Friday, March 08, 2019

AUSTRALIAN POLITICS: Tony Abbott isn't going anywhere

The former PM is back on the talking points, painting himself and Dutton as "reluctant challengers" and orating about "the betterment of mankind".

Bad news for all those hoping Tony Abbott will leave Parliament soon: on Monday, Abbott told a packed crowd of adoring fans at the uber-conservative Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney that he isn’t going anywhere. Abbott is already negotiating some kind of “Indigenous envoy” role with his new leader Scott Morrison. It’s as if the Liberals don’t have someone like the Member for Hasluck, who may know a thing or two about Indigenous affairs.

Abbott was scheduled to speak on the vexed subject of immigration, after his calls for a national reduction. But given the events of the past seven days, it was only logical for him to provide his side of the #libspill story. As expected, he also was totally unrepentant.
Politics today is better than it has been in the past few days. Peter Dutton was a most reluctant challenger last week, just as I was back in 2009. Peter Dutton was someone who, above all else, wanted to change policy and not change leader.
Abbott almost seemed to be taking credit for the rise of Scott Morrison who, he claimed, had restored the government to
... that sensible centre-right Liberal conservative mainstream ...
of economically liberal and socially conservative.

Abbott was in no mood to compromise on key areas of policy such as energy, social security and immigration either. Listening to the way he spoke, one could almost think he was auditioning for the role of leader again. He insisted that energy policy under the new administration will be designed
... to cut price, not to cut emissions … the important thing is to get price down and let emissions look after themselves.
Abbott declared himself no believer in
... the green religion.
To applause from the well-heeled crowd, Abbott went on to declare that social security must be more
... like a trampoline than a hammock.
The former PM seemed pleased with Alan Tudge’s appointment as Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population. However, it seemed he didn’t quite understand Tudge’s portfolio. He repeated his “Team Australia” mantra, saying:
... immigration will go hand in hand with integration and in particular the stress for all primary applicants will be on having a job and joining our team and making a contribution from day one.
In other words: new migrants will again have higher expectations placed upon them than the rest of us.

Abbott said that under Morrison, the policy contest will be much sharper than under Turnbull. He claimed a key weakness of Liberals in recent times has been “seeking a false consensus rather than prosecuting a real contest”. Abbott said such an approach made little sense in a world where political differences are becoming wider, not narrower.

He closed his presentation, astonishingly, with an observation from Ben Chifley:
Our great objective is not to make someone premier or prime minister. It’s not putting sixpence more or less in someone’s pocket. It is working for the betterment of mankind. Not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. Apart from the journos, the audience was all nods and smiles. Among them was Maurice Newman, who was a member of PM Abbott’s Business Advisory Council and is highly sceptical of the existence of climate change.

Abbott claimed his objective has always been to work to help others achieve their best selves. We didn’t see much evidence of that last week.

First published in Crikey on 28 August 2018.

Monday, March 04, 2019

BOOKS: A Sunday afternoon trying to make the Liberal Party great again

A new book proposes a plan to fix the Liberal parties leadership woes.

Sunday afternoon at a pub in North Sydney and Sky News presenter Ross Cameron is launching the first book of conservative apparatchik John Ruddick. It’s called Make The Liberal Party Great Again.
I’ve known John since 1994 when I found myself in the conservative faction of the New South Wales Young Liberals known as “The Team”. Ruddick was our officially endorsed presidential candidate at a time when the non-conservative faction (known as “The Group” but also known by other labels such as “The Left” and “The Pink Triangle”) had firm control over the entire NSW Party.

Ruddick is a likeable bloke who sells home loans for a living. He has appeared a fair few times on Sky News’ Outsiders.

The basic message of his book is that the Liberal Party is neither liberal nor democratic enough in relation to its members. Its processes lead to organisational instability and electoral ruin. When the selection of the leader is just left to elected MPs, ego and vested interests alien to the membership get in the way and the door to leadership change revolves ever so quickly.

Ruddick’s solution? Follow trends overseas. Non-Labor parties across the Western world (and in the UK even the Labour Party) have democratised the process of choosing their parliamentary leaders, including grassroots party members. In this way, the parties mimic the democratic process of general elections.

Ruddick argues the Liberal Party should hold a mega-convention every three years (mid-way through the parliamentary term) to choose the leader of the parliamentary party. The convention need not be in one place but can be spread across numerous cities. The media will be welcome to cover the event. The entire nation can thus see how Liberals choose their leaders instead of relying on media “elites” to deliver whispers and leakage.

