Message in a bottle

Sep 23

The title of Julian Burnside’s recent article ‘alienation to alien nation‘ neatly sums up what I’ve been feeling in the last couple of weeks; indeed, one working title I had in my head while this post was brewing was “stranger in a strange land”. For the first time in my life, leaving the country on a permanent basis has actually been attractive on one level. Because this man is now Australia’s Prime Minister.

Watching as the numbers rolled in on election night, it was almost inconceivable to me that the majority of my compatriots had voted for the party that had stood in staunch support of an individual who consistently engaged in negative, unconstructive, ‘lowest-common-denominator’ tactics that brought mainstream political discourse in this country to a level akin to schoolyard ‘slagging off’.

It was also a slap across the face for me personally. For years I’ve been inclined to have my head in the sand regarding politics. I have effectively been part of the populace whose political apathy has given rise to a mass of malleable support, and this despite the fact that I’ve worked in the public service close enough to levels of management that have shown me first hand how the politicisation of the public service has effects on the ground.

So this post is a kind of message in a bottle that I’m setting adrift: “Help, I’m trapped on a regressive island called Australia, and it’s partly my fault.” Just like a message in a bottle, it probably won’t help much, except it may make me feel a bit better.

What’s so bad about a Coalition victory?

I know there are readers of this blog outside of Australia, so first, a little bit of background for their benefit.

The Coalition is an alliance of the Liberal and National parties. Liberal in Australia actually means conservative; the liberalism is about economic liberalism. The Nationals historically represent rural Australia or, perhaps more correctly, the rural elite – the landowners.

Liberals need not be socially conservative, but Tony Abbott is. The thing that really perplexes me is that, on some issues at least, Australia isn’t. Or, at least, I used to think it isn’t.

On gender

Take the status of women, for example. Here are some of Mr. Abbott’s thoughts:

  • Quote as a young man: “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”. Now, I held views thirty (and fewer) years ago that I don’t hold any longer, but Mr. Abbott’s more recent thoughts on this statement were: “Ah, I don’t want to repudiate what was said, but I don’t want people to think that what I thought as a 21 year old is necessarily what I think as a 52 year old.” So, hang on, do you stand by the expressed position or not? The following, and his subsequent actions, suggest so.
  • Quote: “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing…”
  • Quote: “…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.”  In context, this doesn’t come across as badly as it seems in isolation: it was stated during a panel discussion about men and women ‘putting out’ when they don’t feel like it. While all the participants’ comments tended to gravitate to the stereotypical position of the woman holding out, it was specifically qualified that it may be the man holding out. No-one else on the panel suggested, or even implied, an absolute right to withhold or demand, and certainly not along gendered lines.

Around nine days after the election, Mr. Abbott’s Cabinet was named, and includes just one woman, out of 19 members. That’s just over 5 percent. Afghanistan has twice that percentage. Mr. Abbott said he was disappointed at the number of women included. He, generously, thought there should be at least two women. As Annabel Crabb noted, “Just wait till he gets hold of the guy who drew up the list.”

Mr. Abbott’s conservative views on the position of women have been no secret. And the ‘average Australian’ is a woman (there are only 99 men for every 100 women). And yet Mr. Abbott is now Prime Minister. So, does the average Australian agree with his position on these matters?

On climate change

Quote: “The argument is absolute crap. However, the politics of this are tough for us. Eighty per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.”

Mr. Abbott later claimed that it was the idea of scientific consensus on climate change that was absolute crap. Regardless, the thrust of his statement – that climate change represents a political problem for him – suggests that he sees it as a political danger rather than a real-world one.

Less than two weeks after the election, Mr. Abbott shut down Australia’s Climate Commission, which, according to its website, was established to “provide all Australians with an independent and reliable source of information about: the science of climate change; the international action being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and; the economics of a carbon price.” One could question the value of an expert body which exists only to educate the public, while not being allowed to comment on or inform policy (see the Terms of Reference here), but the fact that it had the mandate to independently educate the public free from Ministerial discretion did at least prevent it being a government propaganda puppet.

Despite Mr. Abbott’s own statistic that 80% of people believe that climate change is a real and present danger, it certainly appears to be less of an issue for him, with a core election promise being the scrapping of carbon pricing.

Perhaps Mr. Abbott has more current statistics on the percentage of people that believe climate change is a real and present danger. The election result is certainly suggestive of a change in opinion; does the average Australian agree with his position on these matters?

Ministry changes – what’s in a name?

Mr. Abbott has said that he didn’t want every concern of the government to be reflected somewhere in a Ministry’s name, requiring extra-large business cards for grandiose titles. Just because a name is no longer included, doesn’t mean it’s not a concern. Fair enough. But the names that are included, as compared to those that aren’t, seem fairly suggestive. For example, the Department of Health and Ageing is now just the Department of Health (while the population percentage of the aged cohort is expected to nearly double in the next generation or so, according to the ABS). We no longer have a Minister for Science (for the first time in 80 years). The list goes on. Oh, and bucking the trend of shorter names, the Department of Immigration is now the Department of Immigration and Border Control (more on this later).

