The High Road

In reply to Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand.


Response to Correspondence

Laura Tingle

Having now written four Quarterly Essays, I can say with some authority that they are beasts that sometimes get away from you. You start with one intent and learn a bit along the way, which sends you off in another direction – or, because you cover events that are still unfolding, you become hostage to that unfolding.

It’s hard to peg down what you will and won’t cover in these circumstances: in my third QE, for example, Donald Trump blasted through to dominate a discussion on leadership. In this fourth essay, it was a global pandemic.

Yet although COVID-19 meant I had to junk plans to look at a range of other debates in Australia and New Zealand – on savings, the political class and the role of business lobbies, to name a few – the focus of the work was always very clear. That is, I was not planning to write a comprehensive history of both countries, but to jump on the running boards of two countries already in motion, and to isolate a slice of time: the period marked by Britain’s entry into the Common Market and the extraordinary, often parallel, changes that took place – partly as a response to that – in both countries.

I have been so heartened by the number of people on both sides of the Tasman who have said to me, “I never knew that” about something they read in the essay. And not just Australians talking about New Zealand, or Kiwis talking about Australia, but people of both nationalities talking about their own countries.

There is a great, rich vein to be tapped in intimate, comparative history. It forces us to look over the parapets, or to take a bird’s-eye view of our place in the world. And the correspondence about the essay has been equally heartening in its embrace, for the most part, of the defined ambition of the essay and the quest of those of us in both countries to consider what we can learn from each other. Much of the correspondence also broadens the conversation, just as one would hope.

The reflections on indigenous affairs, in particular, show how rich a field this could be for our national conversation in Australia. Hugh Riminton – as a Kiwi and long-term Australian resident – is especially well placed to comment on how Māori culture has become embedded in his homeland, while Australia continues to fumble reconciliation so badly. And to illustrate how, in New Zealand, this is not just a matter of form, but also of substance.

Shireen Morris notes the importance of the structural mechanisms that have helped to produce this change and reflects on how, although Australian leaders on both sides of politics have invoked the lessons of New Zealand, we remain no further advanced in the debate. Now we are bogged down in a non-discussion about constitutional recognition – which is unlikely to see the light of the day before the next election – and other aspects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been brushed aside.

Morris is astute on how the language used by leaders can be so important in marshalling debates. For example, she describes Paul Keating’s Redfern speech as “a masterpiece in oratory” but concedes that his “repeated evocation of ‘we’ – ‘We committed the murders. We took the children …’ – may not have been the best way to facilitate consensus-building conversations about reconciliation.”

She contrasts that with the fact that the debate in New Zealand cited the obligations of “the Crown,” which “denotes the state, the government and political institutions,” rather than the populace at large. That obviously developed out of the history of the Treaty of Waitangi, but it might nonetheless point to a form of language that offers a path ahead in Australia.

Frank Bongiorno calls out the racism of both countries, and the particular contortions it has produced over the years, and he puts that racism in a broader historical context. I like his observation that “as its record on race indicates, there has been a pragmatism, even an opportunism, that underpins New Zealand’s idealism. Its government knew, when it banned nuclear ships, that New Zealand would receive the benefits of protection without the costs.” As he says, this doesn’t make New Zealand particularly venal or hypocritical. But it gives us another prism through which to view our own bargains on such issues.

Ben McKay brings his authority and perspective as a political journalist for one of only two(!) Australian news outlets with full-time New Zealand correspondents. I was more than aware of the limits of my capacity to give this sort of insight, as someone who was dropping in from high altitude on the subject.

Tim Hazledine adds great ballast to the discussion with his observations about Rogernomics, corporatisation and the (often disastrously) formulaic approach to privatising more than 200 separate organisations.

He is right. To read the list of organisations that were up-ended, apparently without any great thought given to their individual markets or services, is quite shocking. As is reading the history of the sell-off process, in which a number of business figures were obscenely enriched and, because of the sheer smallness of New Zealand, too involved in what were clearly conflicting roles as advisers, sellers and buyers.

“Rogernomics is often casually claimed to be a textbook example of economic reform,” Hazledine observes. “Something to do with ‘free’ markets. But it isn’t fundamentally to do with free markets, and the textbook had not been written, and still hasn’t.”

While Hazledine focuses on the microeconomic reform record of New Zealand, fellow economist John Quiggin reflects on its macroeconomic record. As with indigenous affairs, these is a lot for Australian policy-makers to consider. Quiggin poses stark questions about many of the policy orthodoxies that have dominated the Australian conversation for much of the past forty years. As he says, the records show that “the costs of inequality keep mounting indefinitely,” and – there is no kinder way of saying it – “New Zealand’s macroeconomic performance since the beginning of the reform era has been woeful.”

Quiggin is pessimistic about Jacinda Ardern’s capacity to roll back forty years of economic change, however impressive her leadership has been during national crises. Nor is it a question of just starting at the end of the reform trail and rolling back. The mammoth, historic leap in the size of government intervention in response to the coronavirus – in both New Zealand and Australia – leaves policy-makers starting from a completely different point than even twelve months ago. You get the sense that there is some understandable floundering going on in Australia and New Zealand (and the rest of the world, for that matter) about where the policy discussions – and broader political axioms – will go next.

As a key player in the Mabo period and an adviser to Paul Keating, Don Russell has some fascinating insights into the indigenous debate. But his experience also gives him a particular view of the political game. He weighs my observations about how New Zealand has shifted its system away from the winner-takes-all executive dominance of the past with his observation that Australia has actually “managed to achieve impressive and lasting policy outcomes” because it was never burdened with that old system.

Russell, being the head of Australia’s largest superannuation fund and intimately involved in the establishment of Australia’s superannuation system, has great insights into the savings question in both countries. I’m pleased about this, because it is something I would love to have had the space to pursue.

Another area I would have been keen to pursue further is New Zealand’s welfare policies, including its integrated data infrastructure, a subject raised by Andrew Leigh. I remember hearing Bill English – still New Zealand’s finance minister at the time – discussing his plans for reforms that would break the welfare cycle by judiciously investing in people early in their lives, rather than by punishment; he argued that this would save the budget billions in the long term. Sadly, as has often been the case, the Coalition picked up the idea in a ham-fisted way: it promised the savings and stinted on the investment. And it rushed the database that is at the centre of the New Zealand model. The result was the disaster of robodebt.

Laura Tingle



Bain Attwood & Miranda Johnson

Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay seeks to draw out “point[s] of comparison” between New Zealand and Australia, two unusually interconnected and geographically proximate countries. Her aim is twofold: to raise the question of why Australians don’t understand more about their smaller neighbour – though it is worth pointing out that Papua New Guinea is closer and probably even more misunderstood by most Australians – and to offer some examples of successful New Zealand principles, policies and practices from which she thinks Australians could learn. We welcome this essay because, as historians who have undertaken trans-Tasman comparisons, we also believe that comparative work can show us what we might otherwise be unable to see.

Why compare? Historians engage in comparison all the time, implicitly or explicitly. This can take various forms. For instance, we might draw analogies between present-day Trumpist politics and fascism in the past, as numerous historians in the American context have done over the past four years. In other words, we can compare in order to reveal similarities between the past and the present. Alternatively, we might undertake comparison in order to identify differences between nations (or other entities) and to isolate the truly important factors that caused those differences from the merely incidental ones. In order to learn from comparison, we must ask: what are the truly significant differences and similarities between the examples chosen, and what has caused those differences and similarities?

In our view, Tingle does a good job of describing a number of differences and similarities between New Zealand and Australia. However, we are left unsure about what Australia could learn from New Zealand, because she does not establish whether the differences between the two countries are in fact truly significant, nor does she provide a convincing account of the causes or sources of those differences. This has implications for what problems in Australia she thinks could be better addressed by attending to the New Zealand experience.

Miles Fairburn, one of the few historians to have recently undertaken comparative analyses of Australia and New Zealand, argues that it is difficult to make a strong case for New Zealand exceptionalism, because many of the phenomena that are claimed to be unique to New Zealand turn out, on close and careful inspection, not to be unique at all. As he argues, there have been many events in New Zealand’s history that did not happen elsewhere, but a society with “an exceptionalist history is one where the history is composed of many events that are both unique (or highly unusual) and significant.” Furthermore, an exceptionalist country “must not only experience a unique or unusual event but also take a divergent path from that of others in consequence.” Exceptionalism, he argues, usually results from “very slow-moving forces” – and thus a structure that determines a “range of possibilities” in a country, “allowing some and preventing others” – rather than “faster medium-term social and economic trends and cycles” and “rapidly occurring short-term political events.” Tingle focuses on short-term political events without providing a compelling case for there being significant underlying differences between Australia and New Zealand.

Tingle claims that the policies and practices used in the colonisation of New Zealand differed significantly from those used in Australia and led to a divergent appreciation of the value of indigeneity in the two societies today and thus major differences in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and the redress of disadvantage. In making this kind of claim, Tingle is by no means unusual. As the New Zealand historian Deborah Montgomerie pointed out more than twenty years ago, comparative projects often tend to exaggerate national differences and become exercises in either national castigation or national congratulation. This has certainly been true of studies of race and colonialism. New Zealand has frequently been compared with Australia, in both popular and scholarly discourse, in order to claim that Māori were relatively well treated. As Montgomerie has observed, “the good cop/bad cop school of comparative imperial history has been remarkably long-lived.”

Yet if comparative work is to provide lessons for the future, it is vital that we pinpoint the causes of the problems being investigated as well as the reasons they have been tackled differently or similarly in the past. Otherwise, our suggestions for future change will be severely limited or badly flawed. For her part, Tingle claims that colonisation in Australia and New Zealand had very different “starting points”; she attributes this to the fact that Australia was “established on the legal idea of terra nullius – that it was unoccupied land when the British arrived – [and so] no thought was given to negotiating a treaty with the original inhabitants,” whereas in New Zealand the British sought to negotiate a treaty with Māori chiefs in regard to the cession of “sovereignty over their lands.” In fact, she argues, “between terra nullius and the Treaty of Waitangi, it is hard to think of more opposite circumstances in which two places were settled.”

Yet in 1769–70, James Cook claimed possession of parts of New Holland (what became eastern Australia) and New Zealand on the very same legal basis, namely the legal doctrine of discovery (not terra nullius). Moreover, it can be argued that if the British government had decided to plant a colony in the islands of New Zealand, or more especially the South Island, at the same time it did this in New Holland, it would not have sought to negotiate a treaty with Māori. Most importantly here, the making of the Treaty at Waitangi in 1840 was not, in and of itself, the reason Māori were treated as having some legal rights to land. New Zealand and Australian colonies such as New South Wales did have different beginnings in respect of the treatment of indigenous sovereignty and rights of property in land, but Tingle is unable to pinpoint, let alone explain, why this was so and how it has come to matter in recent decades.

More fundamentally, it can be argued, as Fairburn and others have done, that relations between white settlers and indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand did not actually follow a significantly different course after their beginnings, because they were both “the result of [British] colonisation, and wherever colonisation took place it led to the same fundamental outcomes, though not necessarily to the same degree: indigenous people lost their resources or autonomy or both.”

Tingle occasionally, but only fleetingly, acknowledges this, as well as the fact that Indigenous peoples in both countries today experience social and economic marginalisation, and poorer health outcomes, longevity, earning power and educational attainment vis-a-vis non-indigenous – and particularly white – populations. Indeed, what is striking about the two countries, not least in the last forty years, is the degree to which their past neoliberal policies and practices devastated the livelihoods of many, especially indigenous people, in very similar ways. But Tingle is largely unable to grapple with and make sense of those similarities and instead exaggerates the importance of the countries’ differences. Likewise, she seems at one point to grasp the paradox that much of the progress in recognising indigenous peoples’ rights and attempting to redress their grievances occurred in both countries at the very same time that governments across the political spectrum undid a social contract premised on egalitarianism and a fair go for all – but she does not explain adequately why this was the case.

Tingle overstates the differences between Australia’s and New Zealand’s attempts over the last several decades to address the historical injustice that indigenous people have suffered. For example, at the same time as she acknowledges the similarities between the work of the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand and the National Native Title Tribunal in Australia, she makes the wild claim that Australia has barely sought to address questions about the status and rights of Indigenous people. Like many commentators, Tingle errs in claiming that Australia continues to suffer from a great silence or a cult of forgetfulness in regard to its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There has been a great deal of historical truth-telling about this in recent decades (just as there has been in New Zealand). Similarly, Tingle ignores the fact that it is not only the New Zealand state but also the Australian one that has emphasised the importance of recognising the value of indigenous culture. What is more, she overlooks the deep, unresolved tension in both countries between claims for equality and claims for the recognition of cultural and political differences.

To be sure, there are important contrasts in the degree to which each country has sought to address historical injustice, but rather than simply attributing this to the presence or absence of normative moral, legal, philosophical and political forces in their governments, as Tingle does, it makes more sense to take note of the role played by material factors – for example, the fact that Māori are a much larger minority in New Zealand than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in Australia, or that there was less post-war non-British migration to New Zealand than to Australia. Unforeseen consequences of government policies and practices must also be taken into account. For example, the New Zealand Labour government in 1985 had no inkling that granting the Waitangi Tribunal the authority to hear cases about historical breaches of the treaty dating back to 1840 would lead to a veritable flood of claims and the compensation of many Māori iwi (tribes).

In short, Australia and New Zealand are different in some matters – in shades of degree. But we will be better served by thinking of the similar and entangled histories of the two countries than by emphasising differences for the sake of drawing moral lessons. Such an approach might also help us to grasp the limitations of viewing the world through the lens of the settler nation-state and allowing it to stand in for all histories of the region. What happens to national accounts when we engage in comparisons between the pre-colonial indigenous histories of the two places, which in Australia stretches back 60,000 years and constitutes one of the earliest successful human migrations to a new land, and in New Zealand goes back around 800 years to the last of the great Polynesian waka (canoe) migrations to new islands? Or, as the historians Tim Rowse and W.H. Oliver have each asked, what happens to our take on the two nations if we consider intra-national regional differences (between north and south, east and west) much more seriously? And what of these countries’ relationships to the broader regions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific? The yawning absence of the latter in how we see our past and future (despite our 21st-century demographic profiles) poses significant challenges to historians, journalists and other commentators, the majority of whom are white, often monolingual (or tutored in other European languages) and largely monocultural.

Bain Attwood & Miranda Johnson



Alan Atkinson

It was good to read Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay comparing governments in Australia and New Zealand. It is high time that the two governments were set side by side like that, especially by someone who knows as much about both as Tingle does. There might be various methods of working out what is wrong with the way we in Australia are governed, but this is an excellent way to start.

Tingle’s essay is a kind of twin study. The value of a twin study is that the subjects’ original characteristics are as similar as possible, so that subsequent differences can be explained and addressed. In this case, the original characteristics of Australia and New Zealand certainly look pretty much the same: the two territories on either side of a single sea, each with indigenous populations, were occupied at about the same time by British capital, British military backup, and British methods of government, law and order, and they evolved into two independent nations that use the same language and moral idiom, participate in the same sporting competitions and belong to the same international networks. Sounds neat. It is, but it’s only a start.

Tingle tells the story of the two countries’ governments, mainly since World War II. She doesn’t have much to say about their national origins, and she leaves scant room at the end for explaining why, when the countries so often do things the same, they do some things differently. It is as if she imagines writing another essay in which she might have the space to tackle these larger questions.

As it is, she takes a fairly narrow approach. She tends to focus on particular, bread-and-butter issues and on individual governing figures – their strengths, their virtues and their various agendas. She doesn’t say much about underlying structure, the distribution of power at various levels or the mechanics of democracy. But then why should she? Isn’t this precisely the point of her twin study? In these two countries, aren’t these things pretty much the same?

Unhappily, they’re not. Australia is a federation of partly sovereign governments scattered over a vast area, and it is technically a continent. New Zealand is a unitary state and very obviously an island nation. Tingle has almost nothing to say about the Australian states, and I think that’s a pity. Towards the end of her essay, she mentions the possibility that strong and decisive government in Australia is hindered by the Senate (the New Zealand parliament has no upper house) and/or the states. However, she dismisses these explanations, opting instead for the argument that “political skill and leadership” is lacking. In other words, she seems to suggests that, with the right sort of skill and leadership, the complexity of the governing structure is beside the point.

And yet the relationship between complexity and leadership is surely more problematic than Tingle implies. It seems to me that Australian government and Tingle’s essay have a problem in common. They’re too top-down. They don’t give enough space to the view from below – the sheer intricacy of life as lived and the urgent and increasing involvement of government in that intricacy. They don’t engage enough with democracy – what it’s for, how it works and how it’s changing. That’s an enormous gap.

The gap is particularly egregious given the direction of discussion about such matters overseas. In these years of fundamental revolution, the debate seems to be digging down to the human underpinnings of government, moving beyond questions of technique to questions of authority and its purpose – within the community and within the physical environment.

In this context, there’s been a homing-in on questions of trust and truth. And then there’s the question of economics, which is tied to the question of truth, because the prevailing economic theory, economic liberalism, depends so much on various types of fraud – misleading self-advertisement, which is the stuff of laissez faire, flawed theory and so on.

I miss, in Tingle’s essay, the radical questioning to be found in the works of writers such as Naomi Klein and economics professor Mariana Mazzucato, who is director of the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London. Mazzucato’s book The Value of Everything (2018) surely ought to be a starting point in any discussion of future government in Australia. I also miss the sweeping demand for a renewal of democracy evident elsewhere – even in Joe Biden’s manifesto as he takes on the presidency of the United States.

If Jacinda Ardern seems to govern more effectively than Scott Morrison, surely that’s not just due to her political skill and leadership. It’s not just because she’s “actually nice” (Tingle’s term). Kindness in politics – the consistent and useful kindness shown by Ardern – is not just a matter of smiling and hugging. It is a major administrative challenge. It depends on structural underpinnings and on keeping in touch with opinion and expertise on the ground. Effective government depends, in other words, on underlying organisational structure and everyone making the best use of it.

In Australia, the leading men and women in the debates on federation wrestled with these issues in the 1880s and ’90s, when they were building up the structure of the new nation-state. All we usually remember of their discussions is what speakers said or implied about national identity, but they talked about a lot more than that. The most penetrating arguments circled around essential questions of trust and truth: how to create and sustain them, and what their place was in government.

The pioneering feminist Rose Scott argued fiercely against Australian federation. In spelling out her reasons, she put her finger on the problems that confront us now. Scott spent her life advocating legal and administrative reform to ensure the dignity and independence of women – in politics, in the workplace, in prison and at home. More broadly, she wanted to see power used differently at all levels, from the international to the domestic, with less reliance on violence and more on mutual respect and our capacity to listen. The union of the Australian colonies, she thought, was misconceived. It was driven by typically masculine arrogance, especially intellectual arrogance. In a federation fuelled by nationalist rhetoric, she said, “the voice of the people” would be lost. Everything would be concentrated on a system of power beyond the truths that men and women depend on in their daily lives and relationships. Government on that scale, removed from the jostle of common feeling, must be sterile, rigid and inhumane.

“The secret of all government is self-government,” said Scott, echoing Thomas Jefferson. That included individual self-government. National self-government and individual self-government could only flourish together, Scott thought, in a transparent two-way conversation. How, she wanted to know, could that possibly happen in a country the size of a continent, and with a national government so remote?

A significant number of those who argued for the union understood this argument and tried to cater for it. Federation was their answer to the problem of remoteness. Since only the states could be democratic in a lively, ongoing sense, they had to retain real power, especially in the areas Scott was most concerned with: family, private property and so on. As the New South Wales politician Joseph Carruthers put it, there was “a decided objection … to any federal interference with what the people conceive to be matters most sacred in the family.”

In a genuine democracy, said South Australian politician J.A. Cockburn, most substantial government “should be within sight and hearing of the people,” and in a united Australia the answer must be a carefully articulated layering of power. According to F.W. Holder (another South Australian politician), continental self-government and individual self-government would happily coexist under the new arrangement, because “every personal unit of the population shall be recognised and [their] individuality preserved.” That would happen, Holder said, because “each state unit shall also have its individuality preserved and its independence assured.”

I think Laura Tingle was mistaken in beginning the historical part of her discussion mainly with World War II. Our institutions have a resilience going much further back than that – and whether we understand them or not, they shape the way we behave. The Australian colonies had to be unified 120 years ago for various excellent reasons. A federal structure was the solution. But in forgetting the arguments that shaped the federating process, we also forget the profound connection – well understood at the time – between democratic process, multilayered power and good government. Today, if this connection is better understood in New Zealand, it might be because the multilayered part has always been so much simpler there.

“In my view,” says Tim Flannery in The Climate Cure, “the federal government has proved itself incapable of properly administering drought funding and many other sorts of funding.” Flannery doesn’t mean just the current ministers. He means the federal government as an institution. State governments, especially the governments of New South Wales and South Australia, are running far ahead of Canberra in dealing with climate change. So are various local governments and, of course, the Australian Capital Territory. Could it be because governments at that level, like New Zealand, have a more fruitful relationship with democracy, including the lived and tactile democracy of community and place?

And what could be more instructive than government reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, with state governments prioritising public and private health – calling for self-sacrifice and trusted input from all directions – while the federal government prioritises the centrally computed national economy?

But quite apart from recent crises, various administrative disasters over the years seem to prove, sometimes with wonderful neatness, that government on a continental scale has real difficulty in handling individual self-government, family matters and so on. The federal government has been taking over more and more of such matters since World War II. It’s fair to say that in doing so it’s often proved glaringly, and even cruelly, incompetent.

Individual self-government and “matters most sacred in the family” have fared especially badly among communities in Central Australia, thanks to a century of federal oversight. The conditions there, including entrenched poverty and degradation, do not suggest the government is “within sight and hearing of the people.” However, it’s the robodebt debacle that matches it most closely to the kind of government Scott foresaw, though more conscience-free and extraordinarily arrogant than even Scott could have imagined. The same pattern appears in the federal management of refugees, veterans’ mental health, the NDIS, aged care and so on.

Tingle explains the need for Australia to compare itself with New Zealand, but New Zealand is already looking in another direction for useful comparators. In the last two years, New Zealand has formed a partnership of “Wellbeing Economy Governments” with Iceland, Scotland, Finland and Wales. The alliance aims to rethink the business of government altogether, focusing on the idea of “wellbeing economies” as distinct from GDP. (Mariana Mazzucato is on Scotland’s Council of Economic Advisers.) If we take Tingle’s advice seriously, Australia might eventually follow the same path. However, we would first need to resurrect the feeling for democracy that got the national project started in the first place.

Alan Atkinson



Shireen Morris

Laura Tingle is right that Australians should think more deeply about what our nation can learn from New Zealand. Her essay illuminates the parallel histories of two similar yet contrasting countries, grappling with comparable social, economic, political and cultural challenges in different ways. Most saliently for my work, New Zealand has implemented structural mechanisms for the recognition of Māori people, culture and heritage in ways that can provide inspiration for Indigenous constitutional recognition in Australia.

On Waitangi Day in 2020, Labor Opposition leader Anthony Albanese tweeted:

We can learn a lot from our mates across the ditch about reconciliation with First Nations people. New Zealand has led the way. It’s time for Australia to follow. It’s time to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Seven years prior, in 2013, former prime minister Tony Abbott (then the leader of the Opposition) similarly invoked New Zealand as a positive role model for Indigenous recognition. “We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it all could have been done so much better,” Abbott said in a speech to parliament. “Thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, two peoples became one nation.” Here was conservative Abbott using the “T” word, pointing to New Zealand and calling on Australia to do better at coming to grips with our colonial history. It was no Redfern speech, but it was a moment of principled compassion and empathy. It didn’t last.

In 2017, when Malcolm Turnbull dishonestly rejected the Uluru Statement’s call for a First Nations voice as a “third chamber of parliament,” Abbott also abandoned his support. For both leaders, compassion unfortunately gave way to political calculation. The Uluru Statement was sacrificed midst two men’s self-interested tussle for power. At least Barnaby Joyce, who originally coined the misleading “third chamber” phrase, subsequently admitted the mischaracterisation and apologised “unreservedly.” There has been no such honesty from Abbott or Turnbull.

Tingle is right that Australia was handed a momentous, generous gift with the Uluru Statement: the opportunity to undertake substantive yet modest and constitutionally conservative reform, to empower Indigenous peoples with a voice in their affairs. The proposal would give effect to decades of Indigenous advocacy for greater self-determination, while addressing conservative concerns about upholding the constitution. But as Tingle puts it, instead of accepting the gift, Australian political leaders “comprehensively stuffed it.”

Despite that debacle, debate has rolled on. Public support for a First Nations voice has since grown. The 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer found that 81 per cent of the general community support the proposal (up from 77 per cent in 2018), despite past government negativity. Scott Morrison came to power promising an end to the “Muppet Show” and vowing to govern for the “quiet Australians.” Given that polls indicate ordinary Australians can see the sense in Indigenous people having a constitutionally guaranteed say in laws and policies made about them, hopefully Morrison can succeed where Turnbull and Abbott failed. With goodwill and leadership, Morrison could be the conservative Nixon that can take this cause to China.

Lessons from New Zealand can assist in forging a path forward. In 2014, I was lucky enough to organise a research delegation to New Zealand with the Cape York Institute. We were awe-struck by the difference in political attitudes towards Māori recognition, displayed by both progressives and conservatives alike. I asked the then attorney-general, Chris Finlayson: “How is it that conservatives here respect the treaty and contemporary settlements so much?” He explained that conservatives believe in the rule of law and property rights. If the Crown breached Māori rights in the past, then it is only right that those matters are justly settled. It is about behaving with honour. Tingle correctly homes in on this word: honour. A quality too often missing in Australian politics.

Yet New Zealand demonstrates how political leaders can marshal difficult, painful and polarising debates about national identity and history in ways that diffuse, rather than inflame, the contemporary culture wars. Keating’s historic Redfern speech was a masterpiece of oratory and an unparalleled call for Australians to have empathy in such matters. However, in retrospect, his repeated evocation of “we” – “We committed the murders. We took the children …” – may not have been the best way to facilitate consensus-building conversations about reconciliation. “We” can be morally confronting and can unhelpfully raise defences. It can be interpreted by some as an allocation of present-day blame for past wrongs. By contrast, Kiwis use the language of “the Crown” more than Australia, especially in matters of reconciliation. “The Crown” denotes the state, the government and political institutions. The Treaty of Waitangi, for example, was an agreement between Māori chiefs and the Crown, and breaches of the treaty are dealt with by the Crown. This language has arguably helped alleviate the sense that responsibility for past injustice must be borne by the present public: instead, “the Crown” takes responsibility and seeks to rectify past wrongs. In New Zealand, as in Canada, the idea of “the honour of the Crown” imbues dealings between Indigenous peoples and the state with moral gravitas and honour. This honour can similarly be ignited in Australia. We need not use the language of “the Crown” if it doesn’t suit us. But political leaders can adopt language demonstrating that the Australian state is taking institutional responsibility for our shared history – to forge a fairer future on behalf of all Australians.

New Zealand teaches us that Indigenous constitutional recognition requires more than a static, symbolic statement. It requires more than a new preamble to the constitution, and more than a two-word change to the national anthem. True recognition involves dynamic, constitutional and structural reform to the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state. Such reforms for Māori recognition and empowerment have been achieved over time. As Tingle explains, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, but its promises were often breached by the more powerful Crown. As attitudes evolved, however, parliament pursued reforms such as the national Māori Council to ensure Māori a voice in Māori affairs and policy (similar to a First Nations constitutional voice), the Waitangi Tribunal and settlement processes (similar to the Uluru Statement’s call for a Makarrata Commission to oversee agreement-making and truth-telling) and the gradual consolidation of Māori-reserved seats in parliament. As part of the Waitangi settlements process, formal Crown apologies are given for past wrongs – delivered in both Māori and English. Restitution can include some financial redress (though this is never commensurate to the real losses suffered) but also cultural recognition, including dual place-naming. The cultural component of the treaty settlements has propelled recognition of Māori heritage in a tangible way. The Māori language has been recognised as a taonga (treasure) under the Treaty of Waitangi, and as an official national language; the Māori Language Commission is charged with Māori language revitalisation.

New Zealand also demonstrates that rousing symbolic expressions can be important for national unity and pride, but they must sit alongside and complement the necessary substantive, structural reforms. Indeed, New Zealand has pursued both: the necessary institutional structures for Māori empowerment, complemented by the symbolic power that comes with true cultural embrace. As Tingle identifies, Māori culture is increasingly seen as New Zealand’s culture. Witness the way in which variations of the haka are performed by New Zealand sports teams, including the All Blacks, as an expression not only of Māori culture and heritage, but also of New Zealand culture and heritage. By contrast, a few seconds of an Aboriginal war dance performed by Adam Goodes in 2015 prompted widespread contention in Australia. By some it was taken not as a celebration but as an affront, demonstrating that Australia remains uneasy with our national history and heritage.

From New Zealand we can learn that recognition can be mutual and cultural embrace can flow both ways. Pākehā embrace of Māori culture found a dignified role model when the New Zealand prime minister donned a traditional Māori cloak to visit Buckingham Palace, and when she gave her daughter a Māori middle name: Te Aroha, which means “love.” Of the cloak, Māori weaver and lecturer Donna Campbell remarked: “To wear something that is so intrinsically of this place here and for her to wear it at that event, knowing that she would be photographed from every angle – that’s a real acknowledgment of her relationship with the Māori people and with New Zealand.” Māori experts advised this was not cultural appropriation, but a gift of honour bestowed on dignitaries. In Australia, Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians, donned a kangaroo-skin coat to mark the occasion of his appointment. But how long will it be before non-Indigenous Australian politicians see fit to truly honour this country’s First Nations heritage and implement the structural reforms that would see such heritage flourish – beyond the token words of Ngunnawal that Turnbull delivered in parliament the year before he rejected the Uluru Statement? Symbolic gestures mean nothing if not accompanied by substantive reform.

There are also constitutional differences that must be acknowledged. Achieving Indigenous constitutional recognition has arguably been easier in New Zealand than in Australia because of key contextual differences. Australia has a written, entrenched and rigid constitution, which can only be amended through a “double majority” referendum. By contrast, New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements are not entrenched but enacted through ordinary legislation and conventions: a strong form of parliamentary sovereignty prevails, which entails constitutional flexibility. This has facilitated structural adaption and reform with greater ease. For example, New Zealand abolished its provincial system in 1877 and its upper house in 1950 via ordinary legislative change. It has also facilitated reforms for Māori recognition over time, in line with changing political attitudes.

Another factor is the relative size of the indigenous populations. At 15 per cent of the population, Māori can wield a stronger political voice to advocate for such reforms. As a significant minority, they are probably harder for political leaders to ignore than Indigenous people in Australia, who represent 3 per cent of the overall population. A 3 per cent minority will always struggle to be heard, which makes achieving a constitutionally guaranteed First Nations voice all the more important in Australia – it should not be possible to abolish the institution as soon as it becomes politically unfashionable (as happened with ATSIC), although of course its institutional design should legislatively evolve as needed. In New Zealand, the existence of institutions like the Māori Council and reserved Māori parliamentary seats are anchored in principles of the treaty, which forged a sense of partnership between Māori and the Crown. Given Australia lacks a recognised founding treaty establishing such principles, a constitutional guarantee is needed to ensure a First Nations voice carries permanency and authority. Of course, the extreme minority status of Indigenous people in Australia also exacerbates the vastness of the comparative reform challenge. The Indigenous 3 per cent must persuade the general population that constitutional reform is a good idea. Yet this should not just be the job of Indigenous people: non-Indigenous people must help champion this cause too. But persuading the people is not enough. In addition to requiring a double majority referendum, section 128 of the constitution also makes parliament the initiator, and thus the gatekeeper, of any constitutional change. In reality, the roadblock to meaningful constitutional recognition in Australia is parliament, not the people.

On breaking through parliamentary blockages on progress, New Zealand also offers ideas for discussion. As Tingle notes, mixed-member proportional reforms were implemented in the 1980s after two “referendums” – what we in Australia would term plebiscites. These were ordinary political initiatives governed by a legislative framework, rather than constitutionally required referendums for constitutional change, as in Australia.

New Zealand regularly holds binding and non-binding referendums on national reform issues. In 2014–16, referendums were used to enable citizens to choose a national flag. In 2020, a non-binding referendum on the legalisation of cannabis was rejected by New Zealanders, while a binding referendum on euthanasia received strong support. Similarly, New Zealand’s 1993 Citizens Initiated Referenda Act means any ordinary citizen can start a petition to ask for a nationwide referendum, and non-binding referendums can be held on any subject. Non-constitutional referendums are not totally foreign in Australia: the same-sex marriage postal survey of 2017 was not the first time Australia experimented with a non-constitutional popular vote for a national policy question. In 1977, a popular vote was used to enable Australians to choose a national anthem – in contrast to the prime minister’s perplexing unilateral decision to change its lyrics from “young and free” to “one and free” on New Year’s Eve. Could a similar public vote, or even a citizen-initiated public vote, be a circuit-breaker on other important national issues – perhaps on a First Nations constitutional voice? Such a mechanism would not be binding on parliament (just as the same-sex marriage vote was not binding), but it could nonetheless help generate political pressure conducive to parliamentary action. A pre-referendum plebiscite may help persuade parliament to initiate the constitutional referendum.

Political leaders who want to connect with disengaged citizens should seriously consider such ideas. Recent research shows Australians want greater participation in government and in policy and law formation, especially on constitutional issues and matters of principle with which they can readily engage. The strongest support for greater direct participation is evident among politically disaffected citizens, suggesting the potential for citizen-based deliberation to enhance trust and participation in formal politics. With satisfaction with Australian democracy at historic lows and trust in political institutions in decline, perhaps Australia should take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and give citizens a more direct say in policy questions.

I think Australians would tell politicians to give Indigenous people a constitutionally guaranteed voice in decisions made about them. Because Australians understand it is the honourable thing to do.

Shireen Morris



Andrew Leigh

Visiting Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington, our family stopped in front of a dramatic exhibition on the Treaty of Waitangi. “Where can we see Australia’s treaty?” one of my young sons innocently asked.

Where indeed. As Laura Tingle points out, the lack of a treaty with the original inhabitants of this land is one of the areas in which Australia lags behind our antipodean neighbour. Across the ditch, Māori have dedicated seats in parliament, the All Blacks perform the haka at the start of rugby matches, and a government minister recently delivered an entire speech in the Māori language. Meanwhile, the Morrison government might have excised “young” from “Advance Australia Fair,” but as Tingle points out, it has effectively downgraded the Welcome to Country and failed to deliver an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Alongside constitutional recognition, there are plenty of symbolic ways Australia could better recognise the first Australians. Inside the parliamentary chambers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags could fly alongside the Australian flag. When parliament starts each day, the acknowledgement of country could be spoken in the Ngunnawal language. Capital cities could be given dual names. Instead of the Queen’s visage, Australian coins could feature the heads of prominent Indigenous people (the $2 coin features the image of Gwoya Jungarai, but he is on the “tails” side of the coin).

It is not only on the issue of racial inequality that Australia could learn a thing or two from Aotearoa. When it comes to economic inequality, Tingle tells the story of its rise in the 1980s and 1990s but says less about its fall in New Zealand from the 1920s to the 1970s. When Tony Atkinson and I used tax data to estimate New Zealand inequality across this period, we found that the income share going to the top 0.1 per cent fell by two-thirds. In this egalitarian era, home ownership increased, and wages rose faster on the factory floor than in the corner office.

This was not an accident. New Zealand Labour’s 1938 Social Security Act created a free health care system, introduced a universal family benefit and extended aged pensions. More public housing was built, and the eight-hour day was established, alongside other union achievements. That egalitarian tradition makes the sharp rise in inequality in the late twentieth century all the more shocking, as it tore apart a social fabric that had taken decades to weave.

Today, both Australia and New Zealand are considerably more unequal than a generation ago. Yet there is a thoughtful determination to reduce inequality in New Zealand that is absent in Australia. One valuable initiative is New Zealand’s Integrated Data Infrastructure, a large research database that links together data from government agencies and surveys to better understand deep disadvantage. New Zealand researchers have used the database to explore the relationship between social housing and incarceration, between mental health and earnings, and between maternal services and childhood risk. In contrast to the Australian government’s robodebt scheme, the database does not identify individuals: its aim is to inform structural reforms to help vulnerable people, not punish them.

Similarly, while New Zealand and Australia have similar rates of child poverty (around one in seven), New Zealand has made reducing child poverty a national focus. Not only is Prime Minister Ardern also the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, but her government reports annually on the progress it has made on this issue. The analysis goes beyond money and includes estimates of the share of children who lack internet access (12 per cent), live in mouldy homes (8 per cent) and do not have their own bed (4 per cent). There is no reason to think these figures are better in Australia. And yet, since Bob Hawke’s ill-fated pledge that by 1990 “no Australian child will be living in poverty,” the issue has received far less attention than it merits in Australia. Scott Morrison isn’t the minister for child poverty reduction, nor does he have one. Indeed, there’s little reason to think that the issue would rank among the Morrison government’s top 100 priorities.

In The Luminaries, a Booker Prize–winning novel by New Zealander Eleanor Catton, Crosbie Wells is writing back to his brother in 1854, explaining why he plans never to return to England. Naturally, he starts his letter by describing the weather in Dunedin: “The sun is bright on the hills & on the water & I can bear the briskness very well.” But then he turns to social class: “You see in New Zealand every man has left his former life behind & every man is equal in his own way. Of course the flockmasters in Otago are barons here just as they were barons in the Scottish Highlands but for men like me there is a chance to rise … It is not uncommon for men to tip their hats to one another in the street regardless of their station … The frontier I think makes brothers of us all.”

This brings to mind the nineteenth-century gold-digger who wrote from Australia back to England that “rank and title have no charms in the antipodes.” The egalitarian tradition was a crucial part of the founding stories for both New Zealand and Australia. On racial equality, things are more enlightened today than in colonial times, yet there is much unfinished business. On economic inequality, the 50 per cent increase in the wealth of Australia’s billionaires over the past twelve months is just the latest proof of the widening gulf between the rich and the rest. On both issues, Australians can learn much from our Kiwi friends.

Andrew Leigh



Don Russell

I like Laura Tingle’s notion that the similarities between Australia and New Zealand make our differences interesting. In a sense, comparing the two countries can be viewed as a controlled experiment. We are so similar in background and culture that wherever we have made different choices – either by design or accident – the difference in outcomes is powerful information that both countries should reflect upon.

Tingle is most insightful in her discussion of how the indigenous populations of the two countries have fared and how the countries have sought to deal with their distressing respective legacies. The evolving processes around the Treaty of Waitangi have been supported by New Zealand prime ministers over the years, who have dealt with community concerns and helped change attitudes. These efforts have meant that New Zealand has built something of a functioning bicultural country, which is now a recognised and comfortable part of the New Zealand national identity.

As Tingle highlights, Australia’s response is more limited and confused. The path-breaking Mabo judgement from the High Court is progressing on its own complex track, but it has not triggered a process of national reconciliation or led to some form of national settlement, as the Treaty of Waitangi has done in New Zealand. As Tingle notes, there is no sense of national honour at stake in Australia, as has been the case in New Zealand, where Prime Minister Bolger said that when it came to Waitangi settlements the country was really talking about New Zealand’s honour; Prime Minister Key regarded completing settlements as one of his greatest legacies.

The starting point for bringing a measure of justice to indigenous people tends to be community concern and political leadership, which prompts a legal response. This is understandable, as what is normally at stake are property rights and entitlements. Courts and tribunals are best placed to sit in judgement on such matters, away from winner-takes-all politics or “the tyranny of the majority,” as the Americans say. Both New Zealand and the United States are fortunate that treaties were signed with tribal groups or nations in the nineteenth century. Those treaties did not stop both countries behaving as if terra nullius was the reality, but there was a readymade platform to restore lost property rights and entitlements when community attitudes changed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Community attitudes were also changing in Australia, but until terra nullius was overturned it was hard not to view Aboriginal dispossession and disadvantage through a social-welfare prism. While we should have been able to do better, it was almost impossible to build a basis for truth-telling or mutual respect. The High Court, in its Mabo and subsequent Wik decisions, changed all of that and established that native title survived European settlement and terra nullius was wrong in law. From that point, Australia had the basis for a new understanding or settlement with its Indigenous people. Whereas before they were a disadvantaged people treated very badly by history, they became a people with a High Court–sanctioned property right that had carried over from before European settlement. It was unclear what native title meant in practice, but the High Court had lifted the standing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and breathed new life into groups that could demonstrate an ongoing link to the land. In this respect, we were moving down a path well known to New Zealanders.

As Tingle sets out in her essay, the key change in New Zealand was the 1985 legislation overseen by Labour prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, which allowed Waitangi claims to go back to 1840. This was highly contentious. However, as Tingle also highlights, it was subsequent National Party prime ministers Bolger and Key who made the legislation work. As conservative political leaders, they appear to have been attracted to honouring the legal rights enshrined in the treaty signed between the Crown and tribal chiefs.

In Australia, it was a Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, who made the Redfern speech after the Mabo decision and who then championed the Native Title Act through the Senate. However, unlike in New Zealand, there was little honour seen in delivering on the new-found native title rights established by the High court. Rather than an acknowledgement of the importance of the rule of law and the role of the court in protecting the rights of a minority in the face of potential majority opposition, there was widespread criticism of the court for going beyond its authority and usurping an authority that should rightly lie with elected governments. There was no acknowledgement that Australia’s system of government – with its High Court, Senate, states and written constitution with enumerated federal powers – follows the US model. Or that Australia’s founding fathers, by their actions, embraced the checks and balances built into the US system.

The American constitution reflects the deeply held view of the US founding fathers that democracy is not the election of George III. In embracing much of the US structure, Australia has gone down the same path. This can make life challenging for executive government in Australia, because authority is dispersed across the federal cabinet, the Senate, the states and the High Court. An Australian prime minister does not have the sweeping authority of a British prime minister, but our system tends not to have the fragility that political systems wedded to command and control often exhibit. By necessity, successful Australian political leaders bring people with them, and because we have a powerful High Court, we also have a mechanism to deal with highly contentious matters that no elected government could ever hope to address. Australia’s system of government is not tidy, but political leaders have many pathways to success, which potentially gives Australia great capacity to change and evolve; when we do make big decisions, there is some confidence that those decisions have been appropriately scrutinised and assessed.

Tingle’s essay can be seen as a tale about the negative consequences of winner-takes-all politics and how New Zealand decided to constrain the power of its prime minister and executive government, forcing it to operate with mixed-member proportional voting and coalitions of political parties. Tingle then marvels that, rather than creating paralysis, the New Zealanders have not only made it work but taught themselves the art of statecraft, as she calls it, to the point where Australian ministers and officialdom now look like amateurs. Her essay finishes with the triumphal re-election of Prime Minister Ardern.

My point would be that Australia never had a system of winner-takes-all politics and that in the past we have managed to achieve impressive and lasting policy outcomes because of that. Australia had to suffer the smirking condescension of New Zealand officials during the Lange/Douglas years as they watched the Hawke/Keating government patiently negotiate reform through the Senate, the Accord and with the states.

However, Tingle is right to highlight Australia’s comparative failings with our Indigenous population. There was a time when Xavier Herbert’s searing criticism of Australia – that it was not a nation but a community of thieves – could have been applied equally to New Zealand. Through collective endeavour and some inspired political leadership, this is no longer the case. Tingle’s essay makes it clear that there is nothing stopping Australia from following New Zealand’s example.

But it is not a one-way street, and I am sure Tingle would be the first to acknowledge there are areas where New Zealand can learn from the Australian experience. I have in mind a common problem the countries faced in the 1990s: a low and declining household saving rate. Both countries suffered from low national savings, a heavy reliance on debt and a dependence on saving from the rest of the world through an uncomfortable current account deficit. Both countries gave high priority to reducing public-sector borrowing and saw merit in running budget surpluses to reduce the call on overseas borrowings and to free up resources for business investment and better domestic economic outcomes. However, at the time, only Australia took direct action to lift household saving. In 1992, Australia legislated to require employers to pay a proportion of every employee’s ordinary time earnings as an additional payment into a superannuation account. This superannuation guarantee was initially set at 3 per cent, but over time it rose to 9 per cent. The guarantee is now 9.5 per cent and is legislated to increase to 12 per cent.

While the superannuation guarantee continues to attract debate, there is broad agreement that it has lifted national saving, a view that is strengthened by the fact that in 2007 New Zealand introduced KiwiSaver, a scheme also designed to lift household saving, albeit on a more modest scale. The history of household saving in the two countries is set out in the following chart. The data are annual and come from the OECD. The household sector also includes unincorporated enterprises.

Household saving: percentage of disposable income

Source: OECD Economic Outlook No 106 (Edition 2019/2)

As can be seen, there was an alarming period before the introduction of KiwiSaver when New Zealand household saving was consistently negative. It was during this period that New Zealanders gained an international reputation as the worst savers in the OECD. While household saving has recovered in New Zealand, it is still tepid and runs at levels well below that in Australia.

English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have long had a reputation for being excessively focused on current consumption, with low household and national saving. It is unclear whether this flows from cultural pressures to consume or easier access to credit, but this tendency for Anglophone countries to be low savers is recognised. With their low level of savings, both the United Kingdom and the United States have experienced low levels of investment, including investment in infrastructure. Over time, countries find that low levels of investment degrade their capacity to deliver for their citizens, and this has been a problem for both the United Kingdom and the United States. Fortunately, this is not where Australia finds itself.

As Tingle notes, New Zealand policy-makers feel some measure of frustration. They have embraced what would be regarded as conventionally good policy settings, but the outcomes have been ordinary. The New Zealand Treasury likes to benchmark New Zealand against other small but advanced economies. Unfortunately, labour productivity in New Zealand has fallen further and further behind that of others in this group. New Zealand has one of the lowest research and development intensities – both public and private – in the OECD. And perhaps most alarmingly, the Treasury acknowledges that New Zealand has “a long tail of low-productivity firms, indicating a lack of ‘up and out’ dynamics.” Again, this is not where Australia finds itself.

With economics, everything is connected with everything else, and identifying causal factors can be complicated. However, if one reason had to be found to explain the performance difference between the two countries, it is hard to go past the quite different approaches that they have taken to retirement-income policy. Australia now has a superannuation pool close to A$3 trillion in size. This large and growing pool of assets has led to the development of a range of competitive, innovative and large superannuation funds, determined to extract the best value for their members. Most importantly, there are now many large sources of patient capital in Australia. This has deepened Australia’s capital market – a process that has helped fund Australian companies and infrastructure. It has also invigorated Australia’s private equity market. Private equity has always been one of the drivers of innovative small businesses and startups in the United States. While the Australian private equity market has not reached the maturity of the US market, it has brought support and competitive tension to developing Australian businesses that would appear to be missing in New Zealand.

KiwiSaver seems to have made some difference, but with balances around NZ$60 billion it is still not large enough. Combined with a universal government pension, this has implications for New Zealand’s budget and the dynamics of its economy.

Australia has a means-tested government pension, which means that as superannuation balances grow, there is some offset to government pension payments. At present, the Australian age pension costs around 2.7 per cent of GDP and is forecast to fall to around 2.5 per cent of GDP in 2038. The cost of the New Zealand pension was 4.8 per cent of GDP in 2015 and is forecast by the New Zealand Treasury to rise to 6.3 per cent in 2030 and 7.9 per cent in 2060. This is a big hole in New Zealand’s budget and will put great pressure on other government spending, such as aged care and health. Moreover, the universal New Zealand pension is less generous than the Australian means-tested pension. As KiwiSaver balances are small, 40 per cent of New Zealanders retire with virtually no other income than the pension. The consequence is that New Zealanders see housing as their principal form of saving, further pushing up house prices and skewing investment away from productive areas of the economy.

As Australian superannuation funds explore investment opportunities in New Zealand, New Zealanders are beginning to focus on the design of the superannuation guarantee. The guarantee is compulsory and contains tax preference, because it is locked away until retirees reach the age of sixty. These features are missing from KiwiSaver, limiting its growth. There is also a growing realisation that Australia has a deeper and more sophisticated capital market than New Zealand because of the guarantee. And what really rankles is that while Australian superannuation funds are investing in expanding the New Zealand economy, New Zealanders remain mesmerised with housing.

As part of the controlled experiment that is New Zealand and Australia, New Zealand might want to look at the Australian experience with retirement-income policy.

Don Russell



John Quiggin

Laura Tingle’s insightful Quarterly Essay quotes my 2013 observation about New Zealand’s approach to economic policy in the previous thirty years:

During most of this period New Zealand has favoured free-market economic policies. Advocates of these policies have consistently predicted superior economic outcomes. In the early 1990s, for example, the late P. P. McGuinness suggested that New Zealand “shows every sign of being on the brink of overtaking Australia perhaps before the centenary of Federation in terms of living standards and economic performance.”

Tingle goes on to observe that “the numbers tell a very different and brutal story about what happened in the New Zealand economy”:

New Zealand has not – as Paddy McGuiness prophesied – overtaken Australia in terms of living standards and economic performance. The Kiwi economy produces, and earns, way less per person than Australia. Incomes have fallen behind Australia’s. The country has remained vulnerable to much more volatile swings than Australia. Inequality has risen sharply.

My response to Tingle’s essay is mainly an amplification of her observation, looking in more detail at the paths taken to economic reform in Australia and New Zealand, and attempting to explain the sharp divergence in their economic fortunes.

First, it’s worth stressing how badly New Zealand has done. Since the 1970s, Australia has remained in the middle of a pack of developed countries, including Canada and most of Western and Northern Europe. By contrast, New Zealand is now more comparable to Mediterranean and Eastern European countries, such as Malta, the Czech Republic and Italy, which were much poorer in the past.

New Zealand has not only become relatively poorer, but more unequal. New Zealand was more equal than the OECD average in 1985, but the Peterson Institute for International Economics now ranks it as the third-most unequal of the OECD countries, as measured by the Gini coefficients – behind only the United States and United Kingdom. This is primarily the result of deliberate policy decisions taken by the reforming governments of the late twentieth century, reinforced by the National Party government of John Key.

The combined result of low growth and rising inequality is that low-income New Zealanders get a smaller share of a smaller pie than their counterparts in Australia (including New Zealand expats). Translating these results to the individual level, New Zealanders earn a median hourly wage of NZ$27, while Australians earn about A$34 (the two currencies are of roughly equal purchasing power). Moreover, because of the absence of a tax-free threshold, New Zealanders on low and moderate incomes pay more income tax than Australians. Finally, because New Zealand’s GST does not exempt food, it is more regressive than Australia’s.

In summary, whereas the standards of living in Australia and New Zealand used to be comparable, and very high by world standards, the average New Zealand worker is significantly worse off than their Australian counterpart, as well as being poorer than the average worker in most OECD countries.

New Zealand was not always a poor cousin. For most of our history, Australia and New Zealand moved in parallel – in economic development and in many other respects. As Tingle acutely observes, despite this close parallelism, neither one paid a lot of attention to the other.

In the aftermath of World War II, Australia and New Zealand were among the wealthiest countries in the world and the most egalitarian in terms of both social attitudes and economic outcomes. Indeed, a visiting academic (the American political scientist Leslie Lipson) observed that if New Zealand had a giant monument at the entrance to Auckland or Wellington Harbour it would be a “Statue of Equality” not a Statue of Liberty.

In power from 1935 to 1949, and led first by Michael Savage and then Peter Fraser, New Zealand’s first Labour government established a modern welfare state. The Curtin and Chifley governments in Australia introduced similar measures. Yet few Australians would have any knowledge of Savage or Fraser, and the same applies to New Zealanders with respect to Curtin and Chifley.

The two countries followed parallel paths for several decades more: a long period with conservative governments in office, followed by short-lived labour governments, elected just as the world economy crashed in 1972 and then replaced by conservative strongmen (Malcolm Fraser and Robert Muldoon).

For both Australia and New Zealand, the 1970s were a period of deep concern about a perceived decline in relative living standards. As Western Europe enjoyed three decades of post-war prosperity (the Trente Glorieuses), and Asian countries – beginning with Japan – entered the “take-off” phase of rapid economic development, Australia and New Zealand fell back to the middle of the OECD pack on measures like GDP per capita. Australia’s concerns at the time were reflected in book titles like Poor Nation of the Pacific and Australia: The Worst Is Yet to Come. In New Zealand, the future finance minister Roger Douglas offered There’s Got to Be a Better Way.

In both countries, economic downturns at the beginning of the 1980s led to the return of labour governments, with leaders open to emulating the radical reforms that had commenced in the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher. As Tingle observes, this is where our story really takes off.

The general direction of the reforms undertaken in the early 1980s was already set by the time the labour governments took office. With the failure of the Mitterrand government’s attempt to defy global capital markets, Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that “There is no alternative” was more clearly true than at any time before or since. The deregulation of exchange rates and financial markets was unstoppable. That, in turn, implied the need for budget policies aimed at constraining debt and deficits, and therefore pressure for privatisation and cuts in public services.

There was, however, plenty of room for manoeuvre within those constraints. The Hawke government pioneered what was later called the “Third Way,” which accepted the central tenets of Thatcherism, such as financial deregulation and privatisation, while maintaining, and in crucial respects enhancing, a redistributive tax-welfare system.

By contrast, the New Zealand Labour government implemented a market reform program more radical, in many respects, than Thatcher’s, with little if any regard for the impact on its core supporters.

How to explain this difference? The fact that New Zealand was a unitary state with a unicameral parliament was important. But individual leaders also played a big role.

New Zealand prime minister David Lange was less interested in economics than in foreign policy issues like the ban on nuclear warships for which he remains famous. He acquiesced, at least initially, in the radical economic reforms proposed by Douglas and his allies, David Caygill and Richard Prebble. These reforms included deregulation, privatisation, and a goods and services tax with minimal exemptions and a rate of 10 per cent, which was soon increased to 12.5 per cent.

By contrast, Bob Hawke came to office with a plan to restore prosperity through a consensus between government, business and unions, which eventually became the Accord. While accepting the need for many of the reforms pushed by Paul Keating (Douglas’s Australian equivalent), Hawke acted as a stabilising and moderating force. Most notably, he killed off Keating’s plans for a GST, instead seeing the introduction of a fringe benefits tax and a capital gains tax. (When John Howard eventually pushed the GST through, food was exempted, and a 10 per cent rate was locked in, with a requirement that all states would need to agree to any increase.)

Unsurprisingly, in Tingle’s words, Australian advocates of radical reform “looked wistfully, or at least with interest, across the Tasman,” where the policies they advocated could be pushed through without regard to popular opposition. Whenever economic growth picked up in New Zealand, it was claimed that the Kiwis would soon overtake us.

As we have seen, the reality is far different. New Zealand has fallen far behind Australia and shows no sign of closing the gap. The divergence is too large and persistent to be explained by any one factor. Long-ago shocks like the entry of Britain into the European Economic Community should have washed out by now. Several possible explanations stand out.

First, it is now generally agreed that high levels of inequality are bad for economic growth. Whereas the efficiency benefits of a reformed tax system represent a one-off improvement, the costs of inequality keep mounting indefinitely. Any short-run gains in economic efficiency that may have been achieved by the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have probably been more than cancelled out by now.

Second, New Zealand’s macro-economic performance since the beginning of the reform era has been woeful. From 1983 to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia experienced only one recession, admittedly a deep one, at the beginning of the 1990s. New Zealand had five, including a deep recession which coincided with Australia’s. Once again, this was a consequence of its reforms, which set a particularly stringent inflation target and discouraged any concern with unemployment.

More generally, the speed and ruthlessness of the reforms, which so attracted the admiration of Australian free-market advocates, entailed lots of collateral damage in terms of unemployment and social dislocation. At the time, it was assumed that any such damage would be more than offset by faster economic growth. Not only has that not happened, but it seems that some of the damage has been permanent.

All of these problems are amplified by the ease of migration to Australia. More than half a million New Zealand citizens (over 10 per cent of the total population) currently live in Australia, compared to around 60,000 Australians who live in New Zealand. Migration is driven by the gap in wages and productivity between Australia and New Zealand, but it also helps to entrench that gap. The failure of the reforms to increase living standards leads to a continuing outward flow of skilled and educated workers.

Most of the time, migrants are more ambitious and energetic than those who remain in their country of birth. These general tendencies are reinforced by the fact that New Zealanders are not, in general, eligible for unemployment benefits in Australia, which means that New Zealanders who lose their jobs have a strong incentive to return home.

Finally, what is likely to change in the future? My best guess is not much. Jacinda Ardern is an impressive leader in many ways, but it is already evident that she will do little to roll back the failed reforms of the past forty years. Despite the occasional use of socialist rhetoric, she shares the Third Way politics of Helen Clark and Tony Blair, both of whom she has worked for.

Ardern has promised to restore the 39 per cent top marginal tax rate, which prevailed under Clark’s Labour government, and she has made some modest improvements in welfare benefits, but that’s about it. Options like a capital gains tax and a wealth tax have been ruled out categorically.

Still, Ardern will be dealing with an economy in need of large-scale intervention if it is to recover from the disasters of 2020. In closing New Zealand’s borders and locking the country down to eliminate the pandemic, she showed the capacity to take surprising and decisive action when it was needed. Faced with the prospect of further decline, and backed by an absolute majority in parliament, perhaps she will surprise us once again.

John Quiggin



Tim Hazledine

I’m a New Zealander and an economist at the University of Auckland. I met Laura Tingle in Auckland in November 2019. I was impressed, of course.

However, when Laura told me that her next big project was to write a very long-form essay – an essay that would be published under the title The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand – well, I wondered if the great Australian people were quite ready for that.

The essay – in itself, excellent – does not immediately soothe these doubts. And they seem all but confirmed by what follows in the same issue of Quarterly Essay: forty pages of commentary by nine people on Katharine Murphy’s essay The End of Uncertainty from the previous issue, and a response from the author. The commentaries – which must all have been written just a month or so previously – are fluent, friendly and informed; all of them focus on the current Australian administration’s response to the COVID crisis.

And the number of times the words “New Zealand” appear in those forty pages? Zero, zip, zilch. (The words “Jacinda Ardern” appear once, in passing.) I am not complaining. That would be hypocritical, given my own lack of learning about Australia. When I met Tingle, I think I may have implied or even claimed that the prime minister of Australia was a man named Michael Turnbull. Perhaps he was.

But anyway, why should the people of, say, Sydney care any more about goings-on in Auckland, 2350 kilometres away, than the people of London care about what’s happening in Chişinău, the capital of Moldova, which is the same distance away? I note that our countries’ governments have never had enough to talk about to support a viable direct air service between Canberra and Wellington (and, yes, there is a direct service between London and Chişinău).

Of course, an obvious difference is that anyone setting out in an eastward direction from London to seek commerce or companionship is likely to find it somewhere in Western Europe, long before they get as far as Moldova, whereas between Sydney and Auckland there is just empty sea – there’s nowhere else to stop. So the relationship we do have, as the only Anglo countries in the Southwest Pacific, may just be a matter of faute de mieux, as we often say in New Zealand. And it’s not even that we like each other. We pretty clearly don’t much. Tingle’s essay deflates the bubble of Anzac comradeship, quoting Australia’s official historian of World War I, who viewed New Zealanders as “colourless,” and another historian, who claims that Australians of that era saw New Zealanders as a “pale imitation” of themselves.

There’s a lot of this sort of nonsense around. In World War II, a young British officer, Frank Thompson (brother of the social historian E.P. Thompson), after coming across antipodean troops in Egypt, wrote that “the New Zealanders are rough-hewn and intelligent; the Australians are rough-hewn and villainous.” Perhaps the funniest put-down came from our dear departed John Clarke, a New Zealander who happily resettled in Australasia’s only great city – Melbourne. When asked why he had left New Zealand, Clarke said: “Because it was there.”

But all this is the reason Tingle should write her essay. If there is something for Australia to learn from New Zealand, who better – who at all? – to break through the apathy and antagonism than Tingle – author of three previous Quarterly Essays and held in the highest esteem in her country. Still, I am not sure that even she will succeed, but I will do my small bit to help by adding to her analysis of two topics – one on which I know a lot, one on which no one yet knows a lot, because it is an exciting work in progress.

The first topic is New Zealand’s infamous “Rogernomics” episode of rapid, radical economic liberalisation over the seven years from 1984 to 1991. Tingle’s essay is very good on why Labour finance minister Roger Douglas wanted to liberalise: he and his colleagues in Treasury genuinely and disinterestedly believed that massive “reform” would supercharge New Zealand’s productivity performance. It’s good on how they were politically able to do it: they were empowered by a combination of New Zealand’s small size and its unicameral system of government, buttressed by less obviously disinterested support from the slightly sinister Big Business Roundtable lobby group. And it’s clear about why the reforms were rammed through so quickly: they were quite openly aiming to get it all done and dusted before anyone could stop them.

But there’s another notable dimension to this extraordinary episode. A list of the reforms implemented in those seven years is staggeringly long: more than 200 separate corporatisations, privatisations, liberalisations and so on, in both private and public sectors. How could a small, albeit honest, civil service – in a country of fewer than 4 million people – administratively deliver as many major policy upheavals as it most assuredly and successfully did? The answer is that implementing nearly every one of the 200-plus reforms was simply a matter of repeating the same basic formula over and over again.

Rogernomics is often casually claimed to be a textbook example of economic reform. Something to do with “free” markets. But it wasn’t fundamentally to do with free markets, and the textbook had not been written, and still hasn’t. The liberalisation formula – if mentioned at all – is buried away in the section of standard economic texts that deal briefly with issues of “asymmetric information,” which arise when one party has knowledge that is not available cost-free to another. The formula is called the “principal–agent model,” or just “agency theory.”

The pervasiveness of asymmetric information in just about all social or economic interactions cannot be denied. We each know more about our own nature and actions than any other human being can. The issue is: what do we do with our private information? Agency theory assumes the worst: we will use our personal information advantage without scruple in our own narrow self-interest. I call this the “selfish shit” model of human behaviour. Its policy implications are stark. First, deflate the value of private information by removing from management anyone who actually knows something about how a business, a hospital or an industry works, and replace them with generic managers with no specialist expertise. Then write simple performance contracts for the new managers with narrow, measurable targets (key performance indicators, or KPIs) and incentivise them to meet those targets with carrots (bonuses) or sticks (the threat of dismissal).

This procedure could be (and was) rapidly deployed in just about every economic and administrative setting: from minding the money in the till of a cafe to minding the monetary policy of the nation. Employees were to be dissuaded from cheating on their employers by cranking up the threat of dismissal, which was achieved by weakening the trade union movement and increasing unemployment. The governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand had to sign a very simple contract specifying only that he keep inflation in a narrow, low band to get his bonus.

There are three big problems with agency theory in action. First, it’s not that KPIs won’t be met, but that they will be met at the expense of other worthy goals that didn’t make it into the job contract – full employment, in the case of the central banker; willingness to act with initiative, in the case of the cafe worker.

Second, although the stark “selfish shit” assumption is factually false – in general, most people do behave in a trusting and trustworthy way – if applied long enough it can create the amorality it presupposes. If you persistently treat agents as untrustworthy, then eventually they may just say: “Stuff it. Why should I be honest if you aren’t going to believe in me anyway?”

Third, a logic puzzle. If Roger Douglas believes everyone is a selfish shit, why shouldn’t we believe the same of him? Why should we, the people, simply trust him – or anyone – to be our agent in these matters? “Quis custodiet custodes ipsos?” as we often say in New Zealand.

Well, to be fair, Roger did not trust himself – or at least he did not trust his successors. One of the reforms enacted slightly later is New Zealand’s 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act, which limited, in particular, the ability of the finance minister of the day to spend up big in election years, which practice had been shamelessly indulged in by all parties hitherto. Quite a good reform, that.

But, as a whole, Rogernomics has failed dismally, as Tingle documents. New Zealand’s productivity, far from being supercharged, has spluttered along in Australia’s wake, actually slipping further behind, with widening income inequality.

Why has there been no outcry, particularly from the protected precincts of university campuses? Well, the minority of academics who did speak out were treated with disdain or worse. In the mid-1990s, an emissary of the Big Business Roundtable came to the vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland and demanded that he fire New Zealand’s most active public intellectual, the legal scholar Jane Kelsey, and “the socialist economist Hazledine.” The vice-chancellor – an Australian – responded by promoting Kelsey to a personal chair and confirming tenure of my professorship.

The stupidity and viciousness of this little intervention was typical of the times and is still embedded in a strong rightist, conformist bias to New Zealand politics, including in our governing Labour party. Really, labelling a wishy-washy social democrat like me a “socialist” (not that there’s anything wrong with being a socialist, of course) – because I am against monopolies and handouts to business – reflects what I hope Australians would regard as a rather distorted perspective.

The second topic of Tingle’s I wanted to add to – the work in progress – is race relations. In 2011, I read a New Yorker article by Hilton Als on Jane Fonda. Als recounts the wedding of Fonda’s son, Troy Garity, to Simone Bent, an actor. Garity is white, Bent black. The groom’s father, Tom Hayden, a former Chicago Seven activist, made a speech saying he was particularly happy about the union because it was “another step in a long-term goal of mine: the peaceful, nonviolent disappearance of the white race.”

If I had read this in, say, 1981, I would have responded: “Yeah, right!” But by 2011 – perhaps a little late – I was uneasy. I didn’t, and still don’t, give a fig about the disappearance of my race in a commingling of the bloods, but wouldn’t that also mean the disappearance of the minority race – Māori, in New Zealand’s case? And wouldn’t the minority race have something to say about that?

Well, they did have something to say, and Tingle’s essay is very good on the steps taken – in the nick of time – to regenerate Māori language and culture, particularly with the settlements that have been reached since 1987, supported by both political parties, through the Waitangi Tribunal hearing process. The slogan here is “self-determination,” and (citing the Australian scholar Shireen Morris) Tingle summarises its outcome as the establishment of a “mostly comfortable biculturalism.”

But what does biculturalism mean in this context? The term apparently originated in Canada, where it refers to the cordial separation between Anglo and French Canada: “two solitudes,” as it was once described. I’d say that what is now happening in New Zealand is actually going in a quite different and very interesting direction – towards the building of a national culture that, perhaps uniquely in the world, is heavily influenced by the indigenous race.

Take the success of iwi-based Māori businesses, which operate commercially under a strong social charter – something which, according to Rogernomics, is not just undesirable but impossible. Our ongoing revolution in resource stewardship policy applies the principle that natural resources are “owned” not by humans but by themselves: te mana o te wai – the river owns the river, and the river has a right to be clean. The statement in Tingle’s essay that “Māori culture is increasingly seen as New Zealand’s culture”: this is terrific, but it isn’t about biculturalism – is it? Perhaps Australians can tell us.

Tim Hazledine



Ben McKay

Laura Tingle’s latest Quarterly Essay, The High Road, begins in March 2020, when Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand’s long and strong COVID-19 lockdown. Let’s rewind four weeks from that moment to Kirribilli House in February. After three days in Fiji, Ardern was in Sydney, taking meetings with Gladys Berejiklian and Scott Morrison as part of annual trans-Tasman leadership talks. Of course, Ardern is no stranger to Australia. In the months prior, she holidayed in Queensland and made an official visit to Victoria. Australians have come to know her well, and they like what they see. A 2019 Lowy Institute poll revealed Ardern as Australia’s favourite world leader – the politician Australians have the most confidence in “to do the right thing in world affairs.” She topped the poll again in 2020. Outside Kirribilli in February, Ardern joined Morrison for a press conference with the Sydney Opera House in the background. It is a grand stage, and one Ardern used expertly.

After five minutes celebrating New Zealand’s relationship with its “closest of friends,” Ardern let rip. She whacked Australia’s policy to deport criminals who hold Kiwi passports but lack links to New Zealand, saying, “Do not deport your people and your problems.” This was far from the first time Ardern or her predecessors had taken aim at the policy, much loathed by New Zealanders, but it was the most brash, and the most direct, statement made so far. It was significant – and the reasons why are laid out in Tingle’s essay.

Ardern’s blast was never going to produce a policy shift. It was designed to show the New Zealand PM standing up to Aussie, to show leadership in an election year. On that count, it worked. Ardern’s boldness left Kiwi observers picking their jaws up off the floor. It was out of character for the forty-year-old: Ardern’s local political reputation as a consensus-builder and deal-maker, formed by cobbling together a coalition government with minor parties from both the left and right, and dealing with them on every issue in her first term.

The spray was also out of the national character. It is rare for Kiwi PMs to take their trans-Tasman counterparts to task. Ardern called the deportation policy “corrosive” in 2019, but she was almost deferential while doing so. Helen Clark maintained her diplomatic graces, even during the heated months of debate over the US-led invasion of Iraq, which Australia signed up for and New Zealand did not. And John Key was so complaisant he was given the Order of Australia by Malcolm Turnbull. (“Say it ain’t so, bro,” said Turnbull, when Key told him of his retirement from politics.) The only leader to show a degree of belligerence was Robert “Piggy” Muldoon, whose line about New Zealanders who depart for Australia raising the average IQ of both countries is quoted by Tingle.

Still, the sentiment expressed by Ardern was bang-on with public opinion. New Zealanders loved her attack. They blame deportations for growth in gang-related violence; they also find Australia’s heavy-handed approach on this and other issues cruel. Whether it’s for the unwillingness to support New Zealanders within the Australian welfare system (which New Zealand does for Australians), or the deportation of criminals with tenuous links to New Zealand (which New Zealand doesn’t do to Australians), there is near-universal tut-tutting directed at Australia.

What has become clearer in my time as the New Zealand correspondent for Australian Associated Press is the mostly dormant exasperation of Kiwis towards Australia on many issues. Australians can tend to see New Zealanders as their poorer, more naive or simpler cousin across the ditch, and New Zealand as practically a state of Australia – with better skiing, better rugby players and that’s about it. Naturally, Kiwis don’t hold reciprocal views. And while New Zealanders hold little dearer than their down-to-earth nature and the manaakitanga, or hospitality, they show to outsiders, if you scratch the surface, you’ll find a distaste for Australia – a latent but appreciable pique which sometimes breaks through. Tingle shows that this lingers within even the most sacred of bonds: the Anzac spirit. Outside Kirribilli, Ardern tapped the well of that sentiment.

Some further context: Ardern’s attack came at the start of an election year, when New Zealand Labour’s poll numbers were on par with those of the opposition National Party. Ardern’s Labour would go on to win the election in stunning fashion, but not by playing to anti-Australian sentiment; Ardern announced the country’s first case of COVID within an hour of the Kirribilli press conference. The imperiousness and global leadership she showed in handling the virus kept New Zealand from the worst of the pandemic and won her government a second term – without the need for coalition partners – in the poll on 17 October. It also repressed further analysis of her Kirribilli sledge, which, at the time, Ardern enjoyed. Roaring the RNZAF plane home shortly afterwards, she took a cup of tea down to the back of the aircraft to mingle with journalists, who were enjoying harder stuff after a week covering the PM abroad. The travelling press agreed Ardern and her team were fizzing from what they saw as a job well done.

But what next from Ardern and her government? Free from the constraints of coalition, and now governing in their own right, will Labour pursue a bolder path in its second term? Might New Zealand walk further away from Australia’s policies on the areas explored by Tingle – on foreign policy, on climate change, on refugee and immigration intake, on indigenous rights? And does Ardern’s assertiveness suggest an evolving trans-Tasman relationship – or was it a slice of election-year grandstanding (a charge Ardern’s team rejects)?

Ardern certainly didn’t hide her frustrations with Australia in her first press conference in Wellington’s “Beehive” this year. On Australia Day, she fumed at Australia’s call to suspend quarantine-free travel in response to a new community case of COVID. Ardern said she’d relayed her disappointment directly to Morrison, saying Kiwi officials had the situation “well under control,” and it represented a fresh setback to the trans-Tasman bubble. That bubble was first agreed to last May, when Ardern attended an Australian national cabinet meeting. What does it say about the relationship that it took nine months to be enacted?

Thanks largely to the government’s efforts in beating back COVID, Ardern enjoys unprecedented local popularity to match her existing overseas fandom. This may bring the government, and the country, more confidence and clout internationally. Labour’s thumping election win certainly gives Ardern an unprecedented opportunity to implement her agenda. Relevant to Australia, one of her first post-election decisions was to appoint long-serving MP Nanaia Mahuta – known mainly for her activism on Māori issues – as foreign minister. At the same trans-Tasman leadership talks last February, Mahuta and Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt inked a world-first bilateral “Indigenous Collaboration Arrangement.” Mahuta is yet to put her stamp on the portfolio – aid could be a space to watch – and further indigenous association would be fascinating to see.

For all of these questions, what can’t be doubted is that New Zealand and Australia will remain great friends. In times of tragedy – take the volcanic eruption on Whakaari/White Island, the 2019–20 bushfire season in Australia or the terrorist attacks in Christchurch – the two countries are there for each other. Still, Australia and New Zealand understand the world differently, and exist in it differently.

Unfortunately, Australian media outlets show more interest in covering New Zealand from Australian soil. While Kiwi companies tend to have Australian correspondents (and fine Kiwi journalists fill many Australian newsrooms), the ranks of Aussies in Aotearoa are diminishing. Just two Australian media companies staff New Zealand – AAP and Sky News. The presence of neither is guaranteed in the long term. The ABC has been without a permanent New Zealand correspondent since Dominique Schwarz left in 2014. COVID prevented other Australian journalists from in-person coverage of the two biggest stories of 2020: the sentencing of the Christchurch shooter and Ardern’s thumping re-election.

Understanding Aotearoa can be of great benefit to Australia. Tingle’s essay, a fine primer on the historical links and divergences between Australia and New Zealand, is also a strong argument for why Australian media companies should send journos across the ditch. The essay should be what they read on the plane.

Ben McKay



Frank Bongiorno

It seems a lifetime ago, but I was there in the crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 1 February 1981, when Australian cricketer Trevor Chappell bowled the last ball of the match underarm. Even as an eleven-year-old, I didn’t need the media to tell me that what the Australians had done was ugly. When conversation in the car ride home turned to whether it was possible, in a game of cricket, to hit a six against an underarm delivery bowled along the ground, Tanya, the lovely English migrant who used to take her son and his friends to sports events, said she was sure the great West Indian batsman Viv Richards would have found a way.

New Zealand National Party prime minister Robert “Piggy” Muldoon said, “[It was] the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket … an act of cowardice, and I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow.” Muldoon was never inclined to understatement, nor one to let an opportunity to kick the Aussies pass by, but the basic thrust of his opinion found some backing on both sides of the ditch in 1981.

The underarm incident was the emblematic event in the trans-Tasman relationship of my childhood, even once the nuclear ship controversy came along a few years later. New Zealand’s stand against visits by nuclear ships – and therefore against visits by any US ships at all, because the United States had a policy of neither confirming nor denying their nuclear status – attracted admiration on the Australian left at a time when the anti-nuclear movement was strong and disillusionment with Bob Hawke over his pro-US foreign policy provided much of the glue holding Labor’s Left together. Hawke couldn’t stand New Zealand’s prime minister, David Lange. He thought him a buffoon who had made a devil’s pact by using the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip with which to appease his own party’s Left as the fourth Labour government pursued radical free-market reform. Lange’s frequently incompetent handling of the issue didn’t help.

The bad blood left by these matters can easily obscure the remarkable closeness of the relationship between the two countries. Even as the underarm incident was doing its work, Australia and New Zealand were moving toward an agreement that would allow the free movement of goods and services between them. Citizens of each country already had the right to travel, live and work in the other, as they do today.

Laura Tingle’s thoughtful Quarterly Essay is not merely valuable for bringing together a great many details about Australia, New Zealand and the relations between them: she also resists the temptation to imagine that New Zealand does in every way better than Australia. Australian progressives have been a bit this way about New Zealand in recent years. Their glance across the Tasman has often seemed superficial and simplistic.

The Australian progressive attitude to New Zealand has been driven by a number of things, many of which are discussed in Tingle’s essay: New Zealand’s greater independence of the Western alliance, its more humane approach to refugees, its more civil and consensual politics, its more frequent Labour governments and the overwhelmingly attractive image of Jacinda Ardern. There is no makeover that will ever turn “Scotty from Marketing” into a figure with Ardern’s charm, celebrity and appeal.

Unfortunately, those who celebrate New Zealand’s superior ways are not “details people.” As Tingle suggests, the story is a complex one. When social reformers from other places – Britain, continental Europe, the United States – looked to the antipodes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they often understood Australia and New Zealand together as forming a “social laboratory.” In many respects, New Zealand was slightly advanced, instituting both women’s suffrage (in 1893) and industrial arbitration (in 1894) a little ahead of Australia. New Zealand premiers of that era, such as John Ballance and especially Richard Seddon, were admired by the reformers of many nations, and the country’s social policy attracted international attention and even emulation. Marilyn Lake has recently emphasised the extent to which American progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt engaged with ideas pioneered in both Australia and New Zealand, including the arbitration of industrial disputes and the living wage. Clare Wright has revealed the influence that Australian suffragists had on the struggles for women’s voting in Britain and the United States.

Between 1935 and 1949, New Zealand’s first Labour government was ahead of both Britain and Australia in extending its welfare state in the direction of a “cradle to the grave” system. Australia’s Labor government did similar things between 1941 and 1949, although with greater hindrance from both vested interests and the Australian Constitution.

But the point is that the two countries, despite going their own ways as dominions of the British Empire from the first decade of the twentieth century, had much in common as highly regulated mixed economies and welfare states. The sociologist Francis Castles argues that they formed the “wage-earners’ welfare state”: a social order that sought to modify market outcomes in favour of the family by emphasising the “social deserts” of the male breadwinner via wages. And as the historian Melanie Nolan has suggested, both countries liked to present a classless, egalitarian, consensual image to the world, although New Zealand’s commitment to this self-image was probably more dogmatic than Australia’s.

Were these societies all they were cracked up to be? Mention of the male breadwinner should already alert us to a darker side. The antipodean democracies were willing to allow women to vote, but both were rather less enthusiastic about giving them opportunities comparable to those enjoyed by men – that is, opportunities to be educated or to earn a living.

They were also racist. Australia is notorious for its White Australia policy. Did New Zealand have its own version? It did: it’s just that it was smart enough not to proclaim it to the world with quite the same level of enthusiasm as the Australians, as if it were a proud national brand.

There were other complexities in New Zealand. The anti-Asian racism New Zealand liberals and radicals shared with their Australian counterparts coexisted, in New Zealand’s case, with a more respectful attitude towards the Māori. The intellectual gymnastics involved in this process of forging honorary whiteness were remarkable. There was a widely held theory that they were an Aryan people from India and therefore shared a common racial origin with white settlers. Australians played these kinds of games at times too, but they never took hold quite as firmly on our side of the Tasman. Tingle rightly points out that the Treaty of Waitangi also proved an efficient instrument for dispossessing Māori of their land, a process that occurred in Australia without the fig leaf of an agreement with the original owners.

As New Zealand’s record on race indicates, there has been a pragmatism, even an opportunism, that underpins its idealism. Its government knew, when it banned nuclear ships, that New Zealand would receive the benefits of protection without the costs. It had been a similar story in World War II: Australia brought most (although not all) of its forces home to fight the Japanese in 1941 and 1942. New Zealand kept its troops in Europe, where they would participate in the invasion of Italy. Again, geography mattered: New Zealand’s isolation meant it was safe from the Japanese. Still, New Zealand looked the more obedient and helpful child of empire, at Australia’s expense, at a time when both countries valued their Britishness. It is also revealing that Helen Clark told Tingle that New Zealand’s remoteness made it less concerned it might face a Tampa-like maritime refugee incident, another matter on which New Zealand has gained considerable prestige at Australia’s expense.

None of this makes New Zealand either especially venal or unusually hypocritical. But it should at least prompt some hesitation about making easy comparisons that are unflattering to Australia. Ardern and New Zealand have rightly won praise for their management of the pandemic, but New Zealand is an isolated archipelago with a population smaller than Queensland’s, as well as a unitary state with a unicameral parliament. Even allowing for the effects of mixed-member proportional representation, matters ought to be simpler there.

The similarities between the two countries remain. New Zealand still ranks very well on the Human Development Index. The latest index data – recorded pre-COVID – has New Zealand at fourteen (up three places over the last five years) and Australia at eight (down two). But the economic story is increasingly one of divergence. In the great post–World War II boom, the countries’ incomes were similar and New Zealand could boast – and did boast – that it had the third-highest living standard in the world in the 1950s. In more recent decades, it’s a different story. New Zealand’s productivity is low, and its incomes have fallen well behind Australia’s. While both countries have benefited from China’s spectacular economic rise, mining has had significant positive effects on Australia’s economic prosperity, contributing to highly favourable terms of trade. But mining isn’t only an economic phenomenon. It’s a political, social and cultural one too. That difference between the two countries matters a lot, and it is discussed, if perhaps underplayed, in Tingle’s essay. When the mining companies defeated Labor’s proposed super-profits tax in 2010, they succeeded in presenting themselves as the custodians of the national interest in a manner that has bequeathed problems to the Australian political system that no politician has been able to navigate successfully since. This sets us apart from New Zealand: it’s a far cry from some short-lived anguish over where The Hobbit would be filmed.

