We’re ‘entitled’ to be outraged, Mr Hockey

April 19, 2012

Last night Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey came out swinging on ABC1’s Lateline program. His topic of choice? Australia’s alleged culture of ‘universal entitlement’, and how we had to stop expecting the government to pay for everything.

Of course, by ‘entitlement’, he was referring to Australia’s welfare and benefits systems, often referred to as Social Security. It was a shambles. A shemozzle. It had to be fixed. Look at the US, he cried. Look at the UK. Their debts are huge, and we’re in danger of going the same way! It’s time for decisive action, and Hockey’s our man for it, apparently. We need to cut this runaway welfare spending while we still can, or we’ll end up like the US. He actually managed to convey the impression that the reason Europe and the US were plunged into the Global Financial Crisis was the fault of welfare spending, rather than under-regulation, irresponsibility and sheer criminal activity from banks and regulators alike.

But the real target of this plan isn’t the government, of course. It’s the most vulnerable people in our society – the chronically ill, the young single parents, the old and the unemployed. Hockey’s plan is aimed squarely at the very people most in need, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, he seems proud of it – and utterly contemptuous of the people he proposes to further disenfranchise and disadvantage.

The clue is in how he talked about the issue. He repeatedly used the word ‘entitlements’.

From the World English Dictionary:

entitle (vb)

1. to give (a person) the right to do or have something; qualify; allow
2. to give a name or title to
3. to confer a title of rank or honour upon

Seems pretty straightforward, right? If someone is ‘entitled’ to something, they have the right to receive it. An ‘entitlement’, therefore, is what said person should receive.

But this is a word that’s taken on a very nasty meaning in recent years. We hear people described as having ‘a sense of entitlement’, that they believe they can demand special treatment. In other words, that the world – or in this case, the government – owes them a living.

And that’s the sense in which Hockey is using the word. He could have talked about ‘benefits’, ‘pensions’, ‘government allowances’ – any one of a dozen synonyms. He chose to use the word ‘entitlements’, to invoke the implicit idea that those who receive such benefits don’t deserve them. And lest anyone think it was an innocent choice, we have Hockey’s own statement that there is ‘a lot of spending by government which many voters see as their entitlement’.

In essence, this is no different from the way the Liberals under former Prime Minister John Howard repeatedly targeted those receiving government benefits. They helped whip up the outrage that led to A Current Affair’s notorious ‘Paxton Controversy‘, in which the program vilified and defamed a family caught in a cycle of dependence on government assistance. They positively encouraged the view that anyone – anyone – who was on unemployment benefits was simply a ‘dole bludger’, who would rather sit and home and watch TV than do an honest day’s work. They insinuated that those receiving disability pensions were faking their illnesses, and that a woman on a single-parent pension just ‘didn’t want to work’. They introduced ‘Work for the Dole’, which can best be described as demeaning make-work that looked suspiciously like it was designed to get as much as possible for as little as possible, with the added benefit of humiliating the people forced into it.

At the same time they introduced non means-tested ‘Baby Bonus’ and private health insurance rebates, handing out significant sums of money to those in the top tax brackets. They didn’t even bother to establish any but the most rudimentary criteria for eligibility: all that anyone needed to qualify was a birth certificate or a receipt from an insurance provider. This was certainly welcome relief for those who fell into that ever-widening crater between needing government support just to go to the doctor’s and those who could pick and choose their private hospital and get that elective surgery whenever they wished.

The Coalition thought it was ‘fair’ to provide those same benefits to those who demonstrably didn’t need any help from the government whatsoever. They cut taxes and put in place rebates that ensured Australia’s highest income earners were better off than ever. While they were doing all this, they made it harder and harder for those in genuine need to even gain a Health Care Card to enable them to get medical treatment – let alone help them get out from under spiralling debts, manage their chronic illnesses or stay home with a baby because was no possible way to afford child care.

And Joe Hockey, mouthpiece for the Coalition, wants to do it all again. When pressed on why the Liberals said they’d repeal the means test for the private health insurance rebate, he dodged the question. When asked about the Baby Bonus, likewise. Oh, and they re-affirmed their commitment to establishing a Paid Parental Leave scheme that guaranteed full income replacement for all Australians regardless of income (despite the ever-widening gap between the Coalition’s spending promises and available Budget funds). If those schemes are quarantined from Hockey’s guillotine, all that’s left are the benefits for those who depend on government help just to get through the day.

Hockey read us a lecture on how this might be brutal, but it was ‘financially sustainable’. He exhorted to look to ‘Asia’ as a role model and embrace ‘filial piety’ – in other words, expecting help from the government was a sign that we were failing in our responsibilities to our relatives. We were children raised by ‘bad parents’, he insisted, who had instilled in us a sense that the government would look after us.

Here’s a news flash, Mr Hockey – it is the government’s job to look after us. We elect the government to build our roads, manage our borders, represent us to the world, regulate the systems on which we depend, protect us from (to coin a phrase) ‘enemies foreign and domestic). We also elect our government to help look out for those in our society who are not able to help themselves – the destitute, the chronically ill, the disadvantaged. We expect that our government will be there for us when a flood or cyclone devastates our town and tears away the infrastructure built with our money.

