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The Australia Tree

A metaphor occurred to me today about the Abbott government and I felt it was good enough to share. There’s nothing like a good metaphor to clarify how you feel about something; in this case to remind us how destructive and dangerous the Abbott government is for our country.

Imagine that you live in a big old house with your family and in the backyard in the middle of a sprawling lawn is a huge plane tree. In this metaphor, that tree is the Australian government. Yes, this is going to take some imagination but bear with me. The tree has been there forever and has grown tall and wide, with branches reaching out to every corner of your garden. It offers shade in summer, a place of shelter in winter, a quiet spot for an outdoor meal, a branch hosting a tyre swing for the kids and the perfect climbing gym and fortress for outdoor games. You can’t imagine your garden, or your home, without this tree and you always assumed it would always be part of your future.

But then something changed.

A man from the council knocks on your door one day and tells you there’s a problem with your tree that has been raised by a neighbour. He won’t tell you which neighbour, only that the council was taking the complaint very seriously as they would with any risk to the community. The only neighbour you could imagine caring about the tree is the grumpy old man living in the property behind yours. He had never been a friendly person and grumbled constantly about everything; the weather, the council, the rates he had to pay, the noise your children made playing and a few times, the leaves that your tree shed in Autumn, some of which found themselves in his swimming pool that he never used because he whinged about the cost of energy to heat it. ‘Is this about the leaves in the pool?’ you ask, nodding your head towards the grumpy neighbour’s house and wondering what type of ‘community risk’ a few dead leaves could possibly cause. The man from the council avoided answering directly and said instead that the council were ordering you to lob off your trees largest branches before they fall off, endangering your home. And the lives of your family. You suddenly feel anxious. ‘What’s wrong with our tree?’ you ask nervously. ‘It’s got a tree disease which is making it slowly rot. Your neighbour recognised the symptoms. In effect it’s dying and the branches will fall one by one. The entire structure of the tree is unsustainable. You may in fact be better off cutting it down completely to avoid worrying about it in the future’. ‘Let me have a think about it’, you respond, wanting the man to leave. He tells you not to think about it for too long as the council wants something done about it immediately. He leaves and you pass on his terrible news to your husband who then feels as anxious as you do.

The next day you can’t stop looking at the tree and worrying about how quickly it is dying. It doesn’t look sick, but the man from the council is meant to be an expert on this type of thing so you’re sure he isn’t making it up. After a couple of weeks, you decide to get the largest of the branches cut off; just the ones that are risking hurting anyone if they fall off or coming down onto the house. This is the moment Australia elected Abbott. The tree of government was suddenly a risk to the community, rather than a protector.

The day the man arrives to cut off the large branches, you try to make yourself scarce. The sound of the chainsaws grate on your nerves. You return home hoping to feel less anxious now that the branches are gone. But you don’t feel less anxious at all and the tree looks hacked up and pathetic. No more social safety net. Medicare is under threat. Huge cuts to health and education spending. Gonski no longer a bipartisan policy. No more credible climate change policy. No more mining tax. A fraud of a national broadband network that will be no faster than what we have now. Huge increases in the cost of higher education. Cuts to the ABC and SBS. And the economy is flagging under the weight of austerity cuts and lack of confidence. You did what the man from the council expertly told you needed to be done and yet you can’t help feeling like you’ve lost something you’ll never be able to get back. The tree had been there much longer than you had and in one afternoon its dependable foliage is destroyed forever. You feel sad.

The man from the council returns a few weeks later to inspect the tree. He taps his pen on the thick trunk and nearly trips over the tyre that used to hang from the branches as a swing. ‘The disease is still risking the structure. I would recommend cutting the whole thing down. It could easily come down in a storm. You wouldn’t have the insurance to cover the damage’. You nod weakly and promise to do something about it right away. The tree makes you sad now so maybe once it’s gone you will get over it.

