Politics

17 May 2016: ScoMo’s slowmo

Budget

Comme Sisyphe by Honore Daumier (Brooklyn Museum)

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s mantra on budget night was “Jobs and growth”.

Much of the political narrative surrounding the 2016 Budget was about creating jobs, creating pathways to jobs, filling jobs, training people for jobs. It was about jobs for the future, jobs for Australia.

It was about getting Australians back to work.

But what about getting Australia itself to work?

What about getting Australia working as one nation, one people, united by fairness and equity rather than divided by injustice and poverty?

Listening to the speeches of many of our country’s politicians, and the commentary that follows in the media, I can’t avoid the feeling they’re talking about an imaginary Australia, an Australia that exists only in an ideologically-created fantasy.

It’s an alluring fantasy, too, for many conservative Australians. It involves a world where the better angels of our nature materialise in the board rooms of the largest companies, and where paternalism – here called the “trickle-down effect” or “supply-side economics” or, more damningly, “voodoo economics” – is genuinely concerned not with self-aggrandizement but the betterment of all humanity.

But this is a world constructed from the thin and rapidly unravelling fibres of neoconservative economics, a febrile dream of a world with resources that would never run out feeding a market that would never stop growing.

This is a dream that Australia is only now slowly rousing from. We are opening our eyes and seeing what we have wrought: a broken connection between what makes a society wealthy and what makes a society liveable.

Families, particularly women and children, are increasingly worse off and dramatically vulnerable to domestic violence. Affordable housing is in short supply. For many, a world-class education is now unaffordable and world-class health care increasingly unobtainable. The majority of Australians now look forward to a retirement hindered by the threat of poverty and shortfalls in aged care. Unemployment in many parts of the country is entrenched and multi-generational.

That any of this is happening in Australia, for the size of its population one of the wealthiest countries in all history, is unbelievable.

No. Sorry. It is believable because it is happening. It is a tragedy, and a tragedy that at present has no prospect of catharsis because it does not seem the political will exists to turn things around, to realise that Australia is made of 24 million human beings rather than the companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Let me say that I’m not against business. I’m not against the accumulation of wealth and capital. I’m not against free enterprise.

What I am against is inequality and injustice. What I am against is a free enterprise system untrammelled by regulation that is both efficient and enforced, and without a system to redistribute equitably a portion of wealth so that the whole of society benefits.

Free enterprise cannot properly operate in a society that itself is not free but imprisoned by poverty and division.

The good news is that there is a solution.

First, we need to look over our shoulder.

We need to look back to the past and see how previous generations of Australians made huge sacrifices so that those who followed did not suffer from hunger, from despair or from fear, but instead inherited a nation with great promise, great ambition and great hope.

We are no longer making those sacrifices for those who come after us. We have forgotten what it is like to struggle for the generations to come instead of just for ourselves.

Second, we need to look out to the far horizon and not down at our feet. As a nation we are failing to future-proof because we have forgotten there is a future. We cannot afford political decisions made today simply to be about today, or the next news cycle, or even the next election. Every time the government chooses the short-term over the long-term, the future is diminished.

Third, investing in Australians instead of in huge companies whose management and majority shareholding live far from these shores, will make a dramatic difference, bringing benefits not just to society but to the national economy.

Fourth, politicians must not only comprehend that social justice and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand, but understand why the link exists. An IMF report from 2015 on the causes and consequences of income inequality  will provide some of that understanding. In part, the report reveals there is an inverse relationship between income accruing to the richest and economic growth. A rise of 1% point in the income share of the top 20% leads to lower GDP growth. A similar increase in the bottom 20% is associated with a higher GDP growth. A similar increase in disposable income for the middle class also leads to higher GDP growth.

As Per Capita’s Stephen Koukoulas pointed out in The Guardian, “ … the government could have aimed to reduce inequality in the economy by skewing the income tax cuts linked to low-income earners [where the] marginal propensity to spend is higher … The cost to the budget of skewing tax cuts to lower-income earners could have had the same impact on [the] bottom line but with the benefit of faster GDP growth and jobs than what is currently projected.”

In other words, Scott Morrison’s budget is a slow motion crawl to growth and jobs. The problem is, the longer we delay taking action, the more the country’s options are whittled away. The longer we delay taking action, the greater the cost and the repercussions we let fall on the shoulders of our children and their children after that. By not acting now, we are implicitly shrugging off our responsibilities as good citizens.

By not acting now, we are failing to make Australia work for all Australians.

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14 September 2015: Taking ‘the strangers case’

Thomas More

Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527.

Tragically, when it comes to human behaviour there is little new under the sun. Despite all the evidence that immigration and the settling of refugees is good for a country’s soul, not to mention its economy, many people give in to bigotry and fear and make victims of those who are already desperate and vulnerable.

