On which leg does the Liberal Party stand?


The Liberal Party often describes itself as ‘a broad church’, particularly when its parliamentarians are expressing different views. It is to be expected that political parties will contain within them people with different views on some issues but it seems the Liberal Party has a basic philosophical dilemma.

John Howard famously described himself as ‘an economic liberal and a social conservative’ and referred to the philosophic traditions of John Stuart Mill (considered the ‘father’ of liberalism) and Edmund Burke (the ’father’ of conservatism) for those positions:
Mill and Burke are interwoven into the history and the practice and the experience of our political party.
The words of Mill emphasise the central role of the individual:
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it.
In that regard, speaking at the launch of The Conservative at Parliament House on 8 September 2005, Howard said:
… we are a party that is committed to the role of the individual. … If you look for evidence of the classic liberal tradition within our embrace and within our activity, we think of our commitment to labour market reform. … labour market reform is about transferring power from institutions to individuals.
When working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs during the Howard years, it became quite apparent that we were not supposed to talk about ‘Aboriginal communities’. The whole government approach to both white and non-white people was about individuals and families. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (including Noel Pearson who had some influence with that government for a while) spoke of families and communities, not individuals. The overlap of course was families but even that was understood in different ways with the government thinking in terms of nuclear families and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in terms of extended families. Little wonder there was not common ground on most issues.

And in Battlelines Tony Abbot put it this way, echoing Mill:
… the Liberal Party is concerned about the rights, responsibilities, opportunities and place in society of each person. We want each person to be empowered, as far as reasonably possible, to live the life he or she thinks best.
In his book, Abbott also refers to Howard’s approach to policy:
… policy should meet three criteria: does it strengthen the family, give individuals more incentive and hope, and give preference to private over government enterprise?
The last element captures what has become the modern neoliberal approach of small government and a fervent belief in competitive capitalism, that private enterprise will always provide better outcomes than government services.

The more extreme version of this approach is captured by Senator Leyonhjelm when he opposes mandatory wearing of bicycle helmets and measures to reduce smoking — it is not government’s role to protect people from themselves, as this amounts to the ‘nanny state’ (although it ignores the cost to the wider community of such behaviours). Although not a member of the Liberal Party, there are a number in the party who share such views.

Edmund Burke was not initially seen as a conservative. As part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, he supported greater freedom in Ireland and opposed the British war against the American colonists. It was his reaction to the French Revolution that ultimately was to make him the ‘father’ of modern conservatism but that was also consistent with some of his earlier works. He rejected the idea of a ‘social contract’, as espoused by Hobbes and Locke, suggesting instead that the relationship between individuals and the state was a product of history and while change could occur it should be gradual — as it had been throughout history. The ‘natural law’ was a result of that evolutionary process but also based on god’s law as that was reflected in ‘man’ as a creation of god. From that he supported the institutions of society: so he could support the role of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches (although favouring the Anglican). What he disliked about the direction of the French Revolution was that it was based on a ‘vision’ of society and was making enforced changes to achieve that, rather than allowing a gradual and natural evolution. (He accepted England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 primarily because it returned England to its traditional form of governance and society.)

In the same speech referred to earlier in 2005, Howard laid out his conservative credentials:
I am sceptical of radical reform in society. In fact, I’ve been a profound opponent of radically changing the social context in which we live. As Liberals we support and respect the greatest institution in our society, and that is the family. There is no institution that provides more emotional support and reassurance to the individual than the family. There is no institution incidentally which is a more efficient deliverer of social welfare than a united, affectionate, functioning family. It’s the best social welfare policy that mankind has ever devised.
Tony Abbott, when Health Minister in the Howard government, also clearly expounded the conservative approach to change (from speech notes at the Queensland Press Club, August 2005):
… the Howard government has never shirked fundamental reform, if it is necessary to solve serious problems. By the same token, conservative governments don’t lightly make systemic changes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “if it is broke, fix it, don’t throw it away” are good conservative instincts … To some extent at least, nearly all reforms end up illustrating the iron law of unintended consequences. The theoretical benefits of structural change need to be weighed against the real costs of the disruption which significant change always entails.
Abbott continued his very conservative social position when prime minister with his deliberate procrastination over marriage equality for non-heterosexual couples, his expressed discomfort with homosexuality and his views on the role of women:
What the housewives of Australia need to understand, as they do the ironing, is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price - and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up.
And he believes passionately in the importance of Western and christian values:
Western civilisation came to this country in 1788 and I’m proud of that …
But, like Howard, he adopted a liberal (or neoliberal) economic approach. As he is reported to have written recently:
The government’s economic narrative had been clear from the beginning — lower taxes, less regulation and higher productivity.
Each is a neoliberal approach offering less government involvement and keeping wages down, as productivity in the neoliberal world is chiefly measured by the input price of labour.

Turnbull arrived as prime minister, professing both liberal social and economic views. It was a little more old-style Liberal and an approach that caught the public’s attention after the very conservative social values of Howard and Abbott. But, to date, he has disappointed by maintaining Abbott’s conservative social policies.

How can the Liberals wind these two strands of thought into a single political philosophy? On the surface, it would seem that there are some inconsistencies between the two: liberalism emphasises the right of the individual to make their own decisions meaning ‘small government’ and minimal government regulation and, as Howard claimed about labour market reform, giving more power to individuals over institutions.

In October 2014, when the Mining Tax was repealed, the legislation also included slowing the process to increase superannuation for workers. Senator Lazarus, then speaking for PUP which had agreed to the changes, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, both emphasised that this gave individuals more money in their own pocket. Cormann went so far as to suggest people could now decide what to do with their extra money:
"This is not an adverse, unexpected change as it will leave Australian workers with more of their own money pre-retirement which they can spend on paying down their mortgage, spend on other matters or save for their retirement through superannuation as they see fit," Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the Senate.
That is a classic liberal, or now neoliberal, approach.

The conservative, however, emphasises traditional values, slow incremental change and the maintenance of society’s institutions.

Back in 2001, then Treasurer Costello, gave a hint of the Liberal link between liberalism and conservatism by suggesting that reduced government involvement (liberalism) left more space for society’s established institutions (conservatism):
… we ought to get governments out as far as possible, out of family lives, you ought to let non-government institutions of society, like the family and the school and the community and the church take a lot of slack.
So, is that the key to the Liberals’ combination of liberalism and conservatism? It may work if both sides of that divide take a moderate position but it appears that in more recent times both the liberals/neoliberals and conservatives have taken more strident positions within their respective philosophies. That makes the combination of the positions within the Liberals that much more difficult.

The conservative side is represented by Senator Cory Bernardi:
Society will always do better where citizens have a belief in justice, honour and private morality. Where individuals are reduced to the satisfaction of personal appetites society will decline. The need to preserve society is at the very heart of conservatism and the absolute moral truths that are required for this preservation are not subject to change.

Today, despite different backgrounds, those of us who are willing to respect the traditions and history of this country can join together under one national banner as Australians. this is the kind of unity that the conservative will embrace, not the superficial and divisive ‘diversity’ talk of the radical, who prefers to constantly re-create the nation according to some momentary fashionable utopian image and denounces all patriotic sentiment as jingoistic and bigoted. [emphasis added]
More recently, in regard to the Safe Schools program:
Senator Cory Bernardi told the ABC the program was seeing children "being bullied and intimidated into complying with a radical program".
"It's not about gender, it's not about sexuality," he said.
"It makes everyone fall into line with a political agenda.
"Our schools should be places of learning, not indoctrination."
Although Bernardi’s views are now considered more extreme, they are entirely consistent with the Burkean tradition, emphasising traditional values and dismissing utopian visions of society.

By way of contrast, if we go back a little in Australian political history, it could be argued that until the 1980s Australia adopted a conservative economic approach, with tariff protection for our industries. Both Labor and Liberal supported that approach. The Liberals had a more liberal approach to social issues and Labor sometimes adopted more radical social policies. Currently, it could be said that the Nationals now represent both conservative economic and social positions. Since the 1980s, Labor has also adopted a more liberal/neoliberal economic policy but remains more committed to a radical or progressive position on some social issues, meaning that it is more willing to undertake government intervention to support social outcomes.

Have the Liberals adopted conservative social policies because Labor now mostly shares the neoliberal economic approach and that is less a point of differentiation between the parties? Did it have to express such views to stand apart? It does use its liberal philosophy to oppose Labor’s interventionist approach but underpins its opposition with its conservative philosophy — that is, the individual should be free to make their own decisions but within the framework of the traditional values and institutions (which some would argue, as in the marriage equality debate, actually restricts the freedom of the individual).

So which leg do the Liberals really stand on? Are they liberal or conservative? Or, as John Howard professed, do they jump from leg to leg depending whether it is a social or economic issue? Are the two approaches really compatible? We do have to remember that, historically, the liberal and conservative traditions in Australia drew together not for any reason of a logical marriage of ideas but to present a united front against the ‘socialism’ of the Labor party which was considered more dangerous than the differences between the liberal and conservative philosophies.

The modern versions of liberalism and conservatism seem to have moved from middle of the road positions to more extreme positions making the matching of the two philosophies more difficult and that seems to be reflected in the current problems and disagreements within the Liberal party.

While those more extreme positions remain in play, it will be difficult for the Liberal party to present a united front. It may remain a ‘broad church’ but it will be a church divided.

What do you think?


Malcolm’s Bitter Harvest



It would be trite to begin with the platitude: You reap what you sow. To Malcolm Turnbull though, that cliché must have an ominous ring about it as he reflects on his past. To what extent has he brought upon himself the political troubles that afflict him now?

His career was illustrious before he entered federal politics, but once inside the rabbit fence the rules changed and so did he.

Brought up by his father, he had a sound education at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney, from which he graduated in Arts and Law, and on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford he took a degree in Civil Law.

He is remembered as an adventurous barrister defending Kerry Packer against the ‘Goanna’ allegations made by the Costigan Commission, and is famous for his success in the ‘Spycatcher case’ when he took on and defeated the UK government, which was trying to suppress the publication of the book of the same name by Peter Wright, a former MI5 official.

He tried his hand at journalism, moved into merchant banking and became managing director and later a partner at Goldman Sachs. Subsequently he showed his entrepreneurship and technical skills when he oversaw the expansion of Internet Service Provider OzEmail, which he later sold for $60 million. He was Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, and entered federal politics in 2004.

Even his opponents acknowledge his intelligence, his enterprise, and his substantial achievements. So how has it come to this?

This week, Bernard Keane began an article in Crikey: The Abbott legacy: Turnbull heads for the worst of both worlds with: “
The political chattering class owes the people of Australian an apology. Nearly all of us, to a woman, were badly off-beam about the transformation of Australian politics last September. We were overcome with a sense of relief that the chaos and debacle of the Abbott era was over…

“Enter Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull the adult, Turnbull the brilliant communicator, a changed Turnbull who had learnt his lessons from 2009 and would now lead a rational, mature, consultative government. He promised to give us a genuinely Liberal government, in contrast to the reactionary rabble he had just ousted, and he promised reform via an intelligent conversation with the electorate. The years of destructive, negative politics from Abbott, the years of internecine squabbling from Labor, were at long last over.

“For a while it seemed to work. Turnbull was charming and, yes, Prime Ministerial. He refused to rule out reform options, insisting he was going to change politics by refusing to play those sort of petty games…

“Then it went wrong. Turnbull's government is adrift, there's open warfare within it…the much-vaunted tax reform package will be barely worth the term ‘minimalist’, with almost every worthwhile tax reform now ruled out because of backbench pressure, the desire to run an uncluttered scare campaign…

“What we missed in the relief rally that accompanied Turnbull's ascension was that merely because there was a new prime minister, that didn't mean the underlying causes that drove Australian politics into the ground in the first place had vanished. They were still there, and still capable of damaging politics and policy.”


Many of us, while enjoying the prospect of a more progressive prime minister to replace the reactionary conservative Abbott, had our reservations.

Puff the Magic Malcolm published on 18 February on The Political Sword, began with an initial optimistic paragraph that ended: “Most important though was his stated vision for this nation: it was upbeat, forward-looking, encouraging and exciting…” But the second and third paragraphs read: “
Those of us who have followed politics for many years had reservations though. We remembered how after his rather brutal takeover from Brendan Nelson to become Leader of the Opposition in 2008, he offered much promise to his party and to the electorate. Many applauded particularly his enlightened views on global warming and his collaboration with Kevin Rudd to mitigate it. But after a promising start, an ill-considered instance of over-reach brought him undone. Failing to do the due diligence required of an accomplished barrister, a disturbed Liberal mole in Treasury, Godwin Grech, led him up the garden path with a fake email. He remained there, stranded and exposed as one too obsessed with bringing down a prime minister and his treasurer. ‘Utegate’ uncovered a fatal flaw in Turnbull’s personality. He did not recover fully until he removed Abbott in September last year.

But everyone knows that to garner the votes he needed to replace the unpopular Abbott, he had to compromise many of his beliefs and principles. Just how many, and to what extent, we would soon discover.”
Turnbull has sown the seeds of his own decline, and possibly his own destruction.

He took on the leadership with some cherished principles and beliefs:
- the need for action on global warming
- the need for marriage equality
- the need to move to a republic
- the importance of the Gonski school reforms
- the need for superfast broadband for all
- a cities policy with emphasis on public transport
- the need for sound economic management (which he believed his predecessor lacked).

One by one he has diluted or abandoned each of these:

Far from his support for an emissions trading scheme in the Rudd era, and his sarcasm about the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, which he described as a ‘fig leaf’ for doing nothing, on becoming PM he immediately endorsed it, took it to Paris, and left us looking dangerously inattentive to climate change in the eyes of the world. And recently he has done nothing about the decision of Larry Marshall, chief executive of CSIRO to slash 110 positions in the Oceans and Atmosphere division, effect a similarly sharp reduction in the Land and Water division, and reorient climate change activities. Overseas climate scientists are alarmed that they will lose an important data-gathering source. Turnbull has been unmoved.

His support for marriage equality has been seriously diluted by his acceptance of the Abbott delaying tactic of a plebiscite after the election at a wasteful cost of $160 million. In similar vein, his support for the ‘Safe Schools’ program that supports gender diversity and counters bullying of LGBTI children, has been diluted by his authorization of an ‘investigation’ into it. In both these instances, the hard right conservatives and the Australian Christian Lobby have been let loose with their divisive propaganda.

His reaction to the revisiting of the Gonski reforms was unenthusiastic. He allowed the same old negative rhetoric of the Abbott/Pyne era to resurface, thereby giving it credence: “ You can’t fix the school curriculum by throwing money at it. No alternative was offered, with or without money.

His management of the NBN after Abbott ordered him years ago ‘to demolish it’ has been no better than Labor’s, which he ridiculed in such derogatory terms. It is still far behind schedule, costs are rising inexorably and will likely exceed the cost of Labor’s NBN, and the technology is antiquated.

His cities policy and his advocacy for public transport seem to have taken a back seat. Big promises; little achieved.

And as for the superior economic leadership and fiscal management that he insisted was needed after what Abbott gave us, it has all but evaporated. After hand-on-heart promises of comprehensive tax reform and attention to industrial relations, we are now facing a desolate scene as the fiscally inexperienced Morrison struggles to formulate his May Budget with virtually all his options propelled by a fractious Abbott-led backbench into the too-hard basket.



How has this all come about?

The answer is straightforward. Abbott and his henchmen, some of whom sit on the backbench, have made almost impossible every move Turnbull wanted to make.


The hard right reactionaries, supported by the coal lobby, have made action on global warming dangerously difficult.

The same neo-conservatives, aided and abetted by the ACL, have got their teeth into the sexual equality and Safe Schools debates, and have already debased them.

The Gonski reforms sit on the shelf, opposed by the Abbott conservatives who do not believe in equal opportunity for good schooling irrespective of postcode, income and ethnicity. How many of these are themselves recipients of private education, who believe in ‘user pays’? If you can’t pay, too bad!

The NBN will remain second rate because of the mixed technology and copper wire connections to the premises. Why the LNP does not warmly embrace FTTP technology, so essential for a first world economy and competiveness, seems mysterious until one recognizes that the FTTP NBN was a Labor initiative, and therefore must be denigrated and despoiled by the LNP.

Behind all this opposition is an Abbott-led Fifth Column of reactionaries, who still bridle at what happened to their man. It is determined to show us that they were absolutely right when in power. Abbott announced last week in Japan that he wears his 2014 Budget as a badge of honour. At the weekly party meeting he again called for spending cuts, particularly to welfare, and tax cuts, which will benefit mainly the wealthy.

Abbott has another objective: to upend and replace PM Turnbull. Anyone who doubts this has a faulty memory for Abbott’s characteristics. He has always been a poor loser way back to his student days. He is a bare-knuckle street fighter who never gives up his quest to destroy his enemies – destroy, not simply defeat. Turnbull is his enemy, notwithstanding Abbott’s vow to do all he can to have the Turnbull government re-elected. This is another of his lying utterances, like his promise that there will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping. Now all of these are happening! His erroneous comments about the delay to the purchase of submarines were an overt attempt at wrecking and undermining.

There is now talk of the ‘Second Abbott government’. Already he is out and about with another set of slogans he believes will win government: He has condensed Labor's election promises to a threat of: ‘five new taxes’ a housing tax (negative gearing), a wealth tax (capital gains), a seniors tax (superannuation), a workers tax (smokers), and the carbon tax. It is vintage scaremongering Abbott, but his behaviour is infuriating his colleagues. He has declared open war on Turnbull.



So has Malcolm sown the seeds of the harvest he is now reaping?

Yes. His bitter harvest is the direct result of his willingness to sacrifice so many of his sacred principles and policies in order to scavenge the votes he needed for leadership.

He put his longstanding ambition to be prime minister ahead of his deeply held values and principles. He ought to have known that the Shylocks who extracted that price are ruthless operatives for whom power is all that matters. They will never give up. They are determined reactionaries, hell-bent on upholding their ultra-conservative beliefs at all costs. Indeed, some believe it would be better to lose the election in order to cleanse the LNP of the moderate elements and restore and protect conservative values. To them, that is of supreme importance.

We should not be surprised at their destructive behaviour. They will not change; they cannot. They will fight to the bitter end in what is now clearly a life and death struggle between Turnbull and his moderates and the Abbott-led extreme right wing reactionaries. Abbott told us often that the LNP is not Labor. He was right. The LNP is now set upon a course even more self-destructive than that of Labor.

Malcolm’s Bitter Harvest is upon him. He has reaped what he sowed.




What do you think?
What are your views about PM Turnbull six months in?

We look forward to reading your views and your comments.


The Peta Principle – how Abbott rose to the level of his incompetence



‘What’s wrong with Tony Abbott?” It’s a question that’s been asked ever since he rose to prominence as party leader, if not before. But then the question had a whimsical ring about it. What was wrong with a leader who was so nasty, so misogynist, so belligerent, so hell bent upon the destruction of his enemies? People had their answers, answers that went back to his early days in student politics. We wrote about it on The Political Sword in late 2009 in The pugilistic politician. The conclusion was that this was Abbott’s nature, malevolent though it was.

Over the years we have seen a man who rose from ministerial ranks to opposition leader where he was deemed to be competent, to prime minister where he was manifestly incompetent.

Abbott’s rise is a classic example of a management principle enunciated by Laurence J. Peter in his famous 1969 book: The Peter Principle, in which he asserted that as managers are promoted, they "rise to the level of their incompetence." We have written about The Peter Principle before.

Let’s trace Abbott’s path. The media was lavish in its praise for his performance as opposition leader, some going so far as to assert that he was the best ever, presumably arguing that aggression, confrontation, adversarial behaviour and ceaseless negativity were the preferred ways to electoral success. Murdoch journalists particularly barracked for him endlessly. Defeat of the detested Labor government and the installation of a grown-up, adult Coalition government was all that mattered; the means, no matter how ruthless, were irrelevant.

So it came to pass. The tacit assumption, rarely ever challenged, was that Abbott’s electoral success would translate into success in government. Some of us challenged that assumption, but who was listening?

Back as far as July 2011 we plumbed the forbidding prospect of an Abbott prime ministership on The Political Sword in If Tony Abbott were PM, and again in August 2013 in Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott, we predicted the disaster that Abbott would become in government. The media though, and much of the public, were sanguine. The right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, now had their puppet captive in the most powerful position in the land. It soon filled Abbott's policy free zone with a list of 75 policy suggestions.

Then along came his actual behaviour as prime minister.

We observed it month after awful month. Many could see a dysfunctional pattern developing as Abbott tried to apply to governance the strategies that got him elected. He seemed not to see that different strategies were needed in government; he seemed to think that persistent negativity would again win the day for him. Some columnists were prepared to point this out, but the Murdoch media continued to be his advocate, making excuses for his increasingly aberrant behaviour, hoping to see some change towards effective governance. It never came. Eventually, even News Limited journalists started to show doubts, and gave subtle warnings to Abbott. But excuse making continued, hoping that soon Abbott would wake up.

There was one journalist though who wrote regular columns in The Australian, Niki Savva, who did begin to express reservations about Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.

Now Savva has put the cat among the pigeons with her just-published book: The Road to Ruin – How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government. Even the title is revealing: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own Government. Savva’s story shows how Credlin believed it was as much her government as Abbott’s. Herein lies the clue to the most extraordinary relationship that came about between Abbott and Credlin, one that achieved success in opposition but lamentable failure in government.

Although Savva’s book has been available only this week, the published excerpts and the media comments of the author and her interviewers provide enough detail for preliminary analysis.

It is not the purpose of this piece to explore whether the relationship between Abbott and Credlin was sexual in the sense they were sleeping together. Some feel affronted by this possibility; most are more concerned with the deeper relationship where Credlin seemed to have an overweening influence over Abbott, a relationship where Abbott seemed dependent on her for advice, strategies and instructions about how to run government day by day. Credlin insisted she got Abbott and the Coalition into power and that Abbott could not run the government without her. Moreover, she believed that what worked in opposition would work in government. The pattern of behaviour continued. What she failed to comprehend was that Abbott, and perhaps she too, had been promoted to their level of incompetence.

Many were worried about her tactics and her influence. Those close to Abbott were concerned, even apprehensive about her, and the way she manipulated him. Savva documents these concerns in a number of on-the-record statements ministers, backbenchers and public servants made to her. So angry and frustrated were they about Credlin’s autocratic behaviour that they were prepared to put their name to them.

What then went wrong with Tony Abbott?

Clearly, he was profoundly influenced by Credlin, dependent on her advice, and needed her instructions about what to say and how to say it. What he did not realize was that her advice was no longer relevant now that he was Prime Minister.

He wanted her to be close to him in meetings, even with international dignitaries, willing to let her run the political show, even foreign policy, happy to let her decide on his appointments, his appearances, even small details of protocol. He allowed her to micromanage his office and his cabinet, to interact with his staff, his ministers and with public servants, to instruct them, even about staff appointments, and to discipline and bully them if they disobeyed or disappointed her, sometimes in an undignified way.



Credlin’s behaviour repeatedly evoked adverse reactions and anger, among even senior people, many of whom she treated with disdain. Many of these have ventilated their longstanding resentment and frustration in Savva’s book. Many sought her removal, but Abbott would have none of that. His attachment and dependency were too great. Likewise, senior party figures warned Abbott, and at the time of the February 2014 spill advised him to get rid of Credlin. Rupert Murdoch demanded, nay ordered Abbott to sack his Chief of Staff. The advice was never heeded.

Abbott allowed Credlin to run an insular, secretive PMO that excluded many, where she overplayed her hand repeatedly, where she was dominantly in charge.

Unquestionably, she is a prepossessing woman: intelligent, accomplished, assured, and overbearing. No doubt it would have been difficult to control her, to hold her back. But it was Abbott who was selected to lead the government, not Credlin. He ought to have been in control. In Say no, no, no to Abbott, it was postulated that in government Abbott would exhibit conflicting attributes: vengefulness and weakness. He has certainly exhibited vengefulness that all can see. But only now are we seeing the depth of his weakness. Unable to govern himself, he was so weak that he handed over governance and many of his prime ministerial functions to his Chief of Staff: he openly referred to her, and it seemed, increasingly deferred to her as the ‘Boss’. The fact that this person was a woman is immaterial; it is the fact that he recklessly handed away his responsibilities to another that is reprehensible.

What is astonishing is that the work of government could be so readily handed over to a non-elected person by someone like Abbott, who shows so much machismo, who flaunts his masculinity, who enjoys so much playing the tough guy, tough enough to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin.

Behavioural psychologists and psychiatrists would relish debating the Abbott/Credlin relationship, and attempting to attach a diagnostic label.

I will not try to emulate them, but even the untrained must be asking themselves what sort of behavioural problem, what sort of psychiatric condition each might have, and what sort of pathological relationship they might have had.

