The year of living feebly: how did we all become so pathetic?

BY NOW … it should be obvious that those in charge are not going to step up unless we step up too.

IN the lead up to new-year’s-resolution time, perhaps ask yourself:

When was the last time you went to a protest?

-When was the last time you called your local MP?

Do you have investments, and if so, have you considered their impact on the issues that you care about? –

Of course, none of these acts by themselves will change the world. But if we all think that way, the world won’t change.

The year of living feebly: how did we all become so pathetic?

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly

Columnist and former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

December 28, 2019

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And so a new year is about to begin. Scandals will come. Public figures will lose their jobs. Policy debates will flare and disappear.

At the end, will anything be very different?

Let’s backtrack first. The week before Christmas was a busy time for political observers. The American President was impeached. Boris Johnson passed his Brexit bill.

Scott Morrison returned from Hawaii. So it took a lot to turn my head.

Illustration: John Shakespeare
Illustration: John ShakespeareCREDIT:

And yet still I found my head turned, and my eyes widened, at one comparatively minor item.

The Business Council of Australia was about to lodge its submission ahead of next year’s federal budget, and had decided to call, again, for cuts to the company tax rate.

*I’m sorry, what? Just that week, hadn’t Google agreed to pay almost half a billion dollars in back taxes, some of them dating back to 2008? And wasn’t this the latest in a string of similar cases? At the end of a year in which we’d discovered that some of Australia’s largest, richest companies – like Woolworths – had been stealing wages from their employees?

*Had it even been a month since the CEO of Westpac was forced to resign after allegations that his bank had effectively facilitated child abuse? I checked. Respectively: yep, yep, yep, and no it hadn’t even been a month.

Impressive hubris, huh? Now, I understand this is a budget submission, and the whole point is to suggest what government might do differently. But even if I could see my way clear to ignoring the hubris, as well as the evidence suggesting a company tax cut won’t do any of the things business says it will, what I can’t get out of my mind is how utterly feeble this is.

At the end of a year in which it became obvious that many of Australia’s largest businesses are not running what you’d call a tight ship – or even what you’d call a moderately loose dinghy their response was to ask government to fix their problems for them.

*Now, let me take a swerve that’s not really a swerve. A lot has been written recently about the prime minister’s insistence that Australia’s contribution to global emissions is small, and therefore unimportant. A lot of analogies have been marshalled – imagine if we all said the same thing about picking up rubbish etc – and underpinning them all is the suggestion that Morrison’s stance is the very definition of selfish.

It is, but it’s also worse than that. Recently, the former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne described such attitudes as “helplessness”, and I think that’s a good start. But increasingly I’ve found myself thinking it’s worse still.

The government admits Australia has a problem in the form of climate change. It concedes – sometimes – the havoc that climate change is causing.

In other words, it’s not just that it can’t fix the problem. The inevitable conclusion to the government’s logic is that it desperately wants someone else to fix it. By doing nothing, Australia is not just being selfish, or helpless. Instead, it’s some awful combination of both, entitled and pathetic at once. We can’t fix this on our own, boohoo, don’t expect us to do anything, now hurry up the rest of you and fix this mess.

While we’re on climate change, here’s another argument that keeps popping up. Energy minister Angus Taylor recently returned from Madrid, where he helped derail the chance of an international climate agreement.

Specifically, he spent his time there arguing that the loophole Australia has been using to argue it’s doing its bit on climate change – it’s not – should be kept in place. Or in other words: we got away with it last time, we should be able to get away with it again.

By now, Scott Morrison has said an awful lot about his trip to Hawaii, so you probably missed what for me was the most stunning moment in his apology tour. The problem, as you know, was not just that he left the country, but that he tried to keep it secret. Here was one of his attempts at justification: “I took leave in June as well and we did follow exactly the same practice.” But this was really just another way of making Taylor’s argument: “I got away with it last time, so you can’t really blame me for expecting to get away with it again.”

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If that sounds familiar, it might be because it’s the same argument the government has been using to justify the fact it’s done very little since being re-elected. When the government is asked what else it might be planning, its routine response – presented as a matter of honour – is that it will do exactly what it said before the election, no less and certainly no more.

