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
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).
Rocking, rolling, riding. Oops!
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022
Political train wrecks come in many sizes. Some are insignificant, merely foot in mouth derailments or negligent slow collisions with the bumpers at the end of the line. Some are the full catastrophe, ripping up the rails and plunging off the trestle bridge into the ravine far below.
Scott Morrison’s prime ministerial address to the National Press Club in Canberra on Feb. 1 looked set to be a minor derailment, against the benchmark of the solid – even stolid – performance of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese at the NCP the previous week.
Morrison’s presentation, and his pitch, demonstrated how difficult it is for the leader of a party that’s been in power for eight years to come up with fresh ideas. An opposition leader, by contrast, has neither embarrassed the budget nor littered the trail with broken promises. The vision thing is therefore easier. Albanese, the week before, might not have been an inspiration, but he frightened no one’s horses except those in the coalition’s stables.
The Prime Minister, characteristically, took the jut-jaw approach in his speech, again mistaking this for the sort of leadership Australians need or are looking for. He was looking for a reset and seeking to sideline damaging text messages, now public, that question his character. He re-announced a range of previously promised initiatives he earnestly hopes we’ve all forgotten he announced before.
His trademark melange of bombast and bulldust – that’s a compliment, by the way, because his daggy-dad banality makes him a very good borderline populist politician – was deployed to make a case for his return to office on a same-as-before basis. The subtext was that he should be voted back in because his was a government of excellence, fiscally and otherwise, because the pandemic was still a threat, floods of illegal immigrants were still trying to get in, and now the Chinese and the Russians were being beastly.
It was a visionless political spin that sought to obscure significant failures, both legislative and procedural, including on the touchstone issue of women versus antediluvian men that he still doesn’t get. But it’s understandable from a prime minister who is inclined to authoritarianism and remains convinced he holds heaven’s command.
It was a speech that would have been marked down by the media and assorted other Canberra bubblers. But it would have been largely ignored by the electorate, which to the continued amazement of the chattering classes, doesn’t really care about endless politics or analysis overload.
Morrison would have walked away from the dais with at most a minor demerit to his account. Instead, he ran into the full catastrophe. He was disgracefully ambushed by former academic and current journalist Peter van Onselen of Network Ten who lobbed the now infamous anonymous texts at him via a question after his speech.
It’s tempting to place quotation marks around both academic and journalist in Van Onselen’s case, since he apparently misunderstands the importance of objective and ethical rigour in both of his disciplines.
Morrison looked stunned, but he’s quick on his feet and he handled the question as well as anyone could have expected. He might still have got away with only minor scratches if it hadn’t been for Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce. In loyal deputy mode, Joyce made a song and dance about how the alleged Liberal ministerial author of infamous text messages to then NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian calling his leader a hypocrite, a liar and a psychopath should own up.
It was just a little later that he was reminded by Brittany Higgins, to whom he’d sent text messages of his own of a remarkably similar vein, that he too was guilty. He’d sent them when he was temporarily on the backbench, sinbinned for his own insouciant stupidity. Not that that’s any excuse. Now he’s back as deputy prime minister, he and Scotty are chums again (we have the prime minister’s word on this).
Joyce felt he had to apologise to the prime minister and offer to resign. The last thing Morrison needs heading into an imminent election is another prime example of the dysfunction that plagues his government. The resignation offer was not accepted.
Spare us the rounds of applause. Politics is about Machiavellian intrigue, not manners, or for that matter, suitability. But if you ever find yourself in a paddock with Barnaby, you’d be well advised to stay well clear of the ant nest he’s bound to stumble into.
The point about all this is that in the lead-up to this year’s election the government will be distracted, potentially fatally, by the fact that more than one person – a single voice could be characterised as mad or inconsequential, and therefore be ignored – believes what has been alleged about the prime minister’s character.
By contrast, the Labor opposition is not distracted, even by backflips of stunning proportions such as Hunter Valley coal and power stations. It looks unlikely to be derailed between here and election day.
Unless Morrison really intends to go for the nuclear option and have two elections – one for half the Senate in May and one for the House of Representatives on a date he considers best between now and September – the prime minister is now doubly in peril. The coalition trails the ALP in opinion polling. The government’s handling of the pandemic and the impact of its made-to-order shambles on aged care, vaccination, quarantine, and testing, all federal responsibilities, are deservedly in the spotlight.
These things won’t be forgotten by the voters. As well, the budget is blown – it would have been whoever had been in power, but it was on Morrison’s watch – and will have to be painstakingly and probably painfully repaired.
