Beer, cigarettes and cruises – the government’s attack strategy

May 15, 2014

It didn’t take long for the implications of the Coalition government’s first Budget to sink in. Within moments of Treasurer Joe Hockey resuming his seat, representatives of every sector from community welfare to big business filed out to front the media. What they had to say came as no surprise to anyone – business liked the Budget. Almost no one else did.

Arguably, it’s the flagged changes to Medicare that caused the most outrage – the $7 ‘co-payment’ for GP, pathology and some Emergency Department visits, and the $5 increase to medicines. Deservedly so, too. The government would have us believe it’s about spreading the ‘heavy lifting’ in order to resolve the ‘Budget emergency’ and move us quickly back to surplus. The logic is inconsistent, though. If the GP charge is all about helping out the fiscal bottom line, why earmark $5 out of every $7 to go into a medical research fund? For that matter, why not just continue to fund the CSIRO?

The numbers are one thing. Consider this, though – the government is effectively asking every single Australian to make a decision about their own health, no matter how unqualified they are. Does your kid have abdominal pains that cause him to scream? Flip a coin – heads it’s wind, tails it’s appendicitis. How about this – it’s flu season. Pay for the FluVax now, or take the risk that you won’t need to see the doctor later for an antibiotic prescription?

Ludicrous? Yes. Dangerous? Absolutely.

Oh, but no one would be so silly, would they? Mr Hockey certainly doesn’t think so. He’s got it all worked out. You see, it’s about whether we’re selfish or sensible. Why, that $7 isn’t so much to ask. It’s the equivalent of giving up a couple of beers or a third of a pack of cigarettes. Really, who wouldn’t make that sacrifice for their own health, or that of their family?

See what he’s doing there? It’s a rather nasty piece of character assassination. In so many words, Hockey laid down a series of assumptions – that people on low incomes are not concerned for their health, that they’d rather spend their money on beer and cigarettes than on their families, and that they need to take a good hard look at themselves. He didn’t quite come out and call them ‘bogans’, but the inference was practically screaming to be made. And we all know that bogans are lazy, selfish dole bludgers, right?

On Tuesday night, Hockey gushed about how wonderful it would be for people to know that their contribution to the Medical Research Future Fund might one day save their children’s lives. Today, he’s playing hardball, running back to the tried-and-true formula of ‘blame the victim’. He wants to be able to argue that if people suffer as a result of Medicare changes, it’ll be their own fault.

Then there’s what on the agenda for the aged pension – including the family home in the assets test, indexation against inflation, and a rise in the qualifying age to 70. Seniors groups are up in arms. Every one of these changes is potentially destructive. The family home has historically been exempt from the assets test, and for good reason. It’s often not until near retirement that a housing loan is paid off, and in the current housing market, the value of any given house is likely to be considerably inflated from its original asking price. A house bought for under $100,000 thirty years ago could now – conservatively speaking – be worth more than $500,000. If that value is included in a person’s assets, it would render them ineligible for the pension. Their only option would be to sell that home, downsize, and invest the remainder. Even for those of us who are younger, that’s a hugely stressful undertaking, with no guarantee of a good outcome.

Raising the retirement age also places a burden on older people. The idea is predicated on the fact that we live longer. What it doesn’t take into account, though, is that we are not living better. Medical science has become very, very good at saving lives, but it’s still playing catch-up on how to improve the quality of life for people over 60. It shows in the strain on our aged care system, where there is a dearth of available medium-care facilities – and what there is often exists in an uncomfortable middle ground between low-care ‘retirement villages’ and high-care beds.

Again, though, the government’s got an answer to objections. According to Deputy PM Warren Truss, senior just want to have their cake and eat it, too. The argument goes like this: people retire, they cash in their superannuation, go on cruises and spending sprees, and when the money’s gone, cry poor and hold out their hands for welfare. They’re just sponges. They should ‘learn to live within their means’.

Well, of course. Heaven forbid that people who have worked all their lives and put as much money into their superannuation as they can afford be allowed to actually enjoy their retirement. And let’s not mention how they often use substantial amounts of superannuation to pay off debt.

What Mr. Truss deliberately didn’t say is that money put into superannuation is taxed going in and coming out, not to mention income tax over the years. People have already contributed three times over to their own retirements. There’s also the fact that many simply don’t have enough superannuation to see them through, whether as a result of being in low-paying jobs, or simply because Australia didn’t even have a compulsory superannuation scheme before 1992.

