Here’s the Thing: So, with whom will the Liberal party replace Abbott?

Originally published at TheVine, 12 February 2015

Who’ll be leading the country in the next three-to-six months? Let’s find out!

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In 1969 the management theory book The Peter Principle was published, written by Lawrence J. Peter (hence the name) and Raymond Hull, whose central premise was a simple and powerful one: in every profession, people rise to their level of incompetence.

The idea goes like this: if you’re good at your job, sooner or later you’ll be promoted. However, the skills that make you a kick-arse rotisserie chicken cook may not guarantee that you’re great at managing your coworkers. If you’re a lousy shift manager, that’s where you’ll remain – but if you’re a good one, you’ll be promoted further up the management ladder. And again, good people skills may not extend to running inventory and keeping track of suppliers, so if you’re bad at that, that’s where you’ll stay. If you’re good, you get promoted again – until you find a role in which you’re genuinely incompetent.

It’s an elegant idea, and one that answers the question “why the hell is this person in this position?” with the satisfyingly correct-feeling answer “because they suck.”

Like virtually every prime minister Tony Abbott has been Peter Principled into the big chair because he was good at his previous gig – in Abbott’s case, opposition leader.

However the skills to effectively tear down a flailing government are not the same as the skills required to lead and unite a nation (we assume, since there’s no evidence he’s tried that yet).

However, it’s an all-but-foregone conclusion that Abbott will not lead the Coalition to the next election. The leadership spill was a wound that won’t heal, and history suggests that sitting leaders who survive leadership spills do not remain in power once the electorate see them as vulnerable.

Failed challenges upon sitting PMs only happened rarely. In the Liberal camp Billy McMahon challenged John Gorton in 1971 and Andrew Peacock challenged Malcolm Fraser a decade later – and the Liberals took a beating at the subsequent elections: Gorton had the wisdom to realise he was doomed and retired, thereby letting McMahon have his arse handed to him by Gough Whitlam, and the stumbling Fraser government was wiped out by Bob Hawke’s historic majority in 1983.

For Labor the situation is even more ominous: both Keating and Rudd challenged their sitting PMs (Hawke and Gillard, respectively) and failed, before trying again and… well, you know how those worked out.

Abbott’s situation is even more dire because there was no actual challenger – yet two-fifths of the party voted for Someone To Be Named Later over the sitting PM. And that’s the only reason he’s still leading today: the party want him gone, but there’s no obvious alternative ready to step up 2 the federal streets.

But here’s the thing: someone is going to be moulded into leadership material by the terrified Liberal Party, and soon. So who is it going to be?

There are all sorts of concerns that parties consider when they choose their leader and deputy. They need to be from different bits of the country – so Labor lovin’ lefities can abandon hope of an Anthony Albanese/Tanya Plibersek double act, for example, since they’re both inner-city Sydney MPs.

Also, they need to balance the factions. For example: Labor leader Bill Shorten is Right and from Victoria, his Sydney-based deputy Plibersek is from the Left.

Also, somewhat predictably, the leader is almost always from either Victoria (10 PMs) or New South Wales (12). Bigger states mean bigger name recognition.

Let’s meet the alternatives:

MALCOLM TURNBULL

Centre, NSW

Best known for: your shitty internet connection, being the leader most non-Coalition voters say they’d vote for.

Pros: He’s actually smart and charming, seems like a human being with human thoughts and feelings. He’s also a millionaire, thereby ticking the “privileged white man” box that the Liberals need to feel comfortable with. And he’s not tied so closely to Abbott as to make it seem like a betrayal if he knifed him.

Cons: He’s been leader before. That’s not a huge impediment, as John Howard demonstrated, but during his tenure he made a lot of enemies in the party. While he’s a stone-cold economic rationalist he does have some socially progressive views – he’s pro-marriage equality, for example – which concern the conservative faithful.

He also takes climate change seriously, but you can absolutely rule out any hope of him leaping into the fight for renewable energy if he got into the big chair: his support for a bipartisan emissions trading scheme was what got him rolled as leader by Abbott.

Challenge potential: Easy frontrunner, which is why everyone’s just assuming it at this stage. And he should be confident: going by the spill result, 60% of the backbench basically voted for his shadow.

JULIE BISHOP

Centre, WA

Best known for: our not being at war with our closest international neighbour, looking exasperated next to the PM, snarking on Peta Credlin.

Pros: Like Turnbull, she’s articulate, smart and actually smiles every so often. She’s also been an effective Foreign Minister, successfully negotiating the tricky oh-yeah-we’re-spying-on-Indonesia thing with great success, despite having both the PM and the Immigration Minister actively working against her. She’s also the obvious favourite of the Murdoch Press, which historically has meant victory.

Cons: She was a lousy Education Minister under Howard, and an equally lousy Shadow Treasurer while in opposition. She’s also a female deputy of the party who has been vocal about her support for the PM, which would make a sudden challenge look distinctly Julia Gillard-esque – a deep problem for a party that used the Rudd/Gillard challenges as a stick to beat Labor with ahead of the 2013 election.

