Category Archives: Ideas

Spoke on Triple R – the US election and federal politics

It was great fun guest hosting Spoke this week on Triple R, filling in for Michelle Bennett.

We had an action-packed political line-up with the US election in its final stages and the Australian federal senate in a state of disarray. Worth a listen all the way through but if you’re stuck for time, click on each URL to hear the individual interview.

    • Brett Mason, US Election Correspondent, SBS, via phone from Pennsylvania at Hillary Clinton’s final Get Out The Vote Event – a prescient discussion of the US Election and where the candidates stand on election eve
    • Laura Tingle, Political Editor, AFR, from Canberra – on the week that was in federal politics (Senate chaos and constitutional questions, same sex marriage plebiscite, 18C and wedging Labor on asylum seeker policy)
    • Alan Pears AM, in the studio – on the Pears Report (climate and energy policy over the last 20 years, where do we stand now?)
    • Professor Helen Sullivan, incoming Director, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, in the studio – on an endangered species… good public policy making: What is it? Have we gone backwards? How can we ensure better public policy making happen? AND the latest UK High Court decision on Brexit
    • Dr Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at The Australia Institute – on Manning Clark’s ‘enlargers and punishers’, Hazelwood job losses and demystifying econobabble.
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One day of the US election campaign to go… We spoke to Brett Mason from Philadelphia at Clinton’s last rally. The discussion on Trump voters was very prescient. [Photo credit: @BrettMasonNews]

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The 1916 conscription referendum – 100 years on

October 28, 2016 marked 100 years since the first conscription referendum was held in Australia. The anniversary was largely unnoticed by mainstream media and it is no surprise. It doesn’t tell a story of great unity, but rather a moment of great conflict during a war where the ANZAC myth had just been forged.

To mark the occasion and to examine what the conscription conflict means to us today (and perhaps more importantly, should mean), I interviewed Associate Professor Sean Scalmer, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at The University of Melbourne.

My first foray into Australian history came from attending lectures by Sean Scalmer – his strength as an academic and lecturer is that he illuminates Australian history with clarity, life, perceptiveness and nuance.

To listen to the my chat with Sean Scalmer, click here (Triple R On Demand). It will play from the beginning of the interview.

ccgw-cover-printScalmer co-wrote the book, The Conscription Conflict and the Great War (October 2016), with fellow historians Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, and Murray Goot.

It was launched in Melbourne at Trades Hall by Federal Leader Bill Shorten on October 27, 1916.

It’s clear that the conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917 are still very important to Australian Labor Party’s identity and to labour history. There is much contention around this and how it is remembered by society and by the labour movement currently. More from me on that at a later date.

Later in the show, I spoke to Dr. Lucina Ward (listen to the interview here) from the National Gallery of Australia who is Senior Curator of the Versailles: Treasures from the Palace exhibition (opens December 9, 2016).

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The Arndt of Sex

My latest article for The Drum (2/9/2011), ‘The Arndt of sex’ made a few middle-aged indignant men unhappy when I questioned Bettina Arndt’s logic behind her validation and heroising of men’s supposed monogamous sex-starved experiences. Needless to say, they weren’t going to be the types won over by calls for a mature and non-polarising discussion about heterosexual male and female sexuality.

Thankfully, I hope and I think, many already recognise that Arndt’s views do not represent the values of most Australians in 2011. This was voiced to me by men and women directly via Twitter and in person. It would appear that the majority of comments on The Drum post were made by those whose life foundations were called into question by my arguments and understandably so.

The inherent difficulty with the subject of sexuality, monogamy, heterosexuality, differing sex drives, gender and masculinity/femininity inevitably leads to some emotional, ill-considered and irrational responses. And then there are superficial “puff” responses that reinforce the outdated, circulating social memes we still have to fight against. In an op-ed for Fairfax, one person decided to bypass the content of the carefully constructed argument I made and instead lambasted me for ranting a little. Here is the article, make of it what you will.

I am proud to have written ‘The Arndt of sex’ as it was one of the most daunting and rewarding intellectual challenges I have had to tackle to date. Writing about gender is hard enough, but writing about sex and sexuality is in a league of its own. It’s a personal topic for everyone and hence, it needs to be approached carefully and with respect. Happy reading.

The Arndt of Sex

It is safe to say Bettina Arndt successfully insults both men and women in her latest tirade against society’s maltreatment of the rampant and practically sacred male sex drive.

That’s if they managed to finish reading the article without tearing up the newspaper and throwing it to the floor in disgust. I can only hope no-one read it on an iPad.

Personally, I stomped my feet intermittently, growled a little, turned away in frustration, came back to it a few times and finally, after the fifth attempt, I managed to read it all in one go. Why did it get to me so much?

The first and most immediate reason is the disturbing and unreal images Arndt paints of the typical Australian heterosexual relationship.

Arndt’s picture of Australia is one where men in heterosexual relationships live in a monogamous “sex-starved” hell, honourably struggling to keep their philandering to a minimum and fighting back their uncontrollable natural urges. Meanwhile, women, who barely feature directly, are caricatured in opposition to men as sexual unequals with a low libido, who are naturally disinterested in sex, who selfishly withhold sex from their partners and are dismissive of man’s admirably (because it is caused by glorious testosterone) sustained interest in sex and deviant sexual fantasies.