‘Emotional dependence’, where an individual can’t make decisions without the other, springs to mind. The influence of Credlin is reminiscent of that of Svengali, the evil hypnotist in the novel Trilby by George Du Maurier. Colloquially, ‘a Svengali’ is used to describe a person who completely dominates another, usually with selfish or evil motives.

Whatever the psychiatric diagnosis might be, there is no doubt that Savva’s book documents the intensity and extent of the relationship that existed between Credlin and Abbott and its awful outcomes that proved to be so counterproductive and injurious to them both and destructive to the government they led.

This situation is more fitted to the drama of the theatre than to real life day-to-day politics, yet there it was under our very noses, at the pinnacle of our national government. How could such a situation have ever arisen? We have seen dysfunction in our federal government before, but nothing like this!

Who is to blame? While some point the finger at Credlin, clearly Abbott is the culprit. He was the prime minister, the one in charge. He should have been calling the shots. We at The Political Sword pointed out long before Abbott became prime minister that he would be a dud should he get that job. It was only when he got it that it dawned on him that he wasn’t up to it, and so he turned to Credlin. Too inexperienced for national governance, Linus-style, Abbott reached out for his security blanket – Peta Credlin. Sadly for him, and the nation, she could not rescue him from his own incompetence. Together they resorted to opposition tactics and wrecked the government.

An even more bizarre twist to this story is that Abbott, along with some of his sycophants, still hold out hope for a second Abbott government, an exercise in delusion of monumental proportions. Well connected people in Canberra predict that if Abbott tried to topple Turnbull, he’d be lucky now to get even a tiny handful of votes; Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Peter Dutton, Andrew Nikolic et al - the so-called ‘Monkey Pod’- are likely all who are still waving Abbott’s flag.

So let’s not engage in speculation about whether their relationship was sexually intimate. It matters not. The only conclusion that is tenable is that Abbott was incompetent and insecure as prime minister. He was a dud; he did not know how to govern or how to consult; he did not know how to assume the vast and widely variable responsibilities of his position.

In a classic illustration of the Peter Principle, Abbott had risen to his level of incompetence. He turned to the only one he thought could save him, Peta. But she too was a victim of this same principle; in her case, let’s call it the ‘Peta’ Principle. She had risen to her level of incompetence. She couldn’t save him and didn’t. End of story!

What do you think?
What are your views about Niki Savva's account of the Abbott/Credlin saga, and this assessment of it?

We look forward to reading your views and your comments.


Let’s talk about tax

Taxes are the things that provide services to the community. They provide transport, social security, defence, education, parks, rubbish removal and so on.

While state and local government provide most of the services we Australians consume on a daily basis, the federal government is the level of government with the majority of the powers to enable taxation to be collected to provide those services. So state governments have to go to the federal government to ask for money, and local governments rely on grants from the state government (because local governments are prevented by the constitution to go directly to the federal government). Yup — it’s as clear as mud but that’s the system as it currently operates. How it works is complicated. You may remember when the Victorian state government changed in 2014 and the new premier Daniel Andrews wished to replace a road tunnel under central Melbourne with a train tunnel. Then PM Abbott, who admitted he wasn’t a fan of public transport, wanted his road-tunnel funding back. Current PM Turnbull, who posts selfies on buses and train stations, is in the process of returning the funding taken from Victoria. Clearly, the higher level of government can impose its will over the subordinate levels.

It seems that when Mike Baird (Premier of NSW) suggested he would look favourably at a GST increase during 2015, he started (either consciously or unconsciously) the great tax debate of 2016. Baird’s rationale for the comments about a GST increase was that the federal government was planning to rip $80 billion from the grants given to the states to run healthcare and education. The money from the GST goes (in theory) entirely to the states and so an increase would mean the states would get their money back.

The losers here are the members of the public as we would all have to pay the additional tax on the majority of goods and services we purchase. In addition, the discussion included proposals to widen the GST so that goods and services that are currently exempt from the tax would be a ‘taxable supply’ item. The suggestion was that the federal government would retain some of the increase to ‘mitigate’ the increased taxation on those who could least afford it.

By application and implementation, any consumption tax such as the GST mounts a greater attack on the wallets of those on the lower income levels. Various groups who have a number of clients from a low socio-economic level claimed it was a bad idea, including the South Australian Council of Social Services, which claimed amongst other things that:
… in South Australia, the current GST accounts for 9.8% of disposable household income for the lowest income households, but only 4.9% of income for the highest income households.

Broadening the base of the GST to include fresh food, education, health, financial services and other miscellaneous goods and services would make the tax even more regressive. Based on the NATSEM [National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling at the University of Canberra] modelling, SACOSS has calculated the impact of broadening the GST. Table 1 shows the impact with lowest income households paying 41.8% more GST than currently, while the highest income households would pay only 36.7% more.
The government proclaimed that an increase in the rate of the GST was only one of the options ‘on the table’; they were ‘consulting widely’; and that ‘no decision had been made’. Sounds very Yes Minister-ish doesn’t it?

During February 2016, the prime minister ruled out any increase to the GST following considerable adverse publicity generated by the Opposition as well as groups representing those that would have been adversely affected by the plan. According to the federal government, the reason for dumping the GST increase was:
After you take into account all of the compensation that you would need to ensure the change was equitable, it simply is not justified in economic terms.
Those of us with a little cynicism might be more inclined to believe that other factors, such as the number of LNP politicians who would lose their seat in an election fought on a GST increase also played a part. It also lays bare the claim that all options were on the table as well.

Fresh from his information/scare campaign (depending on your viewpoint) against the increase to the GST, Opposition Leader Shorten then announced a policy to gradually remove the opportunity to negatively gear most investments within Australia. As negative gearing is complicated to explain in writing, we’ll get Waheed Aly from Network 10’s The Project do it instead with words and graphics (assuming your internet is fast enough to avoid buffering — another LNP policy failure).

According to Network 10, 1.2 million Australians use negative gearing to reduce their income. The ‘magic’ number here is $80,000 — which is the taxable income you can earn before you advance onto the second highest income tax rate. So when Turnbull et al suggest that changing the rules on negative gearing would affect a lot of ‘mums and dads’ who have a taxable income below $80,000 he’s cherry-picking his facts. The objective of negative gearing is to get your taxable income below $80,000 so you pay a lesser tax rate and are eligible for more government benefits. (Again those of a cynical bent amongst us could suggest that those that only reduce their taxable income to $80,000 aren’t trying hard enough — but that’s another discussion altogether.)

The Conversation is a website run by academics that comments on current issues: they have the people with appropriate qualifications and experience available to look at an issue factually. So, when discussing negative gearing, the Grattan Institute — an economic research institute seed funded by the federal and Victorian governments — probably has the knowledge and ability to justify an article discussingThree myths on negative gearing the housing industry wants you to believe’ and discuss why you shouldn’t go there.

So it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Remove negative gearing and gradually the ‘budget emergency’ promoted by Abbott and Hockey will fix itself as people’s taxable income will not be altered by deliberately making a loss on investments. They pay more personal income tax, the states get money for health and education, prices for ‘entry level’ dwellings stabilise as well, causing the world to be a happier place. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Despite noted economist Stephen Koukoulas writing in The Guardian that ‘Labor’s negative gearing reform is economically responsible’, Turnbull is claiming that reducing the avenues for negative gearing ‘harms average earners’. However, Fairfax is reporting:
independent modelling shows there will be "significant" long-term savings from Labor's proposal to quarantine negative gearing to new housing investments from July 2017, eventually raising between $3.5 to $3.9 billion a year.

It also shows Labor's proposal to cut the capital gains tax discount from 50 per cent to 25 per cent would raise about $2 billion a year in the long term. It shows the vast majority of savings would be at the expense of the top 10 per cent of earners who negatively gear their properties.

It also estimates that by restricting negative gearing to new housing, the policy would "increase the share of investment housing devoted to newly built housing" by 10 to 20 per cent.

It does not say house prices would drop.

"Our modelling shows that negative gearing benefits high-income families with 52.6 per cent of the benefit going to the top 20 per cent of incomes," the paper says.

"Only 5.2 per cent of benefits go to the bottom 20 per cent of incomes. This result is mostly driven by high-income families being more likely to negatively gear, having larger negatively geared deductions, and a progressive tax system that magnifies the gains for higher income persons.

The modelling was done by the Australian National University's Centre for Social Research and Methods.

It was not commissioned by any political party, organisation or individual.
Could the real issue here be politics? The process basically benefits those on a large cash income who can’t minimise their tax through income splitting or other methods. So you are looking at those who don’t have the ability to incorporate themselves into a small business where income can be split between two or more people (such as ‘mum and dad’ businesses, where there is the potential for all the owners of the incorporated business to perform some work for the entity, and be paid accordingly). Those on a higher income and in ‘prestigious professions’ are more frequently supporters of the conservative side of politics. Those on a higher income also are more likely to look for ways to reduce their income to pay less tax — it is to their benefit to do so. To a large extent, politicians’ campaigns are funded by donations from those with the means to do so, not the taxpayer.

It’s time to follow the money.

The annual report on who donated to whom is issued by the Australian Electoral Commission in February. As you would imagine, it’s not something that you would download. ABCTV’s The Weekly looked at the issue soon after the report was issued — according to the host of the show, Charlie Pickering, they have the time to do so.


While no one is all that surprised that Clive Palmer’s Queensland Nickel donated millions to the Palmer United Party, it is somewhat concerning that the names responsible for 40% of political donations did not need to be reported. Perhaps even more concerning is that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has never prosecuted anyone for a breach of donation law since the laws were enacted in 1918 (yes 98 years ago). Even worse, the AEC asked for details of potential breaches identified by the people that put The Weekly together. In effect, we don’t know where nearly half of the donations come from and what might be expected in return for the donation. We don’t know if someone making a decision on, let’s say, the future of negative gearing is in parliament due to the donations of property developers, finance companies and real estate agents.

If for example you asked F1 racing car driver Nico Rosberg (the gentleman on the left in the picture at the top of this article) what type of mobile phone he prefers, you wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he rubbished Samsung and Apple devices while promoting Blackberry. And why wouldn’t he? — he and his team are obviously benefiting considerably from a commercial relationship with Blackberry. Unfortunately, we’re not in the same position of knowledge when it comes to our political parties. While the proposal (referenced in the clip from The Weekly) in California to make politicians wear stickers that identify their supporters is probably over the top, there is clearly a need for some rigour in the disclosure laws in Australia.

Turnbull and Morrison are mouthing all the right words about making taxes equitable, understandable and progressive. The reduction in availability of negative gearing addresses all three required outcomes as well as producing some income for funding services for our community. A host of economists can give you chapter and verse on why the proposal makes sense and won’t necessarily reduce the value of your house. We don’t know what, if any, external influences any politician might be under if they come to a view that negative gearing is a valuable part of the tax system and should not be altered.

Taxes pay for government services: so next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, walk through a park or are waiting in the phone queue at Centrelink being told that your call is important, think about how governments around Australia could get more money to rectify service delivery; then think about those who receive the top 20% of income who can legally reduce their income by consciously choosing to lose money on investments. As we all drive on the roads or ring Centrelink at some point, surely we should all pay a proportionate amount for the privilege of doing so.

What do you think?


Safe Schools, Unsafe Politicians



Now we see it, the Christian-Right Liberal reactionaries digging their cruel claws into PM Turnbull over the ‘Safe Schools’ program, one specifically designed to help kids understand that different individuals have different feelings about their sexuality, and that all of us ought to understand, respect, and accept these differences.

‘Safe Schools’ is aimed at helping lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex (LGBTI) school students. According to its website, the ‘Safe Schools Coalition’ offers “…resources and support to equip staff and students with ‘skills, practical ideas and greater confidence’ to create a safe and inclusive environment for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families.”

One end point of the program is to lessen the bullying which differences in sexual identity and sexual preferences too often engender. Bullying and ridicule of those whose sexual orientation does not match their gender have superseded the bullying and ridicule heaped upon kids with red hair or freckles or short stature that we once saw when we were young. This pernicious social transformation has resulted in distress, depression and sometimes suicide. ‘Safe Schools’ was developed as an antidote; its website explains that it is: “…aimed at creating safe and supportive school environments for these same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse people by reducing homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination in schools"

Do the reactionaries see it that way? No, they see it as an assault on their ‘Christian’ beliefs. As they see it, God has ordained that there should be men and women with clearly defined and different sexual attributes. Men should be attracted to women and vice versa. No in-between position is allowable. ‘Safe Schools’ accepts the reality of a variety of different sexual orientations that do not match gender. The reactionaries do not, and never will. There is right and wrong, and they believe they are right – God and the Bible say so.

Prominent among the objectors are the usual suspects: Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz, as 2353NM mentioned in Karma is a bugger.



Bernardi told the ABC that the program was seeing children "…being bullied and intimidated into complying with a radical program", and called on the Government to withdraw funding for the program. For starters, he demanded an enquiry into the program. “’It's not about gender, it's not about sexuality,’ he said. ’It makes everyone fall into line with a political agenda. Our schools should be places of learning, not indoctrination.’

PM Turnbull has gone along with Bernardi and other Liberal agitators and has requested an investigation into the Safe Schools program. Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training, will carry out the enquiry.



Appearing on The Drum Abetz acknowledged that everyone supports stamping out bullying and protecting students, but insisted that the Safe Schools program went far beyond this. He told John Barron “...trying to lock young people into the Safe Schools program's particular views about gender and sexuality is ‘unhelpful and unhealthy’, and that a clear distinction between boys and girls, ‘especially at primary school’, is something that should be protected.

“[There are] circumstances where this program suggests that if a boy feels like being a girl, he should be allowed to use the girls' toilet facilities, which might be good for him, but what about all the girls that are then submitted to a boy being in their change rooms or in their toilets?”


Abetz also argued that many members of the community did not support the Safe Schools program: “It is a program of social engineering where parents, when they get to understand what it is, rebel against it and in fact vote for their schools not to be involved.”

Now ghost-from-the-past Tony Abbott has chimed in with: “It’s not an anti-bullying program, it’s a social engineering program. Its funding should be terminated.

Writing in The Guardian, Shalailah Medhora writes that of the 495 schools in the program, only one school has quit the Safe Schools program after parents' objections. Another example of Abetz’ overblown rhetoric.

Bernard Keane of Crikey hit the nail on the head in his article: The rise and rise of Malcolm Abbott and the sex-obsessed right with these words:
This is simple cultural warfare by the extreme right within the Liberals, and it's no surprise to see the likes of Andrew Nikolic and Andrew Hastie involved.

“Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews nailed it when he said: "I don’t think these extreme Liberals are actually offended by the structure of the program, or the teachers who lead it. I just think they’re offended by the kids who need it."
Keane continued:
“These are politicians who are obsessed with sex - specifically, people who might be sexually different to their own white middle-aged heterosexual male selves. Obsessed enough that it's all they want to talk about in their party room meeting, bandying about terms like ‘cultural Marxism’ because they read it in the paper the other day. Not merely does the idea of alternative forms of sexuality offend them, it terrifies them, because it's yet another symbol of a world that no longer grants automatic ascendancy to men like them.

“Safe Schools is one more reminder that the planet no longer revolves around them. That its purpose is to protect kids, to prevent them from being bullied, is of no moment; these men were never the ones bullied at school for being different. They've always enjoyed privilege, entitlement, status.

“Turnbull might think that giving them an inquiry is the smart play - the inquiry will be controlled by the civil and sensible Education Minister Simon Birmingham. The inquiry will find no, or minor, concerns; further complaints can be addressed by noting the program has been reviewed and all's well.

“Except, the review also legitimises this kind of cultural war, a war in which LGBTI kids are collateral damage, just like domestic violence victims are collateral damage in the culture war waged by the likes of Mark Latham and Miranda Devine against their mythical ‘middle class feminist’ enemy. And reviews are never enough for the far right - their concerns validated, they will push into more areas. For middle-aged white reactionary males, there's always something about the 21st century to be outraged by. In fact, they've barely finished getting upset about the late 20th century.

“Turnbull might merely be playing for time - to hold out until the election, then once he has secured victory, move to positions that more closely match his own principles. But if there's one truth we've learnt from recent years and especially from Tony Abbott, it's that it's awfully hard to change your style once you're in power. Abbott could never shed his relentless negativity once he became prime minister. If Malcolm Turnbull thinks he can veer back to the middle after pandering to the right, it might be much harder than he thinks.”
The response of these reactionary Liberals to the Safe Schools program points to an entrenched way of thinking about sexuality. We saw it just a short time ago during the sexual equality debate. We saw similar delaying tactics. Abbott’s insistence that this matter could not be resolved by a parliamentary debate, and instead must be put to a plebiscite of the people after the next election, was simply obfuscation writ large. His hope was that this delay would kill the idea of sexual equality and its awful sequel – same sex marriage! There was the hope too that the delay would force a public debate, which would allow the Australian Christian Lobby to spread its biased propaganda, propagate its nasty attitudes, and strike fear into those unprepared for the distasteful diatribe that would surely follow. A taste of what the ACL will do and say comes from its director, Lyle Shelton, who is already mouthing off about the Safe Schools program, which he describes as “radical sex experimentation”. He has a petition to the Queensland government with almost 11,000 signatures asking for the cessation of the program. If you want to see how this man operates, and how divisive he is in this debate and the one on sexual equality, take a look at the February 29 edition of Q&A, where he proclaimed: "...gay people are stealing babies"!

Now the outspoken radical George Christiansen, in a speech to the House last week, shocked parliamentarians by likening the Safe Schools program to ‘grooming’ undertaken by sexual predators: “If someone proposed exposing a child to this material, the parents would probably call the police, because it would sound a lot like grooming work a sexual predator might undertake...”.. Such men seem unconstrained in their language and vitriol.



Writing in Daily Life, in Safe Schools is important, because LGBTQI students shouldn't need to justify their right to exist, Maeve Marsden notes: “It should come as a surprise to no one that the Prime Minister is…interested in placating the right-wing factions of his party…it is utterly predictable that he would throw the rights of LGBTQI kids to enjoy a safe school environment and better mental health outcomes under the bus."

In her article in The Age: Safe Schools program: why zealots are trying to drag us back to the dark ages, Jill Stark reveals the disturbing statistics that made the program necessary:
It was set up in Victoria in 2010 in response to requests from teachers to help them support a growing number of LGBTI students who were wrestling with their identity. It has the backing of beyondblue, the Australian Secondary Principals Association, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council of State School Organisations.

“Adding to teachers' concerns were alarming statistics from La Trobe University's 2010 Writing Themselves In study which revealed 75 per cent of LGBTI young people had experienced physical or verbal homophobic bullying. Eighty per cent said the abuse happened at school. These students are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide and self-harm than their peers.”
Jill Stark backs up her statistics with a real-life example in her article in The Age: Go kill yourself, faggot': Gay teen says Somerville Secondary ignored bullying. 15-year-old Nathan Whitmore, who attempted suicide after being terrorised at school for two years and beaten with a skateboard says he was bullied for being gay and told: 'You're a gay faggot who everyone hates, just go kill yourself and get it over with, everyone would be happy and better off'. He claims his school failed to protect him and he is planning legal action against the Victorian Education Department, arguing that his pleas for help were ignored for two years.



Writing in the AIMN in Turnbull sells out young people to the deranged, to save himself, Jennifer Wilson says: “Turnbull’s support of those who would cause suffering to the young, based entirely on religious ideology, must be greatly discouraging to young people as well as to those adults who want to make acceptance of difference commonplace. Turnbull has made a Mephistophelean covenant with religious extremists. If there is such a thing as a soul, he has likely sold his in an exchange that benefits himself to the detriment of the young.”

There are some stark realities about these issues of sexuality and the reactions to LGBTI matters that need to be accepted.

The Christian Lobby, and the likes of Bernardi, Abetz, Christensen, et al will never be persuaded from their views; indeed they cannot change them. Their views and attitudes are hard wired into their brains; they probably have been since their upbringing as small children. Facts, figures and logical reasoning cannot change them. Argument and reasoning are useless.

As a political strategy, there seems to be just a few things that can be done:
- Use facts and reasoning to persuade those voters frightened by the rhetoric of the radicals that their facts are wrong, their conclusions flawed, their demands unreasonable and unnecessary, and that the need for the Safe School program is backed by hard evidence and sound professional opinion. The radicals are inconvincible, but the public can be convinced.

- Use political force to counter the radicals. They understand counting and votes. Don’t concede an inch, as Turnbull has foolishly done, because, as Keane points out, no matter how positive the outcomes of an investigation turn out to be, the radicals will never accept them. They will not go away. They will wage a war of attrition. Brute force is the only response they understand.

What we need is not just Safe Schools; we need Safe Politicians. It is a national disgrace that in our federal parliament we have such a motley collection of Unsafe Politicians: radical, heartless reactionaries who believe they are absolutely right and their opponents always wrong, ever ready to intimidate those whose opinions differ from theirs, primed to bully them into submission, and if they don’t succumb, to cast them cruelly into outer darkness, where they believe they belong, along with the LGBTI school students these Unsafe Politicians refuse to support.

What do you think?
What are your views about this contentious matter?

We look forward to reading your views and your comments.


Turnbull and authenticity

Question: What do Donald Trump (Republican Presidential hopeful) and Jeremy Corbyn (Leader of the British Labour Party) have in common? Well it can’t be their politics.

Trump comes from the right hand side of the spectrum — he wants to keep the ‘illegals’ out, defeat Islamic State, favours traditional marriage (he’s been married three times), argues that climate change is a hoax and government borrowing and stimulus measures are detrimental to the US and objects to Chinese and Japanese interests manipulating their currencies and flooding the US with low-cost exports (despite Trump branded products coming out of China).

Corbyn by contrast voted against bombing Islamic State interests in Syria, supported investing in infrastructure to grow the economy, creating a National Education Service, renationalising British railways, scrapping tuition fees introducing rent control in unaffordable areas and investing in the arts.

The answer is they both seem to be saying what they believe, not necessarily what their minders and party hierarchy want them to say. They are both outsiders from the party machine and appear sincere, qualities which resonate with voters, as even if the voter hasn’t personally met the leader there is a connection.

One of the current management-speak buzzwords is authenticity. A dictionary definition of the word is ‘the quality of being authentic; genuineness’ which sort of seems obvious really! Corbyn and Trump are not the only people in the world to have entered politics claiming to acknowledge and reflect on the concerns of ‘the common (wo)man’, but it could be argued that these two who are diametrically opposed politically have similar abilities to represent their views in a way that resonates with people.

Being authentic is actually quite difficult. Not only do you have to present your ideas in a way that people can understand and respond to, you have to demonstrate that you also share the ideas and implement them in your personal and professional lives. While Corbyn and Trump have no ability to govern ‘authentically’ at this stage, they will be held to account for the actions that they can control — such as their behaviour at rallies, media occasions and public appearances. In addition, they would be expected to promote their apparent values and demonstrate how genuine they are in their interactions with their staff and the public. Incidents such as greeting a member of the public warmly, appearing to listen to their concerns and stage whispering that the person was a nutter soon after would place a large dent in their credibility.

Justin Trudeau in Canada brought his party from a distant third in a three horse race to government in a short space of time. This article in The Guardian soon after Trudeau won discusses the problems Trudeau faces; namely that he promised real and immediate change — now he has to deliver. Written soon after his ascension to power, this Huffington Post article lists some of the expectations of Trudeau. Yahoo News suggests that ‘After stumble, Canada’s Trudeau glides through first world trip’. It’s a good start, but there is a great deal of expectation. To be fair he was probably ‘helped’ by his predecessor as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, making increasingly banal, personal attacks on Trudeau, including TV advertising criticising his hairstyle. Now that Trudeau has the top job he has to deliver on his authenticity in the view of the Canadian electorate, which will probably be a harder ask than the promotion.

It could be argued that Bob Hawke was an Australian authentic leader (before the term came into vogue). After a long career in the union movement, earning the reputation for being a builder of consensus to resolve conflict, he entered Parliament in the 1980 election. He challenged Bill Hayden for the leadership on 16 July 1982 and lost; then challenged again on 3 February 1983 almost at the same time as then Prime Minister Fraser was calling an early general election. Fraser lost the election and Hawke as prime minister won the next four elections until the eventual challenge and replacement by Paul Keating in 1991.

Soon after election, Hawke convened an ‘Economic Summit’ during April 1983 where political, employer and union leaders met over a number of days at Parliament House in Canberra to form a national consensus on future economic policy. The ‘Prices and Incomes Accord’ between the Hawke government and the union movement, where the unions promised to minimise wage increases and the government promised to minimise inflation, introduce a ‘social wage’ and increase spending on education and welfare was a result. As well as the economic reform managed by Hawke and his Treasurer Paul Keating, he also modernised legislation regarding industrial relations and social security while introducing legislation covering World Heritage area protection, outlawing sex discrimination, safeguarding privacy and establishing organisations such as ATSIC and the Australian Postal Commission. While Hawke’s personal reputation was not immaculate either before or during office, he publically promised to give up drinking while he was prime minister:
There is no doubt that excessive drink sometimes brought out an unpleasant personality change which, had I continued to drink, would have made me unfit to be Prime Minister.
The point here about Hawke is the authenticity he demonstrated as a leader, of both the union movement and government, to encourage people to accept compromise for the common good. Those that can remember the era would probably also remember that when the ‘Summit’ was announced, there was general derision that it would not end well. The reality is that the Accord held for the majority of the Hawke years as prime minister albeit with various amendments to reflect changing conditions and circumstances.

