Weird and graceless. Shorten’s description of Abbott’s G20 address to world leaders was spot on. We all know that Abbott doesn’t perform well at public speaking. And we never expected him to say anything inspiring, intelligent or even informative at the G20. It’s not like he was going to admit he’d been wrong about climate policy and could Obama and Xi Jinping please help him to fix his faults. No, what we expected was for him to be uninspiring, unintelligent, and to say not much at all. Like he usually does. Because let’s face it, we’re used to three word slogans repeated slowly, spread out amongst ahh, err, arh, urms ad nauseam. But that’s not what we got from Abbott yesterday. Surprisingly, we got worse than this. Which is why it’s worth taking a closer look at what he actually did say.
The closest I’ve seen to criticism of the speech from the mainstream media, who surprisingly unwrapped Abbott from his Teflon coated bubble wrap for a millisecond to give him some negative feedback, was that the speech was more suited for a domestic audience than a meeting of world leaders. This is true, but was by far the least worst thing about what Abbott actually said. As a member of that domestic audience for whom the speech was apparently targeted, I found it highly offensive. Not just partisan, immature, whingey, unbecoming of a Prime Minister, badly delivered and embarrassing to the country. Look at what he actually said and I think you’ll be offended too:
‘Two issues in particular that I lay before my colleague leaders: we have tried to deregulate higher education, universities, and that’s going to mean less central government spending and effectively more fees that students will have to pay. We think that this will free up our universities to be more competitive amongst themselves and more competitive internationally but students never like to pay more.’
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought Pyne’s argument was that deregulation of university fees would make fees less expensive? Pyne has also argued that his policy is a ‘good deal’ for students, although this was clearly never the case. How is it a good deal to be paying more for something and having to pay interest you previously didn’t pay, whilst getting the exact same product you used to get? But the point is, Abbott’s government always argued that this policy was about improving the university sector – not about balancing the budget. Yet yesterday, Abbott was using this policy failure (let’s call a spade a spade that has failed to get through the Senate) as one of the reasons he’s finding those revolting peasants in his kingdom so terribly hard to force into line. Because students ‘never like to pay more’. Apparently Abbott’s budget woes are nothing to do with his and Hockey’s incompetence and are instead apparently all university students’ fault and their sense of entitlement that they should be able to get an education without taking out a mortgage on their future. An education, by the way, that benefits the long term economic success of Abbott’s precious economy. Not that Abbott seems to be able to put two and two together in this way. Abbott hadn’t finished yet though, because it wasn’t just the students who were to blame. It was also the sick.
‘The other reform that has proven very, very difficult for us is to try to inject more price signals into our health system. For a long time most Australians who went to see a doctor have been seen at no charge and we would like to see a $7 co-payment for people who are going to see the doctor. In most countries this is not unusual. In most countries, this is standard that the doctor can charge a fee, but it is proving to be massively difficult to get this particular reform through the Parliament.’
Those pesky sick people and their sense of entitlement that they should be treated in a health system that they pay for through their taxes that was set up to look after all Australians from cradle to the grave. How dare these revolting peasants think they should be able to see a doctor for free when they are sick! But at the heart of this whole argument is that a ‘price-signal’ (you know, like the carbon tax was a price signal to reduce carbon pollution) will reduce visits to the doctor, and will therefore reduce the cost of this universal health sector, which is funded by Australians through our tax system. The only way this could ever possibly be the case is if Abbott believes that Australians aren’t really sick and are actually just whingey hypochondriacs who need to be put off from their whingey hypochondria through a price signal. Or, his government believes that poor people who can’t afford the $7 co-payment should put up with being sick and shouldn’t be treated for ailments that could become much worse if not treated, such as lumps that can become a range of life threatening cancers or a heart problem that could easily be treated before it becomes catastrophic heart failure. Perhaps Abbott would prefer the poor just died without costing his budget any money. See why I felt offended? I was also frustrated that Abbott forgot to mention that his great-big-GP-tax was not actually going to be used to fund a budget surplus. It was being used for a $20 billion research fund for use by the private research sector. At the same time as Abbott is cutting the apparently wasteful CSIRO. Funny the small facts Abbott chose to leave out of his grand whinge.
But ultimately, if you were really listening, you’ll have heard that it wasn’t just the students and the sick and hypochondriac Australians who are to blame for Abbott’s inability to fulfil one of his apparent four core promises to ‘get the Budget under control’. Because right up front, Abbott said this:
‘…it doesn’t matter what spending programme you look at, it doesn’t matter how wasteful that spending programme might appear, there are always some people in the community who vote, who love that programme very much’.
Get that people? It’s all of us voters who are so stupidly in love with government spending on programs that are just a complete waste of government spending. It’s all our fault that Abbott can’t balance his books! Us stupid voters refuse to let him send a wrecking ball through our civilised society that we have spent generations building! How dare we block his wrecking ball!
