Ronald Reagan, you were wrong

It’s wonderful how that stuff I read in Politics 101 all those years ago is still relevant today. In fact initiative - resistance theory is startlingly more relevant now than it was then.

The idea in the 1930s and ‘40s was that Labor was the party of political initiative, and anti Labor was the party of resistance. Labor did things and the conservatives tried to stop them. Sounds like a perfect description of the current situation. The carbon tax, the mining tax, the NBN, education funding reform - no, no, no and no. National disability scheme and national dental scheme – probably no. Initiatives resisted at all costs.

Most political commentators, however, see the negativity of the Abbott led coalition as a political tactic to force the government to an early election. In theory, Abbott could still make positive promises before the next election. But if we look more closely at the initiative – resistance argument, we can see that even if Labor is only partially the party of initiative, the LNP is now entirely the party of resistance.

Initiative in this context means a willingness to use the state to meet aspirations for a fair and decent society. This could be achieved by state ownership of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, such as banks, transport and power generation; government provision of services such as education, housing and medical care; and a social security system that insured against the pauperizing effects of illness, unemployment, and old age.

Resistance – and I’m being really balanced here – means a distrust of state activity, and a preference for the unfettered free market in achieving a fair and decent society.

Historically, neither party was all initiative or all resistance. A lot of what used to be thought of as Australia’s distinctive ‘state socialism’, such as tariff protection, arbitration, the basic wage and old age pensions was supported and extended by Labor governments, but had its origins in the liberalism of men like Alfred Deakin. Even when the liberals joined the conservatives in an anti-Labor alliance, these fundamental pillars of state activity remained unchallenged. And the conservatives had their own brand of state activism in the extension of rural infrastructure, the promotion of land settlement and marketing schemes for various commodities. (Government purchase of Cubbie Station, anyone?)

There was a burst of Labor activism during and after World War II, which saw existing social welfare provisions consolidated and expanded and Keynesian principles adopted to manage the economy. The Liberal government that followed didn’t extend any of this, but they didn’t abolish it either. The Whitlam Labor government was responsible for such initiatives as Medicare, free university education and commonwealth involvement in urban policy and planning. The Fraser Liberal government didn’t alter much of this either. Political scientists felt quite comfortable ignoring the whole issue of the role of the state in initiating a just society, arguing variously that these outcomes were the result of competition between elites, that the state was not a neutral organisation capable of being captured by either side of politics, or that the state was an expression of capitalist power and could only be used to enforce that power. Initiative/resistance disappeared as an explanation for political activity.

Then came globalisation, free market economics and the concomitant demonization of state activity, from state ownership through to mere regulation. This was summed up by President Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address. “Government is not a solution to our problem,” he said. ”Government is the problem.” Then followed a rush to demolish the edifice built up by the interventionist state. And in Australia it was the Labor Party under Hawke and Keating that led the charge. They cut tariffs and floated the dollar, giving up most of the old Keynesian levers for managing the economy. Then came large-scale privatisation of public assets by the Commonwealth, followed by State governments, both Liberal and Labor. Qantas, Australian Airlines, the Commonwealth Bank, state banks, airports, rail systems, power stations – the list goes on and on. Federal Labor also encouraged enterprise bargaining as the preferred wage setting mechanism, though they didn’t entirely abandon the Commonwealth’s industrial power. There was also a move to charge fees for services previously free, with a short-lived co-payment for Medicare services (later reinstated by the Liberals) and the HECS/HELP scheme whereby university students contributed to the cost of their education once they graduated. In relation to direct payments, compulsory superannuation was introduced to lessen dependence on the state in retirement. These changes evoked no resistance from the right, and surprisingly little from the left, who saw no alternative to deregulation, small government and market based solutions. (For someone who did, see Hugh Stretton, Australia Fair, 2005.)

After the Liberals formed government under John Howard in 1996, they privatised Telstra and the Commonwealth Employment Service; finding jobs for the unemployed was outsourced. But Howard made most of his contribution to economic rationalism through taxation policy and decisions about where to cut funding. His GST, which had more impact on the poor than the rich, allowed him to offer cuts in personal income tax, which mainly benefited the well off. This, from his point of view, had the double advantage of being electorally popular, and permanently reducing the size of the tax base, which in turn limited the capacity of government to spend on anything else. In addition he either cut, or failed to spend on areas like health and education. Cuts to university funding, for example, made them reliant on the market in overseas students, and partial deregulation of fees forced them further into competition in the local market. State aid to non-government schools – originally conceded in 1963 – was ramped up, making private education an option for more families. Commonwealth spending on public schools declined. The increasing cost of health provision was met with a rebate to those who took out private health insurance, rather than spending on the public health system – though this was admittedly complicated by confusion about federal-state relations. And then of course there was the attempt to deregulate the labour market (WorkChoices), by which they over-reached themselves, and lost the 2007 election.

The Liberals clearly agreed with Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society” and that “people must look to themselves first”. In this view, personal obligation trumps the right to welfare; there should be no sense of entitlement. Labor might have said that there was an obligation on the state to guarantee a given set of services to all citizens, but in practice there seemed little between the parties in their acceptance of economic rationalism. The outcome of such policies was to reduce the role of the state to a mere safety net for the poorest and most disadvantaged who were left behind by the market. If public health, public housing and education are only for losers and dole bludgers, there is no need to ensure they are effective – only cheap. Liberal willingness to proclaim personal obligation was partly obscured by the their fondness for middle class welfare through non-means tested benefits like the baby bonus, private health care rebate and the first home buyers grant. But these distortions of the market were electorally necessary to them.

