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Tag Archives: Democracy

Do Not Obsess About Debt, Obsess About the Vitals

By Darren Quinn

Professors Edmond, Holden, and Preston are mistaken in that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) says we should not worry about budget deficits. The effects of budget deficits are significant. As Stephanie Kelton, the most well-known MMT economist in the world, says, we should focus on the deficits that matter. The jobs deficit, the environmental deficit, the deficit of affordable housing for homelessness, and many more. The financial deficit from the budget is the private sector surplus, the money in your pocket and mine.

Keynes used financial praxis to argue for fiscal stimulus in severe recessions, and since financial praxis is always and everywhere an MMT phenomenon, Keynes used MMT.

The professors are also mistaken to say that it is a well-accepted idea that the spending comes first. Many politicians and commentators who talk as if the government spending is like a household budget are economists or have worked in the central bank and Treasury, among other public service jobs. So the television talking heads like financial commentators and public-facing economists such as Stephen Koukoulas and Saul Eslake are not saying these things.

The professors have not been paying attention if they think MMT proponents and economists do not explain when the inflation constraint binds. Every time MMT talks about real resources and their availability, MMT proponents are talking about inflation constraints. The real resource constraint is the inflation constraint.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that central banks do not have a working theory of inflation. Therefore, they must be in want of an excellent post-Keynesian economist like Joan Robinson or an MMT economist like Australia’s Bill Mitchell. After all, those economists have a working theory of inflation that matches reality.

The professors claim that conventional economics has a comprehensive analysis of what causes inflation; however, they would have to elaborate on this to prove that claim. Perhaps the professors are just thinking of the debunked monetary and neoclassical theories of inflation. Daniel Tarullo, a former Federal Reserve Bank board member in the United States, explains [The Financial Times, paywalled] that central banks do not have a working theory of inflation.

MMT has always acknowledged that inflation can occur below full employment, as currently demonstrated through the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with Australian unemployment at 3.5% and still 1.3 million people looking for work. As the professors should know, bottlenecks can occur in various sectors from spending before full employment is reached. This congestion can occur in the form of a resource shortage in a greater supply chain of production. It is currently being demonstrated by the lack of oil and natural gas supply in the Australian production chain.

If the Ukraine conflict had not affected oil supplies, then automotive fuel would not have been ever-increasing in price. The price increase was alleviated by the temporary excise cut in fuel. Who would have thought that reducing prices reduces inflation? Inflation is a measure of prices, so of course, lowering prices reduces inflation.

What about price rises for natural gas? These rises have occurred because we have sold our industries off to foreign owners who demand world prices for our gas instead of us owning our energy industry and setting our own prices. Putting aside environmental concerns with these fossil fuels, we are not in control of our energy resources. What we need is an Australian strategic reserve of our energy, owned by Australians and priced in Australian dollars. We briefly saw this achieved when the government activated the Gas Supply Guarantee Mechanism.

As stated earlier, we should focus on the deficits that matter, so yes, if you want to implement policies from the Green New Deal or a larger social safety net with increased social security payments, they should be argued for on their own terms. This conflicts with the professors agreeing that spending comes first (meaning that there is no purely financial constraint) but then saying that implementing any given progressive policy may cause politically unacceptable inflation. MMT explains that keeping an eye on resources and/or expanding capacity in domestic production can minimise inflation risk.

It is worth noting that neither Treasurer Chalmers nor Finance Minister Gallagher has formal training in economics or finance, but they have public service experience in these fields. These Labor ministers have concerns about increased expenditure on Health, NDIS, Aged Care, and Defence. It is an exaggeration to say these are a political concern. As the professors have previously explained, they are reasonable goals that the public can argue for on their own terms.

The professors have not disputed nor disproved Modern Monetary Theory but, in effect, agreed with it. It is clear that Modern Monetary Theory’s time is now. The time to flick the switch is now!

Darren is a leader in educating people in modern macroeconomics. He played a founding role in educating Australians via social media channels and has engaged some prominent Australians on commentary about Modern Monetary Theory. Darren is a member of Modern Money Australia, Australian Real Progressives and has been involved with the Modern Money Network. You can see more of his work at https://www.darren-quinn.net and https://www.realausprogressives.com

You can find him on Twitter @AusMMT @dquinn03

 

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Conspiracy: the disease that threatens our survival

Sometimes it takes a war correspondent to cast light on what is happening at home. The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson has just published The Storm is Here relating the inside story of the pandemic-era upsurge of violence on the right in the US. He compares the nightmares faced by the people he covered in wars “fueled by injury” in Afghanistan and Syria with the wars fuelled by “delusion” at home: “In the US by contrast, almost everybody I met that said they were willing to fight and die for their cause were mainly animated by a fear of total phantoms and fabricated antagonists.”

The same forces are in play in Australia: desperate people, stoked with existential dread at the crimes of the Elites, exacerbate each other’s sense of victimhood. They falsely claim the pandemic was manmade, and vaccines intended to control them or kill them slowly. They celebrate their pure blood and sperm. They wondered if they felt sick after gathering unvaccinated because the government had sprayed them with toxins. (Because conspiracies are unfalsifiable, every consequence of stupidity becomes fodder for paranoia.)

As in America, grifters of the political, media and influencer spheres manipulate their fear and confusion. United Australia and One Nations politicians repeat the American talking points, even supported by some Coalition politicians. Aspiring political parties on that “freedom” spectrum spruik the conspiracies full-throatedly. News Corp talking heads utter the polite versions, while The Spectator’s radicalising Australian wrap ties the conspiracies to the Orbanist culture wars. Ramshackle “news” outlets on YouTube promote the community’s wildest fantasies as fact.

The Herald Sun recently recounted [paywalled] in apparent shock that the Neo Nazi movement is growing in Victoria. It blamed the rise on the pandemic rather than its own support for hysterical responses to local and world events. The masthead omitted having granted credit to the movement by platforming its figureheads and fostering its bigotry.

The global nation of ethnonationalists is borderless. Disinformation and extremism are pervasive on the various platforms of the internet. People who’ve been radicalising the susceptible on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit over the pandemic era send their new followers over to the Telegram encrypted app to continue the radicalisation untrammelled.

Overt National Socialists spread QAnon messaging on Twitter that the Elites are murdering children in basements, probably because Elites is code for Jewish people. On Facebook, antivaxx conspiracy theorists are blaming Victorian Premier Dan Andrews for weather engineering the floods to boost his election chances. Apparently the Elites are clearing Australia’s east coast for the construction of dystopian Smart Cities that will cram humanity into close confinement to enforce low energy consumption, and where we will eat insect protein.

As America showed us on January 6 2020, it is difficult to assess the reach and intensity of this conspiracy thinking until those inculcated turn up on the doorstep of democracy, armed for insurrection. Certainly some of the material is part of a game (which is how the QAnon idea of a deep state leaker began). The fact that the radicalised walk the line between believing outrageous ideas and tempting the normies to swallow that they believe nonsense makes it difficult to disentangle. Those studying Trump’s election lies, for example, find it hard to determine what percentage of the 64% of Republicans who believe that Biden stole the election are genuinely in the camp and how many “believe” it as a tribal marker. The set known as “trolls” make life miserable online, spreading outrageous bigotry and abuse, with laughter at the earnest as their prime goal. Trump has been known as the king of the trolls.

The internet has provided solace for the isolated for many years now, bringing together people who might despair that they are alone in the world. It has promoted information and insight into problems that the dominant media ignore or fail to tackle. It is also, however, a tool for the dangerous. Far more effective than dropping flyers behind the Iron Curtain or conversations at one’s religious centre, social media fosters political interference and radicalisation.

This builds on the human predisposition to find easy answers, straightforward villains and familiar narratives in the overwhelming complexity of the world’s trials. A population trained to pursue constant thrills and excitement needs more dramatic answers than the mundane inertia of people failing to make the right decisions. Too many of us long for adrenaline and have no idea of the misery of living in “interesting times.” The conspiracy theory narratives allow groups to depict themselves as the victims of a new Holocaust. Always they are the victims, disguising their selfishness and bigotry with a stolen gravitas and dignity.

The issues driving the panics are protean rather than ideologically defined. Mogelson recounted being at anti-lockdown rallies in Michigan with “Patriot” protesters pouring scorn on the “jackbooted Nazis,” police and state troopers taking people’s freedom. He returned to the same protests run by the same people after three weeks’ absence covering the death of George Floyd to find them ardently in support of “the Blue” against Black Lives Matter. The sense of persecution is the point, rather than the enemy selected to destroy.

Some of them, in Australia as well as the US, are “accelerationists.” Far right extremists who believe the system is rotten, and it is only by accelerating its destruction that a better (ethno) state can be rebuilt. They are reckless about which trouble they support, as long as it will speed the destruction of society as it stands.

The chaos at work is captured in one of Trump’s generals, Michael Flynn. He is now the headliner on the ReAwaken America touring show where he promotes an evangelical battle of good versus evil, QAnon, Trump’s election victory, and hints at violent revolution. The point is that his friends cannot determine whether he is grifting to pay his fees, disgruntled at his failures in government, damaged by his war experience, mentally unwell or a true believer. The impact of his rhetoric is toxic, regardless of his motivation.

The fear and rage of the movements are dangerous. The author of a recent study on violent extremists and the threat to US infrastructure pointed out that the wannabe terrorists were mostly “knuckleheads,” but that they only have to get lucky occasionally to be a serious problem. The same threat is growing here. The wild movie plot conspiracies should not be ignored because they are ludicrous.

Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts showed that, in Berlin in 1933, a mere weeks-long absence on a business trip was enough to return to see one’s circle radicalised into Nazism. It only takes a figure like Trump, who understood so astutely which grievances to activate, to turn a society in trouble into one on the brink.

Australia has a Labor government trying to shore up our protections. It will take more, however, than establishing government accountability to protect us. The climate emergency’s disasters will provoke further fear and anger, and we must guard ourselves from the wrong figure metastasising our fledgling conspiracy sphere into a fatal disease.

 

This was first published in Pearls and Irritations as The Storm is Here: can Australia prevent the conspiracy sphere metastasising into fatal disease?

 

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Australia might be saving our democracy. Can the UK and US?

Almost precisely a year ago, John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations published an essay by this author entitled, “Think tanks have put British democracy at risk.” It was part of a trio of essays that explored the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” in Australia, the UK and the US.

Competitive authoritarianism is a most useful term to help understand how nations that consider themselves democratically governed can become illiberal or even authoritarian in nature. It was devised by two academics, Levitsky and Way in 2002. They described nations where the competitive process in elections still takes place. There is still the prospect of the incumbent losing. The scales, however, become by fits and starts almost insuperably weighted in the incumbent’s favour.

The academics use the analogy of a sporting field firmly tilted towards one side’s goal, with the referees working for the empowered team. The misuse of government money and partisan appointments are compounded by disinformation with a partisan media amplifying the government’s propaganda.

Lies, rorts and partisan appointments overwhelming statutory bodies are all familiar to Australians. The May election marked us as lucky. In part, our electorate is becoming increasingly jaded about the pro-government messaging of corporate media (and the battered national broadcaster). More protective still, however, is the strong system that operates our democracy. Ranked choice voting, compulsory preferential voting and an independent electoral commission are all factors that helped us pause the democratic decay, allowing us time to re-evaluate.

This week, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus introduced his integrity body, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). While the model has one substantial flaw, it is incomparably better than the previous government’s bogus version. More importantly, the AG’s office plans this body to be part of an integrity framework that addresses a number of the issues that put our democracy in such danger of decaying towards illiberalism. There are many forces that make this project difficult, not least pressures such as the one that had the limitation of “exceptional circumstances” crippling the ability to stage public hearings inserted into the NACC at the last minute.

As Australians saw in the AAT, cynical governments have the capacity to pervert bodies intended to act in a disinterested fashion. This fate could beset the NACC in future governments not committed to the democratic contest. The current design allows the government to appoint the NACC’s commissioner as well as to control the balance of power in the parliamentary committee that supervises it. While the post-democracy party is in opposition, that is a useful protection. When the post-democracy party takes office, it becomes risky. The government committee controls the body’s budget too, and in this way can limit the function of the commission, just as they tried to cripple the Auditor-General.

