Bedtime Stories #2

The search for soul …Down the Adelaide Central Market, between Marino’s butchers…

Rachel Maddow on the daily madness

Let's hear it for the 'leader' of the free world.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhtc-jVgUSA&feature=youtu.beAnd just to…

Mosques, Museums and Politics: The Fate of Hagia…

When the caustic Evelyn Waugh visited the majestic sixth century creation of…

COVID-19: Where was it born: China, the United…

Continued from: COVID-19: Where was it born: China, the United States or…

We live in shadowy times and white men…

As a man who is but months away from turning 80 I…

An open letter to Scott Morrison, PM

Mr Morrison,Do you realise how much better off you are than the…

The Hypocrisies of Recognition: The Supreme Court, Native…

The Supreme Court of the United States has barely had time to…

Bedtime Stories #1

I stare into time’s eyes … She stares back at me. Actually,…

«
»
Facebook

OzFenric has a background in biological sciences and information management. He has worked as a librarian, a web designer and a social researcher. In his spare time he leads a church choir, performs in amateur musical theatre and writes fiction. He has won peer awards for editing and for writing, but never anything with money attached!

The Propaganda Machine

In recent weeks there has been much commentary about the formation of Bjorn Lomborg’s “Consensus Centre” within the halls of the University of Western Australia. We have been aggrieved at the profligate use of taxpayer funds during a “budget crisis”. We are offended, but hardly surprised, at the disbanding of the independent Climate Council, saving $1.5m at the cost of losing internationally-recognised expert climate change opinion, followed by a $4m grant to the Consensus Centre, whose methodology and outcomes are universally panned. We have been repeatedly shamed by our government in its statements and actions on the world stage in relation to climate change, and this latest move is simply the most recent in a long list.

However, the issue goes deeper than this. Beyond our anger at the heedless use of money and the slap in the face to reputable Australian scientists whose contributions are valued far more cheaply than an imported demagogue; beyond our shame at being led by people who not only deny the recognised scientific truth but who paint Australia (and the rest of the world) as misled fools; and beyond our bemusement that our government could lend support to, and expect support from, an internationally derided charlatan who is good at manufacturing numbers. Beyond these things is the undeniable fact that our government is spending our money in an attempt to lie to us more effectively.

The Consensus Centre is a propaganda machine. Nothing more, nothing less.

I have written before about the cruel bind in which the Coalition finds itself. It is in the unusual, perhaps unique, position of having been voted into power to rule over a people who disagree with its central beliefs. The outcomes of such a conflict are seen in the 2014 budget – a budget true to the Coalition’s ideology, but absolutely rejected by the vast majority of the Australian people. We see the conflict in a hundred big and little ways, from the attempts to squeeze pensioner entitlements to the risible knighthood for Prince Philip. We have seen it in the government’s attitude to climate change: a conflict which will only grow as the outcomes of climate change become progressively more undeniable, as the rest of the world leaves Australia in the dust on climate change action, and as Australia’s coal assets become progressively more undesirable.

Our government, in toto, does not believe in climate change. We are led by a Prime Minister who, recent avowals that climate change is real notwithstanding, still truly believes that “The climate change argument is absolute crap”. Tony Abbott presides over a government whose overriding principle is to promote and support the continued use of coal for energy, both as an ideological position and an economic imperative. Australia’s current economy relies absolutely on coal, and everything the Coalition has done since coming to power has simply increased that dependence.

For the Coalition, the imperative is clear. Put simply, there are only two possible ways to make sense of the government’s avowed acceptance that climate change is happening and humans are responsible, and its actions upon coming to government.

  1. The first possibility is that the government does believe in climate change and sees future climate action as inevitable. However, Australia stands to lose, and lose big, if it accepts this publicly and is forced into action. Reforging the Australian economy as a 21st century society is seen as far too hard, a preferable approach being to deliberately sabotage and delay consensus in any way possible. In this way it can support its own temporary position, granting two or more terms of government, notwithstanding Australia’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels. In this analysis, the short term benefit which accrues to Australia and to the current cadre of politicians will eventually and inevitably lead to dire outcomes for Australia and likely disrepute for members of the current government. The current government’s actions to date do not appear to indicate that they particularly fear disrepute.

  2. The second probability is that the government really doesn’t believe in climate change. It has chosen to accept the (well under) three percent of scientists who profess any doubts at all. It prefers to listen to economists and accountants and fossil fuel lobby groups, to Heartland Institutes and Peers of the Realm, instead of the vast weight of scientific consensus in Australia and abroad. If you don’t believe in climate change, the only position with integrity is to frustrate the creation of any kind of global, binding emissions standards. To long-time watchers, it is quite clear that this government does not believe in climate change. The Emissions Reduction Fund that Greg Hunt is so proud of was always going to be a success because, in the government’s eyes, it is not expected to address any real problems, only political ones.

Thus we see Australia’s obstructive approach to global standards and agreements. We see Tony Abbott dismantling and disbanding and defunding every climate change body over which he has the least power. It’s a rearguard battle, one that will be lost, and soon, but the Coalition can’t afford to recognise that or they will see that a large portion of their policy platform is bankrupt.

At the same time, they recognise that the real fight is not against science. The unstated position of the Coalition is that the science is wrong, that the world is wrong. The Coalition does not intend to fight on that battlefield; the science is not the main game. The main game, for any political party at any time, is the beliefs of the people and the fight for re-election.

Thus the Consensus Centre. The Centre is the Coalition’s next piece of artillery in the war for the minds of the people.

The climate change war of ideas in Australia has not yet been won.

A large proportion of Australians accept the truth of AGW, at least intellectually, but there remains a reluctance to accept the ramifications. Tony Abbott knows this. The anti-renewable lobby knows this and is relying on it.

“The politics of this are tough for us. Eighty per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.” That was Tony Abbott’s unguarded commentary at the same event where he made the infamous “total crap” comment. In the government’s eyes, the problem is not climate change, desertification, the loss of arable land, or global action to decarbonise the world’s energy and bankrupt Australia’s coal economy. In the government’s eyes, the problem is the people, and their stupid belief in “the global warming religion” (as Tony Abbott’s chief business advisor, Maurice Newman, calls it).

The real purpose of Consensus Centre is not science. It is propaganda.

Lomborg is being paid to manage the “tough politics”, not to actually influence the science of climate change. The saying goes “Lies, damn lies and statistics…”, and this might be doubly true for an institution such as Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre, the body on which UWA’s Consensus Centre will be modelled. “[Lomborg] is famous for using economic modelling as a mercenary gun for hire, saleable to governments and jurisdictions requiring climate inaction, climate distraction, or just straight-out climate crisis denial.

On the surface, Lomborg’s Consensus methodology seems reasonable, perhaps even visionary. On the basis that we cannot fix all the problems in the world, Lomborg attempts to prioritise the various issues across the globe in terms of best return on money invested. The Consensus Centre methodology is primarily an economic one, and it judges climate change to be a low priority. It does this on the basis that addressing climate change will be very expensive for comparatively little gain. If this were true, there would be some validity to Lomborg’s approach. Unfortunately, this result can only be arrived at through underestimating the impacts of climate change, underestimating the amount of benefit global action could bring to the problem, and overestimating the cost of these efforts. Lomborg uses the “locked-in” climate change that is currently unavoidable to argue that our efforts to address climate change will be largely in vain, deliberately ignoring the exponential increase in climate damage that will come about if we don’t address global warming. He also claims that the required cost of decarbonising the world economy is too expensive, and our efforts would be better spent addressing more modest issues.

The consensus methodology is specifically intended to apply economic modelling to produce a predetermined outcome. This is the antithesis of science. Science operates on the basis of disproving hypotheses, measuring real-world data in order to be sure that it matches the theory. In science, there is no room to adjust the parameters of reality to make the answers say what you want.

In statistics, on the other hand, if the result comes out counter to what you hoped, you have the ability to change the inputs, say by valuing people in different places with different economic worths.

Lomborg’s Consensus Centre methodology has no academic credibility. “Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjorn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate.”

Fighting back without fighting

The Abbott’s government propaganda efforts are seeming more and more like George Orwell’s 1984. We are being led by a government that actively works to silence dissent; that seeks to criminalise protest; that has access to secret police and legislation that can effectively make its citizens disappear without trace, announcement or recourse; a government whose defining characteristic from well before it was elected was that it lied to the people it sought to govern. Now that same government is using taxpayer money to help set up a body with the primary purpose of lying to its electors more effectively.

When your government actively engages in deliberate propaganda, what can a concerned citizen do?

Some have proposed campaigns of civil disobedience. However, the March in March rallies, union actions, or currently the thousands-strong marches in protest of the closure of indigenous communities appear to have little effect on the extraordinary thick-skinned government. Following each rally, government ministers and conservative columnists pop up to say things like “Twenty thousand people marched, but that means four million people did not” and “These are union troublemakers, not ordinary people” and “We will not be swayed from what’s right [in our opinion]”. Does that mean that we should not march?

Obviously not. It may be too much to expect that the government would pay attention to the desires of its people when they go directly against Coalition ideology. But the one thing that currently separates this government from facism is our system of free elections. It is only at the ballot box that we can expect to address the wants of this government. So we must fight – not to change government policy, but to keep its failings in clear view. We must keep up the protests at the lies.

We must also be informed. We cannot rely on this government to give us the information we require to make effective decisions at the next election; in fact, this government relies on its people not receiving, or not paying attention to, real information on climate change, on the economy, on the budget and on asylum seekers. We must keep reading (and writing in) independent media vehicles such as the AIMN. We should bear in mind that most of what we hear from politicians and establishment media is liable to be designed to keep the populace misinformed and compliant. And we should keep our sources of primary information close to hand.

On climate change, to counter the “modelling” of the new Consensus Centre, there are a variety of primary sources. Skeptical Science is a vital resource. For those interested in understanding not just the truth of climate change, but the reasons behind ongoing climate change denial, this author can recommend the free online course Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, offered by the University of Queensland via ed-X. The course largely consists of a range of short online videos and interested participants can put as much, or as little, time into it as they prefer.

Whatever your preferred approach, however, just bear this in mind: your government is lying to you.

World-leading

2015, even at this early stage, has been a year of superheated politics and partisan disagreements. Labor, along with much of the rest of Australia, has been horrified by the Government’s approach to fiscal management. The cruel and heartless policies that are the inevitable result of considering vulnerability and need as moral failings, combined with the protection and mollycoddling provided to the rich and powerful – in the Liberal worldview, the morally superior – have disenfranchised large proportions of the Australian electorate.

In return, the Coalition continues to accuse Labor of profligacy and economic vandalism, of an inability to execute on policies and an amorphous raft of conspiracy theories about union corruption. They fudge figures and misrepresent data to support their contentions. As if Australia’s struggles with productivity and international trade competitiveness were not bad enough, the Coalition chooses to repeal taxes and forgo revenue and call it “Labor’s debt trajectory” when they don’t also remove the associated spending measures. [See, for example, the comments to this article.]

Misrepresentations and political rhetoric aside, there are indisputably economic headwinds in Australia’s future.

At the core of the political wordstorm is a simple cruel fact. Australia is not globally competitive. In a globalised world of trade – the world that Tony Abbott and the government are hell-bent on plunging us into via as many free trade agreements as possible – Australia cannot compete.

Australia – Expensive one day, dirt-poor the next

Australia cannot compete on the basis of manufacturing consumer goods. There is truth to the contention that our industrial relations regime is a drag on business competitiveness. Australians have quaint ideas about fair pay, about the importance of holidays, about the necessity of workplace safety. The hard truth is that the regulations in other countries are not as rigid as they are here. Manufacturing clothes in Bangladesh, as a pertinent example, is far cheaper than making them here. Australians generally feel that sweatshop conditions of virtual slavery are inappropriate for workers and should not be supported. Most of the time, we buy the cheaper clothes anyway. Occasionally a fire in factory makes the news and prompts Australians to check the origin of their goods, but these are temporary distractions.

Australia cannot compete on the basis of services. In a world where India and China, the heavyweights amongst a multitude of other nations all struggling to match America’s prosperity, are likely to have over a billion new entrants to the middle class in the next decade or two, there will always be someone overseas happy to provide the same services an Australian could provide, and for much less remuneration. Australia’s education market is currently competitive, but this cannot be expected to last. If Australia’s status as a prosperous nation were to flag, how long would an Australian university degree remain a desirable achievement?

In a global environment, goods and services can be sold either to a domestic or an international market. The important factor to consider is the trade deficit: the imbalance between goods and services produced by Australians and sold to the international market, and the goods and services produced by international markets and sold into Australia. The trade deficit at present is historically bad – and growing worse. This is the true unsustainability in Australia’s economy.

Australia’s current economy is underpinned by the resources sector. The ‘mining boom’ might be over but resources industries and royalties still bring in a large proportion of Australia’s revenue – at the expense of skills, resources, manpower and economic support to any other part of the Australian economy. The Coalition government is well aware of the imbalance in Australia’s output, and is determined to support the mining industries just as long as anyone, anywhere, is still willing to buy the raw materials we dig up. The deleterious effects to manufacturing, to refining, to science and non-mining industry, are well known, but the Coalition’s forward thinking appears to stretch no further than one or two elections ahead.

With a chronic trade deficit, with an economy utterly reliant on mining industries where the terms of trade are deteriorating with a concomitant effect on the country’s revenue and budget position, Australia is in critical need of a differentiating benefit. Australia has little to offer the world, but Australians have plenty they want to buy from the world. That’s a recipe guaranteed, over time, to make this country the “white trash of Asia”.

Neither major party appears to have a good solution in mind for this need. Politicians mouth about Australia being the “clever country” – whilst presiding over consecutive cuts to science and technology research, removal of subsidies to innovation and cuts to schools and universities, over a long time frame. It is true that science and technology are the underpinning of a progressive and prosperous nation. Unfortunately science and technology are the easy targets for a largely ignorant populace easily turned against “ivory tower academia”.

Labor has at least espoused some piecemeal policies aimed at diversifying Australia’s economic base. Its broadband policy (the original NBN plan) was a critical national infrastructure project intended to support the internet requirements of a country in a globally-connected world. Income from the MRRT was intended for an across-the-board cut to the corporate tax rate for small to medium enterprises. Australians are ruefully aware of the fate of these policies. In their place we have ongoing subsidies to fossil fuel industries and the active efforts of senior politicians to secure international venture funding for new mining projects regardless of the environmental cost. The Coalition is fighting a rearguard effort, a vain attempt to prop up the resources industries in this country. A generous evaluation indicates that they are fully aware of Australia’s weakness in every other area of the economy; but if this is the case, a wishful-thinking approach that hopes that Australian manufacturing can recover if we only pour more resources into non-manufacturing industries seems short-sighted, at best. Without a forward-thinking plan to provide Australia a new economic base, the future appears grim.

This author would like to suggest one possible set of policy priorities that could set Australia up for a useful participation in the 21st century global economy.