Challenge potential: Probably not any time soon, but she’d be a strong candidate to lead the party in opposition – which, realistically, is what she’s holding out for.

JOE HOCKEY

Centre, NSW

Best known for: saying poor people don’t drive, not understanding percentages, releasing a budget that has yet to pass, having a nice cigar after passing said budget, being the subject of 2014’s most unintentionally hilarious biography.

Pros: Politics is almost completely about economics – or at least has been since Paul Keating made it so, and no-one’s yet challenged this implausible-sounding assertion – and the guy’s the Treasurer! He knows about economics, right?

Cons: By any measure he’s been a terrible treasurer. He’s presided over rising unemployment, shrinking GDP, a diminishing dollar, an increase in debt (which he has made the biggest focus of his role by bitching about it in opposition) and – as mentioned above – releasing an unpassable budget. Also, he keeps saying incredibly ill-considered things in public.

He’s more socially progressive than you’d probably realise, but right now the party realises that he’s a huge liability – realistically the only hope that Abbott has is to cut Hockey loose. A Hockey challenge would be over before it began – at least, that’s what happened last time.

Challenge potential: Only if he wanted to go out in blaze of glory.

SCOTT MORRISON

Right, NSW

Best known for: stopping the boats, stopping the reporting on the boats, stopping the scrutiny over what happens to the people on the boats, stopping the adherence to our international treaties regarding human rights (especially with regards people on boats).

Pros: Has genuine success in his last portfolio as Immigration Minister, although that success was entirely down to stifling reporting regarding his portfolio. Also, stopping the boats is a pretty dubious goal to start with, the billion-dollar-a-year cost and the whole abuse-of-human-rights things notwithstanding. He’s deeply beloved by the Right and seen as an effective minister. Perhaps… perhaps a little too effective…

Cons: The public see him – not incorrectly – as a hardline religious zealot with few traditionally Christian characteristics regarding things like “charity” or “humility”. His behaviour as Immigration Minister and now as Social Services Minister also – again, not incorrectly – suggests he genuinely doesn’t care about people. He’s also very closely tied to Abbott, which would make a leadership challenge look like a betrayal.

Also, when he smiles he looks like he’s going to bite someone.

Challenge potential: Slim to nil. Despite this, Abbott knows he’s a potential threat within the party – hence the move to Social Services, one of the most up-fuckable portfolios

CHRISTOPHER PYNE

Centre?, SA

Best known for: the most hittable smile in Federal politics, calling people cunts, looking like a private boarding school prefect that’s just masturbated into the mashed potato.

Pros: Um…

Cons: Literally everything. Even if he wasn’t associated with his attempts to gut higher education funding at the moment, he’s a man that exudes a powerful anti-charisma that makes whatever he says seem sly and venal. It’s not helped that this is also largely the qualities of what he says, though.

Challenge potential: He’s tied himself so tightly to Abbott that it’s doubtful that he’ll even keep his portfolio when Abbott goes – and since he’s managed to turn one of the safest Liberal seats in South Australia into a projected loss for the party, no-one’s going to risk letting him give it a try anyway.

CORY BERNARDI

Right, SA

Best known for: the whole comparing-homosexuals-to-bestiality-enthusiasts thing over which he got moved to the backbench, lying about abortion statistics, the fact that he never blinks

Pros: It would be genuinely hilarious.

Cons: We’d need to burn the country down.

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Here’s the Thing: So, Chinese companies now have more rights than you do

Originally published at The Vine, 26 November 2014

Who’d have thought a deal rushed through in secret might have a few worrying conditions attached?

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Trade has been enormously beneficial to the world –  at least, so long as you prefer it to war.

Throughout history the nations that traded the most became hubs of knowledge – Rome in the first century BC, Alexandria in the 6th century, Amsterdam in the 17th century, London in the 18th, Shanghai in the 19th, New York today – and there is a direct correlation between the amount of trade between nations and the global decline in armed conflict.

It’s not hard to see why. The Age of Empires was an expensive one; conquering new territory was a pricey process, and hanging onto it was even more costly.

Conversely, a trade partner offers plenty of material benefit and zero outlay on armed invasions or open-ended occupations.

Russia’s just learning that with regards its newly annexed resource-poor and people-that-expect-services-rich Crimea, and (as discussed before) ISIL are starting to face a similar challenge in Syria and Iraq.

And there’s a lot to be said for trade if, like me, you’d rather that people didn’t just straight up kill each other. It can be exploitative, sure, but it typically doesn’t end with quite so many corpses.

And the global marketplace has more countries talking and less countries bombing each other than ever before. Hell, we just had countries that have ongoing diplomatic hostilities – Japan and China, China and India, Russia and everyone else – sit down together in Brisbane the other week and have a civilised chat about trade. For all of the limitations of the G20 visit, this is actually significant progress.

Here’s the thing, though: there comes a point where free trade stops being liberating, and starts becoming dangerous and constrictive. And the newly-announced China-Australia Free Trade Agreement is a clear example of this.

