I come to bury Caesar

04/09/2011 § 3 Comments


I saw a government die this week.

Well, not die. At least not yet. The last shudder of life has yet to leave the body. But soon it will.

And I saw the mortal blow. The victim had been stabbed and sliced by foes before. The victim was weak. Yet, like Caesar, the victim still whirled and flayed and fought as if not dead. Then the High Court slipped the dagger between Gillard Government’s shoulder blades. And now the Government is dead. As dead as the Malaysian solution. Et tu, French CJ?

For those not willing to indulge my strained literary allusions (or my illusions), the gist is this:

1) The Gillard Government indulges in the never-ending Australian pantomime of protecting vulnerable bogans from marauding Mongol-like hoards of boat people. It does this by promising to send 800 of them to Malaysia, in exchange for receiving 4000 Malaysian refugees. (Yes I know that means we actually end up with more refugees. Shh! No one tell the swing voters of Western Sydney!)

2) Unfortunately for the Gillard Government the Migration Act has a pesky provision that forbids Australia from shunting refugees off to another country unless that other country treats refugees to a few minimum rights. Small problem: Malaysia has not signed the Refugee Convention, doesn’t recognise refugee rights in its domestic laws, and has a history of caning troublesome refugees.

3) Boy genius immigration Minister Chris Bowen has a solution! Simply sign a non-legally binding agreement with the Malaysian government asking if (pretty please) they could be nicer to refugees. Then feed the High Court a line about how you’re convinced ‘that the Malaysian government had made a significant conceptual shift in its thinking about how it wanted to treat refugees’. Problem solved.

4) High Court says ‘yeah … nah‘.

5) Government sooks. Blames the umpire.

Which brings me to my main point: how could they be so fucking stupid.

Bear in mind this is the most unpopular government in recent memory. Whether fairly acquired or not, it has a reputation as a government that can’t or won’t do what it says it will do. And the ‘boat people’ issue has always hurt Labor. And the High Court has been notoriously bolshie of late.

So you would think that this would be something that would be done with care and forethought. That you would only proceed it you were absolutely sure your case was watertight. But no. Not this Government.

Until now I had thought the Gillard Government might be able to recover. But it is now dying and will soon be dead.

There was a time when I wavered between the Labor Party and the Greens. The Greens were principled, but naive. Labor was competent, but hollow. Yet Labor is not competent anymore. It is both hollow and useless. This is a choice no more: the rubble of the modern Labor Party is not a real option.

So I’m off to bring reason to the Greens. I may fail. I may suffocate under the faux-Romantic, earth-mother notions of the deep-green faction. Maybe I’ll be excreted from the party, like a splinter from under the skin. But what else is left?

Wish me luck!

Of Riots and Revolutions

10/08/2011 § Leave a comment


So England riots.

I’m not sure why and no one else seems to know yet either. Some claim to be punishing the rich, while others say they’re out for a good time (‘I say darling, after we finish our bangers and mash, how about I take you out for a spot car burning? It’s been ever so long since we’ve had a good loot!). Of course ideologues on both sides strain at their leashes, barking at each other to assign the blame (It’s a class war sparked by Tory spending cuts! No you idiot, it’s the welfare state!). However, I don’t really care why they rioted. Sort of.

Just like I don’t really care that hockey fans in Vancouver rioted because their team lost a hockey match. Just like I don’t care that bogans rioted in Cronulla because they don’t like immigrants, or refugees, or lavash, or whatever. In a sense, the reason is meaningless. Because there is none. They have no good reason.

Each of these riots occurred in a wealthy democracy. Even the possible explanation to which I’m most sympathetic – that England is rioting due to spending cuts on services to the poor imposed by the party of the rich – still does not absolve the violence. The torching of cars and the ransacking of shops is plainly a disproportionate response to a smaller dole cheque. Especially when the cuts are imposed by a recently elected government. And especially when you consider that England, even when ensconced in the worst Tory hell, is still a far better place to be born than most of the other countries in the world.

Which brings me somewhat circuitously to the point of this post. Late last year, people in other countries – countries ruled by fear, violence – got rowdy on the streets for a good reason. Those people were poor and most had never known political freedom. They marched against dictators, weathered the reprisals and repression, all in the name of ending dictatorship.

That these countries were Arab countries brings some awkward ironies. Compare their reasons for revolution with the reasons for riot in the wealthy white democracies mentioned above.

England is a country that enriched itself through empire. Not now of course, but back in the day. Like a fat tick it slurped the resources out of other nations to feed its own wealth. Many of these nations were Arab. Indeed, a portion of the blame for the brutal dictatorships against which the Arabs are now revolting falls at the feet of the British, who left the place in disarray. And now the Brits throw a tantrum when the wealth runs out.