One possible solution

The first thing to note is that this is unashamedly a spending policy. It has to be. The old maxim is that you cannot tax your way to prosperity (a debatable proposition at best that I have only ever heard espoused from fiscal conservatives); equally, you cannot save your way into prosperity either. Labor understands this: you need to spend – otherwise known as “investing” – in order to reap greater benefits later. The Coalition also reluctantly admits this, but their approach is to acquire the required investment funds by selling things, and then to “invest” in a hands-off manner and hope that the economy will somehow grow just because there are more roads. The Coalition has taken some baby steps in this direction but it is likely that a hands-off approach will not be sufficient.

Funds are required for every useful investment. For this proposed policy, a significant amount of funding would be required. I don’t propose here to mandate a particular way to acquire these funds. Progressives might understand the value of borrowing the required funds, but if government borrowing is too poisonous a political concept at present, then there are a multitude of ways for further revenue to be secured. Let’s just posit a slight adjustment to the levels of superannuation tax breaks, earning $10bn a year. This mid-way figure might be able to appease those who argue against the abolition of the tax breaks while still reining in some of the worst rorting of the system. $10bn p.a. would be plenty of resources to fund the Future Industries Fund.

The Future Industries Fund – the FIF – would be tasked to identify and then intensively support six to ten high-value fields of scientific and technical research. These would be fields of endeavour where Australia has research capability or a natural advantage. As an example, we have almost squandered our natural advantages in the field of renewable energy: with our huge land mass, abundant sunshine and wind and low population, we have been and should be a world leader in this field. That we no longer are is a sad indictment on the policies of both sides of the spectrum. We could reclaim a world-leading position – if we wanted to.

There is the key phrase. “World-leading”. If Australia is going to compete in a global market, it needs something it can sell. That means something only Australia can or will make, or it means making something cheaper and/or better than others. We have already established that Australia cannot both make things cheaper and retain current standards of living for its people. If standard of living is a priority, we must aim to excel either by finding industries at which we can excel – such as the French making wines, or regions of Italy making shoes – or build new industries that put us ahead of the pack.

The proposed policy, the Future Industries Fund, would aim for the latter goal.

Because any spending fund is susceptible to gaming and fraud, the first priority for the FIF would be to establish an oversight group. This group would first be tasked to identify and report on the best industries for the fund to support. Renewable energy might be a logical choice – but we should not take the opinion of a blog author. Clear and firm criteria would have to be met, covering Australia’s current capability in the field, the state of each identified field in the rest of the world, and the potential for the field in creating and sustaining new saleable industries.

Having identified the areas of interest, the fund would transition to supporting scientific and technical research in these areas through a range of grants and subsidies. Obviously, this would include a re-funding of the CSIRO and of University research. Potentially, the government could take part ownership in the technologies which arose from funded research. Any revenue from this should be directed back into the FIF.

It’s not enough to be world-leading inventors and researchers. Research and development only employs a small proportion of the workforce. The FIF would also be tasked to support, again through grants and subsidies, industries that arose to capitalise on new technologies. In the hypothetical example of new solar energy technology, this would include not only the energy companies that build the solar farms, but also the artificers which build the parts for new solar energy projects; the engineering firms that build them and maintain them; the infrastructure companies that carry the energy to the people; and even the resellers that onsell the technology to the rest of the world. The FIF would also support university or TAFE courses that specialised in teaching the new technology, or provide scholarships in specific fields.

It’s not enough to establish a world-leading industry. As soon as you start selling the technology into the rest of the world, the clock starts ticking, and it will not take long before you have competitors in your market. Continued prosperity requires the FIF not to rest on its laurels. Having established an industry, an infrastructure, an educational framework, it needs to continue to support the research and technology that created it. It is necessary to keep pushing the envelope.

There would, of course, be failures. Any new scientific or technical research runs the risk of dead ends, the chance that new technologies developed would be too expensive or too difficult or too ahead of their time to be marketable. Soemtimes, financial support can address this. Renewable energy technologies used to be hugely expensive; with time and continued government support across the globe, the cost has fallen to the point that solar and wind are becoming cheaper than coal, at least in some markets. The FIF would not rely on “the market” to build a new technology up to scale; if the aim is to push the envelope then artificial support is required.

But in some cases, the technologies just might not work. It might require more funding than is worthwhile to find economies of scale. It must be accepted that sometimes a field of research initially seen as promising might turn out to be a failure. Competitors in other countries might make breakthroughs that put them years ahead of the pack and relegate FIF projects to also-rans. In such cases, the FIF must be prepared to redefine its areas of interest and write off the funding already provided.

A progressive vision

Conservatives will likely look at these proposals and choke on their tea. This proposal is for a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy with a whole raft of administrators, where research if funded with no clear business case or projected return on investment, where the government takes an active role in picking and supporting winners. All of this is anathema to the Liberal worldview. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the Liberal worldview, and we’re starting to see where it leads.

This is a simple proposal from a single blog author. There is no Treasury behind this idea. The Universities have not provided expert opinion. But if one hack author can design a set of policies intended to address the fundamental problem facing Australia’s economy, how much more could a progressive political party with the resources of government behind it achieve? I put this proposal forward for discussion. Let’s start reframing the conversation and hope that the political machine is listening.

Deconstructing a dog whistle

Tony Abbott’s government has taken some body-blows in recent weeks, and Abbott’s own leadership standing is suffering. Some say that this is due to a savage budget that seeks to address a non-existent budget emergency by penalising those who can least afford it and by punching the powerless, compounded by poor communications and head-scratching political decisions. If this were the case, one might be forgiven for thinking that the best way of recovering the party’s fortunes might be to revisit the thinking behind the budget, to seek to appropriately identify who the real lifters and leaners in the economy are, and to fix the way that the government goes about doing business.

Or you could go for the approach of sowing distrust and disunity, painting an amorphous group as the “Other” in order to convince Australians that you are “One of them” and being strong to protect them from the forces of darkness. This is a skill-set and a rulebook Tony Abbott inherited from his great hero John Howard and this weekend’s video message shows that he has enthusiastically embraced it.

If national security is so important that it has prompted an address to the nation, at the expense of attention to Joe Hockey’s “Never back to surplus” budget and Andrew Robb’s TPP negotiations and the likely forthcoming execution of the Bali Nine kingpins, then it would seem worthwhile to examine the detail of Mr Abbott’s speech.

When you look at what Mr Abbott had to say, it becomes clear that he is taking two specific incidents and generalising threats from them, generalising failures from them, and using them to beat up the necessity for changes. In two minutes and 23 seconds, he commiserates with the victims of violence, generalises the threat to all Australians, spruiks the actions of the government, reminds us of the threat and reassures us that he is keeping us safe.

An examination of the specific incidents to which Abbott refers, however, tells a more sobering story. There have been no significant failures of our immigration and border protection regulations, no breaches of our balanced and considered jurisprudence and bail system. There are no practical measures that could have prevented these specific events that prompt Abbott’s address. Once you understand that any measures the government might propose can have no possible effect on preventing these specific events, the low-brow dog whistle becomes crystal clear, and it becomes possible to see the real threat behind the words – the threat of further intrusive and unwarranted interference into people’s everyday lives.

A Message from the PM

Abbott begins by referring to the recent Lindt cafe attack by Man Haron Monis. It is perfectly appropriate to “acknowledge the atrocity”. It was one man with a shotgun and three people, including the attacker, died in the event. “Atrocity” is a strong word, but Abbott commences as he means to continue. In any case, the scene is set, the tone of the address is identified: this is a message about terrorism.

Abbott continues with a pledge to keep Australia as “safe and secure” as humanly possible. Federal and State governments are conducting a joint review into the siege, and the report will be released soon. The report will make recommendations and the government intends to take some actions. History has shown us that actions taken by a government are often only a subset, or sometimes a completely different set, to the recommendations of any given report, but we will reserve judgement. In effect, Abbott is attempting to take credit in advance for an announcement the government has yet to make. He is showing the government is strong, by pointing to the future when it intends to take strong action that it can’t tell us about yet.

We may get an inkling of the actions the government has in mind when Abbott addresses the Parliament on the topic of national security next Monday. But we may have a sneak preview as Abbott continues on.

“For too long we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt. There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

When we unpack this statement, in the context of recent events and of the preceding text, Abbott is effectively telling us that we have not been strong enough in our immigration policies, and failures in our bail and justice systems. Abbott refers very specifically to the one example he has mentioned, Man Haron Monis, the attacker in the Lindt cafe event. Australians – particularly those in Sydney, Abbott’s home constituency – will be very aware
also of the arrest this week of two young men, home-grown potential jihadists. Despite not mentioning them specifically, the media has been quick to connect the dots between their arrest and this statement by Abbott.

The problem is that neither our immigration, residency, citizenship nor bail processes failed in any of these cases.

Man Haron Monis was on bail for a variety of criminal offenses at the time of his cafe attack. These cases were not religious in nature. He was accused of being accessory before and after the fact for the murder of his wife by his girlfriend. Separately, he was on bail on indecency charges. Neither case could have given indication that he was planning to turn into a shotgun-wielding maniac. [Read: How was Man Haron Monis not on a security watchlist?]

There were indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia, and definite isolation and marginalisation. Monis was known for holding “extremist” views. That’s easy to say in retrospect. His views on the West’s involvement in Middle-Eastern conflicts would not be out of place in a Greens party room meeting. He was, until very shortly before his act of terror, a well-dressed and urbane Australian.

Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied, though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.

Bail is a State issue of law enforcement. As it happens, laws have already been tightened in NSW that would have prevented Monis’ bail. So what exactly does Abbott, in the Federal sphere, expect to do to make Australians still safer?

The recent arrests in Sydney were of two young men, Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi. Allegedly they were arrested just hours before they intended to attack members of the public with knives. Could either of these alleged terrorists have been captured earlier with tighter border protection policies, or more intelligence resources? Were they abusing their Centrelink entitlements?

It would appear not. Kiad, now 25, came into Australia four years ago on a family visa to join his wife. al-Kutobi fled Iraq with his family ten years ago; he came to Australia in 2009. Shortly thereafter he received a protection visa and he became an Australian citizen in 2013. Neither man was a wild-haired fanatic, nor obviously a danger to the public.

The pair were not known to police. They were not known as religious extremists. Until recently, it doesn’t appear that they were. Instead, they were young Aussie men, fond of barbeques and American TV and luxury goods. Their radicalisation occurred over the last few weeks, perhaps triggered by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices last month in Paris. Their rapid radicalisation was reported to Australian authorities by their own community about a week ago. Mere days later, police swooped.

How were tighter immigration rules four years ago going to prevent a planned terror attack that took months, at most, to be conceived and instigated, from men who by all reports only became extreme within the last six months, and on Australian soil?

The other problematic element of this densely offensive paragraph is the reference to Centrelink. In the context of this strident message, the inference is clear: that terrorists rely on Newstart. This is so ridiculous as to be laughable – yet it plays to the same crowd who lapped up the election rhetoric about boat people clogging up the motorways of Sydney.

The other possible reading is that people who rely on welfare are as bad as terrorists. I’m not certain which interpretation is the more offensive.

Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.”

Who are these bad people? That’s not been shown. Hopefully it’s not Man Haron Monis, because if we’re going to stop people like him from “taking us for mugs”, we presumably will no longer be providing welfare to those with mental issue. Hopefully it’s not Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi, because in order to curtail the terrorist threat they pose, we would need to prevent muslims in general from entering the country.

Abbott makes a variety of references to the “Islamist death cult”. There’s a three-word slogan that’s earned him a couple of poll points before. It is also simultaneously emotive, highly offensive to large groups of undeserving people, and impossible to criticise without coming across as an apologist. Well, this author will criticise it. Islamic State might possibly be Islamist, but using the term paints all Muslims alike. IS is most certainly not a death cult. Yes, it uses unsupportable means and revels in bloodshed, but it does so not for the sake of killing people, but rather to attract those it considers devout. The killings are a means, not an end. And the idea of a world caliphate of muslims is dear to many. Nobody should seek to defend the actions or the Islamic State. However, belittling IS with a three-word slogan ignores the complexities and the real grievances and aspirations of millions of muslims everywhere.

Abbott goes on to talk about the much-discussed “new threats” of home-grown backyard terrorists, armed with “a knife, a flag, a camera phone, and a victim”. Terrorists are everywhere, around every corner, lurking under every bed.

By all means, do what you can to identify potential attackers before they take a life. But in the same way that it’s impossible to protect the public from an armed robber in a milk bar, it is impossible to protect the public from a quiet young man who just wants to be respected.

Abbott finishes his presentation by proudly boasting of working with other nations to degrade the Islamic State through military means; and improving the powers and resources of Australian intelligence agencies. Finally, he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep you safe”. These include the data retention laws currently before parliament, but, worryingly, might also include other laws and regulations Abbott does not describe, but which will inevitably further encroach on our liberties and our privacy. Of course, it’s all for our own good. The government is being strong to keep Us safe from Them.

“As a country we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.” As Kaye Lee has written today, it’s a pity that credo doesn’t stretch to include the current government.

Forging the Wrong Leaders

rabbott-e1423656056322

 

“We are not the Labor party.”  Amongst the leadership tensions of the past few weeks in the ruling Coalition government, Prime Minister Tony Abbott appears to have adopted this as a mantra of sorts, an incantation to ward off the attacks of his foes both inside and outside of his own party. A return to the internecine warfare of 2010 and 2013, he argues, would make the Liberal party as bad as their predecessors. He speaks as if there is something qualitatively different between the parties and the way they go about their operation, as if the Liberal and Labor parties have entirely different and incompatible DNAs.

Whilst the spill motion may have failed, the simple fact that the motion was raised shows that this is manifestly untrue.

Labor has not been slow to join in the chorus of jibes, directly quoting back invective initially directed at Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd by Abbott and his fellows. There is no shortage of material to use. Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and others were incessant in their criticism of Labor’s leadership woes, all at the instigation of the consummate attack dog who now finds the tables turned. The rich irony is that leadership battles are only unpalatable because Tony Abbott made them so. They are not new to Australian politics.

Admittedly, leadership changes at the Federal level are rarer than in State politics. Additionally, many Prime Ministers step down “gracefully” before the inevitable push.  It is not until Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – and the unedifying return to Rudd – that replacement of a sitting Prime Minister by force became somewhat common. However, the attempt by Liberal backbenchers to push a spill motion and depose Tony Abbott shows that leadership battles are not restricted to one side of politics. They are caused by something deeper – a malaise in politics.

“To lose one Prime Minister may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.” (With apologies to Oscar Wilde.)

Deposing (or attempting to depose) a sitting, first-term Prime Minister is, admittedly rare – at least, until recent years. So how is it that we’ve come to this?

Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007 with a sweeping majority and the hopes and aspirations of Australians behind him. Less than three years later he was pushed from office, a broken, tearful man. What forces wrought the triumphant visionary of Kevin 07 into the chaotic, vindictive morass he became?

