While Australia anxiously awaits Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison’s ‘most Yuletide Economic Forecast Outlook, or MYEFO, due Monday, one in eight of us can’t afford to pay the power bill. Even more alarming, 730,000 children in Australia and rising, The Australia Council Of Social Service, (ACOSS) reports, live in poverty, worrying about their next meal. Yet the agony is over for former Tasmanian Liberal MP, Andrew Nikolic.
Nifty Nikolic receives a Christmas gift from Federal Attorney-General Senator George Brandis, as the nation’s First Law Officer plays Santa; dumping a sled-load of plum jobs in the time-honoured way our ruling caste looks after its own, nurturing and protecting, shielding its less fortunate members from hard times.
A similar rush of benevolence overcame the Senator just before July’s election when he doled out a hundred appointments including a $370,000 PA position to Liberal Party donor Theo Tavoularis, a Queensland Solicitor, who one defended the Attorney-General’s son, Simon against a charge of damaging property.
Brandis is in a flat spin. Perhaps he may not be with us for the New Year. PM “Truffles” Turnbull, it is whispered, will get stuck into a Cabinet re-shuffle shortly after Christmas pudding. Could our First Law Officer, an elite member of our political caste, end up in the Old Dart; a type of Botany Bay manoeuvre in reverse? And how does London feel about it?
Current Australian High Commissioner to London, Alexander Downer, since 2014, a US sycophant and our longest serving and least effective former foreign minister, is reported to be “privately furious” at any notion Brandis replace him. The Downer dynasty scion stands on his hereditary privilege. Not only does “he wish to finish his current three-year term”, he ought to get at least one more. At least. After all, he argues, his father, Sir Alexander, (Alick) was a High Commissioner to London before him. Breeding will out.
“Shut up, you foul-mouthed bitch.”
Downer was overheard in 2007 to tell Penny Wong: “Shut up, you foul-mouthed bitch.” Promoting his party’s policy Things That Matter, in 1994, he got a laugh by suggesting footwear traders might know the policy as Thongs that Matter but lost his audience and subsequently his leadership with when he went on to quip that violent, abusive husbands might refer to the policy as Things That Batter.
Even Brandis would struggle to match Downer’s way with words; equal his unparalleled diplomatic charm. Or is there, then, a High Court in Queensland with a vacancy with his name on it? Rumours abound. But who would take his place? Match his wit and wisdom; his passion for human rights? His advocacy of a repeal of 18C because “people have a right to be bigots”. His capacity to mislead parliament over his dealings with his Solicitor General?
Who can forget his justification for a $15,000 bookcase? He was Arts Minister at the time, he argued, which meant he was also minister for books. Then there’s Brandis’ unconscionable bullying of Gillian Triggs; his attacks on her credibility and that of the AHRC.
“It is the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission to promote tolerance, not to encourage a culture of grievance,” he replied to Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane’s advice that the AHRC is available to consider complaints by Aboriginal Australians about Bill Leak’s racist cartoon depicting an Aboriginal man who does not know his own son’s name. Brandis will be a hard act to follow.
At least, Nikolic’s in like Flynn. He gains a seven-year place on The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a body pledged to inclusiveness and diversity, where he will review Commonwealth government decisions on immigration and welfare. Despite lacking any legal qualifications for the position, as a “senior member” - and it’s Brandis’ call- he will enjoy a total remuneration package of between $304,790 and $362,070, with a base salary of at least $222,500. It’s a pittance for the work involved but it will help augment the former Brigadier’s handsome army pension.
”...accused of trying to start a brawl…”
Nikolic’s win will be applauded by the people of Bass who harbour a soft spot for the hard right former career soldier despite his being clearly, falsely and maliciously accused of trying to start a brawl with Victorian Labor MP Rob Mitchell in Federal Parliament in June 2014. If not du rigueur, muscular diplomacy was certainly an idea embraced by Liberal higher echelons. Five months later, his boss threatened to shirt-front Putin.
During the 2014 misunderstanding, Labor MP Anna Burke sought clarification from then Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, asking “Is it appropriate for members of the Government to be inviting people to a brawl, to come on over to the other side of the chamber and have a bit of a biffo?” while Tasmanian Labor MP, Julie Collins saw Nikolic’s behaviour as ” aggressive”.
