archive: February 2023

28 February 2023

Don Watson reflects on why Jacinda Ardern was beloved around the world: “Whatever drove her to resign — exhaustion, policy failures, far-right lunacy, misogyny — for a while, Ardern reminded us that kindness has a central place in politics because it has an essential place in human lives. Perhaps it was an illusion, a being in which we wanted to believe, like a mermaid on a rock. But Ardern did seem to lack all vanity and affectation, bombast, cunning, brutishness or any of the other qualities we associate with power. Her authority, while it lasted, derived from a kind of charismatic decency. And from our need to see and feel sympathy. She said that a leader could be ‘kind’ and still be strong. She spoke of empathy, which is a perfectly good word, but it is the less fashionable sympathy that we offer people in misery and strife, and it is sympathy that makes us choke. Ardern radiated human sympathy, and at critical moments in her country’s history she gave it concrete expression.” This seems right, given how she was honoured in a well-received mural here in Melbourne.

Watson then considers the lack of sympathy in a current Australian controversy: “[T]o take sympathy out of the political system, which means also taking out consideration of circumstances, is much like taking it from the justice system. It reduces the capacity for moral judgement. … It was in pursuit of efficiency dividends that the designers of robodebt decided sympathy could go to hell and hundreds of thousands of blighted lives with it. That the scheme known as robodebt was illegal is almost immaterial: it is much more telling that the people who conceived and operated it, including ministers and prime ministers, suspected (does anyone think they didn’t know?) it was illegal, but reckoned it better not to check. Better, because ‘cracking down on welfare cheats’ was going down well in ‘key’ electorates. … Robodebt is where the notion of ‘legitimate authority’ comes unstuck — less because the system was illegal than because it was cynical, punitive, heartless and political.”

Tim Dunlop: “As many economists are currently noting, the Reserve’s response to inflation is predicated on increasing interest rates to curb wages, even though wage growth is not causing inflation.” (He cites this recent paper by the Australia Institute.) “This is the insidiousness of neoliberalism writ large: it institutionalises and normalises policy that, in a truly democratic system would not be allowed to stand. It gives cover to the various elites who benefit from its presumptions and removes from citizens the right to challenge policies that lead to deeply undemocratic — unequal — outcomes. … Every time you hear the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, invoke the title ‘the independent Reserve Bank’ remember that what he is really doing is underlining the undemocratic nature of that institution, hiding behind its alleged independence to normalise policy that is harmful to working people. ‘Independent’ in this context is just another word for anti-democratic. It is a way of removing control of the economy from social-political forums like the parliament that, in a democracy, are meant to be about the pursuit of equality amongst citizens, and instead creating the exact opposite: a more unequal society where wealth is channelled relentlessly upward.”

22 February 2023

Squads of police in NSW are now turning up at activists’ homes after midnight to drag them away and intimidate them against protesting: “However, according to the fact sheet, the charge relates to their presence outside the RBA building. Police allege that after leaving the Commonwealth Bank the group ‘continued to chant, shout and scream’ as they marched through Martin Place to the entrance of the RBA. … ‘Upon the front sliding doors to the Reserve Bank of Australia being shut and locked the group have remained immediately in the forecourt out the front of the premises front doors,’ the document reads. Police said that while the protesters remained ‘outside the bank’ the area was ‘still deemed to form part of the curtilage of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Any form or protesting activities carried out in this area without approval is considered unlawful and a trespass on the Reserve Bank of Australia grounds,’ the document states. Kuehlmann told the Guardian the group had been outside the building for a ‘maximum 10 minutes’ and that the group had ‘walked to the door’ of the bank before a security guard ‘pushed us back’. But police alleged the protest resulted in the RBA ‘having to temporarily stop any form of access into the premises’, which, they said, ‘significantly interfered with the conduct and business of the Reserve Bank of Australia’.” The police cautioned Kuehlmann at the time, but did not arrest her — instead, they sent five armed cops to bang on her door in the middle of the night and arrest her as her housemates and neighbours watched. They then released her with bail conditions that would prevent her protesting in future. This, I suspect, is why they arrested her in the first place — not because she had done anything to justify being arrested, but because police now routinely use bail conditions as a tactic to undermine freedom of assembly in Australia.