The issue at the heart of Kevin Rudd’s downfall was his inability to govern. Rudd was a great communicator, an idealist, a visionary and a fantastic politician for elections. In government, however, he proved lacking in the skills and attributes required of a Prime Minister. This came about, essentially, because elections and governments require very distinct skill-sets. What makes a great leader during an election campaign does not make a wonderful leader in power. Unfortunately, the reverse is also often true: great leaders may be let down by their inability to win elections.

Our modern democracy revolves around elections. They are the fixed points at which the people can have their say. It has been argued that Australia is a democracy for a month or so every three years, after which it becomes an effective oligarchy. There is some truth to this.

Increasingly, however, the three years between elections are conducted with an unremitting focus on the next election. Oppositions have this easy: they spend their years in the political wilderness with nothing but the next election to think about. Government is a harder job. Making decisions in the greater good, aware that every action will have detractors, will be attacked by the opposition and by the media, requires courage. Making decisions aimed solely at bolstering the government’s reputation at the next election is easier.

During elections, enormous sums of money are spent on revealing and promoting policy, on attacking political opponents, and on strategising the message. How much do you reveal? How long can you keep your best offerings hidden, in order to best capture public approval whilst restricting the other party’s opportunity to respond? All is done with an eye on the prize – the all-important twelve hours when the electoral booths are open.

Elections are replete with unreasonable expectations, with impossible promises, and unfortunately often, dirty tactics. Throw a partisan media into the mixture and an election becomes so much froth and noise, a lot of the detail can be obscured.

But then the election is over. The winning party is expected to segue into governing. Suddenly there is no money for advertising. The messaging takes a back seat: governing is a long game. In governing, there is limited value to continuing to attack the other side. Even a party which had the media’s partisan support during the election can find, all too soon, that it becomes hostile. Sudden attention is paid to detail. Promises were made during the campaign, but when it comes to execution, any number of headwinds interfere: from the quality of the public service to unexpected financial setbacks. Changing circumstances require flexibility, but promises and public expectations are not flexible.
In the public’s view, the choice has been made. The election is over: it is time to make good on the promises. And woe betide a party that cannot deliver on its promises, the next time elections come around.

Promises are the currency of elections

Campaigning requires a particular skillset of a political party and its leaders. Leaders must bring inspiration and vision. An election from opposition can be carried on criticism of the government, but only insofar as plans can be proposed to address the identified shortcomings. Attacking your opponents will get you only so far; a party needs to explain what it would do differently. The universal truth of electoral campaigns is promises.
Kevin Rudd was a great campaigner. He brought vision and grand plans. His rhetoric inspired the young and the old alike in an idea of what Australia could be. He promised changes that would be difficult, but he made them sound easy, and he had obvious commitment to his cause. Kevin 07 was a whirlwind of hope, and with a strong team behind him, he made his promises sound convincing.

Unfortunately, Kevin Rudd proved to be terrible at governing. The essential qualities of a government leader are the ability to negotiate, persistence to follow-through on projects, focus on detail, delegation and empowerment of your team, and detailed planning. These were not Kevin Rudd’s strengths. In eternal search for polling approval, Rudd lacked the ability to push projects through to completion against critical media campaigns and public resistance. His inability to delegate power and responsibility was also a detriment. In an election, the leader’s visibility and personality are critical to success. But Australia is too large and complex for a single leader, however frenetic, to manage. Kevin Rudd and his centralisation became a bottleneck, and Labor was unable to effectively execute on its promises.

Kevin Rudd was a great “wartime leader” but a mediocre peacetime one. When he was deposed in favour of Julia Gillard, the priority was to regain some momentum on the projects that had stalled. Fulfilling at least some of the promises that won the 2007 election would go some way to address the electors’ buyer’s remorse. Such was Gillard’s success in a short period of time that she won Labor another term of office.

Gillard was amazing at the things that Rudd was not. Negotiation and persistence were the hallmarks of the Gillard administration. With Gillard’s direct intervention and follow-through, outstanding issues got resolved. Promises made at the previous election, sabotaged by poor planning and policy backdowns, were resolved in short order – perhaps with suboptimal outcomes, but enough to get them off the table.

Gillard was a very successful peacetime leader and history will likely judge her kindly. However, she was let down in the face of Tony Abbott’s incessant campaigning by a poor communication style. Gillard was not seen as a great campaigner. A last-minute return to the Great Campaigner, Kevin Rudd, in late 2013 was insufficient to address the extended election campaign Tony Abbott had run from the moment he ascended to the Liberal leadership.

Uncomfortable parallels

Tony Abbott was also a great campaigner. His approach was different to Rudd’s; he brought no grand plans or vision to the table. Instead his approach was to sow discontent wherever possible, and his pitch was for a return to the Good Old Days of prosperity under Howard. His messaging was consistent and strident and believable. With no grand plans to propose, details of execution were not required. Tony Abbott ran a three-year election campaign leading up to his election in 2013. The primary promise of Tony Abbott’s Coalition was to “Not be Labor” – a message he is still pushing today, over a year after taking government.

Abbott’s success on the campaign trail has not carried through to success as Prime Minister. Tony Abbott and his cabinet repeatedly point to their grand successes – the mining tax, the “carbon tax”, and three free trade agreements. Regardless of whether you consider these outcomes to be successes, unstated are the Attacks on Everyone of the 2014 budget, the ideological attack on industrial relations, the Captain’s Picks, or the reliance of the Coalition on a model of Australia’s prosperity (mining and export) that is rapidly coming to an end. Not described is the government’s lack of a plan for developing the country into a nation of the 21st century – nor the failure of the government to progress its plans to forge the country into the preeminent example of a 20th century country. Not mentioned is the changing circumstance which is the belated acceptance of the rest of the world that Climate Change is an existential issue demanding action.

Like Rudd, Abbott is also a centraliser. The inability to entrust his Ministers with management of their own offices, let alone their own portfolios, has led to internal dissatisfaction – just like Kevin Rudd. The inability of the Abbott government – with its hard right-wing policies and its head-kicker parliamentary supremos – leads to an inability to negotiate in good faith with their political opponents, which leads to legislation languishing in the Senate. In turn, this leads to further deterioration of the budget. This government seems to know only one way to respond to a budget problem, but this approach does not have the approval of the people the government is elected to serve, nor the Senate which protects them.

The skills and attributes that brought Tony Abbott to government are not the skills and attributes needed to effectively govern this country. This is the malaise of our democracy. The focus on winning government means that leaders are forged who can win elections but not lead the country.

The enormous political cost of changing from Rudd to Gillard, and back to Rudd, led to Rudd introducing new rules to the Labor party around leadership contention. This was good politics. It is not, necessarily, good government, if it serves to protect the interests of an incompetent or unsatisfactory Prime Minister. Such rules, ironically, would serve to protect Tony Abbott, and a similar set of requirements have been proposed for the Coalition that would further endanger Australia’s ability to unseat a leader who can campaign but not govern.

Where to from here?

History shows us that Tony Abbott is unlikely to survive as Prime Minister to the next election – unless the Coalition follows Labor’s lead and institutes new rules to prevent the unseating of a Prime Minister. If Tony Abbott is unseated, perhaps as a result of another poor Captain’s Call or a further string of poor polls and State election results, who would be expected to replace him? And would Abbott be replaced by a good governor – or a great campaigner?

Amongst the ideologues and right-wing extremists, the climate deniers and the silver spoon born-to-rule set, who on the Coalition’s side can be the great governor Australia needs? Malcolm Turnbull looks like the most likely candidate for the top job (despite the particular loathing which some of his Coalition colleagues reserve for him). Can Malcolm Turnbull the Despised become the negotiator, the facilitator, and the project lead that the Coalition so desperately needs?

 

Sweeteners

porkbarrel-e1409295205387“Australians don’t want another election”, says Tony Abbott. Naturally, this reflects both his own achievement of the goal – personal power – and the government’s standing in the polls. For Tony Abbott, elections are not about fulfilling the will of the people. They are about putting the right people into government. The “right people” are already there, job’s done, so there’s absolutely no call for another election – even one that might strengthen the government’s own standing.

In any case, a new election at this point in the cycle would not suit the Coalition. It is standard political operating procedure. In your first year in office, you do the “Mother Hubbard” trick and use it as an excuse to bring in the most unpopular and difficult of your priorities. To some extent you can still trade off this dialogue for your second budget as well.

By the time you get to the third year in office, you need to start thinking about another election, which means you focus on what little tidbits you can feed to a battered population. John Howard was a past master at this cycle and it bought him three terms despite the most egregious betrayals of the electorate – including a “never, ever” GST. It was only the continued focus on Workchoices – introduced midway through a cycle and still “alive” at the time of the 2007 election – that ended his run. This was despite Howard’s late attempt, in mid 2007, to introduce a “sweetener” to his toxic IR platform, in the form of a fairness test.

This is actually a crystal clear example of the way the Coalition works: impose your ideological position early, and if required, water it down slightly by the time of the election. You still end up with most of your goals intact.

A couple of days ago Kaye Lee related the experience of a senior government official, who was confident the Coalition would win the next election: “The sweeteners are coming and that is what they will remember.” If this is true, then Australia needs an election NOW – before the Coalition gets the chance to bring about its full electoral cycle of “hit hard, then give ’em back some of what you took to win votes”.

This statement leads to consideration: what kind of sweeteners can the Team Big Australia realistically offer come 2016?

It is certainly true that the toughest changes in the recent budget are expected to come to pass later rather than earlier – either ramping up over the next few years, or budgeted to become active after the next election. In part, this is Tony Abbott’s self-limitation: his unwarranted promises not to impose changes to education, health, the ABC or seemingly anything else before another election. Those promises force Abbott to adopt a largely status-quo approach: no major changes for the first few years. How that must smart.

Politics operates on a long-term forward-planning basis, but it’s often not good at communicating that. See, for example, Labor’s MRRT, the proceeds from which are expected to ramp up significantly in the next few years. That won’t save it from the Coalition’s “barely any revenue” rhetoric or its intractible desire to repeal it.

Therefore, much of the pain of Joe’s budget, the budget that we’re all squealing so loudly about, doesn’t actually kick in until after the next election. Notable exceptions are the changes to Newstart / Youth Allowance eligibility, which start on 1 January 2015, and the medicare co-payment, scheduled to begin 1 July 2015. (Both dates presume the legislation can be successfully passed before those deadlines.) But many of the most painful elements, including the indexation changes to the age pension and the $80bn cuts to health and education payments to the States, aren’t expected until after 2016.

All of this indicates that come 2016, the Coalition has more pain in mind, not sweeteners. But lately, the conversation has notably changed tack.

Joe Hockey has previously stated that the 2014 budget is just the start. We don’t hear much said about this any more – the idea that the Coalition wanted to go further, cut more harshly. Instead, the promise of doing more, with the implication that this is necessary and good, has transmuted to an amorphous threat that more will come if Labor and the Greens don’t play ball and pass this budget. The conversation has changed. Instead of being the first step in a long-term dialogue with the Australian people, “starting a national conversation about how we can live within our means” as Hockey said at the time, the 2014 budget is now the magic pill that tastes bad but will make it all better by the time the next election comes around.

It seems like not too far a stretch to expect that the Coalition plans to begin handing out its incentives by the time the next election comes around. Again, what kind of sweeteners can it actually offer? And is there any possibility that they might be successful? Will the Coalition really “romp home” in 2016?

Having run so hard on the concept that “Nothing is for free… nothing can continue to be free,” it seems unlikely that they will offer to restore the social support structures they’re currently fighting so hard to dismantle. Changes to unemployment benefits, healthcare funding, and pensions are long-term structural changes. The intent is good even if the methodology is not; these are areas where ongoing expenditure must be controlled for fear of them outstripping the government’s ability to support them. It would be counterproductive for the government to offer to retreat from its changes, so it’s fairly certain that, once legislated, the six-month furlough of payments, the medicare co-payment, and the changes to eligibility and indexation of support payments will be here to stay.

They could offer more infrastructure. But Tony Abbott’s repeated mantra of being “the infrastructure Prime Minister” appears to be falling on deaf ears. This is partly because of the Coalition’s intent to artificially restrict the kind of infrastructure projects it will engage in, and partly because of a range of State Liberal governments backing unpopular or inefficient projects that lack the populist chops except amongst people who are already their strongest supporters.

Thus the Coalition is likely to find itself constrained by the time of the next election. Building more schools and hospitals will not be helpful if the funding for existing schools and hospitals has been gutted. By the time of the next election the promise of more toll roads is unlikely to be a big draw-card, and the Coalition doesn’t want to be engaged in building rail.

This leaves tax cuts: the perennial stopgap of conservative governments and darling of John Howard’s appeal to the battlers. Tax cuts are within the Coalition’s DNA – their raison d’etre is to reduce taxes, reduce government offerings, and reduce community support. For those who can’t prosper under those conditions, the Market Will Provide.

Past Coalition election sweeteners have included a succession of income tax cuts, company tax cuts, and bonuses – for instance, the baby bonus was introduced by Howard in 2001. The 2007 election campaign carried all manner of sweeteners – 9 billion dollars worth – if we would only give the Coalition another chance. In many cases these offerings were “me-too” responses to promises already made by Labor.

So any incentives the Coalition can offer are likely to come in the form of tax cuts. They might be named “bonuses” or “supplements”, and they might be one-time only, but effectively the government will offer cash, hand over fist. Labor’s offer to increase the tax-free threshold to $18k and adjust the tax brackets, effectively giving tax cuts to large portions of the electorate, will be entirely forgotten in the rush of joy we will all feel at the government’s largesse. Expect many congratulatory statements from Team Abbott about how we all “pulled together”, bore the pain, took our medicine and reached a point, thanks to the Coalition’s careful management of the economy, where we can afford the rewards.

But will sweeteners be enough to secure the Coalition another term? It’s been repeatedly said that elections are lost, not won. It’s certainly true that the past two changes of government have occurred in spite of offered sweeteners, rather than because of them. In 2007, as mentioned above, Howard offered more incentives to electors in addition to a concession of watering down his beloved WorkChoices regime, but that didn’t save him; public opinion was far too set against his government and Kevin Rudd led Labor to a resounding victory. In 2013, too, Labor had far more on the table than the Coalition, including the aforementioned adjustments to income tax that would have seen millions of Australians no longer needing to pay tax at all. Ironically, Tony Abbott’s repealing of this legislation means that many more people are paying more tax than they otherwise would. Regardless of the sweeteners on offer, voters resoundingly voted Labor out of power. Unfortunately, the corollary is that they voted Tony Abbott in, without ever necessarily being won over by his ideological intentions on policy. Labor warned the electorate, at length, about the likely outcomes of an Abbott victory. Tony Abbott blithely dismissed these warnings as political alarmism and promised that he wouldn’t be like that at all. So now that his reassurances have proven hollow, could the Australian people be hoodwinked a second time?

We’ve never seen a government with the trajectory of the Abbott government. Already it languishes in depths of unpopularity not traditionally seen until several terms into government and, usually, preceding an electoral loss. It would seem at least possible that One-Term-Tony could be a predictive term. Historically, Australians don’t vote governments out after only one term, but this government may prove the exception. It seems likely that the only thing that could save them would be an electorate that still thinks that Labor is unelectable by the time of the 2016 election, which is why rejuvenation and reform of the Labor party is so critically important.

