• 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

    AUSTRALIAN POLITICS

    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

    AUSTRALIAN POLITICS

    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.

     AUSTRALIAN POLITICS

    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.

    AUSTRALIA | 2022 ELECTION

    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

    AUSTRALIAN POLITICS | ELECTION 2022

    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.

  • Bursting Balloons and Other Party Tricks

    AUSTRALIAN POLITICS AND CURRENT AFFAIRS

    Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022

    With an extra 2.1 percent in their pockets, courtesy of the biannual indexation of the age pension and payable from Mar. 20, older Australians will have been celebrating, won’t they? Just asking. The increase was eaten up a long time ago, in higher food and petrol prices.

    To increase the level of interest, this week we’re sandwiched between two sets of circumstances. First, by the largely confected and balefully partisan political argument over the death of Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching (aged 52, on Mar. 10) and the Liberal wipeout in the South Australian state election (Mar. 19). And second, by the 2022 federal budget to be handed down on Mar. 29 and the federal election due by the end of May on the other. 

    We’ll return to the death of Senator Kitching in a moment, and to the South Australian election. But first, to the budget and the federal election.

    It’s virtually certain that prime minister Scott Morrison will do as he did in 2019 and call the election very soon after treasurer Josh Frydenberg does his smoke-and-mirrors act on budget night. Under that scenario, the PM and his treasurer will litter the landscape with promissory notes and sundry other inducements to return the coalition to office, allow the opposition leader his right of reply on the Thursday (Mar. 31) and then bring down the shutters.

    They’ll add absolutely nothing to the show. Well not quite nothing. We’ll get lots more colour and movement, always a diversion. We’ll get another exercise in political cupidity that turns the country’s most important fiscal document into an election platform. And just to round out the latest Gang Show spectacular, we’ll also get the reward (hah!) of a real election campaign instead of the fake one we’ve been enduring since before 2021 ticked over into 2022. 

    All we need is the steak knives, and we’ll have the full package.

    Budget numbers are always squashy, especially in what the boffins like to call the out years, those beyond reasonable forecasting. By that, they mean the future, where nothing is certain at all, other than that we must somehow have arrived there. Election budget numbers are even squishier. If an incumbent government is returned, adjustments can always be made later, on all sorts of excuses, or the smoke and mirrors machine can be recalibrated. And if a new government is installed, well, all bets are off anyway.

    We’ll know more next week.

    The South Australian state election on Mar. 19 produced a not unexpected result, though the extent of the turnover was remarkable. Labor won handsomely and the single-term Liberal government was ousted.  Scott Morrison says it’s nothing to do with him (no surprise there) and the commentariat says otherwise (ditto). 

    It’s hard to escape the conclusion, though, that the covid19 pandemic and the confusing array of regulations that resulted, and the shemozzle of the quarantine, age care and vaccine supply situations (all federal responsibilities) played a part. The Marshall Liberal government in South Australia performed credibly, particularly in renewable energy policy. In normal circumstances, it arguably deserved a second term. These are not normal times.

    Drawing on the South Australian result, the commentariat suggests incumbency is no longer an asset, which may or may not be true. The real test of that will be in May.

    Now to Kimberley Kitching. She died of a heart attack, not from a hitherto unknown condition dubbed MGS (Mean Girls Syndrome), which the Liberals have lit upon federally as a reason not to vote for Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party. Yeah, yeah. Yada, yada. Disregard that argument. Big party machine politics runs on factional disputation. Ask the Liberals’ Josh Frydenberg about that, or former Liberal MP Julia Banks, or a conga line of others.

    That said, as Janet Albrechtsen wrote in The Australian in the conservative commentary interest, ALP factional warfare is a particularly unedifying element of national politics. We don’t need Albrechtsen to tell us that no one interested in party advancement should stand between Penny Wong and an issue she wants to run with or thinks she should. Or between Kristina Keneally and a parachute-drop pre-selection, for that matter; or Katy Gallagher, Labor senator and former ACT chief minister. But hey, that’s politics.

    Kitching was far from being a shrinking violet and suggesting that she might have been demeans both the woman she was and the causes for which she fought. She was a seasoned union operative, a factional warrior for the far-right, anti-communist faction of the Labor Party. 

    She was a close Bill Shorten ally. There isn’t a lot of love lost between Shorten and Albanese, or between the partisans of either group in the federal Labor caucus. Further, Kitching was a woman who saw the value – and it’s inestimable, even if in some fossilised quarters it’s deemed unpalatable – in creating cross-party political relationships.In many ways, though not in the ALP machine way, Kitching highlighted the need for a necessary break with internalised politics and politicking. There’s more to public governance than party advantage.

    This commentary appears on the website startsat60.com, where I write a fortnightly column on politics and current affairs.

  • Dogs and other humans

    LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

    Friday, Mar. 11, 2022

    Visiting service

    It would give the wrong impression were I to suggest that we conducted our morning shamble around the New Outanback Track religiously. Occasionally with incantations, yes, and imprecations, certainly; but never with piety. It’s around 2,800 metres, longer than the original Outanback in Bali, but flatter. Around here, I’ve decided, a mountain must be defined as a natural eminence taller than a gum tree. There are no mountains, not even on that scale. We do the round in under forty minutes even on hangover days.

