Review of ‘Pushing Our Luck: ideas for Australian progress’

If you want an alternative to the Abbott future for Australia, this book is for you. It has the ideas and policy approaches with which to bombard politicians and opinion-makers.

The publisher, the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), was established in 2007, a progressive think-tank that grew out of New Matilda, providing an important counter to right-wing think-tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

This IPA article is an example of what we are up against and why this book is so important.

In its six years of operation, CPD has already influenced Labor policy on health and its members regularly attend conferences, write articles, and make appearances on The Drum on ABC News 24. A young organisation, CPD is already making its mark. The people involved and who have contributed to this book help explain why. Many of the authors, experts in their field, you will know: for example, the editor Miriam Lyons; Eva Cox on welfare; Ian McAuley on restructuring the economy; Jane Caro, well-known from the ABC’s Gruen Transfer and a strong proponent of public education, one of two authors on education; and Geoff Gallup, former WA Premier, on a national vision and strategy.

I come to this book after 30 years of policy work in Aboriginal affairs, covering issues such as education and training, economic development and ‘development approaches’ to service delivery. I understand policy, and implementing policy, and the interplay of economic and social issues as they affect everyday lives. I know and like what this book is about.

Pushing Our Luck presents a wide ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social structures if we are to maintain our ‘luck’ into the future. Its approach matches my own experience linking people and economics, not considering the two as somehow divorced.

Such a linkage was stated strongly by the OECD in 2005:

... children of poor parents have less chance of succeeding in life than children of rich parents: a widening inequality of income risks leading to a widening inequality of opportunity. Because of these factors, a failure to tackle the poverty facing millions of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, it will also weigh heavily on our capacity to sustain economic growth for years to come.

Despite that, our governments appear not to have come to grips with the concept. This book does and deserves attention; and deserves to be put under the noses of our politicians.

The ‘Introduction’ (by the editor, Miriam Lyons) asks the question why Australians feel financially insecure when economic indicators suggest Australia is at or very near the top of the league of developed countries. There is rising inequality and governments are providing fewer services, placing more risk and uncertainty back on the individual. The economy of the nation may be travelling well but many people are working longer, often in less secure employment, and not seeing the benefits of our economic success.

Returning to the old Australian concept of a fair and egalitarian society is part of the answer. Lindy Edwards pursues this in Chapter 9, ‘Welcome Home: Preventing the next culture war’. She asks for more emphasis on Australia’s democratic history: the radical path we trod in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving women the vote and allowing ordinary people, not just an elite, to be elected to parliament. She relates the story of an early member of the Australian Parliament making a speech with holes in his suit pants because it was the only suit he had. The fact that Australia had the world’s first Labo(u)r government was no accident but a result of our founders ensuring that ordinary people were drawn into the political process.

The idea that human societies are not chained to repeating history and that we can create a better world runs deep in the Australian tradition. In recent years we have lost sight of how rare that philosophy was, and still is.

She calls her approach ‘egalitarian nationalism’ and presents it as an alternative but inclusive national narrative to that of multiculturalism. It is also highly relevant to the rest of the book as such a shift in our national narrative could create greater acceptance of the alternative policy proposals.

In both the health chapter (Chapter 3, ‘Getting better: prescriptions for an ailing health system’, Jennifer Doggett) and the education chapter (Chapter 2, ‘Getting past Gonski: every child deserves a good school’, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro), the authors show the increasing divide occurring in access to services, with the well-off using private schools and private hospitals while public systems remain under-resourced.

In education both higher and lower achieving students are becoming more concentrated in separate schools. The authors support the Gonski approach to increase funding to those schools most in need but suggest neither the Coalition nor Labor is committed to taking all the steps necessary for equity and opportunity.

It is amazing that we are still discussing inequality in education. I have, from a time when we did believe in equality, Tom Roper’s 1971 book The Myth of Equality. In the subsequent 42 years there have been many changes in our education systems but Roper would recognise the same failings. We have not provided the funding necessary, nor adopted the policies that would change it. I agree that much needs to be done, perhaps even more than suggested by this chapter.

Eva Cox’s chapter on welfare (Chapter 4, ‘Putting society first: welfare for wellbeing’) argues for welfare payments that provide a reasonable income, not a minimalist safety net, and that pushing people into employment should not be the driving force behind welfare support. She refers to our current job market offering fewer secure jobs with predictable hours as a problem that our welfare system must address.