It’s true that News Corp’s domination of Australian media, and the lightness of Murdoch influence in New Zealand, helps to account for some positive features of the latter’s political and cultural life, including the muted nature of its cultural wars. But I would place more stress on the distinctive role of mining in Australia’s economic and political life. When Rio Tinto destroyed two caves at Juukan Gorge, it wasn’t merely enacting a business decision. It represented a particular way of being Australian and dealing with the world – white, entitled, masculine, violent and acquisitive – that echoes resource-dominated economies elsewhere but also has deep roots in the nation’s history. It resonates more widely in the country’s cultural, political and corporate life.

Does this sound like the international image of New Zealand in 2020? Hardly, although economic pressures might eventually tilt New Zealand in ways that its progressive admirers will find unsettling, rather as its post-1990 industrial laws have been anything other than a model of labour rights recognition.

Still, the cultural differences between Australia and New Zealand seem greater now than at any time in the respective histories of the two countries. Despite Tingle’s hope that we might be a bit more like New Zealand in some respects, the capacity of either country to see much in the experience of the other that is worth learning is arguably more doubtful than it used to be.

Frank Bongiorno



Colin James

To turn Laura Tingle’s question around: can Aotearoa/New Zealand learn from Australia? Or are we too different?

Most in each country think we are “family,” an ethnic accident born of Britain’s joint colonisation. Over two centuries, we have swapped people, turned bushland into farmland, developed similar accents, believed ourselves rough and ready, down-to-earth and sporty (even if not always sporting), and reckoned on a “fair go.” We shared what Geoffrey Blainey called a “tyranny of distance” from Home – that is, Britain.

We have squabbled a lot, as a family does: over what we should do in wars and international politics, how to treat those of us who live on each other’s turf and more. For much of the time from the 1900s to the 1970s, we spoke less to each other as countries than to Mother Britain, and when we did talk, Australia spoke down to its smaller cousin, at times even leaving the “NZ” off “ANZAC.”

Then the two of us put together a model free trade agreement in 1983. Though we have not turned it into the promised single economic market, it nevertheless reaches far behind the border into a wide range of regulatory matters, including cross-recognition of professional qualifications. Some of our sports codes have developed single competitions. Mid-level bureaucrats talk to each other.

But the two countries are also foreign to each other. Aotearoa/New Zealand has a starkly different geology, seismology, topography, geography, climate, and native flora and fauna from Australia’s. Those natural differences have over time shaped differences of demeanour and attitudes, most starkly evident in New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy at the heart of an “independent foreign policy.”

We also have different indigenous histories. Britain insisted on a treaty of cession from Māori with safeguards – the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty was disregarded for twelve decades from the 1860s, but in the 1980s it set Aotearoa/New Zealand on a long, winding path towards becoming a bicultural nation. Māori animist culture and the British post-Enlightenment culture introduced by colonisation are formally equal and increasingly inform each other and therefore government policy and practice. Growing numbers of non-Māori learn the Māori language, te reo Māori. Māori names are increasingly used for places alongside the imported colonial names, as “Aotearoa” is added to “New Zealand.” The country is only partway down that long path towards biculturalism, but so far it has not strayed from it.

Māori came from the Polynesian Pacific around 800 years ago, many tens of thousands of years after Australia’s Indigenous people arrived. Other Polynesians, from islands that were at one time occupied by New Zealand, have immigrated over the past five decades in large numbers. Biculturalism and the Pasifika infusion have made Aotearoa/New Zealand a nation of the Pacific, no longer just in the Pacific. Australia is on the edge of the Pacific.

There is one other huge difference between the two countries: size. Australia is many times larger in landmass, population and economic output (not least due to its abundant mineral resources, a major factor in its higher income, which Kiwis crave and have migrated to Australia to get a slice of). Accordingly, attentiveness runs much more westwards than eastwards. Australian foreign policy only bothers about Aotearoa/New Zealand if it thinks New Zealand has gone off-track or can be useful – to Pacific security, for example. New Zealand’s foreign policy cannot avoid Australia, to the extent that Australian policy is quasi-domestic policy in Wellington. The smaller economy needs the larger one to do well, even as China has loomed large. Australian firms like their subsidiaries and exports across the Tasman to do well, but they look north more than east. An honest New Zealand diplomat posted in Canberra will quietly tell you that a proposal from Wellington for a trans-Tasman policy or program only gets a positive response from Australia when it comes towards the top of a list of priorities determined by domestic interests. Consider the response to New Zealand’s efforts to establish mutual recognition of dividend franking/imputation credits: Australia has rejected the proposal, because its short-term revenue needs trump the economic findings that, overall, Australia would benefit.

But, for all our foreignness, we are family. We both belong to that minority of countries that are liberal democracies. And we are in a minority within that minority – two democracies still functioning by the book, unlike the dis-United States, dis-United Kingdom and most of Europe. We are both aligned with old “Western” values based on liberty.

So, while of course Australia and New Zealand need to adopt good practices from wherever they crop up in a diversifying and rebalancing world (New Zealand formed the Small Advanced Economies Initiative in 2012 so similarly sized countries could share ideas and data), we can still learn from each other’s cities, sub-regional and national governments, businesses, non-profits and researchers. A high-ranking official said to me of Laura Tingle’s article that we should turn its central question around and ask what New Zealand can learn from Australia.

In a post-COVID-19 world, which is searching for new social, economic and international norms (Aotearoa/New Zealand is experimenting with “wellbeing economics”), our two open, flexible societies potentially have an edge, especially if we combine efforts.

We are not too different to learn from each other.

Colin James



Hugh Riminton

Laura Tingle’s splendid survey of Australia and New Zealand covers a lot of ground. Usefully, she addresses the great mystery of the two former colonies – their differing treatment of their indigenous populations.

Why was a treaty a foundational moment in New Zealand as long ago as 1840, when even today the subject remains taboo in Australia? It is an issue so fraught with suppressed rage there is not a barbecue in the country that could not be stopped by the mere mention.

The Treaty of Waitangi not only recognised Māori sovereignty over their lands and waters, it was negotiated and drafted in the Māori language by Europeans who had taken the trouble to learn it.

In his classic work Pakeha Maori, Trevor Bentley records treaty debates that were “attended by more than 2000 Māori and sixty chiefs.” Acting as translators were some of the escaped convicts, deserters, whalers and adventurers who had found their way to New Zealand. One of them was Jacky Marmon – the son of Irish convicts in Sydney – who deserted the whaling ship Sally in 1817.

By the time he assumed his pivotal role at Waitangi, Marmon was not only acting as an interpreter for the chiefs but “vociferously opposed their signing the document,” writes Bentley. Marmon believed European colonisation “would degrade” the Māori. After some lengthy debate, they rejected his advice.

Laura Tingle accurately observes that for 135 years the treaty remained a mere bauble, routinely ignored as land-hungry settlers arrived in increasing numbers. But it remained in the national imagination. Every child learned about it. Unlike Australia’s shameful lack of curiosity about frontier violence, every Kiwi kid learned of the “Māori Wars” (later more neutrally reclassified as the “New Zealand Wars”) between settlers and the original inhabitants.

Tingle is right to observe that “New Zealand has embraced its indigenous culture over the past thirty years – and become both comfortable with and proud of it – in a way we have not.” This is clear in daily life.

When I returned to my old hometown of Christchurch in 2011 to cover the disastrous earthquake, it was striking how many city leaders used Māori concepts unselfconsciously to communicate with a largely Anglo-Celtic population.

Earthquake survivors were urged to look after their whānau – a concept of family much broader than the close blood relatives that still define the Australian ideal.

Kia kaha,” people were encouraged. “Be strong.” It is telling that this Māori phrase became the touchstone for the city, both then and during the even more shocking mosque attacks in 2019.

Also telling was that in the hours and days after the mosque attacks, when Christchurch citizens came to lay flowers and pay their respects, I witnessed two spontaneous outbreaks of the haka – one from a group of senior school children, boys and girls. Laura Tingle makes note of it.

Australia has nothing to match it. The haka, best known to Australians as the ritual that precedes an All Blacks international rugby match, is used increasingly widely in New Zealand to release inexpressible emotion.

In 2015, at my old school, Christchurch Boys’ High, the head boy Jake Bailey delivered the end-of-year address from a wheelchair. Bailey, just seventeen, was afflicted with Burkitt’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer so vigorous that in a matter of weeks he had gone from a fit young man to a shrunken figure, almost lost in his school blazer.

With great poise, he addressed the staff and his fellow pupils. He urged those who were leaving for the last time to “be gallant, be great, be gracious and be grateful.” As he finished, the boys in the hall launched into a haka. As the last sounds faded, Bailey mouthed, “Thank you,” and he was wheeled away. It is hard to do justice to the power of the moment.

I have seen the haka performed elsewhere, spontaneously, for a retiring headmaster and for fallen Kiwi soldiers. The latter lives on YouTube. You can see for yourself.

When I asked the man who led a haka outside Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque why he had done it, he said he was throwing out mana to all those suffering from the massacre. Mana is another Māori concept that defies simple translation but which every New Zealander understands. In this case, through the haka, the people were projecting their own empathy, their spiritual power and strength, onto a shattered community.

“Māori culture,” as Laura Tingle notes, “is increasingly seen as New Zealand’s culture.”

For someone largely raised in New Zealand, but who has lived as an Australian for nearly forty years, I cannot help but lament our Australian impoverishment.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty “is a spiritual notion.” It goes on: “We believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.”

Given a chance, how could it not?

New Zealanders have long since abandoned the pernicious notion that there is nothing to be learned from Māori culture. Māori concepts pervade daily life. Australians, on the other hand, remain overwhelmingly closed to the interior world or practices of our sovereign elders. One notable exception, after the bushfire horrors of 2019–20, was the sudden interest in Aboriginal mosaic burning techniques as a means to limit the largest fires.

It is time for Australians to look east and learn from our strange-vowelled cousins. We are nearly 200 years behind them. Surely it is not too early to start.

Hugh Riminton

Phillip Coorey is political editor for The Australian Financial Review.

Elizabeth Flux’s writing has been widely published, including in The Saturday Paper, Guardian Australia, Island and Meanjin.

Damien Freeman is the author of Abbott’s Right: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott and principal policy adviser at the PM Glynn Institute, the Australian Catholic University’s public policy think-tank.

Dominic Kelly is an honorary research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics: The Hard Right in Australia.

Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne. She is a union organiser, social commentator and activist. Her writing has appeared in Daily Life (Fairfax), Guardian Australia, New Matilda, Tracker Magazine and Eureka Street.

Hugh Mackay is a social psychologist, researcher and author. His recent books include Australia Reimagined and The Inner Self.

David Marr is the author of Patrick White: A Life, Panic, The High Price of Heaven and Dark Victory (with Marian Wilkinson). He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper, Guardian Australia and The Monthly, and been editor of the National Times, a reporter for Four Corners and presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch. He is the author of six bestselling Quarterly Essays.

Katharine Murphy has worked in Canberra’s parliamentary press gallery since 1996 for The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and The Age, before joining Guardian Australia, where she is political editor. She won the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2008 and has been a Walkley Award finalist twice. She is a director of the National Press Club and the author of On Disruption.

Lesley Russell is a non-resident fellow at the United States Studies Centre and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Menzies Centre for Health Policy. She has worked as a senior policy adviser on health for the Democrats in the US House of Representatives, for the Obama administration and for the Australian Labor Party.

Laura Tingle is chief political correspondent for ABC TV’s 7.30. She won the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2004, and Walkley awards in 2005 and 2011. She is the author of Chasing the Future: Recession, Recovery and the New Politics in Australia and three previous acclaimed Quarterly Essays, Great Expectations, Political Amnesia and Follow the Leader.

James Walter is emeritus professor of politics at Monash University. His latest book is The Pivot of Power: Australian Prime Ministers and Political Leadership, 1949–2016 (with Paul Strangio and Paul ’t Hart).


Response to Correspondence

Katharine Murphy

Both a lifetime ago, and only a few months past, I interviewed Scott Morrison in what turned out to be the last hours before he and Daniel Andrews understood there would be a substantial second wave of COVID-19 infections in Victoria. The writer in me appreciates this bit of symmetry. Victoria went into lockdown as I was finalising the Quarterly Essay, and then the state reopened as I crafted this response to the thoughtful and generous feedback you’ve enjoyed in the preceding pages. But it feels cretinous to be musing about symmetry in 2020, when people have suffered.

Australia has fared significantly better than elsewhere in the plague of 2020, largely because of the values our governments displayed in the opening months of the crisis. It was an act of madness for a writer to try to document what was happening in real time while keeping up daily news reporting and guiding my small but brilliant Canberra news team, but I became obsessed with completing that mission. As David Marr notes of my methodology, I wanted to ask, is all this decent?, because I feared that politics being politics, and human nature being what it is, the collegiate spirit, that sense of common purpose demonstrated by our leaders, would peak and then subside. I wanted to capture and share what I witnessed as it happened, knowing that if I documented it later, the same history would be written through a different lens. I would ask different questions.

So, Australia has done well during COVID-19. Better than elsewhere. But most people I know have endured one of the worst years of their lives, and I wanted the essay to respect that sense of a society, of a political class, of an adviser class, being called to draw deeply on reserves. Hugh Mackay is, of course, correct to impose a sense of scale and historical perspective on what the country has experienced this year: COVID is not the Spanish flu, or a world war, and unemployment has not hit the depths of the Great Depression. But living with the virus has been hard, and as a society we are either considerably less tolerant of discomfort than our antecedents, or we have more means and opportunity to vent and agonise publicly about it.

Australians have trudged through winter, Victorians most of all. People have died. People have lost jobs and businesses they spent years nurturing. People have not seen loved ones for months because of closed borders. People who live alone have been isolated in their homes. Our shared sense of what’s normal has shifted profoundly. I now flinch if I see people hugging with abandon on television – this feels like a reckless habit of a pre-pandemic age. Before I get into a lift at Parliament House during sitting weeks, I wonder if it’s a good idea to seal myself in a confined space. I feel anxious at the thought of going to a cinema, which pre-pandemic was one of my great pleasures. There have been very few cases in Canberra for many months, but I still feel more comfortable at home than I do at a restaurant. I wonder how long I’ll feel this way. If a vaccine turns up in the new year, if it works, if it can be rolled out before winter comes around again, will we all forget how this was? Will we revert to the mores of pre-pandemic life with the same delusions of invincibility that existed before COVID, or will we carry the plague with us? Is the coronavirus now etched in our collective consciousness? Will it, and the recession that has punctured Australia’s remarkable three decades of growth, reshape not only our habits, but our collective sensibility?

Perhaps, adaptive and resilient species that we are, we can quickly unlearn the principal lesson of 2020: which was how to retreat. Perhaps the economy will rebound reasonably quickly because this is an artificial recession – a recession induced not by the cyclical booms and busts of capitalism or a credit crisis, but by governments for the purpose of saving lives. This one really was the recession we had to have – although no one was ever rash enough to characterise it in those Keating-esque terms. Perhaps, once governments bring us out of hibernation, we will all revert instantly and exuberantly to the habits of the consumer-driven convenience economy that existed, unchecked, unshadowed, until about the middle of March. Perhaps we will forget what we learnt over these months: that the convenience economy can only be enjoyed at times when the world is not staring down an existential threat. The pandemic also showed us the convenience economy is a function of globalisation, and it is an ecosystem of structural inequality that serves the whims and wants of people of means, with services delivered by an army of people with less rights, less protections and less opportunity than the rest of us – at least it will be, until automation removes even those prospects.

I wanted to document the opening of the crisis because what I witnessed was a succession of moral acts, and by moral acts I mean decisions that gave priority to saving lives. Dominic Kelly fears this insight – and my thesis that Morrison was largely pragmatic rather than ideological during the first wave – is the false narrative of unedifying insider journalism – a common critique of the work of the Canberra press gallery. I’m perfectly comfortable for Kelly to ask if I suffer from Stockholm syndrome, because that’s a question I constantly ask myself. I don’t, by the way. But I’m happy for readers to be the judge.

There is certainly a place for political analysis from a distance. But my task was to furnish a primary-source account of a crisis and a prime minister, and that requires proximity. I watched as days ebbed into nights, filling my notebooks with facts and quotes and transient observations. I remained at my desk, co-located with the decision-makers sequestered downstairs in the ministerial wing. Phil Coorey, political editor of The Australian Financial Review, who drifted in and out of my office seeking sugar and banter, was kind enough to review the essay. Phil spoke about trauma, and he’s right. Some days the story was so huge we were completely overwhelmed. We rattled around the elegant empty spaces of Parliament House, pinging from briefings to press conferences, filing constantly. The wide circulation corridors of Romaldo Giurgola’s magnificent building normally teem with spivs and staffers, but the only sound was our footfalls on the hardwood as we wore the pathways to and from the prime minister’s courtyard and the committee rooms. When Australia went home for the lockdown, the people’s house was funereal and pin-drop quiet, which was at first disconcerting, but then a salve for a reporter battling daily overload.

My colleagues and I watched and listened intently, reported exhaustively, and tried to respond to the public’s hunger for factual information while at the same time managing our personal anxiety and intense fatigue so we could be reliable informants. It’s true we managed those responsibilities better some days than others. I did not witness, nor render, perfection on the part of the government. I did not witness the end of ideology. I did not witness the end of self-interest, or venality, among Australia’s political class – but I did watch and document a group of decision-makers valuing our common humanity, and trying not to fail.

Between the publication of the Quarterly Essay and me writing this response to the thoughtful and generous feedback the essay has generated, I’ve read Bob Woodward’s terrific book Rage, which documents Donald Trump and the US administration’s COVID-19 response. Much of Woodward’s rendering of events felt very familiar to me, because leaders everywhere were facing the same threat, the same unknowns, the same weight of decision-making in the absence of perfect information. The Americans clearly knew a bit more about COVID earlier than we did in Australia, but the timeframes around the critical decision-making, and the inputs, were near identical. The main difference between America and Australia – apart from our political class accepting expert advice and Trump’s dysfunctional White House veering between heeding advice and wild extemporisation – was the concentration span of the person in the top job.

If you’ve read my Quarterly Essay, you will know that I struggled to land a definitive portrait of my fleet-footed and shape-shifting subject, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison. I didn’t use this particular analogy in the essay, but I’ve used it a number of times in sessions with readers as I reflected on the experience of writing a history in real time: our prime minister is like an outline in a colouring book. There’s a bold black outline, a defined shape, but Morrison leaves you to choose your own colours to render him. He allows you to project what you need into his outline. This is a disconcerting quality for me, but it has been a successful strategy for him. In any case, I don’t mention this to re-prosecute my Morrison character study, but to draw a comparison with Trump. Trump is fully hewn. There’s no air gap. The American president is assertively present and fully fleshed out. He’s so ubiquitous and oversized that the experience is repellent for all but the devotees. But what the Woodward history captures is a leader who can’t concentrate at a time when concentration was absolutely necessary.

Our leaders, federal and state, concentrated during this crisis. They worked punishingly hard. They agonised in small groups, with experts floating in and out, trying to get the big calls right. I know this because I saw it. I saw their fear and their fatigue. I saw them running behind a crisis, trying to catch up and cushion the blows. Morrison wasn’t distracted, and neither were the premiers. They were sometimes too slow, or wrong, or not quite sharp enough, or not in perfect lockstep, or they lacked the bandwidth to micromanage every element of every problem – but they weren’t fundamentally impeded by their own narcissism. This sustained focus – combined with luck, with geography, with the fall of the seasons – explains why things have been better here than elsewhere, even though there was a second wave and there could be a third wave, as we are seeing now in the Northern Hemisphere as the winter closes in.

The sense of common purpose in the Australian political class spanned the middle of March through until about July, when the second wave in Victoria fractured the country’s sense of pride and relief at initial success. The second wave heralded the return of partisanship. The Andrews government stumbled in managing the crisis – serious administrative missteps in contact tracing and in hotel quarantine – and went into damage control. The Commonwealth first distanced itself from the reversal, then turned on Andrews, intensifying the ferocity of its attacks to help mask its own failures in preparing aged-care homes for the crisis, failures the Morrison government continues to try to minimise. The country was treated to the perverse spectacle of Morrison agreeing that Victoria should be locked down, then punishing Andrews for following through. Senior Victorian ministers in Canberra carpet-bombed Andrews for his failures, then demanded the premier move faster with reopening, which was a peculiar kind of madness, because Andrews was never going to reopen the state before he felt the virus was contained.

Reopening too quickly would have put lives at risk, and also would have exposed Andrews to more bombardment from federal ministers. Andrews learnt that when things go bad, no one has your back. No one will stand with you in your hour of need. What the federal prosecution squad conveyed to the Victorian premier through their hectoring was: don’t take any risks, because if you do, and disaster ensues, you are on your own. If Canberra wanted the state reopened, the most effective means of achieving that would have been to give Andrews some breathing space, some level of comfort that was a risk worth taking – but no comfort was forthcoming.

This reversion to politics as usual was all pretty depressing, because for a time things had been different. Not perfect. Just different. I’m not entirely certain how we unwind from the reversion to type, given Australia and the world is still mired in the crisis. That crisis still requires goodwill and cooperation to optimise its management. Rather than a government of nine, the federation now presents to the public as a resentful couple staying together for the sake of the children more than as a constructive partnership. But as Lesley Russell notes in her response, the findings of the essay, and the observations in this response, must be regarded as interim, because the long-term consequences of the virus are yet to be understood.

This was my first Quarterly Essay. I found it desperately hard, but the times are important, and I reported honestly, and shared what I saw. I hope the record stands the test of time. I was assisted in the project by many conversations, both on and off the record. Thank you for all the responses, which are beyond generous. I’m grateful to all the readers who have been in touch since publication with thoughts. This is a dialogue I cherish. Thank you to Chris Feik for improving both the thoughts and the words. I hope we work together again. Thank you also to Kirstie Innes-Will, who understood my voice and my objectives. The pandemic meant I was working with an editor and a copyeditor whom I’d never met, but their professionalism made it easy. I’m very grateful to Lenore Taylor, my friend and editor, and to my wonderful Guardian Australia Canberra team, who really didn’t need me pursuing such an absorbing project at such a critical time but went on the journey with me with grace. Evie, Tom, Evan: I love you. Mark: I love you, and thank you. As usual, you went above and beyond.

Katharine Murphy



Hugh Mackay

We have always known that Katharine Murphy is in the front rank of political journalists, and that we are fortunate to have her in our midst, especially at a time like this: her account of the political response to COVID-19 is documentary journalism at its best. But The End of Certainty demonstrates that Murphy is also a formidable essayist. The broad sweep of this essay, and the sheer quality of the writing, set it apart as one of the finest recent examples of the form. I’m not surprised she chose a quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins early on: there are many flashes of her own writing that could have been inspired by Hopkins – including her fondness for using compounds like “war-game” and “blame-shift” as verbs.

This response will focus on two aspects of the essay: the personality of the prime minister, and the social impact of the pandemic.

Murphy has presented us with some acute observations of Scott Morrison the man. Given her limited access, and the guarded nature of some of Morrison’s responses, her insights and interpretations are impressive, and shed light on some aspects of Morrison’s behaviour whose significance we might otherwise not grasp. For example, her assessment of him as “project manager” rather than a political philosopher or policy-maker may account for his apparent insensitivity to some of the demands of the prime ministerial role, most notably in the bushfire crisis, but also in the early stumbles in his handling of the pandemic.

His irritability is worth knowing about, and his impatience with parliament itself helps to explain his preference for “mates radio” over Question Time, and for wandering around in a baseball cap and high-vis vest over parliamentary debates or robust press conferences. The sight of him scrolling through his phone while Anthony Albanese delivered his budget reply speech on 8 October looked like a sign of contempt for the institution, not just for the leader of the Opposition. (Josh Frydenberg, by contrast, appeared to give Albanese appropriately courteous attention.)

Murphy assures us that Morrison is adaptable and a quick learner, but it’s odd to think we might have a prime minister who isn’t comfortable in the parliament – the most potent symbol of our democracy.

“Scotty from marketing” is a sobriquet Morrison obviously hates, but there’s a good aspect to it: his marketing background has taught him to respect the views of his market and to see his political challenge not as winning the voters to his side, but convincing them that he’s on their side – the classic position of successful brand marketing: “It’s not about you responding to us; it’s about us responding to you.” His assessment of the mood of the electorate, as reported by Murphy, is spot-on. The unanswerable question is whether his pandemic lessons – more patience, more empathy, more sensitivity, more respect for experts (including climate scientists) – will survive the COVID era and translate into a permanent shift. If it does, he could be in the job for years to come.

The big shift in politics during the pandemic has been the nation’s willingness – even eagerness – for governments to play a bigger part in our lives; to tell us what to do; to lead, in other words, and perhaps even to inspire (certainly to reassure). In spite of our much-vaunted larrikinism, we are actually a rather acquiescent society compared with many others – most notably the United States; obedience comes easily to us. But we had certainly become disenchanted with politics before the pandemic arrived, and it’s worth asking why that was. (It wasn’t only politics we were disenchanted with, of course: also banks, churches, mass media, trade unions … it’s been a rough time for institutions, in terms of public respect and trust.)

We become disenchanted with institutions when we feel as if they’ve lost sight of their reason for being: to serve the society that brought them into being or gave them their social licence to operate. We learn to distrust them when we think they are most concerned with serving their own ends – particularly when they are preoccupied with their own power plays – and that’s been a big criticism of Australian politics for many years.

During the pandemic, it seemed that governments – especially state governments – were unambiguously attuned to the wellbeing of the community. And so, against the trend, our trust rose. It will only continue to rise if politicians, including Morrison, understand why we have parliaments in the first place. Perhaps his irritation with parliament and its rituals and procedures means he hasn’t yet fully grasped that it’s our institution, not his: lack of respect for the institution feels like lack of respect for us.

One other thing about Morrison intrigued Murphy: his religious faith. She is clearly sympathetic, as most Australians are. (I’ve reported elsewhere on the phenomenon of “faith envy.”) When Morrison says that Australia “is not a secular country,” he’s right: the last Census showed that almost two-thirds of Australians identify with a religion, including 52 per cent who still identify as Christian. The thing that interests many Australians is not that Morrison has a religious faith, but what kind of faith it is. Though Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing branch of Christianity here and around the world, knowledge of its doctrines is limited and awareness is mostly focused on practices such as “speaking in tongues,” ecstatic swooning, arm raising, and enthusiastic singing of rock-gospel songs.

The thing that caught my attention in Murphy’s discussion of Morrison’s faith was her sense that he is doubt-free, and that’s a worry. Doubt, after all, is faith’s oxygen: if we knew, we wouldn’t need to believe. It’s arguable that faith not washed by tides of doubt is not faith at all. What sometimes passes for faith might be an embrace of dogma, doctrine or prejudice; it might be a strong connection to a faith community, or trust in a religious institution; it might be more about values than beliefs; it might be a commitment to certain practices that bring comfort; but is it “faith”?

Given that this is supposed to be such a central part of Morrison’s life, it’s not surprising that many of us are curious to know what kind of belief system he has. Does he, for instance, believe in an interventionist supreme being who could actually be bothered delivering a “miraculous” election victory to someone in a small country at the bottom of the world, perhaps because he prayed so hard for it? Does he pray for rain, as if there’s a God who acts as controller-in-chief of the weather, turning the tap on or off according to the quantity and quality of human requests to do so?

Does he share the literal belief of many Pentecostalists – though of very few other Christians – in The Rapture (a fast-approaching end-of-time event when Christian believers, both dead and alive, would rise bodily from the earth “to meet the Lord in the air”)? And if so, does that make him more fatalistic and less interested in long-range planning, especially in response to climate change? The answer to such questions could be highly relevant to Morrison’s approach to politics, and to fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s no wonder he ducked the issue of religion when Murphy raised it.

The social effects of the pandemic were lightly touched on by Murphy, yet she seemed reluctant to accept that her reflections on her own experience – of a rejuvenated sense of neighbourhood, in particular – might be more than a surrender to sentimentality. In fact, Murphy’s experience reflected not only what has happened here, and around the world, in response to the pandemic, but also what usually happens to human communities in a crisis.

The first reaction is often unformed and exaggerated fear, leading to panic and outbreaks of selfish behaviour. But nobler responses usually prevail, simply because we know we are members of a social species that can only survive – let alone thrive – to the extent that we acknowledge that we indivisibly belong to each other, bear some responsibility for each other’s wellbeing, and depend upon each other. Murphy’s experience of regularly waving to a neighbour she had not previously acknowledged was one tiny sign of a more general COVID-led trend: not only is government back in our lives; so is the neighbourhood. Perhaps our little taste of social isolation has brought home to us what it must feel like for those who are permanently at risk of feeling left out, such as older people living alone, single parents, people with a disability or those struggling with mental illness.

Early in the course of the pandemic, I encountered two young men via a webinar, who were both new to their neighbourhoods – one in Melbourne, one in Sydney. Both were living alone. In both cases, early in the lockdown, they put notes in the letterboxes of all the houses in their street, offering to help out with shopping or other chores. Their deeply human instinct was to connect.

Zoom, and an ever-growing family of similar platforms, quickly emerged as a way to “connect” for people deprived of social contact. The age of video meetings, online parties, webinars and “virtual” events of all kinds was suddenly upon us. Zoom and its siblings seemed like the techno-saviours we needed, until we discovered – surprise, surprise – that, just like social media posts, Zoom-type links run a distant second to the real thing; better than nothing, but lacking the crucial ingredients for social connection: eye-contact and actual, physical presence. While the technology gave us a brilliant stop-gap, it also served as a persuasive reminder that “connected but lonely” is a perfectly possible situation: lots of messaging, but no presence.

As Murphy’s quote from Jodie McVernon of the Doherty Institute put it: “The social measures we are taking also have health impacts.” Chief among those impacts are the health hazards that arise from widespread social isolation increasing the incidence of loneliness. It’s not only anxiety and depression that are likely to increase in response to social isolation: there’s also an increased risk of hypertension, inflammation, cognitive decline and addiction. That’s why psychologists are now saying that social isolation is a greater risk to public health than obesity. The federal government’s increased attention to the mental health consequences of the pandemic is therefore welcome.

Another positive human instinct on display was our willingness to accept the restrictions on our individual lives in the interests of the common good. We all have the capacity to show compassion, kindness and respect towards each other – even towards total strangers – and when there’s a crisis, that tendency is far more evident than the reckless individualism of a minority of citizens.

Murphy correctly points out that one effect of the pandemic is to expose our vulnerabilities as a society. The question is whether the pandemic will jolt us into a more compassionate response to homelessness, for instance, or to the destructive shift in the labour market towards insecure employment. At least any stigma attached to unemployment has now been washed away, but we are still remarkably reluctant to acknowledge that, even when things return to “normal,” we simply don’t have enough work for everyone who wants to work.

We’ve been here before, of course. The Great Depression was a dreadful period for our parents or grandparents to live through, yet they looked back on it with a kind of gratitude: it was a time when their values were forged in hardship, and their priorities were clarified. Counterintuitively, many of them described themselves as “lucky” for having been tempered by such adversity, and they typically claimed that the lessons of the Depression never left them.

This points to the only two aspects of Murphy’s essay where I beg to differ. When she says that “crises are tipping points where societies are consumed by the worst of their collective impulses” and refers to our “unmoored humanity,” I find myself rushing to the defence of humankind, based on such evidence as Murphy’s experience in her own street. Crises are, more typically, episodes from which we learn important lessons about what it means to be human and how best to preserve social cohesion in the face of catastrophe. Communities affected by this year’s bushfires certainly didn’t report an outbreak of bad behaviour; quite the reverse.

It’s the same for individuals who deal with personal trauma – relationship breakdown, serious illness, retrenchment, bereavement. The typical (though not universal) response is to look back on such events as times when we faced questions like these: “What really matters?” “Am I living the kind of life I really want to live?” “Am I being true to the values I claim to espouse?” Adversity is often the trigger for self-discovery, and the pandemic certainly provided plenty of opportunities for self-examination.

One obvious social consequence of all this disruption and introspection is that many of us are determined to restructure our lives; to be more flexible about our working arrangements; to cut back on pointless busyness and the stress it induces; to be less inclined to rush hither and thither; to rethink travel plans; to value home and family – and neighbourhood – more than we did.

The other point of difference: I suspect that Murphy somewhat overestimates the scale of COVID-19’s impact on Australia. Every avoidable death is a tragedy; the economic costs are huge – but let’s keep it in perspective. At the time of writing, we had had about 900 COVID deaths out of a population of 25 million. The Spanish flu of 1919 killed about 15,000 Australians out of a population of 5 million – mainly because we didn’t then know what we now know about infection control. World War I caused about 60,000 Australian deaths, and another 26,000 Australian lives were lost in World War II. Unemployment was far worse, in scale and consequences, in the Great Depression than now – and social security provisions were even less generous.

By contrast with those cataclysmic events, and thanks to radical counter-measures, the pandemic’s direct impact has been mild, even though its social and political consequences could turn out to be far-reaching. Of course, it seems so much worse because, thanks to our famous twenty-eight consecutive years of economic growth, we had been lulled into a state of dreamy complacency, as if we could always rely on our luck to keep us out of trouble.

Finally, the essay’s title, The End of Certainty. It might have been borrowed from Paul Kelly’s seminal book of 1992, or perhaps drawn from the conclusion of Jodie McVernon’s quote: “The dilemmas are very real. There are no guarantees. There is no certainty.” But, as I read it, McVernon was not suggesting that COVID-19 marked the end of some mythical period of certainty. Rather, it was another reminder that, when it comes to human affairs – biological, psychological, political, social, economic or cultural – nothing is ever certain. The pandemic hasn’t ended certainty for us, but perhaps it has reminded us, as crises and catastrophes always do, that the very idea of certainty is a seductive delusion.

Hugh Mackay



Celeste Liddle

I’m writing this response to Katharine Murphy’s essay The End of Certainty the same day that the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has announced what is effectively an end to the Melbourne lockdown. In mere minutes, for the first time since June, I will be able to see my parents, two of my siblings and one of my nephews, in a space where all of our new 25-kilometre radii overlap. Although I am just weeks away from completing my Masters, I may actually get to set foot on campus. In three weeks, my partner and I may be able to celebrate our anniversary at the very pub we met at. We’ve been in each other’s hair for seven months straight, but despite this, we still very much feel like celebrating us. Yet to be honest, it feels surreal, like I need to see it happen to believe it, because if I have learnt anything this year, it’s that situations can change so quickly. A healthy degree of cynicism is not just wise, it’s essential.

Murphy’s essay has provided us with invaluable insight into Scott Morrison and his government’s responses up until August; perhaps this comment will be more of a postscript to things she foreshadowed in the closing chapters – the tension between Morrison and Andrews, for example, as the second wave took hold in Victoria. And nationalism – why it seemed more important in a global pandemic and how it was manifesting.

I can’t help but feel let down by our political leadership. This pandemic and the formation of the National Cabinet could have led to some of Australia’s finest moments – it certainly provided opportunities for cohesion and growth – yet I don’t think this has been the case. I’m not an expert. I’m not an epidemiologist, nor a forensic pathologist. I’m a mere commentator rather than a journalist, and my COVID “comfort spending” credit card bill attests that I am definitely not an economist. I do, however, possess a keenly trained eye when it comes to social policy and political leadership. Despite this, Murphy reminded me of why I felt so incredibly confused back in March, when all of a sudden we were locked down. Political leaders had failed to inform the public properly about the threat of this terrible virus, and I myself made comparisons to the flu based on what I’d heard. Indeed, while videos circulated on social media of supermarket shoppers fighting over toilet paper and canned tomatoes, most of us sat back and laughed at people we deemed “doomsday prepper fools.”

Perhaps it is the progressive Melbourne bubble I live in, but at the beginning, the Morrison–Andrews situation felt very much like an interplay between a middle-aged white man viewed as an incompetent national leader and another middle-aged white man viewed as a competent state leader. Many Victorians saw the Andrews government’s moves for stronger early containment measures as a sign of strength. So, sadly, we said a temporary goodbye to our live venues, our pubs, our restaurants, our cultural scene, our sporting scene (even though these are the things we like to wave smugly in the faces of other Australian capitals) for the greater good.

Likewise, although Murphy is completely correct in highlighting just how unprecedented it was for a Liberal government to vastly increase welfare payments, I think many in Victoria saw the horrifically long queues at Centrelink and viewed the increase as long overdue. Probably more notable was that the Victorian government appeared to be looking after those the federal government had forgotten. Homeless people, for example, being housed in hotels, or the emergency payments made to international university students who’d been left without support and not much more from Morrison than a “go home.” It was rough, but we flattened the curve, rejoiced and then headed back to our (now completely seated and spaced-out) pubs for a celebratory pint.

It clearly didn’t last. In July I seized the opportunity to go to country Victoria for a break and just as we were leaving, the postcode lockdown and housing commission tower detention began. By the time I got back, all of Melbourne had plunged into Stage 3 restrictions, and Stage 4 followed weeks later. And here begins my criticism of the Andrews approach, but the writing had actually been on the wall several months earlier and I had failed to note it. Back in April, it had been reported that the majority of non-compliance fines for lockdowns were not being issued in the wealthy suburbs such as Toorak, whose residents were bringing the virus home with them from their international skiing trips. The fines were being issued in working-class outer areas with a higher proportion of migrant communities, and unfortunately, this divide between rich and poor, white and brown and black, continued. Perhaps what Murphy observed about government use of “nationalism” has even morphed into “Victorianism” (for want of a better term) at times.

The Andrews government was not responsible for the attacks on Asian students in February and March, when unthinking people read memes on the internet and set out to blame anyone they believed looked remotely Chinese: Australia remains a deeply racist country, shaped both by the fiction of terra nullius and its old friend the White Australia Policy. The Andrews government did, however, play a role in the demonisation of the Black Lives Matter rally in June. This is not just because a “senior government source” leaked a fake report to The Age that attendees planned to spit on police, but also because, despite all the efforts the diligent organisers made to work with community health organisations, provide personal protective equipment to attendees and ensure that messages of distancing were repeated throughout the protest, they were still slapped with large fines. Not a single case of COVID community transmission was recorded due to the rally, yet the waters were so muddied by the government and their police service that many ordinary Victorians came to believe it was the cause of the second wave.

When it became abundantly clear the rally had not caused the second wave, government messaging seemed to focus on families having “large gatherings.” This was taken by some as a dog whistle allowing racists to blame ethnic families or Eid celebrations. The ground-work had been done to ensure mainstream society would give the required hegemonic assent to the lockdown of multicultural postcodes and commission towers, which housed a high proportion of impoverished migrants. The baddies were those “other people” and it was for Victoria’s own good that police were guarding their every move.

What we weren’t aware of then was that the government knew where the second wave had come from, and it wasn’t those “other people.” It was its own quarantine program. Findings of the commission into the quarantine program are due to be handed down soon, but we already know this: that the government elected to use private security guards, even though publicly funded options were available (for example, the police or Army Reserve); that the three companies it contracted the security to then sub-contracted out to other companies, which then contracted out further until some security guards were engaged via WhatsApp messages; that, notwithstanding reports in certain publications regarding security guards engaging in sex with guests, the first person infected was a hotel duty manager; that the infection spread from low-paid, insecure workers in one industry to low-paid, insecure workers in other industries, such as meatworks, aged care and factories. Eighty per cent of second-wave transmissions were happening in the workplace.

This was when the government script flipped from blaming “others” to “individuals.” Regardless of sentiments expressed at the daily press conferences, I’ve never felt we were “all in it together.” The quarantine outbreak and the infection chain that followed exposed deep systemic problems, but the key messaging at the press conferences was about “individual responsibility.” Sure, government directives on masks, restricting contact and movement, and getting tested even with the smallest of symptoms were prudent health policy. But when I heard that fines for “breaking curfew” – a government measure based purely on easier policing that had not been recommended by the Chief Health Officer or the Police Commissioner – had been worn disproportionately by Sudanese and Aboriginal people, or that residents in the locked-down commission towers and poorer, multicultural postcodes were forced to translate health directives for themselves with the assistance of NGOs, the sentiment of all being in it together seemed rather hollow. The towers were locked down with four hours’ notice and the “detention” measures were criticised in a scathing letter from the UN’s former special rapporteur on adequate housing.

What’s more, social media has been a particularly vicious place to “live” during lockdown. When I wasn’t seeing blatantly racist materials blaming Black Lives Matter for the second wave or comparing the premier to everyone from Mao to Hitler, I was setting my clock by the daily chants of #IStandWithDan as people reacted to criticism of the government from the right-wing press. An online cult of personality grew up around Andrews, with journalists demonised who directed tricky questions his way. When quality publications such as The Saturday Paper, The Guardian and The Age are publishing valid criticism and sections of the left on social media are treating it all as an affront requiring punishment of the journalists, I have real concerns for open and honest political dialogue.

COVID is going nowhere fast. The Andrews government knows this and has a plan leading to Victorians living a “COVID-normal” life. We’re in this until a vaccine is developed or the virus dies out, as SARS did – whatever comes first. In a recent opinion piece, Virginia Trioli put the question to the Victorian government: “Victorians have done our bit to suppress COVID. Premier, have you done yours?” She asked whether the Department of Health and Human Services had been bolstered, whether more contact tracers had been engaged, whether “infection protocols” had been strengthened and supported in high-risk areas such as hospitals, aged care and meatworks. I want to know all this too. The toll of the second wave on Victorians, particularly Melburnians, has been immense – economically, socially, physically, mentally and mortality-wise. We don’t want to end up here again.

Considering all this, the most striking takeaway from Murphy’s essay is that this tale of Australian political leadership is “to be continued.” For me it’s been an educational journey – I now know a lot more about a conservative prime minister in whom I’d previously shown little interest. I have indeed, at times, been surprised by his pragmatism and innovation while still gnashing my teeth at federal failures. Similarly, though, I have watched a much-admired Labor premier be punitive, fuel fear and division and be buffered in these problematic tactics by sections of the community who should know better. I want to be clear here: I am not saying I have not supported the Victorian leadership at times. I am saying that if we end up in this situation again and we do truly want to be “all in it together,” then we must be more critical and call for more accountability. We must be able to trust that our elected leaders, whether federal, state or in the form of a National Cabinet, are speaking to each other, that the various ministries collaborate and that they make the right decisions for the entire community, particularly supporting those who need help most. Simple hashtags deifying leadership while demonising reporters just ain’t going to cut it.

Celeste Liddle



Lesley Russell

Katharine Murphy’s essay on Scott Morrison and pandemic politics is the first of likely many to explore how Australia’s government leaders have responded and continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and its associated impacts.

Her findings must be regarded as interim, with the long-term health, economic, social and international security consequences of this new viral foe yet to be fully demonstrated and understood.

Just as there is no recognised playbook for how to respond to this new pandemic, neither is there an agreed yardstick for measuring the success of the response. The most obvious questions to ask are:

Has Australia followed the best, most up-to-date scientific advice and evidence?

Has Australia done better than other, similar countries?

Have fewer people died in Australia than elsewhere?

Has the economy been less adversely affected?

There are factual answers to these questions; for example, a recently published analysis finds that if Australia had gone down the same path as England and Wales in March and April, there would have been 16,000 more deaths. In contrast to the United States, where First Nations people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, Indigenous Australians are significantly under-represented in the nation’s cases despite a higher-risk status.

These answers cast Australia in a positive light, but they must also be seen in the context of ethics and fairness:

What has been the impact on peoples’ trust in government and support for government decisions?

Have there been disproportionate impacts on some population groups?

Is there community empathy and support for those who have suffered the most?

Have government resources and taxpayers’ dollars been used effectively?

On balance, with the second wave of the pandemic seemingly under control but so many unknowns ahead, Australia has done well. Yes, there have been mistakes made, some of them serious and – in retrospect – unnecessary. The extent to which Morrison can claim credit for the positives and be blamed for the negatives is up for discussion.

As the essay points out, the pragmatic, rational, science-based approach of the prime minister and his advisers meant that Australia has not gone down the disastrous paths of the United States, the United Kingdom and parts of Europe. The early warning signals from these countries were duly noted and acted upon in ways that – for the most part – were timely, appropriate and encompassed the whole population.

Australia faced the epidemic with some inherent advantages, including high-functioning health-care and public health systems which, together with the health-care workforce, were capable of the needed expansion and flexibility to deal with the pandemic; the ability to close international borders; and community and government trust in an excellent national cadre of scientific and medical experts that generally meant a willingness to follow official advice and directives.

These were boosted by the nationwide, bipartisan approach from governments, the ready and free availability of testing and the necessary tracing and follow-up efforts, and, most particularly, the financial and employment supports that are essential corollaries of lockdown, business disruption and social isolation.

The essay’s findings make it clear that Morrison’s early leadership on the pandemic response was based as much on his need to atone for his failures during the bushfires as it was on his self-described “fixer” approach to governing. He established the National Cabinet arrangement as a way to project himself into the centre of crisis management and appear in control, although it also facilitated cooperative action and the best use of the available federal levers. And his concerns have always been more about the economic and market consequences of the pandemic than the costs to society and the emotional toll on individuals and communities.

However, the nation was the beneficiary of his ability to wrangle strong-minded premiers with their own agendas (at least this was the case early on), the willingness of all heads of government to listen to and act on the expert advice they received, and the fact that the conservative coalition Morrison leads was willing (at least temporarily) to change its political stance and deliver a “non-ideological conservative” financial response to the pandemic.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to speculate on the role of Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy in the economic response. He was uniquely qualified for this advisory role, having been a nurse before he switched to economics and having conducted research on the economic impact of a pandemic.)

The hard work of government leaders and the health-care workforce and the sacrifices of working Australians and their families have brought us to what is hopefully the end of the second wave of the pandemic. Meanwhile the United States and the United Kingdom seem to be headed into a third wave, a situation aggravated by the arrival of winter and irrational leadership from President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson (leadership informed neither by science nor even by their own personal experiences of infection).

Most Australians look on askance. Surely some self-congratulations are in order? Perhaps, but as the coronavirus pandemic moves from an acute national disaster to a chronic policy dilemma, pre-existing problems remain and new ones loom. Morrison says he likes problem-solving – but now the problems are difficult and expensive, requiring long-term vision and sustained commitment.

As it has everywhere, the pandemic in this country has exposed the weaknesses in social welfare and health-care systems, and socio-economic inequalities, and threatened the inclusiveness of a multicultural society. Too many Australians and people resident in Australia have not received needed financial assistance, frontline workers have been deprived of necessary personal protective equipment and support for their physical and mental wellbeing, communication with culturally and linguistically diverse communities has been poor, and vulnerable people in aged and disability care have died because of failures of staffing and infection control. The burdens have been doubly imposed on those still reeling from the summer bushfires.

It seems Morrison now has little interest in understanding or addressing these issues. He is not the uniter-in-chief; there is no longer any attempt to convey a national unity approach from National Cabinet. He is happy to play state premiers off against each other and second-guess their decisions. The federal government refuses to accept responsibly for the aged-care catastrophe, and there is an almost punitive approach to certain population groups needing help.

Morrison has made a series of significant coronavirus funding announcements, but much of the funding is yet to flow where it is needed. Moreover, although the exigencies of the pandemic have highlighted new ways of working, educating and delivering health care, Morrison and his cabinet have shown no interest in promulgating reforms.

This is exemplified in the 2020–21 federal budget. With its focus squarely on the economy and jobs, this is not a reforming budget, it is not a “build back better” budget (to borrow from Jacinda Ardern and Joe Biden). Former treasury secretary Ken Henry was quoted as saying, “They’ve delivered a stimulus budget. Which is fine, but they haven’t delivered reform.”

There has undoubtedly been a significant financial commitment to addressing the immediate impact of the pandemic and rebuilding the economy – total emergency spending now amounts to $397 billion – but this is insufficient for the greater need. The JobSeeker coronavirus supplement has been extended to March – at a reduced rate – and beyond that may revert to a rate that makes paying for essentials such as food and medicine a struggle. Failure to properly subsidise child care affects the career prospects of many women. There is nothing to boost employment opportunities for older women.

There is nothing here to tackle the reforms in public health and health-care delivery, workforce and financing that will be so necessary to address the expected burdens of “long COVID” (the manifold, long-term consequences of the infection), the burgeoning rate of mental health disorders, and the mounting problems caused by delayed access to cancer screening, effective management of chronic conditions and growing waiting lists for elective surgery. Not to mention the preparations that should begin now for the next pandemic that will surely arrive.

The government chose not to react to the Productivity Commission’s report on its mental health inquiry (which it is yet to release) and the interim reports from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. Reforms have been urgently needed in both these areas for decades and the pandemic has magnified this. There was nothing to tackle social housing needs and homelessness. At a time when the value of academic expertise, analysis and research is highlighted daily, Morrison and his cabinet have instituted changes to the university sector that will see thousands of jobs lost, teaching standards decline and funds for research dry up.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the complexity of policy-making in the context of scientific uncertainty into sharp focus. Communication and decision-making in such exceptional times require courage, clear thinking, consultation and humility. The complexity cannot be made to disappear with a surfeit of confidence; neither is procrastination an option. Policy must change as new evidence and data are generated and the cases for such changes must be effectively made to all stakeholders.

On my analysis, based on Katharine Murphy’s excellent essay and Morrison’s subsequent actions, Morrison gets a pass grade for the initial months of the pandemic response, but he has failed to sustain this and has reverted to his true form – more partisan, more narrowly focused and much less visionary than the country needs or deserves.

Lesley Russell



James Walter

A crisis is always both a challenge and an opportunity: an opportunity not only for a leader to demonstrate capacity, but also for an astute observer to capture, as Katharine Murphy puts it, “a prime minister in flight, at a critical moment.” Since Murphy has become a go-to commentator on and analyst of contemporary politics, adept at illuminating individual qualities, it is an enticing proposition. I’ve always relished Murphy’s wonderful encapsulation of Peta Credlin as she departed mainstream politics, “refusing to shrink, rolling on, stoking her own mythology like a little sustaining campfire, owning a persona she invented for a purpose, refusing to defer.”

Her subject this time is Scott Morrison, about whom she has already written extensively. Will pandemic politics provide the summative moment in which she can now capture the Morrison persona, showing it to be “invented for a purpose,” and explain what it presages for meeting the crisis we confront?

First, the nature of the challenge. The essay title encourages one to accept the supposition that this is a moment of unprecedented uncertainty. While that is uncontested, it might also be said that the pandemic has laid bare the untenable costs of the risk society that has long been with us.

Over recent decades, both Coalition and Labor governments have progressively shifted risk from the state to individuals. They privatised public services where possible (for example, energy services), contracted out “client services” to private providers (witness JobSeeker and aged care), “marketised” higher education while diminishing public funding and withdrew support for social housing, to name a few instances. They relied on regulatory oversight rather than direct engagement to ensure the public good. Citizens were expected to be capable of informed decisions in a context where they had now to deal with commercial entities rather than accountable public institutions. Morrison and his colleagues have, until now, been fervent exponents of this paradigm.

Polls have shown for near twenty years how unhappy the public is with this process. Yet since the major parties were complicit in the transition, electoral options for change were limited. Now the pandemic has starkly exposed costs that were evident well before it arrived: inadequate regulation, the precariousness of gig employment, the sapping of consumer confidence in the face of wage stagnation as “markets” privilege profit and shareholder returns above workers, the disadvantaged being treated as problems demanding case management rather than as casualties of circumstances beyond their control, homelessness and, in Murphy’s words, “the terrible indignity of ageing, high levels of youth unemployment, the fragility of a world-class university sector.”

How did the Morrison Coalition government respond? It recognised that in most cases (apart from that of the universities), these costs could not, for the moment, be ignored. The vulnerable homeless are a threat to public health and must be housed. Unemployment (and casualisation) must be addressed by keeping people connected to the labour market lest the demand for benefits overwhelm the system. Business and unions must find common ground. Consumption had to be maintained, both to shore up businesses and to sustain aggregate demand. Private health providers must work with public hospitals. And many restraints on freedom of movement must be introduced to halt transmission of the virus.

The Coalition listened to health experts on flattening the curve of infection and, in adopting means to stabilise consumption and demand, responded to the advice of a public service of which it had long been sceptical. The government also realised the importance of national, cross-party teams by engaging with state leaders, sought to establish common purpose between business and unions – and avoided mimicking the approach of allies in the United States and the United Kingdom, whose management of the crisis has proved disastrous. In many respects, it reversed approaches thought integral to the Coalition DNA.

Many have commented on these remarkable changes, but Murphy is especially good at outlining the stages and timelines of development as seen by insiders, and by Morrison himself. Was it, then, a new beginning, driven by a pragmatic, “shape-shifting” leader who was growing in the job, capable of adapting to radical change and bringing his party with him? Murphy would like to think so: a recurrent theme in her argument is that of a leader learning from experience, of Morrison watching others and reading the room for what is needed, of a pragmatist who is “protean” and hard to get a fix on. “This guy,” she remarks, “can be anything he thinks he needs to be.” She leaves us with that image of mutability: “He hasn’t landed yet … He’s still journeying to the core of his own project.”

This is not entirely persuasive. One can read the evidence Murphy so usefully presents as confirming persistent elements of Morrison’s operational mode. The habit of giving away as little as possible, telling only what he wants to convey rather than engaging with an inquiry, was captured by many commentators, including Murphy, before the 2019 election. Here, she remarks that in agreeing to an interview, “Morrison’s objective is not to be understood … So don’t expect much sharing,” and refers to his preferred method of communicating via a circle of broadcasting “mates.”

It is an approach that accords with the carefully crafted ScoMo persona, the “daggy Dad” whose very ordinariness suggests that he understands your interests without having to go on about things. This too was a persona invented for a purpose. It served well to shield him from questions and to obscure the calculating politician in delivering the “Morrison Miracle” election victory of 2019. Now it implies the caring dad, responsible for the health of the nation. Of course, every politician wants to manage their image, but Morrison’s preoccupation with control, screening any intrusion, is what seems to make him hard to read. Yet there are telling indicators, which Murphy captures, even while resisting certain conclusions.

She demonstrates effectively that Morrison is a power politician, not a persuader, a man who “isn’t well liked in politics. He plays to win.” But then she remarks that it is hard to identify any abiding objectives, asking, “What hill would Scott Morrison die on?”

Unlike Murphy, but drawing on the evidence she presents, I suggest the answer is twofold: an artful connection of power politics with religious conviction. Morrison makes no secret of his faith, but implies it is private, not a political issue. One can accept, as Murphy does, that Morrison’s faith is significant. How, though, is one to reconcile his commitment to the teachings of Jesus with the lack of compassion in so many of the policies for which he has been responsible? Morrison would not be the first believer to consult his conscience about such quandaries, only to find that his political instincts were right (Alfred Deakin springs to mind). The particularity of his commitment, however, is key: he is, as a politician, consistently reading the room, but he is, as a believer, also “sizing up which side you are on,” with, as he expressed it in his maiden speech, recognition of “an unchanging and absolute standard of what is good and what is evil.”

If you are not “one of us,” therefore, expect no mercy: it is a recipe for reversion to partisan intensification. Further, this religious sensibility can accommodate the methods of the power politician without hypocrisy. The man who, to paraphrase pioneering political psychologist Harold Lasswell, steers by power chances, now has an added benefit: he has God on his side. He will die on a hill that he determines, after prayer, is “right.” But however he persuades himself and rationalises it for others, it will be about fighting to maintain power. It is not a matter of adherence to specific principles: he can dismiss the mantras of some colleagues as “boring, tired, tedious and claustrophobic,” and appear to be the fixer and project manager, pursuing “non-ideological conservatism,” but it may be a mistake to forget the ruthlessness incipient in such righteousness.

Morrison is not so deluded as to think he can do what is needed alone – this is the limitation on what Murphy calls “trying on the Trump suit.” He recognises he needs others: experts, public servants and, in current circumstances, the state leaders. Yet here, too, is a power chance – a deliberative mode that “makes the upper echelons of the government drill concepts into submission,” and the creation of a leadership team, in the National Cabinet, that dispensed with staff and officials, became more important for a time than his own cabinet, muzzled the more ideological voices inside the Coalition and rendered his Coalition partner, the National Party, “a total irrelevance.” Now, in the National Cabinet, which is expected to continue, he has a top-down instrument, largely free of parliamentary scrutiny and remote from officialdom. Surely this is an accentuation of executive power of which Murphy might have said more?

Of course, Morrison did not have it all his own way in negotiating with other strong leaders and dealing with the capacity of states prepared to go their own way. Yet circumstances allowed him continually to assert that he spoke for the nation, while others who would not comply were endangering the national interest. As tensions and disagreements accumulated, it was all too easy to revert to partisan targeting of supposed miscreants – such as Daniel Andrews (in which the Murdoch press provided him robust support). If, as Murphy suggests, he can be “anything he thinks he needs to be,” why was he not able to be a team builder when this was needed? Because he is not a persuader and has always played to win.

And so here we are again. The opportunities that so many saw as inherent in the crisis management of the pandemic to shift the national conversation away from the dead ends of the past decade, to address the untenable costs rendered so clear by its arrival, are in danger of being frittered away. The helping hand extended to the most disadvantaged has a sunset clause: social housing, for instance, will not be a priority; the gig economy will not be addressed. Tax cuts return to the top of the agenda, despite a majority of economists arguing that other forms of stimulus would be more effective. Tim Colebatch and Ross Gittins remark that the 2020 budget rejects the advice of economists in favour of boosting support to key Liberal Party constituencies: business and middle- to upper-middle-income earners. Culture wars are cranked up again as universities become a particular target for intervention and diminution. The public sector, so essential in managing the crisis, is again to be relegated: private-sector leadership is to be our salvation. The opportunity to encourage investment in renewables and storage in building a more reliable and cost-efficient energy sector is forsaken as gas-led recovery is mooted as integral to industrial revival and new infrastructure development. Peter Hartcher has commented: “After a couple of years of extraordinary short-term measures, the government, post-pandemic, plans to go back to essentially the same program it had pre-pandemic.”

Does Morrison look like a shape-shifter now, capable of forging a new way forward and carrying his party, and the country, with him? Or are we seeing a reversion to tribal habits, a default to familiar settings that were inadequate even before the crisis from which we are yet to emerge? It looks like the same ScoMo to me.

James Walter



Damien Freeman

Katharine Murphy begins her essay by explaining that she wants to document what it has been like to be prime minister at a particular moment. She is doing this, she says, partly in order to record and analyse some extraordinary times, but also in order to capture a prime minister “in flight.” In the process, she reflects on the nature of pragmatic conservatism, modern leadership, the place of religion in democracy, and, ultimately, the end of certainty. These four ideas deserve to be unpacked a bit more because Murphy’s approach to each influences the way she captures this prime minister in flight. A different understanding of these ideas might lead to a somewhat different understanding of the way the prime minister flies.

Murphy understands that Morrison is a conservative leader, and that conservative leaders aim for a form of pragmatism in their policy-making. She advises that “it is helpful to think of Morrison as a project manager rather than the keeper of an ideological flame,” and that “he’s a doer – not a bard. He wants solutions, not seminars.” Morrison told her that JobKeeper and JobSeeker reforms were not about ideology, that “it wasn’t a leftie thing. It was the tool needed to do that job. That’s why it was done. There was no ideology behind it at all.” He is a “nuts-and-bolts political animal, heavy on the party research, light on the Edmund Burke.” Murphy concludes that:

his political philosophy is hard to pin down, because it is predominantly trouble-shooting. By instinct, as we have seen, Morrison is a power player and a populist, not a philosopher; a repairer of walls, not a writer of manifestos. If there’s consistency to be found, it’s this: Morrison looks for opportunity to show voters he’s practical.

As I explain in my book Abbott’s Right: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott, Edmund Burke’s conservatives are not ideologically minded. Conservatives have a deep commitment to the shared values of their tradition. To say that they believe in pragmatism does not mean they leave no place for values in their decision-making. It is to say that they have a non-ideological approach to values. It is true that extraordinary circumstances can lead a conservative to rationalise “a cascade of what many regarded as centre-left policy responses” in a way that would be grossly problematic for an ideological liberal. Nothing in this, however, is incompatible with the conservatism of Edmund Burke. Although Burke was critical of the radical change that the French Revolution embodied, he was also critical of the reactionary policies of the ancien régime. The Burkean conservative is not afraid of being pragmatic about the kind of change that is required, providing that the policy solutions are proportionate and in keeping with the society’s shared values.

Murphy seems to conclude that Morrison’s conservatism is extreme pragmatism, rather than pragmatism based on shared values. It is hard to understand how this can be correct. She quotes at length from his maiden speech, in which he cites the shared values to which he is committed, including “loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity, and to consider the welfare of others.” The question, then, is whether he has made pragmatic decisions consistent with these values, or whether he has betrayed them. This will require careful analysis because a pragmatic commitment to these shared values might manifest itself in extraordinary ways in extraordinary times.

Murphy also delights in contrasting Morrison with John Howard, who, she writes, “was both pragmatist and ideologue … But Howard had a clear political philosophy which manifested in a policy agenda.” Two points need to be kept in mind when thinking about Howard as an ideologue. Yes, he did embrace the ideological approach associated with the New Right, but Murphy cites John Kunkel’s observation “that Howard’s economic liberalism wasn’t pure.” At his best, Howard was pragmatic in what he borrowed from the liberal ideologues. Yes, he could be staunchly ideological, and, as Murphy points out, this culminated in his dying “on the hill of WorkChoices, losing his seat in the 2007 election.” It did not take conservatives long to concede, however, that this was far from his finest hour. As Tony Abbott explained in his analysis of the Liberal Party’s election loss, Howard had become too ideological about industrial relations. The conservative leader was at his best when he adopted a pragmatic, rather than an ideological, approach; when this changed, his political fortunes also changed.

Murphy asks towards the end of her essay, “Will his guiding light be the pragmatism that has been largely on show during the pandemic – a spirit of building and fortifying in the national interest – or will he revert to old, tribal habits if the level of adversity deepens?” That is a fair question. The difficulty is that as circumstances become less dire, it may be that the gap between what seems pragmatic to someone with Morrison’s values and what seems pragmatic to the “lefties” he eschews is likely to expand dramatically. The challenge will be for the fair-minded commentator to recognise that his decision-making might still be a product of pragmatism based on values. That said, as Murphy reminds us, the challenge for a genuinely conservative leader is to ensure that pragmatism based on shared values does not give way to the tribal habits that all too easily plague Australian politics.

There are some underlying issues in this essay concerning the nature of democratic leadership in Australia today. In particular, to what extent – and in what ways – should the leader’s private life become part of his or her public life? Murphy is convinced that working out what is going on in the private domain of a leader’s life is not just important for the political biographer, but also for the political commentator. She suggests that “there is nothing private about a man’s hope when the country he leads is suspended between two possibilities.” In particular, Murphy dwells on the relevance of Morrison’s religious adherence: “Believing in God,” she explains, “is a significant part of who Morrison is in his private domain.” She wants to investigate the significance of this part of his private life for his public life, but she discovers that “he won’t go there.” Although he admits to her that “Faith is enormously important to me,” he is reluctant to elaborate, telling her only that “I’m uneasy. It always becomes an issue if I talk about it. It is such a personal thing, and no matter how I explain it, it will be misinterpreted.”

She notes that in a major speech before the last election, Morrison “promised voters he would ‘burn for you every day’ if he won the election.” Murphy was at the National Press Club when he said this, and reports that “the declaration felt intense.” She goes on to explain, however, “In the room, it jarred.” She could tell that it was sincere, and that Morrison knew it would resonate with those around the country who understood that “the phrase is invoked in Morrison’s religious tradition to signify dedication to a cause.” Here is the disconnect between the way that religiously inspired language is received in the National Press Club and in sections of the wider Australian community.

Murphy’s essay prompted me to acknowledge another problem. How does an increasingly non-religious Australian population – and commentariat – understand a democratic leader who remains committed to some form of religious conscience? It seems that some commentators had difficulty with the possibility of Tony Abbott’s commitment to the Catholic Church intruding into his public life, and yet a different difficulty arises when Scott Morrison declines to discuss the role of his Pentecostal faith in his public life. Democratic leaders will need to engage more seriously with the nature of religious commitment as they, along with Australian society, become less religious.

Murphy introduces the concept of uncertainty at the end of the essay when she asks, “Can we go on being stoic when anxiety and uncertainty has no end date? Do we have the collective fortitude to live in uncertainty without turning on each other, without hunting scapegoats?” The end of certainty is more than a passing reference in this essay; Murphy chooses it for her title. In the context of Australian political commentary, this title references Paul Kelly’s monumental tome of the same name.

As Kelly points out, political leadership in the 1980s saw Bob Hawke and Paul Keating embrace policies that would have been anathema to Labor politicians for generations. It also involved John Howard leading an opposition that supported the dismantling of Australian Settlement policies. The uncertainty in 2020 is not the same as the uncertainty of the 1980s, but it is wise to remember that coping with uncertainty – indeed the seeming end of certainty – is a constant in politics. That does not diminish the crisis of the moment that Murphy captures, but it does help us to gain some perspective on it.

Murphy concludes that “it’s hard to get a fix on” Scott Morrison and admits that she finds him “confounding in a number of respects.” Morrison may well be confounding, but part of Murphy’s uncertainty might have to do with the categories she recruits in her political commentary. Conservative leaders have a particular understanding of pragmatism based on shared values, the nature of leadership, and the relationship between religion and public life. Scott Morrison’s prime ministership may or may not exemplify the best of conservative leadership in public life, and it is right that political commentators should scrutinise it. It is also right, however, that progressive commentators should understand the conservative approach to public life before making judgments about the success of conservative leaders, or the desirability of conservative leadership in public life at all.

Damien Freeman



Dominic Kelly

In calling her Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty, Katharine Murphy gives a knowing nod to Paul Kelly’s identically titled classic of Australian political journalism, first published in 1992. It’s an odd choice. Kelly was referring to the era-defining destruction of the “Australian Settlement” that had determined Australian policy settings since Federation: White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence. By contrast, I don’t think anyone could argue that the upheaval brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, devastating though it has been, brings to an end any kind of certainty. The story of the past decade of Australian politics has been one of near-constant crisis and uncertainty, illustrated most obviously by our extraordinary prime ministerial churn, but also evident in the precariousness of many Australians’ lives long before the onset of COVID-19.

So the title felt like a misnomer, but as I read the essay I kept being reminded of Kelly, in the sense of Judith Brett’s memorable description in Quarterly Essay 78: “Australia’s very own Vicar of Bray … never far from the orthodoxies of the powerful.” Because although Murphy strains to demonstrate her bona fides as a watchful political analyst, what struck me most about the essay was its willingness to uncritically absorb Scott Morrison’s spin about his pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the present crisis. This stems, we are told, from his experience as a party director more interested in solving problems than – in the vein of his mentor John Howard – changing the country to align with his political philosophy:

Morrison doesn’t rhapsodise about “reform.” At his core, he’s a populist, and a fixer, not an ideologue. He finds shibboleths, the core philosophical mantras of some of his centre-right predecessors and contemporary colleagues, boring, tired, tedious, claustrophobic. Party directors are project managers, and it is helpful to think of Morrison as a project manager rather than the keeper of an ideological flame.

Coincidentally, Paul Kelly repeatedly asserted a similar view of Morrison and his government in The Australian before and after October’s delayed federal budget (and based on background interviews with Morrison and Josh Frydenberg): “It will be a budget of pragmatism, not ideology” (23 September); “It is about results and outcomes, not ideological theory or rhetorical inspiration” (26 September); “This budget is the culminating event of the new Liberal order under Morrison-Frydenberg concord and pragmatism” (10 October). When Murphy writes that “Morrison’s conservatism is extreme pragmatism in defence of what he regards as the core of the nation,” the power-worshipping banality of the press gallery doyen comes easily to mind.

All of this might have come across as defensible, if unedifying, insider journalism, but for the fact that it is so evidently untrue. As numerous alert journalists and commentators have noted, Morrison is a deeply ideological political operator leading a deeply ideological government. This is not only the view of Morrison’s opponents on the left. “If anything,” a senior government source told Laura Tingle following the Coalition’s surprise election victory in 2019, “this government is more ideologically driven than Abbott. They want to win the culture wars they see in education, in the public service, in all of our institutions … They believe the left has been winning the war for the last twenty years and are determined to turn the tables.”

Prophetic as that warning has proven, Murphy seems unconvinced, and more intent on blaming the government’s ideological flourishes on its fringe elements, painting Morrison as an innocent victim of their escapades. The man who taunted Labor by smugly brandishing a lump of coal in parliament “couldn’t talk about the root cause of the [bushfire] disaster, climate change, because that’s quicksand, and the only chance he has of crafting a medium-term solution on that issue is not to talk about it.” Apparently Tony Abbott and co. somehow forced climate denial upon the Coalition against its (and Morrison’s) will. Meanwhile, universities were deliberately excluded from the JobKeeper scheme because of “a view within some quarters of the Coalition that universities are factories of left-wing thought” (my emphasis).

Does anyone seriously believe that these are minority views within the government? They are closer to unimpeachable pillars of Liberal faith. Denial has been the dominant Liberal approach to climate change since the 1990s, i.e. Scott Morrison’s entire career in backroom and parliamentary politics. Does he really deserve to be absolved of blame, or given the benefit of the doubt? Australian universities are presently facing an unprecedented crisis that threatens their very existence, and the Morrison government has not only refused to help, it has inflicted further damage by passing legislation designed to make the humanities and social science degrees it despises unaffordable to the vast majority of potential students. Is this kind of political vandalism just the work of the right-wing fringe, or vindictive and deliberate policy coming from the top?

According to Murphy, Morrison’s political missteps are the fault of the right-wing crazies, but when things are going well, such as when the formation of the National Cabinet leads to bipartisan, federal–state cooperation, it is because he is able to “muzzle the more ideological voices inside the Coalition.” The false narrative that Murphy has internalised is that Morrison is a more effective version of Malcolm Turnbull, leading a centrist government while managing its reactionary internal pests. The more miserable truth is that, despite the failure of the Dutton putsch in 2018 and the decline of the National Party, the hard right (inclusive of the prime minister) remains in control of the Coalition.

Murphy wants to believe that the pandemic and the government’s attendant policy decisions have caused a tectonic shift in Australian politics, whereby government spending will no longer be a dirty concept and the culture wars are relegated to an irrelevant sideshow. She fails to see the wood for the trees. The Morrison government had little choice but to spend big to alleviate the economic harm caused by COVID-19, but, as Richard Cooke observed in The Monthly in August, the spending will be “a down payment on future austerity budgets” and the Coalition’s ideological and institutional enemies will bear the brunt of the pain. No amount of spin about the prime minister’s innate pragmatism can hide these truths.

Dominic Kelly



Elizabeth Flux

I can see why something that was originally intended to be a profile of Scott Morrison evolved into a larger meditation on the politics of the pandemic – there is not enough of Morrison that can be pinned down on paper.

Seeing how a crisis of this scale affects politics – and individual politicians – has been fascinating, and Katharine Murphy’s essay is a vivid dissection of the people at the core of our country’s response. What it revealed, or rather didn’t reveal, about the man at the top made me feel uncomfortable and worried.

In a crisis, things are thrown into sharp relief. All that is unnecessary is (or at least should be) stripped away as we focus on what matters. As individuals living in Australia, we have evaluated what we can sacrifice for the good of the country. Social lives. Hobbies. Seeing family. Many businesses have been forced to let go of the notion that physical presence is a vital element of commitment to a job. Maybe working from home isn’t a last resort. Perhaps that meeting could actually be an email. And in politics, as Murphy’s essay explores, are we finally seeing petty issues and partisanship put aside for the greater good?

In some cases, sure. The unusual partnerships brought out by the earliest stages of the pandemic did, fleetingly, provide a glimpse of this. But the deeper problem is that, for many, the business of politics is simply to stay in politics. The picture painted, from the few brushstrokes our PM would allow, is of a transactional man – a description of his own choosing – who is motivated by his own career.

For me, in an ideal world politics would be a-partisan. But I realise this is fundamentally impossible. And so, in the real world, the separation of parties should be by ideology, with individuals willing to let go of their own needs for the bigger goals they are working towards.

This does not describe Scott Morrison. The essay asks what hill Morrison would die on, and, reading between the lines, the answer seems clear: his own.

The theme of who is useful to Morrison comes up again and again. Not useful to the country. Not even to the party. To the individual. “I wasn’t useful to him, so I wasn’t a person he cultivated,” Murphy writes.

Murphy’s assessment of how Morrison’s failures in the bushfires shaped his pandemic response was particularly interesting. Is he doing better now because he wants to do the right thing and be a stronger leader, or is it because he simply wants to be re-elected? The fact that this is a question at all is concerning. No matter how much someone says they are putting aside politics for the greater good, if we don’t know what their definition of the greater good is, what it is they are working for, that is a problem.

I don’t want an ideologue who can’t shift their views or actions for the greater good, but I think it is equally or even more dangerous to have someone so motivated by the trajectory of their own career. Can you truly act in the civic interest and make hard decisions if you have an eye on the polls at all times? No.

We’ve seen this in Morrison refusing to talk about climate change in the context of the Black Summer bushfires. We’ve seen it in the groups excluded from financial support during the pandemic. And we’ve seen it in cutting back JobKeeper when it is still needed, because a conservative government will always want to appeal to its conservative voters – in order to stay in power. Bigger, harder decisions will never be made, and necessary conversations will continue to be put off when politicians are driven by re-election.

The essay says Morrison is a populist. Watching him from Melbourne, I notice he is quick to swoop in and bask in reflected success, and he is equally fast to condemn when it might curry favour. He swiftly raked Australia Post over the coals for behaviour that, if engaged in by someone useful to him, might have seen him ringing the police commissioner for support. What is his underlying ideology or ethical drive beyond what is good for him as an individual?

Motivation matters. And with Morrison it feels that when push comes to shove, he will swing whichever way will best serve his political longevity or ultimate career goals. In a crisis this is terrifying.

Government can’t be apolitical but we do need to know what we are getting, particularly from someone in the top job. When we have a prime minister who is primarily motivated by their own political survival, that will inevitably compromise their approach, make them fickle in the worst of ways.

As well as offering a glimpse of what could be, Australia’s handling of the pandemic, despite the many successes, has actually revealed a deeper problem: with Morrison, there has never been any certainty – just the prioritising of image over action and long-term consequence.

Elizabeth Flux



Phillip Coorey

To those of us fortunate enough to have had a ringside seat to the unfolding of some of the most dramatic events in contemporary political history, Katharine Murphy’s essay The End of Certainty should come with a warning. Kath’s documentation of those initial days and weeks of chaos, during which the government struggled to find the bottom of the crisis while the rest of us hung on for the ride, is not only an important and compelling piece of work, it is also mildly trauma-inducing. At least to this writer.

There were days that seemed surreal. Still do. Such as 19 March, on which, as Murphy recollects, the government dropped its longstanding aversion to increasing the unemployment benefit and doubled it, just like that. Qantas was grounded and laid off thousands of employees, the dollar fell to near or below US$0.50, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut what was left of interest rates and trundled out more than $100 billion in cheap credit just to keep the banks lending – all by mid afternoon. Later that day, the government announced almost $1 billion to bolster staffing levels at aged-care facilities in anticipation of the virus taking hold among the elderly.

In my front-page story for The Australian Financial Review, which attempted to hoover up all that had occurred and contextualise it, that near-$1 billion was the last paragraph of a 1000-word news report. Such was the magnitude of events that day. And there were many others just as insane.

Only weeks before, the government had been nickel-and-diming every single spending decision, even those worth a few hundred thousand dollars, as part of its pre-coronavirus intention to return the budget to surplus. That surplus, of course, never eventuated. Scott Morrison, Josh Frydenberg and the government, along with the states, did what needed to be done to avert a national health crisis and to soften the blow of crippling economic shutdowns.

It was as though Morrison was made for the moment – and it is this that Kath so expertly captures. In his relatively short time in federal politics, Morrison has been the true fixer. In an audacious interview with Sky News some years ago, Christopher Pyne ascribed that title to himself as he tried to extricate himself from a policy mess of his own creation. We all laughed.

Morrison entered the parliament in 2007, when Kevin Rudd beat John Howard, and he became a minister in 2013, when Tony Abbott took back power from Labor. As a minister, Morrison cultivated a reputation as someone who was not particularly idealistic, but rather the sort of fellow you point at a problem, turn the key in his back and tell him to go fix it. In this vein, he “stopped the boats” and then, as social security minister, fixed up the pension policy mess that Abbott had bequeathed through the disastrous 2014 federal budget and its planned cuts. As treasurer, Morrison established the discipline to return the budget to surplus. His predecessors had each kept pushing back the target date for surplus, so he drew a line and decreed it would be 2019–20. He didn’t quite get there, but a balance was achieved.

When Malcolm Turnbull fell, Morrison came up the middle and took the top job. Even though he did so by outplaying those on both sides of the coup, he still brought a sense of the fixer to the problem. The Liberal Party had been tearing itself apart for a decade due to the feud between Turnbull and Abbott, which Morrison derided as the “Muppet Show.”

“Many years ago, I can recall,” Morrison said, “I was listening to a presentation from General Norman Schwarzkopf, and he said this: ‘When placed in command, take charge.’” And so he did. And furthermore, he did not discourage the departure of the foot soldiers of that era, among them Pyne and Julie Bishop. It was an exercise in cleansing the party of the internal rancour which had held it back for so long. He also showed he was not to be underrated, by friend or foe. As a colleague once perfectly observed, Morrison would follow you into a revolving door and exit ahead of you and you’d have no idea how it happened.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Morrison and his government were facing criticism for lacking an agenda – with some justification, given it was, after all, a third-term government. Other than being determined to steer the economy back to surplus, it was hardly bristling with ideas. This was exacerbated by Morrison not being particularly visionary. No one has ever accused him of being a policy wonk.

When the pandemic struck, all that criticism went out the window. It was a situation that needed a fixer, and a bloody good one. Of course, not everything went to plan. If the government had its time again, it would do some things differently, such as unveil a wage subsidy before doubling the dole, thus preventing those catastrophic and morale-destroying queues outside Centrelink. But by and large, and certainly in terms relative to the rest of the world, we have been pretty well served over the past six months. Moreover, it was a crisis that needed a pragmatist, not an ideologue. This is where The End of Certainty is a must-read for anyone who thinks they have a handle on our prime minister.

We have all observed and written about how Morrison is a pragmatist much in the mould of John Howard – which, from the perspective of his opponents, makes him difficult to corral. I clearly remember an exasperated Opposition leader Kim Beazley, after being outfoxed by Howard on something or other, exclaiming that trying to best Howard was akin to “trying to catch a fruit bat by the tail.” Morrison is, as Kath details, ruthlessly transactional and just as pragmatic as Howard, but even less of an ideologue. Howard could backflip as well as the next guy but he had his shibboleths, namely tax reform and industrial relations.

“I’m a problem-solver,” Morrison told Kath, before amending a principle often espoused by Peter Costello: “They say good policy is good politics. Well, actually, good problem-solving is even better. That is what I mean by suspending ideology – you’ve got to find the right answer.” When Morrison and ministers were shovelling hundreds of billions out the door in assistance, stimulus and loans, Morrison cautioned us not to confuse such actions with an ideological shift. “Why did I do JobKeeper and JobSeeker? Because the security of the country was under threat. I wasn’t setting up for some long-term welfare program.” But he showed he will do whatever is necessary, as required.

Between the writing of Kath’s essay and the writing of this response, Morrison handed down a recovery budget festooned with Labor policies. It was an updated and refined version of Paul Keating’s 1992 One Nation blueprint designed to bust the recession. The key flaw with Keating’s offering was that it was too late. Aside from that, Morrison and Frydenberg pretty much aped it – tax cuts to boost aggregate demand, wage subsidies to encourage hiring the unemployed, skills and training incentives, and, still to come, industrial relations flexibility (but nothing even approaching WorkChoices).

If he had wanted to embrace ideology, Morrison could have opted for company-tax cuts instead of the $27 billion investment allowance, which enables businesses to write off the full value of an asset in a bid to get them spending. This was a policy similar to that Labor took to the last election. Similarly, the budget brought forward the stage-two tax cuts Labor supports, but not the more generous and expensive stage-three cuts Labor does not support. Morrison took the path of least resistance in the budget. His aim was to fix the problem, not create intractable Senate battles over tax policy. Morrison even brought the ACTU into the tent to help with both crisis management and IR policy reform. It is understood Howard thought this a bridge too far. Morrison is – at the other end of the spectrum – the antithesis of Abbott, who always believed a fight was better than a fix.

As we emerge from the crisis and walk the long road to fixing the economic mess, Kath poses the fundamental question, which is the crux of her piece: “The economic recovery required after COVID will define a Morrison project, events will demand that. But going in, it is difficult to identify Morrison’s abiding objectives in public life. What hill would Scott Morrison die on? Howard died on the hill of WorkChoices, losing his seat at the 2007 election.”

It is a brilliantly clarifying question, and it must be one that Anthony Albanese and Labor are pondering. They thought they had Morrison pinned after his ham-fisted handling of the bushfires. But Morrison used the coronavirus to show he had learned. He did what he didn’t do during the fires: listened to the experts and acted decisively and pre-emptively.