Both our powerful friends in the anglosphere are in considerably more urgent danger. Joe Biden’s Democrats face a crucial midterm election in a few weeks that might, if all the dice roll in their favour, enable them to take the steps to protect the USA from becoming a Christian Nationalist illiberal nation. Authoritarianism looms.

The first two years of Biden’s term have been crippled by only nominally holding the balance of power in the Senate. Technically Kamala Harris’s vote should break ties in the Democrat’s favour. Functionally two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have been playing for the Republican team, scuppering attempts to reform and protect their flawed democracy, hanging on by threads.

The hope is that Republican overreach in overturning Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, with more threats of reactionary social oppression to come, might stimulate enough voter interest to overwhelm all the structural disadvantages faced by the Democrats. The results will be watched with bated breath.

Disastrous plunges in the British pound this week have signalled the crash and burn intent of dedicated ultra-free market Prime Minister Liz Truss and her academic economist Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. The 2021 essay’s list of competitive authoritarian features in the UK government has become more extensive since then. Now, ultra libertarian ideologues have gone further than even their thinktank provocateurs observe is wise.

The crashing of the economy is not an accident. It is intentional and part of the extended plan should the government survive long enough to implement it. Cutting tax for the rich and robbing the government of the money it needs to function is part of killing statism. If there is no money to spend, the government must be shaved back to bloodied bones.

Brexit was born of the misery and anger forged from austerity measures that followed the 2008 global crash. Brexit has, in turn, compounded the economic misery of the British, augmented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic. The idea that the Conservative government should crash the economy to restructure it based on more austerity appears foolhardy.

The whispered corollary for many ultra-free market spruikers is that the masses must suffer. The supply side or trickle-down economics being practiced by Truss and Kwarteng has long been established to be a farce based on faulty – or motivated – reasoning. It is clear that the more free market policies implemented, the more the UK, US and Australia have seen inequality mount with the rich and the masses divided by a chasm of social immobility.

This British experiment will show whether ultra free market ideology looks closer to fascism in practice. Surveillance and suppression of the suffering masses, as government cuts services, looks likely to be the result. Priti Patel’s time in the Home Office crushing the right to protest will become invaluable.

Truss is, as the 2021 essay forecast, entirely immersed in the world and personnel of the billionaires’ ultra free market lobby groups masquerading as thinktanks. Her Chancellor is an ideologue and true believer in the message. The “thinktanks” face the moment of testing: who was the liberty for that they championed? Only the Ultra High Net Worth class and their High Net Worth enablers?

Both the UK and the US stand on the brink of something unthinkable a decade ago. Australians must fight to ensure that our radicalised right (and the “thinktanks” that foster the internationally-networked radicalisation) don’t take us back down that path. We have a chance to rebalance the playing field. Will our right resume playing the game as a contest, or continue to try to trash the field?

 

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Australians must not ignore the Religious Right’s global warnings

Australians have begun to see the new face of extreme religion in our “conservative” politics. The international influences are varied and interconnected. These radical forces are not a private feature in politicians’ lives, but threaten the freedoms we value. It is only through better understanding the global impacts that we can protect our democracy.

There was jubilation around Australia at the defeat of the Morrison government in May. Some rejoiced at ousting the man himself. For others the relief was inspired by the majority uniting against a government signifying climate inaction or corruption or misogyny. Scott Morrison’s insertion of American-style religion into the Australian civic space contributed to his loss. If Australians had understood how alien this ideology is, it would have been much more central. The defeat of Morrison, however, is not the end of that religious intrusion into Australian “conservative” politics; it is part of the global phenomenon of reactionary Religious Right authoritarianism. In the month Morrison left the Lodge, the American majority was reeling at the implications of the leaked Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade. In Europe, Queer Ukrainians were finding themselves pincered between the deep sexual stigma that pervades the culture of the invading Russians as well as the countries like Poland and Hungary where many are finding refuge. The Australian Religious Right draws on the power of the global movement’s successes like the Dobbs decision. It becomes more dangerous in its merging with secular bigotries and reactionary forces. Reflecting global political trends, it works not for “the next election, but the next generation.” It, and the culture wars that harness its votes, will not be backbenched with Morrison.

It is not only the faith-driven that make Religious Right politics a threat. These forces are bolstered by marriages of convenience between apparently incompatible forces. Secular libertarian members of the Republican Party embrace social conservatism and even perform devotion to faith to draw in the energised Religious Right voting bloc. British Tories are a dominant model for the Australian secular Right politicians with their boisterous “war on woke” which carries out overlapping attacks without the religious foundation. LGBTQI people and reproductive rights are the crucial targets for the interlinked movements. Trans people’s existence provides the wedge towards driving all LGBTQI people back into the closet. Britain has fallen from first to 14th place in LGBTQI rights rankings in only seven years, concurrent with the Tories’s Brexit debacle. Attacks on feminism from the traditional sex-role obsession of the Religious Right and defensive traditionalism of the secular Right are underpinning attacks on access to abortion. Driving women back out of the civic space and into the home is a shared passion. These campaigns are expanded in daily retail politics through disingenuous Right Wing media outlets in their culture war battles against the Left.

For less faith-driven “conservative” politicians, religion can also be deployed as a core characteristic of an embattled – mythical – national culture. Throughout the West this manifests as denoting Christianity as an integral component of Western Civilisation, also coded as White.(1) Any attention granted to First Nations or non-White people within the Right’s self-defined White nations is defined as divisive rather than reparatory. Reversing the various gains of the civil rights era is the goal. The blending of misogyny and various bigotries into the “conservative” supporter base draws misogynist Men’s Rights activists and White Supremacists into the cohort. There is a strong thread of this in Australian “conservative” politics with Tony Abbott (alongside his Budapest posse) as the most obvious warrior in defence of “Western Civilisation.” In Australia, we recently saw Bob Katter and Pauline Hanson touting their sudden interest in our Christian roots, with Katter even emulating Trump holding a bible aloft. This was posed as a rebuttal to Labor discussing a First Nations Voice to Parliament as well as the question of the relevance of Christian prayer in a secular Parliament. Inclusion is depicted as a destruction of all the glories of tradition. Diversity is an existential threat.

Pentecostal implacability

Given that the Australian “conservatism” has modelled itself particularly on its American partners for decades now, the US provides us with a critical warning. In America, the electoral contest is no longer a tussle between competing political platforms and styles; Religious Right dominance of the “conservative” party has made democracy literally impossible. Ezra Klein has analysed the current polarisation of their politics and noted that the overlap of many aspects of social identity has made political ideology far more tribal than it was historically. More problematic than that, however, is the certainty in Religious Right politics that the Left is an existential threat with no right to form government. While conservative Catholics and other faiths buttress the causes of the Religious Right in America, its dicta are dominated by Evangelical/Pentecostal tenets.(2) In this version of Christianity, Dominionism is central. This is the idea that Evangelical versions of Christianity must dominate the Seven Mountains of the civic space including government. The purity of the nation must be legislated and enforced. Within this cosmology, a secular state is a Satanic obstacle. Perhaps worse is the fact that natural disasters are seen as harbingers of End Times, so the more dramatic the impacts of the climate emergency, the more rapidly purified the nation must be.

The degree to which the growing Pentecostal movement is a poor fit with democracy requires understanding. Most institutions preach “spiritual warfare” where “literal demons” are present in people and events. Trump’s neo-charismatic “personal pastor,” Paula White, preached that Trump was fighting “a worldwide demonic conspiracy.” In this fringe world, LGBTQI people smell of demons and African and Asian sorcerers are a threat. Catholics and Mormons are said to practise dark magic. They argue that places and institutions such as bureaucracies, universities and journalism itself can be taken over by demonic forces. Spiritual warriors saw the Republican red of the map illustrating Trump’s victory as showing the “blood of Jesus” cleansing America’s sins. His election signified the looming overthrow of “Jezebel,” the literal demonic spirit behind reproductive and LGBTQI rights. The fantastical ideas that are compulsory parts of faith in these churches ready its adherents to accept other fantasies. In the pandemic era, the rapid growth of QAnon pervaded the evangelical churches, evident in Pentecostal Scott Morrison’s apology for “ritual” child abuse in Australia. QAnon’s focus on evil progressive elites stealing children was a comfortable fit for a faith that sees progressive political parties as evil. Much of the Trump support has taken on a religious devotional tone where he is the new saviour from the demonic Left.

Most Pentecostal/Evangelical traditions furthermore believe in a Rapture or Millennial Kingdom which destroys any impetus to tackle the climate crisis. Looming “End Times” create enormous anxiety about current moral status, but not about the future of the planet. This majority believes that storms and plagues are further signs of the imminence of the desired Premillennial moment. Geopolitical tensions arising from climate pressures will only be interpreted as more apocalyptic signs. Global action involves working with global political entities. Global entities, however, are depicted as aligned with the Antichrist. This is compounded by strategists within the fossil fuel sector driving Evangelicals to embrace these mineral resources as God’s gift which it would be ungrateful to leave in the ground. Rational debate is scotched in the face of divine mandate.

In this worldview, progressives are “godless.” Secularism is still linked to Communism. The freedom they demand is not “freedom from” but “freedom to.” The freedom to “force others to be free” only possible by “obedience to one narrow understanding of God’s plan.” Secular freedom, by contrast, leads to “chaos” and authoritarianism because tolerance is an imposition. The Evangelical movement’s pressure on American politics is such that no movement to protect equal rights is safe. The purity mission drives illogical policy making as well as being harmful to individuals within the churches. The attack on LGBTQI rights is such that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled a number of these lobby groups and churches as hate groups. The Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade and the resultant extremity of several states’ abortion laws illustrates the degree to which reproductive-aged women and AFAB people will be constrained and surveilled. Removing access to contraceptives has been raised too. The implication is that women’s access to the civic space will be revoked by uncontrolled fertility, and LGBTQI existence will be erased either visibly or actually.

This is not a movement that thinks in election cycles. It has taken almost a century for American businessmen and preachers appalled by atheist communism to make over the Republican Party as a Christian Libertarian force. Civic programs and civil rights were seen as the work of the enemy, crushing liberty. The government had no place in replacing elective charity with state programs. Instead of the sexual tolerance of libertarianism, however, this ideology is controlling. Socially, reactionary White Christians wanted their wives obedient, Segregation in place and their youth docile and chaste. Racism was inherent in White Evangelical churches, and a toxic emphasis on women’s purity and submission accompanied this. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority took the decision to unify the movement over the issue of abortion and it became a powerful force against political liberalism through the 1980s. Together with Billy Graham they brought Christian Libertarianism and the Evangelical bloc ever closer to the levers of power.

Pentecostal/Evangelicals are now central to Republican power. Donald Trump received 80% of the white Evangelical vote in 2016 and 75% in 2020. They form 35% of the Republican coalition. Trump’s personal sins are dismissed in the pursuit of the rewards he could grant for their loyalty. In 2022 his demographic offers even more fervent support for his Big Lie with the convergence between Evangelicals and Qanon followers. The labels Christian Nationalist and even Christian Fascist are being embraced by the MAGA Right now. Trump surrounded himself with Evangelical and conservative Catholic figures. He achieved the primary goal of this coalition when he handed them control of the Supreme Court, one of America’s primary law-making institutions. The Federalist Society which gave Trump the names to place on the court is led by Opus Dei-linked Leonard Leo who has packed the court with “radical schismatic Catholics.”

#TradCaths and Rad Trads

Support for Evangelical positions comes from besieged “Rad Trad” Catholics in the Religious Right coalition who believe the Catholic church has been subverted from within. For some, Pope Francis’s institution is an “an antichristic church.” Others believe that he represents “the replacement of Catholicism with a globalist, multicultural “eco-theology,” grounded in socialism.” It is out of this fear and anger that Archbishop Viganò wrote to Donald Trump in 2020 supporting a Qanon-infused crusade against the liberal elite. This crusade is intricately intertwined with a European defence of “Judeo-Christian values” and of Western Civilization. These are coded messages in the White Supremacist perception that that old Europe is being overwhelmed by an Islamogauche (progressives aligned with Muslims) takeover.

Bill Barr, Trump’s last Attorney General, delivered an address at Notre Dame university in 2019 that illustrated the anxieties in ultra conservative Catholic circles. The “militant secularists” were executing a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order.” All kinds of “social pathology” were undermining America as a result of this progressive war on the “traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” Groups like Church Militant present a crusader model of Catholicism which fights alongside Evangelical Christians for an end to abortion and a return to “traditional” sex roles. Church Militant is also fighting alongside Groypers – the White Supremacist trolls and thugs that threaten anyone depicted as Other, who are becoming more overtly religious in their rhetoric.

