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.

Graham Long (Wayside Chapel) interview

First published in Time Out Sydney June 2014

Pastor Graham Long takes Andrew P Street through five decades of unconditional love

An extraordinary man.

An extraordinary man.

In 1964, Ted Noffs established the Wayside Chapel in a downtrodden area of Kings Cross. What started as a few chairs in a back room of a crumbling building has grown into the city’s foremost organisation providing frontline assistance and support for the city’s most marginalised people.

For the last decade the Wayside has been under the leadership of paster Graham Long, whose enthusiasm and good humour does nothing to hide his passionate advocacy for social justice, even as he’s dealing with the frantic preparations for Celebration Sunday.

“Actually, yeah, ‘frantic’ is not a bad word,” he laughs. “You go into these things thinking ‘this is a big occasion, we should do something’ and everybody’s got a great idea – until you get close and you think ‘god, who thought of all of this?’ But it will be absolutely enjoyable – when it’s over.”

He’s very clear on why it’s happening though. It’s because Wayside means a lot to people in Sydney – in the most direct, personal ways.

“For the ten years I’ve been here, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere – a party, a wedding, anywhere – where someone hasn’t come up to me and said ‘I was married at the Wayside’ or ‘my kid was buried at the Wayside’ or something like that. Ted Noffs did 18,000 weddings, although that was the days before civil celebrants, so if you were a Catholic and wanted to marry a Protestant Ted was the only show in town,” he chuckles. “But that’s still thousands and thousands of people touched by the Wayside.”

“And the other day I had Ita Buttrose telling me ‘oh, Ted had me working hard around there’ and Jonathon Coleman was telling me he used to sweep the footpath! So many people have been touched by the Wayside, so it would be a shame to let the 50th come and go. There’s enormous value in just stopping for a minute and being thankful that somebody’s here.”

Even when Wayside started Noffs’ determination to help those at the bottom at the pile has drawn condemnation from all sides: the church told Noffs he was wasting his time when he founded the Wayside, and there was even the possibility of arrests and closures when the Wayside decided to open a safe drug injecting room rather than leave people shooting up in the streets.

“We’ve been on the cutting edge many times,” he shrugs. “And we really suffered over that thing – but what it led to was the injecting centre, and that’s led to an 88 per cent reduction in overdose callouts, and deaths on the street have gone down from around 130 to about 12 a year. You couldn’t criticise it on rational grounds. But there are shock jocks and politicians whose job it is to peddle fear. That used to be the job of the church,” he laughs darkly. “Compassion is out of fashion.”

So Long’s noticed our immigration policies, then?

“Oh, there is nothing about our recent history that makes any sense whatsoever,” he declares. “We call these people detainees – but they’re prisoners! In PNG, they’re calling refugees clients. Clients! It would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad. When you divide the world up into goodies and baddies, you divide your own soul.”

Language is something that Long is very aware of. Those that visit the Wayside are not clients, patrons, users, customers, or any other euphemism.

“We’ve never found the perfect collective noun,” he says, “but the one we use is ‘visitors’. Because when people visit your home, they’re visitors. They’re people, exactly like you and me.”

That’s what the Wayside offers, more than anything else: unconditional love.

“Most people who walk into Wayside believe they’re alone. And if you can overcome that sense of ‘I’m handling this on my own’, when you realise that there are others with you and you are there with others and for others, people just move towards health. We’ve seen it over and over,” he says. “We’ve seen people come to life, and it’s not because we have any sort of therapy going: what we’re creating is community.”

And once the 50th is passed?

“We’re very conscious that this is the beginning of the next 50 years. We’ve been significantly staffing up, and we’ve been building a lot of stuff very recently: we’ve created a garden up on the roof and homeless people can learn to grow their produce, and there’s bees up there as well so we create our own honey,” he enthuses.

“And we want to go further with that: one day when we’re rich and famous we want to build a greenhouse up there. And I have a bit of a dream that we’ll farm fish up there as well. I reckon it’s doable!”

He laughs heartily. “All we lack is a little bit of money, and if you say that quick enough it doesn’t seem like such a barrier!”

The seven best corporate mascots for the Australian government

First published in Time Out Sydney 22 May 2014. Art by Robert Polmear

So very responsible!