In as little as a year, he will be seeking for the Coalition a fourth term in office. But Morrison gives the impression of just getting started.

Phillip Coorey



David Marr

Pollsters and journalists weren’t the only ones caught unawares last May. So were publishers. Nothing on Morrison hit the market before or after his miracle victory. No biographies charting his rise and, it must be said, no Quarterly Essay exploring his character. We didn’t bother. It wasn’t just that Morrison seemed destined to lose. There was something else, something we mistakenly thought would underwrite his loss: he wasn’t interesting.

We knew enough about Morrison the man not to want to know more – the sackings, the happy clapper faith, the ugly scramble through the ranks to snatch preselection, his ambiguous role in the slaughter of Turnbull. But there wasn’t much curiosity to know more. So despite the return of the Coalition government there was nothing in the shops from Allen & Unwin or Scribe or Black Inc. The verdict of the publishing trade was: adios.

His win was interesting. We’ve been picking over the victory ever since to see what it tells us about this country and its politics. But few would venture to find reasons for the Coalition’s success in the character of Scott Morrison or his avatar ScoMo. This was a victory owed to technique not character. His win was fascinating but Morrison has remained stubbornly dull until now.

To Katharine Murphy are due the thanks of a grateful nation for producing a fascinating study of such an unrewarding subject. I’ve not read anything about Morrison so attentive, respectful and revealing. That she is left in the end quoting Gertrude Stein – “There is no there there” – is not an admission of defeat but a conclusion loaded with meaning.

She doesn’t slam it down on the table. The Murphy technique is to take us with her as she thinks things through. We judge as we follow. She builds trust. She has a way – it’s her tone – of reminding us that beyond the Canberra wrangling is a plain question that always matters: is all this decent?

Her portrait of Morrison is of a not-indecent machine man learning on the job to be prime minister. That takes time. It’s assumed that prime ministers know what they’re doing from day one. The truth is, the only place to learn that job is on the job. Kevin Rudd once told me it takes a term. He didn’t get it. Nor did Gillard or Abbott or Turnbull. This one will at least have time.

He can learn. I remember the horrible press conferences he held as Minister for Immigration to beat up on the invasion of Australia by criminal hordes of asylum seekers. Beside him as a most uncomfortable piece of set decoration was General Angus Campbell. Neither man answered a single question that mattered.

What remains with me most vividly from that time was Morrison’s smile as he refused to play ball. A smile is a valuable thing in politics; a good, easy smile is a vote-winner. But as he wouldn’t say how many boats had been caught or how many refugees had drowned on the way, Morrison’s smile was a little smile of victory: I’m not telling and you can’t make me. It said: fuck off.

He can’t do that in the pandemic and Murphy’s account of how he has come to understand the need to be more inclusive, more informative is a fascinating case study of a man growing in the job. He is likely to be with us for some time, the first prime minister since John Howard to serve a few terms.

So we need to understand this man more, perhaps, than we have any of his recent predecessors. We will come back and back to Murphy’s superb account of a politician with no back story, an advertising guy who doesn’t believe in persuasion, a scrapper who can vanish at a moment’s notice, and a deep blue conservative with no ideology.

There and not there.

After reporting a few prime ministers over the years, I’d add that Morrison is the best of them at not answering questions. That great professional John Howard was, of course, a superb non-answerer. But even he didn’t bring to the job the panache that Morrison displays when in top form.

The problem we face living with this oddly durable leader is that we have already lost so much of our capacity to compel answers from our politicians. The news cycle rolls on, leaving lies and rubble in its wake. In a highly partisan political world, too few of us are willing to call out dishonesty, incompetence and sheer indecency wherever it lies. It’s why, more than ever, we need Katharine Murphy and Quarterly Essays.

David Marr


Response to Correspondence

Judith Brett

In late May, when my Quarterly Essay was at the printers, Rio Tinto blew up the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara, destroying two sites sacred to the Indigenous owners and which held evidence of at least 46,000 years of human occupation. Outrage was immediate. Rio Tinto protested that it had received permission for the blast in 2013, under Western Australia’s 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act, and that it had consulted with the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people. Just days before the explosives were detonated, lawyers for the traditional owners had contacted the federal minister for Indigenous affairs to ask the federal government to intervene. Rio Tinto immediately issued an apology, accompanied by a reminder of just how important it was to Australia’s prosperity: “The mining industry supports all Australians by providing jobs, supporting small business, and paying taxes and royalties.”

The exact course of events is currently being investigated by the Senate’s Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, and Rio Tinto is suffering deserved reputational damage. Likely there will be changes to Western Australia’s heritage legislation, and mining companies will be more careful in their consultations, but there will be no fundamental shift in the power imbalance between Indigenous owners and miners, nor between Indigenous understandings of the land as sentient and imbued with ancestral power and settler capitalism’s view of it as a resource for economic exploitation.

The focus on the protection of heritage and sacred sites distracts from the fundamental incompatibility of these two understandings of the land. Speaking on behalf of another group of Pilbara traditional owners, the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, Dr Kathryn Przywolnik told the Senate inquiry, “Within two generations, Eastern Guruma people have seen their country change from a remote place teeming with wildlife, fresh water and unbroken sacred narratives that networked through the Pilbara, to a heavily industrialised mining hub, now dissected by railways, dry and devoid of animals.” Ring-fencing sacred sites won’t restore the Eastern Guruma people’s country.

In his final report for the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission in April 1974, Mr Justice Woodward said: “I believe that to deny Aborigines the right to prevent mining on their land is to deny the reality of their land rights.” Woodward’s belief was captured in the Northern Territory land rights legislation, which gave Indigenous land-rights holders the right to free and informed consent to mining on their land, but, as I discussed in The Coal Curse, the mining lobby was successful in preventing requirement for such consent in other land rights legislation and in the 1993 Native Title Act.

The inquiry also heard from Dr Przywolnik that land marked for mining is dotted with rock shelters, camping sites, and painted and engraved rocks, as one would expect of an area occupied by humans for millennia. Many features have already been destroyed and many are in the path of planned expansions. With Australian export income more dependent than ever on iron ore, stronger ring-fencing is the best Indigenous owners can expect.

As mining positions itself as crucial to Australia’s post-pandemic economic future, the pressure from the fossil-fuel lobby is unrelenting. Santos’s Narrabri gas mine is on the cusp of being approved despite strong community opposition, and the taskforce on manufacturing set up by the federal government’s handpicked National COVID-19 Coordination Commission is urging the government to support a dramatic expansion of gas supply, with tax incentives and financial support for new projects. This is only necessary, remember, because so much of our domestically produced gas is needed to fill export contracts. This gas, the taskforce argues, will sustain and expand Australian manufacturing. The taskforce seems not to have considered the possibilities of rebuilding with renewable energy, despite the plans put forward by the Grattan Institute, the Greens, Beyond Zero Emissions and the Climate Council. The Australian Workers’ Union is calling for the Queensland government to approve the expansion of the New Acland coalmine in the Darling Downs, as is the resources minister, Keith Pitt, and Labor’s shadow resources minister, Joel Fitzgibbon. With the economy in freefall, the arguments are all about jobs, of course, and the need to reduce the green tape which, it is argued, hampers investment and development. The zero-sum game between the environment and the economy is still hardwired into the thinking of many Australians.

But, as Tim Buckley makes clear, there are strong counter-forces at work in the speed and scale of divestment from fossil fuels, partly driven by climate activists and partly by declining profitability as the price of renewable energy falls. The share market’s judgment on coal is grim, with the Dow Jones US coal index down 92 per cent from its peak in May 2018. Gas is holding up better, but still faces strong headwinds. Buckley’s colleague at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis Bruce Robertson reports that major gas companies are losing money. Of the COVID-19 Commission’s enthusiasm for government support for gas, he says, “Governments are not meant to back winners, but they’re certainly not meant to back losers.”

Neoliberalism rejected the social democratic faith that governments should and could intervene in markets to produce desired social outcomes. When pressure from climate activists started, neoliberals believed that emissions reductions could only be achieved through top-down government intervention. Anna Rose writes that after spending time with Nick Minchin, who was instrumental in blowing up Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Opposition and its support for Kevin Rudd’s emissions-trading scheme, she realised that his climate denialism was linked to his neoliberal belief in free markets and small government. Ironically, in Australia it is now the free market that is driving change, as householders install rooftop solar, businesses look to future risks and gifted entrepreneurs like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Sanjeev Gupta invest in ambitious renewable energy projects. Were we in an authoritarian state run by fossil-fuel tsars, this would not be happening.

Under Morrison, the Coalition government has been much less hostile to renewable energy than it was under Abbott. For example, it has just granted major project status to the Sun Cable project, which would export renewable energy to Singapore via undersea cable from a massive solar farm in the Northern Territory. This is the sort of project Ross Garnaut argued for in Superpower, in which the export of renewable energy replaces the export of fossil fuels.

Even so, the federal government still has no national energy policy, despite widespread stakeholder support for some form of emissions-trading scheme. And although quiet for now, the Coalition’s climate deniers have not gone away. Rose’s argument that climate activists need to target conservative groups and focus on shifting the Coalition is shrewd. The Coalition is in government, time is running out, and the policies it introduces are more likely to stick. As we have seen in the past wasted decade, the Coalition has deep reserves of self-righteous anger always to hand to attack Labor and the Greens, as well as the willingness to destroy good policy for purely political ends. A similar argument can be made about the government’s massive spending to support people and businesses through the lockdowns. If Labor were in government, would the Coalition be supportive, or would it revert to its customary attack on Labor as the irresponsible party of tax and spend?

Zoe Whitton writes eloquently about the visceral emotional attachment of Queenslanders to mining, which makes it difficult for many to think rationally about the industry’s threatened future. Like Buckley, she believes that an unstoppable technological revolution is underway and that the days of fossil-fuel extraction are limited, whatever our governments do. Although innovation in renewable energy began from the need to drive down emissions, it now has a financial momentum as it out-competes coal, and this is exposing structural weaknesses in Australia’s poorly diversified economy. As Stephen Bell says, these were masked by the prosperity of the mining boom.

Most days I scan the business pages of the major dailies for stories about coal, gas and renewable energy. Depending on what I read, my mood swings between optimism and fatalistic pessimism. In the end, though, I am optimistic, putting my faith in the momentum of technology and the self-interest of business to drag the men of yesterday who believe they run Australia into a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Judith Brett



Russell Marks

History is not valued very highly in the disciplines of law I’ve practised in (criminal and mental health). What matters there is legislation, evidence (of individual culpability) and precedent, which is about as far as the discipline reaches into the past, though precedent is used less as “history” than as a kind of regulation or restraint on present thought. The historian in me is forever confounded by what I (and many others) see as criminal law’s blinkered approach to offending behaviour –which, it insists, is best conceived of as individuals making bad choices in a sociocultural vacuum in which other disciplines of Western knowledge – sociology, psychology, economics or, indeed, history – have little of value to add. This blinkered worldview allows criminal law to function as a tool of real oppression in certain communities of socioeconomic disadvantage, and especially in Aboriginal communities, because criminal law studiously ignores what it doesn’t want to see. This is a privilege common to many Western disciplines, though not, if they’re done properly, to the arts (including history).

I’ve also learnt, through brief exposures to the federal and Victorian parliaments, that history is not valued much more highly in the practice of politics. What matters to politicians is power: how to win it, retain it, use it. This creates a tension for both reformers and defenders of the status quo, for whom power is a means to an end. If history has value in power politics, it’s unsurprisingly an instrumental value, as evident in appeals to certain historicised narratives or claims to historically rooted identities or traditions. In The Coal Curse, Judith Brett shows us how successful such appeals have been when they’ve been made by those with an interest in mining Australia’s coal and gas deposits.

For those of us who – unlike practically all Australia’s most senior political leaders at Commonwealth, state and territory level – believe that Australia’s future lies not in coal but beyond it, is history helpful? This is a political question – what is to be done, and how? – so the framing is already instrumental. Could a loose collective of “post-coal” activists make historically situated appeals to identity and values and culture and nation in a way that rivals and overcomes the mining lobby? Progressives in Australia have been notoriously bad at this kind of “cultural politics of nation” since they realised about fifty years ago that the “radical nationalist” politics they’d been prosecuting had relied on highly racialised (white), gendered (masculine) and settler-colonial assumptions about Australian identity, as expressed in what was known as the Australian Legend. Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia, which did as much as anything to demythologise the Legend for the Left, turns fifty this year, but that politics hasn’t gone away. As Brett herself once wrote, John Howard “raided the Australian Legend for the Liberal Party.” Having long foregone this symbol of white Australia’s past, progressives now tend to appeal to more cosmopolitan identities, or to reason. But the political culture of Canberra and the mainstream commercial media – that with power to make change, or not – isn’t much taken with reason these days, as Brett demonstrates.

Perhaps history’s value is in reminding us of the possibility that it could all disappear. For humans, the worst case for global warming involves the collapse of economic and social systems, or – worst of all – the environmental systems that support human life. Empires and civilisations have collapsed before. Climactic change is often implicated. What is impossible to know – what history doesn’t tell us – is what individuals and communities were doing while structures were failing around them. I suspect much the same as we do in recessions: getting on with things until we can’t. Although there is much that might be attempted now to find alternative ways of living that don’t rely on feeding our economic system’s insatiable demand for energy, most of us need to pay the bills. So we go on, getting and spending.

History reminds us that the coal lobby wasn’t always in charge (which makes it possible to imagine a time when it won’t be again), that earlier lobbies (pastoral, industrial) eventually collapsed, that temperatures have warmed in ways that were predicted, that the deposits being sold off to create billionaires are extracted from stolen land and exploited communities. This is the function of Brett’s essay. But who reads this kind of history? Mostly, people who already agree that coal is causing environmental devastation and that the coal lobby is far too powerful. And almost certainly not those who have drunk the Coal-Aid, unless their aim is to lampoon it and its author, as the Murdoch stable is wont to do. This is the crisis of Australia’s intellectual life: the apparent impossibility of generating a constructive, rational dialogue about anything in general, and about coal in particular. Some historians will remind me that this remark is hopelessly naive, that power politics are as old as humanity and that it was ever thus.

Perhaps constructive, rational dialogue has always been a democratic myth. Other schools of political thought, with instructors ranging from Machiavelli to Foucault, identify the key concept as power. The content of reasoned debate matters less than the power to frame what is reasonable. But the history of reform does allow a place for reason, as informed by ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and common sense. It could be said that reform depends on reason. Social reforms, such as the civil rights movements for women, people of colour and LGBTIQ+ people, have succeeded in part by explaining to heterosexual white men how their own axioms, such as that “everyone is equal,” are meaningless unless universally applied. Environmental reform has built on scientific observation and logic. It is those with interests threatened by reform movements, such as the coal barons, who use well-worn tactics of obfuscation to muddy debate and sow doubt.

The coal lobby has been remarkably successful at convincing Australia’s democratically elected political leaders that the relatively few jobs its industry creates are somehow more important than the many more jobs connected with other industries, like tourism, or with more life-sustaining occupations, like farming. As Brett shows, the lobby has also been remarkably successful at convincing Australia’s political leaders that the costs of our present status as international pariah are less than those of divesting from coal. The path to reform isn’t linear, or simple. Among those most afflicted by the curse of coal are now Aboriginal owners. Leading Indigenous academic Marcia Langton regularly points out that the mining industry, for all the harm it causes to environmental health and sacred sites, is now the leading supplier of jobs, training, compensation and economic development in many remote Aboriginal communities. The economy that would be lost from these communities if mining stopped is just one of many problems reformers must confront.

What can ordinary people do – how can we exercise our agency – to improve the chances that future historians write a story of civilisational reform and revitalisation rather than collapse and doom (indeed, that there are historians in our future)? One history that remains to be told is that of the divestment movement, which Brett mentions briefly at the end of The Coal Curse. Divesting from coal has made environmental sense for some time. There are now plenty of products available to financial consumers that keep our money out of coal. Some of them offer slightly higher fees or slightly lower returns than the coal-fired products. Each of us lucky enough to have assets is now being asked to forgo a small percentage of wealth in the interests of global health. Despite this, divestment has recently begun to make financial sense as well – for major investors, but also the rest of us who, through mortgages and superannuation, have a stake in stocks and bonds whether we want to or not. As the histories of most successful movements show, divestment has something of a self-fulfilling prophecy about it. The more divestment there is, the greater the risk that coalmines become stranded assets companies can’t profit from and can’t sell: a true curse. Even if ethics won’t get those of us lucky enough to have substantial assets over the line, the ever-increasing risk profile of unethical investment in coalmining and exploration probably should.

Russell Marks



Stephen Bell

Judith Brett’s fine essay highlights the tough going we are currently experiencing in trying to shift the structure of the economy away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels towards renewables and, perhaps, associated downstream industries. From the current travails, one would think Australians are no good at economic restructuring. In fact, we are: we’ve done it several times on a large scale, though it seems to take us a long time, mired, as always, in political contestation.

Our economy has been through at least two periods of major structural change. The Australian settlement at the turn of the twentieth century used tariff protection and a highly administered labour market to spur the growth of manufacturing so as to reduce reliance on the volatile global commodities markets and boost employment and population. It worked: by the 1960s, manufacturing accounted for almost a third of national employment and GDP. But the settlement came only after several decades of battles between free traders and protectionists and was eventually stitched together with the support of industrial capital and the labour movement.

The second major transformation came with the winding back of the manufacturing sector, which by the 1960s had become bloated and inefficient on the back of political largesse and world-beating levels of no-questions-asked protection. This battle started in the late 1960s, when the Tariff Board, headed by one of Australia’s early neoliberals, Alf Rattigan, suddenly declared war on protectionism, using innovative economic analysis to show that the sector was inefficient, uncompetitive and costly.

We are now stuck in another battle over economic restructuring and it is useful to compare this one with the last. The battle against protected manufacturing was a titanic struggle. As noted, the sector was big, and it was defended vehemently by one of the most powerful politicians of the post-war era, John McEwen. McEwen was the deputy prime minister and leader of the Country Party, which had for decades crafted a vote-winning alliance between farmers and manufacturers on the basis of “protection all round,” something that had become close to a national religion. Manufacturers and manufacturing unions would attempt to scare politicians with threats of disinvestment and job losses in a wide array of manufacturing electorates, across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in particular.

Yet the protectionist arguments put forward by the manufacturing sector were no match for the more sophisticated economic analysis coming from the Tariff Board and, later, the Industries Assistance Commission, as well as from a range of economists who started to quantify the high costs the sector was imposing on the economy. This cause was also supported by the media and by the broader shift towards neoliberal thinking that increasingly saw post-war protectionism as a failed experiment. Governments also supported change, with the Whitlam government’s 25 per cent tariff cut in 1973, efforts by the Fraser government to pull down at least some tariffs, and then the main effort by the Hawke/Keating governments amid bipartisan political support to push ahead with fully reducing tariffs, even in the recession in the early 1990s. The sector was also hit by structural change in the world economy that saw northeast Asian manufacturing, in particular, become too competitive to withstand. These structural forces helped drive a prevailing sense of economic malaise by the 1980s – epitomised by the “banana republic” crisis – that galvanised the mood for change.

Yet our attempts at industry restructuring never “got manufacturing going again,” as Treasurer Paul Keating had hoped. Instead, our efforts just about killed off the patient (manufacturing is now less than 6 per cent of GDP), leaving little in its place. The mining boom of the 1990s was fortuitous, but it provided a further hit to manufacturing through a higher commodities-powered dollar that once again engendered that “lucky country” feeling, lulling us into a false sense of security.

The current battle over restructuring and the confrontation with the “coal curse” is proving to be even tougher in some ways than the protection battle, mainly because this time the political resistance is stronger and more insidious. The coal and gas sector are far more politically mobilised and influential than the manufacturers probably ever were. This reflects the general ramping up of political activism by large corporates in Australia in recent decades. It saw the stunning victory of miners over the Rudd government’s proposed mining tax. And, despite the relatively few workers employed in coal mining, it is reflected in the power of a number of coal electorates, especially in Queensland, supported by National Party politicians who have made a vocation out of climate denial and climbing into bed with the coal lobby, just as they have with large irrigators in the Murray–Darling Basin. Unfortunately, too, the climate wars and the battle over coal have become part of a wider political and ideological struggle between the hard right and progressives. This is even being fought out within the Liberal Party, with deposed prime minister Malcolm Turnbull likening his rightist enemies in the party to “climate terrorists.” This “debilitating political polarisation,” as Brett puts it, has killed bipartisanship and made change more difficult. The government has either actively supported or stood by while all this has been happening, while rightist think-tanks, radio shock jocks and the Murdoch press egg on climate denial and praise the wonders of coal. Brett calls this “state capture,” but it’s probably best seen as common cause between the key players involved, one that has uniquely, and on the international stage embarrassingly, skewed Australian politics.

Change is thus being stymied by a national lacuna around energy policy – other than the newfound fondness for gas – and by the lack of any restructuring or regional policies to support displaced workers and communities as part of a properly thought-out energy transition; the kind of policy framework that is also sadly lacking in the Murray–Darling Basin, where battles over water play out as the Basin dries out under climate change. Finally, unlike in the 1980s, there is less of a sense of national crisis spurring change. Moreover, from the 1990s, Australia seemed to learn that we could achieve strong macroeconomic performance and rising terms of trade without a strong manufacturing sector, riding a resource boom instead. In some ways, this was Australia’s “prosperity curse”: reassuring, but ultimately unreliable, masking underlying structural weaknesses that are now manifest.

Indeed, the trouble for this model is that just as Australia’s manufacturing was hit by a structural crisis which ultimately forced change, so too now are dreams of Australia’s future based on fossil fuels. The climate challenge is one such structural pressure, but another one, perhaps more important politically, is the falling cost of renewables, which Judith Brett documents. Ultimately, renewable energy technologies, market forces and investors will drive change. This will help loosen the “deadly grip,” as Brett puts it, of climate deniers and fossil-fuel advocates and make the fossil-fuel sector increasingly redundant. This is happening faster than many could have imagined and will one day represent something of a reconciliation of the old binary of environment and economy.

We have lost more than a decade in the climate and coal battles thanks to misguided conservatives, the coal lobby and its supporters, and terrible national leadership from the Coalition. This has generated a fake climate policy, an energy policy that’s a mess, and the Nationals screaming for a new coal-fired power station. Surprisingly, from this morass a bright future is still possible, but only if we reap the huge potential gains from Australia’s comparative advantages in renewable energy, along the lines set out in Ross Garnaut’s recent book, Superpower. If we can do this, the gains could be used to help the losers from the declining fossil-fuel sector, and, unlike our earlier attempts to restructure manufacturing, we might end up with a strong new sector based on abundant energy driving a range of new downstream industries, including a hydrogen economy. We might also be able to rescue our battered international climate reputation.

Stephen Bell



Tim Buckley

At the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, we track patterns of investment in or divestment from fossil fuels. Despite, or maybe because of, the global pandemic, 2020 has seen significant momentum in the movement of global capital away from thermal coal and coal-fired power generation. This reflects the rapidly diminishing economic merits of coal, but also a growing understanding that a commitment to the Paris Agreement will render many coal projects stranded assets, unable to deliver sufficient return over their proposed life.

In April 2020, a record twelve global financial institutions upgraded their commitments to divest from coal. The geographic spread revealed the global nature of the shift: three were from Japan, three from Germany, two were Citi and Morgan Stanley of the United States – and this was rounded out by one each from South Africa, France, the UK and the Netherlands.

The two massive private Japanese banks, Mizuho Financial Group and SMBC, were significant, but the action of the public Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) was really telling, given that it was the world’s largest provider of government capital to coal-fired power plants outside of China in the previous five years. It reflected a fundamental shift in thinking at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which culminated in the announcement that Japan would close 100 of its oldest coal power units by 2030. This is a huge step: 22 to 24GW of end-of-life coal-plant closures, three times the last 6 to 9GW of proposed coal plants still under development in Japan. With this, Japan will move past peak coal capacity installed – a defining moment, and a critical milestone for Australian thermal coal exports as Japan is our largest coal export destination (45 per cent in total).

June and July 2020 have seen momentum continue to build. Fourteen globally significant financial institutions have introduced or tightened coal exclusion, divestment or restriction policies: Westpac, QBE Insurance, HESTA and First State Super (Australia); BNP Paribas, Societe Generale and Natixis (France); Toho Bank (Japan); CDC Group (UK); Intesa Sanpaolo (Italy); Norges Bank (Norway); Deutsche Bank (Germany); Credit Suisse (Switzerland) and MetLife (United States). May 2020 also saw BlackRock complete divestment from thermal coalmines and put KEPCO (South Korea) on notice for continuing to invest in new coal power plants.

In total since 2015, we at the Institute have tracked 139 globally significant banks, insurers and asset managers or asset owners that have implemented substantial policies on coal. In 2020, there have so far been forty-eight new or updated policy statements.

There is growing recognition of the technology disruption of global energy markets, affecting oil and fossil gas demand as well as thermal coal for power generation. The seemingly unstoppable rise in the Tesla share price (up 400 per cent in the last five years) has made it the largest automotive company globally (by equity market capitalisation). This shows the energy disruption is increasingly affecting both the power and transportation sectors, as battery technology breakthroughs drive a sector convergence. And 2020 has seen a clear pivot in rhetoric from the European oil and gas majors. Leaders at Total, Shell, BP, Eni, Repsol and Equinor are now talking about the inevitable disruption, compelled by the need to align with the Paris Agreement. Rather than just words, we are seeing the start of a pivot, as these firms reduce capital investments in new fossil-fuel exploration and divert new investments into zero-emissions technologies. June 2020 saw Total agree to acquire a 51 per cent stake in the new business developing the £3 billion 1075 MW Seagreen offshore wind farm in Scotland. And July 2020 saw a new Shell/Eneco consortium win the 759 MW Hollandse Kust (Noord) offshore wind tender in the Netherlands. These are likely to be two of the largest renewable energy projects developed this year globally.

Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse is spot-on: Australia is being held back by the enormous power and corrupting self-interest of the fossil-fuel-export industry, which has entirely captured our federal political process. There is a growing divide between the Australian states embracing technology-driven investment and employment opportunities with both hands, and the captured federal government, which is doing its utmost to lie, obfuscate and distract, trying in vain to hold back the tide. Technology will inevitably win this race, but Australia could be so much better prepared with real political leadership.

Tim Buckley



Anna Rose

Judith Brett has offered Australians a great gift: a detailed understanding of how our country got so stuck in our response to climate change, and who we can hold responsible. Describing how coal and gas companies converted their financial power into political influence over the federal Coalition, Brett makes the invisible blatantly visible. The mess Australia is in today did not just happen. It was never inevitable. It came about through particular people’s choices and actions, and through other people choosing to look the other way.

As a climate campaigner over the past twenty-three years, I’ve seen hordes of coal and gas lobbyists at Parliament House and at party conferences; the handshakes and backslaps and laughs. Like Brett, I’ve despaired at the revolving door between politics, the senior public service and fossil-fuel companies. But it’s not too late to turn things around.

The final chapter of Brett’s saga is still being written, by the actions that we take today. In the decade or so the world’s leading scientists say we have left to limit irreversible climate change, I see two viable pathways to get Australia unstuck on climate: first, shifting the Coalition, and second, shifting money away from coal and gas.

As Brett outlines, the fossil-fuel lobby has been incredibly successful at “capturing” the Coalition and using it to protect its financial interests. But for how long can this success continue? More fires will burn in places previously thought safe. Seas will continue to rise. More houses will fall into the ocean. More desperate people will be driven to our shores seeking safety from conflicts driven by food and water shortages. Many in the Coalition know it’s only a matter of time before their position must change. The rise of groups like Coalition for Conservation and Parliamentary Friends of Climate Action, which has six federal Liberal Party members, shows that internal climate champions do exist.

For the past two decades, trying to support internal change in the Coalition has not been a priority for climate NGOs. Until the 2019 election, the better strategy seemed to be to pressure the ALP to improve its climate policy and hope for its election. But that strategy debate is now moot: we have already entered the critical decade for action, and the Coalition is in power federally and in three states. The latest Newspoll shows Scott Morrison’s approval rating at 68 per cent, and he is preferred prime minister at 58 per cent (over Labor leader Anthony Albanese at 26 per cent). It is probable we will be dealing with Coalition governments until at least 2025. We simply do not have time to find a path to change that does not include the Coalition.

Just like John Howard’s gun reforms, climate policies are much more likely to stick if introduced from the right of politics than the left. If it can muster the courage to reduce political support or financial subsidies for coal and gas, the Coalition is far better placed than Labor to withstand the inevitable attacks from the fossil-fuel lobby and its allies in the Murdoch media. This has been demonstrated in the United Kingdom, where the Murdoch newspapers have largely supported the significant climate leadership shown by the Conservative Party.

There are signs of progress in the three Coalition-held states. NSW environment minister Matt Kean stood up at the Smart Energy Council’s annual conference in December 2019 and linked bushfires to climate change, making the case for stronger support for renewable energy. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate moment: the room, in Sydney’s Hilton Hotel, was literally filling with bushfire smoke. Now Kean is forging ahead with two huge renewable energy zones for regional New South Wales, and Tasmania and South Australia have made rapid progress on renewables under their moderate Liberal premiers. Tasmania has a set a world-leading target of 200 per cent renewables, and South Australia is aiming for 100 per cent renewables before 2030. Every state and territory now has a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Should they choose to do so, the state premiers could work together, bypassing the federal government, to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

But what about Coalition politicians from the centre-right (Scott Morrison’s faction) or the far right? In 2011, I spent four weeks filming an ABC documentary with former Liberal finance minister Nick Minchin. After over a hundred hours in conversation with Nick, I understood why he and others in the far-right faction were so opposed to accepting climate science. The science itself wasn’t the problem – rather, it was its implications for policy. This is what Professor Naomi Oreskes calls “implicatory denial”: accepting climate change means accepting that the neoliberal project of free markets and small governments produced a seriously large externality (a cost not reflected in the market price of fossil fuels, paid by the community in the form of climate change). In the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, climate change is the “greatest market failure ever seen,” and governments must step in to fix it. This calls into question the ideology that Nick Minchin and others like him have devoted their whole lives to advancing.

The political reality is that change inside the Coalition cannot happen until enough of these “climate blocker” politicians leave federal parliament to allow the rest to move forward, or unless the moderates increase their powerbase to render the blockers’ opposition irrelevant. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that the Coalition will feel the urgency to act that the science demands unless the federal Liberal Party is at serious risk of losing seats over climate change. Independent Zali Steggall’s successful campaign for the seat of Warringah was a turning point. It has inspired long-time conservative voters in other seats to take matters into their own hands and find and back pro-climate independents. Ironically, those whose heads are next on the chopping block are Liberal moderates in inner-city seats who do accept the science. These Liberal MPs – people such as Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Katie Allen and Jason Falinski – may argue that their presence in parliament is critical to transforming the Coalition’s climate policy. But these moderates have been so unwilling to risk any political capital over climate policy to date that voters in their electorates may decide instead that electing pro-climate independents and hoping they gain the balance of power is a more viable pathway to change. Perhaps the threat to the moderate Liberal voter base will prompt them to become more effective internal champions for climate action.

Ultimately, this is why the Coalition shifted on marriage equality. The few genuine champions inside the Liberal Party worked in partnership with Coalition MPs who weren’t personally passionate but who felt enough heat from their electorates that they understood they risked losing a generation of young voters. Climate campaigners have learnt from the marriage equality movement and are getting better at making climate change relatable through personal stories and more targeted work with conservative-leaning voters and constituency groups. There are now organisations focused on working with farmers, veterinarians and vet nurses, emergency leaders, bushfire survivors, parents, doctors, other health professionals, elite athletes, psychologists, engineers, lawyers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the Jewish community, various Christian denominations, ethnic communities in south and south-west Sydney, and retirees – to name just some. These groups understand that a “one size fits all” climate message hasn’t worked. To be effective, messages need to be delivered by people trusted within these communities, using stories and data that resonate and inspire action. Targeted campaigns can also influence stakeholder groups that are traditionally aligned with, and trusted by, the Coalition. Journalists often point to the National Farmers’ Federation’s shift to supporting action on climate change as an example of how out of touch the Nationals are with their traditional backers. But the influence of groups like Farmers for Climate Action in shifting the position of the Farmers’ Federation is less well known.

These new groups – which I refer to as “Climate Movement 2.0” – can change the information environment not just for voters, but also for politicians, their advisers, friends and families, donors, and the think-tanks and lobby groups they listen to and accept advice from. And they, like all of us, can focus their efforts not just on the politics, but also on business.

With the second pathway to change – shifting money from coal and gas – the headwinds are blowing less strongly. Brett describes the “shareholder and customer campaigns to divest from fossil fuels.” Many of Australia’s most strategic climate campaigners are now focusing their advocacy on banks, insurers and asset managers, such as superannuation funds. This simple but powerful tactic was described by author and co-founder Bill McKibben in an influential New Yorker article last year: “the key to disrupting the flow of carbon into the atmosphere may lie in disrupting the flow of money to coal and oil and gas.” New fossil-fuel projects are the main driver of climate change, yet very few, if any, fossil-fuel companies can self-finance and self-insure. If they can’t get loans, investment or insurance for their coalmine expansions or fracking wells, these projects simply can’t proceed. As Brett notes, BlackRock’s decision to offload its thermal coal shares and “put climate change at the centre of its investment strategy” was a key moment. Blackrock’s CEO Larry Fink did not just wake up one day and have a moral epiphany: the company was the target of a concerted campaign by the Sunrise Project and other groups.

Banking, asset management (superannuation and other companies that aggregate and invest money) and insurance companies are in a powerful position in Australia, too. If the fossil-fuel industry’s plans to extract more gas and coal from New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory can’t get insurance, finance or investment, they won’t proceed.

Businesses in other sectors of the economy can also play a role, by leveraging their historical and ongoing relationships with the Coalition. It is much more acceptable within the Coalition to be influenced by, and seen to be influenced by, business than it is to be seen to be influenced by environmental groups. This means any business (particularly ASX200 companies, which have more economic and therefore political clout) has a platform and power that it can use to champion climate action. Or, if it doesn’t voluntarily choose to do so, it can be encouraged to find its voice by the same customer, shareholder or employee activism that has been so influential with the banks, investors and insurers to date. All of us can play a role in this, through organisations that run effective corporate campaigns, such as Market Forces and the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. The ACCR, for example, aggregates 100 shareholders, including large institutional investors, every time it puts forward a shareholder resolution at a company AGM. These shareholder resolutions are the thorn in the side of companies such as BHP, Woodside and AGL. The ACCR played a key role in getting the Minerals Council to the point where it now has a climate policy – ACCR was demanding that BHP cease being a member.

As Brett writes, right now “Australia is at a crossroads,” as the pandemic has paused so much of the world’s economy. There is an opportunity in the National Cabinet, formed initially to respond to the pandemic, but now extended. Energy policy is on its list of issues to consider. With no Nationals in the National Cabinet, and all three Liberal premiers being moderates from states committed to net zero emissions by 2050, perhaps we will finally see the bipartisan progress on climate that most Australians crave.

Brett describes many points in Australia’s economic and political history when things could have taken a different turn. A small group of determined people created the situation we are in today – to protect their profits and advance their ideology. There was no guarantee they’d win. The history of social movements across the world shows that groups of committed people, small and large, can overcome even the longest odds. Progress is happening on climate change within both the Coalition and corporate Australia. The key question for ordinary Australians is: how can we accelerate it in the time scientists tell us we have left?

As Martin Luther King Jr said: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too Late’.” And in the words of Antarctic explorer Robert Swan: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”

Anna Rose



Peter Christoff

In The Coal Curse, Judith Brett eloquently describes how policy failures related to globalisation in the 1980s and 1990s enhanced our current dependence on fossil fuels. But she perhaps underestimates the role of the mining industry in hindering economic diversification and accentuating the dilemmas now faced by Australian governments grappling with climate change.

The mining industry learnt early on to promote and defend itself. In 1967, it formed the Australian Mining Industry Council (later the Minerals Council of Australia) to champion its interests. It resisted attempts under Whitlam to govern foreign investment through a Petroleum and Minerals Authority and, as Brett notes, undermined successive legislative iterations of land rights in the 1970s – and then again in the 1990s, following Mabo and Wik. It crushed Kevin Rudd’s attempt to establish a resource super-profits tax in 2010.

The disciplinary effect of these successes cannot be overstated. But moments of direct challenge were relatively rare because there was a deep consonance of views, values and interests among politicians, bureaucrats and industry executives about the economic role of the mining sector. Brett, following Guy Pearse, notes how the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network – the self-named “greenhouse mafia,” representing coal and aluminium interests – scripted climate and energy policy-making in the 1990s. But “state capture” as blatant as this was rare and perhaps an anomaly. Instead, corporate influence over mining policy was both subtler and more deep-seated. Influential elite networks helped align state and national policy and mining sector interests in ways favourable to the latter – especially in the major mining states of Queensland and Western Australia. Senior bureaucrats and politicians moved – and continue to move – from government to positions of influence in the mining sector, and vice versa. Mining professionals were appointed to bodies such as the Foreign Investment Review Board (Sir William Pettingell in the 1970s). Senior bureaucrats accepted positions of high influence in the minerals sector (Sir Donald James Hibberd). Politicians became industry lobbyists (former Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson, who advised the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association after leaving federal parliament in 2013).

In Treasury, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and other departments with responsibility for minerals and energy, a common culture prevailed, greatly enhanced by the neoliberal turn under Hawke and Keating. It was allergic to economic nationalism, fixated on international competitiveness, and favoured minimal regulation. As a consequence, successive Australian governments failed to extract significant value from mineral resource exports through taxes or royalties. Substantial potential public revenue was lost, often repatriated to overseas shareholders. Meanwhile, governments provided considerable subsidies and assistance in the form of tax concessions and access to state-owned infrastructure. (In 1974, the Fitzgerald report suggested the latter contribution far outweighed the value of mining taxes.)

Australia’s taxpayer-funded fossil-fuel subsidies currently total more than $12 billion each year despite G20 leaders (including Australia) committing, in 2009, to “phase out and rationalize, over the medium term, inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies.” Australian governments also provide regulatory relief by fast-tracking approvals, minimising environmental regulatory constraints, sometimes constructing roads, rail and ports, and reducing royalty requirements, as is being considered for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine.

The failure of resource governance in Australia has served us poorly. Consider the small country of Norway, which ensured its share of North Sea oil was fully state-owned and state-developed. To this day, Norway retains a majority interest in that resource, and its rigorous economic nationalism underpins a massive sovereign wealth fund, which now sustains and insulates its high standard of living and supports a significant foreign aid program as well.

By limiting our budgetary capacity to foster national economic diversity and resilience in a globalised world, the mining sector’s rent-seeking has diminished Australian development perhaps as much as, or more than, the resource curse. And it now makes attempts to stop being a fossil-fuel republic that much more expensive.

As gamblers know, even a long streak of luck eventually gives out. Climate change will inexorably bring the recent boom in coal and gas exports to an end. The UNEP Production Gap Report 2019 highlighted the chasm between the current volume of fossil fuels produced and what is required to meet Paris Agreement climate targets. This gap is largest for coal, and growing. By 2030, countries plan to produce 150 per cent more coal than is consistent with a 2°C pathway, and 280 per cent more than is consistent with a 1.5°C pathway. The gap is also substantial for oil and gas. Countries are projected to produce 43 per cent more oil and 47 per cent more gas by 2040 than is consistent with a 2°C pathway.

At the Clean Energy Council’s 2020 summit in July this year, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, commented that: “if [existing coal plants] operate for their normal economic lifetime . . . an average coal plant has a lifetime of forty years or so . . . it is impossible to reach our climate targets, even the modest ones.”

Almost total decarbonisation of the global power sector must occur in less than two decades if global average warming is to be held to below 2°C, and much faster for 1.5°C. When this occurs – and it is a “when” – the transition will necessarily be accompanied by closure of the “production gap” through a profound decline in demand for fossil fuels, and markets for Australian coal and gas. Long-term investments will become stranded assets at every point in the chain of production to consumption. The longer this transition is delayed, the greater the likelihood of collapse rather than orderly exit, and that governments will need to pay for structural adjustment. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Australia’s export energy sector is now a behemoth rushing towards the precipice.

Since the 1990s, Australia has adopted deeply contradictory policies on energy and climate change. Australia’s domestic uptake of rooftop solar is among the highest in the world and construction of large-scale solar and wind plants has accelerated, despite a still turbulent investment environment. Australian power generation using black coal has fallen since 2015, as have emissions from the power sector – a trend that will only accelerate.

However, Australian fossil-fuel exports have – until very recently – been completely siloed from both domestic energy and climate policies. Their entirely contradictory trajectory has been granted immunity from questioning, their unbridled growth supported equally by both the Coalition and Labor. It is here that Brett perhaps understates the political tensions and challenges now facing Australian governments.

Conservatives have argued that, based on its domestic emissions, Australia is an insignificant contributor to the global emissions problem. While this line is wrong in its own right – Australia emits 1.2 per cent of total global emissions, is ranked fourteenth among 196 emitting nations, and is one of the world’s highest per-capita emitters – this defence fails utterly when our total contribution to global warming is considered. Australia’s total carbon footprint – domestic and exported emissions combined – is around 3.6 per cent of total global emissions. Australia is the world’s sixth-largest producer of CO2 emissions overall. Its embodied emissions, exported in coal and gas, are at least two and half times its domestic emissions. Moreover, projected growth in Australian gas and coal exports – if realised – will see Australia’s total (extraction-based) emissions nearly double by 2030 compared to 2005. The current size and projected increase in Australia’s exported emissions overwhelms the ecological benefit of domestic action. It is clearly of global importance.

So far, the responses from the Coalition and Labor have been rigidly defensive. Some deny that an “export problem” exists, pointing out that only domestic emissions count toward the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s accounting requirements. Imported emissions are the responsibility of the importing country; it is not the supplier’s duty to mitigate emissions. Others argue that banning sales of Australian coal and gas will merely lead to supply substitution from elsewhere. Or that there is an ecological benefit: Australian coal is “cleaner” than that from other sources. Or that it is morally wrong to deprive developing countries of this vital energy resource. Or that governments shouldn’t intervene, as markets will resolve the issue.

There are strong counterarguments to each claim. For instance, it is arguable that in fostering fossil-fuel exports Australia is in breach of the UNFCCC, which outlines clear responsibilities for parties to “anticipate, prevent and minimise the causes of climate change,” and declares states have a responsibility to “ensure activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”

The cynicism of arguments that “if we won’t sell it, others will” and “it’s all the buyer’s responsibility” is clear. Australians and shareholders benefit materially from export of a recognised harmful substance, and therefore are linked to the destruction these commodities cause (think of alternative, morally repugnant examples: asbestos, or toxic waste). But such political responses belie the depth of paralysis on this issue within the Coalition and Labor.

The Coalition is still riven by the battle between climate believers and denialists. By contrast, Labor is caught between its need to appease urban and regional electorates with apparently divergent interests; to deal with internal tensions generated by the CFMEU, the mega-industrial union that covers mining; to manage its neoliberal inheritance; and to reply to the challenge from the Greens. Brett rightly highlights how Bill Shorten’s equivocation over the Adani mine was read by voters in the Galilee Basin as a sign of duplicity. Labor believes the 2019 election was lost in Queensland and New South Wales on the issue of coal and climate. Yet Anthony Albanese has continued this pattern of fence-sitting. Adani remains a dilemma and the current crisis for the ALP is reminiscent of the uranium mining debate that contributed to the formation of the Greens. The fossil-fuel export problem is as urgent, and its deadly outcomes more certain.

An integrated view of Australia’s climate responsibilities demands coherence between its domestic and export-oriented energy policies and practices. The climate crisis leaves no place for new coalmines or gas fields, or for maintaining the existing ones. It urgently requires a clearly articulated industry adjustment plan for winding down fossil-fuel exports. We have very limited time for implementation, even if we begin now. The political and economic impediments to doing so remain considerable and we face the danger that an informal conspiracy of silence will continue to blanket this larger concern. But the longer-term burdens of inaction – political, social, economic and ecological – will far outweigh the costs of breaching that silence.

Peter Christoff



Andy Lloyd

Professor Brett’s dismay at the recent bushfires and lack of action on climate change is well founded. As a firefighter, I share her concerns. But Brett has been very selective in citing the activities of a few individuals in the mining industry on native title and climate policy, and accordingly she provides a very narrow view.

I am reluctant to defend the coalmining industry, because it should have done more itself to address its poor reputation. However, having worked in the industry for several decades and represented Rio Tinto in numerous industry associations in Australia and internationally, I wish to offer a very different perspective.

Professor Brett describes the negative response of much of the mining industry to the Native Title Act 1993, which at the time was highly contentious. In 1995, Leon Davis, the managing director of CRA, the Australian arm of Rio Tinto, made a landmark speech supporting native title and recognising the advantages of working in partnership with Aboriginal people. For mining companies, this would result in improved access to Aboriginal land, increased local employment options and greater security of tenure for mining projects, in addition to the obvious benefits for Aboriginal people. Professor Brett says the companies “could afford to be generous once they had won,” but the reality is they were driven by the social and commercial imperative to do business in a manner that delivered effective outcomes for themselves and affected Aboriginal groups alike. The outcomes for Aboriginal people since then have been positive where agreements negotiated for development on Aboriginal land have aligned the interests of Aboriginal communities and mining companies by sharing the proceeds of development through royalties, employment, business development and other benefits, while protecting Aboriginal rights and interests in land, environment and cultural heritage.

Mining companies recognised emerging climate concerns by the late 1990s, and since then have sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions despite the lack of clear government policy. While there has been vigorous debate and disagreement on exactly what to do, mining companies have responded to the emerging imperatives of climate change. On no occasion within the Australian coal industry can I recall climate science, as distinct from policy, being seriously debated, let alone dismissed. Rather, the starting point for these discussions was always that climate change was a significant problem that needed to be addressed. One that posed a challenge not just for the mining industry, but for every industry with high-energy inputs.

The idea of an all-powerful fossil-fuel lobby stalking the corridors of power, casting doubt on climate science and sabotaging national efforts to reduce emissions, is hilarious to most people inside these companies. It would also be news to politicians who have been directly involved in climate policy over this period and who have allegedly been “captured” by this lobby. Rather, Australian domestic climate policy over the past two decades can be explained almost entirely by a single question: what impact will this policy measure have on the cost and reliability of energy for domestic and business consumers? A closely linked question is: what impact will it have on Australian competitiveness?

Professor Brett uses the term “fossil-fuel lobby” in a way that implies everyone involved in the production of fossil fuels (the coal, gas and oil industries) rejects climate science and has worked to undermine emissions policy. This is patently false. All of the major public companies in these sectors long ago acknowledged the problem and have in place programs to reduce their own emissions. Many, including coal producers, have been working for decades on strategies to reduce emissions from the use of their products. For example, the black coal industry contributed over 20 per cent of the abatement achieved under the voluntary Greenhouse Challenge Program initiated in 1995 by the Keating government.

If there is an anti–climate science, pro–fossil-fuel lobby in Australia, it comprises a small number of politicians and commentators, not companies actually involved in the fossil-fuel industry. If these politicians have been “captured” by so-called fossil-fuel interests, then those interests do not include major producers.

If indeed there has been a sinister lobby working behind the scenes, sowing the seeds of climate denial and sabotaging emission reduction efforts in Australia, then it has been spectacularly unsuccessful. This is particularly true when it comes to coal. As Brett herself notes, ten coal plants have closed in Australia in the past ten years. No new ones have been commissioned for over a decade, and Australia is installing renewable energy (solar photovoltaics and wind) faster per capita than almost any other country. Our deployment rate is four to five times faster than in the European Union, United States, Japan and China.

The black coal industry recognised the challenges facing coal in the late 1990s, when it joined the Greenhouse Challenge Program and began to invest in abatement projects. By 2001, these challenges were made even clearer from its dialogue with the International Energy Agency. In 2006, the black coalmining industry in Australia agreed to create the COAL21 Fund to develop low-emission technologies, and all Australian black coal producers agreed to contribute to this fund. To date, the fund has invested nearly $400 million in emerging low-emission technologies. Numerous major technical research and demonstration projects have been undertaken, including oxy-firing of a conventional coal power station, pre-and post-combustion capture, in conjunction with work by the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies on carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The International Energy Agency itself has highlighted the importance of CCS in reducing emissions, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the organisation that reviews and distils the research of thousands of climate scientists, has consistently and repeatedly identified CCS as one of the critical technologies necessary to address climate change.

In about 2002, Rio Tinto joined with numerous other coal and oil and gas companies in the CO2CRC, which was established under the Australian government’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program. Its aim was to research and demonstrate CCS as a major industrial emissions-reduction technology. In 2012, Rio Tinto further expanded its contributions to the CO2CRC, providing $3 million over three years as part of the formation of the Peter Cook Centre for CCS Research. At the conclusion of CRC funding in 2014, CO2CRC Limited was established as a private, not-for-profit research organisation and to this day it owns and operates a major carbon storage research facility with more than $100 million invested in understanding how carbon dioxide behaves underground. In 2009, Prime Minister Rudd committed over $100 million to support the creation of the Global CCS Institute, which has carried forward this work internationally.

The efforts of the Australian coal industry to develop CCS are often incorrectly characterised as a failure. Further, many describe those efforts as a cynical external-relations tactic to cultivate the promise of future low-emission coal use while allowing business as usual for as long as possible. Any informed analysis exposes both notions as erroneous.

The knowledge developed by those early projects has supported the development of this technology elsewhere by nations and companies with budgets far larger than Australia’s. In reality, the ambition of the Australian coal industry was a decade too early. The cost of capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations has halved since the COAL21 fund was launched in 2006. Two coal plants with CCS are operating (since 2014 and 2017) and in the past few months six more have commenced feasibility or FEED studies in the United States. These are not academic exercises. These are real projects with the intent of putting steel in the ground. If the coal industry was truly just conducting an external-relations exercise, or just continuing business as usual, it would not have spent hundreds of millions of dollars through the COAL21 Fund trying to support the development of a technology well beyond its core competencies. Nor would individual coal companies have spent tens of millions of additional dollars on their own CCS programs. Rather, the coal industry would have saved its money and instead focused its messaging on local efforts to reduce its own emissions and on its contribution to the community and economy, safe in the knowledge that the export coal market will be robust for decades.

The industry’s actions were and are motivated by a desire to make a material contribution towards defeating climate change, while recognising the realities of the ongoing demand for coal, especially in rapidly growing Asia. Without CCS, it is, at best, twice as expensive to meet climate targets, and at that cost it is practically impossible. The actions of the industry are well removed from the climate denialism depicted by Professor Brett.

Around half of Australia’s coal exports is metallurgical coal used for steel-making. The other half is thermal coal used in power plants, with a small portion used to make cement, alumina, synthetic rutile and manganese. If it is true (and it is) that countries that import our thermal coal could readily source the same quantity elsewhere, why do they prefer the Australian product? The answer is that it generally has a higher energy content and a lower ash content, meaning it is more efficient and also lower in other important pollutants, such as sulphur and mercury. For India and China, which are determined to electrify their economies by whatever means available, and which already have an air pollution problem, this is an important consideration. Using Australian coal results in lower carbon emissions per unit of energy and fewer pollutants of other kinds. This does not make Australian coal “clean,” just cleaner.

While the idea that support for Australian coal exports can only be logically explained by politicians being somehow “captured” by climate-denying fossil-fuel interests might make for a ripping yarn, the reality is far more prosaic. Most people understand the economic and environmental reasons why countries prefer to use Australian coal. And all understand the jobs, investment and national wealth to be foregone if Australia were simply to cede these markets to eager global competitors with no environmental benefit.

Apart from this, critics like Brett need to ask: if we want to be consistent and stop our emission-intensive exports, where do we draw the line? Cattle cause methane emissions, so Australia shouldn’t export beef or dairy products? Aluminium production is responsible for emissions, so we shouldn’t export bauxite? International tourism causes airline-related greenhouse gas emissions, so Australia should tell travellers to go elsewhere? The answer is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy, including, of course, the more intensive emitters such as coal-fired power, both in Australia and internationally.

We need to demand that our politicians embrace the target of net zero emissions by 2050 and take effective action to meet that target. Certainly, we should be demanding greater efforts from the emission-intensive polluters, including the coalmining and coal-consuming industries, to invest in the development and deployment of low-emission technologies. We must demand action domestically, and we should also use our trading relationships to ensure that sales of Australian products come with commitments to invest similarly to reduce emissions.

New technology needs significantly more investment and Australia should play its part in an international effort. Developers of these technologies assume a significant financial risk, which is made more difficult in the absence of an economically efficient mechanism to reward cuts in emissions. The success of renewables is commendable, but we need as many emission-reduction options as possible, so that we can choose the most cost-effective options across all sectors of the economy.

As a firefighter, I share Professor Brett’s dismay about climate change and the inadequate response to date. However, emergency management principles require that we remove emotion from our decision-making. If we believe in the climate crisis, it is hard-headed science and economics that we need to bring to bear. Even if we don’t (yet) believe there is a climate crisis, we should act regardless, as the long life of polluting assets and the long lead times for new technologies mean that turning around our emissions will take decades. Demonising any one product or process distracts from this wider imperative.

Andy Lloyd



Zoe Whitton

Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse is an insightful overview of Australia’s struggle to develop industries beyond commodity exports, and the effect this concentration has on our national discourse and policy-making.

It is a rare treat to read a deep case study of the resource curse in action, even if it is a little depressing to be reading it about one’s own country. Two features of our predicament, as outlined by Brett, stand out for me. First, the idea that our lopsided success might be challenging our ability to develop new strengths and growth opportunities. Brett doesn’t suggest there is a causal link between our strength in extracting and exporting resources and our weakness in other industrial sectors, but she does note a number of ways they interrelate. One of these is that the resources industry breathes in people and capital as commodity prices rise and exhales them as they fall, challenging the growth of other sectors. The effect of our resource exports on other exporters via exchange rates is another.

This dynamic is reminiscent of the failure to innovate often observed in incumbent corporations. Why, so often, do strong organisations, dominant in their industry and aware of oncoming disruption, fail to respond and therefore get damaged or swept aside? Such companies tend to have high-powered and experienced boards, well-resourced strategy departments, and established customer relationships and infrastructure. They should be best positioned to seize new opportunities and see off attackers. Nonetheless, over and over again we observe such companies being overwhelmed and diminished by change. Why?

One proffered reason is the power of the existing successful business units within the organisation. Often an incumbent business unit negotiates so hard on all fronts that up-and-coming units don’t get a look in. Once leadership is established around a dominant activity, it becomes difficult to allocate resources and time to anything else. This dominance can play out in myriad tiny decisions. Should we spend our time and attention developing a new initiative which might fail, or should we double down on our most profitable activities? Should we change our governance slightly so that our new business unit can grow, or should we keep the existing structure which favours the dominant unit? Should we allocate growth capital to our new products, or to the products which presently make up the majority of our revenues? Each choice to back the status quo often makes sense in the short-or mid-term, and is hard to press back against. But over time they lead cumulatively to an inability to do much that is new.

How this translates is clear. Australia is extremely good at certain activities. We derive a significant portion of our income from those activities. We have experienced and capable leadership, resources to spare, and a reputation for delivery. But we have struggled to figure out how to become good at anything other than varieties of what we are presently good at (except in a few cases).

Where a company often struggles to spend the surplus from a dominant business on an upstart, Australia has struggled to tax established sectors to support the development of others. Where a company struggles to change incentives to favour a new unit, so we struggle to modify our national policy and norms to make space for the future. Our dominant industries often argue that they shouldn’t be taxed as heavily or should be supported because they contribute so much to the national economy. (Brett outlines how the narrative efforts of our dominant industries have been hugely successful in this respect.) This conversation is almost a direct mirror of that sometimes seen between business units.

I should note that not all companies have this problem. Cases in which an organisation completely fails (usually by being consumed by others) are actually fairly rare. Many companies manage to survive their incumbency. Nonetheless, each decade provides a steady flow of new examples. Furthermore, incumbents often survive by buying upstarts – a common practice for companies, but more controversial when attempted by countries.

The second notable feature of our predicament is the difficulty we experience regarding climate change and the industrial transition it entails. As Brett notes, our national debate on the topic has become deeply polarised, often seeming to pertain mainly to our national identity and relevance rather than really discussing the challenge. To many people, our national conversation on climate change appears to have become somewhat deranged – full of sound and fury, and largely unrelated to the issues at hand. This is likely due in part to the challenges faced in all modern political conversations: the extent to which our media now operate by soundbite and clickbait; the increasing polarisation of our news infrastructure; inequality and its many ills. However, when it comes to climate change, there is probably something else afoot.

When viewed up close, the deterioration of our debate seems like a specific failure. It appears that a number of determined individuals in a specific set of industries may have bumped us off an otherwise constructive path, setting us into the melee which we now experience. However, seen from a distance, our trajectory looks more predictable and less personal. Some have long expected that Australia will necessarily fail to navigate a transition because even thinking about it will prove too difficult for us.

Why would this be so? Following Hurricane Sandy, British environmental campaigner George Marshall undertook a series of interviews with residents of the New Jersey seashore. He noted that those who lived through the unusually severe, life-threatening storm were less likely to believe in climate change than before. Why? Marshall gathered evidence about the issue for his 2014 book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. His findings suggest that the desire to return to something like normal, to rebuild anew, and to express solidarity and perseverance prompted people to resist the prospect that the same disaster could happen again. The fact that climate change might be extremely threatening (it could destroy your house or kill you) makes conceiving of it even more difficult. More evidence of how threatening climate change might actually make it even harder to come to terms with.

Some commentators expect the same from us as a nation. At a conference in 2019, energy finance analyst Kingsmill Bond presented an analysis of which countries might move more quickly through a climate transition, and which might instead be overcome by it. The audience was a global group, interested primarily in the fortunes of Europe, the United States and eastern Asia, where they were based. Bond noted almost as an aside that a few (energy-exporting) nations would of course find it almost impossible to undertake a transition. He noted that the political and economic negotiations needed to undertake decarbonisation would likely prove too challenging for these states to navigate successfully, given their interests. However, he argued that the trajectories of these countries were irrelevant. There were only a few of them, and their populations were small. The rest of the world’s population (largely living in countries which are net energy importers) would stand to benefit, and that was where the action would be in any case. The discussion moved on. I don’t need to tell you which group Australia was in.

The discussion reminded me of a similar one we regularly have in the investment community. We often find ourselves pondering why some companies find it such a struggle to develop a climate change strategy, or even to discuss the topic. Why are they defensive, even when many proactive options are available to them? A common answer is that acknowledging a threat sometimes requires choosing between options that all seem less appealing than the status quo. Even when the status quo is not sustainable beyond the short term, the alternatives can seem so unappealing that we choose not to consider them. In these cases, it often feels preferable to kick the can down the road. Many companies have reason to feel threatened by climate change, but some companies may feel that none of the options available to address the threat are in any way desirable. In these cases, avoiding the discussion (or even pretending the threat doesn’t exist) might feel more viable than looking at the danger straight-on.

Of course, we know that such companies, the reluctant nations Bond referred to and Marshall’s post-disaster communities are far from alone in struggling to come to terms with the fear of far-reaching and threatening change. Furthermore, one can imagine that for individuals, companies and countries, a larger and more existential threat might generate even greater reluctance.

Our commodity-exporting industries certainly have the emotional resonance needed to generate this type of attachment. Growing up in a Queensland mining family (a splinter group of an agricultural family at that), I know what it is to feel the ebb and flow of commodities industries almost viscerally. As the mining industry grew throughout my childhood, it felt as though Queensland did too – our wealth, our perception of ourselves in the world, and our confidence. I remember the luxury stores that opened their doors on Queen Street as the mining boom took flight. Alongside the growing number of stately modern headquarters dotted around town, these felt like glittering markers of our new place in the world. This was a temporary feeling – a giant breathing in, if you will. The same stores have now been aged by time as much as by finding themselves in a different economic context. But as a teenager, it felt as if our world and our esteem was expanding with the industry.

Perhaps, coming from that place and time, I am more inclined to read into this emotional resonance. But in the mining community in Queensland during the boom, the industry and the future and Us felt tightly wound – one and the same. What threatened one, threatened all. Feeling attached like this makes it difficult to think with any objectivity about things which threaten the industry. And when it comes to an energy transition, this emotional resonance might be enough to make one’s stance on transition a foregone conclusion.

Maybe as a consequence of these challenges, the Australian debate on transition has one more striking quirk, which is that we tend to speak about global change as if it’s something we control. Specifically, we speak about the industrial transition of others as if our choices will change theirs. As if our policy decisions will change what Asia, Europe or the United States does. This is risky for two reasons. First, we don’t get to choose whether climate change happens or not – or what the impacts are. Second, we don’t get to choose whether others respond to climate change or not, nor how they do so. What we decide to do on climate change matters, but possibly not for the reasons we think. We discuss climate change and international agreements as if pulling out of them will change something, or (even more hopefully) break a spell and convince the world that it was all a fantasy. This is magical thinking at its most fantastic and dangerous. Instead, what we do matters because it will determine how fast and successfully we respond to the challenge, and how the rest of the world treats us as it moves forward.

On the first point (speed and success), there is an industrial revolution presently afoot, and we have the natural and intellectual resources needed to succeed. However, we will not win this game if we refuse to get on the field. On the second point, if our choices take us in a different direction to others, then they are very likely to impose a variety of costs on us to ensure they don’t end up bearing our costs. Border-adjusted carbon prices are a good example of this – a policy mechanism under which a region can levy tariffs on imports which originate in jurisdictions without sufficient carbon constraints. These types of mechanisms allow regions to protect themselves and their industries – to transition without exposing their own economies to uneven competition. They might in some scenarios be used to protect these regions from us – from our high-carbon economy.

If we make certain choices, we may find ourselves playing a different game to large parts of the global economy, and paying for it on a number of fronts (including missed opportunities). We will miss the opportunity to win the game they are presently playing – one we are well set up to win. This is why it matters what we do – because it determines whether we’re on the field, or not. To miss the commercial layer of this conversation is at best to be incumbent, complacent and a bit distracted. At worst, it is to be unbelievably naive in the service of our own hope and nostalgia.

Given this, why is there reason for hope? First, although there are many famous examples of entities which failed to navigate their own incumbency, there are also many which succeeded. Companies that, understanding their own mental blocks, targeted the futures they wanted. In order for these futures to be in play for us, we will have to do as these successful incumbents did – explicitly work our way through our challenges, knowing that our mental gravity will pull us back. Tie ourselves to the mast, if you will.

There are signs of hope in a number of recent policy projects. Though it has not been much discussed, the first half of the COVID-19 Commission’s draft recommendations focuses very usefully on which advanced manufacturing activities might be built out in Australia. The Technology Investment Roadmap focuses on innovating through the problem and building new strengths and industries. CSIRO’s new national missions aim to focus and protect innovation for specific outcomes. Beyond these policy efforts, we have the resources and expertise to solve the problem. As with incumbents, there is no reason it shouldn’t be us that disrupts us – we merely (!) have to set ourselves on the path, find some rope, and perhaps use a little figurative wax to drown out the complaints of our established sectors.

A second cause for hope comes from outside Canberra, from the rest of Australia. I have framed the above discussion as if “we” are one entity. One community struggling to perceive the challenge, one group grappling with a single set of hopes and desires. This is, of course, not the case. Indeed, much of the furore I have described above is happening not in all of Australia, but in a much smaller, tighter arena, comprising Canberra and a collection of commentators. This arena is certainly extremely powerful. However, it is also a small and shrinking part of the national discussion on transition, likely because it has been so unwilling to engage on the topic to date and so has been effectively sidelined. Outside this arena, a growing majority of decision-makers are already putting in the work to navigate a transition.

When discussing the transition, many commentators elevate the importance of this small arena, equating a failure of federal transition policy with the failure of the nation as a whole. In some respects, this is true – overarching federal policy would speed up our response to the challenge and reduce the extent to which we make problems for ourselves in the future. It would boost our ability to compete in the game of our lives, ensuring that our footing is strong and that all our limbs are running together and in the right direction. It would make investment and action easier, faster, more competitive and more coordinated.

However, if Canberra fails on this issue – if our national leadership fails to ward off its own sirens – we still have many avenues for action. As Brett notes, every state or territory in Australia is presently committed to align with Paris. Many of our largest companies are decarbonising at a rate of knots (including some of our resource majors). Citizens, investors, regulators and companies alike are grappling with a transition – negotiating ways to hold one another to account, to invest despite uncertainty, and to innovate in the right direction with little assistance.

These decision-makers are pushing together towards the growth that we need to take the game (although, I will grant you, they argue every step of the way). When viewed as a whole, Australia looks very different to when viewed as Canberra. Recent history would suggest that our challenge will actually be addressed beyond Canberra and by other actors. Much of the action in Australia is now moving steadily in the right direction, despite the noise. As a major commodity exporting nation – and a major energy exporter – Australia faces a transition path which will be unlike those of many other developed economies. Nonetheless, it’s possible for our path to be one of growth. To achieve this pathway, we must remember that we’re more than just the apparently intractable fights which presently dominate our political conversations, and that we’re capable of functioning despite being threatened by change. Like a family living in a cyclone-hit delta, we cannot just rebuild the same house our grandparents lived in. Nor the one our parents lived in. To thrive in our distinct part of the world with our distinct history, we will have to innovate, tie ourselves to the proverbial mast, and build something that is designed for our future rather than only our past. Many of us are already building it.

Zoe Whitton


Response to Correspondence

Margaret Simons

Since Cry Me a River was released, people have asked me what should be done to fix the problems in the Murray–Darling Basin. It would be easy to protest that if the politicians and water bureaucrats can’t solve the problem, it is wrong to expect a humble journalist to do so. Nevertheless, I agree with Gabrielle Chan, herself the author of impressive journalism on the Basin, that the numerous inquiries and reviews into the problems of the Basin have common threads, and that is the place to start. As Chan states, first there is the need for greater transparency. This should apply to who owns water and to water trades. When taxpayer money is spent on buying water, the reasons for the purchase, the price and the seller should be publicly disclosed. That, I would have thought, is neither a radical nor an unreasonable suggestion.

But there is a broader vibe about transparency. The acting chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Professor Stuart Bunn, talks about rebuilding trust – without saying how that trust was destroyed in the first place. Acts of radical transparency – around the research, the decision-making and the necessary compromises – are surely part of what is necessary. I accept the Authority has made some progress in its public communications. Much more is needed. Various grower groups will protest about commercial-in-confidence if water ownership is made transparent. I respond that in most states, if they sold land I would be able to find out what they sold, whether it was mortgaged and whom they sold it to – and probably for how much. Why should water be any different, particularly when it is a public asset, licensed to users?

What else? As Chan states, there are a number of reasons to suspect the efficiency schemes are not working as intended. There will be differences from place to place and scheme to scheme. Simple binaries will necessarily be wrong. But it seems that efficiency schemes and water trading are combining to increase the amount of land under irrigation. On top of this, if the return-flow figures are as dire as Quentin Grafton’s work suggests, their net result might be to reduce the amount of water in the rivers – a counterintuitive but devastating outcome. It’s awful that we don’t already know the answer to the return-flow issue, and also that we don’t know the quantum of floodplain harvesting and water kept in private storages in the Northern Basin. I think everyone agrees that priority must be given to improving our knowledge. It seems to me that it would be reasonable to pull back or even halt the spending on efficiency schemes at least until we know more.

As the Productivity Commission has suggested, the cheapest and surest way of clawing back water for the environment is for the government simply to buy it from willing sellers. I think history will conclude that Penny Wong was more right than wrong when, as water minister from 2007, she launched in with the government chequebook, without waiting for the Plan to be devised. It was a bold and imperfect action, but also effective. Nevertheless, I think that given the pain in rural communities, that effort shouldn’t be repeated without a more comprehensive attempt to address the problems of agricultural industries and the communities that rely on them.

The Productivity Commission has pointed out that buybacks get blamed for broader problems in regional Australia, and also that there is not a one-for-one relationship between loss of water and decline in agricultural production. Farmers who have sold water adapt. They use what they have more efficiently, and may also move into dryland farming. If mass buybacks were reinstituted, it should be as part of comprehensive rural and regional policy. The money saved from the efficiency schemes could be spent on putting this policy into effect – probably including health and education spending in the regions, and perhaps also with attention given to essential services such as local news outlets, already the target of special government assistance. Such policy would intersect with education, health, food security, sovereignty and perhaps also migration policy, if we want to encourage new arrivals to settle outside the cities. In other words, water policy and regional policy needs a whole-of-government approach. It needs to be at the centre of the best of professional politics and rescued from the world of cynical compromise and ad-hoc side deals.

As the essay records, neither side of politics has come up with such policies.

I wish I had stated it more clearly in the essay: the National Party – which is almost always awarded water and agricultural portfolios at both state and federal level – has proved itself not up to the job. The party we might most expect to develop rural and regional policy has failed the test both in governance and integrity, and in policy smarts. The National Party has tied itself in knots. It is now hopelessly conflicted, trying to fend off the fury of the Southern Basin farmers – and their support for independent candidates and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party – while staying in with the cotton farmers of the north. It would put the Nationals out of their misery if the water portfolios were taken from them – but of course that won’t happen.

And the other parties don’t come out of it well either. Since Malcolm Turnbull left the Water portfolio, the Liberal Party, particularly in New South Wales, has stood back while the National Party messed up the implementation. Labor, as de Pieri outlines, has, since it lost power federally, mostly failed to engage.

There are exceptions to the National Party’s generally dismal record. It seems to me that former federal water minister David Littleproud did his best to manage the feral politics left by his predecessor, Barnaby Joyce, without surrendering policy integrity. When I finished Cry Me a River, it seemed there might have been a behind-the-scenes deal by Littleproud with Chris Brooks and the “Can the Plan” protesters to give them more water, using Mick Keelty’s review as a cloak.

That didn’t happen, and Littleproud held firm. Keelty’s report, released in April 2020, contained few surprises for those in the know, finding that there was no spare water simply lying around to be re-allocated, that the reduction of inflows was the main reason for water allocations being reduced, and that part of the explanation for why Brooks and his fellows had no water, while their Victorian neighbours on the other side of the river had some, was because of different state government approaches to allocations – with New South Wales running the system hard, and with less in reserve to cope with dry seasons. Littleproud has now left the portfolio, replaced by the National Party’s Keith Pitt, who oversaw another advance that could be seen as part of Littleproud’s legacy – the NSW government’s long-overdue lodgment of eleven of its water resource plans, with more to come.

The lodgment of those plans makes it apparent that the constant threats of NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro to pull out of the plan are nothing more than destructive showmanship, signifying nothing. Goodness knows why anyone thought Barilaro might be a good candidate in the federal seat of Eden Monaro. Southern NSW farmers would surely see right through him.

There have been other updates since Cry Me a River was published. The issue of the management of the lower lakes, and the status of Professor Peter Gell’s work, has been settled by an independent CSIRO review of the science, which was underway when I wrote. That review concluded that the lakes were predominantly fresh before European settlement, and that they were being managed in accord with the best available science. In other words, no easy water savings there either. Gell has things to say about this in his correspondence – and to unpick it all he says would take more words than I have available here. I will let his suggestion that I am biased because I am South Australian travel through to the keeper. Those who are interested can access the CSIRO report on the Murray–Darling Basin Authority website. Professor Tibby’s response to Gell’s work is shortly to be published in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology, which also published the paper of Gell’s that was so urgently pressed upon me by irrigators on the Murray.

In his correspondence, de Pieri wonders whether some of the political allegiances I outlined – such as the Australia Institute backing Chris Brooks and the Can the Plan protesters, who in turn have backed Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidates – are “manoeuvres of last resort.” In this context, it is notable that Maryanne Slattery, another of my correspondents, has now left the Australia Institute. I sense a story behind that – one for another time, maybe.

I think de Pieri writes the Shooters and Fishers off a bit lightly. They are a mixed bunch, both in talent and political lineage, and suffer from all the usual pathologies of minor parties – but the best of their candidates would be eligible in any party, and are well across water politics. They carry the legacy of the rural independents – Tony Windsor, in particular. The voters of southern New South Wales have not necessarily been wrong to ditch the National Party in their favour.

As I think my essay made clear, I don’t necessarily share Slattery’s positive view of Chris Brooks’ contribution to water politics. As Cry Me a River records, Slattery herself has made an important contribution in bringing data on to the public record, in a climate of limited transparency from the authorities. And, granted, it is probably a good thing that it is now not only the cotton farmers of the Northern Basin who have a powerful political voice. Of course Brooks is within his democratic rights in giving voice to frustrated growers. But I don’t think his interventions so far have moved much beyond special pleading, and some of what he has done has given his supporters false hope, which is not a kindness. This is not the kind of contribution that builds capacity to tackle the problems and build good policy. In fact, I think Brooks has made it harder to do that. I would say the same of some of the contributions of the cotton industry.

Meanwhile, “Can the Plan” is a near-meaningless slogan. What is the alternative to improving the Plan we have?

Slattery, Foran, Rickards and Howie, from varying standpoints, all draw attention to different kinds of non-financial value in a healthy river system. Foran, in particular, draws on clear expertise to delineate the complexities of water and cotton and the implications for those of us whose connection to the Basin is only through what we wear and what we eat. Howie teases out better than I had room to do the achievements of the Plan in environmental outcomes, perhaps going some of the way to addressing what Bunn sees as my shortcomings. Certainly, South Australia is one of the best advertisements for the work of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, and not only because the success stories are easily accessible to the casual traveller. Rickards is eloquent about the experience of working in the Murray–Darling Basin Commission, and rightly draws attention to the role of water in mining and coal seam gas production – issues I couldn’t tackle within my allocated word length. Beeson doesn’t like my tone, suggesting that I fail to recognise the significance and complexity of the achievement in negotiating a flawed plan through parliament. Readers can judge for themselves on that, but as I said in Cry Me a River, it is a kind of miracle that we have a Plan at all. However, that fact shouldn’t be used to dismiss serious problems in design and implementation. I agree with Beeson that the Plan is too important to fail, and Beeson agrees with me that the problems need to be part of wider policy debate. He emphasises water security. As I have already said, I would go broader.

The response from the Murray–Darling Basin Authority itself is submitted under the name of its acting chairman, Professor Bunn. As Mike Young elucidates, the fact that the MDBA has only an acting chair is part of the problem. The Authority has lacked a permanent chair since former Liberal MP Neil Andrew’s term expired in early 2019 – at the same time as the South Australian royal commission’s damning findings. The failure to recruit a permanent replacement is a lost opportunity, although one can understand that only the very brave would take on the job – that is, if they intended to do it well. Professor Bunn probably deserves credit he will never get for the thankless job of filling the gap.

Professor Bunn is a Griffith University academic with impressive credentials in water management. I found his response more remarkable for what it didn’t say than what it did. He says nothing about the problems with efficiency programs, and nothing about the return-flows issue, for example, and nothing about the call for a water audit. After putting our problems in an international context, he suggests Cry Me a River was constructed as a kind of fairy story, or to meet some template journalistic story arc. Again, readers can judge for themselves, and I will strive not to feel insulted. On the positive side, Professor Bunn’s response is remarkable for containing the clearest statement so far from the Authority that climate change “will undoubtedly require a revisit of the broader settings of the Plan.” And he talks about 2026, when the current arrangements expire, as bringing about such a comprehensive reset.

Mike Young gave me a key interview at the beginning of my project, and I am relieved that he thinks I “got it so right.” Certainly he would be the one to call me out if I had made errors!

Given Bunn’s acknowledgment of climate change and the need for a reset of the Plan’s fundamentals, it seems likely that Young’s proposal for a “shares” system will get another run in 2026, if not before. Young’s system seems to me to have a tough kind of fairness and flexibility built in, although, as he indicates, it would not allow us to escape from the hard realities that water inflows will decrease, and that means yet more hardship for rural communities – I would say increasing the need for broader policy responses.

There would still be plenty to argue about in putting a system such as Young suggests in place. What share should be reserved for the environment? What emphasis, if any, should be given to maintaining diversity in agriculture? Should compensation be paid for reductions in water shares for irrigators? And how much? But these are the arguments worth having. The problem with the sustainable diversion limit approach is that the complexities of understanding what water can be used by whom and when mean that is almost impossible for anyone to understand what is being done, let alone debate on the basis of clear data and sensibly argue for change.

Young and Slattery are unlikely to agree on much. He has faith in free markets. She argues for government intervention to protect values that are not only financial, such as food security and a diverse family farming sector. I won’t choose between them, but it seems to me the debate over a shares system might provide a framework in which these issues can be worked through, as well as incorporating other policy objectives around decentralisation and food security.

I imagine de Pieri would have been heartened when, almost as though he had read this correspondence, Labor leader Anthony Albanese made regional policy a feature of his May headland speech, saying that an “appropriate decentralisation strategy which boosts regional economic development and takes pressure off our capital cities should be at the heart of national economic development.” Albanese described a “once in a generation” chance to reshape our economy, including the possibility for businesses to move to the regions and money to be spent on river revitalisation. Of course, details were absent, but it is worth watching the space. If the 2022 election includes a contest over rural and regional policy, food security and resource management, that would surely be a good thing.

I also see some hope in the National Cabinet that has been created to address the COVID-19 crisis. If it persists after the immediate crisis has passed, surely one of the items on the top of its agenda should be the Murray–Darling Basin. Perhaps it could move past the depressing theatrics and zero-sum politics of the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council and CHOGM. Notably, the National Cabinet includes no National Party members.

Meanwhile, the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has included a new emphasis on “sovereignty,” including food supply chains and with fertiliser manufacture in Narrabri at the top of the list of projects being promoted by the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission. This, too, suggests that rural and regional policy might be brought back into the centre of politics, not left to neglect and the world of cosy conversations and opaque political compromise.

Margaret Simons



R. Humphrey Howie

It’s 12 April 2020. I have just returned from walking at Plush’s Bend, 4 kilometres downstream from Renmark on the River Murray in South Australia. Here, 68 megalitres of Commonwealth environmental water is currently being delivered through a Renmark Irrigation Trust (RIT) pipe to a series of adjacent lagoons. Life is returning. Multitudes of martins and swallows glide and dip across the water surface. Dotterels skip along the edge and ducks work their way across its length.

Plush’s Bend has been a popular recreational spot with settler families for over 100 years. Before that, the area was populated by the Erawirung people. The many middens and scar trees are reminders that they lived here for thousands of years. The rich riverine landscape, with its myriad creeks, billabongs and tributaries, was one of the most densely populated areas in Australia before European contact. In recent times, the lagoons at Plush’s Bend have suffered from drastic water shortages, due to the infrequency of floods and high rivers. The large red-gums are all dead, as are many of the box trees on the terraces above. However, in the second year of environmental watering, natural regeneration of native vegetation is occurring. This modest example demonstrates the critical value of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. Returning water for environmental purposes from an over-allocated system is one of its principal aims.

Margaret Simons’ essay is a lucid snapshot of where the Basin stands today. Through her many interviews, astute observations and evocative descriptions, she has captured the complexities of Australian politics, geography and culture with non-judgmental empathy. The vastness of the Basin means it is easy for communities to become insular. Her essay helps us connect with others living within the catchment.

My passion for the complex river landscape surrounding Renmark started early. Some of my fondest memories are of family outings swimming and picnicking at the Plush’s Bend sandbar, or of our father taking us fishing in a dinghy among the snags and roots of overhanging gums. I have a vivid memory of returning from one of these expeditions as a teenager in the late 1970s. Dad and I were driving along a dusty track across the expansive Chowilla floodplain, about forty kilometres upstream of Renmark. Vast numbers of dead and dying black box trees were silhouetted in the failing light. After decades of diminishing high rivers and floods, they were finally giving up.

My dad could remember Lock 5 being constructed when he was a young lad, in 1927. After labouring on the fruit block, he would spend his spare time swimming, camping, fishing and hunting. Back then, the floodplain still had regular cycles of wetting and drying. Later, when Dad was a hard-working fruit grower and irrigator scarred by war, the river and its surrounds were his solace. After all that time, to see those floodplains dying was a tragedy that affected him deeply.

Fortunately, the Chowilla floodplain has not been forgotten: it was one of the six Icon sites identified in the 2002 Living Murray restoration program. Money and water have been allocated to rehabilitate the wetlands, redgum forests and 20 per cent of the original area of black box vegetation. Environmental watering and floodplain rehabilitation have begun.

Closer to the township of Renmark, environmental water is being delivered via the RIT to areas of the adjacent floodplain that can be reached by piped infrastructure. There are now eight active sites, with another seven to be commissioned. Simons described these efforts as “surprisingly crude,” with “a piece of PVC pipe sticking out of the sand” – hardly “natural.” In some ways, she is correct. However, we are only at the beginning, and still learning how best to irrigate the floodplain. As unnatural as delivering water through a “plumbed landscape” may seem to someone unfamiliar with the process, we expect it to achieve outcomes that are similarly beneficial environmentally to natural flooding events. While we cannot replicate high river or flooding events, connection of many of the sites can be achieved with less water.

Real benefits have already been observed after only two years. Along with significant vegetation regeneration, multitudes of birds and frogs are returning, including Australia’s rarest waterfowl, the freckled duck. There has been amelioration of salinity-affected areas and importantly for RIT irrigators, the pipes are being flushed out, resulting in fewer blockages in on-farm filtration systems. The simple PVC pipe sticking out of the ground represents many years of hard work and goodwill among agencies required to initiate such a visionary, progressive project.

The project is administered by the Renmark Environmental Watering Committee, comprising representatives from the RIT, local government, government and non-government agencies, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, wetland ecologists and volunteers. The Committee has submitted detailed management plans to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, necessary for the start of rehabilitation of the greater floodplain landscape surrounding the Renmark township. A great deal of research has gone into the project, it has a lot of support, and it is monitored closely.

Renmark was established by the Chaffey brothers and, with Mildura, is the oldest irrigation settlement in the country. Since 1887, it has supplied a diverse range of agricultural products to Australian cities and world markets, and consequently the floodplain landscape has absorbed the impacts of drainage, salinisation and logging for over 130 years. Environmental watering is perceived by some as a bit of a luxury. I believe this is because wetland and floodplain rehabilitation have never been valued adequately. The economic impact on agricultural production due to water being purchased for the environment can be quantified and consequently is often reported, but where are the metrics detailing the benefits to community wellbeing of having a healthy, rehabilitated landscape? How does one measure the educational reward for upcoming generations of studying floodplain management? Tourism and recreation opportunities are obvious economic advantages that have also been given little attention. In an egalitarian society, do we not have a responsibility to preserve our natural environment for all to enjoy, and to restore those parts of our world that have been damaged by our own misuse or neglect? How do you quantify the benefits of being in a healthy landscape for First Nations people and others who, like my father, endured mental and physical hardship? Ecological rehabilitation gives hope and social cohesion to communities. With our changing climate, this will become an absolute necessity.

Simons has achieved something rare. With her candid interviews, she has plunged into the complex workings of the Basin and rooted out core truths. She has detailed how the Plan was a bold and desperate attempt to address the chronic fundamental failings of the federal system and subsequent over-allocation of water. After many years in development, a figure for water buybacks was agreed upon which, in the end, pleased no one. Lack of scientific input, particularly of climate change modelling, is evident.

But despite widespread awareness of the Plan’s shortcomings, few people are aware of the gains. Environmental watering has had some real benefits. Infrastructure spending on properties in return for water buybacks has been beneficial to irrigators. New technologies have been used in upgrading water distribution, establishing on-farm monitoring equipment, netting crops, valve control automation and developing telemetric meter reading. These technologies are allowing growers to adapt to an increasingly water-constrained future.

As Simons mentions, the Renmark Irrigation Trust was recently awarded platinum certification by the Alliance for Water Stewardship. The AWS was founded in Australia during the millennium drought of the early 2000s, and modelled on the international Forest Stewardship Council. AWS certification has steadily grown worldwide and major companies have signed on. Recognition was given to the Renmark Irrigation Trust for its strong governance, efficient water distribution and drainage network, community partnerships and, more latterly, floodplain rehabilitation strategy. Although it is early days, AWS certification has made the Renmark Irrigation Trust take stock of how far we have come and has given some metrics to this. It has highlighted risks to focus on. It has given members a voice when discussing policy with government agencies. Educational and professional institutions are expressing interest in partnerships. New possibilities and networks for produce marketing are opening up.

I believe wider adoption of AWS certification by Basin irrigators and communities will strengthen networks, increase collaboration and highlight common goals. Through these environmental initiatives and cooperation mechanisms, I feel hopeful that there is a bright future ahead. Maybe we can work towards evolving from a Basin society to a Basin community.

R. Humphrey Howie



Jason Alexandra

I read Margaret Simons’ essay while isolating on our horticultural farm in Gippsland. To the north, the Basin’s headwaters snuggle into the folds of the Great Dividing Range; to the south is the massive Southern Ocean, source of frequent storms bringing us life-giving rains. As a farmer, I know the “magic” of irrigation – its productive power. I also love rivers, having devoted decades of my working life to restoring their health.

Simons offers many valuable insights into the byzantine relationships at the heart of Australia’s water politics. There is the mind-numbing complexity of the technocratic rules and reform agreements, with the incessant reviews and inquiries. She explains well how the ritualised consultations have failed to bridge the deep discord, tensions and disconnections between national policies and local concerns, despite an “average of more than one meeting a day” somewhere in the Basin, according to the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s CEO.

I am deeply familiar with what Simons describes, but after more than thirty years working on water policy, the essay left me with a visceral, gut-wrenching sense of despair. What kind of nation does this to its rivers – repeatedly promising to restore them, yet failing to do so? And will this river crisis become a crisis of Federation – with High Court challenges looming?

During dull autumn weather, I mulled over this response. Crows raided the ripening fruit as the pickers gently stripped the orchard. I was sad and cranky. Like my former colleague at the Authority, Bill Johnson, I was grieving what we are losing. Not just the magnificent wetlands, like the Macquarie Marshes, once teeming with life, and the rivers, rich in fish and meaning, but also our collective faith in Australia’s “can-do” approach to complex public policy. Surely, I thought, we can do better? But then I asked: where are the grounds for optimism?

Simons suggests we can find some hope in the Basin’s vastness, the diversity of local initiatives and the separate evolution of the states’ water-management cultures – the more conservative southerners contrasting with the cavalier north, where cotton is king. She points out the substantive differences between the Darling and the Murray and describes the raw politics governing who gets what they want. There is little doubt that pro-irrigation interests have captured most of the water, the regulators and the public purse, cementing their influence over the precious waters of this drying continent. The Basin illustrates what Nugget Coombs described as a reverse lottery, where a few people win a little bit and everybody else loses a lot.

One of the Basin’s tragedies is that we have squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for critical reforms. Many structural problems remain unresolved, despite more than $20 billion spent on these reforms. According to the Productivity Commission’s estimates, this far exceeds the market value of all the Basin’s water entitlements. In this “user pays” era, no other sector has had such lavish treatment, yet many irrigators continue to complain, and noisily. However, no amount of money or protest will rectify the desiccating catchments, the declining inflows and the decreasing pool of water to share (as explained clearly in the recent Keelty report). A drying climate intensifies water conflicts. The maths is simple: there’s more demand and less water with which to fulfil it. There are disruptive transitions occurring in the Basin involving people’s lives and livelihoods. These are difficult and must be handled carefully. There are winners and losers.

Simons explains that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan has become a “lightning rod” for rural dissent. Codifying many pre-existing policies, like water markets, the Plan is the latest incarnation in a litany of inter-governmental agreements. In the 1994 COAG Water Reforms and the 2004 National Water Initiative, the state governments made ambitious promises about environmental flows (to be based on the best available science). Repeated failures to honour these commitments led to the Commonwealth interventions during the millennium drought.

Even with all the angst and the billions expended, the Plan may be consigned to history as yet another failure – perhaps simply too little, too late in a drying climate. Its success depends on the Commonwealth maintaining the political will and capability to regulate the states. To date, there is little evidence of this.

The Basin’s fundamental problem – the over-extraction of water – has been apparent for decades. In 1995, on the banks of the Darling at Pooncarie, Victorian premier Joan Kirner launched a special edition of the Australian Conservation Foundation’s journal Habitat – “The Darling: A river running out of time.” The contributions by Indigenous activist Badger Bates, Timothy Fisher (later Penny Wong’s water adviser) and me highlighted the dire consequences of expanding irrigation and floodplain harvesting upstream. Frighteningly, almost everything we warned about has transpired. Our efforts were then part of a broad-based coalition advocating a better deal for rivers, built on the successful Landcare alliance between the ACF and the National Farmers’ Federation. Unfortunately, recent attempts to resurrect this consensus approach have gained little support due to the increasing polarisation and toxicity of Australia’s water politics.

Climate change is exacerbating the impacts of over-extraction. As a senior executive for the Murray–Darling Basin Commission, and the Authority, between 2008 and 2013, I ran a significant risk-assessment program. We quantified the problems outlined by Simons – floodplain harvesting, climate change and reduced return flows. Unfortunately, the Plan’s wafer-thin risk-management section uses none of the findings.

For decades, science has repeatedly warned that climate change is the most significant threat to the Basin’s water resources, but the Plan comprehensively understates the climate risks and responds poorly to them. This is despite the Water Act requiring the MDBA to prepare a Plan that adjusts water use to the drying climate. South Australia’s royal commissioner, Bret Walker, found that the Authority failed dismally in discharging this responsibility. Inconceivably, given the weight of evidence, the Plan projects historical averages forward. Hostile climate politics and rabid climate denialism condemned any opportunity for serious climate adaptation. ANU historian Daniel Connell describes it as governments gambling against the climate and losing.

Debates about the Basin’s flows and climate always involve complex calculations and experts arguing about detailed models. While accurate figures are critically important, Simons’ essay leaves the impression that something deeper is rotten in the relationship between our nation and its rivers – a corrosive malaise, fuelled by cynical politics, is eroding our ability to act collectively, to commune and therefore to govern. A plague of duplicity, “doublespeak” and “blame-shifting” cripples the integrity of the Basin’s governance. There is constant fiddling with the numbers – creative water accounting. Without Maryanne Slattery’s tireless work in making these numbers transparent and public, few outsiders could understand them. In her work with the Australia Institute, she has helped expose how government spending has resulted in massive wealth transfers to some irrigators, with questionable public benefits.

Only a few stalwarts believe the reforms are working. Little in Simons’ essay provides hope for further substantive reform. Instead, many seem to have a dull acceptance that the best we can hope for is more tinkering with a broken system. Emblematic of this prevailing attitude is the concerning analogy used by the Authority’s CEO, Phillip Glyde. He described the Basin’s governance as “a really beat-up car that’s almost dead, and that we are trying to upgrade it as we’re driving it.” Governing the Basin is not and will never be akin to repairing or using any machine – it’s way more complicated. It requires navigating networks of human and institutional relationships and is therefore fundamentally social and intrinsically political.

As someone who has made my living as a farmer, environmental advocate and government executive, I am disturbed by the deepening divisions, declining optimism and lack of ambition for more just and accountable governing of the Basin. There is one certainty: governments and communities will continue arguing over these rivers. Therefore, we need inclusive, meaningful and productive negotiations, not more excuses, obfuscations, delays and blame-shifting. In this slowly unfolding national tragedy, I await anxiously the next act. I hope for some redemption – for the rivers and their people. However, regrettably, I fear the news will keep getting worse. I hope this fear is groundless.

Jason Alexandra



Peter Gell

South Australians have long been sensitive to the volume of water entering the state down the River Murray and the impact of eastern-state users on the resource. Taking a somewhat postmodern view of Cry Me a River, one might conjecture that an author brought up in Adelaide and holidaying in the South Australian Riverina would understandably be culturally challenged to advocate reducing the state’s water allocation to relieve difficulties experienced in the eastern states. So Simons readily concludes that South Australia’s secure allocation of 1850 gigalitres each year is based on the need to underwrite Adelaide’s water supply, flush salt inflows, support livelihoods and notionally retain the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth in the same condition as when they were listed for conservation in 1985 under the Ramsar Convention.

Simons is strongly supportive of the Plan, which aims to redeem up to 3200 gigalitres each year from irrigators for environmental purposes, keeping the lower lakes fresh, at a cost of $13 billion, and applauds the Guide to the Plan as “internationally peer-reviewed, scientifically based, open and transparent.” It is therefore surprising that Simons is unwilling to accept the results of an original, internationally peer-reviewed, scientifically based paper published in Hydrobiologia (2007), which posited that Lake Alexandrina was much influenced by seawater and had become more fresh over the last 2000 years. Instead, she privileges a 2009 SA government–commissioned report that reinterprets these original findings as evidence of a freshwater paleohistory.

The 2009 report did not provide any new data; nor did it scarcely acknowledge, let alone critique, the 2007 paper to justify the change in interpretation. A recent CSIRO review has since found that the SA report understated the influence of seawater. The most recent scientific evidence (from Sydney University), published in Nature Scientific Reports, has shown Lake Alexandrina to have been strongly influenced by the sea until at least 5500 years ago, and likely estuarine thereafter.

The 2009 report was posted on a state-government website without peer review and was cited in a SA government “factsheet” claiming that “diatoms found in 7000 years of sediments indicate the majority of Lake Alexandrina was fresh water in all years” (my italics). The Basin Authority’s watering plan also cited the report rather than the original 2007 paper when planning for a fresh Lake Alexandrina. I presented the contradiction between the data and the new interpretation in a keynote address at a conference in Glasgow in 2012, and later published it in The SAGE Handbook of Environmental Change.

It is only now, more than ten years after the report appeared on the government website, that some attempt has been made to justify the revised interpretation. In the absence of any new data, advocates have fallen back on the 1985 ecological character description to justify maintaining the lakes in a freshwater state, mistakenly believing that under the Ramsar Convention, Australia has an obligation to preserve the lakes in the state described at the time of listing. A past deputy secretary-general of Ramsar, in the peer-reviewed proceedings of an international conference, regarded this view as nonsense, because not all wetlands are pristine at the time of listing; such a determination would preclude nations from restoring sites should they wish; and it would effectively absolve all nations of the history of post-industrial degradation.

Simons’ conversation with John Tibby concerning whether the research may have contributed to the Ramsar listing is both illogical, given the confusion in timing (listing 1985; publication 2007), and nonsensical, as the description can be changed and Australia’s obligation is to the listing criteria, largely based on waterbirds and fish, rather than a character as described at a point in time.

The principal edict of the Ramsar Convention is the wise use of all wetlands. It would never be the intent of the convention to demand that a nation invest $13 billion to recover 3200 gigalitres of water from irrigation communities to enable a government to adhere rigidly to a character description written in 1985 and based on limited data. A change in listed ecological character can be sought at any time by the Australian government – with the support of the South Australian government. And there’s the rub: while many nations have changed site-character descriptions, such support seems unlikely, as South Australia has amply demonstrated its enthusiasm for the 1985 description.

Under a drying climate and rising seas, it is inevitable that at some point Australia will have to relent on the commitment to a fresh Lake Alexandrina. When it does, we can remove the stake in the sand that says South Australia is entitled to 1850 gigalitres each and every year and begin to adopt basin-scale adaptation pathways to a different future. This may entail treating salt loads at source rather than running the river as a drain, reinstating natural estuarine variability and allowing for the daily rise and fall of the tides, providing for threatened fish that do not prefer their water to be fresh, and looking for other sources of water to avert catastrophic acidification upon the next drought. Yes, the Murray–Darling Basin is a tragedy; its rehabilitation will require us to envisage a sustainable future for all the people and environments in the Basin, and may require communities to give up some of the endearing lifestyles that hold people to place, for climate change will bring challenges that require Basin-scale thinking and multilateral cooperation.

Peter Gell



Stefano de Pieri

Finally: a comprehensive explanation of how the Murray–Darling Basin Plan is unfolding. Margaret Simons’ essay is a handy manual for all those who care about the future of this country. She has given the reader a ball of string with which to enter the Murray–Darling labyrinth. But while “manual” suggests a dry, technical piece of writing, Simons also captures the raw, everyday reality of the people who live in the Basin or are affected by the Plan.

I have lived and worked in north-west Victoria, on the Murray, for almost thirty years. In that time I have witnessed floods and droughts, the steady decline of inflows (no doubt attributable to climate change), the disappearance of small farms and the corporatisation of agriculture, and the transformation and shrinking of rural politics at the federal level, where “rural” and “regional” now mean de facto opposition to any sensible reforms. I have also witnessed the retreat of the ALP, a party to which I once belonged, from any form of regional involvement. Country Labor, whatever there was of it, has vanished. All policies now emanate from Canberra or the metropolitan centres. This is most evident in the bush. Here, only genuine independents voice alternative views. Some have received tacit support from the ALP, but mostly the ALP regards them as a sideshow. Except when they matter, as during Gillard’s term in office.

Margaret asserts near the beginning of her essay that the ALP cannot win government without engaging with the regions, especially those where water plays a fundamental role. She says it almost in passing, and it is supported by a statement by me that she quotes towards the end of the essay. Phillip Adams failed to pick up on this point when talking with Margaret on Late Night Live; so did other interviewers. It made me suspect they had not read the essay fully. How else could such a big assertion be missed?

Labor needs a grand reform vision, both as a way to replace the confused conservative government (which abandoned all its economic theories overnight during the COVID-19 crisis) and as a roadmap for what it might achieve in power. The vision should be based on the fact that the cities and regions are interdependent. Historically, the Nationals have hijacked one half of this equation, arguing that the city owes the country. This is an essential part of the larger ideological apparatus behind the often supine Coalition partner. It is regularly used to bash moderate members, especially when it comes to climate and energy policies. The Nationals are magisterial in talking up their myths: that farmers produce food and fibre for the nation and the world, which entitles them to a seat at the government table, where they can shape policies in their own image and, above all, for their convenience. They have been at that game forever. It might have served country people well in the past, but today, with corporate agriculture taking over vast swathes of production, the word “farmer” means something else, and we all have a stake in the consequences.

The Nationals have become the toys of the coal industry and large corporations. The damage this has inflicted on this country is incalculable. It has happened in full view. While the media report on individual National stupidity, drunkenness or other shenanigans, less attention is paid to that fact that together with the hard right of the Liberal Party, they have run the nation into a hopeless cul-de-sac on water and energy.

In the absence of the ALP, the task of providing a contrast to the Nationals on almost every vital issue – from water and conservation to food security – has fallen to the Greens. Simons notes in her essay that Maryanne Slattery, formerly of the Authority, has supported dairy farmers and others who hate the Plan and want to see it “paused,” if not repealed. I imagine Slattery reasons that since things cannot get any worse, why not mobilise the discontent against the Nationals, who are responsible for the mismanagement of our rivers, especially in New South Wales. That is clever politics. The Institute is led by Ben Oquist, former adviser to Bob Brown. To me, it looks like a manoeuvre of last resort and I am left to wonder what monsters might be born of populist support for the Shooters and Fishers!

Can the ALP shift its focus just enough from whatever it is currently running on (or from) to include vital environmental policies? Could agriculture and country life be managed by healthy, well-looked-after, smart regional communities? Could the ghastly, outdated, but still evident, ideological gap between cities and country finally be bridged?

Such an expansive, democratic vision might start by honestly interrogating whether it is necessary to compromise and damage our waterways, the lifeblood of biodiversity, to produce such a vast quantity of food – far more than we need. Are a few billion dollars’ worth of exports, especially cotton, worth the degradation of 70,000 kilometres of river? There is no imperative to produce food and fibre for the world, just as there is no imperative to produce coal. Our primary goal should be to maintain healthy environments where communities can thrive with an agreed quantity of water use in a manner that is beneficial to people and nature.

To ensure sustainable use, all water diversions should be measured in real time. Who knows what such an exercise would reveal about current water allocations? Then water trading should be modified, so that it is not only those with deep pockets who can survive in tough times. Surely there are scientists and economists who could design a revised trading system that, through genuine community consultation, could achieve the twin goals of environmental health and equity. In exchange for curbing the over-extraction of water, communities could be given much more generous funds for transport, education and health. At the moment, massive water use in agriculture generates profits for foreign entities, creating a false sense of wealth in river communities.

At this critical time, it is a concern that the shadow minister for agriculture is Joel Fitzgibbon, whose defence of coalmining after Labor’s loss at the last election was proposed as a solution for regional areas. It is also a worry that some in the ALP argued publicly during the recent election post-mortem that the party should concentrate only on city seats. This would see Labor miss the opportunity to reinvigorate itself through active engagement with regional communities.

Of the three Southern Basin states, perhaps only Victoria has the critical environment necessary for developing such policies and feeding them to federal Labor. NSW water management is still in the same hopeless hands as ever, and South Australia’s current Liberal government has no vigour. The states play a major role in water management and determine a lot of what happens on the ground. I cannot see how a narrow victory by the ALP at the next federal election – if there is a victory – could be lasting and robust without genuine engagement with the regions on water management. How can one govern when a large chunk of the productive population is not included in your vision, a population that lives on the very sites, in or out of the Basin, that are the cause of so much national division and pain?

Stefano de Pieri



Lauren Rickards

In the early years of the millennium drought I worked as an in-house consultant to the Murray–Darling Basin Commission (now the Murray–Darling Basin Authority). In this role I developed a strong sense of the double reality Margaret Simons describes at the heart of the Basin planning woes. The MDBC corporate services sat at the top of the building. Up there, water existed only as a faint scent among the spreadsheets and carefully worded communications. It was a tense world, dominated by suits, ministerial demands, meeting agendas, whispers and double talk. Our job was to help hold together the fragile inter-state agreements needed to maintain the Basin’s fragile flows.

On the lower floors of the building was another world, still within the MDBC but full of muddy boots, posters, maps and plants. During lunchtime runs up Mount Ainslie, I got to know some of the ecologists, hydrologists and others involved. Seemingly always dressed for field work, they had a palpable passion for water and rivers, for their work on streams and threatened species here, and local communities and fish traps there. Rather than the dry legal documents I had to wrangle upstairs, their work was about lively watery places, and the plants, animals and people inhabiting them. Yet it was also pervaded by a sense of frustration and even futility. They pumped me for detail on the decision-making upstairs to try to understand why their work seemed to be blown one way, then another. It was clear to all of us that their scientific research was not only inherently difficult, but also prone to misuse and neglect. It was not long before I quit.

Simons’ story of her road trip around the Basin sharply illuminates the schism between the high-level governance of the Basin and the intimate details and messy complexities of actual places. But this is not a simple government-knocking tale. Simons’ essay carefully illuminates many of the “horizontal” schisms that also characterise Basin planning, notably those between groups distinguished by location, identity and their interest in water. High-level, national policies like the Basin Plan are needed because of the fierce and often unfair competition among different water users, including those barely recognised as legitimate users, namely traditional owners and ecosystems. While the high-level view can callously ignore the anguish of local communities and the destruction of unique places, it can also reveal critical longer-term and larger-scale patterns that are often imperceptible or unpalatable to those on the ground. This perspective is vital to ensuring that the interests of the public and of marginalised groups are protected against brash and powerful commercial interests. The pressing need for environmental flows, to maintain the health of the river system and the myriad communities that rely on it, is one such pattern.

Simons highlights the way advocates for (and against) environmental flows often wrestle with the question of what is natural. The fraught notion of a “natural baseline” is always on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the rivers’ variability and the effort of pretending that the world is static and the continent was empty before settlers. On the other hand, the natural baseline is a badly named but pragmatic tool for addressing the grim reality of a critically over-exploited system.

To my mind, the problem is not that the system designed to generate environmental flows utilises the idea of a natural baseline, but that it is based on a narrow, capitalist notion of “unused” resources as waste. In the coal and coal seam gas basins with which many water basins – including the Murray–Darling Basin – are entwined, the resource being “wasted” is coal or gas “left sitting underground,” as if it has been caught idle. In water basins, the waste in question is water “left just flowing” through natural systems, whether in rivers, lakes or underground. As Simons notes, many Northern Basin irrigators see “water sent to the sea as ‘waste’.” Efforts to recover water for Murray–Darling Basin ecosystems and for downstream users have had to challenge this perverse ethic, arguing that their water flows are vital and productive. But at the same time, the system established to achieve greater environmental flows risks reinforcing this mindset by targeting water flowing from farms back to rivers as a waste to be captured and put to productive use. It also downplays the strong potential for the Jevons paradox: the situation, common in energy efficiency programs, whereby savings – in the absence of absolute limits – are used to fuel business expansion and increased resource use in pursuit of profits. Unlike natural baselines, the naturalised logics of capitalism are rarely contested.

The same capitalist interpretation of waste underpins the idea that water should be freed from under-performing users such as rivers and allowed to flow via magnetic market forces towards “higher-value” users. This notion is paper-thin at best, flimsy make-believe at worst. Value refers here to how much money an actor can extract from a certain use at the time, given the economics of production. It does not include the benefits an option could provide for others, including local communities, landscapes or river systems. It does not include the costs (“externalities”) imposed on others by a certain water use, including the actual wasting away of World Heritage wetlands downstream. And it does not include long-term declines in value and the related risk that investments (whether almond trees, irrigation infrastructure, coalmines or small towns) will become stranded assets as climate change intensifies.

Simons notes that climate change projections for the Basin are dire, but skips the detail, pointing instead to the “million-mile stare” that commonly comes over farmers when the topic is raised. This sense of climate change as a paralysing future threat obscures the fact that it is already here, inseparable from the contemporary problems she documents, such as drought, community stress and changing consumer preferences. The “reliable” snow melt that she suggests distinguishes the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers from those in the Northern Basin is already unreliable. The average rainfall and stream-flow figures that she uses to explain the Basin are already falling. These declines are unfolding not smoothly but jerkily, as abrupt step changes. Shifts in the timing of rainfall from cooler to warmer seasons mean that stream flow is vanishing far more quickly than the rainfall itself, and rain is increasingly arriving in short, sharp, damaging bursts. The impacts on river and stream systems are being compounded by concurrent climatic extremes and disasters, including the recent bushfires that, combined with floods and land clearing, have polluted dwindling water supplies. This includes urban water supplies – a topic that Simons does not discuss in detail, but is another reason the Murray–Darling Basin, and coal and coal seam gas basins, cannot be left to profiteers. As people in many rural areas already know, drinking water cannot be taken for granted.

How much the climate will change depends on how much more greenhouse gas is expelled into the air. How serious the impacts of climate change are will depend also on how well we adapt. Locking in water-hungry, energy-intensive land uses that return little to local communities other than some short-term jobs is one of the daftest pathways on offer, but it seems to be the one that current policies support. The irony is that even in the absence of basic funding, more innovative, prosperous, equitable, democratic and regenerative approaches are being fostered in pockets across the Basin by broadminded farmers, Catchment Management Authorities and new organisations.

It seems inescapable, reading Simons’ Cry Me a River, that a powerful subset of political interests is exploiting the Basin in more ways than one. Existing environmental water savings are a great achievement, but far below where they should be. The question is why. Simons rightly argues that the complexity of the Basin’s challenges cannot be reduced to a simple blame game, but it is evident that a convergent set of interests keep reaping short-term profits from the Basin while others increasingly suffer. In theory, this is not about the dominance of certain agricultural sectors (for example, cotton and almonds) over others, because not only are these sectors diverse, but their power also rests on the “higher value” their commodities demand at the time. Indeed, today’s privileged sectors are not immune to water being redirected from them to still “higher value” (wealthier) users. As Basin irrigators fighting coal seam gas are finding, the “waste” of most interest is unused resources, not pollutants or degradation. Those pushing water towards the wealthiest and largest users of the Basin seem entwined with those vaporising the Basin’s future rainfall by aggressively supporting a high-emissions pathway. Clearly, the once-agrarian National Party and their corporate allies are involved in this. But complex horizontal schisms characterise the Basin on the ground, as well as at state and federal political levels. Perhaps the one consistency is that those who are gaining the most are the ones who fervently believe that such an outcome is natural. It is a disheartening conclusion, but it reveals the diversity of those cast aside and thus the many potential alliances that could be forged to help rescue the Basin from the double sentence of deepening exploitation and climate change.

Lauren Rickards



Barney Foran

What an affair of the heart Margaret Simons’ Cry Me a River offers the weary water watcher. Several things struck me on reading this stupendous essay. Indigenous understanding and narratives reminded me how “pump and drain” our management has become. We hide behind spreadsheets and models, buffered by our leafy suburbs and café culture. And what a trip Margaret had, driving the dusty, corrugated roads while sniffing along a river reach for an insight. I grin when I think of the pub sessions, the reticence on the first beer and then the flood of indictments on the fifth or sixth, and those “million-mile stares” when interviewees considered climate change. Finally, I found myself acknowledging the positions of most interviewees, whether they were up to their armpits in dead fish or politically nuancing a fine policy point in a Canberra bureau.

Given a century of chaos and politicking, it’s understandable that Cry Me a River does not end with a neat five points for action. Rather, Simons appeals to us to find a way through, as time is running short:

The political obstacles, the hate, the unfairness and the potentially catastrophic gaps in our knowledge obscure what an achievement it would be for the Murray–Darling Basin Plan to succeed. A voluntary scheme to peg back use of an overstretched resource would be close to unprecedented in the world. Perhaps, in the face of the evidence, it might mean there is hope for our system of governance, for our politics, and for us all.

I was never part of the “water wars,” but I worked in a CSIRO group that brought together all the physical bits that make the Australian economy tick (the physical economy) and crafted it into a coherent analytical framework to aid consideration of big policy questions such as human population, marine fisheries, energy and greenhouse, and land and water. This gave us the helicopter or million-square-kilometre view. We ended up in all sorts of policy strife when today’s settings were kicked down the road to 2050 or so. Many of my close colleagues were deep in the fight, being told their attitudes were “career-ending,” as they argued through the big numbers required to regain the function and fluency of the Basin. I remember returning to a head-office storm in Canberra after I spoke to a Queensland parliamentary committee during a drought and proposed we all pay a cappuccino tax of fifty cents per cup to bolster the struggling dairy industry and share the pain.

“Why is this all so hard?” we ask, as we read Simons’ essay. Part of the explanation lies in economic theory. When quants discuss policy shocks to the economic system, they assume that production is a function of capital and labour. The 1987 Nobel laureate Robert Solow explored this in the mid-1950s, finding there was a sizeable lump (the so-called Solow residual) left over after labour and capital; this is now called “multi-factor productivity” or “how bright and innovative we are.” When two physicists, German Reiner Kummel and American Robert Ayres, got hold of the problem, they found that energy use explained all of the Solow residual. In other words, the physical world is central to economic production. Failure to acknowledge this underpins the intractability, anger and water theft reported throughout the essay. Thus, to run the numbers properly, productivity must be a function of capital, labour, energy and materials (p = k,l,e,m), water being a material central to production. The dissonance Simons’ essay describes in water policy (and equally, federal energy policy) is because these physical determinants of production are not accepted fully within ideology or analysis. Today’s water prices better value the scarce water resource and, as Simons details, water is sent to almond growers, leaving rice growers high and dry. But as with the electricity market, spot dollar prices alone do not keep the river flowing or the lights on. Until we broaden the value equation, there will be no peace in the Basin.

Cry Me a River necessarily deals in big numbers: gigalitres (GL or one billion litres), which contain many Olympic swimming pools; and my favourite – Sydney Harbour Equivalents, or SYDARBs. So now for a few more important terms. Simons’ essay focuses on “blue water,” the stuff in dams, aquifers and getting choked in the Barmah Choke. Equally important is “green water,” the stuff stored in the soil where we grow our grains and pasture our animals. There is also “white water,” the stuff in air transpired by plants. Clearing the bush over the last 220 years for crops and pastures resulted in a lot of big shifts between these buckets, and “green water” will now be critical to the future of the Basin. Continent-wide land-clearing reduced water transpired by native vegetation (white water) by 340,000 gigalitres, roughly fifteen times the amount of blue water we manage nationally, a seismic alteration we’ve been trying to band-aid over ever since. Given the halving of inflows to the Basin reported by Mick Keelty’s review, radically revamping on-farm custody of green water is an even bigger challenge than the blue water chaos Simons details. Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler describes the efforts of regenerative farmers to implement a modern agriculture based on soil structure, water-holding capacity and nutrient cycling. Parsimony in blue and green water management will dictate the Basin’s ability to feed, clothe and help balance trade in the twenty-first century.

Then there is “virtual water.” The Basin exports water embodied in goods and services, and the nation imports it as well. Nationally, one year’s analysis showed that we exported 7500 gigalitres’ worth of “blue water” and imported 3500 gigalitres, a net loss of 4000 gigalitres. Mostly commentators would consider this acceptable and would note “competitive and comparative advantage,” “we help feed the world” and so on. The 4000-gigalitre trade deficit is an interesting bucket, considering it is the same amount many river ecologists agree is needed to restore the Basin to ecological health.

Now for some more terminology used in water accounting: “scarce water flows,” water traded in our “dry water economy.” Scarce water is much the same as the untouched baseflows which, as Simons relates, Mike Young tried to get Minister Turnbull to include in the Water Act and was told, “Mike … you are no longer being useful.” Australia is among the top ten exporters of scarce water internationally, joining countries such as India, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Turkmenistan. Top scarce water importers include Japan, Germany, the United States, the UK and France, who use trade advantage and established production chains, some from colonial times, to acquire their needs. The reckoning here is not just that we export scarce water, but whether we get appropriate financial and social returns from doing so. Cry Me a River argues unequivocally that we do not.

Virtual water, the sum total of blue water embodied in the global production chain, can be used for good (measuring, monitoring and improving) or as a means of abuse (attacks on commodities and industries). A cursory Google search tells us 1 kilo of beef on a plate requires 20,000 litres of virtual water or more. Therefore, doing without 1 kilo of beef allows you to shower guilt-free for a year. However, forensic accounting of beef farms in Australia and New Zealand produces a figure of between 20 and 500 litres per kilogram of beef on the plate, depending on the production system. Green water (soil water from rainfall) should be excluded and blue water alone included in such accounting. Irrigated forage, whether in field or for feedlot, increases the virtual water content and so provides consumers with the timely, quality product we demand. So too for milk production, which can vary from 50 to 1000 litres of blue water per litre, depending on the amount of irrigation, grain and concentrate used in the production system.

And so to the perceived problem of cotton – regional development king, international trade darling and water harvester of the northern flows. Top cotton farmers use around 3000 litres of water per kilogram of cotton lint for spinning. The untold story is cottonseed, over half by weight of the big round bales you see in the field. Cottonseed oil gets high marks for the deep-frying of Friday fish and chips, while the high-protein cottonseed cake remainder underpins animal production chains in poultry, pork, beef and dairy. The Basin’s cotton producers and water activists need to acknowledge this production mix and its advantages more fully. So too the Australian consumer, who needs to understand better where food and clothing come from. The chance to spin and weave Australian cotton locally was unfortunately another missed opportunity. Industry leaders tried to interest Australian banks in a high-tech robotic plant that would equal the production capacities and prices of our low-wage Asian neighbours, where our cotton is processed now. Sadly, our banks backed the IT frenzy of the time and now Basin water provides few downstream jobs in domestic cotton production.

In Cry Me a River, Simons impressed me with the technical accuracy of her succinct and fluent explanations. Navigating the conflicting analyses of the bottom lakes was deftly done. Taking on the concept of water-use efficiency and “water rebound” – the work of John Williams and Quentin Grafton – requires wide exposure to the policy world, where efficiency and growth are the mantras of our times. Who would believe that implementing efficiency would actually give less water flow, and that a billion-dollar efficiency investment was yet another industry subsidy at a time of water crisis? Initially it is hard to accept that replacing flood irrigation with centre pivot giants and drip-lines gives bad river outcomes for an over-used basin. But it’s obvious when you think about it: water applied just to the cropping rootzone allows little to seep away and so maintain the river downstream.

Given the unruly and competing interests that Simons presents, it is inevitable that she avoids indicating how Australian consumers and citizens might moderate her “cry” to an occasional whimper. The response to COVID-19 will result in the retreat of extreme globalisation and changes in our consumer mindset, so what can we do about water and the Basin? Below are some suggestions:

  • Buy Australian wherever possible and look for the label stating how much of the product is home-grown. Get to know the growers and food processors who advertise how they are improving water and nutrient management. The Ricegrowers’ Association of Australia is a good place to start.
  • Leave one-dollar-a-litre milk and similar products on the shelf. This market furphy is sending milk growers broke and vastly undervalues the real value of water and the services required to better manage the Basin.
  • Own fewer cotton clothes and wear them until they fall apart on you. I’d love to tell you all about Australian value-adding in weaving and garment manufacture, but apart from a weaver or two of organic and recycled cotton and some R.M. Williams classic lines, it’s a thin story.
  • Vegies, fruit and dairy staples always pose a problem for the water frugalist, as they require around 1000 litres per kilogram of product, more for concentrates like butter and cheese. So eat according to the health guidelines, avoid food waste and, if you can, grow some leafy greens with tank water.
  • If you eat red meat, purchase grass-fed beef and lamb. This avoids hand-wringing about industrial feedlots, and fodder crops are grown with green water from rainfall rather than blue water. The white meats, chicken and pork, have a lower impact, but high-protein concentrates in feeds that might be dryland grown or irrigated can be an issue – producers should publish their production mix.
  • Pasta is more water-frugal than rice if grain comes from dryland agriculture. But this should not diminish Australian rice, which has developed good environmental credentials.
  • For almond milk consumers there is some difficult news. A 2018 peer-reviewed life cycle analysis shows it has the highest environmental impact across all categories (including embodied water), five times that of soy milk and twice that of cow milk.
  • Finally, to the Friday night tipple, where beer mostly wins. This is usually made with rain-grown barley and irrigated hops, plus process water. Irrigated wine is much like irrigated milk and fruit juices, at 1000 litres per litre of product. Consider rain-grown wine; it is more expensive, so pay more, drink less.

Cry Me a River never flags. Simons writes with literary assurance, untangling complexity as she goes. She punches through the facts, figures, character assassinations and war stories, but then calms you with a place, a person and a rounded thought. This is writing of the highest calibre.

Barney Foran



Geoff Beeson

My most recent trip along the Darling River, from Wentworth to Brewarrina and beyond, was in late October 2019, just a short time before Margaret Simons’ own journey. I can readily confirm her reports of the resigned and frustrated attitudes of people in the river communities.

The chequered history of the development of the Basin Plan can be written in different ways. For those of us who were interested at the time, both the battle to get a supportable and workable plan and the intense criticisms over water allocations are hard to forget. I thought the tone of Simons’ comments in places seemed at odds with the significance and complexity of the plan and the fact that a major landmark reform ultimately achieved approval in both houses of parliament, despite the government not having a majority in the Senate. An example is her observation that the government of the day “apparently had no strategy to deal with the political consequences – other than to crumble.” At the time, there were many – including me – who urged the minister to seek a more ambitious target for environmental water recovery. However, there is a strong likelihood that such a target would not have been approved by the Senate, as Simons acknowledges. While the Plan approved by the parliament was not ideal from many points of view, it was major reform in a conflicted area, to which federal and relevant state and territory governments committed, and it received international recognition. Where it is now failing is in its implementation.

Simons has rightly identified a terrible array of obstacles that together constitute an almost insurmountable hurdle to successful implementation of the Plan. On top of this, she argues that “the politics have become close to unmanageable.” It is hard to disagree. However, despite this, a way forward must be found. The Basin Plan is too important to fail. The problems caused by the over-allocation of water and the continued threat of increasing water scarcity will not go away by themselves.

We should address three fundamental and interrelated factors if we are to make progress: context, status and leadership.


A serious weakness of the current approach is that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan is treated in isolation. It sits out on its own, rather than being framed as part of one of the great challenges facing our country: water security. In the driest inhabited continent on the planet, to ensure a reliable and sufficient supply of water of suitable quality everywhere it is needed will always be an issue. At present, water scarcity in Australia is increasing, due to decreased rainfall in some parts of the country, including the south-east; increasing population; and greater demands for water for agriculture. Climate change is making the situation worse. Capital cities and many inland towns and cities have been forced to introduce water restrictions in recent years, and seawater desalination plants have been built in five of the capital cities. In some inland towns and farms, water has had to be trucked in. The south-west of the continent, including the Western Australian grain belt, has experienced decades of drying, to a far greater extent than was predicted in the 1980s. As occurs in all droughts, the recent drought in eastern Australia, especially in New South Wales, has intensified the difficulties and hardships of seasonal dry periods.

Important initiatives have been made and are continuing to be made in water conservation, the use of recycled water and stormwater, using aquifers for storage and later recovery, increasing productivity of the available water, and in water-efficient design. These methods have been used variously in towns, cities, farming communities and specifically in irrigation, including the transport of water and its application to crops. Before it was abolished in 2014, the National Water Commission performed a valuable role in this area, including supporting the use of recycled water and making strategic investments in managed aquifer recharge. It also had the role of auditing the implementation of the Basin Plan.

The point here is that the pressing need to redress over-allocation of water in the Murray–Darling Basin must surely be seen as part of the broader imperative to ensure reliable water supplies to all communities for personal, domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational needs. Also in this mix should be a national strategy to deal with the periodic droughts which inevitably occur, rather than taking panic actions when these droughts are upon us. Viewing the issue this way would encourage more coherent policy development, and help those outside the Basin, specifically city dwellers, to better understand the significance of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.


Water and how it is managed is a high national priority. Ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Murray–Darling Basin is a nation-building project, especially given the Basin’s centrality in food and fibre production and its contribution to the nation’s economy. It easily ranks in importance with other, more readily recognised nation-building projects, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Overland Telegraph Line, the Kiewa Hydro-Electric Scheme or even modern-day road or rail projects. Yet it does not appear to have this status in the wider community or in official circles. It is not recorded on lists of major infrastructure projects, nor is it referred to as a nation-building project in discussions about the Basin. It appears as a poor cousin to other significant projects, and mostly as a source of inter-region, inter-state and state–federal conflicts, the reasons for which are too complex for all but specialist professionals to comprehend. This lowly status works against recognition of its significance to the wider community, and consequently against effective accountability for actions taken and resources expended. It also misses out on the psychological value in recognising it as a nation-building project.


Past successful Australian nation-building projects have been supported by strong leadership from state or federal governments, or, in the case of multi-state projects, both – and sometimes from an individual champion as well (for example, J.J.C. Bradfield for the Sydney Harbour Bridge). This key feature has been missing from the implementation of the Basin Plan for several years. In fact, the federal Coalition government has been backing away from the Plan since 2014. It has given priority to infrastructure developments over much cheaper water buybacks, lowered the target for environmental water recovery, provided lax oversight of water-trading rules, and cast doubt on the feasibility of achieving additional savings of 450 gigalitres, to which all parties had previously agreed. The government has consistently ignored the recommendations of credible independent bodies – the Productivity Commission, the South Australian royal commission, the Australian Academy of Science – despite a strong level of agreement in their major recommendations. An independent review in 2017 found that some states, especially New South Wales and Queensland, showed an alarmingly low level of compliance with the Plan when it came to water extraction, and a conspicuous lack of transparency. As Simons records, New South Wales also makes regular threats to withdraw from the Plan, despite having committed to it in 2012.

Normally, we might expect the necessary national leadership to come from the relevant minister in the federal government, but this too has been lacking in recent years. As Simons illustrates, leadership has been abdicated in favour of side deals to satisfy sectional interests. In a telling move, responsibility for water policy and resources was shifted from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Agriculture in 2015. In a further change, in February 2020 a new combined department with three ministers came into being: the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. To whom might we now look for the crucial leadership of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan? The Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management (presumably the senior minister)? The Minister for the Environment? Or the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia? Water security issues are involved in all three ministries.

Somehow out of this confusion of responsibilities, strong leadership for implementing the Basin Plan must emerge. One of the factors that makes the Murray–Darling Basin policy so problematic is that consistent commitment at the state level is also crucial. However, the whole policy must be led at the national level, so the federal government is the place to start. There are examples of successful large-scale agricultural and environmental reforms involving cooperation between federal and state governments. Simons mentions the management of salinity in the 1980s and ’90s. Another is the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, which involved capping hundreds of uncontrolled artesian bores, replacing thousands of kilometres of open earthen drains and establishing a basin-wide monitoring and information network. It stopped decades of waste of valuable water and widespread environmental degradation, and brought major benefits for the landholders involved.

If these three issues are resolved – a broader focus on water, ensuring it has a high status in the Australian community, and strong and unwavering leadership – other urgent matters can then be addressed. These include: a pause on so-called efficiency projects, a comprehensive water audit, a plan for the collaborative involvement of affected communities, a plan to ensure the water market works effectively, and a transparent monitoring and evaluation regime that promotes continual improvement. Effective use of expert advice would be an essential part of this. We should also hope that, with more coherent policies, counter-productive steps such as the abolition of the National Water Commission would not be taken.

Without these actions, it is almost certain the Murray–Darling Basin Plan will fail. If it does, the $13 billion committed by Australian taxpayers will be largely wasted. Many of our rivers, such as the Darling, along with their communities, will die. The future for many in the Basin will be uncertain, and we will pass this uncertainty on to future generations, along with a degraded environment. What government would allow itself to be responsible for this? We cannot let it happen.

Geoff Beeson



Gabrielle Chan

When Margaret Simons set out to write her essay on the Murray–Darling Basin, she didn’t know it would crash headlong into a global pandemic. Just as her essay was released, COVID-19 sparked panic-buying in supermarkets. Australians were confronted by a shortage of toilet paper and basic food stuffs: staples such as mince, flour and pasta. Fruit and vegetable prices went up. I paid $11 for a cauliflower.

The empty shelves were a result of distribution issues, with one exception: Australian rice production has been devastated by drought and water allocations, and countries such as Vietnam have halted exports to protect their own food security. But apart from rice, we discovered that a global supply chain that provides goods “just in time” does not work well when consumer behaviour changes suddenly.

The shortages sparked a debate about food security. Some Southern Basin irrigators urged the government to release more water to grow staples like rice, which are not as profitable as horticulture or permanent nut trees. But the National Farmers’ Federation said food security was the one thing Australians don’t have to worry about, and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) released a document that concluded “Australia does not have a food security problem.”

With Australian water trading privileging the highest economic return, we have given priority to profit over value – a questionable assumption in the case of both human sustenance and the health of the natural world. Nuts good, milk and rice bad. That is the ruthless equation of the market. The ABARES report said government intervention would provide, among other things, “water that would have been used more profitably in another sector (reducing the gross value of irrigated production).” This is the natural endpoint of valuing water as if it were widgets. Values and food diversity cannot trump profits.

Yet governments intervene all the time. The pandemic drama occurred after a specific lack of water (drought) in the Basin (although there have since been falls of rain that may presage a good season for eastern-state food producers). Three years of lack of water has seen the government claim to have spent $7 billion on drought because it values farmers.

All of these issues were in the back of my mind when I read Cry Me a River. It is quite simply the clearest, fairest picture of the very complex Basin system I have read. And being clear and fair is important in this debate, because the intricacies of the stressed natural system, fracturing local communities and shocking politics obstruct the path to a good result for the whole country. Some politicians, lobbyists, irrigators and environmentalists deliberately use the complexities of the system and its often incomprehensible language to obscure the debate and their part in it. Politicians have said as much when they are threatened with media scrutiny. They know any journalist trying to shine a spotlight on the issue will quickly run out of time, knowledge or puff. The dogs bark and the caravan moves on, as Keating once said.

If you are new to river reading and it’s all a mess of stupefying terms and confusing counter-claims, these are the perverse points that crystallised for me from Simons’ essay.

First, the river will never return to a completely natural state. Even the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Jody Swirepik, acknowledges that “we are not trying to change things back to natural. That’s not possible.”

Second, with the exception of “the water thieves and possibly corrupt politicians and bureaucrats” – pending ICAC investigations – everyone has done what they have been allowed to do by governments and policy-makers. People are like water; their operations will flow through any gaps permitted by the system. It is the job of state and federal governments to design a system that does not allow economic, environmental and social perversity.

Third, there needs to be some transparency. It is possible for ordinary citizens to find out who owns shares and real estate. It is not possible to uncover how much water is in the Basin system and how much is owned. Conspiracy theories, real and imagined, will continue until this is fixed.

Fourth, water efficiency infrastructure paid for in billions by the taxpayer has increased water take, because the changes have eliminated “return flows” to the environment. By replacing the leaky pivot and the canal used by birds, animals and insects, we have effectively cut off a proportion of water supply to natural environments throughout the Basin. This means a chunk of environmental water savings has been cancelled out at great cost to nature and the taxpayer.

Fifth, Australia can’t start again on another plan. It must fix the existing one, which has already cleared the first hurdle of tying the states and the Commonwealth together. So reform must begin from here. Australians cannot let the protagonists walk off in a huff. Otherwise, foundational reforms designed to return water to the environment and bring certainty to communities will do neither.

The chorus of criticism is loud. Communities in the Southern Basin that have long been politically stable are now – with some success – organising candidates as a reaction against current water management. Two NSW Nationals MPs lost their seats over water in the 2019 state election, and the current environment minister, Sussan Ley, got a fright in the federal election two months later.

Scientists have been scathing. The Wentworth Group’s submission to the South Australian royal commission did not miss. “Serious management failures have eroded the public trust in governments to successfully implement reforms. Without major changes in implementation, it is almost certain that the Basin Plan will fail.”

The Productivity Commission’s five-year assessment in 2019 was pessimistic about the road ahead. “In the Commission’s view, the significant risks to implementation cannot be managed effectively under current institutional and governance arrangements. Reform is required.” Why? Because the river system is so important to the eastern-state landscapes, our domestic food supply, our export industries and the natural capital that powers our society.

The only thing I felt Simons’ essay lacked was a shortlist of potential reforms going forward, distilled from the forty or so reviews and reports into the Basin. (Which is not a criticism so much as a wish – her job was hard enough.) Such a list might help governments plug the holes in water management, and they do need simplicity in order to focus in desperate times.

So let me nominate two by way of example. The first is transparency. In April 2020, former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty’s report into the Basin was released, urging government to set up a “single point of truth.” An open water register for all to see, including the water holdings of politicians, would silence the rumour mill and identify the dogs in the race. We could see clearly how much water there is, who owns it and where it is going.

The second is carving up the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, which has the dual roles of trying to keep the Plan on the rails and overseeing compliance. The Productivity Commission pointed out that these roles are often in conflict. That would only worsen in the next five years, the report said, and it recommended the Authority be split. Nothing has been done.

These sorts of reforms could be nutted out over the table of a future national cabinet, now that the COVID-19 crisis has pushed our governments to cooperate more effectively. “History suggests,” Simons writes, “that it is only when there is a visible crisis that progress is made on managing the river.” Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Public debate around the Murray–Darling often comes down to binaries. People versus environment. Top-down policies devised by boffins versus bottom-up ones devised by communities. Letting big business rip in the water markets versus protecting small farmers. None of this serves the country. Humans are part of the environment. Experts can produce policy while communities can take the unintended edges off. Diversity of businesses provides stability and fairness in the production of food. If we are capable of locking down for months for a virus, surely we are capable of creating a plan to future-proof our food, our natural world and the people who live in it.

Gabrielle Chan



Stuart Bunn

After several years of drought, tensions over water sharing have intensified, pitting environmental groups against farmers, north against south, with many stakeholders more upset with the government plan to fix the problem than the drought itself. Farmers are calling it a “man-made drought,” complaining that water needed for crops is going to fish instead and that any that is allowed to flow to the ocean is wasted. Much of the water is now diverted upstream to fuel agricultural production on over a million hectares of farmland. But it is also needed to sustain the lower estuary and its wildlife, including several species listed as endangered and federally protected. The board responsible for water management strives to balance these and other environmental obligations with the needs of farmers – and no one is happy with the result. Compounding matters is the growing recognition that conditions are likely to become drier in the future and the acknowledgment that all sides will have to give up something.

The setting in question is the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, a key battleground in California’s water wars – but it will no doubt resonate with those familiar with the challenges of the Murray–Darling Basin. Similar stories abound for rivers around the world, where growing demand has increased competition among water users (including the environment), and especially in regions such as California and southern Australia, which face a hotter, drier and more variable climate. Overlaying these biophysical constraints are the complicated institutional arrangements that enable sharing water across political boundaries.

Social concerns about the declining health of freshwater ecosystems and the associated loss of the essential services they provide are growing and are well justified. Globally, there is little evidence that we will meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6.6: to “protect and restore water-related ecosystems.” Wetlands are vanishing three times faster than forests, and freshwater biodiversity is declining at more than twice the rate observed in terrestrial or marine ecosystems. Continued decline in water quality and ecological health in the Murray–Darling Basin during the 1990s and the millennium drought were a catalyst for significant water reforms in Australia, especially the recovery of water for the environment. There was political and social consensus that the health of this critical asset was in peril.

Steve Posselt travelled the length of the Murray–Darling by kayak (by necessity, with wheels) in 2007 at the height of the millennium drought to highlight the plight of the river in his book Cry Me a River. Margaret Simons’ essay of the same name takes us on a very different journey. Drawing on a broad range of interviews and discussions, including with landowners, bureaucrats and academics, her story seems to have the elements of a good tragedy – a tragic hero (the river) cursed by fate and a fatal flaw (not enough water), the struggle between good and evil, and the sense of tragic waste as the hero meets his logical destruction in the final act, with things working out poorly for everyone.

Simons highlights the challenges faced by Basin communities, the environment and those charged with managing the system. She acknowledges the difficulty of negotiating a new sustainable diversion limit to meet the primary goal of the 2007 Water Act, to “protect, restore and provide for the ecological values of ecosystems.” But despite this, she devotes little attention to the good work being undertaken by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office or to the perspectives of ecologists concerned for the health of the river.

Simons’ essay provides insight into the complicated arrangements for water sharing among the states and the ongoing efforts to maintain the political compact that is the Basin Plan. Above all, the essay conveys a sense of hopeless struggle to understand the complexities of water management and to reach agreement on how best to share the water at a Basin-wide scale. However, it stops short of finding workable solutions to these wicked problems.

Sustainable water management is fiendishly complex. Although the woes of the Basin are often in the news, Australia has earned a strong reputation overseas for its approach to water management. The 2007 Water Act ensures the Basin is managed in the national interest, building on nearly 100 years of reform since the first River Murray Water Agreement was signed. Getting the states to agree to a whole-of-Basin plan that addresses competing state interests and rebalances the share with the environment was no small achievement. Other countries acknowledge this: indeed many, including the United States, India, Brazil and China, have looked to Australia for lessons that can be learnt.

The Plan must ensure decisions are made in the national interest. One of the key challenges in reaching a common perspective – highlighted by Simons – is that “everyone downstream is a wastrel, and everyone upstream is a thief. Only I, the person drawing water in this spot, for these crops, in this way, truly understands the value of the water and how to use it.” Although we speak of the “Basin community,” as Simons notes, they don’t act as one because they struggle to recognise a common interest.

The Basin Plan sets a new sustainable diversion limit: the amount of water that can be taken from the river system for consumptive purposes. The final amount of water to be recovered was agreed as part of the political settlement and is less than the initial estimates informed by science. Significantly, most of the water for the environment has already been recovered and all water recovery has been voluntary – either purchased direct, or as an outcome of investments in irrigation efficiency. We know this adjustment has not been without its impacts. Many small rural communities are feeling the loss of the water and require additional support.

Although Basin communities have struggled with the rapid pace of reform, the Plan does take a long-term perspective. We’ve always maintained it was a starting point and adjustments would be needed in both the short and long term. The evaluation of the Basin Plan in 2026 allows for larger adjustments, but smaller ones can be made before then. For example, water resource plans set out how the states will adhere to the new sustainable diversion limits and were meant to be in place by mid-2019. Some of these plans have been delayed and there have been allowances made to give states more time to complete them.

New information is emerging as the NSW government undertakes its Healthy Floodplains project, which aims to reform the management of floodplain harvesting through licensing, monitoring and regulation. This new information will be built into the Plan.

Climate change poses a massive challenge for the Basin and will undoubtedly require a revisit of the broader settings of the Plan, with new data revealing that inflows in the Southern Basin have almost halved in the past twenty years. The irrigation industry, rural communities and the environment are all going to have to adapt and make the transition to a quite different – likely hotter, drier and more variable – climate. The Basin Plan doesn’t end in 2026 and will be a blueprint for the way ahead. Drought, bushfires and pandemics make this job tougher, but there is no Plan B.

Although the Authority has the role of river operator on behalf of the southern states, its primary role under the Water Act is to oversee and regulate water use within the Basin. This is a stewardship role that requires the states to stay the course and remain committed to the Plan. With six governments and seven houses of parliament across the Basin, maintaining productive relationships among the parties is of paramount importance.

We agree fully with Margaret Simons’ finding of the importance of rebuilding trust – we acknowledge that is no easy task. It is multifaceted and requires the effort and commitment of all governments. It means greater transparency in reporting, clearer and more open communication and engagement with communities, and a genuine promise to embrace opportunities to adjust and adapt.

We are determined to call out any backsliding from these commitments. We will ensure water resource and water-sharing plans are consistent with the Basin Plan, and that there is full recovery of water. We are strengthening our compliance program and ensuring that water users are doing what they are meant to do so the community can have more confidence.

We will continue on our path of regionalisation. By mid-2021, one-third of our workforce will be dispersed in the Basin region. This is our commitment to building stronger working relationships with Basin communities.

Eight years in, we’ve made good progress implementing the Plan – a difficult but necessary reform. We can’t lose sight of the achievements. Around 2100 gigalitres of water have been recovered for the environment and there are early signs of improvement in river health. But we still have some way to go.

The Plan offers our best hope for a transparent and fair approach to managing the water resources of the Basin in a more sustainable way. We will only achieve that if all parties involved stay the course and adjust and improve their operations within the agreed framework of the Plan. The story of the Murray–Darling doesn’t have to be a tragedy.

Stuart Bunn



Mike Young

Margaret Simons’ essay Cry Me a River came out a few weeks before the official report of the Interim Inspector-General for the Murray–Darling Basin, Mick Keelty: Impact of Lower Inflows on State Shares under the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. Both are worth a careful read. Fascinated that Simons had got it so right, I read her essay in a single sitting. She documents superbly the depth of feeling and misunderstanding in the Basin, and how politicians have attempted to frustrate progress. As the American water administrator Tim Quinn has recently observed in California, “Too often, water policy leaders and stakeholders focus almost exclusively on what should be done rather than the process for making those decisions.”

Throughout the millennium drought, Australia was committed to searching for excellence in water management. We had the process right. The search led to a total rewrite of water management legislation in all Basin states, the complete re-specification of our water rights system and the development of one of the world’s best water-trading systems. The rest of the world was envious: by attending to basic concepts and agreeing to core principles, we were getting the detail right. However, the last decade has been characterised by compromise. To an outsider looking in, we have lost our way.

In 2006 and 2007, as the millennium drought deepened, it became obvious that we needed a better way to manage the Basin – something like an independent Reserve Bank for Water and a comprehensive plan. The proposed planning and water allocation system would need to cover groundwater as well as surface water, include powers to control overland flows and, as required under the National Water Initiative, bring an end to over-allocation. As Simons explains, all the leaders involved agreed. It was time for a rethink.

The legislation for a Basin-wide plan and an independent Murray–Darling Basin Authority emerged in 2008 and, while it still had a few gaps, it allowed Australia to claim, for a second time, the title of world’s best water manager. But state ministers and water managers wanted to remain in control and, as Simons ably outlines, they jostled their way back to a position where they could prevent the emergence of an Authority that put Australia’s collective interests first rather than their local interests.

Mick Keelty’s report, which has been accepted by the federal government, points to a failure of those involved in Basin politics to get their heads around a host of basic water management concepts, and to a lack of leadership. Both are urgently required. The Basin lacks a person who is seen to be responsible for calling the shots and has the expertise to speak with authority and the insight to find the right solutions.

The primary role of leaders is to create a sense of trust in the process. So far, those involved have not been able to do this. Simons suggests that while all the efforts to frustrate progress and hijack agendas may be to the short-term benefit of some, they have come at a massive long-term cost to all. It is time for our leaders to stop supporting one solution over another and, instead, focus on fixing Basin governance: its legislation, policies and the Plan. The leaders must now commit to putting a state-of-the-art plan in place and make sure that everyone understands both what is required and why it is so important.

Simons and Keelty make another important point: in recent years the Basin has got much drier, as the figure on the following page, from Keelty’s report, shows. For too long, water allocation plans have focused on the long-term average. A better approach, as Simons points out, would replace all arguments about volumes with a discussion of how to share water when it is wet and when it is dry, and how to put a strong water-sharing system in place. Robust water entitlement and allocation systems are designed to cope with long drys and even a permanently drier climate.

In the UK, water managers spend a lot of time working out how much water has to be left in each river to ensure the entire system remains healthy – all the way from its source to the sea. Innovatively, they call this water a “hands-off flow”, and it is allocated first. No one is allowed to touch this water. Keelty devotes an entire chapter in his report to the Australian equivalent: conveyance water. The need to ensure that there is always enough water flowing to ensure the system’s basic health is poorly understood. Conveyance water is an appropriate name for the Southern Connected Basin, but for the Darling system I prefer the UK term, as it so powerfully gets the message across. Some water always has to be left in the system. In retrospect, it is obvious that all involved have spent way too much time arguing over maximum amounts that can be taken and not nearly enough about minimum flows.

Keelty’s explanation of how much drier it has been in the past twenty years

A properly designed system would start by putting aside enough water for conveyance and deciding how to share access to the remainder. These are difficult decisions, as they involve risks and trade-offs. Try deducting 2000 gigalitres from the bottom of the above graph and then working out how much the water available to be “used” has declined. The answer is quite frightening. Small declines in rainfall mean much larger declines in the amount of water flowing into the river and much, much less water that can be used. As a rule of thumb, a 10 per cent decline in mean rainfall can result in a 30 to 40 per cent decline in inflows and, as the base flow still needs to be maintained, as much as a 60 or 70 per cent decline in the amount that can be taken out of the system and used for irrigation, discretionary environmental objectives, etc.

Recognising the importance of this basic concept, at the end of her essay Simons reports a sad but illuminating “water-sharing” discussion with the Authority’s current CEO, Phillip Glyde. Sitting down with Glyde, she raises the need for a dynamic sharing system – one that would adjust automatically to changes in the health of the system and recent inflows. Glyde agrees that such a system is required. No argument. But then he goes on to explain that during the development of the Basin Plan, rather than requiring a robust water-sharing system, it was decided to set sustainable diversion limits for each part of the Basin and define them as a fixed number. SDLs, as they are called up and down the Basin, “were required for legal reasons and also ‘for bringing people along reasons.’” Tellingly, Glyde then goes on to say that “perhaps in twenty or thirty years, ‘in Basin Plan Mark Four or Five,’” such a system could be put in place. When the CEO – known for his pragmatism – thinks it will take three or more Plans to get the basics right, something is seriously wrong.

In closing, Simons observes that, “The political obstacles, the hate, the unfairness and the potentially catastrophic gaps in our knowledge obscure what an achievement it would be for the Murray–Darling Basin Plan to succeed.” But what would it take to succeed? It would have to start with sensible amendments to the Water Act, followed by amendments to the raft of state and territory Water Acts that enable allocations to be made and then to each of the Basin’s eighty or so local water-resource plans. This is a big job, but one worth doing. As Keelty also observes, there is an urgent need to improve water literacy, for a new apolitical leader and for much better engagement and consultation processes.

I hope we will see this include a much better understanding of the role of groundwater, the difference between gross and net water accounting systems, and the need to specify entitlements. Long ago, it was recognised that the Darling’s water licensing system needed to be modified so that environmental water can be shepherded safely from one part of the Darling to another. As millions of dead fish are telling us, it is time to make it easy to shepherd (hands-off water) through the system. Simons includes many references to the importance of groundwater, including return flows. Sadly, however, those who drafted Keelty’s terms of reference left out any requirement to consider groundwater. There is only one mention of it in his entire report.

Even more importantly, it is time for our political leaders to put Basin politics to one side, appoint a truly independent chair of the Authority and instruct this person to start searching for a suite of institutional and administrative arrangements that will serve those who live in the Basin, those who use its water resources and those who benefit from their existence. More than anything, the Basin needs a leader capable of restoring trust and developing a state-of-the-art solution rather than a messily negotiated suite of compromises.

Mike Young



Maryanne Slattery

Margaret Simons’ essay is an evocative account of a moment. From the title it is clear that she did not find, and does not foresee, a happy ending. The Basin Plan has been around in some form since 2007. Many players have been telling a version of the same narrative for longer. Participants jostle for position and power to control, or at least influence, the future. But it is apparent from the essay that the imagined future is a version of the past. By chance the essay is a record of the last days before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in the words of Paul Valéry, “the future is not what it used to be.” What stands out from Simons’ essay is that so few of the people with a claim to managing the Basin gave any hint of what they might do if the future threw up something unexpected, such as a pandemic. Climate change will be a greater challenge still.

Simons’ view is personal, compassionate, unsentimental and moving. It is clear-eyed and tough – she sees the spin and self-interest, the obsession with process that serves only to delay. And it is harsh where harshness is the only proper response. She has a gift of giving enough of the politics to make it clear and interesting and keeping it relevant to where we are now. She says one of her aims in the essay is “to rescue the Basin’s narratives from the abstract.” She has achieved this. Her essay is the opposite of the desiccated language of the water managers.

From among the competing narratives she paints a bigger story of the Basin. She gets quickly and clearly to the interlocking influences that contribute to “the wonder and the awfulness of our attempts to manage it.” Phillip Glyde’s analogy is that the Plan is like upgrading an inefficient petrol combustion engine. He seems to argue that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good and we should instead strive for continual improvement. It’s a misleading analogy that suggests the many reviews identified by Simons are proactive and planned. She correctly observes that they rarely question the fundamentals, because they are mostly undertaken in response to external pressure and are intended to defend. For example, the review of water markets by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is unlikely to question their underlying premise, as the ACCC was instrumental in their design. Mick Keelty published a report to “bring better governance and transparency” in his capacity as Interim Inspector-General of the Murray–Darling Basin, in which he didn’t mention unmanaged floodplain harvesting or the much-criticised water efficiency program. To return to Glyde’s engine analogy, that is like overlooking the fact that your engine has no fuel tank. Too often, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority chooses and pays the reviewer, designs the terms of reference and edits the final report. Co-operative “independent reviewers” become the go-to experts for future reviews. It’s a lucrative business.

Criticism is denied, discredited or ignored. For example, the South Australian royal commission, which the Commonwealth refused to participate in, was wrong according to the Authority and politically motivated according to Minister David Littleproud.

Public commentary is classified as “pro–Basin Plan” or “anti–Basin Plan.” In this binary discussion, challenges to the status quo are unwelcome. Pointing out that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on non-existent water, or that the government withholds key documents, is interpreted as meaning one wants to rip up the Plan. Reporting that a $4 billion program is creating perverse outcomes is portrayed as threatening the existence of the Plan itself. It seems we have a choice: either a Basin Plan, or good governance, accountability and transparency – but not both.

A binary debate suits the government. The Plan has seen a massive shift of wealth under the veil of environmental reform. Lifting the veil and questioning the reform risks highlighting that regions are suffering not because of the environment, but due to a failure of governments. Arguments about environment versus irrigation are a distraction from the lack of policies for regional economic development, agriculture or drought. The Plan has become the crowning achievement, an end in itself.

This is the post-truth water world that Quentin Grafton describes. If there is no space to discuss what is not working with the Plan, or the inefficient petrol combustion engine, how is it possible to upgrade it? Real problems are attributed to drought or ignorance. The recently released Keelty report echoes statements made by Phillip Glyde that people have either made bad business decisions or don’t understand a key component of their business: water. Both are dog-whistling the idea of “stupid farmers.” Stupid isn’t the government’s fault.

Perhaps the Basin’s most sacred cow is the water market. When one questions the water market, the response is invariably along the lines of “You can’t tell farmers what to grow,” often followed up with a derisive reference to the Soviet Union. It seems there is only one possible policy response unless we embrace a failed communist model, even though governments didn’t tell farmers what to grow before there was no market. I argue that the most commonly cited principle underlying the market – that water will flow to the “highest value use” – has failed us. Value was never defined, never debated. Water does not move to its highest value use for the community, the economy or even the country. It moves to whomever is prepared to pay the most: how many dollars can be made from a litre of water? If a dairy farmer or rice grower, for example, cannot make the same dollars per megalitre as an almond or cotton grower, they are condemned as less efficient, of less value. “Highest value use” is therefore better described as “greatest ability to pay.”

There is no space in this system of “world’s best practice” to value regional communities, “low-value” irrigators, Aboriginal people or the environment. Even after all these years, Aboriginal people and the environment are, in practice, external to the narrow concept of value that currently drives water management in the Basin. Some irrigators and their communities are now finding themselves in the same situation.

The “highest value use” argument relies on a functioning global food network. Currently, we use a great deal of our water to grow cotton and nuts, and export more than 90 per cent of them. Last year we imported more than 90 per cent of our rice, a third of our wheat on the east coast and half of our dairy products. COVID-19 threatens food supply and distribution. Vietnam, where most of our rice comes from, has stopped exporting it, and several other countries have followed suit. Shipping lanes are in disarray, making it difficult to get ships in or out. At the time of writing, it is possible we will have a rice and wheat (on the east coast) shortage for several months this year. We need to rethink our water and agricultural policies and consider other definitions of value. What does highest value use look like in a pandemic?

Irrigator Chris Brooks is trying to alert the public to the impending food shortages. He has called for the water that we do have to be made available for food. Brooks, and the people he represents, have been labelled as cynical opportunists selfishly exploiting the crisis. At a time when we are re-examining all aspects of our economy, we still cannot escape the binary narrative of greedy irrigator versus the environment that has dogged the public debate for more than a decade.

As a rebuttal to Brooks’ warnings, Minister Littleproud, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Authority have all alleged “scaremongering,” claiming that Australia can feed 75 million people. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences hastily produced a report saying that Australia exports 70 per cent of its agricultural produce. Both statistics are misleading. They don’t reveal that more than a third of those exports are cotton, wool and forest products, or that those statistics are based on our highest irrigation years and not the current drought.

The two bureaucrats who feature most often in the essay are the head of the Authority, Phillip Glyde, and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Jody Swirepik. They express frustration and dismay, and give an impression of powerlessness and fatigue. “We have to be in it for the long haul,” “It’s too soon, we have to be patient,” “That’s not our job.” They look for signs of success at an ever-smaller level, while the grand endeavour is unravelling across the big, important measures, especially ecological health and community fairness.

If the architects and implementers of the Plan seem bemused at this unravelling, Glyde, at least, is clearly annoyed with Brooks for “jumping up and down” and getting in the way. Brooks is exercising his right in this democratic society to have his voice and the voice of his people heard. Unlike most, he has the means to do it.

At least once a month, and sometimes weekly, I will get a call from a stranger asking for help with water. Their stories all involve a severe impact on their livelihoods, families and sometimes their own sanity, over years and sometimes decades. There is always injustice, inequity and a shift of wealth. They have exhausted every avenue possible through politicians, three levels of government and their agencies and regulators. Mostly, they express disbelief that the government can do this to them, despite the inarguable evidence that it has.

In a recent Senate Estimates hearing, Glyde was asked about the fate of the Lower Darling irrigators, like Alan Whyte and Rachel Strachan. He explained that the Plan created “winners and losers.” Presumably the people who ring me are among the losers. Unlike Brooks, they should accept their fate and go quietly.

Bureaucrats who have spent their lives in a system and are justifiably proud of their work almost always respond to the collapse or failure of that system by doing more of what got the system going in the first place – “do as before but more,” in the words of C.S. Holling. Not only can they not do anything different, they can’t imagine doing anything different. The voices of dissent, the voices of rural Australia, cannot be heard because they distract from the business of doing more of the same. As Simons points out, this will eventually play out in courts of law.

Simons’ essay goes on to ask some critical questions: Can our current systems possibly meet the needs of the nation and the certainty of change? Is the Plan an honest compact, and is it fair? Can it work, and are our politics up to the task? And what happens when the macro policy, the plumbing, the schemes, the “events” or lack of them hit the realities of the landscape and the figures within it? After years of avoiding these questions, trying to answer them may be now be forced upon us.

The Water Act and the Basin Plan were well intentioned, but the Plan has been derailed by vested interests supported by the National Party. Important parts of the Plan aren’t working because the system of which it is a part doesn’t work. The Plan is a relic of a time and a system that no longer exists. Change will be forced upon us, probably by a changing climate and the changes to society it brings about. COVID-19 has brought into the present many things we thought we could put off.

If we want two irrigated monocultures in the Basin, hollowed-out regions and reliance on other countries for our food, then the water reforms are a success. If we want a diverse agricultural sector, vibrant communities and to grow what we eat, we need new water policies, as well as policies for regional economic development. To achieve this, we need to allow an honest and inclusive public debate and banish the binary rhetoric.

Maryanne Slattery


Response to Correspondence

Peter Hartcher

It might be intended as a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway, because it is vital and urgent. In her response to my essay, Caroline Rosenberg sets out some of the complexities of growing up as a Chinese Australian. She writes, “But to return to the idea that we should stand up for ourselves, I wonder if Hartcher would mind standing with the Chinese-looking Australians?”

I do not mind. On the contrary, I gladly, firmly stand with Chinese Australians.

Caroline, you and the other 1.3 million Chinese Australians are an asset to our country. You are also part of a community under unique stress, and needing unique support from the rest of the country. It is a fundamental test of Australia’s national cohesion.

The Chinese Communist Party has put you in an invidious position. The party claims the unswerving loyalty of Chinese people. It is a political claim, yet staked on the basis of biology. And so even when you leave China, choose to live in another country, make that country your home, conceive children there, take up citizenship there, Xi Jinping demands your loyalty to an authoritarian political project in another land.

Of course, the CCP doesn’t present it as a political matter. The party has long conflated itself with the Chinese nation, Chinese ethnicity and Chinese civilisation. But Beijing demands not just a gesture of affection or acknowledgement of Chinese civilisation. It insists on your support for the policies of this administration. Worse, Xi demands it as a higher duty than any loyalty to your adopted country. Even if you’ve never lived in China, even if you and your family have chosen another land, other loyalties, generations ago.

Australia has lots of experience with immigrants who retain residual attachments to their homelands. Such attachments are normal and natural. Australia has no objection to these, and shouldn’t have. But when a foreign power makes a demand on the “flesh and blood” ties of its diaspora, in the phrase emphasised by the Chinese government’s United Front Work Department, to infringe on the freedoms and rights of Australians, that is a red line.

Kevin Rudd has called the CCP “the enemy of liberal democracy.” It works to advance its values and policies in Australia through hundreds of front groups. Some, like the Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms, have more obvious ties to the Chinese government. Others, masquerading as community associations, business chambers, campus associations or patriotic societies, are less identifiable, even though organised through the covert activity of Beijing’s United Front Work Department.

Professor Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney counts more than 300 such associations active in Sydney alone, and hundreds more across the country. These groups commonly put pressure on Chinese Australians to carry out political tasks for Beijing, undermining Australian values and interests in the process.

These Chinese Australians need support from Australia to resist such pressure. And they need help in upholding what many have pledged in becoming citizens: their “loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.” Until now, they have not had any support in facing these pernicious pressures. The rest of Australia has been oblivious to their quiet dilemmas and private struggles.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and the espionage and foreign interference laws passed by Australia’s parliament in 2017 were designed to make a start by unmasking these groups and curbing their activities. But the laws were hollow. The government did not provide the money, the staff or the political will to enforce them.

Since my Quarterly Essay was published, two things have changed. First, the Morrison government has announced that it is allocating $40 million to enforce the laws. So that should supply the money and the staff. And the political will? We will know that they are serious when we start seeing arrests and expulsions. Second, the COVID-19 epidemic broke out. This epidemic is making many Chinese Australians feel isolated and disdained by the rest of the country. This is precisely the opposite of what they need to feel – that they are a valued part of the community – and precisely the opposite of what Australia needs to preserve its national cohesion and social harmony.

Some leaders have led. For instance, Queensland’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, were quick and visible in joining Chinese New Year celebrations and expressing solidarity with their Chinese Australian communities. They lent support and countered fear-mongering.

Weeks later, Scott Morrison expressed the right sentiments in parliament. He stated that Chinese Australians “deserve our great appreciation and support.” Labor’s Anthony Albanese did the same. Both leaders could and should do much more: visiting Australia’s various Chinatowns mask-free, consistent with their own health advisories, and sitting down to yum cha; embracing the Chinese Australian community; making speeches in support.

It is a moment of great stress for the Chinese Australian community, and a great opportunity for the rest of Australia to help ease that stress. All Australia’s political, business and community leaders should stand with the “Chinese-looking Australians,” Caroline, in the national tradition of looking after our fellow Australians when they suffer adversity. And they should be doing this even as the authorities seek to disrupt the CCP’s covert efforts to press the Chinese Australian community to serve a foreign authoritarian project to undermine our sovereignty.

The Chinese Australian community is an asset that must be protected; the Chinese Communist Party is a liability that must be constrained.

And Caroline, you pose a question about attitudes to communism. Please allow me to point out that communism is not really the issue here. China is not the only communist party–ruled regional state with a large Australian connection. Vietnam, formally the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is ruled by an authoritarian Marxist–Leninist party. Australia is home to a substantial Vietnamese-Australian community: about a quarter of a million people. Yet there is no tension here. Because Vietnam’s government is not making systematic efforts to lay claim to the loyalties of the Vietnamese-Australian community. It is not organising the covert penetration of Australian politics. It is not attempting to subvert Australia’s freedoms.

The federal government has dramatically elevated diplomatic relations with Vietnam over the past couple of years. Relations are flourishing. Communism as a movement or an ideology is neither necessary nor sufficient to pose a threat to Australia’s sovereignty. The risk stems from the policy and strategy of a specific political organisation, namely the CCP, bent on domination of its neighbourhood, and not any stripe of political ideology in itself.

To Amy King, I have not so much an answer as a question. Are you feeling lucky? Because you are essentially rationalising Australian inaction in the face of China’s challenge. In doing so, you ignore every sign of Beijing’s organised, determined program to take control of Australia’s decision-makers.

You draw attention to my case studies of attempted CCP intrusion into Australian politics – the cases involving Joe Hockey, Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten, Penny Wong and Richard Marles. You observe, correctly, that all these attempts failed. And conclude that I am therefore disregarding my own evidence when I urge Australia to better protect its democracy against such interference. But this is to misunderstand. I cite these examples to show that the party’s intrusions are very real, very bold and very high-level. We are not jumping at shadows. Beijing is waging a concerted effort to gain as much influence as possible over our political leaders. We know about these cases because they failed: principled Australian politicians rejected Beijing’s overtures. And because those patriots were affronted by the Chinese government’s actions, they alerted their colleagues. That’s how we know of these incidents. But how many successful efforts has Beijing made? These are the ones we don’t hear about – where threats or inducements are quietly accepted, and the Chinese government gets its way. With a wide-open system of political donations, desperately cash-hungry politicians and no federal anti-corruption body, our system is wide open.

The successful intrusions are the ones we will probably only wake up to long after they’ve succeeded. As the former Hong Kong chief secretary Anson Chan warns, “By the time China’s infiltration of Australia is readily apparent, it will be too late.”

And Amy, you are right, of course, that China’s diplomacy is often ham-fisted and counterproductive. The CCP is not infallible. But if you look at the broad trajectory of China’s growing power and influence over the past forty years, you would have to be feeling very lucky indeed to punt that it will stop here and go no further. If we sit inert waiting for China to fail, we surrender control pre-emptively.

You argue that what Australia really needs is an overarching China strategy. Of course it does. But this doesn’t mean we should do nothing until our leaders manage to produce one. We could be waiting an awfully long time, and time is not our friend with this problem.

Similarly, Sam Roggeveen thinks that it’s pointless to try to protect ourselves until we achieve a precondition, but an even bigger one: “For Australia to meet that challenge, the major parties will either need to redefine themselves as they did in the Cold War, or make way.” Can we really afford to wait for a wholesale reorganisation of our political system before we deal with an urgent challenge to our sovereignty?

Other correspondents also make the case for inaction. David Walker may be right that climate change is the bigger problem. Yet even if this is accurate, it is also irrelevant. Surely we must deal with both?

The responses to my essay have changed my mind on one important recommendation. David Walker, together with others, including Richard McGregor and Sam Roggeveen, have persuaded me to modify my proposal that Australia needs to subject new MPs and senators to security vetting. I still maintain that they do need to be vetted. In discussing this idea in a range of forums, from talkback radio to university seminars, I discovered that most Australians assume that this happens already as a matter of course. They are shocked to learn it does not. And, in conducting the Sydney launch for the essay, Julie Bishop agreed that a security screening was necessary for federal lawmakers. But where I suggested ASIO could do the security screening, I’ve subsequently been convinced that this isn’t the best approach. Because it would make the domestic intelligence agency the gatekeeper to Australia’s democracy.

The better way, I propose, is to create an independent parliamentary office to run security checks on new MPs and senators, and to do so at the candidate stage. Set up as a parliamentary agency, it would be accountable to the parliament itself. We have a precedent, though in a different realm of expertise. The Parliamentary Budget Office was created in 2012 to make expert, non-partisan costings of the political parties’ budget proposals. Why did we need this? Because we’d learnt that we couldn’t trust our politicians to be honest about the true cost of their election promises. This problem had dogged every election campaign for decades and confused the electorate. The Parliamentary Budget Office, well regarded by all political parties, solved the problem.

We should set up an independent, non-partisan parliamentary agency along the same lines to examine the backgrounds of candidates standing for parliament. Surveyors of the history of democracy – including John Keane, in his work The Life and Death of Democracy, and Francis Fukuyama, in his two volumes on the history of political order – observe that democracies either innovate or die. Innovation, anyone?

Wanning Sun, you have rather nicely built a strawman and dressed it up as being one of my proposals. Please allow me to knock it down. A couple of quick points. First, I do not object to immigrants from the People’s Republic of China. I object to covert agents of influence of a foreign autocracy pretending to embrace Australia’s democratic pluralism while devoting themselves to destroying it. Australia’s problem is that it has been failing to tell the difference.