The Christian Libertarian ideology is present in this Catholicism too. Steven Bannon, Trump ally, represents the most extreme libertarian position as well as ultra conservative Catholicism. His economic position was captured in his fostering what he described as Trump’s “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Bannon embraced this as part of his anarcho-capitalist project to destroy the system. He was posited as the antithesis to the Pope in the battle for Catholic allegiance and was at the forefront of the resistance to a diverse and inclusive church, as well as America. Bannon actively worked to spread Neo Nazi messaging in his time as Breitbart executive.

European Nativist/Religious fascism

This trend coincides with a worldwide resurgence of authoritarian regimes. In classic fascist mode, a central feature is intolerance and bigotry associated with the defence of a mythical past of national glory. Religion is a key component of the culture defended, of a homogenous nation these movements believe can be recreated if only its defenders are ruthless enough. It not only excludes those who are of different “race” and religio-cultural traditions, but also the liberal and inclusive blocs within the state. The coercive push to dictate how private lives are lived, and what life choices become criminalised, is central to these populist authoritarian forces. The defence of “family values” or “traditional culture” is used to justify persecution of the targeted “out groups” in typical fascist identity politics style. These regimes depict theoretically traditional roles for women and the exclusion of LGBTQI people as critical for public safety, community, and even national security. This is true in Russia, Republican America, Poland, Hungary, and Brazil. This trend is not limited to Christian nations. Modi’s “Hindu India” vision, for instance, embraces the same “tradition” justifications for oppression.

Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant traditions all become part of a Christian fight for a West they believe to be at risk of destruction. Last year in his state of the nation address, Russian Orthodox Putin declared the “Spiritual and moral values which some countries have started to forget have made us stronger, and we will always defend them.” Both ultra conservative Catholics and American Evangelicals have seen Putin – and his Hungarian Reformed Church echo, Orban – as a hero fighting back against the marauding non-whites, liberals, perverts and feminists of the modern world. Bannon factions in Catholicism revive the belief in Moscow as the Third Rome, believing that Putin’s Russia can be a bulwark against secular modernism. Pat Buchanan speculated that Putin might give the keynote speech at the World Congress of Families a few years back, summarising the perception: Putin’s stalwart fight for the “family values” campaign contrasted shamefully with an America that had capitulated to “a sexual revolution of easy divorce, rampant promiscuity, pornography, homosexuality, feminism, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, assisted suicide – the displacement of Christian values by Hollywood values.” Russian and American Evangelical “family values” groups have been working together since the 1990s. Having fought back their own godless totalitarian regime, nationalist Orthodox Christians tell their fellow “family value” activists that the Russians have the ability to help the Westerners defeat the new liberal totalitarianism. (This extreme end of the Republican Party also supports his invasion of Ukraine which is characterized as a defence of Christian Russia from Western weakness and homosexual dissolution.)

These prejudices permeate society in the former USSR. The Tokyo Olympic coverage in Russia featured derogatory talk about the taint of “perverts” and “psychopaths” at the games. Commentators complained in horror at LGBTQI athletes, who should be segregated into their own games away from wholesome athletes. Parliamentarians joined in expressing their disgust. In Russia’s neighbour Georgia, the 2013 “pogrom” against the LGBTQI rights parade is celebrated in these circles. Levan Vasadze, Georgia’s “family-values superhero” described it as the day Georgians “pushed back against the agents of the Western ‘totalitarian dictatorship of liberalism.’” The totalitarianism these former Iron Curtain dwellers – and their Western allies – imagine is characterised as the “total exclusion of religion and religious thought.” Within this international “family values” army there is absolutely no space to allow LGBTQI existence. In their essay on this united movement in 2015, journalist and author Masha Gessen interviewed the man about to lead the World Congress of Families. This took place two years after Gessen moved from Russia to America to protect their rainbow family. They asked him if they gave up some of the rights and freedoms that, effectively, marked them as equal, could they live alongside his Christian family in amity. He said starkly: “No.”

The accelerated changes of the modernising world have been particularly challenging for the countries long kept isolated by the Iron Curtain. Modern nations in the West embracing diversity in changes such as the legalising of same-sex marriage is only part of the challenge. The exodus from the Middle East and Africa of those displaced by climate and geopolitical crises (often created or exacerbated by Western interventions – regime change, military incursions, World Bank strictures) has added to the tensions in Eastern and Western Europe. Manipulated by Right-Wing movements and parties, “offering visions of a simpler, better society: a return to a romanticised vision of the nation,” the discomfort with rapid change is funnelled into virulent bigotry. This draws on 19th century quasi-religious conceptions of the nation with moral qualities implicit: the “cultural nation” was seen as rooted in religion, the most important of the “cultural goods.”(3) The “third wave” of radical Right activity in Europe brought religion back onto its agenda. Religion has become part of distinct version of ultra-nationalism and, to some degree, a cause of it. This is the identity politics that is invisible to the mainstream, linking conservatives and the radical Right.

While the radical Right’s identity politics is distinctly national, it is international too. Orban’s ideological influence is visible in Australian “conservative” circles. On the weekend of Morrison’s defeat in Australia, the hard right American “conservative” conference CPAC was hosted in Budapest. The attendees represent the most radical and Trumpian end of their political movement, gathered in the country that overtly represents their goal for home. Orban models virulent defence of Christian and Western civilisation in his overt focus on ethnic homogeneity. Elected originally as the cool leader of the youth party, he now instead boasts of making Hungary an “illiberal democracy.” Western liberalism represents weakness, miscegeny and immorality. CPAC’s organiser described Hungary as “one of the bastions of the conservative resistance to the ultraprogressive ‘woke’ revolution.” Orban opened the conference calling for the assembled to unite. “We need to find friends, and we need to find allies. We need to coordinate the movement of our troops, because we have a big challenge ahead of us.” They share the sense that the Great Replacement is a real threat: Jewish forces are importing Third World immigrants to replace the White Christian patriots. At home in America, the New York Times reports that the Murdochs are complacent about their chief pundit regularly promoting the theory. They also report that Australian News Corp editors are taking their instructions from Carlson’s show. Carlson made the CPAC visit possible when he broadcast for a week from Budapest in 2021, celebrating authoritarian order. Orban appeared at the Dallas CPAC event in August, repeating these toxic sentiments but will leave that to his acolytes in the Sydney CPAC to take place in October.

Australia

This decade of Coalition government in Australia has been deeply shaped by the international radical Right. The influence comes from the top through opulently-funded thinktanks to the mass’s conspiracy wild-lands, connected by internet platforms. The demographics are entwined by the Right’s media ecosphere fomenting panics across the socio-economic and educational strata. They infuse a mixture of deep belief and shared strategy. The manifestation of the battle and its constant effort to radicalise are focused in “culture wars” about distortions of trivial examples of liberal speech. Its bigotry has been on display from decades of abuse of refugees exercising their right to seek safe haven through to the cynical deployment of transphobia in the 2022 election. These bigotries reflect cultural anxieties amongst conservative groups but are justified and cleansed by an association with religious doctrine and superiority.

In Australia, the combined ethnonationalist and religious fearmongering has been domesticated into the Coalition’s own policies and messaging. The growth of the Religious Right faction in the parties has come to the fore over Morrison’s tenure. Its most divisive manifestation in this last term was the attempt to pass a religious discrimination bill. The core aim of the bill was to allow religious groups, dissatisfied by the passing of marriage equality legislation, the ability to discriminate according to the tenets of their faith. In the final week of the campaign, Morrison not only reignited talk of the bill, but allegedly had transphobe Katherine Deves’s campaign out of his office. Niki Savva described moderate Liberals as believing Morrison was aiming to purge the party of the figures described as “bedwetters.” Labor stepped carefully through the landmine of the religious discrimination debate. It had traditionally been a home of a working-class Catholic vote in Australia and retains politicians from that socially conservative demographic. Apparently, Anthony Albanese worked constantly communicating with progressive and faith-driven parliamentarians to unite to negotiate a path created to wedge them. Their goal was a version that would protect faith communities of all kinds without the harmful aspects of the bill.(4) Now fringe “conservative” politicians to the right of the main parties are working with conspiracy groups such as the “freedom” network, where Pentecostal religion is evident too.

In Australia, conservative religious movements have been recorded as branch-stacking LNP branches. Candidates are selected that do not reflect the values of the party or of the region to be represented. The result is that to vote “conservative” can mean to vote Religious Right. The campaign to co-opt the Victorian Liberal Party in particular has been documented in the press. In 2017 and 2018 journalists recorded factional opposition to Mormons, conservative Catholics and Pentecostal groups targeting branches. The current campaign sees a number of very conservative preselections in the face of an attempt by the party to present itself as a progressive choice. The most notable is Moira Deeming who represents anti-trans and anti-abortion politics and was considered too extreme by Scott Morrison’s federal bloc. Last week, a new report emerged of stacking and attempts to take positions in the party’s internal state assembly.

An Existential Threat

The combined forces of religious extremism with religion as a central cultural attribute of a mythical national identity makes it a deeply dangerous force, with any groups in the community marked as a threat to the imagined homogeneity of the traditional nation targeted for increasingly ugly retribution. This perilous bigotry is used to garner support for hollowing out democracy in the interests of controlling diversity. The divisions and resulting democratic recession are disastrous in the face of the climate emergency. As the mainstream political Right becomes more colonised by these interconnected radical forces, it cripples the national and international ability to act on crises that threaten even human civilisation. As governments fail us, people in their desperation and anxiety turn to counterproductive “solutions.” The disasters and pressures inherent in the climate emergency serve to pour energy into the movements that most cripple our ability to minimise or respond to the challenges. Pentecostal religion in particular is tied to authoritarian movements around the world.

Progressives in Australia as elsewhere tend to focus on shorter term goals and risk much by ignoring the long-term strategising of the Right. The origins of the American radical Right’s production of the current moment’s crises can be sited in the Cold War, or even the Civil Rights era, depending on the narrative. Justice Samuel Alito’s majority decision in the Dodd case that overthrew Roe is only one of the cataclysms. Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence illustrates that he sees parallel precedents that made homosexuality legal and access to contraceptives possible should be overthrown too. Leading Republicans are now discussing making abortion illegal nationwide when they next hold power and moves to reverse LGBTQI equality have also been mooted. These impositions of extreme religious morality on a majority that does not support them are a culmination of years of work by political entrepreneurs of the Evangelical minority, bolstered by conservative Catholics. Legislating minority morality is only possible by undermining democracy. These same forces are at work in Australia, their enthusiasm to strip rights from Others within the nation galvanised by their peers’ success in America. The Coalition’s disdain for women in the civic space was a key factor in their May defeat. Their attacks on the nature of our democracy were legion. They continue to focus on American-style culture war battles to gin up the base even in the clear evidence of the disaster it has caused there. In concert with radicalised ethno-nationalist figures who see Christianity as a core marker of White Australian nationalism, the parties of the Australian Right are utterly infused with a toxic international Right’s concerns and strategies.

It is not just the rights of individuals but the (flawed) democracies that have gradually made room for civil rights for more groups than just property-owning White men that is at stake in the rise of the authoritarian Religious Right. These democracies are more likely than authoritarian regimes to protect the equality of Others, preventing the persecution and even the atrocities that religion-infused extremism can foster. Without data-driven secular governments, our capacity to tackle the climate emergency is crippled. It is critical that we perceive the risk that is reflected in the speeches of Scott Morrison to his Pentecostal audiences. It is not merely a foreign faith movement uncomfortably shoe-horned into our secular state; it is a threat of incalculable scope. We must work together to keep authoritarian religious radicalism out of our government.

(1) This is not limited to the West. Nor is Christianity the only faith drawn into the nativist nationalist trend. In India, the Hindutva movement aims to subdue all Indians within a Hindu nation with one faith and language. Shinto is central to a Japanese nationalist movement. Buddhism is key to Myanmar and Sri Lanka’s nationalist movements. Israel is self defining as a Jewish nation and imposing second class status on non-Jews within its borders.