You’ve probably seen the significant media coverage of engineered stone this week: “A common building material is being likened to the ‘new asbestos’ despite being used in kitchens across the country, putting more than 275,000 Aussie tradies at risk of cancer and lung disease. Engineered stone countertops, which are riddled with deadly silica, are causing silicosis — an incurable work-related lung disease. More than 70 cases are before Australian courts. Workers, many on oxygen tanks or needing lung transplants, insist they were never warned about how dangerous the material they worked with could be. … Engineered stone contains up to 95 per cent crystalline silica, the dust of which is highly toxic. When inhaled in large quantities, it can cause a host of deadly illnesses, including silicosis, auto-immune diseases, lung cancer, kidney disease and pulmonary infections. Marble, by contrast, contains just two per cent silica. Granite contains between 10 and 50 per cent. A study from Curtin University estimated more than 275,000 workers, mostly tradies, were exposed to high levels of the carcinogenic dust. Up to 103,000 of them would be diagnosed with silicosis, the study predicted.” A piecemeal health and safety approach has failed to change the lax safety culture in the industry, and workers and their families are paying the price. It’s time to ban engineered stone.

Cosentino, which accounts for over 20% of stone benchtops in Australia, was found guilty in Spain of criminal negligence for failing to warn of the known danger posed by its products that contained 95% silica. After the recent media coverage, they are now demanding: “The immediate solution is everyone buys products that are less than 40 per cent silica.” Of course, they have not stopped selling the products they want banned — they know it’s dangerous, but won’t stop selling it unless they are forced to.

13 February 2023

ABC Business Editor Ian Verrender: “What if you woke up one morning only to be told the very essence of everything you believed in was wrong? And what if those beliefs — and the decisions you made based upon them — underpinned the living standards of millions of people, here and around the world? That’s the reality dawning on a generation of economists who suddenly have been beset with doubts about one of the great tenets of modern economic theory: the relationship between jobs, wages and inflation. … Known as the Phillips Curve — after New Zealand economist William Phillips who first formulated it in 1958 — it maintains that as more people find work, pressure builds on wages, which then leads to higher prices and ultimately entrenches inflation. … Given their primary remit is to control inflation, it’s been the credo to which all central banks have subscribed. Until now. For whatever reason, the relationship between unemployment and inflation has become less clear across the developed world. … [T]he primary problem is that the world has changed dramatically since it first became popular as workers’ rights have been eroded. They no longer have the same kind of bargaining power they once had. In Australia, you can’t just walk off the job in protest at your pay and conditions in the way workers in the 1970s did. You need [FWC] approval to take industrial action. That’s obliterated the number of disputes and strikes… Even now, wages growth is running at way below inflation, meaning most workers are taking a real wages cut while simultaneously being whacked by the most punishing round of interest rate hikes in history. … But … the RBA remains fixated on the notion that if jobs numbers remain strong, inflation could become entrenched, which has only hardened its resolve to keep pushing rates higher. Eventually, they’ll get there. Higher interest rates at some stage will curb spending, cut profits and result in mass layoffs. It could well be recession we didn’t have to have.”

10 February 2023

A good column from a coalition of human rights and migrant rights organisations: “Since 1996, when the Howard government introduced the temporary employer-sponsored sub-class 457 visa, two key trends have come to dominate immigration policy. The first is the endless proliferation of temporary visas with no direct pathways to permanent residency. As the Human Rights Law Centre and Migrant Workers Centre pointed out in joint submissions to the review, it is increasingly common for people to spend more than 10 years on temporary visas searching for an opportunity to permanently migrate. … The second trend is the dependence of permanent pathways upon decisions made by employers. Temporary migrants must rely on the goodwill of their employers at various points in the immigration maze: to obtain certification of their skills, to accrue the points necessary in the cut-throat process of skilled migration, or to sponsor them for a limited range of employment-based visas. The reliance of migrant workers on their employers for immigration outcomes robs them of bargaining power at work. It becomes unthinkable to refuse extra hours or cashback requests, demand fair pay or decent conditions at work if losing your job means losing your visa and a future in Australia. The migration system offers no protection to temporary migrants, extending them a standing invitation to ‘go home’ if things get tough. It is time Australia confronts and addresses the systemic exploitation of migrant workers. This requires a fundamental shift that puts the rights of migrants at the heart of the migration system.”