    Of course, we’re still relatively new to the area – it will be two years in May – and we’re still finding our feet, so to speak. Further, we’re just getting up to nodding status with some of the other regular walkers (there aren’t many, since exercise is apparently Not A Thing to so many among the multitude). If I’ve remembered to adjust my hearing aids for cancel culture – in this case, cancelling wind noise – I sometimes even hear the bikes approaching from the rear. Now and then, you spot a little peloton out for a spin, all sweaty in their clingy Lycra and sometimes chatty among themselves. Never with the peons that they sweep by with regal distain and a perspiratory air. The walkers and gawkers are only spectators in their Tour de Farce, after all. But mostly our bicyclists are solitary souls, and properly silent with it. Up with that I can put, as Yoda might say.

    The most interesting creatures we see on our walks are the dogs. Though some of their humans are a sight. At one point on the morning trudge, we often see Leaper and Bounder – our names for them; we haven’t been formally introduced – who are respectively black and chocolate poodles. They are full size French sheep-worriers, but well behaved off the leash, off the leash being a condition of canine freedom that is permissible where signed in our little city. Bounder is quickest after the ball, when one of the two humans in his party throws it. Leaper, by contrast, seems to sight the ball, then leap, and then remember – always too late, alas – that he’s supposed to chase and catch the bloody thing before that bounder, Bounder, grabs it.

    Further along in our daily route there are other dogs, kept to their yards by council ordinance. They’re not happy about that, or so it often seems. They bark as we pass. I don’t speak dog, but I do wonder if they’re asking why we’re not driving by like everyone else. There’s one black thing whose heritage plainly includes pug and possibly pig dog, and whose maternal great-great-grandma might have been part Labrador. He races out and snarls at the fence and then looks very hurt when we giggle at him. His neighbour is a huge hound, all clumsy legs and oversize elevation. He sometimes thinks he should come out and bark at us too. He could just walk over the fence if he wanted, but he never does, and anyway, like all big dogs, he’s a total softie and might lick you to death. Further on still there’s a yapper who, like another miniature something or other in a house in our street that we pass at the start of our morning marathon, shuts up, possibly in confusion, when I yell, “Quiet, Baskerville!” 

    We have a favourite dog. He lives at a house with a shady front garden and is often there in the dappled morning sun, happily silent, perhaps contemplating what his humans might offer him as his morning amuse-bouche. He never barks, unless one of his neighbours does, and then he quickly remembers that he really shouldn’t, and stops and looks embarrassed. Like most well mannered dogs, he appreciates a smile and a wave and a soft “hello.” He rather reminds me of Evelyn, the poor cultured hound in a cartoon I saw once. In the cartoon, Evelyn is on the phone in his apartment, pleading with the dog rescue service. He’s saying he’s called them hundreds of times and when are they going to come and rescue him. “I’m a pedigree, for pity’s sake,” he’s telling them. “I like to eat well and listen to Mozart sotto voce. My people eat pizza and play banjos.” (I’m sure our cultured friend is perfectly suited to his accommodations, by the way.)

    Telling this little tale also gives me the opportunity to post the photo here. I took it a year or so ago now, on a perambulation in another part of our pleasant little seaside city. It gave me a giggle. 

  • A Land of Droughts and Flooding Rains

    POLITICS and CURENT AFFAIRS

    Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2022

    Dorothea Mackellar wrote the poem My Country in 1908, from which the lines here – surely the most quoted – are taken:

    I love a sunburnt country,
    A land of sweeping plains,
    Of ragged mountain ranges,
    Of droughts and flooding rains.
    I love her far horizons,
    I love her jewel-sea,
    Her beauty and her terror
    The wide brown land for me!

    Mackellar wrote that just seven years after the Australian colonies got together to become the Commonwealth of Australia. More to the point, in the present situation, is that it was only 15 years after the great Brisbane flood of 1893, the worst to that date in settler Queensland’s history. The 1974 flood was deadliest. The 2011 flood was worst (the highest peak recorded). The 2022 peak, just passed, was significantly lower, though the flooding spread wider. There have been floods between times, each of them unique – and uniquely terrifying – in their own way.

    The point is that Mackellar’s paean to an Australian Australia – a novel notion in 1908, when England was “home,” though not to Mackellar who was a third-generation Australian, and still so today, 114 years later, for some – is not only an inspiration but is also descriptive of the facts: Australia is precisely a land of drought and flooding rains, as we are constantly reminded.

    Droughts kill cattle and sheep and ruin farmers and graziers, but they are urban inconveniences, not existential threats. Among the 66 per cent of Australians who live in capital cities and a large proportion of the 86 per cent who live in an urban setting, droughts are chiefly talking points.