So yes, I was offended, as a member of the domestic audience that was the true target market for this speech. But once I had calmed down and thought about it for a moment, I realised that I was also incredibly proud of Australians. Abbott can blame us all he likes. But the fact of the matter is that the worst of Abbott’s budget – the parts that hit the most vulnerable hardest – like the GP co-payment, like Pyne’s assault on the higher education sector – are being blocked by our democratically elected leaders in the Labor Party, the Greens, various independents and low and behold, the Palmer United Party. So we might be dumb enough to elect Abbott in the first place, but I hope the world leaders, and those across the world who may have been tuning in, can see we’re not dumb enough to let him wreck the place, no matter how hard he might be trying.
Look at this photo of Julia Gillard. Does this look like an innocent person – someone who has just been vindicated by a Judge as having played no part in any criminality in relation to a union slush fund 20 years ago? Or does it look like someone guilty, with questions to answer, being rushed away from cameras, refusing to make eye contact with her accusers? This is the image that the Sydney Morning Herald used to accompany a headline which you would think would be good news for Julia Gillard, and bad news for the media who relentlessly pursed this story to no end:
Royal commission on union corruption told Julia Gillard should be cleared of any crime
The article moved quickly from reporting that The Royal Commission into Union Governance and Corruption found Gillard innocent, to report that her ex-boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, and his colleague Ralph Blewitt should face criminal charges. Kathy Jackson is also recommended for criminal charges. Remember Blewitt and Jackson and their work to bring down the previous Labor government? No? Don’t remember these links? Why am I not surprised?
To the average media consumer, who doesn’t follow independent journalism, who relies on their news from mainstream journalists such as those at Fairfax, you would never know that Ralph Blewitt’s accusations towards Julia Gillard were used relentlessly by right-wing-nut-job-chief Larry Pickering (you know the guy – he likes to draw politicians with huge penises) to push the media to keep saying that Gillard had ‘questions to answer’. You might wonder why the media would follow the lead of the un-hinged Pickering and the word of Blewitt, who was blaming Gillard for something he himself was being accused of doing in a bid for immunity. You might also not realise that Kathy Jackson was the very same Kathy Jackson who ‘blew the whistle’ on Craig Thomson’s misuse of union funds, who is also partner of Tony Abbott’s good friend Michael Lawler and a favourite guest of the right wing extremist HR Nicholls Society, and was misusing union funds herself at many tens of times worse than Craig Thomson. This article quotes the misuse for personal expenses at $660,000. But this link between right wingers and criminality in unions is never mentioned is it? This link to a 2012 article where Tony Abbott is praising Kathy Jackson as heroic is never mentioned. These people with vested interest in bringing down Labor politicians, who are accused of doing the exact same things as they are accusing Labor politicians of doing, who have links to right wing politicians and media identities are never properly investigated because no journalist wants to make the link between stories they’ve been writing, and the obvious campaign by Abbott to not just destabilise Gillard’s minority government, but to smash unions and workers’ rights with them. Remember Ashby versus Slipper, another campaign orchestrated by Abbott’s Opposition to try to bring down the Gillard government? Remember how Michelle Grattan used Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper as reasoning as to why Julia Gillard should resign?
You’ll notice that most of the stories that I’ve linked to in the above paragraph were written by journalists at Fairfax. I use Fairfax in this case purposely. I could have used News Ltd, but no one takes News Ltd seriously as they don’t actually employ journalists and prefer to work at being grubby partisan hacks so there’s no point reminding everyone why we don’t read News Ltd. I could have used the ABC, who went with this very ABC-like headline to report the news of Gillard’s vindication in the slush fund affair:
Trade union royal commission submissions question Julia Gillard’s professional conduct but clears her of any crime
Of course the ‘questions’ had to be right up there front and centre, and the vindication the afterthought, added later. The ABC is terrified of Abbott and people like Chris Kenny who accuse them of left-wing bias so they prefer to let Murdoch set the agenda than to actually do any journalistic work themselves for the good of the public who fund them.
I actually used Fairfax not because they are the worst case of bad, on non-existent journalism in Australia. There is some investigative journalism happening at Fairfax, which the stories about Jackson, and Ashby and Michael Smith prove. But what frustrates me, and should frustrate the public at large, is the apparent inability for these journalists to pull bit-piece stories together to tell a wider story, which no media outlet in the county has had the courage to tell. Simply, the media went after Prime Minister Gillard ferociously over Thomson, Slipper and the AWU slush fund affair. The media mauled Gillard’s leadership over these ‘scandals’, running with a fixed narrative of Labor chaos, Labor dysfunction, Labor failure, Labor leadership tensions. This fixed narrative refused to join the dots between the Thomson, Slipper and AWU affair and the Liberal Opposition – who through Jackson, through Blewitt, through Larry Pickering, through Pyne’s deep involvement in the Ashby plot, were the ones goading the media on to destroy their political opponents. This fixed narrative also seemingly didn’t notice, or chose not to see, that the Gillard government was the most productive government this country has ever had. Where are the facts Fairfax? Buried in a political smear campaign?