So very responsible!

Dear the Internet,

You know what changes hearts and minds? Mascots!

That’s why McDonalds have launched their new mascot Happy – a gaping red box, playing on the universal desire of children to be helplessly engulfed by a sentient cube.

Meanwhile the mining industry have come up with their own character – Hector the Healthy Lump of Coal, who was invented by the company that owns Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal, looks like a giant, terrifying turd in a safety vest, and has a website that teaches kids all about how to enjoy non-renewable energy.

And in that same spirit of taking something which is objectively harmful and transforming it into something which children will bond with, spend money upon and eventually die as a result of, the government are preparing to launch a range of new fun-loving mascots to help get some popular support for some of their more hard-to-swallow legislation.

Hey, Australia – forget those budget blues and say hello to your new, Coalition-approved BFFs!

Mr Snips, the Federal Funding Scissors
Snippy-snip-snip! That’s the sound of fiscally-responsible Mr Snips, the fun-loving budget scissors as he goes after his two biggest foes: red tape and programmes implemented by the previous government.

He hates inefficiency, duplication of services, oversight committees, non-industrial advisory groups, and anything not mining-related. And with your help, that deficit will be down to zero imaginary dollars in no time! Snippy-snip-snip!

Ol’ Silty, the Barrier Reef Mining Runoff
All Ol’ Silty wants to do is give out big, warm hugs: to you, to your friends, to the coral reefs inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – everyone!

Ol’ Silty is happy to explain that he helps increase the dangerously-low level of particulate matter currently covering in the current ecosystem and how YOU can help keep this unique environment safe for future generations of supertankers and coal transport vessels.
That cough you’ve developed? It’s like a hug for the inside!

Captain Privilege!
Dressed in his trademark cape and fedora and with Shannon Noll’s version of ‘What About Me’ playing on a constant loop through his belly speaker, Captain Privilege! is ready to leap in and ask why white, straight males are being excluded from the conversation, regardless of what the conversation is about.

Feminism? But what about the Captain? Immigration? But what about the Captain? Marriage equality? Indigenous health and poverty? The National Disability Insurance Scheme? Violence against women? Why are you even having these conversations, since they’re not about the Captain? The Captain is bored now! Let’s talk about the Captain!

Slowpoke Moe, the NBN Tortoise
Lovable old Moe is here to explain why Labor’s vision of a national fibre-to-the-premises network is foolish and wrong. Anyway, no-one even uses computers except for secretaries and personal assistants, and why use the internet when you have Foxtel? That’s the tech of the future, right there.

His presentations are scheduled for 30 minutes. They never come anywhere near that length though, despite lengthy pauses and frequent restarts.

The Welfare-Scrounging Palz: Bludgey, Slutsy and Rollaround Sue
One can’t find a job, one can’t keep her legs shut, and the other can’t even be bothered walking!

The Palz just love to carp and moan: Bludgey would go to the doctor, but can’t afford the GP co-payment since he’s probably blown it all on ciggies and middies of beer, while Slutsy is asking where her kids will sleep if she’s evicted. Oh Slutsy: you couldn’t keep a husband, and now you can’t even keep a lease!

Rollaround Sue is ready to jump her wheelchair through hoops to demonstrate she “genuinely” needs her pension – but first she needs to get it up these stairs, of course. Don’t try the accessible toilet either, Sue: Captain Privilege! is using it for storage.

Toot Toot the Border Protection Tugboat
“It’s a sailor’s life for me!” says Toot Toot. He loves the salt in the air, the waves against his hull, and the plausible deniability of accusations of torture at sea as he scoots merrily back and forth across the Indonesian maritime border, keeping Australia safe from wicked asylum seekers who are deviously planning to [INSERT JUSTIFICATION HERE]

Invite Toot Toot to your school, where he’ll hand out delicious Operation Sovereign Burgers to all students who can provide documented proof they were born in Australia. Where will he visit next? That’s an operational secret!

Whitey the Freedom Of Speech Bigot
Well, technically that’s just attorney general George Brandis.

Yours ever,

APS

Play the 2014 Federal Budget home game!