In 1517, young male apprentices rioted against foreigners living in London. Ultimately, large numbers of the rioters were arrested, and though most were pardoned a handful were executed.

The riot started on the evening of 30 April and carried over to the early hours of the next day. The event has since been known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day.

One of those who attempted to forestall any violence was Thomas More, who confronted the rioters and urged them to return to their homes.

Two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, celebrated this act of courage in their play Sir Thomas More, written sometime in the early 1590s.

The play was revised by several writers, and it is now generally accepted that one of those was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare rewrote Moore’s speech to the rioters when he implores them to take ‘the strangers case’, to imagine what it must be like to be a refugee facing at best a lack of compassion and at worst outright hostility.

“What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

In 2015 there are many people – and some countries – who do indeed take on ‘the strangers case’, and open their hearts and homes to those fleeing terror and persecution.

But not all of us, and almost none of us all of  the time.

[The extract is taken from the text put up at Project Gutenberg.]

17 June 15: Bribery and corruption

Embed from Getty Images

The campaign to ‘Stop the Boats’ by successive governments has stopped the boats reaching Australia, but at the cost of human dignity, national integrity and political accountability.

It is no longer possible to maintain the charade that the program is beneficial either for this country or for the refugees.

Recent accusations that officers working as part of Operation Sovereign Borders bribed people smugglers to return their vessels with their human cargo to Indonesian waters, demonstrates how political opportunism corrupts and distorts governments.

Considering the tide of human refugees faced by nations in Southeast Asia and Europe, Australia’s refugee problem is almost insignificant, and our response has been repressive, inhumane and ultimately self-destructive, leading to Indonesia’s vice-president to accuse the Abbot government of bribery and questioning Australia’s ethics.

Australia, together with the US and the UK, has a policy of not giving in to terrorist demands because we know it only encourages further acts of terrorism. Why would people smugglers, paid to return refugees to Indonesia, not continue to bring them in the hope of more money?

My wife, a teacher with over 25 years of experience, is struck by the way Operation Sovereign Borders punishes the victims of conflict and poverty who turn to people smugglers, and draws a comparison to the way the victims of bullying were once treated in Australian schools.

In times past, the victims were often blamed for being victims, and sometimes were ‘moved on’ to other schools whilst the bullies remained in control and often in favour. Schools are changing. Schools are expected to do all in their power to provide support for the victims of bullying, to assist students at risk to be resilient, and to combat the behaviour of the bullies. Instead we see our government blaming the asylum seekers, ‘moving them on’ to other countries, and paying the people smugglers. If the charges of bribery prove to be true it is akin to paying a bully to keep bullying.

Furthermore, we should not be deceived for one moment that ‘Stop the Boats’ was anything but an act of supreme political opportunism by both political parties resulting in children being incarcerated behind barbed wire because their parents committed the sin of fleeing repression and poverty.

Australia is, for the size of its population, one of the wealthiest nations in history. We can, and should, do better.

06 February 2015: Price-signals

Medicare[This is the second of two articles I wrote during my stint with the South Coast Register, and put up here with kind permission of the editor.]

In light of recent problems suffered by Tony Abbott and the federal Liberal Party (not to mention the state Liberal Parties in Queensland and Victoria), it’s ironic that senior cabinet ministers are arguing the chief problem is a failure to properly explain their policies. They need a better ‘narrative’ to get the message across.

In other words, Australians are stupid for not getting the message the first time around.

The truth is that Australians understood the message very well indeed, and have on the whole rejected it. Taxing and punishing the poor while the rich get off virtually scot-free is not considered fair or workable.

No one denies that measures need to be taken to control government spending.  But as NSW state member for the South Coast Shelley Hancock said, “The Federal Government has to make tough decisions, but these tough decisions are impacting on the poor.”

While Australians ponder possible changes to Medicare that will penalise them for being sick – what the Government calls a ‘price-signal’ – extraordinarily wealthy mining companies such as Swiss-owned Xstrata reap billions in fuel rebates for the privilege of taking our non-renewable resources such as iron ore. To make matters worse, some of these companies produce their own petroleum products. It’s like the Government giving someone money to buy carrots they already grow in their garden.

Xstrata might argue that since their trucks and diggers and earth movers don’t run on publicly funded roads and highways, the rebate on the fuel excise is only fair. But if that argument is solid, people without children should also deserve a rebate for that portion of their income taxed for schools and universities, and people who don’t suffer illness should be able to renege on the Medicare levy.

This is not the only example of our Government’s largesse towards those who need it least.