But as journalists we should have the courage to act for more than the lofty notion of freedom of speech. We have a duty to be the voice of the powerless in our society, to stand up for them.
Were Fairfax Media journalists standing up for the powerless in our society when they were complicit in a campaign to wrongly accuse Julia Gillard of criminality in relation to the AWU slush fund affair? It’s too late to go back and apologise for this error – the damage to Gillard’s political career and her progressive policy platform is already done. But what about Jackson and Ashby? Are Fairfax journalists standing up for truth, for the powerless voters who knew nothing of what was happening in the Thomson and Slipper affairs when Fairfax journalists refused to join the dots between these Labor ‘scandals’ and a campaign by Abbott’s opposition to destabilise the Labor government? And what about union members, whose working conditions, wages and rights will be damaged by Abbott’s campaign to destroy unions? Where are the journalists speaking truth to power on behalf of the Australian public, instead of on behalf of the Abbott opposition, and now Abbott government?
I note that Fairfax reported, but never mounted media campaigns that culminated in suggesting the Prime Minister resign, stories about Abbott’s rorting of tax-payers funds for private travel, his daughter’s secret $60,000 scholarship, his own involvement in a slush fund to destroy Pauline Hanson’s electoral fortunes (this was much more recent than 20 years ago). Is Fairfax saying that they’re only interested in following stories that can damage Labor governments? And if so, can they please explain how this represents their role of standing up for the powerless in society? I think it’s time that journalists realise that they have their own questions to answer. And until they satisfactorily answer them, the powerless in society should continue to distrust them.
Anti-politicians are everywhere. Clive Palmer is the left’s current favourite anti-establishment politician because he is blocking some of Abbott’s nastier budget policies. Palmer has broken progressive hearts before, such as when he stood next to Al Gore and promised to help repeal the Carbon Tax only if it was changed into an ETS; he followed through on the repeal bit but failed to save the ETS. This time we’re all really hoping he sticks to his guns on higher education policy after disappointingly letting Abbott’s do-nothing Direct Action policy through today. It’s easy to forget, while appreciating Palmer’s Abbott-blocking ability, that this was the man who fought tirelessly to destroy two of the previous Labor government’s most important progressive policies – the mining tax and the Carbon Price. So Palmer’s not a progressive politician, even if he does have some really interesting ideas about asylum seeker policy. Just ask the people who voted for him – those people he’s ultimately beholden. Or look at how he makes his money.
I am torn in thinking about keep-the-bastards-honest, a-pox-on-both-their-houses anti-politicians and minor parties because there’s no doubt that sometimes some of them can be useful – like when they’re blocking Tony Abbott. Actually, it’s not fair to just say useful. Sometimes they’re entirely heroic and progressive policies wouldn’t be implemented or saved from repeal without them. But just as often, they’re unpredictable, flimsy, self-centred, untrustworthy, and politically motivated to differentiate themselves from major parties for their own vested interests and ideological purity. Yet they claim to be above all this when painting themselves as ‘not like the baddies in the majors’. But most are just as grubby as the spin doctors in the major parties when it comes to election tactics. Otherwise they’d never get elected in the first place. Don’t forget that independents and minor parties rely on convoluted preference deals to get into power, deals which are by their very nature political. Once in parliament they have to do deals – otherwise they’d be both invisible and irrelevant.
A great example of these mixed feelings is my current love-hate relationship with Russell Brand. I guess it’s not really fair to say hate, because I don’t feel the same way about Brand as I do about Abbott. Let’s just say love and frustration. I really respect Brand’s moral stance on the danger of growing wealth inequality. His possible bid to become London’s Lord Mayor is probably inspired by his campaign to reduce unaffordability of housing in London, where he grew up on a council estate. Helen Razor suggests that if Brand wants to be a politician, he should learn a thing or two about economics. But to be fair, when he says he can’t get his head around economics, he may be joking, or he may be making the very fair assessment that current orthodoxies about supply and demand economics are a function of a capitalist system that favours the very few over the rest of us. In that, Brand definitely has a point. Brand is not just any celebrity who decides to talk about politics – he is eloquent, intelligent, passionate, knows his stuff, and is incredibly charismatic – all great qualities of a leader (or politician if you want to call a spade a spade). And his values align very closely with mine. On top of this, he promoted Australia’s March in March to his 8 million twitter followers. Also, his YouTube show The Trews is truly hilarious.
So I’ve covered the things I love, but now what about the frustration? Really it all boils down to Brand’s anti-politician strategy of differentiating himself from mainstream politicians by calling for a revolution and encouraging people who value his opinions not to vote. When I first heard this, I was intrigued. The conspiracy theorist in me wondered for a moment if he was being paid by the Conservative Party to get young progressive voters off the electoral role. And even though I’ve since become a huge fan of Brand, I still can’t see how he can’t see that it’s an incredibly counterproductive action to urge support for progressive policies by telling progressive voters not to vote. I’m sure the Conservative Party are happy that they didn’t have to pay Brand to mount this campaign. Perhaps a year on, Brand is shifting away from this statement by considering running himself for Mayor – it’s hard to get people to vote for you when you’ve told them that voting at all makes you part of the problem. However, the trait that Brand shares with many anti-politicians and minor parties is that he wants everything to happen now, through revolution, and ignores the reality that progressive policy reforms are never an overnight change inspired by a single person or a small group.
