Letter to Bill Shorten: Part 1

There must be many ardent Labor supporters who would wish to transmit their thoughts to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten about how Labor ought to proceed over the coming months. Ad Astra is one such supporter. Here is a letter he sent to Mr Shorten.

The Hon Bill Shorten, MP Leader of the Federal Opposition

Dear Mr Shorten

I do hope you will find the time to read through this rather lengthy letter from a devoted Labor supporter who embraces the ideals, philosophy, and values of Labor as a progressive political party. I believe it echoes the strongly held views of many Labor supporters. It is written after the disclosure of the findings of the Commission of Audit, but before the Budget.

I believe in fairness and equality for all Australians: equal opportunity in education, universal health, aged and disability care, satisfying employment and income security in a prosperous economy that values environmental sustainability, supported by a safety net for the disadvantaged. I believe in the common good. Thus Labor is my first choice for government.

My background is in family medicine, first as a rural family doctor, then as an educator and administrator. On retirement in 2007, I developed a political website, The Political Sword, www.thepoliticalsword.com which you will see is a pro-Labor site.

It was a great disappointment to me, and to most of the blogsite’s commenters, that Labor lost the 2013 federal election and several State elections before and since. Labor’s recent very poor showing at the re-run of the WA Senate election has enlivened many senior Labor figures, who are now publicly stating that Labor must make radical changes to its organisation and modus operandi if it is to prosper as a political party and offer itself as the alternative government. You have signalled that substantial changes are needed, and specifically you have mentioned loosening ties with the union movement and opening up membership.

Also, Labor must present its message much more credibly, much more coherently, much more convincingly.

With the Abbott Government performing poorly in so many ways, it ought to be possible for Labor to make tactical gains by highlighting the missteps, the lies, the deception, the errors, and the downside to LNP policy decisions and their implementation. Yet, this in itself will not suffice. Labor must present to the public alternative and more appealing policies. So far Labor has failed to do this effectively.

What follows is my assessment of some of the problems that confront Labor, and how they might be addressed.


There is no disagreement that the Labor Party needs more rank and file members. I was astonished to learn that union membership is a prerequisite for working people to gain membership. As less than one in five workers belong to a union, four in five are excluded by this rule. Part of your efforts to ‘disconnect’ from unions ought to be the removal of that rule. While unions remain important in protecting workers’ rights, to assign to them such authority over party membership is now quite inappropriate.

Moreover, Labor needs to actively encourage everyone who embraces Labor values to join. Some time ago I expressed interest in joining the Party in response to a general invitation. But it led nowhere. After a substantial wait, I received an email suggesting that I should contact the local branch. I do not want to attend local Party meetings, although I acknowledge local activities are important. I want to participate via other mechanisms.

I was delighted to learn recently of your intention to reshape and increase membership.

Recommendation: That urgent steps are taken to remove the requirement that union membership is a pre-requisite for Labor Party membership, that membership be open to anyone who endorses Labor values, policies and programs, and that membership be available other than through branch membership, perhaps through a ‘general membership’ category.

Having contributed to political debate via my blogsite for five years, I would prefer to contribute to Labor via direct communication, emails, the Internet, social media, or its equivalent within the Labor organisation. It ought to be possible for the Party to initiate a series of online forums that address individual policy areas, as well as others that focus on the interaction between policy areas, recognising that policy making is dynamic, complex and interactive. Members would then have a chance to express views about policies, ask questions, highlight potential problems, and make suggestions for improvement. Responses could be restricted to members by way of a ‘sign-in’ process. For some matters, throwing them open to community discussion would be appropriate. While acknowledging the value of face-to-face discussions with the cut and thrust that they involve, soliciting opinion online could be a valuable adjunct. Although I am an ardent Labor supporter, I feel an outsider, isolated from mainstream Labor thinking and debate, unable to contribute in any way.

Organisations such as GetUp come closer to engaging people than Labor has done. Without the intelligence, ideas, questions and solutions that members of the public could offer, Labor has only its inner circle to rely upon. Whilst acknowledging the wisdom and knowledge of the inner circle, it can never be a repository for all the ideas, wisdom and solutions that are possible.

Recommendation: That a series of online forums be set up to address policy areas, and publicised to members and to the general community where appropriate, and that input be vigorously solicited.

Union affiliation

This is a vexed contemporary issue. Since Labor depends heavily on union donations and support, and rightly wishes to continue to associate with those who protect workers’ rights and welfare, disaffiliation seems inappropriate. The optics of this relationship governs the way in which the electorate regards Labor. There seems to be a growing unease, even among Labor supporters, that unions have too much influence, too much control over the parliamentary Party, and that the Party is too reliant on financial support from unions. What seems to be needed is more distance between supportive unions and the parliamentary Labor Party, and less influence of unions at Party conferences. Guy Rundle argues that it is the unions that should ‘divorce’ Labor, since, as he asserts, the Party has become too ‘pro-market’, even neoliberal, thereby distancing itself from the central role of unions – to care for and protect workers.

It is a complex relationship that cannot be easily unravelled, but steadily distancing Labor from unions seems to be in the Party’s best interests. As a past union leader, you have intimate knowledge of the relationship, and a stake in it. You are better placed than most to bring about a new relationship that loosens the Gordian knot. To those of us who stand outside the relationship, this now seems both essential and urgent. It is gratifying that you too are now expressing similar sentiments.

Recommendation: That the Labor Party–union movement relationship be examined without delay, with a view to establishing a symbiotic state of affairs that removes the contemporary dependence and ‘control’ of unions over the parliamentary party, especially at Labor conferences.


Even casual observers of politics in this country would be aware of the oppressively powerful influence of factions in decision-making. While factions exist in most parties, they are grotesquely obvious in the Labor Party. They result in decisions that reflect power structures and personal ambition, to the detriment of the Party as a whole. There is no more flagrant example than the recent nomination of Joe Bullock to first place on the WA Senate ticket that pushed Louise Pratt, whom many Labor supporters believed was the best candidate, into the second spot. This was a classic example of what has happened far too often in Labor circles. Those well connected to the most dominant factions, the most powerful, the most influential, those with a sense of entitlement to prominent positions, and in this case certain election, have overridden what is best for the Party and the nation, and what is fairest. This episode has inflicted untold damage on Labor in the West and elsewhere.

The membership must have a greater say in the pre-selection of candidates, and the factions less.

Less recently, but burned into the electorate’s memory, is the dismissal of Kevin Rudd as PM, and his reinstatement after the dismissal of PM Julia Gillard. Those events, born of factional infighting, created the image of a party in disarray, torn apart by warring powerbrokers. While rationalists can advance cogent reasons for each event, the public by and large seems to care little about the reasons, noting only the dissent, the chaos and the disharmony, and therefore mark Labor down as being incapable of governing when it seems to be unable to govern itself. And they do this despite the outstanding legislative work done by Labor in the last six years, most notably its world standard response to the GFC.

Recommendations: That Party officials seriously examine the detrimental influence of factionalism on the Party and its electoral prospects, and radically reduce the harmful aspects of factionalism, while retaining the useful.

That the Party membership be given a prominent role in the pre-selection of candidates for the House and Senate.

It is recognised that this will be difficult because of the almost overwhelming tendency for self-interest to trump the common good, but unless some drastic changes are made and publicised widely, the Party will languish and remain a diminished force in Australian politics. The nation needs a progressive party that values fairness, equality and the common weal. Labor is that party.


It is unnecessary to underscore the destructive effects of corruption on the Party and its electoral prospects. It is often associated with factionalism. NSW Labor has demonstrated this for all to see. It is unnecessary to labour this reality. Perhaps more than any other in the Party, the highly respected and admired John Faulkner has pointed this out, over and again. He has proposed changes to the rules of the NSW branch of the Labor Party. They seem eminently wise.

Recommendation: That John Faulkner’s proposed amendments to the rules of NSW Labor be fully supported, and that these changes be applied throughout the Labor organisation.

Let me now turn from organisational matters to policy issues.

The economy

It has become almost a mantra that a strong and growing economy is necessary to support the type of Australia in which most wish to live. Whilst there is a powerful element of truth in this, Labor seems to have adopted the mantra as a verity, so much so that now its utterances too often resemble those of neoliberal free-marketeers. This type of talk needs to be tempered, lest the electorate begins to believe that Labor is no more than a pale reflection of conservative belief and action. According to opinion polls, Labor is less competent at economic management than the Coalition, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Unless Labor can distinguish itself from the Coalition by demonstrating that its quest for economic strength is for the purpose of providing jobs, prosperity and support for all Australians, not just the corporate elite, it will be seen simply as just ‘Coalition-lite’. The LNP must not be allowed to assume the mantle of savior of the economy – an economy that it deceptively insists has been wrecked by Labor.

Fairness, equality, concern for the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged and the disabled, must be woven into the push for economic strength. It is this balance that ought to distinguish Labor from the LNP, which since its election has shown its ruthless ‘winners and losers’ and ‘winners take all’ approach, and its ‘survival of the fittest’ and to hell with the rest, method of governing.

Labor must be as prepared as the Coalition to tackle the structural imbalances in the federal budget. It is no more than grotesque political spin to suggest that we have a ‘budget emergency’, but we do have structural problems that date a long way back. Negative gearing is one that must be addressed. The Howard/Costello handouts: tax cuts and middle class welfare when there was a revenue tsunami during the mining boom, must be revisited. Labor’s much needed reforms in education, health and disability care, and its productivity-boosting NBN infrastructure, need a sound and completely developed plan to fund these initiatives in the medium and long term. Payments to pensioners will place an increasing strain on the budget, one that would be ameliorated by improvement to superannuation, a superior solution to the harsh recommendations of the Commission of Audit.

Labor needs also to tackle the revenue side of the budget. It must not retreat from a sensible debate about GST, and certainly should avoid the temptation to make political capital out of any suggested change.

Recommendation: That Labor clarifies its economic policies, shows that growth should be balanced against the pursuit of the common good, that raising increased revenue is essential, and then fashions easily understood, appealing, and memorable messages to inform the electorate.

Global Warming

There is no point in arguing the case supporting the existence and extent of anthropogenic global warming. The facts speak for themselves.

Labor has oscillated between triumph and tragedy on this issue. Triumph when Kevin Rudd labelled it “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time” and commissioned Ross Garnaut to produce a report; triumph when he negotiated an ETS with Malcolm Turnbull; tragedy when Tony Abbott overturned Turnbull and set back that initiative; tragedy when Rudd lost his nerve and retreated from his plan, scared of going to a double dissolution; triumph when Julia Gillard insisted she would put a price on carbon; tragedy when she uttered those fateful words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead” and the media persistently failed to acknowledge the rest of her sentence; tragedy when Coalition strategists seized upon the word ‘tax’ and created its ‘Axe the Tax’ mantra, one that Labor seemed incapable of countering. Never did we see Labor punch back with ‘Save the Planet – Stop Pollution - Tax the Polluters’, a slogan that is even more appropriate to use right now. Instead we still see supine acceptance of the Coalition’s framing of this issue. Labor must do better than this. It must hammer home the reason for the price of carbon – to reduce pollution, to slow global warming, to save the planet from its devastating effects.

In this and other issues, Labor has not been able to reframe the debate in its favour. It must do this urgently.

Since placing a price on carbon is now being shown to be effective in reducing pollution as well as in generating revenue, I urge you to stick with Labor’s original intent – a price on carbon leading to an ETS – and to vote against the Coalition’s nonsensical Direct Action Plan that economists and environmentalists ridicule as inept – a sham masquerading as effective action. It would be shameful in the extreme to retreat from Labor’s original proposition that a price on carbon and an ETS is the best way of reducing carbon pollution and slowing global warming.

Recommendation: That Labor reinforce its approach to global warming by returning to its initial plan, and vigorously pursue it in the face of opposition from the LNP and vested interests, whose self-centered and ineffectual approach will bring disaster to us all, and will accelerate the deterioration that threatens the planet.

That Labor’s leaders reinvigorate Labor’s media unit with people who can at least match the Coalition in framing the global warming debate. Unless this occurs, the LNP will continue to call the shots, control the media discourse, and leave Labor wallowing in its wake.

There is more to come. You will be able to read the second part of the letter to Bill Shorten next Sunday.

The wonderful world of economic rationalists

The world of the economic rationalists took hold in politics in the 1980s. Their approach, which was discussed in ‘The rise and fall of a shibboleth’, has moulded the world for the past 30 years. Government decisions regarding national economies have been guided by it. International bodies like the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD have followed its tenets. In Australia the Productivity Commission and the Grants Commission have been influenced by it. 

With that pervasive influence, what has economic rationalism actually achieved?

When it was accepted in the 1980s, it was seen as an answer to ‘stagflation’, which had dominated a large part of the 1970s. ‘Stagflation’ was a period of high inflation despite falling or very slow economic growth; it wasn’t really supposed to happen under the predominant economic models of the time. High inflation was usually thought to be a problem resulting from an economy ‘overheating’ (growing too fast), not from when it wasn’t growing at all.

Economic rationalism may have been the answer to stagflation, but it has not stopped the usual market problems. There was a recession in the late 1980s followed by ‘the jobless recovery’ of the early 1990s; then the ‘tech bubble’ later in the 1990s, which burst in 2000; and there was the GFC in 2007–08. Australia came through the GFC better than most western nations because it briefly abandoned economic rationalism and went back to Keynesian economics, where the government steps in with spending to stimulate the economy when private sector activity has slowed. Franklin D Roosevelt had used the Keynesian approach in America during the Great Depression while, at that time, Australia had followed the Bank of England’s austerity approach. But after surviving the worst of the GFC, Australia has slipped back to economic rationalist approaches, and more so since the election of the Abbott government.

The one success that economic rationalism has had is increasing inequality in the distribution of national income. That ‘success’ has spread around the globe.

On the global scale, Oxfam pointed out before the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January this year that 85 individuals between them had as much wealth as the poorest half (3.5 billion people) of the world’s population. Credit Suisse in its Global Wealth Report for 2011 stated that global wealth had risen from USD 203 trillion in January 2010 to USD 231 trillion in June 2011. It also found that there were then 29.7 million adults with household wealth greater than USD 1 million, making up less than 1% of the global population but owning 38.5% of global wealth.

In the USA, average real income increased 116% between 1945 and 2010. The share of national income going to the top 1% increased from 2.5% in 1945 to 19.8% in 2010 (which was down from 23.5% in 2007, largely as a result of the GFC). In that time, the top 0.1% increased their income by 395%. Between 1979 and 2007, the period of economic rationalism, income increased by 275% percent for the top 1% of households, 65% for the next 19%, just under 40% for the next 60% of households; and in those 28 years the income of the bottom 20% increased by only 18%.

In the UK in 1997, the entire bottom 90% of income earners had an average income of just over £10,500. The top 1% had incomes eighteen times bigger and the top 0.1% sixty times bigger. By 2007 the average income of the bottom 90% was just under £12,500 a year, but the income of the top 0.1% was then ninety-five times larger, averaging well over £1m a year.

In Canada, the real median income has barely moved since the 1980s, although in the 1950s and 1960s it was growing fast enough to double every 20 years. In the same time, the top-earning 1% of Canadians have increased their share of national income from 7.7% to 13.8%. In the 1970s the average CEO was earning about twenty-five times the average worker’s wage and in 2010 that had become almost two hundred and fifty times.

In Australia the top 10% of taxpayers had 34.6% of total national income in 1941 — it has not been as high since, but the top tax rate was also much higher then. It fell to 25% between 1974 and 1985 but has since grown again to 31% in 2010. For the top 1% their share was 10.8% in 1941, fell to about 4.5% between 1976 and 1984 and in 2010 was 9.2% (after reaching a peak of 10.1% in 2006 before the GFC).

Recently the ACTU also commissioned a report using another classical economic means of considering inequality — the difference between the labour and profit shares of national income. In the 1990s there was stability between productivity and wages; both productivity and real wages grew at 2.1% each year:

Wages decoupled from productivity in the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2012, productivity rose by an average 1.3% per year, while real hourly labour income rose by only 0.6% per year on average. This meant that labour’s share of national income fell over the decade, and fell quite sharply. In 2000, the labour share was 65.6% — this had fallen to 59.7% by 2012.

Again, this is a global phenomenon:

In developed countries, the share of labour income declined, falling by 5 percentage points or more between 1980 and 2006-07 — just before the global financial crisis — in Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, and by 10 points or more in Austria, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and Portugal.

All these measurements are reinforced by the Gini coefficient which has increased in most developed nations since the 1980s. The OECD suggests that France, Belgium and Hungary have managed to maintain their Gini coefficient at about the same level (no increase or decrease in inequality), Turkey and Greece actually managed to reduce inequality, but in all other OECD countries the coefficient has risen, indicating increased income inequality. Out of the 34 nations in the OECD, on a ranking from least to most unequal, Australia ranked twenty-sixth, Canada twenty-fourth, the UK twenty-eighth, and the USA thirty-first. Slovenia ranked highest with the lowest level of inequality, a Gini coefficient of only 0.24, and Chile the worst with 0.49. The US Gini coefficient has risen from 0.39 in 1968 to 0.48 in 2012.

You will see many different Gini coefficient figures because different researchers use differently defined incomes as their starting point — gross, disposable (gross income less taxes) or final income (disposable income plus government transfers). For example, the Productivity Commission found in Australia that, measured by the Gini coefficient, inequality in household income in 2009–10 was 0.426 for gross income, 0.389 for disposable income, and 0.341 for final income. These figures suggest that tax scales and government transfers in Australia do have some impact on inequality, although not stopping it rising over time.

Whichever figures are used, there is little doubt that inequality has increased due primarily to rapid increases in income for the top 1% and, to a lesser extent, the top 10%. The bottom groups have not missed out completely but have been getting a smaller share of the increasing wealth in most nations.

There are other factors, aside from labour income, that contribute to income inequality. A significant one for the top 10%, and particularly the top 1%, has been a large increase in ‘capital and other’ income. The extent of part-time and casual work also has an influence by providing lower labour income. The OECD has suggested that more balanced policy approaches between temporary and permanent employment is one measure to help address inequality.

Another contributing phenomenon in America (and it would be interesting to see if it applies in Australia), has been the loss of middle-ranking jobs, largely due to the automation of routine tasks, not only for manual labour (classified as routine manual work) but by the computerisation of office, sales and administrative work (classified as routine cognitive work). There has been an increase in the number of jobs for non-routine work, both cognitive and manual. The former (cognitive) requires high levels of education and generally commands higher wages, but the latter (manual) involves work such as cleaning, food services, security services, home help, and so on. This is leading to a polarisation of the workforce in America, with more high-paid jobs, more low-paid jobs, and fewer in the middle.

Why are governments, world-wide, still listening to the economic rationalists when it is clear that rising inequality is their greatest achievement?

Government decisions are critical to what happens regarding inequality.

The decisions governments have made, however, since the 1980s, largely at the behest of the economic rationalists, have actually worsened inequality: for example, decisions taken by many western governments to reduce taxes for the wealthy, the argument being that this stimulates growth for the benefit of all. A paper prepared by the US Congressional Research Service, however, found that since 1945 reductions in the top tax rate (from 90% to 35%) in America ‘appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution’. The paper found no correlation between lower top marginal tax rates and saving, investment or productivity. (As an interesting sidenote, this report was initially released in September 2012 but was then withdrawn at the insistence of Senate Republicans before being updated and re-released in 2013 with no substantive changes.)

So despite continuing talk about the need for lower tax rates to encourage economic growth, it appears this is, in Australian parlance, ‘a furphy’. It has achieved nothing other than to increase income inequality.

And, Tom Conley of Griffith University suggests that governments have actually abandoned the goal of greater equality:

Governments could still ameliorate the negative impacts of market outcomes but, in recent years, they seem increasingly less willing to do so, often arguing that such efforts will impede the growth process.

A different approach is taken by economist James Kenneth Galbraith, son of the more well-known, John Kenneth Galbraith. In his work Inequality and Instability Galbraith argues that economic and social instability is not a result of inequality but:

… rather, inequality is a symptom of the shaky and, in the end, unsustainable foundations of an economy lurching from crash to crash as it maintains a reliance on credit-fuelled stock or asset bubbles that provide massive rewards to select few …

Galbraith and others have pointed out that the levels of inequality in America before the GFC were near the levels before the Great Depression, reinforcing the idea that inequality is, indeed, a symptom of a poorly functioning economic system (often about to break under the strain, if those two examples hold good).

Galbraith also contends that too much attention is paid to the statistical analysis of inequality and not enough to broader social support mechanisms, such as health services, schooling, higher education, social security payments, housing programs, and so on. As government support for such programs declines, as it has generally since the rise of economic rationalists in the1980s, people feel less well-off and less secure, and inequality has more impact not only on those at the bottom of the socio-economic tree but also on the middle class.

Inequality has usually been offset by progressive taxation scales and government transfers, although the OECD argues that ‘government transfers and taxes alone would be neither effective nor financially sustainable’. But it does suggest the need for greater investment in on-the-job training and formal education over the working life as a means of maximising participation in the workforce, and thereby incomes.

Between the Galbraith approach and the suggestions of the OECD, there does appear a way forward, a way to reverse this trend towards greater inequality, and governments need to address these issues:

  • the broader social mechanisms that support families and households, including social security payments
  • the impact of casual and part-time work on livelihoods, on equality and poverty
  • the reintroduction of genuinely progressive tax scales
  • measures of well-being (as discussed in a previous post, ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’).
If such measures are adopted, there is more likelihood that greater equality in income distribution will follow.

But, based on the evidence, the one really big step governments can take to reverse rising inequality is to abandon economic rationalism.

What do you think?

The rise and fall of a shibboleth

Firstly I must acknowledge that the title of this article was inspired by the words of the 1994 song ‘Shibboleth’ by Melbourne band, The Killjoys.