In Australia the rioters targeted people of Middle Eastern appearance. ‘They don’t accept our values’ the rioters screamed. Err … values like democracy? Values like peace? Achieving political change through persuasion and argumentation, instead of violence? The rioters in Cronulla could have expressed their views through any number of peaceful democratic means available to them. Yet they chose to throw bottles at Arabs. Because they don’t share our values.

The people of Egypt had no institutions of democracy. So they took to the streets and firmly demanded them. And did not leave till the dictator had left. Meanwhile those privileged enough to live in three old stable wealthy democracies riot. Because they don’t like Arabs. Because their team wasn’t quite good enough. Because their dole cheque is less. Because they can.

Anyway I’m not sure what conclusion to draw here, other than the obvious embarrassment. Should I be depressed because even large numbers of people in even the most privileged democracies in the world can’t seem to get it right? Should I be gladdened because people in Egypt can? Or should I just be amused by the absurdity of the contrast?

Honestly, I just don’t know.

Now that’s a real rant!

19/07/2011 § 1 Comment



When I started this blog, I had hoped to have a section devoted entirely to rancid diatribes. The idea was to spray bile at whatever random hypocritical tosh had managed to irk me of late. What glorious fun it would be!

You see, this fits my peculiar delusion that I’m some sort of eloquent and erudite curmudgeon: an illegitimate spawn of a threesome between Shakespeare, John Ralston Saul, and Paul Keating (don’t think too hard about the mechanics of that – it’s a metaphor after all). Cranky and full of scorn, I would reduce any piece of illogicality, idiocy or ignorance to dust with a few choice words. And then smile smugly at my awesomeness.

But, after reading Geoff Lemon’s magnificently vulgar denunciation of carbon tax whingers, I give up. It’s over. My brilliant career as a ranter has been aborted. There’s simply no way I can ever hope to rant this well. Lemon’s epic is coarse, hilarious and so so absolutely correct. You should also read the follow up Q & A.

I may not be able to match it, but I can at least enjoy it.

So salud! Mr Lemon, may your reign be long and bitter.

Some words for Julia – how to sell a carbon tax

13/07/2011 § 1 Comment


Last Sunday Australia’s Prime Minister gave a speech outlining the government’s new carbon tax. Her government is getting pounded in the polls and is widely thought to be incapable of selling even popular and successful policies, let alone something as unloved and untried as a carbon tax. (Why, oh why, she had to call it a ‘tax’ – with all the voodoo that that word brings – when there’s a perfectly legitimate argument that it’s not actually a tax. But that’s a frustration for another day and another post.)

So for people like me this was a big moment. Like any good latte-sipping elite (actually, I prefer macchiatos), the answer to whether we should price carbon seems to me face-palmingly obvious: you put a price on carbon. Better to lose a few jobs than break the only planet we’ve got.

Now I don’t intend here to get into arguments about the science: I’ve got more fruitful things to do with my time than defend the vast majority of climate scientists against the shambolic ramblings of lunatic lords or knee-jerk contrarians. For me this crucial question is can Julia sell this vital reform? To put it bluntly, this is too important for her to choke. Like millions of Australians I was quietly thinking ‘please don’t screw this up’.

Did she screw it up? You can read or watch the speech and make up you own mind.

Personally, I think it was mediocre, rather than magnificent. In an effort to achieve simplicity and clarity (vitally important, yes) she forgot the colour. Ok there were a few metaphors, some not bad (‘avalanche of science’), and some ineptly mixed (her first paragraph had us ‘seizing’ our clean energy future before we’d even ‘built’ it). But there was no cadence or rhythm. And little inspiration or direction.

All of which is troubling. Because this policy is such a big change, and so scary for many in the electorate, that an average speech will not do the trick. To meet this challenge and to make this sacrifice we need something more than monotonous simplicity.

So I thought I’d attempt to write the speech she should have given.

Note that I haven’t written the speech that would convince me or people like me – elites don’t need convincing. (I did wince when I wrote the Gallipoli metaphor, but your average Australian is still such a sucker for the ANZAC myth that I thought it wise to include it.)

Note also that my attempts to write something more elegant and lively haven’t come at the cost of simplicity – and for this claim I have empirical proof! Despite philosphical doubts about the possibility of accurately measuring a concept like ‘readability’, I’ve found the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests quite a useful tool. My attempt has a Flesch Readability Ease of 77.3, better than Gillard’s 64.3 (and far better than the woeful 40.7 of Climate Change Minister Greg Combet’s subsequent speech).

Anyway, enough introduction. Here’s the speech. Let me know what you think:

Thank you.

My fellow Australians, I want to take a few minutes of your time today. A few minutes to give you my answer to the most troubling question of our time: how can we heal our planet? A few minutes to make five simple points on why we need this carbon tax.

First, those who know the science agree: pumping carbon into the air is sucking the life out of our planet.

Now, the long debate over climate change has been necessary. But it has also been bitter. In a democracy everyone has a right to their opinions. The misguided and the selfish have a right to say whatever they want: to talk and to chatter. But the fact that they talk doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. We may have to listen, but we don’t have to agree.