Brand’s impatience makes him in the UK context just as anti-Labour as he is anti-Conservative – he heaps them together into the ‘they’re all the same’ type statements, which ends up benefiting the Conservatives. Why does this statement benefit the Conservatives? Because if they’re just as bad as each other, people may as well vote for Cameron, or in our case, Abbott. If there’s no difference in the result. Reality is, progressive reforms come about through long, hard-fought series of carefully negotiated and compromised battles to inch forward away from the right-wing ideal of letting the market rip (unregulated neoliberalism) and keeping women barefoot in the kitchen (social conservatism). I’ve quoted Judt before on this blog and I’ll quote him again: ‘incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best we can hope for’.
The ideal of a revolution – a complete replacement of the status quo – as compared to steady and incremental gains in the right direction aren’t two options that you have to choose between. One is a fantasy, the other is achievable. The real option is a choice between the two major parties – one progressive and one conservative. I support the party which aligns most closely with my progressive values, and has the best chance of forming progressive government. As a Port Adelaide supporter, I’ll remind you of the famous Port Adelaide line – we exist to win premierships. The Labor Party doesn’t exist to be activists, or to be ideologically fundamental or to promise a complete overhaul of the status quo. Nor do they expect every progressive voter will agree with everything they do. The Labor Party exists to form government that can improve the lives of Australians through progressive reforms. And they need progressive Australians help them to do this.
Many left wing independents or minor parties spend most of their time bemoaning that the incremental improvements of the major progressive party aren’t fast enough, large enough, or anywhere near revolutionary. And they often spend most of their time fixated on one or two causes which they feel effectively differentiate them from the progressive major party. However, a pragmatist would say that in a country where an extreme right wing conservative such as Abbott can be elected as Prime Minister by a healthy majority and go about undoing Labor’s policy reforms (such as mining tax, Carbon Price, Medicare, ABC funding, health and educational funding, a social safety net just to name a few), it’s unrealistic to believe you’ll achieve any progress by throwing your weight (and lack of vote) behind an ideologically pure revolution, or a single policy ideal, that has no hope of success, and no hope of changing anything. And it’s unhelpful to spend all your time, energy, campaign dollars, talent and voice in the community bagging the progressive option when it’s the option you really want if you really do value progress.
You might not like everything a major party like Labor does, and the flash and colour of an independent or a minor party who promises you the world without any hope of delivering might seem like a tempting option. There’s no reason why these colourful and passionate people can’t contribute to the debate and provide fresh ideas – and sometimes some great blocking skills. But ultimately we need the workhorse – the progressive major party – to be in power if we don’t want the country run by conservative neoliberals. So who are you supporting in the 2016 election? I hope Australian progressives are realistically ready for the fight.
It’s been a sad week. I wasn’t alive when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister, but my parents brought me up to understand that he was a hero. When I asked mum this week how she and dad, who were around my age when Gough was dismissed, could live through this time without being driven insane with the injustice of it all, she told me how they stayed up all night, too angry to sleep, plotting revenge on Malcolm Fraser. But what more could they do back then? There was no quick way to start a protest movement like there is now, via Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t even a way to send chain emails to bring people together.
When I heard Gough had died, I sent my condolences first to my parents, who have been staunch unwavering Labor supporters since their university days. And then I tweeted that when I met Gough, just one time, at Tanya Plibersek’s Christmas Party, he said to me ‘nice to meet you comrade’. Unlike Malcolm Fraser, whose values have moved away from the Liberal Party as he has aged, Gough stuck by the Labor Party his entire life. Because his values are Labor values. The public good. Equal opportunity. Universal education. Universal healthcare. And of course the pragmatism, character and political will to get good things done. In three years, Gough’s Labor government achieved amazing things which every Australian is still benefiting from. Gough makes me proud to support Labor. And I am as proud to support Labor today as my parents were in 1975.
The way you hear people speak about Gough now, from both sides of politics, you’d swear he had a term as long as Menzies. But he didn’t. He was incredibly unpopular and his dismissal apparently caused a political rift the likes that this country had never seen. And not everything he did was perfect. Of course it wasn’t. He was the Prime Minister. He was making decisions on behalf of the country hundreds of times a day. No matter how great Gough was, he was human like the rest of us.
