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More Letters from a Labor Activist: Dec 2016 – Jan 2017

By Dr Tristan Ewins

What follows are another series of letters I have written to the ‘Herald-Sun’ and ‘The Age’ during the December 2016 to January 2017 period. None were published. But I hope it sparks some thought and some debate amongst readers here.

Topics include ‘Cultural Marxism’, Labor Policy, Pensions, Green Energy and who pays?, Islam and Education, Female Genital Mutilation, What to do about Poverty?, and ‘Bolt and Panahi need to Work Out Which Side they are On on Civil Liberties’.

Hysteria on ‘Cultural Marxism’

“P.Jones (Letters, 29/12/16) again raises the spectre of ‘cultural Marxism’ ; evoking the remnants of Cold War era fear of those movements bearing the name of Karl Marx. But ‘Critical Theory’ and the ‘Frankfurt School’ (the proper names of the traditions referred to as ‘cultural Marxism’) are radical intellectual traditions which have very little to do with the Totalitarianism and Stalinism which once prevailed in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Critical theorists promoted personal freedom, dignity and fulfilment; and they rejected attempts by Stalin and his successors to crush the independence of radical thought. Some critical theorists have also promoted the peaceful transition to a democratic socialist order through mutual engagement based on the powers of human reason. They also subjected past Marxism to criticism on the basis that radicals needed to be open-minded about confronting past errors. Considered in context, ‘cultural Marxism’ does not deserve ‘the bogey status’ imposed on it by Conservative intellectuals and others who either do not really understand its content; or otherwise want to distort perceptions in order to create fear and prevent change.”

Labor needs a Stronger Agenda; and not only Defensiveness on Company Tax

Responding to ‘The Age Letters 7/1/17’: While Labor’s opposition to Company Tax cuts is welcome, Australia needs a more robust reform agenda: improving our social wage and welfare state, and providing for vital infrastructure. Hence a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme to roll back regressive user pays; and improve quality of life for our most vulnerable. Superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy and the upper middle class could be cut, bringing in tens of billions. In addition to Capital Gains Tax and Negative Gearing reforms, Australia could also look to phased withdrawal of Dividend Imputation. Reversion to a 75% credit alone could save over $5 billion/year. Because of their progressive potential, reform of income and other progressive taxes (eg: Medicare-style Levies) should not be ‘taboo’. Presumed ‘pull factors’ regarding Corporate Taxation can neglect the impact of education and infrastructure in attracting investment. Infrastructure privatisation increases cost-structures. And there are economic and moral dilemmas associated with ‘corporate welfare’. Citizens and taxpayers effectively subsidize corporations benefitting from services and infrastructure ; because of a more regressive tax mix (flatter, and/or focusing on consumption) and also indirectly through austerity. Poverty and inequality also affect consumption power, damaging the broader economy.

The Problems with Tightening Pension Eligibility

Frank Stubbs (Herald-Sun Letters, 7/1/17) argues “the pension is not a right”; that it should only go to the most needy. But there are problems with this argument. In the 1980s Labor introduced superannuation while means-testing pensions. This enabled a focus on ‘targeted welfare’; where we could have both a regime of low taxation – and necessary supports for the genuinely vulnerable. Superannuation made all this possible. But before this the Aged Pension was considered a right. Primarily because people had paid their taxes their entire working lives – and had earned that security. But “rights” must also be a matter of human decency; such that we must not allow the vulnerable to struggle in poverty – even if they cannot work. The problem with superannuation is that it might increasingly see the marginalisation of the Aged Pension, and those dependent upon it. The consumption power of low income Australians is also affected, harming the economy. In the future conservatives may demand further tightening of pension eligibility; and that would marginalise pensioners, giving rise to further self-interested cries from business, the middle classes, the wealthy – for pension cuts. There’s a potential future social cost to cutting pension eligibility.

An Important Question on Green Energy: Who Pays?

In response to Matt Johnston (13/1): It is necessary to take action on renewable energy to respond to global warming. But an additional concern is “who pays?” Currently, renewable energy is more expensive. And while many households are taking up ‘micro-renewable energy’, a great many others are ‘locked out’ because they simply cannot afford the investment. But as middle class families opt for micro-renewable energy, this damages the ‘economies of scale’ of the legacy centralised energy industry. The cost of ‘poles and wires’ and other infrastructure is divided amongst a smaller consumer base. So consumers on low incomes are forced to pay more. This is worsened by privatisation: which means providers will pursue profits and avoid cross subsidies for the financially disadvantaged. “Micro-renewables’ are probably the way of the future: but in the meantime governments need to take stronger action to ensure financially disadvantaged customers don’t bear the cost. Subsidies of various kinds need to negate the entire effect on affordability for low income customers during this transitional period (until technology improves and prices fall). The timeframe depends on the priorities of government and the progress of research and development.

