• When Mr Keating Came to Town

    Just a quick note, on current matters.

    Paul Keating will be feeling pleased with himself. He’s managed to distress a number of luvvies, media and otherwise, with his remarks at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday. He even got a reprimand from the prime minister for daring to say that diplomacy was about rather more than handing out money. Foreign minister Penny Wong and deputy prime minister Richard Marles are hardly tender flowers. They’ll survive an assault with any number of French empire clocks.

    Naturally, being PJK, he went too far with his illiberal rhetoric. But he’s always done that. It’s part of his innate charm. He does have a way of focusing attention on the game rather than the run of play. That’s an important part of his value, not only as a statesman but also as a Labor grandee. The media in particular, which found itself in his sights at the NPC on this occasion, is guilty of following the run of play in politics. Who said what to whom and about whom always interests the gallery. I’m not sure the punters feel quite the same way about it.

    Anyway, in the spirit of the moment, I offer a vignette from my now distant past that puts a rather different complexion on Keating’s complexities, if you will.

    Thirty years ago, when PJK was selling his super plan and I was writing editorials for The Courier-Mail in Queensland, he took a dislike to the line the paper’s editorials were taking. An aside: in those distant days, when The Courier-Mail was worth its capital T and was a broadsheet newspaper of record, it published reasoned, analytical editorials, at length.

    Anyway, one day we got word that Keating was coming to see us. We all knew why, and we hastily got together an editorial and management group that he could tell himself was worth speaking to.

    And speak he did, in the boardroom annexe, he from a chair set in front of a semi-circle of others, in which we sat. It was, from memory, a thirty-minute lecture on the unquestionable benefits of Keating Super. He made a good argument, though he evaded the question of what would happen to his super market if the economy crashed in years to come. Not going to happen, was the PJK line on that.

    It was lovely, at the end. No one had spoken a word, except of course the man himself. He suddenly said, “Have I convinced you?” He was looking at me because he knew I wrote the editorials. No one said a word. Eventually, to keep things moving (I had an editorial to write), I said, “No.”

    I like to think that he looked disappointed, though I don’t think he was. He was merely irritated. He stood up, followed a heel-click later by his travelling aides who had hurriedly gathered up their papers, and began to walk out.

    We followed him, a double crocodile file, and waved him off in his limousine.

  • The Mad World of Manipulative Mendacity

    How The Australian’s breaking news website portrayed China’s response on Mar. 14.

    The boys are about with their tin drums again. They’re dressing in uniform and singing marching songs. The Australian’s breaking news service popped up this colourful fear-maker yesterday asserting that the Chinese have said we’re a target. They haven’t, and won’t, short of an actual hot war instead of just the megaphone blasts of hot air coming from the Anglo Club.

    What Beijing has said is that because of our accession to the AUKUS triad – the Chinese know all about triads, we should remember – Australia is now factored firmly into Chinese war assessments. That’s some distance back from the locked-on with live missiles threat Murdoch’s pamphleteers would like us to think is the situation. But it would be juvenile to suppose that rattling the fence and shouting that we’re the Black Knight and we’re with our pals Last Stand Custer and Flashman Redux, and we’re inviting the Chinese to come out so we can bite them on the knees, will force them to rethink their strategy.

    Paul Keating got it right when he said signing up to the AUKUS hoopla was the worst decision a Labor government had ever made. That partisan point is for ALP consideration and is valid. But it’s not only paid up, rusted on members of the ALP who are astounded by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s decision to sign up, or the carefully orchestrated two-finger salute the announcement in San Diego this week gave to China.

    The Americans want us to think that China is an existential threat to their country and therefore to our own. It isn’t, short of catastrophic miscalculation on either side of a politically created divide. But China is a probable threat to Taiwan and the world should persuade it politically not to try to force reunification. China as an economy is certainly a threat to America’s desire that it should remain the preferred global destination of foreign remittances. But unless you’re a fascist or a madman, the natural relative decline of terms of trade are not a casus belli.

    So to put AUKUS in a perspective not favoured by the Anglo cheer squads: America wants to stay on top; the British, having lost two empires and lately their relevance to the European mainland, want to create another empire (though this time virtual); and we’re happy to tag along because then we get to play with the big boys, are allowed access to some of their toys, and can fool ourselves that they’ll protect us from the bad guys if everything goes belly up. It would be risible were it not so painfully stupid.

