The R word, fifteen years on

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo.

Of course, the same was true in the US. But after two and a half years of an openly racist Trump Presidency in the US, the taboo seems finally to be open to challenge. Opinion writers and individual Democratic politicians have been calling out Trump’s racism for some time, but news reports have stuck with lame euphemisms like “racially charged”, or saying that “critics have called it racist”

In the wake of the House resolution condemning Trump latest racist tweets, the ground may have shifted, at least a little. Quite a few news organizations have used the R-word, in their own voice, to describe Trump’s “go back to where you came from” tweets, and others have tiptoed towards the line.

Most notably. CNN political reports are now referring to Trump’s “racist jabs” in matter-of-fact terms, noting that Trump sees them as politically advantageous and discussing the implications for the 2020 campaign. (Hat tip: Daniel Quiggin). 

There’s still quite a few steps to go before the taboo is ended. Even moving from “Trump’s racist tweets” to “Trump’s racism” will take a fair bit of courage. And so far only CNN has used the word routinely. The NY Times hasn’t even got past “widely seen as racist.” . (For that matter, it’s still calling Trump’s lies “falsehoods” to avoid feeding ” the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides.”

This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric. It’s difficult to do any kind of political analysis clearly if one of the main political tendencies can’t be named. Trump’s re-election hopes depend to a large extent on motivating racist Republicans to vote and on peeling off the remaining racists from the Democratic Party. Try to make this obvious point without using the R word and you end up with obfuscation or worse, such as the use of”working class” as code for racism.  

Movers and stayers

A lot of discussion of immigration is framed around the distinction between movers and stayers. Until recently, most of what I’ve seen has framed “stayers” as those who see their economic interests as being threatened by competition from immigrants. To protect themselves, they want to restrict immigration, even if the consequence is to restrict the opportunities for “movers” from their own country. The harm to these “movers-out” is just collateral damage

But lately I’ve been seeing a different account, in which it’s the departure of the movers-out that is causing problems by reducing the supply of workers to provide services to, and pay taxes to support, the stayers (particularly, the old). In economic terms, the obvious solution would be to replace the movers-out with movers-in, but they are of the wrong religion, skin colour and so on, and are therefore rejected. That exacerbates visible economic decline, particularly in terms of the level of economic activity, even when income per person holds up or is sustained by transfer payments. This in turn produces support for Trumpism and its variants.

This story comes up most clearly in relation to Eastern Europe (most notably Hungary) following accession to the EU, but I think it’s applicable to many rural areas in richer countries.

The feelings of the stayers in this story are understandable. They liked things better as they were, and resent changes. But they are hard to defend in moral terms, since keeping things as they were requires massively constraining the rights of others to work, marry and live in the way they wish to.

On this account, there’s also a lot of self-selection going on here. Staying, and demanding that others do so, is a conservative and authoritarian choice, so the stayers will tend to be those in a given population who fit this description. This comes back to the question of why rural voters support conservative parties, even when those parties serve the interests of the urban rich. I’ve seen (but can’t now find) a very old discussion of this point in relation to France, where it’s been relevant ever since 1789. In the US context, it’s being rediscovered right now.

It’s come to this

To say I’m depressed about the current state of Australian politics would be an understatement. But of all the things that depress me, the possibility of a section 44 case against Josh Frydenberg is the most gratuitously awful. If someone had said, ten years ago, that the Australian-born son of a Jewish refugee was ineligible to stand for Parliament because he had failed to secure necessary documents from the neo-fascist government that currently rules Hungary, they would have been laughed at, and rightly so.

Yet, that appears to be the state of the law, as rendered by our appalling High Court. I don’t know what I find worst about this. Is it:

  • The gratuitous silliness of the specific rulings in s44 cases ?
  • The absurdity of legal literalism, particularly in the context of constitutional law, where unintended implications can only be fixed by referendum ?
  • The possibility that the Court will add hypocrisy to stupidity by finding some way of rejecting the case against Frydenberg, thereby showing that there was no need for any of the previous rulings?
  • The fact that the case is being brought by a defeated Labor candidate, cheered on by lots of Twitter users, most of whom are apparently on the left?

The only consolation is that, as in all previous cases of MHRs (but not Senators) found ineligible, Frydenberg will be able to fix things up (wasting time and effort that might better be spent running the country) and win the unnecessary by-election created by our finest legal minds.

Adani’s silent partners

A month after Adani got the final approvals for its Carmichael mine, it’s still hard to work out what’s going on with Adani and the Galilee Basin in general. Adani has been making a fair bit of noise, but the project still seems to consist of tree clearing and road building.

To get past this stage, and without significant in-house experience of major projects, Adani needs partners: engineering design firms, construction contractors, and so on. And even if no external funding is needed, the project still needs insurance, which is getting harder to come by.

Adani claims it has insurance lined up, but declines to say which firm is providing it. Assuming the claim is true, the obvious explanation is that the insurer is worried about reputational damage from being associated with such a toxic project. Presumably, that concern will be reflected in higher premiums.

The same is true as regards engineering. It’s widely rumored that global firm Gutteridge, Haskins and Davey will get the job, but so far GHD has refused to comment. As well as reputational damage, GHD needs to consider the fact that Adani has burned a string of previous contractors. They are still fighting their last partner, AECOM over a payment of $12 million. AECOM must surely be regretting ever getting into bed with Adani, ending up losing their money as well as their reputation.

Any firm looking at this history, and tendering to Adani, would want a high price and money up front for its services, as well as trying to keep its involvement as quiet as possible. That in turn raises the question of how a project that was marginal to begin with can manage to pay over the odds for everything it needs. This at a time when a company like Whitehaven is relying for its continued profitability on the assumption that existing producers will leave the market.

On the jobs front, Adani has been advertising positions in its Townsville office (about 60, as of today). But that’s barely enough to replace the cuts made last year. There’s no sign of the promised thousands of jobs so far.