In this case, the shibboleth I am referring to is ‘economic rationalism’, an expression that distinguishes the Right from the Left of politics. I also use ‘shibboleth’ with one of its more modern meanings: that it signifies something where meaning has been lost, and now serves merely to identify allegiance. I choose this meaning deliberately because I do believe that economic rationalism is on the wane. Its death may take some time, perhaps ten years or so, but I perceive that changes are coming.

In researching this piece, I was surprised to learn that the term ‘economic rationalism’ is mainly used in Australia: overseas the more common terminology is ‘market liberalism’. Whatever its name its essential premise is the same — markets rule! Economic rationalists believe that market forces will always produce better outcomes than government or bureaucratic decisions, that it is the market that should determine what to produce and how to produce it.

Some economic rationalists accept that there is a role for government in providing public goods and in intervening when there is market failure. Others, however, consider market failures as unimportant or self-correcting and that, in any case, ‘the costs of government intervention [are] greater than the costs of the market imperfections government policies [are] supposed to remedy.’

They assume that a free market system has an inherent tendency towards equilibrium in which demand and supply are in balance:

Movement towards equilibrium is brought about by changes in relative prices. (Prices include not just the prices of goods and services but wages and interest rates.) If there is persistent unemployment, then that is believed to be caused primarily by institutions (trade union pressure, minimum wage legislation, and so on) which prevent the price of labour — wages — from moving to a level in which the demand and supply of labour is brought into balance and full employment achieved.

Economic rationalists also consider low inflation is vital for a deregulated financial sector and for business. One cost of maintaining low inflation can be increasing unemployment. In Australia, before economic rationalism, ‘full employment’ was often seen as having an unemployment level of about 2% (which was achieved in the 1960s until the mid-1970s). Since the 1980s, a level of about 5% has become acceptable.

The economic rationalists tend not to be overly concerned about the distribution of income. In 1997 J W Neville explained:

While some economic rationalists argue that unequal income distribution is important to create the right incentives, generally in Australia economic rationalists say little explicitly about income distribution … they tend not to comment on the role of social security or the social wage, and hence on the final pattern of income distribution, except perhaps to leave a vague impression that social security will take care of those whom market forces leave living in poverty.

On the distribution of income, Milton Friedman, one of the founders of economic rationalism, wrote in 1962:

The ethical principle that would directly justify the distribution of income in a free market society is, “to each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.”

From this, Friedman sees a primary function of the state as maintaining property rights, both physical and intellectual, and leaving the markets to get on with the job of using those property rights.

Another figure in economic rationalism is the late Friederich Hayek, important not only for his economic works, but also for The Road to Serfdom. In that work his basic argument was that government control of our economic lives amounts to totalitarianism. ‘Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest,’ he wrote, ‘it is the control of the means for all our ends.’

The earlier quote from Milton Friedman comes from his Capitalism and Freedom. It is this emphasis on freedom, as economic rationalists see it, that gives economic rationalism a non-economic dimension. Despite what its proponents may claim, it has profound social, not just economic, implications.

It has developed, and been taken on board politically, not simply as an economic approach but as a whole social philosophy based on old-style libertarianism, opposed to any form of government interference in markets and people’s lives — what it perceives as ‘socialism’.

It has also arisen from a long history in which happiness was removed from economics. A chapter in the World Happiness Report 2013 provides a potted history of this change: from the Greek philosophers and early Christian church’s view that happiness was achieved by being virtuous, to the economic theory of ‘utility’ in which individualism and consumerism prevailed. The early economic theorists brought material goods into the happiness equation, suggesting that people purchased that which brought them pleasure or happiness. In the twentieth century economics came to be dominated by mathematical formulae, and the question of whether market consumption could increase happiness and well-being was no longer a consideration.

Economic rationalism rose to prominence in politics in the 1980s, being adopted by the Thatcher and Reagan governments after the economic problems of the 1970s (as discussed in my earlier posts, ‘Whither the Left’). It was occurring at a time when socialism as a political and economic system was fading: glasnost was introduced in the Soviet Union from 1985; Poland had unrest from the early 1980s and voted in its own government in 1990; the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and German reunification took place in 1990; and the Soviet Union fell and broke up in 1991. The politico-philosophical basis to question economic rationalism was itself in turmoil and economic rationalism rose with little philosophical opposition. By the early 1990s few socialist governments were left and economic rationalism was entrenched.

So entrenched has it become that markets are now often seen as the answer to social and environmental problems. Many, not just economic rationalists, now argue that protecting the environment requires putting a market value on it, no longer accepting that governments have a duty to respond and, if necessary, work towards changes in behaviour — no, that would distort the markets. Need more child care? — privatise it and allow the market to determine demand, supply and price. Need more jobs? — sorry, any government action will distort the markets but support the markets and the jobs will come (at the market’s price!).

Another sign of the entrenchment of economic rationalism is how the idea of ‘capitals’ has also permeated social thinking. Now people talk about ‘human capital’ and ‘social capital’ as though these are merely commodities that can add to economic production. Its lack of reference to values in the market, as opposed to its libertarian social thinking, may be its undoing. As Jeffrey D Sachs wrote in the World Happiness Report:

A prosperous market economy depends on moral ballast for several fundamental reasons. There must be enough social cooperation to provide public goods. There must be enough honesty to underpin a stable financial system. There must be enough attention paid to future generations to attend responsibly to the natural resource base. There must be enough regard for the poor to meet basic needs and protect social and political stability. [emphasis added]

In my piece, ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’ I discussed alternative economic and social progress measurements to GDP, such as the Fordham Index of Social Health (FISH), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Social Progress Index (SPI). What I found fascinating in researching that piece was that those indexes have flat-lined since the late 1970s. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

The FISH and GPI, and even subjective surveys of ‘life satisfaction’ in the UK, appear to have increased throughout the early 1970s but from the late 1970s/early 1980s have barely moved and, in some cases, have fallen slightly. Applying the Gini coefficient to those times provides a similar result in many countries, particularly developed nations. From World War II to the 1970s there were improvements in wealth distribution (lessening inequality) but this began to reverse from the 1980s.

Guess what happened in the 1980s? No prize really for answering: ‘economic rationalism’.

The economic rationalists argue that ‘trickle down’ economics means that increasing wealth and free markets do improve life for those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale: they earn more money; they have more benefits from new consumer products to make life easier. Yes, that is true if you take WWII or 1850 as your starting point, but it takes no account of the relative benefits that are gained by different segments of the population as national wealth increases. The economic rationalists ignore that at their peril.

As discussed at the World Economic Forum in January 2014, increasing inequality can lead to increasing social unrest and then the economic rationalists’ belief in markets will be meaningless. Who will then seek government intervention to quell social upheavals? Perhaps they should be told the markets can take care of it!

The other aspects I discussed in ‘Bringing Gross National Happiness into play’ are also relevant here and are what gives me optimism that economic rationalism will falter in the coming years.

The fact that social well-being and life satisfaction have not improved since the 1970s, despite rising GPD, is leading to greater pressure for new measurements of progress to be adopted. Some of those are still market-based, in the sense that they take account of the real costs of production, including damage to the environment, but some are based on social well-being and life satisfaction or happiness.

Any move away from GDP as a measure of economic progress will impact the influence of economic rationalists. Improving social well-being is not something that can be solely achieved by the markets, particularly using the value-free models of economics or the libertarian approach. If these other indexes assume growing importance, as I think they will, there will be more pressure on governments to intervene and take active measures.

If governments start responding to social well-being indexes and levels of inequality they will be overriding pure market outcomes. The economic rationalists will argue that some of the problems can be addressed by social security payments but not by progressive taxation scales: that will not hold water, however, when the evidence of the new indicators comes into the public arena. When the costs of damage to the environment and the depletion of natural resources are factored into economic growth, more people will understand that our so-called economic success was not as successful as they had been led to believe and that it has come at a cost for future generations. More and more evidence will be available that questions the outcomes from a pure, market-driven approach and the economic rationalists will be seen for what they are: ideologues who may be ‘rationalists’, but who are not necessarily rational.

Despite what economic rationalists like to think, governments do take account of social values in their decision making — otherwise they would never be elected — and that will flow over into decisions affecting their beloved market. Then, the shibboleth of economic rationalism will be just that, an old expression identifying those few who refused to move with the times.

What do you think?

Red red wine

It’s not news to anyone that Barry O’Farrell resigned as New South Wales Premier after giving ICAC (the New South Wales anti-corruption body) misleading information over a bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange he received as a gift from Nick Di Girolamo, a person associated with a Sydney Water contractor — Australian Water Holdings (AWH).

There are two current enquiries by ICAC set up to investigate the allegations of corruption as well as solicitation, receiving and concealing payments in relation to public officials in NSW.

Opinions vary on whether O’Farrell did the right thing by resigning and there has been plenty of discussion in other places without repeating it here. Mike Carlton in the SMH was probably one of the best with an offering that commenced with:

Tasting Notes: The 1959 Chateau d'icac.

Celebrated vigneron Nick Di Girolamo has excelled himself with this rare and striking Premier Grand Cru. Selected from old grapes of wrath vines at the Obeid family's Mt Corruption vineyard in NSW and cellared in Rum Corps oak casks, the wine reveals hidden gifts of subtle complexity.

The brown nose offers a concentrated aroma of decaying cattle dung, complexed by persistent spice notes of rotten fish and more than a hint of unsavoury greased palm. An intense palate of bitter fruits displays weak backbone and piss-in-pocket acidity, with a lingering after-palate heightened by a signed "thank you" note of unmistakable provenance.

A wine not to be forgotten.

He then goes on to discuss Barry O’Farrell’s political career and where he went wrong, namely:

O'Farrell's true fault was his failure to keep his promise to root out the endemic corruption of the NSW Liberals. He baulked at bold political reform.

On top of that, a federal government minister has stated to the same enquiry that he didn’t see a problem with working for AWH for somewhere between 25 and 45 hours a year for a salary of $200,000. Senator Arthur Sinodinos, the minister in question, also disclaimed all knowledge of a $75,000 donation to the Liberal Party while he was a director of AWH and also treasurer of the Liberal Party.

Business Review Weekly relates the history of Australian Water Holdings from an inauspicious non-profit holding company to its ‘modernisation’ as a for-profit company — due to a badly written contract between the firm and Sydney Water, it planned to obtain a major contract without having to tender. Direct lobbying of ministers was part of the plan, so as to bypass Sydney Water processes in gaining the contract.

Most accounts of this affair so far suggest that Barry O’Farrell is a decent person and was concerned with the influence of corrupt public officials in NSW. David Marr, writing in The Guardian suggests:

But under O’Farrell Icac showed the deeply ingrained corruption of NSW didn’t begin and end with Labor. His own side was punished. Now the Liberals have taken the biggest hit of all.

There is a larger issue here. Since when is a bottle of wine estimated to cost $3,000 such a ‘routine’ occurrence that one would forget entirely to declare it at the time and completely forget about it when questioned by an anti-corruption body?

Lets face it, $3,000 is a lot of money for most people. While most Australians have heard of Penfolds Grange, very few would routinely go to the local bottle shop and purchase some from the year of their birth, if at all.

When the former assistant treasurer of Australia attempts to make a joke about travelling time when asked if $200,000 is reasonable compensation for 25 to 45 hours work in a year, it demonstrates the lack of understanding Senator Sinodinos has with the concept of living on or under the average Australian wage which is currently $1483.50 per week: that would allow the purchase of a single 1959 Grange bottle every three weeks or so, after allowing for tax and superannuation deductions.

Some might consider Senator Sinodinos to have been underpaid for the ‘influence’ he could muster for his employer. That is the real issue here. These politicians are perceived as being able to influence the actions of government and government entities so that firms are, firstly, comfortable employing them as lobbyists to identify ‘key stakeholders’ so as to influence decisions and, secondly, paying sums that are beyond the comprehension of most Australians to the identified stakeholders.

Barry O’Farrell is not the only one who has ‘fallen on his sword’ in the past 30 or so years for neglecting to declare a gift that could be construed as excessive.

From the Liberals’ Michael MacKellar’s false declaration that a television was a black and white model, rather than a colour model, to save on import duty in 1982, through the ALP’s Mick Young who failed to declare a Paddington Bear in 1984, with a brief detour to Queensland’s ‘moonlight state’ era in the 80’s and 90’s, Australian politicians have a long and infamous history of either believing they have an entitlement greater than that of the ‘mug punter’ who elects them or are so gullible they can’t see the compromises that accepting the gift or excessive salary implies they will make.

The Federal Finance Department publishes the value of ‘entitlements’ given to former politicians on their website. A link to the relevant page is here for the period 1 January 2013 until 30 June 2013. Other periods are also available from the website.

Politicians seem to believe that they have an entitlement greater than you or I. Otherwise why have they allowed themselves to be able to claim travel, communications costs and so on after they leave office? — and in some cases tens of thousands of dollars in a six month period.

According to the listing above, the taxpayer funds travel expenses for politicians who, in some cases, were voted out of office decades ago. In the case of former prime ministers some leeway is understandable as some groups that had dealings with the person while they were in power may need to finish up official business — it is hardly likely to be a requirement of the job even five years later, let alone 30 years. There is also an argument that politicians are ‘on call’ 24 hours a day — well, so are church ministers, doctors and a considerable number of people who work in essential or health care environments. In most other cases, part of the wage that the worker is paid is attributable to the ‘on call’ requirement rather than having the ability to gain some benefit from a former employer decades later.

Another variation, and the final example, of this sense of entitlement is shown in a Bruce Hawker article on The Guardian’s website:

After last week's controversy which led to the resignation of Barry O'Farrell, we started hearing complaints and calls from the Coalition for the corruption watchdog's powers to be reduced. This is not new: it happened very early in Icac's life.

ICAC’s first investigation was in 1990 when a number of Liberal and ALP State Members of Parliament were investigated and found to be creating a ‘climate conducive to corruption’ in relation to some land dealings in the north of the State. The Liberal and National Parties who were in Government at the time —

… launched a broadside against the body they had helped establish just a year before. As chief of staff to then opposition leader Bob Carr, I [Bruce Hawker] watched with a mix of bemusement and amusement as they fulminated, like Dr Frankenstein, against the monster who was meant to destroy Labor, not their own.

It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Brisbane Times reported in October 2012:

The [Queensland] state government has announced a review of the legislation which governs the crime and corruption watchdog claiming it has been used as a ‘‘political football’’.

Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said the review — to be headed up by a former High Court judge and university professor — of the Crime and Misconduct Act 2001 would focus on allowing the watchdog to do its job without ‘‘being drawn into political debates’’.

This review is about depoliticising the operation of the CMC

The Queensland state government in October 2012 was led by Campbell Newman who was subject to investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission (Queensland’s version of ICAC), at the request of the then ALP government, during the 2012 election campaign. Ironically, Campbell Newman has been named in the current ICAC enquiries as receiving a $5000 donation to meet with people from AWH while in the role of Lord Mayor of Brisbane. His office claims that the money was returned.

In an era when people are being told they will not be able to claim a pension until they are 70, when in Queensland people are being asked to make ‘Strong Choices’ to help the state government set the budget, and the federal government is telling us we all will have to make sacrifices, how can politicians continue to claim they understand how the rest of us live when $3,000 bottles of wine, $5,000 fees for attending meetings or $200,000 salaries for under a week’s work per year are considered acceptable until the anti-corruption commission questions the motives? Are their values so warped or is there another explanation?

What do you think?

Lords and Ladies, a morality tale …

The spruiker

Lords and Ladies, I invite you on a journey into a world that is imaginable to only a few. A frightening world where nothing is what it seems. Your guide will be our jester Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. He will make you laugh. He will make you cry. You will find ecstasy in his grovelling grace. You will find despair in his jocular deeds. He will make servile all creatures and bring them before your court. Through his own halls of merriment he will lead you. From within his paper fortress he will guide you. In a maze he will leave you. Be thankful this is not your kingdom — or is it?

The jester’s tale

Outside the towers of the Lords and Ladies, the land is being enveloped by darkness. A pestilence has descended.

See the morbid peasant creatures dwelling there wailing for sustenance, crying for relief from their suffering, as Tiny-er-er O’penmouth merrily jangles past, his bells ringing from his knees and cuffs. The peasants are led off to work in the dank fields and at the smoking forges before returning to their hovels outside the castle walls. And yet there are some that run to him when they hear Tiny-er-er O’penmouth jingling past. Sometimes they believe his paper fortress will also shield them and they turn their anger away from the castle gates. Some follow his every sound, smile at his every whim — or at least feign they do. But darker figures steal away to gather in quiet corners, fingers playing tentatively over matches in their ragged coat pockets.

A fabled paper castle surrounds Tiny-er-er wherever he goes. The Lords and Ladies convinced Tiny-er-er O’penmouth it is for his protection, that the peasants can never harm him while he lives within its invisible paper walls. It is not real. The Lords and Ladies know it but don’t dare tell Tiny-er-er, nor ever let the peasants in on their secret. He flirts with the gold of the rich, plays with the fears of the peasants and belittles their world outside his hall, safe in the knowledge that his paper walls safeguard him.

Safe within his paper walls, Tiny-er-er O’penmouth revels in masquerading as a peasant, wandering the boggy roads, drifting aimlessly into their fields and … doing nothing! Just standing there as if his very presence enriches their day, hoping a passing Lord or Lady may notice him keeping their villeins contented.

A drunken vagabond staggers along the road and tumbles into the mud as Tiny-er-er catches him up. ‘Why, er, aren’t you, er, at your work?’ he demands of the fallen serf, now flailing in the mud, trying to swim away from the bizarre apparition beside him. This reduced being once made fine carriages for the Lords and Ladies before they decided better and cheaper carriages were to be had from the farthest parts of their kingdom. He slurs and gurgles his story through the wet earth filling his mouth. ‘Er, shit happens!’ Tiny-er-er answers the muddied revelations. ‘If you, er, do not work, you can, er, be a ,er, er, a knight. Yes, I, Tiny-er-er O’penmouth, can, er, make you a knight.’ Tiny-er-er O’penmouth draws his dagger and annoints the head of the prostrate vagabond before deftly slashing the dagger across his breeches, laying bare his buttocks. ‘Look! Now you really have, er, the arse out of your, er, breeches! And your, er, carriages were crap,’ he sniggers while still bending over the fallen figure.

He straightens from the forlorn fallen vagabond, laughs raucously and, with gestures, entreats passers-by to join him. They look behind. They look ahead. They draw their stale breaths, then turn away as a faint titter quickly fades, before they drift on in silence. ‘Come one, come, er, all,’ he calls to them. ‘I can make you all Lords, er, Ladies. Or Lords, er, yes, Lords.’ He chortles at his own jest but the shuffling peasants do not.

One scrawny bone-drawn figure (Tiny-er-er cannot even tell if it is male or female) from the rear of that now more distant throng calls, ‘Give us food.’

Tiny-er-er’s bells ring as he bobbles with mirth. ‘You can, er, have food when you, er, work, er, yes, work.’

‘We already work,’ comes the fading shout.

‘Then, er, er, you must, er, work harder. How can our Lords and, er, Lords, er, look after you if you, er, do not work harder.’ The throng, shuffling on, shuffling away, no longer hears him.

The Lords and Ladies, with Tiny-er-er’s vainglorious consent, are selling the peasants’ farms or digging their ground in search of mythical riches, destroying their homes, making their land barren and desolate, and beseeching them to work ever harder, ever longer. In a frivolous gesture, Tiny-er-er has been known to take the bread from the hands of lonely mothers feeding their babes: ‘The Lords and Ladies need, er, this, er, this more than you’. He says it is just a joke, and it is, for lonely mothers have no bread.

The next step in Tiny-er-er O’penmouth’s journey takes us to his own great hall, a vast, forbidding room in shades of green where jesters, clowns and goblins gather behind him. Sometimes they rush to make their jokes but Tiny-er-er much prefers his own. Sometimes he will run from that place for no reason — it is just his humour. Sometimes he will er, er, orate in his own, er, manner. He will make pronouncements there that please his Lords and Ladies even if they take little notice. He invites passing peasants into his hall to mill in bewilderment opposite him. The Lords and Ladies think this is good. They think it is entertaining. Tiny-er-er O’penmouth also thinks it entertaining. He rails against the peasants and goads them to rail back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes their barbs sting but no-one outside that hall shall ever know. It is Tiny-er-er’s secret place, shielded within his paper castle. The Lords and Ladies are pleased when he is there where his jesting can do no damage to them. Let him rail against the peasants for his own enjoyment, and that of those he chooses to seat behind him, for there he is in a world of his own, a basically harmless world to the Lords and Ladies, and if it keeps him amused, well, just leave him there.

Occasionally a goblin escapes from Tiny-er-er O’penmouth’s hall and in its shrill, prattling manner makes declarations that even the Lords and Ladies dare not mention beyond the veil of their castle gates. That does not please the Lords and Ladies for the goblins scare the peasants and they grow restless, the matches rustling in their ragged coat pockets.

Tiny-er-er O’penmouth sometimes likes to believe himself a Lord, and disappears to far parts of the kingdom, riding past peasants in a borrowed carriage, waving fleetingly as he passes. ‘Work harder!’ he exhorts them from his carriage window. The peasants do not have time to look up from their work.

He meets other Lords in these furthermost regions and tells them he is saving their world from them, er, that should be ‘for’ them — Tiny-er-er O’penmouth makes that same mistake himself. The Lords are left bemused at this jester entreating them, nay, commanding them, to do as he says. He presents a cornucopia of plans and thoughts, often no more than thoughts, to make a brighter world for Lords and Ladies, as long as that morbid mass of peasants keeps its place. His thoughts wander and change rapidly. What he says today he does not mean tomorrow but that only enhances his jests.

