Democracy in action, civil society and political change

Share

Yesterday in New South Wales there was a major shift in the state’s political landscape. We saw a significant shift in voting with enormous swings against the ALP across the state and especially in traditional heartland seats.

The Liberals won seats in which they’d never imagined a serious contest. As election guru Antony Green noted:

“It’s very hard to believe it when you see a 30 per cent swing in a seat, which is what we saw in several seats.

They are astonishing figures; I mean there wouldn’t have been swings of that size since the Great Depression, since the defeat of Scullin, they are mammoth swings and that’s a very difficult thing to really get on top of on the night.”
Source: ABC’s election analyst ‘astonished’ by swing

What is of particular interest is that all of this change happened without any bloodshed. In fact, the leaders of each side – Kristina Kenneally for the ALP and Barry O’Farrell for the Liberal-National Coalition – maintained a civil demeanour towards each other throughout the campaign.

Apart from the odd bit of local bastardry – such as defacing posters – there were no reports of shots fired, no reports of fisticuffs, and no emotionally tinged polemics.

Instead, Barry O’Farrell (who has performed the miracle of unifying the Liberal-National Coalition) in his victory speech noted that his opponent, Kenneally, was a “skilled communicator and gutsy performer“.

While Kenneally noted in her concession speech:

“Tonight we acknowledge and accept the decision of the people of NSW,” she said speaking from the Randwick Labor Club. “And we accept their decision with humility and good grace.

“The people of NSW always get it right and so tonight I congratulate Mr O’Farrell and I wish him, and the government that he will form all the best.

This is a great place to live and to be free to exercise our democratic rights in peace. Unlike Ivory Coast where elections saw fifty-two people killed only a few days ago.

Complain about the political system in Australia if you like, but we are really a lucky country.

A real concern is the rise of divisive and un-civil behaviour in Australian federal politics. We need to fight against this rise of invective driven politics where personal attacks are the norm. It’s time to keep our traditions of a good fair fight that lets the people decide at the ballot box and which follows the rules of engagement set down in legislation.

Well played to both Barry O’Farrell and Kristina Kenneally. Good to see a change of government in NSW – sixteen years was a tad too long for any one party to rule.

Share

Australia and the secret sauce of western civilisation?

Share

Historian Niall Ferguson, in his Civilization: The West and the Rest, notes that:

“For 500 years the West patented six killer applications that set it apart. The first to download them was Japan. Over the last century, one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps — competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Those six things are the secret sauce of Western civilization.”

In the light of this it is interesting to consider how Australia fares in relation to these key elements.

1) Competition
The competitive landscape in Australia is challenging. Due to the small market size we tend towards duopolies; but regulated appropriately that can provide sufficient competition. Also it is difficult to get sufficient scale for wholesale competition. While competition at the retail end of the market is much easier to encourage. Issues around cartels and price fixing remain problematic, with our regulators unable to address this effectively through the courts.

Australia is doing better at competition than it used to in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s but we still have a way to go. The banking industry is probably the poster child for how much more there is to do regarding effective competition.

2) Modern Science
Australia has always ‘punched above its weight’ in science as well as in sport. But with funding cuts and dearth of opportunities for career scientists we are in serious danger of losing this critical advantage.

Also recent research shows that Australian universities are not performing well in relation to international research rankings:

“…few [Australian] universities performed above the international benchmark – only 12 in total which average in the top three ratings at world standard, above world standard or well above world standard.

Behind that is a very long tail, with 29 institutions averaging below or well below world standard.”

Source: Uni research report a blow to big-noters 31 Jan 2011

The other side to modern science is how our society treats science and scientists. Do we still believe in science? Do we still trust what scientists say?

Regarding vaccines – one of the genuine life saving scientific discoveries – we have many well educated people within Australia rejecting them. The anti-vaccine movement seems to be gaining momentum and we are in danger of losing the benefits of herd immunity that earlier vaccination programs gave us.

