Stop the econo-babble, start listening

Politics-as-usual is no longer an option.

A couple of weeks ago, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg let it slip that his effort to keep Australia’s battered economy afloat has been inspired two icons of 1980s conservative politics, Ronald Reagan in the White House and Margaret Thatcher at No. 10.

For those too young to remember, Reagan and Thatcher profoundly reshaped their national economies. By 1990 both the US and Britain had completely abandoned the old highly taxed and regulated economic model and entered a new era of floating currencies, freewheeling global markets and a rising concentration of big money.

Bob Hawke and his treasurer Paul Keating brought in similar reforms in Australia about the same time, except they took the trouble to consult the labour movement and mitigate impacts for the less well-off. Ignoring that home-grown example, Frydenberg described the Reagan-Thatcher reforms as “supply-side”, avoiding the more disparaging term “trickle-down”.

A growing rich-poor imbalance in every country where trickle-down economics predominates is clear and painful evidence that any trickle of benefit from corporate gains vanishes long before reaching the bottom of the income pyramid.

Among the many benefits of deregulated economies cited by employers and politicians over the years is a “flexible job market”. Business leaders like the idea of hiring, deploying, redeploying and terminating workers with minimal financial impact.

Flexible staffing of health and emergency services should have some benefits, such as ensuring people are where they’re most needed, but the pandemic has laid bare some severe flaws in the model. Working with contagion demands levels of knowledge, training and expertise that can only come out of workforce stability and continuity.

The Victorian outbreak opens a window on how a flexible employment arrangement works – or doesn’t – in aged care. In a sector which has difficulty attracting suitable staff, private nursing home operators around Australia have sought to do more with less by moving staff between campuses and skimping on professional nursing supervision.

Such cost-saving regimes are tailor-made for spreading infection. Active cases reported from the 10 per cent of Victorian beds managed by the state government, with mandated ratios of staff to patients, have been about 0.6 per cent of the total. Cases from the private homes with their lower carer and nurse complement make up the rest – over 99 per cent of the total.

This would not have surprised those who for years pushed for the royal commission into the quality and safety of our aged care services, which got under way late in 2018. Its interim report from October last year – months before the virus arrived here – flags many of the shortcomings which the pandemic has made all too apparent.

Chronically low staff numbers are the nub of the problem, exacerbated by a dearth of nurses and other health professionals – problems that quickly become obvious to those in care and their families. The sector simply can’t attract and retain enough suitable staff.

But that’s just a start. A 2018 taskforce warned Canberra of a desperate need in the industry for new career pathways and a qualification and skills framework. That’s additional to the Productivity Commission’s projection that by 2050 Australia will need at least double today’s aged care workforce.

Announcing spending to improve infection-control skills and boost staff numbers in vulnerable care homes early in the pandemic, aged care minister Richard Colbeck declared that “we are already ahead of the curve with practical guidelines and protocols to assist with containing outbreaks while ensuring those who contract the disease have access to the best treatment.”

Pure spin, but after a generation of supply-side economics that has pared down public support for aged care – as it has done to public spending throughout the economy – spin is all that’s left. All those sermons about endless growth fuelled by low labour costs, just-in-time supply chains and business unencumbered by taxation and red tape are now revealed for what they are: delusion.

This goes far beyond aged care, into every sector of the economy. President Clinton’s mantra that “it’s the economy, stupid” has been taken to mean that nothing else matters. When we should have been listening to the many signals coming from the real world – COVID-19 is just one of them – all we could hear was the endless econo-babble around growth and deregulation.

We will not escape the consequences of the pandemic – not to mention a growing climate catastrophe – until our masters learn to cease the chatter, put an ear to the ground and listen hard. For people who have made a career out of spin, that is proving the toughest assignment of all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How a pandemic and a lawsuit might work in our favour

Glimmers of light in these gloomy, tumultuous times.

Devastating fire seasons in two hemispheres followed by a worsening pandemic, economic collapse, racial division and increasingly erratic presidents… There is so much to be bothered about, it surely wouldn’t matter if one more item went on the list.

Unless that one item threatens to dominate our longer-term future. Amid all the other convulsions, climate change is setting up to engulf everything else.

Halfway through 2020 it’s clear this will be among our warmest years. The January-June average, reports the privately-funded US climate data centre Berkeley Earth, is tied with 2016 as the warmest start to a year. Significantly, 2016 experienced a massive El Nino weather event (El Nino is a strong warming influence), but 2020 is just as warm without any El Nino.

A big influence on global temperature this year has been a winter-spring heatwave across northern Asia. For six whole months, January to June, Siberia was more than 6C warmer than the long-term average, with maximums up to 38C, the all-time high for anywhere north of the Arctic Circle.

An attribution study published this month found that the chances of such a heatwave happening without the added warming triggered by high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (in other words, without human carbon emissions) would have been vanishingly small.

Which brings those emissions into sharp focus. Carbon dioxide is now present in the atmosphere at 414 parts per million and rising – 48 per cent higher than before the Industrial Revolution. At the current rate – a 12 per cent increase since just 2000 – we can expect CO2 to be double its pre-industrial level by 2070.

Last week, a 25-member multinational research team led by University of NSW senior climate scientist Steven Sherwood published the results of a landmark study seeking to pin down what would happen to global temperature with a doubling of atmospheric CO2. It involved painstaking analysis of temperature data going back millions of years.

Until now, science has relied on a 1979 US study concluding that twice the pre-industrial level of atmospheric CO2 would deliver between 1.5C and 4.5C of global warming. Sherwood’s new study rules out any prospect that the outcome could be as low as 1.5C. The lowest we can hope for is a much more dangerous 2.3C, probably much more, and we’re on track to reach that point by 2070.