International literature refers to such work as ‘precarious’ employment and it is covered in detail in Chapter 6, ‘Taking the high road: a future that works for workers’ by Lisa Heap. Australia has an increasing number of workers who are casual, part-time, on fixed term contracts and similar forms of non-standard employment that may not offer the benefits of holidays, sick leave and so on. She proposes a basic set of conditions that should apply to all workers irrespective of whether they are full- or part-time. Employers are also avoiding their responsibilities to their workers by using them as sub-contractors or taking them from labour hire companies. This requires a broader definition of employment. Government, business managers, industry associations and unions need to look afresh at the way we now work rather than maintain an out-dated focus on ‘male full-time employment’.

In Chapter 5 (‘After the boom: where will growth come from?’, Roy Green) and Chapter 7 (‘Life after luck: building a more resilient economy’, Ian McAuley) the proposals are about productivity and economic restructuring. Green argues for new and smarter management and quotes evidence that changes in management have a proportionally greater impact on productivity than changes in labour and capital. The changes we need include not just technical but organisational innovation.

McAuley says our reliance, historically, on resources like gold, iron ore and coal has created a mentality not conducive to a modern economy.

Both agree we need to add value to our products and that simply reducing costs is no longer an answer. McAuley puts it like this:

Cost-based competition will always be a struggle. Instead focus on providing so much customer value through products or services that they can command premium prices.

As expected on such an issue, Chapter 8, ‘Climate change: reconnecting politics with reality’, John Wiseman goes furthest regarding the changes required to meet the challenges. Issues of productivity, economic restructuring, and creating an equitable society also link with these changes. A key difference in this argument is that the time has passed for incremental change. It is now necessary to adopt something like a ‘war footing’ to achieve a rapid transition to a new carbon-free economy.

In the book, ‘Chipping in: paying for a good society’ is rightly the first chapter, but I also link it to the big picture of the final chapter because it addresses how the alternative policies can be funded by government. Four authors were involved in this chapter (so I won’t list them all). I liked their reference to the ‘reality triangle’ in the business world: ‘fast, ‘good’ and ‘cheap’. The concept is that a product or service can achieve any two of these but never successfully all three. They suggest a similar triangle for governments: ‘low taxes’, ‘balanced budgets’ and ‘high quality public services’. In the electoral chase to lower taxes, we have been running into problems with the other two.

They propose changes to increase revenue and suggest the electorate may accept increased taxes if these quickly result in improved services, or if it can at least be shown that the increased revenue is committed to the services. That is consistent with the general support for tax levies identified for specific purposes, such as the ‘gun buy-back’, the ‘flood levy’ and the increase to the Medicare levy to help fund the NDIS.

The last chapter (Chapter 10, ‘The vision thing: we need a national plan’) by Geoff Gallop, provides a means to draw together the previous proposals. The author discusses a national plan and points to some successful approaches through the COAG Reform Agenda and the earlier introduction of the National Competition Policy.

It focuses too much on the practical aspects (as important as they are) and ignores key elements of a ‘vision’. In my experience, the vision is vital in showing how the underlying strategies fit into the whole: for example, how the education strategy ties into economic and social inclusivity strategies; why ‘a’ must precede ‘b’, thereby allowing people to understand why there is increased funding for one and not the other.

It should be obvious that one can’t provide refrigeration and computers to a community that doesn’t have a reliable electrical supply but that is a situation I encountered in my working life. It arises if a strategy is not linked effectively to an overall vision or, sometimes, an attitude that the important precursors are too expensive so let’s move straight to the cheaper parts. They are issues that can be overcome in the logic of the vision. Politicians should play a key part in explaining that logic – but first they have to find a vision! Starting with the policies in this book would help them.

In this short review I cannot do justice to the policies, evidence and background presented. For example, I found the first chapter on tax reform also effective as an economics primer. There is much to be found here, including the many sources listed at the end of each chapter.

This collection of articles, although only ten in number, is vital in developing an overall progressive vision for the future of Australia, one building on our luck not relying on it, and again making Australia an egalitarian society. I strongly recommend it for your Christmas list.

Pushing our Luck: Ideas for Australian Progress edited by Miriam Lyons with Adrian March and Ashley Hogan, published 2013 by the Centre for Policy Development, Haymarket NSW

If you want more information, or a copy of the book go to the Centre for Policy Development.

Lights out

The last time an Australian Labor leader came up with a phrase that was both memorable and of positive benefit to the Party was Ben Chifley's ‘Light on the Hill’. So good was it, in fact, that the media have deliberately tried to turn it into a joke phrase.