One example of this ‘less than perfectness’ that my mum reminded me about was that many progressive people were disappointed that Gough didn’t support the independence of East Timor and instead sided with Indonesia. Many progressives preferred Gough’s more left-wing colleague Jim Cairns. Even though the Greens have disgracefully and offensively claimed Gough’s legacy as their own this week, presumably waiting until he died so that the great Labor man couldn’t complain, you can image just how Greens would have responded to Gough’s East Timor decision at the time, had they been there. You’ve all seen the way Greens supporters talk about the evils of the Labor Party, and how they’ve ripped up their support of Labor and written the party off for a lifetime because of Labor’s asylum seeker policy. There is no compromise with these people. There is no pragmatism. There is no acknowledgement that politicians might sometimes make mistakes or be weaker than they should be or scared or unwise. There’s no acknowledgment that major parties, by their very nature, are broad churches that must compromise in order to survive. And that’s what made the Greens opportunistic grave-robbing promotional advertisement using Labor’s greatest leader so very distasteful and so very offensive. Gough hadn’t even been buried yet and he would have already been turning in his grave. He knew how hard it was to work a great policy idea into a great policy. Which is exactly what the Greens have no experience doing, and no right to take credit for when all they really want to do is ignore this hard work and continue to attack Labor from the left.
What I’ve learned this week is that Labor leaders will always be more popular after their time in office. I think we’re already seeing this in the way that the public admire Gillard not very long after her opinion polls were as low as Gough’s. Because Labor reforms are enduring. They might not be perfect at the time, they might not go as far as the Greens would like them to, which is irrelevant when you consider the Greens don’t actually have to fight to turn ideas into policies. And of course Labor governments and oppositions will make mistakes and will be lambasted by their own supporters amongst others and will hopefully stick to their values in the end.
I have no doubt that the same values that drove Gough also drive the modern Labor Party. It’s not fashionable, nor popular, to say this. But I don’t care. I’ll be called a hack, an apologist, a rusted-on-one-eyed-in-denial-groupie, even perhaps, as I have been called, a murderer of asylum seekers. If Twitter is anything to go by, it’s far more vogue to be a left-winger whose taken a moral stand against Labor and will NEVER VOTE FOR THEM AGAIN AND WILL SHIT ON THEM AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY because of asylum seeker policy, national security laws, gay marriage, single-mothers on the dole or a range of other cherry-picked-deal-or-no-deal-make-or-break policies which seem to turn some people into angry-Labor-haters. These haters would no doubt have reacted the same way to Gough on the issue of East Timor. In modern times, it’s Bill Shorten the haters hate and we hear constantly how they can’t possibly ever vote for Labor ever again. But apparently these very same haters loved Gough Whitlam and he was perfect in retrospect. I can imagine they’ll be telling their kids in 30 years’ time that the one-term Abbott government did its best, but failed to completely undo the enduring reforms of the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. But where are they now, helping these reforms to eventuate? Where are they now when Labor needs every progressive’s eye on the one-term-Tony prize? They’re still bitching about whatever deal breaker policy it is this week which appears to overrides their support of every other Labor policy which we can only assume they do agree with because they haven’t ranted about their opposition to it yet.
One thing I’ve learned about politics is that, like life, it’s complicated. I’m proud to stand by Labor while they keep fighting the good fight. Implementing good public policy isn’t about ideological purity. It’s about outcomes. Outcomes can be messy, ugly, and usually less than perfect and can make enemies of powerful people. Progress doesn’t often come about in a revolution – it can often be just a preference over something worse. But any progress is better than no progress. And of course it’s preferential to be going forwards, however slowly, rather than backwards like we are under the Abbott government. My support of the Labor Party isn’t about aligning my identity so closely to the party that the minute they do something I disagree with, my faith crumbles irrevocably and I turn my back forever on the movement and become bitter and twisted, and likely to lash out. I don’t hold the unobtainable expectation that the Labor party will be everything I want them to be all the time without fail. How is it even possible to be everything to everyone when everyone has different opinions about what this ideal looks like? Being a Labor supporter is about supporting progressive policies that align with my values. This means taking the good with the bad, disagreeing when you disagree and giving credit when credit’s due – all in equal measure.
I don’t think Gough got enough credit for his brilliant political career while he was in power, just as Labor gets no credit for their previous two terms, nor for the work they are doing in opposing Abbott. People always wait to say the nicest things about people after they’re dead – when it’s too late for them to appreciate the compliments. I keep this in mind while I watch in frustration modern Labor deal with the exact same situation. Gough supported Labor to the end. I’m happy to wait 30 years for Labor to get credit, as long as in the meantime, they keep reforming. Because it’s the progressive outcomes that are important. Far more important than what haters say today.
When will progressives learn to speak to people? Not at people. Speak to people. A great example of the wishy washy language that the left uses to try to convince people of the merits of their ideas is contained in this article about wealth inequality by Richard Denniss. Denniss wrote this fantastic piece in response to Amanda Vanstone’s whine about the poor-rich-people getting picked on which conveniently forgot to mention that wealth doesn’t trickle down and was therefore total bullshit. Denniss clearly knows his stuff. If you’ve not heard of him, you can read all about him and his progressive think tank, the Australia Institute in the Saturday Paper. So you’ll notice I did just say that Denniss’ piece was fantastic, but I also called it wishy washy. Contradictory yes, but keep up because what is fantastic to the left can be completely wasted on those who don’t share the left’s values. And this is what I’m talking about when I say progressives need to learn to speak to people in a way that will actually convince them to think differently about something they thought they had firm views on. Like ideological positions towards wealth inequality. For instance.