(2) The overlaps and distinctions between Pentecostal and Evangelical protestant Christianity can be hard to delineate. The Pentecostal movement is the heart of the democratic crisis, with many churches infused with the Pentecostal ideas. It is the Pentecostal movement that is at the heart of the idea of Spiritual Warfare, Seven Mountains and Dominionism. Some Evangelical churches eschew these trends, but the overlap is strong particularly in the White Evangelical sphere. In the Trump and pandemic era, the American fashion has become strongly interwoven with QAnon and a deep devotion to Donald Trump. Elle Hardy’s account of the rapid growth of Pentecostalism around the world is important reading. Some institutions that are clearly Pentecostal deny the label because of the weight it has accrued. The most important unifying feature is the individual’s direct experience of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is non-denominational and outside the traditional hierarchical Christian churches. Hardy estimates that globally 30% of Christians are now belong to the aberrant Pentecostal form of the faith and that by 2050, 1 in 10 people will belong to the movement.

(3) German historian Friedrich Meinecke writing in 1908 quoted in Michael Minkenberg’s chapter “Religion and the Radical Right” in the Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right. Minkenberg explores the complexity of religion as part of nationalism in increasingly secular societies.

(4) This was gleaned from a lengthy off-the-record conversation with a – then – Shadow ministerial staffer.

 

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Australia’s Orban Sycophants

Australians welcoming the defeat of our nascent religious right in the May election need to pay attention to the echoes of the American right-wing strategies looming ahead of their 2024 election, and the faction in Australia that shares those goals.

The religious right has looked to Putin for leadership for years now. More quietly, the ideas and strategies of Hungary’s Viktor Orban have pervaded the sphere.

In America, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has been an outlier speculated as a post-Trump Republican candidate. Florida’s Ron DeSantis looks much more likely to win the nomination at this stage. Both men have worked to promote Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s ideas in America.

Rod Dreher, ultra-conservative American intellectual, persuaded Carlson to broadcast for a week from Budapest in 2021, celebrating Orban’s achievements and his proudly illiberal democracy to the Fox base. This year Carlson released a documentary promoting Orban’s strategies as the ideal Republican model. These apparently led into the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), America’s key radical “conservative” event, being hosted in Budapest in May 2022, where Orban told the crowd that the right must have its own media and that it should broadcast the Murdochs’ favoured performer, Carlson, to the nation 24/7.

Orban continued that his latest election had “completely healed” Hungary of its “progressive dominance” and that the authoritarian right factions of the world should unite and coordinate to “take back” all the key institutions of the West.

It has just been announced that Orban is to return to speak to the CPAC audience again in Dallas in August.

DeSantis does not so much promote Orban as create what has been described as “American Orbanism.” His people admit, behind the scenes to following and echoing Orban’s strategies. Florida’s “Don’t say gay” bill which depicted any mention of anything to do with LGBTQI identity in schools as “grooming” echoed Orban’s 2021 bill focused on the same issue. DeSantis’s press secretary told Dreher that, “Oh yeah, we were watching the Hungarians, so yay Hungary.”

Orban targets minorities as a supposed threat to Hungarians and then devises laws that push Hungary further into authoritarianism to address the non-existent threat. LGBTQI people are the latest target after bigoted attacks on refugees, Romani, and non-Christians. Florida punishing Disney for its tepid pushback against anti-LGBTQI legislation echoes Orban’s strategies for punishing opponents. The primary institutional enemies are educational, media and social media. Control of the message is central.

The key appeal of Orban’s ideology, as well as Putin’s, is that they posit a white Christian – Western – Civilisation as the world’s great treasure and one that is under attack. Progressive “elites” or globalists – usually embodied in Jewish figures like the loathed George Soros – are depicted as executing a “Great Replacement” of the white embodiments of the west with black and brown non-Christians. The key appeal of his strategy is that he rejects liberalism in the existential battle to preserve the mythologised heritage.

This alliance of culture warriors is apparent in the Australian right. Morrison’s defeated government contained both the traditionalist defenders of a beleaguered Western Civilisation that Tony Abbott drew to prominence, alongside the American-style Evangelicals who are more theocratic in goal, aiming to impose national purity through government action.

Tony Abbott’s international advisor from 2010 to 2014 was Mark Higgie. His years as Australian ambassador to Hungary from 1998-2001 (before becoming our “senior spy” in London) seem to have made Orban’s career a focus for the ideologue. He echoes the same “Hungarians are free” line as Rod Dreher, but the latter when asked about the dark underbelly of living in an illiberal democracy tends to reply, I dont know much, to be honest. Like Dreher, in 2019 Higgie moved to Budapest. He writes for The Australian Spectator.

The main intellectual conduit of Orban’s ideas to the West is the Danube Institute. Brian Loughnane, Peta Credlin’s husband and former Liberal Party federal director is on its international advisory board. Tony Abbott appeared with Higgie there before the pandemic conversing about immigrants “swarming” over the borders. Alexander Downer spoke in Budapest about immigrant Bantustans. Kevin Andrews spoke about reversing declining birth rates in the west at the Budapest Demographic Summit, a “biennial gathering of ultra-conservative and highly influential decision-makers, politicians and individuals actively working to curb the rights of sexual minorities and women.”

John O’Sullivan is the president of the Orban-funded Danube Institute. He has edited Quadrant and serves as its international editor with Keith Windshuttle. O’Sullivan too has written about how the left exaggerates the discomforts of living in an illiberal democracy.

One early event that aimed to foster Danube Institute immigration phobia for a broader Australian audience was a Conversazione in Melbourne in 2016. In fact, it fostered Great Replacement fears in a local audience of the rich and powerful albeit without using the term. Orchestrated by a Quadrant writing LaTrobe academic, with O’Sullivan as a speaker and featuring a Windshuttle essay on Quadrant in the program, it highlighted the connection between that publication and the Orban-booster spirit.

Loughnane also spoke at the event, although Credlin was not present. One of the nations leading News Corp journalists appeared, presenting a speech that expressed lurid objection to Muslim immigration. (That journalist has been a guest of the Orban-funded Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Hungary, which hosted another migration talkfest in 2019.)

Fresh from the January Islamic Radicalism and the Westconference held at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Brits Daniel Pryce-Jones and Daniel Johnson also spoke at the Melbourne Club that day alongside Geza Jeszensky, former Hungarian foreign minister and noted eugenicist.

Tucker Carlson is now watched by Murdoch’s Australian print editors as a guide to the beliefs of Rupert and Lachlan. Carlson’s show is pervaded with incitement to violence over the existential attacks on white Christian civilisation by the elites and their immigrant hordes; over the threat to (white) American children posed by progressive groomers particularly their teachers; over the existential threat posed by any liberal who embraces diversity and acceptance.

Dutton and News Corp’s new focus of a war on teachers in Australia has been picked up by the IPA in its “Class Action” program to stop teachers “dominating our children’s schools” with “woke ideology.” There they aim to gather “concerned parents and teachers” in a reproduction of American Christopher Rufo’s cynical moral panic about Critical Race Theory. In America, teachers are leaving the profession, exhausted partly by poor funding and the pandemic, but also by being barraged with conspiracy-fuelled hate by parents and outside groups attending school board meetings in threatening mode.

We saw Morrison fighting hard for his religious discrimination bill while neglecting crucial work, aiming to provide a tool of backlash for marriage equality. The trans sports issue was deployed in the election as an echo of the bitter American attacks on trans youth and LGBTQI people in general. The religious right here has begun to echo the fight against reproductive rights.

After the recent release of census data noted the decline in Christianity, Peta Credlin wrote in The Australian (paywalled) in full Orban mode warning of “the centrality of Christian inspiration to Western civilization.” She defined an Indigenous Voice to parliament as “anathema to the fundamentals of Christian faith” and obliquely blamed Chinese and Indian immigration for the crisis.

The combined forces of the radical right – whether Christian Nationalist in intent, or in bigoted fear of a Great Replacement, or cynically deploying culture wars – all have the capacity to distort our civic debates as they are doing at all levels of government in America. The outcome in America is catastrophic.

It is critical for Australians to watch the international right forces filtered through to our democratic project, directly from the opponents of democracy, or filtered through the American role models so central to our “conservatives.” They are not defeated here, but regrouping.

This was first published in Pearls and Irritations.

 

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Australia needs a Bill of Rights

Australia is at a crossroads. The decade of Coalition government showed how vulnerable our rights and freedoms could be in the face of a political party radicalised by anti-democratic and illiberal ideas. The Republican Party in America is displaying how quickly rights can be destroyed, even after it was removed from government; we need to protect vulnerable groups within our nation from copycat attacks.

After the Albanese government fulfils its campaign promises to institute a collection of federal integrity measures, it should tackle drafting a Bill of Rights for Australia. The protections such legislation would afford are crucial.

The measures taken over the nine years of Coalition rule were such that Andrew Wilkie MP described the country as moving towards being a “pre-police state” in 2015 and “becoming a police state” in 2018. When courts objected to illegal steps by the Coalition, the government changed the law. We need to have stronger protections in place and even treaty obligations, before another government that shows such cynical disregard for Australian norms is elected into power.

There are a number of actions by the Liberal governments of the 21st century that must never be repeated. The indefinite administrative detention of refugees and the endless cruelties perpetrated upon them by Home Affairs and their contractors are a stain upon our reputation. We returned refugees to their persecutors, despite non-refoulment being at the heart of the Refugee Convention. Australia has sunk a long way since we stood as one of the original signatories in 1951.

The growing crisis of state capture over the last decade led to a government that was intent on keeping its secrets. The persecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery, his lawyer, are only two of the star chamber trials of whistleblowers in an egregious and secretive abrogation of citizens’ rights. The Coalition’s dedication to unpopular policy, echoed in state governments, has led to laws aiming to suppress peaceful protest. Without protest, democracy is crippled.

Scared of its voters, the government stepped up surveillance. The police need a warrant to inspect people’s electronic devices. Border Force, by contrast, has taken 40,000 electronic devices from people entering Australia over the last five years in a fishing exercise surrounded in secrecy.

The overturning of Roe v Wade last week in America pointed out that rights not encoded in laws are vulnerable. Now reproductive rights groups are preparing for cases where women who have miscarriages are arrested, their phone and internet history searched. Adversarial partners could be asked to testify to the criminality of the loss of a pregnancy, and the bounty system would reward them financially for the accusation.

Pregnancy tests in small towns are being put behind the counter to block privacy. Doctors are dangerously refusing to treat women miscarrying until they contract an infection, and pharmacists are refusing to issue the prescribed medication to hurry a miscarriage safely to its conclusion. Women’s bodies have ceased to be their own in Republican states, the very states where the maternal death rate is by far the worst in the industrialised world. Pregnancy is being criminalised.

The former Vice President has repeated the proposal that the abortion ban should be implemented nationally when the Republicans next take the other two arms of government.

This is not a decision supported by many Americans. Roughly 80% support abortion in some cases. Approximately 60-70% support abortion in the first trimester. The unpopularity of state bills allowing women or doctors to be charged with homicide for any intervention from the moment of conception does not prevent their passing. America’s democratic processes at all levels are compromised to enable this minority rule.

It is not just unwillingly pregnant people that stand to suffer. Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion outlined the fact that he saw all privacy protection precedents as “demonstrably erroneous” and that none could stand. Not only is marriage equality likely to be reduced to a state matter in America, but also the re-criminalisation of homosexuality. Some Republican figures have begun discussing banning contraceptive access in their state.

The Supreme Court’s attack on rights took place because three increasingly radical figures were named to the court under one President. It was not an armed coup that is depriving Americans of their freedom and equality but judicial appointments by a single elected leader. He functioned as the key to implementing decades of unscrupulous strategising by those using him.

There are two main cultural forces at work in America shaping these minority decisions being imposed on the public. One is the growth of the Religious Right, expressing extremist Christian positions on sexual morality that must be universally enforced to allow Christ to return. The other is a “social conservatism” deployed by Republican strategists and their media allies in “culture war” campaigns. The two overlap: the former depicts homosexuality as a grotesque sin, the latter depicts it as a grotesque and unmanly aberration.

Both forces are at work in the Right in Australia. Under the Morrison government, Australians saw the Religious Right come to the fore. The long Coalition procrastination on marriage equality made the debate bitter and harmful. After the passing of the marriage amendment, the backlash from religious conservatives was embraced by Morrison who worked to pass a parallel bill legalising religious discrimination.