Here are a few classic lines to get started. Keep in mind that every time Arndt refers to “married” people she draws these opinions together as being universal for all heterosexual men and women in relationships:

“From the outside, life as a hot-blooded married heterosexual man doesn’t look much fun.”

“Faced with the misery of a lifetime spent dealing with the frustrations of monogamous sex-starved marriage, most men don’t leave.”

“The strong male libido remains, even if the inner goat now must remain firmly tethered. Men live with up to 20 times the testosterone of women and that makes it very tough to cope with decades of monogamous marriage, particularly when sex is offered very reluctantly – ‘like meaty bites to a dog,’ as one man put it.”

Who wants a Schmacko? Here boy, here boy! In all seriousness, no, hang on, how can anyone be serious about such an extreme generalisation which claims that married women offer sex “very reluctantly” and must surely view it as a conjugal duty to perform for their adorably earnest dog-like husbands who just want their wife to throw them a bone[r] once in a while? Yes, that’s what I thought.

“Yet most men are doing a remarkable job remaining true to their women. For all the talk about unfaithful men, most married men succeed at monogamy most of the time.”

Well that’s a relief, but men, how do you do it? I mean this is dire. From the way Arndt describes your constant and tumultuous ‘male inner conflict’, that makes you just one hot female work colleague away from losing your sanity. I honestly started becoming concerned for the mental health of all men when I read of their plight, that is, until I snapped out of the hyperbole-induced coma I was falsely lulled into.

Of the men Arndt interviewed who did bolt from the pen and release their “inner goat” she says that, “The overwhelming majority… wanted to be faithful and were succeeding, even though there may have been a lapse along the way – a one-night stand at a conference, a few weeks of illicit pleasure, or even an affair lasting months or perhaps a year or two. But nothing compared with the many years of restraint.”

This is what Arndt considers male success at monogamy to be? A one-night stand and a yearlong affair can be counted equally as mere blips on a man’s otherwise gleaming record? I’m sure we all agree it is OK for people to make mistakes and that both men and women can be unfaithful, but on Arndt’s flaccid account of monogamy the term becomes impotent.

The other disturbing dichotomy that gains traction in Arndt’s article is the idea that most women, in contrast to men, not only spoil the fun but moralise, criticise and shame men about their authentic sexual urges, high sex drives and sexual experiences.

Arndt recounts one anecdote featured in an anonymously-written opinion article, where the now famous “inner goat” man “ruefully acknowledges” that his goat “sometimes… manages to escape and he finds himself mentally undressing a woman as she walks past.” Now I’ve got nothing against men doing this and I haven’t met any women who do but Arndt manages to select the one and only unreasonable and rude comment, written by a “smug woman”, to be the sole representative of the female response to this situation; ”Men, you could put your minds to much better use than fantasising about women you are never going to get … There’s something you can do: you can respect women and learn to control your pathetic, primitive minds. Meditation helps.”

Here’s a novel idea, the loudest voice, especially one in the comments section of an online opinion article, doesn’t often represent the majority view. Most women understand and accept that it’s just what men do, that it doesn’t affect us, men are autonomous individuals and as it’s not doing any harm then frankly, let them be! In fact, I know a few women who would do the same thing when they see a particularly attractive man; it’s just that most women are particularly good at hiding it.

But according to Arndt, these killjoy women don’t stop at thought policing. Supposedly men can’t even legitimately watch porn, one “good” reason being “as relief from the tensions of trying to please women in real-life sex”, without us judging them and moralising at the lectern. Arndt writes, “Harmless pursuits? That’s not, of course, how porn is presented. We are subject to an endless stream of people, mainly women, warning of the dangers of porn.” She then cites Gail Dines as the credible and representative voice of the porn-aggrieved women, who are once again, of course, in the majority. This selective, unbalanced and evidence-light portrayal truly lays bare just how much of a serious conversation Arndt wants to have about Australian women and their attitudes to pornography.

When Dines visited Australia in May this year for the Sydney Writers’ Festival and appeared on radio and television programs including ABC’s Q&A, the collective groans voiced every time she spoke gave me a strong impression that there were more women disagreeing with Dines’s hardline stance on the negative effects of porn.

Putting Dines aside, the women I know who are under-enthused about, but not openly against, their partners watching porn respond that way because deep down it makes them feel inadequate or somehow as being “not enough” for their partners. This may not be true from the male perspective, but the female response to porn in many circumstances comes from a place of sexual vulnerability and is expressed as such, not from a place of ignorance expressed as blunt condescension.

Despite the fact that Arndt’s arguments and anecdotal evidence comes across as exaggerated, absolutist, offensive to men and women who value mutual respect and for the most part appears detached from reality, that is not where the essential problem with the article lies.

It is this:

Bettina Arndt vigorously compares and contrasts two sexes that are completely different. Would you try to compare a banana with a watermelon or the concepts of hot and cold? By placing men and women at opposite ends of the same scale for comparison, a divisive and totally unnecessary conflict arises. It is a cheap and easy tactic for discussing a serious, sensitive and complex topic. Arndt re-embeds conflict back into society by forcing the reader to take sides over what she suggests to be the heterosexual naturally-determined norm; that of the misunderstood and frustrated male perennially stuck in a committed relationship, sexually unmatched by their female partner.