If the Coalition is able to retain government at the next election, the faint consolation will be that it won’t take long after the election for them to tighten the screws further. Then we’ll be having this discussion again, three years later, and with each successive election the chances of Labor regaining power improve.

The question then becomes, how much damage will Tony Abbott and his fellows do to Australian egalitarianism and society?

Ebola

Each generation has its historic moments, its touchstone memories. I grew up in the 1980s, and my touchstones were the Ethiopian famine, Masters of the Universe and Transformers toys, and ebola. For all that ebola was a virulent disease, the outbreak was in a faraway land and affected only a few hundred people. It was horrible for those people, of course, but it’s difficult to see now why an obscure virus outbreak in third-world countries became the subject of teenage nightmares. Breathless news reports gave the unwarranted impression that the scourge of a horrible and uncurable disease was about to sweep the world and bring humanity to its knees.

It never happened, of course. Due to effective healthcare and isolation procedures, ebola was brought back under control, its outbreak cleared, and the disease eliminated from human population centres.

In the years that have followed, the odd case of ebola has surfaced. Few cases could be classified as “outbreaks”. Ebola has remained a remote threat and it fell out of the consciousness of the public.

Recent weeks have seen ebola back in the news, with a far more serious outbreak than anything before in history currently spreading in western African nations. Today’s news media are full of breathless reports on a wildfire disease, out of control, an epidemic. And far more than in the 1980s, what starts as breathless reporting in the mainstream media easily evolves into sheer panic-stricken hysteria  in some portions of the internet. It’s important to be aware of the facts, the real risks, and what realistic risk, if any, there is to western populations.

So what is ebola, why is this outbreak significant, and is there really a risk of a global pandemic that will kill us all?

What is Ebola?

ebola“The Ebola virus” is a term applied to a group of related viruses, infectious viral diseases that cause a deadly kind of haemorrhagic fever in mammals. It’s a cruel disease and a frightening one; the symptoms of advanced ebola infection are both hideous and highly dangerous.

The virus has a long incubation period – the time between infection and showing the first symptoms – of between one and three weeks. During the incubation period sufferers have no warning of the disease and its progress, and they are not infectious to those around them.

When they appear, early symptoms can seem like a mild influenza, including fever, muscle weakness, sore throat and headaches. The classical symptoms of ebola follow later: the virus attacks the body’s internal organs, particularly the kidneys and liver and the digestive tract. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. Another effect of the virus is to impair the ability of blood to clot, leading to internal and external bleeding. In the advanced stages, sufferers can bleed from all of the body’s orifices.

Ebola is one of the most deadly viruses on Earth; fatality rates for the different strains vary between approximately 50 and 90 percent. There is no cure. The current outbreak in Africa has a fatality rate of about 60 percent – and that’s with medical intervention.

How is Ebola transmitted?

The virus is highly infectious with contact to the sufferer’s body fluids. This includes blood, urine, faeces, vomit or even sweat. A patient is not contagious until he or she starts showing signs of the disease.

Ebola is not “airborne”: you cannot catch ebola by breathing the same air as an infected patient. There has been one documented case of the virus spreading through the air: in 2012 a study involving pigs and monkeys resulted in infection of the monkeys from infected pigs without any direct contact. However, ebola infects humans and pigs differently. In pigs ebola concentrates in the lungs, causing infected pigs to sneeze and splutter much more than humans, where the virus principally attacks the liver. Human sufferers do sneeze and cough infectious droplets that can travel short distances through the air, but this form of infection would require close proximity. It is theoretically possible to catch ebola from a large droplet but so far there is no evidence to point to aerosolisation.

How do you treat it

Ebola is a tropical disease that is thought to be carried in the wild by bats. There has been little exposure of this virulent infection in human communities, and thus there is little to no immunity already in the human population. When ebola infects a human population, most people are extremely susceptible to it upon exposure. Despite intensive research over decades, there is currently no vaccination or prevention method available for ebola. The only way to ensure you don’t catch it is to avoid contact with infectious materials, which can be difficult when the late stage of the disease results in significant amounts of bleeding and other fluid discharge.

It’s important to note also that you can’t cure viruses. A virus is not like a bacterium; bacteria are self-contained organisms that invade and infest a host, but remain separate to it. Viruses have no independent existence outside of a host. Viruses are, in effect, strings of DNA, and they act by embedding themselves into the DNA of the infected creature. Upon infecting a cell’s DNA, a typical virus will prevent that cell from acting normally and instead turn its machinery to churning out billions more copies of the virus, eventually breaking the cell open to infect those around it.

The problem is that, like a cancer, a virus-infected cell still looks like it belongs to the body. An infected cell cannot be returned to its pre-infection state; the only way forward is to kill that cell. Any “cure” needs to be able to identify infected cells and kill them while leaving uninfected cells intact. Human medical science is typically not very good at doing this; in some cases the effects of viral infection can make a cell susceptible to specific drugs, but there are as yet no drugs on the market that can specifically target ebola-infected cells.

Where human science fails, the immune system normally excels. Identifying infected cells and destroying them is its sole function. But ebola virus is also known to attack and pervert immune system cells, and even to use these cells to carry itself throughout the sufferer’s body. With the virus wreaking havoc on the body’s organs, causing massive internal bleeding and constraining the immune system’s activity, the infected host will almost certainly die well before its immune system can fight off the infection.

Given enough time, for some people, the body can rid itself of an ebola infection. Left to its own devices, the disease is virulent enough to kill most people before their immune system can do the job, so treatment for ebola is, simply speaking, to treat the symptoms, and to keep the victim alive long enough for their own immune system to let them recover. If the victim was healthy with a robust immune system prior to infection, the chances of survival increase.

Keeping patients hydrated and providing them with the nutrients they and their immune system need is the accepted treatment for this disease. In the case of ebola this must be done whilst avoiding contact with infectious materials and isolating the patient from family, friends and the public. Even with full medical support, in the current outbreak, the chances of survival are only about 40%.

The current outbreak

Ebola was first identified in 1976, and was named for the region in Africa (the Ebola river) in which it emerged. From that time until the current outbreak, there have been about 1700 recorded cases of ebola in humans. The current outbreak has so far (as of 22nd August 2014) killed well over 1400 people and infected over 2600.

_77033956_ebola_deaths_624_map_detail_19082014

(Image source: BBC)

The current outbreak affects a region of Western Africa overlapping the borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Due to the virus’s highly infectious nature and its long incubation period, there have been many cases of travellers from these areas bringing the disease to other nations. Most significantly affected in this way are other African nations such as Nigeria and Congo, but cases have been identified as far distant as Ireland.

Unofficially, it is likely that the infection rates in Africa could be MUCH higher than the official numbers. The actual numbers are impossible to quantify, as many cases have not been laboratory confirmed and the disease is officially out of control. With a long asymptomatic incubation period, it is likely that many people are infected without yet showing symptoms. Many cases are likely to be in “shadow zones”, outside of officially monitored areas and unrecorded by medical authorities.  In addition, there are currently outbreaks of ebola-like disease in other neighboring countries not yet officially declared a part of this outbreak.

Regardless of the numbers of infected, the UN states that over a million people are affected either directly or indirectly by this outbreak.

Different strains of ebola have different levels of lethality. The current outbreak is trending at about 60%: six of every ten people diagnosed with the virus (and under medical care) are dying despite best medical efforts.

Why it’s a crisis

The keys to dealing with an outbreak of ebola are halting its spread, and treating its victims to keep as many alive as possible. In the areas of West Africa, in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, both of these are proving problematic.

Halting the spread of the disease entails rapidly identifying and isolating all sufferers, quarantining those who might have come into contact with them, and educating populations about behaviours that contribute to the virus’s spread. Attempts to do this are ongoing, but are running into difficulties due to human nature and community practices in these regions. Patients, and their families, have been seen to behave in ways that are harmful to themselves and to others. In some cases, infected patients have fled hospital, or avoided going to hospital in the first place, for fear of being restrained there to die. Families hide their symptomatic relatives to prevent them being isolated. Local burial customs further complicate matters, with some documented cases of people being infected by touching the departed during preparation of the body or during the funeral service.

Treatment, too, has its problems. The affected countries already have healthcare systems that struggle to support their populations. In many cases, healthcare in rural areas is nonexistent, and the disease has now spread into major urban centres so the lion’s share of medical resources are spent there. Despite ebola being endemic to Africa, previous outbreaks have been in the centre of the continent, and West Africa was neither experienced in nor prepared for an infection of this type. As a result we have seen a high number of healthcare workers succumb to the disease as response efforts scaled up, leading to a loss of expertise and resources.

The other enemy is fear. In many areas, deliveries of goods (including medicine, food and water) have ceased as couriers and drivers are unwilling to enter the infected areas. This simply contributes to the breakdown of social order and the environment of fear, and hampers those whose goal is to control the infection and help those affected.

What’s being done

It is clear that this outbreak is well beyond the capabilities of the affected nations to handle on their own. Even with contribution by the World Health Organisation and the CDC, the epidemic is currently classed as “out of control”. Medical charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) have deployed thousands of staff to run ebola clinics to supplement overwhelmed healthcare systems. The WHO is providing expertise and leadership, although some have accused it of reacting far too slowly.

In the face of the unprecedented scale of this outbreak, the usual safeguards on novel treatments have been relaxed. Antiviral drugs such as ZMapp are being provided for live-action trials on the understanding that survival is unlikely with or without treatment; even though such treatments might be untested and theoretically could in themselves be harmful, the thought is that someone who’s already dying of ebola is going to be willing to take the risks. While several people treated with ZMapp have survived, some have not, and it it far too early to say whether ZMapp or other drugs currently in testing are having any positive effects at all.

The imperative to constrain the spread of this virus has led to the imposition of a zone sanitaire: the affected regions are being closed off, with the only egress being via controlled medical checkpoints. Most international airlines have already ceased flights to and from affected areas. At the same time, entry points across the world are on high alert, with airline staff, port and dock authorities and airports being on the lookout for any travellers from affected regions showing any symptomology. This may not be enough to completely prevent the disease’s spread but should severely constrain it.

It’s important to note, finally, that even if a case of ebola does arrive in Australia or the US – say an infected traveller arriving before they become symptomatic – the uncontrolled spread of the disease is far less likely. In the western world we already impose standards of hygiene that protect against transmission. We generally don’t come into contact with other people’s blood, urine or faeces in daily life. By the time a sufferer becomes highly infectious, they are also highly symptomatic and likely to be under appropriate medical care. We can be sure also that appropriate quarantine and control measures would be rapidly brought to bear.

Learnings for us

There are several key factors in the current ebola scare. The first is that the current outbreak of ebola is unlikely to become a pandemic and we, in civilised Australia, should be safe from its immediate effects. Breathless reporting of the risks to global civilisation are overstating the infectiousness and risk of this disease. Ebola may well bring African nations to their knees, but by virtue of distance and a sophisticated healthcare system and high standards of hygiene, any cases in the western world will be rapidly contained.

It’s not all good news though. We live in a global world. Conditions that affect remote third world countries nonetheless have an effect here. Our healthcare systems are on high alert for this disease and, belatedly, the western world is pouring money, personnel and resources into helping their poorer neighbours in Africa. Globalisation has had many beneficial outcomes for the western world – particularly in the availability of cheap labour and cheap goods – but it has also thrown into sharp relief the inequalities between nations.

Ebola is zoonotic disease. Like Hendra, swine flu, rabies and SARS, a form of the virus lives in wild animal populations, but is capable of being passed to humans on exposure. The virus is not new. What is new is its introduction into human populations, and this is typically the result of increasing encroachment of human civilisation into previously wilderness areas. The unfortunate fact is that most of this encroachment, and thus the initial outbreaks of many of these diseases, occurs in third world countries with low socio-economic conditions.

The rise of new human-infectious diseases from zoonotic sources is driven by the need of poor people in Africa, in South America, and in Asia, to support themselves with a continual push into wilderness areas. Deforestation across the world is accelerating rather than slowing. As countries are progressively deforested, native wildlife is displaced, with terrible consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems. The increased interaction between humans (and domesticated animals) and wildlife which might carry novel viruses such as ebola means that the introduction of new diseases is not likely to end any time soon. In bats, a particular virus might be relatively harmless, as wild populations have developed immunity to it over the course of millenia; but for humans, who have never encountered it, this new virus can be devastating.

We are fortunate insofar as the human-infectious strains of ebola are not airborne. (One known strain of ebola is at least somewhat airborne, but this strain is not harmful to humans. “By some genetic fluke, the same mutation that rendered Ebola Reston airborne apparently also left it harmless to humans.” We dodged a bullet with that case.)

It is not beyond the bounds of consideration that a new virus will be introduced to the teeming human masses in a third-world country in the near future, a virus with the deadly consequences of ebola but the ease of transmission of an influenza. This is the stuff of fiction – for example, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, the movies Outbreak and Contagion, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. But how we would deal with such an outbreak is the subject of deadly serious consideration by epidemiologists and governments.

The long term learning is that no nation is an island. The inequality of nations should not be allowed to continue. As long as there are impoverished populations in impoverished nations, desperately levelling their jungles at a time when the world desperately needs those jungles to be maintained, the globe will remain at risk of novel zoonotic diseases, and we may not be so fortunate next time.

Malevolent

redactedfamilyoutcomes

 

The 2014 budget omitted the table of adjusted family outcomes that had been in every previous budget since 2005. The analysis was done by treasury and available for inclusion but that it was not there indicates it was deliberately omitted. The figures went to Cabinet, so they were fully aware of the allegedly inequitable outcomes. Was it omitted for political reasons? The Coalition and its budget already have a problem with the public believing (and increasingly, and justifiably so) that it is unfair. Long-term observers have held the suspicion that the Coalition governs for its mates, the well-to-do, the elite, the born-to-rule set, and nothing in the budget, nor the Coalition’s rhetoric and off-budget policies since, have given cause to doubt this. For just a few examples, consider:

  • University FEE-HELP changes to impact disproportionately on poor graduates
  • A permanent hit to pensions and welfare vs. a short-term levy for the rich
  • The $7/visit co-payment for GP visits (the well-to-do might complain over a copayment but it is the poor who will simply stop going.) This might also reduce rates of vaccination in Australia, putting the whole country at greater risk.

The perception that the budget is unfair is widespread and even having an effect on business support for the Coalition’s policies. Could the Coalition cope with further documents showing that the poor would pay disproportionately for the Coalition’s fictitious “budget repair process”, and that the Coalition knew about it and went ahead anyway?

Fairfax and other outlets have sought this information, and failed to receive it. Accordingly they and other analysts have done their own sums on the basis of published figures. The analysis confirms that the poor will be harder-hit than the wealthy.