We pay taxes and levies to provide the government with revenue to do these things. Income tax, fuel tax, sales tax, company tax, levies of various kinds, and of course the GST – there is not one person in this country who is exempt from taxes. Despite what’s often said by those who subscribe to the ‘dole bludger’ rhetoric, an unemployed person pays taxes every time they fill up their car or do their shopping. To suggest otherwise is a poisonous untruth, and that unemployed person has the right to expect their government will assist them if they need it.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this morning, ‘If Australians think they’re entitled to Medicare, aged pensions … they’re right’.

And as for your idea that we should look at Asia, Mr Hockey – just which part did you have in mind? Let’s look at a few countries, just on the issue of public health care.

Let’s start with China’s Communist-Capitalist hybrid, where an adult leaves his family and lives in a faraway city just to find enough work to lift them (barely) out of subsistence? Where huge construction projects reap billions for a few companies, but then stand empty for years because no one can afford to move into the apartment complexes? Where the young nouveau-riche spend millions on collecting sports cars while the elderly in the provinces go without medical treatment and die from diseases that simple nutrition can prevent?

But China is also in the process of overhauling their health care system to provide near-universal health care, for the cost of about 10 yuan per person after provincial and national government contributions. Their public health infrastructure lags sadly behind, and if someone has the misfortune to need to visit a clinic in the country, they’re only covered for 60% of their bill – but reform is in progress.

So which part of China should we emulate? The universal health care, or the massive class divide that exists as a result of China’s race to outrun the US?

How about India? That’s a booming economy – and it eclipses the millions who live in abject poverty. It has a maternal and neonatal death rate that is simply appalling. For every person with a good job and health care, there are thousands dying in rural areas because its public health spending is less than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product.

Or how about South Korea, which has a well-developed public health system subsidising development of hospital and medical services, and financial assistance for most of its population to cover medical bills and social disadvantage?

Which one of those, Mr Hockey?

Our health care and welfare systems have real problems – in some areas, they’re utterly broken. Nonetheless, we still enjoy a higher life expectancy than most developed economies. Our maternal and neonatal death rates are lower than most developed countries. We don’t have raging epidemics of measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and a whole host of diseases preventable by vaccination. We’re lucky. We have some incredible medical personnel, and we are in a position to take advantage of the latest research.

We also have public money – our money – allocated to public health care. Our vaccinations are subsidised, if not actually free. Our poor have access to subsidised medicines and aids. Our chronically ill and disabled are not thrown out into the street and left to beg for scraps.

Can we do more? Yes, we can, and we should. We shouldn’t be talking about cutting that kind of spending, Mr Hockey – we should be increasing it.

Remember, Mr Hockey? It’s our money. We hand it to the government in trust that our needs will be properly met. If your party isn’t prepared to do that, then why on earth do you think we should give it to you? It will be no comfort to us to have your fabled ‘large Budget surplus’ when our most vulnerable are suffering – and you still maintain that there’s something wrong with them expecting you to help.

You should be ashamed of yourself.


Victorian policies, side by side

November 26, 2010

One day out from the Victorian elections, and – if possible – the level of ennui is even higher than during the Federal poll. Apart from a few committed pamphleteers and online trolls, most people’s attitude seems to be summed up in one word: ‘meh‘.

That could have something to do with the fact that both major parties and the Greens spent a great deal of time in this campaign simply attacking each other. The Labor Party is all about waste; the Coalition will destroy the public service; the Greens will make you take cold showers! (And no, I’m not exaggerating on that last one – it was part of an anti-Greens Twitter campaign that purported to reveal the ‘truth’ about the consequences of Greens policies on coal-fired power stations.)

Now I don’t know about you, but I like to make my voting decisions based on policy, not on who had the most ridiculous claims or nastiest insults. So with that in mind, here’s a quick-and-dirty comparison of some key areas of policy for most of the parties contesting the Victorian election. Let’s focus on Public Transport, Health and Education.

Policy statements are taken from the parties’ websites: Labor, Sex Party, Country Alliance, DLP, Family First and Liberals. I have not separately listed National Party policies, as they are in coalition with the Liberal Party and their policies are folded into the latter’s website.

Full disclosure: I’m currently volunteering for the Australian Sex Party. As such, while I’ll list policies, I won’t comment on them.

Public Transport

This is a huge area of concern for Victorians, to judge from questions directed at John Brumby and Ted Baillieu throughout the campaign. Metro Trains’ poor record, ‘black holes’ in Melbourne’s train system and overcrowding on some heavily-travelled lines (Dandenong and Pakenham being two of the most notorious) have seen most parties make highly-publicised announcements.

Australian Labor Party

Labor’s budgeted $432 million for public transport infrastructure and development. They’re promising more train services to Geelong, more bus services lasting longer into the night and a shuttle bus from Clayton Station to Monash University. In terms of maintenance and upgrade, Labor plans to make over train stations, buy new train carriages, and work on updating Melbourne’s ageing tracks and signalling system. The flagship policy is a pledge to establish a Safety Control Centre to monitor trains by CCTV and be in constant contact with stations which will all be staffed.

Australian Sex Party

The flagship policy for this party is a 24-hour public transport system on weekend, to be manned by security personnel. Other areas of concern are the Metro Rail Tunnel – with the Sex Party calling for stages One and Two to be simultaneously planned and delivered, upgrading Melbourne’s signalling system to take advantage of new technologies, and the separation of regional and metropolitan services to allow the regional network to be upgraded to a metro-style system.

Country Alliance

No listed policy.