It’s niggling little details like this that the government wants kept out of public discussion. Every pensioner and every low-income earner with children who get their faces on The Project, A Current Affair or any of the morning shows, everyone who wants to know why they are being targeted for such draconian measures, is another slip in the polls. (Despite what any government MP says, they do watch those figures.)

This tactic – blaming those who will be worst affected – is nothing short of bluster and bullying. It’s Hockey and Truss working as a tag team to kick people when they’re down. And it’s a huge mistake. Had the government stuck to its original strategy of attempting to accentuate the potential for positive outcomes, it would still have been an unpopular Budget, but that’s all – and unpopular things go away in politics.

That opportunity’s been lost, however. The Budget is irrevocably cast as not merely strict, but outright vindictive. The government has a huge problem on its hands, now. Opposition parties have flagged their intention to block key legislation (notably, Medicare changes), and the Coalition may well find itself facing Hobson’s choice – to ride it out, and risk paralysing the government, or pull the trigger on a Double Dissolution, and risk losing government altogether.


Budget 2014 – heaviest lifting from the weakest Australians

May 13, 2014

Treasurer Joe Hockey has just handed down his first Budget, and it’s a shocker. Here are the highlights – or rather, the low-lights.


Commission of Audit hits those who are most vulnerable

May 1, 2014

The government’s Commission of Audit report was finally released today. It’s over 500 pages long, but already it’s proving to be targeted at those who can least afford it.

These are just some of the recommendations:

PENSIONS

Aged pension eligibility to be raised to 70 years old.

Pension eligibility criteria to be tightened.

The family home to be counted as an asset in means testing.

Pension payments to be gradually reduced to 28% of average weekly earnings.

Carer’s Allowance to be means tested.

HEALTH

NDIS rollout to be ‘slowed’.

GP visits to cost $15 in ‘co-payment’.

Those who turn up at an Emergency Department whose situations are deemed ‘less urgent’ to be forced to make a co-payment.

Everyone to pay more for medicines, including those currently listed under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This includes medicines that are currently free.

In a rare recommendation not aimed at the poorest and most in need in Australian society, high income earners would be required to take out private health insurance in order to access Medicare. The Commission also recommended a 2% increase in the Medicare Levy surcharge to encourage the shift to private health insurance.

NEWSTART

Payments to young job seekers to be cut after 12 months.

Job-seekers between 22 and 30 be forced to relocate to take a job after 12 months, or lose benefits.

EDUCATION

Gonski reformed to be scrapped.

States to have full control of schools.

Higher education to cost more.

Students to start paying back their FEE-HELP debt earlier.

FAMILIES

The Commission recommended the Paid Parental Leave Scheme salary cap be scaled back to $57,000 per year.

Family Tax Benefit B to be abolished.

A new FTB A ‘supplement’ to be available to sole parents with children under 8 years of age.

INFRASTRUCTURE, INDUSTRY AND PUBLIC SERVICES

More road tolls.

Industry assistance, including to the car industry, to be slashed.

Seven Commonwealth bodies to be scrapped, including the Climate Change Authority and Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Over 60 other departments to be merged; for example, Border Protection with Customs.

The Snowy-Hydro scheme, the Australian Submarine Corporation, Defence Housing, Australian Rail Track Corporation, Australia Post, Medibank, the Royal Mint and the National Broadband Network to be sold off over time.

The Commission estimates this will mean that 15,000 fewer public servants will be needed, especially in Canberra.

New targets for funding the ABC and SBS, while the Australian Broadcasting Network would be abolished.

The minimum wage case to be abolished, with a new benchmark of 44% of average weekly earnings.

It takes no special knowledge whatsoever to see that this report is a nightmare. It targets the weakest, poorest, least able to adapt to extreme changes in their fiscal circumstances. Now, Treasurer Joe Hockey has been at pains to stress that this is a report, not the Budget, but he’s not ruling anything out, either. Some of these recommendations have already been signalled as ‘under consideration’.

Take an ‘average’ family – one parent works, making about the average weekly age. The other parent stays at home with the kids, who are 14 and 10 respectively. If the Commission’s recommendations are adopted, they’ve just lost Family Tax Benefit B. They’re probably paying higher fees to send their kids to government schools than they were even one year ago. If the kids get sick, they not only have to find the money to see the doctor, but also the money to pay for whatever gets prescribed.