We have been publicly arguing over male and female sexuality in this polarising way for decades; who is more sexual, who has the bigger sex drive and which sexual qualities are better. Yet, it is only once we have thrashed it out and had the fight that some of us are collectively realising we can’t reach a valid conclusion from impossible comparisons. It is time to support the realisation that male and female sexualities are not the same, that they currently have far more differences than similarities and hence, cannot be compared. As a side note, it is important to recognise the many differences within each sex that are comparable and that both men and women have been known to exhibit behaviour not usually associated with their own sex, like having sex purely for reasons of physical pleasure or for emotional intimacy.

It makes no difference to this discussion whether the cause of differences in male and female sexual behaviour are neurological, hormonal, biological, socially constructed and/or evolutionary. Perhaps in the future there will be more of an overlap and fluidity, as seen in current malleable expressions of gender, but for now it is pragmatic, mature and extremely useful to learn how men and women see themselves and each other sexually by way of open communication. In understanding, we can accept and even appreciate and revel in our differences and in my experience, many men and women already do.

However, please don’t get the idea that acceptance in a relationship means giving into each other’s demands and unbridled urges or a signing up for a loosening of the rules of monogamy, which Arndt argues for. What acceptance does mean is engaging in the creation of an open and honest agreement where compromises are made and a commitment is reached. If that agreement is marriage and entails monogamy then, yes, both men and women will make sexual compromises and recognise there are consequences for breaking it.

Monogamy, when entered into openly and maturely, is not the sexually repressive and anti-male regime Arndt makes it out to be. It is a choice made by two people. If a man or a woman doesn’t want be faithful to the agreement or if they have already broken it then it is just basic courtesy to speak to the other partner and tell them. You might then redraw the boundaries, change the agreement or the compromises you are both willing to make or you just might decide it isn’t going to work and leave it there.

There is a new way to publicly and privately discuss the sexes, the differences in male and female sexuality and how they can and do play out in a heterosexual relationship. This healthier way does not seek to polarise society or generate unnecessary conflict, it does not seek to measure the immeasurable or compare the incomparable, rather, it accepts individual men and women for who they are. Whilst the echoes of the old discourse still remain in public discussion today, it is important that we don’t become complicit in its survival. As much as sexual stereotypes and generalisations can be fun and entertaining fodder, when utilised seriously in public debates, the results are socially regressive and the conduct, plainly embarrassing.

Let’s take the heat out of the debate and begin again from a place of shared understanding. A clear and positive starting point already exists, as speaking openly and more often about an important activity that almost all of adult society engages in is one thing Bettina Arndt and I both wholeheartedly believe in.

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Aim High on Climate Change Action

Hi everyone,

Just wanted to provide a link here to the second article I wrote for The Drum which went up on April 29, 2011. It’s a longer article than usual, and I hope into goes into a good level of depth on the issues of economics and climate change. Full text below.

It draws from a previous post I published here called, Australia’s dubious and enduring political mantra, ‘Go For Growth’.

Aim High on Climate Change Action

Carbon tax. Climate Change. These are terms that now trigger a collective mind-numbing effect on the electorate.

It is unsurprisingly psychologically beneficial and much easier to just switch off. Australians have been patiently waiting for action on climate change for four years, but over that time, public mood and support for action has significantly fallen (you only have to look at the latest ACNielsen Poll). It seems that more and more Australians are willing to be complacent when it comes to taking action on climate change. How did we get to this state? And what is the real unacknowledged reason behind public disillusionment?

To jog your memory, when Kevin Rudd won the federal election in 2007, there was an intoxicating vigour of optimism and consensus alive in the Australian electorate, especially among those Labor and left-leaning voters who had been waiting 11 long (Howard) years to be inspired by a progressive reformist agenda (and I only mean progressive in contrast to Liberal conservative). Rudd’s 2007 election platform was a loud and confident pledge to deliver “New Leadership” and “Fresh Ideas”.

Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election victory speech was a declaration that his government would deliver their reform agenda and that the collective will of the people, as indicated by the decisive election outcome, would be implemented in a continued atmosphere of national unity:
“Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward. To plan for the future, to prepare for the future, to embrace the future and together as Australians, to unite and write a new page in our nation’s history.” (Kevin Rudd on election night 2007)

Since that hopeful time we’ve witnessed various failed attempts by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments to price carbon through an Emissions Trading Scheme, a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and now a carbon tax. Politicians, business leaders, organisations, regular citizens and lobby-groups have fought tooth and nail over the detail of each proposed scheme, not in the aim of achieving a greater reduction in carbon dioxide emissions but, essentially to further their own political and fiscal interests.

What makes this story a particularly sad one is that all of the political posturing which, frankly resembles an ostentatious fencing duel, has been played out in the public arena to no avail. We have (perhaps subconsciously) maintained Australia’s narrowly framed climate drama because at some level, we know that a carbon tax, an ETS or a CPRS just isn’t going to cut it, and if you accept that then you’re really setting yourself up for some tough decision-making. If the Government and the Opposition continue to deal with climate change in such a circumscribed way, our actions will end up as merely token gestures towards a vaguely-imagined carbon-less future.

