Who’s afraid of Perrottet ?

The selection of Dominic Perrottett as leader of the NSW Liberal Party, and therefore Premier has raised lots of concern about his conservative religious views. But the only concrete instance raised so far is a dispute over whether the Catholic Church should get management rights over cemeteries.
To see how little impact Perrottett is likely to have, consider that in the last eight years, we have had two Prime Ministers clearly aligned with the religious right, and one too weak to resist them. Despite this, the religious right has comprehensively lost the culture wars in Australia. Most of the issues that drive religious culture wars in the US have been resolved here, with hardly any fuss. Conservatives stalled on equal marriage as long as they could, but once the plebiscite went through, the issue was settled. Meanwhile state parliaments passed legislation formalising the long-standing situation on abortion rights, and setting out rules for voluntary assisted dying.

The big demand from the religious right after the equal marriage debate was a “religious freedom bill”. The motive was the spurious fear that it would be illegal to express opposition to equal marriage – in practice, this is a dead issue.

The Israel Folau case raised the separate question of whether employees could be sacked fro expressing their religious views. But far from advancing the cause of the religious right, the resulting debate has highlighted the indefensible exemption from anti-discrimination law that already exists for religious employers such as schools and hospitals, allowing them to sack gay (or non-believing) employees, exclude students and so on. Even if this exemption survives in law, it has become unsustainable in the light of adverse public opinion.

It’s much more reasonable to be worried about Perrottet’s rush to remove Covid restrictions. But that’s a subject for another post.

We’re all “real Australians”

That’s the title for my latest piece in Inside Story. Opening para

One of the most tired tropes in Australian politics involves identifying some part of the country (or a particular occupational or identity group) as the “real Australians” who must be catered to in order to win or retain government. In the last decade or so, we’ve been through rural and regional Australia, Western Sydney, Queensland, “tradies,” “people of faith” and probably a few I haven’t noticed.

Labor and the Greens

My latest piece in Independent Australia, motivated by today’s election in Queensland is about the relationship between Labor and the Greens and, in particular, the increasingly common case when Labor must rely on Green support to form a government. The headline, ‘Why a coalition between Queensland Labor and the Greens would work’, isn’t exactly what I would have chosen, but I neglected to supply my own, so I can’t complain. Key paras (including some material from this blog)

both parties need to realise that they are part of the same centre-Left movement. For Labor, that means giving up the idea that the Greens are a temporary irritant that will go the way of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) if they are ignored long enough or abused as “inner-city elites”.

For the Greens, it means accepting that there is no prospect of a Green majority government any time seen and abandoning rhetoric suggesting that they represent an unaligned alternative to a two-party duopoly. 

In electoral terms, the starting point for both parties should be an exchange of preferences in all seats. That starting point doesn’t preclude changes in the case of particularly objectionable (or particularly good) candidates, but it does rule out the kinds of negotiations we’ve seen so many times between Labor and conservative parties, particularly in the Senate. It also rules out the fake piety of Green “open tickets”.

Hank Jongen, the general manager who isn’t

When a PR man presents himself as the boss of the organization he spruiks for, you are well advised to disbelieve anything he says. Hank Jongen “general manager” of Services Australia and its predecessors (such as Centrelink) has been doing this for years, most recently here . In reality, Jongen is the agency spokesperson.

The trick is that “General Manager, Function X” is a title given to lots of middle-ranking public servants. By contrast, Jongen’s statements never qualify the term, sugggesting that he is general manager of the entire organization. In fact, it’s unclear what his actual job title is. According to this org chart, Jongen works for the General Manager, Communications, a position currently held by Susie Smith.

But Jongen and Services Australia are happy to give the impression that he is the boss of the organisation, and never attempt to correct puff pieces that describe him this way, like this one, headlined Dear Hank: Centrelink boss offers personal email as complaints over ‘fraud accusations’ soar

The trick is that Services Australia hands out the title of General Manager to lots of mid-rank executive, seemingly with the sole purpose of enhancing Hank’s apparent status. It’s as if you got a call from the CEO of a major company, personally offering you a special deal, only to discover that sales staff were accorded the title of CEO.

As was said by in the famous feud between Mary McCarthy and Lilian Hellman[1], every word Jongen says is a lie, including “a” and “the”. He is lying from the moment he announces himself.