Unlike Kevin (I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help) Rudd who sold his message well, Hawke demonstrated that the item they purchased in the election was as advertised on the box. While Rudd did sign the Kyoto Agreement and say sorry to the stolen generations, Hawke delivered meaningful change on an ongoing basis, leading to a long term of prime ministership. While Rudd was afraid to use his political capital to push through action on climate change, Hawke made brave and calculated decisions for the betterment of Australia — and took the majority of the voters along on the ride with him. Howard also took calculated decisions that could have used a lot of his political capital: namely the GST, gun control and his treatment of refugees. It seems that while those actions were acceptable to the majority of voters, his attempt to restructure workplace relations crossed the line.

The history of the challenges between current Prime Minister Turnbull and former Prime Minister Abbott is well known and it’s not worth re-hashing it here. Suffice to say that the (reasonably) recent challenge to Abbott by Turnbull was not the first vote on his leadership. The first one was in February 2015, where no one put up their hand to replace Abbott. Abbott won by a less than convincing 61 to 39. Just think about that for a minute; 39 of his own colleagues preferred ‘anyone but Abbott’ less than two years after a ‘famous’ election victory.

Clearly Abbott, in the view of the majority of his colleagues, had lost his mojo, so to try and get their message across, the baton was passed to Turnbull (despite his previous history). AAP (via Yahoo News) reported:
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said Mr Turnbull's personal quest for the top job was now fulfilled but she wondered where that left the country.

"He's very smooth and I think that'll work for him in the short term but people will very quickly come to see that smoothness as a sort of slick merchant banker approach to public life," she told ABC radio.
ALP Leader Bill Shorten said:
“I think it is a good thing for this country that Tony Abbott is no longer PM of Australia,” Mr Shorten said.

“I certainly believe that with the change in leadership in the Liberal Party, the chances of having an intelligent discussion and negotiation, I certainly hope they’ve improved.”
So how’s Turnbull going? Well for a start, he hasn’t changed much as predicted by Plibersek. Despite the claims of being a new government with new ideas, the ‘steady as she goes’ mindset doesn’t bode well for the LNP when part of Abbott’s problem was that one of the key deliverables in government was a budget in May 2014 that still hasn’t passed the Parliament in full — hardly the work of an authentic leader.

While Shorten’s personal approval has taken a gigantic hit with the advent of Turnbull’s prime ministership, William Bowe’s Pollbludger (an average of the polls taken in the last month) suggests that the ALP is doing considerably better in the polls than Shorten’s popularity and a win in 2016 is not a laughable suggestion. Bob Hawke in what has become an annual speech at the Woodford Folk Festival is reported to have said
When asked whether the Member for Wentworth was a threat to his party, Mr Hawke replied "of course he is".

But he was far less effusive of the PM's predecessor, who he said "wasn't a great prime minister but he was a decent man".
So Hawke suggests that Turnbull is at least competitive — but is he an authentic leader? He was rolled in 2009 because he supported the ALP’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Now he supports the LNP’s Direct Action, just as Abbott did. Turnbull was the leader of the Republican movement in the late 1990’s when the referendum was held: today he supports Abbott’s monarchy. Turnbull in 2009 supported same sex marriage: today he supports Abbott’s plebiscite (if it ever happens). So what are the differences. The SMH article linked above gives a few wishy-washy examples where the words have ‘wriggle room’ so large that you could drive a bus through.

Maybe that’s it. Turnbull has tweeted that he likes catching the 389 or 333 bus to Circular Quay from his electorate office. Abbott (if he used public transport) would get the Manly ferry. Turnbull also seems to dress better than Abbott (and probably would never be seen in ‘budgie smugglers’). Small and incremental change doesn’t win elections, just ask Malcolm Fraser (who lost to Hawke in 1983) or the various LNP leaders in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Stephen Harper may also have a few comments from a Canadian perspective.

Shorten came to fame as a Union leader who managed to achieve results for his members while maintaining the ability to work with management — sound familiar? Turnbull is showing no signs of authentic leadership, except for a predilection for ‘nice’ suits and catching buses. As soon as he suggests a change, Andrews, Abetz, Abbott or Bernardi get on the airwaves and the suggestion is taken quietly down a dark alley; then strangled.

With an election later this year it’s not a hard choice to find the authentic leader and he isn’t on the 389 from Bondi.

What do you think?


The year of the union

For the Chinese, 2016 is the ‘Year of the Monkey’ but I think in Australia it may well be the year of the union — although not in a positive way. As it is an election year, and in the light of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) report in December, we can expect the Coalition government to have a lot to say about unions during the year. Turnbull, in releasing the TURC report, has already indicated that he will make union ‘corruption’ an election issue if his legislation to implement the TURC recommendations, including the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), does not pass parliament.

Unions of course will not take this lying down. The ACTU responded to the release of the TURC report by stating:
The ACTU rejects any accusation of widespread corrupt, unlawful behaviour in the union movement. We take a zero-tolerance approach to unlawful conduct, whether in the union movement or elsewhere. Isolated instances of unlawful conduct must always be referred to the police. Unions stand united to ensure any individuals convicted should feel the full force of the law. There is no place for crooks in our movement.

The ACTU welcomes sensible discussions about best practice governance. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must allow space and time for these discussions to occur. This report should not be used to rush legislation that removes employee rights.
It also saw that the TURC report and a Productivity Commission review, which recommended a reduction in penalty rates, were related:
It is clear from the timing of the Royal Commission’s report that these two reports were always designed to attack the rights and pay of working people and undermine unions who defend their rights and pay.
We do not often see issues discussed in terms of workers’ rights in Australian media but the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC, representing 180 million workers world-wide and currently led by former ACTU president Sharan Burrow) has rated Australia as having ‘regular violation of rights’. This appears in the ITUC Global Rights Index which tracks legislation that limits workers’ rights and actual incidents of violations: these are tallied together and each country then given a score between 1 and 5, where 1 represents rights being generally guaranteed and 5 being no guarantee of rights.

Australia’s score of 3 means:
Governments and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of those rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.
By comparison, the USA scores 4 (systematic violations of rights) and Brazil 2 (slightly weaker collective labour rights than those with a rating of 1 but certain rights have come under repeated attack).

Interestingly, however, the USA, since a 1977 Supreme Court decision, has had a rule that public sector workers who benefit from union representation — such as higher wages and improved conditions — can be made to pay their fair share to the union and a number of states did introduce laws to enforce this. In other words, in the land of ‘free enterprise’ the union basically can claim a ‘fee for service’. (That is currently being challenged in another court case, with a ruling expected in June 2016).

In Australia, governments across the country have introduced ‘fee for service’ models into all sorts of public services but refuse to recognise it in respect to union activities and are doing as much as they can to undermine unions and workers’ collective rights. In fact, ‘fee for bargaining services’ is explicitly made illegal in Australia, other than union membership dues — but because a person cannot be made to join a union, it is possible in Australia to have ‘free riders’ who benefit from union bargaining without making any contribution. (The ‘free rider’ effect was what led to the original US Supreme Court decision.) In that regard, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) has found that in Australia, although less than 20% of employees are union members, 60% of employees work under collectively bargained conditions.

The ITUC provides quite a long list of the problems in Australia — note that these relate to a period up to early 2014: the link is here but also click on ‘In Practice’ to see the rest of the list. It includes:
  • employers have a discretionary right to refuse to bargain with representative trade unions
  • prior authorisation or approval by authorities is required to hold a lawful strike
  • restrictions with respect to the objective of a strike (eg economic and social issues, political, sympathy and solidarity reasons are not allowed)
  • authorities’ or employers’ have power to unilaterally prohibit, limit, suspend or cease a strike action
  • employers are using delaying tactics to avoid collective bargaining
  • individual agreements are undermining collective bargaining
  • many employers (particularly in the mining sector) do their best to frustrate trade union activity
Some employers try to avoid bargaining with a union and the ITUC assessment provides one extreme example:
The employer went to great lengths to avoid bargaining with the union by closing the mine for three months (to avoid certain transfer provisions in the Fair Work Act), hiring a small number of employees (21 from a required total of over 400) who were thought to be non-members, and negotiating an agreement directly with the employees and excluding the union. The employer essentially forced the employees to relinquish their rights to be represented by the union by having them appoint themselves as their own representatives for the bargaining.
In America, and to some extent in Australia, this is done under the banner of the ‘right to work’. That is a neo-liberal banner that claims each individual should be free to choose the manner and conditions of their work and not be ruled by external influences — like collective bargaining and union involvement. It was an idea that was originally abandoned in Australia in the Harvester decision in 1907 when Mr Justice Higgins determined that:
The provision of fair and reasonable remuneration is obviously designed for the benefit of the employees in the industry; and it must be meant to secure to them something which they cannot get by the ordinary system of individual bargaining. [emphasis added]
Since the 1970s, however, individual bargaining has eased its way back towards centre stage.

The attempts to reduce workers’ rights and working conditions, and remove unions from the equation, has been reflected in agreement negotiations in the Australian Public Service. Some public servants have not had a pay rise since 2014 as, at the direction of the government, public service departments delayed negotiations or included proposals that staff could not agree to. One interesting approach was to offer to maintain conditions but to remove them from agreements and make them ‘policy’. In December 2015, the CPSU (Community and Public Sector Union) warned staff in the agriculture department that:
If your rights are taken out of your agreement and put into policy, they can be removed or changed at any time. In some agencies that have voted yes this is already happening!

Just weeks after a small majority of workers said yes in DSS, management moved to change their consultative arrangements in a way that meant union delegates were no longer being consulted.
Effectively taking unions out of the industrial relations loop is part of the ‘right to work’ approach and has been pursued by the Howard, Abbott and now Turnbull governments. Turnbull may cloak it in fine words but the intention of his proposed legislation in response to the TURC report is to further erode the influence of unions.

All this may not mean much to many in the electorate but there are 1.6 million union members in Australia: that is the ABS figure for 2014, whereas the ACTU claimed late in 2015 that the membership in its records suggested a figure of 1.8 million. Either way, that is certainly the lowest level of union membership in the workforce since detailed records have been kept: it has come down from about 40% of the workforce in 1992.

While the official ABS figures suggest union membership is down to 14% of those in employment, that is slightly misleading because the ABS counts owner-managers of both incorporated and unincorporated enterprises and many, if not most, of those would not be likely to join a union in any case. Union membership only for those who are employees is somewhat higher at 17%, or 19% if we use the ACTU figure.

As at 30 September 2015, there were 15,259,399 enrolled voters in Australia. Union membership, therefore, represents between 10.5% (using the ABS figure) and 11.7% (the ACTU figure) of voters — which gives unionists about half the electoral power of those aged 65 and over, who represent 21.8% of the electorate (which also gives a clear indication why the ‘grey vote’ is so important). Even so, about 12% of the electorate is a figure that cannot really be ignored and especially so if one considers that there may be influences to non-union members in a person’s family or circle of friends.

The problem is that union members are not evenly distributed across electorates. Although I do not have actual figures, I suspect they are disproportionately represented in what are strong or safe Labor seats which is why the government believes it can launch its union attacks. It knows the attacks may cost votes in Labor seats but that will make no difference to an election outcome. It is hoping that by bashing the unions, it can gain enough votes in ‘swinging’ seats to hold on to government.

The government, however, should note that, as reported in The Guardian, Essential Research found in 2015 that 62% of Australians believed unions were important (that figure had increased since 2012) and 45% believed workers would be better off if unions were stronger (compared to 26% who thought workers would be worse off). Given those figures, government attacks on unions can backfire if that 62% begin to believe that the government is going too far — as they did when Howard introduced WorkChoices.

Before people start believing the government’s rhetoric regarding unions they should consider some of the facts, even as revealed by the ABS which by no means can be considered a propagandist for unions. The median weekly income for employed persons in a union in 2013‒14 was $1,200 compared to $960 for non-union employees (and the mean was $1,295 compared to $1,162). Overall 24% of those in employment did not have paid leave entitlements: while this includes the owner-managers, it would also include some casual and part-time workers. Of union members, however, 91% had paid leave entitlements.

In America, workers have no nationally mandated paid leave: it is entirely a matter for employers and employees and to some extent state and local regulations. It was found in 2006 that workers who were union members in the USA received on average 13 days paid leave and 8 paid public holidays while non-union workers received 9 days paid leave and 6 paid public holidays. Given our experience in Australia, it is difficult to comprehend that the amount of leave a worker is entitled to can be dependent on whether or not one is a union member.

Even with all the changes that have taken place in Australia, the Fair Work provisions include ten nationally mandated minimum standards including:
  • a standard 38-hour week
  • four weeks paid annual leave
  • ten days paid personal/carer’s leave each year and two days paid compassionate leave for each eligible bereavement
  • long service leave
  • a right to request flexible working arrangements
While these conditions may now be legally mandated, they did not arise out of the blue nor out of the goodness of heart of employers or government. Those conditions, now accepted as the norm, were fought for over many years by unions. If the role of unions is further diminished in coming years, where will improvements in workers’ conditions come from in the future?

Turnbull may think he is on a winner bashing the unions but the effectiveness of his campaign will depend on two crucial external factors:
  • the effectiveness of any union campaign against the changes he proposes (they did, after all, mount an effective campaign against WorkChoices), and
  • whether the 62% of Australians who support unions perceive that he is going too far (the unions will certainly do their best to foster that view)
So his task will not be easy and can unravel and backfire on him and on the Coalition’s electoral chances. Despite the risks, I believe Turnbull and the Coalition will persist with it because it is consistent with their neo-liberal economic agenda and has the support of their big supporter — big business.

What do you think?
Why did Turnbull promise to make union ‘corruption’ an election issue? Is it no more than his pursuit of an ideological agenda in support of big business?

Please let us know what you think are the pros and cons of Turnbull’s approach both for the Coalition and Labor.


More about Puff the Magic Malcolm



In the first of this short series, I described how after the disaster of Tony Abbott, the promise that Malcolm Turnbull brought to prime ministership was already fracturing as he fails, day after day, to live up to his own values, and reneges on his strongly held views. Abbott flagrantly and unashamedly broke his promises. With Turnbull it is subtler; he is saying and doing things that we all know are contrary to his position. This is perhaps most obvious with the issue of climate change, a matter that was covered exhaustively in the first in the series.

This the second, deals with Turnbull’s position on marriage equality, the Gonski reforms, the NBN, Australia becoming a Republic, his immigration policy, his cities policy, and his economic policy.

Marriage Equality. Everyone who has been listening to Turnbull knows that he is strongly in favour of marriage equality. He has said so many times in parliament and out. Moreover, he advocated a vote in parliament to determine the matter. But once he became PM he reverted to Abbott’s delaying tactic of a plebiscite after the next election. Although he would regard the result as binding on the parliament, his old guard of conservatives, Eric Abetz, Cori Bernardi et al vow to vote as they wish, irrespective of the views of the electorate. It seems as if this conservative clique is calling the shots, and Turnbull does not feel secure enough in his hold on leadership to stand up to them. What a disappointment from the one who challenged Abbott on the grounds of poor leadership!

The hope that Turnbull would reverse the Abbott tactic, and either have a vote in the parliament or at least hold the plebiscite at the time of the election, thereby saving an estimated 160 million dollars, has so far been dashed. If he is hoping to run either of these lines, he is leaving it pretty late,

Disappointingly, the promise of a Turnbull different from Abbott on this important social matter has been tarnished.

The Gonski school reform is another area where Turnbull’s promise is fading. He talks about the need for innovation, agility and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t add that these attributes are built on a foundation of sound education that starts in preschool and extends to university and beyond. And it must be available to all who can benefit from it. The Gonski school reforms were designed to bring this about. After telling us all pre-election that he was on the same Gonski page as Labor, Abbott reneged post-election on the vital last two years of funding. Any hope that Turnbull would see the fallacy of curtailing spending on education was dashed after he and his education minister repeated the same weary line that ‘you can’t solve the schooling problem by throwing money at it’. Apart from being a stupid thing to say, suggestions about how the government would solve the problem, with or without money, were never forthcoming. So Gonski is in limbo.

The creation of a smart, innovative, agile nation will have to wait until Turnbull works out what to do about school education. His attitude to education accelerates disillusionment about him.

The NBN project has been a great disappointment for those who expected him to handle the NBN project with skill and flair. We all know he is a tech-head, a nerd when it comes to communications gadgets, the founder of OzEmail, one of our earliest email services. We remember that he was instructed by Abbott to ‘demolish the NBN’ which Labor had initiated, but hoped he would find a way of maintaining its initial design, which was to provide a super-fast broadband service to 97% of Australians with ‘fibre-to-the premises’ (FTTP) technology. He salvaged the NBN from Abbott’s onslaught by adopting a multi-technology approach, and substituting the inferior ‘fibre-to-the-node’ (FTTN) option, where fibre extends only to boxes on street corners, with Telstra’s old copper wire finishing the connection to the premises. In doing so, he lumbered this nation with a second rate facility just when we needed to be world leaders in an increasingly competitive global environment.

In a comprehensive assessment of the Coalition’s FTTN NBN in September 2105, Richard Chirgwin, telco analyst and journalist writing in The Register, gave credit for some aspects of the government’s rollout, but was scathing about many, for example, in the critical areas of technology, the rollout timeline, speed, and the cost, He wrote:

The Liberal Party's pre-election policy document stated ”Our aim is that everyone in the nation should have access to broadband with download data rates of between 25 and 100 megabits per second by 2016”.

“That timeline was quickly exposed as optimistic and the "aim" unrealistic. The universal 25 Mbps service promise has now been pushed out to 2020.

“Fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), however, has to be regarded as the greatest disappointment of the policy: the government has failed to deliver either the rapid rollout or the amount of savings promised in the policy.

“Approximately 65 per cent of the FTTN portion of the rollout is expected to be completed by 2016-17. The remaining 35 per cent will be deployed in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and will in most cases be in areas served by HFC [Hybrid Fibre Co-Axial technology] networks”, the policy stated.

“At the most recent NBN presentation, the company hopes to activate 1.8 million premises on FTTN by 2018. That's a little late. Also, absent a full footprint plan detailing which premises will receive which technology, it's impossible to say if the promise of 65 per cent FTTN completion is on track.

Verdict: Promises not kept.
Turnbull was scornful when he spoke of the cost of Labor’s NBN, which he deemed prohibitively wasteful. He ought now to be eating his words. Chirgwin had this to say:

Cost: By far the worst performance is in the matter of the cost of the NBN.

“The pre-election assertion that [Labor’s] FTTP network would cost $90 billion was quickly revised down to $73 billion, which is still a lot of money, but at the same time, Turnbull's statements about the cost of his multi-technology model have repeatedly been revised upwards.

“The $20.4 billion capex [capital expenditure], and peak funding of $29.5 billion, were obsolete within a year, and after several revisions, the most recent estimates for the NBN build are peak funding of between $46 billion and $53 billion.

“The government protected its own books by the simple expedient of capping its investment. To meet the balance, NBN will have to raise its own debt.

Verdict: The government has performed no better than its predecessor in making cost forecasts.”
You can read the sorry story in full here.

The use of the image below to head Chirgwin’s piece tells the story.



In summary, Turnbull’s demonized Labor’s FTTP NBN, and made wild promises about how much cheaper the Coalition’s FTTN NBN would be, and how much faster it would roll out to more homes. Once again he brought disillusionment to many – another Turnbull promise remains unmet.

Australia becoming a Republic has been a Turnbull dream for years. He was a member of the Australian Republican Movement since its formation in 1991 and later chairman. He headed the ARM team at the 1998 Australian Constitutional Convention, but John Howard’s manipulations thwarted his endeavours and the referendum in 1999 was lost, a stinging defeat that still lingers in Turnbull’s memory. Yet his advent to prime ministership kindled hopes that at last this nation might move away from being a constitutional monarchy to becoming a republic. Writing in The Age, Tim Mayfield expressed this hope in Australian republicans take hope from Malcolm Turnbull's ascent.

Expect yet another disappointment on this front. Perhaps understandably after his bitter 1999 defeat, he seems in no hurry to address the republic issue. He seems to be unwilling to spend any of his considerable personal political capital on this venture, especially in the face of resistance from his monarchist colleagues.

Political survival is more important to him than pursuing the cherished principle of Australia becoming a Republic.

Immigration policy has been dealt with here recently in Australia’s diabolical dilemma. We are still waiting to see if Turnbull returns the 267 adults and 72 children now in Australia on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. NZ Prime Minister John Key has shown his compassionate face by offering to take them. Will Turnbull persist with the harsh Abbott policy, or show that he has a more benevolent attitude?

Cities policy was hailed as one of Turnbull’s most enlightened moves. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in September of last year, in an article titled: Turnbull government's cities portfolio: What does it mean and will it work?, Nicole Hasham reported the reaction of Committee for Sydney chief executive Tim Williams: “…the decision to appoint a Minister for Cities is simply an idea "whose time has come". Hasham continued: “Infrastructure chiefs across the nation have been buoyed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's enthusiasm for urban planning, including Jamie Briggs' appointment as the first Minister for Cities and the Built Environment and the government's new willingness to consider public transport investment."

That was then. What has happened since? We know what happened to Jamie Briggs, so how will his successor, rural MP Angus Taylor, fare? Turnbull has rejected suggestions he has downgraded cities policy in his ministry reshuffle.

At the very least,we expect Turnbull to discard Abbott’s environmentally destructive pro-roads, anti-public transport attitude.

Anthony Albanese, who carries the splendid tag: ‘Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Shadow Minister for Tourism, and Shadow Minister for Cities’, is sceptical about progress so far. Here’s what he said a few days ago about Turnbull’s disappointing performance so far:



This piece could go on and on cataloguing Turnbull’s disappointing performance, so let’s finish with his economic policy.

Nobody disagrees with his view that this nation needed to be ‘agile’, ready to grasp the abundance of opportunities here and overseas. We all agree that in the wake of the downturn in mining the economy needs to reshape itself. The renewables industry was just one such opportunity for readjustment in our economy.

Underpinning these needed adjustments is the acute need for fiscal reform. Nobody questions the need for tax reform, industrial relations reform, or welfare reform. The Turnbull government’s progress on these fronts has been slow, erratic, minimal, and flawed. It could hardly have been much worse.

The GST was the first target. Labor made its position plain from the beginning. But the Coalition procrastinated, bumbling along insisting it was still ‘on the table’, until finally a few days ago its abandonment was announced by Turnbull, followed by his treasurer. Even after that, Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash, was insisting the GST was still on the table! The disorganization and indecision was awful. No reasonable person would deny Turnbull and Morrison the right to have the effect of changing the GST modeled by Treasury, but with all the punch that Treasury has, why did it take so long for Turnbull and Co. to reach the same conclusion Labor reached months ago?

Reasonably, Turnbull rejected any change on the grounds that the net benefit would be too low, and the political cost too high. He has always emphasized that ‘fairness’ must characterize any change to the tax mix, but the lack of fairness inherent in this regressive tax was not his stated reason for rejection. Lack of fairness was Labor’s prime reason for rejection. It knew that increasing the level and scope of the GST would increase the already-high level of inequality in this country. Inequality does not feature in Turnbull’s arguments.

The removal or reduction of concessions that favour the wealthy in superannuation, negative gearing and capital gains tax has always been a fertile field for increasing revenue. But the top-end-of-town oriented Turnbull government has shied away from these obvious opportunities. Turnbull challenged Abbott on the grounds of his poor economic leadership; we are still waiting to see if Turnbull’s is any better.

Labor has outlined its policies, as have the Greens, but the Turnbull government flounders, adding indecision to uncertainty. I believe this is principally because of treasurer Morrison’s ideological obsession with reducing taxes. He sees removing concessions as tantamount to increasing taxes.



At his National Press Club address last week we saw the fiscal dithering of the Turnbull government writ large as Morrison waffled for 46 minutes telling what we already knew about the tough financial situation this country is in, that repairing it would be a long haul, taking on Test Match dimensions rather than those of a 20/20 Big Bash (no doubt he thought this was clever framing), and that any tax relief would be ‘modest’, and a long time coming. While using his copious words to berate Labor’s proposal, we did not hear one word from him about the Turnbull government’s policy on negative gearing, superannuation and capital gains, or for that matter on any other fiscal policy. The speech was vacuous and insulting to the NPC audience that gathered expecting to get at a least a morsel of information on these crucial matters.