The perfection of the culture wars

Mr. Abbott has already sacked three government department public service heads as a first act as Prime Minister. The amount of working knowledge that is acquired by a Secretary of a government department is formidable – I have been involved in the project team responsible for the delivery of a $47 million government project, and the scope and diversity of that project was eye-opening in comparison to my experiences in the project office of an ASX-listed provider with a global presence. And that project was just one, in one division of several, of a much broader portfolio. Good Secretaries don’t grow on trees; you’d want a very good reason for sacking one. No reason has been made public (that I’m aware of to date), so one naturally assumes that this is a continuation of the politicisation of the public service that was such a concern in the Howard years.

However, I think the real perfection of the culture wars comes in the Coalition’s promise to “reprioritise” ARC funding. I posted on Facebook recently:

“While I’d like to be able to subscribe to the view that culture wars are just a political distraction, they’re not. They have very real impacts on the ground. Political veto on ARC grants will erode culture – in effect, rob us of our ability to participate in those most human of traits: introspection, investigation, and informed imagination.”

In the scheme of things, reshuffling some grants is unlikely to have as much of a short-term effect as the other impacts of Coalition policy, and when I speak of perfection of the culture wars, I mean only in essence; this aspect of culture warmongering erodes culture at its source.

This is one area where the Coalition probably is in step with ‘the average Australian’. It’s easy to argue against political veto on research grants for academics by demonstrating that other academics reckon they’re a good idea, but ultimately this isn’t going to convince Mr. Average. Academia has some work to do there.

In the final analysis, though, I don’t see this as a big vote winner.

So how did it happen?

In short, I think it happened like this:

murdoch media manipulation

The front page of a Murdoch-owned paper announcing the election.

The Rupert Murdoch-led media maintained an incredibly brash anti-Labor editorial (in the finer print under the headlines) campaign. Failed candidate (and ex-Premier) Peter Beattie was adamant that the chief cause for Labor’s failure at the polls was the disunity of the party. He’s possibly right, but even that has to be viewed through the context of the coverage of the disunity. It’s been relatively easy to forget that Mr. Abbott ousted former leader Malcolm Turnbull in a leadership spill in 2009 and, indeed, it’s not unusual to find comments from people hoping for disunity with the Liberals – a return to power for Malcolm Turnbull.

The venom and bias of Murdoch-fuelled attacks would be no surprise to Americans, where it was the focus of the documentary Outfoxed, and a study which demonstrated that people watching Fox News were (against a general trend of news watching resulting in being better informed) significantly more likely to have misinformed views on many issues, and that this effect increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure.

If the partisan position of Mr. Murdoch to Mr. Abbott was ever in question, Mr. Murdoch himself seems happy to erase that doubt, as per this recent Tweet on his Twitter account:


In 1995 Mr. Murdoch was asked, “Of all the things in your business empire, what gives you the most pleasure?” His answer was, “Being involved with the editor of a paper in a day-to-day campaign. Trying to influence people.”

There are those who feel his influence is waning, and others who feel it’s still an important factor. I tend to agree with the latter, particularly along the lines that:

Newspapers continue to set a daily agenda, particularly in politics. They are responsible for the majority of online news which in turn feeds blogs and social media. Radio and television feed off newspaper coverage, creating an echo chamber, particularly in small state capitals.

Here in Tasmania, the two major dailies are both Murdoch-owned. If influence is being eroded by online news sources, that would be a good reason for Mr. Murdoch to support Mr. Abbott’s far more limited broadband internet policy.

I can imagine Mr. Murdoch punching the air when Mr. Abbott said of Julia Gillard in Parliament:

this is a Prime Minister who said that News Ltd had hard questions to answer and was then unable to specify what those questions might be — not a single one. This is a Prime Minister who had a screaming match with her then boss of News Ltd in Australia because one of his papers had dared to talk about the Australian Workers Union slush fund of the 1990s. This is a government that has a communications minister who declared that the Daily Telegraph was engaged in a deliberate campaign to bring down the government, without any evidence whatsoever.

An attempt by an activist organisation to bring the public’s attention onto media manipulation, by way of a television advertisement, was apparently blocked by TV stations refusing to air it.

There is, of course, misinformation from both sides. One article in a self-styled “independent” ‘lefty’ news source claimed that Abbott vowed in his budget reply speech to cut the tax-free threshold from $18,200 back to $6000. Hansard shows that he vowed the exact opposite (I wrote to the news site and alerted them of their error in fact; at time of writing they’re yet to address it).