Joe Hockey has been up in arms about Fairfax publishing this analysis. “It doesn’t tell the whole story,” he says. “It doesn’t reflect the fact that the rich pay more tax, and that the taxes of the average wealthy person pay the social support for an average four recipients of welfare.” Fairfax’s reporting “failed to take account of the higher rate of income tax already paid by higher-income households”. “Fairfax reporting has been malevolent,” he says.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider Hockey’s reported statements on the issue of equality, tax and welfare.

“In fact, just 2 per cent of taxpayers pay more than a quarter of all income tax. Maybe these taxpayers would argue that the tax system is already unfair.” “The average working Australian, be they a cleaner, a plumber or a teacher, is working over one month full time each year just to pay for the welfare of another Australian.” http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-11/hockey-tries-to-set-straight-perception-budget-is-unfair/5516718

What does this say about Joe Hockey’s fundamental concept of social welfare? In a nutshell, it suggests that he is either beholden to, or at least panders to, selfishness. In Hockey’s world, it is portrayed as a bad thing that people with resources assist those without. This is a profoundly anti-charitable approach.

Our society has put in place progressive tax systems, effective social welfare structures and a range of subsidies, payments and tax breaks in an ongoing and long-term attempt to find a comfortable middle ground, where the privileged can continue to prosper whilst the downtrodden are assisted to keep their heads above water. Obviously Mr Hockey, and the Coalition, believe that the middle ground has trended too far in one direction. The problem is that society as a whole does not appear to agree with them.

Of course higher income households pay more tax. That’s the whole point of a progressive tax system. To argue that it’s justified to penalise low income workers more because they pay less tax is an attack on the very principle of the sliding scale. That’s an ideological position and it’s a valid choice, but it should be understood as such. Penalising more or less on the basis of tax rates entails an effective change in those rates. In other words, arguing that you can implement changes that hurt the poor more than the rich because the rich already pay more tax, is effectively arguing for a tax cut for the rich, or an extra tax for the poor, depending on how you want to look at it, and it is in no way an equitable outcome.

Let’s take a step backwards and approach this differently. Assume that every Australian is going to pay the maximum $844/pa as a result of the 2014 budget. Now you start handing some of that money back in concessions. $50 to this group, $100 to that, $327 to the top bracket. Why do you do this? Because they’re already paying a lot of tax. You are levelling the playing ground. You are moving closer to a situation where everyone pays the same amount of tax. This is the opposite of a progressive tax system.

Malevolent: adj. “Wishing evil or harm to another or others.”  With his 2014 budget, Mr Hockey is seeking to specifically do harm to those who belong to a different socioeconomic class than himself. Now who’s being malevolent?

Yes, Mr Hockey, the 2014 budget is indeed unfair. It does increase inequity. You’ve known it since well before the budget was announced. And the way you’re talking about it, and responding to the questions about its unfairness, seems to indicate that the unfairness is quite deliberate. I’m not entirely sure that’s the message you were trying to achieve.

Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat

If there was ever any doubt, it has now been undeniably shown. The ultimate aim of conservative government is to acquire ultimate power unrestricted by considerations of proof or evidence.

The Daily Telegraph reports today that Attorney-General Senator George Brandis will be bringing a new batch of laws to Cabinet next week dealing with the subject of terrorism. Amongst the mooted provisions is the idea that Australian travellers to Syria, Iraq or other declared zones must be “presumed” to be involved in terrorism. More importantly, the onus will be on the returnee to prove that they were not involved in terrorist activities.

The new legislation appears to be in response to the recent media reports of  two Australians, Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, assumed to be fighting with jihadis in Syria. Nobody can deny that the apparent actions of these men – their alleged crimes – are heinous and deserving of punishment. With that in mind, it is important to remember that an Australian committing a crime in an overseas jurisdiction cannot be charged and punished for that crime when they return to this country. That is why we have extradition laws. If these men have committed war crimes, or if the “war” in Syria is illegal and their actions constitute murder, they were carried out in a foreign jurisdiction; the killing of foreign nationals in a foreign nation does not make them guilty of any crime in Australia.

But not if Senator Brandis has his way. With the new provisions in law, if Sharrouf and Elomar were to return to Australia they are automatically guilty. They could be arrested at the airport and brought to court on the presumption of involvement with terrorist groups, something for which there does exist Australian law. Currently Australia does not apply mandatory minimum sentences for terrorism offenses, but conservative governments continually seek to impose these.

Some might not seek to protest about this outcome for Sharrouf and Elomar. It seems beyond serious dispute that these men have contravened our understanding of civilised society, have been involved in activities that should be punished, and would be extradited for foreign justice if Syria had such a thing as a functioning legal system. But laws drafted to apply to one or two people may still have wrenching outcomes for others.

It’s not a long time since the Campbell Newman government in Queensland implemented their highly controversial “illegal bikie gangs” laws, which coincidentally also include provisions to reverse the onus of proof. Some protested about this at the time, but protests fell on deaf ears and the laws still exist and are still being applied. It would be salutary not to forget them. Under these laws, belonging to a motorcycle gang and simply being in the same place as two others from the same club is sufficient to make you automatically guilty of illegal association. Immediately and without appeal you can then be arrested, held for thirty days in solitary confinement and confined for twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four. That automatically then becomes a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 100 days imprisonment, unless you can prove that the organisation you belong to (not you personally) is not engaged in criminal activity. In other words, you would need to be able to prove that your bikie gang did not exist for the purposes of bar fights. Whilst it seems logical that bar fights might be an unintended outcome of any gathering of people, rather than any specific gang, proving that the group does not support or promote that activity is nearly impossible. Additionally, if one defendant can prove that, it must automatically apply to all others defendants from the same gang. If you can prove that, you are effectively negating the State’s classification of the gang as a lawless association. There are so many flaws and ethical conundrums inherent in this set of laws that we can barely scratch the surface here.

Presumption of innocence

Presumption of innocence is fundamental to our system of law. I don’t normally quote from Wikipedia, but in this case the principle is so basic and universal that I will use its definition: “the principle that one is considered innocent until proven guilty. In many nations, presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial. The burden of proof is thus on the prosecution, which has to collect and present enough compelling evidence to convince the trier of fact, who is restrained and ordered by law to consider only actual evidence and testimony that is legally admissible, and in most cases lawfully obtained, that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.” Guilty beyond reasonable doubt. We accept this condition. We rely on it, should we ever have the misfortune to be caught up in the legal system. Innocent until proven guilty has been the cornerstone of Australian legal practice since its foundation.

“Tony Abbott declined to rule out a reversed onus of proof, but said any changes would be “consistent with our traditional principles of justice and freedom”. This is a pure oxymoron; it is impossible to remain consistency with our traditional principles when you’re talking about reversing the cornerstone.

How do you prove innocence? Even our courts don’t currently try to do that. As others have pointed out, the best you can hope for in a modern trial is a verdict of “Not Guilty”. This does not equate to innocence. If you cannot be proved to have committed the crime, you are not guilty; you may still have committed the crime, but our system deliberately errs on the side of caution. The presumption of innocence exists because it is better to let guilty parties go free than to lock up innocents. This is a fundamental component of our understanding of jurisprudence and to reverse it means that people will be caught up in and eaten by the system. Of course, the Coalition has form in this – look no further than the case of Mohamed Haneef.

If you don’t do anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about

Oh yes you do. Let’s consider for a moment the kinds of people who might visit a “declared zones”. Certainly, there will be a small number – an exceedingly small number – who travel to conflict areas for the purposes of violent jihad, or just for kicks. There are mercenaries, even from Australia, who fight for the highest bidder, not being beholden to Allah but simply seeking to parlay their skills into profit. Putting aside the ethics of the equation, if jihadis and violent thrillseekers and mercenaries are caught up in these laws, that’s probably the intended outcome.

The Greens and Labor suggest that these changes may also apply to aid workers and journalists. Of course, the Coalition doesn’t actually believe in the work that aid workers (reduction in Australia’s aid budget) or journalists (culture of secrecy) do, so they possibly think these are acceptable outcomes.

But what about family members? There are people living in Australia who originate from conflict areas. Some of these happen to be Muslim, and have relatives living in peaceful cities in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries otherwise beset by war and unrest. People do travel, and people do visit these countries for reasons other than violent jihad. It’s not a stretch at all to think that a Muslim man, visiting his family in Baghdad, might return to find himself forced to prove that he did not, while he was there, consort with militants. That can be very hard to prove. Read: impossible.

How about tourists? Iraq and Syria, Turkey and Egypt, India and Pakistan – there are wondrous works of nature and of man in these places, and Australians travel there every year to visit them. Are all of these tourists, young and old, single and married, Christian and Muslim and Buddhist, to be automatically assumed guilty of terrorism offences?

If the answer is no, the question becomes How do you tell which ones? Only the Muslims? Perhaps any Muslims between certain ages? If you need to prove that somebody is appropriate to have laws applied against them, then you should have to prove it. There are no circumstances under which a blanket rule like this can be applied without it either applying to everyone, or basically giving carte blanche to bureaucrats to ignore otherwise necessary burdens of proof. Relying on instinct and gut feeling have been shown, time and again, to be insufficiently rigorous methods of jailing people.

Finally, how do you identify a “declared zone”? Iraq and Syria are currently topical. In recent years we have seen unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen. There have been protests in Algeria, Morocco and Israel. There were minor protests in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Mauritania. How about Thailand? Burma? Indonesia? Bali? There is conflict and terrorist activity across the breadth of the world, including in any number of places to which Australians love to travel. Not every Australian who travels to Sri Lanka wants to be a Tamil Tiger. Not everyone who goes to Bali intends to bomb cafes. If you can accuse one such traveller of such crimes – indeed, assume their guilt unless they can prove otherwise – you have to apply it to all.

Of course, this legislation has not yet gone to Cabinet, let alone to the Parliament. There’s still plenty of time to see it changed or dropped. We can only hope that the Coalition will have the sense to take a more moderate approach; and when the current government’s intransigent lack of moderation brings these laws to the Parliament, we can only hope that the crossbench senators will see these laws for what they are – another step down the road towards a police state.

A Perfect Storm

Image by climate-change-guide.com

Image by climate-change-guide.com

The implications of peak oil and global warming for world security

“The modern global economy has been built on cheap oil and its abundant availability.” –

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2011/02/11/opinion/Peak-oil-will-have-an-adverse-effect-on-all-econom-30148420.html

The security agencies and defense departments of the world’s strongest superpowers do not have the luxury of pretending that climate change is not happening. They’re not able to blithely deny that resource shortages, burgeoning world populations and runaway global warming will have ramifications for their regions and their countries. While their governments and politicians might outwardly deny that climate change is real or that society has any real limits, their militaries and their policy hardheads are quietly planning for the worst.

The reality is that our world economy, the political structures that shape it and the peoples that make up her nations are fragile, susceptible to any number of crises that could bring the system down. The 21st century sees a number of separate but related crises arriving more or less at once, and these crises will undeniably reshape the world around us.

At the root of these crises is oil, and our planet’s industrialisation borne on the back of cheap, plentiful energy. This boon has led to top-heavy societies that are too globalised to survive on their own. The abundance of oil has led to unparalleled prosperity, booming populations and mind-boggling technology, all entirely reliant on the continued availability of the resources that sustained their growth. And it has led inexorably to climate change and the host of disasters that this presents.

Governments and academics around the world are waking up to the geopolitical ramifications of climate change. Indeed, in the past few years we’ve seen the first upheavals whose roots can be attributed to changing climate. If unchecked, climate change will lead to a bleak future of climate refugees and interminable, bloody war. This is not histrionics. This is the considered view of very senior academics and powerful military strategists. The only questions are whether we might be in time to slow climate change through global action, and how first-world countries with resources available will respond as the world sinks into deprivation and conflict. The signs on both fronts, unfortunately, are not good.

By itself, climate change does not have to lead to war and tyranny. Climate change and its effects are, like any other political force, a challenge for governments to overcome. The real danger is in how governments respond to climate change. But the challenges of the future are likely to be too great to ameliorate.

The 21st Century will see a perfect storm of crises upon us. They are already in view.

Climate change – driven by the industrialised world’s dependence on oil for energy – is striking us hardest just when oil is becoming harder to supply. The world depends on cheap oil for energy as well as for agriculture, but we are reaching the limits of our ability to provide this essential resource before we’ve gotten serious about finding alternatives. And the intensive and growing use of oil is leading to global climate change that will have the effect of accelerating collapse and disorder.

So what are some of the national security implications of climate change allied to resource shortages? In terms of security, the outcomes are unrest and revolution, climate refugees and conflict and war.

Instability, unrest and revolution

In just the last few years we have watched from afar as nations across the globe have struggled with upheaval, revolution and internal strife. Many in the comfortable west probably put these conflicts down to tribal politics, racial hatreds or religious intolerance. Whilst these elements are undoubtedly present, religious ideals rarely lead to revolutions in the real world. From the Crusades onwards, people with extreme views on religion and race have taken advantage of conflicts already begun for other purposes. In the modern day we have seen this in Iraq, in Syria, and in Afghanistan, conflicts that began for other reasons but are now entrenched in the narrative of “sectarian warfare”.

At core, however, most or all of these conflicts can be attributed to the perfect storm of resource shortages and climate change. Let’s look at a few of the most current examples.

SYRIA

The core of the conflict in Syria is not, as some would have you believe, islamic militants trying to overthrow a democracy, nor a tyrant attempting to mercilessly crush freedom-fighters. The core of the issue is drought and food shortages.

Drought and agricultural collapse have forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians into the cities where they become dependent upon the government’s support. However, the government’s ability to support these climate refugees has collapsed along with the country’s economy. It doesn’t help that the regime is not sympathetic to the peoples’ needs. This combination of factors has led to a situation where, for many people, simple survival becomes a higher priority than good social behaviour.

If Syria had plentiful monetary resources and the willingness to spend, it could provide food and water for its people. Through purchasing food, desalinating water, irrigating and artificially managing its agriculture, it could deal with the challenges. But it is neither able nor willing to go down this path. The result, as we have seen, is civil war and a country in miserable turmoil. But they’re not alone.

THE ARAB SPRING

The Arab Spring had its roots in a water and food crisis. The series of uprisings across the middle east is held up as a shining example of populations attempting to throw off the shackles of oppressive masters, and to some extent there is some validity to this interpretation. But people will tolerate a lot of tyranny so long as they are comfortable. Freedom is not the panacea the US would have people believe. (This is why the Chinese people, on the whole, are very happy with their situation despite their lack of freedom: they have the comforts they require for daily living.) At the core of the Arab Spring was not a hunger for freedom, but simply hunger. The regimes were not living up to their side of the bargain.

THAILAND

In Thailand, drought and floods combined to hit domestic food supplies and food exports. Recovery from the floods, plus the hit to export revenue caused by the decimation of their food exports, combined with the country’s dependence on foreign oil to eat into the government’s ability to afford to meet the needs of its people now, let alone plan into the future for energy diversification and economic renewal.

This combination of factors has led to high levels of debt for the low-paid workers, high living costs and high unemployment. The eventual and inevitable result has been social unrest. In Thailand’s case this had led to martial law and, currently, to yet another military coup. But the people continue to suffer and while guns on the street may enforce order, they can’t address poverty and starvation.