Morrison was attacked repeatedly the next day on talk back radio over his arrogant disrespect for those seeking information about important government policy, but fobbed off his assailants with his usual torrent of words unstoppably tumbling from his loquacious mouth. Bernard Keane of Crikey in his brilliant piece: Waiting for ScoMo - in which no policy happens, twice, aptly described Morrison’s NPC speech as “…more a one-hander version of Waiting for Godot, the play in which, famously, nothing happens, twice.

But at least in his post-address talkback appearances he did introduce us to the ‘unicorn’ frame. Morrison is not much better at picking apt metaphors than he is at picking apt fiscal policies. Let me take you down a side road for a bit.

We all know what this mythical creature looks like, but why did Morrison use the unicorn as a metaphorical frame?

I looked through Renton’s Metaphors but found no reference to the unicorn. Wikipedia did not help either. In fact it said: “In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin…its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness.” Not what Morrison intended!

Another source asserts that chasing unicorns is looking for the right job. Surely not what Morrison was thinking!

In the Hebrew Bible it was often used as a metaphor representing strength…a wild, un-tamable animal of great strength and agility. Agility is what Malcolm desires; perhaps Scott does too!

I suspect though that his metaphorical meaning is that ‘chasing unicorns’ is the pursuit of something that, for all intents and purposes, is unobtainable, as unicorns don't exist.

He might have been wiser to tone down his rhetoric by choosing a more understandable metaphorical frame – perhaps ‘chasing rainbows’ would have resonated better.
That’s enough about the cascade of disappointments that have come flooding from our new PM, his treasurer and much of his ministry. To many, Malcolm is a likeable fellow. Well-educated, well-spoken, dignified, prime ministerly, he held out such promise to an electorate tired of the combative, aggressive Abbott. Turnbull heralded a new era for voters tired of the embarrassment of having Abbott as our leader, relieved that at last we had one who could make us feel secure, if not proud.

Then the disillusionment began. Day after day, as the Coalition vacuum cleaner sucked up policy opportunity after policy opportunity into the dust receptacle of abandoned prospects, disappointment grew.

Disappointment is contagious. Initial goodwill towards Turnbull is fading day after day as he and his government dither, ply us with platitudes, make faraway promises, dishonours them, does nothing, goes nowhere, marches on the spot, yet talks as if they have grand plans, sadly for a distant and receding future. Reflect on what Morrison said in his NPC address and you will see what I mean.

Some Labor supporters might want to see the Turnbull government fail, but even those must be demoralized by the reality that the awful Abbott government that did so much damage has been replaced by a torpid do-nothing outfit that seems lost in the political wilderness without a compass.

The Magic Malcolm that so many welcomed seems to have gone up in a Puff of Liberal Blue smoke.




What do you think?
This second pieces concludes this short series on Turnbull’s shortcomings and his backsliding as he fidgets under the repressive thumb of the reactionaries in his own party. If he cannot cast off the conservative curse, clamber out from under the repressive influence of the Abbott-led opponents, he may never show us the Real Malcolm Turnbull, whose values and genuine beliefs have made him so popular with the voters.

Will he be crushed into humiliating submission, crippled by forced conformity, curtailed in every move his better self tells him to make, incarcerated by those who gave him power? Even Laborites hope not. We know the Malcolm of old; we were hoping for something better this time around. But so far we have experienced only disappointment and disillusionment.

Do tell us what you think in the comments section.

Puff the Magic Malcolm



The precipitous ejection of Australia’s worst-ever prime minister last year brought such a sense of relief to the electorate that the arrival of Malcolm Turnbull in his place gave him the status of a knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. Even some who support Labor were not just relieved, but pleased. He looked like a prime minister and he spoke like one with measured eloquence. His urbanity had popular appeal, his smile was engaging and the way he handled criticism stylish. We no longer felt embarrassed by our prime minister. Most important though was his stated vision for this nation: it was upbeat, forward-looking, encouraging and exciting.

Those of us who have followed politics for many years had reservations though. We remembered how after his rather brutal takeover from Brendan Nelson to become Leader of the Opposition in 2008, he offered much promise to his party and to the electorate. Many applauded particularly his enlightened views on global warming and his collaboration with Kevin Rudd to mitigate it. But after a promising start, an ill-considered instance of over-reach brought him undone. Failing to do the due diligence required of an accomplished barrister, a disturbed Liberal mole in Treasury, Godwin Grech, led him up the garden path with a fake email. He remained there, stranded and exposed as one too obsessed with bringing down a prime minister and his treasurer. ‘Utegate’ uncovered a fatal flaw in Turnbull’s personality. He did not recover fully until he removed Abbott in September last year.

But everyone knows that to garner the votes he needed to replace the unpopular Abbott, he had to compromise many of his beliefs and principles. Just how many, and to what extent, we would soon discover.

We have watched with curiosity the turn of events since he toppled Tony Abbott in no less a brutal way than he toppled Brendan Nelson and no less brutally than Abbott toppled him in December 2009. We have been disappointed that the promise that surrounded his ascension to prime ministership, a post he had coveted for so long, has been steadily eroded. We have been dismayed about the principles he has abandoned. We kept hoping that soon he would reveal his genuine views, his cherished values and beliefs, his intentions for policy renewal. So far, there’s been precious little. Disillusionment threatens.

Ken Wolff has alluded to this in A smile is not enough. We have the Turnbull smile, day after day, but not much else to engender confidence in him and his governance. In Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers, 2353NM has drawn attention to the antediluvian attitude of the Turnbull government to climate change, one inherited from Abbott, but as yet unchanged.

Let’s dissect his period in parliament into bite-size issues, in this and subsequent pieces.

Climate change is a good place to start, because it was Turnbull’s avant-garde approach that encouraged Kevin Rudd to vigorously address global warming, which Rudd described as ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’, and to come up with an emissions trading scheme to mitigate it. Rudd and Turnbull were almost to the point of bipartisan agreement on such a scheme until Rudd lost his nerve and Turnbull lost his position as leader in early December 2009. Rudd was spoofed by falling popularity in the electorate. But it was a conservative clique in the LNP that was opposed to an ETS that turfed out Turnbull in favour of Abbott. An ETS was so close. Australia could have been a world leader in carbon pollution mitigation; now it is a laggard.

But that’s not where the story ends. Deprived of his preferred carbon trading mechanism, Turnbull described Abbott’s alternative scheme, his Direct Action Plan, as a ‘fig leaf’. On 7 December 2009, Turnbull’s website spelt out his views as a backbencher: “So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he [Abbott] won’t complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.”

It goes on:
"First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money. To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money. Somebody has to pay.

“So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, ‘bullshit’. Moreover he knows it.

“Second, as we are being blunt, the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion “climate change is crap” or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it’s cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to de-industrialise the world.”
That’s enough for now; you can read the lot here.

Look now at the comments Turnbull made to Tony Jones eighteen months later on Lateline, in May 2011. Suitably abbreviated, they tell us what Turnbull believed then:
"Well, Tony, honestly, I don't want to comment on the direct action policy. I'm happy to describe it to you. If you want a commentary run on it, you should ask Tony Abbott or Greg Hunt about it.

“It is what it is. It is a policy where, yes, the Government does pick winners, there's no doubt about that, where the Government does spend taxpayers' money to pay for investments to offset the emissions by industry.

“…I think there are two virtues of that from the point of view of Mr Abbott and Mr Hunt.

“One is that it can be easily terminated. If in fact climate change is proved to be not real, which some people obviously believe - I don't. If you believe climate change is going to be proved to be unreal, then a scheme like that can be brought to an end...

“Or if you believe that there is not going to be any global action and that the rest of the world will just say, ‘It's all too hard and we'll just let the planet get hotter and hotter,’ and, you know, heaven help our future generations - if you take that rather grim, fatalistic view of the future and you want to abandon all activity, a scheme like that is easier to stop.”

“…if you want to have a long-term solution to abating carbon emissions…if you want to have a long-term technique of cutting carbon emissions in a very substantial way to the levels that the scientists are telling us we need to do by mid-century to avoid dangerous climate change, then a direct action policy…where industry was able to freely pollute, if you like, and the Government was just spending more and more taxpayers' money to offset it, that would become a very expensive charge on the budget in the years ahead.”
You can see the whole interview and read the transcript here.

Speaking in August 2010 at the launch of a report demonstrating the technical feasibility of moving Australia to a 100% renewable energy nation, Turnbull said, inter alia: "We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we’ve got…. We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency and while it is never possible to point to one drought or one storm or one flood and say that particular incident is caused by global warming, we know that these trends are entirely consistent with the climate change forecasts with the climate models that the scientists are relying on…. We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.”

Turnbull’s full speech is here.

Turnbull could not have been clearer then about his views on carbon abatement and the Direct Action Plan.

Now let’s look at what he said recently when challenged with his earlier statements. Writing in The Guardian, in Is new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull already a climate change turncoat?, Graham Readfearn reports that in response to a question in his first QT, Turnbull said:

”[Opposition leader Bill Shorten] is highlighting one of the most reckless proposals the Labor party has made. Fancy proposing, without any idea of the cost of the abatement, the cost of proposing that 50% of energy had to come from renewables! What if that reduction in emissions you needed could come more cost-effectively from carbon storage, by planting trees, by soil carbon, by using gas, by using clean coal, by energy efficiency?”

Readfearn continues: “Turnbull [once] said that to ‘effectively combat climate change’ the nation ‘must move… to a situation where all or almost all of our energy comes from zero or very near zero emissions sources’.

“But now it seems, Turnbull wants to ridicule an idea that he enthusiastically supported five years earlier.

“Turnbull once described the government’s Direct Action climate change policy as ‘fiscal recklessness on a grand scale’ but now thinks the policy is a ‘resounding success’.”


Readfearn concludes: “In 2011, Turnbull said it was important that even within the debates between the merits of a carbon price or Direct Action, people should ‘not fall into the trap of abandoning the science.’

“But now, Turnbull is defending his government’s weak targets on climate change that, if they were replicated by other countries around the world, analysts say would likely see the planet warm by 3C or more.

“Not only is Turnbull abandoning the science, he is abandoning his previous common sense position on climate for what a former Turnbull described as a policy that was no more than a fig leaf.

“To quote Turnbull himself, building a future without a reliance on fossil fuels for energy is ‘absolutely essential if we are to leave a safe planet to our children and the generations that come after them’”.


He carried these views all the way to the Paris Conference on Climate Change Policy and Practice, and has not changed them since.

Perhaps this is Turnbull’s most disappointing abandonment of principles and policy since resuming leadership. After all he has said in the past about climate change, it defies understanding. It highlights how prepared he is to discard values, indeed morality, to gain and keep office. Hope that once in office he would revert to his previous values and beliefs about climate change has so far been dashed. His radical change of approach about this crucial issue, when he knows full well the truth about global warming, depreciates his authority and demeans him as a trustworthy leader.



There are more examples of the man so many welcomed as a fresh breath of air after the oppressive atmosphere that Abbott created, now reneging on his promise of a different government and shelving his promises of policy reform. Apart from his shameful reversal of his climate change principles and practice, his prior attitudes to same-sex marriage and the republican cause are now in doubt. He has toned down Abbott’s inflammatory rhetoric on terrorism and Muslims, but continues to embrace Abbott’s punitive immigration policy. These issues are for another piece.

Writing in The Age in February of last year before Turnbull knocked off Abbott, Julie Szego draws attention to instances of his backsliding even prior to his getting the top job. We were warned:

…having earlier affirmed the importance of the ABC, he made a conspicuously lame attempt to explain the cuts to its funding. When the changes to racial vilification laws were proposed, he similarly stammered his way through media interviews on the subject, his opposition to those changes easily discerned.

“He also backed legislation for a data retention scheme, even though he had questioned the need for such a scheme when the previous Labor government introduced its metadata plans and even though he had reportedly been left out of the deliberations about the controversial laws. Again he was forced to an unconvincing sales pitch about the measures. "I hope with clarity and precision, I am explaining what the [security] agencies are seeking," he said, drawing inevitable attention to the proposals' complete lack of clarity or precision.

“Amid such policy humiliations, Turnbull keeps the public on side with the odd self-deprecating remark, a tilt of an eyebrow, a wry grin. He exudes a knowing irony. Turnbull might be the consummate politician for the digital age. More than any other politician he seems to understand how a well-placed gesture or subtle turn of phrase on Q&A get multiplied and amplified on social media, spilling into the 24/7 cycle in a perfect feedback loop.

“In contrast to Julia Gillard, he's unlikely to try to reboot his image in the midst of an election campaign, or at all. We all know he's not "the real Malcolm", and he knows we know. Thus far, inauthenticity has worked a treat for him. The opposition hopes that should Turnbull ascend to the top job, he'll end up terminally wedged between his personal convictions and those of his party. Perhaps he will. Then again, Labor might find that if it fails to offer a substantive policy alternative it risks shrinking the political fight to a personality contest.”


Which leads to the title of this piece: Puff the Magic Malcolm, which is clearly a take on the well-known song: Puff the Magic Dragon. While some believe that song was all about puffing weed, the three songsters, Peter, Paul and Mary insist: "... it's a song about innocence lost … a loss of innocence and having to face an adult world” Has Malcolm lost his ‘innocence’ in the adult world of ruthless uncompromising party politics?

What do you think?
Following pieces in this short series will address Turnbull’s emerging shortcomings and his backsliding as he squirms under the oppressive thumb of the reactionaries in his own party. Will he fulfill the hopes of so many that he will cast off the conservative curse, crawl out from under the repressive influence of the Abbott-led opponents, and show us the Real Malcolm Turnbull, whose values and genuine beliefs have made him so popular with the voters?

Or will he be crushed into humiliating submission, crippled by enforced conformity, curtailed in every move his better self tells him to make, imprisoned by those who gave him power? Even Laborites hope not. We know the Malcolm of old; we were hoping for something better this time around.

Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers

Have a look at this link: it is a record of the number of reported gun incidents and deaths in the USA in the last 72 hours. When this article was being prepared there had been in excess of 200 incidents. Frankly it’s a little scary.

Many Australians are familiar with the work of the US Tea Party, a conservative group that claims to be a ‘grassroots’ organisation that demonstrates the values of the USA. In September 2013, The Political Sword had a quick look at the actions of the Tea Party that led to the shutdown of the US Government that year.

We have also commented on luminaries of the LNP right wing such as Cory Bernardi attending events in the US where the Tea Party is certainly represented — if not the organiser. Amongst the immutable demands of the various conservative American groups (including the Tea Party and most of the Republican Presidential hopefuls) is the need to protect ‘the 2nd amendment’. The 2nd amendment to the US Constitution reads: ‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ This link from Cornell University’s Law School discusses the history of the amendment and the current discussion around the relevance of the first clause of the amendment. Regardless, in general, conservative America will happily quote the second clause ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’ but are less forthcoming on the first clause.

So conservative America, backed by self-interest groups and the National Rifle Association (as is their right) have promoted that everyone in the US has a right and obligation to carry a gun at all times. There are even claims that a number of the gun massacres the US is becoming ‘famous’ for, such as the massacre of Year 1 children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, never happened, or the entire event was apparently a ‘set up’ by the US Federal Government to drive a gun control agenda. For those who need their memory refreshed, this Wikipedia entry will give you the relevant detail.

According to Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump, mental illness is the cause for shootings in the US — not guns. Another Republican Presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, blames the media, while parts of the media are blaming violent video games. The ‘logical’ answer according to some in the US is for everyone to have a gun. Interestingly when I went to the webpage for the previous link, I was offered a chance to win a NATO-style tactical rifle if I signed up for their newsletter!

In another demonstration of nature abhorring a vacuum, in 2012 a group called Occupy Democrats was set up. They claim to be a political organization and information website that provides a new counterbalance to the Republican Tea Party. Occupy Democrats seem to have a predilection for making up Facebook memes such as the one at the top of this article. On the face of it, they should have plenty of ammunition (sorry). In another Occupy Democrats Facebook post a clip from the US television series The West Wing has one of mythical President Jeb Bartlett’s aides arguing for gun control, the comments to the meme on the Facebook post are mind blowing. One response doesn’t dispute that over 30,000 residents of the US were killed by guns in the past year but justifies it by suggesting the 20,000 or so suicides attributed to guns shouldn’t count! Another response (obviously from an Australian) details that Australia has not had a mass killing (apparently the definition is more than 5 people killed in a single incident) since 1997 when PM Howard instituted a gun buyback after the Port Arthur tragedy (follow this link for details if necessary), as well as a history and geo-economics lesson on why Australians are actually just as free and are in a better position than the residents of the US — despite not being able to carry an AK47 in our Ford Falcon ute. The attempt at rebuttal by the Australian is met by statements that can best be summed up by ‘when the UN brings in the new world order, you’ll be sorry’.

Australians just don’t understand the fixation US residents have with guns. While there may have been a need for a ‘well-regulated militia’ to be formed in 1776, in 2016, not only does the US have a well-equipped army, it also has an air force, navy, National Guard and in all probability various levels of secret services to defend the nation from attack. Will Jim Bob in his Ford F150 — replete with gun rack out the back — be able to make any difference in an attack by internal or external forces? In all probability the answer is no — regardless of our mythical Jim Bob actually knowing how to use the weapon he carries around to protect his country (which is the legal justification for having a gun in the USA).

It seems the rest of the world knows that the US has a blind spot in regard to the logic behind gun ownership leading to gun violence. So they’re all crazy and Australians wouldn’t carry on like that — right? Wrong — as a nation we apparently don’t give a damn for our environment.

The scientists will tell you that climate change is real — despite vested interests (some of whom also contribute to the US “Tea Party”). Australia was one of the first nations in the world to legislate an effective mechanism for the reduction of carbon emissions. The LNP Coalition cherry-picked some aspects of the Carbon Pollution Reductions Scheme (CPRS) and named it ‘the Carbon Tax’. The predicted $100 roast and destruction of Whyalla never eventuated.

You might remember during 2015 it came to light that Volkswagen had programmed the computer in the engine of some VW and subsidiary branded vehicles to act differently if it detected that emissions testing was being undertaken. Following the usual ‘he said, she said’ brouhaha, VW admitted there was a problem and undertook to find a solution. The Australian ACCC released this update last October regarding its investigation of a breach of consumer law (the engine didn’t perform as well as advertised) leading to a maximum penalty of slightly over $1million, while in the US, the ‘fix’ first proposed by VW was rejected and is more complicated than the Australian/European solution due to stricter environment laws. VW is also potentially liable for fines totalling over $1billion in the US because the vehicles emitted too many chemicals. See the difference?

In August last year, ‘The Political Sword’ touched on renewable energy in a discussion on then PM Abbott’s inability to understand the larger debate on climate change. The article is here and while Abbott is no longer the prime minister, the delightfully named (in the George Orwell 1984 sense) Direct Action policy has not been changed. One of the effects of the lack of any action (let alone Direct Action) is a refusal by the federal government to subsidise the purchase of electric vehicles. In 2015, Australians purchased a record breaking 1,155,408 cars, SUVs and commercial vehicles. Of note, the sales of passenger cars fell by 3.0% and the sale of SUVs (loosely described as vehicles that look like 4-wheel drive wagons, even if they don’t have the 4-wheel drive capability) increased by 15.9% of the total. As a side note, sales of ‘prestige’ vehicles increased across the board by significant amounts — which says something about the general perceptions of the economy.

Back in the good ole USA, vehicle manufacturers have been required to ensure the fuel consumption of the entire fleet of vehicles they sell in a particular year meets a certain miles per gallon threshold. This has occurred since 1978. While the requirement admittedly came in to redress to an extent the oil supply shocks of the early and mid-1970s, there is a flow on effect here to emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. What the system means is, for example, that for every vehicle with a rated fuel consumption over the threshold that is sold, one with a similar value under the threshold must be sold, or a fine paid.

It is possible to purchase a fully electric vehicle or ‘plug in hybrid’ (a vehicle that relies primarily on electric traction/recharging but has a small petrol generator to resupply the battery on the go) in Australia, although with around 1,000 sold to members of the public in the past 5 years, it’s not surprising if you didn’t know they exist. In the United Kingdom, the total number of vehicles sold was around 2.6 million (around 150% more than Australia). The UK purchased over 10,000 electric or plug in hybrid vehicles in 2015. The big difference is the UK Government, as a pollution reduction/climate change mechanism, has a subsidy for the purchase and operation of electric vehicles.
Since the Plug-in Car Grant scheme was launched with its promise of up to £5,000 off the cost of electric vehicles, 47,690 eligible cars have been registered.

Conventional hybrids enjoyed a similar strong performance last year with annual demand for petrol hybrids growing 18 per cent to 40,707 registrations and demand for diesel hybrids climbing 36 per cent to over 3,800.

Overall, the market for alternative fuelled vehicles rose 40 per cent to 72,775 units, increasing the sector’s market share from 2.1 per cent in 2014 to 2.8 per cent last year.

In contrast, demand for diesel vehicles rose just three per cent, as the fall-out from the VW scandal no doubt contributed to the technology’s market share slipping to 48.5 per cent.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Motor vehicles registered in Australia travelled an average of 13,800 kilometres per vehicle in the 12 months ended 31 October 2014’. Oddly, the average distance travelled by Victorians (one of the smallest states geographically) was higher than the average for Queensland and Western Australia (both much larger geographically). The real point is that on average each car in Australia travels an average of 55km each of the 260 weekdays in a year.

Most if not all fully electric vehicles have a range exceeding the average distance driven by an Australian car each day: and driving electric vehicles around some of our larger cities would certainly improve the quality of the air that we breath. But seemingly we prefer to purchase faux 4-wheel drives, that usually are not the most efficient users of fuel or producers of minimal emissions from the exhaust pipe! We all like the feeling that we can jump in the car and, given enough time, drive from Melbourne to Cairns whenever we want. The reality is that it rarely happens. There is also a lack of infrastructure for the ‘refilling’ of electric vehicles as well as a significantly higher sunk cost in the purchase of the vehicle.

The Renault/Nissan alliance has reportedly sold 250,000 electric vehicles around the world and has a small number of electric delivery vans on trial with Australia Post. Interestingly the company claims that there are 4,000 similar vans in service with the French postal service which travel on average 70km per day — Australia Post primarily uses diesel powered vans.

Apart from recharging infrastructure and initial cost, the only other argument against electric vehicles is the ‘green quality’ of the power that is used to charge the batteries. This is rapidly changing. The number of solar installations on domestic premises in Western Australia is increasing at 20% per annum, causing a number of problems for the WA Government, and South Australia has generated its entire electrical requirements during daylight hours using renewable technologies on at least one occasion. Storage batteries to enable domestic premises to effectively ‘go off-grid’ have been available for a while. Tesla (of the electric car fame) is launching branded domestic battery units which further promote ‘off-grid’ power by storing the solar panel output during the day and releasing it literally when the sun isn’t shining. Other suppliers also have similar technology available.

As a final vehicle example, the Queensland Government has announced it will subsidise the installation of an electric vehicle recharging station — which they have decided to place in a suburb of Townsville. By contrast, the UK Government spent an additional £37 million across the country on recharging stations.

All of this is to be expected by a government that trashed one of the first emission trading schemes in the world. Various countries with various levels of ‘green credibility’ are successfully operating similar schemes as this Parliament of Australia report discusses. As the report is dated 2013, there are some additional schemes introduced since then such as China’s recent announcement. Others should question why an Australian prime minister can suggest that ‘coal is good for humanity’ and then when he is rolled by his own political colleagues, the policy is not immediately rescinded.

There is evidence that a considerable number of Australians haven’t ‘swallowed the Kool-aid’ dispensed by Abbott and co in relation to environmental protection — but what is being done to change personal consumption habits? While Australians probably have the right to question why those that live in the US seem to look the other way when their legislators allow the fatal shooting of 30,000 of their citizens per annum without attempting to ‘fix it’; surely other nations also have the right to ask why we as Australians seem to think it is acceptable to trash the environment, not only here but around the world. Why do we let our politicians get away with it?

What do you think?
Americans may have a problem with guns but 2353NM suggests Australians have a problem with the environment. Is he right? Which set of blinkers is the more dangerous? At least, the American gun problem is restricted to America but our approach to the environment may affect millions well beyond Australia.


A smile is not enough


[The Turnbull residence at Point Piper, Sydney]

After Turnbull toppled Abbott in September the polls turned in favour of the Coalition; Turnbull’s ‘satisfaction’ rating was high; and he had a commanding lead over Shorten as preferred prime minister. The big question for Turnbull, the Coalition, and indeed Labor, is whether he can maintain those poll numbers all the way to an election.

In my view there are already signs that suggest he will not. That may not yet be showing in polling but unless he acts to meet public expectations those polls will slowly drift away from him.