    It might elude all manner of politicians, though it surely does not evade capture by diplomatists, military realists, even naval types with submarine envy, or most importantly of all the business community, that Australia has strategic priorities very different from those of the UK and the USA. We live right in the middle of the archipelagic and oceanic Indian and Pacific regions that relatively declining America and plainly rising China are now contesting. We can’t just go home if the play goes against us. This is our home. I don’t think that for all their rhetoric, Joe Biden or Rishi Sunak fully comprehend that. Unless they’re fooling themselves or are being disingenuous.

    To play our proper part in the sort of loose alliance that we should promote as a means of playing dominoes with the Chinese, we certainly need submarines. These need to be fully sovereign boats (the nuclear sub option will never give us sovereignty on or below the waves) and they need to be affordable.

    As opposition leader Peter Dutton notes, we can’t cannibalise the entire Australian Defence Force to pay for this indulgence. It’s a pity he didn’t go on to say that successive governments have penny-pinched defence in just about every area of otherwise useful expenditure, to the extent that under-equipped RAAF planes cannot fly into high-threat areas (not even C-17, C-130 and Spartan transports, to say nothing of electronic surveillance aircraft and strike fighters). But never mind: Dutton’s in opposition; used properly, it can be a very good thinking space.

    Nonetheless, the opposition is in lock-step with the government on AUKUS. Because flags, uniforms, funk, not necessarily in that order. So we shouldn’t expect too much in the way of a Reformation from the Liberals and Nationals. It’ll still be All the Way if the Big Boys Play.

  • I Confess

    AUSTRALIA | Taking it on the chin

    Like the flatfooted NSW premier, Dom Perrottet, though in my case through a compulsion known only to someone else’s god, I feel the need to confess. 

    Moreover, the significant lack of judgment of which I am culpable and for which I am compelled by unknown forces to plead for understanding and sympathy was not committed when I was a callow lad of 21, formally adult but far from grown up. 

    No, my fancy dress offence is far greater. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. It took place when I was 50, which by any measure of circuits of the sun except that of political opportunism, is an age at which lapses of judgment and demonstrations of bad taste should be well behind you.

    Perrottet dressed in Nazi uniform for his fancy dress appearance. Dumb. So dull. He should have gone as Il Duce. His uniforms were far more sparkly, and his hats were to die for.

    My offence, in contrast, was far greater. It was at a Mediaeval-themed wedding and I went as Crusader knight of the era. You know, those guys who “took the Cross” in the patois of the age and buzzed off to the Holy Land, aka Outremer, to slay as many infidel Mohammedans and Christ-killer Jews as possible and do a bit of rape, pillage and looting on the side.

    No, there are no photographs, so don’t ask. But I still know some people who saw me at the scene. How embarrassing. In my defence, can I say that I only went as a knight because by the time the Distaff and I got around to acquiring costumes to go, the only other remaining option was to dress up as a monk, complete with crucifix. I wasn’t a believer by then, but it would still have seemed like sacrilege. (The Distaff went as Lady Shallot, or something, complete with wimple. She looked a treat.)

    Gosh, I’m so glad to have got that off my chest. It’s been too long. Longer than Perrottet’s been hiding his own dirty secret. My crime was committed in 1995, prehistoric times for many these days. Dom’s party was in 2003.

    But, seriously … 

    Let’s get real …

    Politics is a vacuous game at the best of times. State politics in Australia adds enervation to the mix. It’s heady stuff. It invites one to consider how the proven benefits of catalepsy – coma can be fun, you know – could be a better option. 

    That Perrottet wore a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party might be an indication of many things (remember I only dressed up as a bad knight because other options were unavailable in store): Lack of judgment, lapse of taste, a penchant for vapid Australian hooray henry-ism, whatever. It does not for a moment indicate that he had failed to understand the pernicious secular faith of the madman Hitler and his acolytes, or its murderous effect on Jews, Gipsies, deformed or defective human beings of any provenance, and sundry others, including Russian prisoners of war. It simply indicates that at 21 he was remarkably thick. 

    I do not live in NSW, so I won’t have to not vote for him. But if I did live in NSW and didn’t vote for him, it wouldn’t be because he was evidently remarkably thick 20 years ago.

  • Poltergeists of Christmas

    Where we live, in a small area on the outer edge of the ever expanding Australian suburban universe, we are a fail-to-fit on most of the local demographics. This doesn’t worry us. We’ve never been fit-in people.

    But it does interest us. Most of the time, when the tradies who make up most of the male quota of the locality (2021 census: 49.2%, median age 30) are off in one of their multiple choices of big utes making more money than brain surgeons, it’s fairly quiet. That is, unless the dogs which are left alone at the house behind us through the day decide to have barking fits. This is a regular occurrence. On a daily basis. Often it seems to be on the hour. We live with that. It’s not the dogs’ fault.