And then there is the area of climate change. With significant proportions of the Australian population (led by Tony Abbott) believing that nothing has changed and that there is no reason to make any changes to our collective lifestyles or economic choices as a result of climate change.

Also the number of well educated people who are privileging scientifically untested remedies and treatments over scientifically tested ones is increasing. This was discussed well recently by Tanveer Ahmed in Alternative medicine, superstition of our age.

However, I think that, at present, the people who believe in scientific ideas, approaches and solutions still prevail in Australia (for the time being).

3) Rule of Law and Private Property Rights
On this front, thanks to our common law heritage and continued independent judiciary, Australia continues to do well. Our legislative environment is relatively stable and decisions tend to give businesses and private individuals certainty. The rule of law seems safe in Australia for the time being.

I’ve often joked that private property is one of the sacred truths to which we hold dear in Australia. And, apart from the odd geological survey or government resumption of land, private property seems safe here.

Of course Australia does not have any constitutional guarantees of basic human rights nor do we have a nationally legislated Bill of Rights, although some states have legislated independently. But we do have the Australian Human Rights Commission, but even when this body expresses “grave concern” over an issue that does not mean that the Government will necessarily act.

However, there are some concerns regarding the growth in powers sought and granted by government to its agencies to spy on citizens – for example this piece on the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment Act 2010.

4) Modern Medicine
Australia is lucky that a former government introduced universal basic medical care – Medicare – unlike some other countries where many people are unable to afford such care. Due to the availability of good quality food and water together with access to basic medical care (including government funded vaccination programs) our population is healthy. This in spite of increasing obesity and related diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

Medical research continues – with foundations such as the National Health and Medical Research Council and many other private research groups – and Australia remains strong in this area.

With our education of medical professionals Australia remains strong, in spite of some concerns regarding the number of doctors and nurses.

5) The Consumer Society
There are two elements to the consumer society – the consumer mindset and consumer behaviour. Australia seems to be retaining a strong consumer mindset and this is occupying all facets of our relations with retailers and service providers (even in non retail contexts).

However, consumer behaviour seems to have shifted since the GFC with retail sales slipping. And since Christmas we have seen the panic from local retailers led by the venerable and somewhat cranky Gerry Harvey based on worries that consumers are turning to online retail over going to a local store.

Our society has become consumerist in its thinking. This means that the consumer mindset is transferred to areas of life that were once not seen as consumer transactions. For example, we now see ourselves as consumers of health services not as patients. Or we see ourselves as consumers of local government services, not as ratepayers.

This change also flows on to our expectations of those “service providers”, generally increasing our expectations. When one is a mere ratepayer one might take whatever the council deigns to offer, but as a consumer one can and will demand better service.

I’m not sure that we have really come to understand this powerful change in the shift to a consumer mindset across so many areas of modern life. It also means that the notion of service in return is a dying idea. As a consumer I receive services, not give them.

6) The Work Ethic
Adults have bemoaned the decline in the work ethic of subsequent generations since the days of Socrates. Australia is no exception. For example this recent article: Gen Y too lazy and unfocused to hire – bosses.

In the past Australians worked hard at a single job, saved up until they could afford things and waited patiently until middle age to get a housing loan. But now, we children of the ‘me‘ generation who have been brought up as consumers first have a different relationship work and credit.

We have seen an erosion of the ability to stay in a single job, where you show loyalty to the employer and they return that loyalty. The recession of the 1990s saw many of us watch people we know turfed out with nothing after years of loyal service. We watched the wave of downsizing and the lionisation of people like Al “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap by business leaders.

The Gen Xs who came out of university during the late 1980s and early 1990s found it hard to get work and learned to be suspicious of employers and their promises. This generation watched many traditional jobs, such as manufacturing, head offshore and service jobs replace them.

The old stoic Australian world view, the one where we just took whatever came at us without asking why, seems to be dead. We have been brought up to know that we have rights, even if they are simply moral rights. Rights as consumers, rights as taxpayers, rights as citizens, rights as students, rights as employees.