Who wants to deal with the actual and potentially impossible climate reality we face? It’s certainly not surprising that people aren’t rushing forward with enthusiasm, because actually, looking forensically at the overall situation will mean having to question long-established economic structures and behavioural norms. So what is this deeply embedded and broader problem we haven’t yet faced up to? What is it that we have, perhaps, conveniently ignored?

Economist Tim Jackson says the problem is “the dilemma of growth” which he explores in a recorded lecture delivered at The 2010 Deakin Lecture series in Melbourne. Jackson demonstrates the inexorable link between “the dilemma of growth” and our open struggle to act on climate change in this lecture. He begins by asking the very poignant question: “How can our economy continually expand on a finite planet?” and if you come up trumps on that question then, “Does it (the growth-based model) not carry within it… the seeds of its own destruction?”

To explore these questions in real terms, Jackson constructs a thought exercise by engaging our present economic and environmental realities in a hypothetical scenario:
How hard would we need to try in order to have… a world in the middle of this century of 9 billion human beings, all aspiring to Western-levels of income, all expecting those incomes to grow at 2 per cent per annum (this is the growth-based model that we’re testing here) and yet still achieving stabilisation targets for carbon?

It’s a pretty simple thought exercise. We prize those things; global equity, the growth-based model, our ecological limits… How far and how fast would technology have to run to achieve these goals?

You have to get the carbon intensity of economic activity down from an average of 770 grams of carbon per dollar as it is at the moment, to less than 6 grams of carbon per dollar. [That’s] a 130-fold reduction. Have we ever achieved anything like it? The answer is no, not by an order of [that] magnitude.

And then, of course, if the economy is still growing, then by second half of the century you actually need an economy that is taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The CO2 per dollar goes negative [and] a negative number means what? It means instead of pumping carbon into the atmosphere relentlessly, we have a society that’s pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

And… when you think about it, just for a moment, you realise we have no idea what this economy looks like. We don’t know what its resource base is. We don’t know what its technology is. We don’t know how its production is organised. We don’t know what its products and services are. We don’t know what life is like in such an economy and yet this is the logical conclusion for a scenario that says, yes we can grow indefinitely, we can achieve global equity and we can meet our carbon targets.

Now it seems to me that unless we want to find ourselves trapped in a form of magical thinking, this is a point at which we need to ask ourselves quite seriously, can this economy… can this society really deliver us that kind of goal? Or should we be thinking more profoundly about the underlying [economic] structures?”

This dilemma of growth is pertinent to Australia and most, if not all, developed countries of the world. Australia may have addressed concerns over economic growth in passing, but I have never once seen a public throw down over the concept of growth, and it almost seems laughable to even suggest this because growth has always been left unquestioned. Have we consciously considered what economic growth means to Australia? Have we asked how much growth is sustainable? What are the positive and negative consequences of growth? In which sectors of the economy and regions of Australia should growth be encouraged? Is there a healthy or unhealthy tension between our economic goals and our environmental ones? What once was a description rightly used decades ago, “growth is good for the economy” has become an economic and political prescription, “we must have growth, it’s always best”.

In the second part of his argument, Jackson engages the field of ‘system dynamics’ to find the crux of the growth-based model; specifically, that part of the model that relentlessly chews through material resources. And that part is business’s constant investment in new products:
The production of novelty [is] incentivised by the pursuit by the firm of expanding markets and achieving profits. [And] this production of novelty by firms… has a perfect counterpart in us, …in consumers… [because] it turns out we have something of an appetite for novelty. We love new stuff.

Investment in the production and consumption of novelty is the second cyclical engine of the growth-based economy. It utilises a socially-driven economic logic that has proved impossible and undesirable to counteract, as:
[The last few decades have seen] a story of us being encouraged, persuaded perhaps, to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about, or worse still, who don’t care about us. Now what was that about? When all we wanted to do was to create a decent place for ourselves in the social world.

Jackson contends that our pursuit of novelty does not only come from a materialistic desire but also from an anxiety to “live a life without shame” and a need to reinforce our genuine hope for a better future. It is the exploitation of this narrow conception of humanity, (that we are dominated by “self-regarding behaviours”) that will lead to our, and the planet’s, ultimate undoing. Jackson concludes that, “what we’ve done is we’ve created economies [and] we’ve created systems, which systematically privilege [and] encourage one narrow quadrant of the human soul”. But being such a multifaceted species, an economic system that appeals to both our “self-regarding behaviours” and our “other-regarding behaviours” (demonstrating altruism, valuing community and conservation), is possible and Jackson explores this de-carbonised and ecologically sustainable economy in his lecture and book, Prosperity Without Growth.

So why don’t we consider a change in our priorities for investment or even just discuss the growth questions raised in this piece? It’s very simple to answer, frustratingly so. There is a compelling trap in the growth-based model which almost guarantees a politicians unwavering support for the necessity of investment in novelty (thus causing the abuse of finite resources) as a fail-safe for growth and low unemployment:
[By] continually pursuing labour productivity [in a growth economy]… [you are] doing more next year with fewer people and driving people out of work, unless what? Unless your economy is growing [and that growth, as we have seen, is strongly aided by the production and consumption of novelty]. Now here is something that politicians understand. That growth equals jobs, that jobs equals votes and any government that doesn’t respond appropriately will find itself out of office.