Oddly, the phrase is part of an otherwise forgettable piece of prose:

I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.

Indeed the memorable ‘light’ part bears no obvious relation to the rest of the worthy description, and that in turn, though it is worthy, is totally unclear. ‘Better standards of living’? ‘Greater happiness’? You see what he is trying to get at, but it is no ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, is it?

Nevertheless, it is a hell of a lot better than to suggest that the programmatic specificity of the Party was to incrementally adjust the economic indicators of the lower socio-economic groups in order to improve their wellness parameters.

The ‘Light on the Hill’ phrase is a ‘frame’. It is not a factual description of anything, but an image, a metaphor, which each person reading or hearing interprets according to their own ideas and experience, and as such is much more powerful than a long lecture or a text book. ‘Frame’ is a term coined by George Lakoff in a book whose title – Don't Think of an Elephant – makes clear the meaning. (The word ‘elephant’ carries such strong images that if you tell someone not to think of one they will be unable not to.)

For example, the ‘Light’ in Chifley's frame is usually considered to be a lighthouse, perhaps a beacon, showing the way. I read it rather as a farmhouse on a hill, with one light showing on the porch, guiding the way home for the weary traveller. With a Labor government in power eventually we will all find our way home to warmth and succour and rest – a very powerful image.

From that time onwards it has all been, so to speak, downhill for the Labor Party. The next memorable framing is Whitlam's ‘It's Time’, and this is another (two-word!) slogan often praised for its effectiveness. But in 1972 any old drover's dog's breakfast of a slogan would have beaten McMahon. And it's worth looking at this slogan with fresh eyes. All it was really saying was that, after 23 years, surely it was Labor's turn: what about us, it isn't fair, we don't get enough, now we want our share. Not exactly aux armes citoyens is it?

But, a trifle unfair, it also carried the connotation of ‘It's time we joined the twentieth century’ and ‘It's time we did all the things that have been neglected since Menzies became PM’ and ‘It's time to dump McMahon into the dustbin of history’. And these readings, this framing of the election choice, was emphasised emphatically after the Labor win as the Duumvirs Whitlam and Barnard – no time (!) to muck around waiting for caucus to elect a ministry – got stuck into a mountain of policy implementation in the most astonishing short period of government in Australian history.

So, benefit of the doubt, a deliberate and successful framing. But what else of Whitlam's words sticks in your mind? Ah yes, from the day the lights on the hill were turned off and the dream ended: ‘Well may we say “god save the queen” because nothing will save the governor-general’.

Now if you know nothing else about Whitlam you will know that phrase. Must have been replayed a million times in the next four decades. But, um, what does it actually mean? Who was saying ‘god save the queen’ exactly? And what is the meaning of the words ‘well may’ and ‘because’ in the sentence? And from what was the GG not being ‘saved’ and when? No, the whole thing is nonsense, words that individually have meaning but collectively are gobbledygook.

Those assembled cheered of course, would have cheered whatever he said, but I wonder if afterwards they were puzzled about why they cheered? If this was Whitlam's attempt to frame the events of Remembrance Day 1975 it was an abysmal failure. Apart from anything else, Kerr was merely a tool of Fraser (and Murdoch). The framing that was needed was to explain to the people precisely what was happening and why. But he failed to do that, and so the Fraser/Murdoch framing (Loans Affair, bad government) is what people remembered and proceeded to vote on a month later.

Then we come to Hawke. Someone I had remembered as, along with Keating, being good at framing. But what do we remember of the millions of words he spoke as PM? Just two phrases – ‘any boss who sacks a worker for being late this morning is a bum’ and ‘by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty’. Oh dear. Clearly a drover's dog could do a better job of framing than Hawkey.

‘Bosses’, ‘sack’, ‘bums’, all said with a mad cackle and a stupid smile while wearing a clown's jacket? Were the Lib minders organising the show? How about ‘under Labor Australians are encouraged to be world beaters by combining mateship with technology and skill’ or ‘boats will always sail faster under a Labor government’.

And the other one on children and poverty? Talk about providing hostages to fortune and the Opposition! What did such a boast mean? How would you measure it? How could you possibly achieve whatever ‘it’ was in such a short space of time? As a result it went down in history not as Hawke's ‘Light on the Hill’, which it was obviously meant to be, but a hollow boast signifying nothing. Why not ‘Labor believes all children are created equal’? What about ‘Labor always strives to give children a helping hand through the obstacle course of poverty’? Anything really except what he did say.