Wanning, you ask for evidence. Among other evidence you overlook in Red Flag is the well-publicised case of Huang Xiangmo. The billionaire property developer was given permanent residency in Australia, where he set about trying to buy as much influence as possible among Australian politicians and others on behalf of the CCP. He was the donor behind the Sam Dastyari scandal. He was also the donor who tried to use a $400,000 donation to the Labor Party to convince Stephen Conroy to change his policy on China’s claims to the South China Sea. The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption is still working through some of the networks of influence he bought and paid for in the NSW political system on behalf of the United Front Work Department.

Australia eventually cancelled Huang’s permanent residency on the grounds that he failed the good character test. He is now persona non grata and the Australian Tax Office is pursing him over $140 million in what it claims to be unpaid taxes. The problem, of course, is that Huang was allowed to live in Australia and operate freely for eight years before being barred.

Australia needs to be better able to detect such people before granting them the immense privilege of free access to our country. The Department of Home Affairs and intelligence agencies evidently lack the skills and resources to do so. I propose that, until they can more reliably sort genuine immigrants from subversive ones, we shift the balance of risk by favouring applicants from Hong Kong and Taiwan over the mainland – because they are more likely to be committed to liberal-democratic principles.

And no, Henry Sherrell, I don’t propose a “values test,” as you choose to represent it. A quiz on cricket or compulsory voting is not going to filter out subversive foreign agents. I do suggest a more careful sifting of the backgrounds, allegiances and finances of applicants, so that we only admit new citizens who will value our freedoms, not seek to destroy them. I do not propose cutting the intake of ethnic Chinese immigrants. If anything, I propose increasing it. But it must be on condition that they are seeking to become Australians, participants in our liberal democracy, not phony Australians who are here to serve the interests of a foreign autocracy bent on bleeding Australia’s sovereignty. Wanning Sun calls this a “discriminatory” immigration policy. I’m certainly not suggesting discriminating on the basis of race. I am suggesting discriminating on the basis of honest intentions and good citizenship. Do you seriously think we should do otherwise, Wanning?

Inaction is not an option. If we don’t take prudent measures now, one of two things will happen. Beijing will slowly but surely extend its control over our decision-making systems and we will have surrendered our freedoms without a fight. Or a frustrated Australian electorate will make radical choices at the ballot box and Australia will join its fraternal democracies of the United States and Britain in turning to drastic, populist alternatives that could have ugly consequences.

Enough complacency, enough excuses. The red flag is up. It’s time Australia acted on it.

Peter Hartcher



Sam Roggeveen

By the time Peter Hartcher released his Quarterly Essay in late November 2019, Australia’s China debate had reached a point of near hysteria. The suggestion, made on 60 Minutes, that China’s security services had tried to cultivate an aspiring Liberal Party MP who later died mysteriously was leapt upon by China hawks eager to confirm their biases. Days later, The Australian described a fairly routine reorganisation of the bureaucracy as evidence that our spy agencies were on a “war footing” against Chinese interference in Australia’s politics.

In the circumstances, the core message of Hartcher’s essay was a useful one: Australia can do this. It is well within our powers as a nation, Hartcher argues, to maintain our sovereignty and the integrity of our democratic institutions. He’s right, of course. After all, this is not entirely new territory for Australia, given the espionage threat we faced from the Soviet bloc in the Cold War. Granted, the locus of Soviet espionage and subversion was Europe; Australia was on the periphery. Now we are nearer the centre. But we know from the European example that it is possible for smaller nations to withstand such pressure from a great power.

Yet considering the overall China challenge, I can’t help thinking Hartcher has put too much weight on this serious but manageable portion of the problem – that is, foreign influence. Meeting the China challenge will be more difficult than Hartcher allows, because he underestimates both the scale of China’s rise and the depth of Australia’s political malaise.

The reason the scale of China’s challenge is so important is that it will determine whether or not our ally the United States will meet it. Hartcher doesn’t consider the possibility that Washington might choose not to compete with China. While he closes his essay with a stirring call for Australia to strengthen itself because we “cannot count on anyone else,” he also repeatedly emphasises the importance of the US alliance to Australia. In other words, his argument is largely premised on the idea that we can count on someone else.

Yes, the alliance is, as Hartcher puts it, a “national asset,” but it is a diminishing one. Hartcher admits that the United States is becoming less reliable, but he attributes this almost entirely to President Trump. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper than that. The US has never faced an adversary of superior economic strength, until now. So if it is going to resist China’s leadership ambitions, its motivation had better be really strong. After all, we’re talking about a multi-generational, whole-of-government contest against a power that, in economic terms, dwarfs the Soviet Union.

Yet if the United States is serious about such a contest, we have seen little sign of it. Yes, Trump has imposed tariffs, and China has been designated a “strategic competitor.” But America’s military presence in Asia has remained largely unchanged in the past two decades despite a vast increase in China’s military strength. America’s major Asian economic initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, died at the hands of Trump. And if America was truly committed to a contest that will be harder than that against the Soviets, wouldn’t the US president have addressed the nation on such an important topic by now? Wouldn’t he have used the State of the Union or a nationally televised statement to inspire his people for the struggle ahead?

We shouldn’t be surprised that these things have not happened. The United States isn’t under economic threat from China because it’s not in Beijing’s interests to lock the US out of Asia economically, even if it can do so strategically. And the US isn’t at direct military risk either, because as strong as China is becoming, it will always be hemmed in by other great powers in Asia – India, Japan and Russia in the first instance, and in future perhaps a unified Korea as well as Indonesia, should it fulfil its potential.

But although these countries will ensure that China never entirely dominates Asia, none can prevent Beijing from becoming its leading power, and none of them will replace the US as a security partner for Australia. So Hartcher is more right than he knows: Australia is likely to be alone, with no one else to count on. We had better prepare, and Hartcher makes a number of recommendations for how we can do so.

However, his proposal to have security agencies vet serving MPs and senators, and anyone standing for office at upcoming elections, is unconvincing. Why assume the security agencies are any better at spotting threats than the voters, given the breaches Australia has suffered in recent decades (remember Jean-Philippe Wispelaere and Simon Lappas?) and KGB penetration of ASIO during the Cold War?

Nor does Hartcher’s idea of a bipartisan “strategic council” to reconcile party differences on China policy offer much hope, mainly because the parties themselves are so hopeless. Both are in secular decline. In a rapidly growing population, their membership base is shrinking, and at the last election both suffered a falling primary vote, reinforcing a decades-long trend. The vast majority of Australians care nothing for our two big parties, yet the parties maintain their place at the centre of politics, thanks largely to a favourable voting system.

It is worth recalling that Australia’s party-political structure was completely redefined by the Cold War. The Liberal Party had anti-communism in its DNA from its earliest days, even taking Australia to a referendum on the issue in 1951. The Labor Party split over communism and spent the 1960s and much of the ’70s in Opposition as a result. It didn’t win office during the Cold War until the breach was healed, and only had a sustained period in government when it found an unambiguously pro-American leader in Bob Hawke.

Given that the rise of China is a much bigger deal for Australia than the Soviet Union ever was, and given also that our two major parties have never commanded less public authority and esteem than they do today, why would we assume they are well placed to navigate the formidable challenges ahead?

Neither party has the energy or the resolve to confront the idea that Australia is likely to be left alone in a region in which China is the leading power. For Australia to meet that challenge, the major parties will either need to redefine themselves as they did in the Cold War, or make way.

Sam Roggeveen



Caroline Rosenberg

As an early product of the infamous one-child policy, and now a proud Melburnian, I read Peter Hartcher’s essay with mixed feelings. Despite twenty years of introspective reconciliation, I still struggle to process all the contradictions that come with being a migrant from communist China to democratic Australia.

In China I wore the red scarf in primary school as a symbol that I was part of the Young Pioneers of China – so did every student in every school I knew of. Like Aussie kids wearing the scarf of the AFL team their family has always supported, we wore our scarves proudly, though you could argue that neither Aussie nor Chinese kids have much say in the matter. We were taught how great the Communist party is, how it liberated the whole of China, and how corruptible capitalism is, with little children getting paid only a dollar a day to work in mines. I was quite happy that I didn’t have to work in mines, and that my parents loved only me.

Within my first week of school in Australia, on a bus ride, I overheard someone say, “Chairman Mao was a dictator, he killed millions in China.” I had to look up what a dictator was, discreetly, on my little handheld electronic translator. Nowadays, with smartphones, it would be much easier to be inconspicuous, but this was 1999. I was horrified by the stupidity, absurdity and audacity of someone making such a statement in public. Surely, I, a real Chinese person from China, would know if someone had killed millions of people in my own country. I concluded that the ignorant speaker had never been to China, had never seen the massive portrait of Mao at Tiananmen. But I was tremendously curious that no one else on the bus seemed bothered by the inflammatory conversation. Like a good child of the Middle Kingdom, a follower of the Middle Way, I withheld my burning desire to protest. Mainly because I couldn’t construct grammatically correct and fluent sentences in English, even in my head, yet. Really. It had nothing to do with being a coward.

I often reflect on that twenty-minute bus ride. The waves of China’s past caught up with me steadily, piling up without any regard for my psychological wellbeing. I learnt the realities of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the “liberation” of Tibet and Xinjiang, the real horror behind the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, abandoned baby girls and “prevented births.” This new knowledge hit me head-on at the beginning of the new millennium. I was one of millions of international students from China seeking a better education in the West. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who struggled to make sense of right and wrong, good and evil, as we digested this information. Degrees, promotions and mortgages helped with day-to-day orientation in Australia. Mostly, I assimilated and pushed on. Really. Life keeps getting in the way, and who has the time to question and make sense of these big issues? It’s not that I am a coward.

Reading Hartcher’s call to action, where he quotes former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis saying that Chinese Australians “could and should” be “vital” in protecting Australia’s democracy, I did a little celebration dance inside. I was excited to read on. But the Chinese Australian community did not feature again in the essay as part of the solution. Instead, Hartcher argued they needed to be educated more about democratic values, and assisted to participate fully in their new democracy. I recognise the importance of macro strategies, broad strokes. I wish someone had given me Hartcher’s essay when I arrived in Australia as a teenager. I don’t mean that literally, of course, as I didn’t know much English at the time and I couldn’t have cared less about politics. But I wish I’d had a crash course, an overview, like Hartcher’s essay, on how Australians and the West view communism, China and the Chinese. I knew how I viewed the West, but I was utterly unprepared for how it views me. This reverse shock is not dissimilar to the shock that Hartcher describes Joe Hockey and the Labor trio going through. I recognise that it is irrational and unreasonable to expect one essay by one journalist to have all the answers, especially when it is clearly titled: Red Flag: Waking up to China’s challenge, not Green Light: Working Solutions for China’s Challenge. As a Chinese Australian, I am grateful for the essay. I may not have read it the way the author intended, and I am ashamed of my disappointment. What have I done in twenty years? I have mixed feelings.

But to return to the idea that we should stand up for ourselves, I wonder if Hartcher would mind standing with the Chinese-looking Australians? Would he be intimidated if there were too many Chinese-looking Australians around him? Would he wonder if these Chinese-looking Australians were spies? Or comrades? Would he trust Chinese Australians, amphibians of the two cultures, never to lose sight of our democratic values? Would he ever see Chinese Australians as individuals – intelligent individuals, the way he sees Ross and John Garnaut? I am curious. Even a coward can be curious.

I can construct proper sentences now, grammatically correct and fluent for the most part. I can’t change the fact that I was born a Chinese single child, but I choose to sip a Magic (a distinctly Melburnian coffee with a perfectly balanced ratio of coffee and milk) every morning and cheer for the Pies in my black and white scarf once in a while. Whenever Chinese Australians are asked to choose between China and Australia, the ultimate answer must be that we choose humanity.

Caroline Rosenberg



Wanning Sun

On my first reading of Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag, the following passage leapt out at me:

In other words, we understand that you have ties of sentiment and bonds of kinship to other countries, and we’re unconcerned. We know it takes time to put down roots in new social soil. This is part of democratic pluralism and it’s an enrichment of a society. But the nation cannot tolerate acts to advance a foreign political movement with hostile intentions.

Further on, Hartcher recommends that the Australian government should consider “changing the composition [of Australia’s immigration profile] in favour of Chinese immigrants from places other than mainland China.” He says: “Screening must still apply, of course, but prima facie ethnic Chinese immigrants from Taiwan or Hong Kong are more likely to value Australian liberties … preference should not only be given to immigrants with the most suitable work skills but also to those with the most compatible values.” This would, Hartcher argues, “improve the balance of risks.”

Let’s examine the logic of this argument. Hartcher says that People’s Republic of China migrants are a risk. I assume he reached that conclusion, at least partly, through his own observations of the actions and behaviour of PRC migrants in Australia. Or was it based mainly on the claims made by Professor Feng Chongyi? Perhaps he received an undisclosed briefing from ASIO that provided some concrete evidence to substantiate the public assertions made by retired ASIO head Duncan Lewis – whom Hartcher quotes approvingly? Hartcher leaves us to speculate about the factual basis for his fears – fears so grave he advocates a discriminatory change to our immigration policy in regards to our largest trading partner, the birthplace of our largest non-Anglo migrant population. Assume, for a moment, that there is some factual, moral and political cogency to his argument, and that in response the Australian government decides not to accept any further migrants from the PRC. What should the government do with the half a million PRC migrants who are already naturalised Australian citizens?

Given that PRC migrants come from a country with “hostile intentions,” as Hartcher puts it, and given that their past, current or possible future behaviour is apparently of sufficient concern that Hartcher wants to “armour-plate” (he used this phrase in an interview with Tom Switzer) Australia against any risks posed by them and their homeland, the logical and most urgent thing to do would be to take measures against them. Surely these PRC migrants already in Australia are a more credible and imminent threat than any future PRC migrants, who, in the current climate, would come under intense scrutiny during the screening process – even without an outright ban on PRC immigration. Shouldn’t Hartcher be urging the government to take a leaf out of China’s own playbook – or Australia’s wartime internment playbook – and consider putting them all into detention or “re-education” camps, as China does with the Uighurs? But what would you do with the thousands of non-Chinese Australians who have married PRC migrants, not to mention the thousands of children these PRC migrants have produced? How many generations of “distance” from the PRC would they need to demonstrate before qualifying as politically trustworthy? At a minimum, and drawing instead on George Orwell, shouldn’t our domestic intelligence organisations implement widespread and personalised surveillance of all PRC migrants and their close associates – if they haven’t done so already – just to play it safe? This, of course, would be an excellent justification for a vast increase in funding for these organisations. If China is to be treated seriously as a country with hostile intentions – rather than just being a sacrificial pawn in a game of rhetorical brinkmanship – then the logic of Hartcher’s argument seems to lead him ineluctably down such a path.

Max Suich, a former chief editorial executive of Fairfax, recently observed in a letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald that “The conspiratorial material, unsourced, that often purports to document the Chinese threat, can only come, directly or indirectly from the intelligence community’s conduits and media handlers.” Suich further observed that “these ‘scoops’ have made the threat the dominant theme in discussion of relations with China in what is the liberal wing of the Australian media, which might usually be expected to be a bit more sceptical about the actual dimensions of the threat.”

Like Suich, I’m baffled why the left and the right have become such odd bedfellows on this issue. Does it not intrigue or bother Hartcher, as a senior journalist of the “liberal wing of the Australian media,” that he seems to be singing from the same song sheet as Andrew Bolt on the topic of China and Chinese influence?

I think I understand – up to a point. Hartcher abhors communism, and he’s wary – no, extremely worried – that China is seeking to infiltrate the so-called free world. He’s keen to see that our democratic values stay constant and strong. He wants to find a way to minimise the likelihood of Australia and the Australian way of life being jeopardised by China’s current and future actions. And many PRC migrants would support him in that; that’s why they’re here, not in China. However, if Australia halted immigration from the PRC without presenting any evidence that many – or even any – of these potential migrants harbour “hostile intentions” towards Australia, this would imply a profound lack of confidence in the effectiveness of our security and intelligence agencies in screening potential migrants. And if that’s the case, then how can we rely on them to screen potential migrants from other nations? Shouldn’t we just pull up the drawbridge on immigration altogether?

Hartcher cites Huang Xiangmo as an example of a Chinese person who was a “covert agent of influence for the CCP” within Australia. But even if Huang had been brought to trial and found guilty of the accusations against him, it remains true that the vast majority of PRC migrants in Australia do not act in these ways. So my question to Hartcher is this: what does a PRC migrant or permanent resident in Australia have to do in order to be exempted from his suspicion – given that Hartcher stops short of using ethnic Chineseness as his criterion for discrimination? If Hartcher is reluctant to go down the path of internment camps for former citizens of a country suspected of having “hostile intentions” towards Australia, then what would he count as proof of their loyalty to Australia, in order to justify allowing them to continue going about their lives as normal?

It may be useful for Hartcher to know a few things about how pro-China patriotism works. First, the love that many PRC migrants harbour for their homeland is not exclusively the handiwork of the CCP. If Hartcher believes that, he’s giving the CCP and its propaganda apparatus far too much credit. It’s the market: nationalism sells. And the internet: nationalism can be clickbait. And it’s also simply the sense of oneness that we humans seem almost inevitably disposed to feel towards the culture we are born into and the people who nurture us; even from an evolutionary point of view, nationalism looks like a useful default position. Finally, Hartcher should realise that journalists such as he may unintentionally lend a helping hand to the CCP in advancing its ideological work within Australia, by effectively pushing many migrants closer to “the other side.”

There seems to be a huge blind spot in the narrative of the “untrustworthy PRC diaspora”: modern China has experienced only one-party rule. These migrants, and those who remain in China, did not choose to live in a communist country. They were born into that system. It’s not that there’s the CCP and one or more opposition parties, and that Chinese people have chosen to side with the CCP. It’s not only unfair but also illogical to assume that citizens of the PRC – or PRC migrants – are loyal to the CCP simply because they live, or have lived, in a nation ruled by that party.

I lead a research team, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Projects grant, investigating the cultural practices of PRC Chinese communities in Australia and their use of Chinese-language social media. We have published some of these findings in peer-reviewed journals, and while our research is ongoing we’re already convinced that this is an extremely heterogeneous cohort, marked by great diversity in class background, education level and cosmopolitanism, as well as in their political distance from the PRC. We’ve conducted large-scale surveys, in-depth interviews and longitudinal ethnographic research. Our findings suggest that PRC migrants don’t always side with the Chinese government on matters of political policy (just as non-Chinese Australians don’t always side with the Australian government). Most of our survey respondents were very happy to promote Australia and many of them were already actively doing so. Our careful analysis of the content of Australia’s Chinese-language media suggests that it is not functioning merely as a blunt and unquestioning tool of the Chinese government and its state media, nor is it just a ventriloquist for mainstream English-language media. Rather, wedged between a frequently anti-Chinese public rhetoric in Australia’s mainstream media and anti-Australian responses in China’s state media, Chinese-language media in Australia seems to profit by giving voice to PRC migrants’ sense of ambivalence towards both Australia and China. Our engaged ethnographic interaction with more than forty WeChat groups of first-generation PRC migrants indicates they have a very high desire to learn about democratic values, practices and processes.

Throughout the summer months, as Australia’s bushfires burned, I closely followed how PRC Chinese migrants used WeChat to organise fundraising events and mobilise fellow citizens to make donations for bushfire victims; how they spread stories about volunteer firefighters of Chinese heritage and about generous and compassionate non-Chinese Aussies; and how they engaged in heated debate on the relationship between climate change and bushfires. Their reason for doing these things was simple: as one Chinese community organisation put it, “Australia is our home.”

Democracy is Australia’s biggest soft-power asset, and we must work hard to keep it. But if you start to think, talk and behave like an authoritarian government, and start to distrust your own citizens and question the allegiance of PRC migrants on the basis of the actions of a few individuals, then you are taking a crucial step towards undermining the “brand” of Australia as a liberal democracy and effectively shooting yourself in the foot. That’s certainly not the way to “armour-plate” Australia.

Finally, in an excellent piece Hartcher wrote recently on Scott Morrison’s lack of leadership, he says:

Populism – of the left and the right – is a political style offering unworkably simplistic solutions to complex problems … Our leaders do not single out Muslims or Mexicans or other minorities for special exclusion. Our leaders do not risk national breakup by sponsoring divisive shocks, like the one now testing the unity of the United Kingdom.

Here, Hartcher appears to be arguing directly against the position he articulated in his Quarterly Essay, where he urged our leaders to single out prospective PRC migrants – literally – for special exclusion. There, he appeared unconcerned that his position amounted to an unworkably simplistic and seemingly populist solution to a deeply complex problem. Following the logic of his own argument, can we assume that Hartcher now wants to recant the position he advanced in Red Flag?

Wanning Sun



Henry Sherrell

Peter Hartcher’s essay is a timely call to action about the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions for Australia. He outlines a host of decisions collectively awaiting Australia, and raises the prospect of a more difficult future, where economic and security trade-offs are more explicit. The brazen nature of the intimidation he describes is particularly concerning. This is a conversation worth having. Yet a detour into Australian immigration policy shows how easily it can go off-track.

Nearly three in ten Australian residents were born overseas. Yet in public debates like this one, immigration policy is often treated as a pawn on a chessboard – something small to be sacrificed for a larger purpose. Hartcher’s essay is only the most recent example of this phenomenon.

Hartcher calls for civil society and governments to do more to educate “immigrants and the wider community alike on the value of democracy and the responsibilities of citizens.” It is hard to argue with this proposal, though such efforts often go awry in clumsy execution. He calls for better-qualified officials to assess prospective immigrants more closely. Finally, he suggests the introduction of some form of values test, as “immigrants who are committed to liberal-democratic principles should always be given priority over those who are not.” This is not a new concept. Speaking in the federal parliamentary debate on the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, James Ronald MP said, “Let us tell these foreign races that when they can live up to our social and moral ideals we shall welcome them.”

Like many areas of public policy, the administration of immigration policy is not straightforward. Assessing visa applications is different to looking for contaminated food during quarantine screening. No government official can peer into someone’s soul and understand their true intentions. In particular, the introduction of a formal liberal-democratic values test in the immigration selection process would generate extreme difficulties. What would an objective test for commitment to liberal-democratic values look like? How would an official from the Department of Home Affairs assess this test in relation to individual visa applications?

Instead of buttressing Australia’s liberal democracy, such a test would undermine it. A values test would be impossible to assess without considering where people come from. Despite our aspirations to non-discrimination, where people hail from remains a core criterion shaping Australian immigration policy. A British tourist has no difficulty coming to Australia, but ask an Afghan or Indian citizen about the process and you will find it beset with hurdles. Yet the CCP, not to mention many migrants, would view an Australian values test for immigration selection as a proxy for race. It is worth recalling that under White Australia, migrants were not ostensibly excluded on the grounds of race, but of language.

Hartcher is not racist, nor is he “anti-Chinese.” He explicitly argues for additional immigration from Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the past, he has articulated support for a larger Australian population, which will increasingly depend primarily on Asian and African immigration. But in a country that was federated in part on anti-Asian prejudice and is now home to a large and growing Asian-Australian population, we are compelled to take perceptions of our actions seriously.

How would citizens from countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Pakistan successfully showcase their commitment to liberal-democratic principles? These are people Hartcher would welcome with open arms. Yet these people also live in countries governed by non-democratic or illiberal regimes. Alongside mainland China and India, they are among the largest recent migrant cohorts to Australia.

For almost all immigrants to Australia, the act of migration itself is a vote for our liberal democracy. There is no evidence to suggest the vast majority of migrants from these countries are undermining Australia’s political system. If anything, it is the opposite. The 2015 report Australians Today found people born in China and Hong Kong who had migrated to Australia between 2001 and 2014 were more likely than recent migrants from New Zealand to feel a sense of belonging in Australia. And they were just as likely to feel that sense of belonging as recent British-born migrants. Those fleeing authoritarianism – people born in Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran – had the most sense of belonging of any group. Like Cold War Soviet émigrés, those who have lived under authoritarian regimes may become the loudest supporters of their new home.

This points to alternative means for addressing the threats Hartcher details. As he argues forcefully, Australian governments and civil society can and must do better to strengthen ourselves against active interference from the CCP. Given the existing, almost limitless powers granted to the Minister for Immigration, directing resources to cancel visas through ministerial discretion is likely to be more effective than empty screening devices such as a values test. We would also do well to consider existing policy directions – such as the ongoing privatisation of parts of the visa application process – and ask what risks this may pose for future Australian capacity to assess threats. Boiled down, visa privatisation is an example of the trade-offs presciently outlined by Hartcher: more fiscal operating space at the expense of poorer oversight and administrative control.

Finally, Hartcher’s immigration proposal shrinks from the promise of Australia. By rebalancing immigration opportunities away from people who may not share a strong affinity for liberal democracy before they get here, he dismisses the prospect that living in Australia can itself foster liberal-democratic values. His proposal fails to consider how the idea of Australia, the very values we seek to protect, can influence those who move here. This is the strongest argument for immigration as a nation-building enterprise, where we engage newcomers by the lived commitment of all Australians, old and new, to our shared liberal-democratic values.

To counter the rising authoritarianism of this political moment, we must socialise our values through our actions. As well as asking hard questions about a host of other immigration policy decisions, this means refusing to judge prospective Australian immigrants’ commitment to liberal democracy by the actions and worldview of regimes such as the CCP.

Henry Sherrell



Richard McGregor

In Peter Hartcher’s telling, Australia has undergone an epiphany over China in the past two to three years. Politicians of all stripes, sections of the academy, the media and the bureaucracy have at different times woken up to the fact that China is much more than a valuable economic partner for Australia. Rather, the country has emerged as something more formidable: a uniquely powerful party-state that fuses ordinary diplomatic relations with a determination to ensure any interaction with foreigners buttresses communist rule in China.

Hartcher accurately describes the genesis of Beijing’s interference campaigns, something too few observers manage to do. Beijing’s efforts to influence Australian politics by fair means and foul started as defensive in nature. Beijing wants to make sure that the hundreds of thousands of mainland migrants and students in Australia don’t become carriers of a democratic virus that can be transported back into China.

In some respects, it has succeeded. The Chinese community in Australia is very diverse. Some have been here for decades. Others have just landed or gained citizenship. They are rich, poor and middle class and work in the private and public sectors. They don’t vote along party lines. They have different religions – Buddhism, Catholism and evangelical Christianity – and often no religion at all.

The most prominent and powerful community organisations and Chinese-language media, by contrast, are nearly all pro-Beijing and allergic to criticising the CCP. That’s not by accident. If you criticise the CCP in Australia, the party can make sure your business or relatives pay a price in China, and perhaps in Australia as well, where the community can be mobilised on Beijing’s behalf.

However, once people wise up to how the party-state works, the gains that the CCP makes in strengthening its rule at home start to evaporate abroad. The backlash against China that Hartcher describes is not confined to Australia. It is happening across the developed world, and in many developing nations as well.

The backlash is by no means universal. Chinese investment is welcome in many countries, from Asia to Africa. Nor is all the criticism necessarily fair in every circumstance. China’s conflict with the reigning superpower, the United States, is multifaceted – covering trade, economics, geopolitics and ideology. But it is also about raw power. Superpowers like the US do not give way without a fight.

That is one of the conundrums in analysing China’s rise. The challenges posed by Beijing do not always arise from the fact that China is pursuing nefarious ends. They also come because China is behaving just as any great state would. It wants to dominate the Indo-Pacific, and, over time, push the United States out of the region. To be sure, Beijing is doing so through absurd territorial claims in the South China Sea, which are being enforced through intimidation of neighbouring Southeast Asian nations. But China would be challenging the United States no matter what kind of government was in power in Beijing.

Hartcher lays out with precision how the China landscape has been transformed in Australia. China’s interests go well beyond managing the politics of the Australian Chinese community and Chinese student population. Australia’s alliance with the United States, the trade and business relationship, our intelligence assets and foreign policy – all are under pressure. In addition, Canberra, like other governments, has to deal with the extra-territorial demands of the party-state. Beijing aims to condition foreign governments and politicians to internalise its own talking points on issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea, to the point where our policies all but match China’s.

While Hartcher depicts the China threat very well, I think he underplays the other side of this equation: how to manage the opportunities in the relationship. Put another way, Australia has an anti-China policy, but it has yet to develop a comprehensive China policy, one which is strategic in protecting Australia’s long-term interests but sly and adept enough to take advantage of any benefits that the bilateral relationship throws up.

When I say “anti-China,” I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, although the term is often used that way. A once-in-a-generation about-turn on an issue as momentous as China was always going to provoke intense debate and personal rancour. That is certainly the case in Australia, where taking any position on an issue relating to China can immediately see you tattooed by critics on the other side of the argument as being in one camp or another for life. And heaven forbid you call for more nuance in the debate. Nuance, in the eyes of some, has become a byword for appeasement. The bitter, binary split over China undercuts any efforts to find common ground.

As Hartcher hints at, rightly in my view, Australia has to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. There is nothing wrong with taking a tougher political line on China while also trying to protect the significant economic relationship. Japan, and to a lesser extent Singapore, have done a much better job at this. Why can’t Australia?

It is all very well to talk about diversifying our trading ties, as many do, but it is not so easy in practice. We also forget that trade and investment with China is a two-way street. Australia too often describes itself as reliant on China, which immediately puts our governing class into a defensive crouch. A more confident country would see itself as interdependent. The trade relationship is important for another reason that the defence and national security hawks don’t like to talk about. They might ask themselves how they are going to fund bigger military budgets while simultaneously scaling back business ties with China. As grating as it might have been, Beijing’s ambassador, Cheng Jingye, was right when he said at the end of 2019 that Australia’s trade and budget surpluses were built on the back of trade with China.

It is hard to be too critical of Hartcher for not sketching out in detail how a better relationship with China might unfold. There are so many variables: Chinese internal politics; how Beijing’s ties with the United States in particular, but also Japan and south-east Asian nations, evolve; how far China pushes its defence interests in the Pacific, where Australia has so much at stake; whether India can reach its economic potential and act as a counterbalance to China. There is no telling the future in the region.

Still, on two of Hartcher’s recommendations, I disagree. The first is his recommendation that MPs should submit to formal security clearance. Security vetting takes months at a minimum. In the case of Chinese Australians joining the bureaucracy, ASIO not only screens their relatives in Australia, but also in China. To understand how disastrous this could be in practice, imagine how such a scenario might have played out in the last federal election. If Labor had won a few more seats, the result could have hung on Liberal Gladys Liu’s election in Chisholm, in Melbourne. Leaving aside how fraught, impractical and inefficient a vetting process would be, the question of which party would govern Australia could have been left hanging on ASIO’s assessment of one candidate’s loyalty. Further, ASIO could refuse to issue a security clearance, and then decline to say why. Australia’s intelligence agencies have been enthusiastic partners with the government in the expansion of the security state in recent years. But even Duncan Lewis, the outgoing ASIO chief, disavowed this suggestion. Far better, I think, to leave such vetting to the political process, the media and the parties themselves, and to have it all done in public. The voters can then make up their own minds.

The second is Hartcher’s idea that ethnic Chinese be favoured as immigrants over applicants from mainland China itself. This sets up a dangerous slippery slope, in my view. We have no data, for a start, telling us about the political views of mainland migrants as opposed to those from, say, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia. Many mainlanders, like Feng Chongyi, whom Hartcher interviews for his essay, love Australia precisely because it is a democracy. Are mainland Chinese to be put through some higher-level loyalty test before they are accepted as migrants? How would this be administered? Should applicants from the mainland be excluded because they credit the Communist Party for their country’s economic advances over recent decades? Where else in the world should this test be applied? Do we allow in Indians who back Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim policies? Should we have had stricter tests for Serbians, after the last Balkan conflict, to see which side they were on?

After Australia discarded the White Australia policy, one of the strengths of its immigration system has been that it is non-discriminatory. Maybe that has slipped here and there (for example, recently, in favouring Iraqi Christians for entry over Muslims from that region), but this is not something we should encourage, as politicians will find endless ways to slice and dice and weaponise the criteria for entry. In a successful multicultural country, there is a lot at stake.

The emphasis should be on what Hartcher correctly advocates elsewhere in his essay: the proper enforcement of the foreign interference laws that were passed in 2018 but have barely been enforced since. If our democratic processes, political parties, institutions and civil society are resilient and in good order, we wouldn’t have to canvass policies like this.

Richard McGregor



John West

Peter Hartcher’s recent Quarterly Essay provides an excellent, informative and insightful analysis of the challenges Australia faces in managing its deepening relationship with China. But like many important works of analysis, it raises just as many questions as it answers, a few of which I will address here.

The first point is that Hartcher may be guilty of overestimating China’s historical economic and political power. He highlights the economic power of China when he notes that “China’s economy was the biggest in the world for at least half a millennium, until as recently as 1820.” While that may be true, over this same period China progressively slipped behind Western Europe and especially the United Kingdom in terms of GDP per capita, which is a better indicator of economic and technological sophistication than total economy size. Although Chinese and Western European GDP per capita were similar for the first millennium of the Common Era, by the year 1500 Western Europe’s GDP per capita had leapt 30 per cent ahead of China’s. And by 1820, Western Europe’s GDP per capita was more than double that of China, and by 1950 it was more than ten times China’s. The reality is that for much of the past 500 years (in fact, until the reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978) China had a stagnant and relatively declining economy. In other words, its economy was big thanks to its enormous population, but backward. And this economic stagnation made it highly vulnerable to outside forces like the Manchus, who conquered China in the seventeenth century and created the Qing dynasty, and also Japan and several Western countries, which invaded China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Overestimating China’s historical power is now a widespread trend, and gives the impression that China’s renaissance is returning the country to its natural dominant position in global affairs. The reality is that for more than 500 years, China was a fading power with a relatively declining and stagnant economy.

Second, Hartcher mentions some of the challenges facing the Chinese economy today. Indeed, despite its rapid development in these past few decades, China still has a big but backward economy, with a GDP per capita that is only one-quarter that of the United States. And China faces significant challenges, such as its enormous debt, rapidly ageing population, weak productivity, and trade and geopolitical tensions with the United States and other Western countries. Chinese productivity is only 30 per cent of that of world leaders like the US and Germany.

In this context, one issue not explored by Hartcher is how Australia’s relationship with China might be affected if China fell into a scenario of long-term economic stagnation (as Japan, Asia’s previous superstar, has done) or if it succumbed to an economic crisis like some Asian countries did two decades ago. The Australian economy would suffer from such a scenario, given our close economic relations. But the Chinese Communist Party, which relies on strong economic growth as a source of political legitimacy, would likely ramp up nationalism to maintain popular support. Such nationalism could take many forms, such as assertive behaviour towards Australia’s close friends, like Japan. It could also involve more coercive behaviour towards Australia’s ethnic Chinese population. Further, a weakening economy could see more Chinese citizens seeking to leave China for countries like Australia, as well as even more capital flight.

In short, a China that gets bogged in economic stagnation and becomes more paranoid and insecure may well prove an even more dangerous country to deal with. We see this today with Russia, which is an economic basket case, but is flailing about on the international stage, causing havoc wherever it goes.

Lastly, Hartcher lavishes praise on the Chinese state: “Imperial China, a world leader in technology, also pioneered the capable, modern nation-state. It took Europe almost two millennia to catch up. China is again thrusting to the forefront of technological know-how and pioneering a more effective nation-state.” While this is true, it is also true that China has never had the rule of law, by which the country’s highest political authority should also obey the law. Even today, the Chinese Communist Party is a law unto itself, and China’s judiciary is highly politicised and corrupt. “Constitutionalism” is a taboo subject in China. Nor have China’s rulers ever been subject to “downward accountability” to the country’s citizens through democratic elections. The nation-state may have come to the West very much later than in China. But the Western nation-state is vastly superior to that of China thanks to the rule of law and electoral democracy, even if Western democracy is struggling somewhat today.

How long China’s anachronistic political situation can persist is a big question. Today, the CCP is visibly worried, as is evident from the growing repression, surveillance, use of propaganda, and nationalism. The political crisis in Hong Kong shows the limitations of authoritarianism. Any political instability and possible regime change in China would certainly have a massive impact on the world, and especially on Australia.

John West



David Walker

I began reading Peter Hartcher’s essay in China. I was teaching an MA class at Beijing Foreign Studies University on Australian responses to the rise of Asia from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. I had taught variations on this theme during my time as BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University from 2013 to 2016. In the three months I was in Beijing late last year the skies were clear and the air quality good. Meanwhile, Australia was on fire. I left China more convinced than ever that the biggest national security threat facing our continent and our immediate region is not China, but climate change.

Hartcher’s essay is not confined to the here and now. He speculates on where China will be in 2049, when the Chinese Communist Party will have been in power for a century. But will it make it that far? Following the seventy-year anniversary of the CCP last year there has been discussion of the lifespan of authoritarian regimes. As I read this literature, it seems that reaching a century would defy precedent and is far from assured. In this same timeframe, the world will be dealing with the accelerating impacts of climate change. In our region these impacts may well be catastrophic for Pacific nations, generating large flows of climate refugees. And should we think of the residents and visitors in Mallacoota at the turn of the decade as climate refugees?

The next thirty years promise to be turbulent and difficult to predict. Hartcher should be applauded for offering a roadmap to this future. He is emboldened to do so, it seems to me, because he appears to know where China wants to be in 2049 and implies that what China wants China will get. We are told that where China wants to be in 2049 is clearly spelt out in the secret and sinister “Document 9.” Hartcher tells us that this document outlines CCP plans to achieve a tighter, more authoritarian grip on power within China while also working to make China the dominant global power. What credence should be given to Document 9 is an open question. More important is the willingness to believe that a document written in 2012 can be flawlessly implemented to accomplish stated goals by 2049.

This mode of thinking takes us into Orientalist territory, bringing to the surface yet again deeply held and persistent fears. For well over a century Australia has produced a body of speculative writing and conspiratorial thinking about a threatening Asia. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century produced invasion stories in which the challenge arose not from China’s remarkable/disturbing cohesion but from its collapse. As the Qing dynasty fell apart, pundits worried that “floods” of Chinese would flow into “empty” Australia, wiping out European settlement. Populous China, a country in turbulent disarray, torn by rebellion within and by the encroachment of hostile foreign powers, was seen as a distinct threat to Australia’s survival. This perceived threat prompted massive increases in defence spending in the early years of the new Commonwealth, from 1901 to 1914. In this way, imagined vulnerabilities had very real political and budgetary consequences.

China, at that point in our history, appeared to present two problems: there were far too many Chinese and they seemed able to act collectively in ways Europeans could not. One chapter in my book Anxious Nation is titled “One Hundred Act as One” – a phrase taken from goldrush Australia. On the goldfields the Chinese seemed to work together in uncanny ways, like bees or ants in their hives or anthills. A similar unease surfaced at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, when thousands of perfectly coordinated Chinese marched, danced and waved placards. Were these real human beings or automata?

If the collapse of China under the Qing posed a grave threat, so too did China united under communism from 1949. Visiting Australia in the late 1950s, the British writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge warned Australians that with Mao fully in control it would only be a matter of fifteen to twenty years before Australia was overrun. Journalist and author Donald Horne picked up on the widespread fatalism of this time, which was summed up, he believed, in the oft-heard phrase “we don’t have a chance.”

The Catholic intellectual B.A. Santamaria was very clear about what was going to happen to Australia. In the late 1950s, he was at his most influential as a Cold War warrior, broadcaster and newspaper columnist. Where his friend Muggeridge had wandered around sniffing the breeze in his endearing way, Santamaria had laid his hands on actual documents, hard evidence that revealed China’s plans. It would all happen in the next twenty years. China would take control of Australia. China’s planned “political warfare” or “revolution by stealth” would unfold in three carefully calculated stages, culminating in the complete incorporation of Australia into the Chinese “co-prosperity sphere.” Japan’s co-prosperity plan for Asia had been recycled to the Chinese. In formulating his views, Santamaria was influenced by Lenin’s prophecy of 1918 that for communists the road to Paris and world domination lay through Beijing. There it was. Lenin had a plan and it was being implemented. The fall of Australia, while not central, was certainly part of that long-term strategy.

Santamaria was not the only figure to have acquired written proof of Chinese intentions. Even the Murrumbidgee Irrigator had documents proving that Mao was planning the “ultimate absorption of Australia into the Communist empire of the East.” The front cover of Denis Warner’s Hurricane from China (1961) read, “What you MUST know about Mao Tse-Tung’s plan for world conquest.” In 1961, the invincible Mao had plunged China into the calamitous Great Leap Forward, at a cost of up to 30 million lives and perhaps the worst famine in Chinese history.

Of course, it does not follow that because warnings about a threatening Asia/China proved wrong in the past that today’s new warnings must also be wrong. But any application of “due diligence” principles would suggest that we should look very closely at the history of Australian predictions about the rise of Asia/China. This is not something we are keen to do. What do these recurrent anxieties about losing our nation to Asia tell us? What is the expertise or knowledge of the people issuing these warnings? What evidence do they bring to bear and how reliable is it? What kind of impact are they aiming for? Finally, any case that is made for a negative or apocalyptic scenario involving a threatening Asia/China should be “stress-tested” by measuring the case in favour against the opposing case. It is not naive to do this. It is simply prudent.

While in Beijing recently I asked a senior Chinese academic at Peking University, someone with considerable Australian experience, what was going on in Hong Kong. I put it to them that surely the Chinese leadership would be getting very sophisticated briefings about the situation. Beijing would know a great deal more than it was prepared to reveal. My colleague was wholly unconvinced, arguing that the Chinese government probably had very little real understanding of what motivated the demonstrators in Hong Kong and little idea of how to resolve the conflict. This person added that if Beijing knew so little about Hong Kong, it seemed likely they would know even less about other, more distant societies. This view appears to be borne out by Hong Kong’s recent municipal elections. It came as a great surprise to Beijing that its candidates were trounced. Where is the evidence of a masterful plan and how is it going? To that we can now add pushback from Indonesia and a negative response to Beijing in the recent Taiwanese general election.

Around this time, I attended a two-day forum in Beijing on developments in what the Chinese call “Oceania” – what we think of as the Pacific Islands. After several New Zealand academics had delivered nuanced accounts of Pacific Island cultures and political systems and their shared concern about climate change, I sensed that one of my Chinese colleagues was becoming quite impatient. At question time, he announced his Pacific solution. These small, doomed nations, he argued, just had to be summarily picked up and planted somewhere else. There was a problem and here was the obvious, if culturally insensitive solution from a senior Chinese exponent of international relations.

A society that has made brilliant economic and technical achievements over the last forty years may at the same time be culturally insular and poorly equipped to acknowledge that different ways of seeing the world might have their own merit. China can often appear (and be) harsh, clumsy and bullying when it meets societies, cultures and opinions its government does not endorse. I have no reason to doubt Hartcher’s account of the harassment, bullying and attempted bribery meted out to Australian journalist John Garnaut. Why would he make it up?

However, in the period when I was a visiting academic in China (even as a professor in its top university), I saw no red envelopes stuffed with cash, received no tempting inducements to change my opinions and there was no attempt to influence what I taught. That said, I do know of one visiting Australian academic who was not invited back after a student complained that he had shown a video critical of China to his class. Chinese academics will protest that they are free to discuss all manner of issues, but I remain unconvinced.

When it comes to the “China threat,” where does the Australian public stand? Drawing on Lowy Institute polling, Hartcher demonstrates that, while growing more uneasy, the public remains fairly measured in its response to China’s rise. When compared with citizens of other nations, Australians are neither extremely fearful nor unconcerned. But where the public sits does not correspond that well with what our security services are saying. Hartcher draws heavily on the opinions of former director of ASIO Duncan Lewis. None of his opinions is questioned, including his claim that China poses an “existential threat” to Australia. To be clear, Lewis claims that China is not simply seeking to interfere in Australian affairs in wholly unacceptable ways, but has a plan to subvert and control the nation. For him, Australia is the test case, the “canary in the mine” for China’s global ambition. For ASIO, the Australian public is not worried enough when it comes to China. The Coalition appears to agree: its task is to have the public worry more about China and less about climate change.

The problem for the public, myself included, is that ASIO works in an extremely shadowy world. We are instructed to heed its warnings and trust its judgment while being kept in the dark about the extent, depth and effectiveness of foreign influence from all quarters. We have seen the absurd spectacle of Senator Jacqui Lambie handing her vote to the government after a “national security” briefing. The government denies there was a deal, and our democratically elected senator will not reveal anything about the briefing. Some years after the spectacle of “on-water matters,” the government runs the real risk of turning national security into a selectively applied and all too convenient expedient to be turned on and off as opinion polls dictate. Will the latest dip in the polls mean a renewed focus on national security and the China threat?

Hartcher recommends a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption and effectively implemented regulations around foreign political donations. These seem sensible measures. We also need well-informed, disciplined debate and, as Hartcher argues, much more confidence in the strength and appeal of our own society and its democratic institutions. Our democratic freedoms are an important reason why so many Chinese want to settle here.

David Walker



Amy King

Peter Hartcher’s essay homes in on what he sees as the “essential starting point” for Australia in its relations with China: the question “What does China want from Australia?” This is an interesting question, but not the right one. By framing it in this way, Hartcher places Australia in the passive position of waiting to see what China wants and then responding as best it can.

This critique is not just a semantic one. Hartcher argues that what China wants is “as much power and influence over Australia as it can possibly get, using fair means or foul.” But what China wants is only half the story. Influence is a two-way street, as research by my colleague Evelyn Goh at the Australian National University reminds us. China’s ability to influence other countries depends as much on the choices, decision-making processes and domestic institutions of these countries, as well as the international arrangements that they make, as it does on China’s power, pressure or skill. It is no different in Australia. What is most remarkable about Hartcher’s engaging accounts of Chinese attempts to influence Australian politicians and journalists is his demonstration that these efforts have consistently failed. Not only did Joe Hockey, Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten, Penny Wong, Richard Marles and John Garnaut resist Chinese attempts to persuade or coerce, by Hartcher’s account they also hardened their views towards China as a result. Indeed, the only “successful” case of Chinese Communist Party influence over an Australian politician was arguably that of Sam Dastyari, whose willingness to parrot China’s position on the South China Sea brought a rapid end to his parliamentary career.

Hartcher acknowledges the consistent failure of Chinese attempts to “intrude” in Australian political and economic life. But he appears unconvinced by his own argument that there are limits to Beijing’s influence, or that Australia has the capacity to shape the nature of its relationship with China. Instead, he portrays Australia as fundamentally vulnerable to China’s overtures. He quotes at length former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis, who claims Australia faces an “existential threat” as a result of China’s “unprecedented” foreign interference activities. Having started from the passive position of asking “What does China want from Australia?” Hartcher can’t help but dismiss his own evidence and conclude that our politicians, journalists, businesses, universities and citizens are vulnerable to China and in need of protection by an increasingly powerful ASIO. By this flawed argument, he concludes, disturbingly, that we must give our intelligence agencies the right to vet those who run for parliament in this country.

Hartcher also dramatically underestimates the extent to which China’s own character and behaviour have often worked to limit its influence, both in Australia and around the world. Chinese economic statecraft in South Korea and elsewhere has undermined the country’s reputation as a reliable, market-based economic partner, while Xi Jinping’s creeping authoritarianism and human rights abuses at home have raised doubts about the desirability of a more Chinese-centred international order. Hartcher echoes perennial fears in Canberra that Asia-Pacific countries are being “bought off” by China’s lucrative foreign aid and infrastructure spending. There’s little evidence of this. A major study by AidData found that Chinese spending of US$120 billion in infrastructure and other financial diplomacy in South and Central Asia since 2000 has not translated into countries siding with China on contentious issues, or automatically winning over public support. Where China has been successful in gaining support on the world stage, it has commonly been because its policies or values align with those of other countries, particularly in the developing world: providing investment in much-needed physical infrastructure, giving them greater representation in global institutions, and preserving an international order that respects plural values and diverse systems of government.

At home in Australia, China’s so-called “influence operations” have not only failed, they’ve had precisely the opposite of their intended effect. China’s efforts to cultivate influence – through both overt and covert means – have resulted in a notable hardening of Australian attitudes in recent years. As Hartcher notes, the authoritative Lowy Institute poll of Australian attitudes about international affairs saw a 20 per cent decline in Australian levels of trust of China between 2018 and 2019. Yet again Hartcher is strangely unconvinced by his own evidence. Despite noting that Australians possess a “realistic” scepticism in their appraisals of China, his essay leans heavily on unsubstantiated assertions that Australian society is especially vulnerable to Chinese “infiltration,” or that China has already “bought control” of Australia’s economy and political system. As a result, Hartcher interprets cases like the United Front’s attempts to put on concerts in the Sydney and Melbourne town halls celebrating Mao Zedong as an example of how Australian naivety is being exploited by CCP interest groups. But an alternative reading is that these concert bookings generated vigorous debate and criticism about Mao’s leadership within the Australian Chinese community – precisely what one would hope for and expect in a healthy democratic society.

Hartcher rightly points to paralysis in Australian strategy on China. But the starting point for developing this strategy cannot be a defensive reaction to what China wants from Australia. Instead, it must be a forward-looking answer to the question “What does Australia want from China?” and, more importantly, “What can Australia achieve on the global stage?” Answering these questions will require rigorous evidence-based debate about China and the reasons why it remains so vitally important to Australia.

Rather than weakening our democratic institutions, or requiring a slavishly bipartisan line on China, as Hartcher suggests, we should remind ourselves that robust debate and critique of government policy is not a sign of disloyalty or of being pro-Beijing, but instead represents the contestability that is at the heart of an effective democratic system.

Amy King


Response to Correspondence

Annabel Crabb

The first and best thing to say is that I’ve heard from a lot of men after publishing this essay. Like Tim Hammond, who returned home to Perth after quitting his job as an MP and was amazed at the number of men who sidled up to congratulate him in the street, I’ve been approached by men on the train, on social media, at the shops – even by a youngster who cycled past me in the street and wanted to let me know he was reading the Quarterly Essay.

When I wrote The Wife Drought in 2014, I got furtive responses from men. Like, I’d be sitting next to a bloke on a plane and about twenty minutes in he’d rustle his newspaper, cough and say, “My wife’s reading your book.” This time, the response is from men who’ve been reading it for themselves. The best day of the publicity tour was the lunch at the Melbourne Press Club where – at the back of the room – a couple of blokes hovered with their babies, employing the shallow knee-bend bouncing movement that very young children know to demand right at the moment their parent’s meal has been served.

To a person who’s spoken at hundreds of events, briefings, conferences, networking breakfasts and god knows what else about gender issues and become dully accustomed to the typical audience for such discussions (serried rows of interested eyes, a handbag under every chair), the presence of fathers and babies was a joyous development. Because the whole point of the essay was a gentle attempt at recognition from a female writer that the issues that crowd women’s online forums – balancing work and life, parental guilt, the stress of juggling multiple deep and loving obligations – are not just about us.

There is room for men here. We have to make room, and they need to be permitted to occupy it. That is all.

It’s so easy to arrange ourselves into predictable teams to duke out the gender-related controversies of our age. Easy, but stupid. (How did #MeToo ever become a men versus women thing, for example? Seems pretty obvious to me that it’s a jerk versus non-jerk affair, dangly bits notwithstanding.)

We need, all of us, to be big enough to register the bigger picture. To step back and ignore our resentment or tiredness or anxiety and recognise that there are powerful forces and assumptions that regulate all of us, even those we might see as more fortunate than ourselves.

I’m indebted, as ever, to Marian Baird for her deep knowledge of Australia’s reform history in this area, and to Andrew Wear, who is right to observe that the gender pay gap forces the hands of many heterosexual couples when making life decisions; both pieces of correspondence correct deficiencies in the essay, and I’m grateful for them.

Mark Tennant’s account of domestic gatekeeping among women is an uncomfortable truth often avoided in the discussion about domestic workload; I wrote about it in The Wife Drought and welcome its inclusion in Professor Tennant’s correspondence.

I loved Grant Marjoribanks’ response, of course. It’s always pleasant to be told that you’ve nailed it. But more, I loved his articulation of the inner life of a working father, prey to a remarkably similar constellation of guilt and uncertainty to that regularly described on women’s chat-sites. We don’t hear men’s voices on this topic enough. Probably because we’re not listening out for them; our dials are tuned to another station.

Speaking of which. Angela Shanahan’s dial is tuned to expect feminists to whine about men and resent motherhood. Which is the only explanation for her mesmerising ability to read an entire 25,000-word essay without at any juncture, apparently, grasping the point of it. Determinedly, she describes the essay as a “long complaint” and adds a feline swipe at my level of devotion to the unglamorous elements of motherhood. For good measure, my “artfully recherché image” gets a whack too. (What?) I laughed out loud when I read that bit, because I was multitasking at the time; one hand scrolling through the text, the other administering a nit treatment to my own hair.

I’m pretty okay with the messy bits of motherhood, believe me. And I don’t – this might come as a surprise to the correspondent in question – keep my children in child care until late hours, outsource their birthday parties, or get someone else to take them to the dentist. I changed the way I worked when I had kids. I shifted as much as I could – writing, editing – to after the kids’ bedtimes and I worked from home whenever I could. I did different jobs: writing online and TV projects rather than the straight newspaper work that was my bread and butter. (I incorporated cooking into my work not – by the way – because I figured I could use a few ameliorative drops of 1950s housewife in the bitter cauldron-stew of my feminist PR image, but because I like to cook. Sometimes, Dr Freud, a cigar really is just a cigar.) Changing the way I worked was scary sometimes, and stressful too. But it was worth it. Being able to be with my children was the best part, but I also found the change stimulated me to look at things differently; I had more ideas, and better ones. And it’s this great stuff on which fathers so often miss out.

I’m with Maddison Connaughton (whose response thrilled my heart): the mountainous terrain of Jennifer Baxter’s graph describing the changes to a woman’s life made by motherhood may be daunting, but the endless flatness of the men’s graph evokes the tedium of a life from which something lively and urgent is missing. That’s the point of the essay, really. It’s not a whine about men. It’s an attempt to see this issue in a different way. Rather than denigrating men for their failure to shoulder more responsibility at home, I wanted to look at the structural constraints that silently oblige men to keep doing what they do.

I would never question any family’s decisions about how they want to manage things. Or argue that there should somehow be a mandated 50/50 split of domestic duties and breadwinning in every heterosexual couple so as to ensure gender parity. There are absolutely legitimate factors involved in such decisions: Who earns more? Whose job is more flexible? Whose career is at a point where a break or a change could be feasible or even helpful? Can we afford for one parent to be out of the workforce entirely?

But there are also other factors that are powerful for fathers at this life juncture. And they include: Men don’t really take parental leave at my workplace. My parents/friends/co-workers will think it’s weird if I take a year off. I’m worried that my work ethic will be questioned. And those are terrible reasons on which to base such a huge and intimate decision.

I didn’t write this essay because I want a hand with the dishes. I’m blessed to be in a relationship with a man who works flexibly, does the laundry and doesn’t need a list of instructions when in sole charge of our children, who we made together. I wrote it because I think it’s absolutely absurd that children should miss out on their fathers, or vice versa, simply because some under-examined and outdated setting in our culture continues to suggest that working flexibly, or taking parental leave, is something really only intended for women to do. We used to think that being in the army, or being in the corner office, was something only men did, but we changed our minds about that over the years.

No reason we can’t change our minds about this too.

Annabel Crabb



Andrew Thackrah

There aren’t many of us, apparently. Or at least not nearly as many as there could be.

It’s a Thursday – my regular day off to care for my one-year-old daughter – and during a nap time of unpredictable length I’m reading Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work. Crabb’s essay reveals just how far we are from anything approaching gender equality when it comes to caring for our own offspring. As more and more women with kids have joined the workforce, men simply haven’t picked up the household slack. Crabb notes that in Australian families with at least one child under twelve, more than 40 per cent of mothers work part-time. The figure for fathers is only 4 per cent.

It is clear, though, that Australian men want to dedicate more time to raising their children, as Crabb argues. The strength of her analysis is in pointing to the stubborn attitudes that act as a handbrake on that change. Taxpayer-funded parental leave is seen as easy money, and flexible work is seen as something you get away with (rather than a necessity). More than a quarter of men actually experience discrimination when they return to work after taking leave for the birth of a child – this kind of “soft” work is still associated with women.

One of the things that struck me while reading Men at Work is that any discussion of gender, child-raising and the workplace needs to be part of a deeper project of economic justice. Crabb’s essay is strong in its survey of the leading parental-leave schemes modelled in Scandinavia and by some of the big corporates in Australia. But if, as she argues, our own perceptions of gender roles are in urgent need of adjusting, we would do well to start by providing decent and equitable wages to those professionals who devote their time to caring for our young. One of the powerful things you realise as the parent of a newborn is the crucial importance of the “caring economy” that supports you. My partner and I wouldn’t have survived those tricky early months of parenthood without friends and family. But equally important have been our cleaner, early childcare educators, local librarians and child health nurses. These are largely female-dominated and underpaid professions. For example, an astonishing 97 per cent of early childhood educators are women – some paid as little as $22 an hour.

Beyond the demands of child rearing, Crabb rightly points out the benefits of extending flexible work practices to all workers, regardless of whether they are parents. It is worth reflecting, however, on how we arrived at the point where the idea that workplaces should “flex” to accommodate the needs of self-fulfilment and nurture is seen as novel. The truth is that the neoliberal project of the last forty or so years has been brutally efficient at pricing all sorts of commodities while dangerously undervaluing a range of “externalities” (such as our warming climate). Blindness to the true cost of caring for the planet and ourselves is at the heart of the current economic order.

I wasn’t surprised when Crabb’s essay pointed to research finding that close to half of millennial men feel excluded from gender equality measures, and that men still tend to judge their worth by reference to their paid rather than caring work. Our political and economic systems create powerful norms that ripple through society to the level of the self. It’s vitally important for millennials and others that we address the gender inequalities in our home and workplaces, but let’s couple these efforts with the wider project of making the economy work for all of us.

Andrew Thackrah



Mark Tennant

Annabel Crabb makes an overdue appeal for us to consider the “other side of the equation” of gendered work and family life. She poses the question: “What happens to men when they have kids?” In the context of heterosexual married couples, she proceeds to address the barriers men face if they truly wish to engage in work and family life as equals with their partner. Of course, she is mindful of what happens to women – how their careers suffer, and how they bear the brunt of parenting, childcare and household work; how gendered expectations unfairly subject working mothers to interrogations about how they cope with work and family life (but typically exempt fathers). So why focus on men? Well, Crabb puts the case that women will benefit from changes in the workplace attitudes and policies that hinder men’s engagement with family life. We learn, for example, that men are twice as likely to be refused flexible working arrangements as women, that men take up only a tiny fraction of available primary-carer leave provisions, that stay-at-home dads are isolated in the community and that workplaces are more accepting of the family demands placed on mothers than on fathers.

By highlighting the systemic barriers men face in gaining access to domestic work, Crabb is changing the terms of the debate. This is actually quite a radical departure. Hitherto, the primary focus has been on women.

Crabb seems a tad concerned that, in shifting the focus, she is entering into dangerous territory – hence her reassurances that she is not for one minute forgetting the well-documented disadvantages faced by women.

Doubtless for some, this refocusing on men is laughable – surely the evidence is that men don’t seek such access? But such a dismissive attitude is arguably the result of a highly gendered view of the value of paid as opposed to unpaid domestic work. Paid work is seen as a source of self-worth, identity, financial security and productive engagement with others, while unpaid domestic work is typically seen as simply a list of chores to be completed. This devaluing of unpaid labour is apparent, at least implicitly, in research and media reports on the unfair burden placed on women and the call for men to do their “share.” In contrast, mothers’ smaller share of paid work is regarded as a barrier to full participation and access.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies reports that the total (paid and unpaid) weekly work hours of (heterosexual) married couples with children are roughly the same, with fathers working seventy-five hours per week and mothers working seventy-seven hours per week. However, the distribution of labour in these arrangements is such that women undertake fewer paid work hours and many more unpaid work hours than men. This is frequently portrayed as a systemic issue that disadvantages women – and it is. But Crabb is making the case that it also disadvantages men who want to be more engaged in family life but have “long work hours, lack of flexibility” and difficulty accessing “family-related leave.”

Crabb cites a number of policy initiatives in other countries that promote men’s engagement with family life, most notably in Norway, Iceland, Germany and the province of Quebec, in Canada. And she identifies a number of initiatives of businesses in Australia. However, while she acknowledges the overriding influence of cultural assumptions in shaping gendered roles, she focuses mainly on the paid-work dimension and misses an opportunity to dissect further the gendered nature of unpaid work.

Research conducted by Stephanie Wiesmann in the Netherlands (published in the journal Community, Work and Family) provides some insight into this. She and others posed the questions, “Who is responsible for seeing that domestic tasks are carried out?”, “Who carries out which tasks?” and “To what standard are the tasks performed and how frequently?” The answers are hardly surprising. Even among those who share domestic work equally, the tasks undertaken clearly indicated a gendered division of labour. For example, laundry was done by women, while men did household repairs. Moreover, women were typically the household managers, often delegating tasks to their partners and supervising their work. They determined who did what and to what standard. Men were typically passive, waiting to be told what to do, with some resenting close supervision and reacting to it by withdrawing. Those women who preferred to do tasks themselves often referred to their expertise and their partner’s lack of expertise. For example, one woman said her partner didn’t take into account clothing labels when doing laundry, and did not stack the dishwasher properly (the list could go on: the need to separate colours for the washing machine, hanging clothes out to dry using the correct peg technique, carefully selecting children’s clothes to wear to a party, handwashing valuable crockery, folding laundry in the correct manner, wiping surfaces with the appropriate cloth and spray).

Numerous studies over many years outline the gendered nature of the distribution of household tasks. The household management role assumed by women is attributed to the higher standards they demand, because their identity is invested in the domestic sphere, which is generally not the case with men. It seems, then, that the domestic sphere is a mirror image of the paid workforce, where men are overwhelmingly the managers (as Crabb’s essay states, women comprise only “10 per cent of executives and 6 per cent of CEOs in the ASX200”). If it is accepted that men need to cede power to women in the paid workplace, is it reasonable to expect women to cede power to men in the domestic workplace? Is the role of women in the domestic workplace a barrier to men’s access and participation? These questions are at least worth posing, and they are certainly questions raised by Crabb’s essay.

Mark Tennant



Andrew Wear

As the father of young children, I find the scenarios Annabel Crabb presents all too familiar. In public settings, some people seem to regard fathers attending to their children as remarkable rather than routine. When my children were infants, it was disconcerting to be patronised with congratulations (“Aren’t you good?”) for the mere act of looking after them. In the workplace and online, discussions focus on the challenges for women of balancing work and family. They rarely seem to involve men; the implicit – and infuriating – assumption being that men don’t face the same challenge. Given many men are engaged in a day-to-day struggle to stay upright as they attempt to balance work with parenting and being a responsible partner, I suspect men need to do a better job of creating spaces to talk about this.

It’s easy to understand why Crabb is taken with the idea of a “daddy quota” as part of an enhanced parental leave system. Recently, I interviewed a number of people in Iceland about their experiences of gender equality and was amazed to learn that Icelandic men take an average of eighty-seven days of paternity leave after the birth of each child. Picture almost every fisherman, lawyer or construction worker spending months away from work caring for their child, and you get a sense of how transformative this is. While their partner returns to work, these men are pushing prams, at the playground or at home, cleaning and changing nappies. Imagine what that means for how their families function.

The discussion in Iceland is now focused on a further extension of paid parental leave to twelve months. The government has agreed that this will be implemented between 2020 and 2021, although the detail is still being resolved. One option being considered is that each parent may be given five months of leave, with the remaining two months to share.

There’s a big evidence base demonstrating that parenting behaviour established at childbirth tends to persist as children age. Parental leave arrangements are undoubtedly critical in laying the foundations for parenting equality. But parental leave in the first year of a child’s life is not enough. Parenting is a long game, and we need to consider how we support parents throughout the entire life course.

Crabb does us all a great service by shining a light on the gendered assumptions that underpin the notion of the “primary parent,” which is built into much of our policy. Yet the primary parent would not be possible without its inverse: the primary worker. Many policy settings still harbour an implicit assumption that one parent – usually a man – is working full-time to provide for their family. There’s a long history of this in Australia, dating back to the Harvester judgment of 1907, in which the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration proclaimed that a minimum wage should be paid to a male worker that is sufficient to provide for a wife and three children. While we’ve since moved in the direction of gender-neutral pay structures, the assumption of the primary worker lives on in the practical way that work is structured. A standard working week might be thirty-eight hours, but in practice full-time work in Australia mostly involves working for more than forty hours per week. According to the OECD, about 60 per cent of Australian men work longer than forty hours each week. By contrast, about half of Australian women work part-time (thirty-four hours or less) and fewer than 30 per cent work more than forty hours. This is one reason women are paid almost $500 – or about 31 per cent – less each week than men, as recent ABS data reports.

Crabb envisions a world in which domestic work is shared equally between both parents. She rightfully points out that this is what a new generation of parents are often striving to achieve. Yet if we are to move away from the assumption of the “primary parent,” I posit that we also need to dismantle the assumption of the primary worker. If the fatigued and stressed parents at my daughters’ primary school are any indication, full-time work as a parent seems possible only if there’s another person to pick up the load at home at least some of the time. Equality is unlikely to be achieved with both parents working forty hours or more each week. This has the potential to drive families to breaking point. Rather, to achieve greater domestic equality, increase female workforce participation and move closer to equal pay, fathers will need to spend less time at work and more time at home. According to the OECD, in countries where unpaid labour is more equally shared, there tend to be smaller gender-specific differences in hours spent in the workplace.

Spending less time at work may mean men working part-time or more flexibly, as Crabb suggests, but it should also include a consideration of how we can reduce the hours associated with full-time work in Australia. Annual working hours in Australia are by no means the longest in the developed world (that honour goes to Mexico), but the average Australian worker spends 249 hours more at work each year than workers in Norway – the poster child in Crabb’s essay. This is the equivalent of an additional six weeks each year. In Norway, hardly anyone works for more than forty hours per week, strict working hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. are common, and overtime is limited by law. Five weeks of annual leave is standard. Under these conditions, and with childcare heavily subsidised, it’s possible to see how a shared work and home life might be achievable. Aside from greater potential to balance the demands of work and home, reduced working hours have other benefits too. Countries with fewer annual hours worked tend to have higher labour productivity. It seems that stress, fatigue and sleep deprivation may make overworked employees substantially less productive. Who would have thought?

It is somewhat surprising that Crabb doesn’t really consider the gender pay gap in her analysis. The answer to the question of who works and who stays at home involves a complex calculus, worked through within each family. No doubt cultural and identity factors are relevant, but families also consider the financial implications of various decisions, including the cost of childcare and the wages earned by each parent. Even when working full-time, Australian women earn 11.7 per cent less than men, on average. With most Australian fathers earning more than mothers, and at a life stage when every dollar is tight, it’s no real surprise that a majority of Australian families choose to send the father off to work.

For this equation to change, real progress in tackling the gender pay gap is required. Australia’s performance in this area has been fairly dismal. In twenty years, the gap in full-time earnings has decreased only marginally, from 13.2 per cent in 1998 to 11.7 per cent in 2018. Over the same time period, other countries have done much better. Belgium has reduced the gap in full-time earnings from 15.2 per cent to 3.7 per cent, and this hasn’t happened accidentally. With strong trade union membership, 96 per cent of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, making it nearly impossible to pay women less to do the same job. The Belgian government has mandated that the gender pay gap be taken into account when wage agreements are negotiated. And all companies with more than fifty employees have to report publicly on their gender pay gap.

Crabb was right to focus on the need for fathers to play a greater role in parenting. As she suggests, we need to do more to ensure that parents are able to share the load at work and at home. Other countries show us that it can be done. With sufficient determination and a concerted effort, it’s possible in Australia too.

Andrew Wear



Marian Baird

Annabel Crabb has a gift for identifying topical matters and writing about them in a witty and knowledgeable way: paid paternity leave is one such zeitgeist issue. In Men at Work, she unpacks the three forces that shape Australian approaches to fatherhood and work: flexism, sexism and masculinism. Flexism occurs because flexible work practices should be available to all but are mainly used by women; sexism occurs because Australia’s paid parental leave scheme prioritises mothers; and masculinism is seen where societal and workplace cultures and practices reward men for working long hours rather than spending time with their family. I’ve been studying these patterns for two decades and it’s true that fathers, in the main, work longer hours and receive higher pay than mothers, or people of either gender without children. The biggest pay gap is between working fathers and working mothers. New mothers often shift to part-time work and thereafter the pay gap, care gap, hours gap and superannuation gap are compounded.

The Australian Women’s Working Futures survey showed that young working parents desire more equitable gender relations, both at home and at work. Young families with a mother and a father want policies that enable both parents to take leave from work and maintain their careers. They want support such as paid parental leave and quality childcare. Young women without children also consider these policies important. But here’s my concern: young men in the labour market without children do not have the same expectations. They are not factoring in future work–family tensions, which means they are probably not pushing for parental leave. And that’s where I think Men at Work has missed part of the problem.

Twenty years ago, I started researching Australia’s lack of paid maternity leave because I was outraged that we didn’t have a scheme for all working women – and yet women were nonetheless expected to go to work and have children. I examined the historical antecedents of Australia’s leave model, which was embedded in its industrial relations system, not its social security scheme. The introduction in 1973 by Whitlam of twelve weeks’ paid maternity leave for federal public servants was a breakthrough. It was unique and unprecedented. Contrary to what Crabb writes, it was not picked up quickly by the private sector.

In 1979, Bob Hawke, then leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), directed the peak body’s first female research officer, Jan Marsh, to run the inaugural maternity leave test case. The task was enormous. It resulted in the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC), forerunner of the Fair Work Commission, awarding fifty-two weeks’ unpaid maternity leave and a job guarantee, the latter being critical to the real value of the leave scheme. In subsequent test cases taken up by the ACTU, this type of leave was extended to adoptive parents, and later to working fathers. Following a further application by the ACTU in 1990, the IRC renamed it “parental leave” and made it available to all parents, fathers and mothers.

It was not until 1993 that parental leave was enshrined in industrial legislation rather than awards; the entitlement now sits in the Fair Work Act, as one of our National Employment Standards. However, parental leave was, and remains, unpaid. Because employers would have vigorously opposed paid leave in the test cases all those years ago, the decision was made by the ACTU to demand the right to job protection and let parental leave remain unpaid.

Our current paid parental leave system came about by a somewhat different route. During the 1990s, forces were gathering to introduce paid maternity leave for working women. This benefit had been on the agenda before – for example, during the Accord years – but it had never been won. In 1996, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja of the Australian Democrats put forward an amendment to the Workplace Relations Bill to introduce paid maternity leave for private sector employees. In 2002, Pru Goward, as sex discrimination commissioner, released her proposal for a national paid maternity leave scheme. Then, during the 2000s, the campaign rapidly gathered momentum and women from the community and not-for-profit sectors supported it, while the Young Women’s Christian Association, the ACTU, women trade unionists and women on the street demanded it. From the late 1990s, a band of female academics, including me, had been researching, advocating and presenting conference papers and submissions supporting the need for paid maternity leave. Jenny Macklin in the Labor Party, Heather Ridout, head of the Australian Industry Group, and Liz Broderick, the sex discrimination commissioner at the time, strongly supported the model.

The case for Labor to request a Productivity Commission inquiry on the matter was made just before the 2007 election by Marie Coleman of the National Foundation for Australian Women, and the argument was taken up by the party. As incoming Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd finally introduced Australia’s paid parental leave scheme in 2010, but it was the time-consuming and demanding campaigning of so many women for over a decade that led to this turning point. The result would not have come about without the efforts and dedication of these women, and many more I have not mentioned.

In 2014, Liberal Party MPs Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison sought to attack the scheme and undermine its architecture. They called women “rorters,” “fraudsters” and “double dippers” for exercising their right to access the government’s minimum-pay benefit supplemented with pay from their employers, where that opportunity existed. Once again, women had to stand up for themselves and mount a campaign to save the system. Once again, it fell to women to fight for paid parental leave. Thankfully, the scheme celebrates its tenth birthday next year. There are aspects of it that should be improved, such as an increase in assistance to single mothers, the addition of superannuation and its flexibility, but the scheme survives.

Back to fathers and paternity leave, the focus of Crabb’s essay. In its 2009 report, the Productivity Commission’s inquiry also recommended introducing paternity leave pay. Did I see men advocating for this? Not in great numbers. When it was omitted from the final design for fiscal reasons, did I see men argue for it? No. When the Dad and Partner Pay amendment was introduced in 2013, giving men up to two weeks of government-funded pay, did I see men in the streets celebrating its arrival? I don’t think so. Do I now see men forming committees, organising through their social networks and union groups, speaking up at work, arguing for more time to look after their children? I see some, but not many.

I hope Crabb’s timely essay inspires more men – fathers, sons, brothers, grandfathers and fathers-to-be – to organise and campaign for more paid paternity leave so that they take time out of work to look after their children. I hope it inspires working men around Australia to argue with their employers for flexible work options to care for their family members, young and old. I hope men join the cause to improve our public policies for all. With men on board this campaign, we will start to see the changes in flexism, sexism and masculinism – and the possibility of gender equality in the struggle for work–life balance – that today’s young parents want to achieve.

Marian Baird



Angela Shanahan

Last year I wrote a column inspired by the imminent birth of the baby of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. I mused that it might be difficult to be a breastfeeding mother and prime minister, even of New Zealand. Babies are naturally bonded to their mothers. Indeed, bonding is part of the natural biological imperative of breastfeeding. But Ardern had announced that she would only take six weeks’ leave before passing “parenting” to the child’s father. Well, good luck with that one, I said, because she needed a lot more time off.

The responses I received were pretty virulent, and mostly from various high-powered female types. How dare I criticise the feminist pin-up of the Southern Hemisphere! A woman can have a baby and a job! Well, yes. I know that. I had to do it, and so did my mother, and in both cases it was a matter of dire necessity.

Left-leaning feminist commentators on family issues often can’t see past the flaws in the ideological symbolism to the simple everyday practical realities: like new mothers having to learn to breastfeed and wanting to bond with babies; or what happens at home when the father simply can’t be there, because despite all the hype and wishful thinking on the part of feminists, men are still the main earners in most Australian families.

Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which quotes my view of Jacinda as part of the mindset of the “parenthood trap,” is basically about why fathers aren’t mothers. It is a long complaint about fathers not taking parental leave.

It is curious that she uses the word “trap.” Why is it a trap to be a mother or father? Why is it so important, as she seems to think, to get out?

Perhaps, despite her artfully recherché image with matching culinary accomplishments, Crabb can’t stand the heat in the everyday meat-and-potatoes kitchen. Like most of the women – and it is mostly women – who comment on this stuff, she betrays a somewhat scornful attitude to the hard yakka of the domestic front. Many women are understandably resentful of the grubby everyday domestic necessities: the washing and cleaning; the cooking; the changing of the nappies; putting one foot in front of the other through the zombie like days of three-hourly feeds; not to mention that when children are sick, upset or in trouble, it is always Mummy who is expected to be on the frontline. First-time mothers often don’t understand all of this, and they often need much longer leave than they can get; and naturally, they don’t want to do it alone. But someone has to do it, and Crabb seems to think that men taking more paternity leave is the solution.

Her thesis is that women’s exit from dreary domesticity into the workplace (often just as dreary) is not matched by an exit from work by men to support the poor overburdened women. Why should men want to be out of work? The plain truth is that in most Australian families, no amount of take-it-or-leave-it paternity leave or any other inducement will change these arrangements, because most families are still dependent primarily on the father’s earnings, as they have a whopping big mortgage. The family enterprise depends on the main breadwinner, who is usually the man. The consequence of this is that in most families, even if the father takes paternity leave, it is only for a short period. Since nature equipped women to be mothers, and most will take maternity leave, it is imperative, especially if mothers have a long time off, that fathers don’t.

Of course, it doesn’t make it any emotionally easier for men. Crabb interviewed Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg about their family life, which she says is all about “coping with and compensating for absence” and asks, “Why do we expect so little of fathers?” Who says it is “little”? Anyone who observes these men at close quarters knows that what they do is not little. In fact, it is good that they are aware enough to want to manage absence. What is wrong with that? Crabb seems oblivious to the reality of being prime minister and treasurer. Does she think that their wives holding the fort at home is wrong, because it makes it practically easier for these two men, or any man, to do their jobs? Dads should share, but often they just simply can’t. And never mind about the prime minister – ask any tradie trying to build up their business.

What really upsets the commentators is that the general population dismisses the impractical pretence that a father can be a mother, hence the handy gender-neutral term “parenting,” which smothers the difference. That there is a difference between “mother” and “father” doesn’t mean that fathers should not be involved with their children. On the contrary: it is absolutely vital that they are. However, their involvement is different from the mother’s. And sometimes that difference is qualitative, and can’t be measured in time.

Actually, the best way that fathers can be involved with children is to be involved with their mothers. But in the fractured social milieu, where the natural biological bonds of parents and children have been frayed by family disintegration and gender ideologues who would like to obliterate them completely, we have forgotten that good parenting is actually a function of a good marriage.

As far as the solution to the “work–life balance,” as it is sometimes called, the availability of maternity leave and part-time work is a boon for Australian mothers, who have never been keen on full-time work with small children, even mothers with highly paid careers. Two of my daughters – who have five children between them – have been able to take extended maternity leave, and through their generous leave and part-time work provisions have been able to continue their careers, including gaining seniority. But they are fortunate, and not all women can do this. Many first-time mothers I have spoken to, who are usually over thirty when they finally have “the baby,” are not keen to return to the drudgery of work at all.

My own upbringing and experience as a mother of nine children taught me that the ordinary suburban world is full of many different families whose priorities are usually centred on their children’s welfare, while trying to juggle their finances as best they can. But the family is not an ideological construct built around economics. It doesn’t always fit into sociological models. It is a natural thing of flesh and blood. That is why if you ask anyone, male or female, which is more important for a mother, getting back to work or cultivating a warm and lasting maternal bond with her infant child, I think I know which they would choose.

Angela Shanahan



Maddison Connaughton

I returned to Figure 1 many times as I moved through this essay, enough for the spine to soften along the crease at that point. Now I often find the text falls open naturally at that page. It would be a shame if this graph were the only thing a reader took away from Annabel Crabb’s skewering Men at Work – but, my god, this graph. Has there been a more effective visual aid in the history of the Quarterly Essay? It would be a fitting laurel for an essay that finds much of its power in seeing what others have missed, or avoided, or ignored.

The mother’s time-use survey is still striking, even now. It has a sort of gravitational pull – such a perfect distillation of the fear many young women hold close about having children. “The graph itself looks like the heart rate of a very, very stressed person,” writes Crabb. Or someone who has been struck by lightning.

I don’t have any children, although the statistics suggest I will in the next few years. By their early thirties, two-thirds of women in Australia will have at least one child. At this age, only one in five women will work full-time, contrasted with four out of five of their male peers. See Figure 1.

As I read this essay, though, I found myself looking increasingly to the corresponding graph, which traces how the father’s life adapts to having a child, how it barely shifts over the course of twelve years – resolutely impervious to change. Initially, I was racked by jealousy. Of course men will refuse to bend, to soften along the spine when something as cataclysmic as a child comes into their life. And yet, in the end, I came to see the father’s timeline as utterly dull. A twelve-year holding pattern stretching out who knows how far in either direction.

Clearly, the turbulence mothers experience isn’t preferable. But ultimately, the question I couldn’t shake was why this was the system we built. Why build a something to make ourselves miserable?

Australia’s paid parental leave scheme began in 2011, not 1970. Already there was a wealth of research to hand and international precedent for something better-constructed. There was an understanding of how interruption to women’s working lives feeds into the gender pay gap and the superannuation gap. It had been sixteen years since the influential journal Feminist Economics launched. At the same time, Australia – having weathered the global financial crisis relatively unscathed – saw its female labour participation rate for those aged twenty-five to fifty-four drop below 75 per cent. For men, the rate remained above 90 per cent.

Yet we enacted one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the OECD. Is this truly the best that was politically possible? So much in the carelessness of parental leave makes you wonder who was in the room when the policy was formulated.

Before reading this essay, I had never been on a “mum and bub” forum, though I promptly found myself tumbling into an internet rabbit hole. They are fascinating spaces: an entire underground economy of mothers trading advice about how to navigate Australia’s rigid parental leave system.

The lessons are myriad but, for now, just two.

First, no one should have ever let Joe Hockey walk into that interview with Laurie Oakes and use the term “double-dipping” to describe mothers who seek to access both public parental leave and a private scheme offered by their employer. Years on, these forums still seethe at the term. There are threads, hundreds of comments deep, replete with mothers venting their frustration about the political ignorance that allowed “double-dipping” to end up among a treasurer’s talking points. Mothers upbraiding this system that frames having a child as a burden to the taxpayer, rather than a public good.

The other key point is that mothers are highly organised. Not in the “everything in its place” sense, but in the tightly networked, informed, constantly communicating way that can sway public sentiment. The kind of community that political campaigns dream of tapping into.

And it does make you wonder who’s in the room – when “double-dipping” gets signed off as a talking point, when eighteen weeks at minimum wage is seen as the best option that is politically possible, when the need to reform a system that devalues female labour is ignored for nearly a decade.

