There’s a lot of bull in this China shop

Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021

Well, forgetting the bull for the present, there’s a lot of blue water – literally in this case – between the fractious business of managing relations with China and doing the sort of pre-boy on the burning deck routine we’re seeing in Australia from the government and its fellow travellers. There are bogeymen everywhere, if you listen to them. Of course China is a potential problem, though far less for Australia than for others. There’s no argument in favour of telling ourselves scary stories, or for cutting off our nose to spite our face, and we certainly need to nuance our policy. We should make the point that China’s cross-strait bullying of Taiwan destabilises the neighbourhood. We can do that pointedly as well as politely. We should emphasise to China our view that, if it cannot or will not give away its direct claim to the island, it should prosecute its aim of reincorporating Taiwan – to which the vanquished Chinese nationalists fled and set up a rival China when the communists won the civil war in 1949 – by peaceful negotiated means. We need as a corollary to this to understand that Beijing’s rhetoric is not necessarily more than huff and puff and frighten the horses unless someone else does something really stupid first.

We certainly don’t need to join the Jeremiah chorus of armchair generals and recent real ones that’s found a meal ticket in predicting war in the short term between China and the rest. Add to that list the Australian minister for defence, Peter Dutton, who told the National Press Club on November 26 that China was a terrible threat and we should remember that every Australian capital city was or would soon be within striking range of a Xi dynasty nuclear missile. Mr Dutton, who is from the fearless come-outside-and-knee-me-in-the-nuts faction of the Liberal Party, likes to scare people. He thinks it will make them vote LNP. It suits his politics, and undoubtedly his ambitions, to remind us that we should constantly worry whether underneath every bed is a red, a monster, or possibly both. At least his new focus is giving us a rest from his global Islamist conspiracy. He scares me too; but it’s his jackboot tendency rather than his misunderstanding of geopolitics that unfailingly finds my spine and sends a shiver up it.

There is as yet no direct evidence to support the Dutton view that China has an overwhelming preference for subsuming Taiwan by force, or a precise timetable for this event. It’s fairly clear that it could do so if it wanted, though it’s also clear that even if it was only fighting that other Chinese army, the nationalist one on Taiwan, it wouldn’t be doing so in a walkover. Sun Tzu noted that you should fight the battles that you can win. He is of suitably Chinese origin to gain official notice among the mandarins. But Machiavelli does venal politics much better.

Former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on November 10 was masterly by contrast. It was informed not by funk, as some who accuse Keating of appeasement would like us to think, or (refreshingly) by a political desire to frighten people, but by a substantial comprehension of the facts. He didn’t say that Australia had no option but to kowtow to the mandarins in Beijing. He said that Australia needed to define, develop, and implement its own national policy in regard to China and its latest Great Helmsman.

In other words, we need to take a pragmatic, common sense and primarily Australian view of the relationship from our own perspective. In short, if we daren’t fully abandon our historical bipartisan preference for playing upraised middle finger on behalf of the two apron strings to whom, with the new AUKUS pact, we have revitalised our historical status as auxiliaries to the western empire, we should at least try to look as if we know where we are. A clue: We’re not anchored mid-Atlantic, somewhere between the Scilly Isles off Old England and Nantucket off New England .

And no one is suggesting that supine should replace supreme as a sensible diplomatic or defence posture, by ourselves or any others. We’re not alone in the region in feeling apprehensions over China’s future intentions. India has its own China problem, in which, in a maritime environment, Australian naval power could play a deterrent role. There’s not much we can do about the Himalayas, after all. Japan is also worried. So is South Korea. And so, for a raft of reasons, is America.

Let’s Not Forget

Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021

There’s a lovely verse in Baker Street, Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 track – it has headed my personal hit parade for more than four decades – and it seems apt, almost totemic, as a way of describing life as I am living it these days:

He’s got this dream about buying some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands

And then he’ll settle down 

In some quiet little town

And forget about ev’rything

There’s some artistic licence in there. Unless you’re an American, a nightstand is better known as a bedside table. They look lonely, or at best asymmetric, unless accompanied by a twin. But I jest. Rafferty was crooning about opportunistic sexual encounters. In my case, these have been overwhelmingly more gossipy fiction than biographical fact, though I concede that the fiction, and the gossipers, gave me some anxious moments back in the day. 

But just to note: There’s no way I’m giving up the booze, even though I apparently unknowingly angered a black cat back in 2014, fell into the hands of the surgical community, and haven’t been able to touch whisky since. Do I hear you intone, “bummer!”? I’ll have a double, thanks.

Nonetheless, time has moved on and we’ve bought some land (it had a very nice house on it when we did) and we’re trying to settle down in a quiet little town. That town is formally a city, in the Australian fashion. In other words, it is far from being a metropolis. It has a population of around 35,000 people and 35,000,000 gum trees. It’s very quiet, unless there’s a breeze blowing.

We’ve now been here for more than eighteen months, having abandoned our decade and a half of Fifo life Bali in April 2020. I’m trying very hard not to forget about everything. I’m implacably opposed to the modern fashion for deciding that the past is dead and that it therefore has no utility. Historians everywhere would agree with me.