The arborist who cut off the large branches is booked out for the next month so you call someone new and he can cut the tree down next week. Again you leave him to it, as you can’t bring yourself to watch your tree become a useless stump. When you return home, the last bits of trunk are being fed into the noisy wood-chip creating machine. ‘Why did you cut it down?’, the arborist asks cheerfully. ‘It was dying, it was risking our home and was dangerous for our family’. The arborist raises an eyebrow. ‘Who told you that?’ he asks. ‘A man from the council. We didn’t really have a choice, it had to be done’. ‘That’s a shame, because there was nothing wrong with the tree. It would have happily outlived you if you’d just left it alone’. Your heart sinks and you feel like crying.

Soon after you’re driving past your neighbour’s house – the one who you suspect had it in for your tree because of the leaves in his pool, and you notice he’s on his porch, talking to someone who looks familiar. It’s the man from the council. They’re laughing about something, clearly sharing a joke. They’re friends. Or at least friendly. Suddenly you get it. There was nothing wrong with your tree. The man from the council lied. You’ve been tricked into doing something against your best interest. Scared into ruining your Australia tree. And your neighbour no longer has leaves in his pool. The rage you feel is impossible to describe.

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15 comments

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  1. miriamenglish

    Wow. Great metaphor Victoria. Well done. I felt infuriated at the end, looking at the dead stump of what our society could become under Abbott’s cuts. Thank you.

    This works well coupled with Roswell’s piece on the scares about terrorists under the beds harking back to the 50s campaigns to scare people into overlooking a similar pruning job on our society.

  2. kezz

    So the grumpy old neighbour is called Rupes? And the council IPA. Lovin this metaphor. A great read.

  3. John Lord

    Excellent Victoria. Really enjoyed the story but not the truth of it.

  4. Matters Not

    Gonski no longer a bipartisan policy

    Can’t argue with that. But is it still Labor’s policy?

    Two things to consider. First, there is the quantum (ambitious increases recommended) which now, in all probability, won’t eventuate. Second, there was the distribution formula, designed so that kids and schools with the greatest need were the significant beneficiaries of future allocations.

    Not sure whether this will survive. That would be the real disgrace.

  5. stephentardrew

    Great read.

  6. Andreas Bimba

    Nice metaphor Victoria. I suppose the owners should have got a second opinion on the tree but this could be a post ABC, SBS and Fairfax world where there no longer is a second opinion?

  7. James Cook

    I know it’s only a story and an extended metaphor but, shit, I was angry at the end…..and I’m angry, sickened and frustrated every day at this appalling excuse of a government and its powerful bully-boy supporters. If only we had a truly independent MSM these lying hypocrites would have been shamed into resigning ages ago. My only consolation comes from astute and perceptive journalists [such as yourself] on the interweb thingy. Thanks for the story [I think]

  8. Loz

    Lovely beginning, terrible ending.

  9. James Mason

    Ooooooh so true Victoria .. surely there must be a mechanism put into place whereby an incoming government be held accountable for their election promises and if they don’t perform as suggested then they’re out … like most jobs today a trial period .. speaking of which most (almost all) jobs today require shiploads of info on who you are and what you can do/have done, cv and refs etc …. how about would be politicians having to attend a 6 year course on how to run a country (the current morons have no idea) as well as learn what and whom they actually represent .. and .. ALL parties get $1m. (arbitrary) to do their canvassing and promises in all forms of media … a level playing field ..

  10. abbienoiraude

    Thank you Victoria. I swing (on my tyre swing) from anger to sadness and twist around in fear. Not of external faux manipulated terror but internal Nationalistic fervour. Who even remembers what the original tree even looks like any more. We are a Nation with a short memory and a shorter xenophobic fuse. Sigh*

  11. miriamenglish

    100% agree James. The probationary period sounds like a great idea. And requiring politicians to have some genuine knowledge seems to me a no-brainer. As I’m fond of saying, if you want to drive a car you’re required to pass a test to get a license to prove you actually know how to drive and aren’t going to be a danger to everyone else. If you are going to pilot an aeroplane the qualifications are even more stringent. But to steer the entire country you need absolutely no qualifications at all — even a failed goddamn priest who exhibits all the traits of a psychopath can get the job! They should be able to demonstrate a very good understanding of science (our society depends upon science) and an excellent command of history. It would be nice if they understood psychology, education, medicine, engineering, and agriculture too, but they aren’t really essential to the job. One very important point is that they should be sane — no psychopaths, sociopaths, schizophrenics, or bipolar candidates. (I have nothing against any of those kinds of people, but realistically those personalities just aren’t suitable for running a country.)