Then it was Keating's turn. Yes, yes, I know, pithy phrases, rotten carcasses swinging in the wind being done slowly and all that. But the one the public remembers, the one indelibly branded on Paul's forehead like the tattoo of a French clock? ‘This is the Recession we had to have’! I mean, if you wanted to save the Lib's faceless men time by thinking up negative framing for Labor that's the kind of phrase you might come up with. Alternatives? Well, I don't know, but perhaps ‘Labor has brought boom times for all Australians, but now we need to take a smoko for a moment while the economy readjusts’? Or something of the kind?

No good Paul, no good at all, and I doubt that he ever, in spite of perceptions, ever understood framing. Or perhaps he did mean to suggest to the voters who thought this the greatest country on the planet that Australia was instead the ‘arsehole of the world’. Is that a vote-catching frame or what?

So, goodbye true believers, hullo straighteners and levellers: John Howard, soufflé having risen for the third time, Lazarus having had his bypass, was in power. And immediately began talking as if he had learnt to speak Frame in the cot. Every sentence would have made George Lakoff proud, not a word wasted in driving home the message ‘Liberal good, Labor bad’.

You remember (and that is the point) ‘interest rates always lower’, ‘we will decide who comes here’, ‘lacks ticker’, ‘black armband’ and so on. Perfect framing every time. So perfect that he easily threw off every Labor challenge, all of them frame-free and totally forgettable as you walked into a polling booth. But then Howard's faceless men over-reached. Creating for their corporate masters a system of industrial relations which destroyed unions and took Australian workers back to Dickensian satanic mills, the likely lads of Menzies House called it, in an attempt to create the most improbable frame of all time. ‘Work Choices’.

The men and women of Australia, ultimately demonstrating that you can frame some of the issues all of the time, and all of the issues some of the time, but you can't frame all of the issues all of the time, saw through Work Choices as Hobson's Choice, and dumped Howard into the dustbin of history. Replaced by Kevin07, a slick marketing frame with not much behind it. Immediately confirmed by Mr 07 holding a 2020 Summit at which he sat taking notes at the feet of Australia's Best and Brightest for three days, and then, when the TV cameras stopped focussing on the bold and the beautiful of Australia's A-List, Kevin firmly established as one of them, dumped the notes into the dustbin of Parliament House and promptly forgot about them.

It was a kind of grand visual framing of how he saw his prime-ministership unfolding in the Versailles of the Southern Hemisphere, but it ended there. No one can remember anything Rudd said – backward ran sentences until reeled the mind – except for a few flourishes which became jokes: ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, ‘gotta zip’, ‘programmatic specificity’.

And Julia Gillard was if anything worse. Given a clever program of reducing CO₂ pollution by putting a price on carbon for the big polluters while subsidising the public to compensate, she called it a ‘carbon tax’. Not only was this a gift in itself to the Likely Liberal Lakoff Lads, instantly referring to a ‘great big new tax’ when they weren't referring to a ‘toxic tax’, but she had apparently made herself seem to be a liar, having said that she would not introduce a ‘carbon tax’ (but would, in a second part of sentence never shown to the public, put a price on carbon) before the election. I'm thinking the frame writers in Abbott's office must have been pinching themselves in disbelief each morning after making an offering to Hanesha, the Elephant God in the room.

Having produced a negative frame for yourself and seen it used to enormous effect by the Opposition, Gillard (or her advisers) seem to have decided that frames were a Very Bad Thing and they would never use one again in case it turned out to be negative and they shot themselves in the foot once more. They ran so far in the opposite direction in fact that they produced a kind of anti-framing (on the principle of anti-matter) – political nomenclature that was so bland that not only did people not listen to it, they couldn't listen to it.

Thus a wonderful proposal to reverse the Liberal emphasis on rich private schools and begin funding on the basis of the needs of poor public schools was not framed in terms of benefit to students, or educational opportunity, or social justice, but was referred to solely as ‘Gonski’, the name of the man who produced the report on which the proposal was based. The use of such a meaningless anti-frame seemed so pleasing to Labor that they expanded on it with the even more meaningless slogan: ‘we give a Gonski’. Needless, perhaps, to say, the proposal was not understood by the public, not supported, and was attacked by the Liberals with that wonderfully cynical frame of ‘class warfare’.