Morrison accompanied this with attacks on trans youth and sportspeople, an echo of a key Republican strategy in America. The embrace of Katherine Deves, whose campaign was apparently run out of his office, illustrates the inclusiveness of the strategy. Right-wing feminists who have been encouraged to deploy white supremacist talking points are brought into the fold to broaden the appeal. In America, hundreds of laws have been implemented to limit both teachers’ ability to talk about the existence of LGBTQI+ people and the actions of trans people.

This Religious Right pressure on government hasn’t disappeared with Morrison. Extreme religious groups are stacking Liberal and National Party branches. In South Australia, the leader of the Liberal opposition David Speirs, three of his shadow ministry, and Labor MP Clare Scriven are attending an anti-choice training day on the same weekend as rallies against anti-choice legislation take place around the country.

The same (substantially fossil-fuel funded) culture war battles are being fought in Australia as in America. We have echoes of their Critical Race Theory battles in our “history wars.” Senator Hollie Hughes just reported to the Sydney Institute that “Marxist teachers” were to blame for the Morrison government’s defeat. This parrots lines in America where Republicans are trying to break the public school system in favour of religious education. Sky News both echoes and prompts the culture war battles that swirl in the internet sewers. The Religious Right has shown it is as unscrupulous as the socially conservative Right in the tools being used to reverse the achievements of the civil rights era.

Already, a Bill of Right’s protections is going to be difficult to define in Australia. Disinformation makes a fact-based discussion challenging. Anti-vaxxers would argue that the community’s need for mass vaccination to keep hospital systems functioning is a plot meant to poison them. Shaping a line for the protection of protest in regular times as opposed to pandemic eras is fraught. The Deves position and its “alternative facts” are being filtered out through women’s chats and gender-critical feminist journals disseminating illusory threats and breeding a demand for the persecution of a minority.

This debate will be complicated and require a delicate hand so that the provisions are clear enough to prevent excessive judicial license to interpret. They must be comprehensive enough to prevent a group from being harmed by its interests’ omission.

America is showing us that the combination of religious extremism and disinformation-based culture war radicalisation can create a dangerous voter bloc. A disengaged majority can be overwhelmed before it knows what hit it.

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What is the “mad left”?

Even before the Albanese government was certain that it would have a clear majority, the Sky News chorus had begun baying about the “mad left” taking power. What the madness constitutes is never quite made clear. It is “vibe” rather than diagnosis.

It is not to be dismissed because of that inexactitude. This is another echo of the games deriving from the American right where the so-called left is essentially unfit to hold office; only the right can form a legitimate government. The fear-mongering underpins the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, as well as the continuing efforts to “stop the steal.”

It is further developed in the US. The intertwining of the religious right with the Republican Party has given an Evangelical (Pentecostal) infusion to the mix. In the Spiritual Warfare battle between good and evil that must be won for Jesus to return, Jesus votes Republican and the “left” is a demonic force obstructing him.

Depicting the largely centrist Democrats as a wild left is quite an achievement. Two Democrat senators owned by the right prevent most legislation being passed, let alone progressive bills. Depicting the party as the face of evil in America makes democracy impossible.

The “conservative” parties of the UK and Australia are playing a less extreme version of the same game as part of their efforts to entrench minority rule. Their policies are not in the interests of the voters they need in (approximate) democracies: culture war battles inherent to “conservative” identity must replace policy platforms to attract the majority vote.

The GOP is aided by a deeply distorted democratic structure underpinning the republic. The Tories have just passed legislation that undermines the independence of their electoral commission in a substantial blow to British democracy. The Australian “conservative” parties struggle to surmount a hurdle not faced by their UK and US brothers: compulsory and preferential voting. Disillusionment and despair are strong motives not to bother voting if it is optional. These egalitarian measures force the Australian Coalition partners to work harder to convince their bloc to vote against their own interests.

The process of undermining Australians’ faith in our strong electoral processes is underway. Clive Palmer and his conspiracy voters are overtly echoing American talking points. Ballot boxes were hidden and shady companies provided electoral management, if you loiter in this underbelly of the internet.

The fact that the Labor Party achieved a majority government at all could be considered a miracle given the barrage of propaganda and nonsense that a lacklustre press gallery churned out as election coverage. That farce crested its years of echoing Coalition talking points; the members of Scott Morrison’s inner circle of reporters to whom inside information was granted were keen to maintain this access. Only a handful still merit the professional label of journalist.

This propagandist spin continues to seethe for the more mainstream “conservative” voter. News Corp has deployed the Dog Line to howl the weakness of Labor’s victory. Sky’s Gemma Tognini wrote in The Australian that Labor’s vote was “staggeringly low” and that the idea that Labor voters “abandoned it” robbed the new government of a “firm mandate.” Somehow “sliding into power via preferences” is a sign of shoddy victory rather than a canny electorate. The Australian’s National Editor, Dennis Shanahan, wrote to remind his peers that “tears, recriminations, claims of a lack of mandate, the lowest primary vote on record or that Labor is only a hybrid government tinged irrevocably teal and green from its independent allies” are “pointless.”

They are not, however, pointless. The point is to undermine faith in our voting system, as well as Labor’s right to form government. Through the Howard years, conservatives argued that voting should no longer be compulsory. In the controversial 2020 parliamentary committee report on electoral matters, conservative voices had pushed for the voter ID laws and optional preferential voting. Happily for the Coalition, optional preferential voting would “devastate Labor.”

Unlike the UK, Australia has so far seen off these Republican-style attacks on our electoral process, but we need to remain aware of the risks. The formerly conservative side of politics is entrenching a more radical right trajectory and undermining the numbers voting combined with enraging their base are the only ways they can bring a hard right government into being.

NSW moderate Matt Kean observed that none of the lost Liberal vote went to more conservative candidates. Nonetheless, Sky’s Peta Credlin celebrated the chance to go more radical right now the so-called moderates have been flushed. Sky’s Rowan Dean berated the moderate “bedwetters” betraying the base with their Labor-lite impotence. The toxic chorus demands the Liberals embrace more radical positions.

Sky News is funnelled free-to-air into the regions drumming in this message that Australia faces “three years of hard-core left-wing government that will destroy the fabric of this nation.” It unifies the conspiracy spheres that underly the UAP vote with a resentful base. Peter Dutton’s initial speeches as Leader of the Opposition have been loaded with disdain for the capacity of the ALP to govern. This has provided amusement for the many “safe Liberal” electorate voters who turned against the Morrison government’s malign incompetence, but it is to the base that he speaks. The mythical “socialist left” embodied by the Labor Party will destroy everything.

By depicting Dutton as a “pragmatic conservative” rather than a radical right figure, Greg Sheridan aims to normalise the leader’s authoritarian political leaning. Dutton has said he thinks parliament is a disadvantage for sitting governments. He combined Australia’s enforcement and surveillance arms in one body in the mega-department of Home Affairs, and deployed them in a highly illiberal way. He victimised an out-group for the vengeful pleasure of his in-group. His pitch is to lead this so-called party of the worker against the educated elite of the left.

Like America, we can celebrate the victory of the centre left over manifestly incompetent and malevolent radical right governments. Like America, though, we should be very careful not to believe the radical right is defeated.

This was originally published in Pearls and Irritations.

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Fixing Our Society

Does anyone remember that we once proudly described ourselves as an egalitarian nation? Just after World War II, the Australian government wanted everyone in the world community to understand that Australia was a socialist democracy. Evatt at the UN, then later Gough here at home, were simple expressions of the majority opinion.

We were hugely proud of the fact that we were a country, where the population were the ones in control. We wanted a level playing field with ample public services for all. What happened?

We hear all the time that our democracy is broken. In virtually every debate relating to the big picture issues facing our society, just about the only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that our democracy is broken.

The pattern is obvious. The inequalities and disaffections entertained by a particular part of the citizenry are identified, listed, and then widely and loudly discussed. (Think about women, Aborigines, the poor, the unemployed, the disabled, homelessness, rural services, health services, the environment, etc etc etc).

Then, having identified a range of obvious and dire problems, we implement some half-arsed idea and publicly forget about it all until the next time we again jointly and collectively fail to fix the very same problem.

Pay gap widening. Rich getting richer. Homelessness growing. Great Barrier Reef going white and crumbling. Cannabis illegal, yet super strong legal heroin widely available. Cities outgrowing their infrastructures. Housing, twenty-years plus, unaffordable. Huge concentrations of corporate power in every segment of society. Electricity ever more expensive. Workers ever falling behind bosses raking it in and vacationing in Europe.

Let’s for a moment step back from these ‘intractable’ social problems and ask ‘why?’ Why can’t we seem to address any of these problems? After all, it is not that we have not already had our best minds consider these matters and give their opinions. Sometimes endlessly. Anyone can go to the internet, right now, and track down a thousand articles and discussions relating to any of these topics, with many containing a range of rational responses, sometimes from the best minds of our generation, discussing how we might begin to tackle all of these problems.

Of course, I am not saying that any of these long-standing difficulties and faults in society can be easily fixed. But why no progress at all? Especially since it is relatively easy to also gauge the opinion of the Australian population regarding any and all of these matters. We want these matters addressed: yet nothing continues to happen.

Note that not all social problems are a difficulty. In situations where the interests of the corporate sector and the interests of the majority are aligned then we do seem to get instant government response which is sometimes incredibly effective. Think about littering, smoking, the road toll, child sexual assault, gay rights, sewage and stormwater control, etc. Aussies like a cohesive and safe urban environment and, in the main, so does the corporate world.

I despair for our current social discourse. It has become stupid, mean, and corporate. It simply does not represent the Australia that I know.

Why did our governments sell off all of our electricity and water services? Why did they sell off the Commonwealth Bank? Why did they dismantle the CES to replace it with a huge corporate sector that costs four times as much? Why do we give away all of our mineral wealth to a group of rich men? Why does none of our corporate sector pay any tax? Why are the rich getting so much richer? Why aren’t the workers getting more?

After twenty-five years of our entire mainstream media being owned and run by corporate apologists, these questions are simply not being addressed. The people who ask these sorts of questions are now sneered at and their questions absent. What did we expect?

We allowed all of our social services and structures (in media, banking, retail, health, electricity, etc) to be privatised and sold off piecemeal to the highest bidders (and every one of them with a friend in Parliament). All generally against the wishes of the majority of the population. Now we sit around griping about the rising cost of everything like a bunch of whimpish three-year-olds. We just gripe. It’s pathetic. It’s now too late. The baby-boomers have utterly stuffed up ‘our’ democracy.

Ask any mainstream politician in our land and they will tell you that the most important thing in their universe is to make sure that Australia has a ‘healthy economy’. This is simply because, for the last quarter of a century, every media outlet in our country has been unabashedly expanding their ‘business’ section to cover the entire social realm.

Until now, in our modern age, every political decision has to be ‘economically feasible’ rather than merely being socially equitable. Moreover, to point out this gross capture of democracy is no longer even considered rude. It is celebrated.

I have to accept that we no longer live in a socialist democracy. Our ‘society’ has become an ‘economy’. In other words; the bastards have won. Both major parties take their marching orders directly from the big end of town. Everyone now talks about our country as if it is a big shopping centre. WTF?

Once upon a time, there was at least the need for a modicum of stage-craft. The politicians had to at least pretend that they were acting in the interests of the majority of the people in society. But no longer. Now we have a merchant banker in charge of our land and the leader of the free world is a bigoted property developer from New York.

I think I have cause for at least mild to medium levels of dark despair and foreboding. If you are poor then, apparently, you have the option of starving to death or working hard, all your life, to just make ends meet, so as to make someone else rich. It’s up to you. After all, we are all equally free to sleep under the bridges in our land (at least out in the countryside where the municipal authorities won’t hose you down).

Anyway, why would you complain? Everyone tells us all, all the time, that we all should simply do what is in our bosses best interests because ‘capitalism won’. ‘Socialism’ was defeated. Greed is now not only good; but right. Just ask our PM, the leader of the opposition, all of the media outlets in the land, and just about every kid (under 25) who are wondering why the hell they can’t seem to make ends meet while all of their parents were able to afford to buy such beautiful homes.