    Not so floods, certainly in the urban sprawl of the eastern seaboard where, often, planning, loosely defined, proceeds on Rafferty’s rules. There, rivers regularly flood cities and towns and cost billions of dollars in insurance claims. The running total of the latest Queensland and northern NSW floods, only now receding, was assessed late last week at around $2 billion. Most private property is insured, sometimes, these days, at premium prices, though some is already effectively uninsurable. 

    Suncorp chief executive Steve Johnston told the web-based newspaper InQueensland last week there would be homes that had been repaired three or four times and there was an urgent need to develop resilience against disasters by rebuilding homes to better cope with major flooding events.

    InQueensland reported him as adding: “In the last 50 years we (Australia) have put people in the face of these disasters because of planning laws. That’s not a criticism of this government or any government in recent times – it’s happened over almost a hundred years – so we’ve got to address that.”

    Sure. That’s very much part of the answer to Australia’s specific flood problem. It goes directly to issues beyond the practical side of building standards and planning laws – to lifestyle choices and affordability, as well as to the profitability of the property development sector. Being resilient and never saying die is a part of the Australian character we like to reference when disaster strikes.

    But at some point, it probably makes more sense to end the Black Knight act – “come back here and I’ll bite you on the knees” is hardly a sustainable response to any challenge – and to recognise reality. That’s reality, not real estate. 

    There are no easy answers, especially since the answers most deeply involved in flood avoidance are inherently political. That fact is underlined every time a state premier or prime minister pops up at a flood photo opportunity in his or her Hi Viz and wellies and promises we’ll build it all back.

    Shane Stone, former Northern Territory chief minister and currently Coordinator-General of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency (and chair of the Council of the Order of Australia) also bought into the argument last week. Stone’s not one for nuance and lateral thinking. He’s more your open mouth, place foot in it, sort of bloke. Responding to the Queensland and NSW floods, he said: “You’ve got people who want to live among the gum trees – what do you think is going to happen? Their house falls in the river, and they say it’s the government’s fault.” Stone forgot the first rule of politics: Never blame the voters. But (thinking laterally) it’s hard to argue with his point of view, though of course the Labor Party instantly did so.

    Yet few people are ready to look seriously at a real reset, at building where there’s very little real risk of a “100-year-flood” every ten years or less. Even in a bad La Niña cycle the complacent message seems to be: Welcome to climate change: ignore it. 

    More dams – we hear these calls after a major flood – might be part of an overall answer. But we should have learned by now that managing Australian rivers is a whole-of-flow issue. River systems take no notice of arbitrary colonial boundaries, or bureaucratically  convenient local government areas, and nature is remarkably resistant to the concept that humans can control it.

    Unfortunately, the latest 100-year-flood may simply reinforce the prevailing Australian view that building on flood plains below the conceivable flood level is fine until it rains a lot, and then it’s someone else’s problem to fix.

    This commentary appears today (Mar. 8) on the Startsat60.com website, where I write a fortnightly opinion column.

  • Politics and the Age Pension

    Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022

    My latest scribble from The Desk of the Retired Fulminator

    It will soon be budget time again, that annual festival featuring temporary triumph of hope over experience (again), inventive mathematics, and wall to wall politics. The Venice Carnival it isn’t, granted; but as an inescapable bet on a regular fiscal trifecta, at least, and we’re channelling Gilbert & Sullivan here, it’s the very dilemma of a modern major democracy. It’s probably best just to grin and bear it as an impractical exercise, unless you’re a glutton for punishment or you really want to get on the bus, in which case, good luck.

    In the lead-up to the budget, flagged for Mar. 29 in the Morrison government’s skeletal parliamentary sitting days diary for the first half of 2022, there will be the usual flurry of budget submissions from lobby groups. That’s all part of the theatre too. It adds to the sound and light show that enlivens politics, if you let it, and sometimes it gets results.

    Among the many proposals coming forward in submissions this year is one that should particularly interest every age pensioner. National Seniors, a leading lobbyist in the field, will again be calling for an age pension tribunal to set the age pension rate free from direct political input. Its budget submission is due for release today (Feb. 22). 

    Among other benefits from this would be that cost-of-living pressures on age pensioners would be addressed by an actuarial tribunal, not a political cabinet committee.

    Age pensioners’ costs differ in detail from those in other community sectors. The latest ABS Living Cost Index (LCI) data, out this month, show they faced Australia’s highest annual living cost increases in 2021, fuelled in large part by steep rises in petrol prices, up 32 per cent over 12 months and now at a 31-year high. Most of Australia’s fuel supply is sourced via Singapore at Singapore prices. There, like here, higher global oil prices, limited supply, and – lately – high economic costs from the otherwise welcome recovery from the depths of the pandemic recession are a triple-whammy.

    The age pension is usually adjusted for CPI rises twice a year, in March and September. It went up in September 2021 in line with the CPI and is likely to be raised again next month.

    Age pensioners are doubly disadvantaged by the ways in which rising prices affect different classifications of households. The new ABS data shows rising food costs were the highest proportion of overall spending for age pensioner households when compared to other groups.

    There’s food for thought in that last point, at least, for politicians of any stripe.

    This commentary was written for the website startsat60.com, where it appears today (Feb. 22).