Category Archives: Philosophy

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 And then there are superficial “puff” responses that reinforce the outdated, circulating social memes we still have to fight against.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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Filed under Gender, Ideas, Philosophy, Relationships

Walk a mile in a man’s social media shoes

It has been an exciting time for me. The article I wrote, ‘Walk a mile in a man’s social media shoes’, published at ABC The Drum on July 8, 2011 created a definite stir, something I honestly didn’t expect.

What surprised me was the overwhelming and very positive response I received from both men and women, equally, saying that the article resonated with their own experiences and/or has made them think and reflect on their own interactions with this gender filter in mind. Many men have happily admitted to me that perhaps I was pretty on the mark with my ‘Twitduel Rules.’

I would like to thank everyone who contacted me about the story and has given me their personal insights. This kind of interaction about posts or publications is what all bloggers and writers most want. Thanks also to Dr. Cordelia Fine for kindly allowing me to quote from her book, ‘Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences’ Please read it, you will not be disappointed.

I was interviewed on the radio station, 4ZZZ 102.1FM in Brisbane on the news and current affairs program ‘Brisbane Line’. The very talented Stephen Stockwell was the interviewer and you can listen to the unedited audio of the interview here:
Radio interview with Amy Mullins on Gender, politics and social media

Walk a Mile in a Man’s Social Media Shoes

We all know how the famous saying goes; “If you want to understand a person, walk a mile in their shoes.”

It sounds corny and it’s pretty much stating the obvious, but it is an important truism.

If I want to understand an intellectual concept or a public issue I can study abstract theories, read articles and pore through books, but nothing is a substitute for experience. If you want to have a revelation, you have to live it and that’s what I inadvertently did when I became a “Twitter man”.

When I opened my Twitter account @Get_Shortened a year ago yesterday on July 7, 2010, I was intending to use it as a way of bridging the communication gap between my newly established blog, Get Shortened, and the people who I hoped would be interested in its content and what I wanted to debate.

It was not a tool to promote the author (myself) or to create a personal focus; actually it was intentionally the opposite. I set out to be an anonymous blogger.

I didn’t share my age, gender, occupation, how lame I thought the contestants on MasterChef were, that I was in desperate need of a coffee or that I was having a productive day. To me, all of that was needless distraction.

I wanted to steer the reader’s focus to the criticisms and arguments I was making on my blog about issues I considered to be of public importance. I set out to do this in a manner that was as objective as possible. The ideas, reasoning and evidence were more important than my personal opinions and should be able to stand alone if I was fulfilling the academic principles I had learnt at university and taken on as my own.

I was, and still am, interested in finding the truth in an issue by analysing the primary sources (political speeches, interviews and policy documents), understanding the political context, sifting through the endless amounts of secondary commentary and subsequently figuring out where the gaps and/or inaccuracies are. In a small way, I wanted to rectify the serious lack of intellectual scrutiny of public policy as exemplified in the media’s coverage of, and hollow public debate during, the 2010 federal election campaign in Australia.

The blog and my Twitter account were a synchronised stream of my criticisms and explorations of the Australian media and federal politics. The only problem with leaving an identity vacuum is that people tend to fill it, something I had not foreseen. And so, with a Twitter avatar of a cartoon man resembling Bill Shorten, my blog’s namesake, I was now assumed to be a bloke.

“Thanks mate”, “cheers”, “how are you dear Sir?”, “thanks bud”… These were the mildly gendered terms I was suddenly faced with. It certainly caught me by surprise but in keeping with my “be anonymous, the author is unimportant” manifesto, I used gender neutral language in my tweets, also something I prefer to do in everyday life.

Yet it wasn’t being referred to in blokey terms that got me thinking about gender. It was when I started having heated arguments over a variety of topics in Australian politics and got to put on my “man shoes” that I was hit in the face with a harsh and disheartening reality.

It turns out that if you’re a man having an-all-in political debate on Twitter with another man, there are certain codes of conduct for this gender exclusive duel. Note: Not every male will partake in one.


Always maintain a stiff upper lip
Don’t get angry, but personal slings are allowed
Remain aloof and unaffected by witty insults
Never lose face
Your pride is always at stake and it is most important
Power is up for grabs, and is the reward
Don’t ever admit absolute defeat even if you realise your argument is flawed
Be overtly rational (assert your ‘masculine’ qualities)
Metaphorically butt heads with supreme Alpha-male confidence
Only another man can increase your public respect by partaking in this privilege.
Oh, and remember to have a laugh about it later.

I had the most glorious fun duelling as a man, with another fairly prominent man, in the #auspol Twitter world. This was in the very early stages before I had even realised there was a gender exclusive game, let alone the rules of the game. We were arguing quite heatedly over the oft disputed political bias of Kerry O’Brien when he was still headlining for The 7.30 Report.

A few impressive insults were flung my way, every argument I put forward (in favour of O’Brien’s impartiality) was bitingly scoffed at, my political adeptness and perceptiveness was questioned and mocked and you know what? I loved every moment of it.