A distinguished former Speaker, Labor MP Anna Burke is also a Brandis’ appointment to the Tribunal and, despite not being made a senior member, will, doubtless, soon enjoy new opportunities to be mentored by Nikolic. He has a lot to contribute. He fought hard and long during his brief but rewarding incumbency over such issues as whether the ABC news or Sky TV should be screened in the parliament house gym, reports Labor Senator Helen Polley in her first year report card on the tyro MP for Bass, a seat with its fair share of battlers and a volatile political history.
When, unaccountably, Nikolic failed to keep his seat last election, despite bravely facing down complaints he did not want to speak to community groups with opposing views, he bore his misfortune like a trooper, blaming the loss of his seat in a 10.6 per cent swing against him on the left-wing GetUp! for “running a dishonest, nasty, personal campaign”.
Happily for the nation, the former MP can now apply his prodigious personal and professional peace-making skills to the resolution of conflict in his work on the Tribunal. In the interim, Tasmanians trust that Nikolic will honour his campaign pledge, backed by PM Malcolm Turnbull, to fund University of Tasmania $150 million to set up a new campus in Launceston.
“white welfare villages”
Bass residents, who suffer 17 per cent youth unemployment are thrilled also to hear Nikolic’s mentor, Tony Abbott, tell 2GB listeners this week that major cities are fringed by “white welfare villages” while “people in regional areas would rather be unemployed than work in jobs such as fruit picking and cleaning.”
“This idea that you can be unemployed on benefits in a town where you can’t get fruit pickers…it’s just wrong,” opines the veteran dog-whistler as he puts the boot into the poor as part of his government’s attack on welfare recipients, a campaign which is impeccably timed, as part of a Christmas-themed package of seasonal good cheer with lashings of peace and goodwill. The problem is not the lack of jobs in a contracting economy; or that there may be 19 job-seekers competing for each vacancy, it’s that we have too many work-shy bludgers.
No bludgers on Brandis’ Christmas list of course. All are hard-working worthies, as is Jamie Briggs whose inappropriate behaviour towards a female public servant as a Minister in Hong Kong in November in 2015 led to his resignation and a subsequent electoral rout. Briggs is now to become director for Moorebank Intermodal Company Limited, a firm created by the Federal Government in 2012 to oversee the construction of the Moorebank Intermodal Terminal in Sydney. It should go well for him unless he tells the terminal it has piercing eyes and kisses it on the neck or shares a photo online without the terminal’s permission.
Bludgers are created when you are too generous with welfare, says Abbott . “We were far too ready to put people on the DSP [disability support pension], with bad backs, a bit of depression and so on.” His insensitive remarks have sparked outrage. A bit of depression? As many as 2.9 million Australians are living below the poverty line, according to ACOSS, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) and The University of Melbourne’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA).
The former PM is also keen to keep the pressure up on the current PM whom he sees as a dangerous leftie and who needs to be hounded in the press lest he or his government stray into rationality on climate or heed his own Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel on the need to adopt an emissions trading scheme. Why create new policies when the Coalition gets them already pre-packaged and gift-wrapped from the same think tanks and lobby groups who guide President elect Donald Trump as he busily appoints his transition team. Keep an ETS as a stick to beat Labor.
A former boxer who still thrills to a bit of biffo himself, seasoned sniper Abbott is keen to declare he is not after his PM’s job. He says his former role as “the parliamentary assault” man is “no longer appropriate”. Besides today’s cross-bench are a different kettle of minnows. Gushing with affection for Pauline Hanson whom he describes as “an honourable exception” the veteran exhibitionist revealingly tars the cross bench as show offs.
...love to be the centre of attention…
“Some of them just love to make a spectacle of themselves. They love to be the centre of attention [and] the best way to be the centre of attention is to be making things difficult for the government.” He would know.
“I think that is one of the most inane and stupid things I have ever heard,” sniffs investment guru Roger Montgomery in what could be a response to Abbott’s verdict on Hanson but which is in fact a response to Federal Treasurer, “Hallelujah Brother” Evangel of economic illiteracy, Scott Morrison who underwhelms a Sydney banking and finance mob Wednesday with his message that it’s OK to have a massive mortgage. Good debt is OK, OK?