None of our ‘intractable’ social problems can even be approached, let alone addressed because we sold our souls to the idea that everyone could be rich. We have turned our society into an economy and all of our politicians now work for the highest bidder. Now the flower-children are all homeowners, small business people and have generally bought the capitalist dream utterly. They all seem to think that they are sitting on a house that is worth a million dollars. A whole generation has drifted from flower child to shallow corporate schmuck in just twenty-five years. It’s pathetic.

This is why we have ‘intractable’ social problems. In simple terms, in an economy, the one with the biggest wallet always wins. And the biggest wallets in our society are very happy with the way that things are, right at this moment. After all, these intractable ‘problems’ are making them ever richer. The bigger the problem; the better the banker’s holiday. Stuff the reef.

It will now be up to the next generations to fight for the soul of Australia. There is no doubt that our descendants will look back on us and disown us completely. We have lost the plot. The baby-boomers are fools. When the 1% walk away from the smoking carcass of the Australian economy after their twenty-five years of disastrous mismanagement, they will be happy to retire to nearby their money in an offshore haven.

Then we, the baby-boomers, will have nobody but ourselves to blame. Yes, our democracy is broken. We, the smug ownership class, have allowed our system to become corrupt. We surrendered our entire free press and most of our infrastructure to large commercial conglomerates.

Ours is no longer a country run by the populace but rather the corporate sector. We have allowed the concept of our democracy to be perverted. Our children and their descendants will look back on our generation with contempt. We identified all of the problems, and carefully, one by one, totally failed to fix any of the big ones.

We allowed our society and political system to be captured by big money. For all of our constant barrage of self-congratulation, the baby-boomer generation has failed. And now it is simply too late. When our housing bubble bursts and Australia settles into becoming a third-world backwater for a quarter of a century, then the baton will not so much pass-on as be wrenched from our hands.

We have allowed our industrial base to virtually disappear. We allowed multinational corporations to export all the profits of the mining boom. We allowed our public services to be sold off, bit by bit, until we have to pay a toll even to travel from one end of a city to another. We have pissed the opportunity to make a better society, up against the wall. I am ashamed to have been born amidst such a cretinous bunch of imbeciles.

But then the baby-boomer generation have simply carried on the great tradition of mankind. In the last two hundred years, we have consumed voraciously everything we might and done our best to irretrievably damage the ecosystem on every continent, even whilst simultaneously causing a mass-extinction and a climate change event.

Hopefully, our children might do better with the little we leave behind. We cannot hope they will consider us kindly. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that there might actually be someone still around in another thousand years. It’s a low bar but I think we might just clear it.

Happy Holidays.

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Day to Day Politics: It’s bloody simple when you think about it … a Royal Commission, that is

Wednesday 13 April.

1 Labor proposes a Royal Commission into the financial sector. Particularly the banks. The establishment and those of a conservative ilk cry foul. ASIC, a major regulatory body say they continuously investigate crime and have adequate powers. Repeat, powers. In fact our financial institutions are overseen by four regulatory bodies. The harshest in the world, people of the right scream out.

To me it’s rather simple and I don’t profess any superiority of intellect.

A Royal Commission is needed to find out why in spite of the best oversight in the world it is not working. I can’t make it any clearer than that.

I don’t understand why it is at press conferences when the Prime Minister and others espouse what they see as an almost faultless system of regulation, why some journalists with a bit of brain doesn’t ask the fundamental question:

“Can you please explain then why it doesn’t seem to be working?”

Sabra Lane had the perfect opportunity to put the question to Deputy PM on 7.30 Tuesday night but let the opportunity slip.

Mind you it might have some relationship to the reason why the ATO can’t collect tax from multinationals. They sacked the staff collecting it, or conversely it might be, in ASIC’s case (200 sacked) that the $100s of millions ripped from its budget is affecting its capacity to investigate.

ASIC Chairman Greg Medcraft at the commissions Annual Meeting last year said that they were “very thinly resourced”.

In 2013 he said Australia was too soft on corporate criminals and that the Country was a “paradise” for white-collar criminals and the regulator could do little about it because it lacked the resources.

So it seems they have heaps of power with no one to enforce it.

The argument that Labor opposed a Royal Commission last year is a nebulous one. Things can always get worse to the point where a change of mind is not only justified but necessary.

A change of mind when it addresses the common good is a worthwhile thing to do.

Or one also could argue that Labor is making a stand against the greed and corruption being perpetuated on us by big business and the right of the political spectrum in general. If you want to put this to the test, go to a pub or apply Turnbull’s own fairness test.

We don’t live in a right-wing democracy. When you only have Royal Commissions into matters relating to your political opponents and ignore those associated with you, you leave a stench of hypocrisy that has a whiff of gutter politics about it.

As for the banks reaction they are considering a mining type advertising campaign against the opposition.

To quote marketing consultant Tony Ralph , who has apparently worked on a number of similar campaigns.

”no doubt the banks can run a campaign that will turn the political opportunism of a Royal Commission into an electoral nightmare for Labor”

And if Labor gained power and I hypothetically were leader I would have no hesitation into having a Royal Commission into the Ashbygate Affair.

2 Monday’s ABC Four Corners, if nothing else, confirmed that Clive Palmer is a grubby individual and that nothing in the world matters unless it is of benefit to him. His entry into politics was solely calculated to be profitable to him. The appointed administrator suggests that a “reckless” Clive Palmer instructed Queensland Nickel to pay him nearly $15 million and may have acted as a shadow director for the company according to an administrator’s report which recommends winding up the Townsville-based operation.

He might join a long list of corporate names like Elliott, Bond and Skase. Perhaps a Royal Commission into the breakdown of corporate law.

3 Tuesday’s Essential Poll still has the parties tied on 50/50 apiece. In my view 40% are rusted onto each party. The Greens have about 10% and the rest are undecided.

One should never pre suppose that in a democracy the party you support should be the only one that ever wins. But a vote for the Coalition this time would be an acknowledgement that you are satisfied with bad government and would be happy to experience another three years of it. That you would be happy with a further decline in the standards of our political institutions. You wouldn’t care if your children suffered in their education or if inequality increased. In short you would accept mediocrity, or worse. The right would of course interpret your vote as one of confidence and your regret would be twofold in the realisation that you had committed the same sin twice. Too late then.

I wrote this a short time after the last election:

“I have wondered since the election what I will write about for the next three years. I have concluded that it is my duty to hold the government to account. To see to it that the Government governs honestly and transparently and that the media reports news rather than opinion in the guise of propaganda”.

I think I have been true to my word.

“I feel people on the right of politics in Australia show an insensitivity to the common good that goes beyond any thoughtful examination. They have hate on their lips and their hate starts with the beginning of a smile”.

My thought for the day.

“Are you really doing what is important? What you believe in, or have you just adjusted to what you are doing”.

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Day to Day Politics: Your corruption is worse than mine, and other taxing issues

Thursday March 31 2016

1 At the crux of the Senate stalemate over the ABCC legislation are two principles. Firstly the Government says the crossbench Senators, because some rorted the voting system, are unworthy participants. A DD will fix the problem it says. In itself that is debatable. Secondly the Government wants its ABCC anti-Union corruption bill passed.

The Senators suggest a compromise that would include all corruption. Not unreasonable you might say. After all corruption is knowingly rife in politics and business.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that corruption in the banking sector and its effect on ordinary people is far worse than that of unions in the building industry. And that corruption in politics is destroying our democracy.

Too unreasonably single out union corruption suggests you rate it worse than other corruption and leaves the Government open, particularly the Prime Minister, to further charges of hypocrisy. Union bashing in other words.

A recent survey by Essential Media found that most respondents opposed the reintroduction of the ABCC, and demonstrated that the Federal Government must be more active in countering misconceptions about the role and function of the construction watchdog.

It remains an open question as to whether the PM really wants a more democratic electoral system or if the ABCC is a more important matter than others that would seem more worthy of its attention.

If per chance the cross benches passed the bill, Turnbull would have some explaining to do as to what the real motive was.

The Essential survey on the following question:

What do you think is the main reason why the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would call an early double dissolution election?

Showed that 14% thought it was because Parliament won’t restore the ABCC. 15% said it was because he wants to get rid of the independents in the Senate and 30% said it was because his Government is losing support and he will have a better chance of winning if the election is held early.

2 The Crickey Poll Bludger in the absence of any Polling over Easter reveals Newspolls quarterly breakdown. It shows the Turnbull Government sinking in Vic, and SA with Victoria leading the way. Another poll reveals that the government will have a hard time selling its budget. An internal poll also shows that Bronwyn Bishop wouldn’t hold her seat of MacKellar and the Nationals will almost certainly contest the seat of Murray. Sharman Stone’s former seat.

This week’s Essential Poll still has the parties 50/50.

3 Those interested in American politics should read this.

‘Justice Scalia’s seat is vacant. Ginsberg is 82 years old, Kennedy is 79, Breyer is 77, and Thomas is 67. Nowadays, the data shows that the average age of a Supreme Court retirement or death occurs after 75.

These are 5 vacancies that will likely come up over the next 4-8 years. The next President will have the power to potentially create a 7-2 Supreme Court skewed in their ideology.

Think about that… 7-2. If the next President appoints 5 young justices, it will guarantee control of the Supreme Court for an entire generation. And 7-2 decisions will hold up much more over time than 5-4 decisions which are seemed to be lacking in mandate’ – Colin Powell.

4 It seems Tony Abbott will run his own campaign in the forthcoming election.

He has expressed his readiness to participate in the 2016 federal election campaign to support colleagues who hold marginal seats. Senator Nick Xenophon said he would be delighted to have Abbott campaigning in South Australia. I suppose Christopher Pyne will also welcome him.

Nifty Nick knows when he is on a winner.

5 I know I’m always on about the NBN but when Australia slips to 60th position in world speed ratings it’s about time we all took notice. What a cock up this supposedly ‘innovatively’ minded Government has made of this medium.

It is just ridiculous that we are building a copper-based service that will be redundant in ten to 15 years. We should all question why we are heading down such an inferior pathway at such a huge cost.

6 How refreshing it was on Tuesday to watch Paul McClintock, a businessman and former staffer to John Howard deliver a speech ‘Deficit to balance: budget repair options’ for CEDA, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia minus the politics at The National Press Club.

‘No economic problem in Australia is graver than the persistence of large budget deficits,’ he said.

The research was conducted by a 12 member commission that included current Reserve Bank board member Dr John Edwards and three former secretaries of the federal department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Michael Keating, Dr Ian Watt and Terry Moran.

What struck me was the way in which McClintock demonstrated that when you dispassionately divorce yourself from the politics, and objectively address an economic problem, just how much clearer the answers are.

Contrary to the Abbott/Turnbull governments’ notion that budget repair can only be achieved with spending cuts, the report calls for revenue enhancement. It reckons that $15 billion in revenue ‘enhancement’ measures and $2 billion in spending cuts would bring the budget to surplus in 2018-19.

Now you wouldn’t call these committee members raging socialists but their preferences for revenue raising were suspiciously Laborish.

Singled out were superannuation tax and capital gains tax. Introducing a flat 15 per cent discount on super contributions ($6.9 billion), reducing the cap for concessionary contributions to super to $10,000 ($8.5 billion), halving the capital gains discount ($3.6 billion) and abolishing negative gearing on all assets purchased after December last year ($2.6 billion).

Other options proposed included increasing petrol taxes, cutting the fuel tax credit scheme, cutting industry tax concessions, clamping down on work related tax deductions and extending the ‘temporary’ the budget repair levy.

Without action, the commission found personal incomes would bear the rising burden of taxation.

It all sounds reasonable when you take the politics out of it.

Recommend you read this article by John Kelly on the subject.

An observation.

It seems to me that the wisest people I know are the ones that apply reason, and logic and leave room for doubt. The most unwise are the fools and fanatics who dont’.

7 My first reaction to the Prime Minister’s proposal to give the states the right to raise their own income tax is that the electorate will never buy it. Imagine the States with that sort of power. He is just handballing a problem he can’t handle.

Turnbull indicated that over time if a particular state had a problem it might say.

‘OK, we have got an issue with one part of our services. Can we fix it ourselves or do we need more money? If we need more money, then they go, the state would go to their parliament, raise the money, go to the people and persuade them of the merits of it.’

A hard sell this one. I wonder how long it will stay on the table. We might even see a perpetually shifting population seeking the least taxing state.

And didn’t Scott say:

‘This is not a government that has any interest in lifting the tax burden on Australians’.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just get companies to pay some tax and stop all the subsidies?