When Turnbull first won the post as prime minister, he could not stop smiling. In his victory speech, in early interviews and press conferences, he was ceaselessly smiling. Between christmas and new year, when he announced the demotions of Brough and Briggs, he was no longer smiling. Perhaps it was no smiling matter but it was a hint that the pressure of the job is starting to tell.

Turnbull has a reputation as a ‘small l’ liberal with his views on gay marriage and climate change. He does represent an electorate where such views go over well and, especially after Abbott, the wider electorate also saw such views as a hopeful sign for the future. So far, however, Turnbull has done nothing to action such views: he has accepted the position that the gay marriage issue will be put to a plebiscite and not just a parliamentary vote; and, although signing up to the Paris agreement on climate change action, he will stick with Abbott’s ‘Direct Action’ policy (which most experts suggest will fail to deliver). It appears this is a result of deals done with the Right of the Liberal party to secure the top job or, at the least, bowing to the reality of the number of far Right members in his party. It is, however, creating disillusionment in the electorate. As most people accept the reality of politics, he will be given time to make changes but he will not be given forever. While he may wish to make changes, he is hamstrung by the deals he did and the numbers in his party who do not support his more liberal views. Unfortunately, he may not have the power within the party to over-rule those deals until he wins an election (when he can then claim leadership in his own right) but ironically he may not win an election unless he makes those changes first — a classic Catch 22!

Turnbull arrived as a breath of fresh air, saying the right things, and appearing as a very different politician to Abbott. But the announcement about Brough and Briggs (and the abandonment of the Gonski funding model for education which was announced at about the same time) was made during a period, between christmas and new year, when the attention of most people was on issues other than politics. To the cynical amongst us, which now includes a majority of people when it comes to politicians, it gave the appearance of deliberately trying to ‘bury’ the news. (The news about Brough and Briggs was effective in burying the Gonski announcement.) For someone who first appeared as ‘different’ to Abbott, that is a fail. It tends to suggest that he is merely another politician, not better nor worse, but just as willing to play political games. That is not a view that fits with how he first attempted to portray himself and the electorate will add that to the list when adjudicating on his prime ministership. On its own it may not change the electorate’s view but it is another straw on the camel’s back.

The Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) was initiated by Abbott but its report was delivered to and released by Turnbull. He described it as a ‘watershed moment’ for the labour movement. Making so-called union corruption an election issue, which he also promised, is a double-edged sword. Union bashing (and by association Labor and Shorten bashing) goes over well with some but unions can be effective in fighting back as they proved with WorkChoices. Turnbull is trying to frame it (following Ad Astra’s explanation of ‘framing’) as in the interest of ordinary union members but much will depend on the frame the unions use in fighting back. The Guardian has already pointed to the number of powerful women in the union movement and suggested:
A rise in female leadership and the diversity of social backgrounds from which they come has delivered to the union movement a face that looks far more like Australia’s than the Coalition’s own cabinet.
The public are also aware that the ATO released information that almost 600 of Australia’s biggest companies paid no tax in 2013‒14. While there are many reasons for that, the bald facts suggest that companies can avoid tax with impunity which reflects poorly on the government. Senator Xenophon has raised questions about the company that bought the Dick Smith electronics chain and floated the business in December 2013 making a profit of $400 million only to see the company now in voluntary administration. Echoing the TURC terms of reference, Xenophon said: ‘There are some real questions to be asked here about our level of corporate governance …’ [emphasis added]

When all that is put together, I doubt that TURC will really have the impact that some in the Coalition believe. Many in the electorate will be asking questions about why the unions are being pursued but big business isn’t. It’s a fair question. Politicians lose their positions when caught out but just losing their position is apparently not enough for union leaders. A politician who rorts the benefits he or she is entitled to is allowed to pay the money back but a union leader faces fraud charges. Some in the electorate already recognise the inconsistency and see it continuing under Turnbull.

Turnbull also appears happy to reduce penalty rates but lower wages not only affect workers but mean lower tax revenue for government. Bosses have argued since time immemorial that lower wages allow them to employ more people but it has never happened: during the Great Depression the then Arbitration Commission reduced wages in Australia by 10% with businesses promising they would then be able to employ more people but unemployment continued to rise, from 20% to 30%. Turnbull, however, side-stepped the issue by saying it was a matter for the Fair Work Commission. That is not what people expect of their government: government representatives will most likely make representations to the Fair Work Commission when the case comes up and people expect to know whether the government will support or oppose a reduction in penalty rates. Simply pretending that it is nothing to do with him, is not what people expect of a prime minister.

When it comes to economic policy? — no change there. The Turnbull government is still attacking those lower on the pecking order and leaving business and the well-off alone to get on with the job of making money — sorry, according to Turnbull that should be getting on with creating jobs. Despite Turnbull telling us that his approach will be ‘fair’, he should be conscious of the reaction to the 2014 budget when it was commonly and widely believed that the burden of cuts fell disproportionately on the less well-off. If people perceive that is still happening, or happening again, Turnbull’s claims of fairness will be seen as meaningless and just political ‘clap trap’ — not good for a politician’s future as Abbott and Hockey discovered. Of course, the idea of an increase in the GST is still alive, although opposed by a majority of voters.

The lack of activity by the government is reflected in the real economy. In December construction activity declined and there was also a downturn in new orders going into 2016; and a business survey found companies had lower expectations for sales, profits and employment in 2016. Around 70% of voters consistently rate the economy as an important issue and these indicators do not bode well for the government in 2016.

The approach to TURC and economic policy suggest that Turnbull is, at heart, still a businessman and will support big business. He may have small ‘l’ liberal social views but displays neo-liberal economic views and that will become more apparent to the electorate as time passes, and will be exacerbated if he fails to implement some of his social views.

To date, Turnbull has made only one significant new policy announcement — the science and innovation policy. There are a lot of words about a ‘cultural’ shift but little on where the money comes from: it appears that some funding is still dependent on the Senate passing previous cuts proposed by Abbott and Hockey. There have been a series of lesser announcements by his ministers, some of which seem to have had little attention in the media, but which together add up to more cuts to health and welfare spending, such as changes to paid parental leave, to Medicare benefits and to the eligibility of former public servants (both state and federal) for a part-pension. While not all of these measures have attracted wide attention, the people affected are certainly well aware of them and as the number of these groups is added to, that is a growing number of voters who are becoming more disillusioned, more convinced that the Abbott approach is continuing.

The Turnbull government is still pursuing the Abbott government policy of a transfer of powers to the states. Morrison has floated the idea that the states should receive a guaranteed share of income tax. The underlying idea is that the states become solely responsible for schools and hospitals and the commonwealth covers Medicare, the PBS and universities. Given that education and health are issues which the electorate sees Labor as better able to manage, the cynic in me suggests that this is also a political strategy to take away one of Labor’s strengths at the federal level. I do not expect everyone to see this, but people will see the commonwealth withdrawing from hospital and school funding. For many years now, commonwealth financial support has been central to health and education and it will be difficult to change that public perception. That leaves some room for Labor to continue pursuing commonwealth involvement in health and education because, at least for now, that is what the electorate expects.

Decisiveness is lacking or, at least, there is no sign of it yet. It is all well and good to make promises about consultation and proper consideration of issues but people often expect their leaders to be decisive, even with less popular decisions. Four months into his prime ministership and Turnbull has not made any major decisions — he has simply continued the Abbott policies. People expected there would be changes in the policy approach but are not seeing that. Turnbull may have provided a fresh approach in his words and demeanour but not in policy and that will soon wear thin with the electorate.

Some of these issues suggest there may be a temptation to go to an early election before the gloss of the Turnbull leadership wears off and more expectations are left unmet. At an election, however, he would be required to put policies before the electorate and if they remain the Abbott policies, the electorate will not be well pleased. Also if he goes before he has even presented his first budget, it will suggest signs of panic. The budget is often seen as a key indicator of the direction of a prime ministership and to go to an election without presenting one is not a good look. Turnbull, however, is trying to frame an opportunity to go early by using the TURC recommendations and associated legislation as a potential trigger for a double dissolution. Most commentators doubt that a double dissolution will be called because of the likelihood that it would give rise to an increase in minor parties in the Senate (owing to the smaller quota required to win a seat). There may not be a double dissolution but Turnbull may still be tempted to go early — how early is the question, as that also depends on a number of legal requirements regarding the timing of House and Senate elections. Legally he could hold just a House election but it would be electorally unpopular to again separate House and Senate elections. So his options for an early election appear limited, giving the electorate more time to see his true colours.

On 29 January, however, he did indicate that an election would not be called until August, September or October, thus acknowledging the difficulties of going early, but only a few days later, on the first sitting day of parliament, he said a double dissolution was still a ‘live option’ — although that may have been intended to pressure current cross-bench senators to support his legislation rather than a genuine intention. The fact that he can express those contradictory positions within a few days does not present the image of a decisive prime minister.

Basically, Turnbull created a persona before he became prime minister that is not being matched by his actions as prime minister and the electorate will grow increasingly disillusioned with this. So I think there is reason for optimism that the Coalition can be defeated in the election this year. The big question is whether Labor will be able to take advantage of this — but I will save those speculations for another time.

What do you think?
Is Ken’s optimism justified? Will people see through Turnbull’s glossy veneer before the election or will awakening come too late? Can Labor be effective in highlighting Turnbull’s ineffectiveness?

We hope you noticed that this piece was posted on Sunday morning rather than our previous regular time of Sunday evening. This will become our new standard posting time (9.00am on a Sunday) allowing you time to catch up after breakfast or brunch (depending on your time of rising).

Next week, at 9.00am on Sunday, 2353NM discusses a link between guns and electric cars in ‘Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers’.


Still more on framing the political debate - the key to winning



I began this short series on political framing with the image above, and illustrated the concept with some overseas examples. In the second part I used examples from the contemporary federal political scene, pointed out the dangers of accepting political opponents’ framing, and examined ways of countering that framing. In this final part, I will further illustrate framing with some very contemporary political framing.

I hope that these pieces will convince you of the continuing reality of framing in our political scene and the power of a strong and plausible frame in setting the political agenda. I hope too it will offer some hints to Labor leaders as they seek to counter and match the Coalition’s skill at framing.

Abbott was a master at framing. He’s gone now from the top job, or we hope he has, but his legacy persists.

Take the ‘Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption’. If the title had not included ‘and Corruption’, it might have been seen as a neutral body assigned the task of examining how unions are managed and governed. But Abbott was determined to frame the Commission’s task as a legal investigation into what he asserted was widespread union corruption. His framing prejudged the outcome. Now that the Commission’s findings are public, Abbott will not be disappointed.



He could have achieved his purpose had the Commission been simply into trade union governance; the terms of reference would have defined the scope of the inquiry. But typically Abbott has never been known for subtlety; bare knuckle street brawling is all he knows.

His naming of the Commission and his stated purpose for initiating it naturally evoked a negative response from Labor and the unions, who immediately and persistently framed it as ‘a political witch-hunt’ designed to ‘get’ Julia Gillard, Bill Shorten, the Labor Party, and by the way, the union movement too. Abbott has probably succeeded in several of his aims, but at the expense of the Commission being seen as biased from the outset, even more so after Commissioner Dyson Heydon was found to be a scheduled guest speaker at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

Here is a classic example of how divergent the framing of the one event can be. Voters are left to decide which framing they find most plausible: ‘shining a spotlight on union corruption’ or simply a ‘witch hunt’ designed specifically to discredit political enemies.

Let’s move beyond Abbott to examine if the propensity for framing has persisted after his ejection by his party. Yes it has. Here are some recent examples.

As mentioned in an earlier piece, newly elected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly elected to distance himself from Abbott’s negative framing with “We cannot be defensive, we cannot future proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” The people responded encouragingly to his positive and optimistic framing of Australia’s position in the world. His ratings soared.

In bringing down the MYEFO, Scott Morrison with his dalek Mathias Cormann in tow tried his hand at framing that controversial statement.



Even before it was announced, Morrison was framing the fiscal outlook with the words: “We do not have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.” Sensible economists threw up their hands in despair. They know full well that Australia has a revenue problem, and that it will persist until more revenue is raised. Of course spending can always be reduced, but not enough to close the existing gap between revenue and expenditure. It seemed curious that Morrison should persist with the same framing as the discredited Hockey, when he had an opportunity to break free from it.

To answer this conundrum, it is necessary to look beyond the surface of Morrison’s framing to a deep-seated Coalition frame, namely that it is intent on reducing taxes, certainly not increasing them. To Morrison, increasing revenue equated with increasing taxes, which is anathema to him. Presumably, reducing tax concessions for superannuants and those enjoying negative gearing or capital gains concessions, equates with increasing taxes in Morrison’s mind.

He too proved susceptible to the ubiquitous three-word slogan. Soon he was repeating his own: “Work, save, invest”. As with all such slogans, he was framing his own fiscal management style. I suppose it is a morphed version of Hockey’s “Have a go”

When MYEFO finally emerged and economists and journalists examined it, Morrison felt the need to create another frame, one that portrayed the government as knowing where it was going and how to get there, while at the same time warning that it would take time. In his MYEFO address, he announced that the government was ‘making progress’. He said that this year’s budget position will be better than last year and emphasised there is ‘no magic solution’ because the government will not ‘put the safety of the passengers [growth and jobs of Australians] at risk’. Morrison suggested there is no one ‘save’ or ‘tax’ that will solve higher debts and deficits and lower growth forecasts, and that Australians appreciate the government’s ‘patient approach’

Appearing on 7.30 to explain MYEFO, Leigh Sales challenged Morrison with: “Politics frames everything?”



He responded with: “Well, it may frame things for journalists. What it doesn't frame for me is how we go about setting the tasks of returning the budget to balance. And that's our job and that's what we're doing.”

She retorted: “I'm directly asking you about rhetoric and the framing that's changed over a short two-year period?”

He returned her serve: “Well, reality is reality, Leigh. And we're confronting reality and we're dealing with the reality of what's happening globally and what's happening domestically.

“And what is in this statement today is a very sober, very honest and very patient statement which says: we will return the budget to balance - not as an end in itself, by the way, but a means to an end: and the end is jobs and growth.

“And everything we're doing, whether it's in fiscal policy or innovation policy or infrastructure roll-outs: it's all about jobs and growth. And we are not going to put at risk our objectives on jobs and growth by pursuing policies that would be contrary to that objective.”


Being in the holiday season, Morrison thought he could finally fob Sales off with the homely analogy of taking the kids on a holiday: “It's like going off on that summer holiday: you get in the car; you know where you're going; you don't put the passengers at risk; you get to your destination safely. Of course there will be people chiming in from the back seat like my kids always do, saying, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ Well, we are going to get there and we're going to get there with everybody onboard.”

No doubt he thought this was very clever framing at a time of year when most parents would identify with his analogy. Probably many voters did, but some journalists thought it was pretty pedestrian. It is yet another example of how politicians use framing to get their message across by using folksy metaphors.

Writing in The Guardian, Katherine Murphy was scathing about Morrison’s approach:

This budget update has the distinct sound of desperate chasing of rats and mice in the hope that the budget trend will look vaguely credible. Sorry, it still doesn’t look credible. Much more work to do.

“Not only substantial policy work, also framing work. The government is trying to move past the mess of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, who came into government with thunderous over statements about the perilous state of the books, while peddling the fantasy the budget could be fixed without pain. But if the reboot is just folksy analogies about back seat drivers getting angsty about budget strategy – that ain’t going to cut it. Australians comprehensively rejected the agenda laid out in the 2014 budget, and the vehemence of the rejection has forced the government to go back to first principles at a time when it needs to be making a case for re-election.

“So what’s the summary? The objective lesson of MYEFO is it’s about time the political conversation about fiscal sustainability and economic reform got serious, because we’ve about had it with the quick fixes and sugar hits and the nasty surprises that appear random because they are random.

“The objective lesson of MYEFO is the government – in budget terms and reform terms – has blown its first two years in government. Whether it blows a third remains to be seen.”


On another front, Julie Bishop tried her hand at framing. Confronted with questions about the Coalition’s unquestioning support of coal, she retorted defiantly: "Coal-fired power generation is here to stay. "Fossil fuels will remain critical to promoting prosperity, growing economies, and alleviating hunger for years to come."

Within a few days environment minister Greg Hunt took the framing further in the course of defending the Adani Carmichael coal mine, piously saying “…it would be an act of ‘neo-colonialism’ not to support the mine, because Australian coal would ‘bring people out of poverty’.

Note the humanitarian frame in which these two ministers wrapped coal mining in general and the Adani mine specifically. The lifting of people out of poverty and hunger always pulls on the heartstrings, irrespective of how harmful the method of lifting them.

Finally let’s look at the framing of climate change by Abbott’s former business advisory council chairman Maurice Newman: You can read the whole hair-raising frame here. Here are some excerpts to whet your appetite and raise your hackles:



First, Newman criticised Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama for prioritising ‘collectivist visions’ over ‘private choice’ in relation to climate change… He accused world leaders of acting ‘like ancient druids pleading with the gods for good seasons’ at the recent Paris climate talks, blasted the final Paris agreement, which aims to hold global temperatures to a maximum rise of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, saying there was ‘no empirical scientific evidence’ to support the policy.

He lamented that “without a Tony Abbott in Canberra or a Stephen Harper in Ottawa, no world leader utters a peep in protest”.

He accused western capitalist societies of giving up on rational thinking: “They embrace junk­ science and junk economics and adopt wealth-destroying postmodern pseudo-economics, which teaches that taxpayer subsidies can produce desirable ‘economic transformation’ and faster growth. “Pigs may also fly” he retorted.

“Climate change has cowed once great powers into meekly surrendering sovereignty and independent thought to unelected bureaucrats in Geneva. From the White House to the Lodge, private choice now runs a distant second to collectivist visions. Greenpeace exposes sceptics hired to cast doubt on climate science.”

Newman repeated his previous assertion that the United Nations was more about Marxism than science. “But then climate change is not about credible scientific evidence,” he asserted. "It has its roots in Marxism, and ultimately the Green Fund is presided over by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, run by Costa Rican Marxist Christiana Figures...”

“…The media, in step with the Green­Machine, will bombard us with climate alarmism to the applause of the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, who says: ‘My mission is to make the world aware that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism.’ ­ Really? That’s serious. Clearly authority, not common sense or science, now rules the world.”


And so on he goes. Newman is framing action on global warming as a monumental Marxist conspiracy: “World leaders were succumbing to “bogus science and catastrophism” and considering abandoning fossil fuels – ‘the world’s cheapest, most ­efficient and wealth-creating power source’ – in favour of ‘costly, inefficient renewable energy’.” He warned that the 1.5 C target would be ‘relentlessly pursued’ by the UN with the help of the media.

As is usual with such radical framing, facts don’t count. The Guardian article went on to point out that last month the US environmental think tank Oil Change International and Britain’s Overseas Development Institute found the amount spent by G20 governments on fossil fuel subsidies was more than three times the amount spent by the world on subsidies to the renewable energy industry.

Such framing is frightening, but it is embraced by groups such as the ultra-conservative US think tank, The Heartland Institute, which holds annual conferences for climate deniers. At the last one, Lord Monckton was the celebrity speaker.

That brings us to the end of this three part series on political framing.

I trust the series has explained the concept of framing, the power it has on political thinking, the benefits that accrue from convincing and appealing framing, the downside of inappropriate framing, the danger of adopting opponents’ framing, the importance of countering such framing, and ways of negating opponents’ framing.

Effective political framing is the key to success in politics. Ineffective framing leads to failure.

Conservatives the world over are adept at successful framing; progressives fall far behind. If Labor is to overcome the popularity of our new prime minister, it will have to match his framing, counter framing that is inconsistent with Labor values, and create some stylish and appealing framing for its own values, policies and plans that will win over the hearts and minds of the swinging voters. Is it up to this challenge?

As an interesting exercise, when politicians next offer their policies and advance their plans, try asking yourself: “How are they trying to dress up their proposals to make them sound attractive?’; ‘What framing are they using here?’; and ‘Is their framing reasonable, believable, and most of all moral?’. Expect to find yourself disappointed!


What do you think?
In this, the final piece on political framing, Ad astra used recent events to reinforce the concept and application of political framing, ending with a grotesque example in the climate change debate.

He anticipates you will now ask about politicians: What are they trying to say? What impressions are they trying to create? In what way do they seek to change our opinions? What framing devices are they using?

Are you ready to expose our politicians?

More on framing the political debate - the key to winning



In the first of this short series on framing: Framing the political debate – the key to winning, I described the concept of political framing as developed by cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff, which he described in his book The Political Mind. I illustrated it with examples drawn from the Iraq war and from our federal political scene. This piece draws on more recent examples of how framing has been used successfully, principally by the Coalition government. Conservatives have an aptitude in selecting frames for the policies and plans they wish to introduce. Often they are winners; occasionally though their frames turn out to be losers.

Leading up to the 2013 election Tony Abbott embraced three memorable slogans: He promised he would “Abolish the carbon tax’, ‘Stop the Boats’, and ‘Repay the Debt’. He embellished these with more negatives: ‘This toxic tax’, ‘The World’s Biggest Carbon Tax’, ‘Axe the Tax’, ‘Stop the waste’, and a positive: ‘Hope, Reward, Opportunity’. Someone must have persuaded him that three words slogans would stick in voters’ minds. And they did. All of these were frames. They framed Labor as a high taxing party, wasteful of taxpayers’ money, running up intolerable debt and huge budget deficits, and unable to protect our borders, all negatives. The Coalition framed itself as the party that would fix Labor’s mess, and it also offered hope, reward and opportunity, all positives. Very simple, yet successful!



When Joe Hockey entered the framing arena, he thought he was on a winner when he coined the slogan: “The age of entitlement is over”. He still boasts of the address he delivered in London on that theme. He framed those whom he deemed dependent on welfare entitlements as ‘leaners’, a pejorative tag that he used to contrast them with the ‘lifters’, the good guys who pulled their weight, and whose taxes supported the lazy leaners. This framing appealed particularly to conservatives, many of whom believe that those who earn a lot deserve it, and are entitled to keep it; those with little deserve to be poor. Hockey reinforced his framing by publicising how many dollars from their salaries various hardworking lifters contributed to supporting the leaners.



Although progressives disliked his framing, his supporters applauded. But when Hockey framed his 2014 budget along those lines he came unstuck. It penalized his designated ‘leaners’, those on the aged pension and on welfare, by extracting from them the savings he insisted he must make to balance the budget, while scarcely touching those on higher incomes. The electorate erupted with disgust. Voters, even Coalition supporters, saw the budget as grossly unfair, penalising as it did those least able to afford it.

Hockey’s framing, and we know it was Abbott’s too, backfired badly. Faulty framing is as damaging as excellent framing is beneficial. Soon Hockey, Abbott and Cormann were forced into retreat. So damaging was this framing that they reversed it in the 2015 budget.

Another striking example of implausible framing was the representation of Labor as incompetent money managers and profligate spenders, running up appalling debts that our grandchildren will still be repaying. So determined was Abbott to frame Labor as bungling spendthrifts, that he deliberately inflated the debt levels, painted a picture of never ceasing debt spiralling out of control, and budget deficits stretching out ‘as far as the eye can see’. He boasted that the adults in the Coalition would soon pay off the debt, and get the budget back to surplus. He framed the situation as being a ‘debt and deficit disaster’ and an ominous ‘budget emergency’. Initially, the electorate believed his inflated rhetoric until it became obvious, even to his supporters, that the debt and deficit was steadily worsening under his own government’s stewardship. By the 2015 budget, although the fiscal situation had deteriorated further, voters noticed that the ‘crisis’, the ‘disaster’ and the ‘emergency’ had magically disappeared.

Abbott’s stocks had been poor almost since his election, and continued to fall with the first leadership spill. It was then that he tried to reframe his government’s performance with his astonishing: “Good government starts today”! Even as his position continued to deteriorate until he was finally removed, he kept on with the fictitious framing of a government doing well and achieving a lot since being elected, despite his inability to get a raft of his crucial bills through the Senate. His framing was out of touch with the stark reality of a floundering, incompetent government that did not know where it was going. For framing to work it has at least to be vaguely consistent with the observable facts.

Abbott and Hockey, still smarting from the reaction of the electorate to the 2014 budget, thought they had better frame the 2015 budget differently. So they framed it as a ‘have a go’ budget: "So now is the time for all Australians to get out there and have a go." After castigating those on welfare in 2014, they were now jollying us all to ‘have a go’. The electorate could not fail to notice the complete turn around in rhetoric. How many realized that this about turn was simply a reframing? They dropped the pejorative ‘emergency’ frame and installed the benign ‘have a go’ frame. No doubt they hoped nobody would notice their back flip, but of course both the commentators and the voters did.