The dangers of this preference for the private system can be seen in the interesting example of childcare. As more women entered the workforce, care for their pre-school children became a necessity. Labor introduced some assistance back in 1972; there were subsidies for both families and child care centres. But it was hardly an area where it was possible to make much profit and many centres were run by community or not-for-profit groups. Then during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the privately owned ABC Learning burst onto the scene, exponentially expanding the number of its centres both in Australia and overseas. The Howard government fully supported this apparent triumph of the market – until the company collapsed, throwing into confusion the child care arrangements of thousands of women. It was left to the incoming Rudd Labor government to clean up the mess, and find mostly not-for-profit operators for as many centres as possible. There never was a profit to be made from childcare – even out of the government subsidy to centres. All the returns came from expanding and franchising the business, and it needed continuous growth to cover its debt. To rely on the market to provide a service central not just to individual families, but to the whole economy involved a risk that should never have been allowed to happen.

Since Labor came to power in 2007, two things have further challenged a benign view of the market. One is the growing environmental crisis. On one hand the market makes unsustainable demands on resources, and on the other, allows the environment to be a free dumping ground for waste and pollution. Clearly there needs to be intervention in such a market.

The second is the Global Financial Crisis, which showed that markets are not automatically self-adjusting to create the best outcome for everyone; quite the reverse. They need careful regulation to shield citizens from the boom and bust cycle that appears inherent in them, and only government has the power to do this. Furthermore, the fallout from the GFC highlighted the differential way that markets distributed wealth. Instead of the trickle down effect assumed by Reaganomics, there seems to a syphoning up effect, which makes the rich richer and the gap between them and the poor wider. You can argue about the exact figures, which depend on precisely what is being measured. But there is no doubt that during the period following WWII, when state intervention was common, the gap between rich and poor in developed countries decreased. It is also indisputable that it has been growing exponentially since about the 1970s – just when free market ideology took hold. The disparity is worse in the United States and Great Britain than it is in Australia, but it is getting more pronounced here. Only effective action by the state can reverse this process.

So how have the Labor and Liberal parties responded to these challenges? Both initially endorsed an Emissions Trading Scheme – a market based mechanism – as the most effective way of reducing carbon pollution. But this nevertheless represented an intervention in the market that the Liberals ultimately couldn’t accept. Labor’s price on carbon will segue into an ETS, while the LNP has gone with a ‘government picks the winners’ direct action scheme, which won’t work, but will nevertheless require a lot more government involvement than a market based scheme. In reality, it seems likely a LNP government won’t actually do anything to modify the environmentally destructive process of the free market. Labor, on the other hand, gets a tick for taking action, even if it is through a market mechanism.

There is no reason to expect that the LNP will take action on the failure of the market and increasing inequality. Their response to the GFC was incoherent, but it is clear they would have used government stimulus less than the Labor party did, and they spend a lot of time criticizing that activity, with no acknowledgement of what it achieved. Aside from direct action on an emissions target, the only other policy announced by Tony Abbott is his paid paternity scheme – a gross example of middle class welfare. It’s because of policies like this – and opposition to any government attempt to cut back on such welfare – that critics found Joe Hockey’s speech condemning a sense of entitlement among welfare recipients so ludicrous – pot kettle black. But I’m not laughing. I think that the Liberals will follow the British Conservatives – to say nothing of the American Republicans - into a further retreat from welfare for the poor, and further market based service provision. They will persist with the deregulation of the labour market, whatever Abbott has promised. Indeed, as argued by David Marr and Bruce Hawker, Abbott’s world view is possibly formed more by the Catholic distributism of his mentor A.B. Santamaria, which gives a prominent role to government, than by classical free market economics. He doesn’t follow the low spending, low tax mantra of true free marketers in the party, such as Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull. If Abbott’s popularity continues to fall and the party decides to get rid of him, there are some in it who will heave a sigh of relief that the party can return to its true free market path. The Liberal Party remains close to the ultra free market Institute of Public Affairs – see their prescription for a free market Australia here. An LNP government will deserve the title ‘party of resistance’ more than any conservative government yet.

And what of the Labor Party? What the role of the state should be is hardly a question on every Labor member’s lips. But managing the economy in ways that promote greater equality should be core business. The National Disability Scheme, the Gonski model of education funding, increased spending on health and hospitals may not represent a coherent stand on government intervention, but at least they are steps in the right direction.

So where does that leave us? It’s clear there can be no going back to the old levels of government ownership or of government intervention in the economy. Market mechanisms like outsourcing and contracting out are here to stay. The market is still the best option we have for generating and distributing wealth. But unrestricted, it cannot produce a fair and decent society. We need to revive the idea of a mixed economy. There must be productive public/private partnerships, and effective and enforceable regulation. There should also be a proper assessment of what the market can’t do and government must do. Reagan was wrong: government is not the problem, and we need a vocal defence of the state as guardian of the common good. Come on Labor. Show a bit more initiative.

The Political Sword welcomes another new original contributor, Dr Kay Rollison, the author of this piece. She has a PhD in History and has always been interested in politics – historically, in the present and of course our future political battles.

The violent clash of political ideologies

Has it frustrated you that parliamentarians from the two major parties cannot seem to agree on much at all? Is this due simply to cussedness, an intention to disagree on virtually everything, or is there a more deep-seated reason?

In the case of the Coalition, opposition for opposition’s sake seems to be a conscious strategy of negativity that it has exhibited now for the last two years. Under the surface though, there seems a deeper stream of dissent, dissent that seems to be born of ideological positions, positions that differ from those of the Government. This piece explores those differing positions in just two aspects of policy: education and the economy, to ascertain how ideological differences sharply separate the two major parties.

Perhaps the subtitles ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ that apply to the Labor Party and the Coalition respectively, express some of these differences.