All of this changes our approach to work. We are still capable of hard work, many of us do not shy away from hard work. And for that hard work we expect reward. Yet some amongst us do not think that we have a right to demand that they too work. Some think that immediately upon starting work they deserve the rewards that accrue to long term achievement. And I suspect that this attitude is tied up with our consumer mindset and the way that so much in modern life does not appear to call for mastery or apprenticeship.

What’s it all mean?
As an Australian I tend to think ‘she’ll be right mate‘. We are a good country, and the preponderance of our people are good people. We are governed under a democracy that works. We have a free judiciary and our people are not oppressed. We have a tradition of a ‘fair go’ for all and we have a long history of helping the underdog.

As long as we refuse to buy into the politics of fear I suspect we’ll be alright.

Share

International Women's Day – some things to celebrate but more work to do

Share

It is International Women’s Day again and surveying the scene here in Australia for women I find much to celebrate. Yet there remains much work to do for the women of Australia.

Here we see, for the first time, a crop of women in senior political leadership positions.

GOVERNOR GENERAL & STATE GOVERNORS
Quentin Bryce – Governor General
Marie Bashir – Governor of NSW
Penelope Wensley – Governor of QLD

POLITICIANS – FEDERAL
Julia Gillard – Prime Minister
Nicola Roxon – Federal Minister for Health and Ageing
Jenny Macklin – Federal Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
Penny Wong – Federal Minister for Finance and Deregulation
Julie Bishop – Deputy Leader Federal Opposition
Christine Milne – Deputy Leader Federal Greens
UPDATE: Kate Ellis, Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women (thanks to Tom Voirol)

STATE PREMIERS
Anna Bligh – Premier of Queensland
Kristina Kenneally – Premier of New South Wales
Lara Giddings – Premier of Tasmania

I’m sure I’ve missed some of the women in politics – do please let me know of any additions  to the lists.

It was interesting to note that all states except South Australia have had a female Premier and that these female Premiers were all from the Australian Labor Party:

  • Carmen Lawrence, Premier of Western Australia (12 February 1990 – 16 February 1993)
  • Joan Kirner, Premier of Victoria (10 August 1990 – 6 October 1992)
  • Anna Bligh, Premier of Queensland since 13 September 2007
  • Kristina Keneally, Premier of New South Wales since 4 December 2009
  • Lara Giddings, Premier of Tasmania since 24 January 2011.

But when we turn our attention to the corporate world in Australia there is a real dearth of women at the helm. Of course, there’s Gail Kelly at Westpac – but which other women are running large public companies in Australia? As the Business Council of Australia noted recently:

“Currently only 10.7 per cent of senior executive positions are held by women and just 2 per cent of CEO roles. Women chair 2 per cent of ASX 200 companies and hold just 8.3 per cent of board directorships.”

It makes me think it might be time for board quotas for women. We’ve been asking nicely for a long time, and if women were going to get board appointments on merit it would be more prevalent by now.

Then there is the sad state of affairs with women’s financial independence. This coupled with continuing pay inequity that is experienced by many women means that women are entering retirement with substantially less savings than their male peers.

The paid maternity leave scheme that was introduced by the current government is a huge step forward for women and equitable financial treatment.

Also it remains a matter of grave concern that the level of domestic violence against women remains stubbornly high. As noted in a Crikey article in 2010:

“It’s simple; domestic abuse and sexual assault against women are community issues impacting our wives and partners, mothers, daughters, friends – everyone.

One in three women over their life times will be physically assaulted. One in five will be sexually assaulted. The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy was $13.6 billion in 2009.”

The report card for women in Australia is along the lines of:

A good effort so far; but more hard work is needed.

It’s time for women to reclaim the word feminist and continue the good fight. There remains much work to do.

Share

Who does Alan Jones think he is to speak to the Prime Minister like that?