‘I will send you bright, er, orange boats,’ he tells a Lord who rules a land of land without water. When the Lord laughs, thinking it no more than a jester’s jest, Tiny-er-er repeats his offer. ‘I can, er, fill them, er, with peasants,’ he adds. ‘I can take your peasants and send, er, then send them back again.’ The Lord shakes his head and turns away unable to take any more of this strange stranger’s world. ‘I can, er, have the wheelrights give them, er, wheels …’ he suggests plaintively to the departing Lord before departing in his own borrowed carriage to seek out another Lord who may like his orange boats.

His visits are inevitably brief for which these distant Lords are thankful beyond measure. Tiny-er-er O’penmouth has so many jests to pass on to so many. He must return to his great hall and belittle the peasants again — he does enjoy that and it pleases the Lords and Ladies, for although the peasants in the fields and at the forges do not hear of his escapades there, he ensures the Lords and Ladies do. He will whisper his feats in quiet corners of their courtyards, leave short notes praising his own deeds in their dingy dining halls. Oh yes, he humours them. How else can a jester survive in this world of the Lords and Ladies without keeping their amusement.

But outside, fingers pluck at matches in ragged coat pockets.

Now in the peasants’ world the trees are dying, left as lifeless looming shadows over the creatures below. The peasants think they know why but Tiny-er-er O’penmouth says God has given the trees rest and they will return when they wake.

‘But what about the fires?’ a small hairy figure sitting at the base of one of those trees asks the dismissive Tiny-er-er, who replies: ‘They are lit by the bad, er, peasants, er, with matches, er, encouraged by that nasty caste of, er, tree monks.’

Like the Lords from the far regions, the figure shakes its head as it clambers nimbly high on the dead trunk and Tiny-er-er belatedly discerns the hirsute shape as a tree monk. ‘It is hard to tell, er, a tree monk these, er, days’, Tiny-er-er thinks (as even his thoughts are punctuated by ‘ers’) and ponders whether he should ask the Lords and Ladies to banish all of them. But how to recognise them? — no, it won’t matter if a few innocent peasants are banished as well. He can even use the orange boats — if he can get them back from the lands where he has sent them.

Fires ravage the dying tree trunks and return again and again — a never-ending sea of flame. It was here yesterday, is here today, and will be again tomorrow.

The rivers are also rising but do not refresh the land as once they did, instead turning the land to mud, the settling ash to a black sludge. Little will grow in that mire. The hovels are filling with water and silt.

When the Lords and Ladies demand the fruits of the fields, the milk of the herds, and the fatted calf, there is none left to bring, no peasant to bring them. The pestilence on the land and the people has all but destroyed the peasants’ world. Some have built their houses higher and wait there fearful of what may next befall them. Many have taken to the slippery sludge of the roads, seeking shelter elsewhere, anywhere but the land of Tiny-er-er O’penmouth, any land that knows the fires will keep returning, that water is flooding the fields and in some unnatural way no longer receding.

Tiny-er-er’s Lords and Ladies shelter in their castles, hidden from the peasants. They feel safer there. They have faith their stone walls will not burn, that their heavy gates will keep back the water.

Tiny-er-er O’penmouth still roams the desolation safe in his paper castle. There are no fires or floods there.

And outside, fingers play purposefully with the matches in ragged coat pockets.

It is extremely hot. It is extremely cold. It is a land of extremes — more extreme than it has ever been in the life of Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. But the Lords and Ladies are safe inside their castle walls.

For many days not one soul has stirred from the stone fortress where the rich people live
No one came and no one went
Fear can do many strange things
And even though water ran low
Their mouths burnt and bellys caked dry
Not one person set a foot outside
No one had that much courage
For they feared the peasants and their world outside
So they played it safe and didn’t move
But one by one they perished and died*

* from ‘The Black Plague’ on Winds of Change, Eric Burdon and the (new) Animals, 1967

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 2

The impartially partisan political journalist

Part 1 of ‘Truth with partisan on the side’ ended with the suggestion that we might be in a muddle in political journalism in Australia, a muddle about ‘partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or “neutral” journalism’. If this is so, what kind of a muddle is it?

It may be a muddle about what we the people — the readers, the listeners, the ‘reliers’ on information we can’t easily track ourselves — want and need from political journalism. It may be a moral muddle about what political journalists themselves see as their role in providing what they think we (the people, the reader etc.) might need and be looking for.

It is certainly, for me, the muddle inherent in, and driven by, a long-taught practice in journalism — that the journalist should be a non-partisan presenter of facts.

In The Year My Politics Broke Jonathan Green argued that the public ‘make a pervading assumption of impartiality’ and that political journalists fail this test via ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘abrogation’ or ‘partisan journalistic activism’. One might guess, and only guess, that Green’s faith in the impartiality mantra has been strong all of his professional life.

In May 2013, well before publishing The Year My Politics Broke, Green had written ‘Journalism tainted by conviction is not journalism’. It is a short piece wholly dedicated to the impartiality theme and disdainful of anything that does not measure up to journalism ‘untainted’. And it is salutary to compare some of the words, phrases and examples Green uses to flesh out what untainted and ‘conviction’-tainted journalism are for him:

Journalism untainted Journalism tainted
… a craft, a set of trade skills that can be applied pretty universally to a range of situations a polemic…a cynical exercise in the promotion of any or various propositions
…true calling at the heart of the craft: to simply inform without bias or favour. the sort of polemic that may have limited commercial worth but enormous political purpose
… a cornerstone of smart democratic practice … cynically political purpose while claiming all the protections, rights and respectability of the fourth estate
… created with intellectual curiosity to inform Fox News … an entirely parallel universe that determines its own agenda, facts and logic according to an often bellicose political mission
… practiced with calm objectivity and simple curiosity The Australian, a paper whose political purpose and occasional flights of “truthiness” can routinely obscure its better journalistic angels
… neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. … the opinion formers of the tabloid blogosphere. Little s-bends of ill-humour like the Daily Telegraph's Tim Blair, or great vaulted Taj Mahals of polished ego like the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.
In any … worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance … produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it
Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right. What is certain is that it should not matter. the paranoid, fact defying columns of the proselytising right … where … any measured objective assessment of reality is dismissed as being 'of the left', the facts are mutable servants of argument
Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence

The ‘heartfeltness’ of Green’s sentiments can’t be denied. And not many of us reading here would contradict, I suspect, his take on the The Australian, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt.

But what niggles about the piece was captured, for me, in Paula (@dragonista) Matthewson’s response in The Myth of Objectivity, which introduced some needed subtlety:

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy ...

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand [my emphasis].

Far less subtle than Matthewson’s, of course, was a February 2014 Gerard Henderson response to, well, not just Green and his The Year My Politics Broke but Green, as an exemplar extraordinaire of ‘our ABC’, otherwise known as that appalling collective of left-y, partisan-y groupthink-y bias. Subbed with the give-away title ‘It's easy being Green when you can sneer while on the public purse’ Henderson gives himself licence to sneer away at Green:

Green seriously divides Australians between an “informed public” (that is, people like him) and “a great mass of people” who are “wilfully misinformed” (that is, people not at all like him). Green wants “gatekeepers” like himself to shape “informed decision making” in a green/left kind of way.

Whenever commenting on journalism as practice Green clearly argues for impartiality and objectivity, considers himself impartial and, further, that his personal political stances are, and should be, private. Consequently, he believes they just don’t show.

Matthewson argues from the opposite position and for the inevitable subtle evidence in everything a journalist writes, of belief, conviction even, by virtue of the individual journalist having almost sole power to choose the content of any story and shape its telling so absolutely. In the light of this, look again at Green; at, say, his policy-change suggestions to the Labor Opposition in ‘Where is the alternative to Manus Island cruelty?

And Henderson would never consider anything Green says or writes as impartial, but not for any of the reasons Green puts forward against ‘tainted’ journalism. In the ‘conviction’ piece, Green is trying out a philosophy, if you like, of impartiality. Matthewson teases out some complexity. Henderson just plays the man (or lots of them in this piece) to snipe at the ABC in News Corp’s ever more savage way for its failure to provide ‘balance’ or ‘equal time’ to so-called left and right.

No-one, of course, can rip the balance myth (as antidote to the dreaded evil of bias) a better one than David Horton did in, for example, his open letter to ABC CEO Mark Scott:

I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

Or here again in ‘Steering the ABC Titanic’:

I am suggesting that the obvious sources of bias be removed. That experts once again replace ideologues, that news bulletins contain, well, simply news.

For Horton, the ABC’s over-striving after ‘false’ balance (or false equivalence) to placate its critics from conservative camps leads to presenting non-fact as if it had the same weight as fact; and for Horton, this way the mad obsession with avoiding bias truly lies. For Green, pure bias is the personally prejudiced, politically purposed, paralysingly paranoid, polemical propaganda journalism of a Bolt or a Blair (amongst others). For Henderson, bias is Green’s wicked adherence to, for example, those ‘catastrophic’ issues loved by lefty greenie progressives such as anthropogenic causes for a changing climate.

But the Henderson view on bias and the never-ending drama about the ABC’s journalistic ‘balance’ are little more than ‘look over there’ or ‘ooh, shiny thing’ tactics from the naysayers and the no see-ers whom both Green and Horton so rightfully excoriate. Such views offer no help to moving us from adversarial charges that conviction is partisan in a ‘bad’ way, is bias, is propaganda, to something else — perhaps something like recognising that owning and stating your position may be offering some first steps in reviving trust in the integrity of political journalism?

In a recent piece, ‘Facts are futile in an era of post-truth politics’, Gay Alcorn lamented:

… we're in the era of post-truth politics, when facts don't matter, when evidence doesn't matter. But without these things, there can be no trust at all, no fragile but essential compact between citizens and their government that respect is mutual.

Andrew Elder responded:

When someone like Gay Alcorn writes something like this, I accept that she has a genuine and general concern for the state of the polity in this country. Pretty much everything Jonathan Green writes is in a similar vein, and there are others, but …When you reach such a state of despair, the question you have to ask is: what can you do? To answer that question in the negative is to invite further despair. [my emphasis]

Despair as media cop-out, really. Elder goes on to suggest that the media, more than the politicians and the political system, needs faith in evidence and correctives in the way it reports politics, or journalists like Alcorn are already out of a job. He adds: ‘If you have more experience in media than I do you could do more to fix it.’

Speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 Jay Rosen drew on, as a springboard for some of his ideas on how to change or rescue ‘political coverage’, a 2008 essay, ‘The power of the pen: A call for journalistic courage’, by Walter Pinkus that set out the Pinkus approach to how to ‘fix’ political coverage. Pinkus, from fifty years of practice in the business, had reminded his profession of their origins in presses begun by families who took partisan positions in their politics, but played the game with integrity nevertheless:

… they all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. Pamphleteers, newspaper editors and writers of all kinds could have their say, and citizens were to weigh all opinions and facts as presented and make up their own minds. [my emphasis]

Pinkus argued that the political media participated in the political process: that the actions and decisions of the media directly affected government, making the media powerful, and thus allowing it to play ‘activist’ roles in governance. A recent development is the media’s rejection of this activist role — which he views as a ‘threat to our democracy’.

For Pinkus, courage in the political media field is ‘a journalist [who] stands up to a government official or a politician who he or she has reason to believe is not telling the truth or living up to his or her responsibilities’. It isn’t eliding, omitting or denying evidence or fact. But it isn’t playing at being ‘neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate’. For Pinkus, the ‘neutral’ journalist is an unfortunate evolution away from the origins of the profession (at least in the USA) into becoming PR mouthpieces for governments.

When first picking up the Pinkus essay in 2008, Jay Rosen argued that neutrality (another word for balance) needed to be ‘uncoupled’ from fairness, which should remain a tenet of modern journalism. But more importantly, the political press needed to let its readers know what it was doing with its own power. Nothing quite as simple as letting us know who they vote for, but what evidence they could provide for claiming their position of authority in the first place.

In 2011 in Melbourne, Rosen offered his audience several aspects of political coverage that ‘impoverished it’: what he described as ‘politics as an inside game’, ‘the cult of savviness’ and ‘the production of innocence’. He then suggested a possible model for change based on political coverage reflecting what is real, and letting the public know what is not, after all, real or true. In Rosen’s model a political journalist should assess the information they garner in four ways and ask themselves whether they are seeing:

  • appearances rendered as fact; e.g. the media stunt
  • phony arguments; e.g. manufactured controversies; sideshows
  • today’s new realities: get the facts; e.g. the actual news of politics
  • real arguments; e.g. debates, legitimate controversies, important speeches.
For Rosen, this is what citizens need from the political media.

Andrew Elder’s response to Gay Alcorn’s piece raised the issue of how difficult it might be, when you are on the inside of a profession or institution, to see what is happening and to make change from the inside. Ideally, you are best placed to do so. But it’s also possible to be so long or so far in that it’s hard to see how, when, where, why and what change might be needed.

Jonathan Green argued, in The Year My Politics Broke, for a game changer in Australian politics a, change agency person, preferably a different kind of Prime Minister or leader.

I’d argue, perhaps with Elder, that we need Australian game changers in political journalism far more, right now, than we might need a different kind of political leader or politician generally.

There are those, quite a few, who suggest that the rise of the fifth estate is such a change agent. And I would argue that while exciting in its possibilities, it simply isn’t true. Not yet. Not when online only starts-up like The Global Mail fold so quickly. Not while the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun or the Australian or The Age are the probable reading fare of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who don’t yet read the political media online and don’t know how to find it. Neither New Matilda nor The Conversation nor yet Guardian Australia (though it’s growing fast) has yet the extent of readership to influence the voting mind as rapidly as News Corp’s paper-based rags have.

The fourth estate still matters more, because of its power, because of its reach and because of its capacity to influence our governance for the worse or for the better, which is probably why some of us get as angry with it as we do. It’s way past time for the fourth estate to throw up journalists as change agents working from the inside.

One might look just like Jonathan Green … if he’d only seize his impartial partisanship (he doesn’t put a fact wrong) laud it, and teach that, instead of its opposite. (To be wholly in love with Jonathan Green would be quite something.)

One might look like Paul Syvret, working out of the News Corp stable in Brisbane, who produced this astonishingly open piece stating what his own personal positions on many issues were, but equally arguing no reader should simply box him into ‘left’ or ‘right’. Syvret has become one of my other most trusted journalists. It may be that his every article reads like the perfect practice of the Rosen model. I know where he stands. And I trust his evidence.

And one indeed might look like Margot Kingston, who practises now in the fifth estate after a long time in the fourth, and who very recently described herself, when challenged on whether she was ‘really a journalist’, in these words:

I think I've always been an activist journalist. As far as whether this has crossed a line, I've certainly never done any form of embedded journalism before,"

"My policy has been, for a long time, to be very open about who I am and what my beliefs are, and I hope that people trust me because of my honesty and transparency. All I want, as a journalist, is for what I say is the truth or report as fact, is believed. I think I have got that, I think my work is trusted journalistically, but yes, this is a very extreme way to report a protest." [my emphasis]

I want real change in my political coverage in Australia.

What do you want?

I see journalists who seem to actively pursue what we might call ‘a partisan impartiality’ in their practice in Australia.

Do you, and if so who?

I think I see some glimmering causes for optimism.

What do you think?

Truth with partisan on the side, but hold the bias, please: Part 1

Quite in love with Jonathan Green

I love Jonathan Green. Indeed, I’ve been quite in love with Jonathan Green for yonks. And that, in media-land, is called ‘disclosure’ (or ‘the big reveal’? Whatever.)

Disclosure is important because this piece is partisan. Whether proudly clutching its first person (it began with ‘I’) or not, this piece like any other can be nought but partisan. Partisan is precisely how we roll and what we are — all of us. (But let’s hope what happens next is also truthful and attentive to the facts.)

So why have I ere-long loved the Green?

Is it the kindly rounded face guesting every now and again on ABCNews24’s The Drum, murmuring wisdoms, occasionally pained, but often beaming genial benevolence?

(*Green starts at 2.30 mins.)

Is it the gentle calm about the ABC radio voice — that it almost never rises, even when the topic is confronting and the participants adversarial; that it holds steady through repeated challenge; that it slips in questions so deferentially as to seem innocuous? (But they’re not, of course.)

It is that the Green’s froggy tweets [@GreenJ] are quite sublime — a mastering of the ‘mot’ so ‘bon’ they out-‘wit’ all others?

Or that his weekly Thursday columns on The Drum website challenge us not only to look but really to learn from what we see?

Whichever way he captivates, this voice has been, for me, a trusted one in media. Not surprising, then, that I leapt to acquire The Year My Politics Broke by Green, a work in fine journalistic tradition of analysis on the 2013 Federal election, the moment it was digitised and out.

But — there is indeed a ‘but’ — while I didn’t quite know it then, I was a reader on a mission. After all, The Year My Politics Broke is written by an insider having voice across four communication platforms (add the book and we make five). Would this powerful, trusted voice shed new, or any, light on the role the fourth estate had played in letting loose the brutal wrenching dogs of pseudo-democracy we’ve just inherited — apparently by vote? If anyone knew the go on media culpability, Green surely would.

I have wondered ever since our last federal election whether journalists in Australia really truly, saw, never mind understood, the anger that hundreds of thousands of Australians felt so directly for so many of them before and after it. Aussie journalists sold Australian voters down the drain, cried some. Aussie journalism hadn’t done its job, said others. Tagged repeatedly by new online media and the fifth estate, even just in this last twelve months, who in the fourth has been listening?

So furious have been some judgments of betrayal, of an abdication of responsibility so heinous, that a chosen consequence could only be arraigning some of them — this very fourth estate — for treason. Those hungry for some kind of just consequence for media inadequacy are not ‘rusted-on’ (the usual disparaging epithet) party-aligned loonies; these are rusted-on human beings (I like to think I’m one) who feel betrayed utterly by press as much as politicians.

And I’ve wondered since; how aware now is the fourth estate that extreme citizen unrest persists, that the language of anger (and yes, I do use Twitter as something of a barometer, but not the only one) is, however extreme the analogy, increasingly aligning what is happening in the Australian political environment with the 1930s rise of fascism (not to mention the part some media played), and resistance — any impetus for action — with notions of real revolution?

Might Green have seen this as he reflected on the ‘breaking’ of his, indeed he argues Australia’s, own politics? Does he see it now? (Surely, I ask myself, after the ‘March in March’ event of 15–17 March the fourth estate might see a little more … now? Or not, as Mr Denmore considers.)

Green’s first chapter (available here in full), though, is one of the most incisive and intelligent dissections of where the last three years or more of politician and press shenanigans have left all things to do with the polity that I have thus far seen. (You really should read it.)

His very first sentence holds a palpable sense of his own disappointment in what modern Australian politics has become: ‘At some point they refined the art of politics, whittling it down to a nub of cynical ambition couched in something that from the middle distance might pass for belief’.

On the ‘sum of modern politics’ he further notes that there is good and bad policy, the good often squandered through a focus on its ‘inter-party or intra-party effect’ because of ‘fear of adverse reaction’, and the bad sculpted from fear to create division that is politically useful. It is, he surmises, a system reacting to circumstance rather than being ‘driven by belief’.

There’s no doubt at all that Green’s personal ‘J’accuse’ includes the press:

And how did we come to this? It’s hard not to overstate the role that the media have played—another institution, like formal politics, looking increasingly uncertain in a world of changing verities and technological circumstances. They have both gone down together in public estimation, our politicians and our press, two estates fundamental to our democratic health, but engaged in a mutually self-destructive relationship.

Quite soon (Chapter 2), ‘the press’ are called (or are they?) on their coverage of the Rudd revival. Green suggests the public interest was little served by coverage of what ‘seemed like little more than self-serving figments … shreds of deliberately laid, wishful myth’ of which he says: ‘And we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this, never challenge the source of all the rumour and ambitious innuendo’ [my emphasis].

Journalistic motives in the Rudd saga are, however, explored In Chapter 2. Significantly, the framework of impartiality in journalism is brought into play. Suggesting that some senior correspondents thought a Rudd comeback likely or, for some reason, desirable, he notes: ‘Again, an impossible proposition to prove or detect, thanks to the notion of confidentiality and the pervading assumption of journalistic impartiality’ [my emphasis].

By Green’s third chapter, the kind of bollocking Andrew Elder has been serving out for years to the press in general and the Canberra Gallery in particular is underway:

Is this a wilful blindness? If Australia’s political discussion is lost into a pit of rudeness and tripe, it has been dumped there by press as much as by politicians … could politicians behave in that manner if the media forced the issue and used its collective intelligence and informational bargaining power? …

The media could play a role in the cure too, of course, but turn a famously tin ear to these discussions … Just fine if the work of these men and women had no broader public impact, if the system was a closed cell whose failures and transgressions could be safely ignored. But the public trust invested in a free press demands a better return than the flabby self-indulgence of so much of the political reporting-as-usual …

If media are to enjoy the privileges they earn as our democracy’s fourth estate, then they need to reawaken a sense of what serving that estate might entail. A shorthand for the position might be policy over personality, but perhaps that’s too tempting an oversimplification.

It hardly seems to matter, in any event, because nothing seems more resolute than the collective failure of Canberra press to just get this simple point. Our gallery hacks are rarely called on it, even though the consensus growing among the increasingly audible community they putatively serve seems to be that our press is not to be trusted or relied upon.

And the one group dealt out of the exchange were the voters, the viewers, the ordinary Australians, the real losers in this cartel collusion between politics and press that substitutes reality for self-serving political fictions [my emphasis].

But it’s not until Chapter 7 that Green next tackles the political press. Writing of press coverage of the ‘pink batts’ affair Green notes: ‘The betrayal of the reader/voter implied in this is obvious, and it suggests either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media. Or worse than either, it implies partisan journalistic activism’ [my emphasis].

The press really don’t appear again. Instead, towards the end of his treatise (Chapter 11) Green hands us this:

It’s a cycle that needs a circuit breaker before the entire apparatus consumes itself tail first.