Labor’s vision for the nation is focused on opportunity and fairness for all, from the poorest, the least advantaged, and the disabled, right across the spectrum of society to those with the best opportunities in life. Labor believes that opportunity is best mediated through education from preschool through school to university or TAFE training and apprenticeships.

We know this even before taking a look at the official Labor Party website. There, clicking on the ‘Agenda’ tab, or on ‘Policy’ at the foot of that opening page reveals several policies illustrated in graphic form; clicking on ‘More Policies’ reveals still more. Each graphic is linked to a page that elaborates.

For example, the School Reform page begins: “The Gillard Labor Government’s vision is to make every school a great school – because in the 21st century, a great school and a great education are the keys that unlock an individual’s potential and the nation’s future. Only with world class schools can we build a high-productivity, high-participation economy that gives all Australians the opportunity of rewarding and satisfying work.” It continues: “In government, Labor is delivering ambitious reforms that are already changing Australia’s schools – achieving more for our schools in less than three years than the Coalition delivered in almost 12”, pointing to the relative activity of the two Governments.

What is the Coalition’s vision? It’s hard to discern. Tony Abbott doesn’t speak about his vision for the nation. He spends so much time criticizing Labor and PM Gillard that he seems to have no time to tell us where he would take the country should he become PM. One has to go to the Liberal Party website to get any idea of the Coalition vision; there is no Coalition website. Three words are centre stage: Hope. Reward. Opportunity, under the heading: Real solutions for all Australians, whatever that means. There is no elaboration. A search for a ‘Liberal policy platform’ yields no results. I could not find a coherent policy statement, but there are tabs for several policy areas.

Since Labor has a strong focus on opportunity and education for all, let’s see what Liberal Party education policy is. We will protect choice is the prime theme, with an elaboration: “Protecting parental choice: All Australian children deserve a high quality education that enables them to develop the skills necessary to realise their potential. Unlike Labor, the Liberals support parental school choice because we actually believe in it. We will not punish parents for investing in their children’s education.”

They are some links to more detailed policy. The one on school education begins: “The Coalition is committed to quality schooling for all children. Schools should be about achieving excellence and equipping our children for happy and productive lives. Education should be a pathway towards prosperity – for individuals, their families and our nation as a whole. Yet under Labor it has been about spin, waste, bureaucracy and ineptitude.

“Nowhere has the waste and incompetence of the Labor Government been more apparent than in our schools. Promising an ‘education revolution’, the Rudd-Gillard Government has instead recklessly wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, leaving countless families disappointed by broken promises and ignored the needs of teachers and schools that face uncertainty about their future funding.

“This gross waste and mismanagement has compromised the education, services and assistance that our students need and deserve. Australian schools are clearly no better off than they were three years ago.”

There is more.

Note that the first paragraph begins with laudable principles, but even before it ends, there is trenchant criticism of Labor – in Liberal Party policy! And the censure goes on through the next two paragraphs, reflecting the Coalition’s incessant negativity towards the Government, which it cannot even keep out of its own policy statements.

The contrast in these two education policies is stark. While both embrace commendable principles, Labor’s is largely positive with scant reference to past governments, the Coalition’s includes many negative comments about the Rudd/Gillard governments.

Labor, through its many statements has made it abundantly clear that a great education is for all, not just for those who can afford private schooling. The Coalition is focused on choice, giving parents the right to choose where their children are educated, and not penalizing those who choose private education, which it claims Labor’s policy does. Clearly, it’s more concerned with choice than equity, which is not featured in its policy.

Labor’s policy has been implemented through initiatives such as the MySchool website, the National Curriculum, NAPLAN, computers in schools, the BER that provided thousands of new school buildings and amenities, enhanced teacher training, performance pay for teachers, smaller class sizes, and the assignment of a vast increase in funding of all sectors from preschool to university and skills training. It has put its money where its mouth is.

The Coalition emphasizes teacher training but eschews smaller class sizes, and believes that giving more money to education is not the answer. The actions of the Baillieu Government in Victoria in substantially reducing TAFE funding to the extent of forcing closure of some campuses, even in regional areas where educational opportunity is limited, illustrate the Coalition principle that reducing funding will produce better and more affordable results.

There you have the contrast – Labor’s equity and opportunity for all wherever they live, as against opportunity limited by funding, and a priority for parental choice and private education that characterizes Coalition policy.

It is sad that there is so little unanimity between the major political parties about education, which is so basic to our future.

The economy
Even more striking is the contrast between Labor and Coalition policies on the economy.

Labor’s policies for the economy are featured under several headings, but the overriding concept is: “A strong economy is important – it generates jobs for working families and helps us build a fairer society. The Labor Government’s response to the global financial crisis protected jobs and small businesses. This has placed Australia in a strong position to capitalise on future opportunities and to confront the economic challenges of the future.”

It’s policies are detailed under several headings:
Creating jobs and skills in Australia
Investing in a creative Australia
Science for Australia’s future
Advancing Australia’s Interests Internationally
A Good International Citizen
Labor’s plan for all small business
Increasing your superannuation to 12 %
My Super
Protecting Workers’ Entitlements
National Trade Cadetships
Tax plan for our future
Mineral Resource Rent Tax
Connecting Renewables
Building Better Regional Cities
Reward for Early Action
Strengthening Australia
Cleaner Power Stations
National Broadband Network
Fairer Simpler Banking
Carbon farming initiative
A secure and fair Australia

There is not room for them here in detail, and anyway you have heard them all. There are linked for reference.

The Coalition has similar statements on economic management under the heading Our Plan to get Australia Growing Again suggesting in the title that it is not growing now, which it is, at a substantial rate.