    Christmas, though, seems to bring out epidemic thoughtlessness. Next door to us we now have pulsing multi-coloured lights. Unless they remember to put down the block-out blinds they installed last year, blocking out much of our view to the vegetation beyond and a measurable portion of our afternoon sunlight, this gifts their kitschy lumens to our al fresco area. Mood lighting’s fine, if it’s your own mood lighting. If it’s someone else’s, well, mostly you’re not in the mood.

    At the house behind us, which like every other one in this regulated building environment is behind 1.8m fences at the sides and back, Christmas has brought us one of those ginormous TV screens, installed on the wall of the newly developed patio and, because of its placement, in our full view unless we crawl around on all fours so we can’t see what’s beyond and just above the shared fence. The improvements on the other side include a ceiling fan over the patio, which for us creates the risk of episodic epilepsy as it interacts with the colour and movement of the big screen. We don’t watch a lot of television, but when we do it’s on one of two medium-size flat screens, in the living room or media room inside. Perhaps if the ginormous one behind was ever going to show something worth watching, it wouldn’t be so bad. But we know enough about life, and the neighbours, to be certain that this will never happen. It’s the sort of establishment where Siri gets called in to do the homework.

    Our streetscape has changed radically for Big Swig, the secular celebration that Australia has made its own, having reduced Santa to cardboard cut-out or blow-up doll dimensions. Houses seem to have at least doubled their vehicular occupants (though there’s a tradie place a couple of streets away where apparently life cannot be lived as it should without the presence of the four utes and two small trucks that reside on site year-round). A large caravan has taken up residence on our fence line (literally). A tarted-up utility is ignoring social distancing niceties to the detriment of the plants that live on the nature strip outside our front fence. No one else has a front fence in our street. You can’t use your lawn as a parking lot for your fleet of oil sheik-pleasing gas guzzlers, unless you can drive over the kerb directly on to it. 

    Some houses have gone the full monty with external Christmas lighting, though one that’s very close to us has managed to look as if it’s channelling electric Islam. We’re sure it isn’t.

    Our morning walk on Christmas Eve brought us to a scene of vandal destruction that might have earned at least an appreciative wink from Gaiseric, sacker of Rome. Some mindless idiot had stolen a big pallet-lifter and driven it over a long fence line on the sporting oval, and then over a number of timber bollards, before coming to a halt after uprooting a small tree. Later in the day, while we dealt with high volume surround sound in our back yard by playing Billy Joel and Warren Zevon (the Distaff wouldn’t let me play my favourite Lily Allen song, the one that references a famously unknown ancient Chinese philosopher) on the portable speaker set a notch or two up from normal, a series of police siren-calls disturbed what passed for the peace of the precinct. We hoped, devoutly, that these were in pursuit of the Vandal King of Vasse, and that they caught him.

    But, hey, it’s Christmas, and a chap should be charitable and also keep an eye open for the funny side of life. So I can report that near us, also on our morning walk route, there is one of those blow-up Santas. He was still there this morning, near the front door of the house of the person who we may presume placed him there. But, as he had been for several days, he was flat-out on the lawn, face down, thoroughly deflated. He may perhaps have died of ennui, rather than just lack of air, so we steered clear, not wanting to catch that pestilence. 

    Delightfully, however, he had come to rest right in front of one of those silly little Santa Stop Here signs that you see ubiquitously at this time of the year. 

    Merry Christmas. And all the best for the New Year.

  • Lunch is off: Thanks Jetstar

    Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022

    Today, we were supposed to be lunching at Wise (a favourite winery) at Eagle Bay, with a friend we haven’t seen for so many years that we’ve lost count and who was flying in from Melbourne for the occasion, and others. Supposed being the operative word.

    Jetstar intervened. They’re so good at messing people around that they regularly win gold at the dumfuckery Olympics. We know Jetstar very well, as it is one of the very few options on the Perth-Bali air route. We wish it was one of many options, because if it were, we wouldn’t fly with them.

    Lunch in rare and much valued company, overlooking the Indian Ocean on latitude nearly 34 south, was denied at the eleventh hour by Jetstar cancelling its Melbourne to Perth flight on Saturday morning. An email arrived at the traveller’s virtual address after business hours on Friday notifying the cancellation. It was by then too late to make alternative arrangements through Jetstar. 

    This is not an unusual situation. Everyone understands that problems arise from time to time that require rescheduling or cancellation of services of all sorts. Airlines are particularly prone to such events, aircraft being temperamental bits of machinery. 