How about someone approaching 65, and thinking about retirement? Their superannuation funds aren’t great, because they’ve never had a high earning job. They won’t be able to even try for the pension for five more years, and even then there’s no guarantee. You see, they own their home, which they’ve paid off over decades. Thanks to gentrification in the area, it’s probably worth a fair bit now – almost certainly enough to exclude them from the pension.

Or someone leaving high school, wanting to go to university? Well, they’d have to pay more for their degrees, but hey, there’s always FEE-HELP, right? Except that debt will be higher, and they’ll have to start paying it back much sooner. They could always go on the job market and try to save money, but if they have trouble getting a job, they might well find themselves forced to move anywhere the government deems fit, or else be back where they started with no means of support.

Even a single, able-bodied, employed person doesn’t get off scott-free. They’ll be mostly okay – as long as they don’t get sick, require regular (or even semi-regular) GP visits and medicines, lose their job, drive to work, sign up for the NBN … you get the picture.

Amazingly, the government would like us to believe that this is all necessary. It’s all the previous administration’s fault, of course. The message is clear and consistent: the Coalition don’t want to do this, but they must. Why? Because, in Hockey’s words, ‘What this report proves is that we have inherited a mess’.

Really, Mr Hockey? Are pensioners out in the streets desperately trying to make their terrible circumstances known, as they are in Greece? Is our inflation rate at almost 60%, as it is in Venezuela? Is our debt as a percentage of GDP at 230%, as it is in Japan?

The short answer is NO. They’re not.

Our inflation rate is 2.9%.

Our debt as a percentage of GDP is 28$.

Yes, we have a deficit. Yes, if a completely unforeseen disaster happened right now, we would need to borrow more money to combat that. But that deficit came about as a result of spending designed to cushion us from the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. It was strategy – and it worked.

The government would have us believe this was ‘wasteful’. They prattle about pink batts and school halls, and just about turn themselves inside out trying to obscure the real effect of the Rudd and Gillard governments’ spending initiatives.

And yet the Coalition decided to increase the deficit by $8 billion ‘just in case’.

And yet the Coalition decided to spend $24 billion on buying Joint Strike Fighters in a highly questionable business deal.

The same people who even now wring their hands and all but confirm that their sights are squarely trained on the most vulnerable of us.

Hockey says the Commission’s recommendations are ‘courageous’.

No, Mr Hockey. What would be courageous would be your government refusing to kick people when they’re already down.

But what are the chances of that?

Guess it’s over to you, Labor, Greens, PUP. Anybody? Anybody?


Hard hearts and false economy: Disability Support Pension under attack

April 20, 2014

(Full disclosure: I am a recipient of the Disability Support Pension.)

I guess the government thought it was time that disabled people came in for a bit of special attention. After all, it’s already targeted low income earners, benefit recipients, orphan children of veterans and aged pensioners; why not add yet another disadvantaged group into the mix?

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has flagged possible changes to the Disability Support Pension, changes that could begin as soon as the May Budget is delivered. You see, he considers this benefit ‘troublesome’ – not because it indicates that thousands of Australians are in need of income support, special services and excellent health care, but simply because it costs the government a great deal of money. Obviously, therefore, the appropriate action to take is to find a way to boot as many people off the pension as possible.

Andrews wants to start with periodic re-assessment by ‘independent’ doctors. For ‘independent’, read: government-approved. That might only apply to those who have received the pension for under five years, he said, but that ‘might’ is nicely vague, isn’t it? No guarantees here. Never mind that in order to be granted the pension at all, you not only have to provide detailed medical reports from your own doctors, but also be assessed by Centrelink’s. If – and only if – Centrelink is satisfied that your medical condition is severe enough to make it impossible to work for a minimum of 15 hours per work at minimum wage for at least the next two years, and you pass an income and assets test, then you qualify for the pension.

The Centrelink medical interview is harrowing. You are expected to be ready to explain every part of every doctor’s report you have provided, regardless of your own medical knowledge. If what you say conflicts with what’s on the report, you’re grilled as to why. I won’t go so far as to say the interviewer assumes you are not ‘really’ disabled, but that’s certainly the atmosphere. That’s hard enough to take if you suffer from a physical disability – imagine being in chronic pain, possibly taking strong painkillers, in that setting. Now imagine how difficult it can be for those who have long-term mental health problems. Anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia – the list goes on. A stressful interview can be devastating.

