Weathervanes

I have a piece in Crikey (possibly paywalled) looking at the gyrations of our political leaders on climate policy in general and Adani in particular. I suppose what matters is that you end up facing the right way: on this test, Shorten does reasonably, Turnbull fails miserably and Abbott is laughable.

There are more important issues than …

… whatever issue on which I want to avoid justifying my firmly held, but indefensible, position.

One of the rhetorical tricks I’ve noticed becoming increasingly common (though I may just have been sensitized to it) is opposition to some proposal, based on the claim that “there are more important issues to discuss”. Here’s a typical example from right wing culture warrior, Kevin Donnelly, campaigning against equal marriage in the leadup to the recent postal survey. Before commencing a lengthy diatribe against gay activism, Safe Schools, alcoholic and abusive parents, surrogacy and so on that barely mentions the topic of marriage, Donnelly says

about 98 per cent of Australians identify as heterosexual and according to the 2011 census figures only 1 per cent of Australian couples are same-sex, with surveys suggesting only a minority want same-sex marriage. There are more important issues to worry about.

If Donnelly believes the issue is unimportant, why is he writing about it? Why not just leave it up to the good sense of the majority of Australians, as the rhetoric of the plebiscite suggested? Why not focus his attention on problems like protecting children from the effects of alcoholism and domestic violence.

The answer is, of course, that Donnelly has no case, or none he is able to make publicly, but nonetheless is very concerned to stop equal marriage. In the absence of a case, he must resort to diversions. So, rather than explain why gay people should be denied the right to marry, he starts off by saying the issue is too unimportant to bother with.

Of course, there are plenty of questions that are too trivial to bother with, and the sensible response is not to bother with them. If pressed, one could reasonably respond “this issue isn’t worth my time, I’ll just go with whatever the majority decides”, but this is hardly ever done.

The only case where this trope is at least possibly justified is as an admonition to political allies not to be diverted into big efforts on trivial issues, when there are more important problems to deal with. Again, though, this only makes sense for someone who is themselves indifferent regarding whether and how these issues are resolved.

More public holidays for a sustainable society

As I mentioned in relation to their advocacy of an end to coal, the Greens occupy a position where they can put forward policies that are outside the range of possibilities taken seriously by the commentariat. Another recent example is their proposal, during the Queensland election campaign for four additional public holidays. Of course, this idea was ridiculed by the major parties, which are still stuck in a mode of thinking where “jobs and growth” are ends in themselves rather than means to a better life. Jackie Trad, for example, was quoted as responding that “the election was about jobs, and that the proposal was “populist”, while Tim Nicholls described it as “loopy”. The attitudes expressed by Trad and Nicholls are typical of the neoliberal* thinking dating back to the 1980s that still dominates much of the political class.

Before the 1980s, it was generally understood that the benefits of technological progress included reductions in the paid work time needed to achieve a decent standard of living. Over the first three quarters of the 20th century, standard working hours were reduced from 48 per week to 44 then to 40, annual leave became a standard condition of employment, increased to four weeks a year in the 1970s, and the number of public holidays was increased. The last significant move in this direction was the 38 hour standard working week, introduced in 1983. Some more progressive Labor governments, such as that of the ACT have pushed for more public holidays. That’s the exception though: the general direction of public policy has been to push for more “flexible” (that is, flexible at the employer’s discretion) hours and working conditions, fewer long weekends and so on.

If we are to move to a more sustainable economy, a shift away from ever-increasing material consumption is necessary. A reduction in the time devoted to market work and production, as well as being desirable in itself, is an essential part of this process. An increase in the number of official public holidays, and a restoration of penalty rates for holiday work, would be an important signal that the era “jobs and growth” neoliberalism, setting the alarm clock early, and so on, is behind us.

* Here. I’m using “neoliberal” in the broad pejorative sense of “bad assumptions associated with the era of market reform that began in the 1980s” rather than in reference to a coherent theoretical position, for which I would typically use the term “market liberalism”. There’s nothing inherently free-market about the rhetoric of harder work, productivity and “competitiveness”, but the empirical fact is that they go together.

Coalition politics and the end of market liberalism

Lots of commentators are making a fuss over the prospect of the Greens taking the seat of Batman following the likely and unlamented departure of Labor MP David Feeney (if not under S44 then at the next election). The underlying claim is that the election of Greens candidates represents an existential threat to Labor. This is typical of a commentariat mindset that sees anything other than majority Labor or LNP governments as recipes for disaster (the phrase “hung parliament” is indicative), even though we have decades of experience of such governments operating successfully both federally and in (I think) every state and territory. The reality is that, however fractious their relationship may be at times, Labor and the Greens constitute a centre-left coalition. As I said a year ago

For Labor that means giving up the idea that the Greens are a temporary irritant that will go the way of the DLP, if they are abused and/or ignored long enough. For the Greens, it means abandoning Third Way rhetoric suggesting that they represent an unaligned alternative to a two-party duopoly.