    When temperamental aircraft are managed – mismanaged – by negligently dismissive corporate bosses, these problems are magnified. Jetstar seems to regard failure to perform as a key performance indicator. 

    Like many other outfits (Australia Post is a separate Australian example) Jetstar is still in the throes of the covid emergency. It shouldn’t be. The fact that it is, lies in its inability to manage anything much at all, not the novel corona virus. 

    Put simply, if it doesn’t have enough aircrew, cabin crew, and ground handling staff to maintain schedules it might want to (for revenue purposes) then it should design ones that will match the airline’s capacity to provide service.

    Unfortunately, as it continually demonstrates, Jetstar is best of all at providing shocking disservice. 

  • Getting Down to Business


    Tuesday, June 7, 2022

    That’s the thing about writing fortnightly political and current affairs commentaries: My friend and long-ago colleague Dennis Atkins, a veteran of the Queensland and national political media field, wrote exactly what I had planned to write for this column, in the May 31 edition of the online newspaper InQueensland. He did it very well, as he always does, so I wasn’t at all miffed about having to junk one idea and come up with another.

    Atkins noted the curiosity of the federal Liberal parliamentary party being led by someone not from Victoria or New South Wales. Dutton’s will be only the second such photo on the party room wall. South Australian Alexander Downer’s the other, from his brief gig (23 May 1994 to 30 January 1995). Downer was replaced by John Howard after his excess of Hooray Henry zeal in lampooning the anti-domestic violence program in his Things That Matter manifesto as Things That Batter, though his unsuitability went further than that egregious incident.

    There’s another curiosity, and it’s far more serious than Downer’s misplaced schoolboy humour or penchant for fishnet stockings. Peter Dutton is a member of the affiliated but separate Queensland Liberal National Party.  So is the new leader of the federal National Party, David Littleproud. Atkins also pointed out that since federal LNP members sit in the party rooms of their preference – Liberal or National – and Queensland’s LNP parliamentarians prefer by a majority to fly with the crows rather than paddle with the ducks, the Nationals’ party room in Canberra will be larger than the Liberal one. Dutton might usefully ponder on that particularly peculiar fortune of political war.

    Dutton named his shadow ministry on Sunday. It includes 10 women among its 24 members. There are six National Party shadow ministers. In the new parliament there will be at least 28 Liberals, 21 Queensland LNP members, and 10 Nationals from NSW, Victoria, and the NT. Even if “true Libs” finally win both Gilmore in NSW and Deakin in Victoria, which were still in doubt at time of writing – and end up with 30 seats, the LNP and Nationals have the numbers in the coalition party room. 

    Atkins again, with a line I wish I’d thought of: How that arrangement will rate outside Queensland, in the metro suburbs behind the Great Wall of Quinoa in southern and western states, is a challenging calculation. I recommend reading him on this, here https://inqld.com.au/opinion/2022/05/31/this-guy-wants-us-to-believe-hes-softer-and-cuddlier-than-we-think-good-luck-with-that/

    So anyway, on with the rest of the show. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was in Indonesia at the weekend, meeting President Joko Widodo, a sensible move given Indonesia’s crucial importance to Australia, and an example of good manners which won’t go amiss. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s tour of the Pacific islands disposed of Australian megaphones and reset several policy buttons. More broadly, including in Timor Lesté, also on Albanese’s visiting list, the Chinese have now reduced their immediate regional aims and objectives. Coincident with the election of the Labor Party to office in Australia, they have discovered the island states are not really in favour of living in a Chinese lake.

    While these early moments are encouraging – there’s another, of course: French president Emmanuel Macron wants to make up with Australia now the man he publicly branded a liar over the junked submarine project has lost office – it’s really the machinery of government moves that are interesting.

    Albanese’s appointment of Griffith and Melbourne universities vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis to head the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is a seminal event. Davis built a stratospheric academic career around assiduous research and forensic examination of the mechanics of public service. He is the mover and shaker’s mover and shaker. Expect some far-reaching changes, but probably fewer fireworks than are usually seen during periods of bureaucratic shuffling. Certainly, focusing the public service on service rather than revenue protection rackets would be a welcome development.

    It’s still early in the play. It’s only 17 days since it was the Morrison Government. Now it’s the Albanese Government and the prime minister seems intent on hastening slowly. The disgracefully mistreated Murugappan family is back home in Biloela, the abominable cashless debit card has been ditched, and the government is championing a sensible 5.1 percent rise in the minimum wage. These are all small steps along the discernibly different path that Labor wants to take Australia. The electorate chose a very different mix from the melange of rival pastel shades wheeled out by the coalition and Labor.