In theory it sounds fantastic. In practice, Jeremy Corbyn. Imagine trying to keep a party membership united after such a process. And who would get to vote? If attendees at Ruddick’s launch are anything to go by, it would be a bunch of retired and semi-retired wealthy white folk. Even if the Liberal Party adopts Ruddick’s prescription of mass democratisation, the people attending the Liberal mega-convention would still be about as representative of Liberal voters as Mark Latham is of ALP voters. 

I didn’t see any sitting MPs at the launch raising the question of whether anyone who could take this change on is even listening.

The closest was Stephen Mutch, former federal MP for Cook (the seat ScoMo currently holds). And, of course, there was Ross Cameron, a former MP whose Liberal Party membership has been suspended for four and a half years.

If the Liberal Party is to have any future, it should embrace the generation of young people represented by three youngsters present at the pub with their Asian-Aussie mum. In a broad Strayan accent, one of the boys boasted that he spoke fluent Thai and was learning Vietnamese at school.

As long as the Liberal Party is held hostage by a xenophobic far-right, solving for the leadership problem alone won’t work.

First published in Crikey on 24 September 2019

Friday, March 01, 2019

BOOKS: The new book by an IPA fellow that is head-scratchingly nuanced

Matthew Lesh's heavily researched theory on socio-economic divides would give Andrew Bolt a heart attack.

It’s always a surprise to see brown people at an Institute of Public Affairs event, but there they were. Last Friday night a youngish crowd including several Sri Lankan women and a very anti-Communist Chinese guy gathered at a trendy Melbourne CBD bar to launch the first book of a young IPA-type named Mathew Lesh.

The book, Democracy in a Divided Australia, is highly referenced with plenty of data and quantitative analysis. The notes and bibliography combined make up 73 pages. Though it looks like a PhD thesis, to Lesh’s credit, the 210 pages of text are very accessible read. Quite a change from the poorly referenced negativity one usually gets from our handful of right-of-centre thinktanks.

Despite this, don’t expect to read this paragraph on the opinion pages of The Australian:
Not everyone should be expected to live the same lifestyle; within the confines of the whole, every sub-culture should be able to keep their distinct qualities … We should celebrate, or at least tolerate, political, cultural, social, religious, racial, ethnic, gender and sexual preference differences … Australia can only function as a connected nation. What we share is more than what divides us.
It’s enough anti-assimilation policy to give Andrew Bolt a cardiac arrest.

So exactly what is the problem then? Why the subtitle “the inners-outers ripping us apart”? Who are the “outers” and who are the “inners”? Basically, the inners are inner-city cosmopolitan types, highly educated, able to afford an overseas holiday and eat out often without any fear of African gangs or South African white farmers. Inners can be left or right. Initially the inners were very happy when Malcolm Turnbull knocked off Tony Abbott.

The outers can also be left or right. They grew up in outer suburbs, in regional areas or in the bush. They prefer beer to a chardonnay, occupy blue-collar jobs and read newspapers freely available at McDonalds. Other groups are also included among the inners and outers — the “aspirational”, the “old elite” and “new elite” and the “left behind”. You’ll have to invest around $30 and buy the book to learn how the whole model fits together.

The book was launched by the youngest looking person in the room, one Senator James Paterson, a former IPA apparatchik and no good friend of Malcolm Turnbull. Paterson delivered an amusing speech referring to incidents from the life of the book’s author why the latter was more of an inner than an outer. It sounded more like a speech given by Paterson as best man at Matthew Lesh’s wedding.

There were lots of in-jokes which showed the speaker assumed he was only speaking to an in-crowd. Paterson should get public speaking lessons from Turnbull.

Lesh took to the floor and provided a 10-minute summary of his argument. He insisted I not record his speech, so I can’t provide direct quotes. In question time, I asked him whether he considered “outers” to also be defined by ethnicity, migration status, gender etc. I noted that I couldn’t see too many Somalis or South Sudanese in this elite thinktank audience.

To my surprise, quite a few of the white folk nodded. Lesh said he didn’t collect data on ethnicity and other factors I’d mentioned. Afterwards John Roskam, the IPA’s Executive Director, came up to me and the four Sri Lankan ladies and warmly welcomed us. He also encouraged us to join the IPA and even said we could pay our membership fees later.