The “dilemma of growth”, if left unaddressed by this country, will undermine our ability to effectively deal with climate change, to preserve our finite resources, to prevent further biodiversity loss and to construct the future Australia that Julia Gillard so often refers to.

So what are our options?

We can keep enforcing the narrow parameters of Australia’s climate change discourse, which will allow us to merrily continue arguing over carbon tax details and appropriate compensation. And if you accept that deal, we can also happily remain in denial over the fact that there will be climate change collateral no matter what we do. That some jobs will be lost, that many companies will have to adapt and that the majority of citizens will have to make a regular monetary sacrifice. But what this option essentially means is leaving climate change and environmental sustainability issues for future generations to deal with. And choosing this option means betting on the development of currently unimaginable technological advancements.

Or the other option is that we can face up to the reality that modern humanity has left us. We can be empowered and challenged by new ideas and we can have faith in our ability to innovate and advance technologically. This country can, if it so chooses, be a leader in the creation and production of renewable energy technology. There is great potential for Australia to develop a unique energy system tailored to suit this vast continent. And to do so we must break free of Australia’s inferiority complex and prove that we produce (and hopefully retain) some of the smartest scientists, business people and policy thinkers in the world. It requires a more than substantial boost in government support to relevant research projects and for all Australians to place a higher value on knowledge capital. This option essentially calls for all citizens to re-examine their moral position and consciously decide what their responsibility for acting on climate change should be.

So how can Gillard obtain public and consequently, increased political support for this option? Well, there is a reason why many Australians still have particularly fond sentiments for Gough Whitlam, and that is because Gough Whitlam aimed high. Even if he perhaps, aimed unrealistically high at times and made a few economic mistakes along the way, there is no doubt that Whitlam’s reforms landed just below where he had aimed. That is what Kevin Rudd tried to do in 2007 and during his prime ministership, and that is what Julia Gillard and Labor must do now in order to regain public support and garner consensus in order to act on climate change. It’s time to aim higher and land with effective reforms rather than aim low and land with ineffective political folly.

Note: All direct quotes transcribed from Tim Jackson’s 2010 Deakin Lecture, Prosperity Without Growth.

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Australia’s dubious and enduring political mantra, ‘Go For Growth’

Have a read of this excerpt from Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech, delivered at the Sydney Institute (Luna Park “campus”), 13 April 2011:

“Friends, we have a fiscal framework aimed at making the boom last and not adding to the boom’s inflationary pressures.

And we have a policy framework aimed at ensuring all Australians benefit from the opportunities created by the boom.

To appreciate this policy framework, I think it is necessary to appreciate some of the contradictory elements of the economic context.

What I think of as “patchwork pressures” in our economy, where some parts of the economy are strained by growth while others risk being left behind.

Because mining is especially profitable at the moment, it rewards investors and pays workers well.

Investment, equipment and workers are drawn from other parts of the economy, like a magnet dragging iron filings towards it.

In mining areas, the boom has lifted housing costs, it forces non-miners to raise wages to keep workers and it puts pressure on infrastructure like roads, ports and rail.

The record high for the Australian dollar lowers prices for imports – which is good for consumers – but it does make it harder for our exporters to compete.

Mining’s hunger for equipment and workers can also raise costs and make it harder for these non-mining sectors to compete, compounding the high dollar’s effects.

All these pressures require careful management.

So to manage these pressures we have sought to bolster productivity and balance growth:

By improving vital economic infrastructure – roads, rail and ports so we better get goods to market and people to work – with the NBN providing the most vital infrastructure of the future.

Connecting regional Australia – regions of growth and regions needing more growth – to the economic capitals of this country, and the world.

By cutting company tax cut and increasing tax breaks for small businesses, all funded by the mineral resource rent tax, so the most profitable miners increase economic reward and opportunity in other parts of the economy.

By revolutionising our approach to human capital – the most important asset for dealing with structural economic shifts – with deep integrated reform policies to improve the quality of education in schools today.

By record skills investments and growth and reform of universities.

By developing a new, detailed regional agenda so that we understand each part of the nation and engage its local leadership.

By reviewing the GST carve up in order to marry up the “fair go” principle which informs federal financial relations with the realities of today’s economy and today’s reform needs.

By reforming our skilled migration 457 visas to end the rorts and get skilled labour to employers who need it.

Friends, these are economic reforms and responses to deal with the “patchwork economy”.

But “patchwork pressures” are not only felt by industry or something to be distilled in a set of statistics.

These patchwork pressures have a human face as well.”

‘The Dignity of Work’, speech delivered by PM Julia Gillard at the Sydney Institute (Luna Park), 13 April 2011.

What was most salient in Gillard’s speech was that her government’s natural response to economic “pressures”, seeks “to bolster productivity and balance growth.” And by balancing growth, I take it that they mean providing other areas of the economy with the opportunity to grow, so that there is growth, somewhat, across the board. The balance would also be achieved by slightly constraining those areas where increased growth has started to have unhealthy effects on the economy.

What is a seemingly benign remark on the surface is actually a core dilemma. Have we consciously considered what economic growth means to Australia? Have we asked, how much growth is sustainable? What are the positive and negative consequences? In which sectors and regions should growth be encouraged?