Are you hopelessly in debt, having to skip meals, medicines and visits to the dentist, just to meet your mortgage repayments? Kick back, relax, your house goes up in value every day. Hallelujah. Unless, that is, the housing bubble bursts. Unless rising interest rates in February force more of us to sell. Or our economy records a second quarter of negative growth, making official the unofficial recession most of Australia is already experiencing, anywhere outside major centres in Victoria and NSW. Or unless Donald Trump makes good his vow to wage a trade war with China and triggers a global trade downturn.
Personal debt is now 125% of GDP, up twelve points since 2013 as employment dwindles. It’s not a good combo. For all Minister for Underemployment and Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash’s breathless ear-bashing, Thursday, her job figures are increasingly hollow, as part-time workers displace full-time in the workforce.
Untroubled by pronouncing trends on one month’s figures alone, moreover, Cash is crusading to elevate “participation”, or the fraught, forlorn task of merely looking for work, as somehow a triumph. Soon the hopelessly under-staffed, under-funded, demoralised ABS will be tasked with recording anyone who ever expresses a wish for a job.
“While the figures showed an increase in the unemployment rate to 6.3 per cent, this reflected a sharp increase in the participation rate to 65.1 per cent in July — the highest level since mid- 2013.” Brilliantly, she deduces that it’s not that people are desperate to seek work out of dire economic necessity, to pay bills, or buy food, pay rent or meet mortgage repayments, it’s because they “feel confident” and are “being encouraged”. It’s that Turnbull government vibe, again.
A disappointment in her role as Minister for Women, earning some to rank her below Tony Abbott who was insultingly dreadful but at least talked the talk at times, Cash appears oblivious to the real issues such as women’s underemployment. “The minister has not yet taken sufficiently seriously the increasing casualisation and underemployment of women in Australia,” Marie Coleman, chairwoman of the social policy committee of the National Foundation Coleman says. Nor is she about to.
...when you fear you’ll lose your home ...
For all Cash’s spin, Thursday, November’s job figures show unemployment in Western Australia - and other places hit by the mining slump - is at heights not seen since 2002, a convergence of events that produces mortgage stress, a euphemism for the terrible desperation you feel when you fear you’ll lose your home, despite screaming Scott Morrison’s reassurances that the size of your debt will comfort you. Expect to hear more from Monday’s MYEFO.
Funny things can happen to a Federal Treasurer, however, on his way to MYEFO. Scales can fall from his eyes. The old dry can become the new wet. Anything to make a set of wildly reckless estimates and “absurdly optimistic” projections, as UNSW economist Richard Holden calls them, look less irresponsible. Anything to make it look as if Morrison’s been doing his job instead of peddling discredited fiscal austerity under the guise of budget repair. Or just blaming Labor.
An anti-Keynesian jihadist, the wild-eyed Morrison, another nut-job whom Michael Pascoe dubs “the Malcolm Roberts of fiscal policy”, brandishes yet another dodgy study, backing his government’s economic reality denial - a “Treasury” report from Professor Tony Makin of Griffith University, claiming that our internationally acclaimed stimulus spending did not help us through the GFC, but was, in fact, a debt and deficit disaster. What we should have been doing is cutting taxes like New Zealand.
Makin is undeterred by the results. Out of all 34 OECD countries, New Zealand was hit with the longest recession. Not to worry that Treasury already rebutted this in 2014. Using figures readily available to anyone with an internet connection, Alan Austin concludes, by the end of 2010, the fortunes of Australia and New Zealand could hardly have contrasted further. Australia’s economy was clearly the best-performed in the world. Stimulus spending works.
Of course it’s possible Morrison has at last begun to take advice or consult economists, such as Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute, or a succession of governors of the Reserve bank or the OECD or the IMF which warns we could lose our AAA rating if we don’t borrow to invest in roads and schools and hospitals.
