Abbott was just a tool of the neo-libs

To understand how and why Australia has ended up where it has, with a series of governments which seem to become more and more damaging to our way of life, year on year, we need only to look back to 2013. If you think they are waging a relentless war on the nation’s most vulnerable, they are.

If you have any expectations of what governments should provide for you and your fellow citizens, in return for your taxes, and your consent to be governed, then think again. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) gave Tony Abbott a list of policies that they wanted implemented if he became Prime Minister. When he did win the 2013 election, he set about doing what he was told.

What was the first step Abbott took?

First step – set up an official sounding body called the National Commission of Audit. The simple idea of an Audit Commission is to drive neoliberal reform, while dressing it up as a budget emergency. With a Commission of Audit in place, have it deliver a report which states that the country’s finances are in a desperate shambles, and that the only sensible solution is to slash and burn social programs. Stress the need for a balanced budget and use terms like “living beyond our means” and make the people nervous and uneasy. 

Commissions of Audit continue to be used by most, if not all, newly elected Conservative administrations in Australia. John Howard did it in 1996, so if it was good enough for Howard, it was good enough for Abbott. 

The word “National” gave it gravitas; the word “Audit” always lends a certain dignity and the appearance of tedious respectability to any sort of gathering, and it did in this case. As Abbott said at the time, “I’m very happy to have the Commission of Audit go through the whole of the administration, to tell us whether, in their opinion, they think things can be done better,” he told the ABC in early September 2013.

Anyone with half a brain could have foreseen what sort of confected rubbish this group would come up with. You only had to look at the personnel for a taste of what was to come. They had all dabbled in public service, but what drew them together was  a shared penchant for neo-liberal economic theory, large pensions and a lovely well-paid Government gig to pipe them out of public life. Oddly Abbott behaved as if it was an independent body, although he set it up, and presumably hand-picked the commissioners. 

Strangely they were only asked to examine the spending side of the budget, and not where the money came from. That would be taxes, so don’t look at taxes, only spending. An odd way to look at any sort of budget, let alone a budget which sets its own revenue streams, up or down, as need arises. But we must not forget that the Audit Commision was itself set-up as camouflage for Abbott, who was looking for a compelling reason to implement the IPA’s shopping list. 

What did the ‘audit’ recommend?

Nothing unexpected was proposed. Follow the list of recommendations on the IPA’s shopping list, and you get cuts to just about everything worthwhile. Family payments, child care, health care, education, unemployment and pension payments, aged care and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are all among those areas targeted by the National Commission of Audit. Of course none of this was flagged before the election, but the Commission was able to provide Abbott with his ‘smoking gun’; now he had a budget emergency, which necessitated heroic austerity measures to save Australia. 

If passed, the measures would adversely affect the quality of life of millions of Australians. Most of the measures never passed the Senate, but we continue to be governed by people who drank the Kool-Aid, along with Abbott. 

The country has not been well-served by the Coalition since that joke of a Federal Budget in 2014. Several leaders later, they have learned nothing. When in doubt attack the Labor Party, or the unemployed, or the Chinese, or the ‘greenies’. 

Australia has developed, over a hundred and twenty years, a distinctively Aussie-flavoured democracy. It accepted some degree of neo-liberal modernisation through the agency of Hawke and Keating, but it retained the egalitarian streak and a sense that we should be fair to our fellow citizens. 

We valued our health care system, our welfare system, and we did not demonise those who were not having a red-hot go. Many of us received a free, or at least affordable education. None of us had to sell the family home if we got sick. We weren’t abandoned after a period of unemployment because our insurance had run out. And we welcomed people from overseas who were fleeing torture or worse. We gave everyone a fair hearing, and we judged people by the rule of law, with some compassion thrown in. 

When did we lose the plot?

Although Abbott is the modern ‘architect’ of our fall from grace, John Howard had already opened a door to another level, one that was mean and tricky, and unkind. We had grown comfortable with him, over a long career, but he had a hidden agenda. Some say being in New York on September 11 changed him, but he was already damaged by then. Perhaps Keating’s relentless baiting took its toll.

He developed a hard edge which deceived many. Maybe it was George W. Bush becoming his friend, but whatever it was, he was captured. The hard right, neo-liberal ideas, the merciless rhetoric of the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys, of Washington. Perhaps it was as simple as being called the ‘man of steel’ in 2003. That is a good deal better than ‘little Johnny Howard’. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Bush in 2009 see here ; another Australian with his head turned by awards see here

What can we do about it?