    The limitation on what can be spent promoting themselves is extremely important too. Election campaigns should not be flashy advertising swindles where you have to be loud and have a presentable face and spout 3-word slogans. They should be about careful, rational setting-out of policies and detailed costings. Anybody who can’t do this hasn’t much chance of doing a good job anyway. If you take away the chance to make bright, loud, but essentially empty feel-good advertisements then the only thing they will be able to rely upon is actual substance. And that is sorely missing from today’s political campaigns, and it is getting worse as we become infected with the diseased, USA-style, megabuck election campaigns.

    Once in power, as you suggested, there should be a probationary period, where if they misbehave and get a number of strikes against their name they are out, and the next best gets in. In my opinion, the things a politician should lose their license for are: lying or misleading overtly or by omission, taking bribes in the form of money or favors, keeping secrets from the Australian people.

    Politicians should be required to use only public transport, public health, and public schooling (for their kids) where those services are available (and if they’re not available then reasonable steps should be taken to make them available). This would guarantee that politicians remain in touch with the people they are supposed to be serving. We would also suddenly see a great improvement in quality of those services when the politicians depend upon them.

    Their wages should not be higher than that of a public school teacher or a public hospital staff doctor and they should retain that income (tracking that income bracket in society) for the rest of their life and be barred from paid employment after political life. This would ensure people were attracted to the job for the chance to make the country a better place, not for the sake of money. As we’ve seen in corporations, many people who get multimillion dollar wages drive their companies into the ground. Performance has virtually no relationship to monetary reward. We need politicians who focus on the public good, not on how much money they can shovel into their pockets. We need politicians who are interested in the country, not rich pals who can reward them later with opulent lifestyles. It isn’t practical for them to take an oath of poverty, but by the same token it doesn’t make any sense for them to have their snouts stuck in the trough.

    Of course, all this requires Murdoch’s toys be taken away from him. He keeps wrecking the furniture and hurting the other kids with them. It’s high time his toys were confiscated and distributed to those who play nicely.

  12. Colin KLINE


    A nice tree story / metaphor, but too simplistic, as most metaphors are.

    Perhaps this “tree” – our Government, IS indeed truly sick – and should be cut down and replaced with a better alternative.

    This Government Tree of ours – of most democracies around the world – no longer REPRESENT US, but instead serve to PROTECT OLIGARCHIES, PLUTOCRACIES, etc.

    This is supposed to be a REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, but it is not. When was the last time your electorate representiave interviewed / consulted you, about YOUR VIEW(s) regarding the issues of the day ? Never ?

    These pollies instead advance/support/vote for the views of, in order :
    – The beloved policy planks of the major bully-boys-girls, in their ministerial cabinet;
    – The views of the major donors to party platforms;
    – The views of major social bully boys/girls, e.g. religious fiefdoms, industrial fiefdoms, and so on;
    – Their “mates”, not necessarliy in their electorate;
    – etc

    Perhaps now is the time to SACK ALL POLITICIANS (but keep the independant departmental bureaucrats with expertise),
    and use the money saved from their salaries, pensions, travel-rorts, accomodation-rip-offs … to purchase a computer dedicated to electoral purposes, connected via a substantive NBN to EVERYone, protected by hardware and software encryption, to form a giant Athenian Agora writ large, where everyone has one vote per one person, about every issue.

    Currently, this is what we have as our representation in Government :

  13. Anomander

    Good metaphor.

    But to me, the tree was healthy except for a few aberrant branches that had grown in the wrong direction lately – the ones growing way too far out to the right, which clattered around banging on the roof during a storm and posed a risk to your safety. Those branches perhaps could have been trimmed or judiciously trained to grow in another direction that didn’t pose a threat.

    Then there were a few roots, spreading into the next door neighbour’s yard, into the storm water and sewer pipes, sucking-up too much effluent and encouraging too much new growth in the wrong areas, where the tree should have been strengthening itself with careful nurturing.

    That small patch near the fence-line. It looks like your nasty old neighbour has been deliberately poisoning the tree by hurling a foul concoction of lies over the fence, smearing the bark and making the appearance like the tree was diseased, when it was actually healthy.