And Andrews proposes doing this on a regular basis – possibly as often as every three months. Because, you see, those on the pension receive so much money that it ‘provides a “perverse” incentive to qualify as disabled rather than unemployed’.

Yes, you read that right.

Then there’s Andrews’ other brainwave. Some pensioners – assuming they still qualify under the new re-assessment regime – would be deemed more disabled than others. Those who are ‘less disabled’ would receive less money – and the Disability Support Pension falls well below the minimum wage already. So who decides who qualifies? Centrelink, of course, presumably on the advice of their doctors. And what constitutes ‘more disabled’? What criteria would they have to fulfill? Blindness? Paraplegia? Severe intellectual impairment? Would it be enough to be suffering such crippling anxiety that they couldn’t leave the house? Is chronic pain ‘less’ disabling than depression? Just how disabled is disabled enough?

It’s utterly ludicrous. There’s simply no basis for comparison here. Apples and oranges. Forget comparing mental and physical health problems – just trying to figure out which physical disabilities fell into which category would be a nightmare. It places an incredible burden on not only the people seeking the pension, but also the Centrelink workers and doctors who would have to do the re-assessments, make the decisions and maintain a system already tangled in bureaucratic red tape.

Of course, Andrews says this is all about ‘investment’, and not about forcing people off the pension at all. Odd, then, that he should stress how troublesome he finds its $15 billion annual expenditure. Curious, too, that he should be trying to put into place a two-tiered system that would serve no purpose but to penalise some people for failing to fulfill an entirely arbitrary set of criteria. If it’s not about the money, why is the money so important to him?

The answer is simple. It is all about the money. It’s about a government more preoccupied with achieving a surplus Budget than it is with caring for its most vulnerable citizens. It’s about a Coalition wedded to a political theory that says governments should be as small as possible, regardless of the cost in human terms. And it’s about a Minister who, apparently, has no problem with the idea that his decisions might see thousands forced to try and make do with significantly less – or even nothing at all.

It’s about hard hearts, and false economy. Every dollar ‘saved’ will be a life adversely, possibly dangerously, affected. Increased stress could lead to deteriorating mental health, or even suicide attempts. Less money will lead to more and more dependence on charitable organisations, and they are already warning that they will be unable to cope with current demand. People will be forced to make decisions between medications and medical equipment, food, rent, and utilities. They may end up homeless, mired in debt, or with even more health problems due to poor diet and an inability to avoid therapy. When that happens, the government will find itself footing the bill for the damage it has caused, as people seek help from the public health and housing systems.

Unless, of course, the government decides to do the unthinkable – make people pay for Medicare, bring in restrictive eligibility criteria for public housing, or even sell off part or all of both. Unthinkable, right?

Perish the thought.


Freedom of speech for some

April 6, 2014

First they came for the Racial Discrimination Act.

Wrapping himself in the banner of ‘free speech’, our Attorney-General, George Brandis, proclaimed the equivalent of ‘let bigots be bigots’. Our Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson (he of right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs fame), stood shoulder to shoulder with Brandis and condemned the current laws as ‘bizarre’. Wilson – whose appointment was supposed to deliver ‘balance’ to the Human Rights Commission – claimed that, as things stand, members of any given ethnic group could racially abuse each other without consequence, but if the abuse came from outside the group, it was illegal. Curtailing one person’s freedom of speech like that was just plain wrong.

The solution? Remove virtually all of Sections 18c, d and e of the Act, and replace it with incredibly narrow language. Instead of it being an offense to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’, the proposed changes would replace those words with ‘vilify’ and ‘intimidate’. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too terrible. But then we get to the definitions.

‘Vilify’ is defined as ‘to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons’. That sounds very strong, but there’s nothing in the act that might indicate exactly how that might manifest. It wouldn’t be enough, under the proposed changes, to show that you were insulted or humiliated – you would have to prove that something was said that actively caused others to hate you.

‘Intimidate’ has been changed even further. The proposed definition means ‘to cause fear of physical harm’. Not emotional or psychological fear. It wouldn’t be enough to be so terrified of constant verbal harassment that you no longer dared to go into certain places. It wouldn’t be enough that your mental health was affected. Unless you could show that you were going to be attacked, the Act wouldn’t apply.