And that circuit breaker may just be the popularity of a politician who sees all this, plays to it as well as anyone, but somehow manages to send a simultaneous signal that things need to change, that none of this serves us well. A charismatic celebrity candidate who nonetheless embraces a suite of big ideas, ideas made more palatable by fame, ideas that also mirror the public distaste for the stale systems of media and politics as they stand. It might have been Turnbull. It could have been Rudd. It’s not a description that seems to fit Abbott. We may be surprised or we may have some waiting to do.

It is true in so many ways that The Year My Politics Broke doesn’t disappoint. But it is also true that many more words are spent on the failure of politicians and politics than on how we mediate through the political press our trust in both. Green’s thought of the possibility of a leader who could turn it all around is virtually his only suggestion for how change might occur. A popular charismatic leader is his answer? And, yes, while it isn’t fair to ask someone to write the book you wanted rather than the one you got, I am bemused by a respected elder of the journalistic profession who wrote so vehemently against ‘the cartel collusion’ of politics and press seeming then to offer little more than an ‘oh woe’ and a wish for a new messiah.

I am more confused than bemused at how Green seems initially to position himself: ‘we, the reading, viewing public, could never call the press on this’ or ‘our gallery hacks are rarely called on this’. Well he isn’t ‘the public’, of course. By all first principles of the estates, and by virtue of the layers of media expression he has access to, he’s in a far more powerful position than, say, I am for calling anyone in public life on anything. And the public, by virtue of social media apart from any other way, consistently did call the press ‘on this’. And so indeed did he in November 2012 in ‘Partisan hyperbole: mistaking a claque for a clap’ where he notes ‘a puffed up, perpetually outraged and campaigning media can be a political trap …’, and continued to do in February 2014 in ‘Slogans stifle debate – and we let them’ where he raises the question of what might have happened in the last federal election ‘ … if our media had pushed harder for more considered responses and insisted that the electoral argument go beyond cliché and slogan …’

It seems, then, that Green chooses to comment on the habits of political journalism as if he were not a member of the media. If you are not, perhaps you don’t have to act (other than to comment) for change?

There may be a clue to the apparent contradiction in how strongly Green states, as a cause for the failures of the political press, that the public assume the ‘impartiality’ of journalists when what they often get is ‘either a misinterpretation or abrogation of the role of political media … [or] worse than either … partisan journalistic activism’.

Worse, no less: partisan journalistic activism.

Green is looking for new and different political leaders to bring change to politics, and presumably (by osmosis?) to that colluding political press.

Part of a love that is still ‘quite’ is that I’m equally looking for leaders in journalism to bring change to the political media. Jonathan, for all that I esteem his work, does not yet seem to be putting up his hand.

For some time US journalist, professor and critic Jay Rosen has been critiquing political journalism. In 2011 at the Melbourne Writers festival he set the cat amongst the journalistic pigeons by giving an address titled ‘Why political coverage is broken’. In it he defined something he calls ‘the production of innocence’ in journalism:

By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or her innocence.

One reason why a journalist as fine as Jonathan Green leads us to the nub of the problem but seems unable to lead us on to solutions is, I’d suggest, that we are in a very moral muddle about partisan, but not biased, journalism versus impartial or objective or ‘neutral’ journalism.

In ‘Truth, with partisan on the side: Part 2’ I want to explore this suggestion further.

But for now:

  • Is political journalism in Australia broken?
  • Should we be looking for leaders in political journalism who might make a new compact with both the public and their own estate?
  • What might leaders and compact be like, if we did?
What do you think?

Bringing Gross National Happiness into play

In my series of articles about where the Left should be heading in our new world, I suggested that adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of economic progress should be one element of a new approach for the Left. In this piece I will examine why that is important, what it means, and how Labor can also move towards adopting the concept of GNH while still seeking government.

The basic idea is that GNH, in one form or another, would replace, or at the very least supplement, the current measure of economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The use of GDP to measure economic activity only arose during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the American government was concerned that they did not see the depression coming. The government asked economic experts for a model that would allow it to keep track of the economy and so have a chance of foreseeing such events in the future. GDP only came into widespread use, however, after 1944, with the Bretton Woods agreement and the establishment of the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

GDP measures a nation’s economic activity either by summing the outputs of every category of enterprise to reach a total market value of products and services, or by summing the expenditure in acquiring those goods and services, or the income of the producers in selling them: each approach should come to the same final number.

There is also another measure termed Gross National Product (GNP). It differs from GDP only in terms of measuring the value of all products and services produced by a nation, whether within its own borders or overseas by its citizens:

For example, if a Japanese company such as Honda has an auto-manufacturing plant in the United States then the output of that plant becomes part of the U.S. GDP but not its GNP because Honda is not a U.S.-owned company. The output of the plant instead becomes a part of Japan’s GNP.

It would be interesting to see how Australia measured up on GNP given the prevalence of overseas ownership of our businesses.

The use of GDP, however, began being questioned as early as the late 1950s. Even its creator, Simon Kuznets, said that ‘the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income’.

A major problem with GDP is that it measures only productive activity and takes no account of the losses or costs associated with the activity:

… it tends to go up after a natural disaster. Reconstruction and remediation spur intense activity that is registered by GDP, while the destruction, lives lost, suffering and disruption to families and communities in the wake of a flood, cyclone or bushfire are ignored.

Or as Robert Kennedy said in 1968:

… the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. [added emphasis]

And while GDP aggregates national income, it does nothing to indicate how that income is distributed. That is why the Gini coefficient is sometimes used, as it provides a statistical measure of distribution: under the Gini coefficient it is theoretically possible for a rich and a poor country to have the same coefficient, simply meaning that the low national income of the poor country is distributed among families and households in the same proportions as the higher income of the rich country.

The small nation of Bhutan, rather than relying on GDP to follow its progress, decided in 1972 to adopt a measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Although the term “Gross National Happiness” was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan the concept has a much longer resonance in the Kingdom of Bhutan. The 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

(Perhaps we should apply that last statement to our governments!)

GNH has nine ‘domains’: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

There are also 33 indicators and 124 variables for measuring results. There are roles for government, communities and individuals in achieving ‘happiness’. ‘Happiness’ is defined by having a ‘sufficiency’ in the domains. In Bhutan, the government’s main role is in decreasing the ‘insufficiencies’ of ‘unhappy’ people. While in one sense the GNH is specific to Bhutan (it includes a number of local cultural indicators), its purpose of measuring well-being applies where GDP fails. GNH has been discussed in UN forums and has influenced economists in the developed world.

A number of alternatives to GDP have been developed over the years such as the Fordham Index of Social Health (FISH), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and more recently the Social Progress Index (SPI).

The UN has the Human Development Index (HDI) which basically looks at life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and literacy, and gross national income per capita — developed countries, like Australia, tend to score highly on this as it is primarily aimed at developing nations. The SPI is similar but adds extra dimensions and allows disaggregation of results, so that while Australia still rates highly overall on the SPI it rates more lowly (as many rich countries do) on the sub-set of ecosystem sustainability: and while Sweden tops the SPI it ranks more lowly on ‘shelter’ owing to weaknesses in affordable housing.

In 2012, the UN introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) which includes not only economic capital, but human capital and environmental capital, and provided a report on 20 countries, examining their growth between 1990 and 2008: an example of four nations comparing GDP and IWI growth is shown in the following table:

Nation GDP growth 1990-2008 IWI growth 1990-2008
China 422% 45%
USA 37% 13%
Brazil 31% 18%
South Africa 24% -1%

The lower IWI growth in each country was due primarily to the depletion of natural resources in achieving GDP growth. An interesting contrast is Germany, which achieved 30% GDP growth but 38% growth using the IWI owing to significant investment in human capital (education).

In the same period Australia achieved average annual growth of 2.2% in GDP but only 0.1% in IWI.

Similarly other measures, like the FISH and GPI show that in the USA, the UK and Australia, GDP has grown significantly since the 1970s (up to threefold in the USA) but the FISH and GPI indexes have barely moved.

When the results of these alternative measures are considered, it clearly suggests that rising GDP has not improved social well-being, and that economies are not growing as strongly as suggested if the costs of achieving GDP are factored in. If the Gini coefficient is added into the equation, it also shows increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in many nations, both developing and developed, since the 1970s. If those aren’t good reasons for adopting something other than GDP as a measure of progress, I don’t know what is!

These various approaches do, however, indicate that there is a serious attempt being made to move away from the exclusive use of GDP as a measure of economic progress. It is perhaps an acknowledgment that GDP measures economic activity, not progress.

In recent years the GPI was the front runner to replace GDP. It has been adopted by the US states of Maryland and Vermont and a number of other states, Utah, Minnesota and Oregon, are considering it, and Canada has adopted aspects of it.

It is probably the most popular because, like GDP, it is still measuring economic growth based on monetary values but, instead of just summing all production, it includes the dollar value cost of some activities and tries to give a value to other activities not currently valued in the market, for example:

  • the poor benefit more than the rich from a rise in income, so the GPI rises when their share of national wealth increases
  • the value of housework and volunteering are added, calculated at the rate of hiring someone to undertake the same tasks
  • the costs arising from crime are deducted
  • costs of pollution, degradation of wetlands, forests, farmland, etc are costs to be deducted from economic growth, as are estimates of longer term environmental damage
  • the GPI also goes up if leisure time increases
  • for consumer durables GPI treats the capital expenditure as a cost to the economy and the value is added for each year of service they provide.
It is more difficult to calculate than GDP, which may weigh against its widespread use and with the UN’s Inclusive Wealth Index now in play, the latter may become more favoured over the next few years (especially if it adds a measurement of social capital which it is aiming to do).

While the GPI and similar approaches may keep economists happy and provide governments with a more realistic measure of economic growth, it may not necessarily make the people happier.

Even the OECD has recognised that measuring well-being goes beyond purely monetary indicators. Subjective measures such as ‘life satisfaction’ are now included in survey questions on well-being and the OECD acknowledges evidence that this subjective measure actually shows up in objective measures: people showing a higher level of life satisfaction are likely to be more productive, more collaborative in the workplace, generally have better long-term health, can better pursue long-term goals and so on.

A problem with the current approach is that it is leading towards having a number of different measures operating together— some suggest that GDP remains important to monitor the economic cycle. So we could end up with GDP reflecting movements in economic activity, something like GPI or IWI taking a wider view of the costs of achieving GDP, and something that measures social well-being. Such a combination, while valuable, would leave policy makers with the discretion as to which they choose to drive policy. Public debate needs to drive policy and that really requires a single approach that can be readily understood, not having to combine the different evidence from three or more measures.

To my mind the GNH already blends much of what these other measures are trying to achieve.

In its surveys, it asks questions on life satisfaction and self-reported health status but also about the number of healthy days a person experienced in the past month; it asks about time use, working hours and sleeping hours (as sufficient sleep is seen as necessary for health and productivity); it asks about political participation; about social support, community relationships, and victims of crime; about pollution and wildlife and an individual’s environmental responsibility. In approaching education, it looks at literacy and educational qualifications but also at knowledge and values (based on the dominant Buddhist precepts in Bhutan). Three of its five knowledge questions are about local cultural issues, but it also asks about the Constitution and HIV/AIDS (a significant issue in Bhutan). The 2010 report concluded that despite rising literacy, people’s ‘knowledge’ of their locality was poor. I think that wider focus on local knowledge and values is an interesting inclusion that could have application in Western countries, as it attempts to quantify knowledge obtained outside the formal education system.

Yes, the GNH would need to be adapted to a modern western economy but the basics are there. For measurement purposes it would be possible to use the statistical approaches developed for some of the other indexes mentioned previously. In Australia, the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) already conducts Social Trends surveys and that data can also be used.

So this is not an impossible task. People may baulk at the idea of a ‘happiness’ index but it can be renamed – perhaps a National Well-being Index or a National Progress Indicator.

Labor, in seeking government, would no doubt be reluctant to take the concept of GNH to an election. They would be open to criticism by the LNP that they were ignoring ‘economic fundamentals’ — the LNP already rates higher with the electorate in terms of ‘managing the economy’. That is one reason I suggested in my three part article on the Left that Labor needs to work at changing the tenor of the economic debate.

Being realistic, I would see Labor adopting the multiple-measure approach, at least initially: so there would be GDP, GPI or IWI, and a well-being measure akin to GNH. But what needs to be done is make GDP a background measure, and begin emphasising the real value of our economy (GPI or IWI) and the social benefits (improved well-being and equity). Labor should seek to emphasise that the order of importance of these measures is GPI/IWI first, well-being second and GDP third, and focus on GPI/IWI, not GDP, in public debate. The long term strategy should be that GDP drops from public view as the main measurement of economic progress and that, over time, well-being assumes first place in the public hierarchy of progress measurements. The other measurements, and eventually only the GPI/IWI, then become the economic background against which the government decides which policies are tenable to improve social well-being (happiness).

That will take time and will not be easy. The vested interests of big business and global corporations will mostly oppose it. They like GDP because it measures what they are producing, taking no account of environmental or social costs. While GDP reigns, so does big business because it can argue that for every downturn or slowing in GDP growth it needs government policies that will help it boost production and so increase GDP again. I will concede that at the WEF at Davos in January this year, the global corporations represented there did show some concern for environmental and resource costs because they are realising that continued unfettered use of natural resources and damage to the environment will eventually affect their ‘bottom line’. Unfortunately there appears no sign of this realisation in Australia and that is unlikely to change while GDP rules the economic debate here and while political parties also pay homage to it.

What do you think?

Number 982

Michael Gawenda was the editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne from 1997 until 2004. He is currently a Fellow of University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, after serving as the inaugural Director of the Centre in 2009. After finishing school, he studied economics and politics, then he moved to Papua New Guinea to work as an economist. He returned to Australia in 1970 after deciding that economics wasn’t the career path for him.

An internship at The Age in 1970 led to a 37 year career in which Michael rose to become the Editor in Chief in 2003. Along the way, he was awarded three Walkley Awards and was a feature writer, news writer and foreign correspondent. The Age endorsed the Liberal Party in the 2004 federal election while Gawenda was Editor in Chief — something that was condemned by Crikey at the time. Ironically by 2009, Gawenda was writing the Rocky and Gawenda blog for Crikey.

All in all, Michael Gawenda is respected in his profession and has made an outstanding contribution to Australian life. Gawenda is also a refugee. Gawenda’s family are of Polish descent and Michael Gawenda was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Austria in 1947. His family arrived in Australia three years later and lived with his father’s cousin. You can read his personal account of early life in Australia here on the Refugee Council’s website.

Most Australians have heard of the ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The scheme was a result of the Curtin Government’s ‘populate or perish’ policy, designed to protect Australia from invasion by Japan. Briefly, adults from any Commonwealth country could gain passage to Australia for the sum of ten pounds — accompanying children were free. While the policy was changed over the years to increase the level of skill required, as well as to allow entry for immigrants from other European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy, the policy of increasing the population of this country for economic and security benefits continued, supported by both ALP and Coalition governments.

The scheme’s peak year was 1969 when more than 80,000 people immigrated to Australia using assisted passage arrangements and, while it is estimated that approximately one quarter of those that immigrated returned to their country of origin, ‘Ten Pound Poms’ have made a significant contribution to Australian life. Some of the better known assisted immigrants include Tony Abbott (current prime minister), Julia Gillard (past prime minister), The Bee Gees (musicians and song writers), Noni Hazlehurst (actor), Alan Bond (businessman), Frank Tyson (English test cricketer) and Harold Larwood (English test cricketer of ‘bodyline’ fame). In addition, actor/musician Kylie Minogue’s mother, and the parents of both Whitlam government minister Al Grassby and actor Hugh Jackman, were also assisted immigrants.

Tony Le Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1968. Le Nguyen has worked as an actor, writer, director and producer — as well as being the first official Vietnamese Australian to be appointed as a Prison Visitor in Victoria. He had a role in Romper Stomper as well as a number of other Australian productions as varied as GP, Fast Forward, Stingers and Sea Change. Le Nguyen founded the Australian Vietnamese Youth Media in 1994 and has directed a number of community and professional productions since then.

Le Nguyen’s father was a teacher and interpreter working for the South Vietnamese government. The family made two attempts to escape from Vietnam using unsuitable boats and spent some in refugee camps in south-east Asia. In 1979, his family was accepted for resettlement in Australia. You can read his personal account of the struggle to live in Vietnam, leave Vietnam, and life in Australia on the Refugee Council’s website.

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is a hip and knee orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney. You may have seen some media coverage recently when he used a pioneering technique to ‘install’ artificial limbs. The Australian Women’s Weekly told the story of Mitch Grant in the November 2013 issue and the News Limited Sunday papers recently carried an article regarding his work with Michael Swain, a British veteran of the Afghanistan War. In both cases Dr Al Muderis affixed posts to the remaining stumps of legs and connected the artificial limb to the post. This ensured that artificial limbs would not be subject to the customary problems where the artificial limb rubs or doesn’t make contact with the remaining natural limb. In Michael Swain’s case, he arrived in Sydney in a wheelchair but walked down the aerobridge when it was time to return to London.

As you have probably deduced by now, Munjed Al Muderis is also a refugee — in this case from Iraq, where he was ordered as a junior surgeon to cut the ears off people accused of crimes against the Hussein government. His website has a biography and gives some detail of his experiences in becoming a world-renowned surgeon. His story is also told in the article that discusses Michael Swain — who is due to receive an MBE from the Queen in April 2014 and ‘walk down the aisle’ in June.

Dr Al Muderis is the ‘Number 982’ that heads this piece — that was his number at the Curtin ‘Detention’ Centre and all that he was called by the authorities when incarcerated there for ten months.

Humans have basic needs for shelter, food, security, protection and stability. Maslow’s Theory suggests that once basic needs such as food and shelter are met, humans will seek security, protection and stability. It is questionable that a human’s food and shelter needs are met if they are living under a government that is punishing families, as demonstrated by the narratives of Michael Gawenda, Tony Le Nguyen or Munjed Al Muderis. Those responsible for the decision to become refugees demonstrated their basic desire for food, shelter, protection and stability — as did a majority of those who emigrated to Australia in the past 40,000 years. To suggest that asylum seekers or refugees is solely an Australian problem is ludicrous. The UNHCR reports that Australia received 15,998 refugees in 2012 — 3% of the world total.

Most the people named in this piece are immigrants to Australia, as are the rest of us — regardless of whether we walked off an Airbus A380 last week or our ancestors walked across a land-bridge from Asia 40,000 years ago. We have all in our own way contributed to the vibrant, clever and prosperous country that we call home. Those people detailed above are a small sample of those that made significant contributions to our country — far outweighing any assistance the country gave immigrants to start their lives here. For the majority of the twentieth century Australia actively sought people to immigrate here through refugee programs, the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme and the resettlement of some 200,000 people, mostly from Asia, in the period 1975 to 1982, including 2,059 ‘boat people’. Yet in the twenty-first century we have a prime minister that got to power partly using the mantra of ‘stop the boats’.

Not that the ALP is blameless here. Since Keating introduced ‘detention’ centres, there has been a considerable amount of ‘me-too-ism’ in the policies of both major political parties in this country in regard to assisting refugees from all parts of the world who are seeking asylum in this country. Howard’s Coalition government seems to have managed the Tampa Affair, when a Norwegian ship picked up some refugees and attempted to land them on Australian soil, only to be refused, to maximise his Government’s vote.

Since then there has been a number of efforts to make various Government’s look ‘tough’ on border protection, usually at the expense of refugees. The Australian Labor Party under Rudd and Gillard was no more humanitarian than the LNP under Howard and Abbott. They all saw the potential for votes and have competed in this race to the bottom in abysmal treatment to fellow human beings.

So, instead of demonising these people for domestic political purposes, why wouldn’t a political party that wants to demonstrate fairness and equity to all change the conversation within Australia? Instead of punitive action against fellow humans — that in the majority are doing it far worse that any Australian — why not a conversation about how refugees over the past 60 years have brought a great deal of material benefit to this country? Examples could range from the ubiquitous country town café of the 1950s and 60s up until today when people travel half way across the world to be treated by a refugee from Iraq — as in the case of Michael Swain.

The Liberal Party website tells us that many years ago:

Robert Menzies believed the time was right for a new political force in Australia — one which fought for the freedom of the individual and produced enlightened liberal policies.

Ben Chifley around the same time gave his ‘light on the hill’ speech in which he stated:

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

It is neither enlightened nor for the betterment of mankind that people, who generally suffer incredible privations in order to better their lives, are treated as prisoners who do not have the same access to services provided to other immigrants and refugees who arrived here in the decades prior to the 1980’s.

How did the two major Australian political parties lose their desire to either ‘[bring] something better to the people … working for the betterment of mankind’ or fight ‘for the freedom of the individual and [produce]… enlightened liberal policies’?

When did the two major political parties become so morally corrupt that they both will use their fellow humans’ pain and suffering to gain political mileage? Isn’t it time that at least one of the two major political parties rediscovered morals and ethics?

What do you think?

In a galaxy far, far away … Australia

At Davos in Switzerland in January this year the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) took place. About 2,600 representatives of government, business, civil society and academia took part, from over a hundred countries. Australian businesses that attended included Leighton Holdings, Fortescue Metals, Westpac, Westfarmers, Coles and Telstra. International corporations included Nestlé, Royal Philips, Microsoft, HSBC, Total and Heineken. Among the political leaders were Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister; David Cameron, British prime minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister; and Hasan Rouhani, Iranian President. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was also there. Quite a gathering.

This year’s programme, which consisted of more than 250 official sessions, was organized under four thematic pillars: Achieving Inclusive Growth; Embracing Disruptive Innovation; Meeting Society’s New Expectations; and Sustaining a World of 9 Billion. Discussions on these issues challenged long-held assumptions about society, politics and business in an effort to generate the powerful ideas and collaborative spirit needed to manage the future course of world affairs.