Democratic Labor Party

No listed policy.

Family First

Family First has focused on encouraging more Victorians to use the metropolitan transit system. To this end they advocate implementing various (though unspecified) strategies, abolishing Zone 2 ticketing in favour of a single-zone system, conductors on all trams for safety and to reduce fare evasion, and guards on trains. They have also called for a feasibility study into the idea of building a tunnel to connect the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway, and for improvements to the most dangerous and congested intersections and railway crossings.

Greens

In keeping with a general focus on initiatives to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the Greens have set out a suite of policies. They have called for upgrades to Melbourne’s rail system (including the elimination of bottlenecks), more staff to improve passenger safety, revised scheduling to include more express train services for long lines, frequent and direct light rail, rail links to Tullamarine Airport, Rowville and Doncaster, improved disability access to buses and trams, giving traffic signal priority to road-based public transport and new trains with longer carriages to reduce crowding. Regionally, the Greens advocate restoring passenger train services (including direct services between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo), estabilishing a feasibility study into location and costs for a very-high-speed passenger train service between Melbourne and Sydney, and investigating the feasibility of opening rural school bus services to the general public. Acceleration of construction of the Principal Bicycle Network, and increased road space for cyclists would be encouraged. A combined ministry for planning and transport would be established, and all proposed road network expansions would have to be valuated against alternative public transport solutions on environmental and social grounds.

Liberal/National Coalition

Running with the ‘safety and security’ angle, the Coalition have promised 900 Victoria Police Protective Service officers at train stations, as well as 350 Transit Police to ride along. They have also pledged to spend $130 million to build a Kilmore-Wallan bypass, and to construct new bus shelters in the Yarra Ranges.

Health

As in most elections, the Health policy tends to be diffused by including ‘social agenda’ policies such as those surrounding abortion, euthanasia and reproductive technologies. I’ve deliberately excluded these issues from this policy area.

Australian Labor Party

Labor has promised to boost numbers of medical personnel: 2800 additional nurses, doctors and other health professionals over the next two years to improve nurse-patient ratios. 200 more nurses will be recruited specifically for palliative care, cancer, geriatric and rehabilitation wards. Elective surgery operations are promised to increase by 50,000, and an extra 300,000 outpatient appointments created. Along with this, patients needing an initial appointment for treatment of hip or knee osteoarthritis will be seen within eight weeks. Labor has also promised to increase emergency department capacity to treat 315,000 additional patients, 70,000 more dental care places, 300 new specialist and GP training places and 50 doctor places in rural and regional Victoria.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party’s policy focuses largely on community-based initiatives. It has called for protection of community health services under the new, nationally-managed plan, for communities to be included in planning new initiatives, and resourcing for community health support for sex workers, culturally and linguistically diverse populations, HIV sufferers, indigenous people, rural communities, the elderly and those affected by age-related illness and the transgender community. Additional areas of concern are sexual health initiatives, including state-funded sexual health clinics and inclusion of a range of sexual health treatments on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme regardless of the age and gender of patients. On mental health, the Sex Party has advocated for ongoing funding and expansion for early intervention initiatives such as Headspace and ORYGEN, community education, social support services and funding for qualified, secular counsellors in schools.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to medical and dental care within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards, and for 20 scholarships per Upper House region to be offered each year to attract doctors to regional areas.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP’s health policy is entirely conflated with what can only be described as a ‘social agenda’ policy. Picking through it, there is one specific health initiative: increase in the allocation of funding for palliative care facilities for the terminally ill.

Family First

Family First has called for an increase in funded doctor and nurse training places, support for medical personnel who work in rural and regional communities – in the form of subsidised public indemnity insurance and reduced stamp duty to aid relocation, more acute and aged-care beds, and more respite carers. In other health areas, they have advocated more support for alcohol/drug rehabilitation groups, more detoxification centres, and more mental health inpatient beds.

Greens

The Greens have called for more community health centres (including co-location of GPs in those areas), nurse practitioners, increased access for concession cardholders to public dental care, improved integration between health services, better conditions for home care and personal care workers, and accreditation standards for ‘non-traditional’ practitioners, including registers and complaints procedures. They have pledged to reduce waiting times in hospitals and increase outpatient services and institute ‘healthy eating’ programs (including requirements for school canteens to provide healthy food choices). Maternal and Child Health Services would be expanded, particularly in the areas of midwifery and post-natal depression treatment.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised new ambulance stations and a 50% decrease in ambulance subscription fees, upgrades and new hospitals in regional areas, and they have pledged to ban ‘bongs’ and related paraphernalia. In the area of mental health they have promised to set up a $10 million Mental Illness Research Fund, central co-ordination of inpatient mental health beds, and an education/employment program to increase workforce participation of those living with mental illness.

Education

The policies outlined vary wildly, from new national programs to smaller, individually-focused issues.