Despite politically convenient assertions from the government that this can be achieved without pain or recourse to radicalism, recovery is likely to be long, and in an economic environment in which inflation and interest rates will be rising.
That’s not a good election platform.
This commentary appears on the seniors’ website startsat60.com, where I contribute fortnightly thoughts on Australian politics and current affairs.
The Sun Never Sets, Etc
Monday, Jan. 31, 2022
Though the glow does tend to diminish. In a sort of allegory of the diminution and eventual demise of the British empire (a process I was privileged to see first-hand and in which I peripherally participated in an earlier age) I’m now shuffling around my personal empire turning out lights and shutting down expenses. If I were a sensitive fellow, I might feel a bit like poor Charles, a prince of the tattered banner, present merely as an honoured guest at yet another party to celebrate the end of former times.
Unless the good people at WordPress have already unplugged me, this will be the last blog entry with all the bells and whistles available to premium customers of WordPress, as, in the vacant patois of the age, I’m letting that go, effective immediately, at the end of its annual subscription period. Under my genteel poverty protection program, I’m moving to the free version, so you may find annoying advertisements popping up all over the place if you bother to read my blog anymore. I hope you do. Read the blog I mean. It’s entirely your decision what is to be done with dodgy formatting or pop-up advertisements for stuff you don’t want and can’t use.
WordPress Premium joins a personal archive already replete with former premium subscriptions to this or that, all sorts of things which once were not to be done without, and other platforms from which to fly the flag, whether anyone noticed or not. It’s a sort of virtual V&A (it’s certainly no Smithsonian) with occasionally engaging hagiography thrown in for no charge. Well, that’s how I think about it, anyway.
Farewell the trumpets, as another hagiographer, much more famous, once wrote.
NOTE: In case anyone thinks I need counselling, or referral to some site for the frail and embarrassed, this item is a designed for a laugh, etc.
Some thoughts on why January 26 shouldn’t be our national day
Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022
Australia Day generally comes and goes as it pleases in my little corner of the blogosphere. Flag waving, anthem singing, feelgood nationalism and themed barbecues have never been my thing. I’ve been an Australian for 50 years and always counted myself lucky that when I signed up Brits and other subjects of the Queen could do so simply by affirmation: No oaths required, vulgar or otherwise.
But Australia Day is always worth notice, and I’ve never missed doing so. The humourist in me calls it First Boot In The Mud Day, since its present date of national celebration is Jan. 26, the anniversary of what was most likely Australia’s first encounter with large numbers of unauthorised boat arrivals. For First Nation Australians, Jan. 26, 1788 marks Dispossession.
It was the day Captain Arthur Phillip’s British-to-their-bootstraps crew brought rum, buggery, and the lash to Sydney Cove, in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy. So that’s the foundational moment of settler Australia. It’s not quite up there with the Pilgrim Fathers, who were fleeing persecution rather than bringing it with them by royal command. And today, 234 years later, it may no longer be something you’d want to write home about.
No great antiquity attaches to celebrating Australia Day on Jan. 26. It’s been a national holiday on that date only since 1994. It’s probably something the history buffs of the Sydney basin might want to mark, with a flag raising, say, provided it’s with the right British flag. That’s the pre-1801 one, without the Irish cross of St Patrick on it.
Excluding ANZAC Day, which is sacred for other reasons, Australia’s two true national days are Jan. 1 and May 8. The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on Jan. 1, 1901. The first federal parliament convened on May 8, 1901. But Jan. 1 is already taken: It’s National Hangover Day. May 8, with a long weekend in its proximity, would suit admirably. It could replace the Queen’s Birthday, celebrated with a long weekend in most states in mid-June, though it would be far too early in the season to double as On the Piste Weekend for snow-skiers.
Nonetheless, an “Australia Day” has existed in various forms and under different names, and on widely different dates, since the first time someone thought of commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet. And Aboriginal Australians have been formally protesting about this since at least 1838.
The best way to move towards true settlement is to listen to the silence, to hear the spirits. The point is that Australia is a magic place. There is so much to celebrate, communally and even politically, especially the generally benign British status of the colonies as they ultimately developed. In that broader context, “frontier” skirmishes, disgraceful police actions, stolen lands and stolen generations, imprisonment and race bars, become less potent. They are not erased from history and cannot be excused; but genuinely acknowledged, they can help us all move on.
That’s what our takeout from Australia Day should be. The achievements of the past two-and-a-bit centuries are many. The failures, the demerits of policy failure and social restriction, are far fewer than they might have been. Plenty of examples lie around the globe of where Australia could be if some other mob of conquistadors had happened along instead.