Responding to Kevin Donnelly on Islam and Education

Kevin Donnelly (Herald Sun, 2/1/17) criticises Islam as ‘inherently violent’ while defending ‘the Western tradition’ against its apparent detractors on ‘the Left’. Some things need to be stated in response to this. Firstly, it is partly a matter of convenience. The ‘West’ supported the Mujahedeen (Islamic fundamentalists) against the Soviets during the Cold War, despite what this meant for women in Afghanistan. Further, Islam is diverse – and potentially open to reform – perhaps like Christianity and Judaism have been (partly because of the historic intersection of Christianity with liberalism). In some places ‘a (liberal) Islamic reformation’ may actually be a good thing (further reform of the Roman Catholic Church would also be good). But in the meantime we should not promote notions of ‘cultural superiority’ to justify interventions which are really geo-political in nature. Also when we defend ‘the Western tradition’ and ‘the Enlightenment’ we should be clear what that means. It means supporting free and critical enquiry. The consequence of this also must be that education is not only for ‘fundamentals’ of numeracy and literacy. There is a crucial place for the Humanities and Social Sciences – in combination with a progressive civics agenda – which promotes political literacy and active citizenship. Authoritarian responses to protest and civil disobedience are counter to the freedoms we celebrate which originated with the Enlightenment – and the liberal and democratic revolutions that followed.

Responding to FGM: How Prevalent is it in Australia?

Rita Panahi (16/1) makes some points about the most reactionary practices in Islam, mentioning child brides, ‘honour killings’, and female genital mutilation. Despite allusions to a so-called ‘regressive Left’ any Leftist worth their salt could not help but oppose those practices. Of course we must support women and girls who oppose and fight against these practices. But there are other complications. Firstly it is unclear how widespread FGM is in Australia. In 2010 the ABC reported that 700 cases were presented to the Melbourne Royal Women’s Hospital. But in 2011 the total Australian Islamic population (all creeds considered) was nearing half a million. So its important to keep perspective: to support the rights of women and girls ; but also to be aware of possible ulterior motives. Strong cultural differences can be exploited to justify geo-political and strategic objectives. We need to keep cultural difference and strategic/geo-political issues separate so as to avoid confusion and remain clear about the real motivations and interests behind our foreign policy.


What Must we actually Do in Response to Poverty?

In the Herald-Sun letters section recently there has been some good discussion of poverty. But the problem is on such a scale that it will never be overcome through charity ; and we need action – not only talk. Only government can provide the resources for a definitive solution. That calls for a stronger, fairer welfare system for disadvantaged groups, the elderly and the unemployed; a fairer, progressive tax mix; and labour market re-regulation at the lower end. It also calls for a stronger social wage; including more funding for public health and education; as well as for public housing and emergency accommodation, and energy and water subsidies. It might also include better-subsidised public transport and internet access (these are now essentials – for instance it is virtually impossible to search effectively for work now without them). It could include an active industry policy which offers ‘flexible’ work favourable to employees’ needs ; preventing those such as retrenched auto workers being relegated permanently to unemployment. And it could involve greater flexibility for pensioners to take on casual or part-time work without foregoing their pensions ; hence avoiding poverty traps.

Bolt and Panahi Need to work out where they Stand on Civil Rights

Andrew Bolt claims “Leftists hate our freedoms” while Rita Panahi gives thanks for liberal freedoms she enjoys in Australia compared with theocratic Iran. But at the same time Rita Panahi has dismissed civil libertarians as ‘do-gooders’. And for all his talk, Andrew Bolt has never had anything to say against anti-protest laws introduced by past Liberal governments in New South Wales and Victoria. That includes ‘move on’ laws that criminalised freedom of assembly; and laws in NSW which could see protestors jailed for several years for civil disobedience. As well as Federal laws criminalising ‘whistle-blowers’ who reveal details on the treatment of refugees. Journalists like Panahi and Bolt need to decide what side they are on when it comes to liberal and democratic rights. It is true that parts of the Left qualify freedom of speech where they believe that speech could be socially harmful. Other Leftists are nonetheless concerned at possible precedents which could help result in a far more general retreat of liberties. And the ‘pressure cooker’ effect of suppressed (and sometimes manufactured) grievances which can explode with the rise of populist, far-right-wing movements. Reality is more complex than you would think reading Panahi and Bolt.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.