Australian Labor Party

The big announcement for Labor was the ‘Education for Life’ initiative. This program, aimed at Year 9 students, is budgeted at $208 million, and includes a two-week residential camp. It is aimed to teach financial literary, bushfire awareness, community service, public speaking, first aid, advanced water safety, self-defence, and alcohol/drug awareness. Labor has also promised $1.7 billion for school upgrades, provision of Primary Welfare and Home School Liaison Officers (the precise nature of which – psychologist, social worker, chaplain – would be determined by the school itself), rural ‘virtual’ classrooms and four new bilingual secondary schools. For non-government schools Labor has pledged to increase funding to 25% of that given to government schools, and to provide professional development for teachers and principals.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party has called for an end to the government school chaplaincy program, to be replaced by qualified psychological counsellors, as part of a general advocacy for a secular public school system. Special Religious Instruction programs would be replaced by curriculum-based comparative religion and ethics classes. They have also advocated age-appropriate sex education classes, beginning in primary years with safety, body image and self-esteem, and a program to educate students on the safe use of information/communication technologies. Private schools would be required to implement inclusive, non-discriminatory policies.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to education services within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP has called for a voucher system so that parents may choose to send their children to non-government schools without financial penalty, at the same time advocating for redistribution of funding to allow government schools to compete on an equal basis. Government allowances for students would be rolled into a single, non-means-tested, Universal Living Allowance and tax deductibility for when deferred HECS fees are paid. TAFE courses would receive more funding, the Howard government’s ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ legislation would be rolled back and a professional institute to oversee teacher performance would be established. Finally, the DLP has advocated ‘an education system based on the promotion of competence appropriate for the age and status of each student in a range of skills, including numeracy, literacy, social and civic participation, health skills and knowledge and an informed appreciation of the religious, moral and ethical codes to which the mainstream community adheres’.

Family First

Family First has a suite of policies: reduced class sizes, focus on numeracy and literacy skills, so-called ‘plain English’ school reports, financial literacy programs, relationship programs designed to promote marriage and family life, more TAFE colleges, promotion of the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) as pathways for students who do not want to go to university. They have also called ‘genuine choice’ for parents in selecting a school that supports their family’s values.

Greens

The Greens have called for two years’ free pre-school education for all children, no fees and charges for the public education system, a full range of education programs for compulsory schooling years including special-needs education, locally-targeted initiatives, optimum class sizes and implementation of education ICT including video conferencing. Assessment and reporting would be aimed at integrating and supporting learning rather than ‘competition’. All levels of education would be integrated into a flexible network to assist students throughout their learning periods. For educators, the Greens have advocated better remuneration, professional development and accountability, financial transparency and non-discriminatory staff recruitment and enrolment practices. Finally, all public schools buildings (renovated or new) would be required to achieve best practice Ecologically Sustainable Development standards.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised funding for existing and new schools, including the establishment of Years 11 and 12 at Somerville Secondary College. Truancy laws would be enforced. The Victorian College of the Arts attracted particular attention, with the Coalition pledging $6 million to cover its current shortfall, as well as a return to its former independent status. The Rock Eisteddfod would receive $800,000. They have matched Labor’s commitment to raising funding for Catholic schools to 25%, and promised to make Victorian teachers the highest-paid in Australia. Finally, the Coalition would expand the powers of principals to ban ‘dangerous items’, and to search, suspend or expel students at their discretion.

*****

Phew. Well, there you are. That’s the Big Three this election. Of course, every party has a raft of other policies on everything from euthanasia to water to programs for specific regions, and I urge you to look them up. I deliberately did not include climate change initiatives, mainly because almost all the parties have no specific climate change policy, and their environment policies are often mixed up with regional initiatives.

Hopefully, though, you have an idea of what’s behind all those press conferences and jargon-laden rhetoric, and can make some informed decisions.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. It might ‘only’ be a State election, but many of these policies will directly affect us in a way that grand federal initiatives often don’t. It’s your democratic right and your responsibility – please use it.


Victorian Coalition campaign launch

November 17, 2010

In the lead-up to every election, political parties ‘launch’ their campaigns – usually some time after the first promises have been made, hands shaken and babies kissed. The event is little more than a pep rally for the faithful, at which old leaders are trotted out and families turn on their glassy-eyed smiles for the camera. There might be a few policy announcement, but for the most part, launches are all about motherhood statements.

Of course, there are exceptions. The federal Labor campaign launch in 2007 was peppered with specifics; how much spent, how many things it would buy, and how many people would benefit. The Greens launch for the federal election this year, while unable to provide the hard numbers, was full of details. These are exceptions; but what we got from the Victorian Coalition this time around set a new low in lack of substance.

The campaign slogan stuck to the front of the lectern should have been a dead give-away: ‘Fix the Problems. Build the Future’. Right there you know what’s in store – a diatribe about what a terrible government Victoria suffers under right now, and a non-specific ‘vision’ of how it will all be different if the Coalition are elected instead.

Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott set the tone, indulging in a good headkicking of John Brumby’s Labor government. He didn’t quite manage to work in ‘Stop the Boats’, but otherwise tarred Victorian Labor with almost all the accusations he regularly flings at the federal government. Waste, mismanagement, betrayal of the people – it would have been an easy speech for Abbott’s writers. They could have cut and pasted much of it.

‘Our job is not to save the Labor party, our job is to save Victoria,’ he thundered to wild applause. Then Abbott switched tactics, bringing a message of hope for the believers. ‘You can almost hear the tectonic plates shifting … not towards a hung parliament … but towards a coalition majority … [that will] get things done and have the courage of its convictions.’ Stirring stuff.

After a quick refresher course on the Coalition’s mission statement – lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom, a
strong family and ‘values which have stood the test of time, Abbott wound up by comparing Ted Baillieu to former Premier Jeff Kennett, and added a little garnish of jingoism. ‘As Australian patriots we support policies which will work and build a stronger and better future for this great country.’