To make matters worse, the proposed changes are bound about with a raft of exemptions that render them all but useless. The current Act provides exemptions for artistic, academic or scientific purposes, or reporting a matter of public interest – but what Brandis announced would protect almost every form of public discourse:

‘This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.

It’s hard to envisage any arena in which hate speech would not, therefore, be protected.

And what about that pesky ‘balance’ issue? Wilson’s claim that the current Act allows people of any given ethnic group to abuse each other doesn’t stand up under even the most cursory inspection. There’s no exemption on those grounds; anyone who contravenes the Act commits an offence. What Brandis proposes would do nothing to change that. In fact, it would simply become easier to entrench racism in public discussion.

But hey, it’s all in the name of freedom of speech, right? We can warm ourselves with that thought. Maybe we’ll upset a few people (but it’s not like they’re Aussies, not real Aussies), but we’ll be champions of the right to free expression. And it doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ – everyone has the right to their opinion. After all, we’re a ‘robust society’, we can handle a bit of public criticism, surely?

Oh, but wait.

Then they came for so-called ‘environmental boycotts’. You see, companies need ‘protection’ from those pesky greenie pinko lefty commos, who have this annoying habit of identifying products and practices that harm the environment. And then they have the audacity to suggest that people not buy from those companies, with the aim of pressuring them into changing the way they conduct themselves. It worked with Tasmanian timber company Ta Ann; they not only embraced green certification, but also now speak out in favour of co-operation with environmental groups. And currently, those groups are protected by the Consumer and Competition Act.

According to the government, however, this isn’t freedom of speech, though. This is what amounts to sabotage. How dare those greenies have anything to say about businesses?

The inconsistency is baffling. And it only gets worse.

Then they came for the public servants. Specifically, those who work in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Under new regulations, anyone who works for the PM & C would be gagged from making any form of political comment on social media. A specific case study concerned criticism of the Prime Minister, but the rules extend to comments on any MP or party, or their policies.

In other words, if you work for the government, you can’t talk about the government.

And don’t think you can get around it by anonymising yourself, either. If your mate in the next cubicle at PM & C knows your username on Twitter, he’s supposed to dob you in. That’s right, folks, the government actually encourages public servants to effectively conduct surveillance on each other.

It’s not just at work, on work computers. These regulations apply any time. anywhere. Whether you’re lying on the beach in Kuta, posting about how happy you are not to be back in Australia at the moment because you’re so upset at the government’s asylum seeker policies, or you’re at the pub and see a funny political gif showing Clive Palmer twerking that you want to RT on Twitter, you’re breaking the rules. Even if you happen to work for PM & C and write a ‘Mummy’ blog in your spare time, you don’t get to say anything about the government.

And if you happen to like writing book reviews about, say, Quarterly Essays, the latest offering from David Marr, Annabel Crabb, or the like, you definitely don’t get to speak. Maybe if you gave Battlelines a favourable review, you’d be okay, but I guess that would depend on your ability to sell out.

One wonders if standing in front of banners screaming, ‘DITCH THE WITCH!’ would count. And just how far criticism of non-government MPs would be punished. But surely not. This is about fairness, isn’t it? Certainly, Tim Wilson thinks so.

So let’s get this straight.

Freedom of speech for all – unless you’re an environmental activist group or a public servant. Then they’ll throw the book at you.

Protection from public criticism for all – unless you belong to an ethnic group and are being subjected to hate speech. Then you should just suck it up and learn not to be so thin-skinned.

Yeah. Sounds fair.

By now – seven months after the last election – the comment that the Abbott government has its priorities completely skewed is getting to be a tired old saw. Whether it’s paid maternity leave for rich women at the expense of the School Kid’s Bonus and welfare for orphans of war veterans; claiming ‘green’ credentials while moving heaven and earth to abolish organisations that encourage green energy development; or appointing astonishingly biased critics of the National Curriculum to ‘review it’ and ‘restore balance’, the government has shown itself to be riddled with hypocrisy. One suspects it’s even proud of that.

These proposed speech laws and regulations are just one symptom, but they are among the most dangerous. Freedom of speech is not absolute; we don’t have the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, about whoever we want. We can’t publish lies in the media – hello, Andrew Bolt. We can’t rouse a riot and endanger lives – remember Cronulla, anyone? We cannot falsely advertise. We must tell the truth in court. All of these restrictions serve to aid social cohesion. At the same time, we can speak out if we have knowledge of wrongdoing. We can bring reasonable criticism to bear on our government.