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  1. wam

    sadly the centrelink computer is mal-aligned or the ‘pensioners to take on casual or part-time work without foregoing their pensions ; hence avoiding poverty traps.’ would be great.
    FGM is a cultural application of the religious male superiority found in all religions and maintained by female indoctrination. Women may rebel as abuse claims hit home and they realise that a jewish male god that supports, rewards and forgive men who murder women and children is not worthy of worship.
    This might end the sight of women praising and thanking god when a child is pulled from the rubble left after an earthquake has killed thousanfs

  2. Keitha Granville

    The difficulty with the notion that superannuation was designed to provide retirement income with pension as a backstop is that, as yet, we have not reached a full working generation going into retirement. My husband and I started work in the 70s, and there was no super at that point. So we have not had a full working life of super to retire on, we need a top up from the pension – for which we have paid tax all our lives ! Interesting that politicians have no problem justifying their lifetime retirment benefits scheme for such short working lives, and yet they cannot see that leacing people in abject poverty for the last 20-30 years sometimes of life is simply obscene. Let’s not even mention working women, casual employess ( who don;t get super unless they earn $450 per month from ONE employer. Most casuals have several small jobs) Disabaled folk who may have fractured employment histories, if any. And never mind the generation of people who have been unemployed most of their lives. This is the obligation of a decent society, the caring for those who have no means to care for themselves – we cannot call ourselves decent if people die of hunger or homelessness.

  3. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks, Tristan. You make a lot of good points. I’m wondering whether the length of these letters might be working against the likelihood of their being published.

    I’m having trouble with this bit, though. It’s not clear to me what you mean, and I wonder if you could explain what you’re getting at here:

    ‘So its important to keep perspective: to support the rights of women and girls ; but also to be aware of possible ulterior motives. Strong cultural differences can be exploited to justify geo-political and strategic objectives. We need to keep cultural difference and strategic/geo-political issues separate so as to avoid confusion and remain clear about the real motivations and interests behind our foreign policy.’

  4. Tristan Ewins

    Thanks Kate ; I mean that when governments want to intervene in other countries they often use arguments about human rights ; or soften people up on the basis of human rights. But the real motivations can be political, strategic, economic. As an example – the Germans in WWI argued they were ‘liberating’ Russians from an absolutist regime. In reality the war was about Imperial ambitions on all sides. Similarly the Iraq wars were partly about oil ; and if there was a big Western intervention in Yemen it would be to secure the Bab of Mandeb.

  5. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks for the explanation, Tristan. I was worried that perhaps you were suggesting that nothing should be done about Female Genital Mutilation in Australia because there are so few instances. Actually, we don’t know how many girls have been subjected to this practice in Australia, But any is too many. It is against Australian law, and we need to make sure that the community is educated so that people understand that it is illegal here, and why.

    The figure you use of 700 women is quite misleading. ‘Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital says it is seeing between 600 and 700 women each year who have experienced it in some form.’ That was in 2010. These women were not necessarily subjected to the practice here – many are migrants from societies where the practice is common.

  6. vaughann722

    Thanks Kate ;

    Ok if the figure is somehow inaccurate I wasn’t aware of that. But that figure compared with the number of Muslims living in Australia at the time suggests the practice wasn’t common here in Australia in 2010-11. I don’t know that that would have changed significantly since then. And yes of course its an appalling practice ; and of course as the letter suggests I’m not making any excuses for it.

    There’s the following:

    “But certainly there have been reports of children being taken to hospital after having the procedure done with complications from that procedure.”
    Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital says it is seeing between 600 and 700 women each year who have experienced it in some form.”

    That suggests there are people presenting at hospital because of ‘complications’ ; and you’d think that would mean it actually is happening here. But yes you’re right its possible people are presenting at hospitals in Australia after suffering the procedure overseas.

  7. Kate Ahearne

    vaughann, It’s obviously happening here, and it’s not acceptable. As I understand it, though, a lot of the work being done at the Women’s is counselling and other services to help women cope with what has been done to them, often many years earlier.

    There is no way of knowing how many girls are being subjected to FGM in Australia because it IS illegal here, and because girls will not be taken to hospital unless they are in serious need of medical intervention as a result of the assault.

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