Accepting the fundamental injustice of what occurred on Jan. 26, 1788, is in no way at odds with celebrating Australia as we all – immigrants and Aboriginal alike – later made it.
Pondering these points, one recent evening while I was putting together some thoughts for this piece, a fitting finale to it came to mind. An unmistakably Australian sunset streaked the horizon, orange, yellow, indigo and black in a clear, dry, star-speckled sky. Spirits gathered among the gum trees along the Wadandi Track, close to our house, or so I imagined. I thought I could hear them singing, and they whispered memorials to the ancient past and uttered promises to the future.
And I thought: Kaya. That’s “welcome” in the Noongar language of southwest Australia. We should listen: This is what we all celebrate. We should do it in song. That’s a practice of the global human herd, as well as a distinct Aboriginal tradition. It would be better to do it on a day that does not celebrate the imperial dispossession of the world’s oldest civilisation.
Here’s my list. Perhaps you’d like to compile your own.
- I Still Call Australia Home | Peter Allen
- Sounds of Then (This is Australia) | GANGgajang
- Wiyathul | Gurrumul
- Great Southern Land | Icehouse
- I Am Australian | Judith Durham & The Seekers
- Tenterfield Saddler | Peter Allen
- I’ve Been To Bali Too | Redgum
- Treaty | Yothu Yindi
- Waltzing Matilda 2000 | John Williamson
- Glory Glory (I’ll Be Back To See You Story Bridge) | Johnny Chester
- Raining on the Rock | John Williamson
- Up There Cazaly | Mike Brady (the 2014 version)
An edited version of this piece appears on the website startsat60.com, where I write a fortnightly column on politics and current affairs.
Get Set for the Merry-go-round
Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022
It’s election year. This may not fill our hearts with glee. But it will certainly fill our minds with polly waffle and expose us to more photo opportunities than we would wish upon our worst enemies. Such, unfortunately, is the business of modern electioneering: Never mind the content, feel the bandwidth.
In 2019, Scott Morrison pulled off an election win from a minority government position, the coalition’s margin having been frittered away by in-fighting, inattention and attrition. He secured a one-seat majority; this was less against the odds than against the opinion polls. He had been drafted as the 30th prime minister of Australia nine months earlier, after the Liberal party room gave his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull the Julius Caesar moment that now seems almost compulsory in the antipodean version of the Westminster parliamentary system.
Morrison, the voters narrowly decided, was due a chance to win office in his own right.
Three years on, we’re back at the merry-go-round. The man who can pivot on a pinhead, promise that fine policy can be found in his latest pamphlet, make all manner of untested assertions apparently in the belief that everyone will believe him, and who doesn’t hold a hose, even if there is a bushfire, will be making a pitch for a second term.
Morrison has several problems. Apart from the natural difficulties of longevity – the coalition has been in office since 2013, and if a day is a long time in politics, eight years is an archaeological era – the Liberals are badly on the nose with women. For some reason that eludes common-sense analysis, they seem to insist on continually insulting women by protecting men of their acquaintance who consider women as prey. This time around, too, there’s a novel factor in play: Simon Holmes à Court’s independents will make life difficult in several Liberal seats.
Opinion polls place the government behind the Labor opposition. But we’ve been there before, as former ALP leader Bill Shorten knows to his cost and prime minister Morrison to his benefit.
Albanese has been around federal politics for a quarter of a century but he’s a potential circuit-breaker, far more of a threat to the coalition’s hopes of retaining office this year than Shorten was in 2016. This is clear from treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s recent characterisation of him as “hard Left” in the ALP. Albanese is certainly from the left wing of the Labor Party, but if Frydenberg genuinely thinks Albanese is “hard left” he’s missed most of the political primers that should be imprinted on his brain.
We don’t know yet when the 2022 election will be. Federal parliament does not have fixed terms, though it should, since only incumbent governments benefit from being able to set election dates.
There are various options, including the wild card of separate House of Representatives and half Senate elections that would mean the lower house wouldn’t need to face election until September. This isn’t regarded as a viable option, though, since it would require voters to turn out twice, double the cost of electing the next parliament, and be widely seen as a ruse to cling to the comforts of office for as long as possible. But it shouldn’t be entirely ruled out, especially given the prime minister’s record for inventive truths.
May is most popularly tipped as an election date as that is effectively the last opportunity to have a half-Senate election in time for new senators to be validated under the complex voting system for the upper house before the new term must begin on July 1. The government has already pencilled in the budget for March 29 with very few parliamentary sitting days before it. Federal budgets are usually in May, but 2019’s was in March and the government dropped the document in the parliament and called an election.