Yet it’s Liberal Party heresy to claim that any form of government debt is OK after years of Abbott and Hockey howling debt is evil while promising “a credible path back to surplus” a budgetary nirvana where we pretend that the nation’s economy is a household budget to the detriment of investing in infrastructure to meet the needs of a population growing by half a million a year.
”... cut welfare spending ...”
On closer inspection, there is no conversion. Morrison is beefing about needing to get bad debt under control before he starts feeding us up on the good borrowings. Bad debt? He’s bashing the bludgers again. In a word, he wants to cut welfare spending, despite it depressing consumer spending further flattening economic activity and increasing social division. Equally, “inane and stupid” is his nonsense about mortgage debt.
Montgomery, who manages $1 billion worth of funds, leads a chorus of experts who explain it would not take much for highly indebted Australians to be caught out, unable to service their financial commitments. Real estate values can and do fall, despite popular myth. You can bet your house on it. Your investment, moreover, is safe as houses, according to a parliamentary inquiry into housing affordability, which reports this week that it has no recommendations. Labor calls the Clayton’s report a waste of money. Developers delight in the report’s idea that a solution lies in “increased supply”.
Chaired by work experience boy David Coleman, a Liberal MP who has been in parliament a whole three years, the Committee into Housing Affordability says it did not want to mess with negative gearing because it had been such a feature of the Australian tax system over much of the last century, although, in fact, it was introduced by the Hawke-Keating government in 1985 before being suspended for two years, a period in which rents went up only in Sydney and Perth where rental properties were scarce. The Committee tables no evidence for its quaint argument from tradition.
Similarly, the Committee cautions against touching capital gains tax lest it have “a negative impact on the housing market and the broader economy” despite providing no evidence that this would be the case. Stamp duty is “inefficient and outdated” according to submissions received by the committee which could do nothing about this form of taxation because it was “a state matter” an argument based on the wilful denial of reality and history.
Alcohol and cigarettes were also once ” a state matter” but this did not stop the High Court in 1997 from striking down excise duties levied by the states over alcohol and tobacco and relieving them of $5 billion in annual revenue.
”... a twenty per cent decline ...”
Let’s not be too harsh on screaming ScoMo. At last he admits that debt incurred investing in infrastructure is a good thing. Makes us wonder why his Coalition government has been unable to take that step under either Tony Abbot or his current, ineffectual clone. The government has presided over a twenty per cent decline in public infrastructure spending. But, hey, who needs roads, schools or hospitals when you can brag that you are on a credible path to surplus?
Who needs cheap electricity? Who needs clean, green energy when we have a coal industry past its use by date to protect? To most rational governments investing in a renewable energy industry is a no-brainer. Yet the Abbott/ Turnbull government has chosen to defy common sense and the advice of experts including those within its own ranks.
Luckily, help is on its way in the form of God’s gift to lip-readers, Michaelia Cash, who talks up a storm about how a teensy rise in unemployment should not detract from the tremendous good news of the participation rate, another piece of jargon which she translates as lots of us are “putting our hands up” for work. That really pays the bills. One month is not significant: the real trend is towards rising unemployment - Roy Morgan says it’s more like 9.2%
Even luckier, Eddie Obeid is sentenced to five years gaol, an event which has ABC News 24 running a banner of his evil while Chris Bowen, Labor’s shadow Treasurer offers some intelligent economic comment. “Is his sentence high enough?”, one young commentator asks a guest, as if we don’t have judges for that type of thing. Obeid’s sentencing is a handy means to smear Labor. No-one on ABC TV joins the dots from Obeid to Arthur Sinodinos.
Happily, Mike Baird has nobbled NSW’s ICAC before it did too much damage to the Liberals and their born to rule party and supporters. As Christmas approaches, it brings daily new evidence of a government not just out of its depth but one which is causing the economy to shrink by cutting spending and failing to invest in infrastructure while doing everything in its power to scapegoat the poor, the elderly, the unemployed.
While its “savings” policies help cause productivity to stall, inequality to widen and women’s participation to decline and as it retreats even further into its double-speak, the Coalition’s sole priority seems to be to look after its own as if driven by some deeper sense of threat into ever more desperate acts of blatant self-preservation; its brazen, grasping, self-regarding, narcissism, the very antithesis of the spirit of Christmas.
*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.