We may have addressed these concerns in passing and at a very superficial level, but I haven’t seen a public throw down over the concept of growth. What was once a description rightly used decades ago, “growth is good for the economy” has now become an economic and political prescription, “we must have growth, it is always best.”

I’d bet that the average Australian does not think to question what they are told when it comes to growth and economics, and who could blame them? It’s dry, incomprehensible at times and the ideology behind the economy as a whole is not an everyday concern. There are other things to worry about. Issues that affect us much more directly in our day-to-day activities (except if you’re in the financial sector, of course) than whether the economy grows, where that growth occurs and what the practical, ideological and political effects of that growth is.

Of course we all want our economy to travel well. Every government and nation does. It usually means that we materially prosper. But what if there were other ways of measuring the success of our economy and the prosperity of our society? I know, you may have just panicked. What? We’re questioning growth? Just pause for a moment and consider what Professor Tim Jackson has to say (take note, he advises governments, including the British, about economic growth and sustainability).

In his book, ‘Prosperity Without Growth’, Jackson writes a comprehensive analysis of the global economy in general and suggests a different kind of ‘economics for a finite planet’. Now I don’t want to give anything away because Jackson is so eloquent and fascinating to listen to that it would be much better for you to encounter his ideas first-hand.

Watch this 20-minute video of a lecture he delivered at TED talks, it is mind-boggling. I had to watch it twice. But keep in mind it is only a brief run down of his main arguments.

And if you’re curious and want to understand his proposition fully, check out the 2010 Deakin Lecture he delivered in Australia on podcast at Radio National. It’s well-worth the time.

Please, if you have any responses to the video or podcast, I’d love to know what you think.

Thanks for reading.

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The perversion of social democracy in Australia

This post: ‘The Perversion of Social Democracy in Australia’, was originally published here at the ABC ‘The Drum’ website 11 April, 2011.

The somewhat under-recognised British historian Tony Judt (1948-2010) delivered a landmark lecture in 2009 called, ‘What Is Living and What Is Dead In Social Democracy?’ In it he raises remarkably poignant and palpable points regarding the origin, the flourishing success and the latent decline of the social democratic tradition. What is most haunting is just how closely Judt’s observations can be applied to the nebulous operation of social democracy in Australia today and its place within its local ideological home, the Australian Labor Party.

I don’t think I’m taking a great leap in saying, we all have an intuitive feeling that Labor has a pervasive inability to communicate its policies to the public. We might even be tired of hearing about this communication and identity crisis that never seems to die. To further state the obvious, even the primary objective stated in Labor’s constitution appears somewhat dislocated from those quintessentially “Labor values” of greater social and economic equality, public ownership and services, fairness, labour rights, social justice and equal access to opportunity.

“The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.” (National Constitution of the Australian Labor Party, 2009)

This contemporary Labor values confusion was also plainly obvious when Prime Minister and Federal Labor Leader Julia Gillard delivered the Inaugural Whitlam Institute Oration in Western Sydney on March 31, 2011.

In her speech she defensively distanced Labor from the past and its former values and actively pushed the Party’s agenda towards “the future” which just happened to include a suite of more liberal, fiscally focused and socially moderate values:

“The historic mission of our political party is to ensure the fair distribution of opportunity. … Creating opportunity and enabling social mobility has required different policies in every age. We have moved beyond the days of big government and big welfare, to opportunity through education and inclusion through participation.”;

“And we are the party of the future. From our earliest days we have always known that you don’t turn back; you can’t turn back. There will always be those who say the way ahead for Labor is to go back.”;

“We are a party of government with all the attachment to the political centre and to pragmatic decision making that comes with being a party of government.”

This repeated desire of Gillard’s to distance Labor from their past, and instead be “interpreters of the future” comes with unintended negative connotations and is a sign of intellectual naiveté. Nineteenth-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, would strongly challenge Gillard’s propensity to brush aside Labor’s public policy history, because some ideas, people and moments in history are useful to be remembered when they can propel an individual into action and lead to personal flourishing. This theory should hold true for Labor’s predicament.

In Julia Gillard’s Whitlam Institute Oration there seemed to be a littering of underlying messages produced by this overt tension between the status of old Labor values and the new. To paraphrase the messages that emerge from Gillard’s speech; “we are not our past”, “we are a party with similar values that have been tailored to respond to a new conservative and uncertain context”, “the ways in which our values will be cautiously promoted will result in comparatively unremarkable policies and outcomes”, “our dutifully open striving for the middle and for pragmatism might conceal and excuse our policy-values disjunction” and above all else, “the situation we find ourselves in is not our fault, it is the harsh reality of the globalised and liberalised world we live in.”

Whilst listening to Julia Gillard’s speech, it became immediately apparent that we have been conditioned by successive federal governments to shudder when “welfare” is uttered, a now inherently dirty word. “Intervention(ist)” is another such word that we may never retrieve from the graveyard of Australian social democratic language.

Furthermore, a linguistic and conceptual change has recently emerged, such that the (blue-collar) “worker” now equates to (low- and middle-class) “working families”. That’s fair enough. Society has naturally progressed with class distinctions in politics subtly evolving and becoming less publicly referred to. But even this modern reference to a foundational Labor principle, that of labour rights and equality of access to opportunity, has amalgamated so much into the mainstream that it is merely an empty signifier of what once was a strength and distinguishing feature of the Labor Party.