See what he did there?

It all sounds very reasonable. After all, who wouldn’t want policies that will work? Who wouldn’t want a better future? Ah, but wait. We’re not talking about just any policies here, oh no. The policies that will ‘work’ are clearly those of the Coalition (given we are, after all, at a Coalition campaign launch). The logical inference, then, is that if you do not support those policies, you are not a patriot. You are un-Australian. Why do you hate this great country of ours?

In case viewers and listeners didn’t get the message, Ted Baillieu opened up with, ‘I love this state! I love this state!’, completed with a pause for enthusiastic applause. After an embarrassed moment, a few belated ‘whoo-hoos’ were heard around the room. Undaunted, Baillieu plowed on, and soon hit his stride.

Our streets are not safe, he warned. He’d spoken to families whose loved ones had been ‘bashed, stabbed or even murdered’, and they were crying out for action. Our transport system was failing. Bushfire-affected families had been forgotten, planning and infrastructure was in ruins, the sky was falling. ‘More of the same is simply not good enough,’ Baillieu yelled.

But, lest we all throw ourselves off the burned-out shells of buildings in our anarchic cities in despair, Baillieu had a message of hope. ‘There is a great Victoria … it’s the Victoria that first emerged 160 years ago with the courage, ambition and aspiration of new settlers. They came in search of new opportunities … unconcerned by fear or distance … what they lacked in labour, skills or technology, they more than covered with determination and passion.’

Ted Baillieu, it appears, is an enthusiastic support of the principle of terra nullius. Before a bunch of British capitalists, seal-hunters and convict ‘guards’ decided that settling Victoria might be a good idea in order to exploit resources and stop the damn Frenchies from getting another colony, Victoria was an unspoiled Eden. It was a land just waiting for white people, and let’s not talk about sites of habitation dating back 35,000 years, diorite mining and established trade networks with the Aboriginal peoples. No no, it’s all about the Pioneer Spirit.

These dauntless types ‘simply got on with it … they dreamed of a future for our state [and] inspired others to go on and build that future’. As time went on, more and more new arrivals were attracted by this visionary settlement, and ‘our multicultural heart’ was formed. ‘No one understands the value of opportunity better than those who came looking for a new start,’ asserted Baillieu.

Unless those people turn up in boats fleeing persecution, right, Ted?

The grand vision of prosperity is all different now – because of Labor, of course. Victorian families are in dire circumstances, struggling to cope with failing services, rapidly rising bills, increasingly unaffordable housing, an economy dependent on population growth and, ‘above all’, escalating debt. ‘Victorians have been asked to tolerate, accept and regard as normal record levels of violence, unsafe streets, unreliable public transport, crumbling country roads, local communities being ignored, a planning system without certainty or confidence … vulnerable children left unprotected … secret hospital waiting lists, under-resourced schools, secrecy and incompetence, waste and mismanagement, and inadequate investigations of corruption. No one should consider this as normal!’

Excuse me a moment while I check my perimeter defences, field-strip and clean my arsenal and throw some chunks of scavenged meat to my slavering guard dogs.

Yes, that’s right. Baillieu’s vision of Victoria – the state he ‘loves’ – is one of a fall from grace. In the golden age of the pioneers, people of spirit and drive came here with their dreams of a capitalist utopia and built something marvellous. (Presumably, these people would have voted Liberal if there had been such a party in those days.) But then, the dastardly, moustache-twirling Labor men (with apologies to former Premier Joan Kirner) snuck in and ruined it all. Weep, weep, for the lost glory.

Excuse me again for a moment. I have to go hold up some old ladies for their pensions so I can get my kids on a secret hospital waiting list – and siphon some diesel for my all-terrain vehicle so I can drive them across the battle-scarred landscape.

Twenty minutes into Baillieu’s speech, and still no policy announcement. Not one. Nada. But wait – here comes the Coalition’s plan.

The Coalition will ‘maintain surplus … get rising debt under control … ensure state taxes are fair and competitive,’ said Baillieu, adding for good measure – in case he hadn’t made the point strongly enough – that people no longer felt safe. ‘We stand for more jobs, safe streets, safe and reliable public transport, quality country roads, strong families and communities, a planning system that works, better access to hospitals, more support for schools and teachers, cutting waste – a government that you and all Victorians can trust.’ All these claims were, he stated, ‘fully costed and fully budgeted’.

Fantastic. Here comes the policy. Now we’ll see some good, chunky detail giving us a credible alternative government.

At which point Baillieu thanked everyone for coming, and left the stage to wild applause.

Wait … what?????

That was it? Not one number? Not one specific policy measure? A bunch of motherhood statements tacked onto the end of some revisionist history and dystopian scare-mongering??

Now, as I said in the beginning, campaign launches are all about revving up the faithful, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a lot of detail. But even the faithful need some sausage with their sizzle – and any swinging voter that tuned in out of curiosity would have been left with the clear impression that the Victorian Coalition was long on criticism, short on policy.

Of course there are policy statements available on the web (and I’ll be looking over them in the days to come). But if you go to the trouble of setting up a big, well-publicised event, invite the media along and have it televised – shouldn’t you at least attempt to show yourselves in the best possible light?

Baillieu’s Coalition appears not to think so. The strategy seems to be entirely about trying to scare Victorians into voting for them. If that means they have to grossly overstate crime figures, misrepresent community attitudes and mislead the public into holding the State government responsible for local and federal government purviews – well, that’s excusable. The important thing, after all, is to get elected.