Stopping the boats

That the issue of the arrival to Australia of asylum seekers by boat could become such a red-hot policital issue is perhaps the greatest evidence to my mind of the importance of the media in shaping the debate, because, relatively speaking, the issue should barely have rated. And yet not only did it rate, it rated well enough that the supposedly social-justice-leaning Labor party excelled in the race-to-the-humanitarian-bottom by declaring that any asylum seeker arriving in Australian waters by boat would be resettled in Papua New Guinea, a country far less equipped to deal with any influx.

The arrival of boats made headlines. But, as Mr. Burnside points out, the contribution to Australia’s population is very small. 394,200 people were added to Australia’s population in 2012. The revised estimate of asylum seekers for the current financial year is 25,000. That represents 6% of our population increase or, as Mr. Burnside points out, (under) 4 week’s worth of normal population growth. (As an aside, I would personally happily forgo procreative activities for a month if it meant I didn’t have to see Mr. Abbott’s head uttering drivel about stopping the boats, for an entire year. Perhaps we could propose this on a national level. We men could tell our wives, as they’re doing the ironing, that while we appreciate their attempts to curb their natural resistance to sex, we’re going to abstain heroically and offer them some relief…)

And why the focus on boats?

Although the proportion of asylum seekers arriving by boat has increased significantly in the last few years, and boat arrivals continue to be the focus of much public and political attention, they are in fact more likely to be recognised as refugees than those who have arrived by air. For example, the progressive protection visa grant rate for asylum seekers from the top country of citizenship for boat arrivals (Afghanistan) has varied between about 80 and 95 per cent since 2009; while the final protection visa grant rate for those applying for asylum from the top country of citizenship for air arrivals (China) is usually only around 20 to 30 per cent.

(from the Parliamentary Library fact sheet)

In other words, people coming by boat are, if anything, more deserving of our compassion, since they’re more likely to be genuine asylum seekers.

But the politicians continue to emotively label them “illegals” (despite international laws permitting people to lawfully seek asylum) and “queue jumpers”. And, more recently, “economic migrants” – both Liberal and Labor. Mr. Abbott is also fond of exhorting asylum seekers to come by the “front door” rather than the “back door”, this despite being challenged over twelve months ago to define where the “queue” is:

Mr Abbott should know that there is no queue when you run for your life. The recent execution of an Afghan woman by the Taliban (another example of a very well-established pattern) gives some idea of why people seek asylum. A significant proportion of boat-people in the past 15 years have been Afghan Hazaras fleeing the Taliban. If an Afghan were to embrace Mr Abbott’s scruples and look for a queue, the obvious place would be the Australian Embassy in Kabul. The Department of Foreign Affairs website informs us: “The Australian Embassy in Kabul operates from a number of locations that are not publicly disclosed due to security reasons. The Australian Embassy in Kabul has no visa function.” So where is the queue? Leave aside that the location of the Australian Embassy is a secret, the larger point is that refugee flows are always untidy. The idea that desperate people will conduct themselves as if waiting for a bus to take them to the shops is not only ludicrous, it reveals a complete lack of empathy, or even understanding, of why refugees flee for safety in the first place.

The irony here is that Tony Abbott arrived with his parents, on the Oronsay, as a “ten pound Pom” – on assisted passage from England. In other words, he was an economic migrant who arrived by boat. And, as Vizzini stated, everyone knows Australia is peopled entirely by criminals anyway.


It looks like we’ll now be subjected to a media treatment of a different kind. Mr. Abbott wants sport ‘back’ on the front page. “Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics because it shows that there is a fundamental unity”. No, rather, happy is the Prime Minister whose people are more interested in sport than in politics; if sport should replace politics on the front page, that would show me that there is a fundamental unity of purpose between my Prime Minister and my newspaper.

And those boat people? Under the previous government, arrivals were notified as a matter of course. Now, this information will be ‘managed’ as part of the solution. Initially, there will be weekly briefings on boat arrivals – not immediate notifications – and then those weekly briefings may be spaced further apart, because, incoming Minister for Immigration and Border Control Scott Morrison said, the boats will be getting less frequent anyway. And this in the face of 1 million refugees leaving Syria this year, bringing the total (so far) close to 4.5 million from Syria alone.

Mr. Abbott plans to buy fishing boats from Indonesians to prevent them smuggling people to Australia, and to tow any that do arrive back to Indonesia, despite the fact that Indonesia’s Foreign Minister rejected that plan. But it may not matter if they reject it, because “we’re not asking their permission, we’re asking for their understanding”. Yes, that’s really what our new Minister for Foreign Affairs said, but I haven’t seen the context in which it was stated. Perhaps Ms. Bishop was suggesting that once the Indonesians understand the plans, they’ll agree that seeking permission would be redundant. But it seems the Coalition will have a hard sell – many senior Indonesians are reportedly already offside.