First published in Time Out Sydney 15 May, 2014. Art by Robert Polmear

Dear the Internet,

You’ve probably watched with excitement as the all-dancin’, all-smokin’ treasurer handed down his budget earlier this week and thought “heck, I like the sounds of this massively inequitable and unsubstantiated cut-fest!”

Well, we have some great news: you can bring down your own unnecessary and nationally-damaging budget in the comfort of your own home, simply by playing the Department of Treasury’s exciting new spin-off product: the 45% interactive Diamond Joe Hockey Federal Budget and Class War 2014 game!

aps-hockeyboardUsing the same cardboard and string technology that’s now being rolled out to replace the National Broadband Network, you can recreate all the manufactured panic and pious condescension of your federal government in the comfort of your own home! The rules are below, so don’t wait for the Senate to ratify it: start playing today!

RULES

1. The aim of the game is to fix the nation by owning as much of it as possible.

2. Every player starts with $200. That sounds socialist, actually. Scrap that.

3. With the richest person choosing first, every player selects their piece: Mining Magnate, Media Mogul, University Professor, Nurse, Manufacturing Worker, Single Mother, Unemployed Person, and Pensioner. On the box it will say there should be a Disabled Pensioner figure in there, but that’s now been deliberately left out.

4. Mining Magnate and Media Mogul take $5000 each. Everyone else gets $40, except for the pensioner who should have acquired their money before the game began, and the Unemployed Person who has to wait six rounds before getting whatever the Mining Magnate determines is fair ($5 maximum). Single Mother also has to pay a $5 “wanton harlot” levy (not a tax).

5. Everyone gets their wage each time they pass Go (although this requires a $7 co-pay).

6. At the beginning of the game every piece has the choice of paying a $100 upfront education levy (not a tax), or paying 15% of their salary every round. Similarly, there’s a first round $200 “private health cover” payment, or a 30% health levy (not a tax) per round for any player that chooses not to pay.

7. By landing on a property the player has the chance to buy it, although the Mining Magnate can block any purchase by playing her unlimited supply of “fracking” cards.

8. Any purchase must be negotiated with the Bank, except for Mining Magnate or Media Mogul, who can take unsecured no-interest, no-repayment loans from the Bank at any point.

9. Landing on a Utility requires the payment of a $5 fee, unless the utility has been privatised in which case it’s $20, plus a $20 late fee.

10. Every 12th round requires all pieces to pay a flat 30% Contribution Levy (not a tax) for being part of the game. Except for the Mining Magnate and Media Mogul pieces, which for tax purposes are based in Connect Four.

11. The winner is the first person to own the country and become King Patriot. Unless it’s not Mining Magnate, in which case the result will be challenged and Mining Magnate will be declared King Patriot.

RRP: $12 billion (plus $12 billion in operating costs). However, you’ve already paid for it via your forthcoming temporary board game levy.

NOTE: It’s not a tax.

Yours ever,

APS

Your post-budget ABC TV programme guide

Published in Time Out 8 May 2014, art by Robert Polmear

Dear the Internet,

Next week your treasurer Joe Hockey will hand down the Abbott government’s first federal budget, and you can feel the excitement in the air. Will universal health care be destroyed, or merely demolished? Will higher education become the exclusive purview of the super-rich, or will the common-or-garden wealthy still get a look-in? And how generous will the tax concessions to the mining industry be – will they have to make do with free money, or will we finally introduce blood tributes from every Australian family?

aps-abcuts

One thing that’s certain is that the ABC will be seeing some serious cutbacks, despite that whole no-cuts-to-the-ABC-or-SBS thing that your PM said before the election. To be fair, what he said was deeply ambiguous and opaque:

…so you can see why he’d be annoyed at the way his promise has been misrepresented as being some sort of promise.

In any case, there’s no need to fret about having your national broadcasters taken out behind the bike sheds and given a going over with a tyre iron. We’ve managed to get hold of the ABC board’s top secret post-budget programme line up, and are delighted to see that the broadcasting quality will be deeply efficient.

Enjoy their new Abbott-mandated “commitment to axcellence”!

Social Media Watch
With no budget for newspaper subscriptions, Paul Barry criticises the spelling in his Twitter feed until his phone runs out of battery.