Also popular were mind-numbing acronyms, beloved of bureaucrats and now it seemed of the determinedly non-framing Labor Party. A much needed scheme to improve funding for disabled people, so long casualties of the free market excesses of neo-conservatism, was referred to constantly simply as NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), thus ensuring again that no member of the public would ever hear of it. A similar example was the NBN (National Broadband Network) with its related acronym FTTH (fibre to the home). The constant use of these acronyms left the public in the dark about the benefits of this extraordinary nation-building effort, and left it open for the opposition to obfuscate about its alternative, inferior proposal with its own acronyms like FTTN (fibre to the node).

As a kind of unconscious symbolism of the underlying problem, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese kept crowing about the 500+ ‘pieces of legislation’ they had passed through a hung parliament, as if the number of these, not their objectives, was the whole aim of the exercise of governing. Five hundred pieces of legislation is a substantial body of work that could be used to explain to voters what you were on about, how you were aiming to reach the light on the hill, and how you differed from the Opposition (who were determined, and immediately on election set about, to erase all 500 from the statute books).

A good frame for a political policy does two things: it makes the policy memorable and it provides a succinct statement about its purpose. By avoiding frames Labor abandoned all hope of doing either thing. Indeed they often, as in the case of the carbon tax, sorry, price on carbon, seemed to be clueless themselves about the purpose, blathering away about the technicalities of the scheme while rarely if ever mentioning climate change.

So while the Labor ants were busy busy busy working industriously away in the bowels of Parliament House, making provision for the winter, the Lib grasshoppers strutted around in the sunshine attracting attention with stunts and slogans. The slogans were the frames; the stunts were a way of hammering home those frames night after night: ‘Axe the tax’, ‘Stop the boats’, ‘End the waste’, ‘Balance the budget’, ‘Bad government’, ‘Ditch the witch’ and so on. The Liberal faceless woman had decided that any frame could be represented by a three-word slogan, a dressing-up outfit, and a Lib-voting shopkeeper. Enormously effective in both getting the message to the public and in forcing the government to play on your preferred turf, completely negating the home ground advantage an incumbent government normally enjoys.

Meanwhile, Labor ministers kept wandering around, convinced it seemed that good deeds were their own reward, and turning up with folders of facts and figures to counter three-word slogans. Never take a fact knife to a frame gunfight, I could have told them.

It's Time - time the Labor Party began to employ some Lakoff students to not only run campaigns but to do so while understanding that these days the next campaign starts the day after the election. You need to frame your win or loss and take it from there.

The early days of Bill Shorten, including his continued referral to ‘carbon tax’ and mutterings about whether they will vote for its removal, and his complete lack of ability so far to frame responses to any of the Liberal omni-shambles of their first month in office (secrecy, asylum seekers, dumping clean energy finance, dropping funding and standards for preschool and aged care, money borrowing, expenses rorts, handing the environment to states to wreck, and so on) makes it look as if this Dream Team thinks it can win the next election without a good dose of the Lakoffs.

The Light has gone out on the Hill.

How many Labor members will it take to fit a new bulb?

Do I have a mandate for you!

Prior to the election, Tony Abbott claimed that the election would be a referendum on the carbon price and Julie Bishop repeated this the day after the election (8 September). Since the election both Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt have claimed people voted to repeal the ‘carbon tax’ and have been pressuring Labor without necessarily using the word ‘mandate’. But on 10 October, in response to Clive Palmer creating a four-member voting bloc in the new Senate, Abbott did say:

I’m confident that everyone in this parliament very well understands that the new government has a clear mandate to get certain things done.

What is this mythical beast called a ‘mandate’?

There is no doubt that Abbott has a mandate to form a government as he has a majority in the House of Representatives, the Parliamentary chamber in which governments are formed. The Governor-General asks a person who has ‘the confidence of the House’ to form a government and, unless there is a split in the Coalition, Abbott can clearly claim that confidence.

No problems with that mandate, but that is the end of certainty.

Votes can be one way of considering a ‘mandate’ but the national vote does not automatically lead to Government. In fact, five times in 26 elections since 1946 a government has won the seats it needed to form government with less than half the national two party preferred (2PP) vote:

YearWinnerWinner’s 2PP (%)Winners majority
1954 Menzies 49.3 7
1961 Menzies 49.5 2
1969 Gorton 49.8 7
1990 Hawke 49.9 9
1998 Howard 48.9 13

John Howard in 1998 is a stand-out: the lowest recorded 2PP to win government but with a significant 13-seat majority. My own recollection of the 1998 election is that much of Labor’s increased vote occurred in Labor’s own seats, which did nothing to help it gain the additional seats it needed to win, although increasing its national vote.