    That’s the new reality. We’ll probably be able to make a judgment in 17 months. There’s no evidence that Albanese wants to govern by bludgeon. That was the Morrison way. But neither of the so-called natural parties of government came out of the polling booths on May 21 smelling of roses. Both stepped in something far more unpleasantly pungent. 

    And both have a lot of work to do. Albanese and Labor can’t afford to frighten the horses. Dutton and the coalition have a more difficult job. They must reinvent themselves.

  • On with the show: The (new) gang’s all here


    Tuesday, May 24, 2022

    Australia’s voters have delivered a Labor government. Some will see this as a sea change, a fundamental shift in the electoral demographics. Others may cautiously view the result of Saturday’s election – when it finally becomes clear in all its detail, which is unlikely to be this week – as simply another of the cyclical events that periodically sweep away the stagnant tide pools of incumbency. The cynical, and they are many, and those who study history, who are considerably fewer, may prefer the latter analysis.

    To do so would be churlish. It was clear early in the count on Saturday night (May 21) that the coalition had lost office. Scott Morrison was quick to concede and to do the usual fall-on-my-sword thing. He was more gracious in defeat than was generally his custom in power, in bulldozer mode, and that is to his credit. Anthony Albanese promised to govern for all Australians – that promissory note is a standard clause in victory speeches – and is sincere in this. He has little option anyway. The new parliamentary landscape will ensure he keeps to that path in the new legislature, whether Labor achieves a majority in the House of Representatives or not. The betting is that it will. There were 12 seats still in doubt on Monday and, on the counting, the ALP is practically certain to end up the winner in four more at least, as it inches ahead in the continuing counts towards the magic number 76 and potentially 78.

    An interim ministry has been sworn in. This was necessary because Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister are required at the Quad meeting in Tokyo, where Albanese and Senator Penny Wong headed yesterday. Several sets of eyes will be fixed on them, not only those of the U.S., Japan, and India, keen to detect any shifts (or signs of same) in the new administration’s foreign and defence policies. There won’t be radical change, but in high diplomacy, nuance is everything.

    On the domestic front, Labor’s embarrassing own goal in the seat of Fowler – where, as widely expected, party luminary Kristina Keneally’s parachute failed to open, handing the seat deservedly to the popular independent candidate – may create some further intra-party distemper. Fractious factionalism is never a good idea.

    That’s something the defeated Liberals would be sensible to consider as they clear out their desks and set out on their path through the thickets of opposition. It’s clear that climate and corruption denial angered enough voters to significantly reduce the party’s primary vote. Liberal moderates were the victims of these political miscalculations. Suggestions from the Murdoch empire and others that the party should now break sharply to the right and occupy the political elevation they feel is there for the taking are misguided. The battleground in Australian politics remains the centre, not the fringe. It may be difficult to carve out a definably different message in the middle of that melee, but that’s the game.

    The rise of an independent bloc has now been cemented by the electorate. The increased Greens presence cannot be ignored, nor should it. It may be too early to declare that Australian politics is now a whole new ball game (certainly the Greens need to curb their enthusiasms in that regard) but it’s plain that a significant change has been made.

    It’s the Liberals who in this instance have lost the plot, or at least their compass. That’s not a good thing. They’ll have a new leader, almost certainly Queenslander Peter Dutton. He will have an opportunity, if he chooses to take it, to show that he has a broader vision and capacity than he has demonstrated in his ministerial portfolios in the past two governments. 

    Some moderate Liberals suggest he’s not as conservative as he looks, and he’s certainly less religious than his former boss. We’ll see if that proves correct. Whoever is Liberal leader will have to deal with the knuckle dusters on the party’s right. The party’s place in the Australian political landscape remains economic rationalism and social liberalism. Denialism is neither a feasible policy nor an electable proposition. Clive Palmer’s wasted millions in this election campaign demonstrate that in spades. But opposition leadership is a difficult place, especially for freshman occupants of that position after an election loss. It is character forming, among many other things.We now have a breathing space while planetary and political alignments adjust. That’s welcome after a six-week campaign of basic shadow boxing and the frankly dysfunctional year that preceded it. Any new government deserves time to settle itself in. We know what Labor’s policy parameters are, even if we are awaiting the detailed plan. Even the ALP’s most intractable opponents in politics and the media know that instant economic and political action isn’t on the radar. It’s time for a chill pill.

    This commentary is also on the seniors’ website Startsat60.com, where my column on politics and current affairs appears fortnightly.