Before you go and say ‘who does this nobody blogger think she is telling a certified expert think tanker (do they actually think inside tanks?) how to communicate’, let me preface my argument by explaining that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have many of them. Because I too can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would have voted for Tony Abbott, and every time I get into a conversation with one of them I have to take a deep breath and walk quickly away before I lose my temper. But we need to remind ourselves that we can’t understand why anyone would vote for Abbott because we don’t think like Abbott voters. And it’s not until we work out how they think that we can possibly even begin to think about how we speak to them. Not in a weird ‘let’s hypnotise or brainwash Abbott voters to convince them never to do that again’, (although if anyone has any thoughts on this I’d be happy to hear them). But what I’m saying is that progressives need to learn how non-progressives understand the world before we can explain why progressive policies are in everyone’s best interests. Because we do believe that don’t we?
A perfect example of this is Denniss’s very logical argument about wealth equality, or fairness, being good for all of us. This is 100% true, and I’ve written before about how this concept should be adopted by the Labor Party as the overarching narrative to define their policy purpose. When I read an article about the ill-effects of wealth inequality for all of us, rich and poor alike, I nod my head and in total agreement I say ‘well that’s sorted, we need to ensure there is wealth equality, done, let’s move on’. But I would say that wouldn’t I. And so would most other people who share my values and are likely to agree with Denniss’s article. So he’s preaching to the converted. But what about non-progressives and those who don’t sit firmly in either camp? These are the people we need to think hard about and work out what they see when they read such an article. Words like ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’ are littered throughout progressive communications, and of course they are feel-good words for people who value fairness and equity inherently. But what about those who believe in the merits of a free market above all else, who when a left-winger says ‘fairness’, hear ‘you’re trying to take away money I’ve earned to give to someone who hasn’t earned it, which is not fair’. It’s the same word, but the meaning behind it, and what is understood when it is heard is completely different for people with different values.
I said I didn’t have all the answers to this dilemma, but let me at least try to give you an example of how we could try speaking to Abbott voters (who, by the way, definitely don’t read this blog so please don’t point this out in the comments because I am fully aware I’m talking to progressives plus creepy conservative Ian Hall). But just say a progressive think tanker is writing in a mainstream newspaper. When they’re talking about wealth equality and the reasons why we need to reduce wealth inequality for the betterment of all of us – it’s the growing the pie rather than divvying up the same sized pie argument – they need to stop relying on statistics. Denniss used an awesome one right at the start of his very awesome article: ‘Australia’s richest seven people have more wealth than the bottom 1.73 million households combined’. To someone who thinks that wealth inequality is a problem, this statistic clearly shows its urgent magnitude. But to most Abbott voters, wealth equality is not a problem. It is an aspiration. Those richest seven people are heroes to many right-leaning Australians. To the aspirant, free-market-loving, keeping-ahead-of-the-Joneses-by-buying-a-better-than-your-neighbor’s-new-car-every-three-years and only-being-happy-when-you-have-the-most-expensive-house-on-the-street and the-wearing most-obvious-wealth-consumption-designer-clothes section of the Australian community, anything that opposes wealth inequality sounds suspiciously like higher taxation and a slippery slope to communism. So what do we say instead?
First we ask them what they do for a living. Bill says he sells home insurance. So you ask Bill, how many people get home insurance who can’t afford to buy their own homes? Wouldn’t Bill’s market be much bigger, and his job much easier and more prosperous if more people could afford to buy their own homes? That’s why Bill should be worried about wealth inequality. Gloria owns a restaurant. So you ask Gloria, is it true that people eat at your restaurant because they have disposable incomes? If lots of people are poorer than Gloria, and don’t have any money left over at the end of the week, who will come into Gloria’s restaurant? The very rich can only eat so much. I’m sure Gloria would love it if one of the seven richest Australians came into her restaurant, because one might assume there would be a sizeable tip (although this might be a flawed assumption). But the rich have lots of other restaurants to visit. And the poorest 1.73million can’t afford to even think about visiting any restaurant, let alone Gloria’s. Isn’t Gloria worried that if the number of well off Australians shrinks, and the number of poor Australians grows, her business won’t be able to sustain her aspirational-affluent lifestyle? As I said when I last wrote on this topic, who is going to shop at Walmart if even those people who work at Walmart can’t afford to shop there? See how we’re all better off if we’re all better off?
Think like they do, and speak to them. Otherwise we’ll get Abbott again and the wealth inequality gap will continue to grow. Please help us!
I often complain loudly that Abbott got a free run in the media during his time in Opposition and while he was campaigning (sloganeering) for the top job. Someone said to me the other day that I shouldn’t blame the press for giving Abbott this free run, because Abbott did do his very best to keep his plans as secret as his daughter’s design school scholarship. I can’t deny that Abbott and his colleagues tried to hide their moral nakedness from voters until it was too late for us to do anything about it. They clothed themselves in Labor bashing, in three-word-slogans and in yellow-vest-wearing-banana-stacking-fear-campaigns and produced a thin policy pamphlet full of promises that have now been broken.
But hang on folks. Hang on. If Abbott really did fool the media into thinking he wasn’t naked, and they in turn fooled voters, why is it that untrained amateur writers like me were spot on in our analysis of Abbott long before he became PM? Why did the open letters I and others wrote to Abbott, numerous times, so miraculously predict, like crystal ball reading savants, exactly the type of Prime Minister we have ended up with? A nasty, bigoted, sexist, rich-loving, poor-hating, expert-deriding, anti-science inarticulate thug who embarrasses the nation every time he opens his mouth? Why, when so many of us were saying that Abbott wasn’t wearing any clothes, did the mainstream media do their best to sheath the man in Teflon coated budgie smugglers, which enabled him to unleash his wrecking ball so shockingly on a mostly unsuspecting public? What I’m saying is, how did people like me see what was coming, but the mainstream media didn’t? Or worse, if they did, why didn’t they tell us?
I am upset by the Abbott government in varying degrees every day. There have been lower than usual points, like the commission of audit, the release of the budget and every policy within it, the lies about Gonski funding, the Royal Commission witch hunt into Julia Gillard and unions, the war-mongering in the aid of a poll boost, and just this week, a discriminatory stance to ban female Muslims wearing religious clothing in Parliament House. This last one seemed to finally crack the veneer of ‘nothing-to-see-here-move-along’ mainstream press reporting of the Abbott government, with, frankly better-late-than-never impassioned and obviously entirely outraged writing from the likes of Waleed Aly and Peter Hartcher. As a side note, I can’t help but wonder if Fairfax will notice the spike in traffic to these articles now that they’re finally revealing the real Tony Abbott and the justified outrage at the way he behaves.
But let’s not forget that this dog-whistling-with-a-mega-phone, Cory-Bernardi-look-alike Prime Minister hasn’t changed a bit since we first met him as the aptly described by Paul Keating ‘resident nut job’ from the Howard government. Tony Abbott has always been a creep. Tony Abbott has always wanted to wage an ideological class war on Australians and he is relishing his opportunity to do this as Prime Minister of Australia. Australians are suffering from the results of this war, as the naked-man-wrecking-ball smashes through our social welfare policies, education funding and the core pillars of universal health care. I know no one likes a know-all who says ‘I told you so’, but I totally did tell you so. Because it was obvious. He was standing right there and all I had to do was look at him, scrutinise for a millisecond and I knew what a disaster PM he was going to be. I’m not naïve enough to expect that the mainstream media would describe the coming disaster in quite as colourful language as I do. I understand the need for balance in journalism as opposed to partisan histrionics in commentary and blogging. But this doesn’t excuse mainstream journalists from doing their jobs. Please guys. Just some basic facts would be useful. Next time there’s a naked man, wearing red budgie smugglers that don’t even try to hide the horrors behind them, please consider doing your jobs and warning the public not to give this man the keys to the country.
It’s really hard to find someone who voted for Abbott’s Liberal government who is willing to justify their actions without mentioning the Labor Party. I also find Greens voters share this trait, in that they often position their support for the Greens as being ‘anti-Labor’, more so than they are ‘pro-Green’. When you also take into account the mainstream media’s obsession with Labor bashing, it’s clear why Labor is permanently on the counter-attack from a pincer movement of anti-Labor-for-this-reason-or-another-culture that dominates Australian political discourse. So when people like me try to defend my support for the Labor Party by explaining by deep attachment to the Labor Party’s values and policies that are intrinsically tied to these values, I get a constant barrage of criticism and abuse from the aforementioned pincer movement. It’s fair to say that being a Labor supporter in this country is a fairly unrewarding exercise.
So why does the Labor Party, whether in government or opposition, bear the brunt of so much disappointment, criticism and abuse? I think it’s because the party’s mission is such a difficult one that it’s seemingly impossible to live up to the huge weight of expectation placed on it through its promise to protect us all from the economy that we also rely on for the continuation of our society.
Put simply, in my view, the Labor Party exists to cushion the community from the negative side-effects of a capitalist economy. But just knowing this is not very helpful if you don’t acknowledge the difficulty in achieving this quest. Because there’s an added complication to the battle between labour and capital (workers and those they work for); the Labor Party has promised to be both saviour for the labour side, and defender and concierge for capital at the same time.