As Trade Minister Andrew Robb admitted to SBS, the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement was rushed though at “five minutes to midnight” to make the photo-op that was the G20, and that there was no time to do actual modelling on how it would actually work.

Despite this, it was very swiftly hailed as a triumph of negotiation by the government, who then got very, very quiet about it.

The reasons for this were not hard to fathom as details of the deal emerged and it became clear that getting access to the massive Chinese market would require certain… shall we say, “flexibilities” on the part of Australia, and on the workings of our democracy.

But we’ll come to that. First up, let’s look at the economics.

The Nationals – the team sitting at the kids table of the Coalition dinner party – had the unfortunate job of admitting that local food prices would rise as a direct result of the deal.

Deputy PM and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce conceded that “Another market means competition, and competition means that [Australian primary industries are] going to get a better price. And we’ve got to do that – we’ve been asking the supermarkets for so long… well now they’ve got somewhere else to go.”

Hear that, Middle Australia? The same rise in your household bills that was the apparent justification for killing the carbon tax is now being hailed as a triumph for the FTA. Huzzah!

Never mind the local price rises: there’s also very little evidence that Australia will actually make anything out of the deal at all.

The “$18 billion increase in by 2015” trade number that was bandied about at the time sounded impressive, but it transpires that it’s not quite as true as you might have assumed. Especially since, as Robb said, there was no actual modelling done.

More specifically, the $18 billion increase was based on modelling done in 2005, for a very different China-Australia deal that was assumed to have been signed that year. That number was the amount estimated for the subsequent ten year period – in other words, meaningless with regards the deal that was actually signed.

What are some of the differences? Well, this model assumed that tariffs would be immediately dropped (they weren’t: the majority of reductions are being phased out rather than eliminated) and that it would include sugar and rice (which it doesn’t) – and, more importantly, that prices for thermal coal and iron ore hadn’t plummeted dramatically since 2005, which they have.

Even if the modelling wasn’t worthless, going by its own conclusions the deal was pretty lousy, giving Australia’s GDP an annual increase per year of a pitiful 0.37%, according to an analysis by the Guardian’s Greg Jericho, which is approximately nothing. Hilariously, or distressingly, the same feasibility study also calculates growth at an even more pathetic 0.04%, or “a rounding error”.

And, as Jericho also points out, our 2005 FTA with the US – spruiked at the time as a deficit-killer by then-PM John Howard – increased our trade deficit by half, to its current level of $15.4 billion.

Adorably, Howard also predicted that the deal would open up the US market for Australian automotive manufacturing, with “a very big, potential, exciting market for Holden.” So, how’d that turn out?

However, the biggest problem is “a controversial clause in the deal that will allow Chinese corporations to sue the Australian government if the government introduces laws or regulations that damage the profits (or ‘future profits’) of Chinese companies,” as Fairfax’s Gareth Hutchens put it.

This clause will also be part of the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and will retroactively be inserted into our current FTA with Japan.

And not that I wish to sound like a broken record on this subject, but… well, I bitched and moaned about the “investor-state dispute settlement provisions” as laid out in our FTA with South Korea in 10 Things back in December 2013.

You see, these clauses

… allow foreign corporations to sue our government if said government does something that the company deems threatening to its profits. For example, if you were a tobacco giant based in a country with which Australia had an ISDS, you could theoretically sue Australia for introducing plain packaging laws on cigarettes on the grounds that it was anti-competitive.

If that sounds like an alarmist stretch, be advised that this is exactly what has already happened.

See, the Hong Kong subsidiary of Philip Morris launched a High Court challenge against the Australian government over plain packaging, citing the 1993 Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Hong Kong for the Promotion and Protection of Investments. They lost the High Court case in August 2012, mainly on the grounds that they knew the laws were coming in when they bought out the Australian subsidiary’s operations, but immediately launched another case which is still before an international trade tribunal.

And if you’re wondering “hey, isn’t Philip Morris is a US company? Why is the Hong Kong arm suing us?” the answers are “yes” and “because the US and Australia don’t have a trade deal with an ISDS, but we and Hong Kong do”, respectively.

A similar case is currently before the courts in Canada where US energy company Lone Pine Resources is suing under the North American Free Trade Agreement after Quebec called a moratorium on fracking ahead of environmental studies about the likely impacts.

That’s what the China-Australia FTA already has in place, that’s what we’re about to get with the US and Japan. These clauses enshrine in law the principle that your health and wellbeing is secondary to the commercial interests of overseas companies.

Laws restricting emissions in Australia could be deemed anti-competitive and struck down. Ditto labelling on foods, or restrictions on harmful products. Want to ban a defective crib that puts babies at risk? You’d better hope it’s not from a country with whom we’ve signed an FTA.

And this isn’t crazed lefty fearmongering: as of the signing of this deal next year, Chinese mining companies will have more rights than you do when it comes to the level of pollution in your air and water.

Does this scare you? It should.

And there’s more to come.

Here’s the Thing: Surveillance Laws Don’t Reduce The T-T-T-Terrorisms

Originally published at TheVine, 5 November 2014. 

Are our new anti-terror laws necessary in order to protect us? Not if the US experience is any guide.