In July, when MPs were pushing for a change to Newstart, Morrison told them to be “mindful of what we took to the election and what we didn’t take to the election”. Just after his ‘miracle win’, he said this on energy: “There’s no change to our policies there. What I took to the election is what I’m going to do.”

In other words: we got away with it in 2019, we’ll get away with it again. The biggest question after the election was whether the prime minister really believed that. Seven months on, we’re still wondering.

I wonder if one clue to our future might come from Britain. The soundly defeated Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently wrote that his party had “won the argument” even though it lost the election. At first I thought this idiotic. But on reflection I found myself agreeing with my former colleague, John McTernan – no Corbyn fan – who wrote in the Financial Times that Corbyn had a point. On austerity, and particularly on health spending, the Tories ended up moving a long way in Labour’s direction.

British Labour might take heart from this. But it should also be terrified, because if the Tories manage to steal its political territory, while retaining their traditional strengths, then Labour won’t be left with many moves.

In Australia, there’s much speculation about whether Morrison will act on climate next year. I suspect he will, and the fairly weak action he takes (presented as a “balanced” approach) will box Labor in ever more tightly – though there is also a chance he’ll leave climate alone, and follow Johnson more directly on health and education.

And what about Labor’s direction next year? Here, too, international events might provide a model. If the US Democrats choose Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as their presidential candidate, and one of them loses to Donald Trump, then Labor’s resolve to tack towards the centre will be strengthened.

Some Labor MPs, home for Christmas, will no doubt have heard complaints that the newish leader has not cut through. My feeling is that such complaints, this early, are not cause for concern. I wrote recently that Albanese seems to have settled into his role, and his decisions during the Hawaiian boilover – when to attack and when not to – were well pitched.

CAAN: WATCH ABC AND SBS NEWS REPORTS TO FOLLOW WHAT IS HAPPENING … to view what the Labor Opposition including Albo have to say … Today Albo questioned why the Scomo and Berejiklian Govts response has been so poor concerning the continuing Fire Crisis across the Nation!

Albanese questioned the ‘ethos’ of volunteering when

-these firefighters have to put food on the table; pay their mortgage/rent etc with fire storms happening since August 2019!

-that they must be paid

-that more funds need to be found urgently to provide the equipment to fight the fires

IS THAT WHY … there was no video on the ABC NEWS OR SBS NEWS FACEBOOK PAGES?

SK: Still, the most important factor will be whether Morrison gives him material to oppose. Either way, I’m expecting the contest between the two men to become more personal. Labor seems recently to have realised it is up against the prime minister, not his party.

I began this column by calling out both business and government for their feebleness. I’m sure many of you spent at least some time over your prawns or turkey expressing frustration at our leaders. That’s fair enough. But it also risks repeating their mistakes: blindly hoping someone else will fix things for us.

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*This is tricky ground, I know, because by focusing on ordinary citizens you risk letting those with power off the hook. And so perhaps the answer lies in combining the two, by asking what the rest of us can do to hold those with power responsible.

*And so, in the lead up to new-year’s-resolution time, perhaps ask yourself: when was the last time you went to a protest? When was the last time you called your local MP? Do you have investments, and if so, have you considered their impact on the issues that you care about? Of course, none of these acts by themselves will change the world. But if we all think that way, the world won’t change.

I don’t write this from moral high ground. I could do much more. I write this partly to remind myself. But we have to face the fact that Australia has had a long, long run of luck. That has allowed us to get away with a lot, but the fact we got away with things in the past doesn’t mean we’ll get away with them forever.

At the end of this year, will anything be different? Business pretends it’s up to government. Government pretends it’s up to the rest of the world. And us? By now, it should be obvious that those in charge are not going to step up unless we step up too.

Sean Kelly is a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is currently working from London.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard

Illustration: John Shakespeare

SOURCE: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/the-year-of-living-feebly-how-did-we-all-become-so-pathetic-20191227-p53n3a.html

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