Our prime minister (cough, spit!) was there and made a speech, one of 254 speakers (one for each official session). I will admit I began watching Tony Abbott’s speech when it was broadcast live on ABC News24 but, with my anger rising and the potential for collateral damage to the television and nearby furniture, was forced to turn it off. From what I later learned, I didn’t miss much. Here was I thinking that in a forum like the WEF Tony Abbott might actually say something meaningful … talk about being delusional!

What it did do, however, was make me look more deeply into what was being discussed at Davos and I was surprised at what I found. The range of issues on the agenda and the number of papers and reports supporting discussion was quite staggering. That led me to the title for this article. I know Abbott’s main reason (perhaps his only reason) for being there was that Australia is hosting the next G20 meeting in November this year and he was to give an outline as to where Australia would lead that meeting. But surely, given the issues being discussed at Davos, one would think he would address at least one of them in detail or dare to ‘challenge long held assumptions’ (as reported as an outcome of the meeting). No, not Abbott, he attacks the Labor party! He did brush on governance and taxation, but not in any profound way, and focused on free trade. He ignored almost all of the risks facing economies and businesses (after all, the WEF is dominated by big, and I mean big business) that are clearly laid out in the agenda for the meeting and, in particular, ignored the social risks.

There were papers on what is called ‘the global agenda’ and the trends for 2014. These forecasts are based on worldwide surveys of business people and samples of the general population prepared by Global Agenda Councils attached to the WEF. The top ten trending issues were:

1. Rising social tensions in the Middle East and North Africa
2. Widening income disparities
3. Persistent structural unemployment
4. Intensifying cyber threats
5. Inaction on climate change
6. Diminishing confidence in economic policies
7. A lack of values in leadership
8. The expanding middle class in Asia
9. The growing importance of megacities
10. The rapid spread of misinformation online.

The second major input was a report on ‘Global Risks’ (its ninth edition). The report for the 2014 meeting included the following top ten risks:

1. Fiscal crises in key economies
2. Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
3. Water crises
4. Severe income disparity
5. Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
6. Greater incidence of extreme weather events (eg floods, storms, fires)
7. Global governance failure
8. Food crises
9. Failure of major financial mechanism/institution
10. Profound political and social instability.

Fifty risks, including those ten, were plotted on a risk chart with the traditional axes of ‘Likelihood’ and ‘Impact’ (again based on survey responses). The events listed in the top right quarter (ie more likely with high impact) included:

  • Income disparity (most likely, seventh-highest impact)
  • Extreme weather events (second most likely, fifth-highest impact)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (third most likely, fourth-highest impact)
  • Climate change (fourth most likely, second-highest impact)
  • Cyber attacks (fifth most likely, eighth-highest impact)
  • Water crises (sixth most likely, third-highest impact)
  • Fiscal crises (seventh most likely, highest impact)
  • Ecosystem collapse (only rated fourteenth most likely, but sixth in terms of impact).
Obviously businesses are concerned about these risks, not for any altruistic reasons but for the impact on their capacity to ‘do business’ and their ‘bottom line’. In other words, for business these are seen as pressures on the market or issues that may distort the market. Also the social unrest that may result is not good for business — or government.

Putting the two lists together, it could be said that the key threats are:

  • Climate change and environmental issues (failure to address climate change, water crises, food crises, greater incidence of extreme weather events, ecosystem collapse)
  • Increasing inequality (widening/severe income disparity)
  • Unemployment/underemployment (structurally high unemployment, with particular emphasis on youth unemployment and its longer term implications for economies and social stability).
The reports indicate that while there is action on climate change it is not moving fast enough which, it is suggested, leads to the perception that little is being done. One report suggests $70-100 billion per year to 2050 is required in developed countries to effectively address climate change: another that, although $1 trillion has already been invested in renewable energy, a further $1 trillion per year is required. A complete transformation of economies is necessary: but one report positively suggests that such transformations have occurred before, eg the first industrial revolution and the digital revolution. So what is Australia doing? Eliminating the carbon tax and support for renewable energy industries. Our prime minister also suggests that fires and floods are normal in Australia, are not occurring at a more frequent rate, and that any expert who says otherwise is ‘talking through [their] hat’. To top it off on 6 February he proudly announced he wanted to make Australia the ‘affordable energy capital of the world’. How? By using cheap coal, the same energy source we are trying to reduce because of its impact on climate change. Yes, Australia has lots of cheap coal — just a shame that our grandchildren may not have much of a planet left on which to enjoy this cheap energy!

Yes, on climate change Abbott definitely believes Australia is on another planet. Or, perhaps as I suggested in an earlier post, taking us back to the 1800s: my prognostication in that article that we may need to use more coal and timber is coming true.

Forty-four per cent of Australians think the economic system favours the wealthy (from surveys conducted in 2013). That percentage is low on a global scale (60% in North America; 70% in Europe; 64% in Asia; 70% in the Middle East and North Africa) but still significant. The WEF reports indicate that while inequality is a major problem in developing countries, it is also significant in developed countries and has the capacity to increase social unrest:

The incredible wealth created over the last decade in the US has gone to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and this disparity stems from many of the same roots as in developing nations.

First among them is a lack of access to high quality basic primary and secondary education for all segments of our society. Additionally it has become prohibitively expensive for the average middle-income family to send their child to college in the US; higher education, once seen as the great equaliser and engine for economic mobility, is becoming unaffordable for far too many.

I will address inequality in a future post but here in Australia, following the argument in the quote, dismantling the full impact of the ‘Gonski’ funding reforms for education will only increase inequality; creating more independent ‘public’ schools is likely to lead to increased fees, further fuelling inequality; trying to reduce workers’ wages, such as the government’s recent submission to Fair Work Australia to examine whether penalty rates are still valid in a modern economy, may only lead to the ‘working poor’ and greater inequality as in America.

Unemployment appears not to be a major problem in Australia, although there is still significant youth unemployment and underemployment, which has been an issue for some years. Abbott’s approach, like John Howard’s, is that ‘any job is better than no job’ even if it is at the minimum wage or lower. It seems we will end up with a class of working poor not because of happenstance (read bad economic management) but because Abbott actually wants to create it — at least then some of the big companies supporting him will have the cheap labour they so crave.

The Global Risks report actually made ‘global governance failure’ the pivot of all the risks, arguing that as the risks are global or have global implications (especially for global corporations!), they therefore require global action. Such action is reliant on global governance mechanisms, so that was a major concern. To my mind, this is simply big business shifting the responsibility.

Why did Abbott ignore these issues at Davos? Why are Australian businesses ignoring them when the rest of the world’s businesses are seeing them as major threats? Perhaps our only hope is that the global corporations operating in Australia start making noises to the government that these issues should be addressed or they may take their business elsewhere. Other factors are already tempting big business to leave Australia: cheaper labour costs in Asia; and the emergence of the Asian middle class which prompts companies to take their production closer to such a large and growing market. If we don’t address other issues that global corporations are concerned about, such as those raised at Davos, what will we have left to attract any business — and that situation will be worsened by forcing the closure of our own local businesses with decisions like that regarding SPC-Ardmona.

One other interesting report, and it was a ‘featured’ report, which suggests it was deemed to have some significance, was ‘Towards the Circular Economy: Accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains’. A couple of quotes summarise the gist of the report:

Progressive companies and forward-looking governments are shifting their attention from old style sustainability — a linear concept that goes from take and use to dispose — towards a ‘circular’ approach. This ‘circular’ approach effectively decouples growth from rising resource constraints in a world that will add 3 billion middle-class consumers over the next 15 years …

… Leading global companies are already building the concept of the circular economy into the way they do business. It is helping them to drive innovation across product design, to develop product-to-service approaches and to test new ways of recovering materials from redundant products such as old mobile phones. Heineken, for example, is now pursuing circular practices across its whole value chain.

China is adopting the circular approach in its latest five-year plan.

For business, the approach is deemed profitable. The value of the market in consumer goods in Europe is estimated at €3.2 trillion ‘of which 20% could be recuperated through smart circular practices’. In layman’s terms it is about taking ‘recycling’ to the next level.

Has anyone heard of this being discussed in Australia? I certainly haven’t but I am retired and outside the loop where such things may be raised. But leaving that aside, I have not seen it mentioned in the many articles I read. (After completing my original version of this piece, I did eventually find one article in Casablanca’s excellent Cache) So where is Australia on this? On another planet, or just so far behind we can only see the dust of those ahead of us!

I honestly do not understand which planet Abbott (indeed, much of Australian big business) thinks we are on — it is certainly not the planet Earth in the Milky Way but perhaps another earth in a galaxy far, far away …

What do you think?

Is Australia becoming a guided democracy?

On 8 February 2014, there was a by-election for the federal seat of Griffith due to the resignation from politics of the former member Kevin Rudd. Terri Butler, representing the ALP, won the seat. This comment was posted on the Fairfax Media’s on-line coverage of the event:

I think I'd prefer a highly programmed robot rather than anything that's really been on offer from either right side of politics. They'll have to start making a new suit for the ALPLNP Party, a suit with two right arms with one just a little further right than the other.

It demonstrates the opinion of a considerable number of the population of Australia and can be summed up as ‘there is no or little difference between the ALP and LNP’, that whichever party one votes for the outcome will be the same.

Where countries seem to have free and fair elections but the result really doesn’t matter there is, as you would expect, a name for the concept — Guided Democracy. Wikipedia suggests that there have been a number of countries that have operated in this fashion either in the past or the present. They include Indonesia, Putin’s Russia and possibly even the USA.

Indonesia’s history since the end of World War 2 and independence from the Dutch is interesting. Between 1950 and 1998, there were only two Indonesian presidents — Sukarno and Suharto. The first, Sukarno, actually promoted his leadership as guided democracy or ‘Demokrasi Terpimpin’ from 1957. Rather than the traditional leadership model where the political elite devises and implements the policy of the government, Sukarno’s belief was that the government should be led in a similar way to traditional villages where the ‘elders’ consider and discuss the problem and then agree on a solution.

A central council of 42 people from a cross section of Indonesia was formed and tasked with considering issues and providing advice to Sukarno’s cabinet. While there was no requirement to comply with the advice, it was rarely ignored. The process was introduced in the late 1950’s apparently in an attempt to placate the military, religious groups and communists.

The military, religious groupings and communists then naturally attempted to increase their ‘power bases’. The military nationalised a number of Dutch companies; the religious commenced the ‘Islamic State’ debate; and the PKI (Communist Party) entrenched itself into all state institutions except for the cabinet. By the early 60’s, there was significant corruption and jockeying for position. However the PKI had ensured that it was the only political party with any strength.

Suharto was a ‘trusted’ major-general during Sukarno’s rule and was effectively ‘the last man standing’ after a coup attempt and became president in 1968. Although elections continued, the government also appointed 100 members to parliament. A People’s Consultative Assembly was also created to which the government appointed one-third of members.

The next ‘western’ style democratic election in Indonesia, after the declaration of Demokrasi Terpimpin, was not until 1999 after the fall of Suharto.

Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia. On 9 August 1999, then President Yeltsin appointed Putin as one of the three deputy prime ministers and later that day he was appointed the acting prime minister of the Russian Federation. Later again on the same day, Yeltsin was reported as suggesting that Putin should be his successor — and Putin agreed to run for president. A week later, the State Duma (parliament) confirmed Putin as prime minister.

Yeltsin resigned as president on 31 December 1999 and Putin was appointed acting president. Putin’s first decree was to ensure that corruption charges against Yeltsin and his family were not pursued. Putin then comfortably won the subsequent presidential election held in March 2000 (three months ahead of the scheduled date and before the opposition parties could organise).

Putin was re-elected president in 2004 and was legally not able to run in the 2008 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected in his place. The day after the election, Putin was appointed to the position of prime minister of the Russian Federation. Putin was subsequently re-elected as president in 2012, appointed Medvedev as prime minister and commenced action to stifle protest groups by imprisoning the leaders, removing the influence of non-governmental organisations that received foreign assistance, and pursuing a campaign of anti-American rhetoric, including the granting of asylum to Edward Snowdon — who is accused of leaking US diplomatic cables to various news organisations around the world.

A theory promoted by Sheldon Wolin suggests that the USA is heading on a similar path to the examples of guided democracy we have looked at above. Wolin’s theory is that instead of a ‘strong leader’ who is able to influence the country’s direction for an extended period (and the seemingly inevitable corruption that goes with that), corporations through lobbying and donations control government actions; the rise of political apathy is promoted (the only expectation is to vote and low turnouts are thought of as successful); and the election of ‘personalities’ rather than ‘people’ is supported. Wolin also claims there are similarities between the propaganda of Nazi Germany (as we recently briefly discussed here on The Political Sword) and the USA’s regular claim that they are the only world superpower and the home of democracy, which gives the US the ‘right’ to declare war and participate in actions that are clearly not democratic.

It could be suggested that a couple of state governments in Australia have been close to running a guided democracy — the prime examples being Queensland under the Country/National Party and South Australia under Playford.

The Country/Nationals & Liberal Party Coalition (subsequently the Nationals solely) were in power in Queensland for a 30 year period from 1957 to 1987 because those that lived west of the Great Dividing Range generally had a considerably greater number of MP’s for the level of population. Bjelke-Petersen was premier from 1968 to 1987. While Bjelke-Petersen didn’t implement the gerrymander, he certainly used it to his advantage. The embedded corruption in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era is well documented: there were proven corruption charges against a number of National Party ‘identities’ and Bjelke-Petersen himself was never cleared of corruption charges that were made against him. The then acting premier of Queensland (when Bjelke-Petersen was overseas) initiated the Fitzgerald enquiry, which eventually led to a fairer election system, as well as the reduction in influence that was held by National Party ‘connections’ and the police force.

Playford served as premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965 despite losing each election from 1947 on the popular vote. It took a protest by the public to start the process of fair and equitable boundaries, introduced by Playford’s successor.

So, is Australia in danger of becoming a guided democracy? A guided democracy seems to be reliant on a group of people being in power for decades and power being shared around the same group of people. That certainly isn’t the case in Australia with frequent leadership contests for parliamentary leadership. While corporations attempt to influence politicians, they cannot openly ‘buy a vote in Congress’ as they seem to be able to do in the USA. The military is not an economic force to be reckoned with or sharing power in Australia as seems to be the case in Indonesia. The Australian government allows open dissent to their position on any issue – unlike Putin’s Russia.

Let’s look at Australia’s record.

Are the same small groups of people continually power sharing? Occasionally someone who can demonstrate that they don’t follow the standard political norms in Australia can get up and win, such as Cathy McGowan in Indi at the 2013 federal election, or Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott effectively deciding who would be prime minister in the last parliament — they are certainly results that the ‘political establishment’ didn’t see coming. Has the same leader been ‘in power’ for a long period of time? The Coalition holds the federal record for a 23 year term, due in part to the ALP/DLP split of the 1950’s: although Menzies was prime minister for 17 of those years, there were another four leaders in the last six years. On the ALP side, the Hawke/Keating government lasted 13 years with two prime ministers.

Is there institutionalized corruption in Australia? Potentially yes — but not to the same level as Indonesia and Russia (and one could say parts of the USA where the politicians draw up the electoral boundaries and corporations can fund political campaigns).

Are political opponents jailed or killed? No — otherwise Abbott, Gillard, Rudd and Howard would have never become prime ministers!

Are Australians encouraged not to vote? No — voting is compulsory.

While economic policies, and unfortunately refugee policies, are similar, there are also significant differences in policy between the two major political parties in Australia, including in the areas of industrial relations, social policy, education and treatment of those that are less well off. Most importantly, there are genuine free and fair elections in Australia. There is also little doubt that the election results are fair and do not benefit any particular group. This was recently demonstrated by the Australian Electoral Commission requesting the court system to decide what action to take when it was found that almost 1400 votes were missing in the Western Australia senate election.

While there are certainly similarities between the policies and operation of the ALP and LNP, the actions of the current government in abolishing programs of the previous government demonstrates that the parties are not the same. Rather the comment that started this piece demonstrates that, rather than heading towards a guided democracy, both political parties are playing safe options to try and attract the majority of votes. While the tactic seems to be successful to a point, it has allowed smaller parties such as the Greens and Katter/Palmer to win over voters who are disaffected with what could be considered a move to the centre by both major parties in Australia. The rise and success of those smaller parties, and the influence they can wield in the senate, really is the nail in the coffin of any idea that Australia is heading towards a guided democracy.

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 3

Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

In Part 2 of these articles I discussed the Left’s approach to the new world in which we now live and suggested that adopting a measure such as Gross National Happiness (GNH) could help create a new approach to economics. I intend discussing that in full in another post but for now will explain why it is important.

In the previous articles I have also talked about the new ‘intellectual working class’. They earn better money than the ‘labouring working class’ and tend to be classified, financially, as middle class. But the new consumerism helps keep them locked into the role of wage slaves. More and more consumer goods are produced and pushed at them, locking them into working longer to fulfil their role as consumers. In fact, it is consumerism that is the key driver of the current economic growth model.

I believe there is a growing gulf between created consumer ‘wants’ (as opposed to ‘needs’) and the capacity to secure them. An economic model that continues to be based on that consumerism will lead to increasing dissatisfaction and discontent among portions of the population. That this may already be happening is reflected in a decline in ‘happiness’ in North America, Australia and New Zealand in the past decade. One danger in a modern consumer society is that some may see ‘happiness’ as merely more consumer goods.

Human dignity is another side of the ‘happiness’ equation.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and associated feelings of economic insecurity may also have contributed to the decline in ‘happiness’ (less so in Australia than the USA), but the GFC highlighted some of the problems of the globalised world. Whereas, in some countries, it is government corruption that attacks human dignity, in the GFC in the West it was the greed of the banks. People were treated merely as tools in achieving higher profits for the banks. The political system’s moral compass is also out of order when the banks are allowed to get away with risky undertakings that threaten the whole of society and are then bailed out because they are ‘too big to fail’. The banks have managed to place themselves above people and when that happens human dignity suffers. Indeed, the political emphasis on economics has the same effect.

In a globalised world where multi-national corporations can wield as much, if not more, influence on a nation’s economy than the government itself, people feel helpless. What is the point of a government if it cannot control what happens? If a government lacks control, people certainly feel more insecure because their livelihood may depend not on a government decision, a government over which they can have some influence, but on a global corporation over which they have no influence.

One of the slogans during the Tunisian, or ‘Jasmine’ revolution in 2011 was ‘Dignity before bread’. Compared to the nations around it, Tunisia was relatively prosperous, although there was an increase in unemployment at the time and risk was being moved from the State to the individual — just as it is in Australia. There was also government corruption. The young unemployed man whose self-immolation helped trigger the revolt had gone to the authorities to complain about his situation but was physically beaten, in total disregard of his human dignity.

In this globalised world, where people are becoming mere cogs in an international economy, where even their own governments are at the mercy of international financiers and corporations, and politicians pay more attention to the economy than to society, human happiness and human dignity are becoming the last refuges of what it means to be human.

‘People power’ is becoming more important in this new world, reinvigorated by the internet and social media.

Adopting Gross National Happiness (GNH) and people power as fundamental to a well-functioning and sustainable economy appears to me a key way forward for the Left, and indeed for Labor in Australia, even if as a party seeking government Labor has to adopt the more moderate elements of these approaches.

The concept of Gross National Happiness as a measure of a nation’s economy and progress began in Bhutan with four ‘pillars’ and was expanded into nine ‘domains’.

The four pillars are: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

The domains are: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Gross National Happiness does not ignore economic growth, seeing it as necessary to alleviate poverty, provide health services, schools and so on. The major difference is that GNH measures economic progress not in terms of the dollar value of production and services but by the well-being it achieves for the people and the society.

It offers an approach that is consistent with many of the approaches of the Left in this new world: it is people-centred, including communities not just individuals; it is focused on well-being and equity; it includes key issues such as climate change; it supports human dignity. An important part of the Left and GNH approach is that these elements do not operate in isolation: they intertwine and each is essential for overall happiness and dignity and genuine people-centred economic progress.

People are central to the Left approach. It is their well-being, happiness and dignity that should also be central to any left-of-centre government’s approach.

Our sense of community has diminished. At university I read about miners in the UK, and indeed at Newcastle in Australia, having a strong sense of egalitarianism that was fostered by overlapping work and neighbourhood networks. In our more diversified and mobile world that is unlikely to return: people in the same neighbourhood are now more likely to be in places of employment scattered around the suburbs. (Perhaps that is the reason that governments now spend millions on providing major events, attempting to create a sense of community across many neighbourhoods.) It is, however, possible to create local ‘communities of interest’ by involving people in issues that concern them — and now they can also be virtual ‘communities’ through the power of the internet.

Such involvement is the other key aspect of the Left approach to people. The New Left would be content with various forms of consultation and involvement in policy development but the radical Left would seek more autonomy, or structures in which people can actually make decisions.

Equity has long been at the core of Left beliefs. There are two major aspects of equity: one regarding the rights and freedoms of people; and the other, the economic and social equity of groups in society, including the vulnerable and minorities.

The Right of course believes that equity is achieved by removing government from the picture and allowing individuals to choose what they wish. Unfortunately, in the 250 years since the first industrial revolution, it is obvious to all but the Right that this approach does not work — many are left behind without the resources to make the choices this approach supposedly allows. The Left believe in government intervention to achieve the desired outcomes. That needs to remain central to Labor policies as we are now seeing what happens if governments kow-tow to the rich industrialists, entrepreneurs and financiers of the nation (it was a similar failing that helped undermine New Labour in the UK).

Quality of life was a New Left issue that needs to remain: it can cover everything from climate change to local transport and amenities, culture and general human dignity.

The climate change message can be sold as a quality-of-life issue. The LNP effectively did this in Opposition, in a negative way, by arguing that measures to address climate change would impact people’s livelihoods and standard of living. This needs to be countered with the quality of life downside if nothing is done.