The other prospect is to forget about the budget and have an election in March. This would only mildly inconvenience South Australia (which has a fixed term election due that month) and might avoid the likely early fading of the rosy glow of jobs, jobs, jobs that Morrison, ever the spinmeister, is suggesting will continue if we re-elect the coalition.
Then there is covid, an even greater unknown. If March is in the prime ministerial mind, we’ll know soon after Australia Day.
Election contests always go down to the devil in the detail of voting counts. In Australia, there’s a narrow window for a progressive message. The conservative bent of the electorate extends beyond the formal coalition margin. This is Labor’s problem. It’s difficult to argue for more spending on social policy when – in the face of the pandemic – the capitalists on the government benches have been spending like drunken sailors.
It’s also hard to argue for progressive social change when the Australian electorate occupies conservative space by quite a large margin. The formal coalition primary vote in 2019 was 41.44 per cent, but 8.5 per cent of the vote nationwide went to fractional parties whose preferences generally flow to the coalition. So that’s 49.94 per cent, a mere statistical blip away from an outright popular majority.
Labor’s 2019 first preference 33.34 per cent doesn’t compete in that scenario, even if it could count on the bulk of The Greens’ 10.40 per cent first preferences flowing their way.
The safest way to campaign for votes in a democracy is to offer inducements and carefully ration the visions – and altogether avoid those of heavenly dimensions – and carefully target lower house seats. The Senate will reflect the national mood. That’s where the narrow differences between mainstream political views are visible.
Let the fun begin!
An edited version of this commentary appears today on the Startsat60.com website, as the first of a projected fortnightly diet of commentaries on Australian politics and current affairs.
Two Very Special Gifts
It’s so nearly the end of the year and already I am impatient to start 2022. It’s almost here, up there on the brow of the hill, I can see it …Two Very Special Gifts
Off Their Faces
SOCIAL MEDIA | Bans
Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021
An old friend* has been banned from Facebook. It’s not a temporary ban, of the sort the platform’s annoying algorithms and equally irritating geeks might mete out to people who fail to genuflect to the Great Cursor, or who post something Zuckerberg geeks deem disrespectful, like saying someone’s an idiot for being an idiot. It’s an all-time ban, or so it seems to my friend, who of course cannot find a human in the Facebook galaxy of the Meta universe – most likely there aren’t any, at least of a recognisable variety – to speak to about the ban.
His problem is that someone hacked his Facebook account so that a restart with updated passwords and the other impedimenta of virtual life was necessary. We’ve all been there, so we all know how irritating it is, and all wish that the Zuckerberg crew would spend more time and make more effort on providing online security and less on policing moral and other turpitudes as defined by Silly Cone Valley.
So, it should be easy, even if it’s a pest, to revive one’s virtual life on one’s choice of virtual platform. And it would be for my old friend, except that when he originally set up his Facebook account, he did what a lot of people do. He took a few years off his birth date. He did so for very sensible reasons. Who wants to targeted by algorithm-driven advertisements for little blue pills that claim they’ll (re)make a man of you, or for incontinence underwear, after all? Or to be directed to someone else’s assumptions about your musical and other tastes defined by your age? Most of us are perfectly capable of running our lives without the intervention of nerds, especially of the Californian variety.
I’m a little older than my old friend who is now in trouble because he’s lied to Facebook, but I’ve never bothered – on Facebook – to trim my age. If people can’t cope with the fact that I’ll be 77 just after Christmas, that’s their problem. I just ignore advertisements or ill-disguised sales pitches that don’t interest me. I’m sure a lot of people do. I admit to having shaved my age on some other platforms – in one instance, on a music streaming service, by twenty years, so I don’t get directed to the top pops of the 1940s and 1950s – but Facebook, well, I just try to leave the little geeks to their own devices, and to get on with my life as unmolested as possible.
According to my friend, Facebook won’t allow him to restart his account with a birth date that is different from the fictional version he concocted. They prove, yet again, that it really should be called Off Your Facebook.
He blogs too, my friend, and has been in the habit of posting his material on Facebook as well. I do that, to spread the word. I’ve told my old friend I’ll happily put his blog posts on my Facebook, even if I don’t agree with what they say, which sometimes I don’t, while he’s waiting for a flash of light from the heavens, or for Mark Zuckerberg to wake up.
*I know who my old friend is. No one else needs to, in this context. Especially the Zuckerberg storm troopers and their foolishly weaponised algorithms.