I was astonished and pretty darn energised and invigorated by it. My utter enjoyment of such an intellectual and personal grilling, besides the fact that it even occurred, caught me by absolute surprise. Being taken aback, my response was to deflect the negativity as I don’t believe in engaging in intellectual conflict that becomes personal.

I won’t name my fellow dueller because directing blame is never productive, but a significant time after this duel occurred, when I had outed myself as a female, I was told by someone who knows him well that he would have been “horrified” to find out he had been arguing so passionately, scathingly and proudly about politics with a woman.

Given another chance I have been assured that he would never give me the honour of partaking in another such Twitduel because he now knows my true gender. And that’s a real shame. I didn’t expect to hear that and I must admit, I was a little bit hurt.

This experience opened my eyes to the more subtle sexism that is often not perpetuated maliciously, but rather creeps in as a response to entrenched social and cultural gender norms and stereotypes.

After this particular duel, I paid closer attention to the intellectual debates on Twitter between men and women and I noticed something very off-putting that confirmed my suspicions.

Women who I respect and admire, especially a few journalists, made some brilliantly perceptive observations on issues in Australian federal politics that would rarely be encountered in the public sphere. Yet, they barely got a mention by the other prominent men in the Twittersphere and I wondered to myself, had a man said that, would it have gained more praise or have been taken more seriously? From what I have seen generally, yes it would.

Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian academic psychologist and writer published a book in 2010 entitled, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. It is a well-written, sharp-witted, thoroughly researched, engaging and academically principled book on the topic of gender and neuropsychology.

In it she dedicates a chapter to how men and women’s professional abilities are perceived through a fixed and subtle lens of sexism. Fine provides some interesting anecdotal evidence and a case study among other things:

“…even today, the evidence suggests that it would be a shrewd career move for a woman to disguise herself as a man.” People who have transformed their identity in this way – namely, female-to-male transsexuals – report decidedly beneficial consequences in the workplace. Ben Barres is a professor of neuropsychology at Stanford University, and a female-to-male transsexual. In an article in Nature he recalls that ‘[s]hortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”


Similar stories cropped up in a recent interview study of twenty-nine female-to-male transsexuals. Kirsten Schilt, a Research Fellow at Houston’s Rice University, interviewed the men about their work experiences both before and after their transition from women to men. Her study reveals that many immediately enjoyed greater recognition and respect. Thomas, an attorney, related how a colleague praised the boss for getting rid of Susan, whom he regarded as incompetent. He then added that the ‘new guy’, Thomas, was ‘just delightful’ – not realising, of course, that Thomas and Susan were one and the same.

Let’s not ignore though that on Twitter I have seen women in debates with men on Australian politics say some outrageous things, displaying a level of ignorance and lack of understanding that I would never have got away with as man. Yet they were not called out for it, their public intellectual reputation was not challenged and they would never have been given the honour to be cut down to size Twitduel-style.

There was a failure to engage by men just as they did before. The first situation because of the woman is “out-of-place”, perceivably masculine objective insight and the last situation because the woman fulfilled gender expectations. Her arguments were written off as mere “opinions” originating from an emotional place, when really they were just ill-conceived intellectual arguments.

There seems to be an unspoken rule in life, that is exemplified by my experiences on Twitter, that men must tread on eggshells around women, dare they briefly put them on a pedestal or upset them!

The science suggests that there is no biological difference between the male and female brain in terms of intellectual capabilities. What hampers both sexes and creates inequalities or perceived differences comes from the sexism we allow to perpetuate socially.

Fine eloquently writes that

“…when we categorise someone as male or female, as we inevitably do, gender associations are automatically activated and we perceive them through the filter of cultural beliefs and norms. This is sexism gone underground – unconscious and unintended…”

This kind of sexism doesn’t come from a place of malice or intent, hence it is much harder to see and change for the better.

On sex differences, to put it simply and somewhat crudely, the only difference between a man and a woman is that a man was born with a penis, a higher level of testosterone and the ability to impregnate a woman, and a woman was born with breasts and a vagina, a higher level of oestrogen and the capability to bear children.

Gender is a truly fluid concept that has been rigidly imposed socially on humans for structurally pragmatic reasons that, whilst they simplify societal structures and interactions, also enforce inequality and discrimination.

Since revealing myself to be a woman, I have missed being treated like a bloke. I miss not being expected to get excited about my new hair colour. I long for my blog posts to be read without the reader’s perceptions being coloured by my age, level of life experience and gender. But what I really miss is having an impassioned and thoroughly critical argument with another man, puffing out my intellectual chest and stalking around in my Italian leather “man boots”.

Given the chance again, I would not decline an offer to walk a mile in a man’s shoes.

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Filed under Gender, Philosophy, Politics

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?)
– 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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Nietzsche on the Necessity of Hope and Illusion to Engender Social Change

Hope as a presumption.

‘Our social order will slowly melt away, just as all earlier orders have done, as soon as the suns of new opinions shine with a new heat over humanity. We can wish for this melting away only if we have hope: and we may reasonably be hopeful only if we give to ourselves and to others like us credit for more strength in our hearts and heads than we do to the representatives of what presently exists. This hope will therefore usually be a presumption, an overestimation.’