At least, we were. There’s a silver lining to all the misery around the pandemic. A depressed global economy means emissions will be well down, and even just one year of low emissions would buy precious time in our battle with the climate.

Since COVID-19 struck seven months ago global carbon emissions have been sharply below where they were previously tracking. A study published in Nature has calculated that total 2020 emissions could be as much as 7 per cent below last year’s. It may turn out even lower; that analysis was done before the virus took serious hold in the US and Latin America.

Even governments totally wedded to climate action will be unable to resist public pressure to get national economies moving again, quickly. So the question is, how can these economies be reshaped to take advantage of the breathing space given to us by the pandemic?

The United States should be leading this charge, but its benighted administration has chosen to dismantle Obama-era energy and environmental reforms and put public money into fossil fuels. So the only hope from those quarters is a new president after the general election in November.

Though under some pressure from right-wing governments, Europe has stuck to progressive climate policies. In this year of the virus, renewable energy has surged past fossil fuels to become Europe’s main electricity source. The Morrison government has the option of taking that path, but remains stubbornly resistant to doing any such thing.

Enter a young Melbourne law student, Katta O’Donnell, who in the Federal Court last week launched a class action against the government for not disclosing the risk that climate change poses to otherwise secure long-term investments. The government borrows by selling bonds, and is obliged by law to disclose risks attached to these investments.

Australia’s special exposure to climate-related storm, flood, drought and bushfire already costs us dearly, yet we still have no effective, targeted, near-term and long-term national climate strategy. The O’Donnell case highlights another, potentially devastating risk: a flight of capital away from this country.

Our bean-counting government is exceptionally sensitive to financial pressures. Should the lawsuit force substantial climate change action, Katta O’Donnell will have done her country proud.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Racism: the disease we dare not mention

We are dealing with two pathogens in 2020. Coronavirus is the easy part.

There are no Aboriginal people in Tasmania, I was told as a child; the last of them, Truganini, died long ago. For years the Tasmanian Museum displayed her skeleton before putting it into storage.

Children were not encouraged to debate this. We were led to see it as a simple law of nature. The strong had overcome the weak, and in the order of things the weak were forgotten. That is more or less how indigenous Tasmanians were regarded by those who displaced them.

I lapped up the narrative fed to all Tasmanian schoolchildren, that we lived in a pristine southern island blessed with the arrival of British civilisation, which had superseded whatever was there before. Simple, neat, progressive – and false.

As I grew up, the narrative steadily unravelled. Niggling stories kept surfacing about “half-castes” – Cape Barren Islanders and others sprinkled through the Tasmanian community. People who weren’t quite like the rest of us. Who were these people? Where did they come from?

All the history I learned at school began with the first European contact, never mentioning those who were here already. If Europeans had a history, why didn’t those first peoples? What happened in this country before those soldiers and convicts landed at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788?

These are big questions. They ought to have informed the Bicentenary of 1988, when huge amounts of public money were spent to mark 200 years since that fateful landing, but they didn’t. Such questions might have spoiled the party, “the celebration of a nation”, as the publicity blurb put it.

As a public servant in the lead-up to that anniversary, I was called on to write a film script explaining why the Sydney Cove landing was significant to Australians. I could think of nothing better than “this invasion that transformed a continent”.

The dispute over our national day remains unresolved, as do so many aspects of relations with indigenous people: high imprisonment rates; mistreatment by police, custody officers and other officials; and more subtle forms of discrimination like racial taunts and refusal of service.

When George Floyd died under a policeman’s knee two months ago, indigenous people and ethnic minorities around the world turned out in their thousands to turn the Black Lives Matter movement into their own personal response to endemic racism.

It is no accident that the response was especially strong in Australia. Racism here springs from the same colonial source. In both our histories, invading Europeans killed indigenous people and treated any survivors as if they did not exist.

Australia even had its own form of slavery. European settlers used Aboriginal communities whose land they had commandeered as a labour resource, jailing those who resisted. In Queensland they kidnapped Pacific islanders to bring them to work in their plantations.

First Nations people had effectively occupied and managed this land more than ten times longer than the age of Egypt’s pyramids when the British came to claim it. Over that time, historical and archaeological records show, they had built a depth of skill and knowledge about their country which would have served us well then and now, as the landscape turns against us.

To the newcomers, enjoying overwhelming physical superiority, this prior occupation was of no consequence. There was killing, but far more insidious and enduring was the passive racism – the turning away, the denial of resources, the refusal to acknowledge or to take responsibility. It endures still, and it costs this nation dearly.

“A fire that we hope burns bright for Australia” was how Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu characterised the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, by which indigenous Australians sought a constitutional guarantee that their voices would be heard by our nation’s decision-makers.

The Law Society of Australia wants the Uluru Statement incorporated into the Constitution. Its president, Pauline Wright, sees it as the culmination of “one of the most comprehensive consultations ever conducted with Indigenous Australians”.

Yet five months after the statement was adopted the federal government declared that it undermines parliament’s authority. Citing no legal authority, it continues to reject it out of hand.

Our collective sins are sins of omission: not what we have done, but what we have failed to do, and they are no less damaging than overt racism. Chronic mistreatment and discrimination are driving smouldering resentment. In ignoring it, our nation is diminished.

In 2020 we are dealing with two pathogens. In time the coronavirus will be quelled and we will be over it. Recovery from the disease of racism, fed by prejudice and ignorance, is not so certain.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment