Ronald Reagan, you were wrong

You might have recently seen my mum’s guest post – Politics 101. Mum studied politics at university 40 years ago and still remembers most of the theories. In this guest post, she gives her perspective on ‘initiative – resistance theory’.

It’s wonderful how that stuff I read in Politics 101 all those years ago is still relevant today. In fact initiative – resistance theory is startlingly more relevant now than it was then.

The idea in the 1930s and ‘40s was that Labor was the party of political initiative, and anti Labor was the party of resistance. Labor did things and the conservatives tried to stop them. Sounds like a perfect description of the current situation. Carbon tax, mining tax, NBN, education funding reform – no, no, no and no. National disability scheme and national dental scheme – probably no. Initiatives resisted at all costs.

Most political commentators, however, see the negativity of the Abbott led coalition as a political tactic to force the government to an early election. In theory, Abbott could still make positive promises before the next election. But if we look more closely at the initiative – resistance argument, we can see that even if Labor is only partially the party of initiative, the LNP is now entirely the party of resistance.

Initiative in this context means a willingness to use the state to meet aspirations for a fair and decent society. This could be achieved by state ownership of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, such as banks, transport and power generation; government  provision of services such as education, housing and medical care; and a social security system that insured against the pauperizing effects of illness, unemployment, and old age.

Resistance – and I’m being really balanced here – means a distrust of state activity, and a preference for the unfettered free market in achieving a fair and decent society.

Historically, neither party was all initiative or all resistance. A lot of what used to be thought of as Australia’s distinctive ‘state socialism’, such as tariff protection, arbitration, the basic wage and old age pensions was supported and extended by Labor governments, but had its origins in the liberalism of men like Alfred Deakin. Even when the liberals joined the conservatives in an anti-Labor alliance, these fundamental pillars of state activity remained unchallenged. And the conservatives had their own brand of state activism in the extension of rural infrastructure, the promotion of land settlement and marketing schemes for various commodities. (Government purchase of Cubbie Station, anyone?)

There was a burst of Labor activism during and after World War II which saw existing social welfare provisions consolidated and expanded and Keynesian principles adopted to manage the economy. The Liberal government that followed didn’t extend any of this, but they didn’t abolish it either. The Whitlam Labor government was responsible for such initiatives as Medicare, free university education and commonwealth involvement in urban policy and planning. The Fraser Liberal government didn’t alter much of this either. Political scientists felt quite comfortable ignoring the whole issue of the role of the state in initiating a just society, arguing variously that these outcomes were the result of competition between elites, that the state was not a neutral organisation capable of being captured by either side of politics, or that the state was an expression of capitalist power and could only be used to enforce that power. Initiative/resistance disappeared as an explanation for political activity.

Then came globalisation, free market economics and the concomitant demonization of state activity, from state ownership through to mere regulation. This was summed up by President Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address. ‘Government is not a solution to our problem,’ he said. ‘Government is the problem.’ Then followed a rush to demolish the edifice built up by the interventionist state. And in Australia it was the Labor Party under Hawke and Keating that led the charge. They cut tariffs and floated the dollar, giving up most of the old Keynesian levers for managing the economy. Then came large scale privatisation of public assets by the Commonwealth, followed by State governments, both Liberal and Labor. Qantas, Australian Airlines, the Commonwealth Bank, state banks, airports, rail systems, power stations – the list goes on and on. Federal Labor also encouraged enterprise bargaining as the preferred wage setting mechanism, though they didn’t entirely abandon the Commonwealth’s industrial power. There was also a move to charge fees for services previously free, with a short-lived co-payment for Medicare services (later reinstated by the Liberals) and the HECS/HELP scheme whereby university students contributed to the cost of their education once they graduated. In relation to direct payments, compulsory superannuation was introduced to lessen dependence on the state in retirement. These changes evoked no resistance from the right, and surprisingly little from the left, who saw no alternative to deregulation, small government and market based solutions. (For someone who did, see Hugh Stretton, Australia Fair, 2005.)

After the Liberals formed government under John Howard in 1996, they privatised Telstra and the Commonwealth Employment Service; finding jobs for the unemployed was outsourced. But Howard made most of his contribution to economic rationalism through taxation policy and decisions about where to cut funding. His GST, which had more impact on the poor than the rich, allowed him to offer cuts in personal income tax, which mainly benefited the well off.  This, from his point of view, had the double advantage of being electorally popular, and permanently reducing the size of the tax base, which in turn limited the capacity of government to spend on anything else. In addition he either cut, or failed to spend on areas like health and education. Cuts to university funding, for example, made them reliant on the market in overseas students, and partial deregulation of fees forced them further into competition in the local market. State aid to non-government schools – originally conceded in 1963 – was ramped up, making private education an option for more families. Commonwealth spending on public schools declined. The increasing cost of health provision was met with a rebate to those who took out private health insurance, rather than spending on the public health system – though this was admittedly complicated by confusion about federal-state relations. And then of course there was the attempt to deregulate the labour market (Work Choices), by which they over-reached themselves, and lost the 2007 election.

The Liberals clearly agreed with Margaret Thatcher that ‘there is no such thing as society’ and that ‘people must look to themselves first’. In this view, personal obligation trumps the right to welfare; there should be no sense of entitlement. Labor might have said that there was an obligation on the state to guarantee a given set of services to all citizens, but in practice there seemed little between the parties in their acceptance of economic rationalism. The outcome of such policies was to reduce the role of the state to a mere safety net for the poorest and most disadvantaged who were left behind by the market. If public health, public housing and education are only for losers and dole bludgers, there is no need to ensure they are effective – only cheap. Liberal willingness to proclaim personal obligation was partly obscured by the their fondness for middle class welfare through non-means tested benefits like the baby bonus, private health care rebate and the first home buyers grant. But these distortions of the market were electorally necessary to them.

The dangers of this preference for the private system can be seen in the interesting example of child care. As more women entered the workforce, care for their pre-school children became a necessity. Labor introduced some assistance back in 1972; there were subsidies for both families and child care centres. But it was hardly an area where it was possible to make much profit and many centres were run by community or not-for-profit groups. Then during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the privately owned ABC Learning burst onto the scene, exponentially expanding the number of its centres both in Australia and overseas. The Howard government fully supported this apparent triumph of the market – until the company collapsed, throwing into confusion the child care arrangements of thousands of women. It was left to the incoming Rudd Labor government to clean up the mess, and find mostly not-for-profit operators for as many centres as possible. There never was a profit to be made from childcare – even out of the government subsidy to centres. All the returns came from expanding and franchising the business, and it needed continuous growth to cover its debt. To rely on the market to provide a service central not just to individual families but to the whole economy involved a risk that should never have been allowed to happen.

Since Labor came to power in 2007, two things have further challenged a benign view of the market. One is the growing environmental crisis. On one hand the market makes unsustainable demands on resources, and on the other, allows the environment to be a free dumping ground for waste and pollution. Clearly there needs to be intervention in such a market.

The second is the Global Financial Crisis, which showed that markets are not automatically self-adjusting to create the best outcome for everyone; quite the reverse. They need careful regulation to shield citizens from the boom and bust cycle that appears inherent in them, and only government has the power to do this. Furthermore, the fallout from the GFC highlighted the differential way that markets distributed wealth. Instead of the trickle down effect assumed by Reaganomics, there seems to a syphoning up effect which makes the rich richer and the gap between them and the poor wider. You can argue about the exact figures, which depend on precisely what is being measured. But there is no doubt that during the period following WWII, when state intervention was common, the gap between rich and poor in developed countries decreased. It is also indisputable that it has been growing exponentially since about the 1970s – just when free market ideology took hold. The disparity is worse in the United States and Great Britain than it is in Australia, but it is getting more pronounced here. Only effective action by the state can reverse this process.

So how have the Labor and Liberal parties responded to these challenges? Both initially endorsed an Emissions Trading Scheme – a market based mechanism – as the most effective way of reducing carbon pollution. But this nevertheless represented an intervention in the market that the Liberals ultimately couldn’t accept. Labor’s price on carbon will segue into an ETS, while the LNP has gone with a ‘government picks the winners’ direct action scheme, which won’t work, but will nevertheless require a lot more government involvement than a market based scheme. In reality, it seems likely a LNP government won’t actually do anything to modify the environmentally destructive process of the free market. Labor, on the other hand, gets a tick for taking action, even if it is through a market mechanism.

There is no reason to expect that the LNP will take action on the failure of the market and increasing inequality. Their response to the GFC was incoherent, but it is clear they would have used government stimulus less than the Labor party did, and they spend a lot of time criticizing that activity, with no acknowledgement of what it achieved. Aside from direct action on an emissions target, the only other policy announced by Tony Abbott is his paid paternity scheme – a gross example of middle class welfare.  It’s because of policies like this – and opposition to any government attempt to cut back on such welfare – that critics found Joe Hockey’s speech condemning a sense of entitlement among welfare recipients so ludicrous – pot kettle black. But I’m not laughing. I think that the Liberals will follow the British Conservatives – to say nothing of the American Republicans – into a further retreat from welfare for the poor, and further market based service provision. They will persist with the deregulation of the labour market, whatever Abbott has promised. Indeed, as argued by David Marr and Bruce Hawker, Abbott’s world view is possibly formed more by the Catholic distributism of his mentor A.B. Santamaria, which gives a prominent role to government, than by classical free market economics. He doesn’t follow the low spending low tax mantra of true free marketers in the party, such as Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull. If Abbott’s popularity continues to fall and the party decides to get rid of him, there are some in it who will heave a sigh of relief that the party can return to its true free market path. The Liberal Party remains close to the ultra free market Institute of Public Affairs – see their prescription for a free market Australia here. An LNP government will deserve the title ‘party of resistance’ more than any conservative government yet.

And what of the Labor Party? What the role of the state should be is hardly a question on every Labor member’s lips. But managing the economy in ways that promote greater equality should be core business. The National Disability Scheme, the Gonski model of education funding, increased spending on health and hospitals may not represent a coherent stand on government intervention, but at least they are steps in the right direction.

So where does that leave us? It’s clear there can be no going back to the old levels of government ownership or of government intervention in the economy. Market mechanisms like outsourcing and contracting out are here to stay. The market is still the best option we have for generating and distributing wealth. But unrestricted, it cannot produce a fair and decent society. We need to revive the idea of a mixed economy. There must be productive public/private partnerships, and effective and enforceable regulation. There should also be a proper assessment of what the market can’t do and government must do. Reagan was wrong: government is not the problem, and we need a vocal defence of the state as guardian of the common good. Come on Labor. Show a bit more initiative.


It stops with me

It’s one thing to be outraged by trolls on Facebook who make fun of our Prime Minister because her father has died. It’s another thing altogether to hear that 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones has said, at a Young Liberals meetings, that Gillard’s father ‘died of shame’.

This is a disgraceful state of affairs. Alan Jones is a ‘successful’ broadcaster, based on his audience share. 2GB earns revenue from Jones’s radio show. It’s a given that the likes of Jones will say nasty and horrible things whenever he has the opportunity, like any troll who gets kicks out of being cruel. But what has to stop is the sponsorship of such vileness from businesses like 2GB.

I recently wrote about Anne Summers’s assessment of the sexist and discriminatory treatment that Gillard is subjected to. At the end of Summers’s speech, she made the following appeal:

The persecution of our prime minister: it stops with me.

So next time you get one of those emails, don’t delete it – send it back to whoever sent it to you and tell them: It stops with me. When someone in your company refers to the prime minister disrespectfully, don’t ignore it – tell them off: it stops with me. And if you stumble across a website or a FaceBook page that contains offensive commentary or images, don’t avert your eyes – make a comment calmly saying how sad this makes you feel: it stops with me.

This is something that is beyond party, beyond political affiliation, beyond voting intention and beyond whether or not you like Julia Gillard. We should all be worried about this vilification of our first female prime minister. I think the same thing would happen if she were from the Liberal Party. Indeed Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Opposition has told me that she is constantly attacked for being childless.

So it does not matter whether you are Labor or Liberal, National Party or Green, whether you admired Julia Gillard or you despise her, whether you intend to vote for her or against her.

If enough of us push back, perhaps we can stop it. And if we can, perhaps that will help restore some dignity and respect to the holder of our highest office.

We would be a better place if we could.

So this is my appeal now too. It stops with me. I am making a stand against the likes of Alan Jones. I am making a stand against those who contribute to revolting, mysognist attacks against our PM.

Since 2GB obviously have no morals and don’t consider Jones to be, ethically, a stain on their reputation, it’s time for us to force this commercial entity to take notice. It’s time to boycott 2GB and, more importantly, their advertisers. Don’t just boycott these companies – let them know why they have lost your support. Write letters and emails. Make phone calls. Don’t just complain about Jones to your friends and family. Take action. And encourage others to do so. Together we can finally say enough is enough. Alan Jones should no longer be paid to spread his revolting filth on Australian airwaves.


Gillard’s Men Problem

Gillard’s gender gap is man-made, and Abbott’s is all of his own making.

There are many reasons why voters might dislike Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott that have nothing to do with their gender. But there has been a lot of commentary recently about Abbott’s ‘women problem’, evidenced by a widening gap between his approval ratings with women as compared to men. The LNP is blaming this problem on a supposed campaign by Labor members Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and Deb O’Neill. Liberal member Kelly O’Dwyer inelegantly called this group a ‘hand bag hit squad’ when lashing out at them in parliament this week. Simon Benson wrote in the Telegraph that:

All three have led the campaign to paint the Opposition leader Tony Abbott as a misogynist.

What seems to have escaped the Coalition’s attention, and that of journalists reporting this news, is that female voters’ attitude to Tony Abbott has not been formed by anything recently said by senior Labor women. Nor has it been generated by David Marr’s article in The Monthly in which he reveals that Abbott was an intimidating bully towards a female student at university. Women voters knew it already. When hearing this news story, Australian females did not collectively say ‘well that’s interesting, I didn’t know Abbott’s character was like that’. They collectively said ‘I always knew he was a bully and had a problem with women, and now here is more unequivocal proof’. It also didn’t help Abbott’s cause that he denied the event occurred, thereby labeling the female victim as a liar. Doesn’t this resonate with Abbott’s campaign to paint Gillard as a liar in order to discredit her? Female voters have had a long time to get to know Abbott, and it’s not just the way he walks or his inherent ‘blokiness’ that turns them off. It’s because he says things like this:

I think there does need to be give and take on both sides, and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they are both… they both need to be moderated, so to speak.

or this:

I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.

Angela Shanahan is right when she wrote in the Australian that:

Women are not fools at the ballot box: they vote for policies, not a leader’s personality (fire-walled of course).

But she fails to connect this argument with the point that females don’t like Abbott because they know instinctively that a man who holds such attitudes about women (that is, his personality), will not, as a leader, develop policies that promote women’s rights and interests. Furthermore, since Abbott tells voters so little about his future plans, women are left to judge for themselves what his policies might be, based on his personality.

The latest polls this week have highlighted that female voters’ perception of Abbott as a sexist bully is increasingly affecting their voting intentions. In this article Michelle Grattan reports that:

Tony Abbott is seen as being significantly more arrogant, narrow-minded, intolerant, and aggressive than Julia Gillard, in a new poll underlining the Opposition Leader’s image problem.

In Grattan’s article about the poll results on Monday, it is reported that:

In an important finding in light of claims about Mr Abbott having problems with women and an allegation of intimidatory behaviour towards a fellow student in 1977, he is 12 points behind as preferred PM among women, but leads by 5 points among men.

If Abbott’s 12 point deficit among women is evidence of the situation outlined above, how can we explain Abbott being 5 points ahead among men? Easy. It’s because Gillard is 5 points down with men. So what are the reasons for Gillard’s gender gap?

Anne Summers’s recent speech: ‘Her Rights at Work. The Political Persecution of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister‘  might go some way to explaining Gillard’s ‘problem’ with male voters. In this speech, Summers examines what she describes as:

the sexist and discriminatory treatment of Australia’s first female prime minister by the Opposition and by some elements in Australian society.

She describes a campaign that is:

the deliberate sabotaging of the prime minister by political enemies, who include people within her own party, and who are using an array of weapons which include personal denigration, some of it of a sexual or gendered nature, to undermine her and erode her authority.

I agree that such a campaign has been waged against Gillard. All the misogynistic abuse directed at her, detailed in Summers’s appendix to her speech, is horrifying. I also agree that this campaign aims to undermine and erode Gillard’s authority, and has reduced her popularity amongst some men.

Part of the reason why Summers’s argument is so shocking is that we, as Australians, have to come to terms with the behaviour of these people, mostly men, who justify their revolting antics by saying they have free speech and can use this right to show their hatred of our Prime Minister. Even though women dislike Abbott, this has not produced the sort of vile response that male hatred of Gillard has. I am not sure if the sub header in this Daily Telegraph piece has a typo, but if it was deliberate, it speaks volumes. The main headline reads:

Male voters turning off Prime Minister Julia Gillard according to pollsters.

The subheading says something similar, apart from one very important word.

Julia Gillard has a man problem. As the popularity of our first female prime minister plummets, government insiders fear men are turning on Ms Gillard.

Turning ‘on’ Ms Gillard. There is a lot of evidence that male voters don’t just voice their opinions at the ballot box by turning ‘off’ a leader, in the way that women are turning off Abbott. Some male voters have turned ‘on’ her as part of the misogynist campaign described by Summers.

But does this fully account for the poll results? Unfortunately, no.

There are many male voters who are so unengaged with politics generally that they are unlikely to be directly influenced by the specifics of the misogynist campaign against Gillard. These are people who wouldn’t have taken much notice of political media reportage, Tony Abbott’s door stops, Facebook hate groups and Alan Jones anti-carbon tax rallies. Yet they still contribute to Gillard’s poor standing in the polls amongst men. This leads me, sadly, to conclude that there are still many Australian men who are inherently misogynist and just not comfortable with a female in charge.

This situation is not unique to Gillard or Australia. An article in the New Zealand Herald reports on the polls in the lead up to the 2008 New Zealand election. The then Prime Minister, Labor’s Helen Clark, was far more unpopular with men than her rival, National John Key:

A gender breakdown of the poll reveals that National has 60.6 per cent support among males, miles ahead of Labour’s 24.7.

That’s quite a gender gap! This article about the Democratic primaries race between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, discusses the influence of race versus gender in terms of their effect on voters, and concludes:

one fact is clear. The primary data indicates that “more Americans see gender as more of a barrier in presidential politics than race”.

Julia Gillard quipped to Barack Obama:

you think it’s tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister.

It seems she is correct, her position is more difficult.

Could people argue that Abbott’s problem with women is similar to Gillard’s problem with men, and therefore the voting preferences cancel each other out? Could they say that this is simply a case of women voting for a female and men voting for a male? I don’t believe so. It’s not just because Abbott is a man that women don’t like him. It is because he is a horrible and sexist man. However, the difference in negative perceptions of Gillard amongst male voters as compared with woman voters can’t be blamed on sexism on her part, as nothing she has ever said or done has given the slightest ammunition to the idea that she unfairly discriminates based on gender. Abbott’s disadvantage with female voters is self-inflicted, but Gillard’s disadvantage with male voters appears to be innate, because she was born female.

This is a public service announcement

After the success of the recent guest post by my mum, Kay, she’s contributed again with this post about public service cuts. Enjoy!

Why is it that conservative political parties feel so comfortable attacking the public service? We are seeing public servants sacked or threatened in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. The federal Coalition and the SA Liberals are promising cuts if they get into office – Isobel Redmond even suggesting that a quarter of the state’s public servants could go – though she later backed away from this. (No doubt someone in her party reminded her you tell people that after the election, not before.)

I think this is more than just a knee jerk reaction, and it reflects a conservative view about limiting the role of government that is quite scary.

It’s true that conservative administrations attack the public service because they can. When they want to cut expenditure (rightly or wrongly), their own employees are the easiest target. They tell the electorate that of course they are not cutting the front line staff who deliver services to the public. It’s just those wastes of space in the back room – you know, the ones that run the systems that support the front line staff so they can get on with their work.

They usually feel safe in doing this because lots of Australians love to hate public servants. Not the teachers and nurses and police, but the paper pushers, the bean counters, the generators of red tape. Everyone has a rude public servant story. The concern felt for bank staff, or miners or vehicle builders who lose their jobs isn’t extended to public servants.

However there can be an electoral backlash – as appears to be the case in Queensland – if it seems that front line services will be affected. It is also true that the savings from getting rid of public servants are often illusory, as outsourced functions are expensive and often unsatisfactory. The commonwealth public service has grown under Labor at least in part because they turned some of the contract staff the Liberals had employed into salaried public servants, having almost certainly made the calculation it was cheaper that way.

But there are actually more fundamental reasons why conservatives don’t mind cutting the public service. They don’t want the state to do lots of the things that the public service currently does. Some of these things they think private enterprise should do. Others they don’t want done at all.

Getting things done by private enterprise comes in two different forms. The first is the extreme version of user pays. Consider the Baillieu government’s plans to cut TAFE funding and therefore TAFE jobs. Don’t we need people with the sort of training you get at TAFE, like trades apprenticeships, and technical training of all types? Yes, but there are now private providers who do that sort of thing. They are more expensive than TAFE, but that’s not the government’s problem. They are passing the cost back to the customer. Can’t afford it? Live in the country where there are no private providers? Tough luck. This is called taking personal responsibility. (See what Mitt Romney says about this.)

The second is the contracting out model. Both Liberal and Labor governments already use this model, for example out-sourcing significant functions like running prisons and immigration detention centres. In Britain, they are taking this much further, contracting out whole chunks of government activity – such as children’s services. In Devon, Virgin Care (as in Virgin airlines) and Serco (as in Adelaide busses) competed for a contract to run services for children and families at risk. Neither has experience in the area. And naturally they expect to make a profit. The services are still free at the point of contact, so profits have to come from somewhere else. The conservative theory is of course that private enterprise must be more efficient than a government-run one; what this usually means is fewer staff and less accountability. Are the Liberals planning to follow the lead of the British Conservative Party should they win government?

Though the Liberal Party is not telling us where they would make cuts to the public service, they are starting to talk about a revamped federalism, handing responsibility for some functions such as health and environmental matters back to the states. This at a time when states are themselves cutting their public services; who will take on these extra tasks? How will they be paid? The states – even the Liberal ones – will want extra money to take on extra responsibilities. Who knows where that will come from.  A rise in the GST, as is being urged by the NSW Liberal government? And how will differences between the willingness and capacity of the states to administer these areas be dealt with? This is looking very like an attempt to curtail what government actually does.

And then there are the things that conservative governments just don’t want to know about. The Liberals aren’t telling us much about what they will cut, but Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says “The Department of Climate Change would be very high up the list for close scrutiny.” No surprises there. Since climate change is a hoax, we don’t need anyone to do anything in that area. But wait. What about the Liberals’ direct action policy to reduce carbon emissions? Won’t that need someone to administer it? Whoops. Worry about that later. Then there’s all that regulation – the red tape they are going to do away with; this presumably means they will abdicate oversight in various areas where they think private enterprise should have free reign. Other as yet unnamed programs will also go, though we aren’t being told the criteria to be applied. A further reduction of state responsibility.

None of what I’ve said is meant to suggest that public service can avoid scrutiny. It ought to be as efficient and effective as possible. Programs that don’t work should be scrapped, even if this means job losses. But what we need – from both sides of politics – is some explanation of their view of the role of the state, and what resources they need to sustain this. What services should governments provide? How equitable should they be? At what cost? What can private enterprise do better than the public service? What risks are associated with private provision? What areas should never be left to the market?

All these questions arise from cutting the public service. Liberals, state and federal, really need to tell us how they view them, and what they think the role of government should be.

Dr Kay Rollison

Who are these people?

You couldn’t open a paper, read a news site or listen to the radio this week without hearing someone talking about ‘Internet trolls’. I don’t think it’s helpful to label people who are unpleasant on social media and online comment pages as ‘trolls’. The name seems to give them some sort of credibility, whilst also lessening their personal responsibility for their actions. As if they’re a movement. As if they’re acting a part – the nastiness isn’t really them – it’s just their troll ‘phase’ or a ‘persona’ they use anonymously online to sledge abuse at people. Let’s just call them what they really are – sad, cruel, grumpy and often unhinged people. If you’ve ever Tweeted on the #auspol tag and haven’t been abused by the likes of @dotnetnoobie, you’re just not trying hard enough. I’ve become quite good at ignoring them.

But after this topic hit the headlines recently, it got me thinking – who are these people? We’re not talking about ‘Astro turphers’ or ‘sock puppets’ who spread falsehoods on the Internet and muck on behalf of some vested interest, or are set up by a computer bot and don’t actually exist. We’re talking about real people, at real computers, thinking up these vile statements and taking joy from the hurt they cause.

Just to recap – Charlotte Dawson was hospitalised after receiving a barrage of abuse on Twitter. Julia Gillard has reported that she is regularly abused by ‘misogynists’ and ‘nut jobs’ on the Internet, including king nut job himself – Larry Pickering. This week, it’s been interesting to watch radio shock jocks and the Daily Telegraph jump into action to fight against abusive comments on Twitter after NRL star Robbie Farrah spoke out about abuse he received about his mother’s death. As Jonathan Green pointed out, radio shock jocks and Murdoch press wading into this debate is a case of an abusive pot calling an equally abusive kettle black. I tend to agree with Tim Dunlop’s view that a lot of the horribleness on the Internet is inspired by many of the most successful voices in mainstream media and politics. It was very telling that Robbie Farrah himself was reminded that those who live in glass houses best not throw stones after it was revealed that he suggested on Twitter that Gillard should be given a noose for her birthday. Charming stuff Robbie. In an odd twist to this saga, comedian and writer Catherine Deveny reported yesterday that she had been visited by police after responding to a Tweet which could be construed as a threat to Campbell Newman. I’m assuming Robbie Farrah never received such a visit.

Last weekend, after it was announced that Julia Gillard’s father, John, had passed away, long time advocate against vile behaviour on social media, @mikestutchbery, tweeted a collection of comments from Facebook directed at Gillard about her Father’s death, including:

“All I have to say is KARMA babe LOL…” from Tracie Lee Strachan. (LOL means ‘Laugh Out Loud’).

“I wonder if he committed suicide? Couldn’t handle the shame of the Red Hag” from Brian Thorburn.

I must admit, even as someone who has seen a lot of revolting behaviour on the Internet, these people revelling in the news of Gillard’s father’s death did shock and upset me. No matter what you think of a Prime Minister’s policy, or personality, how can these people possibly think it’s ok to denigrate someone because their father has died?

I was equally shocked and upset again the next day. As a lifelong and passionate member of the Port Adelaide Football Club, it was devastating to find out on Monday morning that one of our players had been killed in Las Vegas. In the hours between the announcement of the incident and the confirmation of the player’s name, my sister phoned me to share her horror at this Tweet she had found when looking for news on the incident:

It’s hard to understand how cruel someone must have to be to make fun of a person’s death.

I find it really unhelpful when people like Lauren Rosewarn suggest that the best way to deal with the problem of Internet bullies is to opt out of interaction on the web. And the advice to ‘not feed the trolls’ and to ‘block and report abuse’ is equally unhelpful. You don’t know someone has offended you until you’ve read something offensive. Sure, you can block them at that point, but my sister wasn’t following Milton Johnson in order to see this Tweet – it came up in a search result and she read it thinking it was newsworthy. If you visit the #auspol hash tag, you see everything people have Tweeted using this tag, and trust me – it’s not pretty!

So back to my original question – who are these people? It didn’t take me long to find out a lot about Milton Bradley (@LordBromley). Here are a collection of his recent Tweets:

Bob Brown’s One World Govt 2020: “Muslim nations unanimously voted for the death penalty to be imposed on Brown for sodomy

@JuliaGillard has demonstrated competence in two areas: 1) Getting & Maintaining power 2) Being sexually promiscuous #sociopath #auspol

I know… everytime Gillard gets caught out she could assume a new “victim” status – lesbian, black muslim- possibilities endless! #auspol

@Juliagillard has explicitly broken 5 of the 10 commandments, implicitly broken 2. No wonder she’s an atheist. No standards 2 follow #auspol

Here’s an idea for Channel 10’s Can of Worms – Are Jews a Race?

By ripping into @TonyAbbottMHR all @leighsales does is strengthen the case for privatising #theirABC #auspol

When you elect a female PM, u get a big black hole! #vulgar #auspol

I saw Marr on Lateline damning Abbott with faint praise. I will give Marr one thing though, he’s got a great voice- no homo #auspol

Gillard is often accused of trying to control the noose! #auspol

Please @dailytelegraph I’m a troll! Make me “accountable”! I’m with you. In a perfect world only corporate MSM would exist @change #auspol

Milton Retweeted this from @AustProtParty, presumably in support:

When are you going to come to your senses & adopt our policy of ending black African immigration, @Bowenchris? #auspol

I could go on but I’m sure you know all you need to about Milton from this sample. The scary thing about Milton is that he has 593 followers on Twitter. Alan Jones would be an irrelevant misogynist, racist, bigoted nut job if he had no listeners, the problem is that Jones has millions. And there are millions of Jones worshipping Miltons in our country. Scary but true.

To celebrate Milton’s 10,000th tweet, he posted a video on YouTube. I wouldn’t recommend watching it. Not because it’s offensive – it’s actually quite boring. Milton reserves his spite and crudeness for his Twitter account, but doesn’t seem to be able to summon the energy to repeat this bile while looking down a camera. One noteworthy line from the video is:

 My main value is being PC free. Political correctness has no place in my Twitter platform. If I find a racist joke funny I’ll tell it. I don’t think any discussion is off limits.

This attitude is really at the heart of all ‘freedom of speech’ arguments that oppose any sort of regulation of Internet behaviour or media standards. People like Milton, and Alan Jones, believe it is their right to offend anyone, anyhow they like and as long as they have a platform to do this. Whether it be an individual’s social media account or a national radio show, they will push their offensiveness to the limits. No regard is given to the effect this has on people who inadvertently see or hear the hurtful remarks.

Now that I have identified who people like Milton Bradley are, next comes the question of their influence on our society. Sadly it’s clear that Australia is following the path of the US Tea Party movement, with a subset of conservative political ideologues who have gone feral. Tony Abbott courts the support of this subset. Many of his most passionate supporters are nut jobs like Milton, Jones and Pickering. Has Abbott ever spoken out against the public abuse Gillard receives on a daily basis from his supporters? Has any conservative politician ever conceded that such a cohort of people are their most vocal constituency? When Abbott fronts an anti-carbon tax rally, doesn’t he support and encourage the people who hold up banners saying ‘ditch the witch?’

The coverage of Internet trolls has coincided with media analysis of David Marr’s reportage in The Monthly about Tony Abbott’s behaviour as a university student. Abbott, and mates Greg Sheridan and Gerald Henderson, flatly deny Barbara Ramjan’s accusation of bullying (punching walls and intimidation).  A friend of the woman, David Patch, has corroborated her story, which makes it much harder for Abbott to deny (though I’m sure he’ll still try).

In his opinion piece, Patch explains:

Although he (Abbott) was an active member of a fundamentalist political movement with a religious base (the DLP and the National Civic Council led by Bob Santamaria), it was his personally offensive behaviour which stood out. He was always (verbally) attacking gays and feminists and lefties. You certainly knew what he was against – the trouble was that you couldn’t figure out what he was in favour of!

Perhaps it’s not just that Abbott never condemns, and even encourages the behaviour of his supporters in their offensive campaigns that ignore every common standard of decency. Perhaps these two media stories are one in the same. Abbott doesn’t criticise the behaviour of his vile supporters, because he is one of these people. He and Milton Bradley are, perhaps, more similar than he would ever care to admit.

Politics 101 – a guest post

Long time readers of my blog will know my mum, Kay Rollison, is my writing buddy, and creator of What Book to Read. She also happens to have a PhD in history and after reading my left vs right post last week, she reminisced about the lessons she learnt in politics 101 and how some of this knowledge is still relevant today. Here is her guest post on this subject:

I keep seeing the suggestion that the political categories ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer have relevance. I don’t think that’s so. It may be more complicated than it used to be, but the distinction between left and right has never been more important.

Back in the far off days of Politics 101, we were introduced to an admittedly crude continuum running from left to right, with positions along it assigned by reference to a set of political options relating to the role of the state in the economy. At the far left was state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. At the far right was the unfettered free market. Positions along the way were determined by attitudes – or actual policies – on matters such as the state’s role in education, health, welfare, banking or transport, and on the issue of progressive taxation. The greater the role of the state, the further to the left; the less intervention in the market, the further to the right.

Bisecting this x axis was a y axis: at the bottom libertarianism – the unfettered individual (think Ron Paul), and at the top total state dominance of society. Positions along the way were determined by attitudes – or actual policies – on matters such as human rights, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, freedom of religion, separation of church and state and respect for minorities.

We then plotted political parties/types of government on the x and y axis. Needless to say the government of the Soviet Union fell in the top left corner and the American Republican party towards the centre of the bottom right quadrant. But dictatorships often fell in the top right corner, as authoritarian practices often went hand in hand with a laissez faire attitude to the economy, and veneration of property rights. In Australia, the ALP fell somewhere to the left of the centre and the Liberal Party somewhere to the right, but neither was extreme, and both were well below the line on the freedom/authoritarian index, if I remember rightly. As I’ve said this was a crude index, and no doubt served the prevailing cold war orthodoxy.

Now much has changed. We no longer have the Soviet Union (or even China) as examples of a so-called command economy. Very few political parties now challenge the dominance of the free market; it is more an issue of how far it should be regulated. I expect we were taught that in a democracy both the left and the right had the good of all citizens at heart, but believed in different ways of achieving it. This is increasingly hard to believe, as greater and greater shares of wealth accumulate in the hands of the rich. The rise of identity politics, to some extent independent of class, has thrown positions on the old freedom/authority scale into confusion as issues of race, gender and sexual preference challenge comfortable old views about personal freedom. Fundamentalist religious convictions also challenge the new conceptions of personal freedoms, for example on a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage. The political reaction to terrorism has undermined the rule of law and the respect for minorities. And then there is environmentalism, the issues of climate change, sustainability and the limits to growth.

I certainly agree that these factors complicate the picture. And they have changed where you might place a party on particular issues on my graph. US Republicans, for example, are even further to the right on economic matters, and on individual rights, like a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, or respect for minorities, they moved well above the y axis. The Australian Liberals are not far behind. Both Liberal and Labor in Australia fall above the line on anti-terrorism provisions and the rights of asylum seekers.  The ALP is pursuing a market based response to climate change, while the Liberals (apparently) favour government intervention.

Does this make the model irrelevant? I don’t think so. Positions on the y axis are all over the place. But the x axis still has a left and a right. You could argue that the left has shifted more to the right, with privatisation of government assets. There are also arguments that governments have fewer means of effective intervention in the market than they did fifty years ago. But none of this alters the fact that there is a left right continuum, and individuals, policies and even parties by necessity take a stand along it on any given issue. I’m sure there are lots of inconsistencies – the other day we saw Clive Palmer supporting a public service union – but in general individual positions – and party policies – cluster round either a more regulated free market, or a less constrained one. This is as true for regulating carbon emissions as it is for deregulating the labour market.

The bottom line is that the market does not and cannot distribute wealth in a fair and equal way. An unregulated market is not in the best interests of all. A rising tide (even if there is one) doesn’t raise all boats and wealth does not trickle down. So an awful lot depends on the state’s readiness to limit the inherent inequities of the market, for example by ensuring decent education and health, proper welfare provision, and by minimising large disparities of wealth through taxation. This is the agenda of the left, not the right. Everyone who thinks of themselves as being on the left, and maybe some on the right on the x axis regret that freedoms on the y axis have been compromised by parties of both sides. But that doesn’t alter the fact that an understanding of what is at stake in the left right division over the economy is crucial to our future. Maybe even the word ‘class’ hasn’t lost its usefulness.

Every candidate for political office – Labor, Liberal, National, Green, Independent – has views on these issues – even if they are not well articulated or thought out. By all means vote for the candidate who supports your view on hunting in national parks, poker machines or gay marriage, but don’t kid yourself that they – or you – are free of being left or right wing.