  • Are We There Yet? No? Shame.


    Sunday, May 8, 2022

    This isn’t the midpoint of the 2022 federal election campaign. It just feels that way, or possibly that we have yet to really start. In fact, we’re over the hump. Did anyone notice? Is anyone counting? There is a fortnight to go, a full 14 days of glee club or sandpit, depending on your view of politics and how it is conducted here on the Big Gibber. Someone should offer specials on ennui relief packs. They’d make a killing.

    Many Australians, like many voters in most democratic countries, tend to view their politicians rather in the way that the sepoys of the old East India Company armies used to view their alien officers. They didn’t mind how bad these were, provided they didn’t bother them too much or get underfoot. They liked them most of all when they combined essential invisibility with lengths of tenure that reduced the nuisance attached to replacing them.

    It’s therefore mildly of interest, to those who engage, that the Opposition Leader has fluffed his lines again (on the detail of the ALP’s NDIS policy) and that the Prime Minister has found two more things for which he is not responsible (being gazumped by the Chinese in Solomon Islands, and national economic management). 

    The Rictus Scale – that’s the one that measures the grimness of smiles – is suddenly being employed everywhere. It’s measuring the tremors resulting from the first rise in the official interest rate in 11 years and the mortgage stress this and inevitable further rate rises will produce. It’s also measuring irritation about how the budget, brought down a blink ago – not quite six weeks – is now at least wholly catatonic and may be in fact be entirely lacking vital signs. But it’s OK, really it is. We all know they were only joshing on March 29.

    It’s Mother’s Day today, an appropriate moment to consider the place and function of women – mothers among them – in Australian life outside the home. Beyond the white picket fence, in the language of fundamental misogyny. It’s where half of Australian women earn a living these days, in politics as well as in more productive endeavours, apparently to the continuing surprise of many men. As Forrest Gump memorably reminded us, his mum always said that life was like a box of chocolates. Run, Forrest, run! Stop, Forrest, stop! It’s true that you never know what you’re going to get in a box of chocolates. The movie was a metaphor for many things, including politics. We’re being offered various boxes of chocolates. Picking the one that offers the softest centres is the trick.

    In the same way, it’s astonishing that we’re having the election campaign that we are. But then again, is it? Duh! The coalition has nothing new to fly with, except fanciful foreign threats and election bribes that should frighten at least the Treasurer. Though apparently it doesn’t. Scotty and Josh and the coalition are the best economic managers. As they used to write in newspaper reports of judicial proceedings, a titter ran round the court.

    Politics – and more pertinently at this point, government – is rather like the weather. Eventually it changes. Sometimes it’s via a cataclysmic event, say another 100-year flood that the government didn’t expect because there was one just last year. But mostly it’s more prosaic, thoroughly banal: like the water draining from a partly blocked kitchen sink. The only difference here in an Australia is that, through the Coriolis effect, governments go down the gurgler in a clockwise direction.  

    The coalition has been in office for 13 years, albeit with three prime ministers, two of them sacked by the party room rather than the voters. But if your central campaign plank simply asserts that you’ve done it all and are magnificent (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) there’s not a lot that you can do, except try to drown out the noise of factional street-fighting just offstage. 

    Policy indolence on the government side masks the ongoing battle within the Liberal Party between those who’d like to be liberal, and others, seemingly ascendant under Morrison, who’d like to get us all back into church, out to the barbie and off to the uncooked chicken curry classes. Malcolm Turnbull, one of the deposed just mentioned, made that very point (though not in that language) a day or so ago.

    What’s needed is a new way of doing politics, though not in the populist Clive Palmer way. Australia needs to rediscover and work at consensus. Winner takes all is not an option. The so-called Teal independents may yet make life difficult – or at least interesting in the ancient Chinese curse sense – for the incoming government, of whatever stripe. 

    Labor’s plan to fund up to 40 percent of certain classes of home mortgages is a step towards making Australia a fairer place. The idea is to increase access to secure housing for Australians who can’t get on the Neocons aspirational ladder. 

    You could almost hear Morrison, who could only come up with a dismissive quip in response, thinking, “Gee, I wish we’d thought of that.” That’s the thing, you see. His policy locker is empty. And there’s no real divide in Australian mainstream politics beyond faux dialectic.

    This commentary was written for the seniors’ website Startsat60.com

  • Ho hum. Repeat.


    Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2022

    The Easter weekend, over which this column was crafted, was a campaign quiet spot. Every election campaign should have at least one buzz-free zone. This one’s got two, courtesy of ANZAC Day. A bonus! Thank goodness for small mercies. Though we always knew the big guns would recommence rattling the windows and the china as soon as the Easter bunny had hopped off. It wasn’t quite a ceasefire, but it did provide some thinking space. That’s needed on either side of the main political divide. It hasn’t quite been all gaffes and stumbles, though some of the more breathless media mastheads and their television comrades apparently think so. And there’s still a bit over five weeks to go before the votes are counted. It would be nice to hear about some new policy and see evidence of vision in the campaign to-and-fro. Ah well, best not to wait up.

    Greens MP Adam Bandt gave every politician a lesson last week with his brilliant shoo-off of a gotcha question from a journalist: “Google it, mate!” The journalist in Bandt’s sights at the National Press Club in Canberra was Ronald Mizen from the Australian Financial Review. Mizen must have decided to chase the clear lead of the doyen of gotchas, Andrew Clennell of Sky News Australia. It was Clennell who got Scott Morrison in the 2019 campaign with the price of bread, and who ruined Anthony Albanese’s day in Tasmania last week by asking him what current cash rate and unemployment rates were. Well, in fact, Albo ruined his own day by taking the bait. But that was only a momentary lapse. It was negligence, not malfeasance, though it was political idiocy. He didn’t ruin his whole election bid, which is what the Liberal campaign headquarters would like us all to think. Few voters have the cash rate or unemployment rate mirror-printed on their retinas. Or the price of a loaf of bread, for that matter. Or care very much, frankly.

    Mizen had asked Bandt what the current WPI was. Bandt might have been tempted to divert into a discussion about whey protein isolate (another WPI; just not the wage price index, or indeed the wholesale price index) but as he says, elections should be a contest of ideas. They’re not about dietary supplements. Vacuity might rule, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. The excellent online journal of satirical record, The Shovel, suggested in the aftermath of the Albo upset that he should just Bing it. That brought many readers a smile. In these dark days, you must find your giggles where you can.

    They’re around. Leading giggle George Christensen, retiring National Party MP for Dawson in Central Queensland, is among them.. He’s more widely known as the member for Manila, since in pursuit of personal interests the Philippines’ largest city was where he was often seen for a lengthy part of his parliamentary service. He has switched to One Nation and is No. 3 on their Queensland Senate ticket. It won’t get him a seat in the salmon pink chamber, but it may boost the ON vote via his name recognition factor. 

    However, since he will not now be a retiring member but instead a defeated sitting parliamentarian, it will get him a $100,000 taxpayer funded retirement fund. George might like to consider what SA Labor upper house member Russell Wortley said after he was dumped to an unwinnable fifth spot on the party ticket in the recent SA state election – that he’d donate to charity his public compensation payment for losing. Think about it, George. There’s a good sport.

    Still in Queensland, and still on the loopy fringes, Clive Palmer is spending a fortune (hopefully this time it will be his own) on advertising his United Australia Party. He’s now its chairman. Its leader is the former NSW federal Liberal and leading conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly. Their advertisements are a giggle. Freedom forever! Regulate the mortgage rate! Vote UAP and save Australia! 

    Meanwhile, back on centre court where the top seeds play, Morrison has now completely walked away from a federal integrity commission – he promised one in his 2019 election platform – and blamed Labor for this since it failed to agree with everything in the government’s outline proposal. Apparently, with Morrison, it’s either his way or he’ll block the highway with the wreckage of his special operation. He even managed to call NSW’s ICAC – a body that has earned widespread and deserved respect – a kangaroo court. 

    Albanese is also on the back foot, in a confected argument over whether Labor’s sensible proposal for urgent care clinics is or is not fully costed. Here’s the deal: not much of the government’s pitch is fully costed either, if you look at the small print, which no one ever does, and if you can find it, of course. They’d rather you didn’t. 

    It will be interesting to see where opinion polling takes us as the campaign gains momentum, or at least some longevity. Adam Bandt made the mistake last week of spinning the Greens’ “growing support” levels a step too far for ABC TV’s Breakfast News’s feisty co-host Lisa Millar. She shut him down. They all do it, politicians that is: gilding their lilies and making outrageous claims about their brand of snake oil.

    FOOTNOTES: (1) The first leaders’ debate of the campaign is in Brisbane on Wednesday (April 20). It will be televised from 7pm AEST and is being staged as the Sky News-Courier Mail People’s Forum, at which 100 selected undecided voters will have a chance to put questions directly to the prime minister and the opposition leader. (2) Nominations close on Thursday (April 21).

    This commentary is also available on the seniors’ website Startsat60.com, where I write a fortnightly column on politics and current affairs.