My thought for the day.

‘For the life of me I fail to understand how anyone could vote for a party who thinks the existing education and health systems are adequately funded and addresses the needs of the disadvantaged’

PS: I read last week that the actual plebiscite question that was supposed to be revealed prior to the election had been shelved. Yesterday I read that the plebiscite itself is to be shelved indefinitely. Can’t be true surely.

 

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Day to Day Politics: The Great Paradox of Our Times

Sunday February 7 2016

I have a confession to make. Writing a daily post is time-consuming. It takes a lot of research and you have to be on top of things, constantly thinking a day ahead. And of course one is reliant on the day-to-day political gossip for source material.

Occasionally though one just feels flat, in want of a day off. Today is that day.

Filling in for me today is my friend Stuart Whitman. I met Stuart on Facebook about four years ago. We have had coffee together a few times. His engaging personality and kindly disposition always makes for enjoyable discourse. Until this week Stuart worked in the Senate Canberra. He is well versed in the machinations of government and that of the Labor Party.

The Great Paradox of Our Times

The paradox of our times is that we live in a pre-revolutionary age of massive global economic, environmental, social and cross-cultural convulsions as the old order of the world we have known to be “reality” collapses around us yet the political status quo internationally lacks the courage or vision to lead the profound systemic change or even ask the deep questions we need to be asked or to re-imagine how the world can work.

Yet forces such as climate change, the new industrial revolution and subsequent loss of a large part of the workforce, and the widening inequality will not wait for us, they demand a brave and visionary response.

We can’t put these global bushfires out with a garden hose.

Not wanting to unsettle an electorate they wrongly assume is unable to think critically or act rationally or behave humanely, we are told to accept the crumbs of piecemeal progress because anything of the scale of transformational polices required to see our civilisation through to the other side, renders any political figure proposing them nuts or “unelectable”.

Instead of embracing the challenge and adventure of the age and the hard work required to lead and channel the coming transition to make sure it is peaceful, democratic and wise we have timid responses and focus group marketing lines. Instead of working together to ensure the global underclass is finally lifted out of their desperation and afforded dignity instead of growing in ranks of misery, we have a generation of people who don’t seem to be capable of thinking beyond the entrenched Thatcher-Reagan worldview of the past thirty years. The only world so much of the electorate and political class has ever really known.

There seems to be deep fear of any alternative to the view offered by Thatcher and Reagan that we are not to trust the common will of the people in the democratic state offering grand scale programs of much-needed reform and change. God forbid we challenge the dogma that the market has all the answers and the constituent body of the people is not to be trusted. Better to go quietly about your business and not rock the boat. Trust the powers that be and your political patrons, and shut your mouth and you will be looked after.

In an age that demands courage, everywhere we look we see cowardice.

Why is it that in this time the world-weary old men and women are now the radicals and so many of the youth even on the left of politics are so illogically conservative and reactionary?

I am thankful that although I was an infant at the time, I still have a memory of a world before Ayn Rand ruled. I hope I get to see it again in my lifetime.

Stuart Whitman.

My thought for the day

‘It seems to me that the wisest people I know are the ones that apply reason, and logic and leave room for doubt. The most unwise are the fools and fanatics who don’t’.

 

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Democracy: The Genie is out of the bottle

Equality and freedom are two core component of democracy. Whether it’s me, you or Malcolm Turnbull walking into that polling booth on election day – everybody’s vote is equal and we are free to vote however we like.

But there’s a lot more to democracy than that. In the often quoted words of American President Abraham Lincoln:

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The concept of democracy has been around for thousands of years, but the way it works in practice has started to change this century. And that change has seen the average person in the street unwittingly gain more power in the political process – here’s how…

The balance of power in a democracy

A democracy is arguably the only model of government that aims to distribute power equally – to give everyone an equal voice, an equal say. But history has shown that we – the people – are not particularly good at holding on to democracy.

Democracies have risen and fallen over the centuries. And when they’ve fallen, it’s been pretty much the same story every time – the average punter has let the balance of power that exists between the rights of the individual and the rights of the government shift too far in favour of the government. While this sometimes happens as a violent coup, more commonly it happens as people give up freedoms – like their right to privacy – one at a time. In the words of the 20th century’s most famous enemy of democracy, Mr Adolf Hitler:

“The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time. To erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

Historically, one of the reasons that people have let democracy slip away from them is that they have taken it for granted.

In Australia today, many people take democracy for granted because they misunderstand the crucial role that democracy plays in controlling so many key aspects of our daily lives. From what we learn in school, how we drive, how much pay we take home right through to which foods we are able to buy at the supermarket – there is scarcely an aspect of what we do that isn’t impacted by legislation which is created and managed by the government – and therefore ultimately controlled by the democratic process. And yet rather than embracing democracy – people are disillusioned by it.

Disillusionment with democracy

The main institution that most people associate with democracy is their right to vote for a Member of Parliament (an MP) to represent their area (or electorate). That MP – at least so the theory goes – takes their place in the House of Representatives and should be a voice for the people of their electorate. And through that MP – so the theory continues – we all have a say and a vote in how our country is run.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. But in practice, when we head to the polling booths these days – unless you vote for an independent – your vote is normally for one of two political parties rather than for someone to specifically represent your electorate.

When you combine this with the fact that elected MPs often act like they are voted in to rule over us rather than to serve us – the result has been many that many Australians have lost faith in the very concept of democracy, feeling both that their vote doesn’t actually represent their views and that those entrusted with political power through their vote are not using that power particularly well.

In the last federal election, despite it being compulsory to vote, the Australian Electoral commission estimate that one in five eligible voters didn’t vote! And one in four young voters didn’t even bother to enroll.

In fact, in a Lowy Institute poll earlier this year, only 65% of Australians felt that a democracy was preferable to any other kind of government. And among 18 to 29 year olds, it was under 50%. When the Lowy Institute delved into the reasons for this – it turned out that it wasn’t that people thought we should become a fascist state. In fact, the most common reason cited for not believing in democracy was:

“democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society”

Since democracy as an institution was intended to achieve the exact opposite of this – then the most important thing that this poll tells us is that there is something very wrong with the way we are ‘doing’ democracy today in Australia, and that if we don’t lift our game, we are at risk of losing it.

The good news is that although many don’t realise it, the face of democracy has been changing this century – and strangely enough, as a result, the balance of power has been shifting back in the people’s favour.

The changing face of democracy in the 21st century

The forgotten pillars of democracy

Despite the fact that the role of the average punter in the political process is often associated almost solely with our right to vote, the reality is that there are a number of other core principles of democracy that we often forget about – including our right to freedom of information and freedom of speech.

Our ability to take advantage of these freedoms has changed drastically this century – and that change has brought about what is arguably one of the biggest shifts in the way democracy works since Aristotle first said “Let’s have a show of hands” back in Ancient Greece. This shift has happened not through our antiquated parliamentary houses and the parliamentarians who sit in them – but through the information revolution brought about by the internet. Thanks to the internet, we now have far greater:

  • Freedom of Information through ready access to unfiltered primary sources of information around the Globe; and
  • Freedom of speech through an ability to both voice our opinion and connect with others in a way that we never have before.

And many politicians don’t like it.

Politicians are quite happy to talk philosophically about the importance of ‘Freedom of information’ and ‘Freedom of speech’ – because in days gone past, these were principals which in practice would cost an individual a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to use. This dissuaded most from doing so – and instead we all had to rely on the ‘fourth estate’ – the media – to check out and validate politicians’ claims and press releases.

This meant that the average punter had very little – if any – opportunity to personally check out whether what politicians were telling us was true. And we had very little opportunity to have a say about what was going on – other than through an organised protest march or perhaps a letter to the editor or your local MP. The media acted very much as an information filter – and on the whole , we had no option but to believe them and hope that they were doing their job to validate facts, identify discrepancies and tell us what need to know to make an informed judgment about who is running the country.

(Given the quality – or lack thereof – that comes out of some of the mainstream media outlets today, a number of whom seem to act more like extensions of the government’s press office than newspapers – this is somewhat disturbing.)

This century however, with so much information readily available on the internet, we don’t have to rely on the media to do our fact-checking for us. Each of us can download an individual politician’s expenses from the Department of Finance and see for ourselves exactly how many chopper rides they’ve taken. And once accessed, we can readily share this information with people around the globe – both known to us and unknown to us – in a matter of seconds.

The boundaries have shifted

Greater freedom of information and freedom of speech has brought about a shift in the boundaries of the democratic power-base. We – the people – have unwittingly claimed back some of the power that has been stripped away from us over the years. Politicians don’t have to wait for a poll now to hear what people think – they can go online and read all about it – in online comments on mainstream media news site, on independent news site like the AIMN, on social media, on blogs – the list goes on.

Where previously politicians could cultivate a relationship with key people in the media, and to some extent manage and control what was presented to the general populace and what was amplified – this has now become a lot more difficult. We now have a far greater say in what we think is important than we did before.

This shift in the balance of power has literally brought governments down. You need look no further than the recent Arab Spring democracy uprisings in the Middle East, which many argue would not have happened without social media.

Of course anything powerful can be used both for good and for bad – and we have also seen examples of how the internet and social media has been used to harm. But even taking that into account, the power to have a say in the destiny of our nation is now at least partially back where the founders of democracy intended it to be – in the people’s hands.

We now have REAL freedom of information and REAL freedom of speech – where previously we just had it in theory. Ok, maybe ‘real’ is a bit strong – we are living in the age of ‘on-water matters’ after all. So let’s just say that our ability to exercise freedom of information and freedom of speech is much greater now than it ever has been.

The Genie is out of the bottle

The internet – or information Genie – is out of the bottle, and governments around the world are feeling the pinch, and rushing to do what they can to get that Genie back under control again.

This change is upsetting the political apple-cart – and there are those in power who don’t like that they can no longer control the narrative quite as well as they used to be able to. Our recently dethroned ex-prime minister Tony Abbott was well known for criticising twitter – calling it ‘electronic graffiti‘ and Australia ‘at its worst’. And the government of Nauru recently shut down social media primarily to silence opposition.

The challenge that we now face is to understand and take advantage of this power shift, to use this Genie to correct the boundaries around our government’s power and restore the balance.

With these newly accessible freedoms, we can more actively participate in democracy – we can drive change from the bottom up instead of waiting for our politicians to get out of their hermetically sealed bubbles steeped in outdated political traditions. Without these freedoms, we risk going back to a nation fed on what the media tells us, blithely oblivious to key aspects of what our government is doing on our behalf and in our name.

There’s more to this …

Politics is not something many people talk about often. Democracy even less so. There’s a lot more to cover on this topic, so I’ve split the discussion on this into four articles – this one plus a further three – coming soon – which will cover:

  • Voting: it’s all about the money
  • Information: it’s all about control
  • Democracy: it’s all about you.

And finally – remember curiosity didn’t kill the cat, complacency did

One of the things our disengagement with democracy has done is to make many feel disempowered – like the things that are happening in the world today, or even just in our nation, are somebody else’s problem, that there is nothing that we can do to fix them. They aren’t somebody else’s problem. They are our problem. And there is plenty that each of us can do. Many pollies want us to stay out of it, to stay disengaged – a public that doesn’t ask questions doesn’t create problems.

But heed this warning from a previous president of the United States – John Adams:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long……There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

The way to stop this from happening is to get and stay engaged with what is going on politically. To have your say. To engage with others about real issues.

Public opinion matters big-time now – arguably more than it ever did. And you play a role in forming that opinion every time you have a conversation with someone about national and global issues. It turns out we really are all only separated by six degrees – even less so within an individual country. This means that the conversations you have with your friends, family, colleagues and even online connections matter. Whether those conversations are in person, on Facebook, on a news site, a blog or on Twitter – it’s those conversations that change public opinion. And changing public opinion impacts the way our government acts.

That’s true democracy in action.

This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.

 

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The relevance of Tony Abbott

By Paul G. Dellit

Now That The Lunatic Is No Longer In Charge Of The Asylum . . .

That’s unfair. Tony Abbott neither is nor was a lunatic. In the view of this writer, he was, at least as far as his Prime Ministerial persona was concerned, a brawling, misogynistic, serial-lying, duplicitous, incompetent, inarticulate, graceless buffoon. And he sought to mask all of these character traits with slogans and repetitions of slogans, and repetitions of repetitions of slogans said with animus as if to imbue them with the gravity they lacked . . . but he was not a lunatic.