Perhaps now, when – as Crabb points out – both our prime minister and our treasurer are the fathers of young children, there is an opportunity for improvement. A chance to soften the rigidity in the system. Perhaps the economic headwinds that Australia faces will render a more generous leave scheme an attractive option for stimulus by another name. One only needs to look at the positive response to Cricket Australia’s twelve-month paid parental leave scheme to see there is appetite in the community for something better.

Clearly our policy-makers need to think more inclusively, to view new parents and their child as a unit – and allow them to figure out what works best for their particular circumstances. To give families the choice to divvy up a block of leave – at least twenty weeks, though ideally more – between both parents, and to consider a “use it or lose it” minimum for each.

It would be hard for a reader to come away from this essay without the sense that parental leave shapes so many things in our society. That if policy-makers were to take the macro view – as Crabb has done so effectively – they would see how expensive and apparently intractable issues could be moved by a better approach. Workforce participation, mental health and gender equality – something we know is key to reducing gendered violence – are just the first that come to mind.

But on questions of family, perhaps more than any other subject, our search for answers too often shrinks to the personal, the anecdotal. What other parents managed to pull off, or where they failed. When I finished this essay, the first thing I did was text my dad. I asked him how much leave he took when I was born. “Hi!” came his reply, immediately. “I don’t think I took any carer’s leave. I was there when you were born though. It wasn’t really an option, as far as I know. I still think it’s low (5 per cent?). Why do you ask?”

Maddison Connaughton



Grant Marjoribanks

Sam was six in 2014, when I was planning my return to work after several months recovering from a heart transplant. He overheard me on the phone one day as I arranged a meeting.

“Who was that, Dad?”

“That’s Fiona from work.”

“Are you going back to work?”


“Oh, that’s terrible news!”

“Why’s that, mate?”

“Because you’ve already got a job.”

“What’s that?”

“Being my dad.”

Why are your children so uniquely capable of observations that invoke both joy and guilt at the same time?

Annabel Crabb clearly understands that species of guilt that is the constant, silent – and sometimes not so silent – companion of the modern working father. Guilt that you’re not doing your share of child-raising tasks, guilt that you’re not 100 per cent dedicated to your job, guilt that you’re not the wise, playful, funny, ever-present omni-dad.

What struck me about Men at Work was the depth of Crabb’s understanding. Of men. And in a sphere of human behaviour where judgment, of men, could be entirely justified. As Crabb notes, “It’s well established that having children is entirely different, when it comes to your professional outlook, depending on whether you’re male or female … Any study you like in this area will show you that the same biological event – reproduction – means strikingly different things for men at work as opposed to women.”

Crabb rightly notes that social policy and expectations around child-raising have a disproportionate impact on the career and financial prospects of women. That is a central issue here. But it is not the only issue, and she sensitively acknowledges how social policy and expectations also discriminate against men, and thereby work to the detriment of children.

Crabb gets it.

She gets that for some men, sometimes, those social expectations will be quietly convenient. “Now, no one is suggesting that what every dad really wants to do,” she writes, “is get home from work at 4 p.m. every day so as to be sure to catch that excellent juncture where the juvenile and the adult stores of patience expire within fifteen minutes of each other. When I first read Edith Gray’s research indicating that the average Australian father worked five hours more a week after the birth of his first child, somewhere deep down inside I grinned in recognition and thought: you sly dogs.”

Okay, she got me there. I took a two-week “break” after both Sam and Jude were born (although I don’t remember smoking any cigars). In the early years of their lives, I changed my share of nappies. I staggered out of bed for many middle-of-the-night bottles. I clocked kilometres pushing a pram anxiously around local streets in the vague hope that it would calm my shrieking child. But did I put my hand up for the “unrecompensed crapshoot” of several months of parental leave? Hell no.

Crabb also gets that, for some men, sometimes, those expectations will cut deep. “Somehow we’ve constructed a system of expectations … in which a man who is doing his job is bound to it by something much deeper and more fibrous than his contract of employment, or even his need to provide. Stopping work for a while, or even just doing less of it, is thus not as simple as a law telling him it’s allowed. It involves finding and loosening restraints far more ancient than those outlined in any human resources manual; knots which have swelled with age and seawater; ropes that have bitten into the skin.”

She really got me there, right in the heart of my personal narrative.

I did go back to work in 2014, and soon started to thrive professionally. But the more I succeeded in one job, the less adequate I felt in the other.

In 2017, work commitments frequently took me away from home, and even when I was there, I wasn’t. I started every weekday with an 8 a.m. conference call, switching the phone on and off mute as I made school lunches, packed school bags, barked commands, buttoned shirts, combed hair, broke up fights, got involved in fights, barked more commands and whispered hurried goodbyes at drop-off. I was constantly checking email, from before the boys woke up until well after they had gone to bed. One family “holiday” coincided with a particularly hectic period, and I spent the whole time on my phone. I would go to the bathroom to buy five minutes to clear some of my email backlog. During one beachside walk, with me trailing ten metres behind, glued to my phone, Sam lost it.

“I hate this holiday,” he declared. “You’re always on your phone, you don’t pay any attention to us. I want to go home.”

Since that time, my sense of work–family conflict has become more pronounced. Clocks are ticking and I am increasingly feeling an urgent need to be more present in my boys’ lives. Sam is now eleven, Jude eight – crucial dad time for the fathers of boys. Steve Biddulph’s advice and warning is etched in my mind: “This window of time – from about age six to the fourteenth birthday – is the major opportunity for a father to have an influence on (and build the foundations of masculinity in) his son. Now is the time to ‘make time’ … This is when good memories are laid down, which will nourish your son, and you, for decades to come … Enjoy this time when he is really wanting to be with you. By mid-adolescence his interests will pull him more and more into the wider world beyond. All I can do here is plead with you – don’t leave it too late!”

So for some time I have been keeping a log in my mind, doing the calculations. When will I reach the point that Max Schireson did, the Silicon Valley CEO who stepped down from his role because the demands of his job meant he wasn’t spending enough time with his fourteen-, twelve- and nine-year-old children? As my wife put it recently, echoing Biddulph, “The boys don’t need you in four or five years’ time. They need you now.” Just as my sense of work–family conflict hit extreme on hearing those words, she released the pressure valve with her next observation: “Why don’t you try going part-time for a while?”

The idea should not have been the revelation that it was to me. So why had I been seeing my situation as an either/or dilemma until that point?

I am particularly prone to the male tendency to describe and identify myself with reference to work. I also imagine the voices of the 24/7 types – those types who, when my firm formally adopted a flexible working policy many years ago, coined the derogatory term “part-time partner.” In the end, though, with the support of an encouraging wife, enlightened managers, sympathetic colleagues and a talented and dedicated team, I prioritised the little voices that really matter. Sam’s and Jude’s.

I have two jobs. I may have allowed one to become more important to me than the other at a key stage in my own and my boys’ lives, but both are important. And slowly I am becoming optimistic that de-throttling in one may ultimately improve my chances of thriving in both.

Thank you, Annabel Crabb, for getting it.

Grant Marjoribanks


Response to Correspondence

Erik Jensen

In his first major speech as prime minister, Scott Morrison distinguished between fairness and envy. At the time the words seemed inconsequential. Of Morrison’s many skills, one is hiding insights in ordinariness.

“We don’t get anywhere by trying to say, ‘Well, it’s all their fault, it’s their fault …’ ‘We bring them down, I can go up,’” he said. “That’s not fairness in Australia. That’s just ugly envy. And I have no truck with that whatsoever. I want to see all Australians succeed, and none at the expense of another. That’s an important value.”

His framing was mateship. Help was there, but only for the people you knew. He said: “We’ve got to look after our mates. That’s what I believe.” And: “As Australians, we look after our mates.” And again, just in case: “Remember, my value is: we look after our mates.”

More than anything, the last election was about the lie at the middle of the Australian character: that this is a country built on fairness. Morrison understood it to be a lie and he won the election exploiting that. Bill Shorten did not and he lost.

From the outset, Morrison’s fairness was contingent. This is what he meant when he promised “a fair go for people who have a go.” It’s what he meant when he said you don’t take from one person to give to another. “It’s not about everybody getting the same thing. If you put in, you get to take out, and you get to keep more of what you earn.”

Morrison spent the election talking to one half of the country. He said their greed was honest and good, and if they preferred he would call it aspiration. He recast this as fairness for those who worked at it. When Morrison said “all Australians,” he said it with the numbers in mind: he was talking to the deserving rich, and there are just enough of them to win elections.

The other part of this is the fear of envy. Envy is the great sin in Australian politics. The fear of it keeps in place a system where the rich cannot be criticised. To ask for more is to risk the embarrassment of being called resentful. That was the threat Morrison made when he warned of the difference between fairness and envy. Shorten couldn’t grasp this and his optimism was called “class war.” The people being called envious, however, are in fact the working poor.

Before the election was called, I asked Shorten what he thought the campaign would be about. He answered quickly, to be sure there would be a silence before the next question: “Hope versus fear.”

He said this was about his view of society. “This society works best when we’re all included. And all Australians are included. When it’s not a society run just in the interests of the people who are already powerful.”

He spoke as if the word “hope” were a running stitch, the needle of it punching up through the fabric: “I hope that we can reduce inequality. I hope that women can be treated equally. I hope that we can act on climate change, hope that we can afford to see the doctor, hope that our family will grow up safe, hope that we’ll have a more independent Australian identity. Hope that I can get people working together more than they currently do. Hope we can kill off the toxic politics of destruction.”

Shorten put a piece of chicken in his cheek and continued talking. The meat pulled his mouth upwards into a fearful smile. “I know what you can get done,” he said. “This government doesn’t deserve another three years.”

Morrison has already remade the country, we just haven’t noticed yet. His tax cuts will destroy the revenue base that made social welfare possible. Billions of dollars a year will be needed in savings. The stability born of our health and education systems will be lost to lower taxes for the rich.

Labor waved it through. Politicians spend careers looking for reasons not to be brave and this election was a boon for cowardice. The lessons drawn from the loss are already the wrong ones: a blank slate on policy, a sensitivity about assessing wealth. Anthony Albanese says he doesn’t believe $200,000 a year makes someone rich.

Morrison’s campaign was more sophisticated than Shorten’s, if you can use that word to mean its opposite. He made a virtue of simplicity. He tested his messages and stuck to them. He counted each day and kept track of any he lost.

Shorten was less disciplined. He campaigned to govern and Morrison campaigned to win. Shorten believed in the country’s desire for fairness. He was in a history lesson when he decided he would like to be prime minister, and his vision of the country is like a teenager’s essay on values.

Morrison is a skilled politician, more so than even his party appreciated. Like Howard, he understands the worst of Australia and knows how to make success from it. Bill Shorten is still telling people he won the debates.

Erik Jensen



Russell Marks

The title of Erik Jensen’s account of the federal election, The Prosperity Gospel, is a good one. It captures both Scott Morrison’s Pentecostalism and, as Jensen makes clear, the neoliberal faith he asks Australians to retain: work hard, save quietly and you will prosper.

The result of the May 2019 election might suggest that here voters still subscribe to that faith – more so than in, say, the United States or Britain. This election was no Brexitesque collapse of the neoliberal faith. Nor, despite a temptation to draw some neo-fascist bows from Morrison’s respect for police and armed forces and from Dutton’s win in Dickson, did it return an executive leader who represents the disillusioned. Indeed, Morrison pledged the same miracle Abbott did in 2013: that his government could run and maintain Budget surpluses while decreasing taxes, while paying down public debt and guaranteeing increased funding for services. Roughly the same proportion of voters who bought Abbott’s unfulfillable promise to turn straw into gold six years ago bought the same promise this time around. Yet by 2019, the previous six years had been characterised not by Labor’s leadership chaos and policy confusion, but by the Coalition’s.

The essay’s subtitle – How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost – promises an explanation for this outcome, but Jensen never really expands beyond what is mostly a literary answer. There’s a strong tendency in political journalism to focus too much on agents and not enough on structures. This leads to literary attempts to match leaders’ characters to the nation’s and to find in the intersections reasons why publics endorse one leader and not another. The best of these exercises use a bit of armchair psychoanalysis – which might explain, say, Rudd’s anger or Abbott’s stiffness – to lend depth and narrative plausibility. And Jensen is excellent on character. He presents Morrison as securely attached, comfortable in himself and on stage, and Shorten as far less sure of himself, the child of an emotionally absent, alcoholic father and who bonded too urgently with his mother. Jensen concludes that, faced with the choice between them, the insecure nation “has found comfort once again in a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay.”

And perhaps that is enough. The shocking truth of Australian elections is that they are now decided by a swinging middle of chronically disengaged voters who drag themselves to polling booths in a quirk of the compulsory ballot without knowing much at all about who’s promising what or how things are going. A large but diminishing majority of voters are still “rusted on” to one party or another: many of these are also relatively disengaged, but they’d never change their vote, so it hardly matters. There are some who change votes between elections yet stay engaged. But there’s another 10 per cent whose votes are up for grabs yet for whom politics is background noise, presented through the news bulletins on commercial radio or between evening TV shows – assuming they haven’t switched to Spotify and Netflix and can avoid ads almost entirely. Not much is known about how these voters form their intentions, but available evidence suggests they pick up a vibe, almost through osmosis. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine them forming preferences based on snatched grabs of leaders on the telly. One seems to talk straight and appears self-assured. The other looks nervous and edgy in an ill-fitting suit. Choice made.

But this kind of analysis misses the deep structures operating through Australia’s political and electoral systems. It risks missing asking why so many still seem rusted on to the “prosperity gospel” despite available evidence demonstrating that the gospel’s real promise is the transfer of wealth to an already wealthy minority. It risks missing asking why so many blue-collar workers, once Labor’s heartland, have become rusted-on Coalition voters.

The role of News Corp, for instance, can’t be overstated. Its tabloids are purchased and at least scanned by nearly two million people every day. Their editorial lines, which run through their news coverage, have done more than perhaps anything else to generate and sustain a commonsense conservative liberal disposition in the Australian political culture. The Australian and Sky News, purchased by Murdoch in December 2016, provide conservative political leaders with their intellectual energy. In these tasks, able support is provided by Macquarie Radio and magazines like Spectator Australia and Quadrant, but News has led this resurgence. Anyone who doubts the level of influence Murdoch has had in Australia’s political culture should compare this nation to New Zealand, where Murdoch owns no major TV station and no major newspaper, and where Jacinda Ardern provided a model of leadership following the Christchurch massacre that no longer seems possible here. Or the United States, where Murdoch’s Fox News has disrupted the political culture to distortion since the channel was launched in 1996. Or that other foreign country, Australia of the 1970s, where a Whitlam government was possible (if only briefly, and then only really with the support of Rupert Murdoch, while it lasted).

Politics is entirely mediated; the medium becomes the message (and the massage, in Marshall McLuhan’s later formulation). Any underlying anxiety about the steady transfer of wealth from have-nots to haves is soothed by the constant expressions of neoliberal faith across Murdoch’s heavily concentrated outlets. Any head rising above the left-liberal parapet to present an alternative narrative to Morrison’s “quiet Australians” is quickly and viciously blown off by Murdoch’s attentive and militant opinion army, ever ready to assist capital’s objectives by converting them into everyman common sense. Intensively lobbied parliamentarians have, over the decades, created the regulatory environment in which Murdoch’s army of influence can rally and prosper.

Jensen makes brief observations about structure: a page on News (recounting Shorten’s infamous refusal to meet Murdoch in New York and then the News Corp reaction); snippets on the backdrop Adani provided to this election, especially in Queensland; two mentions of Clive Palmer’s extraordinary spend. That there’s not more was dictated largely by the essay’s research design: like most of Australia’s political journalists, Jensen was kept busy following the leaders around the country. He does better than most with the material he gathers – he has a wonderful ability to capture character and mood and feel – but in the end there’s a sense this “campaign bus” reporting distracts from the main game.

The biggest bewilderment of election night – how the published polls got it so wrong – has largely been answered. In an age of disengagement, and vanishing landlines, the polling companies’ extrapolations have become too problematic. It would have been more honest for the polls to have reported results like 45–43 (with 12 per cent undecided); that’s less valuable for the companies, but because it’s concomitantly less stimulating for readers it could have meant political journalists returned to the game of generating better analysis and asking better questions.

Because there are still some very important questions which haven’t been answered. How did Labor convince itself that running a big-target “policy” campaign, à la Fightback ’93, was a good idea? Why has the party still failed to adopt a theory of power and change that would predict, account for and overcome the inevitable pushback by capital and the influence of News Corp? And what explains the consistent ability of the interests of mining capital to defeat those of its farming and tourism competitors? These questions weren’t in Jensen’s brief. More’s the pity. He’s an outstanding journalist.

Russell Marks



 Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson

In October 1996, the British historian Anthony Seldon published a survey of Tory governments in the UK since Pitt the Younger. The timing was apt: by identifying the factors common to the demise of all those governments, How Tory Governments Fall provided a checklist for those watching the Conservative government of John Major as it tottered towards a landslide defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s Labour Party. Confusion over policy direction and palpable internal disunity? Check, check. Straitened finances and disarray in the party organisation? Check, check. A hostile and intellectual press climate? A loss of confidence in the party’s capacity for economic management, a sense that it is time for a change? A rejuvenated and credible Opposition? A negative image of the party leader? Check, check, check, check, check.

Though individually they verge towards truisms and clichés, the sum total of these factors constitutes a framework by which to understand the loss of conservative governments – and not merely those in the UK. Applied to Australia, this framework helps to make sense of the Howard government’s 2007 loss of office, the Fraser government’s 1983 loss and the McMahon government’s 1972 loss. It also helps us understand – admittedly, more in hindsight – that the likelihood of an election loss for the Coalition parties in 2019 was much more remote than consensus had it. The Coalition used forecasts of a Budget surplus to sandbag its claims to superior economic management; it stoked concerns over franking credits and negative gearing policies to damage Labor’s public credibility; and it muffled criticism of policy inconsistency and disunity by consigning it to the “Canberra bubble.” The Liberal and National party organisations were neither straitened nor in disarray, and the apparent mood for change that was so pervasive and absolute when Malcolm Turnbull was deposed seemed, by May 2019, to have dissipated. Press consensus that the government was likely to lose did not prevent an ongoing fusillade against Labor from the News Corp papers. Most important, perhaps, was the advantage Scott Morrison enjoyed when the choice came down to the image of the party leader: “You vote for me, you’ll get me,” Morrison said. “You vote for Bill Shorten, and you’ll get Bill Shorten.”

Erik Jensen’s Quarterly Essay does much to illuminate that choice and the kinds of images that both leaders projected over the course of the election campaign. One of the most acute points to emerge from the essay is Morrison’s professional and disciplined delivery of a clear message. His press conferences were short, taut affairs, with few opportunities for distraction or digression. His interactions with journalists were brisk. His language was simple and straightforward, with few (if any) verbal flourishes. The images and the audio were highly conducive to grabs for nightly television screens: familiar, cheery, colourful, simple. It was ordinary stuff, extraordinarily well done.

It represented a successful play on the disregard Australians have long held for politicians and those on the “inside.” By relentlessly broadcasting his ordinariness – with the baseball caps, the refrains of “Have a go, get a go,” and the over-proud support for the Sharks – Morrison presented himself as a regular Australian, average and everyday. By invoking principles of hard work and dignity, by referencing family and community, Morrison fused himself – as Jensen says – to John Howard and Robert Menzies, and thereby tapped into ready-made tropes of suburban, middle-class Australians as forgotten, as battlers, as “quiet.” Taking advantage of the widespread regard that he was the underdog, Morrison positioned himself as the champion of the disenchanted and overlooked. And by the constant claim to be exactly what he appeared and nothing else – dutifully spouted by those close to Morrison, and recorded by Jensen: “What you see is what you get” – Morrison drummed in the message that he was authentic, not of the Canberra bubble that he so regularly dismissed.

He was helped by the contrast with the Labor leader. The mid-2000s regard for Shorten – the faint-haloed hero of Beaconsfield – had long since faded. Thanks to his role in the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years, Shorten had become synonymous with duplicity and treachery. For all his work with the AWU and his record as a minister, Shorten, as David Marr put it in his 2015 Quarterly Essay, Faction Man, is “seen as a shape-shifter, driven entirely by politics.” Every seeming hint of inauthenticity during the 2019 election campaign – whether over Shorten’s support for Adani, Labor’s changes to superannuation, or his mother’s biography – tapped into the undiminished distrust the public had for him. It consigned him to the “inside,” and darkened his already tarnished image.

But, as Jensen shows, Labor was not playing the game that Morrison was. “Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy,” writes Jensen. “If he is right, he upends decades of political orthodoxy. If he is wrong, this may be the last policy election for a generation.”

In The Prosperity Gospel, Jensen is also taking a gamble. Works of contemporary political history and biography such as this sit within an ever-yawning gulf between the journalism of the day-to-day and the histories that are years in the making. By their greater length, contemporaneousness and flexibility of form, such works allow for more complex and timely discussions about their subjects than might otherwise be available. In doing so, they have the potential to shape enduring perceptions of their subject: think of Alan Reid’s wilful John Gorton, Laurie Oakes’ grandiose Gough Whitlam, Marr’s rage-fuelled Rudd and quixotic Abbott, and Annabel Crabb’s mercurial but technocratic Turnbull. In Australia, it should be said, the Quarterly Essay has long worked in this space and provided some of the most acute and significant works of this kind.

But these works come with considerable limitations. They can be hostage to access, captive to views on the “inside”; more often than not, they are prone to all-encompassing character-based narratives, in which participants with tragic flaws or near-magic abilities compete for enduring glories, where personal characteristics are parsed and tied to the national character. Moreover, these works come freighted with the risk that they are out-of-date soon after publication. All biographies have a best-before date, of course – but in the case of works of contemporary biography and history, that date can be as short as that on a carton of milk.

Jensen’s gamble with The Prosperity Gospel, then, is that people will still go to it for insight. They should. The contrast made in 2019 between Morrison and Shorten might, in 2022, be tried again; Labor might double down on the bet that Shorten made. The Prosperity Gospel shows the origins and method of the contrast and the bet. More important, three years on, Morrison will not have the same opportunity to position himself as an outsider. As prime minister, he will have been the ultimate insider for four years – and by that point, the factors that Seldon identified may be much more palpable than they were in 2019. A bad economic headwind could wipe out the Coalition’s claims to superior economic management. Support from News Corp could be lost amid the growing static of social media. Inconsistency over policy – whether on climate change, Indigenous affairs, the environment or infrastructure – is hardly out of the realm of possibility. Nor is another bout of instability. By that point, moreover, the Coalition will have been in power for nine years. There might be the feeling that it is time for a change.

Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson



Kristina Keneally

Scott Morrison made prosperity conditional on effort when he said, “If you have a go, you will get a go.” Bill Shorten asserted that prosperity is an opportunity to which all people are entitled: “We believe in a fair go for all.” Scott Morrison is a Pentecostal Christian; Bill Shorten is a Jesuit-educated former Catholic. It may be crude Christian theology and even cruder politics to say this, but here I go: there is possibly no more perfect contrast between the Prosperity Gospel and Catholic social teaching than Morrison versus Shorten on the Australian “fair go.”

When I saw the title of Erik Jensen’s Quarterly Essay, The Prosperity Gospel: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost, I thought Jensen might be examining how the tension in these two strains of Christianity is playing out politically in 2019. He didn’t. Not directly, anyway. Through a series of vignettes, Jensen sketches the personalities of the two men who put themselves forward to be prime minister and draws conclusions about each one’s character, religious beliefs, self-understanding and electoral appeal.

Jensen’s writing is superb and his insights perceptive. But I found the essay unsatisfying in three key areas. First, while Jensen introduces the distinctly different religious foundations for each leader’s policy and political approach, he does not wrestle with what it means that Australia voted for one over the other. He concludes that Australia “found comfort once again in a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay” without exploring why. The essay did not live up to its title: it did not really examine how the Prosperity Gospel pitch won. Second, Jensen’s profiles of Morrison and Shorten are incomplete, or at least unbalanced, because Shorten agreed to be interviewed and Morrison did not. This isn’t the author’s fault, but it does mean his conclusions about Morrison must be qualified. Third, he could have explored the role religious affiliation and identity played in the election: in a country where politicians – including Howard and Keating – have typically sought to keep their religious faith private and separate from their political lives, does Morrison’s explicit, on-display Pentecostal faith signify a deeper shift in the electorate’s openness to the role of faith in the public square?

Let’s deal first with the theological basis for Morrison’s “If you have a go, you’ll get a go” versus Bill Shorten’s “A fair go for all.” The Prosperity Gospel, which Jensen asserts Morrison represents, emphasises Biblical passages that promise individual blessings, such as health and wealth, to people who believe in Jesus Christ: “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” and “Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prosper.” The Prosperity Gospel is most often proclaimed within Protestant and evangelical churches. These traditions insist that an individual can cultivate an unmediated, one-on-one relationship with God. Individuals can receive divine revelation: a person can come to know Jesus Christ simply by reading the scriptures and accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The call to holiness is a personal invitation from Jesus to convert to right living. The person who makes this conversion – who believes in Jesus, reads the Word of God in scripture, prays, and lives by the Bible’s commandments – will have good fortune bestowed upon him or her.

Adherents to the Prosperity Gospel often cite Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Talents. In that story, a master gives three of his servants an equal sum of his fortune to manage. One buries it, earning no interest but returning the original amount safely to his master. The other two invest their shares, and are able to return the principal plus interest to their master. The master admonishes the servant who played it safe and rewards the two servants who took a risk and increased his wealth. In this parable, we can recognise the premise of Morrison’s political pitch: if you have a go, you will get a go.

Catholic social teaching finds a different meaning in the Parable of the Talents, interpreting its message as an exhortation to use one’s talents and wealth in the service of others, even if it means risking a loss. It reads this parable alongside others, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and in the context of Jesus’ commandments to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned and console the sorrowful. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus locates himself alongside the poor, the outcast, the marginalised and the powerless, and calls on his followers to act in ways that improve the lives of oppressed people: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do to me.” Jesus’ call to care for others is not conditional. As the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows, we are not to ask someone to “have a go” before we act to help them. We are to respond to their inherent human dignity. Reading the gospel in this context, Catholic social teaching asserts that Jesus insists on a fair go for all.

Catholic social teaching is a rich and deep tradition in the Christian church. It reaches back to Augustine and Aquinas, is given expression in papal encyclicals such as Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum and John Paul II’s Centesimus annus and is recognisable in the practical work of people like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Oscar Romero. It is central to Catholicism, but its emphasis on social justice is recognisable in other Christian denominations too, such as the efforts by the Uniting and Baptist churches to help marginalised people by providing charitable services and advocating for funding or laws to address poverty, family violence or drug addiction. Importantly, Catholic social teaching promotes collective social action for the common good, just as Catholic theology insists that divine revelation is received by the church as a whole, not by individuals alone. This is what is known as the sensus fidelium: a universal truth is known when the whole of the faithful recognise it and give it their assent. This emphasis on collectivism over individualism is one of the factors that sets Catholicism apart from Protestantism.

Here’s the question I had hoped Jensen’s essay would explore: why, at a time of rising inequality, growing intergenerational inequity and significant economic uncertainty, is the electorate more strongly attracted to the Prosperity Gospel pitch than the Catholic social teaching platform? Whether it is unemployed and poor Americans voting against their economic interests for Donald Trump’s corporate tax cuts, UK citizens opting to go it alone with Brexit, or even the fact that Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a runaway hit, there is ample evidence that first-world citizens are drawn less to an appeal to collective social action to overcome injustice and more to claims that individual effort will always reap its own rewards.

It may be that at a time when institutions are failing ordinary people – the banks are ripping off customers, religious organisations are abusing children, government seems incapable of doing anything about stagnant wages or rising power prices – people conclude that their best option is to look after themselves because they can’t rely on organisations and institutions any longer.

Then there is the simplistic explanation favoured by some media outlets in Australia, which is to claim the political left are infatuated with redistribution and just don’t get aspiration. That argument is not only absurd, but also ignores that there are real social and economic barriers to accessing education, housing, healthcare and jobs – making it harder for people’s aspirations to be realised. Yet the Prosperity Gospel pitch for individual effort seems to magic those barriers out of existence in our political debates, and keeps succeeding electorally. Why? I was disappointed that the essay barely touched on this question.

Instead, the essay is more an examination of the personalities of Morrison and Shorten. Using what he had, Jensen did capture to some reasonable extent the theological bases that frame the two men.

Bill Shorten was raised a Catholic and educated by the Jesuits in Catholic social teaching. “Be a man for others” is the Jesuit motto. Shorten’s life is dedicated to collective social action for working people. He knows injustice holds people back – he saw how poverty and sexism denied his mother the opportunity to live up to her true potential. He wanted to lead a government that removed such barriers.

Yes, Shorten has doubt – plenty of it. In wide-ranging one-on-one conversations with Jensen, Shorten contemplates whether God exists, whether there is a heaven or hell, and whether he has what it takes to be prime minister. Jensen says such doubts indicate Bill Shorten doesn’t know who he is. I have a different view: Shorten may have doubts and faults, as we all do, but he knows who he is in relationship to others. He is a collaborator and he grounds his identity in his relationships. As leader, Bill preferred to locate himself among his team. I dare say that Bill would agree that the greatest disappointment from the election is not that he isn’t prime minister, but that the Shorten Labor team didn’t get to form government.

Morrison, on the other hand, put himself forward as an individual leader, and wanted no one from his team around him. He pitched himself as the saviour of his party. Morrison is a Pentecostal Christian. He speaks openly about his faith. He prays. He considers his life marked by blessings and miracles. He appears to have a deep and intimate relationship with his Lord, and draws inspiration and guidance from his Christianity. It gives him a certainty, perhaps, maybe even a salvific mission and sense of destiny.

Jensen describes Morrison as a hardman who says everything is simple. Doubt, of the type expressed by the apostle Thomas after Jesus was reported to have risen from the dead, appears not to be a feature of Morrison’s faith or personality. Or maybe it is. Who knows? Unfortunately we don’t, because Morrison refused to be interviewed for this essay.

Jensen observes that ambition comes from insecurity or privilege. He asserts that Shorten is insecure and would have governed from that insecurity. Jensen likewise implies that Morrison is secure and confident in who he is and what he believes. But can we really know that Morrison is this confident? Morrison’s unwillingness to answer questions – an unwillingness he shows not just with Jensen, but in his press conferences too – might just indicate a lack of confidence to engage in complex discussion. Perhaps his bellicosity masks deeper doubts? Is Morrison’s confidence play an act?

I also wish Jensen had been able question Morrison on his understanding of the gospel message. For example, Jesus is pretty harsh on the accumulation of wealth: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” How does Morrison interpret that, and how does it affect his political agenda? What does Morrison make of the Parable of the Talents? What does he think is the message for contemporary Australians in the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Jesus didn’t distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. How does Morrison square that with “If you have a go, you will get a go”? In the end, because Morrison declined to be interviewed, these questions were left unasked and unanswered.

Finally, the essay left me wondering if Jensen sees any significance in Australia having elected a prime minister who speaks like an evangelical preacher and who puts his worship on public display. As a politician who has been often criticised for bringing my faith into the public square, I am equally bemused and confounded by this development. Is Australia really undergoing a shift in its attitudes towards religion and politicians? Census data tells us that atheism is on the rise and religious practice waning, but are we somehow growing more at ease with political leaders professing faith overtly? I’m comfortable if we are, but I am not yet convinced that is the case.

Did religion and faith matter, or not, in this election? Would a showman making the same simple pitch, with a bit of scaremongering thrown in, and minus the religious elements, have resonated just as well? The essay doesn’t grapple with these questions. But grapple we must. Almost every media outlet, all betting agencies, most polling agencies, most Labor MPs and even a large chunk of Coalition MPs didn’t believe Morrison could win. Was his victory really a miracle, or just something more prosaic?

Kristina Keneally



Elizabeth Flux

Of all the visceral, excoriating lines and vivid imagery in Erik Jensen’s The Prosperity Gospel, for me it was “Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy” that delivered the biggest punch. It gets to the crux of how Australia’s political system is broken. Based on how our country voted, Australia both hates itself and is in extreme denial about what we need to do to prepare for the future.

On election night, when it became evident that despite the polling and predictions, it was going to be a Liberal win, I switched channels and ended up watching Sliding Doors. It was a weirdly apt piece of programming – a film that splits in two after one moment changes the course of a life. It makes you ask: what if? I wondered briefly what the sliding doors moment was for Labor – if there had been just one, or perhaps a few, that tipped things the wrong way for them. Later, what The Prosperity Gospel made clear to me was that there was no one moment. The loss was an inevitability.

This year is the first time I was really awake for an election. It’s not that I wasn’t engaged before, but previously an election has got into my mind through osmosis. I think that’s the normal experience. You can’t help but absorb the key phrases, the vague promises, the controversies. You get an overview, a flavour – which I think is all most politicians want you to get. They don’t want you to dig deeper, because, usually, there’s not much beneath the surface. This year’s election was different for me. For the entire campaign period, I was employed as a subeditor with a focus on Australian politics. I not only read article upon article dissecting promises and proposed policies, I fact-checked them, read up on history, and felt I knew exactly what was going on and what would happen. I was well informed and there was no doubt in my mind: Labor would win. Shorten’s was the only one of the two major parties that actually had any policies. Morrison was all sizzle, no sausage, but, ultimately and depressingly, 100 per cent democracy.

I’d forgotten – or perhaps until this year hadn’t fully accepted – that it isn’t about who would do the best job or even who has a plan for what comes next. It’s about sales. Who comes off the best. And, as Jensen points out, Morrison is a trained salesman.

Although we don’t have a president, and although, in Australia, who leads the party really doesn’t matter on a day-to-day level, personality and charisma still carry more weight than actions and promises. It’s also not about who’s the better person – it’s about who puts on the better show.

We remember fondly past prime ministers who were good at the cutting remarks, the quips, the ones who could down a yard of ale in world record time. The “larrikins.” But being charismatic doesn’t mean you can’t also be a good leader – in an ideal world, you’d be both. But it is a bleak fact that if the voters have to choose between these two qualities, they’ll pretty much always go for the former.

What is more important when it comes to choosing someone to lead, to represent Australia on the world stage? That they be genuine, or that they simply be good at appearing genuine while playing a role carefully workshopped to appeal to the greatest number of voters, irrespective of what is actually best for the country? From both the election result and Jensen’s essay, the answer is clear.

This is the problem with personality-driven politics. Humans vote for human stories, not hypotheticals. Jensen’s essay taps into the human details that might otherwise slip through the cracks. He homes in on how Morrison speaks to individuals – through his use of first names, of anecdotes – while Shorten focuses on the bigger picture. It’s easier to see ourselves as individuals than as part of something bigger – and so the things that matter don’t matter unless they have a direct impact on us. People don’t tend to vote with a utilitarian mindset, and Morrison knew this, while Shorten bet on the goodness of humankind – a big mistake.

Based on the election results, the voting majority don’t consider the future or are in strong denial about the action that needs to be taken immediately (climate change) and don’t look beyond themselves (retirement tax, Adani). So how can tough calls that require sacrifice for the collective good ever be made?

The Prosperity Gospel has helped me understand why I found the election result so difficult to come to grips with. It wasn’t that “my team” didn’t win. Or that I liked Shorten more. It’s because it wasn’t a case of one side’s policies winning over the other’s. People were happy to vote for no policies at all, because we’d rather have a strong man selling nothing than a quiet one trying to make changes which he truly believed were for the better.

In the simplest of terms, what do we really need from a prime minister? Someone who fights for what they believe is best for the country – and whose views represent the majority of the voting public. But the majority of the voting public chose a man who only made vague statements and hid behind glib slogans. As Jensen put it: “The struggle with Morrison is to know what he wants, other than to be prime minister.”

When a job comes with money and prestige, there will always be people who will want it purely for these reasons and not because they want to do good. Our recent history of leadership spills is example enough – no one honestly believes that each figure with a knife in their hand betrayed colleagues for the love of their country.

So what can we do about this? Strip away the money and perks? Make the job less appealing somehow? Find ways to make the prime ministership more of a vocation and less of a prize?

Realistically, I don’t know that anything can be done. This scenario has played out again and again and I feel embarrassed that I thought this time would be any different. Next time it will be the same. It doesn’t matter who is more genuine, honest or well-prepared. The better salesperson will win every time. Morrison’s victory has demonstrated this starkly.

I agree with Jensen’s conclusion that Shorten represents Australia and that in the end Australia didn’t want itself. It wants the idea of itself, and that is what Morrison is selling – a moment in time, rose-tinted, artificial and not sustainable.

Elizabeth Flux



Barry Jones

Erik Jensen’s The Prosperity Gospel is a brilliant impressionist account of the recent dismal federal election campaign, full of sharp insights. He had access to Bill Shorten, not to Scott Morrison, but he is both penetrating and balanced. I learnt a great deal from his essay, so I write not to criticise but to supplement.

I expected Labor to win the election, probably by a narrow margin, because I took seriously the results of the normally reliable public opinion polls (and especially the aggregates used by PollBludger). My plants inside the Liberal Party told me they expected Shorten to secure about eighty seats. I anticipated losses in Queensland but thought the ALP would make major gains in Victoria – not quite at the level of Dan Andrews’ triumph in the November 2018 state election, but not too far behind. And I was impressed by Bill Shorten’s campaigning. He talked in sentences, paragraphs even. He was extremely disciplined and had a very strong front bench.

However, despite admiring Shorten’s discipline, I became increasingly nervous as election day approached. In the three head-to-head television encounters with Morrison, Shorten clearly won on substance. He took a long view, with serious argument on complex issues, and showed courage on proposed taxation changes, especially negative gearing and changing the law on franking credits. And yet when Shorten and Morrison met on the ABC with Sabra Lane at the National Press Club, Morrison said nothing, other than repeating his customary mantras about “having a go” and the need to cut taxation, but glowed (assisted, no doubt, by superior make-up), while Shorten made good sense but looked lined and tired.

Morrison proved to be a far more resourceful campaigner than I had imagined, far more effective than Turnbull in 2016. And he was essentially a one-man band. His cabinet, understandably, were hardly to be seen. Morrison seemed to be absolutely tireless and he glowed even more as the campaign went on. He kept on saying “How good is …,” then naming the target audience. I could imagine him putting up the election posters, stuffing leaflets in letterboxes, fixing up postal votes all on his own. Where was everybody else?

Fundamentally, Labor allowed Scott Morrison to define the agenda. The role of attacker and defender was reversed. I congratulated Shorten for not running a negative campaign. My judgment was wrong there. He should have attacked the conflicted, confused or deceitful set of ministers in a non-performing government. Scandals such as the water buyback fiasco, the huge gift to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, relations with the travel company Helloworld, the invisible Minister for the Environment, conflicts of interest and shameless pork-barrelling – all were virtually ignored.

Oddest of all, when the Coalition, with exceptional chutzpah, was insisting that Labor was incompetent with money, Shorten could have responded: “Hawke and Keating created the modern Australian economy and twenty-seven years of constant growth has been based on Labor’s work. The Rudd government’s response to the global financial crisis in 2008 is generally regarded as having been the world’s best and in the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years Australia retained its AAA credit rating from all the international agencies.” But he never made these points. I kept texting to ask why, without receiving a reply.

The Coalition was not challenged about its gross policy inadequacy and toxic personal relationships, succinctly defined by Kelly O’Dwyer as “homophobic, anti-women, climate change deniers.” Instead, the Labor Party was under constant, well-funded and wildly exaggerated attack for its ambitious program, as was Shorten as leader. The old political adage “disunity is death” did not seem to apply this time.

The elections in 1969, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1993, 1998 and 2007 dealt with complex, sophisticated issues, including foreign affairs, the environment, law reform, creating an open economy, ending White Australia, land rights for Indigenous Australians, and taxation. Whitlam, Hayden, Hawke, Keating and Rudd were serious thinkers. In the 2019 poll, voters responded to Scott Morrison’s dire warning: “This is not the time for change.” Although the Australian electorate now includes 6,500,000 graduates, the most highly qualified cohort in our history, it is clear that many Australians prefer not to address complex issues in politics. At least, not now.

Morrison’s appeal was to the “quiet Australian,” a variant of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Morrison’s “quiet Australians” can say, “I have never advocated mistreatment of indigenes or racism or misogyny or wage theft, but I have never said or done anything to oppose these things either.”

The Clive Palmer–UAP advertisements, plastered across the wide brown land, charged that Labor would impose “trillions” of dollars in extra taxation and generated fear, especially among older voters, who felt their thrift would be punished. This was essentially a $60 million gift to Morrison, but I doubt if he will list it in his electoral expenses return.

I was concerned that Morrison adopted some of Trump’s techniques, not just the baseball cap, but also the use or misuse of language, relying on photo ops, sound bites and mantras. The language was simple, stripped of meaning, but endlessly repeated, again and again, over and over, on and on. At least Morrison generously let Palmer have the slogan “Make Australia Great” (why not “Again”?).

As a religious person (in this, unlike Trump), Morrison has an oddly casual approach to the truth of a proposition. He is essentially a salesman, a Willy Loman. In an age of retail politics, the fundamental issue for him is “Will it sell?” And he was flogging a single product: short-term self-interest.

His ludicrous journey to Christmas Island, with a bevy of media, in March 2019, was based on the proposition that passage of the Medevac legislation would result in an upsurge of refugees arriving by boat. When that didn’t happen, the next we heard of Christmas Island was in the April 2019 Budget, with costings for closing down the detention centre. In just three weeks, Christmas Island had gone from being essential to being pointless.

Morrison has routine techniques for evading questions: he either ignores what he is asked and answers something else, or he says, “That’s only of interest inside the Canberra bubble.” He invariably fails to take responsibility for errors, failures, mis-statements or exaggerations. If anything has gone wrong, it is never his fault: he was away or was poorly briefed.

Even worse was his use of exaggeration, fear-mongering, half-truths and lies. A cynical defence was offered by Morrison, that Shorten’s campaign in 2016 against possible changes to Medicare, dubbed “Mediscare,” meant that truth was no longer a tradeable commodity in election campaigns. Like Trump, Morrison could say anything – and get away with it.

Also like Trump, Morrison’s limited vocabulary helped him win. He kept repeating the words and phrases “hard-working Australians,” “work,” “home,” “family,” “How good is … ?,” “humble,” “quiet,” “reward,” “amazing,” “the greatest country on earth” and “the Sharks.” One can be confident that among the words Morrison would rarely if ever use in a campaign are “environment,” “global,” “planetary,” “nature,” “creativity,” “imagination,” “understanding,” “explanation,” “science,” “research,” “evidence,” “books,” “art,” “music,” “beauty” and “moral leadership.” He has his own interpretation of “freedom.”

Again like Trump, Morrison seems to be completely lacking in curiosity. On issues raised with him, he either knows the answers already, or has no desire to hear the cases for and against a proposition. He was caught on television on a drought-ravaged farm: “Linking the drought with climate change? Well, that’s not an issue I have thought about very much …”

The campaign was infantilised by Morrison’s televangelism. But it clearly worked.

Labor, with its heavy emphasis on attacking “the big end of town,” was essentially campaigning against Turnbull, not Morrison. While Peta Credlin’s phrase “Mr Harbourside Mansion” had proved lethal against Turnbull, Morrison appeared to be relentlessly suburban in his interests and aspirations.

Ironically, Labor did comparatively well with the “big end of town,” affluent seats with high numbers of professionals. Fiona McLeod gained a 9 per cent swing in Higgins, Josh Burns 5 per cent in Macnamara, and there were significant swings to Labor in North Sydney and Bradfield. (However, in lower socio-economic status seats, the ALP suffered heavy swings. Joel Fitzgibbon, in Hunter, had the biggest swing in the nation against him: 14.1 per cent.)

Both leaders had a stroke of luck in the campaign, and neither was asked very probing questions on sensitive issues. Morrison was not asked about his Pentecostalism and the “Rapture,” in which true believers are hoovered up to Heaven. Did reliance on divine providence account for his indifference to climate change? Bill Shorten was not asked about the role of factions in the ALP, how they operated as patronage machines, his role as a player, or his hostility to democratising the party.

Shorten bravely declined to meet Rupert Murdoch before the campaign began, and he refused to be interviewed by News Corp outlets or by radio shock-jocks. He paid dearly for that courage and was subject to unrelenting attack, much of it personal. It must have seemed that he was engaged in a fight against Morrison + Palmer + Hanson + Murdoch.

A man, unknown to me, spoke to me at a tram stop. He began, “This is a really terrible government and they ought to be defeated heavily.” He then gave a forensic analysis of its failures. (Perhaps he was a barrister.) But his final words to me were, “But I can’t stand Bill Shorten. I suppose you’d have to put me down as a swinging voter.” I had similar experiences several times a day, throughout the campaign. I found it disturbing because I did not fully understand it, even after mounting a defence.

There seems to be an iron law in politics: for the past hundred years, the first Opposition leader chosen after a change of government has never gone on to become prime minister.

On climate change, Shorten was crazy-brave, proposing significant increases in emissions reductions without explaining adequately why a Labor government would be doing this. Labor’s courageous climate change policy was poorly argued, failing to involve millions in the community who engage directly with the issue (gardeners, farmers, bushwalkers, anglers, bird watchers, whale watchers, beekeepers, skiers, vignerons). Their lived experience and direct observation should have been harnessed, but was not. Shorten never talked about the science, and he rejected my advice to emphasise that each tonne of coal burnt produces 3.67 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which hangs round for decades in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. It is not “demonising” coal to point this out. And he never referred to cement, cows or cities, all three presenting central difficulties in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He talked about electric cars, but not persuasively. And he invited criticism that he was straddling the fence on Adani and not wanting to offend the CFMMEU, which had provided him with critical factional support.

Labor was also courageous in promising to end distortionary taxes. But Shorten failed to explain the moral justification of taxation as the price we pay for civilisation, with expanding demands, not just in infrastructure but at the personal level: sharing the costs of education for the young and health care for an ageing society, with a contracting revenue base.

The results of the marriage equality voluntary postal survey in November 2017, followed by unprecedented levels of enrolment by young people, gave a false optimism that Australia might be prepared to support courageous changes. Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson voted 65 per cent for “Yes” and he was targeted by GetUp! Surely he must be at risk? Well, he wasn’t. Jensen quotes an astute observation by the Liberals’ Tim Wilson: “In the same way that kids told their parents how to vote in the marriage equality postal survey, we saw parents telling their kids about the cost of voting Labor.”

Bob Hawke’s death, two days before polling, produced a powerful emotional reaction, with extensive coverage of ALP triumphs. I thought it might impede any move back to the Coalition. It did not. Morrison handled it very well. Shorten failed to benefit from the mood of goodwill – and that was tough for him, because he admired Hawke greatly.

The final result can be interpreted in several ways. The Coalition won 51.53 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, the ALP 48.47 per cent, so if three voters in 100 had changed, Morrison’s much-vaunted mandate would have disappeared. So that looks like a close result.

The ALP won a majority of seats in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, all the seats in the ACT and the Northern Territory, and (with Andrew Wilkie) progressives won Tasmania 3 to 2. The election was lost in the outlier states of Queensland and Western Australia.

However, the result was not good for the party I have belonged to since 1950. Its primary vote fell to 33.3 per cent. When Gough Whitlam was heavily defeated in the 1975 election after the dismissal, the ALP’s primary vote was 42.8 per cent. A figure in the low forties would now seem like a triumph!

A major problem for Labor is its low level of engagement with the community. Can a party with a contracting base (union-controlled factions; small, ageing branch membership) and Senate candidates whom nobody has ever heard of, handpicked by the factions, reach out to an expanding population?

Barry Jones



Judith Brett

Erik Jensen’s arresting descriptions of the campaign trail remind us of the many reasons for Scott Morrison’s miracle win: Labor’s complex policy agenda, Bill Shorten’s unpopularity, ScoMo’s energetic, self-confident campaigning, Coalition scare campaigns, angry retirees, Queensland regionalism, Clive Palmer’s millions, the Greens’ foolish anti-Adani caravan, popular local members. Labor’s election post-mortems will be exploring them all. The question is: are larger patterns discernible? Here are three I can see.

The first is there in the fact that there are so many plausible reasons, each one making a small contribution to the final result in an increasingly volatile electorate. The Australian Electoral Study has not yet had time to crunch the numbers, but the 2019 election is likely to continue the trend of declining stable identification with the major parties. In 1967, 70 per cent of voters reported always voting for the same party, in federal and state elections and for both houses. In 2016, rusted-on supporters were only 40 per cent of the electorate. Most people are only marginally interested in politics, but with compulsory voting, come election day, they have to make a decision. For the rusted-on, the decision has already been made, but the rest are open to persuasion. So the popularity of candidates has become more important. (How else to explain Tony Abbott’s ejection from Warringah, or the success of Helen Haines in Indi?) Particular issues push and pull electors different ways. And how one responds to the leaders seems more significant than ever.

Paralleling the decline in stable partisanship is a decline in trust in politicians and in the popularity of our leaders. Shorten’s unpopularity was always going to be a drag on the Labor vote. In deciding whether to vote one way or the other, “I don’t like him” is as good a reason as any for many voters. Shorten’s problem, it seemed to me, was that he was difficult to read and to identify as a social type. Up against Morrison’s public persona of “what you see is what you get,” he was at a serious disadvantage. In time, the electoral study will tell us how much. The point, though, is not to find one major cause, or a primary determinant, but to recognise that in a de-aligned and distrustful electorate there will be multiple factors influencing people’s vote.

My second larger pattern is the grip mining has on Australia’s imagined and actual economy. We are so used to hearing about the Hawke–Keating government’s successes in deregulating the Australian economy that we can overlook its failures. In his policy speech for the 1993 election everyone expected him to lose, Keating spoke of his dream that Australia “could become a great manufacturing country, a country which made things for the world to buy. Things which bore the stamp of Australian work and genius. I became convinced that Australia could be more than a quarry and a farm.” Keating’s bold attempt to free Australia from its historical dependence on farming and mining was doomed by the rise of China, which has decimated our manufacturing industry. We now make even less that the world wants to buy than we did in 1993, and the quarry is much bigger. In 1991/92 Australian exports were 21.1 per cent rural, 25.9 per cent mineral and fuel and 21.4 per cent manufactured products. By 2013/14, minerals and fuels were 50.1 per cent, and rural and manufacturing exports had shrunk to around 12 per cent each. Iron ore and coal are our top two exports, and natural gas our fourth. Keating wouldn’t have predicted the third: education-related travel services, including the money overseas students spend on fees and living expenses. But universities scarcely figured in the Coalition’s campaign, and only marginally in Labor’s. And neither had a plausible plan on how to prepare the Australian economy for a likely global shift away from fossil fuels. Miners and farmers were the symbols of economic responsibility in this campaign, together with the tradies in building and construction which operate in the domestic economy.

The third is the enduring emotional patterns that underpin the Liberal Party’s individualism and its policy staples of lower taxes, secure borders and a Budget under control. As Morrison told us repeatedly, he believes in “a fair go for those who have a go,” for those who make a contribution and don’t just seek to take. This is Robert Menzies’ society of leaners and lifters, and Hockey’s age of entitlement, though in slightly less accusatory language. It’s not so much the self-congratulatory appeal of seeing oneself as a contributor that gives this pattern its power, but the anxieties it evokes: of the never-ending demands that the needy, with the government as their agent, might make on the resources we’ve each marshalled to support ourselves and our families. Unregulated flows of asylum seekers evoke similar fears.

For many voters, Bill’s hand in their pocket, taking, obliterated the benefits of Labor’s policies. The hostility to franking credits was out of all proportion to the relatively small number of people affected. It became a generalised symbol of Labor’s propensity to tax, while promised benefits such as dental-care subsidies for pensioners barely registered. Morrison made no overt attacks on government-provided services, which would have opened him up to a Labor scare campaign. Nor did he indulge in the demonising of dole bludgers and asylum seekers. Instead, he projected a world of scarce resources, with individuals and families competing with each other to get ahead, and a modest tax refund to reward their efforts. For many unaligned voters, it was enough.

Judith Brett



David Marr

Because we got it so wrong, we need to pay particular attention to the 2019 campaign. The we is all-embracing: journalists, politicians, punters and the people. Even as the nation queued in May to re-elect Scott Morrison, barely a third of us thought he might scrape home. This is error on an epic scale. Making sense of it matters. Bill Shorten was swiftly consigned to the fat bin marked non-recyclable. Christ and Coal, those very Aussie allies, wasted no time claiming victory. As it has since Hawke’s day, the Australian Electoral Study at ANU is doing its exquisite work of matching votes to voters. While we wait for its findings in November, we have Erik Jensen’s entirely different approach to understanding what happened on 18 May. His eyes are sharp. Ditto his ears. He asks us to pay fresh attention to what was said on the election trail, particularly by Morrison.

It’s good to be reminded that Morrison got into the advertising game as a child actor spruiking for Vicks VapoRub. There’s a big essay to be written about the damage done to lives and ambitions by too much applause too young. Not now. What matters at this point is that we have a prime minister with a depthless – and not misplaced – faith in jingles. He says: “They stick in your head, don’t they?” He never tires of the vaguely decent: “You’ll get a go if you have a go.” But the jingle that counted most in that long campaign was an old favourite of the man and his party: “Schools, hospitals, medicines, roads – all guaranteed by a strong economy.” The key word in that sentence is guaranteed.

Shorten’s picture of tomorrow’s Australia was sketched in detail. His party had policies. He won debates. But Morrison’s message – clear, now, when we come back to it in Jensen’s essay – was simple: Labor’s plans to get Australia back into shape aren’t really needed. Prosperity will do the work. No tough decisions have to be made. No one need lose out. Fairness is beside the point. So we’ll soon be bleeding $6 billion a year topping up the dividends of the nation’s richest investors. So what? We’re so prosperous with the Coalition in charge it hardly matters. First item on the agenda if the government is re-elected: tax cuts for everyone.

The media do a strangely poor job of reporting what politicians say. It’s not as if we have to hunt and forage. It’s there for the taking. But less and less of what is said makes it to the news. The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. Jingles matter more than ever. So little of the key speeches by our leaders go to air these days it’s a wonder they bother making them. The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day. It’s an exercise in hindsight that’s not only surprisingly entertaining but speaks with almost scientific clarity. Prosperity was, after all, the only message Morrison preached in 2019 and it came always with the same warning: “Bill Shorten’s Labor Party can’t manage money.”

Pollsters surveying the wreckage of their trade after 18 May argue at least one finding pointed to a Morrison victory: PPM, preferred prime minister. Shorten never closed the gap and Shorten lost. PPM is not infallible, but it’s rarely let us down. Contrary to political myth, Abbott even edged ahead of Rudd in the days before the 2013 poll. The wrecker was the nation’s PPM. Deep in the figures of all the pollsters, there’s another fundamentally reliable figure. It doesn’t predict outcomes but measures the perpetual disadvantage Labor faces in federal politics: despite the economic record of the Hawke, Rudd and Gillard governments, Australians are convinced by a wide margin that the Coalition handles money better than Labor. For a few months in 2010, polls showed Labor’s struggle to deal with the global financial crisis earnt the respect of the nation. That was a blip. Revisited in The Prosperity Gospel, Morrison’s speeches and press conferences read as a long riff on this bleak theme.

Why is change so hard in this country? Part of the answer to that perplexing question is Australia’s hesitation to trust Labor with the cash box. This isn’t a fresh discovery, but Jensen’s examination of the campaign just past suggests we need to pay this attitude some serious attention. It survives, year in and year out, despite the mixed economic record of both sides of politics over the past decades. It shapes our politics. I believe it explains why Labor needs particularly charismatic leadership to win government. In 2019, Shorten discovered that putting Labor’s policies on the table years in advance and opening a national conversation about the future of the country could be beaten simply by Morrison’s message of blather and fear.

David Marr



James Newton

“We didn’t get enough votes.”

That’s what Bill said, smiling bravely into the sun outside his house in Moonee Ponds on what turned out to be the first day of the rest of his life.

It’s the simplest, briefest and most true answer to the question all of us whose ambitions for a Shorten Labor government were swiftly and comprehensively terminated on 18 May have been asked by friends and family and job interviewers in the weeks since: where did it go wrong? As one of those casualties, I’ve taken a keen interest in the various post-mortems. But so far, Bill’s answer remains the only one I can completely agree with.

Despite the subtitle of The Prosperity Gospel, Erik Jensen is not too proud to say he simply doesn’t know why Labor lost or how Morrison won. It’s a credit to him and a win for the reader.

Unlike many others, instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.

There’s plenty of the Bill Shorten I like and admire in Erik’s interviews and a fair chunk of the Scott Morrison I tried and failed to understand. It might seem a small thing, but there’s something chilling about a man who can dismiss the entirety of international fiction by saying he doesn’t relate to it and prefers “our stories” while sitting underneath a picture of the Queen and quoting the Bible.

For me, as someone who spent every day of the 2016 and 2019 campaigns on the Bill Bus, the contrast Erik draws between Bill’s days and Morrison’s was disconcerting. Against Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, we were the plucky insurgency: fun, frenetic, full of colour and movement. In this piece, our 2019 show comes across as earnest but dull. Full of long speeches and detailed pressers, a somehow self-consciously serious exercise. That’s not how it felt from the inside. Working and travelling with Bll was very often fun and nearly always funny. But the line that made me sit up and start writing was where Erik describes what we were doing as “betting against modern politics.”

Have no doubt: Bill Shorten is a political gambler. He bet on fairness and stood up to the 2014 Budget when some senior colleagues were telling him to roll over. His critics invariably accuse him of political opportunism, yet as Leader of the Opposition he repeatedly chose principle over expediency: on tax reform, marriage equality, climate action and a Voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 2015, fresh out of the witness stand at the trade union royal commission, he took on his own party over the necessity of boat turnbacks and prevailed. In 2016 he listened to people who’d been ripped off by the big banks and – betting against the Liberals’ contempt, powerful institutional opposition and no small measure of internal concern – he got a royal commission. Yet he also recoiled from claiming credit, from overt “leadership” moments, from public rebukes of colleagues or headline-grabbing acts of triangulation. He’d rather win the argument and give his former opponents ownership of the change than take a curtain call. Invariably, he’d scribble over the first few triumphal lines of draft speeches and say, “We don’t need to rub their noses in it.” That was a gamble too. And, of course, in the breadth and scope of our agenda, we had “ripped up the rulebook” of small-target, low-risk opposition.

For five and a half years, every time we held our collective breath and announced a policy or took a plunge and survived a by-election, a Budget reply or another media-manufactured “test of leadership,” I was exhilarated not just by the sense of winning the moment or setting the agenda, but by the thought that we were hammering down another plank in an election platform. Now, eleven weeks into unemployment, I think maybe we were just accumulating baggage for the journey ahead. Perhaps we were using up our luck.

By May 2019, when politics had been skewing to the simple and short-term for years, we were running as the party of complexity. To voters uncertain about the future and suspicious of reform, we offered ourselves as agents of change. With cynicism about politics and democracy rife, we presented a vision for big government activism. Right when we needed it, the zeitgeist deserted us.

Whatever our failures in planning, messaging and execution (and, of course, speech-writing), we didn’t do any of this to win a bet. It wasn’t an experiment for us, or an academic study. We didn’t take on the hard issues, put forward the big ideas and run the campaign we did to prove we were better than the system; we did it because we believed the system needed to be better. But when you combined our new, self-selected complexity with the perpetually complicated mix of emotions, motivations, causes and constituencies that is modern Labor, well, winning was never going to be easy.

Take stability. In the 2016 campaign, Turnbull would occasionally say people had to decide if they wanted Bill to be “Australia’s fifth prime minister in three years.” Considering he’d only just installed himself as the fourth, it always struck me as a strange argument. But the Liberals never seem burdened by self-doubt. Despite an unmatched record of dispatching Australians to failed wars on bad evidence, they have a superhuman capacity to brazenly assert their status as the natural party of strong leadership, steady hands and a safe country. And as much as we love to say they’re out of touch, perhaps they understand better than we do that Australians can forgive a threadbare agenda and overlook a whole lot of grubby scandals because what we crave most of all is the promise of stability – the right to be relaxed and comfortable.

When Bill returned from Christmas at Wye River, he told us how many people had come up to him and, whatever complaint they had about a particular policy, had given Labor “a tick” for being united. Pretty soon he would whittle the line down to: “I don’t like everything you’re doing, but at least you guys will have the same prime minister for three years.” It wasn’t exactly “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but it had the ring of truth to it.

In early 2014, when I first started working for Bill, any speech that mentioned the Rudd–Gillard governments required a contrite sentence or two about the lessons to be learnt from that time. He became fond of an analogy George Wright had given him about party unity being “the green fee” for national government. Five years later, we had paid the fee and we were proud of it.

Three days of National Conference spoke for unprecedented harmony between the party and the movement. Bill’s “stable, talented and united team” rarely missed a campaign mention. Tanya and Penny and Chris and Albo and Kristina Keneally and Catherine King co-starred in the pressers. Hawke and Keating penned a joint op-ed, their first collaboration since 1991. Kevin and Julia shared a laugh at the launch. Short of Mark Latham moving to reinstate Billy Hughes’ membership, there was nothing more we could have done to demonstrate our unity of purpose.

Inevitably, commentators tut-tutted about “highly choreographed” moments and “stage-managed” displays, but the Liberals didn’t even pretend to go through the motions. Abbott was “too busy campaigning” to come to the launch, Turnbull stayed overseas, not even Howard got a gig. When journos asked Morrison why none of his ministers was doing media, he sneered about not needing people to “prop me up.” Again, self-doubt didn’t figure.

Of course, for a progressive party trying to take back power, the “stability” pitch could only ever be half our story. The green fee.

Because we were stable, we said, we could be trusted to keep our promises, unlike Abbott. Because we were stable, we wouldn’t fracture or compromise, unlike Turnbull. Because we were steady and united, we could end the political dysfunction.

Climate change, we thought, joined the dots better than anything. Any time Bill gave an audience a version of “We won’t waste time fighting about whether climate change is real, we’ll just get on with real action,” he was guaranteed a round of applause. It was a long way from “the great moral challenge of our time,” but it had been a long ten years.

With unity and policy, we had a compelling story, and as the man who’d assiduously cultivated that unity, managed the program and driven the “positive alternative” strategy, Bill could bring it to life better than anyone. But it still took a while to tell the tale and, as Bill would say, “explain to people where they fit in.”

The town-hall meetings are where people fit in. We’d be in a bowls club bar or the people-mover or a cramped little backstage room with the local candidate kicking around the potential issues and Bill would say to whichever luckless policy adviser was about to be tasked with a hypothetical question on a four-minute deadline: “Mate, I don’t want a process answer, I need a real response.”

When Morrison gets asked about Newstart, he says, “We believe the best form of welfare is a job.” “If pressed,” as all politicians’ talking points demurely phrase it, he says most people get additional payments anyway.

But that doesn’t fly in a town-hall meeting when the person asking the question is living on forty bucks a day – and Bill knew it. He appreciated that the blow-in from Canberra with the white car parked outside can’t just airily tell a person who’s given up their evening and put up their hand that all they really need to do is have a go.

Bill would start by agreeing that Newstart is too low and explaining that we were not reviewing it to lower it. We need a review because it’s a big commitment and there are interactions with other payments and it’s complicated and we’re in Opposition. But there’s a journey to come. He’d talk about the dignity of work and the pain of losing your job and the pressure it puts on family and the harm it can do to community and the need for good TAFEs and employers giving older workers a fair crack and bringing back Aussie apprenticeships and local content and procurement. First question or last, good day or bad, Bill would show the humility, the respect, to give a proper answer. Everyone would be moved to applaud, even those of us who’d heard it twenty times. And when we got back in the car, he’d say, “I need a better answer on Newstart, mate. And on cannabis.”

Our gleeful critics have claimed that the breadth of our agenda reflected a presumption of victory. Erik Jensen chalks it up to insecurity. The truth is, we were offering a town-hall answer to every question, nationwide. It was humility, it was respect. If we were asking people to choose us as their government, we believed we had to offer more than a slogan. If we were going to promise new investments in schools and hospitals and child care and pensioner dental, if we were going to eliminate the costs of fighting cancer, then we figured it was up to us to explain to people how we would pay for it.

So, on a whole range of issues, it was the tale of two messages. We were promising stability but asking people to vote for change. We were going to end the chaos but remake the country. We were ready to govern but taking nothing for granted. If there was a phrase I came to dread in the pressers and interviews, it was “please, let me finish.”

This kind of nuance wasn’t much of a match for endless headlines about “tax bombs,” a housing market “collapse” and “class war,” and it got us nowhere against the biggest single advertising spend in election history: Clive Palmer’s entirely dishonest and almost exclusively anti-Labor, anti-Bill campaign.

I would never actually throw a book across a room, but I got pretty close when I saw Erik quoting a Liberal insider concerned that Palmer was “debasing political advertising.” There was only one beneficiary from the wall-to-wall Palmer: the LNP.

We knew the “death tax” campaign was nothing but bad news. What to do about it was another matter. When Chris Bowen and Kristina Keneally went out to smash up the LNP for sponsoring lies, within twelve hours the Liberal campaign had made a video montage of our people saying “death tax.”

In the absence of alternatives, we ended up with a position of public contempt and private terror. When, two weeks from election day, my wife texted me saying her colleagues at the hospital were asking her about Bill’s 40 per cent death tax, I knew we were in strife.

As for our actual tax policies, by the time of the campaign we’d spent over twelve months talking about closing a loophole that cost Australia more than the government spent on public schools. We called it a giveaway, a gift, a tidy little arrangement, an unsustainable leftover of Howard–Costello largesse. All of these terms pissed off the people collecting the benefit. But nothing cut through with the broader population like “retiree tax.”

I watched more of Tim Wilson’s committee hearings than was good for me. I learnt the script. When “self-funded” retirees started saying they didn’t want to be a burden to the taxpayer, I would sometimes find myself saying, “Well, we’ve got good news for you!” No one I saw railing against our measures struck me as a true believer lost to the cause, especially those who began by saying “I’ve voted Labor in the past,” as if the next sentence was “but I didn’t inhale.”

Along with the “death tax,” it was the people who would be fine but feared they’d be hurt that broke the heart. A pensioner in the first debate, a vocal passer-by at the Nowra shopping centre, an angry coffee drinker in Adelaide. Never have so many Australians identified so strongly and so wrongly with a tiny percentage of the population.

Then there was Adani. During the Batman by-election, when anyone with a Twitter handle talked about Bill “walking both sides of the street,” I tried to cheer up our team by saying that was the only way to knock on all the doors, but in reality we were straddling a barbed-wire fence. Never mind that we couldn’t “Stop Adani” any more than we could start digging; in Queensland it swallowed press conferences whole. The tiniest deviation from the language of the previous answer or the previous day or the previous campaign was freighted with imagined significance. Bill was stuck delivering lines, not giving answers. And it showed. I lived in hope that the conservationists would find a more loveable animal than the black-throated finch.

So that’s how we spent too much of our campaign. Talking about a mine whose future we couldn’t determine, carpet-bombed by ads from a party that couldn’t win and didn’t care, defending one tax that didn’t affect the people concerned and another we weren’t imposing at all. Precious minutes of national attention that couldn’t be used to tell families about cheaper child care, pensioners about free dental and workers about secure jobs and better wages.

But how could we have changed any of that? Like Erik, I’m not too proud to say I don’t know. Apart from collecting around another one million primary votes, I’m not sure what we should have done differently. If we’d promised the spending without the revenue, we’d have been rightly dismissed as trafficking in false hope. If we’d promised to kill Adani, or start construction on day one, half the country would have hated our guts and the other half would have known we were lying. If we’d chatted to Sky before Question Time every day and called in to Jones and gone to New York and kissed Murdoch’s ring, they all would have come after us regardless. Nothing we said or did to Palmer would have mattered. Whatever that expression is about picking fights with people who buy ink by the gallon, it’s doubly true for a bloke whose ads run right through Married at First Sight.

If we’d swapped the town-hall answer for the glib line and abandoned complexity and tucked ourselves into a little ball and said that they’d had three leaders and we’d had one and now it was our turn to drive the car, great swathes of our progressive constituency would have said that we were arrogantly expecting a coronation and that a “Liberal-lite” government was no better than the hard-right real thing.

Finally, I’m poorly equipped to write about “where Labor went wrong” because on so many issues I still don’t believe we were wrong. What happened on election day didn’t convince me that negative gearing and refundable franking credits are more important than better schools, free cancer care and universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds. Defeat didn’t make me think that climate change is a conspiracy or that a Voice will be a third chamber or restoring penalty rates will shutter small businesses across the land. But more than enough people thought differently. In other words, we didn’t get enough votes.

So what’s the post-mortem? We were brave, we were ambitious, we argued for what was right, not what was easy. No one worked harder than Bill, but a lot of us worked incredibly hard, for many years.

I’ll always be proud of the way we went about it, but I wish we’d bloody won.

Or, to use a favourite Shortenism, the operation went perfectly but the patient died.

James Newton


Response to Correspondence

Rebecca Huntley

Usually, the author’s response to Quarterly Essay correspondence gratefully accepts praise given, addresses criticisms levelled and reflects on anything that has happened since the essay was published, building further on the central thesis. But I think we can accept that this is an unusual moment in Australian political history. And so I will use my right of reply as a chance to review what I wrote in January and outline my initial reaction to the results of the election, addressing the generous and insightful responses as I go.

In the essay, I talked at some length about how much we can trust public opinion polls. I wrote:

My profession has been under attack for many years as contributing to the corruption and mendacity of party politics. Not only are our methods questioned, and the ways in which our work is used criticised, but the veracity of our conclusions is constantly doubted. It’s common for commentators to say on election night that the polls got it wrong. While it is true that some polling (namely, seat-based robo-polling) can be unreliable, there is no evidence that national political polls in Australia are inaccurate. In fact, history shows that such polls produce exceptionally accurate results, even with the transition from landlines to mobile phones and online surveys over the past decade or so.

While this statement was based on the evidence available at the time, it’s clear that I placed too much faith in the methods of pollsters in Australia and the extent to which compulsory voting had buffered our national polls from the kinds of inaccuracies exposed by Brexit and Trump. The reality is that our fetish for polls never made much sense. Polling never told us the full story, because the act of voting is a very blunt tool to measure the complexities of public sentiment. However, we can’t let this polling fail license a retreat to “anecdotalism”; polling data will still play a role in the mix of different kinds of information that help inform strategy. That being said, there is no sugar-coating the immediate impact of all this on my profession’s reputation. Political polling represents about 1 per cent of social and market research, but it is the research that gets the most attention. The election result presents a challenge to all polling and research agencies to come up with new tools to understand how the public feel about politics and policy. However, there may be one very good outcome from this result: that we care less about published polling, that journalists talk about polls less and politicians refer to them less.

Just because I am not a pollster doesn’t mean I haven’t had cause to reflect on my methods. I trusted the polls and the fact that the trend consistently favoured Labor shaped my expectation in the essay that Australians were responding favourably to Labor’s plan for government. When I started my career, I came to understand the Australian community through a unique research project that no longer exists, the Ipsos Mind & Mood Report. It involved a highly intelligent and empathetic group of women working as a team, travelling around Australia, listening to groups of friends and colleagues talk very broadly about how they felt about their lives, their families, their communities and the direction of the country. We visited homes, workplaces, garages, classrooms, cafes and community centres. I haven’t conducted research like that for about four years. Instead, the research I have undertaken has been on very specific issues. So it’s no surprise I missed the meta-sentiment. Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney and former speechwriter for British Labour’s Ed Milliband, wrote that people vote on overall feel and rarely on individual policies; the more you have actual conversations with people, the more apparent that is. To quote a classic Australian movie, it’s the vibe. So as a researcher, I have recommitted myself to more listening, to asking more open questions of people, to reconnecting with the vibe.

As I write this, we are still in the swirl of analysis about what happened and why. Some of it is intelligent and thought-provoking, some of it is not. Views range from “nothing much has shifted” to “everything we know to be true is not.” The correct interpretation must lie somewhere in the middle. I certainly have more questions than answers at the moment, but I also have a few thoughts worth sharing. One wise head told me on election night that for Labor (in particular) to win federally, all the elements need to line up – a strong leader, a strong campaign and the right policy settings to fit the mood of the electorate. All those elements might not have been equal contributors to the party’s election loss, but they all need to be considered in its wake.

In the essay, I underestimated the importance of the leader. I recalled people voting for a leader they didn’t particularly like in Tony Abbott and thought the same logic would work for Bill Shorten. Perhaps the more disengaged and anxious voters are, the more the leader matters, particularly to the undecided. Given Labor was promising a suite of complex policies, the likeability of the leader and the strength of the campaign became even more important. Understanding what works and doesn’t work in a campaign is not my forte, but what I didn’t consider in the essay was whether Labor’s agenda (even though it dovetailed nicely with what the majority of Australians say they want) could withstand the negative campaigning and misinformation that was thrown at it. Finally, what I outlined in the essay was a policy agenda for a popular Labor government rather than a policy platform to win an election. The question I didn’t ask myself was this: how does the progressive centre of sentiment hold up when those sentiments are translated into policy and sold to an anxious public? The idea that Australia is trending to the right doesn’t line up with political reality: Labor governments in Queensland and Western Australia as well as the more progressive Victoria. The results in South Australia, with a conservative state government in power, saw a two-party-preferred split of 56/44 in favour of Labor. While the majority of Australians support progressive policies in the social-democratic tradition when presented with them in surveys and focus groups, the challenge progressive parties face is this: how to sell that to people during a campaign, when trust in politics is so low? And so I wouldn’t be surprised if what Labor campaigners take out of this loss is that to win campaigns you need a strong, likeable leader, a small-target policy strategy and a generous side-serve of fear about the alternative.

The essay made an argument that there is a progressive centre in Australian society and that the foundations exist for a revived social democracy with environmental concerns at its core. Yet Labor fell short and I underestimated the impact of a few issues. The first of these is tax. As I said in the essay, tax reform is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to revitalising social democracy. Will voters cop modest tax increases if it means more spending on the services they consistently say they want? I made the point that when it comes to a possible loss in one area in exchange for gains in another, trust becomes essential. You have to trust the party in government to do as it says it will: to take and give rather than just take. But the reaction to Labor’s tax reform ideas also prompts a broader, more nuanced discussion about our attitudes to fairness. Of course, our concept of fairness is pretty malleable. And we are, overall, an affluent country. So did people think it was unfair to take franking credits away? And was that perception of unfairness enough to provide fertile ground for a scare campaign on a retiree tax and a death tax? As Carol Johnson comments, “it was Labor that was construed as unfair to ordinary voters ranging from retirees to home owners.” (It should be noted that negative gearing policies didn’t seem to hurt Labor in 2016, so perhaps the focus on franking credits was taken as an attack on those aged over sixty-five, a sizeable part of the voting population.) Again, I think one of the lessons for Labor campaigners must be that it’s only in government that you are able to show that the politics of economic redistribution are possible, that your kind of government will give more to the vast majority of citizens in return for modest tax reform. And that, ironically, the language of all-out class warfare can backfire in a “classless” society like Australia, even when social inequality is becoming more pronounced.

The second issue is climate change. The ballot box has always been an imprecise tool for measuring public sentiment on complex issues, especially ones that provoke the spectrum of emotion in us as climate change does – fear, denial, guilt, anxiety, anger and hope. This was the climate election, but not in the way people (including myself) thought it would be. Again, I looked to the past to predict the future; concern about climate helped Labor in 2007. Climate change concern was a reason why the Liberal Party lost Warringah and an independent held on in Indi. It was one of the reasons we saw swings away from the Liberals in seats like North Sydney. But results for the LNP in Queensland and even One Nation in the Hunter show a swing in the opposite direction in parts of Australia where mining jobs are being threatened and where workers don’t feel they can be nimble in response to a changing economy. I said in the essay that I thought that as a community we were inching towards recognition of the scale of the climate threat. In fact, if the election result is any kind of gauge, while some parts of our society are quickly moving in that direction, other parts may be pushing back. Griffith University academics Anne Tiernan, Jacob Deem and Jennifer Menzies argue that the results in Queensland reflect a decentralised and highly local reaction to the “climate change versus coal” equation.

Putting to one side the fact that the swings against Labor were not much bigger in Queensland than some other parts of the country, and that it had the most marginal seats in the election, the instinct to blame and deride Queensland highlights exactly what went wrong for the ALP … Queenslanders are not all deeply conservative, rusted-on LNP voters, even in central and northern regions. Instead, the federal Labor Party, like the many pundits who predicted an ALP win, seem to have underestimated or misunderstood the variances and nuances of the Queensland electorate. As the only state where a majority of the population lives outside the capital city, regionalism matters in Queensland in a way it does not elsewhere.

As Travers McLeod points out, Australians are not sure government will look after them, their families and their communities over the long term. Perhaps this is particularly so in regional communities struggling to survive. And so they respond to appeals that focus on local jobs over those that focus on the “national interest.” All politics is local but some politics is more local than others.

The election result also makes me reflect on where exactly the community is on climate. Beneath the top-line figures that point to consensus, there are schisms that are going to be hard to shift. Susan Carland writes that “we are living in a time of profound social silos and tribalism.” James Walter makes a similar point, saying that we need to be wary of “the phantom public” and instead understand there are various “publics” that are “created by political mobilisation, triggered by insiders for their own ends.” Interestingly, while I didn’t anticipate the election result, in my work on attitudes to climate change I have been coming to the realisation that the approaches to understanding sentiment on climate and therefore the strategies to mobilise climate action are inadequate. My current research, which will eventually be a book, is on climate change and emotion and how individual and group psychology should inform how those in the climate change movement communicate and persuade.

To reiterate, I don’t think Australia is inherently an ideologically conservative nation. I do think it may well be a temperamentally conservative one. This result doesn’t mean we are right-wing. It means we are scared. We want change desperately, but we are equally scared of change when it involves trusting the political system to bring it about. So politically we are stuck, at a time when so much else – in the economy, society and environment – is moving quickly.

One area I spent a lot of time exploring in the essay is the lack of trust in politics. All the responses address this in their own way. Isabelle Reinecke wrote that the election result is not a repudiation of progressive values but a reflection of deep cynicism about the ability of political parties to deliver competently on these issues. If I were to write my essay again, it would be focused through the lens of public distrust of politics, because if there is one big message coming from this election result, it is that despite our voting record Australians are alienated from the system. Before anyone speculates on how people responded to Labor’s policies, they first need to ask: were people listening much in the first place? There are signs they weren’t. The high number of pre-poll votes, 4.7 million in this election, was driven by our desire for convenience, but must also reflect that people had made up their minds before the campaign started and wanted to block the whole blasted business out. Not exactly an environment for change. And the cynicism about the two major parties continued unabated. In my essay, I outlined the decline of public trust in institutions and our growing despair about politics and politicians. I pointed to the increasing number of younger people wondering if Australian democracy can deliver on its promise. In an election where there was in fact a stark choice in policy, there was still the prevailing “they are both the same as each other” sentiment. Many independents did well, capitalising on negative feelings about the two parties. And contrary to so many predictions (not mine), scandal after scandal didn’t do much to the One Nation vote and delivered votes for Clive Palmer, even in a place like Townsville, where he still owes people money.

Indeed, the irony is that Labor was the most stable and united team on the ballot: the Liberals, Nationals, Greens and One Nation were all involved in very public, ugly fights in the twelve months leading up to the election, even during the campaign itself. (The United Australia Party wasn’t even a party but an electoral scaffold for a scare campaign aimed at Bill Shorten so that Clive Palmer could advance his interests in the Galilee Basin.) Disunity may no longer be death if the voters assume you are all a rabble. What this says to me is that we need to explore different ways for Australians to get involved in public decision-making, not just the kinds of deliberative-democracy mechanisms I mentioned in my essay but also the community organising that was successful in seats like Indi. It’s a lesson too for the major political parties, that internal party reform is as important as ever and that “politics as usual” will deliver lower and lower numbers of primary votes.

On social media, I’ve watched Labor and Greens supporters lash out at Queenslanders and other Australians who voted for the status quo, calling them stupid, lazy, racist and selfish. The cynicism about the electorate from some parts of the left never goes away. The conclusion to draw is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politics has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show. That is especially the case when some kind of exchange is being promised – more tax for better services.

The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom, with campaigns run on slogans about fear and the status quo, allowing no possibility of reform. That’s not what the nation needs, or what it consistently says it wants outside the ballot box. The task for progressives is to build trust, from the ground up, that what we need and want can actually be delivered by the politics we have.

I remain a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.

Rebecca Huntley



Isabelle Reinecke

Rebecca Huntley was right. The polls can be wrong. But so are many of the federal election hot takes.

Huntley, in her excellent essay Australia Fair, described the Australia many of us know and experience every day. Australia isn’t a backward place, governed by fear. We don’t have an aversion to expertise and science. We do apply a sense of fairness to our communities and people in need of our protection. We are no longer the parochial Australia of the Menzies era, and we are much more progressive than some would have us believe.