Left vs Right – where we come from

In an interesting article in the Global Mail, Labor MP Andrew Leigh argues that Labor is the true ‘liberal’ party in Australia and that the Labor party should embrace this ideal as a way to reconnect with their traditional base. This suggestion got me thinking, as I often do, about the true differences between left wing and right wing political ideology. In Leigh’s article he states:

In my first speech to parliament, I argued that the Labor Party stands at the confluence of two powerful rivers in Australian politics. We believe in egalitarianism: that a child from Aurukun can become a High Court justice, and that a mine worker should get the same medical treatment as the mine owner. And we believe in liberalism: that governments have a role in protecting the rights of minorities, that freedom of speech applies as much to unpopular ideas as to popular ones, and that all of us stand equal beneath the Southern Cross. The modern Labor Party is the heir to the small-L liberal tradition in Australia.

For me, the egalitarianism aspect of Labor’s values is the most important reason that I support most of the party’s policies. I often remind people that an easy test when comparing two policies is to decide which one does the most good for the most people. This, for me, is the starkest difference between the opposing ends of the political spectrum. Left wingers tend to judge a policy’s value based on the effect it will have on their entire community. For lefties, community ranges from everything from a local council area, to the entire country, and often to the whole world. Conversely, right wingers are much more likely to think first and foremost of the policy’s impact on themselves and their immediate family. Any concern about the impact on a community is only seen through the prism of the resulting impact on the individual. If the policy doesn’t affect the individual or their family, it is sometimes ignored, or worse, labeled a ‘waste’.

This attitude is the main reason why, as a leftie, I often feel I’m talking a different language from a right winger, or sometimes that I’m from a different planet.

I came across two examples of this differing perspective this week. The first was the attitude of Michael Smith, radio shock jock, during his appearance on SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From. Throughout the three episodes, Michael was predictably hostile towards what he termed ‘illegal boat people’, who he saw as a threat to Australia’s idyllic way of life. Even while in a former Somali asylum seeker’s home, Michael found it difficult to hide his disgust at the decisions that this man had made as a desperate child seeking to save his own life. I was so outraged by Michael’s behaviour, at times I found it hard to watch. But the most depressing part of his journey were the moments where he seemed to be struggling to reconcile his pity for the African refugees within his line of sight, with his hatred of anyone who enters Australia by boat. He met an orphaned boy who he felt drawn to in a Somali refugee camp, and seemed to finally understand a small amount of what these people are going through – what might drive them to risk everything for a better life. When asked what he would do to help these people, I was hoping that he might put his right wing ideology aside for a few moments and pledge never to call asylum seekers ‘illegals’ again. I hoped that he would promise to spend the rest of his career educating his radio audiences about the plight of refugees, and explain why they become asylum seekers, rather than whipping up fear and resentment towards them as he has been doing. In actual fact, what he suggested he do to help was an incredibly courageous and humane thing – to try to adopt the child he had bonded with. My point is, this decision shows the contrast between a right winger and a left winger. Smith has absolutely no sympathy for the millions of refugees that he’s never met, and is never likely to meet. He would therefore never support a policy that tries to help even a small percentage of these faceless people, and would actually reduce its potential success by encouraging his audience to share his view. Smith’s best attempt at helping the small sample of refugees he met in Africa, was to grant one of them access to the privilege he has enjoyed his entire life. Just the one that he bonded with. The one that he chooses to save. The one that becomes an Australian, part of his inner sanctum, part of the only group of people he feels obligated to protect – his family. Smith said more than he could ever understand with this suggestion.

Julian Burnside explains this scenario much more eloquently than I can in this post about Go Back to Where you Came From and the opposing left and right wing camps. He explains that the three guests on the show who are left wing (Deveny, Bailey and Asher) believed that:

The misery of individual suffering places an irresistible obligation on each of us.

His response to this is that: 

This is psychologically true, but does not translate into workable policy: it would have us trying to help them all (or trying to help all the sympathetic ones, or the cute ones, or the ones who appeal to us individually).  Connected to this, but much more compelling is the ethics of proximity: our obligation to help depends on how close the person is to us (both in relationship and geographically).  The child who comes to the door pleading for help has a more pressing claim for help than a similarly distressed child on the other side of the world.

For the likes of Smith and most right wingers, I believe the ‘ethics of proximity’ are considered not for those who share our country, or state or even our neighborhood, and certainly don’t extend to humanity beyond our shores. The ‘ethics of proximity’, any sort of compassion or empathy, is limited to those who share their living rooms. This is why, for right wingers, a political policy must always benefit that individual and those with the closest proximity to them only. Everyone else can go get stuffed.

The second example of this attitude in right wingers was much more blatant, coming from Mitt Romney’s Republican nomination acceptance speech:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

In other words, Romney knows perfectly well that his right wing supporters don’t give a damn about the environment. Their only concern is their family. This line was designed to imply that Obama’s promise to save the planet is an example of a left wing government turning their back on individuals, in order to save the entire society (or the total sum of all individuals). Regardless of the irrationality of this sentiment (how do you save/help/support/encourage individuals without doing the same for all individuals?) I believe this is the crux of our differences.

Of course we could argue all day about the reasons why a strong community will always benefit more individuals in the long term. We could try to explain why it’s much better for all of us to work together to help improve our collective circumstances, rather than trying to appeal to each individual’s selfishness. But this is not the sort of conversation that right wingers are interested in having. Is someone like Michael Smith or Mitt Romney ever likely to be persuaded by such an argument? I’m not holding my breath.