They’re going to have to do better than that, though. It’s not enough to run down your opponents and mutter darkly about a ‘Labor-Greens alliance’. Voters need to know that you’d do better.

Right now, they don’t know any such thing.


Wilkie backs Labor for government

September 2, 2010

Andrew Wilkie has just announced that he will support a Labor government under Julia Gillard.

Like Bandt, that support extends only to a pledge not to block Supply, and not to support any unwarranted no-confidence motions. It’s interesting that Wilkie saw fit to qualify that last point – he left open the possibility of bringing or seconding such a motion himself. He also made it clear that he will examine any legislation on its merits alone, and that Labor knows it cannot expect automatic support for its proposals – ‘Julia Gillard shouldn’t necessarily count on my support,’ he said.

Although highly critical of both the Coalition’s and Labor’s refugee policy, Wilkie said that he felt Labor could best meet his criteria for stable, competent and ethical government. When asked to clarify what he meant, he brought up the Howard government’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example of unethical governmental behaviour. Given how shamefully he was treated by Howard and his Ministers when he blew the whistle on the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ beat-up, that had to be a ‘best served cold’ moment.

He went on to say that he felt there was an ‘unacceptable culture’ within the Coalition with regard to asylum seeker policies, and to effectively put Labor on notice that he would attempt to overturn their commitment to offshore processing.

Wilkie’s negotiations with both leaders had involved a list of 20 ‘priorities’. Most importantly, he was seeking funds for the ailing Royal Hobart Hospital, and poker machine reform. The offers he received from Gillard and Abbott were very different; Abbott promised $1 billion for the hospital, while Gillard said she would bring forward the release of $1.8 billion from the Health and Hospitals Fund, $340 million of which would go to the RHH on the assumption that it qualified under the scheme. The rest would be available throughout the country, and Wilkie said he hoped that a significant portion of that would go to rural and regional Australia.

On the question of poker machine reform, both leaders agreed to implement so-called pre-commitment technologies on every machine. Simply put, this is a smartcard or USB device that recognises an individual user, and can be used to limit how much is spent gambling. It’s currently used overseas. Gillard’s commitment apparently went further than Abbott’s; she said she would encourage the states to change their legislation accordingly, and if that proved unsuccessful, would seek to bring federal legislation to compel them to implement the technology. Wilkie said he considered this an ‘unprecedented reform’.

Wilkie volunteered that Abbott also promised $7.5 million for a multi-sports complex in the electorate of Denison.

There’s a growing suspicion that Wilkie’s ‘priority list’ was, in fact, some kind of honeytrap – that he wanted to see who would work for an ethical and equitable solution with an eye on the national interest, and who would simply offer him pork. If so, it worked. Asked where Abbott would get the money for his promises, Wilkie said he did not know – Abbott had simply made the pledge. In fact, Wilkie made the point several times that Gillard’s responses to his priorities had been considerably more detailed, and in line with proper processes already in place (such as the Health and Hospitals Fund application process). When pushed on whether he’d sold out his constituents on the matter of the hospital, Wilkie said he could not support an ‘inequitable’ solution.

This has been Wilkie’s line all the way along. Often, he’s come off looking a little holier-than-thou, especially with his refusal to take part in the briefings Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor are currently receiving. Much has been made of his insistence on ethics. I think here we can see just how real Wilkie’s commitment to ethical government really is – when offered some extremely attractive pork just for his electorate, Wilkie opted for less money, but a more equitable solution for the nation as a whole.

Wilkie’s said he’s happy to release the letter he received from Abbott outlining the Coalition’s offers, if he receives permission to do so. I doubt that will be forthcoming.

According to Sky News’ David Speers, Liberal MPs had barraged him with text messages during Wilkie’s media conference. They stressed that if the Coalition formed government with the support of the three rural Independents, Wilkie’s commitment to support whoever became Prime Minister would mean that he would vote with the Coalition on matters of Supply. I have to wonder why they bothered to do that. It was self-evident from Wilkie’s own words. There was no point to be made there.

With the support of both Wilkie and Bandt, Labor now has 74 seats of the needed 76. It all turns now on Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor.

Whatever the outcome, Wilkie seems to be shaping up as the putative conscience of the Lower House. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he responds to parliamentary process in action.


Ozvote 07 – the Health debate (repost)

August 11, 2010

With the Health debate between Minister Nicola Roxon and Shadow Peter Dutton looming on the agenda today, I thought I’d repost my analysis of the 2007 debate. Remember, at that time, the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was the Health Minister. Looking back can be enlightening sometimes.

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The National Press Club has been the scene for two crucial debates in the upcoming Federal Election. Yesterday, Treasurer Peter Costello debated Opposition Treasury spokesperson Wayne Swan. The worm handed the prize directly to Swan (with nearly 60% approval rating), although most commentators gave it narrowly to Costello – based, it seems, more on Swan’s nerves than any real difference in economic policy. The hold-out was Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes phone poll, which – as with the leaders debate – came down squarely in favour of Costello (65%).

Today was the Health debate. Health Minister Tony Abbott versus Opposition Health spokesperson Nicola Roxon. It looked like it was shaping up to be a good stoush, even without the worm – who, no doubt, was recovering from a good deal of fatigue. It’s done a fair bit of climbing and diving lately.