So it is possible to achieve a mandate to govern but not a popular mandate from the voters.

Can we take the number of seats or the size of the majority as an indication of a mandate?

The way the single member seats in the HoR work also reflects that national votes do not match seat numbers. As the vote increases, the number of seats often increases in greater proportion. Some of the more significant wins in this way are:

YearWinnerWinner’s 2PP (%)Winner’s seats/seats in HoRWinner’s seats (%)Winners majority*
1949 Menzies 51.0 74/121 61.2 27
1958 Menzies 54.1 77/122 63.1 32
1966 Holt 56.9 82/124 61.2 27
1975 Fraser 55.7 91/127 71.7 55
1977 Fraser 54.6 86/124 69.4 48
1983 Hawke 53.2 75/125 60.0 25
1996 Howard 53.6 94/148 63.5 45
2013 Abbott 53.5 90/150 60.0 35

[* The majority shown is over the other major party and does not include minor parties or independents.]

Two other interesting results were:

YearWinnerWinner’s 2PP (%)Winner’s seats/seats in HoRWinner’s seats (%)Winners majority*
1980 Fraser 50.4 74/125 59.2 23
1987 Hawke 50.8 86/148 58.1 24

In both cases, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke won the national vote by less than 1% but finished with comfortable majorities.

By contrast in 2010, Labor under Julia Gillard scraped home in the national vote, 50.1% to 49.9%, but managed only 48% of the seats (72 out of 150).

In the recent election about a quarter of Abbott’s seats came from the conjoined Liberal National Party in Queensland. It won 22 of 30 seats on a 8.9% share of the national first preference votes. Its share of the Queensland first preference vote was 45.7% and its 2PP, 56.5%: but this gave it 14.7% of the seats in the House of Representatives, and an amazing 73.3% of the Queensland seats.

So the number of seats in the HoR bears no direct relationship to the proportion of votes and suggests, that other than being able to form government, the number of seats held or the size of the majority are not very good indicators of a mandate.

And the vote was so close in a number of electorates that a shift in vote of 4,754 voters (about 0.04% of total votes) would cause Abbott to lose eight seats; a shift of 7,196 votes (0.06%) would lose him 12 seats; and a shift of 29,904 votes (0.25%) would lose him government (18 seats). While Abbott may claim a win on national votes and seats, it is on a slim margin when examined at the seat level.

If we break-down the 2013 election there are, in fact, several different mandates and not each is consistent with Abbott’s claim of a mandate.

In Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, the Coalition won the 2PP but by less than 1%. It would have taken only 20,809 voters in total across those three jurisdictions for Abbott to have lost the 2PP in them. Does he claim a mandate from those jurisdictions because 0.6% of voters (or 0.17% of the national vote) made the difference between winning and losing the vote? A fairly flimsy claim in my opinion, which means his mandate from Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory is marginal at best and in Victoria Labor did win a majority of seats.

In the ACT the vote was strongly Labor: 42.9% of first preference votes and 59.9% of the 2PP. So there is definitely no mandate for Abbott there, which is quite understandable given his ‘promises’ regarding the Public Service.

Chris Graham has also analysed the vote in distinctly Aboriginal communities and shown that in communities outside the Northern Territory the average vote for Labor was in the order of 71% and as high as 94%. In the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari different Aboriginal communities showed different swings, both to Labor and to the Coalition, but generally a move back towards Labor after a strong shift to the Coalition in 2010. As Graham headlines his article: ‘Abbott has no mandate from Aboriginal Australia’.

Abbott said in his victory speech that ‘a good government is one that governs for all Australians. Including those who haven’t voted for it.’ Does that mean he will take account of the mandates he does not have, from Aboriginal people and the ACT voters, or the marginal mandates from Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and also the views (mandate) of the 5,583,200 who did not prefer the LNP as their government?

If he doesn’t, can we say that his is not a ‘good government’ by his own definition?

If he can’t really claim a mandate on the proportion of votes or the number of seats, or lacks a clear mandate from some groups and jurisdictions, that brings us to Abbott’s claim that the election was a ‘referendum’.