EGYPT

For a final example, consider Egypt. Egypt also suffers water and food shortages. For decades it has been a net importer of food. When the price of wheat effectively doubled in 2010 and 2011, the result was swift and fateful. Mubarak fell in early 2011. That revolution, so full of hope at the time, has not led to the utopian society Egyptians hoped for, as it does nothing to address the core issues. In truth, the core issues are largely outside the scope of Egypt’s government to contend with.

“As energy accounts for over a third of the costs of grain production, high food prices are generally underpinned by high oil prices. Since 2005, world oil production has remained on an undulating plateau that has kept prices high, contributing to surging global food prices.
According to the New England Complex Systems Institute, if food prices go over a threshold of 210 on the FAO Food Price Index, the probability of civil unrest is greatly magnified.”

http://qz.com/116276/at-the-root-of-egyptian-rage-is-a-deepening-resource-crisis/

The FAO has been hovering at or above 210 since at least 2010. If climate change reduces global food output, inevitably the price of food will increase. If oil becomes scarcer or more expensive, the price of food will increase. To these issues, under the current system, there is no clear or easy resolution.

Conflict and war

Internal conflict is not the only outcome of resource shortages and climate change. As nations across the world find it harder to keep their populations supplied with the food, water, energy and goods that keep them happy, the pressures will increase to find and secure new sources. Despite the comforting narratives that keep western civilians believing that conflicts in far-flung and uncivilised nations are due to local religious squabbles, modern nations are very aware of the precarious nature of their power, and will be willing to go to great lengths to avoid travelling down the same path.

CONFLICTS OVER OIL

As a result, in the past decades we have seen conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq explode into worldwide wars with the involvement of great powers. It is hardly a secret that America was not in Iraq primarily because of the sufferings of a few Iraqis, but because Saddam was not friendly to the oil needs of the US. Much of the current situation in Ukraine can also be attributed to Russia’s intent to secure oil reserves.

At the current moment there are territorial disputes across the South China sea: primarily, conflicts between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, and between China and the Philippines over the Reed Bank. Even Australia is not immune from territorial disputes over oil: witness the dispute between Australia and Timor over the Timor Sea maritime boundary. Whilst all of these disputes are currently diplomatic, there have already been military incidents in some of them, and any of them could blow up into serious conflict. They will not be the last such disputes of this century.

CONFLICTS OVER FOOD AND WATER

Water shortages are arguably the greatest challenge facing the world of the immediate future. According to the UN, “…by 2025, two-thirds of us will experience water shortages, with nearly two billion suffering severe shortfalls.”

China is in perilous state with drought affecting its farmlands: it’s the world’s biggest user of imported water. “Land grabs” in Africa – and Australia – are intended not as assaults on those continents but are an attempt to secure productive land to grow food and ship it back home.

Attempts by China to procure land in Australia may be a false economy; there is a decent chance that Australia may soon be joining China in a need for fresh sources of fresh water and arable land. The oncoming El Nino may be salutary.

Desalination can play a part in providing for the water needs of cities and of agriculture. But desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, and requires a large amount of political capital. Things will need to get worse before the people will realise the need for things to get better.

CONFLICTS OVER TERRITORY

We live in a post-Empire world. In the modern era, nations do not generally invade or annex other nations for the sake of world domination; the world has reached a form of equilibrium and any such attempts would be roundly resisted. International conflicts now are driven by more prosaic concerns, such as the desire to secure energy and mineral resources.

In such a world, any unclaimed or untapped resources take on a greater level of significance. Currently, there are three major fields which may help nations address their ongoing needs, and it is in these fields that we are likely to see expansionist movements and potential conflicts over the next decades. These fields are the open ocean, Antarctica and space.

We are already seeing conflicts over claimed areas of ocean. We can expect to see ongoing exploration in international waters for new resource fields. However, in general, resources are both rarer and harder to extract when they are in international waters. Deep sea trenches were never landmasses, never supported forests and ecosystems, and thus hold little or no oil. Combine this with the fact that at present we find it difficult even to reach the ocean floor across much of the world – witness the fruitless search for MH370 – and drilling for oil or minerals across the ocean becomes a prohibitive challenge.

Similar challenges exist for space. Enormous resources and energy are required just to get there, let alone manage any attempts at extraction. However, even within our own solar system there are greater reserves of resources than our planet contains in its entirety. Space is the battleground of the future. It will not, however, be practically useful to nations in the first half of the 21st century.

Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits any change in territorial claims. The Madrid Protocol, an addendum to the Treaty, prevents mining within Antarctica. Treaties, as history has shown us, are made to be broken. Many nations have significant interest in the untapped resources of Antarctica and some are already beginning to explore and plan their exploitation of this continent on Australia’s doorstep. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that the next major battleground of the 21st century might be this southernmost continent – particularly as global warming potentially makes the continent more accessible and, eventually, suitable for habitation and agriculture.

Peak oil by any definition

Global social unrest and international warfare might be avoided if the world can continue to provide fresh reserves of oil to support our insatiable need for growth and industry. Unfortunately this is not going to be possible. Many commentators have discussed the concepts of peak oil; for decades the idea has been a looming threat. Official estimates have consistently denied that crisis is imminent, but it now appears that peak oil may be closer than anyone had hoped. The US seems to think so.

That we are at or near ‘peak oil’ is demonstrated by the industry’s continual push to open new resource fields and extraction methods, regardless of the expense and complexity. The end of the world’s access to cheap fossil fuel energy is a threat worthy of an article of its own – or perhaps even its own blog. Suffice it to say here that the price of oil, and the price of food, is not going to stop increasing any time soon.

With resource crises, food shortages, water shortages and increasing climatic disruption
caused by hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods, not to mention sea level rise over the
coming decades which will flood and permanently destroy huge swathes of the world’s low-lying agricultural lands, the 21st century is in the grip of a perfect storm of crises that have the potential to reshape the face of humanity on this planet far more quickly than most Australians realise.

What can Australia learn?

Both Syria and Egypt are finding that their economies are suffering due to a downturn in
fossil fuel exports – both due to depletion. Without the revenue from oil exports, these governments have found themselves less able to provide for the needs of their people. Australia needs to heed this example. We are not a heavy exporter of oil; however, our economy is heavily reliant on the export of coal and mineral resources. If these markets collapse, we will find ourselves in a parlous economic situation. The Abbott government is effectively pursuing an austerity budget even whilst the nation is not in economic crisis. As climate change and El Nino drive our farmers off the land and our food production inevitably declines over the rest of this decade, we will see increased demands on government resources. Diversifying our economy is absolutely vital.

The uprisings in the middle east may have been driven by economic and resource woes, but they were enabled by despotic regimes that did not do enough to support the needs of the people. Uprising became the only way out for populations on the edge of starvation.

Australia does not have an autocratic dictatorship in command – although it pains me to have to add the word “arguably”. Despite our inclusive system of politics, already we have seen social unrest with government policies and with the democratic process in general. Already we see protests against governments of both breeds. We’re a long way short of the critical mass of the people who would rebel against their government but the seeds are there. It is hubris to think that Australia could never suffer the kind of uprising that has been witnessed in Thailand or Egypt. It won’t happen in the next ten years; we’re still a prosperous nation. But the decisions made now will have impacts on the society and governance of the 2050s and beyond.

It is more likely, in the immediate term, that we will face the ramifications of unrest from neighboring regions than experience it ourselves. This will manifest as growing pressure to accept climate refugees, combined with an increasing range of domestic crises.

How will we respond?

Most of the current areas of unrest are in the middle east, for a reason. These regions suffer a combination of resource dependence, early effects of disruptive climate change, and despotic or immature regimes with too great a reliance on resources that are now declining.

Australia, for the moment, is buffered by our remote location, delaying the worst impacts of climate change; by our system of government and our existing social contract and social support structures; and by our relatively high standard of living. This gives us time to consider the future and our response to the oncoming challenges – if we choose to recognise them.

We have seen the trajectories of nations where these crises come together. With a little forethought, we can see our own nation’s weaknesses and start to plan wisely for the future.

An obvious and critical answer to all of these challenges is to divest from oil. Renewable energy is not just an answer to climate change; it’s a solution to the energy crisis that will affect us all. With efficient renewable energy, we can manage our water resources better, and this will allow us to secure our domestic food production. If we act now, we may be able to retain our standard of living.

Alternatively, we could dismantle our climate change bodies and our renewable energy institutions. We could defund solar and wind power, while funnelling ever greater subsidies into fossil fuels in an attempt to shore up our revenues for a few more years. We could leave the challenges of the oncoming food, fuel and water crises to future governments and future generations.

Yes, I guess we could do that.

Worth a thousand words

A picture can be worth a thousand words. Sometimes, you get tired of writing at length on the stupidities, mendacities and offenses of the Government, and the Tony Abbott government is giving us plenty of length to write. But sometimes it’s not the most literate or well-written essay or a finely-tuned turn of phrase that can have the greatest impact and be the most memorable criticism. Sometimes it takes a bit of sarcasm, or perhaps even a picture or two.

The following memes are thus offered for all to share. Feel free to copy, put them up on Flickr or Facebook or Google +. Distribute, copy, and feel free to suggest more.

notsurprised

No surprises? No excuses.

hockey_cigar

Meme based on original photo by Jane Caro

 

What’s $7? “One packet of cigarettes costs $22. That gives you three visits to the doctor. You can spend just over $3 on a middy of beer, so that’s two middies of beer to go to the doctor.”

Independent

Compilation based on images from abc.net.au

If you want to complain about my independence, take it up with the Speaker.

 

“The unemployed, the sick, the welfare recipients hit by the budget, they’re not going to be dancing, are they?”

notmymates

Photo: memegenerator

“Mates help each other; they don’t tax each other.”

offensive

Photo: tumblr.com

Just a blight on the landscape.

notdirecting

Compilation based on images from abc.net.au

Coincidentally raising my hand just before the Speaker stands up. Oops!

 

Soft corruption

The 2014 budget is a corrupt document.

A few words about corruption are necessary. Much has been said about potential conflicts of interest and corruption on the part of Tony Abbott with regards to his daughters. Some have intimated that Tony Abbott was bought and paid for with a scholarship for Frances to the Whitehouse Institute of Design. It is important to be clear that it is unlikely that there is malfeasance or corruption (as legally defined) in either the scholarship for Frances Abbott, or the appointment of Louise Abbott to a plum post in Geneva.

Frances Abbott, image by bmag.com.au

Frances Abbott, image by bmag.com.au

In the case of Frances Abbott, it appears that the Whitehouse Institute sought her out, courted her for a position, and sealed the deal with the scholarship. This happened during Labor’s term in office when Tony Abbott was Opposition Leader. There has been an indication that having Frances Abbott associated with the college might be good for its profile, although I find this unconvincing; but having Frances Abbott associated with the college has certainly proved good for its budget and its future. The budget has, for the first time, allocated government funds to private educational institutes such as Whitehouse, which will be of direct financial benefit to the Institute. Nevertheless, I am not claiming that this is a quid pro quo for favours given to Tony Abbott’s daughter.

It doesn’t have to be.

There is certainly preferential treatment being given to Whitehouse and its ilk, but this does not necessarily denote corruption or “payment in kind” – at least, not in a legal sense. It is more indicative of a culture of privilege. The age of entitlement has certainly not ended for the political class. For our politicians, the world is entitlement.

Where does privilege end and corruption begin? In Tony Abbott’s world, people do favours for others all the time. You give priority attention to a stakeholder’s needs. You give donations and gifts (money, bottles of Grange, scholarships). In most cases, it’s not illegal unless there’s an immediate expectation of a specific reward. But you do it in the expectation that there will be a reward. The reward for your efforts may be a policy friendly to your interests, a budget that bulldozes through the economy but carefully detours around your patch, a rebate extended rather than curtailed, or a convenient directorship of a government board. The reward doesn’t come in direct trade for your favour, but every favour you offer earns brownie points and neither you nor they will forget them. And things can turn ugly if it ever appears that your favours are not going to be duly returned.

Frances Abbott’s scholarship was probably like this. Tony Abbott likely didn’t press for it; he didn’t have to. It was a favour, offered freely, with no specific return in mind. But even if there was no expectation of a specific benefit that the Institute would gain, there was certainly an expectation that the government would look kindly upon it when the time came, and Tony Abbott and his government have not disappointed on that front.

In Tony Abbott’s world, money is quite literally no object. On a salary of over half a million dollars annually (plus entitlements) he could afford to pay the way of all three of his daughters and barely miss the money. At the time of Frances’ scholarship, however, Tony Abbott was not Prime Minister.

When he moved from government into opposition in 2007, his salary dropped from ~$200,000 to ~$110,000 – which is still an awful lot of money compared to what most people in Australia earn. This wasn’t enough to support the luxurious lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, so he took out a $700,000 mortgage on his family home. (It’s interesting to note that he was happy enough to personally go into debt equivalent to 700% of GDP, with an understanding that he could service the loan. It’s interesting also that he failed to declare the mortgage on his pecuniary interests register for over three years.)

To be fair, the salary earned by politicians is at the lower end of their natural constituency; the rich and powerful routinely earn six-figure salaries and seven-figure salaries are not uncommon. This is why the Coalition can throw dinner parties for sixty guests and spend $50,000 catering; not because they’re being unwarrantedly profligate, but because ten thousand dollar dinners are not unusual. This is a world which I, and the vast majority of Australian taxpayers, can only imagine. For most Australians, ten thousand dollars is a windfall, a goodly proportion of their annual salary. To Tony Abbott’s people, ten thousand dollars is a watch.

This is why the 2014 budget has given rise to such anger in the Australian community. It’s not that it’s harsh, specifically, although it indubitably is. It’s not even because the budget will directly strike at the daily cost of living of so many. Rather, it’s because it’s so patently inequitable.

The $7 medicare co-payment has been written largely by people who don’t know what $7 looks like. The restrictions on Newstart were designed by people who have never needed to contend with unemployment, not while family friends own large businesses which can give a deserving youngster an internship, no questions asked. Increases to the price of petrol, of education, of medicines, of fresh food (coming soon to a GST near you!) mean little to people who’ve never set foot inside a Woolworths.

It is this pervasive culture of privilege that the budget seeks to shelter. The sad fact is that the beneficiaries of this system don’t see anything wrong with it. Tony Abbott, with his one-million-dollar-a-year entitlements claims, believes with all his heart that he deserves the privileges that come with office. To him, this is the kind of opportunity that the Coalition offers to all Australians: the opportunity to better yourself and reap the spoils.

The problem with this model of opportunity is that it depends on the existence of a downtrodden class. The powerful and the privileged can only remain so at the expense of the masses; not the poor, who are of little economic benefit to society, but the battlers. Our system depends on families on the median wage struggle month to month, paycheck to paycheck, and aspiring to the kind of luxuries and riches those in power have already left behind.