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Making loud noises about domestic security is a sure-fire way for a government to look all strong and resolute and leadery, especially if they’re – just for the sake of argument – still attempting to pass a budget six months down the track.

However, here’s a complete list of all the domestic Islamic terror plots successfully carried out on Australian soil prior to the new security laws being passed: zero.

The closest we’ve come is the Bali bombings which, while tragic, were not in Australia. And even if you travel to less secure locales on this exciting planet of ours, your risk of being affected by terrorist activity remains much where it’s been for the last two decades: utterly infinitesimal.

We’re terrible at noticing that, though.

That people are just straight up lousy at calculating risk can be gleaned by the fact people are terrified of Ebola – a disease which is not in this country and is zero risk to anyone not actively working among the stricken – and yet so blasé about measles that they’re not immunising their own damn children against a genuine, potentially deadly and entirely preventable disease.

But measles isn’t sexy, and Ebola is. And saying “honestly, you’re fine” isn’t nearly as exciting as “you’re right, you’re under perpetual threat: that’s why we need to know your phone and internet records.”

Indeed, in the briefing notes given to the government by the federal police included the bold claim that “metadata is central to virtually every counter-terrorism, organised crime, counter-espionage and cyber security investigation.”

Here’s the thing, though: it’s absolutely not.

To demonstrate this is the case, let’s have a little look-see at the experience in the United States.

After the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 the Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act which, hilariously, is a backronym (the full title is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″.)

Aside from have the most ridiculous title imaginable, said Act gave the government sweeping powers over American citizens and non-citizens alike, including the warrantless gathering of metadata.

The argument at the time is that it was absolutely necessary in order to track and capture terrorists on US soil. And it’s still going: collection of said data is thought to be the work of the gigantic Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, a massive data facility built last year at Camp Williams, about 40km out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

In fact, those powers have since been expanded: there was a ruling last year by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – yep, that’s a thing you didn’t know existed – which removed the need to actually show that information collected or analysed needed to have anything to do with an investigation.

FISC Judge Clair Eagan wrote that the National Security Agency “requires neither ‘specific and articulable facts’ nor does it require that the information be material. Rather it merely requires a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought are relevant to the investigation.”

So, how many terrorists has unfettered access to thirteen years of metadata caught?

The answer may surprise you: it’s one. And calling that person a “terrorist” is perhaps a little misleading.

That person is one Basaaly Moalin, a cab driver from San Diego. Access to his phone records allowed the FBI to successfully prosecute him for donating a total of $US8,500 in several transactions during 2007 and 2008 to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Somalia.

This information comes from the New America Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC. Their analysis of the records of 225 people charged with terrorism-related offences revealed that “that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal.”

When they say “minimal”, they mean minimal: phone records were part of 1.8 per cent of investigations of US citizens, and 4.8 per cent of non-US persons.

Even in the Moalin case the phone data didn’t immediately cause the authorities to leap into action: the FBI waited two months between linking him to a number in Somalia and beginning their investigation. And while sending finances to a Somalian terror group is illegal – and also terrible, let’s be clear – it’s not exactly 9/11 Part Two.

Indeed, the authors conclude that “Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group”.

Possibly not worth a staggeringly expensive decade-plus international programme of surveillance and analysis, in other words.

In Australia we’ve had some big showy events to remind us that we’re all at risk all the time.

And if you dispute the use of “showy”, please note that typically police don’t invite the media to join them when they’re sending 800 police to raid a number of properties in Sydney and Queensland, at least not unless they’re confident that there’s not going to be any sort of risk involved. And the result? Two arrests, and the confiscation of a plastic ceremonial sword, which was hung on a wall.

Also, just to be clear: the people yelling about ISIL on the internet and firing pellet guns at Muslim clerics are not actually, y’know, in ISIL.

They’re angry dickbags who feel powerless and are ready to take it out on whoever gets in their way – not helped by the sharp rise in Islamophobia that’s happened in recent times. If you’re already feeling pushed around, having politicians declare you’re un-Australian and people spit on your mum when she’s on a bus is hardly going to calm you down.

Thus if you’re a proud Australian with a Facebook avatar reading “STRAYA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” then congratulations, dipshit: you’re doing a great job endangering the nation you ostensibly care about. You’re the problem, not the folks in the mosque.

The international experience has suggested that the best – actually, the only – defence against angry loners is the people around those angry loners. Those are the parents and siblings and colleagues who can either take said loner aside and say “listen, this isn’t like you” or, if they think the situation is escalating beyond their ability to help, contact the authorities.

Concerned citizens informing the police is pretty much how every plot has ever been uncovered, in Australia and everywhere else. So can you see a potential issue with sidelining one entire section of the community off as being “other”?

So, if you genuinely want Australia to be safe and you’re not just using “security” as a replacement for “I fear brown people”, then you have a duty to make everyone feel that Australia is home and therefore that everyone has a stake in helping protect the place.

You also get the bonus of, y’know, not being a racist dickbag. That’s pretty great for everyone too.