If (or when?) things start to go strangely silent in the newspapers, and we are regaled of tales of Australia’s sporting prowess on the front page (perhaps after the AIS has been privatised?; action item 63 on the IPA‘s to do list for Mr. Abbott), I hope someone reminds Mr. Abbott of his own words to Parliament regarding government interference with the media:

This is a government which wants to hide the truth to protect itself. It does not want to protect the national interest; it wants to damage the national interest. It wants to hide the truth to protect itself. Does anyone think this is anything other than a disgrace?

Yeah, but how did it really happen?

Despite reports to the contrary, Australia has enjoyed a relatively strong economy for at least the last decade, spanning the global financial crisis. Last year, Credit Suisse ranked (p.10) Australia’s median wealth as the highest of any country. I’ve wondered whether that’s what’s enabled me to have left-leaning views; taking a position that inclines towards social responsibility must surely be easier when you’re comfortably off. I’ve never been without work – I signed up for the dole when I first moved to Melbourne after getting married, but found work before (from memory) the first payment came in. But even the process of signing up was a window into another existence. I wrote about it at the time:

1st day at Centrelink. Monday 8:30 appointment. Got there at 8:25. Three or four other early birds standing on doorstep waiting for opening time. One of whom seemed to be wandering between the others, half muttering haphazard sentences to the discomfort of his hearers. I cringed, awaiting my first encounter with a crazy [forgive me, I was ignorant] Centrelink crony, but it never happened. At a couple of minutes before opening time, a Centrelink employee made her way through the doors, and on her heels went muttering man, who emerged only seconds later looking dejected and sheepish, presumably having been told that it wasn’t 8:30 yet. I struggled to not let this man confirm a stereotype I’d received from who knows where, but I’m sure that somewhere it seemed just a little too coincidental. I also felt rattled when I realised I’d subconsciously taken comfort in the Centrelink woker’s attire; before I’d realised she worked there, I had readjusted my view to accommodate the wider demographic spectrum her presence had represented.

A few more people gather at the doors, and when the doors open the punters scurry in with an urgency I hadn’t expected to see. It brought to mind news footage of opening day of the Myer stocktake sale. Such haste, from people who looked like they weren’t enthusiastic about much at all, was unnerving, and made me wonder what terrible fate their stealth was aimed to avoid.

And all I can do still, more than a decade later, and nearly three decades after my first employment, is wonder about that terrible fate. So, yeah, I accept that I may be a spoilt Gen Xer with no real idea about the hardships of life. I’ve never been without work, I’ve never had to go and shoot people and get shot at, and I’m used to necessities being ‘on tap’.

I could understand a backlash from a nation enduring chronic unemployment, lack of opportunities, and hardship, but what’s going on here? Even if we level the voter discontent at the infighting of a political party, the fact remains that even with those distractions, the government got things done. One analysis has Julia Gillard as the most efficient legislator – despite dealing with a tricky senate balance of power. It’s not like the Labor government was genuinely dysfunctional at its basic role.

Nor was it perfect – far from it – but the ideological divide between the parties is one that surely can’t be stepped over so easily as seems to have occurred? (Or, as one slogan circulating the internet is proposing, “voting for Tony Abbott because you don’t like Labor is like eating shit because you don’t like broccoli.” Take the value judgements out of the analogy and instead concentrate on, well, the texture, and there’s my point). In his Quarterly Essay What’s left? some seven years ago, Clive Hamilton argued that the Labor party had served its historical purpose, and in a climate of affluence rather than hardship, would struggle to find a purpose. It was a few years ago that I read it, but I remember it striking a few chords, and perhaps Labor is no longer Labor. It’s certainly been interesting to see the ALP make contra-left-looking decisions like the PNG solution on asylum seekers and slashing tertiary education funding to provide better education for school children (but really, despite free tertiary education being a Labor initiative in Australia, universities have never shaken off the elitist label; favouring schools over universities was always a pretty safe bet).

But I still come back to a feeling of disbelief that we’ve willingly ushered in what looks like it’s going to be a very different, less kind Australia. Perhaps this is what happens when you improve the living conditions of a people – a sense of entitlement that encroaches upon everything else, which can then be leveraged. Or do we have a xenophobic streak – or perhaps a reflected sense of guilt for our own ‘Invasion Day‘, which presents as suspicion – on which the “stop the boats” mantra was able to feed. Or are we just all so apathetic in regard to the political process that we really don’t know what we’re potentially letting ourselves in for?

I don’t know. And maybe I’m being unfair – we are still in a two party system, and neither presented leaders who appeared to be a very palatable option: a man who seemed barely capable of stringing a sentence together under pressure, and a man/zombie resurrected from political death on a cult of personality bubble (who, as far as I know, still hasn’t resigned, thereby threatening to zombify again). And they are both politicians. And Australians don’t like politicians.