Neo-liberalism is a torn and ragged bag of discredited economic policies, which discounts the social and human needs of citizens, and which has a naive and pathetic faith in ‘the market’ to provide solutions. Most neo-liberals are emotionally stunted human beings who do not care about their fellows, and who like to tout the virtues of heartless capitalism and endless competition. The irony is that many neo-liberals are themselves the beneficiaries of nepotism and unfair preference, and would struggle to compete, on fair terms, with anyone. We need to re-prioritise caring about the societies we belong to, and calling out legislation and policies which do not further the interests of the majority of citizens.

We need to be equally fierce. Ask them where their ‘policies’ will eventually take Australians. Ask them why they favour Murdoch and his nihilism, over truth. Ask them what they would do, personally, if faced with unemployment. Ask them about ‘trickle down’ theory, and demand examples of its successes.

In the middle of the greatest challenge to modern life (the Covid-19 pandemic), every government on earth is abandoning neo-liberalism and embracing Keynes. See if they can explain that.

Morrison throws to vaudeville

Fresh from his redemption after The Great Bush-fire Debacle, Scott Morrison is reverting to type. In a farcical press conference he stated that Australia’s institutions and businesses were being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor. In an unexpected outbreak of coyness he was unable to name the state-based actor. We were left to ponder the descriptor “sophisticated”.

So there was no attack, as such, but the country’s organisations were being targeted, by an unknown nation-state, for reasons undefined. He was particularly snappy when questioned by journalists, throwing back to his familiar lines like “I have already answered that question.” He is clearly a man on a mission, and he is not prepared to waste words when the country is facing an imminent ‘targeting’. It sort of reminds one of being in danger of being gummed to death by an ageing possum.

This is the old ‘national security chestnut‘, regularly resurrected, whenever the Coalition feels it is in danger of becoming becalmed. Trot out the Aussie flags, and talk in a hushed voice about a clear and present danger to the Commonwealth. This way you kill two birds with the one stone. Bird #1 – throw Peter Dutton a bait, so that he is distracted by mythical enemies; Bird #2 – frighten the citizenry, while implying that Labor is weak on national security. Generally they use better imagery than an unknown non-assailant doing a bit of targeting of unknown targets, but you go with what you have.

Various agencies have responded that it was well known that this country’s organisations were vulnerable, and that many government departments were aware of their own vulnerabilities, but were too incompetent, or too lazy, to apply available patches to software previously identified as open to attack. It seems that the sophisticated state-based cyber actor is a good sport, in that it did not escalate from targeting to attacking.

How to re-skill Australians?

In a seemingly related policy move the Government decided to re-design the university sector’s funding. Clearly the country would benefit greatly from having university qualified IT professionals who could actually apply those pesky patches. Certainly anyone with an Arts degree would be out of his or her depth.

The Education Minister Dan Tehan announced that universities should be more vocational based. So he was reducing fees on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) but increasing the fees for the Humanities. Supposedly the STEM graduates are more employable, and better satisfy current and future needs in the economy. This is an odd claim. For instance, Mr Tehan and his Labor party counterpart, Tanya Plibersek are both Arts graduates, and as Ms Plibersek noted, they both have good jobs.

Traditionally, the humanities include such fields as art, languages, literature, music, philosophy, religion, history, and cultural studies. His reasoning seems to be that a rounded education, with social skills and analysis and reasoning thrown in, is less important than pumping out efficient technicians.

So Scott Morrison has made two policy decisions this last week. In the first he put Australia’s organisations on notice that they are being targeted, in a cyber sense, and they better wake up to themselves.

Secondly, he decided that STEM will cost less than Humanities courses, so he is purportedly driving students to abandon Humanities courses. He framed the sweeping changes to university funding “as a re-prioritisation from arts to sciences to support the ‘jobs of the future’. But the details tell a very different story.

While the package punishes arts students, it also deprives universities of the resources they need to teach STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

So the sum total of the Government’s achievements was essentially in the eye of the beholder – Government by press announcements, smoke and mirrors. Welcome back, Scotty from Marketing.

2020 Honours List a sick joke

There are some moments in a country’s history when the bullshit becomes too much to bear. This year’s Queen’s Birthday (2020) Honours List is one such moment, where the entire apparatus of Government, with its ‘jobs for the boys’, non-stop rorts, lies and evasions, its insider jokes and its lack of shame tips us over the edge.