Unsurprisingly, it begins with a tilt against Labor:

“Tony Abbott and the Liberals stand for real action to end wasteful spending and real action to grow our economy. Labor, on the other hand, has turned a $20 billion surplus into record debt and has no plan to pay it back. We will continue to fight for Australian families who are paying the price for Labor's record debt with higher interest rates and rising living costs.”

There is no explanation of the meaning of ‘real’, and of course the ‘wasteful spending’ meme recurs, and incongruously ‘higher interest rates’ crops up despite them being at record lows, much lower than during most of the Howard era.

Beginning with a heading: Rebuilding Sustainable Prosperity, its substantive policy statement implies rebuilding is required. The general statements are reproduced below in some detail, as we have not heard much about them.

They begin:

“The Coalition is committed to sound, sustainable and consistent economic policy.

“Sound and sustainable economic policy leads to strong economic growth with low inflation.

“Sound and sustainable economic policy provides the resources to meet the community’s long term social needs on health, education, aged care, housing and income support.

“Sound and sustainable economic policy provides maximum opportunity for individuals to prosper and pursue their dreams and aspirations.

“Consistent policy based on consistent principles reduces sovereign risk and gives investors confidence for long term decision making.”

There could be little argument about these principles. The statements continue:

“The Coalition’s approach to achieving sound, sustainable and consistent economic policy will be based on a number of key principles.

“At the core is the belief that free, fair and competitive markets should form the basis of our economic system. The rights and choices of individuals are paramount. Individuals, rather than governments, are usually best placed to make decisions that maximise community well being.”

Note ‘free, fair and competitive’ and ‘rights and choices’, and that ‘individuals are best placed to make decisions’.

“The Coalition believes in small government. The Coalition acknowledges that government has a role in raising taxes and other revenue, formulating laws and regulations, and spending money to achieve legitimate social objectives.”

Note ‘small government’.

“However, the government’s powers to spend and to regulate need to be exercised with caution. Taxes must be as low, as fair, and as simple as possible. The Coalition is acutely aware that taxes are other peoples’ money.”

Note ‘taxes must be low’ despite the Howard Government being the highest taxing in Australia’s history.

“The Coalition strongly supports sustainable economic growth. Strong economic growth provides economic security. Strong economic growth ensures rising living standards.

“Fostering strong growth in productivity is an important element of this because it is ultimately the level of productivity that determines our standard of living. The Coalition believes that quality education is a foundation for high productivity. Policies which boost participation in the workforce are also of key importance.”

Note the emphasis on ‘productivity’.

”The Coalition strongly supports the small business sector. The Coalition believes small business is the engine room of the Australian economy.”

Note the emphasis on ‘small business’.

“The Coalition believes in a strong, prosperous and vibrant regional Australia.

“The Coalition believes in fiscal conservatism. The Coalition will restore fiscal rectitude. We will run a budget surplus over the cycle. We will repay Labor’s debt as quickly as we can.”

Note the emphasis on 'fiscal conservatism', 'fiscal rectitude', ‘a budget surplus’ and ‘repay Labor's debt’.

”The Coalition is committed to “light touch” regulation. Australia’s system of financial regulation weathered the global storm better than almost any other developed country. The Coalition will be cautious in saddling the Australian financial sector with more onerous regulation, which arises from the shortcomings of less well-supervised markets overseas. Financial Services is a truly global industry but its impacts are dramatic locally. More regulation constrains credit and inhibits innovation. Australia has led the world in prudential supervision, corporate regulation and market oversight. We must continue this global leadership.”

Note ‘light touch’ regulation, and be amazed at the concession that we have ‘weathered the global storm better than almost any other developed country’.

”Finally, the Coalition believes that government policies must lead to a sustainable Australia. Economic, population and environmental policies must take into account social harmony, quality of life, the provision of adequate infrastructure and the preservation of the environment.”

The details are given to enable comparisons to be made. Most of what is in Coalition policy is also Labor policy. The differences revolve around issues such as ‘free markets’, ‘rights and individual choice’, ‘small government’ and ‘light touch regulation’. Labor also wants low taxes, a budget surplus and to repay debt.

Superficially, it may seem that the differences are minor, yet they influence behaviour in a major way.

During the GFC, the Government took the Keynesian approach of ‘pump priming’, stimulating the economy with cash grants, infrastructure projects such as the HIP and BER, and small business tax breaks, as well as bank guarantees. While the Turnbull-led Coalition supported the first tranche of over just over $10 billion, it opposed the second, preferring tax cuts. The consensus by economists and international agencies is that the stimulus was appropriate and is the reason why Australia came through the GFC better than any other developed country, and continues to be the most robust economy in the world and the envy of other major nations, with its steady growth to trend, low unemployment, low debt to GDP ratio, low inflation and record low interest rates.

What we see here is a stark contrast between Keynesian thinking and that of Milton Freidman, who developed his macroeconomic ‘monetarist’ policy and extolled the virtues of a free market economic system with minimal intervention. He opposed ‘naïve Keynesian’ thought and action, which has now been replaced by neo-Keynesianism.

Another aspect of Friedman’s mode of thought is preference for ‘small government’ and implicitly, low spending government, and low taxes, especially for the wealthy on the grounds that the wealthy generate more wealth, create jobs, and that the wealth generated at the top trickles down to those at the bottom, so-called ‘trickle down economics’. In his book, Zombie Economics (Princeton University Press, 2010), which has the subtitle: How dead ideas still walk among us, Queensland University Professor John Quiggin, shows how a number of economic theories, although now debunked, don’t die, nor are they alive, they are simply ‘un-dead’ – zombie like. I have reviewed his book in Joe Hockey should read John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics.