It’s sad that many scientists – smart people just trying to use their knowledge to explain the world as it is – have sometimes been drowned out. They are drowned out, not by those who know the most, but by those who shout the loudest and by those who stamp their feet the hardest. Climate scientists – genuine climate scientists – have spent years mastering a complex and difficult topic. They have spoken. They have warned us. I think we should listen.

Second, the answer to this problem is not complex: make polluters pay and they will stop polluting.

The carbon tax is really simple. Take the 500 businesses that make the most carbon. Bill them $23 for every tonne of carbon that they release. Smart businesses will always try to cut costs, and pollution now costs them. So they will cut their pollution. If they can’t cut their pollution, their goods will be more expensive and less people will pay for them. People will buy other stuff. They will spend their money on things that don’t cost the earth. And our emissions will go down.

Because our emissions must to go down, the price of carbon must go up. And it must keep going up. Over the first three years the price of a tonne of pollution will steadily rise from $23 to $29. It’s a sensible and gradual start that gives Australian business time to adjust and prosper in the new system.

At the end of the first three years, the system changes and we start to trade. The government, instead of controlling the price of pollution, will control the amount of pollution. We will cap and then slowly reduce the amount of carbon that Australian companies can emit. Firms will be able to buy and sell the right to emit carbon. This rewards firms that find ways to cut their carbon: they will be able to sell their leftovers to make a profit. That’s the beauty of the market, if you use it carefully. Dangle a profit in front of business. Make it pay to do the right thing.

Third, Australians are a creative people: we’re smart and we will find ways to cut carbon without cutting jobs.

There is no limit to the faith I have in each and every Australian to overcome a problem, to find a better way. This ingenious spark shines through Australia’s history. When the diggers at Gallipoli needed to buy time for their retreat they didn’t throw their hands in the air. They used rainwater, string and cans to rig their rifles to keep firing while they retreated: their ingenuity bought them precious hours and saved many lives. This ingenious spark glows brightly in Australian business. From the practical to the technological, our solutions are endless. The Hills Hoist. The Victa lawnmower. Howard Florey treating disease with penicillin. CSIRO inventing Wi-Fi. We always find a better way.

We will find a better way to power our lights. We will find a better way to power our cars. And we can find a better way to power our economy. Those who think we can’t price pollution and survive are giving up. They say we aren’t good enough, that we don’t have the brains to figure out how to grow cleanly. I think they’re wrong. I think that we’re bright enough to innovate and invent ourselves a clean energy future.

Fourth, cutting pollution doesn’t come without a cost: we will protect the vulnerable, but we will have to sacrifice some small luxuries.

As I said, Australians will innovate and find cleaner ways of doing the things. But let there be no mistake, there will be some cost. Treasury predicts prices will rise by less than 1% per year. Some prices will go up. Some goods will be more expensive. If something can’t be done cleanly, then its price will go up. It’s how you cut carbon.

But we will protect the most vulnerable from these costs. Those who are struggling pollute less. They are not the problem. If you catch public transport because you can’t afford a car, you emit less carbon. If you don’t have enough money for the big-screen plasma TV, you emit less carbon. If you don’t fly overseas for holidays because you’re struggling to meet the rent, you emit less carbon. The battlers need not be at the frontline of this fight.

Low-income houses will be compensated. There will be a cheque in the mail, or a deposit in the bank account before the carbon price kicks in. You will pay less tax. Six million households, all but the wealthiest third of the country, will get enough payments and tax breaks to cover the price rises. The poorest 4 million households will get enough to cover the price rises and then some – an extra 20% to make sure they’re secure. And, as the price of carbon rises, so will the compensation and the tax breaks. We will not sacrifice the battlers. You will be protected.

Fifth, the carbon tax is not only an opportunity to cut carbon. It is an opportunity to cut the tax that penalises people for getting a job. It is an opportunity to cut the red tape that binds every taxpayer.

Now there will be plenty of jobs in our clean energy future, and I want to give the unemployed every chance to grab one of them. This package triples the tax-free threshold, from $6000 a year to over $18 000 a year. It’s silly to tax someone as they move from welfare to work. They should be rewarded. And they will be, as they will keep much more of their pay. They will also be rewarded with the other benefits that work brings: dignity, challenge, and a sense of purpose.

Many people worry that this scheme will make their life more complex. Not so. It will make life simpler for many Australians. Raising the tax-free threshold means that an extra 1 million Australians will not have to bother lodging a tax return. The kid working shifts after school at Macca’s will not have to do a tax return for homework. The mother trying to juggle parenting with a day or two’s work each week will have one less thing to juggle. That’s the beauty: we can cut our carbon as we cut our red tape.

I thank you for your time today. The debate over climate change has been long and painful, but necessary. However, debate alone is not enough. Words alone are not enough. We must meet our words with deeds. We must act. And we will act. It’s time.

Thank you.