The worst of it is that it devalues the award for those who really do “go above and beyond”. The most numerous recipients are volunteers, but their awards are ranked below those usually awarded to politicians and other party hacks. These people were actually paid to go to work. So, they get an award for doing their jobs.

Many of them then went on to lucrative careers elsewhere, usually set up by the Government they were a part of. Oh, and they never resign from Parliament until after their pensions are assured. Many of them also have skeletons in their closets, but that did not deter the Awards Council this year.

Who awards the awards?

The rot starts at the top. The person in charge of the Awards Council is Shane Stone, who was once the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. That is the most exalted position he ever attained, and his path to that position was colourful, as was his removal from office.

Mr Stone constantly clashed with Indigenous Territorians, challenging land claims in a bitter decade-long dispute that culminated in Mr Stone famously calling Yolngu leader and Australian of the Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu “just another whinging, whining, carping black”. . In response he was called a “redneck”. That term is difficult to fault.

Shane Stone is also a QC. That is because he appointed himself one, when he was the Attorney General of the Northern Territory. His record in court was less than stellar up to that time, but there is nothing better than a self-recommendation. Ask Angus Taylor.

More recently, just before the 2019 election, Shane Stone was appointed to a position as the chief of a flood recovery body in Queensland. His full title: – Coordinator-General the Hon Shane L Stone AC QC . The position attracts a payment package similar to that paid to the Prime Minister. There was speculation that it formed part of the Morrison Government’s fire-sale of positions prior to the election. It looks like it was at the least fortuitous. It seems to be a lot of money. Labor suggested that it was another needless layer of bureaucracy, better handled at a state level.

Another, ex-officio member of the Awards Council is one Mathias Cormann. He is perhaps best remembered for ringing the CEO of a large travel company (Helloworld) to book international flights he was never billed for. That was within weeks of two Helloworld subsidiaries being awarded contracts to provide airline and hotel bookings for the Australian government worth about $1 billion in bookings over three years.

Mr Cormann is the Finance Minister, but he is very slack when it comes to paying personal bills, it seems. He paid for the holiday, after he was alerted by Fairfax Media. Considering how well he did in ringing the CEO to make his own booking, perhaps he could do it for the rest of the Government. And Mr Burnes, award around his neck, might even forget to bill the Government?

Who got the big awards?

Consider some of the names on the list: Tony Abbott, Mike Baird, Denis Napthine and former federal Liberal ministers Philip Ruddock and Bronwyn Bishop. The list also includes former Nationals senator Ron Boswell and one-time Liberal Party honorary treasurer Andrew Burnes, the chief executive of Helloworld Travel. (He is not so good at billing people.) All Coalition members, so they probably send each other Christmas cards. Or they could meet at church. Put it this way – they wouldn’t meet at a gay bar.

There is one Labor Party apparatchik, Graham Richardson. Including him in the list of recipients is almost awarding him ‘honorary Liberal’ status. He is certainly a man with a colourful past, and many colourful friends. Some of them have been sent to jail, and there is surprise and wonder, in some circles, that he didn’t join them.

Why are the awards losing credibility?

Where to start with these awards? Abbott, for services to democracy, in destroying Turnbull’s leadership; for services to Parliament, for debasing it; for services to the indigenous community, for cutting indigenous funding to the bone; for being an embarrassment to the country for a quarter of a century, for eating an onion like an apple, for supporting George Pell? For opposing same-sex marriage? For wearing speedos! For ruining Australia’s response to climate change, and for sabotaging the renewable energy industry. For his misogyny? Remember Julia Gillard, and Gillian Triggs, and how atrociously he treated them, and their roles.

Bronwyn Bishop, for being hounded out of Parliament for fudging her entitlements? She went on to become a political commentator for Fox News. One can only hope she is better at that job than she was as Speaker of the House. She was certainly no Joan Child!

Philip Ruddock, for sustained acts of homophobia over a very long career? Or was it for his peerless report into religious freedoms in Australia? Arguably the most meaningless review in Parliamentary history. Or the fact that his own daughter shunned him for his abominable treatment of refugees? Was he Peter Dutton’s role model for a heartless xenophobe, before it was fashionable?

It is too tedious to recount the names and misdeeds of any more of the politician recipients, but suffice to say that the Australian public noticed. We all applaud the volunteers who really keep this country going as well as it does. So there is no excuse for the Awards Council to turn a blind eye, and a tin ear, to the degradation of the awards. What were they thinking?