Local amenities are always important in politics, to all sides: where else does ‘pork-barrelling’ come from? But local amenities should be put into a quality-of-life context as part of an overall vision for people across the nation, not just locally, a vision that promises to provide social amenities and enhance equity.

The radical Left would see local amenities as a question for the local people supported by government, not decided by government (the approach to people). There is a strong case for such an approach. I recall from my working years a situation where a community was offered funding to support the health of its older residents. The community, however, said that it wanted lights on the local outdoor basketball court. The public servants, of course, had difficulty with whether that would fit within the guidelines for funding but somehow the community view prevailed and the benefits were surprising. In a community that had no street lights, the lighted basketball court attracted the young people, so that they were less likely to be wandering about the community at night causing disturbances; as it was the only lit area, adults also tended to congregate there, particularly on hot nights, which brought a level of supervision over the young people; older people also came to the area, meaning, rather than being isolated in their homes, they were also being watched over by the community. That provides a classic example of how local people, more often than not, know better what is required.

Economics is not really a key element but one that in current politics needs to be addressed, particularly given the political domination of neo-liberal economics. It is, of course, complicated by the global corporations that restrict the power and influence governments can exercise over their own economy.

While the prevailing view is that a successful economy can be used to achieve social equity and other beneficial outcomes, a more radical Left view would draw on new economic approaches required to meet the challenge of climate change and improve Gross National Happiness.

It is unrealistic to expect a prospective government to abandon the current emphasis on economics but Labor should be able to change the nature of the debate. It can give more emphasis to the social outcomes of economic policies and also the social drivers of economics. It should begin adopting measures leaning towards Gross National Happiness, even if politically it is unable to adopt them in full, and pursue the argument that real economics is about how we use and distribute our resources, including human, social and environmental, not just capital. It can claim support of manufacturing by promoting and supporting environmental and renewable energy industries — something that was done under Julia Gillard but, unfortunately, without sufficient emphasis on the positive impact for manufacturing. There are many avenues available for Labor to change the tenor of the economic debate and it should take these up.

Another aspect of the New Left approach is addressing individual issues. Many of the issues pursued by the New Left remain relevant in Australia today, perhaps more so in the face of Abbott’s attacks on welfare, workers and marginalised groups. Not all voters are interested in all issues and they may not support a full range of Left (or progressive) approaches, but if their interest can be gained for the issues they believe in part of the battle is won. It may even be possible to attract the interest of some groups who normally support the LNP, for example by addressing the issue of fracking, which is a concern to many rural communities.

The differences between the New Left and the working class and its unions were overcome to some extent because there were common issues on which they could join (although significant differences remained). Strength will come by emphasising the commonalities and networking between groups.

Change can also come if Labor links itself to some of the new social movements that may arise, just as it eventually did with the anti-Vietnam War movement. It was the Labor Left that drove that linkage and perhaps it will be again, with future links.

The Fifth Estate is part of the new people power and how we use that power is crucial for success. Progressive blogs generally support Labor and they can continue to attack Abbott and point out his mistakes but that will have only limited influence on those who are not already leaning to Labor or the Left. Some middle-of-the-road or undecided voters will see it as no more than they would expect from ‘the Left’. They may not like Abbott particularly but will react negatively to repeated negative attacks.

The worst mistake Left and progressive blogs can make, as Jeff Sparrow pointed out immediately after the election, is to attack the voters as fools, or dupes of, for example, Murdoch: ‘In any case, blaming the populace amounts to a category error. It’s the task of the Left to persuade people’, he wrote.

At the moment progressive blogs tend to be reactive to political events. They rarely come out and say ‘this is what progressives stand for’ or describe what progressives propose should be done to improve the future. The book I reviewed, Pushing our luck: ideas for Australian progress, provides a range of progressive policies for the future. There is scope for more radical prescriptions that may not succeed but, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, add to the depth of the debate. Attacking Abbott’s mistakes is a valid approach but it needs to be interspersed with more positive messages that appeal to the many different groups that are affected by his decisions — even identify groups that have been affected and write pieces about how they can be better supported under a progressive approach.

Sell a positive message and it may also attract readers who are sitting on the political fence. Include in blogs pieces on civil liberties and personal freedoms, the lack of social amenities in communities, the decline in public services, the failings of the health and education systems and the growing inequality in society. State what a progressive vision means for these issues. There are clearly different sites that already achieve aspects of this but perhaps they need to link more closely and share more comprehensively.

There is room for all aspects of the Left agenda, from progressive views to radical views.

Can they be openly debated to create a more unified Left agenda and also a meaningful but more moderate left-of-centre stance for Labor?

Of course, failing all else, we can take to the barricades again as in 1968.

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 2

A new world for the Left

The break-up of the Soviet Union, the Velvet and Orange Revolutions and the Arab Spring show that mass movements can still achieve social and political change, with or without violence. But the capacity of the State is a key factor in such circumstances — whether it has the strength or will to respond with, and maintain force until the movement is crushed and, occasionally, whether the State’s organs of force will continue to support it or go over to the protestors.

Despite its apparent failure, there was a lasting legacy from the student protests of 1968. Some of its issues, such as human rights, became mainstream issues. The New Left rose in the 1970s, a phoenix from the ashes of 1968. The New Left addressed issues rather than overt political change, an idea that had arisen among some socialist thinkers in the 1950s such as Anthony Crossland in the UK, quoted by Frank Bongiorno on ‘Inside Story’:

Ownership of capital now mattered less than who managed it. In these circumstances, the old preoccupation with nationalisation made little sense. Even greater equality could be achieved through progressive taxation and the education system, while socialists needed to turn their attention to what he called “deficiencies in social capital … ugly towns, mean streets, slum houses, overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals, understaffed mental institutions, too few homes for the aged, indeed a general, and often squalid lack of social amenities.” In an age of abundance, socialists would also necessarily give attention to what would become known as quality of life issues: the environment, culture and civil liberties, “personal freedom, happiness, and cultural endeavour: the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement.”

The Old Left and many in the working class, however, saw that as a betrayal. It led to divisions within the Left. Many of the New Left were seen as middle class and lacking understanding of the political needs of the working class. But as alluded to in Part 1 of these articles many became, in reality, a new working class — the college and university educated required by the new industrial order to keep it functioning. No longer just an elite to join the ruling class, university graduates were, as much as the old labouring working class, a new intellectual working class who were also wage slaves, their employment just as precarious.

In Australia, the radical Left was marginalised in the 1970s, including some of the more radical unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which was effectively closed down in 1976 after its successful ‘Green Bans’. While radical Left groups remained (and still remain) in existence they were small and mostly outside the mainstream political system.

Within politics, the Victorian Left of the ALP had been the most radical but in the lead-up to Whitlam’s election it was emasculated by a Federal ALP intervention. It was believed that Labor was not electable while that Old Left philosophy was still being pursued and still existed within some Labor policies. The issues then became more about the New Left agenda drawing in voters who were financially middle class (even if, as I keep repeating, many were actually the new working class). Whitlam’s withdrawal from Vietnam after he was elected removed the single biggest issue on which the radical Left had been able to garner wide support.

It was, in my opinion, the approach of the New Left that allowed mainstream left-of-centre political parties to accept the neo-liberal economic agenda that arose in the 1980s. I say this (not having read any similar analysis) because the focus on issues basically left the political system unchallenged.

It was the two oil crises of the 1970s and the associated economic downturns that contributed to the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan adopted the new economics eagerly. After the economic problems of the previous decade, many voters were also willing to accept the approach. The New Left had little to say on the systemic issues but remained vocal on specific impacts of the approach. The Old Left were marginalised or, like the miners in the UK, crushed by the State. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 some remnants of the Old Left also lost the bastion of their faith.

Hence we come to my conclusion in Part 1: that economics has come to dominate the political debate.

Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in England, and Clinton in America, as left-of-centre governments, operated in this new context — with the view that equity could not be achieved in the absence of a strong economy. The Old Left’s challenges to the whole economic system (capitalism) were but distant cries from the wilderness. The new approach was put this way by Anthony Giddens in a New Statesman article:

… the architects of New Labour offered a compelling diagnosis of why innovation in left-of-centre politics was needed, coupled with a clear policy agenda. In outline, this diagnosis ran as follows: the values of the left — solidarity, a commitment to reducing inequality and protecting the vulnerable, and a belief in the role of active government — remained intact, but the policies designed to pursue these ends had to shift radically because of profound changes going on in the wider world. Such changes included intensifying globalisation, the development of a post-industrial or service economy and, in the information age, the emergence of a more voluble citizenry, less deferential to authority figures than in the past (a process that intensified with the advent of the internet).

Part of the rationale of New Labour in the UK was that a growing economy would allow extra funding for social issues without the need to raise taxes. As in Australia, UK Labour governments had been accused of being high taxing and high spending.

Globalisation of capital, production and distribution was also reducing the influence governments had on their own economy. Many countries could no longer pressure local corporations as major decisions were being made in Tokyo, New York, Detroit and London (to which we could now add Shanghai and Seoul). International organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were additional sources of decision making that could create havoc with the political and economic choices available to governments. As Lauren Langman wrote, international corporations and agencies were increasingly dictating trade policies, tariff rates, investment laws, copy rights, labour conditions, and so on and this is continuing in more recent Free Trade Agreements.

The internet has increased the pace of globalisation. The almost instantaneous movement of capital can impact national economies with governments having little control. Information guiding corporate decisions is also now available almost in ‘real time’. A government going through its normal checks and balances and relying on cabinet decision-making processes can no longer match the speed of corporate and financial decision making. It has become a case of letting the pack run and hoping to influence how or where it runs.

Globalisation, however, has also changed social movements. The internet has created a new public space in which ideas — from the extreme right to the extreme left, and every opinion in between — can be expressed. It can also be used to organise and mobilise groups of similar views, no longer just locally or nationally but on a global scale.

The Zapatistas in Mexico in 1994 was one of the first movements to make full use of the new technology, fighting the Mexican government not just with arms but with information spread around the world, leading to the creation of solidarity groups in many countries as well as throughout Mexico. Perhaps because of the international attention they generated the Zapatistas have continued to this day to maintain autonomous areas in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The anti-globalisation movement (Peoples’ Global Action) from late in the 1990s also used the internet to create a global response and mobilised protests at WTO and G8 meetings around the world. At a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 about forty to fifty thousand protestors shut down the city centre and disrupted the first day of the meeting. Police eventually responded with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. At the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001 the total protest group was estimated between 150,000 and 200,000. The first group of about eight to ten thousand marching towards the barricades around the G8 meeting place faced an unprovoked attack with tear gas by police, which started the battle that followed. The police response was heavy-handed, drawing no distinction between the more violent Black Bloc (anarchists) and non-violent protestors. One person was killed. A school where some protestors were staying overnight was raided and people severely beaten. Like the 1968 student protests, it was met with the force and violence of the State and is now called the ‘Battle of Genoa’.

Governments, aware of these developments, have at different times attempted to create forms of internet censorship which, so far, have been resisted. Recent revelations have shown that, instead of censorship, massive monitoring of the internet has been the response of security agencies. Spying and force remain the State’s main control mechanisms and that hasn’t changed since Machiavelli’s time.

Despite the changes in the world, the vision of the Left retains its emphasis on people and equity. It rejects the purely economic approach and the economic rationalist idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which mistakenly believes that if the rich get richer everybody benefits.

It could be said that one difference between the New Left and the more radical Left is that the New Left accepts equity as a goal whereas there is still a stronger element of equality in the radical Left.

Similarly, both believe in the involvement of people but perhaps the New Left believes more in terms of social movements to influence politics whereas the more radical Left still believes in control by the people, that is, the people being in a position to make decisions and not merely influence them.

The New Left tends to be more about human rights and the rights of marginalised groups and minorities. The Old Left often had a more communal focus, with its emphasis on collectives, cooperatives and so on. I believe there is still space for both, or at least space for that debate to continue as new economic models are required for the future.

The New Left focuses on issues of equity and quality of life. The more radical Left still yearns for political change but with the collapse of communist governments has been less certain of the approach until the success of the Zapatistas. The democratic socialism of Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Ecuador, was also influenced by, among other factors, the Zapatistas. It could be said now that ‘people power’ is back on the agenda.

Some of the more radical Left movements arising in the 1980s had focused on ‘autonomy’, rejecting any political system and creating loosely woven local groups. They did not believe in creating political networks and so also tended to operate independently. The main difference with earlier Left groups was that they gave much greater emphasis to individual self-determination: they rejected the New Left’s emphasis on social issues just as the New Left rejected their individualism.

How the Left should now approach economics is an open question. Other than the three South American countries adopting forms of twenty-first century democratic socialism, capitalism now dominates, including in the former Soviet Union and China (even if in China it is a form of State-directed capitalism). It has become more difficult for the Left to point to any functioning alternative economic system. The effort to challenge the economic system, if it exists at all, often aims more at ‘capitalism with a heart’ rather than open attacks on the system.

One avenue that may lead to consideration of alternative economic systems is in the debate about climate change, although at present much of that debate still takes place in the context of a capitalist market system.

There is, however, also a movement considering ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measurement of economic progress, an approach adopted by Bhutan in 1972. This is not a crack-pot movement but includes academics, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and the United Nations. Even the OECD has issued guidelines on measuring well-being. The penny is beginning to drop that our current economic system, which relies on perpetual growth, cannot continue indefinitely into the future. This provides fertile ground for a new approach to economics by the progressive and Left elements in politics.

An agenda for the Left in this new world needs to draw on elements from all of these: some aspects from the radical Left, some from the New Left, and some from the social movements that are arising around climate change, anti-globalisation and the GNH approach.

The Labor Party in Australia should also draw on these, although in the chase for government the more moderate positions are likely to prevail. That does not mean, however, that more radical positions should not be debated, particularly on Left-leaning websites and even among Labor party members. As I have pointed out in these articles, a radical stance may not achieve all that it intends but it can create small shifts along the path. Human rights may not have become a dominant mainstream issue without the student revolt of 1968!

Part 3 to follow: Gross National Happiness, people power and Labor

What do you think?

Whither the Left: Part 1

A History Lesson: the revolutionary period

My politics was moulded in the late 1960s, a great time in my view for the Left. The ’60s (into the ’70s) was dominated by revolutionary and liberation movements around the world — an era when Africa was completing its decolonisation. For want of a better phrase, I was an ‘armchair revolutionary’, although I was active in sit-ins and demonstrations. I drew my inspiration from the Black and Celtic liberation movements: the ANC in South Africa, the Black Panthers in America, the IRA in Ireland, ETA in the Basque country and the MAC in Wales (as tiny as that last group was). I accepted that violence was a legitimate means to counter the violence of the State. Yes, the ‘terrorism’ of the time but as was said in 1975 (admittedly in a novel) ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. (I would like to point out that the ‘terrorists’ of the time usually tried to avoid or minimise civilian casualties, unlike current terrorists who specifically target civilians.)

From 1960, Africa’s process of decolonisation proceeded rapidly. Seventeen countries gained independence in 1960, a further fifteen in the rest of the decade, and nine in the 1970s, but the process was not easy. Decolonisation proceeded on the basis of boundaries that had been imposed by the colonial powers, often simply lines drawn on maps in European capitals that bore little relationship to the different peoples who made up the ‘nations’ within those borders. In 1967, for example, the Biafran war commenced as the people of eastern Nigeria sought their own independence (I supported Biafran freedom) and in 1976 Western Sahara was granted independence but was immediately seized by neighbouring Morocco (which has led to a continuing conflict).

In South Africa apartheid was in full flow, leading to the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 in which 69 died and 180 were seriously wounded. The following year MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed by Nelson Mandela as the militant arm of the ANC. When passive resistance was met by violence, some in the ANC thought that a violent response was the only answer. Initially the MK’s targets were infrastructure and government installations which led to the charge of sabotage against Mandela at his trial in 1964.

In America, the civil rights movement had been campaigning since the 1950s (the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955). The first Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964, but civil rights demonstrations were still being attacked by state troopers in 1965; Malcolm X was also assassinated that year. The Black Panthers formed in 1966. Race riots in Newark and Detroit in 1967 each began as a result of police actions in Black areas. As well as police, the National Guard responded in both instances: in Newark after six days of rioting 23 people were dead, 725 injured and almost 1,500 arrested; in Detroit from five days of rioting, 43 died, 1,189 were injured and over 7,000 arrested. These were but a curtain-raiser to the massive rioting across America following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr in April 1968.

In Ireland, the official IRA was in decline and would be effectively replaced by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969; in Wales, MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, ‘Movement for the Defence of Wales’) carried out a number of bombings between 1963 and 1969; and in the Basque country ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ‘Homeland and Liberty’) began its bank robberies and shootings during the 1960s and became more active in the 1970s.

Students had already played a major part in the civil rights movement in America. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 but from 1965 adopted a more radical stance drawing on the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Even in Biafra, it was university lecturers and their students who formed the basis of the Biafran army. While many of these movements had their genesis in the previous years it came to a head in 1968 with student risings around the world.

In Mexico, student unrest began in 1967 and escalated prior to the 1968 Olympic Games: one of their key demands was that more should be spent on domestic needs rather than the Games. The government response, however, led to bigger demonstrations and student strikes culminating in police occupying two tertiary institutions in September 1968. About 14,000 people, mostly students, rallied at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (‘Plaza of the Three Cultures’) in the suburb of Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 2 October. The police and the army moved violently on the rally: although the number of deaths has never been confirmed, it has been estimated at anything between 40 and 400. It became known as the ‘Night of Sorrow’.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro students rioted for two weeks in March after a student had been killed by police. Three more students died and schools were closed and Rio occupied by the army. Riots spread throughout the country and continued until 1,240 students were arrested in Sao Paulo in October.

In Argentina, 23 students were shot dead in May 1968, and 400 students occupied the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires on June 12 in protest at the government's repression. Exactly three months later, a student strike in the capital erupted into a bloody clash with police.

In Japan in June of 1968 students occupied the medical school of the Todai University in Tokyo — considered the most prestigious in Japan. The occupation was not lifted until January 1969 after a three-day battle with police.

In Italy, during 1968 most universities were taken over by students and run by democratic assemblies. This trend started at Turin in 1967, spread to Rome early in 1968 and then, as the student revolt in France revealed itself, spread with sit-ins and student strikes and increasing contact with workers’ movements, culminating in a strike two million strong in 1969.

In West Germany, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) was the dominant radical student organisation. A student was killed by police in a demonstration against a visit by the Shan of Iran in June 1967: 20,000 marched in his funeral procession. At the annual Easter peace march in 1968, 300,000 marched in the midst of upheaval caused by the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke (‘Red Rudi’), one of the principal spokespersons of SDS. Further demonstrations followed the shooting and the Bundestag (parliament) was preparing emergency laws to control the social unrest. That itself led to larger demonstrations and strikes against the laws. On the day the emergency laws were passed, 20 May, demonstrations blocked traffic in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Hanover; in Munich, the tracks at the central train station were blocked by thousands of people; and in Bonn, 100,000 marched in protest. The Left in Germany took a more militant direction in the form of the Red Army Faction and the June 2 Movement but as a mass movement it began to decline after internal disagreements and a fear of ‘Left fascism’.

In France, the disturbances began at Nanterre University in March, initially about university issues. It was the heavy-handed response of closing the university in May that helped trigger the wider revolt. The violent police response to the subsequent student street marches and barricades brought support from workers and a General Strike was called for 13 May. On that day 800,000 to 1,000,000 demonstrators marched in Paris. Having earlier closed the Sorbonne in response to student protests, the Government reopened it after the 13 May strike, but it was then occupied by students and declared an ‘autonomous people’s university’. Workers also began occupying their factories — managers were locked in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. By 20 May 1968, ten million workers were on strike. Eventually De Gaulle responded by calling a new election and threatening a state of emergency — 20,000 troops were being prepared for the occupation of Paris. Workers won improved pay and conditions and drifted back to work. Police retook the Sorbonne on 6 June. Student demonstrations were banned on 12 June. De Gaulle overwhelmingly won the election later in June and a bill reforming higher education was passed soon after.

In addition to the above examples, student unrest occurred in countries as diverse as Uruguay, Spain, Poland, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

It was also the year of the birth of ‘liberation theology’ within the Catholic Church in South and Central America.

It had been American students who pioneered the ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupation’ (of buildings), starting at Berkeley in 1964. In 1968 student unrest continued in America, such as the ‘occupation’ at Columbia University, protesting the university’s involvement in weapons research and also local racism. Police broke up the sit-in in a five-hour battle in which 150 people were injured and 700 arrested. This, and events such as the Chicago Democratic Convention riot in August, led to the radicalisation of the student movement and some militant groups, for instance ‘The Weathermen’, were formed.

American student unrest, however, actually reached a peak two years later in May 1970.

The 1970 student protests were widespread. They started in April at Yale University with support for the Black Panthers, demanding the release of Bobby Seale, but at the end of the month Nixon announced the invasion (called an ‘incursion’) of Cambodia and the two issues melded. By mid-May more than 500 colleges and universities were directly involved with strikes and protests and by the end of May the number climbed to about 900. George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left, described the response to the May demonstrations like this:

During May, over 100 people were killed or wounded by the guns of the forces of law and order. Besides the four murdered and ten wounded at Kent State on May 4 and the two people murdered and twelve wounded at Jackson State on May 14, six black people were murdered and twenty were wounded in Augusta, Georgia; eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico; twenty people suffered shotgun wounds at Ohio State; and twelve students were wounded by birdshot in Buffalo.

The ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia was an event of a somewhat different kind. Student protests against the leadership of Novotny in October 1967 contributed to his replacement by Dubček in January 1968. In response to Dubček’s reforms the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on 20 August. Students were again involved in the passive resistance that followed. They avoided confrontation (even the Government ordered the small Czechoslovakian army to remain in its barracks) so as to give no excuse to the Soviets for military action. Dubček was taken to Moscow on 23–26 August and agreed to water down the reforms in return for remaining in power, but resistance continued until Dubček was replaced in April 1969 and the new government cracked down on protests.