  • Don’t Expect to be Excited


    Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2022

    Sooner or later, this week or next, Scott Morrison will make his prime ministerial trip out to Yarralumla on the lake in Canberra, to ask the Governor-General to authorise a half-Senate and full House of Representatives election. So runs the form, and such is the constitutional convention.

    It might have been sooner, had it not been for the prime minister’s cupidity, via his local fixer, immigration minister Alex Hawke, in preventing party democracy in his home state by holding up factionally disfavoured Liberal preselections. They all do this sort of thing, all major political parties, but in this case, it must be said, familiarity certainly breeds contempt. The problem preselections have now been fixed – in both senses of that word – and the prime minister’s preferred NSW yes-squad has been bolted on as candidates or reconfirmed as recontesting members.

    There must be a minimum of 33 days between the issuing of the writs by the Governor-General and election day, and election day must be a Saturday. In 2022, it must be May 21 at the latest, and the election must therefore be called by April 18. This is because the Senate dates its terms from election day, new senators must be able to take their seats on the following July 1, and the Senate’s exhaustive list-voting system can sometimes take weeks to produce final figures.

    There are many reasons why prime ministers like to make election campaigns as short as possible. Short campaigns favour diversionary Hi-Viz moments over serious debate. They also limit deep analysis and effective scrutiny while giving the clumsy (prevalent in all parties) fewer opportunities for embarrassing pratfalls.

    It suits both contenders particularly well this time around. As veteran political scribe Michelle Grattan noted at the weekend, in a piece fabulously headlined The Hollow Man Versus The Empty Suit, neither Morrison nor Albanese is likely to set the house on fire. It’s not that either of them is necessarily mediocre – though the fevered Twitterverse might burst into flame over that assessment – so much as that they demonstrate a similar desire to present as tiny a target as possible. Such is the X factor in timid Australian politics.

    Morrison likes to play underdog because it means he can bite people with intent and then, he thinks, plausibly excuse himself. He’s at a disadvantage this time. The coalition has been in office for nine years, and he’s been prime minister for four of them. He’s the guy in charge. Well, that’s the theory, and he’ll bark if you don’t cry hallelujah.  

    But if there are things the voters don’t like – and there always are, though not always with good reason – then it’s the government that cops the bucketing. And that’s fair enough. Governments freely spend taxpayer money promoting themselves and their claims of good works and handing out vote-for-us-not-them inducements at eye-watering cost. They invariably seem surprised, or show their thin skins, when we don’t appreciate their generosity with our money.

    Australian elections are very rarely about high policy or moral or ethical decision-making, and certainly not about defence and foreign affairs. No one outside the cognoscenti seems concerned that we’ve mortgaged our capacity for independent foreign and defence policy to the Americans (forget the British) in return for nuclear submarines we may never get or be able to crew effectively. No one noticed that the Chinese fleet was about to get an entry permit to Honiara; not even the government. Climate change is a management problem (says a government that can’t even manage a vaccine rollout). This election’s no different, despite the increasingly voluble chatter among the rival camps in the chattering classes. It’s about squeaky parish pumps, voting margins and preference deals, just like it always is.

    That said, Australians do have a clear choice coming up. More of the same with Morrison (that’s not dismissive, it’s effectively his whole election platform in six words) or take a chance with Albo (which the truly budget-conscious will work out saves us one word on the slogan-meter). Big-mouthers like rustbucket tycoon Clive Palmer and his ex-Liberal stir-crazier mate Craig Kelly might marginally boost the non-Labor vote – United Australia Party voters are more likely to second-preference the coalition than send their votes to the ALP – but they are a privately funded, even questionably funded, distraction.

    The 2022-23 federal budget, brought down by treasurer Josh Frydenberg on March 29, is the government’s re-election platform. Throw the money and run. In his speech in reply to the budget two days later, opposition leader Anthony Albanese said it wasn’t a budget for the next six months (he meant until the next mid-financial year review) but one for the next six weeks. It’s hard to argue with that assessment, wherever you’re thinking of placing your vote.

    Albanese also pledged to reform and properly fund and resource aged care. That’s less visionary than morally essential, but it’s a practical, proactive proposal, aimed not at some light on a distant hill but at the near ground, around the parish pump. It might be winner. 

    The opinion polls are tightening, aa the latest Newspoll, out yesterday (April 4) clearly shows, though on a two-party-preferred basis they’re still favouring Labor. We’ll see.

    Written for the Startsat60.com website, where I contribute a fortnightly column on politics and current affairs.