We could go on, well into the night, reciting the many failings of this man in the role of Prime Minister and in the role of sensitised human being – but it would avail us nothing. It is not often wise to quote Senator Eric Abetz – in fact it is frequently impossible to quote the good Senator accurately, given the number of extra syl-lie-bles he finds for each word – but he said it all, ruby cheeked and trembling of hand, when asked about his prospects of a Ministerial position post Abbott. “The king is dead . . .”, he said. He didn’t add, “bur-i-ed, and cre-may-ted”. He didn’t need to. Former Prime Minister Abbott is now relevant to the current political scene in Australia only insofar as he is the exemplar of how not to do it.

However, it seems that life’s reversals are not learning experiences for Anthony John Abbott. He has already broken a post-Prime Ministerial promise to go gently into the night. He was, as he would have it, the victim of external forces, not personal failings, just as was Peta, she said, victimised because her name wasn’t Peter, even though she was responsible for the LNP winning the 2013 election.

But the purpose if this article is not to indulge in necrocide. Nor is it, in Shakespearean terms, to bury Tony Abbott without praise. And here I must crave your indulgence. The purpose of this article is to praise our most recently deposed Prime Minister.

It is easy to consider that man as little more than political carrion, but he did render a service to us for which we must be eternally grateful. It was for the fact that he was true to himself. From beginning to end, he was a shining beacon for right wing extremists in Australia (and Canadia). He gave them the status of having one of their own occupying the highest political office in the land. He gave the timorous within their ranks the courage to openly express their inner voices. He gave them licence to propose the policies and schemes, hitherto concealed, by which they would seek to transform Australia. And he gave them the belief that he had within his power the means to pursue those ends on their behalf. In short, the praiseworthy service Tony Abbott rendered to Australia was to expose the agenda of our extreme right wing while at the same time unwittingly laying IEDs along the road to their ultimate defeat.

Some of you may remember my article in May of this year, ‘Australian Democracy at a Tipping Point‘ which argued that Prime Minister Abbott was setting about the abolition of the rule of law and, given his way, would replace it, step by step, with rule by unchallengeable Ministerial fiat. The ratio decidendi of Ministerial decisions and the evidence upon which they were based would be kept secret, with any disclosure without Ministerial permission punishable by law. This attempt by the Abbott Government has largely been stymied by the effects upon the Senate of the outcries of respected lawyers and large sections of the public. While the rump of this Abbott initiative remains in play, a preponderance of legal opinion has it that these remnants to the original bill, if passed, would be struck down by the High Court. We seem to be out of danger on this score for now.

However, there are many precedents for democratic governments being overthrown by right wing movements. Their first item of business after gaining power is to restructure government in ways that would fit comfortably alongside the challenges to democracy proposed in the original Abbott bill. Had circumstances been different, had those with ultimate power in Australia decided they wanted that bill passed into law, its passing would have set a precedent for other such laws to follow. A clever strategist could then have set about introducing small changes, none of which would seem so egregious as to warrant a revolution, but by accretion would, like boiling frogs by raising the water temperature slowly so that they become inured to change, kill our Westminster system of government.

Minister Dutton and others attempted to promote the original Abbott bill by assuring the public that the LNP would never abuse the power it gave them. Yet there is evidence that even without the power of that bill passed into law, the extreme right wing abuse what power they do have.

A recent FOI request revealed a case in point: A man of some power and influence within business and politics in Australia, Maurice Newman, used that power and influence to arrange for The Australian newspaper to launch an attack upon the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). The willingly complicit Murdoch press manufactured evidence to claim that that the BoM had manipulated and falsified data to suit a left wing climate change conspiracy. With this campaign of misinformation successfully launched, Maurice Newman had provided the excuse for his close friend, Tony Abbott, to launch a Prime Ministerial foray into the data gathering and analysis functions of the BoM. The nature and tone of his intervention was manifestly designed to intimidate the BoM into toeing the Abbott/Newman climate change denial line – clear evidence of an attempt to smother science with extreme right wing ideology.

More importantly, the attempt to manipulate the work of the BoM demonstrated Prime Minister Abbott’s propensity for using the power of the Executive to covertly exert anti-democratic influence upon role of the Public Service to provide “frank and fearless advice”. How many other attempts, successful or otherwise, might he have made to pervert the fundamental principles upon which our system of democracy is based? We may never know, but, on balance, we don’t have to care. If there are further examples to be unearthed, they will be because, by his own actions, he has ensured that he will not be around to covertly carry them through. His interference with the BoM was undertaken before he had rendered the FOI legislation impotent. And all of his other assaults upon democracy in the prosecution of his extreme right wing agenda were committed before he had shored up his defences against the democratic backlash that was ultimately his undoing:

  • The appointment of his benefactor, Dyson Heydon to run the TURC (This is not to say that a TURC was not justified, whatever Abbott’s motives for creating it, but Dyson Heydon’s appointment ensured that the partiality of the Commissioner and his commitment to causing as much mud as possible to stick to the ALP was never in doubt).
  • The appointment Bronwyn Bishop (nee Setright) as a highly politicised Speaker.
  • Reposing in his unelected Chief of Staff the extraordinary executive power to control the actions of elected representatives, including Ministers, culminating in the directions issued from her Office which resulted in Border Force officers roaming the streets of Melbourne with the stated intention of randomly stopping and questioning members of the public under pain of arrest.
  • And of course, the law, passed with the supine collaboration of the ALP, that threatens whistleblowers with imprisonment for following their own professional standards and obligations – a law that allows the most egregious abuses of the human rights of people under the Government’s control without any legal means of exposure.

So I for one am grateful to Tony Abbott for dragging the extreme right agenda into full public view and epitomising, Pauline Hanson-like, the kind of irrational, ideologically driven, callous people who would prosecute it if they had the chance.

 

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Democracy lost?

By Steve Laing

Another government, another coup. Since the final Howard Government of 2004, the last three governments have been characterized by having a different Prime Minister at the start than at the end of each term, and with those in power at the end elected not by popular vote, but by the decision of a very small political class. If evidence was required that we have quietly moved from a democracy to an oligarchy, the jury is now emphatically in.

Commentators note this instability, and suggest solutions that would make it harder to remove sitting Prime Ministers. Labor, the original overthrow experts, changed the way they appointed leaders in an attempt to diffuse the constant, often media-inspired, pressure to change the parties leader to a more popular one. No sooner than Malcolm ousted Tony, the media focus moves to Bill’s popularity with not an iota of embarrassment.

However this entirely misses the point, which is that the general public consistently takes a different view of the leaders and potential candidates, than those within the party who actually make the choice. Moreover, the dialogue that occurs around the times of these transitions as reported in the media can significantly impact public perception of the new leader (though this has been stirred up somewhat by opposition parties looking for weak points on which to attack their rivals).

The reality is that the party based system is very insular, and to a significant degree tyrannical in nature. Dissent and loyalty appear more important that competence, which worryingly means that bad leaders may actually be maintained longer than perhaps they should!

It is very clear that the now deposed Tony Abbott is the example that proves the problems of the system. Clearly elevated beyond his ability, he was unpopular with the electorate from the beginning of his prime ministership, and never recovered. Lauded in sections of the media as Australia’s greatest opposition leader, his hyper aggressive style masked a total lack of foundation with regard to the policies needed to move Australia forward. And in two years, his government has wrought enough damage to put Australia back ten years or more.

For many of us casual observers, it was clear that the LNP were policy lite, but spin heavy coming into election. Yet the mainstream media and our “astute” political commentariat somehow appeared to miss that vital component. In sports, the term is ball watching, more interested in the human drama of the election than analyzing the few policy ideas communicated prior to the election and dissecting them. Tony’s gold plated parental leave scheme was one such nonsense, dumped finally for being too expensive (it was probably, in reality, simply an attempt to try and grab woman’s votes), the impact it would have had on business, particularly small business, would have been extremely disruptive. But nobody seemed willing to think the impact through.

Tony Abbott leaves behind an economy teetering on recession due to his team constantly talking it down, a community where racism has again become mainstream and acceptable, a vastly expensive white elephant broadband scheme that will be obsolete before rollout is complete, a renewable energy industry that is teetering from lack of support, a defunct car industry, a nervous tertiary education system, no concrete plans for tax reform to help rebuild our economy, and no vision for the future post-mining boom. He has stacked the boards of our public institutions with sycophants, blundered into international diplomacy like a bull in a china shop, signed trade deals that we hope will benefit our nation (though with no precise plans as to how), and at vast expense incarcerated for an indefinite period a number of migrants whose only crime was to try and find a better life for themselves and their families, but who now have to endure conditions which we would not only reject for our animals, but indeed have made such a situation palatable for our citizens through propaganda and cover-up.

So can we expect a postmortem for this disastrous political experiment? Who is to blame for putting a person clearly incapable of this vital role into that position (and how are they still allowed to run the country!)? How was an electorate so easily duped into supporting him? Why did the media fail to provide the required due diligence that they claim to provide on our behalf? How can promises made prior to an election be dropped so quickly afterwards with no recourse bar the next election three years hence? And at what point did the electorate hand over the rights to the political parties to decide who should be eligible to become prime minister?

The Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott will not be remembered fondly, but the very least that we, the voting public, the actual employers, should be allowed, is some guarantee that such a situation will never be foist on us again. Until we recognize that our system is no longer a democracy, and do something to ensure that it becomes one again, then it is our fault if we allow our country to be hijacked again. And if any further incentive is needed, just remind yourself of who has quietly positioned themselves to be lurking in the wings . . .

About the author: Steve Laing is politically unaffiliated, but politically astute. A believer in social justice, but also properly regulated free-markets, he believes that the current political system is moribund and broken, and that if it doesn’t get repaired soon, the world will return to a modern feudalism run by capitalist barons (before destroying itself by not addressing climate change…). He believes that features of the current Australian system actually make it well placed to evolve to fix the problem IF people were given an alternative to the current party driven approach, and that using more of the best practice techniques used in business to be innovative and flexible in resolving problems, would result in a more dynamic and prosperous environment for Australians, and through example, thence the rest of the world. He is documenting his thoughts on www.makeourvoiceheard.com where he has so far outlined the problems, and is starting to outline solutions.

 

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This Week: the Fall of representative democracy

By François Crespel

Over the course of this week, some events have hammered the first nails in the coffin of representative democracy as we know it.

Last weekend in Melbourne the leader of ALP Bill Shorten changed his opinion and tried to align the party’s position to that of the Government’s on the treatment of asylum seeker boats.

The motion was voted down, but the facts are here. We were very close to have almost the whole spectrum of power Liberals and Labor agreeing on the Turn Back the boats policies of the government. A heated debate during the Labor’s national conference maintained the system of representative democracy alive, but just.

The two major parties in power would have had aligned policies, diverged from their promises and approved of the blatant mistreatment of people in the assessment of asylum claims. Both parties, disregarding Australia’s obligations under international convention and unashamed of their blatant disdain in baffling human rights.

The two dinosaurs Labor and Liberals are failing to represent the majority of Australian people’s opinions.

In the same week SBS aired their documentary “Go back where you came from”. A cast of six persons experience the life of refugees, travelling to refugee camps, warzones, in the middle east and in south east Asia. At the beginning of the show, four of the cast are pro “turning back the boats” with their personal reasons and the other two are against it. Upon travelling and experiencing the hardship, the harsh conditions of life and seeing the despair of asylum seekers, 3 of the 4 people who were pro “turning back the boats “ have radically changed their minds around.

The last remaining person of the cast whose name is Kim, remains the only person to stick to her original position, that of turning back the boats. She seems to stick to her original point of view despite having feeling of compassion when meeting refugees. There doesn’t appear to be any processed thought in her reasoning.

What these 2 events in a week show:

About two thirds of the people in parliament, close to 50 seats out of 76 in the senate since labor and liberal share 58 seats in parliament would advocate the “Turn back the boats policies” whilst in reality looking at a show with “informed” people, it appears that Australians are in a vast majority against the governments policy.

If 75% of representatives go against what 75% of what the population actually wants. The ratio validating representative democracy is negative and shows that the current system no longer works.

François Crespel, Online Direct Democracy Party (Empowering the people)

 

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