Quiggin describes trickle-down economics as an idea that whatever benefits are given to the wealthy, they will filter down to the poorest. Quiggin begins: “As long as there have been rich and poor people, or powerful and powerless people, there have been advocates to explain that it’s better for everyone if things stay that way.” While great economists such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mills and John Maynard Keynes have supported income re-distribution through progressive taxation, and most economists still do today, there are still some who argue that we should let the rich get richer and wait for the benefits to trickle down to the poor. One could be forgiven for thinking that is what Joe Hockey and the Coalition believe, as they insist on giving tax relief to the wealthy.

Quiggin gives example after example showing the trickle down hypothesis is false, and caps this with a telling graph of household income distribution in the US from 1965 to 2005 that shows that those on the 95th percentile for income steadily improved their position by over fifty percent, while those on the 20th percentile and below were static.

The contemporary debate in the US revolves around this trickle down notion. The extreme elements of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, are strong advocates of tax cuts for the wealthy and reduced government spending, even if that means repealing social benefit programs such as ‘Obamacare’ upon which so many of the poor rely for health care. Tea Party pressure has pushed the Republicans to oppose bills that would tax the rich higher so that social benefits could be offered, to the extent that if these bills are not passed by next year, the US might have to default on its obligations, a disastrous state of affairs for such a massive economy, which would have immense flow-on effects to the world economy and our own. This is why Wayne Swan has described these Tea Party elements as "cranks" and "crazies", as they push the US economy towards default, towards ‘falling over a cliff’, as Swan puts it. It is noteworthy that Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott have been quick to criticize Swan, presumably because they hold views similar to those of the Tea Party.

The now infamous Cory Bernardi, previously Abbott’s Parliamentary Secretary, is a strong advocate of these Tea Party policies, so much so that he is said to be ‘Sarah Palin without lipstick’.

In short, this comparison of policies on education and the economy, serves to illustrate that the ideologies behind these aspects of policy starkly differ between Labor and the Coalition, and that it is the ideology that drives the vigorous debate between the parties rather than the policy details. Ideologies are deep seated and invite contention and division. There could scarcely be more profound differences than those that exist on economics between the two parties. While both want a strong and growing economy and higher productivity, with one party focused on equity, the redistribution of wealth, and the provision of social services, and the other on boosting the wealthy at the inevitable expense of the less wealthy, it should not surprise us that ideological agreement between them is impossible. We saw this starkly exhibited on this week’s Q&A when Tanya Plibersek and Kelly O’Dwyer had a sharp clash, not on economic policy, but on ideology.

While Labor accepts debt as necessary to provide services, especially at times of recession, the Coalition regards debt as a sign of failure, and is only too willing to sacrifice expenditure on essential services such as education and health in order to 'repay debt', as we have seen LNP governments doing in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria in recent times.

We ought not be surprised that because there is so much disagreement on ideological grounds, agreement on policy details is impossible. It seems that as their ideologies can never meet, as compromise of these fundamental principles is unattainable, dissent is inevitable.

What do you think?

Gillard’s Men Problem

Gillard’s gender gap is man-made, and Abbott’s is all of his own making. There are many reasons why voters might dislike Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott that have nothing to do with their gender. But there has been a lot of commentary recently about Abbott's 'women problem', evidenced by a widening gap between his approval ratings with women as compared to men. The LNP is blaming this problem on a supposed campaign by Labor members Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and Deb O'Neill. Liberal member Kelly O'Dwyer inelegantly called this group a 'hand bag hit squad' when lashing out at them in parliament this week. Simon Benson wrote in the Telegraph that:

“All three have led the campaign to paint the Opposition leader Tony Abbott as a misogynist”.

What seems to have escaped the Coalition's attention, and that of journalists reporting this news, is that female voters' attitude to Tony Abbott has not been formed by anything recently said by senior Labor women. Nor has it been generated by David Marr's article in The Monthly in which he reveals that Abbott was an intimidating bully towards a female student at university. Women voters knew it already. When hearing this news story, Australian females did not collectively say 'well that's interesting, I didn't know Abbott's character was like that’. They collectively said 'I always knew he was a bully and had a problem with women, and now here is more unequivocal proof'. It also didn't help Abbott's cause that he denied the event occurred, thereby labeling the female victim as a liar. Doesn't this resonate with Abbott's campaign to paint Gillard as a liar in order to discredit her? Female voters have had a long time to get to know Abbott, and it's not just the way he walks or his inherent 'blokiness' that turns them off. It's because he says things like this:

“I think there does need to be give and take on both sides, and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they are both… they both need to be moderated, so to speak.”

or this:

“I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”

Angela Shanahan is right when she wrote in The Australian that:

“Women are not fools at the ballot box: they vote for policies, not a leader's personality” (fire-walled of course).

But she fails to connect this argument with the point that females don't like Abbott because they know instinctively that a man who holds such attitudes about women (that is, his personality), will not, as a leader, develop policies that promote women's rights and interests. Furthermore, since Abbott tells voters so little about his future plans, women are left to judge for themselves what his policies might be, based on his personality.

The latest polls have highlighted that female voters’ perception of Abbott as a sexist bully is increasingly affecting their voting intentions. In this article Michelle Grattan reports that:

“Tony Abbott is seen as being significantly more arrogant, narrow-minded, intolerant, and aggressive than Julia Gillard, in a new poll underlining the Opposition Leader's image problem.”

In Grattan's article about the poll results on Monday, it is reported that:

“In an important finding in light of claims about Mr Abbott having problems with women and an allegation of intimidatory behaviour towards a fellow student in 1977, he is 12 points behind as preferred PM among women, but leads by 5 points among men.”

If Abbott's 12 point deficit among women is evidence of the situation outlined above, how can we explain Abbott being 5 points ahead among men? Easy. It’s because Gillard is 5 points down with men. So what are the reasons for Gillard’s gender gap?