The Abbott government won power in part because it promised to abolish the carbon tax. While not the most popular Julia Gillard initiative, it at least had the virtue of punishing polluters for polluting – what the current Government might refer to as a ‘price-signal’. Abbott’s scheme to counter climate change, Direct Action, forces Australians to pay polluters for reducing their carbon emissions: in effect, a new tax. This from a government that swore it would not introduce taxes that “are yet another hit on the cost of living of struggling Australian families”.

There are changes the government could make right now that could save them billions in spending – including cutting the diesel rebate to miners, most of them businesses with a majority of overseas’ shareholders, and using cheaper drugs in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Just these two actions could save the budget $3.3 billion a year.

It does seem that the present government’s budget plans involve transferring what little wealth we have to those who have wealth aplenty. In effect, we’re being punished for the privilege of not being rich.

04 February 2015: Who is responsible?

overseas workers

Overseas workers leave Manildra’s Bomaderry site with, from left, CFMEU state secretary Brian Parker and reps Dave Curtain and Dave Kelly. Photo courtesy South Coast Register.

[This is one of two articles I wrote towards the end of my three-week stint as a casual journalist with the South Coast Register in January. The editor decided not to use either of them and has kindly given me permission to put them up on my blog. This story was written on Monday 26 January, and although there have been minor developments since then, they do not in my opinion answer any of the questions I raise. An official government investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman is still underway.]

The most contentious question about the discovery of 29 seriously underpaid overseas workers on the Manildra-owned site in Bomaderry and who lived in appalling conditions in south Nowra, is this: who is responsible?

The best candidate is Chia Tung, a Taiwanese-owned company.

According to Alan Sinclair, who represents Chia Tung in Australia, the Taiwanese company was responsible for employing the workers, their contracts, and the conditions under which they lived.

“Instructions and directions come from Chia Tung,” Mr Sinclair told the Register.

While Mr Sinclair’s claims may be true, he cannot so easily brush away his own responsibility as the company’s local representative. Why wasn’t he on top of the situation? Why wasn’t he aware – at the very least – of their living conditions in what effectively was a dosshouse?

We wish we could ask him, but last we heard he is only speaking through his lawyer.

And guilty at the least of being delinquent in the supervision of its own site is Manildra. Despite the fact that 29 workers were building a pellet feed mill for that company, their initial response – given to us by a local politician who had been in touch with Manildra executives – is that the responsibility belongs with the company contracted out to supply and install the structure.

Despite repeated attempts by the Register to ask Manildra questions about the issue, their only official comment is that they are taking the matter seriously and “are making enquiries of Chia Tung as to the allegations.”

Allegations? The workers’ contracts and living conditions have been sighted by the Register. After five days, surely any information forthcoming from Chia Tung would have been collected, analysed and absorbed, and a full response released to the media?

The Register has also attempted to contact the ministers responsible for the departments of Employment and Immigration and Border Protection: Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton, respectively.

On Friday 16 January, only five days before the Register broke the story, Eric Abetz said, “Contrary to some media reports, workers on 457 visas are not a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian residents.”

Well, contrary to his ministerial opinion, workers on 457 visas are being used as a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian workers. Despite repeated requests from the Register for a comment in light of recent developments, we were informed that one would be coming from the office of Senator Michaelia Cash, the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

While no comment has yet been received from the office of Senator Cash, we have discovered a media release from her office dated January 9 concerning a “substantial fine recently imposed against a Launceston takeaway.”

The takeaway was fined a total of $100,000 for underpaying its Chinese chef by $86,000 over four years. Given the business the chef must have generated over those four years, not to mention the savings in not paying $86,000 in wages, the government’s “substantial fine” barely registers as a slap on the wrist, and hardly a discouragement for other businesses contemplating doing the same.

The official reply to our enquiries from the Department of Immigration is that the department is investigating the matter and “appropriate action” would be taken if a sponsor was discovered to have failed its obligations. Appropriate action could vary from imposing “administrative sanctions” to “applying to the federal court for a civil penalty order”.

South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said the issue illustrated the gap in the compliance and policing of Australia’s industrial and workplace laws.

“The federal government is so obsessed with restricting the activities of trade union members that they are missing the main game – that this gap creates the environment where the alleged conditions for the 29 overseas workers can exist,” he said.

“What happened at the Manildra site tells us some employers can get away with almost anything, and they believe the federal government will do their dirty work by tying the hands of trade unions which otherwise would be in a better position to uncover these sorts of abuses.”

The reply the Register received from the Department of Immigration also stated that the matter had been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman. When asked for a comment, spokesperson for the FWO replied that indeed the matter was under investigation, but because it was operational it was not appropriate to comment further.

Fair enough.

But is it fair enough that three senior government politicians, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash, cannot after five days issue a single pertinent comment? If they are not responsible for their respective portfolios, who are? And can the Register please have their telephone numbers?