Centre for Policy Development research found that significant numbers of Australians – between 30 and 50 per cent, depending on demographic variables – believe that the purpose of Australian democracy is to “ensure that all people are treated fairly and equally, including the most vulnerable in the community.” As Huntley says, social research “taken together gives a consistent and reliable picture of where the majority of Australians sit.” This research shows shared values of a large majority of Australians across party lines for everything from renewable energy, ABC and NDIS funding, child care and housing affordability, education reforms and the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The 2019 federal election result was not a mainstream repudiation of these values; at least in part, it was a reflection of the broad public distrust in political parties and a cynicism about their ability to deliver competently on these issues.

Huntley says that this lack of trust in politicians has damaged social democracy, and we know from Lowy Polls that while 77 per cent of people aged over sixty believe democracy is the best form of governance available, only 49 per cent of young people aged eighteen to twenty-nine agree.

So what do we do when trust in democracy is so low? Huntley says if we are to renew democracy, we can’t just change policies, we must reform the way politicians and parties operate.

Concentrated media ownership, donations that channel large amounts of capital into campaigns that promote the interests of a few – think of the tens of million spent by the mining lobby against the Minerals Resources Rent Tax in 2012, or the $60 million spent by Clive Palmer in the 2019 election – and of course the offer of a nice cushy corporate “government relations” job for pollies upon retirement – all these things need to change now.

But I’d argue that this renewal needs to reach beyond the executive and legislature; it also needs to encompass that oft-forgotten third pillar: the judiciary. Essential Media reports that the High Court is our second-most trusted institution, after the police. Conveniently, it is also our democracy’s in-built accountability mechanism and a pathway to renewing that democracy.

Following the seminal Mabo, Wik and implied freedom of political communication decisions in the 1990s, the High Court and its leaders were subjected to ruthless public attacks by vested interests in the conservative media and those determined to limit the court’s ability to act as a check on government power.

To undermine this ability – and law-driven judgments – the bench was painted as an anti-democratic institution of elites, copying a framing successfully used in the United States. This was an attempt by farming and mining industries and conservative politicians to maintain the status quo, to ensure that their pathways to power through political donations and lobbying remained intact, and to push back on a court that was playing its democratically mandated role to act as a check on the power of government and corporations.

In a lot of ways, this campaign was successful. In what may be an effort to protect themselves from these attacks, Australian superior courts can be – in the words of the distinguished former South African constitutional court justice Albie Sachs – “erudite, but incredibly technical” in their decision-making style. This has played out in recent cases, including the High Court’s refusal to decide whether an Australian lesbian mother had standing to bring a case challenging the marriage equality plebiscite. It continues to play out in the court’s reluctance to hear cases that might lead to the reopening of Al-Kateb (an infamous 2004 decision that has enabled the government to hold vulnerable people in detention indefinitely).

It played out in the refusal – in a world of mass migration and in a country with a long history of immigration – to implement a practical interpretation of Section 44 of the constitution, leading to a suite of resignations and even a by-election that ultimately led to the re-election of Barnaby Joyce, whom the court had deemed to be invalidly elected despite being born in Tamworth and his father, a New Zealander, becoming a naturalised Australian citizen in 1978.

This isn’t our only problem. The unchecked power of money is not only corrupting our politics, but also hindering the ability of citizens to hold government and corporate power to account. Without their ability to use the courts as a check, our democracy is forced to limp along, lopsided. One of the biggest problems for public-interest litigants hoping to hold the powerful to account is the huge financial gamble plaintiffs must take to bring a case. Even with pro bono lawyers, the threat of an adverse costs order that can reach into the many millions is prohibitive. It stops actions before they start but does nothing to inhibit corporations that can claim these costs as a tax deduction.

Usually in Australia, adverse cost orders are decided at the end of cases to cover some of the costs of the winning party – which sounds fair when you’re two construction companies tussling over a development, but not quite so fair when you’re a lesbian mother keen to ask the court on behalf of her community to determine whether a marriage equality plebiscite is legal; or if you’re a group of suburban doctors asking the court to decide whether Border Force gag laws on health professionals working in Manus and Nauru breach the implied freedom of political communication. The results of a loss can be financially catastrophic.

This huge financial burden deters people from bringing public interest cases based on ideas that underpin our concept of Australian social democracy: the fair treatment of the most vulnerable in our community and their equal treatment under the law.

Australia is an outlier here. JusticeConnect estimates that 90 per cent of meritorious cases are not reaching the court because of the burden of adverse costs. While researching the subject on a Churchill Fellowship in 2017, I found that Australia’s system is uniquely punitive in public interest cases, even compared with that of the UK. The fact that citizens can’t bring such cases free from fear of crippling bankruptcy is a procedural quirk of the Australian legal system that must be addressed as a priority. It sounds a bit boring, but it is absolutely vital that we address this financial imbalance in access to the courts. Unless we can renew all three pillars of democracy, we have little hope of creating the lasting renewal that we all crave.

Isabelle Reinecke



Travers McLeod

At the heart of Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair is the idea that we are a nation of democrats. Our affinity with democracy is much more than the process of voting to elect a government. It is our collective desire for a confident democracy, with government as an active and effective partner, and a fairer society where all Australians can live flourishing lives.

This is a powerful idea in an essay that I felt was spot-on in its claim that “there is an opportunity to renew social democracy, Australian-style.” The Centre for Policy Development’s research, which Huntley cites, discovered an Australian appetite for democratic and policy renewal, along with broad agreement on the direction of travel. We found that Australians believe democracy is a force for fairness and equality and would throw their support behind changes that get government and the economy working better for the community.

The federal election result does not disprove Huntley’s core claim. Elections are about placing trust in a person and a party to respond to the biggest problems and the greatest opportunities of our time. A clear set of ideas and policies can help to build trust. Ideas can also sow distrust and division. The election confirmed that citizens remain profoundly divided on the best path forward for the nation. But I am willing to believe, as Centre for Policy Development research shows, that all Australians share a desire to improve the lives of others and tackle our biggest problems together.

Many conservatives have forgotten the point Robert Menzies made in October 1942, when he said that Australians “disagree among ourselves on almost every conceivable subject, but we are all democrats.” Menzies said our “most grievous error” has been to think “too much of democracy in mechanical terms.” He also said, somewhat ominously, that “if, as a voter, I am concerned only with my own advantage and am indifferent to the cost to others, I am simply corrupt. I am selling my vote for an individual mess of pottage.”

Truth be told, most Australians have equated national politics in Canberra with a thick stew. The pressure-cooker environment of the past decade has produced an enormous gap between what Australians want from their democracy and what it has delivered. More than two-thirds of Australians told CPD that they do not believe their elected representatives serve their interests. Three-quarters believe politics is fixated on short-term gains instead of long-term challenges. They are not sure government will help to look after them, their families and their communities over the long term.

In April, Gabrielle Chan reported for The Guardian on the fury in Farrer, an electorate in country New South Wales stretching along the Murray River from Wentworth to Albury. The source of the fury was water, or the lack of it, in a land beset by drought. Months earlier, the South Australian Murray-Darling Royal Commission had described the “do-nothing” conduct of the senior management and the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in relation to climate change as “negligent” and “unlawful.” Farrer didn’t fall to an independent, as some thought it might, but there was a swing of almost 10 per cent against the sitting member.

I spent six months in Albury in 2017. What struck me was how different the conversation about climate change was on Dean Street in Albury, compared to the rhetoric a few hundred kilometres up the road in Canberra. What the locals in Albury couldn’t stand most of all was being treated like mugs – taken for granted or ignored in the national conversation. Tellingly, it was a road trip from Sydney to Adelaide via Deniliquin, a town near the Murray River, that the Reserve Bank’s deputy governor, Guy Debelle, used to frame his landmark speech about climate change and the economy in March this year. Describing climate change as a “trend” change likely to have “first-order” economic effects, Dr Debelle said:

The transition path poses challenges, but it also presents opportunities. Particular industries and particular communities that are especially exposed to the costs of changes in the climate will face lower costs if there is an early and orderly transition. Others will bear greater costs from the transition to a lower carbon economy. While others still, such as the renewables sector, may benefit from that transition. But unlike the example of trade, it may not be possible for the winners to compensate the losers in a way that leaves no-one worse off.

The election result has not washed away these problems. They will become more acute. The murkiness of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and water buybacks is one thing. The lack of a coherent national strategy on climate change is another. Bizarrely, compelling evidence in support of constructive policy change does not lead to political action. But inaction like this is not limited to climate change.

Instead of climate change, consider “jobs” as an example. In the 2018 December quarter, the unemployment rate in Albury City was 9.26 per cent, more than double the overall rate in New South Wales. That same month, the report I Want to Work: Employment Services 2020 was released by the then federal minister for jobs, Kelly O’Dwyer. This expert review of jobactive, Australia’s $6.5 billion employment services system, consulted more than 1400 jobseekers, employers, employment services providers and community groups. Its blunt assessment was that Australia “can do better. Much better.” Consultant-to-client ratios were 1:148. Only 4 per cent of Australian employers were using jobactive in 2018 (down from 18 per cent in 2007). The system was failing a large majority of jobseekers who had been on the books for twelve months or more.

Given that outsourced delivery contracts for jobactive were due to expire in 2020, here was a great opportunity to think big, act on expert advice and embrace local solutions that were fit for purpose. To build an employment services program in Albury, for example, that was designed to meet the needs of that community. The response? Apart from two trials, the can was kicked further down the road. Shortly before the federal election was announced, Minister O’Dwyer extended existing jobactive contracts for a further two years, to the middle of 2022. One of 2019’s biggest policy reform opportunities sank with barely a ripple. Providers damned in a national review won contracts for another two years. Our most disadvantaged jobseekers lost out – again. A thick stew indeed.

Huntley’s essay tells us that Australians do not want to do away with democracy. We want to save it. The big question is: how?

Just as Australian democrats value substance over style, so it goes that ideas developed with local communities will matter as much as national reforms to systems and processes. Good democracies are stable. But they are not static. Nostalgia, whether it be for the reform era of the 1980s and ’90s (vale Bob Hawke) or the sanctity of our Anglo-American alliances, will not help Australia to grow and decarbonise our economy, create secure jobs, find our way in Asia, build an education nation, achieve equal rights for women and give substance to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Blind faith in markets, microeconomics and outsourced services will not elevate the public interest above shareholder interest. Put simply, the “good society” in the twenty-first century does not resemble the “good society” of last century. It is, Huntley writes powerfully, “there for the making.”

What is the point of Australia? Ben Chifley famously described one “great objective – the light on the hill,” which he defined as striving for the betterment of humankind not just in Australia but anywhere we may give a helping hand. Huntley offers another, built on the Australian Settlement, which is to solve big problems. She spruiks the strong social licence to act that governments often gain when Australians are convinced that “something is harmful to the collective good.” She also makes it clear that some of these challenges, not least climate change, will require “the kind of mobilisation of people and communities, assets and resources, governments and infrastructure usually reserved for a world war.”

Too often, attempts to galvanise communities around big challenges are done half-heartedly. As the Harvard University political scientist John Ruggie said on a visit to Australia in April, “If they’re not with you at take-off, they won’t be there when you land.” “Community deals” to boost economic and social inclusion, built from backbone institutions at the local level and based on place-based approaches, are a way forward. They can be used to tackle disadvantage and the inevitable transitioning of coal communities to new industries and opportunities. But they require honesty about the change ahead and genuine agency for affected communities to find hope and aspiration in a frank conversation about their future. We must be able to talk positively about what we hope to start in regional Australia, not simply what we want to stop, and bring everyone along on that journey.

The chance to mobilise Australia around new, bold missions was precisely why the Centre for Policy Development brought Mariana Mazzucato to Australia last year. Mazzucato’s work on public value and the entrepreneurial state doesn’t pit government against business, unions or the community. What it does provide is a framework for us all to agree on missions that we can have a crack at together. Achieving them would engage the long-held ambition Australians have for their democracy as a force for equality and help to satisfy their disposition to put growth on a smarter, more inclusive and more sustainable path.

Travers McLeod



Carol Johnson

In Australia Fair, Rebecca Huntley provides an insightful analysis of the mood of the nation, arguing that in many respects Australians already occupy a social-democratic space – one informed by values of fairness and compassion, as well as concern about issues such as climate change. Labor’s positive strategy in its 2019 election campaign suggested that it shared a similar analysis of the public’s support for progressive change. Indeed, if Labor had won, Huntley would have given a far more profound analysis of why than any other commentator.

As it turned out, Huntley provides an analysis that explains a great deal about the Coalition’s strategy. Faced with such a zeitgeist, it is not surprising that the Liberals’ best answer was to try to instil a fear of change, relying on arguments that Labor’s policies would wreck the economy, that ordinary Australians would be crippled by Labor’s higher “taxes,” and that properties would lose their value while rents would rise. The Liberals claimed they were already tackling climate change but in economically responsible ways, while Labor’s policies would destroy jobs and incomes, increase energy costs and even take away the tradie’s ute and the family car. No wonder, too, that the Liberals denied making substantial cuts to health and education and walked away from former treasurer Joe Hockey’s explicit rhetoric attacking citizens’ entitlements. Scott Morrison stated that there would be “a fair go for those who have a go.”

Overall, the Coalition was offering more of the same while Labor was arguing that things could not stay the same – that Australians need an economy and society that are environmentally sound, fairer and more inclusive. Huntley challenged Labor to listen to the nation and gain Australians’ trust. If Labor had won the 2019 election, she argued that an incoming Labor government should have seized the opportunities offered, both keeping its promises and developing an even more ambitious agenda. Labor should have been “bold,” “unapologetic” and “courageous.”

That Labor program was not to be, at least at this election. The Coalition’s framing of the issues, and its related scare campaign, won the day. It was Labor that was construed as unfair to ordinary voters ranging from retirees to home owners. The risks of change were construed as being greater than the risks of sticking with the political status quo. However, it should be noted that future governments, whether Liberal or Labor, are likely to face significant difficulties in managing the winds of change and in keeping the electorate’s trust. Australia’s economy is one that will neither stay the same nor be easy to make fairer. Climate change is only one of many difficult challenges that need to be faced. Australia will also have to negotiate both the Asian Century and technological disruption and, above all, the interactions of the two.

As I explain in my new book, Social Democracy and the Crisis of Equality: Australian Social Democracy in Changing Times, a future Labor government committed to increasing equality would face significant issues. Successive Australian governments have tended to depict the rise of Asian economies largely in positive terms: for example, as opening up amazing new markets for Australian goods and services as the Asian middle class grows. There are indeed major new opportunities; however, there is also increasing competition from goods and services produced in those countries, with implications for Australian jobs and incomes.

Unfortunately, technological disruption is increasing some negative impacts – for example, by facilitating the off-shoring of work in Australia to employees with lower pay and conditions overseas. While offshoring once mainly affected blue-collar workers in manufacturing or white-collar workers in call centres, it now also affects skilled workers in areas such as accounting, graphic design and law. For example, financial services companies are being offered packages in the Philippines or India in which highly skilled workers process financial data for as little as $7 or $12 an hour (and without the employer having to pay costs such as superannuation or payroll tax). In the longer term, Australian workers in areas ranging from mining to service delivery do not just face being replaced by local algorithms and robots – commentators such as Richard Baldwin suggest they could be replaced by lower-paid overseas employees working virtually onshore using telerobotics and telepresence.

Importantly, classic social-democratic measures such as investing in improving skills and training would not be sufficient to deal with such problems, given that Australian workers would not only be competing with highly skilled, and often English-speaking, workers from overseas, but also with ever smarter machines. Labor governments would certainly need to introduce bolder, more courageous and more imaginative policies.

Coalition governments might not be quite so concerned about some of the industrial relations and other equity issues as Labor would be. Indeed, Joe Hockey once argued that Australia could not afford some of its current welfare benefits, given the competition from Asian countries that spent a lower proportion of their GDP on welfare. However, all Australian governments would be concerned about potentially negative impacts on the Australian economy and their flow-on effects.

In the longer-term best case, the underlying zeitgeist Huntley describes may be able to be harnessed to support government measures that address these challenges in ways that do contribute to a fairer Australia. The many benefits of geo-economic change could be made to outweigh the downsides. Australians could even extend their concerns about fairness to the pay and conditions of workers overseas. Hope could triumph over fear. In the worst case, the social-democratic ethos may not withstand the joint pressures of social and economic change. We may see a less generous and more divided nation emerge that has lost faith in the ability of government to support and protect citizens.

The challenges for governments wishing to provide a better future are therefore substantial ones, and likely to become even more so in the coming years. Whether Australian politicians of any political persuasion are up to the task remains to be seen.

Carol Johnson



James Walter

Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair has two striking virtues. It reminds us of how important the mobilisation of belief is in politics. And it is a tonic for those of us who might think the absence of any productive action on worrying social problems over the past decade represents not only political incompetence but also public indifference. Yet the Coalition’s win in the 2019 federal election raises profound questions about how to reconcile Huntley’s evidence of a persisting public commitment to social democracy and the apparent repudiation of such a program by the electorate.

Huntley sets out to clear the ground, exploring public opinion to show that it is not resistance to reform or withdrawal from democratic engagement that are at issue, but a perception that political institutions and elites are failing to heed the clear opinion of majorities on our signal challenges: climate change, housing, immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers. Underlying this is an argument that, if only the people at large were listened to, the Australian commitment to social democracy – government that intervenes when necessary to ensure services are delivered, fairness and relative equality are sustained and market failure is addressed – would be acted upon.

Hers is an optimistic essay, acknowledging in the closing pages persisting hurdles, but clearly framed both in relation to the strength of opinion on these key issues, and a conviction that the time for a progressive renaissance is at hand – and, she hoped, almost certain to be delivered at the 2019 federal election. She does not oversimplify, recognising that the task can only be undertaken by a Labor government, and noting that though majority opinion is moving in the right direction on climate change, for instance, the public is “only inching” towards realising the scale of the threat it represents. In fact, a Lowy poll published since the essay was released, during the 2019 campaign, registered for the first time that climate change had reached the top of the list of public concerns: had a tipping point been reached? Apparently not, if the recent election outcome is taken into account.

I wanted to believe that Huntley was right, and still hope her essay is widely read. Yet reading it in the midst of the 2019 election campaign – as the polls tightened – prompted me to confront some questions that it begs, to do with how beliefs are mobilised in politics.

The first is this: if one accepts Huntley’s analysis of the progressive zeitgeist, then why is it that the Coalition government was so deaf to public demand? Well, of course it came to power on the back of Tony Abbott’s war on “the great big tax” supposedly represented by emissions trading. It’s not easy to backtrack after that, even as public attitudes move on, so thereafter the Coalition vigorously defended the status quo. It was also undoubtedly influenced by coal industry donations, lobbying and the strategic placement of industry insiders in ministers’ offices, as has been well documented. But more important than all of that was that it was hobbled by wars over belief within the party. Huntley’s focus on public opinion – polls and focus groups – does not sufficiently attend to the beliefs of party insiders and the dynamics among party activists and supporters.

Three research studies are indicative of the problem. Huntley cites CSIRO research that supports her contention about the growing support for government action on climate change. That research also hints at the divergence of conservatives from the mainstream, since it notes that conservative voters are less likely to believe that climate change is caused by human behaviour and less likely to think government should do more to address the issue. An earlier study, in 2012, by Kelly Fielding and others at the University of Queensland, sharpens this differentiation. It shows that among politicians, political party affiliation and ideology have a powerful influence on climate change beliefs, since centre-left and progressive parties exhibit beliefs more consistent with scientific consensus about climate change than non-aligned or conservative leaders, and that motivated social cognition (that is, accepting only information that accords with existing views) is a powerful factor among conservatives. Finally, new research published by Anika Gauja (University of Sydney) and Max Grömping (Heidelberg University) in 2019 demonstrates that there are not only differences between party supporters and the rest of us, but also between party supporters themselves. The stronger party identification becomes, the lower the congruence between the views of supporters and the broader public. Parties now can be conceptualised as a series of concentric circles of increasing engagement but declining representativeness.

This clarifies the Coalition’s predicament over recent years. In an age when the shared commitments that sustained mass parties have evaporated, leaders are relied on to stand in for the party, to speak for what it represents. Their success in doing so is evaluated by constant polling. But as party membership gets ever smaller, and residual true believers increasingly diverge from the mainstream, leaders are trapped. Abbott, arguably, faithfully represented the views of his party’s most intense identifiers, and fatally lost public support. Turnbull instead spoke for what the public wanted – a more progressive program in general, including action on climate change – but each attempt to respond to popular demand provoked insurgency in the party room from those claiming (with some justification) to represent the beliefs of the party base. Has the task of satisfying both public expectations and party demands become impossible?

One might think that this is a problem only for the Coalition parties; that a change of government and the cold reality of Opposition might have forced the Liberals to adapt and to reform the party to recapture a broader, small “l” liberal constituency. That is to assume that the more progressive parties are immune from that dynamic of concentric circles, where party central turns out to be least in tune with the public at large. The research does not support that assumption.

Bill Shorten, as his equivocation during the campaign revealed, had his own difficulties in balancing the demands of some of those workers the ALP represents (in mining areas) with the public demand for climate action. Labor’s lead in the polls tightened as, on one side, Queensland unionists worried about their jobs and, on the other, progressive climate activists rued his inability to go as far as some wanted. And while progressive parties now might be more attuned to the general directions of public opinion, the intense identifiers among them are prone to characteristic mistakes. Among the Greens, for instance, self-righteousness and the conviction that “most people” agree with them, at least on climate change, renders them blind to something Huntley also identifies: the pragmatic temperament of the Australian electorate.

Thus, at a time when the millennium drought had made the public receptive to a climate change message, the sainted Bob Brown refused to accept any pragmatic compromise and helped to spike Labor’s first attempt at legislating emissions reductions in 2009 because it was not “good enough.” It set the stage for a decade of climate wars. And there he was again this year, leading the Adani protest convoy, apparently oblivious that a tactic that plays well in St Kilda is completely counter-productive in Clermont, where, as one resident said, “Up here, coal is our economy. It is … everything!” Yes, Adani must be stopped, but to ride into town with an injunction, yet offer no suggestion for how to manage the transition to an alternative economic future, simply provoked derision: “Those guys have taken time off from their barista jobs and unemployment to drive up here in fuel-guzzling cars. I just think it’s an insult, a slap in the face.” It was a gift to the hard right struggling to hang on in those areas, encouraging some to bet that the egregious George Christensen would hold his marginal seat of Dawson. In the event, the election saw a swing of 11.26 per cent in favour of Christensen, with similar swings in adjoining coal-belt seats.

One other thing niggled away at my wish to share Huntley’s optimism: reliance on what seem to be solid majority trends underestimates the way shifts at the margins can now be manipulated to destabilise “common sense.” We have seen in Donald Trump’s campaign and in Brexit how marginal and diverse minority opinion groups can be influenced through social media into aggregate coalitions of resentment and fear, leaching support away from commonly held views. The hired guns of opinion analysis have become experts at nudging belief to these ends. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a stark instance. But our homegrown outfits working the same vein are no slouches. Crosby Textor’s role in British elections and the Brexit “leave” campaign was notable, and Scott Morrison mentioned Lynton Crosby as among the “experts” he “listened to” while campaigning. More worryingly, it is clear that the big spending and disruptive tactics of Clive Palmer’s UAP campaign, an overt instance of targeted messaging, were significant in influencing voting preferences to destroy Labor’s chances in Queensland, as Laura Tingle persistently reminded us on election night. He won no seats, not even a seat in the Senate, but note what he gained: leverage over a government that will likely facilitate exploitation of coal reserves in the Galilee Basin in which not only Adani, but Gina Rinehart and Palmer himself hold mining tenements.

Despite mulling over these concerns, I, like most, persisted in believing that the consistency of Labor’s apparent lead would ensure a win for progressives in 2019, but doubted there would be a landslide. It was not to be. And my concern about the disparity between public opinion and party insider belief underestimated the scale of the upset that eventuated. Labor’s dreams were smashed. There will now be many debates about why. The immediate question for Huntley is whether the disjunction between the election outcome (the repudiation of a progressive reform program) and her prior exposition of the Australian penchant for social democracy fatally undermines her argument. My conclusion is: not entirely.

Others will parse this question by looking closely at the differential clustering of opinion by age, geography and demography, to ask whether segmentation manifest in different regional voting patterns can explain how a very close election result can run counter to “national” opinion (as reported by Huntley). For my part, in trying to fathom the wreck of my own hopes, three things seem pertinent. First, one of my early mentors, the late Alan Davies, long ago explained the incoherence and inconsistency of our political outlooks, describing them as like a DIY project where we fashion a response “good enough” to satisfy a particular need, then put that aside until another challenge arises, when we might adopt something different, building up an assemblage of contradictory elements that we can draw on when prompted, but that we never squarely address (see his Skills, Outlooks and Passions, 1980). Different events will then elicit disparate responses (the question of a survey researcher on climate change, versus the task of deciding a vote, for instance). So it becomes possible for an individual to believe that action on climate change is needed, yet to vote for a party that shows little potential for action because a supervening belief (on sound economic management, for instance) is called forth.

Second, Chris Achen and Larry Bartels (Democracy for Realists, 2016) have shown convincingly that voting decisions are driven not by assessments of evidence and policy, but by group identity, emotion and a search for cues from those one regards as “people like us.” Thus, even Liberal supporters, well removed from the inner circles of party activism, closer to mainstream opinion and inclined to support climate action (Huntley notes that 60 per cent of Coalition voters are in this category), once in the voting booth will nevertheless succumb to the emotional pull of party identity and bridle at voting against “people like us.”

Third, one of the pioneers of opinion research, Walter Lippmann, nearly a century ago, warned us to be wary of “the phantom public” in a book of that title (1925). There is, he argued, no “public” out there waiting to be tapped; rather “publics” are created by political mobilisation, triggered by insiders for their own ends. They are emergent rather than stable entities, continually evolving in response to political action and representation. Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: “Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.” The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: “What should we do?” But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing “public” to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.

James Walter



Susan Carland

I felt something strange reading Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay.

It was such a peculiar sensation to feel while reading about modern Australian politics that initially it confused me. I went back to re-read passages multiple times, trying to translate my disorientation. Was it the arguments provided? The history? The data? No, no and no. The writing was lucid, the narrative engaging, the statistics helpful. So why did I feel unsettled?

At first, I classified this foreign feeling as hope. I could barely remember the last time I felt hopeful when considering Australian politics, but the details of where the majority of Australians sat on numerous topics were a pleasant surprise. Despite what political and media battles imply, Rebecca shows that the majority of Australians supported the original Gonski reforms, more funding for the NDIS and Medicare, and reined-in corporate donations to political parties. Rebecca even showed that the majority of Coalition voters (let alone everyone else) say climate change is caused by humans.

This was deeply encouraging, and for a moment I climbed into a boat of hope that, unexpectedly, also had the majority of my fellow Australians sitting inside it. Most of us wanted similar things for the nation! I was not in the minority! In a democracy, the will of the people prevails, so surely these things will be respected by our political leaders!

But quickly I realised it wasn’t hope that I was experiencing. At least, it wasn’t hope alone. Grafted onto my hope was intense frustration.

The very thing that gave me hope – that the majority of Australians wanted good and helpful things – was the same thing that made me despair. Because these wishes were not being reflected by our politicians. Some issues had been kicked under the couch and ignored by our leaders; others had been completely overruled and the very opposite cause aggressively championed instead. Why are schoolchildren going on massive protests for greater commitments to protecting the environment in a desperate attempt to get politicians’ attention, when these politicians already know this is what most voters want (and these same children are sneeringly dismissed by some politicians while they’re at it)?

It feels embarrassingly naive to be perturbed by this, like mine is a childish, simplistic view of democracy. But at its most fundamental level, democracy is meant to be about reflecting the will of the people. While politicians cannot check in with their constituents before they make each and every decision, and while policy change can be difficult and slow, the sheer number of topics Rebecca lists that have majority support but have been dismissed, ignored, overridden or put in the too-hard pile by our leaders is confronting. Self-preservation alone would suggest that politicians should listen keenly to the majority, so as to best reflect their will – and best keep their jobs. Yet on a litany of diverse issues, they aren’t listening. How has the will of the people been so misrepresented? And, more importantly, why?

We can speculate on the reasons: politicians prioritising internal factions and party-room squabbles ahead of public sentiment is one (the same-sex marriage survey may be the most extreme example of this). Politicians wanting to keep large donors with vested interests onside may be another. Myopic self-protection by politicians who don’t want to be responsible for change that will take longer than a three-year election cycle could be another.

That there is support across party lines over a long list of issues that are not being embraced by our leaders should bother us, but perhaps for more reasons than are first obvious.

The neglect of these concerns, and the self-serving dance between politicians and the media when discussing them, has led many of us to believe we, the majority, are actually the bleeding-heart minority. Consistently seeing politicians argue against tackling climate change, for example, creates a cognitive dissonance within us. If politicians are so reluctant to act on (or in some cases, even believe in) man-made climate change, we tell ourselves, then the only explanation is that this is what a large proportion of the electorate wants. Why else would our leaders act in such a nonsensical way, but to uphold democracy? And so, as Rebecca reports, in our minds we triple the number of Australians who reject climate change, assuming it’s 23 per cent when in reality it’s less than 8 per cent.

This is perhaps the most concerning detail to come out of Rebecca’s essay. Politicians’ behaviour is jarring with our understanding of democracy, so to reconcile that within ourselves, we assume the problem is with other voters – that they must be the ones who reject man-made climate change or don’t want to increase funding to the ABC. We project onto our fellow Australians the beliefs of our politicians. What this misplaced blame does to community cohesion cannot be underestimated. We are living in a time of profound social silos and tribalism, and this is being further entrenched by our politicians’ behaviour. They are creating divisions among voters – for instance, by pitting Adani mine jobs against climate change action. And so instead of turning on the politicians who don’t represent us, we turn on each other.

Tolkien warns, “False hopes are more dangerous than fears.” As I consider the hope I first felt while reading Rebecca’s essay and the systematic account of what the majority of us actually want (as opposed to what politicians imply we want), I wonder if that hope is misplaced and thus dangerous. After the recent election result, that would be an understandable conclusion to draw. But as Rebecca shows, while our belief in institutions, religions and politicians is falling off a cliff of resentment, we still believe in democracy. That belief is something we can have genuine hope in. And if our politicians continue to ignore what so many of us want, perhaps it is they who should be fearful.

Susan Carland


Response to Correspondence

Sebastian Smee

I am not an optimist about the possibility of self-improvement, or even dramatic personal change, so I regret the extent to which my essay came over as a rebuke: You are spending too much time online! You must change your life!

What I really meant, of course, was: I am spending too much time online. Help!

Help is just the thing an online existence can offer, as Fiona Wright reminds us in her response, my favourite among all these generous and eloquent replies. I loved reading them all, but Wright’s was my favourite. It felt like a just rebuke and it was wonderfully written: “In the hour before midnight we all dance in the front room, loose-limbed and sweaty and silly, and we laugh, hard, at the playlist we’ve all added tracks to. The air feels close and warm and like a heartbeat.”

I found Bri Lee’s description of online connections in the wake of trauma as “a gradual fumbling toward the light, often made easier by connections that might be impossible to forge in real life” utterly convincing. The passage in Briohny Doyle’s response that included “We don’t want to be alone, but we mourn the death of solitude” rang so true. I loved Ashleigh Wilson’s description of the threatened status of daydreaming – “those meandering jumbles of thought that can lead, every now and then, to clarity, and even to art” – and Imre Salusinszky’s evocations of the experience of travel before smartphones: “The isolation was painful, but also bracing.”

Somewhere in my essay I acknowledged the upside of social media, but I consigned it to a single paragraph. Lee is right: I “understated the power of the internet to allow previously disempowered, disconnected people to find each other and share their stories.” So let me state clearly that I don’t think social media is inherently bad. Not at all. It’s the drive to profit from it and the ensuing business model that, to me, looks bad – even disastrous. Part of the reason I wrote Net Loss was simply to join a growing chorus of voices sounding the alarm about these business models. I wanted to urge people to go beyond the naivety that treats social media companies as innocent platforms and insists, “But it’s central to my life and so helpful” – all of which is doubtless true – and to acknowledge instead that this experience, both individualised and collective, is part of an unfolding, society-wide crisis. I do not, as Lee suggests, “consider the internet the enemy.” That would be tilting at windmills. I use the internet every day, I depend on it, and I want, what’s more, almost all the things that Wright, Lee and Doyle value. I value them too.

I am worried, rather, about the companies that harness internet technology in order to profit from it, and the effect this is having on all of us. There is no doubt that these companies provide a compelling user experience. But that experience is also, in many cases, dangerously addictive – and not by accident. It is made to be so. This is affecting our children, who are more or less defenceless against the power of the gadgets we give them. In fact, I believe it is changing the very nature of childhood.

It is also affecting society at large, on a scale we are struggling, I think, to understand – in part because we don’t want to understand. Facebook is the punching bag du jour, but that’s because Facebook, which also owns Instagram, had 2.32 billion monthly active users last year. That’s almost a third of the world’s population. Instagram, meanwhile, has more than 1 billion active monthly users. (And yes, I got these figures from the internet.)

Facebook’s 2.32 billion users place their trust in the company. Its profitability depends on that trust, which Facebook converts into “surveillance, the sharing of user data, and behavioral modification,” in the words of Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and the man who introduced Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook exploits vulnerabilities in human psychology to manipulate attention, because that’s how it makes money. If it did all this as a neutral platform, which it claims to be, that would present a difficult problem. It would be difficult because Facebook has frequently made itself “neutrally” available to bad actors who weaponise it, amplify prejudice, undermine democracy and incite violence, sometimes – as in Myanmar – on a horrific scale. But the premise is wrong, because Facebook is not even close to being neutral. Facebook starts out, according to McNamee in his book Zucked, “giving users ‘what they want,’ but the algorithms are trained to nudge user attention in directions that Facebook wants. The algorithms choose posts calculated to press emotional buttons because scaring users or pissing them off increases time on site. When users pay attention, Facebook calls it engagement, but the goal is behavior modification that maximizes engagement and therefore makes advertising more valuable.”

Facebook is the fourth most valuable company in America. It has detailed profiles on every one of its users. It is controlled by a young man who, during the company’s period of maximum growth, did not believe in data privacy, who sought only to maximise user growth, engagement time, disclosure and sharing because he knew that his company’s value derived from these things.

The implications are massive. Remember: 2.32 billion active monthly users. “Behavioural modification” on this scale might make us all happier, healthier, more connected. Or it might not. It might instead lead, for instance, to changes in government. The results of the Brexit referendum and the US election triggered analyses showing that Facebook, in McNamee’s words, “conferred advantages to campaign messages based on fear or anger over those based on neutral or positive emotions.”

America is living with the results right now, in the form of a raging, infantile president, a corrupt and inept cabinet, a judicial system that looks set to change American society for decades to come, and a widespread, atavistic assault on science, journalism and truth itself.

This worries me. And since every social media company – not to mention every government with authoritarian leanings on both the left and the right – is learning from Facebook’s business success, I worry that down the track, we will only have to worry more.

But did I write my essay because I care so deeply about social media, its uses and abuses?

Not really. Each to his or her own. My wife is active on Facebook and uses it to keep her relationships with family and friends back in Australia meaningfully alive, whereas I, who have deleted my Facebook account (and never used it for personal purposes anyway), struggle to keep up with friends back home. Dear friends. Why? What’s my problem?

I wrote the essay more, I think, to find ways to talk about an obscure feeling I have, and have always had, of being somehow inside myself – full of thoughts and feelings, some exuberant, some melancholy; some simple, some absurdly elaborate – yet being unable, except in rare moments of consolation or bliss, to connect those feelings with other people.

Unable or (and here’s the strange thing) unwilling. Because often the feeling I have is that I don’t want to share, that what is in my head is too special, too precious to share – and that by inference, perhaps, I am too special and precious. This is a kind of narcissism, to be sure.

But it is also what I meant by inner life. We are all, I think – and to a larger extent than we like to admit – islands. No one is carrying around the same experiences in their heads that I do. No one has anything like the same experiences and feelings as my mother, or my father, who are now in their seventies. When they die, we will talk about how special and irreplaceable they are, how much has been lost. But why not talk about it now? They are both utterly unique – not just their genetic make-up but the things they have experienced, learned and read, the things they have made with their hands, the places they have been, the languages they speak, the patterns of connection inside their brains, the things that have most moved them, their inner lives.

“Only connect!” exhorted E.M. Forster (one of the great describers of inner life). But aren’t missed connections so interesting!

When I was in my early twenties and feeling low, a concerned family member suggested that I do some volunteer work, just to get me out of my own head. It was good advice. I took it. My aunt had a contact at the Children’s Hospital. I went along and for a few days worked on the adolescent ward, where the kids who had eating disorders and were long-term patients were gearing up for a party. My job was to help out – garland the place with paper ribbons and so on – but also (ironically, given my own state of mind) to try to contribute a bit of festive cheer. I knew nothing about eating disorders and didn’t learn much either. But I got to know one of the girls there. She was unwell, bedridden, very thin, but making progress. She had been hospitalised for several months.

The part I remember most vividly is when she had a visitor, who was also a teenage girl. The visitor had been to a Madonna concert the night before, and was coming in to tell her friend about it. She had auburn hair, light freckles and a slight accent I couldn’t place. Until a few days earlier, she had been a long-term patient herself. Through the trial of hospitalisation, the two girls had clearly formed a close, mutually supportive friendship. The visitor had made good progress and been released. Her friend still had a way to go. Their conversation that day was awkward, sweet, hopeful, sincere. They didn’t seem to mind me being there, although perhaps they were just being polite.

The tough part came when it was time for the visitor to leave. Both girls put a brave spin on it, but the farewell was full of sadness, in mutual acknowledgment of a cleaving reality: you are free to go, I have to stay; you got to dance the night away at the Madonna concert, I get a pathetic party in this hospital ward; we formed a life-saving bond; you are now leaving me with this random guy, these nurses, these doctors.

The point of my telling this story? I suppose I am trying to signal that I think I understand Wright’s explanation of the benefits of Facebook, and that I understand that yes, all of this online activity is also inner life – urgently so. Had it existed all those years ago, social media would likely have helped the visitor and her friend, providing practical help for survival, ameliorating their separate struggles by fusing them, as much as possible, into a shared struggle – the very definition not just of community, but of something like love.

But I am also still thinking about the problem of connection and the strange dynamics of being there and not being there. This dynamic, which haunts our online existences, but also our lives more generally, somehow remains at the heart of what I was trying to say.

There is a woman in an Alice Munro story who finds herself at the checkout in a small town’s general store. She presents her unusually big pile of groceries to the woman at the cash register, who says – with a “comradely sort of envy” – “You must’ve brought home company.”

“When I wasn’t expecting it,” confirms the woman, adding (of men): “What a lot of bother they are. Not to mention expense. Look at that bacon. And cream.”

“I could stand a bit of it,” says the shopkeeper.

It’s odd, I know, but the shopkeeper reminds me in some strange way of the girl on the ward listening to her friend’s account of the previous night’s Madonna concert. “I could stand a bit of it,” she seemed to be thinking that day, in her comradely sort of way.

And I felt a similar thing myself while reading Wright’s description of dancing in her living room. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a man and a woman dancing at a party. I would write about it (they were dancing together, sweaty and loose-limbed, for more than an hour, their movements and the thing that was going on between them so intimate and extravagant at the same time, and I, a terrible dancer, like a shameful voyeur, couldn’t look away because it was like looking into a fire: I felt I was looking at life itself) but if I say more I will surely betray that feeling, and anyway, this is not the occasion.

Sebastian Smee



Imre Salusinszky

In Net Loss, Sebastian Smee worries that in the age of the internet the inner self is becoming “harshly illuminated and remorselessly externalised, and at the same time flattened, constricted and quantified.” It is getting harder, he suggests, “to be alone with ourselves.” He says one context in which the beleaguered inner life comes into play is “when we feel ourselves to be in an intensely charged relationship with things, or people, or works of art, that are outside us.”

It seems to me that travel is a paradigmatic example of this context and illustrates what has been gained and lost in the era of the smartphone. I am talking here about what travel means, or meant, for young Australians last century. Remember what going overseas was like before the smartphone and the internet? Remember how cut-off we felt, travelling or studying or working overseas for a year or more? Remember hanging out for the weekly aerogramme from home, or the three-day-old VFL scores in the International Herald Tribune? When you went away in the 1970s, you really went away. The isolation was painful, but also bracing. We not only learnt a good deal about ourselves, but were also forced to engage with the cultures and places we were visiting, and of course with the strangers we met on the road.

Coincidentally, I read Smee’s essay just as I sat down with my family for our annual viewing of the 1987 John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In this story of two ill-matched, accidental travelling companions, Neal Page (Steve Martin), a fastidious, upper-middle-class marketing professional, finds himself thrown together with a messy, unfailingly cheerful travelling salesman called Del Griffith (John Candy). Meeting as strangers at La Guardia airport, both men are headed to Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday. A blizzard, along with other complications too numerous to summarise, sends them on a lengthy detour using the film’s eponymous modes of transportation. At once a road movie and a buddy movie, with two genius comic actors at the top of their form, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is ideal summer holiday fare. But almost nothing in the plot would work if you tried to re-make it today. Neal and Del would never end up spending their first stranded night sharing a double bed in a cheap motel in Wichita, because Neal would have used his smartphone to find somewhere classier to stay and promptly summoned an Uber to get him there (rather than the garish low-rider taxi provided by a friend of Del, who of course has been to Wichita many times). Using various travel apps, Neal would find ways to re-route his trip that didn’t involve, among other improvisations, a ride in the refrigerated trailer of a meat truck. In short, the internet would provide Neal with whatever savvy and local knowledge was necessary to avoid entering into a reluctant partnership with somebody like Del.

Even if two such unlikely companions were forced to spend time together, in this century, Neal would find refuge from Del’s incessant chatter in the online edition of The New Yorker, while Del could seek solace in the arms of YouTube. And, most crucially of all, Neal would be in constant communication with his wife and kids back home in Chicago – via emails, text messages, ironic selfies and voice calls – instead of being limited to issuing them rushed updates whenever he can find a payphone.

For Neal Page, a journey through the regional Midwest, sharing cheap motel rooms with an overweight battler, is also a journey to the limits of his patience and tolerance, especially towards those who do not share his social class and its attitudes. Del Griffith, meanwhile, comes to understand that overbearing bonhomie is not always the ideal approach for making a new friend. Through the experience of being alone, together, away from home, both men change, grow and learn.

Travel, before the internet, was rich with these experiences. It had something to do with our isolation from habitual personal and cultural supports, and the resulting necessity to find new ones. When we remain permanently “connected,” most of this necessity disappears. We cannot be forced outside our comfort zone, because it is there in our smartphone.

The ubiquity of the smartphone, I suggest, marks the tipping point of the process Smee is worried about, in which our capacity for solitude, and whatever we may draw from it, has been disrupted. The internet, Google, email, even social media – none of these advances in information technology would have had their transformative effect if the smartphone had not come along and put them all in our pocket.

It’s more than just the availability of the internet: our smartphones have us all “on call” 24/7. We are available. We can be summoned – out of reverie, out of solitude, even out of companionship. If you take an audit of a random crowd of workers leaving a suburban railway station in the early evening, as I sometimes do as I walk my dog, you will find that the vast majority of them have, in fact, been summoned out of solitude and reflection by their smartphones.

Of course I understand that it is still possible to travel, to explore, to learn and to change: not only possible, but, thanks to the smartphone and the internet, also cheaper and more convenient than ever before. But the character of travel has altered fundamentally, and as a result the inner self rarely finds itself confronted and challenged by personal and cultural isolation. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is barely thirty years old, but the world of travel it portrays is dead and gone.

In the age of Google Maps, our sons and daughters will never comprehend what Bonnie Tyler means when she warbles about being “lost in France in love.” Whether this is actually a net loss is uncertain, given some of the positives, such as being able to carry the entire human archive with us wherever we go. But it is certainly a conversation worth having.

Imre Salusinszky



Melanie Joosten

Until I read Net Loss, I had not considered the possibility that my inner life was damaged beyond repair. I was holding onto the belief that not clicking on ads made me unfathomable to advertisers, that turning off the notifications on my social media apps rendered me immune to the internet’s deleterious effects. I thought I was safely standing at the edge of the vast ocean of the internet’s subsuming mediocrity, just dipping my toes in, admiring the view. Reading Smee’s essay, I realised I was already drenched in online distractions. I was possibly even drowning (definitely not waving), and it was time to get serious about nurturing my inner life lest it disappear altogether.

Cannily, Smee puts readers like me at ease with his confession that he spends hours on his phone every day. This was kind reassurance that he would not be preaching from some higher place beyond the wifi signal. In an eloquent but never patronising manner, he argues that all this mindless scrolling is insidious, damaging our minds and filling them with detritus, so that we can no longer judge what is important and what is not. We are in danger of spending so much time preening our surfaces – our Instagram-ready light-drenched homes, our aerial shots of nourishing foods, our long-haired children with their wooden toys and organic cotton rompers – for the viewing pleasure of others that there is no room within our minds for what makes us feel truly seen or understood, what snaps and sparks our intellects into the service of joy.

Net Loss touches on the way being a parent or being in a marriage can bump rudely against one’s inner life; how even as these relationships provide a sense of ballast and happiness they are essentially in competition with the self. Reading this, it struck me that the heavy weight of mothering (yes, mothering, not just parenting – don’t @ me), brings an even more consuming threat to a robust inner life than just the perilous distractions of social media – a double whammy, if you will.

The quandary of looking after young children is well known: so much time spent on tasks that require little more than your presence and, consequently, so much time to think about all the intellectually satisfying things you could be doing if you weren’t pulling errant textas out of the subwoofer, coaxing a nipple into a teething mouth or cleaning smooshed banana from the couch. Claudia Dey describes it perfectly in an essay in The Paris Review:

The private actions of the mother’s mind – her scholarship, perversions, miscellany, narcissism – are swamped by the bureaucracy of parenting. A ticker tape hurtles across the mother’s brain listing all of the things she must remember: spoon, bathing suit, milk, booster shot, sign-up, pickup, 3:15. These lists are a form of paying attention, which is a form of love. Love, a wise woman once told me, is how you make the other person feel. Love is how you make your child feel. You accomplish the list. And then the list, indomitable, grows anew.

She speaks the truth. I have just spent twelve months on maternity leave with my second child and among the antics, the terror of the growing list and a lack of adult conversation, I often found myself reaching for my phone, desperate for a signal from the outside. Or even better, a “like” of one of my social media posts, carefully constructed to prove that I was still a functioning part of the world “out there,” which now seemed so distant.

Increasingly I realised that these distracted dips into the online world were making me feel listless – sometimes even useless, jealous, pathetic or sad – rather than invigorated. My hyper-awareness of all the voices in the online world was making my own world harder to be in. My daughters had laid claim to most of my time – I needed to ensure social media did not devour every remaining moment of the day, leaving me with nothing. So I stepped back. I stopped checking Twitter, I logged out of Facebook, and I looked up from the screen. Smee’s essay came at just the right time to help me articulate why this was necessary.

I had believed everyone who told me that becoming a mother was going to be the end of my inner life. That changing priorities and the subsuming love would overpower any personal direction or desire. I knew I would no longer have time for the reading or writing that were integral to my sense of self; I was resigned to being reduced to the algorithm of first-time mother, even as I raged against it. Every time I opened my browser, there were ads for baby paraphernalia and links to articles about mothers: women who existed only in the service of their offspring. I couldn’t see myself in them, but who else could I possibly be?

So I was genuinely surprised to find that when I had recovered from the bloody cleaving and splitting of my body, I was still very much the same person I had always been. I still wanted to read the same books, see the same theatre and start piecing together a new novel. It was the logistics that had changed rather than the desire – and need – for the activities themselves. I now write in small moments of snatched time or larger ones negotiated with my husband (also a writer). I try to avoid the time-suck of social media and make efforts not to search out reviews of every movie I’ve seen or book I’ve read, opinion pieces on what to be outraged by or where to direct my scorn. It’s not easy; I’d become used to the piecemeal energy that the clamour of online distractions offered. Instead, I try to make enough room for my own voice, even if only within my own head, because otherwise I am shouting to be heard: at myself; at my children; at the void.

It is hard to put time aside to nurture my inner life, because it seems like an indulgence. By way of demonstration, Smee’s essay refutes this, making the statement that consuming and creating art are important. His references to various artworks and how they make him feel and think attest to the worth of their creation and his taking the time to understand them. This is what I needed to hear. I write because it engages my mind, allows me to express things I must and gives me the opportunity to think on the page. Writing is an imperfect rendering of my inner life and indispensable to holding together my sense of self. The word “hobby” has always seemed too light, too diminutive for the pleasure and purpose that such activities bring, but I have begun to see that it is through my “hobbies” that my sense of self expands in a way that the reductive online world discourages.

Busier now, I cannot go to a gallery or read long texts without taking myself away from my children, even when in their presence. This is hard: not to resent the hours lost to playgrounds and swimming pools. So, in order not to isolate myself, I turn to my daughters to do some of the heavy lifting – I observe them being in the world and creating their own selves just as I might observe actors in a play, or an artist rendering emotions in paint. Smee’s description of video artists Trecartin and Fitch is eerily and hilariously reminiscent of toddlers, who also demonstrate “what the human personality looks like when there is no inner life, when everything is externalised.”

As the inner life of my three-year-old daughter forms, it bursts out of her constantly, her body and face expressing what she will one day learn to restrain. Watching her learn to “perform” her self, and to start hiding away some of her feelings, I realise that my inner life – this thing I cultivate in time away from my children – while so essential to my own being, will always remain obscure and unknowable to them. As it should. However, when Smee writes about the panic induced by the realisation of our aloneness, and that death will one day take with us whatever we regard as a soul or self, I wonder: am I guarding my inner life too fiercely? Recording an online version of oneself is a valiant attempt to share – to be seen and heard, to be a part of something. But it is damagingly reductive. Algorithms don’t allow for the ambivalence, the nuance, the multiple truths. I want my daughters to grow up and accept the mess of life, not just cleaned-up data and identities shorn of subtlety and ambiguity.

So perhaps – in real life – I need to attempt to make the line between the inner and outer self more permeable. Sharing some parts of my inner life with those I am close to will give me less reason to seek the voices and validation of the online world. It may also strengthen and magnify my inner life – or at the very least, keep it visible to me.

Melanie Joosten



Ashleigh Wilson

Last April, when Mark Zuckerberg visited Washington to testify before the US Congress, he looked penitent but prepared. Zuckerberg had come to take responsibility for Facebook and explain how the personal data of its users would be better protected. He performed well enough, though there wasn’t a lot he could say to stop public opinion turning against him. It was turning against his peers, too. The world’s technology giants have been looking anything but benign recently, which is why the executives who run them have gone on the defensive as never before.

At the same time, a collective recalibration has been underway about the devices attached so intimately to our lives. Like poker machines adorned with hotlines for problem gambling, these products now come with health warnings.

If digital devices are harmful – psychologically, physically – the consequences may not be clear for years. This seems especially the case when we consider the interior spaces that Sebastian Smee explores in his elegant, disturbing essay. Who knows: by the time these maladies have been diagnosed, it might be too late.

But as I read his essay, following a trajectory that roamed from Instagram and Twitter to Francis Bacon and Chekhov – pausing every ten pages or so to check my phone, occasionally scrolling past social media posts from Sebastian himself – I found myself thinking about a related issue: the gradual disappearance of downtime. For the first time in human history, we have the capacity to fill every waking moment of our lives. Is it possible, though, that we’re giving up something along the way? Perhaps there’s a cost to creativity when we no longer allow our minds to float.

Those health warnings give us reason to pause. In 2018, Apple released an updated operating system that included Screen Time, a feature that tracks how long we spent on our devices. (It also has an option to “schedule time away from the screen.”) Is Screen Time meant to make us feel empowered? For me, those notifications prompt a very different emotion: shame. It’s difficult to justify a daily average of 2 hours 53 minutes, as my recent update tells me, even if I tell myself that repeated visits to Instagram, Twitter, Gmail and are essential to my day. But I suspect there’s another reason for the shame. It’s a niggling feeling, a distant sense that something is slipping away. Perhaps it has to do with losing touch of the messy details that make our worlds so colourful and unknowable, the “gritty precipitate,” as Sebastian puts it, of our lives.

Last year, Google announced its own suggestions for “digital wellbeing.” This was one of its tips: “Schedule custom breathers as often as you want, pausing what you’re currently watching and encouraging you to step away.”

The problem, though, goes deeper. It’s one thing to circumscribe your social media use during work hours or stop answering emails from bed, but it’s something else entirely to allow ourselves those brief spaces between all this activity when once we would drift, lost in our thoughts.

Look around: passengers on a bus, lost in their phones; office workers colliding on the street; customers in a lunch queue, head down, scrolling.

I don’t mean to be judgmental: I do this too. But not so long ago, we filled these gaps in our lives – commuting, waiting for a lunch, long drives, walking – with our thoughts. Now the gaps are closing, and I fear we’re losing our ability to sit and think. To let our minds wander. To daydream.

This is not an argument for meditation, where the goal is a state of mindlessness, or an internal stillness. I’m referring to those meandering jumbles of thought that can lead, every now and then, to clarity, and even to art.

Many years ago, I used to complain during long drives through the Queensland bush, and my late grandmother always responded the same way. “Only boring people get bored,” she said, and I rolled my eyes every time.

(By the way, I should come clean about my Screen Time update. My recent average was 3 hours 20 minutes, half an hour more than the number I quoted earlier. Yes, I downplayed my average.)

There’s a passage in Shell, the 2018 novel by Kristina Olsson, in which a Swedish glass artist is on a ferry heading towards the Sydney Opera House, still under construction. He’s baffled by the indifference of the other passengers: “To him, even now, the Opera House rose up like an idea as the ferry approached the quay, something he’d dreamed and was slowly remembering. He didn’t want to lose that sense of the place, wanted never to feel it as so familiar that he would sit on a ferry and look away.”

Nick Cave, the songwriter, reflected recently about the way great trauma can rob an artist of his or her “sense of wonder.” He was answering questions from fans on his website, and on another page he responded to a question about creativity. “Ideas are everywhere and forever available,” he wrote, “provided you are prepared to accept them.”

This brings to mind a lecture I attended two decades ago at Sydney University. I wish I could recall the lecturer’s name, but he was talking about Emily Dickinson, specifically her hummingbird poem:

A Route of Evanescence,

With a revolving Wheel –

A Resonance of Emerald

A Rush of Cochineal –

And every Blossom on the Bush

Adjusts its tumbled Head –

The Mail from Tunis – probably,

An easy Morning’s Ride –

I remember him luxuriating in the wonder of these words, encouraging us to see the poet dreaming about the whirl of colour and movement. Dickinson was writing a long time before the Wright brothers began their experiments in the sky, and this, I think, was my lecturer’s point. He was telling us about the power of imagination. Before we can create an object, we need to imagine it. And how better to imagine flight than by reflecting on the majesty of the hummingbird and then to wonder what it would take to harness such power, to travel on the wind, to send messages from the most exotic parts of the globe in the time it takes for an easy morning ride.

Ashleigh Wilson



Fiona Wright

To say upfront what needs to be said: I am a millennial. I am a millennial, and this response will probably seem solipsistic, and it will be fragmentary. It’s not that I can’t help it. It’s not my attention span, my inherent narcissism. I’m just making a point.


I went to a party on New Year’s Eve, a fairly small party, at my friend Theo’s house. Early on, I started chatting to some people hanging about in the kitchen, near the chips, near the cheese; I asked them how they know Theo and one said, oh, I know him from Twitter. Yeah, me too, said another.

I know Theo as a friend-of-a-friend, and I found out later that the friend who introduced us also met him on Twitter. And he was new to Sydney, he adds, so we went out for a drink.

In the hour before midnight we all dance in the front room, loose-limbed and sweaty and silly, and we laugh, hard, at the playlist we’ve all added tracks to. The air feels close and warm and like a heartbeat.


On Facebook, I have a group of men and women whom I met in hospital, as well as men and women I haven’t met who’ve been admitted there since. We ask each other for advice, for recommendations of dietitians and psychologists, we share frustrations and small triumphs and those niggling awful thoughts that only people who know this illness understand. It’s these people I go to when I can’t stop thinking that I should stop taking my meds because I’ve decided they’re making me hungry. It’s these people I go to when I fit back into my older, larger swimsuit, and feel triumphant and terribly sad, both at once. And yes, we share photos of food – but here they mean something powerful, something exultant, something extraordinary.


On Instagram, my artist friend is cutting up old canvases to stitch them into something new. Another is hanging her show in Dubbo and her beautifully detailed miniatures look like the scales of a giant sea-creature, silvery and somehow fluid, there on the wall. My friend, a burlesque dancer, posts photos from the class she teaches, a line of women, all shapes and sizes, laughing and shimmying. A photographer, some glossy stills from a recent shoot, low-lit landscapes, eerie and plangent. None of these I would ever, otherwise, have seen.


On Facebook, I have a group of writers who share job opportunities, and competitions, and calls for pitches and submissions, who share book and research recommendations, warnings about dodgy clients, advice about pay rates, commiserations over rejections. One writer is working on a PhD proposal, so I send her mine to use as a model. Another isn’t sure if the word he’s using is a regionalism, and within an hour has responses from all across the country, confirming or denying that it’s used there. I need access to a university library, and someone loans me their credentials. We’re freelancers. We have no job security, no company resources, no employers. But we do have each other, and this feels important.


On Instagram, I follow an account where women – it doesn’t explicitly say they’re women, but they so obviously are – post screenshots of the awful or disgusting or just generally creepy messages that men on Tinder send them (the sender’s name always obscured), and this feels revolutionary.

On Instagram, I follow an account where a woman, an ordinary-looking, unmade-up woman, takes photos of herself beaming and holding junk food – a Heineken beer she calls “green juice,” three broken-open crème eggs labelled as a “protein breakfast,” a Bounty chocolate bar captioned “coconut and cacao bite” and this feels revolutionary.


Through Facebook, a woman in the States has organised both the funds to pay a migrant woman’s bail and a convoy of volunteer drivers to take her across the breadth of that country to where her children had been taken after they were separated at the border by migration officials. So many people offered money, offered help, that she has since arranged to do this for many more women, to provide them with legal aid, assistance with housing, amenities, clothes.

On Twitter, I read about a woman raising money to pay the fines of impoverished Indigenous women mandatorily imprisoned in Western Australia for being unable to make those payments themselves. Five thousand people donate in four days. Thirty women are set free in the same time. This isn’t clicktivism. This is defiance.


On Instagram, a poet friend takes photos of her semi-industrial suburb – concrete driveways, wire fences, bougainvillea gone rampantly wild – and is using them to write a new collection. On Instagram, a novelist friend takes photos of details of suburban houses – art nouveau friezes, dichromatic brickwork, porticos and pebbledash letterboxes – and uses these to write his debut. On Instagram, a writer friend takes photos of old-fashioned and outmoded Sydney buildings – a dusty milk bar on Parramatta Road, a mushroom-shaped reservoir towering above Petersham, a roller-skating rink, a civic centre – and maps these in her work. These books are smart and literary, thoughtful and odd, and full of joy and longing.


On Twitter, last year, I started following people writing about chronic illness and disability, and I read and I read: their posts, their links, their articles. On Facebook, I joined a group of writers with chronic illness and disability, and I read, and I learned. I would not have been able to come to terms with my own illness, to think of and accept it as disability, without this, not at all; and this is a revelation.

And all of this is inner life.

Fiona Wright



Raimond Gaita

Sebastian Smee has written a wonderfully rich and complex essay. It’s hard to engage with it in a short response. That’s not his fault. We are, he says, becoming estranged from concepts we need as we try to understand ourselves. In part, he thinks, along with Zadie Smith, that’s because we have been shameless accomplices to the ways Facebook and other social media have undermined the conditions for their application. Those concepts defined what he fears is now “an exhausted and tattered humanism.” They enabled us to explore, in ways that went deep, our inner life and who we are. Now, he believes, we have acquiesced in the diminishment of both in ways that serve the financial interests of social media and those who benefit from its unprincipled data-sharing. If he’s right, then we don’t know whether we are lost in a new conceptual landscape, looking back nostalgically at the one in which we grew up but to which we cannot return, or are still in the old one, also lost, because so much of it is in tatters.

Other forces play their part in eroding the conceptual ground from under us. Many people speak now of post- and trans-humanism. They tell us that the ethically inflected ways in which we speak of humanity (“Be a human being for once in your life,” “Treat me like a human being,” “He’s a human being, not a monster,” for example) are suspect and mislead us about what carries the ethical load. It’s not humanity, they say, it’s the concept of a person, or even more abstractly and therefore potentially more universally, the concept of a rational agent. We are reminded to speak of human beings and other animals rather than of human beings and animals. We are invited to welcome the future in which we join in full ethical companionship with robots. Instead of wondering nervously when robots will become like us, we should ask when we will become like them – when, for example, will we be able to replace damaged limbs and body tissue, including brain tissue, with whatever we make robots out of? Who does not hope for the day when a brain-damaged person will be able to recover fully with manufactured brain matter?

“Matter” is the operative concept rather than “flesh and blood,” with all the resonances that has had for us (“You’re my own flesh and blood” doesn’t mean, though of course it doesn’t deny, that you’re a biological relative of the same animal species). Smee refers to a friend who said to him, “We are all just basically algorithms.” It’s hard to know what that means other than being a gesture towards the kind of materialism that looks upon our embodiment as inessential to whatever ethical and other attributes we need to treat some robots as our friends, fully our moral equals. Smee says he is also materialist, which doesn’t seem to come to much more than denying that we possess immaterial souls or minds, but he is ambivalent towards what his friend said. He says it bores him, even when he thinks only a little about it (a short paragraph in the essay), and with deflationary irony he reports that he doesn’t feel like an algorithm. Nonetheless, anxiety about and resistance to the reductionist implication of his friend’s remark keep resurfacing in the essay. He asks, “Is the resistance I feel [to thinking of himself as an algorithm] an old, sentimental and deluded way of seeing things … That old idea of ‘nature,’ those paintings.” But when you read his wonderful description of the faces of the teacher and her pupil in Chardin’s painting, it’s hard to believe he is uncertain about how important it is that we are beings with faces to look into. “Does a bird have a face?” a philosopher used to ask students who were being interviewed for places in a philosophy department. It was a good question. The human body, Wittgenstein said, is the best picture of the human soul. He wasn’t referring to an immaterial substance, no more than we are when we speak of soul-destroying work.

Who belongs to the “we” to which he and I refer? It doesn’t express an empirical generalisation: it’s an invitation. Smee makes that explicit: “Every day I spend hours on my phone. We are all doing it, aren’t we?”

He cites no empirical studies, though there are plenty, many of them depressing. I don’t think that’s a failing. Nothing important that he says is vulnerable to empirical refutation, not because he is thoroughly on top of the empirical studies, but because his is a reflection in a different cognitive realm. The task he has set himself is conceptual, though not as it was for philosophers in the heyday of conceptual analysis (and now for that matter). For philosophers (for the most part) and empirical psychologists (for the most part), art is extrinsic to the cognitive character of what they do. They sometimes find it helpful, providing examples (usually ethical) to the former and hypotheses to the latter. But when one reads Smee’s discussions of Chekhov, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Munro, Chardin and Cézanne, all of them a joy, it becomes evident that they (the artists and the kind of discussion he offers of them) are essential to the kind of understanding he seeks. Smee writes beautifully. He writes English “at full stretch,” to take an expression from the philosopher Cora Diamond. In that kind of writing, style and content are inseparable. It’s writing that can be seductive, and can move us to consent to things we realise later, after reflection, that we shouldn’t have consented to, perhaps because our ear for tone or for what rings false is undeveloped, or perhaps because we were sentimental, as he fears he may be when he reflects on how he thought of nature. The need to overcome such failings defines and disciplines a distinctive sensibility. To render oneself answerable to it is to be engaged in one kind of “trying to see things as they are.”

That’s not how Ryan Trecartin and Lissie Fitch see things. I agree with Smee that they are brilliant filmmakers, but I could not find my feet with them (another metaphor from the humanism that tells us we have to find solid ground if we are to have any hope of being critically sober). In the comment thread of I-Be Area, someone wrote, “This is the best thing I’ve never understood.” I found that interesting: the person who wrote it might let the work flow slowly and subconsciously in his mind, allowing it to resurface now and then. Eventually – it could take years – he might say, “Now I understand,” which, of course, might not be true. That’s how it is with much of our thinking about life. Sometimes, when we do not understand everything that others say at the time they say it, we trust what they say enough to allow it to enter our lives, to find, in its own time, ways to engage with what we already know and with our capacities – emotional, intellectual and spiritual – for understanding. A number of times in his essay, Smee reminds us that we often learn most deeply when we are moved by what people say or do, in life or in art.

When I was a student, a teacher, Martin Winkler, said something to me that shook me, to the core it turned out. I was defending a friend who expressed a prissy, condescending conception of social responsibility, disdainful of what he called the “mass hysteria” of kids at a Beatles concerts in the 1960s. Winkler detested what I was defending. He listened for a long time. Just past midnight, he placed his hands on the table, leant forward, holding me fast in a look I could not avoid, and said, “Gaita. Do you know what the core of responsibility is? It is responsiveness to the needs of another in a lived encounter.” (I’m quoting from memory.) I didn’t understand what he meant, but was profoundly moved. He said I should read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I didn’t understand that either. Almost thirty years later I dedicated my first book to Winkler. I could have subtitled it, “Responsiveness to need.” I’m still grateful for his loving severity.

Winkler probably knew I didn’t understand, but he trusted that one day I might. To do that, he had to trust that I wasn’t seduced by his charismatic personality, powerfully expressed in his dramatic demeanour that evening. He cared for me and wanted me to learn to think for myself. He called me, as I have put it elsewhere, to “an individuating responsiveness,” to be wholly alive and alert, to answer and, later, to reflect critically on what he told me, allowing it to be informed by and to inform experiences that were my history and had made me who I was. That presupposes a collectedness in the present moment and over time that is not consistent with experimenting with multiple selves.

Smee quotes Mark Trade in the Trecartin and Fitch film that carries his name, saying, “The human era went like that, like a sweatshirt on a camp fire.” Later Smee says, “Other truths emerge from these films like bats in the night.” They speak, he says, to a sense that many people, especially teenagers, have that “no one is listening.” Then he goes on to say that “the film proposes that no one need listen.” If that were true, then Mark Trade would be right. Does that sound like a new idea of humanity, one that transcends all ethically defining ways of speaking of our humanity, as post-humanists claim theirs does? Or does it sound like old-fashioned dehumanisation?

In a fine essay called “Human Personality,” Simone Weil asks, “What is sacred in every human being?” She rejects a number of suggestions and says:

At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being … Every time there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry, “Why am I being hurt?” then there is certainly injustice. Many people do not hear it. For it is a silent cry that sounds only in the secret heart.

Later in the same essay, she says of those who “have suffered too many blows” that “the place in the heart from which the infliction of evil evokes a cry of surprise may seem dead. But it is never quite dead; it is simply unable to cry out anymore. It has sunk into a state of dumb and ceaseless lamentation.” That is hard-headed, truthful description of how it is for many asylum seekers and others who suffer severe and degrading affliction because we have found no need, or decided not, to listen.

Smee quotes Galen Strawson summarising Iris Murdoch’s argument in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

We are limited, imperfect, unfinished and full of blankness and jumble … We are divided creatures, distracted creatures, extended, layered, pulled apart, our minds are like ragbags … We cannot see things as they are.

Maybe we human beings are mostly a mess. After Freud, we can hardly think that is not true to a considerable degree. But Murdoch did not believe that we have lost the concepts that enable us to see the mess as a mess and to aspire to something better, even if often we don’t have the desire to. Though she believed we are incorrigibly resistant to seeing things as they are, she did not think that there is no such thing as seeing things as they are rather than as they appear from the many false perspectives into which we are seduced or bullied by the “fat relentless ego.” But, of course, what it is to see things as they are will be different for different domains of inquiry and reflection. In physics, it is one kind of thing. In literature, it is another. To see the reality of another person, she says, is a work of love, justice and pity. Obviously, reality is an ethically loaded term for her. So it is for Smee when he speaks of moments when reality becomes “really real” for us.

Often we ask ourselves, “Who am I really?” Or, “What would people think if they knew me as I really am, if they knew some things I think, feel and desire?” Or, “Do I really love this person, or is my passion one of love’s many counterfeits?” On such occasions, we know more or less how to go on thinking further about these questions, how to sharpen them and how to look for answers, perhaps alone or in conversation with someone close to us. But whether we are doing it well or badly, we don’t come to a point where we think we have to ask “What is the self?” in order to go further. If we do, we will not get further. The questions we ask on such occasions, what we do to try to understand what we are asking and what would count as an answer – all that gives sense to our talk of “the self,” “selfhood,” the “true self,” and so on. To put the point in a way that engages more explicitly with Smee’s essay: it is the elaborations of the forms of our inner life and the questions they pose that give sense to talk of “the self,” rather than the other way about. There is no object that is the self; no thing with properties whose discovery could provide answers to any deep questions about ourselves and our relationships to others.

We are elusive to ourselves for different kinds of reasons. There are almost infinitely many ways we lovingly give ourselves up as victims to the fat relentless ego. At other times, it is because we do not fully understand the concepts that inform our most important beliefs and commitments, because they go deep in our tradition, whose influence on us is far from transparent. How many people, for example, realise the role that Kant has played in their belief that people possess inalienable dignity, or the role the Socratic idea that it’s better to suffer evil than to do it plays in their suspicion that morality and politics are at critical times irreconcilably in conflict? Then, the question “Who am I?” has a different point, prompted by intimations that our beliefs may be informed by concepts richer or poorer than we presently know. When it turns out to be richer, we are grateful. When we realise that it’s poorer, we may come to see that concepts to which we appeal can no longer have, or have only a muffled, speaking voice in our life with language. I often hear discussions of academic freedom that presuppose a concept of the university that has been defunct for many years. On this, as Smee says of concepts he fears we have lost, there appears to be no going back.

But there is also something different and deeper at issue in his discussion of the elusiveness of the self, although “elusive” is probably not the word with which to try to capture it. It is the wonder – I’d say mystery if I didn’t fear to be misunderstood – of what it is to be a human being. Pablo Casals wrote in his autobiography that every morning for eighty years he went to the piano and played two preludes and fugues of Bach. He said it was “a sort of benediction on the house” – “a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part.” It filled him “with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being … I do not think that a day has passed in my life in which I have failed to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature.”

Few things I know are written more wonderfully in the key of gratitude. Casals’ love of the world strikes me as the expression of a humanism that Smee would like to celebrate (and actually does). I don’t believe our culture is dead to it. Certainly young people in their late teens whom I teach are not, though they are all on their smartphones when I walk into the lecture theatre. Nourished by Bach (though not only by him), Casals speaks of “the miracle of nature” as Smee would like to speak of nature enriched for him by his love of paintings. He is more anxious than he needs to be. He has written his humanism into a language he has helped to flourish rather than struggle to remain alive.

Despite the talk of post- and trans-humanism, people speak more often now than even ten years ago, I think, of humanity in ethically inflected ways. Certainly one hears people speak more often of our need to recognise the full humanity of all the peoples of the earth. Even the expression “Be a human being for once in your life,” spoken as a rebuke or a plea, suggests that our humanity is something we are called upon to rise to, that it is not something given once and for all, as species membership is, nor can some of us finish the task of becoming human by the time we are, say, fifty. The call to rise to our humanity would not cease if we lived a thousand years.

There is more than one form of love of the world that is important to Smee’s essay. To illustrate what it is, I’ll finish by quoting Hannah Arendt. She also helps me to place the significance of the extraordinary last lines of Smee’s essay. He quotes Chekov:

“All that I now write,” he continued, “displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me.” Chekov was talking, of course, of his inner life. And in these simple, unforced statements, he showed how dearly he wanted to protect it.

Now Arendt. The quote is from “On Humanity in Dark Times,” published in her book Men in Dark Times:

[The] world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become so just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of human discourse. However much we are affected by things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse – the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny – may find a human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanise what is going on in the world in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.

Raimond Gaita



Briohny Doyle

Sebastian Smee doesn’t feel like an algorithm. He feels more like a character in one of Chekhov’s short stories, or a quality of attention in a painting by Cézanne, or even, at moments of digital overload, like the electric hum that passes between the unhinged and sinister occupants of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s surreal post-internet art-films. As corporate entities vie for our attention and collapse human existence into data, Smee accesses his inner life via these works of art. Inner life is hard to pin down, though. It’s to do with meaning, Smee asserts. It is imaginative, quiet and particular. It’s not about production, though it can be creative. It’s an undervalued part of our identities right now, as we scramble to broadcast our “selves” out into the white noise of culture. Critically, Smee demonstrates that inner life can be framed as a space of refuge and even resistance in late capitalism.

I’m sceptical of claims to authenticity – intimations of a real you behind the stage-lit scrim – but Smee’s melancholy over neglected inner life suggests he thinks this realm is muscular, requiring discipline to strengthen rather than existing a priori in the manner of a Catholic soul. I can certainly get behind this and I suspect the higher-ups at Facebook and Twitter would too. They want us to work this muscle in a particular way. They are helping us to train. How long was Facebook in action before we started thinking in status updates? What impact does trimming our ideas and opinions to 140 characters have on their content and scope? Ruminating on art and literature seems like a sensible strategy to counter this training. But although developing our inner life seems unambiguously worthwhile, I don’t hold with Smee’s hope that it will protect us from corporate incursions into our privacy. Inner life is not hermetically sealed. It’s a catchment into which the flows of everyday life swirl and bubble. This produces a particularly heady mix at present, but hasn’t it always, at least to some extent?

If art communicates the richness of human experience, the diaries and notebooks of artists show lives simultaneously riddled with anxiety and superficiality, even before the internet. On a Friday morning in June 1938, before sitting down to work on The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote in his journal, “I had wanted to hear some music but the washing machine is going and I’ll have a fairly hard time. I would do it tonight but I must go to the dentist and my jaws will be battered. My whole nervous system is battered. Don’t know why. I hope I am not heading for a nervous breakdown.” The next day, he begins an entry with “My traffic fine was $2.50. Thought it might be twenty-five. But now to work.”

Susan Sontag, who helped us read the dangerous metaphors of the twentieth century, had other things on her mind too. In 1960, she realised how bad her posture was: “It’s not that my shoulders and back are round but that my head is thrust forward,” and four years later, a list of her faults includes a special note: “NB: My ostentatious appetite – real need – to eat exotic and ‘disgusting’ foods.”

Tennessee Williams, a playwright whose characters are often destroyed by a violent dissonance between their inner lives and the social structures they’re embedded in, kept obsessive notebooks full of tweet-worthy confessions. “I have a periodically painful tooth that worries me,” he wrote in 1936. “It is surprising that all of us don’t go mad in this world.”

For every hour Cézanne and Chekhov spent pondering nature and human interaction, and every hour we have been enriched in turn, there have been billions collectively whiled away in worry, distraction, ambition, pettiness, hypochondria, narcissism, lust over a maiden’s ankles, or coveting the neighbour’s goat. Is the internet making this worse? Certainly. The internet is sculpted in the image of present-day capitalism. Today, many of us have more time for leisure, but we feel more pressured to produce, consume and perfect. In the future, we may feel less pressured but will also likely have less time and energy, due to the realities of surviving in new climates, both political and environmental.

I was reminded, while reading Smee’s essay, of the Spike Jonze film Her, in which lonely, perpetually networked characters in a not-so-distant future convene and even fall in love with artificial intelligences. For protagonist Theodore (who works appropriating the emotional lives of others by writing their love letters), the emergence of Sam, his AI “girlfriend,” inspires him to relate to the world in profound new ways. In the end, though, the film reveals that human consciousness is too limited to access the infinite possibilities of existence, and Sam leaves to hang out with some more open-minded entities. Poor humans, we can only think one thought at a time, are limited in our communication by language, and are utterly unable to see beyond our selves. It is our tragedy and also our gift, as these limitations provide the conditions for art, and for love.

Writing about digital technologies tends to reproduce a ubiquitous contemporary conflict. We benefit from the internet, can see possibilities for further benefit, while also encountering negative effects. We are reluctant to unplug, even if this means disconnection from other, more meaningful aspects of life. Smee doesn’t want to be a snob proclaiming high and low forms of experience, yet he can’t help it and neither can we. We don’t want to be nostalgic, but we ache for the imagined simplicity of lost worlds. We don’t want to be alone, but we mourn the death of solitude. We grapple, we are conflicted, and then, sometimes mercifully, we are distracted.

Briohny Doyle



Bri Lee

I suspect I am not alone in feeling confronted by Sebastian Smee’s essay. If I’m honest, I bought it hoping it might give me a bit of a spook. For a while now, I have felt uneasy about the growing effect social media has on my work and life. I am twenty-seven and although I finished high school one or two years before smartphones became commonplace, I am still a “digital native,” part of a generation for whom the internet is not a place you go, but an inextricable thread through the fabric of life itself.

Since my own book (a memoir about sexism in the Australian justice system) was published in June 2018, my Instagram account has become the key portal through which I communicate with my audience. Hundreds of direct messages have been sent to me from (mostly) women who have survived, or supported a survivor of, sexual violence. The platform is important to me and I am grateful to be able to hear from readers, but my Instagram account ballooning in reach has changed the way I go about my life. In a good way, I find myself looking for beauty, as I did when I was first learning about photography many years ago. In a bad way, if I am not careful, it changes how I visit art galleries and how I feel about my body. It makes me think I need to be one “type” of writer for my bio, or one “type” of woman for a consistent aesthetic throughout my feed, or even to live a certain “type” of always-on-the-go life that is constantly “engaging.”

As Smee wrote, “the software knows how to make us want it.” Without conscious monitoring, my use of social media expands and my priorities gradually shift, like icebergs, towards what is “shareable.” I wonder if I can write hard-hitting legal analysis alongside fashion week coverage, or if people who follow me won’t appreciate the “randomness” of my work. I buy more clothing. I walk a different way to the bus. I think about the cover of a potential book before thinking about what I actually want to write. Without deliberate rejection of this current, I do indeed feel myself “flattened, constricted and quantified.” I don’t like it.

But what kind of writer would I be without the internet? I think probably a broke and lonely one. And who am I to bite the feed that feeds me?

I do not make any assumptions about what Smee has or has not experienced in his life, but in his mentions of #MeToo I feel he understates the power of the internet to allow previously disempowered, disconnected people to find each other and share their stories. Articulately, he acknowledges that “attending to our true selves may reveal things we don’t want or can’t bear to see,” and this is especially true for survivors of trauma. There is no “before” and “after” in making peace with complex internal elements of trauma or identity. It is a gradual fumbling towards the light, often made easier by connections that might be impossible to forge in real life. Online spaces can be liminal worlds for those simultaneously reaching outwards and inwards for understanding. Smee writes about the internet leading us to “betray” the inner self by our own “eagerness to make ourselves smaller” and “somehow less real,” but for many people the internet allows them, finally, to define themselves. Online spaces can lend courage and understanding to people who then carry that deeper self-respect out into the street.

None of this has touched upon the legal issues surrounding software surveillance and information gathering and misuse, which could easily be the subject of a separate Quarterly Essay. Jaron Lanier’s new book, Ten Reasons to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, cites plenty of alarming evidence of the genuinely evil goals of the companies that run these platforms (and he would know, because he was on the ground working in Silicon Valley at the dawn of what we now consider the internet). Interestingly, I found Smee’s words more perturbing than Lanier’s. I have always known that I am selling my data to Facebook, but it is only recently that I have begun to wonder if I am also selling it my heart and soul.

Finally, I want to return to a word and idea Smee chose that I am particularly interested in: the “betrayal” of the primary, inward experience. This sits at the core of my feeling of being confronted by the essay: the idea that the preciousness of the inner life can be spoiled by the big bad world if we do not fight to protect it from tainting. I feel this, but I have also written and published a terrifyingly honest memoir; in doing so, I flung my darkest personal truths into the starkly lit public square that is the internet. What is the difference? Is a part of our disdain for social media just a hangover from British/colonial sensibilities: the sense that “private things” should remain private? No, not totally. My book was born of commitment to myself. My Instagram remains a perpetual commitment to audience. So writing is my art and social media my commerce, and I am one of a million who feel panicked when their art is compromised by commerce.

Art has always struggled through eras of technological advancement, and it is up to us as artists to accept the challenge. Not to ignore the new stuff, but to grow through and rise above it somehow. If we consider the internet the enemy, then we have already lost.

Bri Lee


Response to Correspondence

Laura Tingle

Paul Kelly, a great journalistic mentor to me early in my career, would often say, exasperatedly, to the more junior reporters in The Australian’s Canberra bureau in the late 1980s and 1990s: “It’s the context that’s important!”

Context really is everything in political reporting. It is the way of understanding how a political statement or position can remain unchanged, but the movement of everything else around it can leave the statement or position – and the person who holds it – occupying completely different ground to that on which the statement was first made. And of course context, more broadly, means understanding where events or developments fit into a larger story.

Preparing to read through the correspondence on Follow the Leader, I reread the last sections of the essay to refresh my mind on where it had ended. You would think that they would be still fairly fresh in my mind, given it is just on two months ago that I was making the last few tweaks to the essay.