A perfect example of the dichotomy between defending labour and capital is the criticism Prime Minister Gillard received for moving single-mothers from the sole parent payment onto Newstart when their youngest child turned eight. It’s worth noting that Gillard didn’t in fact introduce the policy, but rather brought all sole parent payment recipients in line with the policy Howard introduced. Yet the criticism I saw about Gillard making this change was disproportionately fiercer when compared with the criticism the Liberal government received for making the policy change in the first place. This is because Labor is expected to look after the poor, and the Liberals don’t carry this expectation. It’s when those we trust let us down that we’re most upset, but those we expect to let us down just meet our expectation when they do.
But discounting this emotional reaction, when you look at how Gillard’s decision aligns to Labor’s promise to defend labour against capital, the policy change actually does make sense. Because Gillard was no doubt hoping that the change in their pension situation, once their children are at school, would encourage single mothers to go back to the workplace. Workers are better off than people on pensions. Families where a parent works have more money to provide their children with basic necessities. You might think I’m harsh and uncaring for saying this, but I won’t apologise for pointing out that there is dignity in work, and as a society, we should do everything we can to encourage and support those who can work to do so.
In actual fact I disagreed with Gillard’s decision to move single mothers onto Newstart for two reasons – one because the decision was not also coupled with an acknowledgement that the Newstart allowance is not enough to live on, even as a temporary stop-gap between jobs. And the other is because a smarter policy would have been to encourage and support single-mothers into training to prepare them for the workplace, where there is increasingly less opportunity for un-educated people to find work. Gillard could also have focused on the reasons single mothers often can’t work, such as lack of child-care and the availability of stable part-time work.
The mistake Gillard made was wrongly positioning the policy change as a cost-saving measure at a time when her government was receiving constant criticism about over-spending, budget deficits and waste. And here lies the problem for Labor. The party is expected to look after everyone, from the unemployed and single parents, to workers, to the rich business owners, to multi-national corporations and their shareholders by keeping the economy in tip-top-profit-making shape and the budget in balance and also providing all the government payments and services required to stop people falling behind, all at the same time. Talk about an impossible expectation to live up to!
The Labor Party is also expected by many left-leaning voters to live up to the unreasonable expectation of having a policy platform that perfectly aligns with every single left-leaning voter’s policy preferences, bar none. For instance, many ex-Labor supporters on the left, who mostly now support the Greens, seem to have withdrawn their support of Labor due to one or sometimes two Labor policies they don’t agree with. Whether it be single parents on Newstart, asylum seeker policy, gay marriage or environmental policy, it would seem that there are huge numbers of left voting Australians who hold Labor up to an unobtainable standard of perfection. They want a Labor policy platform where they agree uncompromisingly with each and every policy, and anything short of this turns them into Labor haters, blind to every Labor policy they actually support and blind to the fact their lack of Labor support assists the Liberal party to win power.
The community’s belief that Labor can be everything to everyone all at the same time is crushing the party, leaving many Labor politicians, and certainly Bill Shorten, so scared of doing anything to hurt one group over another that they would prefer to say and do nothing at all most of the time.
But if Labor is ever going to get back into government, they need to get over this fear. This beige must end. So what should Labor do?
First and foremost, Labor must be brave. Forget about the pincer movement. The Liberals and the Greens, and to some extent, the media, have a vested interest in attacking Labor whenever Labor opens its mouth. Get used to it and get over it. Bravery also means sticking to your values no matter what the opinion polls say. I don’t know this for sure, but I can bet Labor sided with Abbott to let through draconian ASIO powers last week because they didn’t want to appear soft on terror. But in doing this, they have just looked even softer. So it’s a self-perpetuating problem.
Secondly, Labor must build a stronger narrative. A narrative tied to their values, tied to their policies. Not a slogan. A narrative. Not a beige ‘fairness this’, ‘safety-net- that’ wet-lettuce-leaf-key-search-phrases-white-noise-dribble. A strong and meaningful narrative is what is needed.
For the past year, Labor promised to oppose Abbott. Abbott has given Shorten a dream-run of policies to oppose, and to be fair Shorten has been passionately against Abbott’s budget and the few policies Abbott has managed to get through parliament. However what’s lacking from these policy debates is the overarching story about why Labor opposes the policies. It’s not enough to jump from an anti-Medicare co-payment campaign, to a pro-climate change action campaign, to a pro-tertiary education campaign without a rock-solid chain linking all these micro-campaigns together. Shorten has told Michelle Grattan that the party is working on such a narrative. It’s good to hear him admit this, as Labor clearly don’t have one yet. If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on what this narrative could possibly look like, I wrote about this very subject here.
Labor has two years until the next election to work out how they are going to explain to the electorate that their party is the best option to tackle the problems our community face, whilst managing the high expectations of a broad range of people, all with competing priorities. Labor can’t fall into Abbott’s trap of believing they can win because people will vote against Abbott’s Liberals. Labor needs to be better than this. It doesn’t sound easy. It’s not easy. But if Labor can’t at least start to make some improvements, Abbott will win a second term. We all know what is at stake if that happens.