Share

I was completely appalled to hear how a well known radio personality in Sydney spoke to the Prime Minister of Australia on air. The details are outlined well by Barrie Cassidy on The Drum in Liar, liar, shock jocks on fire; and you can listen to the entire interview here.

This radio shock jock berated the Prime Minister of this country on air for arriving late for a media interview. Further he called her by her first name throughout the interview. He called her a liar to her face.

I’ve heard him interview Prime Ministers of Australia before. He referred to them civilly to their face and called them Mr so-and-so, or addressed them as Prime Minister. But now, when confronted with a woman Prime Minister, he seems to think he can disrespect her and her office.

I’ve got no problem with people having an opinion that is different to mine or to anyone else’s. And that shock jock has as much right to his opinion as anyone. But what he did to our Prime Minister went beyond the pale. Agree with Julia Gillard and her politics or not, as Prime Minister she deserves to be treated with the same respect as every other Prime Minister that went before.

I can only hypothesise that misogyny drove his behaviour, misogyny coupled with a deep hatred of non-conservative politicians. When confronted with a woman holding that office he seems to have felt that it was acceptable to berate and speak so un-civilly; and to do so in ways he’s never done with a male office-holder.

It reminds me of the continuing misogyny that exists in Australia. It reminds me that women are still not considered equal to men, even if they are the Prime Minister of the country. It makes me sigh. It makes me sad. It makes me wonder how we can change things.

Share

A lucky country indeed …

Share

Even though it was once said ironically, it has always seemed to me that Australia really is the lucky country. Our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, sums it up:

We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil…
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts…
We’ve boundless plains to share…

In recent times the troubles of far off places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and others have made me think about Australia.

We have been very lucky. Australia has a good economy, stable government, social cohesion, rule of law and a very congenial way of life. We have adjusted to the rigours of our climate, which has been so well described by Dorothea Mackellar in her poem My Country.

Australia alternates between flood and fire in ways that would make most people blanch. But in between we enjoy weather, beaches, mountains and scenery that are breathtaking in their beauty. And our healthy economy means that we enjoy amenities that inhabitants of other countries might envy.

But given the challenges that we face as part of the world community – climate change, food security, refugees, religious and political extremism – Australians need to start thinking about how we can best meet these challenges.

It is somewhat disconcerting to realise, given the enormous challenges facing us, that neither of the major political parties in Australia has any proposal or policy to deal with them.

Instead the political parties are consumed with petty internal divisions and ignore those for whom they supposedly stand. Our political parties and the current crop of hacks certainly live up to the second part of Donald Horne’s saying:

“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”

When did the Liberal Party become the party of naysaying cold-hearted xenophobes? When did the Labor Party become a cold-hearted machine driven by internal polling and factions?

I think the past elders of each party would be horrified to see the nasty polemical poll driven machines that each has become.

How do they sleep at night when they fight against each other, not for principle nor for policy, but for petty gain that sets the needs of the nation and its people as naught?

We need leaders of of vision. We need leaders who can look twenty or more years into the future, then build and plan for it. We need the kind of vision that built us a nation. We need the kind of principles that gave us a fair and equitable system for determining the treatment of working people. We need an engaged citizen populace who are educated enough to participate in democracy as educated citizens.

Most of all we need leaders who do not fall back into polemical and party driven positions that do not reflect the many shades of grey in the real world. We need leaders with compassion for people and who are true to the spirit of a fair go for all in this nation.

Share

Australian citizenship, ceremony and ritual

Share

A friend invited me along to his citizenship ceremony the other day. He’s terribly excited about becoming an Aussie after living here for a number of years.

We went to the newly refurbished Sydney Town Hall and the Lord Mayor, wearing her Lord Mayoral bling, gave a lovely speech. Several hundred people from all over the world gathered to receive and to celebrate receiving Australian citizenship. They took the oath or affirmation and were given their citizenship certificates and we all sang the national anthem. Afterward we were treated to afternoon tea with Anzac biscuits, lamingtons and Pavolva; and the Australian Electoral Commission was there to sign them up as registered voters.