Once Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister we saw entirely new framing, although his policies look strikingly similar to Abbott’s. His framing was upbeat: ”There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian…We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today …”

This optimistic framing appealed to the electorate after years of negative framing by Abbott, who was always telling us of the threats we faced, from terrorists, from asylum seekers, from budget crises, from the leaners who were draining the coffers dry. Turnbull’s ratings, and those of the Coalition, soared, so relieved was the electorate to see Abbott’s negative framing replaced by Turnbull’s positive, buoyant framing. Whether Turnbull can deliver remains to be seen, but what is obvious is that voters prefer upbeat rather than downbeat framing, and are prepared to give the optimist a go.

Let’s look now at how Labor responded to the Abbott/Hockey framing. Lakoff believes that progressives the world over are less skilful at framing appealing messages because of their parental upbringing, as detailed in Understanding the conservative mind. His concepts are summarised below.

Lakoff attributes progressives’ lack of skill in framing to their embrace of what he terms: ‘Old Enlightenment thinking’, which posits that the facts should speak for themselves and that they can win elections by citing facts and offering programs that serve voters’ interests. Progressives believe: ‘Give the voters the facts, explain what they mean with persuasive reasoning, propose policies that serve their interests, and all will be well. The people will understand once policies are explained to them.’

It is curious that progressives have been so slow to work out that this is not so. Facts and logic are insufficient. Emotional intelligence has to be integrated into the frame to convince the voter. Abbott appealed to the emotions with his use of negative words. They brought about the desired adverse emotional reaction. Words such as tax, debt, deficit, crisis, emergency, terrorism, and phrases such as being overrun with ‘invaders’, evoke fear reactions. Having created fear, Abbott promised to soothe those fears, protect the people and our borders, and fix the fiscal mess left by Labor.

In contrast, positive words: ‘exciting times’, ‘opportunity’, or even ‘have a go’, result in a positive emotional response from voters. Yet Labor was never able to come up with positive frames that negated Abbott’s negative ones. Since the debt and the deficit were hardly trivial, it proved impossible for Labor to pass them off as a temporary aberration that would correct itself in the fullness of time, although several sound economists were sanguine about the deficit and its eventual correction. Abbott framed debt and deficit as a disaster, and it stayed that way in voters’ minds.

Neither was Labor able to counter effectively Abbott’s rhetoric about asylum seekers and boat people. Any semblance of a more humane attitude was negated by: ‘Labor is soft on terror’. Note that ‘terror’ and ‘asylum seekers’ were conflated in this framing, although there is no credible evidence that boat people seeking asylum are, or would become terrorists. Moreover, Morrison accused Labor of virtually inviting people smugglers to bring more asylum seekers by ‘putting sugar on the table’. The Coalition’s framing always outmaneuvered Labor’s.

The best Labor was able to come up with were what some journalists mockingly tagged ‘Bill Shorten’s zingers’.

Lakoff writes extensively about ‘fear of framing’, which he defines as “…a fear of how the other side will frame your vote, and a fear of framing the truth on your own.” He went onto say:
Framing the truth so that it can be understood is not just central to honest, effective politics. It is central to every aspect of human life. It takes knowledge and honesty, skill and courage. It is part of being a full human being. It is not just the province of political leaders; it is the duty of a citizen.

Fear of framing is debilitating, not just to you, but to everyone who depends on you.
Labor ought to read what Lakoff says and lift its game.

He goes onto discuss the difficult process of what he describes as ‘getting unframed’. Here is a striking example of how Barack Obama unframed a question posed by TV journalist Wolf Spitzer in a Democratic presidential debate on CNN in 2007. Lakoff describes Spitzer’s behaviour in this debate as “…a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a conservative who poses as a neutral journalist. All through the debate he used conservatives frames. Some candidates managed to shift the frame to their ground, but all too often they tried to answer and were trapped in a conservative frame. This led up to one of the greatest political moments in recent political television”. The context included the contentious argument about what language US citizens should speak. Many immigrants do not speak English.



Spitzer: I want you to raise your hand if you believe English should be the official language of the United States.

Barack Obama refused to take it anymore. He got up, stepped forward, and said:

Obama: This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us. You know, you’re right. Everybody is going to learn to speak English if they live in this country. The issue is not whether or not future generations of immigrants are going to learn English. The question is: how can we come up with both a legal and sensible immigration policy? And when we are distracted by these kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.


Lakoff relates how he cheered Obama’s response. He goes onto say: “The first lesson about the use of framing in politics is not to accept the other side’s framing. One part of that is politely shifting the frame, as Obama did. “You know, you’re right…” But there are situations like presidential debates where the host should not be allowed to get away with conservative bias via framing. Obama did it just right, challenging the question itself. His response could be taken as a mantra: “This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us.”

You will recall how Tony Abbott designed the frame ‘Team Australia’ for the same purpose: precisely to divide us.

Labor and its leaders need to become more proficient in the framing arena. They should not allow themselves to be trapped in their opponents’ frames. They must become more adept at challenging these frames, calling them out, as did Obama. They must become more creative and skilful in developing their own frames.

Unless they can unframe their opponents; unless they create powerful frames that represent their point of view, their values, their policies and their plans, they are destined to wallow in the wake of Coalition frames.

And they have to understand that facts and reason alone are insufficient. Unless the emotional content of their frames is designed to appeal to the voters, they will not succeed in attracting the swinging voters they need.


The last in this brief series on framing, which will be published in a couple of days, uses contemporary examples of how the government is framing its ideas, policies and plans. Some are, or will be effective; some will have limited appeal; some may end up on the scrap heap. Labor’s will need to counter them, match them, or surpass them. That’s quite a challenge.

What do you think?
Ad astra has used examples from our own political scene to illustrate further the concept of framing. You will have recognized many of them. He illustrated the danger of becoming trapped in an opponent’s framing, and how to disentangle from it.

In part 3, he will use very contemporary examples of framing which you will remember.

Framing the political debate - the key to winning



Why did Tony Abbott thrive as Leader of the Opposition, but turn out to be such a dud as Prime Minister?

What was it about his period in opposition that was so different from his period as the nation’s leader?

There are many possible answers to these questions.

This piece asserts that the most plausible reason for the difference is that in opposition he had the uncanny ability to frame the political debate in his favour, but in government that ability deserted him.

Let’s begin by defining what framing means. In common parlance, to frame something is to provide it with a surrounding; objects of art are commonly framed. A suitable frame contributes to the appeal of the object. An attractive object can be diminished, made unattractive or even repulsive if placed in a discordant frame.

In the political arena, suitable framing is crucial. It has been around in politics since time immemorial, but perhaps not well known by that name. Concepts that have a name are more easily understood simply because they are named. The name ‘framing’ makes it easier to understand what the concept means. Framing creates a perspective, an orientation, a way of viewing. Suitable framing is a winner, unsuitable a loser. Cynics diminish the concept of framing when they label it simply as ‘spin’. Framing is much more than spin. Spin conflates with misinformation.

By way of illustration, let’s begin with a classic example of framing in our own federal political arena. During the global financial crisis, Labor framed the stimulus package as saving jobs, spurring economic growth and supporting communities. After the first tranche, the Coalition strongly opposed the package, framing it as needlessly running up unmanageable debt and budget deficits. The same divergent framing occurred in the United States, as the image above portrays.

George Lakoff devotes a chapter in his book The Political Mind to the subject of framing.



He asserts that: …”we think in terms of frames and metaphors that fit our worldviews, and language can be chosen to activate frames, metaphors and worldviews.” He goes onto say: “Framing is not just a matter of slogans. It is a mode of thought, a mode of action, a sign of character. It is not just words, though words do have to be said over and over again.” He warns that if you accept the opponent’s frame, you are trapped.



Lakoff illustrates framing with examples drawn from the Iraq War and President George Bush’s representation of it. He describes the way he cleverly framed the debate to his advantage, and at the same time to his opponents’ disadvantage. Here is an excerpt from Lakoff’s book:
”…the framers of the Constitution framed Congress as ‘Decider’ on any overall military strategic mission, including troop levels, general deployments, and so on. The president is the executive who has the duty to execute that overall strategic mission. “…the president claimed that he, as commander in chief, had such powers. The president framed Congress as merely a bursar of funds for his military actions. He was reframing the Constitution.”
President Bush used memories of 9/11 to insist that Americans were subject to an ever-present terror threat. Any contrary view was framed as ‘soft on terror’. Terrified of this label, the Democrats accepted his framing and were thereby trapped.

Bush wanted to invade Iraq and so invented ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and framed the war as the pursuit of them. He deceived the Congress and the people about the evidence for their existence. The Democrats went along with his frame. When weapons of mass destruction failed to eventuate, Bush re-framed the war as a ‘rescue mission’, to rescue the Iraqi people from the tyrant Saddam Hussein.

He eventually declared the war was over; his army had defeated Hussein’s army. But he continued to frame himself as a ‘war president’ to keep the war frame alive. The Democrats continued to accept Bush’s war frame. He continued to frame himself as the sole ‘decider’ on military action and Congress as merely the funder of the actions he ordained.

After Bush declared the war was over, the US military personnel in Iraq then became an occupying force. Like its predecessor, it required continuing funding by Congress. Any attempt by the Democrats to limit Bush’s military options, or to shorten the war by tying funding to the steady withdrawal of troops, was framed by him as ‘putting our troops in harm’s way’ through inadequate funding, or as abandoning US troops in a faraway place.

Whichever way Bush framed the Iraq situation, the Democrats remained trapped in his framing. They were seemingly incapable of re-framing the debate. They could have framed Bush as usurping the Constitution and the power and responsibility it gave to Congress; they could have framed themselves as defenders of the Constitution and Bush as a traitor trying to overthrow the Constitution. But they were afraid, fearful that any failure in Iraq would be pinned on them. They lost the opportunity to reframe the situation in a way that favoured them. It takes courage to reframe when your opponent has the upper hand in framing.

Tony Abbott’s framing began almost on the day he became Leader of the Opposition.

Abbott, or was it Peta Credlin, believed that if the emissions trading scheme proposed by Kevin Rudd, (which Malcolm Turnbull was inclined to accept until his party voted him out of leadership in favour of Tony Abbott), was framed as a ‘Carbon Tax’, a ‘Great Big New Tax on Everything’, it would resonate stridently with the electorate, which is never disposed to accept gladly any new tax. Framing the ETS as ‘a carbon tax’ was an immediate success. It was embellished as Coalition members pointed out that the ‘carbon tax’ would increase the cost of everything: opening the fridge, using the iron, vacuuming, watching TV. Barnaby Joyce extravagantly predicted that the cost of a lamb roast would rise to $100 because of the carbon tax. And of course this evil tax would wipe Whyalla off the map!

Eventually Julia Gillard tacitly accepted that the ETS was a ‘tax’, and having told the electorate: ‘There will no carbon tax under a government I lead…’, she lost credibility and authority. Polls showed that the electorate did not want a new tax, and when Abbott promised that its abolition would be his first act after election, the people embraced his framing and accepted his solution.

When the ‘carbon tax’ was cleverly linked to another, ‘the mining tax’, the strength of the framing was increased. ‘Axe the tax’ became an appealing slogan that applied to both. Soon others were echoing it; even Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest took to the hustings to rail against the mining tax, which they hinted would kill off their mining ventures. The framing worked a treat.

Abbott successfully framed another contentious issue – the arrival of asylum seekers by boat from Indonesia and beyond. He accentuated John Howard’s line: ”We will decide who comes to this country and the manner of their arrival”. He gave asylum seekers a pejorative label: ‘illegals’, although they were not. He represented them as illegally thrusting themselves into our country, and it wasn’t long before they were viewed as taking Australian jobs and living on our social welfare. Some in the media even accused the Gillard government of putting them up in flash hotels. Resentment was fostered. For voters of a more humanitarian inclination, the harsh approach to these asylum seekers was softened by another framing strategy, namely that the government wanted this illegal trade in people smuggling stopped to avoid drownings at sea. It was a pseudo-humanitarian framing, but it worked. Coupled with ‘We will stop the boats’, it had great appeal with much of the electorate, especially in the marginal seats in Western Sydney. ‘Stop the boats’ became one of Abbott’s most powerful three word slogans.

Over time the framing morphed into one of ‘border protection’ and in government Abbott created the ‘sovereign borders’ frame, likening the asylum seeker-carrying boats to an invasion force to be repelled by the re-badged and well-funded Operation Sovereign Borders, which operated with military precision and all the secrecy of a military operation in a theatre of war. Every step reinforced the framing of asylum seekers as ‘the enemy’ to be repulsed, rather than desperate displaced people seeking asylum from persecution. Labor was framed as supporting the arrival of the boats. Scott Morrison repeated endlessly that Labor wanted to ‘put sugar on the table’, an apparently irresistible invitation to people smugglers and their cargo. For its part Labor, scared witless of being tagged ‘soft on border protection’, went along with Abbott’s framing, seemingly unable to counter it without being seen as soft and unable to ‘protect’ Australia from this invading force.

Abbott’s framing went far beyond the political issues of the day; he fashioned his framing so that it became a deeply personal attack on his opponent, Julia Gillard, one that questioned her integrity as well as her competence. Remember: 'Juliar', 'Bob Brown's bitch' and ‘Ditch the witch’. His discrediting of her as untrustworthy reached a crescendo with: ‘Her father died of shame’; in other words, even her father disowned her. Despite her famous riposte, her misogyny speech that framed Abbott as a mean and nasty misogynist, which resonated so strongly with female but not male voters, Abbott’s framing of Gillard built up resentment towards her among the voters, and eventually dislike. It succeeded so well that her poll status fell to the point that even her colleagues concluded she could not win the upcoming election, and replaced her with Kevin Rudd.

This brings to an end the first part in this short series on political framing. I trust that I have explained the concept of framing, and that the illustrations drawn from the American context at the time of the Iraq conflict, and the local illustrations drawn mainly from previous periods in the Australian electoral cycle have exemplified the concept of framing.

In the next piece, I will use more recent illustrations from our federal scene. Believe me, political framing is alive and well. Conservatives seem to have an aptitude that progressives have been unable to match. There are reasons for this. Until and unless Labor can match the Coalition’s framing, unless Labor can construct its own powerful frames, unless Labor can at least avoid becoming trapped in the Coalition’s frames, it will struggle to gain support in the electorate, especially now that the highly unpopular Abbott has been replaced by the silver-tongued, urbane and persuasive Malcolm Turnbull.

What do you think?
Ad astra invites us to view the utterances of politicians through the prism of ‘framing’. What are they trying to say? What impressions are they trying to create? In what way do they seek to change our opinions? He uses examples from here and overseas to illustrate political framing.

In part 2 he will use examples from a previous electoral cycle. You will immediately recognize them.

A musical interlude for the holidays


[Woody Guthrie]

In my piece ‘Are you sure you’re not a radical?’ I wrote: ‘Over the centuries folk music has been important in supporting the oppressed and Ireland and many countries in South America have a long tradition of revolutionary music.’ So I have chosen in this ‘summer recess’ to present some of that ‘revolutionary’ music to make the point that such music has influenced, and continues to reflect and influence, social and political movements. There are over 40 songs linked here, so it is not intended that you listen to every track in one sitting. Take your time over the next ten days, come back a few times, and check out as many as you wish. I hope you find some that you like. [Please note that these are not always what I consider the ‘best’ songs but I have been limited to some extent by what is available to link to.]

In the 1840s Thomas Osborne Davis in Ireland wrote ‘A Nation Once Again’ which set the tone for the Irish fight for independence for the next 80 years. Davis recognised the power of song and wrote:
“… a song is worth a thousand harangues". He felt that music could have a particularly strong influence on Irish people at that time. He wrote: "Music is the first faculty of the Irish... we will endeavour to teach the people to sing the songs of their country that they may keep alive in their minds the love of the fatherland.”
Many songs were written about the 1916 uprising but one I particularly like is ‘The Foggy Dew’ — this version by The Wolfe Tones.


Davis’s words were prophetic and ‘rebel songs’ have continued into the modern era in Ireland with songs written about The Troubles in northern Ireland: ‘Man Behind the Wire’, and ‘My Little Armalite’. Very late one night in the Canberra Irish Club I heard a similar song when a young man, not long arrived from northern Ireland, sang a song that included reference to an AK47. It was the first time I realised how the Irish tradition of rebel songs continued to this day.

It is not only in folk music that the influence is felt — U2 performed this song about ‘Bloody Sunday’.

An Australian folk-rock group, Rough Red (which spends much of its time touring Europe), gives a slightly different twist to The Troubles in ‘Innocent Victim’ which captures in simple verses the ‘para’ who had fought in the Falklands and the ‘slum bred Irish boy’ who meet on the streets of Belfast.


Its chorus:
Hail the innocent victim
Hail the hapless pawn
They’ll bury you with honours
It’s the reason you were born
That continues a long tradition of folk songs that question the futility of war and why working people are the ones who go off to fight the rich men’s wars.

Eric Bogle’s ‘The Green Fields of France’ captures a similar sentiment in its last verse:
I can’t help but wonder now Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
The suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain
For Willy McBride it’s all happened again
And again and again and again and again
Song has been, and still is, used in support of unions, supporting the need for working people to unite. In Australia some Trades Hall union councils have, over the years, employed singers and song writers to record the workers’ struggles. One of the earliest that I am personally aware of was the late Don Henderson who wrote songs about the Mount Isa strikes in the 1960s. In more recent times a group calling itself The Travelling Agitators was used by the CFMEU.

An ‘oldie but a goody’ written in the 1930s, and popularised by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, was ‘Which side are you on?’ It has been performed by many singers but here is a Pete Seeger version. And there was a version by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan rewritten to reflect the Thatcher years in Britain and the war on the National Union of Miners (NUM) — an example of how, in the folk genre, songs and tunes can be used and used again and reworked to reflect the times. A number of early Bob Dylan songs used this approach: for example ‘With god on our side’ (here performed by Joan Baez as she is easier on the ear) used the tune and structure of the Irish song, ‘The patriot game’ (here presented by The Dubliners).

Another old union song is ‘Joe Hill’ and it continues to resonate to this day. Here is a 2014 version by Bruce Springsteen — not now a folk singer but an example of how some folk songs can continue in importance through the years and also cross over to other music genres.

Modern folk singer-songwriters and modern bands continue the tradition writing new songs supporting the workers and their unions. For example ‘There is power in a union’ by Billy Bragg. ‘Ordinary Man’, by Christy Moore, captures the plight of the worker who, even though he has not actively fought against the bosses, still suffers when factories close — while the bosses continue smoking their cigars and driving their brand new cars.

For something different, the ‘Workers’ Song’, written by Ed Pickford and performed here by the Dropkick Murphys, a Celtic punk group from Massachusetts, USA. (The previous link gives you the lyrics but there is a live version here in case anyone wants to see a Celtic punk band in the flesh, noting that Celtic punk can be considered a blending of folk and punk following The Pogues.) The song also harkens to the workers’ role in war in the verse:
And when the sky darkens
And the prospect is war
Who’s given a gun
And then pushed to the fore
And expected to die
For the land of our birth
Though we’ve never owned
One lousy handful of earth
Of course, there are many songs about continuing the struggle. Here are two performed by Roy Bailey, an English folk singer now in his 70s who, unlike many modern folk singers, does not write his own material:
  • Bread and Roses
  • Look up the sky is burning
    With blood the workers shed
    We’ll carry on the battle
    For roses and bread
  • Winter turns to Spring
  • You have to know the difference
    Between the round-abouts and swings
    No matter what the distance
    Winter turns to spring
    From Prague to Santiago
    From Belfast to Beijing
    Underground but undefeated
    Winter turns to spring
(‘Winter turns to spring’ was written by Robb Johnson and I will come back to some of his songs.)

There is another song also called ‘Bread and Roses’ because that phrase dates back to the early 1900s, was used in a strike by female textile workers in Massachusetts in 1912, and signifies the need for both fair wages and dignity and respect.

Continuing with Roy Bailey, ‘I ain’t afraid’ is an example of the folk songs that question religion — not religion per se but what it leads to.
I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your god
On a different tangent, ‘Origin of species’ by Chris Smither, takes a lighter-hearted look at ‘intelligent design’:
God said: "I'll make some DNA
They can use it any way they want
From paramecium right up to man.
They'll have sex
And mix up sections of their code.
They'll have mutations.
The whole thing works like clockwork over time.
I'll just sit back in the shade
While everyone gets laid.
That's what I call intelligent design."
The banks have been a target of many songs including this one from the 1950s: ‘Banks of Marble’ here performed by Pete Seeger.
But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for
The GFC inspired many modern singer-songwriters in the folk genre to pen their own songs about the banks and associated issues. ‘House of Cards’ by Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan:
We bought that dream and we sold it on
But it ain’t worth nothin’ now the money’s gone
And the only shelter that credit buys
Is a house of cards and a pack of lies
Or ‘Surprise Surprise’ by Chris Smither;
They told you they would fill your cup
Work hard, they said, you’ll never sink too low
The trickle down will float you up
Surprise, surprise, it ain’t so
And from the Irish side, ‘Bankers’ by Kieran Halpin;
The bankers have all got their mansions in place
Apartments in New York and Rome
The ‘I’m all right’ culture is leading the race
And the bankers are taking your home
Writing stories about and commenting on current issues has been standard folk fare for generations and the modern songwriters continue that tradition. It is often that which makes a ‘folk’ song, not simply that they are acoustic — because there are now folk-rock bands and even Celtic punk as shown earlier. Telling stories often differentiates folk music from popular music with its emphasis on romance and relationships, or expressing personal feelings.

The Scot we claim as our own (he is now naturalised), Eric Bogle, wrote this song about the death of an African man fighting for freedom: ‘Singing the spirit Home’ (or a concert version here). It powerfully captures the ‘brothers’ united at the death of their comrade. The song ‘If they come in the morning’ by Jack Warshaw (here performed by Christy Moore) captures the fear and uncertainty of the early morning knock on the door to whisk people away to internment or imprisonment or simply to ‘vanish’. Both are written with detail, not just expressions of sentiment, and that helps creates the sentiment in the listener.

The refugee crisis in Europe is now focused on those coming from Iraq and Syria but a few years ago the main source of refugees was those crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa. English folk singer, Pete Moreton wrote ‘Shores of Italy’ about those refugees:
So many dreams lost on the lonesome sea
So many dreams lost beside the shores of Italy
Pete Moreton also presents an interesting take on the Israel-Palestine conflict, using the analogy of children fighting — simplifying it to that level makes it more poignant: ‘The Two Brothers’.
Israel give him his ball back
And stop pulling his hair
Both of you, my sons, I know it isn’t fair.
I don‘t care who started it
Just stop all the noise
I can see you’re two very over-tired little boys.
Palestine, I saw you kick him
Israel sit still
Let us get some peace now, if you will.
I mentioned Robb Johnson earlier. He is an English singer-songwriter from the Left, not as well-known as many, but his songs have been performed by many as he writes very political songs and has done so for some time. Early on there were songs like ‘Rosa’s lovely daughters’ (the women of the Left, or the inheritors of the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg) and ‘Send me back to Georgia’ about the US ‘war’ in El Salvador. He has written about the Iraq and Afghan wars, including ‘North west frontier’ and ‘I am not at war’.

In 2011 he responded to the riots in London with ‘When Tottenham burned’ emphasising the role poverty had played in what happened:


Well you try living on a minimum wage
See how little you’re worth, how little you earn.
Faces of the poor finally made the front page
When Tottenham burned, when Tottenham burned.
Some songs will stand alone for the intensity of their lyrics or tune but others will have tunes and choruses that people find easy to follow, join in and repeat. While the former present important messages and raise awareness, it is perhaps the latter that become true songs of the people, true ‘folk’ songs.

I mentioned that South America also has a tradition of revolutionary songs. A prime example was Victor Jara, a Chilean who sang against oppression, supported Allende, and was subsequently murdered by the Pinochet regime. That in itself emphasises the power of song: that an oppressive regime had to silence a singer-songwriter — someone fighting them not with a gun but only with words and music.

One example of his songs is ‘Zamba del Che’ written after Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia. In English:
They exploit the farmer,
the miner and the worker,
how painful is their destiny,
hunger, misery, and sorrow.
Bolívar gave him the path
and Guevara followed it:
to liberate our people
from exploitative control.
(A full English translation is here.)

The last song he wrote before his death was his own musical ‘Manifiesto’ which I quote in English in full because it expresses the use of music to support the oppressed:
I don’t sing for love of singing
or to show off my voice
but for the statements
made by my honest guitar
for its heart is of the earth
and like the dove it goes flying
endlessly as holy water
blessing the brave and the dying
so my song has found a purpose
as Violet Parra would say.

Yes, my guitar is a worker
shining and smelling of spring
my guitar is not for killers
greedy for money and power
but for the people who labour
so that the future may flower.
For a song takes on a meaning
when its own heart beat is strong
sung by a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song.

I don’t care for adulation
or so that strangers may weep.
I sing for a far strip of country
narrow but endlessly deep.
(In that regard, take note of the picture at the start of this piece and the sticker Woody Guthrie has on his guitar.)