Arguably, this last freedom is the most important. A government that attempts to make itself exempt from criticism, that punishes its citizens for speaking about its own policies and actions, edges close to the very dangerous territory of fascism. And that’s not something anyone should simply dismiss as completely impossible.

Gosh, it’s lucky I don’t work for the government. I would have lost my job before the end of the first paragraph.


Hiatus

January 20, 2014

Subscribers to this blog have probably noticed by now that it’s been a long, long time between posts. I’d like to apologise for that, because goodness knows there’s no shortage of issues that deserve close attention – the Abbott government’s attacks on asylum seekers, action on climate change, welfare recipients, Medicare, the national curriculum, you name it. That’s without even beginning to dig into the rampant cronyism.

Thing is, folks, I’ve been trying to write, but without success. Some of you may be aware I suffer from a bipolar spectrum disorder, which was steadily worsening over the last four months. Between the anxiety, depression and mania, it’s been difficult to string the words together. In particular, the sheer amount of distress I feel at what the Abbott government is doing – or attempting to do – to Australians whose only crime is not to be rich has exacerbated my symptoms to the point where there are days I can’t even attempt to get near this blog. It probably sounds like a cop-out, but my mental health is already under strain, thanks to the illness and personal circumstances; it seems that the state of politics has proved to be the last straw.

And so, the Conscience Vote will be going on indefinite hiatus. I hate to do this, because I feel that every voice holding the government to account, asking hard questions, and digging for answers is necessary. I feel that I’m letting down my subscribers, my readers, everyone who’s shared around my work, and the hundreds of commenters who’ve engaged with the issues and gone on to pose questions and start investigations of their own. No matter what your personal politics may be, you are amazingly articulate and passionate, and Australia needs much, much more of this sort of engagement and commitment.

Thank you all for helping to make the Conscience Vote a labour of love, and I hope to come back to this in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I’ll probably pop up with an essay or two on issues of public interest, which can usually be found at my Dreamwidth journal. Feedback is, as always, love.

Keep up the fight.


Who needs science when you’ve got Wiki?

October 24, 2013

There are days when you read the political news and know that you’ll walk away angry.

There are days when you despair.

There are even days – rare, but they do happen – when a tiny, tiny shred of hope is kindled.

And then there are days like today, when you simply have to pick your jaw up off the floor and try not to let the sheer stupidity of it all overwhelm you.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Coalition has a somewhat – shall we say – problematic relationship with the notion of climate change, and what might be done to mitigate its effects. Historically, the Liberal/National Parties have held more positions on the subject than might be found in the Kama Sutra. Malcolm Turnbull was toppled from the leadership just before he could commit to supporting the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thanks to the machinations of former Senator Nick Minchin, the Coalition’s very own ‘faceless man’. As for the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the term ‘weather vane’ is used without irony to describe his feelings on the subject. Famously describing climate change as ‘absolute crap’, the PM apparently had a change of heart and was prepared to embrace the science – but only up to a point.

Currently, New South Wales is embroiled in an ongoing bushfire emergency. Of the three major firefronts, one is burning over 40,000 hectares. Around 200 houses have been destroyed, with countless others damaged. One man lost his life, and a water-bombing aircraft has crashed, killing the pilot. Between unpredictable winds, high temperatures and heavy undergrowth, the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes are constantly having to respond to new emergencies. And it’s only October – months earlier than the ‘usual’ fire season.

Now, these are by no means the worst bushfires ever seen in NSW, or even the earliest. The fact that they are taking place, however, combined with the unseasonal weather, inevitably brings up the question of whether climate change is a major contributor. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was unequivocal on the subject. Although she stopped short of directly addressing the current fires, she pointed to studies showing that there was a known link between the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires. She was joined by scientists and climate activists in calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases, and criticising the Coalition government’s determination to repeal carbon pricing.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition rejected that argument. The Prime Minister wasn’t simply content with that, however. When asked what he thought about Figueres’ statement, Abbott replied that she was ‘talking through her hat’. Australia has always had bushfires; they are ‘part of the Australian experience’.

You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. In one short interview, the PM managed to not only insult a senior figure in the UN, but also to dismiss the pain, stress and loss of everyone caught up in these fires. It takes real skill to be that insensitive.