I say this a lot – A LOT – but it’s a sentiment that apparently needs repeating:

There is no Us-And-Them. There’s not even any Them. There is only Us.

Here’s the Thing: Governments – why do we even?

First published at TheVine 7 October 2014

Andrew P Street spits venom and drops mad truth-bombs about the stuff that irks him

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We live in dogmatic times in which the people running the country are sticking to their agendas in direct contradiction of the expert advice they’ve been given about what reality is up to.

The examples are many, from Education Minister Christopher Pyne blithely refuting OECD data showing that higher education bestows more benefit to society than the individual, or Environment Minister Greg Hunt insisting that Wikipedia told him climate change is not linked to bushfires despite being told exactly that by the Bureau of Meteorology, to pretty much everything that treasurer Diamond Joe Hockey says regarding the financial crisis which only he can see.

And people have their own political beliefs, of course, and sometimes it can be difficult to work out whether or not a policy is objectively a great idea or a terrible one. One day Pyne could make a genuinely great suggestion regarding education policy – sure, it doesn’t sound likely, as recent experience has demonstrated – but would you necessarily recognise if it happened?

Here’s the thing: it’s not actually that hard to spot good policy. All you have to do is remember why we have governments in the first place: to maintain stability in society.

See, humans are kinda rubbish at survival on our own. We’re naked and weak and we don’t run especially fast and we don’t have tough shells or huge claws or any of those other things that more robust species have.

One major problem is our big stupid heads, which we need because of our enormous brains. We walk upright in part because that’s the best way to distribute that hefty weight, and walking upright necessitates having a narrow pelvis. Combine narrow pelvises and gigantic skulls and you need to give birth to offspring that are basically fetuses that need a hell of a lot of looking after just to survive. In just about every other species a newborn can fend for itself more or less from birth: human babies are notoriously bad at it.

What we do have – the thing that we’re really, really good at – is working together. Our big brains are great at working out what other people are likely to be thinking, and therefore changing our behaviour accordingly so we can work better together. Lots of animals do that, of course, but we’re amazingly good at it.

About ten thousand years ago we started settling down in places rather than moving around, building permanent settlements and inventing stuff like agriculture as a way to feed a growing mass of people.

Societies started to grow, and the societies where people lived better lives became (understandably) more popular with people than those where things were terrible. Stability brought prosperity, and prosperity bought neat stuff like art and science and culture. Turns out that when humans aren’t living hand to mouth, they have time to think about stuff like “y’know, this shovel could be better designed” and “hey, what do you reckon stars are?”

And that’s also where the idea of laws, and for that matter religion, comes from: a series of rules under which society is stable, and in which the constituents live better lives than they otherwise could do on their own. As this became more codified we ended up with things like governments.

And stability doesn’t sound sexy – anarchy gets a cool symbol and everything – but it’s where where big-brained, small-teethed humans turned things to their advantage. We didn’t have to fight, and we had time to think. And that changed everything.

Governments historically have been about law and order, but something happened that made them large players in economics: the invention of tax.

While taxes have existed for centuries – the Romans had them, and tithes to landowners were a fixture of the feudal system – income taxes were initially created specifically to fund wars – Britain brought theirs in to fund their efforts in the French Revolutionary War in 1799, the US introduced them for the Civil War in 1861, and Australia’s first Federal income tax began in 1915 to help support our efforts in WWI.

But once in place, and without expensive killing to fund, governments rapidly worked out that they could very easily be used to pay for stuff that would be very, very useful for society – especially things that were not immediately profitable.

See, private companies exist to make profits. That’s the entire point of them.

In fact, companies that don’t make the most profits they can possibly make run the risk of having shareholders taking legal action against their boards. That’s why companies that make billions in profits every year, like banks, still follow announcements of record profits with news that they’re laying off thousands of workers. It’s not because they need to in order to stay profitable, it’s because they’re basically obliged to cut any costs that they can cut in order to maximise return for shareholders.

The problem is that there are expensive things like defence, education and health that make societies more stable and therefore provide the circumstances for individual prosperity, but are not themselves immediate moneyspinners. Private enterprise does these things somewhere between “not especially well” and “very, very badly”.

And thus these have largely been the things that governments have paid for over the last century: the stuff that is hard to profit from, but that society is the better for having.

Once you conclude that governments are in place to maintain the stability that leads to prosperity, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to tell whether something is a great idea or a terrible one. Is society made better by a particular policy? Does it hurt people, or does it help people?

If that’s your criteria, you don’t need to speculate on whether a leader is a good and moral person or not, or whether a party is sticking to their guns or betraying their base or any of those other pointless questions. You can ask “is this specific piece of legislation or policy actually helpful to people?”

That’s the important question, and the challenge for governments is to answer that question with “yes, and here’s why”, rather than angrily insist that their opinion is more valid than evidence.

(Of course, it helps if you don’t demonise income tax by pretending that it’s an onerous personal burden rather than the incredible collective bargain that it is, and then have the two major political parties in Australia spend two decades competing to cut it back the most, thereby reducing it to the point where they struggle to maintain those necessary services to keep society stable, but that’s a rant for another time…)

 

Joe Hockey: Not Your Average Joe review

Originally published at the King’s Tribune, September 2014

What made Diamond Joe change from jovial, avuncular goof into angry, sulky goof? We asked Andrew P Street to read the Joe Hockey biography so that you wouldn’t have to. You’re welcome.

