Wouldn’t know if their a**e was on fire

As I type this, it’s currently 35 degrees, at 9am on an October morning in Brisbane. And, while one day’s temperatures don’t prove anything, a string of studies have shown that the increasingly frequent heatwaves in Australia can be reliably attributed to global warming. We haven’t had an El Nino yet, but according to NOAA, the last 12 months have been the hottest such period on record.

It will be interesting to see what the denialists come up with in response to this combination of record breaking local and global warming. We can safely rule out anything along the lines of “as a sceptic, I like to wait for convincing evidence before accepting a new hypothesis. But, with the steady accumulation of evidence I’m now convinced”. I suspect we’ll get more along the lines of

* Graham Lloyd, reporting a new study by Jennifer Marohasy, showing that the communists at the Met Bureau are artificially pumping hot air through Australian cities to cover up the fact that they rigged the data to show exactly this warming

* The Telegraph, with a front-page story of an old codger saying something like “You think this is hot? Back in ’23, we had heat waves in July so bad that concrete footpaths melted”

* Andrew Bolt will readjust the start dates so he can continue to claim “no significant warming for the past x years”, omitting the crucial word “statistically”

The G20: A bonanza for tourism?

I was contacted by a journalism student here who would some commentary on the rosy projections being made about how the G20 meetings will put Brisbane on the world tourism map, assisted by such initiatives as a month of cultural celebrations (beginning tomorrow) along with “Team Brisbane” and “Global Cafe”. I offered the following response

G20 will provide a short-lived but substantial boost in demand for accommodation and restaurant services in the Brisbane CBD, associated with the arrival of thousands of delegates and media representatives. This will be offset by a negative effect on all other kinds of tourism, not only because of the difficulty of obtaining accommodation but because of the lockdown and other security measures associated with the event, and perhaps with fears of terrorism.

Longer-term effects on tourism, economic growth, and so on will be negligible. International news coverage of G20 will focus on staged events in the CBD, such as media conferences, held in settings indistinguishable from those of any other CBD. Viewers will scarcely be aware that the event is being held in Brisbane, let alone that there are associated cultural celebrations or that Brisbane is a desirable place to visit. A Google search on “G20 cultural celebrations” reveals zero coverage outside (greater) Brisbane, even though the event is starting today.

As regards “Team Brisbane” and “Global Cafe”, I was entirely unaware of these marketing efforts. I suspect that I am typical of the world’s population in this respect.

Gough Whitlam

More than any other Australian political leader, and arguably more than any other political figure, Gough Whitlam embodied social democracy in its ascendancy after World War II, its high water mark around 1970 and its defeat by what became known as neoliberalism in the wake of the crises of the 1970s.

Whitlam entered Parliament in 1952, having served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the War, and following a brief but distinguished legal career. Although Labor had already chosen a distinguished lawyer (HV Evatt) as leader, Whitlam’s middle-class professional background was unusual for Labor politicans

Whitlam marked a clear break with the older generation of Labor politicians in many otherrespects. He was largely indifferent to the party’s socialist objective (regarding the failure of the Chifley governments bank nationalisation referendum as having put the issue off the agenda) and actively hostile to the White Australia policy and protectionism, issues with which Labor had long been associated.

On the other hand, he was keen to expand the provision of public services like health and education, complete the welfare state for which previous Labor governments had laid the foundations, and make Australia a fully independent nation rather than being, in Robert Menzies words ‘British to the bootstraps’.

Coupled with this was a desire to expand Labor’s support base beyond the industrial working class and into the expanding middle class. The political necessity of this was undeniable, though it was nonetheless often denied. In 1945, the largest single occupational group in Australia (and an archetypal group of Labor supporters) were railwaymen (there were almost no women in the industry). By the 1970s, the largest occupational group, also becoming the archetypal group of Labor supporters. were schoolteachers.

Whitlam’s political career essentially coincided with the long boom after World War II, and his political outlook was shaped by that boom. The underlying assumption was that the tools of Keynesian fiscal policy and modern central banking were sufficient to stabilize the economy. Meanwhile technological innovation, largely driven by publicly funded research would continue to drive economic growth, while allowing for steadily increasing leisure time and greater individual freedom. The mixed economy would allow a substantial, though gradually declining, role for private business, but would not be dominated by the concerns of business.