7 February 2023

In 2014, Daniel Andrews promised to make Victoria “The Education State” and turn our cars into mobile billboards by putting the slogan on number plates. Two terms later, it’s clear he is just gaslighting us: “[F]ederal and state funding per student in Victorian non-government schools grew 31 per cent over the 10 years to 2021. Funding per student in Victorian state schools grew by 27.1 per cent over the same period. … [A]t $17,174 per student, Victorian students are the second-lowest funded in the country, only ahead of South Australian students. Victoria’s public schools received $20,047 per student in government funding in 2020-21, while non-government schools attracted $12,087 per student. … The Andrews government has committed to fund non-government schools fully in 2023, but has yet to commit to fully funding state schools. It has agreed to increase its share of the student resourcing standard — an estimate of how much public funding a school requires to meet educational needs — to 75 per cent by 2029, while the Commonwealth funds 20 per cent. There is no agreement on the remaining 5 per cent.” Fully funding private schools today, but only committing to 95% funding for public schools in 2029! There’s a lot of blather about how to improve educational outcomes, but if we don’t stop pissing away hundreds of millions of dollars on overfunded private schools, and redirect that money to students who actually need it, we have no chance.

1 February 2023

The Victorian coroner has made damning findings of systemic racism throughout the Victorian criminal justice system, which caused the death of Victoria Nelson: “I find that the use of handcuffs by Victoria Police was unjustified and disproportionate in the circumstances. I find that the police [bail decision-maker] was empowered to grant Veronica bail and failed to give proper consideration to the discretion to do so and this infringed her Charter rights. By failing to give proper consideration to the discretion, I find that the police [bail decision-maker] failed to adequately consider Veronica’s vulnerability in custody as an Aboriginal woman. I find that the training provided by Victoria Police on these topics fails to equip its members with an adequate appreciation of the vulnerability of an Aboriginal person in custody. … I find that at the time of Veronica’s appearance at the [Melbourne Magistrates’ Court]…, culturally specific support for Aboriginal court users was under-resourced and designed to address the cultural needs of only some Aboriginal people – those attending Koori Court. The restrictions of the cultural support role as planned by the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, and the inadequate process for identifying people who might need it, failed to give proper consideration to Veronica’s rights to equality and culture and those of other Aboriginal court users. I find that the Bail Act has a discriminatory impact on First Nations people resulting in grossly disproportionate rates of remand in custody, the most egregious of which affect alleged offenders who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women. I find that ss 4AA(2)(c), 4A, 4C and Clauses 1 and 30 of Schedule 2 of the Bail Act are incompatible with the [Victorian Human Rights] Charter.” It goes on, but the findings about the Bail Act, and the coroner’s detailed recommendations about how it should be reformed, have forced the government to promise change.

The finding about the Bail Act has captured media attention, but it is not a shocking revelation. Here is a report from 2019: “Human rights advocates say the state’s expanding prison system and legal changes that make it tougher to access bail and parole are ensnaring disadvantaged women responsible for relatively minor criminal offending linked to poverty and substance abuse. This increase is particularly stark for Aboriginal women, with a 240 per cent jump in the number of female Aboriginal prisoners in Victorian prisons over the past five years. There has been a 50 per cent increase in the total number of female prisoners in Victoria over the same period… About two-thirds of women whose period of remand had ended were released from prison without needing to serve any more time in jail.” We knew what was happening, but the Andrews Government (which loves to pat itself on the back as the most progressive government in the nation) didn’t want to upset the cops [$] by fixing it. It shouldn’t have taken the death by racism of another Aboriginal woman to shock Andrews into a response — and, frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it, because the death of Tanya Day prompted a similar promise to amend the criminal law in 2019, but it still hasn’t happened.