But it gets better.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt was quick to back up his leader. His contribution was to flatly deny that Figueres’ statement had even taken place. According to Hunt, Figueres had a conversation with the PM in which she ‘very clearly and strongly’ said there was no link. Continuing his role as unofficial, unwanted spokesperson, he said Figueres had been misrepresented. Never mind the plethora of footage contradicting him.

Not content with putting words in Figueres’ mouth, Hunt apparently felt it was necessary to support Abbott’s arguments. Now, you’d think the right approach – especially from someone with the academic ability to gain a Bachelor of Laws and win a Fulbright Scholarship – would be to gather your evidence and distil it down to a few pithy talking points.

You’d think.

Hunt had a different idea. For reasons passing understanding, he told the BBC World Service that bushfires occurred during the hotter months of the year, and had done so since before European settlement. And just how did he know that?

He’d … wait for it … ‘looked up what Wikipedia said, just to see what the rest of the world thought’.

Wikipedia.

I wish I were making this up.

Our Environment Minister proudly announced – to the world – that his go-to source for facts and figures was an online pseudo-encyclopedia famous for its lack of oversight, inaccuracies, biases and edit wars.

A website on which the words of a scientist are indistinguishable from the words of a zealot, where celebrities are declared dead, and where harassed moderators frequently have to ‘lock’ pages to prevent users with an axe to grind from posting information that damages reputations. To say it’s unreliable is like saying a flood makes you ‘a little wet’.

Children are cautioned at primary school not to rely on Wikipedia. At secondary school, they’re positively discouraged from using it at all – and by tertiary level, it’s completely unacceptable. (I remember delivering that particular admonition to my first year students every semester – right after the warnings about plagiarism.)

The stories range from the serious to the utterly absurd. Take the long-running edit war over Caesar Salad. For over two years, editors have argued over whether this dish was invented in Ancient Rome or (relatively) modern Mexico, and tussled over the vexed question of whether adding tomatoes means you have to change the name. Then there’s the Great Scientology Edit War, which led ultimately to Wikipedia’s moderators banning the Church from editing its own pages. That final decision came after four years of back-and-forth that spilled over into mainstream media and threats of legal action, as ex-members sought to represent their negative experiences, only to have their work removed by current members bent on ‘correction’ (or sanitisation, depending on your point of view).

Oh, and let’s not forget the premature obituaries – like that of Apple’s Steve Jobs. News of his ‘death’ – originally an on-file obituary misprinted by Bloomberg – hit Wikipedia within seconds, back in 2008. Jobs, of course, was alive and well, but for the short time he was ‘dead’ on the internet, pandemonium reigned.
Perhaps this was a contributing factor in the way Apple’s stock plummeted later that year, when a fake article reported Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Hunt himself fell victim to this sort of tampering after his statement hit the media. His page was edited to say that he ‘uses Wikipedia for important policy research’. Another gem noted that, since becoming Environment Minister, ‘He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise’. Soon after, the page was locked – but his comments about using Wikipedia are still there.

I could go on, but really, the point hardly needs to be made. Wikipedia may be handy for a quick look-up when nothing’s riding on the accuracy of your information. It may even be useful to lead you to other sources with a good deal more credibility. But when you’re the Federal Environment Minister, dealing with a serious situation in which lives, homes and businesses are under threat, you owe it to Australians to do at least some credible research.

This is the man who co-authored a thesis which concluded that a ‘pollution tax’ linked to the market was the best way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change. Presumably, he was required to provide good supporting references, so he hardly has any excuse for such a fatuous statement. But this is the example he’s prepared to set for the rest of the world.

Hunt is apparently happy for the world to know that our government is prepared to take the word of a group of unknown contributors – many of whom have little or no credentials – rather than listen to the experts on its own (now disbanded) Climate Change Commission. To represent us as so unwilling to even consider the possibility of a link between wildfires and climate change that we’d rather elevate a poorly-supervised website to the status of science.

It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. Hunt’s ridiculous behaviour today is, unfortunately, just a symptom of the dumbing-down taking place in all areas of government right now, treating us like children and expecting us to believe whatever they tell us just because it comes from a place of power.

We need to be careful that we don’t let the sheer stupidity of it blind us to that fact – and that we don’t let it go unchallenged.


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