3.6 Corners
The flagship current affairs program gets a 10% cut, and is now filmed in Kerry O’Brien’s garage. The exposé on the appalling storage of old paint cans and Xmas decorations is already tipped to sweep the Walkleys.

Work School
With higher education off the table and pensions only open to those who crack the big seven-zero, it’s important to get children past walking age (of entitlement!) nice and early. Hamble and Big Ted now have casual telemarketing jobs, while Little Ted is a freelance copywriter-slash-barista and Jemima appears on the show for the week per month she’s not rostered on at the Roy Hill iron mine.

Whatever the BBC leave out by the bins
A cavalcade of classic entertainment, lovingly curated by the former housemate of the head of drama, who works near Broadcasting House in London and is happy to check the dumpsters on her way to the bus stop. Just how many series’ of Keeping Up Appearances did they make? Find out after May 13!

Rake
With Richard Roxburgh far too expensive, the fifth season now follows the sexy adventures of an actual Bunnings leaf and grass rake. Also filmed in Kerry O’Brien’s garage.

The Test Pattern
This classic ABC favourite makes a long-overdue return to our screens from 7pm to 10am every day of the week. Follow the zany, entirely static adventures on ABC 1, 2, Kids, iView or the new interactive test pattern postcard.

Spicks
The specks were just too expensive.

Yours ever,

APS

So, Australia, when did racism become OK again?

Originally published at Time Out Sydney 3 April 2014. Art by Robert Polmear

Dear the Internet,

So: when did we all get so cool with being racist?

Gotta say, our national hatred of brown people really sneaked up on me, not least because I’m a white middle-class straight man and therefore demographically the least likely sort of person to encounter open bigotry while at the same time being the most likely sort of person to angrily demand my right to dispense it.

aps-racistNow, you might think I’m overreacting, but you know what? No, I’m not.

The biggest message that our government – and, let’s be clear, federal opposition – has put forward is that we need to Stop the Boats. And we all know why that is.

It’s certainly not because of the cost of dealing with asylum seekers, since it was orders of magnitude cheaper to house people in Australia, process their application and then either deport them or release them into the community, as opposed to the millions it’s costing us every month to use our Navy to drag ships back out to sea while we imprison people indefinitely on isolated islands where all food, water and fuel needs to be expensively shipped in.

It’s not because they’re a danger to us or our way of life: people who’ve given all their money to people smugglers in a last-ditch effort to escape their country aren’t exactly brimming with resources and options.

Sure, some folks argue that there are people who deserve to be here and people who do not. And I can’t help noticing that those who apparently do not deserve to be here coincidentally tend to have complexions rather duskier than those of our federal front bench.

And we know it’s not a matter of gosh-darn principle about people playing by the rules. After all, we don’t incarcerate Irish overstayers. We don’t send US students with expired student visas to Manus Island. We don’t jail English folks who’ve decided to do sneaky bar work while ostensibly here on a holiday visa.

So let me spell it out in nice, unambiguous terms: the people that want our help the most are varying shades of brown, and Australians just don’t like brown people.

We sure as hell don’t like the brown people who were here when the First Fleet arrived, since then we’d have done something about the fact that they live, on average, a decade less than non-indigenous folks – and even less if they live in remote communities (between 12 and 14 years less, specifically).

And let’s reflect on our recent history.

In February a young brown man named Reza Barati was murdered during a detention-centre riot on Manus Island. And our government are not at all keen to investigate this murder properly, hence shrugging at the deportation of the chief investigator and the refusal of the Australian Federal Police to help local police in PNG, despite a direct official request. That came after a human rights inquiry into the centre was shut down, incidentally.

 Then less than a month after the abovementioned prisoner had his skull bashed in with a piece of wood, our snowy white attorney general George Brandis announced that our anti-discrimination laws are too repressive and needed reform because “people have the right to be bigots, you know”, and he was concerned that bigots weren’t being adequately protected. Oh, Australia, will no one think of the bigots?

Then our immigration minister Scott Morrison suddenly removed all legal aid for asylum seekers this week, which seems fair only if it turns out that everyone who desperately flees here with nothing more than the shirt on their back is fluent in English and also an experienced lawyer with particular expertise the constantly changing legislation regarding Australia’s immigration policies.