Arise Sir Tony! We’re not sure why.

At the risk of beating the same old drum, this current Government seems to be heading steadily down the ethical and moral drain, ever since the unexpected election win. So much of the country’s malaise, however, can be traced back to the ascension of one Tony Abbott, firstly as Opposition Leader, and then, unbelievably, as Prime Minister.

As Opposition Leader

He was a surprise, because no-one believed he would ever be elected to lead anything. He was almost universally derided for his open and unashamedly pugnacious Catholicism, and his awkwardness with language, and his seeming inability to move into the 21st century. He was the polar opposite of progressive, and seen as something of a likeable dinosaur.

He had an unexpected skill, however. This special skill lay in his ability to focus on a single, simplistic theme, and then to carry the fight on, daily, against both his own moderate fellow-Liberals, but also against Julia Gillard, until the death. This ‘theme’ was the carbon price, still the best and only successful mechanism so far tried in Australia, to combat climate change. So it became his mania, and we still suffer from his short-term-ism, his willingness to throw Australia under a bus, in pursuit of his own political advancement.

He came to embody opposition; he lived the dictum of the (British) Whig Mr Tierney, “the duty of an Opposition was very simple—it was to oppose everything and propose nothing.”

He was in the right place at the right time – Kevin Rudd and Abbott, between them, destroyed Gillard’s Government, and allowed the election of Abbott, as Prime Minister.

As Prime Minister

Tony Abbott set about dismantling Australia’s pact with its citizens, from day 1. Perhaps his most unpopular act was to break an election promise NOT to cut the funding to the ABC. Of course he did, because he had warned us, back in his Opposition Leader days, that he was somewhat flexible with the truth.

Now if there is one thing Australians hold dear – it is the ABC. If you want a simple test as to whether someone despises the people of Australia, see who wants to dismantle, or hobble, or sell, or just remove funding from, the ABC. Read more about their really reprehensible moral vacuity here

The reason is that we all value information, and we expect it to be delivered without bias, and we don’t want Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Stokes to have had a say in what form, or how, it is delivered.

It is profoundly undemocratic to stifle the voice of the public broadcaster, and cutting its funding is just another way to bell the cat, to keep us all in ignorance. And it removes oversight; it allows the political class to escape scrutiny. Which in this country these days can mean all sorts of chicanery.

The list of assassins is long, and it includes people like Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi, Simon Birmingham, Matt Canavan, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Mitch Fifield, Bridget McKenzie, James Patterson and Anne Ruston, to name a few.

Oddly, the names are eerily similar to the list of middle aged people, who are very angry with Greta Thunberg, because she dares to have an opinion, and because she is a leader. And she is 17 years old.

Many of these ‘young fogies’ believe that schools are for learning only, and not about thinking. They also disapprove of same-sex marriage. One can only wonder at the double standards shown by the Nationals on the list, because they know full well how much regional Australians value their ABC.

As a backbencher

Of course we all rued the days of Abbott, and we were all desperate to escape him; we were all hugely relieved when someone apparently adult took over. But he never could, really. Abbott held Turnbull as a virtual prisoner, and he led his posse of wreckers on a kamikaze mission to destroy Turnbull, all the while trying to dismantle the renewable energy industry, and to hamstring Australia’s efforts to deal with climate change.

This was not necessarily because he did not believe, (although it is still impossible to know where he stands on the issue), but purely for reasons of personal vindication, and simple revenge. So much for service to the community.

His successor fought the good fight, for as long as he could, but a combination of his own political ineptitude, and his opponents’ bloody-mindedness, finally did him in. It appeared to be a coup, by Abbott’s supporters, at the expense of the Australian people. How depressing to discover that we had a choice between the devil, and the deep blue sea: Peter Dutton, or Scott Morrison.

Abbott had the gall to then state that he was finally satisfied, because Turnbull was no longer PM. He behaved as if removing Turnbull was a noteworthy achievement. Remember that Abbott had promised, “There will be no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping.”

If there is an individual who bears responsibility for Australia’s recent ‘fall from grace’, it is Abbott. He is shameless, a self-confessed liar and a man who seems to have jumped on the gravy train early, and who continues to ride it. He lacks the personal insight to reflect on his legacy, which is threadbare at best. Many struggle to find a single achievement to honour him for.