Anne Summers’s recent speech: Her Rights at Work. The Political Persecution of Australia's First Female Prime Minister' might go some way to explaining Gillard's 'problem' with male voters. In this speech, Summers examines what she describes as:

“the sexist and discriminatory treatment of Australia’s first female prime minister by the Opposition and by some elements in Australian society.”

She describes a campaign that is:

“the deliberate sabotaging of the prime minister by political enemies, who include people within her own party, and who are using an array of weapons which include personal denigration, some of it of a sexual or gendered nature, to undermine her and erode her authority.”

I agree that such a campaign has been waged against Gillard. All the misogynistic abuse directed at her, detailed in Summers’s appendix to her speech, is horrifying. I also agree that this campaign aims to undermine and erode Gillard's authority, and has reduced her popularity amongst some men.

Part of the reason why Summers’s argument is so shocking is that we, as Australians, have to come to terms with the behaviour of these people, mostly men, who justify their revolting antics by saying they have free speech and can use this right to show their hatred of our Prime Minister. Even though women dislike Abbott, this has not produced the sort of vile response that male hatred of Gillard has. I am not sure if the sub header in this Telegraph piece has a typo, but if it was deliberate, it speaks volumes. The main headline reads:

“Male voters turning off Prime Minister Julia Gillard according to pollsters.”

The subheading says something similar, apart from one very important word.

“Julia Gillard has a man problem. As the popularity of our first female prime minister plummets, government insiders fear men are turning on Ms Gillard.”

Turning 'on' Ms Gillard. There is a lot of evidence that male voters don't just voice their opinions at the ballot box by turning 'off' a leader, in the way that women are turning off Abbott. Some male voters have turned 'on' her as part of the misogynist campaign described by Summers.

But does this fully account for the poll results? Unfortunately, no.

There are many male voters who are so unengaged with politics generally that they are unlikely to be directly influenced by the specifics of the misogynist campaign against Gillard. These are people who wouldn't have taken much notice of political media reportage, Tony Abbott's door stops, Facebook hate groups and Alan Jones anti-carbon tax rallies. Yet they still contribute to Gillard's poor standing in the polls amongst men. This leads me, sadly, to conclude that there are still many Australian men who are inherently misogynist and just not comfortable with a female in charge.

This situation is not unique to Gillard or Australia. An article in the New Zealand Herald reports on the polls in the lead up to the 2008 New Zealand election. The then Prime Minister, Labor's Helen Clark, was far more unpopular with men than her rival, National John Key:

“A gender breakdown of the poll reveals that National has 60.6 per cent support among males, miles ahead of Labour's 24.7.”

That's quite a gender gap! This article about the Democratic primaries race between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, discusses the influence of race versus gender in terms of their effect on voters, and concludes:

“one fact is clear. The primary data indicates that “more Americans see gender as more of a barrier in presidential politics than race”.”

Julia Gillard quipped to Barack Obama:

“you think it's tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister.”

It seems she is correct, her position is more difficult.

Could people argue that Abbott’s problem with women is similar to Gillard’s problem with men, and therefore the voting preferences cancel each other out? Could they say that this is simply a case of women voting for a female and men voting for a male? I don’t believe so. It’s not just because Abbott is a man that women don’t like him. It is because he is a horrible and sexist man. However, the difference in negative perceptions of Gillard amongst male voters as compared with woman voters can’t be blamed on sexism on her part, as nothing she has ever said or done has given the slightest ammunition to the idea that she unfairly discriminates based on gender. Abbott's disadvantage with female voters is self-inflicted, but Gillard's disadvantage with male voters appears to be innate, because she was born female.

The Political Sword welcomes a new original contributor, Victoria Rollison, the author of this piece.

She is 31 years old and lives in Adelaide with her fiancé and three cats. She enjoys current affairs, politics, reading, renovating houses, watching football, going to movies and most importantly…. writing! She works in the marketing/communications field and has many other community and social commitments in her life, but still finds plenty of time to write.

She runs her own blogsite: This piece will also appear on her blogsite. You can follow her on Twitter @Vic_Rollison

Bucket-loads of Biffo with the Bash Street Kids

The Principal of Bash Street Primary School was at her wits end until finally, salvation came to her and her long-suffering educational community.

For years, no Secondary School had been foolish enough to accept the enrolments of the Bash Street Liberal/National Coalition miscreants, who had been rascally led by that perennial pugilist, Tony “Harry” Abbott.

Art work removed at artist's request.

Then, on that heaven-sent day, the Principal got a phone call from the Vice-Chancellor of the newly refurbished Sydney University who, as part of her “Building Education Revolution”, said she was willing to enrol the gang as probationary first-year undergraduates.

“Halleluiah!” whispered the Principal to herself, “there is a god after all!” So, she packed the worthless crew off to Sydney, wishing the Vice-Chancellor the best of luck, as she was going to need it.

True to form, it didn’t take long for “Harry” Abbott and the rest of the Bash Street Kids to start playing up. As well as picking fights with all and sundry, they ran amok in lectures.

Art work removed at artist's request.

The bad reputation of the Bash Street Kids gang is spreading rapidly across the campus of Sydney University.

As well as the leader, “Harry” Abbott, the gang is comprised of a number of other colourful characters. There is : “Fatty” (for obvious reasons) Hockey; also “Erbert” Sheridan, who, even though he wears glasses, takes them off when Harry is around, so that he can say he didn’t witness the shenanigans he gets up to.

Also in the gang is Troy “Plug” Buswell, soon dubbed as “Prof. Plug, Chair of Sniffology”, as he likes to hang around after lectures and sniff all the front seats in the lecture theatre that had been occupied by the female students. And closely related to “Prof. Plug” are the evil sisters, Sophie “Plugella” Mirabella, and Julie “Plugena” Bishop.