Why were students at the forefront of these protests and demonstrations? In simple terms, they were youthful, without the responsibilities that may have held back their elders and they were partially segregated on campuses which gave them a critical mass for action. And in an important sense they were continuing the struggles of the working class. They were not really a new middle class, as some have claimed, but an emerging new working class. Following WW2, intellect was being commodified and added to the production process.

The role of college training is increasingly important for the functioning of industrialized societies. Large-scale industry needs more technicians within its offices to coordinate space-age production, more managers to administer it, more psychologists to find ways of keeping employees working, advertising specialists to market the goods of the new consumer society and sociologists to maintain the system's overall capacity to function.

The radical students and those who followed are often referred to as the New Left, but what was new about it? It was inspired by the writings of people like Frantz Fanon and the speeches of Malcolm X; it utilised Che Guevara’s theories of guerrilla warfare, not to wage war, but to organise in new ways; it rejected not only the capitalist system but the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Communism. And although there were political elements to their demands, many demands questioned basic social assumptions of the time —‘the cultural conformity of consumerism, the oppression of women, discrimination against minorities, and the segregation of youth.’ Human rights and the human condition were often central to or underpinned their demands. The students challenged governments for not living up to social ideals.

The movements were not successful, owing primarily to massive repression by the State — the number of deaths throughout the world testify to that. The workers who were involved often returned to normal work as unions reasserted control by negotiating improved wages and conditions.

The integrity of the New Left's vision and the high hopes of movement participants were some of its chief strengths, but with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the failure of the near-revolution in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pre-Olympic massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City, and the election of Richard Nixon, the hopes of the New Left were dashed against the hard rocks of reality.

Another crucial factor in their failure was internal dissent, as debate centred on the way forward. As the State reaction was violent some leaned towards responding in kind. But many women in the movement turned away from that, seeing it as a ‘macho militaristic’ stance. There were internal inconsistencies within the movements.

The world has changed. Since then there have been successful people’s movements such as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine but these occurred in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union when the respective States were less willing to intervene with force.

At a political level, thanks largely to Thatcher and Reagan, economics has come to dominate political discourse. The old idea of an equitable society has been subsumed, even within centre-left political parties, by the idea that equity cannot be achieved without a strong economy. There is some validity to that but the debate has moved too far in that direction. Those espousing social change are drowned out by the economists.

We also suffer from the fact that many revolutionary movements these days are in the Middle East among Islamic societies and they tend to be right-wing, especially with the fervour of the Islamic fundamentalists – that does not provide any sustenance to the Left in the West. (Although I note as a late addition to this piece that the Ukraine is at it again and more power to them!)

So where does that leave us? Part 2 to follow – A New World for the Left.

What do you think?

The Xmas attack on climate change

Human-caused global warming is the single biggest threat facing humanity today. Solving it requires a rapid worldwide transition to renewable energy economies, leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. Preserving a habitable climate depends on decisions made in this decade. At less than 1°C of global warming, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives, including worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires. Under current policies we’re headed for 4°C warming or greater, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. Civilization has flourished over the past 10,000 years because a stable climate sustained us (global temperature varied but less than 1°C). An increase of 4°C would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt. 

Yet over the Xmas break while you were distracted with seasonal festivities and summer sports, the Abbott government quietly progressed policies which will exacerbate the problem, following a long-standing tradition of avoiding scrutiny by making announcements during the holidays.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt (who would be more appropriately titled the Anti-Environment Minister) approved Adani’s proposed coal export terminal, and dredging for two other new terminals, at the (appropriately named) Abbot Point. Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port and open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would export enough coal to produce potentially 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, almost twice Australias domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries. Hunt also approved four other fossil fuel projects: an Arrow coal seam gas processing facility on Curtis Island; a transmission pipeline to supply it; billionaire politician Clive Palmer’s China First mine; and the Surat Gas Expansion (the last two on the Friday before Xmas).

They joined two previously approved Galilee coal projects: GVK’s and Hancock’s Kevin’s Corner mine (approved in November), and GVK’s Alpha mine (approved by the former government in 2012).

In his press release approving the Abbot Point expansion, Hunt had the gall to say: ‘Today I am announcing new plans to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. His plan consists of ensuring dredging occurs close to the shore — never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering humans. The approval process ignores climate change because emissions from burning the coal will occur overseas. But denying responsibility for those emissions is like believing we won’t be harmed by cigarettes we sell to a chain-smoker in our lounge room.

The industry department released an energy issues paper early in December. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has accused the former Labor government of having ‘bungled its Energy White Paper process [by introducing] the carbon tax and mining tax, and new layers of regulation and red tape’ — code for saying it wasn’t fossil-fuel-friendly enough. Macfarlane’s issues paper outlines the Government’s energy policy priorities: fossil fuel industry growth, productivity, environmental deregulation, and marketing fossil fuels to the public. It foreshadows possible consideration of investing in nuclear power and dividing up the Renewable Energy Target (RET) into bands including emerging technologies, reinforcing the Government’s incorrect belief that existing renewables cannot provide 100% of Australia’s energy. It says the major contributor to electricity prices, network costs, will continue rising, revealing the Government’s hypocrisy in complaining about the relatively small price impacts of climate policies. Instead we should invest in energy efficiency and renewables, where prices are falling rapidly as technologies and scale improve. It seems the Government really wants higher electricity prices because that means greater profits for fossil-fuel-fired generators.

Also in December, the prime minister’s department released terms of reference for an agriculture white paper which failed to mention climate change. It is not clear how the Government expects Australian agriculture to prosper in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions and coal seam gas development promoted by the Energy White Paper. The Government has since announced a drought policy which also fails to account for climate change.

The Government’s budget update, MYEFO, cut funding to the Australian network of Environmental Defender’s Offices (which provide expert legal advice on environmental issues and are thus opposed by mining companies) and the Energy Efficiencies Opportunities Program (which actually raises public income, but is opposed by generators because reducing energy demand lowers their profits). There were no cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. The document contained no mention of the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of the climate Direct Action Plan. The only fully costed climate policy was $800 million over five years for the ‘Green Army’, which would employ 15,000 young people to take feel-good actions like re-vegetation and clearing rivers, which fail to target the main cause of global warming, the fossil fuel industry.

In an interview, Tony Abbott indicated the RET may be scrapped or weakened by an upcoming review, claiming it causes ‘pretty significant price pressures’ and he would consult with his business advisor Maurice Newman, a climate change denier who opposes the RET. In fact, the RET has reduced wholesale electricity prices: a 2012 review found the cost impact of the RET was minuscule, and the major factor in rising retail electricity prices was over-investment in poles and wires. Again, Abbott’s real concern is that the RET reduces profits for coal-fired generators. The RET review will be conducted by a panel including several climate change deniers. It looks like history is going to repeat itself: the last time the Liberals were in government, they colluded with the fossil fuel industry to sabotage their own Renewable Energy Target.

In the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks, Australia offered to agree to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in exchange for greater access to sugar markets, while Trade Minister Andrew Robb announced a Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement also including ISDS. Investor-state dispute settlement would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits in an unaccountable tribunal with unlimited powers. Any effective climate policy would threaten corporate profits, and hence could be overturned through ISDS. This represents an attack on national sovereignty and democracy at a time when we need accountable government more than ever.

The Government has refused to publically release the text of either agreement, even after the Senate passed a Greens motion ordering them to release the text of the TPP.* Robb says ISDS will not apply to ‘public welfare, health and the environment’, but similar safeguards in the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement failed to be implemented. It looks like free trade talks are being used as an opaque avenue to sneak through policies advancing corporate power which can’t be achieved through democratic domestic political processes. An Australia Institute survey found that only 11% of Australians know about the TPP, almost 90% want the details of such deals made public before they are signed, and 75% oppose allowing American corporations to sue Australian governments.

At the Council of Australian Governments, all states and territories signed up to take on responsibility for federal environmental assessment powers within 12 months (including Labor governments, despite federal Labor claiming to now oppose the policy). This made official what began in September as a secret agreement between the federal Government and the coal state Queensland. State governments are notoriously pro-development: that is, even more so than federal ones. As Greens Senator Larissa Waters pointed out, "If states had this power in the past, the Franklin River would be dammed, cattle would be grazing in the Alpine National Park and there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef.’

In Parliament, Labor helped the Government pass legislation through the lower house preventing Australians from legally challenging projects approved before 1 January 2014 on environmental grounds. (The bill is now before the Senate.) This effectively allowed the Government to dodge accountability for ignoring expert advice on the environmental impacts of any project approved prior to 2014.

Attorney-General George Brandis appointed the IPA’s Tim Wilson as ‘freedom commissioner’ at the Human Rights Commission (which the IPA want abolished). Unlike other commissioners, Wilson did not have to apply for the job; Brandis just rang him up and asked if he wanted it. Wilson argues he is qualified because ‘Private property is in itself a human right, and one of the things that I have always focused on is free trade which is ultimately an extension of private property’ and suggests that critics of his appointment ‘look at human rights as some sort of legal gift from government’. Wilson’s comment on Occupy Melbourne was ‘send in the water cannons‘. Brandis also announced a law reform inquirywhich will focus largely on the supposed infringement of corporate rights by environmental regulations. Destroying the environment we depend on apparently does not count as an infringement of freedom.

Finally, on 20 December the environment department released the Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper, which essentially remains the ineffective voluntary climate policy the government took to the election. Also announced was an Expert Reference Group to advise on the Fund’s design, whose members are almost all corporate lobbyists who oppose strong climate action. And of course Abbott continues to push legislation to repeal the carbon price, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Climate Change Authority.

With no remaining legal avenue to challenge approved mining projects, protestors blocked construction at Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine in NSW. Simon Copland from 350.org: wrote about it afterwards:

It is unfortunate that it has to come to this, but we have no choice. When the Government fails, as it has so drastically with this mine and with so many other coal and gas mines around the country, it is up for [sic] the community to take a stand.

This government is only a few months old and already its level of secrecy, deception, misdirection, and irresponsibility on climate policy is staggering. Abbott says, ‘Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics.’ But the game our future depends on is being played out in Canberra, as far from a public audience as Tony Abbott can get.

* The details of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) were finally released on 17 February and it does include the ISDS.

Green parasols

'You have come down here to see an election - eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?' The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.

'And what is the likely result of the contest?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

'Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,' replied the little man. 'Fizkin's people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.'

'In the coach-house!' said Mr. Pickwick, much astonished.

'They keep 'em locked up there till they want 'em,' resumed the little man. 'The effect, you see, is to prevent our getting at them. Even if we could, it would be of no use, for they keep them very drunk on purpose. Smart fellow, Fizkin's agent very smart fellow indeed.

'We are pretty confident, though,' said Mr. Perker, his voice sinking almost to a whisper. 'We had a little tea-party here last night, five-and-forty women, my dear sir and gave every one of 'em a green parasol when she went away. Five and-forty green parasols, at 7/6d each. Got the votes of all their husbands, and half their brothers. You can't walk half a dozen yards up the street, without encountering half a dozen green parasols.'

'Is everything ready?' said Samuel Slumkey to Mr. Perker.

'Nothing has been left undone, my dear sir. There are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you're to pat on the head, and ask the age of. Be particular about the children, my dear sir. It always has a great effect, that sort of thing.

'And perhaps if you could manage to kiss one of 'em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd. I think it would make you very popular.'

[from Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, the Eatanswill election]

Well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh? Oh the details of elections may vary a little from 1827, but the same tactics apply — get the voters stupefied, lock them in to voting for you, carry out some mindless stunts for the media. Gain power by whatever it takes. But, whatever you do, don't mention policies.

The way it worked for the conservatives (‘Liberals’ is one of the most misleading political names in history) in Australia in 2013 was very similar.

Before the election they engage endlessly in stunts for tv cameras, in fancy dress they lob into some known-to-be-friendly site, hold something mindlessly for the cameras, and repeat, yet again, one of a small set of focus-group-tested three word slogans.

The slogans relate to one or two policies that can be made to seem appealing to people stupefied by a diet of commercial television and News Ltd papers. Reducing electricity prices by dropping a price on carbon (‘axe the tax’), punishing brown-skinned desperate asylum seekers (‘stop the boats’), creating a Budget surplus (‘cut the waste’).

Just two other things they need to do. Claim that, apart from those few policies, in every other respect they and the (then) government are as one. Promise, implicitly or explicitly, that all the popular programs the government introduced in education, health, social services, environment, foreign affairs, workplace relations, and so on, will be retained. That in fact a change in government will be, with the exception of those popular slogan-based promises, almost un-noticeable. But better of course, because of their other claim — of competence, experience, professionalism, a ‘grown-up government’.

Home and hosed, with a lot of help from their media friends who promote slogans and stunts and grown-upness, and we have a brand new day.

After the election, while they will indeed aim to get rid of the carbon price and screw the refugees, it will suddenly appear that there were dozens, hundreds of policies never mentioned in the election campaign which are of extreme urgency. Beginning immediately, all climate change and renewable energy programs are slashed or marked for slashing; the Gonski school funding plan rejected; disability schemes abandoned; work place relations marked for big change; Medicare co-payments flagged; Australia Post set up for privatising; environmentally damaging projects approved; racial vilification laws removed; aged care damaged; NBN dismantled; ABC attacked and threatened; Indonesia insulted and her borders breached; Same Sex marriage challenged in the High Court; Aboriginal programs combined and cut, and so on. Commissions and Reviews are established to rewrite the national curriculum with a right wing and religious bias, and to slash all government spending, notably social services.

That is, just as in Eatanswill, the election of 2013 (like that of 1996) was marked by a total disconnect between a campaign aimed at winning power, and the subsequent use of that power. John Howard established the principle with his ‘core and non-core promises’, a distinction unmentioned before the election, and Abbott has continued with his proposition that only things he read out from a piece of paper, not things he said in an interview, carried any implication of reality.

The approach the Right has adopted is this: their ideology, in reality, is unpalatable to all except a tiny number of very rich people plus the small audiences of rabid shock jocks — that is, if they told people up front, during an election campaign, what they actually intended to do they could never win.

So they don't. They find a couple of policies that their rich supporters will like and which can be made popular to the masses with the help of that section of rich people who own media outlets. They engage in baby-kissing type stunts. They promise green parasols to those who vote for them. The media run interference by destabilising, attacking, delegitimising, the existing government. At the same time they totally cover-up the real ideology and agenda of the Opposition. With no reason not to vote for them, and with the green parasol tantalisingly in reach, sufficient votes are moved to get the conservative party into power.

At which point, rather like aliens (say the Slitheen of Dr Who) who rip away a human mask to reveal their true nature, the Liberal Party goes to work, as outlined above. Fake enquiries staffed by business mates will be set up to provide an alibi for the slashing and burning of the economy to disadvantage the poor and reward the rich. But generally, these days, with an acquiescent media and journalism for the rich, even the old ‘budget in worse shape than we thought’ lie isn't really needed. They can proceed quite confidently to do many things they never mentioned in the campaign, and the opposite of some things they did, knowing that the media will point out neither surprises nor contradictions. Oh, and it will turn out, so sorry, budget problems you understand, that the green parasols will only go to the rich who already have parasols of other colours.

But, you say, all very well, and a lot of damage can be done in the first term of office of a government. But obviously, after three, four, five years, depending, these vandals, masks long since ripped away, will have to face the voters who will be ready, surely, to vote early and vote often, in a fury, in order to wipe these conservatives from the political map? Er, no, sorry.

For several reasons it is very common for these conservative governments to be voted back in for several terms of office. First, come election time, they will have the advantages of incumbency — control (in Australia) of election timing, of public service, of ‘public information’ advertising, of spending, of media appearances. They can in fact go through the whole kissing babies/green parasols routine more effectively this time, and the media will keep voters stupefied; will fail to talk about the record of the government and its implications, and the public, if not reminded, forgets; will set the shock jocks to work damning the Opposition and praising the government.

Generally speaking all of that is enough to get even the most vicious and destructive government at least a second term, probably more. But these people, and their promoters, don't take chances — far too much money is at stake, far too many glittering prizes for political and business winners. So to make sure it is not uncommon to bring out the big guns. From time immemorial electoral success for an incumbent government can be guaranteed by the Falkland Gambit — rumours of war, border incidents, and, at times, the full monty, actual war, preferably, indeed invariably, against a weaker opponent.

And so Thatcher had her Falklands, Bush had his Iraq, John Howard had his Tampa incident, then Iraq, and so on.

Tony Abbott has already begun, astonishingly early, to irritate Indonesia with border incursions, and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, Three Star General on board. Probably no coincidence given that he has gone in much harder and earlier (than, say, John Howard) in his program to turn Australia into a neo-con paradise, starting by changing 2013 to Year 0. The only question remaining is where will he find a weaker opponent for the Falkland Gambit in 2016. Make no mistake, the billionaire backers of Tony Abbott have absolutely no intention of losing him after one term.

Oh, and also get ready in 2016 for more green parasols like Paid Parental Leave. And plenty of baby kissing by a man wearing rather odd costumes and head gear!

The thought thief

Two events occurred in January that have alarming parallels.

The Book Thief was released in cinemas across the country and Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced yet another review of the school curriculum.

The movie is based on the book by Australian author Markus Zusak. A synopsis of the story is here. While one would assume that there is some literary licence in both the book and movie, the burning of books in 1930’s Germany is fact. The ‘book burning’ was a staged event to remove ‘unGerman spirit’ from society and is discussed on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades ‘against the un-German spirit’. The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and ‘unwanted’ books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called ‘fire oaths’. In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: ‘No to decadence and moral corruption!’ Goebbels enjoined the crowd. ‘Yes to decency and morality in family and state!’

It is well documented that the Nazi Party was very successful in modifying the mindset of the German population in the lead up to World War 2. Communication in the ‘teen years of the 21st century is considerably better than the 1930’s with the internet and faster travel across the globe allowing people from different countries and cultures to meet and interact on a regular basis. It is a common occurrence for events around the world to be reported as they occur in 2014 due to the use of satellites and the internet — Goebbels' practices would need to be updated if they were attempted now.

While some countries do attempt to restrict the use of common electronic communication technologies, the results are variable. For example, North Korea severely restricts use of the internet but there is a domestic communications framework and some links to the ‘outside world’. There was considerable reporting of Dennis Rodman’s recent basketball tour of North Korea — including singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean Leader (here is a link in case you want to relive this momentous event). North Korea also thought it was a good practice to remove all public references to Kim Jong-un’s uncle who was recently executed for a crime against the state. Unfortunately, the alterations were discovered and the story reported worldwide in The Guardian.

If book burning and restriction of communications won’t work to alter the mindset of a population in 2014, what will?

Stockholm syndrome’, sometimes referred to as ‘capture bonding’, relates to a situation from which people cannot escape and may bond with their abductors or abusers and demonstrates one intriguing way that mindsets can be changed. It was first described after some bank staff were held captive in a bank vault for six days in 1973 while the criminals were negotiating with police. The bank staff identified with the criminals and refused assistance to leave the vault, as well as defending them once the stand-off had ended. In a similar fashion, you could argue that the mass displays of ‘affection’ for Kim Jong-un and similar leaders that do get reported in Australia demonstrate some level of acceptance of the status quo despite documented hardships, such as lack of food or shelter; and it could also be said of the German population of the 1930’s when it accepted the need to ‘cleanse their culture’.

Education is another way. School age people are impressionable as they rely on their ‘teachers’, both inside and outside the classroom, to guide them. Harry Chapin (a US singer/songwriter who tragically died in a car accident in the 1980’s) wrote a song about altering the mindset of school children.

In announcing the curriculum review Christopher Pyne said he wanted the national school curriculum to have a greater focus on the benefits of Western civilization.

Also, in an opinion piece written for The Australian (reported in Fairfax media outlets) Pyne wrote:

concerns have been raised about the history curriculum not recognising the legacy of Western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day.

Australia’s national curriculum is developed and written by an organisation called ACARA (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority). The body is funded by government and is also responsible for the national annual NAPLAN testing and ‘My School’ website. Professor Barry McGaw AO is Chair of the ACARA Board, Mr Tony Mackay is the Deputy Chair, and it has 11 other members, representing the Australian Government and all education systems (independent, government and Catholic) across states and territories.

Yet Christopher Pyne, an MP since 1993 — he was 25 at the time — and prior to that a ‘practicing solicitor … and senior member of the Liberal Party’ tells us that ‘ACARA is ‘not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education'. Pyne obviously thinks he knows better than an eminent panel of educational professionals.

Christopher Pyne’s announced review of the Australian national curriculum will be headed by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. Donnelly was Chief of Staff in 2004 for Kevin Andrews (of ‘Workchoices’ and recently ‘the $200 for marriage counselling’ fame). They each come to the review with strong pre-existing views on what should be done.

Donnelly has stated:

In recent years several education groups have sought to introduce gay, lesbian and transgender studies in the classroom and to convince schoolchildren that such practices, along with being heterosexual, are simply lifestyle choices open to all.
Multiculturalism is based on the mistaken belief that all cultures are of equal worth and that it is unfair to discriminate and argue that some practices are wrong.

Perhaps of more concern is Donnelly’s work in designing a school program to discuss peer pressure and decision making funded by Phillip Morris — the manufacturers of a number of cigarette brands. Donnelly is also on the record as saying that Australian education has become too secular, and the Federation's Judeo-Christian heritage should be better reflected in the curriculum.

Wiltshire has described the current educational funding system as a failure and suggested in 2010 that the independent politicians holding the balance of power should support the Coalition.

Pyne acknowledges that not everyone will be pleased with his choice of who will review the curriculum, but insists it will be ‘objective and fair’.