It was a touching ceremony and then, it being a hot Sydney summer day, we decamped to a pub for a proper celebration with cold beer and other icy beverages. Many of Mark‘s friends attended, bringing with them essential gifts such as Vegemite, and shouts of Australian beers in celebration.

This all got me thinking about my own experience, and that of any Australian citizens who are born here. Our citizenship dribbles past us, uncelebrated, unthought, unremarked. As we sat out in the beer garden at the pub discussing the various citizenships held by people around the table it dawned on me that I’d never really noticed I was an Australian citizen.

Sure I tick the box on official forms but had never really actively noticed that I’m an Australian citizen. There was no ceremony or ritual that marked my acquisition of Australian citizenship because it happened at birth.

I started nosing around the rules about Australian citizenship, the nuts and bolts are in the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (with other details via Australian Citizenship Instructions).

“The Parliament recognises that Australian citizenship represents full and formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia, and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity.

The Parliament recognises that persons conferred Australian citizenship enjoy these rights and undertake to accept these obligations:
(a) by pledging loyalty to Australia and its people; and
(b) by sharing their democratic beliefs; and
(c) by respecting their rights and liberties; and
(d) by upholding and obeying the laws of Australia.”
Source: Australian Citizenship Act 2007

But what I also discovered is that the various Commonwealth governments have never really articulated a clear statement of obligations and rights in relation to Australian citizenship. In this regard it is quite enlightening to read Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records.

In particular Chapter 4 outlines historical records on civic rights and obligations, movement and passports, and international instruments on human rights which have affected citizenship in Australia.

I never learned any of this in school. There was never a moment where we enacted any ceremony or ritual that brought citizenship to our consciousness. It makes me wonder if this might be a good kind of ritual to invent for our civil society?

Perhaps a ceremony similar to that which I attended with Mark and all the other new Australians the other day would be a fitting ceremony for eighteen-year-olds who are just coming into their right to exercise political power?

Share

Inspiring women: Louisa Lawson – women's suffrage activist and publisher

Share

The fight for women to get the vote was a monument to cooperation, ingenuity and collaboration on the part of many women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These women educated themselves and their peers about women’s issues and agitated for women’s rights. And the women of Australia owe a debt to these women of the past who achieved the privileges of full participation in the political process that we now enjoy, and often take for granted.

In the nineteenth century it was true to say:

“A woman’s opinions are useless to her, she may suffer unjustly, she may be wronged, but she has no power to weightily petition against man’s laws, no representatives to urge her views, her only method to produce release, redress, or change, is to ceaselessly agitate.”
Source: Louisa Lawson, speech to the inaugural meeting of the Dawn Club. Published in Dawn, July 1889.

Louisa Lawson is an interesting example of these women who paved the way for our participation as equals in Australian democracy . Louisa is one of my favourite characters from the Australian history – strong willed and cantankerous, she was one of the key progenitors of the women’s suffrage movement in Australia. And among her important contributions was The Dawn, a journal for women:

“In 1888 Louisa Lawson, who had previously edited the Republican with son Henry, launched The Dawn; a journal for women. The publication’s purpose was to be a “phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood”. It advised on women’s issues, including divorce, the age of consent, and women’s right to vote. As well as operating as an important vehicle for the communication of feminist politics the paper also contained short stories, fashion notes, sewing patterns and reports on women’s activities around the country and overseas. By October 1889, the Dawn office employed ten women as typesetters, printers, binders, and unskilled workers. They were harassed by male workers, and by their male union, The New South Wales Typographical Association. In 1905, after seventeen years, the publication ceased production.”
Source: The Australian Women’s Register

Donna Benjamin (aka @KatteKrab) reports that there is no funding for the National Library of Australia to digitise The Dawn. However, Donna estimates that $7,500 should be sufficient to see the entire publication digitised.

Donna has had the brilliant idea of collecting funds to Digitise The Dawn. If we all put in a little bit then it can be added to the Trove Project and provide open access to this important resource for historians around the world.