Biographers, more or less by necessity, have to fall in love in with their subject. Writing a book is a nightmarishly long ordeal and Stockholm Syndrome must kick in at some point out of sheer self-preservation.

So it’s no surprise that Not Your Average Joe’s author Madonna King is clearly a fan of Joe Hockey and goes that extra mile to spin his successes as mighty victories and his failures as being the fault of lesser men (and always men) who either lack Hockey’s peerless vision or are jealous of his incandescent talents.

The problem is that it all comes across like that friend who talks about the awesome new guy they’re dating, but every single story makes the guy sound like a bullying jerk.

You can just imagine King dishing over a coffee: “Joe was criticised by feminist groups on campus during his election campaign for the University of Sydney Student’s Representative Council, so when he became President he immediately closed the Women’s Room! Isn’t that hilarious?”

“Um, actually, that sounds like he was, at best, being dickishly ungracious in victory and at worst putting women at risk by eliminating a safe space for them on campus,” you would hesitantly reply.

“Oh, you just have to get to know him!” King would presumably respond with a dismissive guffaw. “It’s just his sense of humour! Like when he claimed he’d signed up 80 new members to the local branch of the Liberal Party on the North Shore and now admits that he mainly just added the names of dead people to the register and was never caught – I mean, what a caution!

These days this cover is the entire dictionary entry for "hubris".

These days this cover is the entire dictionary entry for “hubris”.

Not Your Average Joe is not just a collection of heart-warming tales of revenge-misogyny and voter fraud; it’s also the story of how one deeply insecure young man grew up to become the most deeply entitled and self-aggrandising treasurer Australia has ever known – which, in a field that includes such avowed Paul Keating fans as Paul Keating, is no small achievement.

Then again, most of the evidence for Hockey’s inflated sense of his own glorious significance is not contained within the covers of the book, but in the fact that there’s a book with covers within which to contain said glorious significance.

Put bluntly: why the ever-loving fuck would a man in the first year of his job say yes to the writing and publication of his biography unless he was a) utterly assured of his importance and felt there was a genuine need to capture this historic moment, or b) knew in his heart of hearts that no-one was going to remember what a Joe Hockey was after the next election, and possibly by mid-way through the current government?

The answer, told time and time again in the book, is a). Joe Hockey wanted to be PM since he was four, we’re assured. Everyone – from his unshakably supportive father to his indulgent schoolteachers to his mates on the rugby field – repeatedly and unceasingly assured him that he would be PM. The fact the wanted it when he was a preschooler indicates that his desire for the role predated having any idea what that role actually meant. This is primal gimme-I-want stuff, not a cool-headed dedication to public service.

That theme – unshakable entitlement – is what comes through time and again through the book. When he’s successful, he gloats. When he fails, he explodes.

An illustrative example is that before he was the first to be eliminated in the three-horse Liberal Party leadership spill in 2009 – the one that toppled Malcolm Turnbull and installed Tony Abbott as leader in opposition – he was so assured of his own victory that he didn’t even bother to call MPs and lobby them for their vote, as Abbott was comprehensively doing.

“That feeds the view that he has this destiny thing where he should get things easily,” said one unnamed ‘senior Liberal’, echoing the opinions expressed elsewhere by John Howard, Peter Costello, Peter Dutton, Nick Minchin and practically everyone else.

Needless to say Joe sees it rather differently.

He didn’t lose the vote: he was betrayed by Turnbull, who assured him he wouldn’t run (despite having declared his intention to do so on television a mere two days before the vote, and who gently suggests in the book that Joe’s version of events exists entirely in his own head) and by Abbott who had pledged to support Hockey (who changed his mind after they argued over giving a free vote for the Turnbull-and-Kevin Rudd-endorsed Emissions Trading Scheme).

Among the other people that Joe accuses of betraying him – in a book written by a sympathetic author who even fills several pages singing the praises of the universally loathed WorkChoices – are the following people:

Howard (for giving him bad advice about pushing for a free vote on the Emissions Trading Scheme), Costello (for not supporting his desire to be finance minister), Minchin (for backing Abbott after earlier supporting Joe), Rudd (for asking Hockey’s advice on how to be opposition leader and then applying it), Ian Macdonald (for criticising Hockey as senior tourism minister), Family First’s Steve Fielding (who agreed to a free vote on the ETS, according to Hockey, and then announced on TV that he didn’t), and pretty much everyone else.

He also gets some stories in about cool Terminator-like quips he made to the faces of Howard and Turnbull during arguments, which both men politely deny ever happened, lending weight to the idea that Hockey is first and foremost a fabulist convinced of his own greatness.

It’s at times a genuinely sobering read: much of the first act of the book covers Joe’s childhood and education, painting the picture of an isolated little boy carrying his self-made immigrant father’s dreams of greatness on his shoulders, teased for his size through school (gaining the nickname “Sloppy Joe”) and looking for camaraderie through sport, cadets and finally politics.