The central institution of the postwar long boom, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, was already on the verge of collapse by the time Whitlam took office in 1972. The proximate cause of its collapse was the inflationary surge that had begun in the late 1960s and reached its peak with the oil price shock of 1973.

So, Whitlam was living on borrowed time from the moment he took office. His ‘crash through or crash’ approach ensured that he achieved more in his first short term of office (eighteen months before being forced to an election by the Senate) than most governments did in a decade. The achievements continued in the government’s second term, but they were overshadowed by retreats and by a collapse into chaos, symbolized by the ‘Loans Affair’ an attempt to circumvent restrictions on foreign borrowing through the use of dodgy Middle Eastern intermediaries.

?The dramatic constitutional crisis of November 1975, and the electoral disaster that followed, have overshadowed the fact that, given the economic circumstances, the government was doomed regardless of its performance. The Kirk-Rowling Labour government in New Zealand, also elected in 1972 after a long period of opposition, experienced no particular scandals or avoidable chaos, but suffered a similarly crushing electoral defeat.

Despite his defeat, and repudiation by succeeding leaders of the ALP (and of course his conservative opponents), it is striking to observe how much of Whitlam’s legacy remains intact. Among the obvious examples (not all completed by his government, and some started before 1972, but all driven by him to a large extent)

* Aboriginal land rights
* Equal pay for women
* Multiculturalism
* Greatly increased Commonwealth spending on school education
* Medibank (now Medicare)
* The end of colonial ties to Britain
* Welfare benefits for single parents
* Extension of sewerage to Western Sydney
* Reduction of the voting age to 18
* No fault divorce

In all of this Whitlam is emblematic of the social democratic era of the mid-20th century. Despite the resurgence of financialised capitalism, which now saturates the thinking of all mainstream political parties, the achievements of social democracy remain central to our way of life, and politicians who attack those achievements risk disaster even now.

With the failure of the global financial system now evident to all, social democratic parties have found themselves largely unable to respond. We need a renewed movement for a fairer society and a more functional economy. We can only hope for a new Whitlam to lead that movement.

Gough Whitlam open thread

I’m hoping ot write an appreciation of Gough Whitlam’s contributions to Australian society soon. But in the meantime, I’ll open this thread for general discussion. I’m happy to entertain discussion of failures as well as successes, but I don’t welcome personal attacks on the recently departed in general, and certainly not in Gough’s case, so please keep discussion respectful.

Time to terminate Cormann

The flap about Mathias Cormann’s Schwarzeneggerian description of Bill Shorten as a “girlie man” isn’t too significant in itself. But in the context of other developments, it suggests a couple of patterns that represent big problems for the Abbott government.

First, Cormann has joined Joe Hockey and Arthur Sinodinos in making an idiot of himself. There’s now no-one among the key economic ministers who has any real credibility left. Add to that the hopelessness of the key spending ministers (Andrews, Dutton and Pyne) and it becomes clear that the Budget fiasco was, as they say, no accident.

At this point, it’s hard to see how the government can turn the economic debate around, even given a radical reshuffle of the existing team. Their best hope is probably that attention will remain focused on foreign policy.

Second, coming on the heels of a string of similarly disastrous statements from prominent rightwing figures (Barry Spurr, Alan Moran, Aaron Lane) it’s a pretty clear indication of how the Australian right talks when they think no one is listening, or forget that they are on record, and how far out of touch they are with today’s social mores.

Essentially, they are living in a bubble where they imagine that media figures like Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Alan Jones represent the views of the majority of right-thinking people. In reality (most obviously in the case of Jones, but equally true of Bolt and Devine) these are people who make a good living by taking the views of the most bigoted 10 per cent or so of the Australian population (AFAICT, Australia is no better or worse than most other countries in terms of the prevalence of bigotry), and reflecting them back to the same audience in a more-or-less coherent form.

Except in rare and much resented cases like libelling people on account of their race, the Bolts and Devines are protected by the rules of free speech and the fact that they serve the interests of the Murdoch press. But that’s not true for politicians, thinktankers or participants in public inquiries. In these venues, as I know from my own experience, anything you say can and will be used against you. Unfortunately, for the Australian right, the racist, sexist and generally nasty stuff that goes down a treat at Young Liberal meetings and similar can no longer be laughed off when it gets out in public.