Also, after a long career as a scribbler, I’m not going to forget the things I’ve written about, or suddenly decide that I am no longer interested in them. Neither, wearing my other hat, shall I forget what I did to whom, or why, during a decade in which I politically advised people, although I still wonder how I talked myself into that walk of life.

At the end of next month, I shall be seventy-seven. This is incomprehensible. I remember clearly how, at seventeen, which though sixty years ago still seems like yesterday, I chiefly thought only two things about old guys who were seventy-seven: 

One, I’ll never make it. And two, how on earth did they?

I now know the answer to the second question: A combination of luck and (often borrowed) good judgment, with a sizeable preponderance of the former.

Is it time to consider a universal wage?

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021

Every cloud has a silver lining. Well, that’s if you’re lucky and you believe in ancient aphorisms. But there’s certainly a silver lining under the big covid cloud if the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) attracts you. Serious academic study of the concept and of its associated cost is now under way in Australia. It’s supported – as a concept – by Anglicare, the social justice arm of the Anglican Church, and others in the welfare sector. And its big-ticket cost doesn’t look too bad against the $311 billion cost of countering covid as a disease and an economic threat outlined in the 2021-22 federal budget, especially in the remodelled tax landscape that would be necessary.

No country in the world yet has a UBI in place. Germany is currently trialling a scheme and Finland has experimented and likes the idea. Scandinavian and German concepts of mutual welfare are somewhat different from those in more capitalist-oriented societies, however. Andrew Yang, a Democrat aspirant for the US presidency in 2019 who swiftly disappeared from the hustings proposed a UBI as part of his non-mainstream program. (He said it should be $US1,400 a month, currently equivalent to $A1,800.)

Proponents of a UBI – there are other acronyms around but the theory’s the same – point out that implementing a scheme at the right level would remove much of the social disadvantage experienced by low-to-no income groups and eliminate the stigma of living on welfare. The idea is that if everyone gets a UBI, then no one will be viewed as a burden on the community. It’s a concept that’s gaining public popularity too, as a poll conducted for the not-for-profit Anglicare found last year.

It would be a handy way of reminding government that it’s people, not a pile of rocks and a bunch of bushes, that constitute a country, and that – in a democratic system at least – it really is the people who are sovereign. It would make administration simpler and eliminate confusion. A UBI set at a high enough figure to be effective ($18,500 is one suggestion, estimated to cost $126 billion a year) would be substantially offset by elimination of many other welfare payments.  This could include ending the age pension altogether if a UBI were set at the age pension level ($18,900 a year). “Age pension” Australians would simply stay on the UBI when they reached pension age.  

Professor Ben Spies-Butcher, a Macquarie University academic and co-director of the Australian Basic Income Lab established last year with academics from Macquarie, Sydney University and the Australian National University, says the covid pandemic and the JobSeeker and JobKeeper support package responding to it stimulated interest in a UBI and created much useful data on what steps might be taken to establish one.

Covid won’t last forever as a pandemic threat, but neither will it be eradicated as an endemic risk, and the virus will continue to mutate, throwing up new variants, so it’s unlikely there’ll be a swift return – far less a full return – to life as we have known it up to now. (Unforeseen consequences are a feature of cataclysmic change, as history teaches anyone who bothers to listen. Some unreconstructed politicians and resource-stripping corporations may be feeling as blindsided as Western Europe’s feudal lords did when the Black Death of the 14th century suddenly made wage-earning freemen of their few remaining serfs and sparked the march to mercantilism, the precursor of Adam Smith’s capitalism.) 

Australia has been luckier than many countries through the covid pandemic. The virus itself has been largely a controllable public health and medical event – though Melbourne and Sydney have been hit relatively hard – and the ability of the Australian government to outlay enormous sums of money to support the national economy and population has been a boon. Long-held principles of so-called fiscal rectitude were hurriedly if sometimes grudgingly thrown overboard in 2020. There may be a few who think that we now need to be re-educated – Capitalism for Dummies 101 – but Australia has never been a fully capitalist society. Post-covid, capitalism’s theoretical signature is likely to be even further reduced. A return to perceived normality is now a questionable prospect even in the longer term.

The pandemic also hit at a crucial moment in the global transformation of industrial economies from a source of almost unlimited jobs to one in which without high skills – a lot of them so new that virtually everyone’s an apprentice in them – many people will simply not be employable. We can’t all be brain surgeons, and anyway, AI robots are as likely as not to gain an edge in that skilled speciality too. 

Similarly, the brave new world of the gig economy probably cannot be outlawed (whether it should be is another question). This means that many people face lifelong exclusion from the prospect of home loans and of building up significant superannuation. No one will give you a mortgage if you don’t have a regular job, and paying meaningful private super instalments requires a regular income.

But here’s the rub: Even an incurable optimist would have to concede that at present an Australian UBI is a distant prospect. It’s unlikely to benefit today’s age pensioners. It’s worth thinking about, though, if you’re interested in what Australia could look like in years to come. 

(This commentary also appears, slightly edited, on the website startsat60.com)

Some further reading on universal basic income:

https://www.dw.com/en/basic-income-germany-tax-free/a-54700872

https://phys.org/news/2019-02-basic-income-world-national-finland.html