From Human, All Too Human, aphorism no. 443, Friedrich Nietzsche.

This has relevance for Australia today as a country that is looking to make significant economic and hence, social, changes but can’t seem to overcome the mental obstacles and societal restructuring required for them. I’m thinking in particular of climate change policy (utter lack of creative foresight) and a carbon tax, the non-existent infrastructure plans and visions for a future Australia in response to a booming (global) population and the tension between Australia’s traditional identity and nationalism and the current globalised and people movement-intensified world.

To global readers, I’m sure any of the above examples could be applied to some degree to other countries worldwide.

I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about this quote by Nietzsche, what your take is on it as a piece of philosophy and/or in relation to these current issues or any others you have in mind.

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What Is So Different About Australia?

John Ralston Saul at the Sydney Writers Festival 2010

John Ralston Saul:

“There’s an interesting opportunity if you’re Australian or Canadian because we know what that (the European) tradition is, but we also belong to another tradition. One which was here before any immigrants came, and is still here and still very much alive and has many philosophical bases to it and one which has been created much more thanks to what is here than is admitted by most of the immigrants. An approach, which is not monolithic, which is not singular, which is not Westphalian, which doesn’t have one language, which has multiple myths. And if those of us who are immigrants are lucky enough to belong within that mythology that’s an enormous privilege. That’s something astonishing no matter how many things we’ve done wrong along the way.”

So what is Ralston Saul talking about? To paraphrase, he is saying, Australia is a country and a place where people, cultures and traditions existed prior to it being colonised by the British. Unlike, say France, where its citizens and intrinsically “European” culture and traditions were born out of its inception. Australia has adopted the “European” model of the nation state from the British and all that comes with it, the economic, social, habitational, legal and cultural structures. But it is not the same because we have both traditions and cultures. We hear the word multicultural bandied about incessantly, but really Australia is that and much more. It is a nation with a multitude of cultures and traditions, and with this comes so many more ideas and the opportunity to have original thoughts and solutions to the problems we face. The problem is that we have not recognised the true (and boundlessly positive) potential in Australia’s inherent difference.

John Ralston Saul goes on to say:

“…take away the commodities from Australia and Canada and I can tell you, what’s left is little better than probably a mid-level third world economy”

“We’ve all bought into the Western concept of ‘progress’…”

“So there is this contradiction between the way we’re living our lives which seems so European and Western and the reality which that there is a whole other tradition here evoked by those new Australians…”

and hence,

“You have access to thoughts and ideas which are deeply outside what is taught…”

He suggests that Australia and the world have a problem, global warming, and yet all we can do is argue over percentage points. We have an economy which is heavily dependent on finite commodities and no future plan for when the ground is emptied. Our “Australian” way of life will not survive with a services-based economy, and demand for retail goods and increased population growth is not going to maintain our living standards. This is where Ralston Saul thinks our unique situation of having access to so many ideas, thoughts and cultures can lead to an Australian cultural independence and an identity that is truly our own, made up of every person living in this country; every “new Australian” and every other citizen born here. That is not to say that we should discard our cultural heritage and current identity because that is both impossible and undesirable, we would not be where we are now and would not have had the experiences and made the mistakes, without it.

This is where I extend Saul’s ideas with some of my own. There can, if we choose, be harmony and minor discord between our “blood-stained” past of colonisation and our all-inclusive future. Now, what is key to understand is that brilliant, carefully-nurtured and tested ideas will not spring from our politicians. The ideas will come from “ordinary Australians” and they will come to prominence through a gradual societal embrace of these swirling ideas. Our consciousness needs to be awake to these possibilities. Politicians will pick up on these ideas when they have intellectual and social support. Now you may be an optimist, a cynic, a realist, an idealist, a conservative, a moderate, a leftie, a greenie or a ‘not interested’, but for the sake of perhaps genuine and unique national development keep your eyes, ears and mind open.

Culture and national identity is not a list of qualities, like mateship, fairness and generosity, just as a person’s essence or soul is not a list of characteristics. There is something that drives Australia to be what it is today, and that is the sum essences of every citizen. And to figure out an individual’s essence, you need to understand your essential drive in this world, be it to help others, solve our problems, shed light on ignored areas or even assist in the smooth-running and progressivity of society. It is because of this diverse range of drives, people, culture and traditions that we can continue to avoid uniformity (or as Ralston Saul refers to it, the “monolithic state”) and better yet we can help Australia continue to be a more unique, positive and individual force than it is in the world today.

John Ralston Saul and I cannot and have not given you concrete answers to how Australia will develop, but that was not, I believe, his or my intention. Conversely, it is to open up discussion and future possibilities, and also to show you just how lucky Australia (and other nations) are to have so much potential for originality and improvement.

If you have any contributions to make regarding these ideas, both mine and John Ralston Saul’s, his lecture or Australia Day in general, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear your views.

Listen to John Ralston Saul’s brilliant and very entertaining lecture at the Sydney Writers Festival here.

Happy Australia Day.


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