The system cannot support a migration en masse to the upper classes. Those who occupy the rarefied heights know this. The system defends itself, and it does so with the collusion of our leaders. The salary earned by politicians is high enough to give them exposure to this other world, but they are not really of it. The salary of a shadow minister apparently cannot support three children at expensive public schools, let alone a new car every two years. Ministers do slightly better and the Prime Minister does best of all, but even his half million is dwarfed by the real puppet-masters. The favours offered by the powerful allow their politician puppets to climb one rung higher; to sit at the table for a little longer and to feather their own nests just a little more. This is the real corruption: not of direct trade of favours for favourable treatment, not of service-in-kind, but the kind of soft corruption that says we have no expectations of you but we’re sure you’ll remember where your priorities should lie.

Solving the real problems

 

We have a budget problem.

It’s not a budget emergency. Everyone agrees about that… at least, everyone who understands about national finance and economics, which is unfortunately only a minority of the voting public, and none of the current Coalition government to hear them tell it.

By current standards, by any measures you care to name, Australia is currently doing very well compared to every other nation in the G20. Taking all of the various factors together, it’s impossible to deny that Australia is in the best economic state in the world.

The justification for immediate, sweeping, deep cuts to government expenditure is looking pretty shaky.

With that said, it is prudent for us to realise that Australia does face some severe fiscal challenges in the coming decades. Some of these are the result of demographics. Some are historical, and some are being wilfully ignored or exacerbated by the Coalition government’s policies.

As many commentators have argued, the problem with Australia’s economy is not currently on the spending side of the ledger; despite the Coalition’s rhetoric of “profligate spending”, government expenditure increase was slower under Labor than the previous Howard government. Rather, the challenge is with the decline in revenue. This decline is not going to be fixed by a short-term “deficit levy”. The decline is driven by demographic change as the large baby-boomer demographic leaves the ranks of the taxpayers and is replaced by smaller cohorts of Generation Y and Z. Simply put, we’re an ageing population and that leads to declines in tax revenue. Revenue is further driven down by reductions in the terms of trade for coal, iron and other exports, as international economies both encounter financial headwinds of their own, and bring competing sources of these resources online. And depressed spending in the domestic market, particularly in big-ticket areas such as housing, has been driven by the “near-miss” that was the GFC. When the Australian population saves, there is less money in circulation for the government to take in tax.

The future is looking even more bleak. The already declining revenues from coal and fossil fuels, for so long a mainstay of the Australian economy, are likely to collapse with the increasing push towards renewables and international concern about climate disruption. The brand-new 2014 National Climate Assessment in the US is just the most recent in a long succession of dire reports to the world’s largest economy, and the boulder is
slowly but inexorably starting its downhill roll. As climatic disasters continue to reinforce the immediacy of climate disruption, and as economies like America adopt increasingly stringent carbon-abatement policies, the demand for Australia’s coal and gas is likely to dry up. Many fossil fuel oligarchs are likely to go the wall, a fact that will not provoke a lot of tears, but it’s likely to take Australia’s budget position with it.

An ageing population is one with decreasing health, so just as people drop out of the workforce and stop contributing tax, they start requiring more medical attention and putting more weight onto the healthcare system as well as pensions. Multiple reports are clear that on the current trajectory, over the coming decades the share of government expenditure that social security and healthcare will encompass will increase substantially and unsustainably. Left unchecked, this is the budget emergency of tomorrow.

One final brick in the wall up against which is Australia, is the decline of the manufacturing industry. Whether it’s cars or fruit or sneakers, the past decade has seen a constant flow of manufacturing businesses, large and small, leaving Australia for sunnier climes. This is not driven by a lack of capability or resources, which Australia has in plentiful supply, but rather through things that Australians value, such as a decent working wage and appropriate employment conditions including leave and penalty rates. There is only so much that Australian governments can do to reduce administration costs and provide tax breaks to encourage businesses to set up here or remain, and so long as we live in a globalising world with logistics chains that can get goods to the shelves regardless of being produced in Geelong or Kuala Lumpur, all other things being equal companies have little incentive to stay. This contributes to a loss of manufacturing potential and an over-reliance on the mining and minerals sector, and puts Australia at even greater risk. The next two decades will be critical. Employment ministers like to talk up Australia’s other growth area of employment, the services sector, but there’s a limit to how many service jobs an economy can support if there’s nothing being actually manufactured.

To its credit, Labor is aware of the challenges ahead and had productive policies in place over their past two terms of government, and in their election policies in 2013, despite a growing populism and desperation in the face of Tony Abbott’s attacks. Unfortunately Labor has proven to be absolutely inept at message management and communication to the electorate, resulting in the Coalition defining the terms of discussion for every area of policy debate. This resulted, too often, in Labor watering down its message or arguing on the Coalition’s ground, rather than making the case for their own vision.

There are no simple or foolproof solutions to these problems; after all, Australia exists in competition with a myriad of other nation-states who would love nothing better than to see us fail if only to bolster their own chances of success. There are, however, strategies and approaches that can be taken to address the issues, and it is my belief that Labor, at least until the last year of its term of government, had decent and well-considered approaches to these oncoming difficulties. It was just a pity that they were not able to clearly explain their policies in terms of the problems and their intended solutions.

Take for example healthcare. Labor recognised the burgeoning costs of healthcare for an ageing population early on its first term. Kevin Rudd’s grand plan for a revised health compact with the States combined an increase in the role of the Federal government in return for more funding, a new method of costing hospital procedures to standardise and optimise costs and processes, and a range of measures intended to increase pre-clinical healthcare. Throughout its two terms, Labor instituted GP Super Clinics to relieve the pressure from hospital emergency departments and to improve chronic and preventative healthcare. These same super clinics are now under threat from Tony Abbott’s oncoming budget of scalpels.

Improving overall health via preventative care, relieving hospital pressures by increasing the availability and ubiquity of medical care and standardising and optimising costs would not, in and of themselves, solve the healthcare problems Australia faces into the future, but they are a determined approach and a good start. By contrast, the Coalition does not believe in centralisation or group operation, feeling that competition and the holy dollar give the best results. The Coalition does not believe in federal involvement in healthcare beyond what is necessary. The Coalition does not believe in providing government assistance to those in need of healthcare, preferring instead to encourage further involvement of private health in Australia’s healthcare system. This does not address the nation’s healthcare funding problem; it simply shifts the burden onto ordinary people.

Or you can look at manufacturing. Labor’s approach to Australia’s two-speed economy was best encapsulated by the MRRT (Minerals Resource Rent Tax) and its preceding RSPT (Resources Super Profit Tax). Labor intended to marginally increase the amount of tax revenue gained from those resources companies with unfeasibly large profits and pour the resulting funds into support and resources for businesses in other sectors of Australia’s economy. A true case of “all boats will rise”, Labor intended to lower the company tax rate across the board, a move that would have been particularly of benefit to small businesses and retailers across the country. The mining tax would not apply to resource businesses in their normal course of operations; no extra tax would be taken during investment and building of a mine, nor even during moderate production. But when a company got into windfall territory, rapidly depleting a source of minerals and making huge short-term profits, the government felt that the Australian economy should get an extra cut. The philosophical merits of placing an extra tax burden on companies that already paid taxes may be debated; the politics of imposing this ‘levy’, as we now know, turned exceptionally poisonous. (Incidentally, the RSPT and MRRT were intended to replace royalties, so all claims that ‘they already pay royalties to the States’ are furphies.) But it was an attempt, successful or not, to take the benefits of a short term economic boom on the back of mining and use them to strengthen Australia’s performance in other areas of the economy.

Except that the Coalition and the resource oligarchs together conspired to corrupt the public discussion. The average Australian, by the time of the 2013 election, probably thought that the MRRT was going to push prospective mining projects out of Australia and cost thousands of jobs. The truth, of course, is that mining employs a mere fraction of the workforce (and far less than manufacturing and retail), that no companies have realistically been driven from our shores by a tax specifically intended only to be levied when a company was doing excellently, and that the mining companies had won a range of concessions about the methodology of valuing assets that depressed the overall take of the tax in any case. In a world environment where resource prices are declining and the Australian mining boom is largely over, the MRRT has been a disappointment in terms of revenue raised, and whilst it might have been more successful in the latter half of the 2010s as mining companies moved from building phases into full operation, the Coalition is very likely to be able to dismantle the MRRT before it reaches any kind of real success.

Taking even a decent amount of super profits tax from the big miners and using it to reduce operating costs for all businesses across the country would not, in and of itself, solve the problems facing Australia’s manufacturing sector. But it was a good start and a valid approach. The Coalition’s alternative approach of continuing to subsidise and promote Australia’s resource industries will have marginal short term benefits to revenue at the expense of Australia’s ability to transition away from resources into more sustainable and modern forms of production.

On the front of climate disruption, an emissions trading scheme is widely regarded by environmentalists and economists alike to be the best approach to the problem. Labor’s ETS has its detractors, but in this as in so many other areas of Labor policy, the message has been lost in the noise. It is certainly fair to say that even were an ETS to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint to zero it would make minimal impact on the world’s climate. It is definitely true that trading schemes have been gamed in some jurisdictions, that corruption can ensue, and that some people are liable to make a lot of money. It is even fair to say that during the short life of Australia’s ETS, there has been little to no measurable impact on the country’s climate. These objections ignore the bigger picture: that participating in an effective carbon trading scheme would assist Australia to meet its climate commitments and would position Australia to participate in global carbon trading markets without fear of sanctions and tariffs; that the revenues raised from the carbon trading scheme would be ploughed back into successful research and development programs in renewable energy and other carbon-abatement technologies, thus increasing the country’s export markets, renewable energy business and employment, and technological expertise; and that by leading the way for the world, we improved Australia’s standing and encouraged other nations to improve their carbon footprints as well.

By contrast, the Coalition does not appear to believe in climate change/disruption. They are seeking to dismantle a market mechanism to address this global problem, in the process removing Australia’s ability to participate in growing international carbon markets and making us a pariah amongst other nations. They have already dissolved bodies whose remit was to provide impartial and scientific advice on this issue, and are seeking to remove the revenue-generating successful Clean Energy Finance Corporation. In place of these approaches the Coalition is promoting its fig-leaf policy of Direct Action, which has been definitively shown to be incapable of meeting Australia’s stated environment goals, let alone the significantly increased goals that would be required to keep Australia on an even footing with other nations.

Labor’s ETS would not, in and of itself, save the planet from anthropogenic global warming, but it’s the ideal and almost universally respected approach, with many benefits for Australia’s economy and environment, at minimal cost. The best that can be said for the Coalition’s approach is that Direct Action might possibly be of some benefit, but it’s certainly neither the most effective nor efficient method.

On all three of these confronting issues, Labor had successful or worthy policy approaches. Whatever can be said about Labor’s ability to deliver on its policies (either through poor planning or the incapability of the public service), and putting aside the well-publicised leadership contentions, Labor’s main weakness was its inability to get across the message of its approach to these problems. On all three of these issues, judging by policies taken to the election and recent media speculation, our current Coalition government would appear to be taking Australia in exactly the wrong direction. With the Coalition’s first budget mere days away, we will soon see if the government has any valid approaches to these issues beyond the slash-and-burn approach already adopted, but the signs are not looking promising when Tony Abbott and his team will not even be honest about the problems we face. This insistence on a “budget emergency” is a farce and the Coalition’s determined intent to preserve the status quo is not the way to head off the economic emergency that is really oncoming. But of course politics is cyclical, and it’s likely that Labor will be in power by the time these problems become too big to ignore.

Are you being served?

MOR-health-website-wide-620x349

Democratic governments provide two fundamental functions in the service of a single overriding responsibility. When a government, through the performance of its two functions, betrays the single responsibility it holds, it has lost its mandate to govern. There is a case to be made that our current Coalition government is in exactly this position.

The raison d’etre for democracy, without which the very concept of democratic government would not exist; is to provide a means for the community as a whole to configure the kind of society in which they wish to live. Inevitably this involves winners and losers: government exists primarily to put checks on the powerful and support the weak. Governance is thus about promoting equality. The cut and thrust of politics is about thresholds – how much is too much? How much is too little?

Governments fulfil this basic purpose through the actions of their two primary functions: legislation and national defence. Legislation allows a government to protect its citizenry from internal threats; national defence protects us against external threats. Since coming to power, Tony Abbott’s Coalition government has continued a long history in Australian politics of continuing and sustaining Australia’s military, and in this way the government is carrying out its remit for national defence. Good for them.

In the field of legislation against internal threats to society, their record is not so good.

The Big Bad: the Food Industry

There is a growing recognition amongst public health bodies that food manufacturing and marketing in Australia, and the west in general, is promoting unhealthy eating habits and contributing materially to public health issues such as obesity and diabetes. History has shown us that industries acting counter to the best interests of the people eventually face opposition and attempts at control and harm minimisation by societal groups, and that eventually governments come to the party and assist in such opposition. The tobacco industry is the cause celebre but alcohol and junk food are both likely to follow. It is in this light that on 14 June 2013, COAG – the Council of Australian Governments – announced the implementation of a packaging labelling scheme in Australia. This was the culmination of a long discussion and negotiation process beginning in December 2011.

The Front of Pack food star rating scheme is a compromise solution painstakingly agreed and laboriously (and expensively) developed over two years. COAG is the federal council that brings together Australian state and federal governments in a single body. The scheme, initially intended to be voluntary, will provide consumers an easily understood guide to the nutritional value of their foods. The scheme was brokered between COAG and the Public Health Association with ongoing consultation with the food industry. The food industry, represented by such bodies as “Australian Public Affairs” and the Food and Grocery Council, has cooperated in its development despite being trenchantly opposed to the scheme and seeking any means possible to delay its introduction.

The Abbott government has been accused of deliberately delaying the introduction of the scheme until after State elections in South Australia and Tasmania on 15 March, for exactly this purpose, hoping that the composition of COAG would change sufficiently to allow the cancellation of the agreement. Cancellation or amendment of a COAG agreement requires the majority of State and Federal governments and the current makeup of the council is narrowly in favour of the food labelling scheme.

Included in the star rating scheme is a food ratings website that is intended to provide consumer advice on the nutrition of packaged foods. The website also includes a calculator for food manufacturers to use to calculate the star rating for their packaged foods for voluntary inclusion in labelling. The website was completed and went live on schedule, on February 5 2014. Many public health groups and industry groups were expecting its arrival and awaiting its commencement and it seems a minor miracle that such a website, developed over two years by the public service in conjunction with the Public Health Association, should have been completed on time.

Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash personally intervened to have the site taken offline by 8pm the same night.

Nash’s publicly stated reasons for pulling down the website is that “the website will be confusing for consumers as it uses a star rating that is not yet ‘up and running’.” She has also claimed that it was a draft put online by accident. But it was her chief of staff, married to the owner of the business lobby group Australian Public Affairs, who personally intervened to have the site unilaterally taken offline.

Protecting the interests

This is not the first example of Ms Nash protecting the interests of corporations and business lobbies at the expense of public health or public interest initiatives. It’s tempting to make personal judgements that Ms Nash is not an appropriate candidate for the position of Assistant Health Minister, but she operates within a government with a strong track record of supporting business interests rather than public good regulations that limit them.