    The problem now is that you could plant another tree to replace the old one, but you’ll have to nurture it, train it, feed it properly. But that is likely to take generations to grow and overcome the damage done.

  14. miriamenglish

    Excellent thoughts Colin. Modern cryptographic systems should be able to allow exactly that. We’re conditioned to think we need politicians, but do we really? It seems that lately they just get in the way of progress. Government still seems to me just as important — we still need something to keep the more vicious corporations under control, but politicians aren’t doing a great job of that, and when they team up with big business (as is especially happening with the current batch of politicians) things go from bad to terrible. That is the original meaning of fascism, by the way:

    fascism n. A philosophy or system of government that advocates or exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with an ideology of belligerent nationalism.

    (As an aside, I notice that a lot of online dictionaries have recently omitted the bit about the merging of state and business leaders from modern definitions of fascism, which strikes me as a little unsettling.)

    But back to the main point:

    It is essential to correctly design the cryptographic system to allow transparent, verifiable voting in such a way that it couldn’t be perverted for the ends of special interests. The case of the Diebold electronic voting machines in USA are a great caution here. When one of the programmers involved in creating the machines became worried that his superiors at the company weren’t taking his concerns seriously after he repeatedly pointed out security flaws in the machines, he went public and told everybody of the dangers. The company responded by using the new DMCA laws to throw him in prison and the Diebold machines went ahead to be used in probably the most corrupt election in USA history. There were numerous stories of people coming in to the election offices to “service” the machines and Al Gore would be leading in the votes beforehand, but when this mysterious person left the numbers would be exactly reversed, with Bush leading.

    David Bismark (http://evoting.bismark.se/) gave a great, short TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/david_bismark_e_voting_without_fraud?language=en) on a way to make transparent, verifiable, electronic voting possible. It looks like it could make fraud impossible.

    But in David Bismark’s system we still have to go to a voting office and vote for a politician. I must say, I like the idea of cutting out the politicians and voting directly on the issues from our computers at home.

    One of the first objections to this might be that not everybody has a computer. Well, that’s easily fixed. The money saved in not having to pay for ever more politicians for evermore, would make it possible to give a computer to each person in Australia. I bought a wonderful tablet computer through the net directly from China some months back for just $60 (volume orders would have made it considerably cheaper). It is easy to plug a keyboard and mouse into it if using just the touchscreen is too cumbersome for some activities.

    Another objection might be regarding the difficulty in getting sufficient numbers of people interested enough to vote. There are a couple of ways around this that I can think of, off the top of my head.

    The first is to allow optional voting, but to make the vote weighted by how many people vote on it. If insufficient people vote then it has to be put again, and again, until it gets enough votes to be significant. Optional voting has its value, but it can also produce terrible results like Reagan’s “landslide” victory where he was voted in by just 12% of the people in USA’s optional voting system. Optional voting can also enable sneaky ways to slant the vote by disenfranchising certain voters. Howard tried this even in our compulsory voting system, but luckily GetUp took it to the Supreme Court where his efforts were stopped.

    The other option is to use compulsory voting, but with some safeguards. All votes should include a “None of the above” choice, which allows people to give a no confidence vote on the issues as given, and the choices presented must be randomly arranged for each voter so that the “donkey vote” cancels itself out as random noise.

    There are other aspects that need to be carefully considered, such as wording of choices. We must prevent tricks like the one Howard used in the vote on whether we should have a republic or not. Howard made both choices unpalatable, but the option to stay the same less distasteful, so that even though most people actually wanted a republic, his sneaky framing of the questions made it look otherwise. Also we must avoid the notorious opt-in/opt-out distortions — when making your organs available on death is made an opt-in choice hardly anybody chooses it, but when it is made opt-out almost everybody is available for transplants. Voting choices should be clear choices, not tricks.

    Of course we could still keep the politicians, but their job changes and they become directly responsible to us and our votes on every decision they make. There are certain arguments for this too.

    I’m sure there is much more to be said on this very interesting topic.

  15. passum2013

    Loved It sure Sounds Like The Mad Abbott at Tourack.

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