It’s also implied that Joe wasn’t exactly a hit with the ladies. It doesn’t help that his wife, Melissa Babbage, comes across in the book as the least sympathetic spouse since Lady Macbeth.

The enormously successful and mightily wealthy investment banker met Joe at a Young Liberals function and every quote in the book suggests that she quickly assessed him as a sound, if undervalued, investment and engineered a matrimonial merger, speaking of their courtship and marriage as though they were necessary obligations to be overcome rather than the glorious unfolding of a love to last through the ages.

Mind you, he did allegedly propose to her while accompanied by a violinist playing music from The Phantom of the Operawhich suggests that romance and creativity aren’t big concerns of Joe’s either.

The art of the hubrisography is a rich and noble one – why, right this minute I have two music bios on my shelf, David Barnett’s Love and Poison: the authorised biography of Suede and Tony Fletcher’s Never Stop: the Echo & the Bunnymen Story, both of which have penultimate chapters in which the respective bands express their boundless optimism for their rosy, hit-filled future which are followed by an immediate pre-publication epilogue essentially reading “…and then they split up.”

In a similar spirit, the book ends with King mentioning that Joe was photographed having a cheeky cigar with finance minister Mathias Cormann just after delivering his first triumphant budget, and then suggests, as though in passing, that it remained to be seen how it would be received – which is sort of like writing a biography of Austria that ends in 1914, mentioning that Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been assassinated in Sarajevo and idly speculating as to whether there’d be any sort of official response.

One of her closing sentences, though, was meant to reiterate how much Joe and Tones are BFFs these days, but now has a somewhat ominous tinge as they both grow increasingly testy over who is failing to win the nation’s hearts and minds: “Barnaby Joyce, who like Hockey is one of the government’s best retail politicians, says the two will rise and fall together.”

That may prove to be the most accurate line in the entire book.

Malcolm Fraser interview

First published in Time Out Sydney, August 2014

Australia’s 22nd Prime Minister asks, how many dangerous ideas can one person have?

Vale, sir.

Vale, sir.

Malcolm Fraser has been remarkably busy since leaving the Lodge in 1983. His legacy as PM is overshadowed by the circumstances under which it began – the Constitutional Crisis of 1975 that saw the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government – but over the last three decades Fraser has been a tireless advocate for refugee rights, Indigenous rights and greater Australian involvement in Asia.

Needless to say, these values do not align with the current government. Technically Fraser is no longer a member of the Liberal Party; he resigned in 2009 in protest of the party’s lurch to the right with new leader Tony Abbott. And he’s not shy when it comes to sharing his feelings on the matter.

Over the space of a half-hour conversation with Time Out, Fraser expresses his genuine, heartfelt disappointment in the current state of politics and is scathing about the “Abbott and [Julie] Bishop” government, and expressing his genuine concerns about the current geopolitical environment and the risks of continuing with our current military alliance with the US – which is what has inspired his new book, Dangerous Allies, and his upcoming appearance at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

“The major point is because of the uses of [the US-Australian joint satellite tracking facility] Pine Gap, which is capable of targeting drones almost in real-time and contributes to the arming of a number of highly-sophisticated US weapons systems, what used to be a defensive facility has in many ways become a thoroughly offensive one,” he explains. “And you’ve also got that [US] task force in Darwin, and the Prime Minister here talking about America maybe increasing the number, maybe establishing another task force close to Townsville.”

So we’re making ourselves a target?

“We’re not only making ourselves a target, we’re making ourselves totally complicit in American actions,” he declares. “We’ve abdicated our soverienty to America. If they go to war in these circumstances, we go to war. And that wasn’t perhaps as important when it was in South Asia or the Middle East, but this is our part of the world – and if there’s a conflict here of a serious kind, it would end up being between China and the United States. Japan, it seems to me, would be the most likely trigger.”

The rhetoric has been heating up betwen Japan and China over a disputed and largely deserted island chain in the East China Sea, and the US has already made clear that they would back Japan if matters escalate. And that’s where we could be drawn into war with China, whether we wanted it or not.

“If America uses those troops in Darwin, even if an Australian Prime Minister says ‘look, we’ve joined America in too many wars that have ended in failure, we’re not going to participate in this one’, I don’t believe such a statement would be believable if Pine Gap’s being used to target missiles on the mainland of China,” Fraser points out. “They’re being targeted from Australian soil.”

Scott Morrison and the Conveniently Comforting Doctrine of Predestination

Originally published in the Kings Tribune July 14, 2014

How can a Christian be complicit in incarceration, torture, and murder? With discomfiting ease, it turns out.

Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison is, as he regularly makes clear, a devout Christian.

Dignity. Quiet dignity.

Dignity. Quiet dignity.