The fact that he did so immediately before getting rid of a group of detainees taking legal action against the Department of Immigration for making their private details public shows what an odious trick it was: aid was cut on Monday, the detainees are being relocated to remote WA on Thursday, and the case comes before the Federal Court in Sydney on Friday.

In all of these cases, the people insisting that people had had it too good for too long were of one race, and the people they were putting at disadvantage were coincidentally not that race.

And I don’t think we realised how bad it was getting. And it’s not just me who’s noticed. There’s no shortage of overseas editorials about Australia’s virulent bigotry at the moment.

And just to be clear, racism’s not OK. Like, not even a bit OK. And you know that.

Now, there’s a good chance you’re thinking “b-b-but I’m not a racist! I didn’t close this browser window the second I saw ‘asylum seeker’. I’m a good person!”

And you’re probably right. So prove it. Right now.

Click on this link and donate whatever you can afford right now to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, who – among other things – provide legal aid to the people who now have no other option.

Show that you aren’t scared of helping people. Get a glorious thrill of righteousness knowing that you’ve made a practical difference, however small. Even a tiny pebble can be the thing that triggers the avalanche, right?

And yes, it’s something small. We can do more, and we will do more.

But right now, today, we can do this.

Yours ever,

APS

Your ratings-smashing Australian Government blockbuster TV events of 2014!

Originally published at Time Out Sydney, 14 February 2014. Art by Robert Polmear.

ohtampa

Dear the Internet,

If there’s one thing that our nation learned last Sunday with success of rating smashers INXS: Never Tear Us Apart and the Schapelle Corby biopic Schapelle, it’s that we Australians love nothing more than seeing our own stories ineptly reflected back at us.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by our Federal government, who recognise that the best way to win hearts and minds in support of their political agenda is by telling our culture’s greatest stories on the small screen.

That’s why the following three blockbuster television events are currently being rushed into production – so here’s a preview of what will, unless Labor and the Greens block it in the upper house, be 2014’s federally-mandated Must-See TV!

Sophie’s WorkChoices
Australia’s sweetheart Lisa McCune is Sophie Everywoman, a single mum struggling to balance her work and personal life under the yoke of protectionist unions forcing her to accept award wages, OH&S standards in the workplace and crippling obligations like employer superannuation contributions and paid leave.

However, a chance meeting with dashing Howard-era employment minister Kevin Andrews (Julian McMahon) makes her realise that she really can have it all simply by outlawing collective bargaining and allowing her to negotiate as equals with her employers, who promptly make her position casual. Now freed of all her uncompetitive protections, can she finally achieve her dream of seven day a week working poverty? Find out in this heartwarming story of hope, love, and unaffordable child care!

Cli-Fi
An edge of the seat thriller where the first casualty of the truth… is profitable industry. Mild mannered environment minister Greg Hunt (David Wenham) uncovers a shadowy well-supported and peer-reviewed global conspiracy of scientists and researchers attempting to ensnare international governments in fiendishly urgent and united action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Can he and his rag-tag gang of powerful industrialists, international media magnates, discredited scientists and highly-paid lobby groups stop this insidious cabal of under-resourced academics and keep industry safe from their dastardly fact-based agenda? Also stars Claudia Karvan as Gina Rinehart, Hugh Jackman as Clive Palmer, Daniel Craig as Lord Monckton and Cornelia “Morag from Home & Away” Francis as CSIRO Chief Executive Officer Megan Clark.

Oh, Tampa!
A knockabout musical farce about the 2001 Children Overboard affair, where goofy prime minster John Howard finds a simple, politically-motivated fib claiming that evil refugees threatening to drown their own children spirals out of control and wackily becomes the basis for Australia’s federal immigration policy for the subsequent decade.

With Anthony Warlow as Howard, David Campbell as immigration minister Philip Ruddock and Phil Scott as wandering minstrel The Children Over-Bard, Oh, Tampa! features towback-tapping numbers like ‘The Only Good Ship (Is Citizenship)’, ‘Political Wedge Issue Blues’ and ‘I’m Not A Racist, But… (…Obviously, I Am)’.

Set your VCRs now, Australia.

Yours ever,

APS