But then Tony Abbott didn’t turn up to begin.

Or bother sending a message explaining why he was late.

Or when he might make it, if at all.

Or apologising.

In his absence, Nicola Roxon held what can only be described as a highly genial press conference, marred only by a moment of mud-slinging when she described Abbott as a consummate buck-passer whose highest priority was keeping John Howard out of trouble. Every time a question was asked, she spoke directly to the reporter and thanked him/her for it – which gave the whole process a slightly surreal air reminiscent of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ during Question Time. She even offered, when one journalist mentioned his question had originally been for Abbott, to do an impersonation of him – an offer which was greeted by a great deal of laughter from the press corps.

Roxon’s policy announcements bring the Labor commitment to Health up to $2 billion. This is largely concentrated on preventative medicine, lowering elective surgery waiting lists, equitable pay for nurses (with the inevitable dig at WorkChoices) and providing dental care for 1 million people. The press corps didn’t let her off, either – but she seemed cool, and had answers readily available.

Abbott finally turned up 35 minutes late and apologised, but ‘even in an election campaign things go awry’. The apology was perfunctory, and, judging by the reaction of the press corps, not well received.

His opening statement lost a lot of steam – largely because many of his points had already been attacked by both Roxon and the press corps. In the face of the huge criticism levelled at private health insurance gap and loss of Commonwealth public hospital funding, his roll call of Coalition health achievements sounded pretty hollow. It wasn’t helped by his insistence that the problem with public hospitals was solely the fault of ‘State Labor governments’ and attacks on both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, while claiming to want to end ‘the blame game’.

Abbott’s response to questions was completely different to Roxon’s. His manner was hectoring, there were no ‘thank yous’, and every answer was prefaced by an extended attack on Federal Labor. Most often, the target was Kevin Rudd, which struck this writer as slightly bizarre, given the presence of Roxon sitting right next to him. Abbott’s treatment of her tended to give the impression he considered her ineffectual and hardly worth his while to notice, but if it was a strategy, it backfired badly. Coming on the heels of his failure to arrive on time for the debate, it looked like rudeness.

His other main strategy was the time-honoured politician’s tactic of refusing to answer questions directly. In this, he contrasted poorly with Roxon, whose answers – while somewhat long-winded (which didn’t always play well with the press corps) – tended to be directed at the substance of the question. Policy announcements were difficult to pick out of the rhetoric, being bounded around with equal parts Coalition-praising and Labor-damning. In fact, in both his opening statement and in answer to questions, the only policy he even mentioned was the much-criticised ‘local boards for public hospitals’ idea.

Finally, the question for which this writer had been waiting came. Why hadn’t Abbott taken better care when making his travel arrangements, and why didn’t he have a deputy available to take his place, if necessary? Abbott’s response? He had to be at a campaign launch, and – ‘given the speed of planes’ – it was impossible to be there any earlier than he actually arrived. The inference could be drawn, then, that Abbott considered the debate of minor importance, able to be sacrificed in favour of a campaign launch, without even the courtesy of an explanation via Airphone.

In closing, Abbott rang the bell of ‘our record, our record (which was, by then, becoming something of a broken record). Roxon picked up that refrain, but showed the negative side of an 11-year Coalition government. That was a particularly dangerous strategy, but she concluded with what is becoming Labor’s clarion call in this election – the appeal to the ‘ordinary Australian with everyday worries’.

Lacking a worm, I’d have to conclude that the debate was a clear win to Roxon (as did the majority of Sky’s commentators). Many of the points on which she outstripped Abbott had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with respect – respect for the press corps, the opponent, and the desire of people to hear direct answers to direct questions. Coming on the heels of Abbott’s sledging yesterday of asbestosis sufferer and campaigner Bernie Banton, this counts heavily against him. Roxon’s policy announcements came across as sound and well-considered, with a big emphasis on specific programmes (although she didn’t speak specifically as to how Labor planned to increase the workforce of skilled hospital workers). Abbott’s were vague, consisting largely of attacks on State Labor governments and a sketchy plan for a massive increase in hospital bureaucracies at the local level – while all the while insisting that Australia has, apparently, never had it so good.

It was pretty clear that Abbott knew he’d lost, too. As the two debaters shared the traditional handshake for the cameras afterwards, Roxon commented that Abbott could have made it to the debate on time. Abbott’s response was to snarl out the side of his mouth, ‘That’s bullshit, you’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?’ while maintaining a fixed smile.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast with yesterdays’ debate. Costello was clearly the polished politician, and Swan a nervous nelly. Today, Roxon was relaxed, chatty, serious where she needed to be and solid all the way through. Abbott, despite his long experience as Health Minister, came across as rude, out of touch and a political novice.


Open thread – election priorities

July 25, 2010

I’m still plowing through the various announcements of the ALP on climate change, so in the meantime I’m throwing open this thread.

We’re hearing a lot about ‘what Australians want’, this election – yet I don’t recall many of us actually being asked. So in this open thread, I’m asking the question:

What are your top three election priorities?

To kick it off, mine are (in no particular order):

Restoration of student services and financial relief for tertiary students

Targeted funding to address the widening gap between services available in public and private schools

Mental and dental health care available to those who can’t afford the incredibly high fees that providers charge.