Another member of the gang is CanDo “Wilfred” Newman, from Queensland. Wilfred is very recognisable as he is the one who wears his jumper right up to the bottom of his nose. It is said he does this as a means of hiding his identity, as he realises he really is “on the nose”. At times, moreover, Wilfy is also known, for hiding his neck and lower face under his jumper, as “Tortoise”.

And, another member of the Bash Street Kids gang is Malcolm “Cuthbert Cringeworthy” Turnbull. However, to say that Cuthbert is a bona fide member of the gang is stretching the truth a bit. The others only tolerate him because he is filthy rich and they can open up a tab in the refectory in his name. Also, Cuthbert is, unlike the other members of the gang, a dreadful nerd who, upon entering the university, had volunteered to be on the editorial committee of the student paper, “Honorable Swots”. Cuthbert, therefore, soon ceased to be even a peripheral player and was relegated by the gang to the category of “one of them”.

And, incidentally, as part of the ecologically-friendly dimension of her ground-breaking “Building Education Revolution”, the Vice-Chancellor ordered all the brick walls in the university to be replaced with wafer-thin ones made from recycled egg-cartons, filled with insulating pink batts.

For his part, “Harry” Abbott isn’t the least bit impressed by this Vice-Chancellor. Not only is she a girly chairthing, she is also into all this lefty pinko crap. She is, in Harry’s eyes, so effete, he dubs her, “Madame Butterfly”.

It didn’t take Harry long, therefore, to sus out how easy it is leave his impression on the university murals. His favourite party-piece is, garbed in his trademark boxer shorts, to put his fist through a wall. And to enhance his growing reputation for being the epitome of masculinity, he wears, under his boxers, a specially-reinforced metal jockstrap, fashioned for him by none other than the formidable Man of Steel, John Howard.

So, to cut a long story somewhat shorter, the Bash Street Kids have been on a roll, causing havoc, with “Harry” Abbott especially in great biffo form, punching holes in walls and giving the frightened staff and students inside the mocking “be prepared to meet thy doom” sign-of-the-cross or the insulting middle-finger salute.

However, after a while, the Vice-Chancellor has had enough. She has decided that the namby-pamby pastoral care approach is secondary to the efficient smooth running of the university. Immediately, she orders in the Maintenance Crew and issues them with explicit instructions.

Meanwhile, the Bash Street Kids are meeting at their usual table in the refectory. As normal, the room, except for the gang members, is empty. Even the serving staffs behind the counter have fled, so the gang are helping themselves to free choc milks and caramel slices.

“Harry” Abbott: Righto…listen up, you lot…here’s the plan of attack for today…First, we head down to the Chaplain’s place – I need to get my confession heard – and then we make our way, via wrecking a few lecture theatres, to the Vice-Chancellor’s office…

[A frenzied chorus ensues: “the bloody back-alley bitch!”; and, “yeah, let’s make an honest woman out of her!”; and, “let’s Whyalla the joint!”; and, “yeah, let’s slag and chaff bag the cow”; and, “can I go for a flying fox run between her ear-lobes?”

To quell the manic mayhem, Harry, imperiously, raises his hand. Immediately, and Pavlov-dog-style, there is silence. Then, slowly and deliberately, Harry rises to his feet, shouts “Let’s play ball!” and the gang takes off, at a raucous rate of knots, out of the refectory and down the corridor, with Harry issuing liberal doses of punches to sundry walls as he progresses.

As planned, the Bash Street Kids gang’s first port of call is the Chaplain’s office, so that Harry can get his confession heard. Upon reaching the Chaplaincy, Harry notices the green light over the confession box is lit, so he punches a hole in the door.]

Cardinal Pell [exasperated]: For God’s sake, Harry…I wish you would stop doing that…Every day you come to confession and every day I have to get the door replaced…And, as for that ridiculous-looking jockstrap you wear…it really is so immodest – you make Blackadder’s most bulbous codpiece look like a concave mirror…

[For the sake of the peace of the sacrament, Harry humours George and removes his jockstrap.]

Cardinal George: And anyway, Harry, I think you are abusing the true spirit of the sacrament…You can’t just turn it on and off like a beer tap in the Student Bar, y’know…

Harry: But…but…but…your eminentship…isn’t that the whole point of confession – I rock up to parrot my sins and you dish out the absolution, so that I can inflict Groundhog Day again on all my hapless victims…heh…heh…

Cardinal George: Erm…Harry…it doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid…as my esteemed predecessor. St Augustine used to say, genuine contrition is necessary for the sacrament to be efficacious…

Harry (very peeved by this stage): Now listen up, me bucko…you have two choices – either you grant me absolution every day, or I punch your lights out and you end up like that troublesome priest, Thomas Becket…which is it?

Cardinal George: I absolve thee, in the name of the Father…

[So, Harry Abbott reckons he’s now free to create some more guilt-free mayhem, and the Bash Street Kids continue with their nihilistic charges down even more corridors, with Harry punching even more holes in walls. Eventually, they reach Prof. Roxon’s lecture theatre. Harry delivers his customary punch through the wall and middle-fingers the illustrious professor, who, understandably, is fit to be tied by such a lack of respect. Whilst, inside, the fear-ridden students compete for corners to cower in, Prof. Roxon strides defiantly over to the door, opens it forcibly and eye-balls Harry.]

Prof. Roxon: Harry Abbott!!! What do you mean by this outrageous disruption of my class!!! And, furthermore, you are enrolled in this course – the lecture commenced half-an-hour ago – why are you late?