Whenever this subject is raised people point out, not unreasonably, that he is therefore in for a heck of a time in the afterlife, since the Bible is chock-full of instructions about how Jesus Christ felt people should treat each other:

Galatians 6:2 – Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

Deuteronomy 15:11- For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Matthew 25: 34-40 – Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherits the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Mark 12:31- And the second [is] like, [namely] this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

…and so on. It’s fair to say that Jesus was pretty unambiguous about how he felt about helping those in need (summation: he was fiercely pro) and also how he felt about those who harm and oppress others (spoiler: anti).

Thus people like to ask rhetorical questions like “how can Morrison reconcile his faith with his actions regarding asylum seekers? You know, who have broken no law, are asking for our help, and are locked away in subhuman conditions to rot until they beg to be returned to the tender mercies of those they fled in the first place?”

And it’s a fair question, and most of the time the response is of the flavour “because he is presumably a monstrous hypocrite”. However, it’s a mistake to think that Morrison’s beliefs are at odds with his actions. In fact, according to the precepts of his church, Morrison’s more on the side of God than that busybody do-gooder Jesus.

Morrison belongs to Shirelive, a giant Pentecostal church in the Sydney suburb of Sutherland. It’s an evangelical Protestant church of the clapping-and-waving variety and falls under the charismatic umbrella of what is somewhat dismissively called “prosperity theology” – the idea that material success is a sign from God that you’re doing His work.

The flipside of this doctrine is that those who are not doing well are clearly not in God’s good graces. Such as, for instance, the poor, or the sick, or those fleeing persecution from repressive regimes by buying passage for their family with people smugglers and being intercepted on the high seas by Australian Customs Vessels.

You may justifiably ask how this can possibly work theologically, given everything that Jesus said about camels and the Kingdom of Heaven and needing to liquefy the rich to get them through the eye of a needle. And the answer is that it’s via a handy bit of doctrinal sleight of hand.

Morrison’s church believe in Predestination, the notion that God knows absolutely everything about everything from the moment of creation until the end of the world. Long before you were born He knew everything about you – what you’d do, what you’d think, who you’d meet, the very specific types of pornography you’d enjoy, everything – including whether or not you were going to Heaven or Hell.

The guts of the idea is in this passage:

Ephesians 1:4-6, 11-12 – For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves… In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

The Calvinist branch of the Protestant church took this particularly to heart, coming up with a series of precepts known by the acronym “TULIP”, with each point backed up by carefully cherry-picked bits of scripture.

TULIP stands for:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Before you get too excited, total depravity is recognition that people are completely affected by sin and thus your opinion on what’s right and wrong is irrelevant – after all, you’re just a big old sack of sin!

Mark said “man’s heart is evil” (Mark 7:21-23), Ephesians declared that we are “at enmity with God” (Eph. 2:15), Corinthians says we can’t understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14).

You still think people shouldn’t be locked in prison camps for asking for help? You reckon you know better than God, do you? Ba-bom: wrong! You just don’t get it, because you’re a sinner.

Unconditional election refers to the above idea in Ephesians that God nominates people for salvation and damnation without condition: in other words, your eternal fate is not decided by your behaviour in this life. You could murder your way through your days or dedicate your life to charity and it’ll make zero difference to God since He’s already decided where you’re headed. Romans makes clear that some are chosen and some are not (Rom. 9:15, 21), so: boom.

Seem weird to you? How’s about you just shut your sin-hole?

Limited atonement gets around that whole “Jesus died for your sins” thing: turns out he only died for the sins of those already chosen. Matthew said Jesus died for the “many”, you know, not the all (Matt. 26:28), and there was that whole separating-the-sheep-and-the-goats thing (Matt. 25:32-33). So don’t go looking to the J-dog for moral authority there, Sinny McSinnington.

Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints reaffirm that only God gives grace and once given you can’t exchange it for grace for others, de-gracify yourself, or return it for the cash equivalent. I’m paraphrasing, admittedly.

What’s the upshot of this? Basically, it doesn’t matter what you do in life, your fate is already sealed. Only God can judge whether that’s fair and since it’s God then yes, it is.

Calvinist ideals proved remarkably influential in the United States. Some of the Pentecostal churches have a particularly strong Calvinist influence and are predictably very big on the idea of Predestination, as befits a church that is focussed on one’s individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

According to the church, not only can you not possibly understand how God works because you’re neck-deep in sin, the mere act of questioning the reasoning is in itself morally dubious. As Romans 3:10-12 helpfully puts it: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

So what does this all mean for Morrison?

Well, he knows that those who come across the seas are all doomed to damnation – after all, God wouldn’t have plonked them in the middle of the civil war in Syria if He didn’t want to punish them for their unchangeable wickedness – and therefore locking them up indefinitely to self-harm in disease-riddled camps is perfectly fine. He’s not going to examine his conscience on the subject, because the act of doing so would be an affront to God.

Meanwhile, he’s on a sweet parliamentary salary with a high-profile government portfolio, a wife and kids and a lovely house in a quiet Sydney suburb. God’s clearly giving him a tangible version of a spiritual high-five.

So to answer the original question: how can Scott Morrison be responsible for overseeing all these human rights atrocities and call himself a Christian? With absolute ease. And he probably sleeps better than you do.

After all, it was predestined.