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.