The British pacifist poet Adrian Mitchell wrote a poem about Victor Jara after his death and it was subsequently set to music by Arlo Guthrie: here performed by Christy Moore.
When Pinochet took Chile
They arrested Victor then
They caged him in a stadium
With five-thousand frightened men
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Victor stood in the stadium
His voice was brave and strong
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong
This song is about Irish involvement in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s: I have posted it before but I post it again, especially for Talk Turkey — Viva La Quinte Brigada performed live by Christy Moore at Barrowland in Glasgow. The Christy Moore version was rewritten to reflect the Irish experience but an original Spanish version is performed here by Pete Seeger.

Although the tradition of rebel songs is not as strong in Australia, we do not miss out completely. We have songs like ‘The Ballad of 1891’ about the shearers’ strike that ends with the words ‘If they gaol a man for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet’. The poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ by Henry Lawson was also written at the time of the shearers’ strike and later set to music and performed by many groups and singers including this version by The Bushwackers.
So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle.
In 1962, Dorothy Hewett wrote ‘The Ballad of Norman Brown’ about a man killed during the mining strikes of 1929 in the Newcastle area (there is an audio link to the song on this site and, for those interested in this story, parts of the song in this 30 minute video interviewing miners who were present). Its chorus:
Oh Norman Brown, oh Norman Brown
The murderin' coppers they shot him down,
They shot him down in Rothbury town,
A working man called Norman Brown.
And in 1964 after the Voyager disaster this song was written and also expresses an anti-war sentiment in its last lines:
Will your age-old answers now make you realise
That ships must sail the seas for peace before another dies
We continue to write songs about the futility and suffering of war. I include ‘I was only 19’ by Redgum in this selection of ‘folk’ songs because, although it was a popular hit, it was closer to the folk genre. More recently, Fred Smith has written songs about the Australian experience in Afghanistan: ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ (this version performed in Afghanistan in front of Dutch soldiers and using Afghani musicians).

Modern Australians may not be oppressed but there is still plenty for the singer-songwriters to write about. An Irishman living in Melbourne, Enda Kenny (not to be confused with the Irish Taoiseach), wrote ‘Sorry little man’ about Howard refusing to make the apology to the Stolen Generation. More recently he wrote about coal mining using the story of Jonathon Moylan, the activist who put out the fake press release in 2013 that the ANZ bank was withdrawing funding from the Whitehaven coal mine.

There have also been songs about saving the Tasmanian wilderness and wider issues like saving the ‘Amazon’, the latter written by Bruce Watson:
In the time it takes to sing this song
There’ll be four acres cleared in the Amazon
Bruce Watson is also known (at least in folk circles) for his humorous songs: one example is this parody of ‘Bad Habits’: ‘Bad Abbott’.

For those who love music, particularly the power of lyrics with a good tune, then this music can shape and support social movements for the betterment of society. It can raise awareness of issues or present new perspectives and retell the historical struggles that still mould society and modern movements. With humour, it can ridicule existing ideologies, the powerful and politicians. Radical ideas and social and political commentary have been reflected in the music of the people for centuries. Long may it continue to be so.

What do you think?
Apologies to our readers who took note of the previously announced timing of pieces during January. That has now changed as you can see from this post.

We hope you enjoy this musical interlude and find something you like. Is Ken right in suggesting that music can play an important role in social and political movements? Please feel free to add links in your comments to your favourite ‘political’ songs, no matter which musical genre.

This thread will remain open until Wednesday 20 January when our first political piece for the year will be posted. On that date Ad Astra returns with the first of a three-part article on ‘Framing the political debate — the key to winning’. Part 2 of that piece will appear on Tuesday 26 January and the conclusion on Sunday 31 January.


… and suddenly it’s 2016


Welcome to 2016 from The Political Sword and we behind the keyboards hope that the forthcoming year is everything you wish for.

In what seems to be a tradition, we start 2016 with a different prime minister, promises of better government and the reality of more spin, marketing and political games. The tradition for our New Year article is for something looking at 2015 in review and what might happen in the new year. Usually it isn’t all that serious as most of us would rather be watching the cricket. Well, Buzzfeed did Australian politics 2015 in pictures (language warning but well worth a look); the first cricket test was over in three days and the second in four and the Brisbane International Tennis only goes for seven days.

The ‘festive season’ allows us all to take a break from the usual routine, and the other day I was reliving my daughter’s recent dance concert via the (optional for $57.50) DVD ‘available for purchase on the night’ or later on-line — not forgetting the the ‘high quality photos’ that are also available on-line! No this isn’t a sales pitch for an obscure DVD; but while I was telling my daughter that she looked beautiful and danced excellently (and my son was complaining he wanted to watch YouTube clips about The Good Dinosaur instead), there are comparisons between the thousands of dance-school concerts, amateur football competitions and so on that occur each year and the current state of Australian politics.

My teenage daughter, like thousands of others across the country, loves dance and participates in weekly lessons. I like thousands of other parents dutifully attended the annual dance concert in the weeks before Christmas, bought the DVD, and praised the young performers on the depth of sheer talent they displayed on stage. It really doesn’t matter that the under 6 dancers were stage struck and forgot their dance (in spite of the ‘on stage’ helper and the dance teacher in the aisle mirroring the moves); that half the under 10 dancers went left instead of right; or the young acrobatics performer slipped after doing a cartwheel on stage. At the end of the day, all the performers — some as young as 4 — realise that they are a part of something bigger than their individual effort and they have to perform certain actions in unity with the other dancers. We all see our dancers gain a love of their involvement in the arts, confidence that they can perform the routines that they practice for so long, and hopefully some insight into how their actions affect others.

At the same time young dancers are learning the dance steps and music, they are also learning about teamwork, strength, fitness and understanding the concept that the sum of a group effort is greater than the individual effort. For the concert to appear seamless, there are weeks of practice, volunteers that make costumes, those that organise the performers, the staff at the theatre, the parents and relatives of the performers who are willing participants in a number of dances (of varying quality) performed by unrelated people and encouraging our children on their journey through applause and encouragement. Everyone realises they have a part in the proceedings and, for the greater good, all the participants play their parts with enthusiasm and grace. It is the same for footballers, cricketers and in fact most members of society.

The dying days of 2015 saw an agreement in Paris that in theory will reduce the level of global warming into the future. Prime Minister Turnbull attended the meeting (his predecessor apparently wasn’t going to), and Australia was also represented by Environment Minister Hunt and Foreign Minister Bishop. In amongst the general celebration — after all something is better than nothing — the Turnbull government seems to have a problem. As Lenore Taylor from The Guardian was there and we weren’t, how about we defer to her ‘take’ on the agreement and what it means to Australia. In short, Australia should no longer ‘fudge it’ and claim that overshooting the Kyoto Agreement means we can count those ‘savings’ against this new target. You might remember one of Rudd’s first actions was to sign that agreement even with the howling of various groups around the country of ‘we’ll all be rooned!’. In addition, there is nothing in the agreement that allows countries to decrease their emissions savings — only increase them. Nicole Hasham, writing for Fairfax publications had a similar view.

While it is possible to move the demand for energy from fossil fuel to renewables in a short space of time, there has to be the political will to do it, as is the case in Uruguay. It would be fair to suggest that Australia — the only country to scrap an emissions trading scheme — doesn’t have that will. While there is a self-destroying battle going on between the luddites, sorry Abbottites, in the Coalition government and the seemingly somewhat more progressive Turnbull faction, those that are supposed to be governing for all Australians won’t be game enough to do anything except ‘fiddle while Rome burns’ to avoid reducing support for their own faction of the political party they represent.

Not that climate change is Turnbull’s only problem. As soon as Turnbull left the country to go to France, his predecessor was hitting the airwaves with ‘his mate’ Alan Jones and writing in The Australian (paywalled) in an exercise that is probably politely called protecting his legacy and ‘amping up’ the fear of terrorism. The Political Sword isn’t the first to suggest that Abbott is ‘doing a Rudd’, (and this article points out how well that worked) and dare I suggest we won’t be the last. According to The Guardian, Abbott is likely to offer himself for re-election in spite of an opinion poll funded by The Australia Institute where the electors in Abbott’s seat of Warringah are telling him to go.

In the words of those annoying commercials on the digital TV shopping channels — ‘but wait, there’s more’. Three of Turnbull’s hand-picked ministers, Mal Brough, Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy seem to have questions to answer regarding the alleged campaign to replace Peter Slipper as the Member for Fisher with Mal Brough. You may remember in the last week of parliament for 2015, Brough seemed to contradict a statement he made on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program, offered an explanation for the apparent contradiction, and then when the contradiction was spelt out to him:
Brough returned to the house on Wednesday morning to apologise “if my statement yesterday unwittingly added to the confusion rather than clarifying the matter”.

Labor repeatedly asked Brough to justify his claim that he had “answered the question without clarifying precisely what part of the question I was responding to”. Dreyfus said it was obvious from the tapes that there was only one question Brough could have been answering
While Brough has now stood aside pending completion of the investigation by the AFP, Pyne and Roy are still there.

Turnbull has still more to deal with. Instead of the ‘free steak knives’ that used to be promised by firms such as Demtel, scorned ex-Minister Ian Macfarlane decided to take his bat and ball from the Liberal side of the coalition to the Nationals. While Macfarlane is a member of Queensland’s LNP and theoretically a member of both the Liberal and National caucus in Canberra, the action (which could be described as a ‘dummy spit’ because Turnbull removed him from the ministry) alters the numbers of parliamentarians in each of the coalition partners in Canberra — potentially causing a ministry to be passed from the Liberals to the Nationals and destabilising Turnbull’s government. The Queensland LNP subsequently blocked the move; so Macfarlane returned serve with:
He said he would not make an immediate decision about his future in the federal parliament. “I’ll be taking some time over Christmas and making an announcement in the new year,” he said.
I, like millions of other parents sit through dance concerts, sporting events and a multitude of other events that involve our kids, to teach them about co-operation, sharing, learning new skills, confidence and that sometimes they have to sacrifice the top billing for the greater good. While (in my opinion) my daughter’s dancing was excellent, she wasn’t always at the front and centre of the stage. There could be a lot of reasons for this but I certainly didn’t go to the dance teacher after the concert and suggest discrimination because my daughter didn’t get the position I thought she deserved. I also didn’t complain because I sat through the entire first act without sight of my daughter on stage — and to my knowledge no one else complained about the staging or sequencing either.

So what makes those in politics think differently? Sometimes the greater good means that we have to do what is morally right, not what is self-serving. Australia has just signed up to a commitment to actually reduce carbon emissions into the future. Unlike others in a similar position, Australia is planning to use the ’credits’ earned by exceeding previous targets to reduce the actual reductions that will be required by polluters in this country.

The conservative rump of the Liberal Party has decided that the removal of ‘their leader’ (and both sides of politics ‘have form’ in regard to removal of sitting prime ministers) was in error, so they are actively destabilising the government’s agenda. Surely the greater good if you are an LNP supporter is a Coalition government in Canberra, rather than handing government to the ‘other side’ because you don’t have the leader you want. The same strategy worked well for the ALP too!

Ian Macfarlane has been the recipient of a number of cabinet posts in his term in the federal parliament. When a new prime minister makes a decision to bring in some new (and younger) blood, Macfarlane effectively has two options. He could sit on the backbench with others in the same position, such as Phillip Ruddock, and act in the greater good as a mentor to those coming through the system — or he could ‘spit the dummy’. His choice is obvious.

Not that Australian politicians are anything special in looking after their own self interests. The US Republican Presidential hopefuls are demonstrating their maturity by name calling:
Bush, speaking at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, railed against Trump’s habit of offending demographic groups ranging from Muslims to women. Then he said: “Just one other thing – I gotta get this off my chest – Donald Trump is a jerk.”

The crowd in Contoocook broke into laughter and applause.

On Friday, on Twitter, Trump called Bush “dumb as a rock”.
The end of 2015 also brought signs of some politicians being willing to have genuine conversations with their electors, leading to better decisions that will achieve the greater good. Hopefully others will learn to manage the need to promote their own self-interest to the elimination of everything else, and that their efforts match what we teach our kids through organised activity and movies such as The Good Dinosaur.

Welcome to 2016; buckle up; it could be a wild ride.

What do you think?
This thread will remain open until 17 January when a piece with many musical links will be posted for your holiday entertainment.


Farewell 2015 — you could have been worse


It is common at this time of the year to reflect on what was, what could have been and how it all manages to fit into the ‘scheme of things’. This article is the 50th piece posted to The Political Sword in 2015 — and, if we didn’t have enough to do, late in January we changed the look and feel of our website as well as commencing a second site TPS Extra, where the concept is for shorter ad-hoc articles on issues of the day. Given that each Political Sword article runs for somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words, somewhere around 100,000 words have been written, coded and presented for you to think about. At the time of writing 45 articles have appeared on the Extra site — of varying lengths to address a current issue.

At the end of 2014, we started our annual reflection with the following:
It was a year in which we saw Abbott and his cronies trying to destroy the country and make us a paradise for the neo-liberals, the neo-cons and the economists that support them — and, of course, big business. We saw the worst budget in living memory and have, so far, only been saved from its full ramifications by the senate. We saw Clive Palmer appear with Al Gore to talk about the importance of climate change but, at the same time, cave in to support the repeal of the carbon price. We have seen Abbott, more through luck than design, deflect the budget issue and ‘bask’ in the glory of the world stage, taking on the Russian bear and alienating our closest Asian neighbour. He has ‘stopped the boats’ but also stopped government transparency in the process. He is undertaking more privatisation of government services and encouraging the states to do the same. Without openly saying so, he is pursuing a neo-liberal and economic rationalist agenda backed to the hilt by the IPA (and, as others have noted, he is, to a significant extent, following its ‘hit list’).
The criticism of Abbott started early this year on The Political Sword. By the time January was over we had looked back at 2012 where our esteemed blog master Ad Astra had correctly deduced Abbott’s character; and Ken offered to refund his assisted passage to Australia
He arrived here as a £10 pom and I will willingly refund his £10 (or $20 in real Australian money) if he takes the next boat home — perhaps we can spare him an orange life boat for the journey.
— as well as looking at his negativity, questioning if it was the right ‘sales pitch’ for someone who was supposed to be demonstrating that his government was a safe pair of hands.

During February, Abbott faced a leadership spill (as no one actually challenged him). The reality is that close to 40% of the members of his political caucus effectively ticked the ‘anyone but Abbott’ box by voting for a spill. Ken soon after assembled a catalogue of (lets be nice here — it is Christmas) exaggerations over the deficit that Abbott and Hockey claim they inherited from the Rudd/Gillard years, followed by 2353 looking at tax reform here and here.

During March, Ken looked at the reality of the ‘Presidential style’ of Australian leadership and suggested the ‘people voted for me’ claim that Abbott (as well as Rudd a few years earlier) was making was in fact bollocks. Jan Mahyuddin pondered why a number of political reporters were then publicly discussing Abbott’s character flaws, rather than before the election when the Australian people could have done something about it.

During March, the government released the fourth Intergenerational Report — which is a document that is supposed to look a few decades into the future, scan the risks and determine what plans we as a society need to have in place now to manage the transition. The Hockey intergenerational report was a complete farce, which you may remember Dr Karl Kruszelnicki later publically suggested he should have read prior to agreeing to advertise the document.

As the year went on we looked at the second Abbott/Hockey budget and determined that while it was somewhat softer than the 2014 version, the ideology behind it was the same. 2353 looked at the discussion on marriage equity in June, discussing the manoeuvres that Abbott was making to defer the process: followed a week later by Ken discussing the reality behind the ‘national security/terrorism’ concerns that Abbott frequently identified as his prime concern and found that Abbott was the one behaving like a terrorist by deliberately generating fear.

During August, we discussed the ‘concept’ of an increase in the GST rate, as floated by Mike Baird (NSW Premier) at the COAG Meeting, while suggesting that ‘we told you so’ (again) back in April when we published ‘Beware, there is a plan’. The government’s lack of ‘love’ for effective action to address climate change or progressive taxation (where everyone pays a fair percentage of their income) rounded out the month.

A traditional operating method for conservative governments is to hide their actions behind a cloak of secrecy or layer the whole process in quantities of red tape. Early in September, 2353 asked why is this so and determined that it was something to do with the conservative mindset. We also looked at how various governments had failed Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Australians and how Abbott was never going to rectify the damage; as well as the increasing trend for people such as Abbott (a Catholic) to reduce the distance between state and religion, solely to push their own agendas. September was also the month that Abbott was defeated in a leadership challenge. Given that Menzies was overthrown in a leadership challenge in 1941 and Gorton voted himself out of office in the early 1970’s, you would think that there would be considerable ‘corporate experience’ in the Liberal Party for how the vanquished should act and behave. After giving Abbott around a month to demonstrate he meant the ‘right things’ he said; and finding he didn’t, The Political Sword discussed (here, here as well as here) the problems newly minted Prime Minister Turnbull would have in stamping his authority on the position while appeasing the ultra-conservatives who were being attracted to the lightning rod of Abbott, then sitting on the back bench. Turnbull is still attempting to find a path through the forest of competing claims and ideologies.

A lot can change in twelve months. Abbott’s removal as prime minister in late 2015 was bookended by Queenslanders taking back ultra-conservative Premier Newman’s large majority in January and Canadians removing ultra-conservative Stephen Harper from their prime ministership in October. The replacement leader in Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and in Canada, Justin Trudeau, were both considered to be write-offs only months prior to the election results and both seem to have chosen methods miles apart from the ‘traditional’ loud, nasty politics to gain and retain leadership. While the Conservative’s David Cameron was re-elected in the UK election, subsequently the UK Labour Party (in a democratic process) chose a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is (in the words of Yes Minister) ‘courageous’ and has stated he wants to take the UK Labour Party back to the days of a kinder and gentler society.

Palaszczuk, Turnbull, Corbyn and Trudeau seem to demonstrate a need for a ‘kinder and gentler’ politics and as a result there is certainly less intensity in the political discussion. Maybe we all do get sick of ‘he said/she said’ and those with the loudest or most outrageous voices winning. As a US General Election and an Australian Federal Election are both due in 2016, it could be interesting to see how the ‘kinder and gentler’ pans out.

Life does not revolve completely around politics and during the year The Political Sword took a look at some issues that at times begged the question why won’t our politicians do this as well and at other times had little to do with current politics at all.

2353 went ethical early in February (a recurring affliction for which we are assured he is getting help), looking at some of the research into why people treat those with differences as physical and intellectual inferiors. In March, he was questioning if social media influences politics and by April was discussing the fallacy of the ‘trickle-down effect’ as popularised by US President Reagan, British Prime Minister Thatcher and of course Australian Prime Minister Abbott.

Ken discussed the change in perception within Australia from helping those less fortunate to economic rationalism, asked if the budget papers are just a waste of paper and tried to justify claiming the term ‘budget trickery’ from Bill Shorten after the federal budget.

Around the same time as the Australian Budget was handed down (giving little to those that need a hand), 2353 looked at the experience in Utah where a Republican (conservative) governor authorised a long term plan to help banish poverty from his state; including literally giving the homeless a home. The social benefits have been overwhelming, as those who have a fixed address find it is easier to interact with government departments, employers and other aid groups, they feel part of a community and sooner or later, most of them are (to use Joe Hockey’s misadvised words) lifters, not leaners on society.

2353’s ethical meme surfaced again when he discussed why our immigration policies over the past couple of centuries seemed to reflect our prosperity as a nation as well as discussing the ethics of profit over human suffering, and why successive Australian governments have supported the apparent inhumanity experienced by those who are transported to Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru.

At the same time, Ken gave us a few valuable history lessons with his mini- series on the Westminster System (Part 1 and Part 2), health funding (Part 1 and Part 2), neo-liberalism and discussing the politics of water availability in Australia.

So 2015 really wasn’t that bad. This time last year we were hoping that Abbott didn’t ‘destroy the joint’ before he was evicted kicking and screaming from Kirribilli House; some other ultra-conservatives have been voted out; and we now have some optimism that kinder and gentler politics is possible across the world with a recognition that the environment and society is important.

In the spirit of optimism that seems to have broken out across the UK, Canada and Australia, please enjoy this (non-festive season) music clip as a final comment on 2015



What do you think?
Our publication schedule over the break is an article scheduled for New Year's Day and potentially one in mid-January. The site will remain open and moderated throughout the period. Apart from that, the people behind The Political Sword hope you enjoy your ‘Christmas break’ in the way in which you feel comfortable. Have a safe and happy holiday period, look after yourself, your families and those around you.


Lords and Ladies, a new morality tale for a new time


The spruiker

Lords and Ladies, I beseech of your time as I come before you to continue the tale of the kingdom wherein resided Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. I beg of you to bring to mind my last tale when, although no more than a lowly jester, he created himself anew as Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth, creating visions of his own grandeur which triggered unease among the Lords and Ladies of his land. Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth dreamed of setting his aim higher, of placing his new majestic self above his Lords and Ladies, something they could not countenance but nor could they speak of it except in the concealed comfort of their great halls; so instead they stealthily spread tales of revolting peasants in Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth’s own green great hall.

The tale continues: the Lords and Ladies strike back

The Lords and Ladies secretly send their envoys into Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth’s green great hall, to speak in muffled tones among the jesters, clowns and goblins gathered therein: he is frightening the peasants, they whisper; they are abandoning their fields and forges; if this continues the peasants will revolt and storm the castle walls, burn the great halls to ash; then there will be no need for clowns and jesters — the goblins, however, may yet prosper in a chaotic land, they hint. The clowns and jesters anxiously survey the goblins among them: they always feared whether they could be trusted and now the emissaries fan the embers of internal discord.

The jesters, clowns and goblins mutter among themselves. What can be done? How can the peasants be returned to their fields, despite the rising waters and the seemingly endless fires, despite the demonic tales of the tree monks? They murmur and plot. They whisper and plan. And the Lords and Ladies, with their whispering crusade, adroitly prepare the way for their man, Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull.

Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull is a man of substance, not an inept jester. Although not a lord, he possesses his own castle, grander even than those of some of the Lords and Ladies. He gained his name from the legend he could turn a charging bull at 30 paces with his withering smile, that he could quiet raging peasants, even lull them into sleep, with his three hundred mellifluous words — whereas Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth was limited to three words. The Lords and Ladies were confident he could charm the peasants into working harder and longer without them even noticing.

The ghostly heralds of the Lords and Ladies glide like wisps of wind among the jesters, clowns and goblins of the green great hall and slowly but surely their stories spread and take hold: they tell the clowns, jesters and goblins they can keep their places in that hall only if Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull replaces the upstart Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth. The thread of mutiny knits itself quietly into a golden gown. And it is ‘quietly’ until Mal C’od-turn-a-bull strides confidently, defiantly to the centre of the great hall and declares he will now be ruler of that edifice. Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth asserts he is still master of the green great hall but, by then, the clowns, jesters and goblins have succumbed to the whisperings, have come to believe the tales that Mal C’od-turn-a-bull will restore tranquillity to the kingdom — and allow them to continue feasting and debauching in the green great hall.

Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth has now disappeared into his paper castle, where some still protect him but their cause is now lost — or perhaps lost only for now. He retains a place, now isolated, sulking in a dimmed nook of the green great hall, no longer its possessor, but still with a remnant of goblins who surround him and chatter excitedly of the dreams he and they had dared. They sometimes prattle among themselves but, as yet, can do nought to undo the prodigious smile of Mal C’od-turn-a-bull.

The Lords and Ladies are well pleased. The parvenu jester is replaced with a man of (almost) their own class, a man who appreciates their desires and wants, who is cognisant they require seclusion within the shelter of their castle walls and ignorance among the peasants so as to pursue their artful, gold-making dealings. Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull well understands such artfulness for he has practised it himself.

Almost immediately the peasants are calmed. They like the timbre of his words even if they do not fathom them. He tells them only he can conquer the rising waters and endless fires — but he does nothing. His words alone are enough for now, convincing some that this illustrious man empathises and will eventually quell the waters and the flames. Behind the castle walls, the Lords and Ladies smirk in relieved delight. Already their man has won over the peasants, just as they had foreseen, his endless numbing words and glowing smile working their mesmerising spell on the ignorant, unwitting peasants.

Mal C’od-turn-a-bull moves among the peasants, among the impoverished and outcast and pronounces that no longer will the knights and yeomen ride against them but still the peasants with the matches in their ragged coat pockets are covertly watched, sometimes furtively whisked away to fetid, windowless dungeons.

He rides slowly by the peasants in his own imposing coach.

‘What about Godwin’s coach?’ a ragged, mud-clad peasant shouts from the throng.

Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull does not like being reminded of the time when he thought the coach of another prominent rival, Kev de Flick O’Hair, had been plundered goods. As it transpired, it was the peasant Godwin spreading falsehoods. That was a mistake in his past that he desires be left there. But this peasant, who, indeed, must be hiding matches in his pocket to bring forth such a matter, has not forgotten. How many others out there also remember? Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull ponders that question but continues by without bothering to pause or answer. His flowing words cannot simply decree that incident to invisibility. But as he moves genially onward, his hand moves almost imperceptibly at the coach window, and the yeoman guard spirit that peasant away with barely a soul noticing and, if they do discover the matches in his pocket, he may never be seen again.

The tree monks are also not convinced. They harangue the peasants: ‘Until he does something about the rising waters and endless fires, you should not be deceived by his milky words. Demand he walk with you here in the mud and rising waters. Demand he confronts the fires himself. Then challenge what he is willing to do.’

Yes, the tree monks are invigorated by his presence. He does not denounce them as bellicosely as Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth once did. He smiles benignly upon them, promises a few more trees that they may scramble upon, but passes them by as if his passing alone should satiate their exclamations of doom.

“There will be changes”, Malcom Co’d-turn-a-bull tells the carefully assembled peasants and lingering tree monks. ‘If I think what I’m doing or not doing is not working well, or if working well could be done differently, be done in a better way … but I will only change those things that need to be changed, that aren’t working well, or aren’t getting the results I … the Lords and … the results you want, or good results that help you or make life easier for you, or help you get more done in less time, or even the same time, but more … We live in an exciting time and we can …’

Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull has much more to say (he has not yet reached his three hundred words), and does say much more, but it is somewhere about that point in his oration that peasants begin slumbering or returning to their work: yes, even work is more interesting than this, even scrabbling in the deepening mud.

Deep within the living soul of Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull dwells the certain knowledge that the Lords and Ladies are masters of this world and he hovers deliciously close to them. Unlike the uncouth jester he replaced, he is welcomed at the dining tables in the halls of the Lords and Ladies’ castles, is accepted into their company, where he exchanges pleasantries, where the Lords and Ladies deviously suggest the peasants do not actually require very much to be happy. ‘That is the way of the world’, they entice him, offering another goblet of wine, another pheasant’s egg topped with caviar from a distant kingdom. Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull dips his silver spoon into the black fish roe. ‘You must beguile them. Another wine? You must fulfil your duty to your own.’ Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull appreciates that, has always believed in the privileged right of the Lords and Ladies to fashion their money-making ways.

‘We will need more wood for the forges so they can burn longer and produce more horseshoes, barrel hoops, sickles and scythes, swords and axes, and all our other useful tools of metal. There will be more work for the tree-fellers and the carters carrying the wood. We will all be better off,’ Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull announces to the peasants.

‘That means felling more trees,’ the tree monks lament. ‘That means more smoke hanging over your homes during the still winter nights, veiling your vision on the roads, making your children cough,’ they add. Some peasants nod their heads knowingly but the yeoman guard keep their watchful gaze upon them.

‘Tree monks will be left more trees’, Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull promises somewhere through the long distance of his discourse but nimbly fails to reveal where. The Lords and Ladies have determined they will be on vastly separated knolls at the kingdom’s far edges, where tree monks can do no damage — only the most ardent fire-threatening peasant will travel that far merely to consult a tree monk or be influenced by their heretical teaching.

‘And you on the farms, you will be able to till more soil, grow more food for your families and neighbours who all will have more work. And they can choose their work’ but Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull conceals that most of the increased produce of the fields will fill the tables of the Lords and Ladies (and the next tier below them, people of his own ilk — he will do well from this extra work and all he has to do is entrance the peasants to do it).

‘There is no longer any need to be afraid. We are a kingdom of opportunities for all’, but especially the Lords and Ladies (and me), he mutely continues. ‘Take heed of the greatness of … of our … of your kingdom and how much greater it can be if we all work together, if we each work as hard as we possibly can, if we contribute …’ Blah, blah, blah! Yes, again, somewhere around this point peasants begin to nod off or wander back to their dank fields and smoky forges.

There is certainly more work being done if only because the peasants do not well endure Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull’s prolixity, the myriad words, his phantasmagoria of words.

For now the kingdom glows, reflecting the boundless, unceasing smile of Mal C’od-turn-a-bull but dangers lurk. There are goblins with spittle-laden words hissing that the peasants are simply lazy, avoiding, when they can, their labouring duties to their Lords and Ladies, that the peasants must be left with no choice other than the dank fields and the cough-inducing forges, and there is no reason to stem the fires and rising waters. The Lords and Ladies do not discourage such hateful words but sit by idly, taking satisfied account and awaiting their next opportunity.

There are goblins who yet believe Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth is their true leader and still believe in his word. They could yet turn against Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull. And the clowns and jesters cannot be relied upon. Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull just smiles his beatific smile, and no-one yet knows whether that will be enough.

For now, the Lords and Ladies delight in the emerging new shape of their kingdom.

For now, the future seems clear but more smoke rises, more eerie night fogs descend, and more muted thoughts choose another time for expression.

What do you think?
To understand some of the references in this tale, we encourage you to read the earlier ‘Lords and Ladies’ tales linked at the beginning of the piece.

Will Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull continue to lull and charm the peasants? Will Tiny-er –er O’penmouth continue idly accepting his fate? How long will the Lords and Ladies continue to delight in their newfound wealth? Come back in 2016 when the tale continues.

Next week 2353 sums up the year as we saw it on TPS.


Where does all the water go?


With parliament about to go into its summer recess and an El Nino summer in the offing, meaning less rain (particularly in the eastern states) and raising the prospect of water restrictions in major urban areas, I thought it timely to have a look at what happens to water in Australia — how much we have, who uses it, who value adds to it and what the government is doing.

I think you all know about the ‘water cycle’. Basically our planet has a finite amount of water that has remained unchanged for millennia: the only thing that changes is the form that water is in. Taking a hypothetical 100-year life of a water droplet on our planet, as it is at the moment, it would spend about 97 years in the ocean, about 22 months as ice, around three weeks in lakes and rivers, and less than a week as water vapour in the atmosphere (which can become available as rain).

In other words, 96.5% of the earth’s water is in the salt water of our oceans: there is another one percent of saline water in groundwater and saline lakes. So we have about 2.5% freshwater but of that 1.8% is captured in ice and snow, and for human use our freshwater (in lakes and rivers, groundwater and in the atmosphere as potential rain) is only about 0.7% of the earth’s total water — but that still amounts to a lot of water, about 10.65 million cubic kilometres (although 10.5 million cubic kilometres of that is groundwater). There is 1000 gigalitres of water in a cubic kilometre and a billion litres of water in a gigalitre which means our estimated total freshwater resources are something like 10.65 million trillion litres — yes, mind boggling! Out of that only 2,120 trillion litres is readily accessible in rivers.

How does Australia fare in all this? — not very well but perhaps better than you think. Our rivers make up only 1% of the world’s river flows but, on the other hand, we have only 0.3% of the world’s population. In 2008‒09 we used 8,955 gigalitres of surface water and 380 gigalitres of groundwater, compared to 10,712 gigalitres and 448 gigalitres respectively in 2004‒05. (That was a period of drought and the 2008‒09 figures reflect reduced water availability as the drought lengthened — we subsequently had wet years in 2010 and 2011.) But in 2004‒05 we still received, across Australia as a whole, almost 2.8 million gigalitres of rain. So where did it all go? Well for a start most of it, about 2 million gigalitres, fell in the least populated areas, in north Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In that year almost 90% of that rainfall disappeared in evaporation and transpiration — the latter being use by plants. Only 243,000 gigalitres was run off to replenish rivers and 49,000 gigalitres recharged groundwater. In addition we had 44,000 gigalitres stored in large dams for a total water stock of 336,000 gigalitres but that compared to a total water stock of 415,000 gigalitres in 1996‒97 before the drought. It is the norm that we have access to only about 10‒15% of our total rainfall which is at the lower end of such averages when compared to other countries.

It is all that rainfall in northern Australia that leads politicians to talk about ‘northern development’ but as CSIRO pointed out in 2009:
A lot rain falls on northern Australia, but its arrival is restricted in time and uneven in its distribution. Where and when it occurs is generally impractical for water resource development and there are large variations in how much comes year to year. There is little or no rain for three to six months every year … The landscape is generally not amenable to storing water and the climate is not conducive to keeping it.
So we have two major problems: the majority of our rain does not fall where the majority of people live and our rainfall is so variable. The latter leads to Australia having one of the highest storage to usage ratios of any country: our major dams generally provide from three to six years of usage whereas many countries store only one or two years’ usage, or in some cases less than a year.

Who uses the water we do have? For those of us — most of us — living in urban areas, you may be pleased to know that residential usage accounts for only about 9% of Australia’s total water usage (it has been as high as 11% in some years). That means that when water restrictions are in place it is not about the total amount of water we are using but the falling levels of our local water storage.

By far the majority of water use in Australia is for agriculture: around 65% (although it has fallen as low as 50% in drought years) and 90% of that is for irrigation of crops and pastures. In 2012‒13, agriculture used 12,780 gigalitres out of total water usage of 19,749 gigalitres (note that this is more than double the total usage in 2008‒09 when we were in drought and is more reflective of our ‘normal’ usage). You might think, yes, that is necessary — after all, we do need to eat.

Some of the bigger agricultural users of water were:
  • cotton, 3,285 gigalitres — 17% of our total water usage
  • dairy farming, 1,967 gigalitres — 10%
  • rice, 1,780 gigalitres — 9%
  • fruit and nut trees, 1,467 gigalitres — 7%
And then we add sheep, cattle and other grain crops (wheat, sorghum and so on) to make up most of the rest (about 17% of our total usage). It should also be noted that up to 80% of our total water usage occurs in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Mining and manufacturing each use about 3‒4% of our water: mining used 614 gigalitres in 2012‒13, and manufacturing 530 gigalitres. Mining in WA alone used 241 gigalitres or about 40% of the water used in mining.

In 2012‒13, agriculture generated about $3 million of production for each gigalitre of water used. [from ABS Data Cube here, open Monetary tables and then Table 7.] That compared to $191 million per gigalitre for mining and $192 million for manufacturing: or to convert that to litres, agriculture creates 0.3 cents of product per litre of water compared to about 19 cents per litre for manufacturing and mining. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of agriculture but it does raise questions about what we are achieving for the use of all that water. I am aware that water efficiency has improved in the agricultural sector, that even rice growers in Australia use about half the world average amount of water for each kilogram of rice, and that irrigation channels are being improved and enclosed to help reduce water loss. Despite that, the fact that we earn only a third of a cent for each litre of water used leaves a lingering doubt as to the agricultural sector’s overall efficiency.

What about the rest of us sitting on our suburban blocks? — what do we do with that 9% of water we use? For a start we actually use about 40‒44% of it outdoors, in our gardens and washing cars and structures. Indoors the shower is the biggest user of water accounting for about 20‒25%, then our toilets, around 10‒15%, and only around 8% for essential drinking and food preparation. Plus it is estimated that we lose about 4% in leakages. Those figures are my estimates from considering a number of sources as there are significant variations between Australian cities and, of course, in times of drought when outdoor use may be subject to restrictions.

Using the 2012‒13 household consumption of 1,851 gigalitres those percentages translate to approximately the following amounts of water:
  • outdoor use, 780 gigalitres
  • total indoor use, 1,070 gigalitres, including
  • shower and bath, 430 gigalitres
  • toilet, 260 gigalitres
  • drinking and food preparation, 150 gigalitres
So every person in Australia, in their homes, uses in total only 56% of the amount of water used by the cotton industry, and slightly less than the dairy industry and slightly more than the rice growers.

We have more than enough water for everyone but most of it is not where most of us live. From what is available for most of the population, we use two-thirds of it for agriculture. The 9% of the water we use in our homes is less than 0.5% of our total water stock while agriculture uses about 4%. Overall, Australia uses around 5% of its water stock each year. Some countries, with more reliable water resources, use as much as 20% of their water stock each year.

Governments across Australia are very conscious of water issues. The National Water Initiative (NWI) was agreed at COAG in 2004 and the National Water Commission was established to oversee its implementation. Some of its aims included:
  • effective water planning across all jurisdictions
  • nationally compatible and secure water entitlements
  • conjunctive management of surface and ground water, recognising the connectivity between them
  • resolution of over allocation and overuse
  • open water markets
A review of the NWI in 2011, while finding that much had been achieved, also called on all governments to recommit to the NWI and that they ‘must resolve to stay the course on their reform commitments’. That implies that some governments were backtracking or, at the least, not continuing to pursue the reform agenda. And in 2014, for the tenth anniversary of the agreement, the Chair of the National Water Commission was still writing:
Some important actions from the initiative remain unfinished. These will only be achieved if governments stay the course on their water reform commitments.

Although the full extent of the National Water Initiative’s aspirations is yet to be fully realised, we have a framework that 10-years on, is proven and robust.
Having made those comments, the National Water Commission was abolished in June 2015 (that was when the Act received assent although the announcement was originally made late in 2014). Its role of reviewing the implementation of the NWI was passed to the Productivity Commission. Initially water issues, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, remained with the Department of the Environment.

There is a lot of research being undertaken by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) and the CSIRO. The ABS also produces an annual ‘Water Account’ and the BoM produces annual statements of water assets and water liabilities.

So there is a lot of data out there, even if it is not always compatible, enough for governments to be making key decisions about water usage, including social and environmental considerations.

But when Turnbull became prime minister, what happened? The Nationals insisted, as part of the new coalition agreement, that water become a responsibility of the agriculture minister: the department is now the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was transferred so that it reported to the agriculture minister. Even national sewerage agreements were transferred.

What is clear is that the Nationals see water primarily in terms of agriculture, which already uses 65% of our water. With that level of water usage in the sector, there is perhaps an argument that the minister for agriculture should have the responsibility but does it also mean that any attempts to reduce that consumption, by increasing environmental flows, will be opposed because it may be of detriment to the agricultural sector? The Murray-Darling Basin Authority takes environmental flows into consideration but it is now reporting to the agriculture minister which means its recommendations will be weighed more heavily against the water requirements of the agricultural sector rather than environmental factors.

An example of the conflicting requirements has occurred at Menindee Lakes this year. A major cotton farm, that can produce up to 70,000 bales of cotton a year, is not putting in a crop this year because it has no water. The Menindee Lakes have virtually run dry and nearby Broken Hill also has a water supply problem. Some are blaming it on a 300 gigalitre release of water early in 2013 to help the Murray River — to ‘move sediment and salt out of the system’. The Broken Hill City Council described the release as ‘excessive and unnecessary’. Locals are not convinced that the environmental benefits outweighed the economic costs. The Menindee Lakes, however, have similar problems to those mentioned by the CSIRO for northern Australia — in hot weather the large, shallow lakes can lose up to 10 gigalitres of water a day in evaporation. How will the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources evaluate those conflicting requirements in the future?

While I accept that agriculture is an important industry, I do have doubts when it uses 65% of our water to produce only a fraction of one cent’s worth of product for every litre used. Our farmers are working to become more water efficient but when rice and cotton alone use 26% of our water, we could save 5,000 gigalitres a year without them — that is enough water for two-and-a-half years of domestic usage or more than enough to increase environmental flows and maintain inland wetlands, even to provide more water for other crops. At the least, I think the size of our cotton and rice production could be reduced in acceptance that we actually live on a dry continent where trying to grow water-intensive crops is not efficient.

As urban consumers of water we are being encouraged to reduce our 9% usage but at our own cost —we pay for more efficient shower heads, dual flush toilets and water efficient washing machines — but farmers are subsidised to improve their water efficiency:
The $626 million On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program (the programme) is assisting irrigators within the southern connected system of the Murray-Darling Basin to modernise their on-farm irrigation infrastructure while returning water savings to the environment. The southern connected system for the programme encompasses the New South Wales Murray, Victorian Murray, South Australian Murray, Campaspe, Murrumbidgee, Goulburn, Broken, Loddon and the Lower Darling (south of Menindee Lakes) river catchments.
And with a Nationals minister now in charge of water resources, that looks set to continue.

It appears that the Nationals have been waging their own quiet war to overcome the ‘greenies’ and make sure that agricultural water use dominates government water policy. In my view, there is little doubt they were behind the abolition of the National Water Commission and with the election of a new Liberal leader they were handed the opportunity to complete their ‘water coup’ and gain control of national water policy.

Politicians are meant to make decisions based on balancing competing interests and when water issues were divided between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment there was an opportunity for the competing agricultural and environmental water requirements to be fully evaluated. Now, however, there appears less opportunity for those competing interests to be taken into consideration.

Water use in Australia is a vexed issue but placing control of water policy in the hands of those whose primary interest is agriculture isn’t going to help.

What do you think?
With our limited water supply, shouldn’t Australia be giving much greater consideration as to the best uses of that water? How much for agriculture? How much for the environment? — noting that maintaining the environment is also necessary to maintain agriculture, which most farmers already know. Surely governments should realise they need to balance those requirements for now and for the future.

Next week, in our penultimate piece for the year, Ken returns to his ‘Lords and Ladies’ saga and introduces a new character, Mal C’od-turn-a-bull, in ‘Lords and Ladies, a new morality tale for a new time’.


Entitlement makes up for lost production


Joe Hockey was fond of talking about the end of the age of entitlement, basically meaning that people should not expect support from government and should buy their services in the market — including health and education services if he had had his way. There are, however, various good reasons why government should be fully involved in welfare and the delivery of services. I will look at one of them, one that we do not often think about.

Early this year in his pieces on tax reform, 2353 pointed to the fact that couples with young children may look to government for financial support because the children are non-productive members of the family. The question is whether that is a legitimate claim on the government. Joe Hockey would likely have said not but, historically, I believe it is because it is government, and society in general, that has played the major role in creating that situation by regulating access to the labour market.

The economic role of children has changed as society has changed. In hunter-gatherer societies children of both sexes from a very young age assisted in the collection activities of their mothers — they actually learned by being involved. As the boys got older, they would join their fathers, uncles and other males in the hunt and learn to track, pursue and kill game.

In agricultural societies (and even on modern farms), children also contribute from a young age. In Australia in the 1800s, after schooling became widespread, it was still common in rural areas for school attendance to drop significantly at harvest time as the children’s first priority was to help on the farm, and that applied to both female and male children. As an example, in 1870 at a place then known as Moorwatha in south-western NSW, a regular school attendance of over 40 dropped to fewer than 20 at harvest time.

In the early years of the industrial revolution, children as young as 7 or 8 worked in factories and mines but, even in Britain from the 1830s, the government changed the rules to limit the hours children worked and the age at which they could.

From the 1930s to the 1960s in Australia it was common for male children, usually around 12 to 14, to work as paperboys on city corners or walk suburban streets selling their newspapers, or to see them assisting with the daily delivery of milk or bread. (Who remembers milk and bread deliveries?)

So it can be argued that until about the mid 1900s children were not unproductive members of a family but were essential economic contributors. It was only the wealthy who had unproductive children (and, as much as I would like to, I won’t get into the argument that they also became unproductive adults).

We also made formal education for children compulsory and gradually increased the years of schooling that we thought necessary. Early on it was normal for children to leave education at the end of primary school (aged about 11 or 12): then 14 was made a compulsory age for schooling, and then 15. We now encourage everyone to complete Year 12 (aged 17 to 18) — some, but not all states have made 17 the new minimum age for leaving school — and then to undertake further tertiary education at TAFE or university so that ‘children’ now may not complete their education until they are at least 19 or 20, if not older, in effect giving up from 5 to 10 years of productive work.

In our modern society, students can find part-time work from age 15, particularly in the retail and fast food industries, and still remain in education. In that regard, there is still some scope to contribute economically but it is now more limited.

If society and government have changed the rules so that children can no longer contribute economically to their families as much as in the past, then who has the responsibility to make up for that lost production?

In many early societies, elderly people were acknowledged as the repository of wisdom, of experience, life skills and knowledge of the world in which a community operated. Even if they were no longer physically productive, they may know the best foods, the best places to search for food. They retained the knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants. They were sought out and valued for that knowledge. That changed with the means of retaining knowledge in books, then those books being printed and becoming widely available. Now we have computers, the internet and the knowledge explosion. Older people are now often seen as ‘behind the times’ but that doesn’t mean they still don’t have extensive knowledge of life skills, of the informal rules that operate in their communities and emotional knowledge and understanding.

In some societies elders were (and still are) given additional status by the practice of ancestor worship. As the elderly approach the time at which they will join the ancestors they are cared for by the living to ensure that they continue to contribute to their descendants’ good fortune after they pass over.

Pensions were introduced partly to meet the needs of a growing population. It was a way of providing for people when they became too feeble to work. In the 1800s in England, older people often ended their days in ‘workhouses’ and later ‘alms houses’. A growing population meant it was cheaper to provide pensions and allow elderly people to support themselves rather than build many more alms houses. Australia never had a system of workhouses, so aged pensions were introduced, initially at the state level, some years before they were in the UK.

The other argument, based on Australia’s lead in social welfare, was that after people had worked for over 50 years, originally from age 12 or 14 to 65, they had made their contribution to society and deserved an adequate retirement. (It was a similar argument used to justify long service after each ten year period of service.)

Then came the baby boomers. Long term projections at the time raised the prospect that when the baby boomers entered the workforce there would not be enough jobs. There are two means by which the size of the available workforce has traditionally been managed: by lengthening the period of education and/or lowering the retirement age. To ensure enough employment would be available for the baby boomers, Australia relied mainly on lengthening the period of education, thus allowing time for more of the then existing workforce to retire before the baby boomers entered. We also allowed early retirement in some cases without changing the official age of retirement. In the current climate, with fears of a smaller workforce as the baby boomers retire, we have focused on increasing the retirement age rather than lowering the age for compulsory education. In Europe, facing a similar problem, many governments initially lowered the retirement age and are now increasing it again.

On the other hand, much modern work is information based, rather than relying on physical labour, and there is no good reason why older people cannot continue in such work. They would often be the keepers of corporate knowledge. With the knowledge explosion, we seem to have forgotten the old adage about learning from the past and not repeating its mistakes. In Australia people who lose a job when they are over 50 have considerable difficulty finding new work and often become long-term unemployed. Their life-time skills and knowledge are disregarded as irrelevant in our modern world.

I have a personal example when a young woman from another government department suggested her department had a ‘new’ idea for Aboriginal affairs. I informed her that it had been tried over 15 years previously and not worked: if it was to work, it required acceptance of higher costs and the government had not then, nor when we spoke, been prepared to accept those costs. I might say that without my corporate knowledge a mistake would have been repeated. Why such corporate knowledge is now seen as ‘old fashioned’ is a mystery to me.

Although the government in recent years has been encouraging people to remain longer in the workforce and offering incentives for employers to retain older people, it does not yet appear to be happening to any significant degree. The government allows the market to determine what it does and employers are not taking up the opportunities that changes in government policy are providing. So there is much lost productivity, for individuals, their families and the economy.

Longer periods of education are justified not only in terms of managing the size of the workforce but because more knowledge is available for learning and many jobs in the new economy require higher level skills. Hockey and his fellow neo-liberals have been keen to increase university fees on the basis that graduates will have access to higher incomes — that may be true but comes in return for giving up years of potential earning. That lost earning capacity comes at a cost not merely to the individual but to their family — which is one reason why participation of lower socio-economic groups in higher education has not improved as much as expected.

The point is that it is actually the government that is determining the period when people can be economically productive members of society.

Despite governments having over the years made the rules that reduced the productive activity of children and the elderly, the likes of Hockey, and other believers in the neo-liberal agenda, suggest that services for the young and old should be provided by the market — rather than alms houses we now have privately owned retirement villages and the encouragement of private schools. Can you see the inconsistency in that approach?

How can the young and the elderly purchase in the market when the government has put in place rules that restrict them from earning in the market? They are left with only two options: reliance on the earning capacity, and support, of the productive members of their families or reliance on government assistance, whether in cash or services. To the extent that the changes have reduced the total productive activity of families, by removing the young and the elderly, then surely it is logical that government meets the costs of the changes it has made.

I am not suggesting that we should turn back the clock to the worst of child labour, or elderly people working until they drop, but we need to acknowledge the historic changes that have taken place in our society, that have changed the economic contribution of the young and the elderly, and consider who bears the responsibility.

If it is government, as the political representative of society, that has changed the opportunity for effective economic productivity for children and the elderly then why shouldn’t it be government that accepts the cost? The argument becomes a market-based argument, not a welfare argument — which should be acceptable to Morrison, Hockey and their ilk: as a society we have, even if for good reason, removed the right of children and the elderly to participate in the labour market and therefore we, as a society, through our government, have an obligation to make up for that lost production for the individuals and their families.

What do you think?
As Ken has presented a very different and unusual argument supporting government provision of welfare and services, we will be very interested in your reaction. Does Ken’s historical argument stand up?

Next week, as the weather forecasters are predicting a severe El Nino this summer, Ken takes a look at the state of water in Australia and some of the politics involved, in ‘Where does all the water go?’.