Guest post: Greens health policy – my big fat perspective

July 22, 2010

Today is the first of a planned series of guest posts from bloggers, academics and wonks who follow particular issues very closely, and over time have developed a huge amount of knowledge in them. We’re kicking off with a post by Bri King, professional counsellor, academic and Fat Acceptance advocate. Her blog Fat Lot of Good focuses on issues related to the ‘obesity epidemic’, Health At Every Size and size-related discrimination. She gives us her perspective on the policy announced by Greens leader Bob Brown yesterday calling for tighter rules surrounding the sale of junk food and alcohol.

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Greens Health Policy – my big fat perspective

There has been a flurry of media reporting today regarding the Green’s call for a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising: advertising which is apparently going to ‘cut Australia’s growing obesity problem’. As a fat woman, mother, academic, Fat Acceptance advocate and professional counsellor I have issues with what is being attributed to the Greens, but maybe not the issues you think.

Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising. Advertising and commercialism in general leave me cold. As far as I am concerned, you can take all food and alcohol advertisements off TV and radio and out of print media, no skin off my nose. However what is being brushed over in the media reporting is that the levy applies to manufacturers who choose not to display nutritional information regarding their product. Aside from the implicit assumption that people are fat solely because of the type of food they choose to eat, having nutritional information attached to products would actually help people with allergies and specific medical requirements and so making that type of information readily available is a good thing.

Banning vending machines containing soft drink, crisps, chocolate and other sweets from schools isn’t a bad idea but to my knowledge there isn’t a plethora of vending machines in Australian schools anyway. Removing ‘junk food’ advertisements from TV during times young children are more likely to be viewing doesn’t bother me either.

The Greens are promoting the application of a French model (not the long legged type) that was adopted in 2004 to combat the perceived increase in fat French people. What is interesting that according to the OECD statistics available online, the number of overweight/obese people (over 15 years of age) in France increased a miniscule .8% between 2000 and 2006. There are no more recent statistics available and there are no statistics concerning those less than 15 years of age at all. The life expectancy of the French has also increased during those years, so how do we even know the French legislation is having any effect at all? We don’t. But adopting similar legislation makes us look like we are doing something and we all know we have to be seen as doing something about all the fatties in our country. Right? Wrong. But more on that later. I fully realise that this sort of legislation exudes the faint odour of the Nanny State and Big Brother and government intervention in the private lives of citizens and that does concern me to a point but I have bigger, fatter fish to fry.

What I take the most issue with is the blatant misrepresentation of the so called ‘obesity problem’ in Australia (not to mention the rest of the world). This misrepresentation (or blatant distortion) isn’t necessarily being perpetuated by Bob Brown or the Greens Health Policy. The blame for the distinct and very obvious ‘hate on the fatties’ slant falls directly at the feet of the media. The quotes attributed to Bob Brown do not mention the words ‘obese’, ‘obesity’, ‘obesity epidemic’ or even ‘overweight’. These words (and headlines) have been specifically selected by the media in order to stir up the obesity epi-panic because after all, doesn’t everyone love to hate on the fatties?

The medical profession diagnoses obesity using the BMI (Body Mass Index). The BMI was never designed to be applied to individuals; it was originally designed for application to populations. The BMI does not take into consideration either muscle mass, hereditary factors, side effects of medication, ethnic origins or any of a host of reasons as to why an individual might be considered ‘overweight’. Not to mention that in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Americans became overweight and obese overnight when the CDC changed the arbitrary weight designations in the BMI. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that using the BMI to condemn a large (no pun intended) segment of the population is a colossal error of judgement, yet the medical profession continue to label people using this problematic evaluation.

Fat people are not the burden on society that government, health professionals and the media would have us think. There is a lot of fat-hating propaganda out there and if you take the time to analyse the studies and statistics that a lot of this misinformation stems from, you will see for yourself that the problem is not as much of a problem as we are led to believe, if indeed a problem at all.

What should be given a higher priority is encouraging and enabling people to have the option to eat a varied and nutritional food intake (if they choose to do so) and enabling people to participate in and enjoy physical movement (again, if they so choose). There is an old saying that ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. The same is true for people and ‘healthy diet’ and exercise. We cannot mandate individuals in terms of what they eat and what exercise they do. What we can do is ensure people have the choice, that socio-economic status and other factors do not have undue influence on what people eat and what activity they choose to participate in. We need to remember that health is not a moral imperative and until there is a ban on other so-called ‘chosen’ behaviour such as driving and sports, we should not deny fat people health care on the basis of their weight.

A lot of people think fat is a choice. ‘Eat less and exercise more!’ we are told. Unfortunately it isn’t always that simple, despite the media proliferation of diet plans and the simplistic lamentations of some health professionals. It doesn’t matter if fat is a choice or not, because this sort of simplification misses the point altogether. The point is that fat people (just like thin people, average people, black people and every other sort of person) deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. End of story.

So if the Greens were to get their policy up and running and they did raise the estimated $4 million dollars a year, they would be best to implement a Health At Every Size paradigm which encourages people to adopt a varied and balanced diet based on mindful eating and to engage in physical activity which they find pleasurable rather than punitive – regardless of weight. The Greens policy has the potential to enact positive benefits for the Australian population but it also runs the risk of continuing to demonise fat people, a group of our society who are already deeply stigmatised and marginalised. While the Greens will never be in government they do have considerable influence on the passing of legislation and Bob Brown and his party need to remember they represent all Australians, not just the thin ones.


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