[Not having much experience of being challenged by an assertive female, Harry, muttering “that’s bullshit”, turns on his heel and the gang continues on with their rampage down the corridors. Shortly, they encounter a group of cleaning staff who are chucking bags of refuge down a garbage chute adjacent to the Staff Canteen. Upon witnessing the rampaging gang pillaging and punching their way towards them, the cleaners, utterly panic-stricken, dive, in search of succour, head first down their own chute. Some of the garbage bags thrown into the chute, however, contain food scraps from the canteen. The super-sensitive olfactory glands of “Fatty” Hockey are immediately put on notice.] “Fatty” Hockey: Mmmmmmm…fooooooood!!! I smell a snack coming on…I think I’ll just make a detour down the chute and sample some of those tasty morsels down there….yummmmmm…

“Harry” Abbott (very annoyed): Fatty!!! Don’t even think about it!!! We’ve got a job to do here, which instead involves making a dog’s dinner of the Vice-Chancellor’s office and then taking over the whole joint…

[Fatty, however, insists on having a free feed down the chute and persists in mutinously back-chatting Harry, who loses it and delivers an almighty punch to Fatty’s gob, hitting him so hard he falls into the opening of the chute, disappearing immediately into the void therein.]

Harry: Right…that’s settled his hash once and for all...And he should be quite at home down there…after all, he was always fond of black holes…bwahahahaha…

[Like a band of vicious Vikings who have overdosed on their pillaging pills, the remaining members of the Bash Street Kids gang wreak further havoc on their way to their final destination – Madame Butterfly’s Vice-Chancellor’s office. However, as they proceed, the membership of the gang gradually dissipates.

For instance, after “Harry” Abbott has punched yet another hole in a lecture theatre wall, he looks through the little glass window in the door and spots a student inside who is confined to a wheelchair, and is breathing oxygen through two tubes inserted in his nostrils. Harry turns to “Wilfy” Newman, aka TheTortoise, who is still on the nose with his jumper pulled right up.]

Harry: Righto, Wilfy…you tortoises have sharp beaks…you can rejoin us later on our rampage…but, in the meantime, I want you to wait here until the lecture’s over, and when that malingerer in the wheelchair comes out, use your beak to slice through his oxygen tubes…hee…hee…

“Wilfy” Newman: You reckon he’s not pure of heart, boss?

Harry: Got it in one, Wilfy, old son…and no better man than you to complete this assignment…after all, with all your experience of cuts, you’d put Jack the Ripper in the shade…heh…heh…

[Also, Julie “Plugena” Bishop comes across a photocopier in a corridor and, as usual, is hooked. Similarly, her equally nasty twin, Sophie “Plugella” Mirabella goes AWOL – she reads a notice on a lecture theatre door advertising a class on “The assets of the elderly”. Without a second thought, Plugella rushes in, kicks a poor unfortunate, very-mature-age, student out of her front-row seat, and is all ears.

Moreover, in another rush along a now-devastated corridor, Greg “Erbert” Sheridan loses his specs, runs into a pillar and knocks himself out. Also, having punched multiple holes in the walls of the hated “Wimmin’s Meeting Room”, clearing it of its shrieking incumbents, Harry then proceeds on his merry way, oblivious of the fact that Troy “Plug” Buswell has broken ranks and stayed behind in the now-empty Wimmin’s Room, sniffing the recently–occupied seats voraciously.

So, by this stage, “Harry” Abbott has reached the Vice-Chancellor’s corridor, not realising, however, that he is the sole standing member of the Bash Street Kids gang. Suddenly, the door of the Vice-Chancellor’s office opens and out strides Madame Butterfly herself, red hair aflame, nostrils flaring so ominously and widely, they would make Krakatoa look like the Sea of Tranquility.]

Vice-Chancellor: Harry Abbott!!! You just stop this instant!!! I’ve had a gutful of your antics!! Clean out your locker and remove your sorry carcass from the establishment!!! You and your Bash Street Kids can go straight back to primary school – that is, if they’ll have you…

Harry (confidently): Get her, guys!! The Vice-Chancellor’s office is ours for the taking…Phone a friend, bitch…we’re in charge now…heh…heh…

[Harry, however, suddenly realises his mates are as plentiful as pork chops at a Jewish barbeque. Undeterred (“she’s only a woman after all”, he thinks to himself), Harry aims a punch at the Vice-Chancellor’s head, which he is sure will result in her turning into a gibbering girly wreck, lying pitifully on the floor, crying for mercy.

However, The Vice-Chancellor sees the attempted punch coming a mile off, side-steps adroitly, and Harry’s fist lands on the wall adjacent to her office door. Little did Harry know, but when the Vice-Chancellor called in the Maintenance Crew earlier, they had replaced that section of the wall with bricks, instead of the previous fragile walls made of egg cartons and pink batts. Harry emits such a cry of anguish and pain, he sounds like Twiggy Forrest after he heard about the fall in Fortescue Metal’s share price.

As Harry skips in excruciating pain from one foot to the other, holding his broken and bleeding knuckles, the Vice-Chancellor lifts her knee expertly, and decisively, into Harry’s nuts. He crumples to a pathetic heap on the floor. By this stage, moreover, the University Security Squad has arrived.]

Vice-Chancellor: Just in time, guys…take him down-town…heh…heh…

Harry (in a hushed, barely-audible tone): Huh…this is your Dirt Unit, I presume…

Vice-Chancellor: Nah, mate…you’re the only piece of garbage around here…

Harry: I still can’t believe I’ve been out-smarted by a girl…boo…hoo…

Vice-Chancellor: Too right, mate…shit happens…you should have realised it would be a big mistake to stuff around with me…As I say, “mess with Madame Butterfly – you get my knee!”…heh…heh…