The details of the alignment between the two will vary according to the circumstances, from formal coalition to general support, but there is no alternative.

The problem of coalition politics is much more problematic on the right. Despite the frictions, I’m not thinking primarily of the LNP “coalition” (so rusted together that, even where they aren’t merged, the two are lumped together as a single “major party” in most commentary). Rather, the problem is the relationship between the LNP as a whole and the tribalist/Trumpist right, represented in various forms by One Nation, the Liberal Democratic Party, Bernardi’s Conservatives* as well as a large faction within the LNP itself. These two groups have nothing in common except that they have common enemies, and even that common ground is limited. They all hate greenies and unions, but the overt racism of One Nation and the religious bigotry of Bernardi repel lots of mainstream LNP types, while the Trumpist base is suspicious of banks and multinationals.

Most importantly, the ideological framework of market liberalism (aka neoliberalism, economic rationalism) and so on has lost its power, which always rested more on the idea that There Is No Alternative than on any positive appeal. Sermons about the need for reform, budget surpluses, more competitive tax regimes and so on no longer get the kind of automatic approval from the political class as a whole that they used to. So, the mainstream LNP no longer stands for anything in particular. Meanwhile, the Trumpists want nostalgic gesture politics without any concern for coherence or practical consequences.

For the immediate future, at least, politics in Australia has resolved itself into a struggle between two coalitions. Both are going to be fractious, but the big problems are going to be found on the right.

* There’s also the Katter party, but Katter is too idiosyncratic to fit into any classification.

Contradictions, Part 2

The contradictions in the LNP/IPA attack on free speech became even more evident today with the appointment of Gary Johns as the head Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Johns was once a junior minister in the Keating government and used this position to give a non-partisan veneer to subsequent career as a hack for the IPA, which was followed by a stint at the Australian Catholic University.

Johns has been at the forefront of the push to suppress political advocacy by charitable organizations eligible for tax-deductible donations. So his appointment by Minister Michael Sukkar followed logically from the LNP/IPA anti-free speech agenda.

There’s just one problem. The announcement came on the day of the vote on equal marriage, an issue on which numerous religious charities campaigned on the losing side. So, in the same breath as announcing Johns’ appointment, Minister Sukkar expressed the hope that the legislation might be amended to allow charities to continue advocacy on this issue.

This is silly, of course. It was already obvious that no amendments would be passed. And, as Warren Entsch pointed out, under current interpretations of the law, there’s no need for them. As Entsch says “A charity may advocate on any issue relevant to that charity and nothing in this bill will change that”. He’s right of course, but the whole idea of appointing Johns was to change this situation.

Hopefully, the government will realise what a trap they are setting for themselves here. If they attempt to remove tax-deductibility for conservation organizations that engage in advocacy, they will create a precedent that can subsequently be used against religious organizations. Turnbull should overturn Johns’ appointment and find someone who actually supports charities and non-profits.

Assumming, as seems likely, that the government is in too much of a mess to work this out, perhaps the churches will do so. If they want to protect freedom of speech for themselves, they’d better start defending it for others (cue Ditrich Bonhoeffer).

Contradictions

The breakdown of the market liberal right, and the accompanying rise of tribalist politics, is producing some interesting contradictions, most of which are embodied in the Institute of Public Affairs. David Leyonjhelm, a longterm IPA member has staged a provocation by inviting racist troll Milo Yiannopoulos to Australia under the banner of free speech. The Senate condemned him for providing a platform to someone who “incites abuse and harassment of women, jews, and members of the LBGTIQ and multicultural communities”. When the words of the motion were quoted back at him, Leyonjhelm threatened legal action, and stated his general willingness to use defamation law against his political opponents.

Meanwhile, at the same time as backing an IPA campaign to remove charity status from environmental groups that engage in political advocacy, Malcolm Turnbull is supporting amendments to the equal marriage bill, pushed by IPA alumnnus James Paterson to preserve the charitable status of groups that oppose the law.

What’s happening here, I think, is that a group that has always assumed itself to be part of the silent majority of “real Australians” is being faced with evidence that it is actually a shrinking minority, regarded by the majority as a set of noisy and unpleasant bigots. One reaction is to double down on aggressive assertion of its views, treating things like the outcome of the marriage survey as a temporary aberration. The other is to seek the protections traditionally accorded to minorities, appealing to the rhetoric of tolerance and diversity.

This contradiction can’t be sustained for long, although that won’t stop them trying. But how should the decent majority deal with this problem. The answer is to remember that everyone will be in the minority some time. We should reject the attempt to stop charitable groups from engaging in advocacy, even if we don’t always like what is being advocated. As regards free speech, we should resist the temptation to use legal bludgeons, but make it clear to the promoters of racism, and those willing to line up with them, that they will be called out for what they are. This has already happened to the LNP in Queensland and WA following disgraceful alliances with One Nation. One of the few encouraging signs from the right was Turnbull’s recent declaration (motivated by fear rather than principle) that the Federal LNP would do no preference deals with Hanson.