The same is true of Services Australia. Any statement issued by this organization is tainted by the dishonesty of Jongen’s byline.

fn1. On which I don’t have enough evidence to form an opinion, or interest to pursue such evidence. Just pinching a good line. Here’s the details from when Jongen was the face of robodebt.

Whataboutery and the pandemic (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Among the many consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to control it, there has been an epidemic of whataboutery. The starting point is the claim “we have locked down the entire economy to reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but we tolerate comparably large numbers of deaths from X”. Popular candidates for X include smoking, road crashes and influenza. In most, though not all, cases, the inference is that we should accept more deaths from the pandemic. Indeed, the majority of those using this argument are also opposed to any proposal to do more about the various examples of X they cite

I’m going to take the contrapositive, and argue that the inconsistency pointed out here should be resolved by taking stronger action to reduce avoidable deaths from a wide range of causes, with the primary examples being road deaths and smoking.

While whataboutery on these topics typically suggests that society has made a decision to tolerate deaths from these causes, the reality is that there have been increasingly stringent measures to reduce them, adopted over many years, and that in both cases, the ultimate objective (explicit in some jurisdictions, implicit in others) is to reduce deaths to zero. In the case of roads, this aim is expressed in Vision Zero, adopted initially in Sweden and subsequently in a variety of other places. The UK government aims to end smoking by 2030, and most governments have interim targets which imply ultimate elimination of smoking.

With or without explicit targets, the policy approach everywhere has been much the same. Restrictions aimed at reducing the risk in question have been introduced gradually over many years, with each new restriction providing a starting point for the next. In Australia’, for example, partial bans on tobacco advertising were introduced in the late 1980s. These were followed by complete ad bans, then by compulsory health warnings in small print, and finally by a requirement that cigarette packets should display gruesome photos of the consequences of smoking. At the same time, from an initial situation where smoking was universal, it has been progressively restricted in all public spaces, and where children may be exposed (as in private cars).

There is indeed an inconsistency here. If the restrictions in place now are justified in terms of a balance between health costs, damage to non-smokers and the restrictions on the rights of smokers, they would have been even more justifed 30 or 50 years ago, when the damage done by smoking was much greater. Coming back to Covid whataboutery, the inconsistency is not between accepting deaths from one source and not another, it’s between the urgent action necessitated by the pandemic and the slow pace adopted in other cases.

The slowness with which policies aimed at ending smoking, or road deaths, is easily explained. Governments have introduced them at a pace that avoids substantial political costs, and the risk of sustained non-compliance. In the case of smoking, for example, it is necessary to deal both with powerful and unscrupulous tobacco companies, using every available tool[1] to resist controls, and with a large addicted population, some (though not all) of whom have no desire to quit.

The success (so far) of lockdowns in controlling Covid, and their general acceptance outside the US, suggests that we should move more rapidly to eliminate public health risks, even where this involves coercive measures to stop people endangering others, and to prevent young people from endangering themselves. For example, partial bans on smoking in public places, or in the presence of children, should be made total. A more ambitious proposal of this kind would be to raise the smoking age, one year at a time, so that young people currently under the legal age would not be allowed to smoke until they were, say, 25 (hardly anyone begins smoking as a mature age adult, which is in itself an indication that it is not a choice open to a rational defence).

In the case of road deaths, the most obvious measures are lower speed limits in urban ares, and a greater willingness to take dangerous drivers off the road permanently. These measures will be adopted eventually – the only question is how many innocent lives will be lost before they are.

fn1. The tobacco companies not only lobbied directly, and funded a variety of front groups (astroturf smokers rights groups and free-market think tanks), but fought Australia’s packaging laws through international trade actions, ginned up by bribing governments or exploiting the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses of trade agreements. They were defeated, but almost certainly succeeded in deterring poorer countries, which could not afford such fights, from following Australia’s lead.

Border deflection

Another recent piece, this time in Inside Story. Opening paras

Supporters of ethnonationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment have been quick to seize on the Covid-19 pandemic as evidence against what they call “open borders,” by which they mean any relaxation of the stringent controls that prohibit international migration by anyone who falls outside a tightly defined set of categories, each subject to numerical limits. The underlying idea is that foreigners who don’t look or think like us are all potential carriers of infection, and that we can keep ourselves safe by excluding them.

The reality is quite different. The vast majority of Australia Covid-19 cases acquired overseas had a recent history of travel to Europe or the Americas, or arrived on cruise ships such as the Ruby Princess. Hardly any (in fact none, as far as I can determine) were new migrants to Australia.