‘It's not possible to appoint anybody to review the national curriculum who doesn't have a view on education,’ Mr Pyne said.

‘The important point is to appoint people who are going to bring an intelligent and considered approach to the review, and both Kevin and Ken have a long history and experience in education.’

Various state education ministers, teaching unions, other political parties, as well as at least one state’s Parents & Citizens association, have rubbished this claim. The former Tasmanian Education Minister (a member of the Greens) stated: 'The Abbott government’s overhaul of the national curriculum appears to be a ‘brainwashing and propaganda mission'. 
It is said that the sum total of human knowledge increased exponentially in the 20th century, and continues to do so. As evidence, your car, provided it is not an ‘old banger’, has more computing power than NASA relied on to get Apollo 11 to the moon.

In 2008 all Australian education ministers agreed to the ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’. It commits to supporting ‘all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’. This document provides the principles and scope for the development of the Australian Curriculum. Many educational institutions promote and pride themselves on producing ‘successful lifetime learners’ as a result. The reality, with human knowledge increasing at an exponential rate (as the comparison between Apollo 11 and the modern car demonstrates), is that no one person can ‘know everything’. Or as Michael Legrand said: ‘The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.’

Book burning and the imposition of restrictions on the use of online material doesn’t work. If books are removed from circulation, the book is either available for sale from another jurisdiction or can be accessed online. Australians apparently excel in the breach of copyright laws through downloading entertainment from the internet: it stands to reason that if people are being encouraged to become ‘successful learners’ and ‘active and informed citizens’, as planned by Australia’s education ministers in 2008, they will be skilled in the tools and knowledge necessary to discover for themselves information that they are interested in or need to know. A part of this process will be the ability to determine if the information is reliable.

So how does a government develop a compliant citizenship that believes the myth of the superiority of ‘western civilisation’ or the ‘evil’ of alternative lifestyle choices? It withholds teaching of the ability to discover and assess information that is relevant to the individual while the individual is impressionable. The Jesuit premise of ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ has been tested by the 7 Up English television series since 1964 and, admittedly from a small sample, seems to have some basis of truth. (Australia’s current prime minister received a Jesuit education.)

While the concept of reminding our school students of Australian historical events rather than the date Columbus ‘discovered’ America has merit, should we be concerned about the deliberate choice of two conservative ‘experts’ to conduct a review of the educational system? Of course we should! While Pyne, Donnelly and Wiltshire are entitled to their opinions, where are the differing opinions that would promote balance and integrity in this proposed review?

Why the urgency to replace portions of a national curriculum that is so new parts of it have not yet been implemented?

How do we ensure that our children have the ability to think critically rather than just absorb (sometimes useless) information as was done in the past?

How do we justify to our children that a government minister with a clearly ideological agenda sidelines the body set up to manage a national curriculum?

What do you think?

Do you not remember the Twentieth Century?

Dear Mr Abbott,

You promised to take us back to the halcyon days of your Liberal Prime Ministerial predecessor John Howard and, like him, hoped to put sport rather than politics back on the front pages. I fear, however, your time machine has overshot the mark and we are heading rapidly towards the 1800s.

Do you not remember the Twentieth Century?

First: On 15 September 2013 you proudly announced your new Cabinet — with one woman!

Do you not recall Australia gave women the vote in federal elections in 1902 after campaigning by Australian suffragettes such as Vida Goldstein, Mary Lee, Henrietta Dugdale and Rose Scott? If not those names, you must remember Edith Cowan who went on to become the first female elected to any Australian parliament.

Women, however, did not get the vote quite so easily in the United Kingdom. Do you not recall Mrs Pankhurst and the British suffragettes who, from 1908, had to resort to militant tactics to achieve the vote?

Do you not remember Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and the ‘women’s lib’ movement (or second wave of feminism) of the 1960s and 1970s; the creation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby early in 1972; or the equal pay case of 1969; or women being allowed to drink in public bars and breaking down other social barriers?

Do you not remember that women have already fought much of this battle? Perhaps not, for they still have to fight to get into your Cabinet.

Second: During the 2013 election campaign you treated Indonesia like a colony, saying what Australia would do to protect its sovereignty and its borders from the evils of people smuggling without first asking Indonesia about your approaches that encroached on its sovereignty.

When in Opposition you attacked human rights in Malaysia and after you were elected were forced to apologise.

Did you not remember that south-east Asia was decolonised after WWII, that Indonesia first declared independence on 17 August 1945 but the Dutch tried to return? Do you not recall how from March 1946 Australia supported Indonesia’s independence and played a significant role in having the United Nations involved in negotiating an agreement leading to the Dutch withdrawal in 1949? Perhaps you would prefer not to, for that was a Labor government.

Did you not recall that Malaysia became completely independent from the UK in 1957 after a few years as a self-governing protectorate; that Australia sent military personnel to support Malaysia during ‘the emergency’ in the 1950s?

Why did you think that you could speak about our Asian neighbours in the way you did? Was it simply that you did not remember the Twentieth Century?

Third: You and your Ministers have demonised refugees arriving by boat, now making it official policy that they be referred to as ‘illegal arrivals’, despite Australia being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Admittedly we did sign it during the Twentieth Century, which may make it somewhat difficult for you to recall.

Do you not remember that we are a nation of migrants and refugees? From what I can find out, you may have arrived as a ‘£10 Pom’. Was your family seeking a better life when they left England behind? What is it that the boat people say — oh, yes, they are looking for a better life? It does have an air of familiarity that you should recall. Or in overlooking the Twentieth Century have you also forgotten your own arrival?

Have you forgotten that people escaping war-torn Europe after World War II were welcomed — about 171,000 arrived between 1947 and 1954 under the migration program operating at the time. In fact, in those years the total net overseas migration was about 680,000. So we not only sponsored migrants, we welcomed four times as many.

One of your Liberal predecessors, Malcolm Fraser, supported the Vietnamese boat people who came to Australia in the mid-1970s. He sent migration officials to the refugee camps to speed the processing of claims and, you may be surprised to learn, that kept down the number arriving by boat — 2,059 boat arrivals between 1976 and 1981 compared to total net migration of 442,000, including about 56,000 Vietnamese who applied as refugees. Not a bad plan in my opinion.

Perhaps it is something you could consider. But then again, I imagine you don’t like to recall that part of the Twentieth Century because Fraser resigned from your Party when he saw how refugees were being treated.

Fourth: You have hidden from and, indeed, run away from interviews and gagged your Ministers.

Do you not remember that, after an initial decision in 1992, the High Court confirmed in 1997 an ‘implied right’ of constitutional freedom of political communication?

… ss 7 and 24 and the related sections of the Constitution necessarily protect that freedom of communication between the people concerning political or government matters which enables the people to exercise a free and informed choice as electors …

The High Court created a nexus between political communication and federal voting choices. This right of political communication is not restricted to election periods but can include any political communication between elections that may influence voting.

As electors we need to be informed what each party stands for, to know what the Australian Government is doing. There are also political communications with the Government to express our views, to try to change a policy or have new policies considered. How can we have political communication with you if you don’t even tell us what you are doing? We are not informed by your Government’s silence!

I can take you back to something you should remember because it occurred before the Twentieth Century.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804:

… man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear investigation of their actions.

A free press is considered a cornerstone of democracy (leaving aside for now discussion of the Murdoch press) by providing information to the people and creating an informed electorate. If you persist with keeping information from the people, we will be left to assume you ‘fear investigation of [your] actions’ or are hiding something from us — perhaps you already are!

Fifth: You have re-introduced ‘flexible workplace relations’ into the administrative orders for the Department of Employment, although in searching your pre-election policies I can find no reference to it. Is this double-speak for more of WorkChoices or at least individual bargaining between employer and employee? You are obviously aware, being a Rhodes scholar, that in that relationship the employer holds all the power — it can be a very one-sided negotiation.

Do you not recall what Justice Higgins said in the ‘Harvester case’ in November 1907:

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.

That is my emphasis to Justice Higgins’ words but, yes, back in those times individual bargaining was the norm. Even then, however, it was seen not to work well for the employee. But I suppose that is another part of the Twentieth Century you have overlooked in your hurry to take us back in time.

Do you not recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911? One hundred and forty six workers — mostly women — died, leading to changes in factory conditions and safety in the US.

Here in Australia, do you not remember the Mt Kembla colliery disaster in the Illawarra in NSW in July 1902 when 96 workers, men and boys, were killed, or the collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne in 1970, killing 35 construction workers and seriously injuring 17?

Do you not recall that it was the workers represented by their unions who fought for workplace safety for decades, yet still over 100 workers die at their work every year in Australia and over 100,000 serious worker’s compensation claims are made. In fact, 212 died in 2012 and 185 in 2013.

How can an employee demand a safe workplace through individual bargaining? Would you allow, in the name of flexibility and reducing regulation, lesser health and safety standards for businesses? Would you take us back to those times when the bosses decided what was ‘safe’? How many more lives will be lost if you allow that?

Sixth: You have promised $70 million to encourage 1,500 existing public schools to become independent. And you launched your education policy at a fundamentalist Christian school in Sydney’s western suburbs. You said you did not agree with its views on homosexuality and respectfully disagreed with a number of other pronouncements in its Statement of Faith — but not all of them? Perhaps you do agree with some because, after all, they are (or at least appear to me) more akin to Christian views of the 1800s.

Do you not recall Australia’s long history of a free secular education at the primary and secondary levels? New South Wales has been doing it since late in the 1800s (so perhaps that should be within your ken) and in 1912 Queensland began creating high schools for all when it worked out it was cheaper than their previous model of ‘grammar schools’.

Do you want to take us back to the mid-1800s when the Catholic and Protestant churches provided the schooling and there was competition between them to gain pupils?

Just as an example of those times, a Dr Braim JP wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne in 1849 complaining about a Jesuit priest in his local area (and I understand, you do know something about the Jesuits):

He is to be found in every house, where he has a chance of effecting an entrance, and is very active in trying to persuade parents to prefer his school to ours for the education of their children.*

*You can find this quote in the section ‘Orphan girls’ near the end of a very long letter on the Bishop’s travels through his Diocese.

Do you not remember that the Twentieth Century placed a high priority on education and that government schools made it accessible to all?

Your Minister for Education floated the idea of reintroducing ‘caps’ on university places. You did contradict him and said it would not happen but, given your approach to promises (only what is written; only what we do, not what we said we would do — ring any bells?) I’m not sure I can believe you. It smells to me of re-creating an elite and making sure the rest of us know our place.

Last, at least for now: You said in your book Battlelines that conservatism prefers facts to theory; practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what’s in the mind’s eye.

Do you not recall George Bernard Shaw’s words, famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in 1968:

Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not?

In your world, things would change ever so slowly. It is the dreamers who drive progress. Even you should understand that it is also the dreamers who drive capitalism.

Do you not remember it was Henry Ford who dreamed of making cars affordable for ordinary people and from 1908 made that dream real? Or in the 1980s, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who had a similar dream of making computing available to all? If you only believe in what already works, your much loved capitalism would grind to a halt!

I will finish there but only because I have better things to do with my time and no inclination to continue this list: it could take me weeks.

You may be a conservative but you seem to be ignoring the past, ignoring what has already been done and already shown to work. You seem to have forgotten most of the Twentieth Century in your rush to take us back in time.

Perhaps your vision is of a late Victorian patriarchal upper middle-class family following correct etiquette and manners, with the elite paternalistically watching over the rest of us. It may reduce our cost of living if we no longer need televisions, computers or cars; you will not need to spend billions on motorways but perhaps more on trams — and horses! We may, however, need to use more coal and timber and, in the twenty-first century, other nations may not thank us for that.

I am sorry to remind you, but those times are gone. The Twentieth Century did happen!

Yours faithfully

Ken Wolff

PS: If I have some of my details wrong, I apologise, but at least I can recall the Twentieth Century.

What can you add to my letter?

What else has Abbott forgotten from the Twentieth Century?

What do you think?

Who killed Cock Robin?

I read that opening stanza of the old rhyme as a metaphor of the continued and repeatedly frustrated human progress toward social advancement. It is the most disappointing certainty that as soon as the human collective gets its act together and starts to achieve really useful advances in all things supportive and advantageous to the promotion of the human condition, along come those who set it all back a generation or two, or worse. The person who first wrote the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden must have felt the same way. Take away the biblical language and I think it could go like this:

Here we have two people, a young man and a young woman, attractive and attracted to each other, living in the best of any world, a veritable Garden of Eden: no worries, all the food they can want, all the time in the world; nothing to do but eat, drink and make love; and what to they do but screw it all up! I tell you, it's a mug's game!

So let's forget about the many, many thousands of like-managed scenarios throughout history where exactly the same action has been repeated ad-nauseam with exactly the same result. Cut to the recent election where a majority of our own society, our own people, voted in just such a destroyer of many good policies even against their own interests. No-one can deny that Gonski was for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens; no-one can deny the NBN was for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens; no-one can deny that action on climate change in a coordinated policy with the rest of the world was for the benefit of a vast majority of citizens. So why do we always screw it up? What is this inherent 'evil' that, like some incubus, sitting, waiting for the favourable moment, then strikes to undo and demolish any or all good works that have taken years to put in place?

Who killed Cock Robin?
‘I’ said the Sparrow, ‘with my little bow and arrow’

Sadly, dear friends, it is the collective ‘We’, ‘We the people’ who kill the ideas that enhance a society. Take the NBN for instance. Under Malcolm Turnbull, who just a couple of years ago we would have considered a moderate liberal, a reasonable man, we see the total destruction of any meaningful future for a high-speed broadband network for a majority of Australians. Who would have thought when voting in such a person as the current minister, himself a self- and publicly proclaimed citizen loyal to the republican cause and the nation, he would descend to such a level as to destroy the best system so as to build an inferior system more favourable to a foreign national citizen and corporation — a corporation whose former highest executives, at this very moment, are before the Old Bailey on charges of grave criminal concern. Who would have thought this ‘honourable man’, this ‘everyman’, would cheerfully work with such players to destroy infrastructure put in place for the benefit of the nation?

‘...with my little bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.’

Of course, this methodical destruction of government institutions is all to serve the ideology of economic rationalism, a crude, barbaric system that favours individual speculation over government stimulus and investment; that favours corporate structures over what is spoken of in the economic rationalist circles as ‘socialist intervention’ by government. So we now weirdly have a free enterprise government that scorns public sentiment and investment but was voted in on a media-manipulated social platform of ‘all-inclusive democracy’. Even more strangely, it is now withdrawing what it sees as democratic-state social obligations toward the citizen body in favour of corporate entrepreneurial speculation that in itself is, in theory, a body wholly and completely founded on an all inclusive social-democratic principle of multi-shareholder citizens, valued employee citizens, serviced customer citizens and corporate responsibility ethics. If that doesn't sound like a humble all-for-one/one-for-all socialist principle, then nothing is!

When Margaret Thatcher said, ‘There is no such thing as society...’ when talking to Woman’s Own magazine, a magazine that delivered news and views to a broad English society, it had to be one of the most fatuous statements ever made! She might as well have said: ‘There is no such thing as sunshine: there are only beams of light’. Her comment reflects the contradictions in the perceptions of the right-wing mind, as in a society where the entire corporate success story is totally reliant on mutual cooperation between the executive, middle-management, shop-floor production and sales and distribution; and that is only sustainable over the long-term by employing fair-wage workers within a stable society. Surely a marvellous example of mutually beneficial socialist democracy at work! So what those in the right-wing think-tanks and those in the current government have not realised, even in their most lucid moments, is that all their cynical dismantling is doing is putting themselves out of perhaps the only job they are capable of, replacing themselves with corporate socialism. Murdoch/Rinehart/Forrest et al must be laughing at those pollies all the way to their ‘comrade investor’ shareholder cooperatives!

The contradictions of the corporate mind are evident in the ‘confected’ conflict between corporations and labour and that conflict must be addressed. It must be addressed by those two players as they are the crux of power in a modern democracy. The politicians are now just the bull-horn mouthpieces of these centres of power. While the Labour unions may seem decimated at the moment, they are still the ‘eye of the storm’ in their capacity to organise and negotiate outcomes. The capacity to recruit is there, as is a future recruitment pool — labour is labour is labour! Ever since the collapse of aristocratic control of parliament, the corporate middle classes have exerted their power on parliament and democracy. Given a full head of steam, we have seen them rise on the wings of fascism to seek total dominance over all forms of wages and labour. It is in their DNA to try and dominate. It is a necessity of the ‘bottom line’ profit margin to skim and skin, always looking for the ‘cheap-labour’ demographic and then to capitalise, coerce and govern through it.

But back to the rhyme …

Who caught his blood?
‘I’ said the fish ‘with my little dish’

What do the politicians supporting these people think will be the end result of their destructive machinations? Do they think the citizen body will respect them?

‘The Mateship’ from Keating; The Musical

Do they think the corporate body will even consider them as useful after they have done the dirty work? Do they think their lot in life will be a peaceful retirement after they have reduced the living standard of many of those fellow citizens around them? They have to go to the shops. They will want to go to the beach, to the hotel or restaurant. They will be noticed, they will be pointed out. Will they demand some sort of security to accompany them every time? If we consult The Discourse of Titus Livius by Niccolò Machiavelli, we will read where he recommends, ‘To deal judgement on a person of power, first remove him from his position of power and then deal with him at your leisure.’ Such will be the reward of those who spite and cruel the citizen body. There are few examples in history where vengeful memory has not brought some sort of rough-justice to such perpetrators of injury.

Who'll toll the bell?
‘I’ said the Bullfinch ‘cause I can pull, I'll toll the bell.’

There is an inherent truth in the line, ‘No man is an island unto himself ’. What we do unto one, we do unto all and only a child or the fool will delude themselves that they can get away with a secret deception. We of aged years know from rich experience that there are no secrets; there is no devious act nor kindness that is not noted and reciprocated. There is a hunger in the honest soul for justice. There is a hunger in the virtuous soul for kindness. There is a hunger in the community soul for equality in labour and reward. Those who would deny or willingly destroy such ambition in the spirit of a nation, history notes, will be culled from the citizen body before they infect the entire life-blood of a nation. History shows us there are two methods this can be done. One is the taking up of arms — an ugly result! The other is a better justice, a more resounding justice: to vote the bullies out in no uncertain terms at the ballot box. That is the greater justice, for that tells them to their face, ‘You are not wanted in this House’.

Who killed Cock Robin? 'I' said the sparrow 'with my little bow and arrow'.

Who'll be the mourner?
‘I’ said the Dove.
‘I'll mourn for my love,
I'll be the mourner.’

Maintain the rage!

What do you think?

So that was … 2013

Welcome to 2014!

And we welcome you to your next ‘open thread’, which will run until the 2nd February, when our conversation starters, and Casablanca’s Cache, will return.

It seems to be traditional at this time of the year to reflect on what has been, and to look forward to what is to happen.

To be fair, 2013 wasn’t the greatest of years.

They say the only constant is change. We leave 2013 with our third Prime Minister for the year and the election of a Federal Government of a different political persuasion to the one we started with. After the event, it seems that the newly elected Government’s politicians proposed to honour their promises more in the breach than the observance. If Parliament House had a ‘service desk’, it would be doing a roaring trade in exchanging votes this holiday season – if the polls can be believed.

Around the world, Barack Obama commenced his second term in January 2013 before walking into a ‘Government shutdown’ over Obamacare. Late in the year the world lost Nelson Mandela – one of the greatest identities of our era. (As an aside, Mandela was still on the US Government’s ‘terrorism watch list’ in 2008 and had to apply for special permission to enter the USA – yet US Presidents of the era still attended his funeral.)

The media landscape also changed in Australia during the year with the commencement of an Australian version of The Guardian. According to an online question and answer session with its editor during November, they are ahead of their expectations of success. The Daily Mail will join them by launching an Australian website in 2014. Various News and Fairfax publications erected paywalls during 2013 and seemingly aren’t commenting on the success of the ventures. NewsCorp is still ‘out to get’ the ABC – especially since the ABC and The Guardian teamed up to break the recent story regarding Australia spying on our neighbours.

The Political Sword is also constantly changing. You’ll find details of the level of change that occurred on this site during 2013 in the previous post. So far the response to the changes has been overwhelmingly positive, and the TPS Team are extremely grateful for your continuing support.

If you would like to write a piece in 2014 as a conversation starter for TPS, we’d love to hear from you. TPS is always looking for new voices, whether you’ve ever written a blog post before, or not. Send us an outline, or a rough draft, or a complete piece: we will be happy to work with you to bring your ideas to fruition.

The TPS Team is also looking for some more regular readers and/or commenters to join the team that now ‘manages’ TPS. Many hands make light work for all of us – and most of the present 2013 team have ‘day jobs’.

As you’re probably aware, all pieces submitted to TPS are reviewed. One way to join the TPS Team, but take on an easy task that doesn’t take a lot of time, and that doesn’t have to happen often, is to offer to review – that is, become a TPS reviewer. Reviewing is a bit like getting to comment, but before we actually publish a piece. (Needless to say, your comments ‘below the line’ are always welcome!)

We are also looking for one or two additional people who might have had editing experience and who might have time to edit a piece for TPS every now and again.

If you have any interest in writing for TPS or helping out as a reviewer or editor, do email us.

As we are in the middle of a period where cricket, surf reports and families seem to be more important than politics, rather than analyse what politicians said versus what they did – the TPS Team is interested in how you see 2014 panning out.

Will you have a great New Year’s resolution story (giving up smoking, catching the bus to work, travelling Australia)?

Do you think it will be a better year for the world, country or you personally?

Do you think Australian politicians will develop an understanding of the common meaning of the word ‘promise’?

The Political Sword Team wishes all our contributors and readers a wonderful year of discussion and of sharing various points of view.

As always, we look forward to you telling us what you think.