Labor’s once radically left values and accompanying language has been adopted by society to become the political syntax of the many. Subsequently, Labor has been led into an impossible fight for the middle with the Liberal Party, because their once exclusive “turf” has submerged into an accepted Australian hybrid of socio-democratic liberalism.

This submersion has led to an inevitable fusion of Labor’s egalitarian moral and ethical values with liberal economic structures. Our problem is that political parties and society in general, have unhealthily absorbed Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Whilst this is fairly unproblematic for the Liberal Party, whose traditional objectives of a free market economy and minimal government intervention in individual and private-sector affairs, marry with this econo-centric rhetoric, it conversely leaves the Labor Party in a real bind.

Tony Judt is able to shine light on the disappearance of social democratic values in public policy-making. The following are excerpts from his lecture, ‘What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy’:

“There is this curious cognitive dissonance between the ends that people are willing, in very large numbers, to approve and even seek, than the means that they are willing to consider.”

“Our problem is not sociological, it’s not economical, it is… discursive, we don’t know how to talk about these things anymore.”

“We have lost the capacity to think of public affairs except in, and in a very restricted sense, in economic terms. When we ask of a policy or a proposal, is it good or bad? We don’t actually ask, is it good or bad? We ask, is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Would it be efficient in that respect? Would it contribute or not contribute to growth and so on. We ask, in a very restricted sense, economic questions, we talk economics as a language of public policy. That is not a natural condition, it is an acquired one.”

“How did we come to think in exclusively economic terms, such that, when we have a purportedly national debate about whether or not we (Americans) should fix our collective arrangements for health care, we can only ask, how much will it cost? Who will pay? How much are we willing to sacrifice? And will it be efficient? Rather than, is it good? Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it bad? Is it just? Is it fair?”

Some recent Australian public policy debates came to mind when encountering Judt’s thesis:

– The need and disputed measures required to address climate change (Outcome: Economic cost and efficiency must naturally take priority over what is good and right for the environment now and in the long-term. A good economy is what keeps society thriving.)
– The introduction of a Paid Parental Leave Scheme, the level of financial support a government should provide and where the money should come from. (Outcome: Providing equal opportunity for individuals to participate and succeed in all aspects of life, including both work and family, through comprehensive paid parental leave? A utopian myth.)
– The often avoided question of an undervalued tertiary sector (Outcome: Technological innovation? We’re proud when innovation does eventuate but we’re doing enough and Australia doesn’t traditionally support intellectual elitism.)
– The allocation of public health care funding and the particular areas that should be prioritised (Outcome: So what about mental health?)
and
– The question of significant public investment in vital infrastructure like the National Broadband Network versus the alternative – a minimally regulated public-private sector collaboration (Outcome: If the NBN is built solidly and cohesively by the government using public finances this will lead to definite increases in work productivity. This is good for the economy and that is why it must go ahead.)

I must admit I was initially surprised by Tony Judt’s suggestion that we could or even should be considering and debating these moral aspects so directly, forcefully and in such prominent focus. Yes, these moral questions are always considered to be of great importance by politicians and society in general, but rarely do they seem to be the tipping point towards a greater social outcome in public policy.

It seems to me that Judt is suggesting, for a social democratic agenda and corresponding real outcomes to actualise, asking the moral and ethical questions of public policy, “… is it good? Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it bad? Is it just? Is it fair?” and thereby determining collective values, is just as important as managing economic concerns.

This is what Labor must recognise as essential to their ability to create a distinctive, courageous and confident narrative for itself in public policy creation and reform. Or as Judt suggests, for all political groups and societies with a social democratic foundation, “they need to begin by asking, how should we talk politics? Before asking, what are our policies?”

Some of the policies Labor has been most proud of, the introduction of Medibank (now Medicare), the Snowy Mountains Scheme and even the eight-hour working day, have been significant milestone’s in the progression and renewal of social democratic values and labour rights, all critical to the Labor identity, hence this reformist tradition must continue.

Bestowing equal consideration to social democratic values and liberal values is a sure path for Labor to follow in order to become a credible, robust and distinctive long-term alternative to the Liberal party. And personally, I am concerned about the current and future implications of the Labor Party’s current direction on balanced liberal and social democratic policy creation in Australia. Foresight and innovation is required for this country to transition into a new carbon-conscious and sustainability-focused world. The same great and somewhat risky step is required for Labor to transition into a truly progressive party for now and for the future.

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Labor, Public Policy and the Infiltration of Economics

The points Tony Judt makes in this lecture are so relevant to Australia and the Labor Party right now, that it is as if he had this country in mind when he was developing his thesis. Either that or we are politically far more similar to Europe than we think. These ideas have since been solidified and published in his book, ‘Ill Fares The Land’, which I would highly recommend to read.

I have personally transcribed some of the essence of Tony Judt’s lecture on social democracy. The quotes are in chronological order and develop as a narrative. The only other transcription available on the internet is an adaptation from his speech notes for the New York Review of Books and is quite different to what Judt actually says.