UPDATE:  The new Digitise the Dawn website is up and you can follow on Twitter or identi.ca @digitisethedawn.

Share

On this Christmas Eve in Paris

Share

I contemplate the year past and the year to come and think on how I want my life to be.

What do I want my life to stand for?

Not clamour for power or wealth; not hunger for praise or admiration; not frenzied desire for new and thrilling experiences.

What then is it? I’ve been sitting here in the somewhat chilly lobby of my hotel pondering for a while now.

I want, no aspire, to be civil and just in my words, meanings and acts. I want to meet my fellow human beings with peace in my heart and anger towards none. I want to be real, open, and free of fear.

I suppose that this seems to be all about me. But it seems to me that I am the only thing that I have the power to change.

Interesting to realise how little power I have to change other things and how much power I have to change myself.

Strange ponderings on Christmas Eve.

Wishing one and all a merry Christmas! Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Share

Flanders mud is pretty bad too

Share

Recently I visited the site in Flanders where John McCrae wrote the famouns pomen In Flanders Fields. It is at the Essex Farm Aid Station only a few kilometres from Ieper (aka Ypres).

I visited on a cold, muddy and miserable day. The concrete bunker where the medicos triaged the wounded was not far from the various battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The site is also a cemetery now – Essex Farm Cemetery – as those who expired were buried in the field next to the aid station.

But the most telling thing for me was the tiny space that so many men fought and died over. The Ypres Salient was about 20 km by 6 km and you can stand on one of the few ridges in the area and see much of the disputed territory that was fought back and forth over between 1914 and 1918.

McCrae’s poem is moving – especially with the backstory of his inspiration at the death of his friend. But the sad truth is that some poetry was a mechanism for supporting the war and encouraging more men to sign up to fight. To become mere names upon a wall (like the Menin Gate) rather than to live, to create and know joy or peace.

I find the final sentiments of his poem not to my taste:

“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Source: In Flanders Fields

More to my taste – having seen the utter waste and destruction of World War One – is Wilfrid Owen’s pungent poem:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. ”

Source: Dulce et Decorum Est

Simply because the wars we fight now are not on the same grand scale as World War One it does not mean that individual and societal human suffering is any less. Afghanistan, Iraq show us the same futility and waste of humanity, and the pain and suffering will reverberate into future generations in ways of which we cannot yet count the cost.

Share

The Somme really does have sticky mud

Share

I have taken some time out from business meetings in Europe to make something of a personal pilgrimage in the steps of my ANZAC ancestors.

It has been a very moving and very sombre experience. To see the tiny spaces of land fought over in World War 1 that resulted in so many deaths is beyond tragic.

It is sobering to realise that every death did not just kill the individual concerned, it had flow on effects to each family, town and country and that damage reverberated for generations. And for every survivor there was no counselling, no awareness of the physical and emotional damage they carried with them and shared with families and society throughout their lives.

I toured the Somme and Ypres Salient with a French guide who combined a deep knowledge of the history of World War 1 with a gerat reverance for the sacrifices made by those who fought. Olivier Dirson of Chemins D’Histoire really helped me to understand what had happened both in battle and to the people around.

One of the saddest places to visit is the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. Sad because it is a monument to battles fought in 1918 and to sacrifices made so close to the end of the war.

Yet also sad because, unlike the fine Somme American Cemetery and Memorial near Bony in Picardie, the Australian memorial is in the middle of farmers’ fields and can only be approached by a rough and muddy road. The stories of Somme mud are no joke. It is sticky and clumps-up on your feet and it is easy to see how walking through this mud could add several kilos to every step.

In damp or snowy weather it is impossible to drive up to the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. This is a national scandal! That Australia cannot even be bothered to ensure that those of us who would remember them can reach this memorial made me feel angry.

How much would it cost to build a short paved road so that we can visit this site to remember the enormous sacrifices made by these men?

Share