He was removed from his leadership role, and coincidentally the Prime Ministership in 2015, and then he got the ‘bum’s rush’ from his own electorate in 2018. He did manage to get back onto the public payroll in October 2019, when he was appointed to the council of the Australian War Memorial.

Post politics

In an attempt to retain some sort of relevance he has continued to travel the world, making speeches to anyone who will listen. Recently he has excelled, giving support to reactionary and oafish world leaders, including Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán of Hungary,

He also believes that the world is in the grip of a climate cult

He has stated that he remains ready to serve. Today Tony Abbott was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. Some may remember the public outrage when he awarded a knighthood to Prince Philip on Australia Day in 2015. What irony that he is awarded a gong, on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, five years later. Could it be a ‘quid pro quo’?

This article has been updated to include changes, including the awarding of the AC to Tony Abbott in the Queens Birthday 2020 Honours List

David Dungay Jnr couldn’t breathe either

In 2015 David Dungay Jnr died at Long Bay jail. He was 26 years old, he was indigenous, and he suffered from significant health issues. These included childhood-onset Type 1 Diabetes.

His death happened as a consequence of his being moved from one cell to another. He was being moved because Mr Dungay’s blood sugar had already been tested four times that day, and found to be elevated. The ‘new’ cell was equipped with CCTV, presumably so that his blood sugar and his physical well-being could be monitored remotely.

What caused his death?

Deputy state coroner Derek Lee found Mr Dungay died from cardiac arrhythmia, with contributing factors including his Type 1 diabetes, anti-psychotic medication, and extreme stress and agitation.

Mr Dungay was eating a packet of biscuits, and the officers demanded that he stop eating before they moved him. He was given two minutes to comply. When he refused to stop eating the biscuits, the guards called on the Immediate Action Team (IAT) for assistance. The IAT is used as a ‘specialist’ team for moving inmates, a de facto ‘riot squad’.

On their arrival, they rushed into his cell, grabbed him and shoved him face-down on to his mattress. They then cuffed him, with his hands behind his back. He was picked up, moved to another cell, and held face-down again. A nurse administered a fast acting sedative into his buttock as he was being restrained, by up to six guards. In scenes reminiscent of George Floyd’s recent death, he continued to scream that he could not breathe. One of the officers responded to his cries several times, that if he could talk, he could breathe. Soon after he was administered the sedative, he died.

As already stated, the new cell was an observation cell, one equipped with video surveillance. As he was being moved, the CCTV showed that he was splitting blood. His mother has since noted that his nose was broken, the skin split, and his face was “caved in”. There has been no finding as to how the injuries occurred. They must have occurred between the arrival of the IAT and his being moved along the corridor. There was no other window of opportunity for his injuries to be inflicted.

What was the outcome of the investigation?

The finding of the Coroner’s Court was that he died from inadequate medical care. The detective tasked with investigating the death did not enter the cell for two hours after Mr Dungay’s death, and all the material evidence had been removed in the meantime. Has that detective been re-trained?

No matter where you stand, something is not right about this whole case. A 26 year old man died because he was eating biscuits. The actions of the staff, both the guards and the nursing staff, were not dictated by a desire to keep him safe. They wanted him to stop eating biscuits, because he was disobeying them. They appeared to engage in a ‘shock and awe’ type moment to intimidate him. Their explanation that they were trying to help him is ridiculous. An actual case of killing someone with kindness it was not.

No charges have been laid yet. The NSW Corrections commissioner, Peter Severin, issued an apology to the family, acknowledging “organisational failures”. The family say they will seek prosecution of the guards. Mr Dungay continues to be mourned by his family, and the rest of the Australian community doesn’t even blink. It is a ridiculous sham to see and hear the Australian community dragging itself up that tiny hillock, where the High Moral Ground is to be found, and judging Americans for the death of George Floyd.

Consider the number 432. That is the number of deaths of indigenous citizens who have died in custody since 1991. 432 deaths, over 29 years = 14.89 deaths per year, every year!

One argument sometimes raised is that they were dangerous men and women, and police and prison guards have a right to be safe. Closer analysis shows that many are women, or children, or on remand, or being pursued. Very few police, if any, were in fear for their lives. Aboriginal deaths in custody are seen in this country as being somehow normal, even expected.

From those 432 deaths, over 29 years, not one of their custodians has been convicted of a crime relating to the deaths. In the case of Mr Dungay the Coroner declined to refer any of the guards for prosecution, but he did recommend more training for guards and nurses. A lot of use that will be.