Tony Judt, in his lecture, ‘What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?’:

“There is this curious cognitive dissonance between the ends that people are willing, in very large numbers, to approve and even seek, than the means that they are willing to consider.”

“Our problem is not sociological, it’s not economical, it is… discursive, we don’t know how to talk about these things anymore.”

“We have lost the capacity to think of public affairs except in, and in a very restricted sense, in economic terms. When we ask of a policy or a proposal, is it good or bad? We don’t actually ask, is it good or bad? We ask, is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Would it be efficient in that respect? Would it contribute or not contribute to growth and so on. We ask, in a very restricted sense, economic questions, we talk economics as a language of public policy. That is not a natural condition, it is an acquired one.”

“How did we come to think in exclusively economic terms? Such that, when we have a purportedly national debate about whether or not we should fix our collective arrangements for health care, we can only ask, how much will it cost? Who will pay? How much are we willing to sacrifice? And will it be efficient? Rather than, is it good, is it right, is it wrong, is it bad, is it just, is it fair?”

“It’s not accidental that today in Europe social democrats do badly again and again and again at elections, even in traditionally social democratic countries, even in the midst of a shameful, catastrophic financial crisis. The reason is because their language no longer bears any convincing relationship to their programs.

Social democracy emerged as the alternative within the left to Marxist socialism and a little later to Communism. If you look at the great texts of the social democrats in the 30s and 40s they are all defensively targeted towards their left. “We are democratic”, they say, “not authoritarian, we believe in freedom, not repression. We are not communists”, to some extent, although this varied, “we are not Marxists, we are democrats who happen to believe in social justice” and so on.

When the main objective of social democrats was to show that they were not communists and to implant themselves firmly in liberal societies as plausible alternative governments this made sense. Today this rhetorical tick makes no sense. It’s not accidental that Angela Merkel can win an election in Germany against a social democratic opposition with a set of policies that essentially resemble theirs.

The social democrats of today have a problem, they won in Europe. Social democracy in one form or another is, with apologies to Moliere, ‘the prose that people speak’, so social democrats have nothing distinctive to offer, they have no narrative to offer, no story which distinguishes them from the centre and centre right, and the mainstream. It’s different in this country (America), I’ll come back to that.

But social democrats need a new language, they need to begin by asking how should we talk politics before asking what are our policies. The policies are not the problem. So what can be recovered? Well we could begin with the practices of social democracy.”

HOW I THINK THIS APPLIES TO AUSTRALIA:

Now a small number of you may ask, what does this have to do with Australia? Well, if you haven’t thought of any examples I’m gathering you may have read these quotes passively and have not taken Judt’s thesis in, in which case I would ask you to re-read it or come back to it later. If you’re on the ball today you may have applied this argument to the Australian Labor Party and/or some of its policies and policy debates. Now this is stating the obvious, but there really is very little distinguishing them from the Liberal Party anymore, and this is because they have lost their hold on the language of social democracy, or rather, this language has become an empty signifier (for all socially democratic parties). There is a scattering of linguistic relics which remind us of what once was; a party for the worker who primarily looks after lower-middle class interests. Or what PM Gillard would now refer to as caring for “working families.” This stark change is of course a natural product of history and progression. No one expects the Labor Party to stay the same; a strongly unionist, hard left, socially democratic party. The only problem is that Labor still thinks (to a slightly lesser extent) and promotes publicly that this is what they are and that these are the same values they continue to stand for. This is, in my opinion, far from the present reality.

So what then isn’t quite working for Labor at the moment? I believe that we all have an intuitive feeling that Labor merely lacks an ability to communicate their policies well. But as Judt points out, it is more than that, it is a failure to speak about issues within a socially democratic discourse and this highlights a fundamental tension between the old Labor values and the new. The new Labor lives in a world centred on obsessively economic-focussed policy creation. There are obviously good reasons for this focus with global competition becoming more intense, economies becoming more linked and a constant fight for growth. But what we miss, what we lose, in this public and legislative discourse is the ability to weigh more equally the economic with the moral, equitable, fair and ethical questions and dimensions of policy. At the moment it seems that the numbers, efficiency and growth are more important than the actual outcomes. This can be said for Labor’s health policy (where is mental health in all of this?), Paid Parental Leave Scheme, seriously depleted tertiary funding, empty and superficial changes to education from a Federal level (MySchool, National Curriculum etc.) That is just scraping the surface, and don’t get me wrong, the Liberal Party also suffer from this, but the difference is that they don’t purport to be a party with socially democratic values, they are liberal conservatives and they make that position fairly clear.

I do not want to dismiss the Labor Party’s attempts to improve socially-supportive policies such as a proposed increase in superannuation to 12%, the NBN, an un-capped number of CSP-supported tertiary places, a change to and relaxing of the criteria for Youth Allowance and their continued welfare support to those in the community who truly need a little help to get back on their feet. My point here is that if Labor is looking to be a credible, robust and distinctive long-term alternative to the Liberal Party (and the Greens), something radical needs to change in party thinking. And personally, I care about this because of the current and future effects this current direction will have on a balanced liberal and socially democratic policy creation in Australia. Foresight and innovation is required for Australia to transition into this new carbon-conscious and sustainability-focussed world and with that said, I’ll leave it there.

Liberal Party and conservatism post to come…

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