To be won, a normal referendum requires a majority of the votes and a majority (4) of the States. He did win the vote, 53.5% to 46.5%, and he also won all six States but, as with the discussion of the size of his victory, he won two by less than 1.0% and one by 2.4%. It would have required only 22,116 voters out of about 12 million, or 0.18%, for Abbott to have lost three States and therefore technically to have lost a ‘referendum’ – I think a bit too close to claim as a clear mandate.

Although on the figures Abbott may have just won a referendum, did the voters really enter polling booths with the carbon price foremost in their thoughts?

In July, prior to the election, polling was showing that, although a majority still opposed the carbon price, 53% against and 34% for, there was a general trend of slowly increasing acceptance since 2011. Also, a month before the election ‘climate change’ was rated last of ten issues that may influence voting. There was, however, a marked difference on party lines: while climate change was a clear last amongst LNP voters, it was actually sixth for Labor voters. How this may have affected voting is impossible to say but it does reduce the likelihood of voters seeing the vote as a referendum.

The fact is that on election day exit polls suggest between 3% and 8% of the voters considered the ‘carbon tax’ an influence on their vote. Only 1% of LNP voters mentioned the environment or climate change as an important consideration while 13% of ALP voters did.

So perhaps it was not a referendum at all – well, at least, not so far as the voters were concerned!

The final word on ‘mandates’ should rightly belong to Abbott himself. After the LNP election loss in 2007, he wrote:

The elected Opposition is no less entitled than the elected Government to exercise its political judgment and to try to keep its election commitments.

So, thank you Tony: the 5,583,200 voters who preferred Labor have also created a mandate as you pointed out in 2007, although it is not the one you are claiming now.

What do you think?

Where on earth is Lampedusa?

Australians are unfortunately used to headlines that another ‘boatload of asylum seekers’ has called for help near Christmas Island. All too frequently the Australian Navy is called upon to rescue people from boats that were not seaworthy enough to make the journey from a port in Indonesia, Sri Lanka or another location to the north of Christmas Island.

Enough printer’s ink to fill Sydney Harbour, and hundreds of millions of electrons, have been used in the past twenty years to ‘explain’ (read justify) positions in relation to asylum seekers. If you want to discover the actual and legal position on ‘irregular arrivals into any country’, you could begin with the Refugee Council of Australia’s website. The Refugee Council of Australia offers the following definition of a refugee – from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – to which Australia is a signatory:

Any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

Like a lot of Australians I was saddened but not surprised at the loss of human life when the media reported during October this year that another boatload carrying asylum seekers had sunk – and it was estimated that 345 of the passengers on the ship had drowned. What I wasn’t expecting was the mention of the location of the incident – Lampedusa. I have a reasonable knowledge of Australian geography and my first question was ‘Where on earth is Lampedusa?’, given that the narrative widely promoted within Australia for a number of years described asylum seeker boats as a purely Australian/South-East Asian problem. I was curious when I found out that Lampedusa is, in fact, in Italy – and the asylum seekers were from northern Africa.

It was reported widely in Australia, as in Guardian Australia on the 10th October, that those that drowned at Lampedusa were to be given a state funeral by the Italian Government. When the Italian Government later determined that those who lost their lives would receive a memorial service rather than the state funeral promised by the Italian Prime Minister, criticism came from a number of influential parties, including the Mayor of Lampedusa.

Guardian Australia also reported that:

This year more than 30,000 migrants have sailed to Italy, of whom 7,500 were Syrians fleeing their civil war, 7,500 Eritreans escaping a brutal regime and 3,000 avoiding violence in Somalia.

By contrast, Operation Sovereign Borders Acting Commander, Air Marshal Mark Binskin announced the same week:

For the October 4-11 reporting period, a total of 111 people were transferred to the offshore processing centres on Nauru.

Since the new government's Operation Sovereign Borders began three weeks ago, a total of 215 arrivals have been transferred to the centres, including Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

As of Friday, there were 1059 detainees on Manus, 800 on Nauru and 2176 on Christmas Island.

Let’s compare those numbers. Up to 345 people died at Lampedusa while 111 people in total arrived in Australia in the same week. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gives a detailed listing of asylum seeker numbers, globally, in an Excel spreadsheet.