Democratic government is designed to serve the interests of the People – not individual people, but the community as a whole. Conservative governments are wont to argue that making life easier for businesses allows them to create more jobs and thus serves the interest of the people, and there is some justification for that; however, there are cases where public interest and corporate interest clearly come into conflict. These include areas of workplace health and safety; of environmental protection; and of protection of public health against goods which, in excess, can be harmful.

In a capitalist society, companies are fighting two major opponents. The first major opponent a business faces is its competitors. Companies need to compete against other companies to turn a profit. The role of government in this is simply to be even-handed; to not preference one company at the expense of others. The litmus test should be whether any proposed change operates across the board. If competition is seen as a public good, then sympathetic treatment may be justifiable towards the underdog. The second major opponent a company faces is the community.

Companies are beholden to the public that buys their goods, but are not above manipulating and mistreating those customers. Marketing might sometimes be righteous – if people have an identified need, promoting a product which can meet that need is perfectly legitimate. But in our materialistic society with many competitors for the purchaser’s dollar, much of marketing is about creating the need prior to seeking to fulfil it.

In the context of coercive or manipulative commerce, government’s role should always fall squarely on the side of the People’s interest. Regulations and laws exist to put limits on what companies can get away with, because it will never be the companies themselves that impose limitations.

An emerging pattern

The cancellation of the food star ratings website is a clear case of corporate interests being favoured at the expense of the People, and a clear abrogation of the politician’s responsibilities. However, it is merely the latest in a long line of government actions from the Abbott government that favour the interests of corporations rather than the People. Prominent examples include:

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is the grand-daddy of corporate interests into which both recent governments, Labor and Coalition, have been driving us headlong. Whole articles can be written about the TPP – and indeed they have been.

The National Broadband Network. It has been convincingly argued that the main reasons for the Coalition’s opposition to Labor’s model for the NBN is that it will do harm to entrenched corporate interests.

The mining tax. To attempt to redistribute some of the wealth of the largely overseas-based megacorporations involved in strip-mining this country and put it to use across the community and small businesses makes logical sense, but it goes against Coalition ideology of protecting the corporate interests of those who make profits.

An internet filter. The idea of an internet filter is not new; Steven Conroy was rightly excoriated by the left for this idea that is tantamount to censorship. George Brandis’s vision of the filter, however, is not so concerned with protection of children and our moral virtue; it is aimed directly at protecting the existing media corporations, in the guise of protecting copyright. Whilst this is an issue with some justification, you might think we would have learned by now that protecting the rights of intellectual property holders by draconian regulation always hurts both the eventual consumers of media products as well as innocent bystanders who want to use file sharing for legitimate purposes.

Attacks on unions. The Abbott government’s ideological crusade against trade unions is not really about corruption and they are not really friends to the honest worker. The primary and overt aim of the coming Royal Commission is to damage Labor – both its reputation and its source of funding. But the chief outcome in any conflict between corporations and the unions which exist to protect workers and the community from the corporations’ excesses will always be to the detriment of the community. For evidence of the government’s allegiances in this field, look no further than the recent case of SPC, where the government attempted to push SPC to reduce staff conditions to the minimum allowed by the award before any assistance would be possible. In some strange way, this equates in the government’s mind to being “best friend to the honest worker”.

Credit where credit is due

It must be said that the Abbott coalition government seems to genuinely believe that promoting the interests of corporations will be for the good of Australia; they are not being deliberately harmful to the people they govern. But there does not appear to be any kind of “public good” test being applied to decisions. Corporations have the ear of the government through lobby groups and donations, and it certainly seems that the government’s ear has been turned. But when both government and public opinion can be swayed by the corporations that government ought to be protecting the public against, the very purpose of democracy is being subverted. Whether or not the coalition government (and its predecessor in Labor) are being malicious or merely unduly influenced, whether there is corruption or nobly-held ideals, it is the community that suffers. The only question remaining is how far the imbalance will go before the people wake up to the fact that the People and the Corporations are not on the same side?

Assaults on democracy

Parliament House - the centre of our democracy (image by holam.com.au)

Parliament House – old and new – the centre of our democracy (image by holman.com.au)

There are at least two fundamental requirements for a functioning democracy. In various ways, in recent years, we have seen political parties in Australia attempting to subvert and limit these requirements. This is an assault on democracy itself. It may not be deliberate – political parties, like business entities, will work within the constraints of the law to achieve their ends, and loopholes and aggressive tactics are a part of the game. But dress it up how you may, attempting to coerce the workings of parliament and the electoral choices of a population is anti-democratic even if done within the limitations of the laws of that democracy.

In the business sphere, there is an overarching structure to act as a check and balance. The courts, and above them the legislature, ensure that eventually businesses that exploit loopholes to the detriment of the community can be brought back into line. Through the testing of legislation in the courts, through the drafting of new laws and regulations, there are means to help ensure that the system is fluid and no entities can subvert the intention of the regulations to which all businesses are subject.

Politics has no such overarching structure. The limits on politics are the various parties themselves – where one party oversteps the bounds, the only bodies that can pull them up on it are other political parties. Some of the time this works. And sometimes it does not.

Given untrammelled power – for instance, control of both houses of Parliament – a government can adjust the goalposts in such a way as to benefit their own interests and continued dominance. When the cycle turns, as eventually it must, an incoming government is then able to either take advantage of the changes the previous government has wrought, or to reverse the changes and implement their own.

The Australian constitution holds various aspects of our democracy sacrosanct and to change these requires a referendum. The basic mechanics of elections and parties and the existence of two houses are not in danger. There are plenty of other ways that a political party can act to extend its own hegemony, and any number of ways that the intent of a democracy can be subverted by the details.

Basic requirements for a healthy democracy include the following.

1. A free press

Or more accurately, even and impartial coverage and analysis of the issues. Fundamentally, Australian democracy is about vision. In a hundred policy areas each government has to balance the requirements of the community and the best interests of the country. In order to effectively judge the promised approach of a candidate government to each of these areas, in order to accurately evaluate the needs of Australia’s present and future, clear and informative reporting is needed.

In Australia, the media environment is skewed. Various reports have pointed to the obvious bias in the large majority of Australia’s news media. Against this bias, only the minority Fairfax and the public broadcaster ABC attempt a more balanced view. Readers of this blog will understand that “more balanced”, to the conservatives, reads as “rabid pinko”. A detailed analysis of the relative bias of the ABC vs News Ltd is outside of the scope of this article. What is not, is that the Coalition is currently openly discussing curtailing the ABC’s power to operate in the news arena.

“He said there was a compelling case to consider breaking the ABC into two entities with the traditional television and radio operations protected to ensure services in the bush and regional Australia, while the online news service could be disposed of.” http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/turnbull-defends-abc-but-colleagues-want-to-preach-it-a-lesson-20131203-2yotw.html#ixzz2mS3lekiz

Of course, the Abbott government has form in the area of suppressing balanced information from the populace. In just a short three months in office, they have disbanded information bodies, restricted the information flow out of government, suppressed information on the grounds of “operational matters” despite said information being available to those not unfortunate enough to live in Australia, and continued the active dissemination of misinformation, half-truths and blatant untruths.

2. Robust representation in the Parliament

In a representative democracy, not every member of Parliament is going to belong to or be sympathetic to the government. Those members and senators elected to represent the opposition and independent parties – even those who do not represent a party at all – are not there to warm chairs. They are not elected to become a part of the government machine and uncritically support any intentions of the government of the day. Instead, they are there to be a dissenting voice, and hopefully through negotiation in the interests of the people they represent, to improve proposed legislation through amendments. The operation of the Parliament and Senate in this regard is a deliberate structure to ensure that all new law is viewed through the lens of more than one stakeholder; to ensure that legislation that benefits one group does not act unfairly to the detriment of others.

Both Labor and the Coalition in recent years – and as recently as the current sitting of Parliament – have taken, and are taking, actions to subvert this function. Such actions include scheduling complicated legislation for debate and passage in unfeasibly short timeframes. For examples of this – on both sides – you need look no further than the carbon “tax”. Labor provided a package of legislation running to over 1000 pages to the Parliament with eight days to read, understand, debate and vote on it. In response, the Coalition has given the repeal of the carbon tax – eleven bills, to be discussed together – just three and a half days of debate. It would be bad enough if it were just the “tax” being debated, but tied up in the repeal are dozens of climate bodies, administrative bodies, funding arrangements, and associated clean energy infrastructure.

Arguably, however, the Coalition has been worse in their abuse of the processes of Parliament. During the previous term of government, they brought few amendments to the house, preferring instead to grandstand, disrupt proceedings with continual calls to suspend standing orders, and in most cases in Question Time to ask not one question relating to their own portfolios. This was not effective representation of their constituents. But the worst was yet to come.

In the current term, in addition to electing a clearly partisan speaker to the chair of the House – Bronwyn Bishop, who remains in the party room and is an integral part of the Coalition’s governing body – they have also taken actions that in one fell swoop ensure the failure of any amendments to legislation and disempower any independent voices. The attempt to vote on all proposed amendments as a block ensures that a flaw in one amendment, or contradictory amendments, or an extreme position on behalf of one proposal will knock out all the amendments at once. As Penny Wong stated in parliament, this is procedurally impossible. She might have added, deliberately so – it is a flagrant breach of the intention of amendments. (I am unable to find references online to this abuse of process. If you can provide a link, please leave it in the comments.)

Understandably, governments want to implement their policies. But subverting debate using procedural methods is as much an assault on democracy as is continual sabotage of proceedings using points of order and interjections.

Does anybody even listen to Parliament any more?

The majority of the Australian people remain minimally aware of the vagaries of Parliament and how it operates, far less the way that it is intended to represent the interests of non-governmental political parties. Tony Abbott and some sections of the news media deliberately play to this disaffection as they talk about a “mandate” for the government to implement its policies and report scant, if any, details of the proceedings of legislation through the parliament. Regardless, the details remain critically important. These are our representatives, this is our government, and any attempt to usurp the proper processes of democracy is an assault on everyone’s rights – whether you support the government of the day or not. Accordingly, those who are politically aware and interested need to draw attention to these abuses wherever they may be found. Only by showing that people are watching, and that we care about the concept of democracy as much as about its outcomes, can we avoid permanent and catastrophic debasement of government in Australia.

A proxy for the future

london-flood

Governmental and community denial of the fundamental truths of climate change can’t last forever.

Climate change impacts are going to operate over the long term. That’s why we can’t immediately envisage the danger and it’s why climate change isn’t regarded as being as pressing as balancing the budget or “securing our borders”. It is primarily for this reason that the world has missed opportunity after opportunity to respond appropriately, to the point that it is universally regarded as too late to prevent cascading climate change from occurring. Instead of falling rapidly, worldwide carbon emissions continue to accelerate. This does not mean that we should stop trying to save the environment; the eventual extent of the destruction can yet be ameliorated. But governments and populaces worldwide are deliberately kept in a state of confusion by entrenched interest groups, and confusion allows governments and populations to continue to operate in a state of denial.

At the moment in Australia, denial manifests itself in a “business as usual” approach. The Coalition is busily dismantling anything that conflicts with the idea of status quo – business as usual doesn’t include things like climate commissions, carbon prices or renewable energy research. (For the Coalition, “business as usual” also doesn’t include things like modern broadband, up-to-date healthcare or new ways of doing education either, but that’s another blog post.)

Despite this, there are things that we do now that operate on the same timescale as climate change effects, and these may begin to act as a proxy for the future. Whilst it is possible to take a “business as usual” approach to these things, doing so is neither prudent nor effective for the future.

Case in point: demographic and developmental planning for cities in Australia’s north. Under both Labor and the Coalition, development of the north of Australia is an expectation. Growth in population, increasing urbanisation, technological advance and infrastructure dissemination are a part of governmental planning. But whilst these plans are being laid, cold-eyed scientists are looking at the north of Australia and saying bluntly that, far from developing into a new demographic powerhouse, whole latitudes may need to be abandoned as not suitable for human habitation. The best laid plans of our politicians are likely to be sabotaged by the remorseless, uncaring forces of the unleashed beast of nature. It is only stubborn denial that allows governments to continue to plan future expansions that will simply not be viable.

This kind of planning quandary extends into every aspect of the future. Urban planning in cities needs to take into account projected rises in sea levels. Whilst

Urban planning is but one area where future expectations will need to be revised to cope with the new truths of a +4°C world. Other areas that come to mind include:

  • The future of mining and resource exploitation;
  • Food security;
  • Refugee and migration policy; and
  • National security.

The latter of these warrants a post of its own. Suffice to say here, that we live in a world where current generations of Australians are not ready for the concept of a war of defense. Since the 1940s, Australia has not been seriously under direct threat of military force, and our involvements have been remote. We send our boys off to war and welcome them home; we lament and mourn (rightfully so) at the loss of individual soldiers. But climate change carries with it the risk – the near certainty – of regional conflict, as whole countries start to starve, due to desertification and loss of arable land. Australia will have cause to be thankful for its remote location and inaccessibility. Our military is likely to be too concerned with domestic issues of food security to be able to worry too much about billions of starving people in India and China.

These areas of concern fall squarely into the remit of our national government, which has shown an unparalleled recalcitrance to accept the truth of global warming. It is unlikely that government policy under the current government will include much consideration of a world shaped by forces that the Coalition denies actually exist.

The best hope for future climate action, discounting the remote possibility of a spectacular implosion of our new government, is a change in public opinion forcing our governing bodies to reconsider their attitude to climate change science. The Coalition government is unlikely to change its mind without being dragged, kicking and screaming, into an unpalatable recognisation of the truth. There is more potential for change at other levels of government. From city planners to urban land management authorities, from companies divesting from coal and backing out of investments such as the Abbot Point port expansion to the application of new mandatory building codes, we need regulations and laws, based on empirical understandings of the future, which will impact on the everyday lives of Australians and people around the world.

If these bodies and organisations allow their agenda to be dictated to them by those with investments in the status quo, then not only will the investments made now be seen as foolhardy at best and downright negligent at worst, but the trajectory for the future will continue to deteriorate.

We can’t afford that. The push for climate action must come from the individual upwards, because it’s clearly not going to be led by the government on high. So, on an individual level, when we look to investments in property, when we consider our shareholdings and our superannuation, there are questions to ask. Have those who seek to sell you a future considered what climate change will mean for the investment they are proposing?

Tony Abbott’s “mandate” about removing the carbon price is not as strong as he wishes it to appear. There is already a large and growing force in the community that is concerned about climate change and willing to agitate for action. We can hope that it will not take a revolution in public attitude to tip the balance. Every individual who is confronted with the reality of climate change and the impact it will have on their own life – and the lives of their loved ones – is an important step closer to the critical mass needed to get Australia on the path of the righteous. So if your job involves you in any form of future planning, or if you are undertaking any investments of your own, make certain that climate change is an important part of your consideration. The outcomes of your planning depend on it. And the future of your planet depends on it.

Scroll Up