Could it be that I have been mischaracterising the IPA all along? Or is the libertarian right in Australia beginning to realise that it’s uber white image is doing it no favours and that the free market of ideas, just like the free market of goods and services, tends to punish racism?

First published in Crikey on 09 October 2018.

ENVIRONMENT: When the river runs dry, we will return to the scene of the crime

Residents at the trashed end of the Darling River are angry, jobless and unable to drink their own town water.


Back in October, I started working as a community lawyer in Broken Hill. This involved frequent outreach visits to Menindee and Wilcannia. On my first trip to Menindee, an Indigenous employment mentor took me aside and handed me a bundle of papers.
You can’t understand the people in this area unless you understand the Darling River and the Menindee Lakes. The cotton farmers up north are taking all our water. This town and other nearby towns are dying.
We know rural and regional towns are losing people. But what does it mean for a town to die?

I soon discovered this issue was being covered in local papers up and down the Darling River, including Broken Hill’s Barrier Daily Truth. Almost everyone I met mentioned the dying river. And they all blamed the National Party (especially Barnaby Joyce) and cotton farmers up north.

Recently a video of two Menindee locals holding up dead fish went viral. One of the men, a grazier named Rob McBride, is someone you’d expect to be a staunch National Party supporter. Graziers have a history of being on the opposite side of local Indigenous communities in a native title claim. But in this town of 500 people and across the far west of NSW, all interests — graziers, farmers, businesses, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people — have joined forces. The mentor told me:
McBride is a real legend. He’s looking after everyone’s interests. Plus, poisoned water is killing his livestock.
Then and now

What does an employment mentor do in Menindee?
Just give courses ... There’s no work left locally. We used to have people coming from outside to work on the farms. Ten years ago, they just couldn’t get enough workers. Our fruit used to get sold at the Sydney markets. We had commercial fishing. I think just last year we lost 1000 jobs. We boast our town being the first town on the Darling River; the way the river is going, we’ll be the first off the river. The lakes are dry. The water is so bad that you can’t grow fruit or keep livestock.
I asked him about climate change.
Mate, it’s man-made. We’ve gone through 10-year droughts, huge droughts. And these lakes got through those droughts without any loss of fish. The only fish that died in the drought were the ones caught at the wrong end of a fishing rod. It’s all greed, government corruption, the government lining the pockets of the wealthy.
He spoke of cotton growers at Cubbie Station in Queensland taking all the water, of foreign ownership. The lack of work has pushed away not only outside workers. Locals have also moved out to Broken Hill and, from there, to bigger cities. For those left, it isn’t just the economy that’s depressed. The Men’s Shed (known as the Men-in-dee Shed) has no shortage of patrons. One counsellor in Broken Hill told me:
It’s an absolute man-made disgrace what they’re doing to the river. It’s affecting young children thanks to the stench in the water, the quality of the water, the blue-green algae is killing wildlife and vegetation. People can’t drink that water. They have to ship bottled water in.
Now in his sixties, the counsellor grew up around the river.
I grew up around Menindee and Wilcannia and those other towns. This river is the lifeblood. I go to Wilcannia on a regular basis. What the poisoned water is doing to that community is devastating. Four years ago, they were having fun jumping off that bridge. The water was flapping over the bridge. It was a happy town. Now it’s full of alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, gambling.
He spends much of his time counselling depressed farmers.
They’re fed up with what they keep getting told by the National Party. Though I don’t see how a change in government is going to change the powers to let water through the river system. The only one who can actually change things is the current prime minister. I doubt he’ll last as long as my car rego.
Taking action

Down at one of the local pubs, some people talk vigilante action.
The best thing we can do is take some dynamite and blow up those dam walls on the big cotton farms up north. Flush out the water and let it run down the river.
At the historic Broken Hill Trades Hall, home to miners’ strikes since before federation, a packed room of farmers, graziers and locals got together to hear NSW opposition leader Michael Daley promise an inquiry into the state of the river.

One stood up and said it was a
... crime against humanity ...
and wanted to
... put Geoffrey Robertson QC on the case.

And what about the drought? Surely that must be a cause of the dire water supply. As the Broken Hill counsellor put it:
Does drought put chemicals in the water? It’s the flow-off from chemicals used in cotton crops that’s killing our fish. And our communities.
First published in Crikey on 21 January 2019.