opinion of those who are of the same mindset — winners are grinners — and there is a certain amount of blindness that comes from belonging to a winning team. Abbott’s mind cannot grasp the new information in relation to burning fossil fuels; cannot fathom how the society he lives in has moved on from the ‘meat and three veges’ on the table every night for the family comprised of ‘mum, dad and the two kids’; and is kicking the can on contentious issues, such as climate change, the republic, tax reform and same sex marriage, down the road for the next parliament to deal with. Should Abbott get back in, the can will be kicked further.

While Abbott’s mindset is not unique, it is taking the ‘first mover’ advantage away from all of us especially in relation to adjusting to the new knowledge and information economy of the 21st century. That will be an ongoing problem for all of us.

What do you think?
Like those who rejected the downgrading of Pluto as a planet, 2353 shows that Abbott and his ilk refuse to accept new information. Abbott is avoiding contentious issues like marriage equality, despite opinion polls, and will continue to do so. He is avoiding economic changes, pretending that we can continue forever to just dig and sell our minerals. As 2353 concludes, that approach is not in the best interests for the future of Australia.

Come back next week when Ken will discuss ‘Another failure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs’.