Australians have often been described as living in a land where ‘everyone is equal’ and ‘where Jack is as good as his master’ and in a society ‘where anyone will help out a mate’. There is some evidence to support this mantra; for example:

  • In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 flooding throughout Queensland, a number of cities and towns were overwhelmed with volunteers willing to help those less well-off get back on their feet. Brisbane City Council provided a fleet of buses to transport the ‘mud army’, consisting of thousands of people, across the city to areas of need.
  • Every SES person on the ground from Byron Bay to Port Headland is a volunteer, as are those members of service clubs such as Apex or Lions. They all make a magnificent effort to help out a mate who needs it, in some form or other, every year.
Australia is supposed to be a Christian country. Our current Prime Minister is a self-confessed practising Roman Catholic – and commenced training to be a Jesuit priest. His immediate predecessor was frequently shown on the Sunday news bulletins leaving an Anglican church. There is a paragraph in the bible that can be paraphrased as ‘do unto others as they do to you’. There are similar sentiments in the holy book of Islam, The Koran, and in Buddhism.

Despite this tenet of faith, and the claims of being a ‘Christian’ country, Australians frequently make the following statements:

1. People who arrive here and claim refugee status are taking our jobs.

The evidence would suggest not, as the unemployment rate in Australia has been sitting at under 10% since the days when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. In fact, the entire argument for the resettlement of refugees from Europe, post World War II, was to expand the country and its economy.

In Italy, for example, towns are welcoming the chance to be revitalised by the settlement of asylum seekers seeking refugee status.

2. People who arrive here and claim refugee status can claim more benefits than ‘ordinary Aussies’.

The Refugee Council of Australia states:

A refugee who has permanent residency in Australia receives exactly the same social security benefits as any Australian resident in the same circumstances. Refugees apply for social security through Centrelink like everyone else and are assessed for the different payment options in the same way as everyone else. There are no separate Centrelink allowances that one can receive simply by virtue of being a refugee.

3. Asylum seekers are queue jumpers or ‘illegal immigrants’.

Under the UN Convention, you cannot apply for refugee status from your own country. Refugee camps also work on a needs basis – rather than a formal queue.

Illegal immigrants are those that enter legally and overstay their Visa – there were in excess of 60,000 people in this group in the end of 2011, according to the Herald Sun, and the report suggests the number is climbing. By contrast, at the beginning of October 2013, slightly over 4,000 people are in asylum seeker camps established by the Australian Government.

Australians raise these kinds of questions regarding refugees. Italians criticise their government for not providing state funerals, although attempting to provide assistance and support to those that survive. Why is there such a difference in attitude between the Italians and the Australians?

According to UNHCR, Italy had 17,352 people request asylum in 2012; Australia had 15,996. Remembering that you do not have to claim asylum in the first country you come to, the EU had 358,285 people claim asylum in 2012; our region (Australia and New Zealand) had 16,320. Italy offers state funerals to a large number of victims of a ship sinking – Australia makes pregnant asylum seekers give birth in sub-standard conditions, something criticised by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Various Australian politicians have suggested ‘tough’ asylum seeker policies will stop people getting on unsafe boats and subsequently dying at sea. In Europe, they are asking why people get onto unsafe boats.

You may be surprised to know that even the ultra-conservative Fox News in the US reports European asylum seeker boats that sink sympathetically and apparently has done so for some time; until recently, our media hasn’t.

While the Europeans are discussing ways to ensure people don’t have to get onto unseaworthy boats, we are not. Australian politicians, and sadly a significant proportion of the Australian public, seem to believe that being ‘tough’ on asylum seekers who arrive here will help people accept what may be draconian living conditions in their home country – which is clearly a fallacy. This is treating the symptom rather than the root cause. It could be compared with attempting to turn off a dripping tap with greater force (symptom) rather than replacing the washer (root cause).

The previous and current Australian Governments both claim to take the high moral ground on a number of issues with self-confessed practising Christians as the last two respective Prime Ministers. When the Italians who receive a higher number of asylum seekers per annum than we do are so upset about the unnecessary death of over 300 people – as they should be – what is this country’s excuse for using asylum seekers as a ‘tough on crime’ issue in a similar way to how various state governments are using ‘outlaw’ motor bike groups?

What happened to ‘do unto others’?

How does our treatment of asylum seekers in the 21st century demonstrate the fabled ‘help a mate’ attitude of Australians?

Why are immigrants to Australia victimised when we are all descended from immigrants?

Why are asylum seekers a domestic political issue?

Probably the saddest thing about this issue is that so-called Christian politicians, who claim to value human life, are so blinded by the domestic political opportunity they forget a fundamental belief they claim to live their lives by – ‘do unto others as you wish them to do to you’ – and have convinced a significant proportion of the population of the merits of the case.

What do you think?