Yet the context for doing that was the tumultuous madness of an imploding government terminating yet another Australian prime minister. When you write a book or an essay, you often sneak a look at it a year or two later, hoping that your arguments have withstood the test of time. These days, you wonder whether they have stood the test of even a couple of months.

The point I am getting around to is that rereading the end of the essay made me contemplate how context seems to have disappeared almost completely from our political dialogue. And that has profound implications for our relationships with our leaders, and for our perception of events.

For example, consider the way we viewed the results of the Wentworth by-election pretty much in isolation from many of the political events that preceded it. Sure, there was plenty of discussion of an angry electorate making its feelings known about the toppling of the last prime minister – and the popular local member to boot. There was plenty of discussion, too, of issues such as climate change and asylum seekers. But how much analysis of the historic swing against the Liberal Party was put into the context of what happened just three months earlier, on 28 July, the day of the so-called “Super Saturday” by-elections?

It was noted that the swing in Wentworth was double that in Longman. The result in Longman had, after all, been one of the reasons given for toppling Malcolm Turnbull. But in the Wentworth postmortems, little attention was paid to the outcome as a continuation of what we saw more broadly on 28 July, across five by-elections: a splintering of the major-party vote, and the failure of the major parties to win the centre.

The argument made about Longman was that it was not the size of the swing that was important, but that the LNP’s primary vote collapsed to just under 30 per cent. I think that rather misses the point that comes out of both Super Saturday and Wentworth, and which is relevant to my essay.

That obvious point is that, as I said in my essay, the Australian response to disillusionment with politics is overwhelmingly towards disempowering the major parties, rather than looking to a “strongman.” I’m sure some voters would still like a strong leader who makes a few sweeping but simple promises about how he or she would make their lives better. But we have had a few of those recently – notably Tony Abbott – and most voters have decided it is not their cup of tea.

The irony here is that, whether in the form of the upset vote for an independent in Wentworth or the now minority status of the Morrison government, voters are stripping the formal leaders of our national politics of their status.

Amanda McKenzie reflects in her response to the essay on the rise of leadership outside formal positions of authority – the sort Ronald Heifetz considers in his book. McKenzie gives the #MeToo movement as an example of this. But it is interesting to consider the extent to which the rise of parliamentary independents is, or becomes, an institutional way to recast the political agenda.

That is, as voters move away from the major parties, and even from minor parties, simple protest votes to reject the current political incumbent may gather enough scale and force to reshape the debate entirely.

To show how tin-eared our professional politicians can be, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his colleagues not only disavowed the Wentworth result, but implied that the seat’s voters were electoral freaks whose views didn’t reflect those of the rest of Australia and, thus, that there was no message to be had from the biggest swing against an incumbent government ever.

All of this gives a little context with which to consider some of the thoughtful contributions made by the correspondents. Katharine Murphy speaks of how politicians need to see themselves – in their positions – as institutional forces, not just players in a drama. And her observations echo those of Sean Kelly, who notes Scott Morrison’s dismissive words about not only his new office, but also the institutions that surround it: his own party and both federal–state and international governance.

Morrison has been two months in the job, and the image we have of our latest prime minister is of the ultimate cynic and political apparatchik. If we generously concede that he has little room to manoeuvre because of the imminence of a federal election, we much less generously observe that this did not stop him, nor justify, trashing sensitive and bipartisan policy, and policy-making processes, as he did when publicly raising the question of whether Australia should move its embassy to Jerusalem a week before the Wentworth by-election. This is not leadership. It is not consensus-building. It is not running a calm debate, or consulting with the community.

Senate hearings revealed that this announcement was made without consulting the foreign affairs or defence establishments, without a full and proper cabinet process, and with the foreign minister only finding out about it two days before the announcement.

If you think the prime minister is within his rights to make such a call in such circumstances, you only have to look at what he himself said when he re-adopted the hardest lines on offshore detention – lines softened in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election. The prime minister was not going to “horse-trade” on this issue, he told a Canberra press conference. He took his advice from the experts on border security matters, not from other politicians. The standing of advice, it appears, varies considerably depending on the subject at hand.

So it seems, under this government at least, that the day-to-day mechanics of leading the country, or showing leadership, have only more sharply deteriorated with a change of prime minister.

But what about the context in which these decisions are made? There is much to be said for Scott Ryan’s argument that it is the rise of social issues that previously didn’t form part of the domestic political debate that has changed the way our political conversations are conducted.

It is certainly true that it is easier to find compromises or trade-offs on economic issues than it might be on a contentious issue like same-sex marriage, where, as he says, you can legislate or not legislate. But I would argue the change in the way we see our leaders predates the rise of such social issues to the foreground of political contention.

Like Ryan, Nyadol Nyuon considers how the policy context has influenced the conduct of our politics, observing that the War on Terror has transformed Western democracies by expanding what it is acceptable for leaders to do in the domestic sphere.

We should think further about how today’s pressing issues have changed and shaped the way we conduct our debates, an idea that, compared with the usual resort to explaining things as an outcome of a faster media cycle, raises interesting questions.

Just as leadership is a two-way relationship between leaders and followers, I’m sure it is true that the scope for leaders to emerge, and the shape of debates that can be had, is driven in part by the nature of the issues we face at any given time. And different subjects also require different tactics.

Political tactics now seem to dominate our leaders’ repertoires, yet for all that, these tactics are often simplistic and bombastic. Shireen Morris observes, “The best leaders, when dealing with vexing policy and political problems, take on board the legitimate concerns of their opponents, learn from them and use the lessons to forge a new and better synthesis position. They hammer out a noble compromise.” Her observation reminded me that some of our more cunning political leaders of recent decades were experts in the art of stealing their opponent’s policy clothes, but wrapping them up in their own decoration, in a way that made it hard for the other side to oppose a policy. Since it generally feels that our leaders these days start from the point of assessed political advantage, rather than policy principle, it is difficult to see how they can then adapt such fleet-of-foot tactics.

Discussing Follow the Leader in many forums and interviews in the last couple of months has only confirmed to me the deep pessimism many Australians have about the state of our political leadership. Strangely, having thought about it so intensively in the last year, and having to observe the paucity of it in my day job over the past few decades, I am not as pessimistic as many others. We should not despair and believe it is impossible for our leadership to get better, or that the modern news cycle makes it impossible. I look at leaders like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and what Angela Merkel was able to achieve over two extraordinary decades in Germany’s history, and am reminded that periodically, often when you least expect it, someone does come along with a particular set of talents and finds themselves in a context where they can change the political conversation. They can speak intelligently to the electorate. They offer substance, not slogans.

The institutions of our political leadership may be on the wane and being transformed by disillusioned voters. But that does not mean good political leadership is a thing of the past.

Laura Tingle



Norman Abjorensen

Democracy is in crisis. The rise of the political strongman is very much a part of the crisis, but rather than being a cause, it is merely a symptom of a much wider malaise in which democracy everywhere is under siege.

As long as democracy has existed, it has been a fragile creature: seldom secure, always assailed. Throughout history, the strongman – a political actor who seeks to rule by force and brooks no opposition – has lurked in the shadows wherever democracy has emerged. The strongman is the ultimate political stalker, and has always found support among those who feel threatened by any tendency to shift power from the few to the many.

The study of democratisation, so beloved by American political scientists in the later twentieth century as evidence that the world was becoming more like the United States, has all too often downplayed that the process is always a coin with two sides: the masses who seek to gain on the one side; the oligarchs or plutocrats, who were previously both entrenched and privileged, on the other. Resistance is inevitable, if not to stop democratisation altogether, then at least to limit its effects.

While democratisation was earlier viewed as a phenomenon largely confined to the developing world, especially recently decolonised states, it was later extended to the study of states emerging from dictatorship and military rule, and later still to those states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that had been under Soviet domination. However, even in developed states where democracy was thought to have taken root and cultivated sturdy institutions, democratisation was seen first to stall, then to go into reverse.

This phenomenon was termed “autocratisation” – a concept popularised by researchers in the Varieties of Democracy project at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden – which denotes a measurable decline in democratic qualities; that is, democratisation in reverse. According to Professor Staffan Lindberg, autocratisation can be seen as a process in which democratic institutions, rights and practices are curtailed or undermined – to the point where an autocratic regime may take hold. Autocratisation affects mainly non-electoral aspects of democracy, such as media freedom, freedom of expression and the rule of law, yet these in turn threaten to undermine the meaningfulness of elections.

While autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin have come to power in a country lacking a viable democratic heritage and institutions, creeping autocratisation may be seen in states that for a time showed a strong democratic trajectory, such as Poland and Hungary. Certainly, in Turkey, which has had a mixed record of democratic experiment since the modernising efforts of Kemal Atatürk a century ago, the current trend under the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is very much in the direction of autocratisation. It might even be argued that the United States under Donald Trump exhibits certain autocratic tendencies.

Early last century, feeble attempts at establishing democracies in Italy and Germany were crushed by emerging strongmen, most famously in the form of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but they were only the best known. Elsewhere in Europe, notably in Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Greece and the Baltic states, powerful coalitions of vested interests, including industrialists, landholders and, in Catholic countries, the Church, fought against democratic advance to protect their feudal privileges. In Japan, emerging democratic elements, including the adoption of universal male suffrage in 1928 and competing political parties, were similarly reversed as the military and traditional aristocracy reasserted their grip on power. By 1942, with much of the world locked in military conflict, democracy was a flickering flame in a hurricane, with the number of democracies down to a mere twelve.

It is worth asking the question: whose interests do strongmen serve? It is as relevant now as it was in the interwar period of the twentieth century. The spread of national self-determination and democracy after World War I, fanned by the idealism of US President Woodrow Wilson, threatened the old order already shaken by the fall of the old empires and the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Mussolini saw his mission as opposing the degenerate idea of political democracy and restoring the glories of ancient Rome; Hitler similarly revelled in the fantasy of a mythical, racially pure Germany; Franco, in Spain, for his part, sought to defend the aristocracy and the Church from an assault by the common people. At the heart of their opposition was the wholesale rejection of the very notion of political equality, a fundamental precept of democracy.

Equality was at the core of the first flowering of democracy, in ancient Athens. Pericles, in his famous Funeral Oration in 431 bce, offered a concise definition of Athenian democracy and its key characteristics, emphasising that equality was fundamental. The Greeks coined a term, “isonomia” (Greek: ἰσονομία), meaning, broadly, the principle of political equality for all, and especially equality before and within the law. Indeed, the philosopher Hannah Arendt argues that isonomia is a more apposite name for the Greek polis than democracy, in that it signified no distinction between rulers and ruled. It is little surprise that democracy has always carried subversive undertones: it is the enemy of established hierarchies. Strongmen, then and now, arise to defend hierarchies.

Putin, of course, has a sprawling kleptocracy to defend from the people; he and his cronies did very well out of acquiring old Soviet state-owned assets, and no agitation from the common people will be allowed to disturb the cosy arrangements. Erdoğan, in Turkey, has successfully wound back the Atatürk-inspired secularisation, returning power to the old Ottoman landowners and the conservative clergy. Donald Trump, for his part, is a plutocrat and is determined to ensure that democracy does not threaten plutocratic dominance.

In regard to political leadership, there is little doubt that it is becoming an increasingly difficult task, especially in democracies. Government, as an institution, is everywhere under attack, and public confidence in its capacities is dangerously low. Laura Tingle, in an otherwise perceptive analysis, is mistaken in dismissing “the profound stupidity of the culture wars.” Stupid in a sense, yes, but they have provided a platform for a concerted attack on government, which, in a democracy in an increasingly globalised world, is really all that stands between the people and corporate rapacity.

Even before President Ronald Reagan famously labelled government as the problem rather than the solution, a well-funded campaign had been mounted against government, typified by the stated desire of the American libertarian anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist to reduce government to the size that it could be drowned in a bathtub.

In the United States, the billionaire Koch brothers have funded and assiduously nurtured a right-wing empire of think tanks, foundations, journals and even university schools to denigrate the idea of government. Notably, they have been instrumental in pushing for a reduction of industry regulation across a wide range of fronts – and all this from owners of such environment-polluting assets as oil refineries, pipelines and lumber mills.

At the international level, the whole neoliberal-globalisation project is profoundly anti-democratic. At the end of the Cold War three decades ago, we were assured that free markets would lead to free societies. It was, in the premature triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama, truly the end of history. But, as Robert Reich, prominent US commentator and a member of the Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations, has written, today’s supercharged global economy is eroding the power of the people. If neoliberalism has a definable goal, it is to defend capitalism against democracy.

In a 2009 essay entitled “How Capitalism is Killing Democracy,” Reich wrote:

Why has capitalism succeeded while democracy has steadily weakened? Democracy has become enfeebled largely because companies, in intensifying competition for global consumers and investors, have invested ever greater sums in lobbying, public relations, and even bribes and kickbacks, seeking laws that give them a competitive advantage over their rivals. The result is an arms race for political influence that is drowning out the voices of average citizens. In the United States, for example, the fights that preoccupy Congress, those that consume weeks or months of congressional staff time, are typically contests between competing companies or industries.

Political leaders, faced with escalating demands, have been set up to fail. In this pincer movement, global trade agreements hobble governments in their domestic setting on one side, while on the other growing popular revulsion against globalisation opens the door to the shrill voices of anti-democratic demagogues and their movements, along with the rousing of ultra-nationalist sentiments. As Robert Kuttner writes in his new book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, the rise of terrorism and fear of aliens serves to promote support for anti-foreign strongmen, thus drawing radical Islam and right-wing populism in the West into a bizarre symbiosis.

The eminent Yale historian Timothy Snyder, whose scholarship has illuminated so much of the horrors of interwar Europe and the Holocaust, published a short tract last year, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, that drew disturbing parallels between the threats to democracy then and now. “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yielding to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” he wrote. He added: “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Just as Lenin was said to have “useful idiots” outside Russia – Western liberals who refused to oppose communism – today’s plutocrats have their own useful idiots among the working class and lower-middle classes – those people who have rallied to the populist cause, encouraged to view government as a threat to their status by its giving equal rights to coloured people, immigrants, women, sexual minorities, etc. The force that might rein in corporate dominance and plutocratic control of the economy is now met by a phalanx of opposition from the very people who would benefit most from stronger government.

Historically in Australia, autocratic tendencies have been more in evidence at the state rather than the national level. The bombastic Jack Lang in New South Wales was a home-grown demagogue who almost provoked a coup by the extremist New Guard during the Great Depression. The NSW Liberal premier Bob Askin was no slouch either when it came to blatant populism. Askin, who took some justifiable pride in moving his party towards the centre, exhibited a streak of populism that was, in his latter years, an embarrassment to his supporters. The era that he had dominated was surely over when, during the 1972 federal election campaign, he attacked the ALP for advocating abortion on demand, homosexuality, a “soft approach” to drug offenders and pornographers, and wanting to “flood the country with black people.”

Perhaps the closest we have come to an Australian strongman was the long-serving Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who, unconstrained by an upper house and blessed with a feeble Opposition, attacked democratic institutions remorselessly. It was no secret who his enthusiastic backers were: the shonky developers, the tax dodgers, the commercial quacks and so on (the so-called “white-shoe brigade”).

So could it happen here? Could Australia fall into the grip of a strongman? The answer, I think, is a cautious no, given the resilience of our institutions – but, nevertheless, we need to be on heightened alert, especially in light of the recent rise of anti-democratic populism. Clearly, there are powerful figures here who would welcome a strongman to do their bidding – in the downfall of Malcolm Turnbull we glimpsed the machinations of billionaires, for some of whom the prospect of a Peter Dutton prime ministership had great appeal. The struggle between democracy, oligarchy and tyranny continues.

Norman Abjorensen



Nyadol Nyuon

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted words, from the Declaration of Independence, continue to inspire many today; however, they were written by men who “participated in the brutal and degrading institution of slavery.”

In his book Less Than Human, David Livingstone Smith writes that in light of Jefferson’s participation in the institution of slavery, his words in the Declaration raised the question who “should be counted as human.” And to “square the moral circle” between the “economic attraction of slavery and the Enlightenment vision of human dignity,” the Founding Father of the American Republic found a way by denying that African slaves were human. This view was shared by many “champions of liberty” at the time, and such views continued to be enshrined in laws and administered by democratic institutions (such as the US Supreme Court) until the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

While the Founding Fathers and Enlightenment thinkers might have reconciled their apparent inconsistencies, the words of the Declaration never had the power to persuade the likes of Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist. In a speech delivered seventy-six years later, he invoked the Declaration to point to the hypocrisy embedded in America from the time of its founding. He described what the anniversary of independence meant to African slaves in America:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common …

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are [sic] empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

These are strong words, but appropriate for their time.

What, though, does the Declaration of Independence have to do with an essay about political leadership in the modern world? The simple answer is that the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that existed at that time are an inherent part of Western democracies – at least as viewed by those who have never fully enjoyed democracy’s fruits.

Those inconsistencies and hypocrisies, arguably, still exist today. “When was it ever great?” was one African American reply to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Some of the issues discussed in Laura Tingle’s essay, such as the apparent failure of democracy and its links to the rise of the “strongman” leader, would not be new to certain groups of people, because even if leaders with strongman personas did not exist, they were governed in ways that mirrored strongmen politics and tactics.

It has been argued, for example, that, “the relationship between the American democratic government and African Americans is analogous to the totalitarian power hierarchy. The U.S. government bears a resemblance to elites while African Americans resemble the ruled class in the totalitarian power structure.” On that view, Donald Trump is a new incarnation of an old type.

That said, there might be a difference that explains the reaction of moderate Americans to Trump. The possible difference is that there has been an expansion of the category of scapegoat – in the Trump era, moderate and liberal Americans and political opponents are now targeted alongside more traditional scapegoat groups, such as African Americans, other minorities and foreigners.

Tingle quotes Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, from their book How Democracies Die:

Republican politicians … learned that in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful – and that the pursuit of politics as warfare can mobilize people who fear they have much to lose.

The labelling of political opponents and others as scapegoats changes the conduct of politics (by “rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage” rivals) and of leaders (all the way from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump).

Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, denied this applied to the United States recently, when she said:

In our toxic political environment, I’ve heard some people in both parties describe their opponents as enemies or evil. In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war – that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children – that is evil. In North Korea, where American student Otto Warmbier was tortured to death – that was evil. In the last two years, I’ve seen true evil.

Haley’s statement reveals the inconsistency and hypocrisy of American democracy. While the United States holds itself up as democratic, better and greater than other nations, a close look at recent American history, domestic and foreign, would produce a list of “evils” to rival those given by Haley: the use of torture in the War on Terror; the indefinite detention without trial of prisoners at Guantanamo; the killing, rape, torture and humiliation suffered by prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War; or the recent Trump policy to separate immigrant children from their parents and relatives at the US border.

Some of the examples above relate to American foreign policy, and I accept Laura Tingle’s view that foreign policy is a different area of leadership. Tingle, however, acknowledges that how foreign policy is conducted can influence domestic politics. It can change “the way we see and judge our leaders” and has been used by political leaders to “escape the obligation to consult and build a consensus – whether to pursue actions they believe in on the world stage, or to present themselves as strong leaders at home.”

Perhaps in addition, the conduct of foreign policy (and the way we treat minorities or “enemies” within) influences our domestic politics in more insidious ways. The War on Terror has possibly transformed Western democracies as it has transformed countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It shifts the “Overton Window” by expanding what it is acceptable for leaders to do in the domestic sphere. In my view, one of the ways this occurs is by gradually eroding belief in the importance and the indispensability of principles and norms that were once held to be fundamental to how a society saw itself. One wonders, for example, whether the reported abuses against American citizens under the Patriot Act would have occurred without the War on Terror. A report in 2007 showed the FBI was “increasingly targeting citizens and green card holders, with more than 11,517 requests in 2006 targeting U.S. persons, while Non-U.S. persons were targeted with 8,605 requests.”

In 1852, Frederick Douglass registered how the treatment of those deemed to be enemies, and therefore deserving of hostile treatment, could corrupt all. In his speech, he asserted that the existence of slavery “destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home.”

In another, related context, David Smith emphasised that one would be “sorely mistaken” to think of rhetoric dehumanising others as mere talk. He argued: “Dehumanization isn’t a way of talking. It’s a way of thinking … It acts as a psychological lubricant, dissolving our inhibitations and inflaming our destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable.”

Like the author, I have zoomed out a little further than “Trumpian political developments” to the underlying subject of the essay: how do we best organise a community of people? The answer will depend in part on who is considered part of the community and therefore who is consulted, listened to and protected. I have argued that because certain groups have never enjoyed the full benefits of living in democracies, and have in fact been the direct victims of strongmen politics even as their societies claimed to be democratic, there is, in fact, no slide to some more worrying type of political leader, nor is there a crisis of democracy – at least not one justifying the current reaction.

In their 2014 article “The Crisis of Democracy: Which Crisis? Which Democracy?” Selen A. Ercan and Jean-Paul Gagnon argued, “there is nothing new about the democratic crisis diagnosis. In other words, crisis has never been the exception to the rule; rather, it is an inherent feature of democracy … [yet] if crisis is an inherent feature of democratic politics … what we need is a more reflexive democracy – a type of democracy that continuously confronts its own limits and logics of exclusion.” That democracy is not a settled concept is revealed in terms such as “the American experiment,” or in President Macron’s statement that “France, the country of revolution, is once again a leading political laboratory.”

Conceivably, a good place to start in understanding how to confront the limits and logic of exclusion in a democracy is the essay’s recommendation that leaders have to rebuild “the national political discussion after years of it being under assault.” Perhaps by doing so they can foster an environment that does more for democracy than “keep the word of promise to our ear, and break it to our hope.”

Nyadol Nyuon



Dennis Atkins

Barack Obama was a great US president who might one day gain the recognition he deserves, but for now he’s in the crossfire of contemporary politics. He has been unfairly criticised for what people call his dithering on international relations. Current president Donald Trump uses Obama as a punching bag – when he’s not urging crowds to shout that Hillary Clinton should be locked up. However, any serious look at Obama’s time in the White House – an extraordinary period, from the height of the Great Recession, through the catching and killing of Osama bin Laden and into difficult domestic arguments about massive issues such as national healthcare reform – will surely come down on the positive.

Laura Tingle’s brilliant essay on modern leadership skips through the last three hundred years of leaders, from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the giant Lyndon Baines Johnson, before landing in the modern era. It’s the best of Tingle’s three Quarterly Essays and needs a postscript on what is coming next. Is the strongman – the Trump White House, Putin in Russia, Xi in Beijing, Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Cairo, the House of Saud in Riyadh, Duterte in the Philippines and the looming ascension of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – here to stay, or will there be a return to more centrist democracy? We need this considered and answered.

More fundamentally, we should review Obama’s leadership from 2009 to 2017. Going back to one of his foundation speeches that was praised and then, sadly, brushed aside, Obama laid down markers for a new international policy when, in June 2009, he addressed students in Cairo and called for a new compact between the United States and the global Muslim population.

“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,” he said, adding that the two populations shared overlapping, common principles “of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” The president went on to address religious freedom, one of the most divisive issues when the clashes between great religions and civilisations are laid bare. “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance,” said Obama:

We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today.

People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it’s being challenged in many different ways.

Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld – whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And … fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

By any measure, Obama was charting a new course that demanded global attention, but it went without the follow-up necessary, either from the then new president or from Islamic nations around the world. Soon it was being labelled the first of Obama’s so-called missed opportunities. But was it really his fault? I’d say not.

Obama was perhaps naive in thinking the old, autocratic rulers of the Middle East were going to give way to a more democratic, perhaps even liberal, way of doing things. From Cairo to Tripoli and eventually to Damascus, it all went to custard. But Obama can’t really be marked down too harshly for this – just about all of the Western intelligentsia and many Western governments were on this “Arab Spring” bus. His one big mistake, which he still tosses and turns in his mind, was the laying down of a “red line” in Syria: a nerve-gas line that the brutal dictator Bashar Hafez al-Assad was only too ready to cross and make his population suffer even more. Obama didn’t respond as he should have (and as Trump did years later) and he has paid the price in history’s story.

This might be a black mark for Obama, but let’s have a close look at perhaps the biggest decision that’s been taken by a US president in decades: the killing of Osama bin Laden. This was not a slam dunk. It was a 50/50 call at best, based on the best available intelligence. The United States knew there was a compound, near Pakistani military facilities, where a tall Arab walked about outside, behind a very high wall. Those in the compound burnt all their rubbish and were secretive in their comings and goings, but without any face-to-face identification no one could be 100 per cent sure it was bin Laden in there.

As the call went around the room, Vice President Joe Biden was against a strike, as was Defence Secretary Bill Gates, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thought a missile was justified. Obama turned to his trusted foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes, asking him what he thought. “You were always going to make this decision,” said Rhodes, having watched his boss stare without blinking for many minutes. They killed the man who, on the morning of 11 September 2001, orchestrated the death of almost 3000 people, when deadly planes came out of the clear blue sky.

This was a brave move – one of great courage and import, which could have gone horribly wrong if it had not been correct. Obama might have made some wobbly moves and decisions in foreign policy, but you can never take away from him this clear-eyed go-ahead for the strike on bin Laden. The world is a better place for what he did.

Elsewhere, Obama was the president who did what many of his predecessors tried to do and failed – he introduced a form of universal healthcare against fierce opposition. Democrat giant LBJ didn’t do it, despite getting his “Great Society” package into law, while Republican Richard Nixon made an effort, working with Democrat Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, without success. The next to push the big rock up the hill was Hillary Clinton, working on behalf of her husband, President Bill Clinton. It was Obama who got it across the line and, despite some undoing by Trump, it remains largely intact.

Obama was a substantial and consequential president, although he might not be regarded as transformative – the goal he had set for himself. We can blame the times for that, as much as mistakes made in the White House. One thing he did do was leave us with perhaps the greatest set of presidential speeches heard in more than a century. We await his next memoir with joyful anticipation.

Dennis Atkins



Shireen Morris

“Why would you want to go into politics?”

I’ve been standing at train stations the past several weeks, handing out flyers in my fingerless gloves. Shivering in the morning sun. Saying hello to commuters.

This is a new experience. I’ve been an actor, a singer, a check-out chick and an admin assistant. A constitutional lawyer and an advocate. Never a unionist, a staffer or a wannabe politician. Never a campaigner on the street. The hustings, as they say, is an exciting new place.

A sample of the flustered public rushes by, half of them blocking me out with earphones, iPhones and well-planned head-down avoidance of eye contact (I don’t blame them) – but others are eager to chat. Among the occasional “Well done!” and complaints about the Liberal leadership spill, the “I’m not voting for a Dutton man!” declarations and the bread-and-butter questions about healthcare, schools, wages and penalty rates, plus the odd “Piss off, you’re all the same!” reprimand, people also occasionally pause to ask: “Why on earth would you want to go into politics?”

The disillusionment underlying the question is palpable. Politicians are liars and backstabbers, seems to be the view. “It’s a dirty game. They’re just in it for themselves,” people observe. And given the machinations of recent times, they appear to be right. “Do you think you can really make a difference?” one local asks, genuinely wanting to know. My answer is, as usual, “I hope I can. I will work hard to.” But people are fed up with self-serving politicians. They have every right to be sceptical.

As the new Labor candidate for Deakin, I found that Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay posed a bracing question: what are the characteristics of a true leader, and what is true leadership in politics? And why did I think I could, or should, put myself forward to represent my community – this particular part of the eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I grew up – in federal parliament?

The bullying and backstabbing that seem to characterise contemporary Australian politics raise a further question: why would a woman strive to be a politician in today’s climate? And if parts of society now crave a “strongman,” as Tingle contends, how does one strive to be a strong woman in a political system that is not only male-dominated, but also increasingly vitriolic, vengeful and polarised?

Is it possible to be better than the existing culture, or even to change that culture for the better? Within this system, can one be not only a good politician, but also a good leader?

An experienced parliamentarian, offering advice on my campaign, observed that Parliament has many consummate politicians – people who can talk well, play the game and appear polished. “But Parliament needs more thoughtful people,” he said. This set a nice challenge. Don’t just be a slick politician. Be thoughtful. Be a leader.

I tend towards optimism, so I believe Australia’s democratic culture can change for the better. It requires the Australian people, and the politicians themselves, to insist things change. To demand it.

I largely agree with Tingle’s stated criteria for a good leader. Leaders should explain, advocate and persuade people to adopt good ideas. Follow the Leader discussed the former US president Lyndon Johnson. Noel Pearson also often talks about LBJ’s strategic prowess, and the way he seized a historic moment to deliver the Civil Rights Act in the face of tough conditions. LBJ was a great persuader. I watched the movie All the Way, which dramatises his civil rights strategy, and was struck by a key line. Johnson’s advisers were trying to warn him that pursuing Kennedy’s civil rights bill could jeopardise his electoral chances. “What the hell’s the presidency for?” LBJ demanded. He stuck to his guns. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964.

Tingle is correct that leaders must know how to seize historic opportunities. Instead, we often see politicians baulking at leading necessary reform, in favour of playing it safe at the polls. Clinging to power, instead of wielding it for the national good. In doing so, they too often underestimate the people.

One of my frustrations working as an advocate for Indigenous constitutional recognition has been the way some politicians blame the public for their lack of reform action. In rejecting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Malcolm Turnbull not only verballed the Australian people – he blamed them for his cowardly stance. A First Nations voice in the constitution is not “desirable or capable of winning acceptance at referendum,” Turnbull claimed. “The government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of states.”

When asked if the government had evidence to back this up, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said they had done no polling – he was just “following his gut.” The Australian people were used an excuse for government inaction, but with no evidence. These so-called leaders chose to pessimistically predict that Australians would reject a First Nations voice, instead of just asking them – through a referendum.

Polling exposed the dishonesty of the Liberal government’s excuse. An Omnipoll showed 61 per cent of Australians would vote yes to a First Nations Voice in the Constitution – and that was in the face of government opposition. Does that figure sound familiar? It’s the same proportion that voted “yes” in the same-sex marriage postal survey.

On same-sex marriage, Turnbull, despite his procedural incompetence, at least advocated for the reform. “Lucy and I will be voting yes,” he said. With such leadership, Australians voted 61 per cent in favour. He showed no such leadership on Indigenous recognition. On this issue, Turnbull was a deliberate wet blanket and even promulgated lies about the proposal, calling it a “third chamber of parliament.”

The proposal is not a “third chamber” and not “radical” – and Turnbull knew it. In 2015, in a private meeting, Turnbull (then communications minister) told Noel Pearson and me that an Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution “sounds sensible” and even offered to help promote it, perhaps through a pub event in Wentworth. A few years later, as prime minister, he fearmongered. My best explanation is that he caved in to pressure from the right of his party in order to cling to his position.

Yet what is the prime ministership for, if not for Indigenous constitutional recognition?

Paul Keating understood the importance of reconciliation for the soul and future of our nation. Perhaps Turnbull, deep down, understood it too. In 2011, he reflected on the history of colonisation in Melbourne in The Monthly:

When governments say doing the right thing is “too hard,” what they are really saying is that it is more lucrative, or expedient, to do the wrong thing. Our forebears preached protection of native people and the blessings of Christ while they largely destroyed a people and a way of life.

So if you ever walk quietly along Robert Hoddle’s wide boulevards or along the banks of the Yarra, tamed to look like an English river, listen carefully. You may hear the weeping of the Kulin – betrayed, dispossessed, but not yet quite forgotten.

Yet in 2017, faced with the political realities within his party, Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement. Doing the right thing was evidently too hard. It was more expedient to do the wrong thing.

It takes a leader with both moral courage and strategic nous to achieve substantive reconciliatory reform – especially constitutional reform, which requires the support of both left and right. I’m not saying it’s easy. One, of course, must compromise and rally consensus. One must keep power in order to use it.

Yet after capitulating to internal right-wing detractors on many important policies and principles, Turnbull still got knifed. The lesson is clear: selling out does not necessarily stop insurrection. It only shows you don’t stand for anything.

The same-sex marriage survey demonstrated that many Liberal Party politicians are often behind the Australian electorate on matters of social justice. The Liberal Party insisted on the postal survey. But Tony Abbott, an elected representative of the Australian people, did not respect his own electorate’s wishes. Although Warringah voted 75 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage, Abbott left the parliamentary chamber before the final vote on the legislation, along with his conservative colleague, Michael Sukkar. Sukkar had promised he would respect the outcome of the survey and respect his electorate’s wishes. His electorate, Deakin, voted 65.7 per cent in favour – also above the national average. Yet Sukkar ran out of the Parliamentary Chamber behind Abbott when the final vote was imminent.

What does this say about how connected the right wing of the Liberal Party are to their democratic constituents? Refusing to listen to Australians you represent – that is not leadership. Breaking a promise to respect the electorate’s wishes – that is not leadership. Running out of the Chamber – that is not leadership.

The best leaders, when dealing with vexing policy and political problems, take on board the legitimate concerns of their opponents, learn from them and use the lessons to forge a new and better synthesis position. They hammer out a noble compromise. When I say noble compromise, I do not mean a lowest common denominator compromise. It is possible to find a noble compromise on persisting disagreements.

Finding this “radical centre” requires both parties to shift. To shift one’s position, even if slightly, shows humility. It also shows intelligence – for the smartest people know they cannot be right on everything, and even their rightness can be refined. The insights of others, bringing different life experiences to our own, can open our minds – if only we have the courage to hear what others say. It also shows empathy. Listening to and acknowledging opposing views lets others know their grievances have been heard. Feeling heard is conducive to cohesion, inclusion and unity.

Tingle is correct, I think, that a huge part of leadership is the ability to corral opposing factions into compromise agreements, both within one’s own party and within the broader parliament, but also across the public sphere. This is also the way to create good policy. The best policy is not simply that of the left or right. The best policy synthesises the brilliance that can be found across the political spectrum, and across the breadth of philosophical thought: good ideas from socialism, liberalism and conservatism. The Liberal Party’s slide to the right demonstrates a loss of balanced leadership, and this is bad for Australia. Politics needs balance, not extremism.

“Why would you want to become a politician?”

When Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement, I, like so many Australians, was heartbroken. A historic, unprecedented First Nations consensus was ignored. Years of lobbying from the outside came to nothing. I realised then that you have to be inside parliament, where the decisions are made, to truly change things – and not just on constitutional reform, but on climate change, health, education, inequality and so much more.

The events of the past several months, and indeed the leadership instability of the past several years, pose a challenge to politicians and would-be politicians – on all sides. Our democracy needs to do better. My hope is that political representatives can find ways to pursue leadership in the inclusive and intelligent centre, to focus more on the best policy and the best ideas, and less on plotting and “playing the game.” The challenge for all of us is to work together to herald the better angels of our nation’s nature.

Shireen Morris



Amanda McKenzie

“We have all read about the great figures of history, and that reading shapes our view of what makes a true leader,” Laura Tingle writes early in Follow the Leader.

The great leaders of history, written up in university textbooks and glorified in movies, tend to be Anglo-Saxon men in positions of political power. Perhaps in looking for these “great leaders” today, we’re actually missing the leadership emerging all around us.

Leaders are pretty easy to spot: there are people following them. And by following, I don’t mean voting. I mean going some place together: a movement. As Tingle describes, strong leadership involves building consensus across the community to deal with complex challenges.

It has been quite a while since anyone in political power was a real leader of a vibrant movement. That doesn’t mean there aren’t strong leaders and vibrant movements today, but they seem absent from Tingle’s piece.

The #MeToo movement is shaking the foundations of power and entitlement, driven by a deeply authentic and decentralised wave of leadership from across the world. If anyone doubts it is a legitimate movement, consider this. The measure of a movement is that it allows participants to do together what they would never be able to do alone. Sharing stories of harassment and assault is an incredibly brave thing to do, and speaks to the deep level of solidarity #MeToo has built. Further, #MeToo has rapidly shifted community understanding and given some of the worst perpetrators their comeuppance. Individuals are demonstrating the sort of leadership, authenticity and bravery that we would love to see from politicians.

The marriage equality debate catalysed a similar movement. Politicians, too many of them late and convenient supporters, celebrated the successful vote in parliament. But true leadership belonged to LGBTIQ people across the country, whose honesty and courage persuaded voters around Australia.

The decentralised leadership in these examples is quite different to traditional positional leadership. It comes from authenticity. See, for example, the Parkland students’ enormous capacity for influence following a shooting at their school. The students were clearer and more convincing than many established gun-reform activists, who have consistently blunted their own language with political pragmatism and message-testing.

The most effective organisations working on social issues today often put their resources into elevating the emerging authentic voices of those directly affected by an issue – for instance, the groups that supported the Parkland students to run the #NeverAgain rallies. This leadership is the opposite of a centralised model of elevating one brand or spokesperson.

Tingle argues that voices at the community level – scientists, business leaders, community groups – are taken less seriously than in the past. This may be the attitude of political parties and the press gallery, but the examples above demonstrate the exact opposite when it comes to the public. Many activist and charity organisations now have email lists and social-media profiles that give them serious potential to lead and persuade audiences. The best organisations create content that their base shares with its own networks, enhancing credibility and building a broader audience.

Of course, community movements are not new. What is striking is how disconnected our political debate is from them.

Why are we not seeing leadership from our politicians?

As Tingle points out, the electorate is rarely the most important constituency for politicians. The first priority of a parliamentary leader is to secure their position within their party – that means caucus, factions, donors, media moguls and other vested interests. Satisfying these interests, rather than the interests of voters, is part of the reason why the major political parties often seem so out of touch with the Australian public. Getting vested interests out of politics through political donation reform is critical. For instance, entrenched coal interests have made tackling climate change at a federal level impossible, as Malcolm Turnbull admitted on his exit. Unless that changes, how can we expect our politics to play out any differently?

As Tingle argues, over the last decade or so it seems that a unifying commitment to a central purpose has unravelled. Neither party has a significant public membership, and there seems to be no interest in fostering one. That means our major political parties are without the anchor of a direct link to the community beyond the news cycle and elections.

However, to be fair to our politicians, theirs is an incredibly hard and thankless job. Many are good people in very challenging circumstances. Tingle notes that “Complex change … requires more political time and space than we seem prepared to give our leaders.” Politicians travel at least half the year; senior figures are constantly responding to the media cycle and rarely have an uninterrupted weekend or holiday. After leaving federal politics, former environment minister Greg Combet noted he had been working eighteen-hour days for seven days a week for years.

Tingle canvasses other increased demands – from following every sporting code to having a ready response to the broad array of foreign policy challenges. There seems to be an expectation on the one hand that politicians are just “like us,” watching the World Cup into the wee hours. On the other, they are required to be superhuman, able to have a thoughtful, immediate view on all the complex issues of the day (which must be the same view as that of all their colleagues).

Remember when Julia Gillard was mocked for failing to have any fruit in her fruit bowl in 2005? I suspect most senior politicians, like senior business leaders, are doing very little shopping and cooking at home. But contempt for politicians is sport in Australia, and there is little empathy for how difficult and demanding it must be. The adrenaline-fuelled nature of political debate – a constant state of fight or flight – leaves little space for reflection. Interestingly, one of the effects of long-term exposure to heightened adrenaline is that the brain becomes more focused on a narrow field, and capacity for compassion and empathy is diminished.

Journalists, similarly, have little time to go beyond personalities to substance. Shrinking newsrooms, the decline of special subject-matter reporters and a demanding 24-hour media cycle means the fourth estate is more focused on the narrow field of political machinations. All this tells us that the lack of substantive leadership Tingle describes is structural. Tingle laments the lack of contemporary political personalities like Paul Keating, but would his approach have been successful in the current environment?

Where will leadership come from?

The leadership crisis Tingle describes is structural, but the solutions she articulates focus on individual behaviour, rather than the environment in which those individuals act. For instance, journalists should “think often and hard” about what they cover, and politicians should stop shooting the messenger. Asking individuals to be more courageous or responsible is insufficient. It’s hard to change the players unless we change the rules. It also assumes that most politicians share the larger goal of preserving the valued institutions of our democracy even when this is at the expense of “winning” the daily news cycle.

Perhaps the kind of strong leadership Tingle describes is now less likely to come from classic positional leadership. What we need are political leaders who will effectively follow and enhance community movements, rather than the other way around. Tingle gives the example of Lyndon Johnston, who harnessed the momentum of the civil-rights movement to foster political change. We don’t need politicians to be “stronger leaders” so much as we need them to be wiser followers.

The most recent example Tingle offers of an attempt at consensus-building is Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee (NEG). The policy itself was enormously cynical: it would make no positive difference to the issues it claimed to address. It was a policy to reduce emissions that would see pollution increase. A policy to tackle energy prices which would bring on less new supply than doing nothing at all. To the extent that people were persuaded, it was only that they were so worn down by more than a decade of torturous politics. However, ultimately the lack of consensus within the Coalition killed the policy.

Public polling consistently shows that the vast majority of Australians want action on climate change. Similarly, most of us prefer renewable energy to coal and understand that large and small batteries will be critical to Australia’s energy future. Most big-business leaders now want action, as do stakeholders, from the Australian Medical Association to the National Farmers’ Federation. There are strong community campaigns against the Adani mine. Little, if any, of this latent community power could be mobilised for the NEG. However, as the drought bites, the Great Barrier Reef suffers extreme mortality rates from bleaching and we experience worsening heatwaves, the politics will change. One place to begin is by challenging the influence of vested interests in our politics, starting with donations reform.

To conclude, though, I will leave you with the questions I was left pondering after finishing Tingle’s essay. First, what are the conditions that would facilitate strong community leadership in Australia, and strong followers in our parliamentarians? And second, what will it take for those conditions to become the operating environment for Australian politics?

Amanda McKenzie



Sean Kelly

Laura Tingle, in order to point to the structural changes to the presidency that Donald Trump may leave behind, helpfully cites Miranda Carter on Kaiser Wilhelm II. Carter argues that the Kaiser had certain odd personality traits, which found sympathy in Germany during his reign, but which left the nation depleted after his abdication.

Of course, as Carter’s description makes clear, both men can rightly be called egotistical fools. We can hold them in contempt, but holding them personally responsible for the deep wounds they might open is another matter.

But what of our current batch of political leaders in Australia? Think of them what you like, they are sane and capable of complex thought. Their attacks on democracy are not so strident. The legacy these attacks will leave is not really structural; it is emotional. It is still a legacy.

Now that prime ministers are removed with alacrity, we can easily forget the specific beginnings of the current period of tumult. There were several factors behind Kevin Rudd’s removal, but one was the importation of a model that had seemed to work, up to a point, in New South Wales. One of the very great mistakes in this was the assumption that a prime minister was just like a premier – when the relationship between voters and the leader of the nation is very different from that between voters and the leader of a state. Premiers are important, but I suspect a prime minister affects the way we think about our own identity in a way a premier never will. The move was self-fulfilling: by treating a prime minister like a premier, a course was embarked upon which leads us to the place where we now find ourselves, in which prime ministers have in fact been reduced almost to the status of premiers.

The point, an obvious one, though not quite so obvious at the time, is that actions taken to preserve power in the short term can end up having long-term effects. Again, leadership change is not the only factor in the rapid escalation in disrespect for politicians and government, but few would suggest it has not been a major one.

This put me in mind of more recent and more minor examples, which are still, I believe, important. The new – at the time of writing – prime minister, Scott Morrison, has already, in just under two months, made several comments that seem dismissive of the job he has taken on and the institutions that surround him.

He began by talking about the “Muppet show” around the removal of Malcolm Turnbull. The diagnosis was fair, but in making it – presumably in an eagerness to empathise with voters – he overlooked, perhaps, the authority a prime minister’s words still, against all odds, have. The leader of one of the country’s two major parties describing his party in that way does nothing to restore respect.

Not long after, the prime minister cancelled a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, which was expected to deal with school and hospital funding. The move was understandable; a new prime minister may well want to alter arrangements. But at a press conference he was asked a bland question about the status of various meetings and took the opportunity to attack Labor, with the risk of casting aspersions on COAG itself: “The Labor Party can have as many meetings as they like, they [don’t] seem to be able to resolve anything when they are in government. They were great at having meetings. The only thing that happens as a result of not having that COAG meeting is less Tim Tams will be consumed in Canberra that week.”

More recently, Mr Morrison was asked by Alan Jones about the conclusions of the IPCC’s latest climate change report. Again, he chose to go on the attack on something he had not even been asked about: “No, we’re not held to any of them at all, Alan, nor are we bound to go and tip money into that big climate fund, we’re not going to do that either. So I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that sort of nonsense, I’m not going to get in there … ”

In the space of a few weeks, the prime minister sought to ridicule his own party, federal–state governance and international governance. Then there was his threat to intervene at the ABC: “I expect the ABC board to do better. And if they don’t, well they can expect a bit more attention from me.”

There is no mystery about this approach. In a 2017 address to the Liberal Party federal council, Morrison, then the treasurer, talked about the appeal of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, who, he said, had taken “on the role of the authentic outsider; challenging a system that many voters did not think was serving them any longer.” In other words, our prime minister is borrowing from the strongman’s playbook.

Lack of civility is a related issue. Tingle mentions, in passing, Bill Shorten’s use of “Turnbull” instead of “Mr Turnbull.” Shorten and Morrison have each used “this guy” to describe the other. In that federal council speech, Morrison said this of Shorten: “It’s no coincidence his initials are BS.”

There is reasonable political thinking behind all this. Morrison wishes to present himself as the practically minded outsider, focused on action not meetings. Neither man wishes to accord respect to his opposite number. But this is the point: what are seen as short-term political gains – with rhetoric as the main weapon – increasingly come at the expense of respect for politicians and government. You cannot tear down an institution you are leading, or want to lead, without ultimately being yourself weakened.

The reckless use of rhetoric is not limited to government. Tingle rightly points to the fading influence of other voices that once held authority in national debates, such as religious organisations and business. Here, too, we can observe the deleterious effect of crazily antagonistic words. I am reminded of businesses railing against the political instability of the past few years, seemingly forgetting their own starring role: the ferocity with which they sought to destroy a carbon price and a mining tax, and the leaders behind those policies. I am also reminded of the more recent scaremongering from Catholic schools over new funding proposals, their attempts to mislead voters and parents.

Tingle ends her essay calling for national leaders to help rebuild the national debate. It is a worthy hope. There is an open question as to whether it is possible, for at least two reasons. The first is that the rhetoric of both politicians and stakeholders is driven partly by the desire to cut through an increasingly noisy public sphere. The volume and tempo of media seems unlikely to drop. I might want these groups to moderate their rhetoric, but if their voice is not being heard then the temptation to yell will remain.

The second is the possibility that voters are no longer listening to leaders, experts and institutions because they believe the world is fundamentally broken – and if those groups haven’t led us here, who has? The analysis and its attendant suspicions may not be entirely fair – but then again, they might be. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to agree that there is a kind of club of those who hold formal authority in this and other countries – and that the rules by which those in the club operate have not always been helpful to those outside the club. I agree that a civil and intelligent national debate is essential. But if “rebuilding” is, or is perceived to be, an attempt to build again what was there before, then it is likely to fail, and perhaps deservedly so.

Sean Kelly



Scott Ryan

Some may say that, as a serving politician, I have a conflict in commenting on Laura Tingle’s essay; indeed, some may argue that I am partially responsible for the situation she outlines. But that position also provides a unique perspective.

Laura outlines many challenges, some the result of changing technology, particularly media; others, of the way the world has changed in the past decade, for example with the Great Recession in North America and Europe. Australia has not been immune to these changes, as Laura outlines, even if they have not resulted in the same electoral shocks we have seen elsewhere.

At its core, politics is a means of compromising over competing objectives. This occurs through democratic determination, where one mandate or proposed program earns legitimacy through elections, and through the political and parliamentary process, where the great bulk of decisions that aren’t determined electorally are managed by a government through administration and the parliament. In both democratic determination and the parliamentary process, some element of “trade-off,” or compromise, is critical.

First, this occurs inside political parties, which serve as forums for compromise among people with similar values and priorities. Second, it occurs through parliament, where executives are held accountable, and legislation and budgets are proposed and approved. Without these mechanisms, politics becomes less a forum for managing competing priorities and more one for conflict over them. There have always been – indeed, should be – elements of compromise and conflict, but recent trends and examples indicate that the balance has tipped in favour of the latter.

Why is this? A distinction must be made between those issues that are more open to compromise and those that are not. The rise of social issues that previously didn’t form a substantial part of the domestic political debate reflects this. There is no compromise available on an issue such as same-sex marriage: it is either legislated or it is not. One can more easily compromise on economic issues, through either a less radical program (be it interventionist or deregulatory) or by managing the costs of change through adjustment and support packages. Australia has long been successful at the latter, but our political system is finding it more difficult to deal with social issues that require a binary yes/no answer.

Debates around such yes/no issues serve to polarise views across the political spectrum, and to simplify the terms of political debate. They assist in forming “camps” that then help determine the future political agenda and create the groups that participate in it. The impact of the decade-long debate on same-sex marriage can be seen across the political spectrum, both in the issues that arose alongside it and subsequently, and on those who participate in such debates. I am not judging this, just observing it.

Social issues are also, by their nature, more suited to the new media world of Twitter and other social media. Positions are taken in moral terms, and one can be for or against a moral question in 140 characters more easily than one can explain the deregulation of the dairy industry, or why tax and welfare reform is necessary. The new media world makes the explanation of compromise much more difficult, as the “trade-off” is usually complex and harder to explain. The negotiations between Peter Reith and Cheryl Kernot over workplace relations reform in 1997, or those between John Howard and Peter Costello and Meg Lees over the GST in 1999, are not well suited to short slogans that make older sound-bites sound positively thesis-like. I cannot help but think this new media world, both in production and consumption by citizens, is one reason these issues that are more suited to it have become more prominent in debate.

However, that can’t be the only reason. Laura outlines a decline in the lack of trust in institutions and leaders. This is critical when considering the difficulty in compromising on complex issues. Without trust in the key players, be they politicians, business leaders or even community and church leaders, compromise becomes more difficult. The process of compromise plays a role in generating consent among citizens and groups, but if there is less trust in those “in the room” or in parliament, then a direct consequence will be a decline in support for the outcome.

Compromise can also be easily misrepresented. In my Alfred Deakin Lecture in August this year, I provided a few examples where compromise was once lauded. It was seen as a sign of maturity and a valid way to achieve one’s objectives, while at the same time securing consent from many of those who might not share them. In the modern political era, though, what was once applauded as compromise is attacked as “selling out.” Or, even worse, as attacking or abandoning “the base.” Now, to reflect the values of one’s supporters is important in politics, but occasionally real leadership requires challenging their views and persuading them of alternatives. The great example of this, of course, is John Howard and Tim Fischer on firearms, for which the overwhelming majority of the country remains grateful. The modern challenge in this area is again reflected in the 140-character terms of debate, where “attacking the base” has too often taken the place of debate rather than genuinely querying policy and seeking an explanation or persuasion.

Finally, Laura also highlights the increasing simplicity of political debate. I’ve outlined some trends that I think explain this, but there is another: a lack of humility. When I was a minister, many people and groups came to see me with “all you need to do is … ” proposals. Sometimes they were blatantly pushing their own barrow, sometimes genuinely altruistic. I would often commence my response with: “But there are no easy solutions. If they were easy, then someone smarter than me in this job before me would have already done them.” Too many politicians and interest groups propose solutions that are “easy,” or “costless,” when they’re anything but. Too often the ability of government, particularly federally, to “solve” a problem is overstated. And when a solution is promised that doesn’t work so easily, quickly or simply or deliver a promised outcome, this further reduces public faith and trust. Surely one of the lessons has to be not to constantly ramp up the promises, but to be honest about the limits of government and the speed with which the promised solutions can be achieved. But again, the new media environment makes 140-character promises easier to campaign on than complex explanations of why they won’t work.

Scott Ryan



Katharine Murphy

We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman, Laura Tingle writes at the end of her essay about leadership. Given the quality of the analyst, this conclusion is, of course, very persuasive. But if we examine our addled politics, both domestically and internationally, this worthy objective seems ambitious, almost ludicrous. Imagine happening upon such a leader, a politician capable of exhibiting strength and purpose in the maelstrom of contemporary public life, a political leader to inspire hope. Even if one had the good fortune to happen upon such a person, would their colleagues permit them to lead, given the past decade of Australian politics has produced leaders with brutally short shelf lives – prime ministers programmed with planned obsolescence, as if they were iPhones?

The story behind this unmooring is multifactorial, but Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are catalytic figures in different ways. Rudd increased the pace of politics when he gave himself the objective of trying to set the agenda from Opposition, rather than respond to the government’s agenda. The new Labor man felt he had to puncture the somnolent tempo of the Howard era as part of grabbing the nation’s attention and positioning himself as putative prime minister in a matter of months.

Rudd’s arrival in the Lodge coincided with the profound technological disruption that created the rolling news cycle. Australian politics became a spectator sport, with the action from Canberra delivered blow by blow. Public life began to assume the death-match atmospherics of a football final. The rise of death-match atmospherics created the perfect conditions for the rise of Tony Abbott and his cacophonous politics of destruction. Just as Rudd had changed the pace of politics from Opposition, Abbott changed the tenor of politics from Opposition, elevating wrecking to the core of the enterprise. Abbott eschewed the business of deliberation and compromise, enterprises once considered to be the heart of the democratic model, and inculcated a sense of crisis in order to question the legitimacy of his political opponents.

Australian politics is still battling these two influences – an unrelenting pace narrated too often with hyperbolic, valueless commentary; and a culture where destruction is considered a legitimate tool of war – and they are poisoning political leadership in this country.

Mostly, Australian politics has been sleepwalking into the current nadir, reluctant to face up to or articulate the truth, lest some tribal taboo be broken, but interestingly, during the last leadership challenge, when Malcolm Turnbull was driven from office by the animus-fuelled faction that couldn’t abide him, something cracked inside the Liberal Party, and despair tumbled out.

The despair was heard primarily in a small chorus of women’s voices, women speaking critically about party culture, a culture where unhinged things seemed to happen over and over, and dissenters to the unhinging were bullied by self-appointed powerbrokers into submission and quiescence. The Victorian Liberal Julia Banks, who announced she would leave political life after enduring the leadership fracas, felt and said implicitly that the national interest could not be served by staying, which is about as damning as self-assessments get. Despair was new, a break from previous practice. Whether despair leads to anything productive remains moot.

The whole political ecosystem is impatient. The honeymoons once enjoyed by new prime ministers are short, and highly conditional, if they materialise at all. Voters are drifting away from partisan loyalties, and this seemingly inexorable drift to political disruptors is enabled by the major parties themselves, because the major parties have forgotten the premium they once offered voters was stability. Because voters are drifting, there is a preoccupation with “the base” that has become a strange form of religion, a fundamentalism which can pit the interests of political movements against the wishes of the mainstream, thereby intensifying the estrangement.

In an age where politics and public activism structures itself around the permanent campaign – given the campaign is a mechanism always on the hunt for a crisis, given the crisis has become a focal point to recruit foot soldiers and raise money – compromise is also deeply out of fashion, which is highly problematic given progress depends on it.

In one of the most interesting political speeches of 2018, the Senate president, Scott Ryan, pointed out what should be obvious: the greatest successes of Australian politics had come from “compromise and negotiation” and the use of parliamentary process to resolve competing points of view.

In a message both to colleagues and the ecosystem as a whole, Ryan noted that “the idea that compromise is wrong, that negotiation to achieve one objective and move onto another, represents a lost political opportunity for a contest or selling out is not one that has been rewarded in Australia.” Ryan observed that John Howard and the then National Party leader, Tim Fischer, “bore an enormous political cost among many of their traditional supporters when instituting national gun laws, but they weren’t relentlessly attacked as abandoning the base simply by virtue of challenging supporters, even on such a difficult issue.” The point being that the interest of the nation should always rank ahead of sectional interest, even if the sectional interest happens to be familial; and the art of politics is explaining the necessity of action to the losers and cushioning the impact of change – something that Australian politics once excelled at.

Tingle puts her finger squarely on the challenge by pointing out that leaders need to rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it, a form of housekeeping that requires something more profound than dishing up perpetual motion and perpetual conflict. It requires political leaders to see themselves as part of an organism rather than as a saviour or a subduer, and to give priority to the health of the organism over their own short-term imperatives or corrosive acts of one-upmanship. It requires politicians to understand they are temporary custodians of a valuable tradition, rather than succumbing to the gravitational pull of dabbling in reactionary populism because it’s easier than attempting a course correction.

This sense of politicians valuing themselves as institutional forces, a politics where ego plays second fiddle to the articulation of collective purpose and responsibility, is a very big ask, particularly at this juncture. As Tingle points out, we are now at the tail-end of the global financial crisis – the greatest economic shock since the Depression – and we are witnessing a global upheaval in politics: the rise of autocracies and strongman politics and the decline of democracy and multilateralism. The world, she notes, is becoming more irrational, and we cannot assume that what follows from that is orderly.

In short, it is hard, and getting harder, to be hopeful. Not impossible. But hard.

Katharine Murphy

Roderick Best is state director of Life Without Barriers, NSW/ACT. He has worked in child protection for over thirty years, including as the inaugural General Counsel, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

W. Max Corden is emeritus professor of international economics at Johns Hopkins University and has been a professorial fellow in the economics department of the University of Melbourne since 2002. He has been on the staff of the International Monetary Fund and a consultant for the World Bank. His most recent book is his autobiography, Lucky Boy in the Lucky Country.

Adam Creighton is economics editor of The Australian. He started his career at the Reserve Bank of Australia and studied economics at Oxford, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar.

Richard Denniss is chief economist at the Australia Institute. He writes for The Monthly, The Canberra Times and The Australian Financial Review. His books include Curing Affluenza, Econobabble and (as co-author) Affluenza.

Damien Freeman is a writer, lawyer and philosopher. He is the author of Abbott’s Right: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott and co-editor of The Forgotten People: Liberal and Conservative Approaches to Recognising Indigenous Peoples.

Michael Keating is a former head of the Australian Public Service and between 1983 and 1996 was secretary of the departments of Employment and Industrial Relations, Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet. A visiting fellow at ANU, he is co-author of Fair Share: Competing Claims and Australia’s Economic Future, published earlier this year.

Kristina Keneally is a federal Labor senator and was premier of New South Wales between 2009 and 2011.

John McTernan is a British political strategist and commentator. He was UK prime minister Tony Blair’s director of political operations from 2005 to 2007, and director of communications for Prime Minister Julia Gillard from September 2011 to June 2013.

John Quiggin is an Australian Laureate Fellow in economics at the University of Queensland and the author of Zombie Economics. His blog, at, presents commentary from a social-democratic viewpoint.

Laura Tingle is chief political correspondent for ABC TV’s 7.30. She won the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2004, and Walkley Awards in 2005 and 2011. She is the author of Chasing the Future: Recession, Recovery and the New Politics in Australia and two previous acclaimed Quarterly Essays, Great Expectations and Political Amnesia.

Danielle Wood is director of the Budget Policy and Institutional Reform program at the Grattan Institute. Previously, she worked at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as the principal economist and director of merger investigations and as a senior research economist at the Productivity Commission.


Response to Correspondence

Richard Denniss

For Grant, who personifies the best of Australian values.

As theologians know, it’s hard to write clearly about something that may not exist. Likewise, as an economist, I found it very hard to write about an idea that, while widely discussed, seemingly has no actual advocates in Australia. So why write an essay about neoliberalism if no one promotes it, I hear you ask. Simple: monsters don’t have to exist to scare children, gods don’t have to exist to give people comfort, and the fact no politicians admit to being racist doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a powerful idea in Australia. Similarly, that no federal politician declares himself or herself a neoliberal doesn’t mean neoliberalism isn’t a powerful rhetorical and political idea.

For a writer, there is nothing more frustrating than a reader who completely misses your point. Is it me? Is it them? Is it the limits of language? How could someone read so many of my words and miss my point so completely? In turn, the most frustrating critical responses to my essay were those that seemed to agree entirely with my main point without realising this. Clearly I need to improve my communication skills.

First of all, I thank the respondents for taking the time not just to read my essay, but to comment on it. As Oscar Wilde quipped, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I am grateful and flattered that such a range of thinkers gave their time to discuss my essay.

John McTernan clearly didn’t like it. But while his response makes clear that he read my words carefully, it’s hard for me to understand how he failed to grasp their meaning. The whole point of my essay is to say that among modern Australian politicians, not one consistently relies on neoliberal principles to guide their words or deeds. Not one. As evidence for this, I point out that Matt Canavan (an ex–Productivity Commission economist) now wants to subsidise coalmines; that Tony Abbott (the man who gave us the Commission of Audit) now wants to nationalise coalfired power stations; and that the premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian (once renowned as a fan of privatisation), now wants to nationalise football stadiums. I thought it was important to show the way conservative politicians and business leaders lean on “neoliberal principles” when they want to explain their desire to cut welfare spending, but abandon these same “principles” when they feel like subsidising powerful industries such as mining and private education. Alas, it seems some of my respondents thought that this point didn’t really need making. I still do.

McTernan’s critique of my argument includes the observation that neither Tony Abbott nor John Howard was really a neoliberal because they actually supported government intervention when they felt like it. Yep. That’s exactly the point I was trying to make on page 1 of the essay. Similarly, in his response Damien Freeman agrees with McTernan that neither Howard nor Abbott was a neoliberal. Again, I can only agree. They weren’t. They were clever politicians who hunted with the neoliberal foxes when they felt like it and ran with the populist hounds when it was in their political interest to do so. (Damn, why didn’t I write that sentence so clearly in the essay?)

The most common criticism of the responses is that I didn’t clearly and consistently define what I meant by neoliberalism. I tried. I defined it on page 1 as “the catch-all term for all things small government, [which] has been the ideal cloak behind which to conceal enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture.” I went on to say that:

It has provided powerful people with the perfect language in which to dress up their self-interest as the national interest. Without such a cloak, policies to slash income support for those most in need while giving tax cuts to those with the most money would just look nasty … the purpose of this essay is to consider, in the age of Trump, Brexit and Pauline Hanson 2.0, how the neoliberal agenda of “free markets,” “free trade” and “trickle-down tax cuts” has wounded our national identity, bled our national confidence, caused paralysis in our parliaments, and is eating away at the identity of those on the right of Australian politics.

Perhaps I was being too subtle, but what I was trying to say, at the very beginning of the essay, was that the term “neoliberalism” is primarily a rhetorical device used to conceal the underlying motivations of politicians who, for example, want to cut spending on public schools and increase subsidies for private schools without having to reveal their personal desire to do so.

The reason I quoted the mother of neoliberalism, Margaret Thatcher, saying that “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul,” was to shift the way neoliberalism is examined. For decades, economists, social policy experts and citizens have debated issues such as whether privatising health leads to better outcomes at lower cost or worse ones at higher cost. But such debates have done little to dampen enthusiasm for privatisation among those in power (in both major parties). In my essay, I set out instead to explore the rhetorical and policy contradictions of those who sometimes push so hard for the neoliberal agenda of free markets, free trade and trickle-down economics.

Just as the desire of postwar Britons to pull together and invest in national health and welfare systems irritated Margaret Thatcher, my distinction between what neoliberalism says it is and what neoliberal rhetoric has been used to do clearly irritated McTernan, who points out that I inconsistently use the term more than one hundred times in the essay. I’m not sure that I do, but let me try to find common ground. I think there is a big difference between what neoliberalism is and what neoliberalism has done. Of the twelve different “definitions” that McTernan thinks I used, they fit pretty neatly into two groups.

The first group of definitions covers the underlying beliefs of neoliberalism, all of which I think are covered by my “catch-all” definition.

  • small government
  • outsourcing public services
  • the profit motive
  • measuring efficiency and quality
  • reducing the budget deficit and public spending
  • cutting regulation
  • the idea that market forces are superior to government decision-making.

And the second group of “definitions” he says that I use are, I think, better seen as the cultural consequences of decades of inculcation in neoliberal beliefs about human nature and economics. These include:

  • sponsorship of museums
  • looking out for yourself
  • the last thirty years of Australian government
  • cultural change of hearts and minds
  • the assertion “there is no alternative.”

While I’m glad I peppered the essay with different examples, I do sympathise with McTernan’s confusion. Abbott thinks that the tobacco taxes he increased while health minister were a good way to reduce smoking and that carbon taxes were a terrible way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Abbott’s Commission of Audit was unambiguously based on the “principle” that reducing government spending was good for the economy, yet as prime minister he championed an enormously expensive paid-parental-leave scheme. It’s hard to write consistently about such inconsistent principles.

But again, I’d like to thank McTernan for helping me to clarify my point. In short, for the avoidance of any doubt, I didn’t mean to suggest that museum sponsorship is the definition of neoliberalism, but I very much meant to say that neoliberal rhetoric has played a central role in making a country as rich as Australia feel so poor that we need to use our National War Memorial to promote the logos of weapons manufacturers more visibly than we remember those individuals who died fighting for our country. I think the symbolism of war memorials is extremely important, but then again I think national identity is a very important, and contestable, concept. McTernan, on the other hand, thinks that national identity is “an inverted pyramid of piffle,” so perhaps it’s little wonder he doesn’t share my concern with the way that neoliberalism has been used to transform Australia’s identity.

I was happy to take the bitter medicine doled out by some respondents, but I was even happier that there was so much substantive and insightful analysis and critique to chew on. Adam Creighton, for example, shares my frustration with the lack of honesty that underpins what should be important economic and democratic debates about the relative size of the public sector in Australia and the best way to regulate private companies. Having accepted my definition of neoliberalism (phew), Creighton rejects my view that over the past thirty years neoliberalism has infected all corners of Australian life, and argues that, “if anything, government spending and regulation have increased. If ‘neoliberalism’ is to mean anything more than gouging, greed or ‘something we don’t like,’ then it’s a lack of it that is eroding confidence in the status quo.” I agree with him entirely. If we had a greater focus on small government and the efficient use of public money, there is no way the current government would be trying to spend $1 billion subsidising the Adani coalmine. No way it would have offered a $454 million grant to a small charity set up by a group of businesspeople without any tender process. And there is no way that we would have privatised the vocational education and training sector at enormous cost to taxpayers, students and employers alike.

Similarly, I agree with Creighton when he writes,

Meanwhile, government spending continues to soak up more and more national income. As a share of GDP, it’s increased from around 22 per cent at the end of the Whitlam government to 25 per cent today. The National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will cost more than $20 billion a year, is almost certain to see that that ratio tick higher. Both major political parties are promising to increase income tax as a share of the economy, the Liberals a little more slowly. Is this rampant neoliberalism?

Again, the confusion stems from the difference between the stated objectives of neoliberals and the actual behaviour of successive governments, which have told the public they have “no choice” but to cut spending on services and “no choice” but to reduce the regulation of the finance sector at the very same time they choose to spend a lot more money subsiding the fossil-fuel industry and introducing a lot more regulation of unions, charities and the unemployed.

Creighton is a respected economics writer who works for one of the more conservative of our broadsheet newspapers. His views are neither radical nor ill-considered and, in turn, it’s important that Australians of all political persuasions read his views about the role of the market carefully:

A free market only works effectively when prices are salient, when customers understand the product or service as well as sellers, and when there are many of both …

[T]hese conditions are far from satisfied in many cases, such as electricity or financial services, which enjoy vast implicit subsidies and exhibit little genuine competition. Too often, policy-making in Australia has naively assumed well-meaning policies wouldn’t be severely abused. Funding for vocational training springs to mind. This isn’t neoliberalism so much as stupidity.

Hear, hear. As someone who has lectured in economics for more than twenty years, I never cease to be amazed at how many people embark on an economics degree thinking that they have to “pick a team” and barrack for “free markets” or “red tape and regulation.” The rhetoric of neoliberalism has debased the language of public debate so comprehensively that calls for regulation are quickly labelled “creeping socialism” and efforts to reduce government waste are described as “heartless.” If only people like Adam and me could have such a debate without anyone calling either of us silly names.

As the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 1991 to 1996, Mike Keating is far better placed than me to speak on the objectives of, and options considered by, prime ministers Hawke and Keating. Although he starts his response by stating that he shares my values, he takes issue with my depiction of the motivation for and effectiveness of a wide range of neoliberal policies. While I didn’t attempt to write the history of neoliberalism in Australia in the Hawke/Keating years, I do agree with Mike Keating that some neoliberal policies delivered some significant benefits to some groups in Australia. I thought I made clear that I supported some of them; as I said in the essay, I think the privatisation of Qantas was good for travellers and good for the budget.

While Keating and I clearly agree on many things, I reject his criticism that I exaggerate evidence of the impact of neoliberalism on our culture. In building his case, he cites but one example: “Denniss correctly considers that all children with cancer should receive high-quality treatment, and then implies that our health system is too mean to guarantee this. But this is quite false – these children do receive high-quality treatment irrespective of their parents’ means.” But I made no such claim. On the contrary, I simply posed the democratic question and explained that different democracies made different decisions:

Should all children with cancer receive high-quality treatment, or only those whose parents can afford it? Should all adults with cancer receive the highest level of care, or only those who have the most expensive insurance? Different people in different countries come up with quite different answers to these questions. Not even Barack Obama suggested that all US citizens should have universal access to high-quality health care, and not even Tony Abbott suggested that Australia’s publicly funded Medicare system should be removed.

I didn’t say, or even imply, that Australia didn’t help children with cancer. I simply used the question to highlight the fundamentally human nature of what are often depicted as “economic questions” about issues as complicated as the design of pharmaceutical subsidies. That said, a quick Google search would confirm for Keating that Australians who want access to certain drugs often decide to travel abroad and spend their life savings to obtain such treatments.

Other respondents raised specific concerns. Creighton, for example, was critical of my claim that Australia is no longer a “workers’ paradise,” even though today more than half of Australian workers no longer have access to paid holidays. While I don’t disagree with his statement that he would rather be a worker today than in the 1950s, and I don’t disagree that Australians work far fewer hours than the average Turk, Mexican or Colombian, I don’t share his overall assessment of the state of our labour market. While labour-market data is relatively objective, it seems the definition of paradise, and the countries we wish to compare ourselves to, are in the eye of the beholder.

Without doubt, the criticism that stung most was the suggestion by Roderick Best that, “The tragedy of Braxton’s death should not be cheapened by using it as a pop-up illustration for a discussion of ‘enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture.’” Before including the example of the tragic death of Braxton Slager in my essay, I read the coroner’s report into his death carefully. While Creighton criticises me for relying on newspapers for the claims made in the essay, they were by no means the only sources I relied on. I did, however, choose to reference easily accessible sources to help make the point that my critique of neoliberalism can be easily checked, and indeed extended upon, by any reader with access to the internet and a keen eye for contradiction. Yet no matter how carefully a researcher conducts their research, we all harbour the fear that the permanent written record of our thoughts might be in error, so it was with trepidation that I reread the coroner’s report. On second reading, I think I pressed too gently on the role of neoliberalism. The NSW deputy coroner, Harriet Grahame, was damning of the process that led to the death:

the rushed nature of this whole process [finding accommodation for a two-year-old], once it finally happened, meant that there was no chance to properly consider the appropriateness of where Braxton was to be placed. Given that FACS [NSW Family and Community Services] had been aware of the potential risks in Braxton’s life since the first prenatal reports, it is disappointing that so little time and care went into this life changing decision … There was no physical inspection of the premises and certainly no record of any discussion with the out of home carers about what to expect, prior to “dropping off” Braxton … Even leaving aside the state of the premises, there were a number of factors which, if properly considered, should have indicated potential risk. Each of these factors should have been known to LWB [Life Without Barriers] during the assessment procedure …

In my view, the risk assessment procedure which took place was not a genuine assessment and is more accurately described as a rubber stamp given to a decision which had effectively already been made based on a lack of other options … Mr Best, the State Director of LWB for NSW and the ACT, agreed in evidence that the state of the backyard, as depicted in photographs taken on the day of Braxton’s death, was “alarming” and contained “many, many really obvious dangers for small children” … the information systems operating at that time within LWB contributed to the poor understanding of the environment in which Braxton was to be placed … The premises [his carer] could provide at that time were unsafe, and this should have been picked up by LWB … Tragically, a child who went into care to improve his chance of living in a safe environment, found himself in a situation of enormous risk. His death appears to have been a preventable accident, which occurred against a background of inadequate care.

The coroner’s report into the death of Braxton Slager is as gut-wrenching as it is damning of structural and systemic errors. But despite the content and the tone of the report, Best asserts in his response: “It is telling that none of the four recommendations from the coroner addressed deficiencies seen in the new model of outsourcing foster care.” And he concludes: “Honouring the tragic death of the vulnerable in our society requires us to honestly and respectfully consider what happened and then make real, verifiable changes in response. It is not about misconstruing what happened so as to apply a theory, out of context, to advance a different argument.”

While Best is correct that the coroner didn’t make recommendations about “the new model of outsourcing foster care,” few readers would likely realise that this silence says nothing, because by the time of the coronial inquiry both the NSW government and Best’s organisation had made significant changes designed to reduce the risk faced by children in emergency care. In the words of the coroner: “I accept Counsel assisting’s submission that there is no need for a formal recommendation pursuant to section 82 of the Coroners Act to provide a further catalyst for the reforms already identified. I accept a number of significant changes have already been made.”

The most depressing element of the coroner’s report, however, relates directly to the point of my essay (and the point rejected by Keating): that although Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, our governments frequently cite a shortage of funds as explanation for the low-quality services we often provide. The coroner recommended that greater psychological support be offered to those entrusted to care for vulnerable children, but “[t]he recommendation was not supported by FACS and LWB. Both were concerned by the potential expense.” As I wrote in my essay:

Mistakes and mistreatment in institutions are neither new nor entirely the fault of neoliberalism, but placing the profit motive at the heart of the delivery of care for the vulnerable creates a strong incentive to cut costs in an environment where customers are poorly placed to speak up for themselves, and at times literally incapable of it.

Braxton’s tragic death is a sad indictment of the choices, and priorities, of successive governments and organisations involved in the care of the most vulnerable people in our community. The fact that Roderick Best cannot see that the culture of cost-cutting and “reducing red tape” played a central role in creating a system where there was no money to support carers and not enough “red tape” to ensure that houses were inspected before two-year-olds were “dropped off” is sadder still.

Max Corden and John Quiggin not only are two of the best economists Australia has produced, but they have also spent their lives applying their knowledge to the practical policy problems our country faces. While both gave me plenty to think about, the fact that such luminaries thought the topic of neoliberalism warranted careful examination, and that my take on it added a fresh dimension, is gratifying. Kristina Keneally’s response contains a number of gems for my stump speech. Not only has she reminded me that the Business Council of Australia had been unable to provide her with a single example of a country where wage growth improved after a cut in the corporate tax rate, her US heritage prompts her to highlight the importance of our Australian Electoral Commission, whose independence is all that stands between us and the rampant gerrymandering on which American “democracy” is built. And I will be forever in her debt for alerting me to the fact that Adam Creighton and I share a propensity to use South Park episodes to make important points about the economy.

It is a privilege to have my arguments tested by such diverse voices. The conclusion of Dead Right is that the opposite of neoliberal economics isn’t progressive economics, but engaged democracy. And engaged democracy requires exactly the sort of well-meaning debate contained in these pages. While it’s inevitable that 25 million Australians will find it difficult to agree on priorities and policies, history suggests that good intentions and rigorous debate can move us forward, eventually. Our differences need not define us. Indeed, as the prime minister for whom John McTernan was head of communications once said, “We are us.” Like the definition of neoliberalism, it’s not quite clear what the phrase means, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep talking about it.

Richard Denniss



Roderick Best

In developing a critique of the surviving rhetoric of “economic rationalism,” Richard Denniss used two examples to put into stark relief the consequences of economic practices upon the lives of two people to justify his title Dead Right. I do not know the background to the very sad circumstances surrounding the death of Shirley Carter, but I am aware of the circumstances surrounding the death of the young child, Braxton Slager. I was present every day at, and gave evidence in, the coronial inquiry into Braxton’s death.

Braxton was a bright and energetic three-year-old boy who tragically died. We absolutely do need to learn from his death. What we need to learn is how better to look after children in state care. What is not helpful, however, is when the apparent example does not in fact justify the assertion. In those circumstances we lose focus. The argument is weakened and the death of a child becomes a footnote, rather than producing a change in how we care for children.

The coroner’s decision was clear that Braxton entered a short-term care arrangement because neither of his parents could provide the immediate care necessary to look after him. This was not a removal of a child by the state. The arrangement for his care was not part of the program Denniss describes: “in the name of efficiency the Department of Family and Community Services had ‘outsourced’ the role of finding suitable homes for vulnerable children many years ago.” During the short period this arrangement was in place, the department, at all times, retained responsibility for the care of Braxton. The circumstances of Braxton’s death are not related to the failures of neoliberalism that are central to Denniss’s argument.

The tragedy of Braxton’s death should not be cheapened by using it as a pop-up illustration for a discussion of “enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture” – no matter how important that discussion might be. For matters of worth to come from personal tragedy, the respectful approach is to focus on the tangible, practical matters that will help other children have better lives. What these changes should be are encapsulated in the recommendations made by the coroner after a comprehensive and exhaustive consideration of what happened to Braxton. It is telling that none of the four recommendations from the coroner addressed deficiencies in the new model of outsourcing foster care. These changes applied equally to practice before the changes commenced. The recommendations looked at the emotional and psychological supports provided to carers who were no longer looking after a foster child who had formed part of their family for a number of years; how policies that were put in place, not for cost-cutting and efficiency but for the care of the child, needed to better address the child’s needs; and the role of the state department in ensuring the suitability of accommodation when it had ongoing responsibility for the child. Life Without Barriers is making the relevant changes applicable to its practice.

Honouring the tragic death of the vulnerable in our society requires us to honestly and respectfully consider what happened and then make real, verifiable changes in response. It is not about misconstruing what happened so as to apply a theory, out of context, to advance a different argument.

Roderick Best



Michael Keating

I believe that Richard Denniss and I share the same values. We both want an inclusive society and think that such a society will not be achieved by relying purely on market forces. Instead, we see a continuing role for government intervention to achieve that inclusive society, and we think that this will require a modest future increase in government revenue. The future of capitalism and our democracy depends upon the success of governments in maintaining inclusive economic growth. Indeed, the failure of the governments of many advanced economies to maintain such growth throughout this century is most responsible for the swing to extreme right-wing populist governments – the principal challenge to the open, liberal international order.

Where Denniss and I part company is that Denniss blames all the faults he sees in modern society, some of which he exaggerates, on what he calls “neoliberalism.” He is in good company. There are many other critics of neoliberalism, who blame it for everything they don’t like about the direction our society and economy have taken over the last thirty-odd years.

The first problem that I have with these arguments is that typically neoliberalism is never explicitly defined. Its definition is inferred through its alleged impacts, without any regard for the logic of cause and effect. In fairness, Denniss is a bit better than this. He suggests that “Neoliberalism [is] the catch-all term for all things small government.” But, as Denniss himself concedes, the size of government is bigger than ever, as measured by the amount of regulation, and government expenditure and revenue are both at an all-time high relative to GDP. So, if neoliberalism is defined by smaller government, while government is in fact bigger, by what logic is neoliberalism responsible for the ills afflicting society? However, Denniss also has another approach to defining neoliberalism, suggesting that “it is possible to think of neoliberalism as an ideology focused on the idea that market forces are superior to government decision-making.” Again, he provides no evidence to show that this ideology has dominated policy thinking in Australia.

Instead, I suggest that the micro-economic “reforms” introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, so often referred to as neoliberalism, involved:

  • floating the Australian dollar
  • financial deregulation and (later) changing the type of regulation
  • largely eliminating protection, and a shift in industry assistance in favour of more generic assistance and less specific industry assistance
  • tax reform to make the system more efficient and fair, but not to reduce the total revenue
  • decentralising wage determination in favour of more enterprise bargaining
  • some measure of privatisation accompanied by the introduction of competition policy.

These reforms can be broadly characterised as making greater use of markets, but Denniss doesn’t really try to and I doubt that he could make the case that these reforms are directly responsible for the many aspects of today’s society that he decries. The fundamental reason for many of these reforms was that the previous regulations were not working. For example, the previous attempts to “manage” the Australian currency were proving counterproductive, signalling the likely next movement to the speculators, and giving them a one-way bet. Similarly, protectionism wasn’t working. These sorts of regulatory changes did not involve any attempt to reduce government responsibilities, as implied by the critics of neoliberalism. Rather, they represented an effort to improve the effectiveness of government intervention, as governments found that often they would be more effective if they focused more on managing markets and creating the right incentives and disincentives, and relied less on administrative controls that were increasingly being evaded or proving unworkable. Today, the equivalent approach would be to price carbon as the best way to reduce carbon emissions, rather than relying on direct action policies; it is curious that this reliance on pricing carbon has been supported by many of the critics of neoliberalism.

Privatisation and contracting out

My sense is that it may be privatisation that causes most of the disquiet about neoliberalism. There are, however, a few points to be made. First, the majority of economists long ago concluded that competition was a much more important determinant of corporate performance than ownership. Furthermore, the previous government ownership of commercial entities such as airlines and banks did not seem to be achieving any social purpose, with the government-owned airlines and banks behaving and having to behave in much the same way as their competitors to survive. Denniss himself agrees that whether a business should be publicly or privately owned should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I also agree with him that the case for privatising natural monopolies is much more difficult to sustain: governments must be confident that they can achieve the same outcomes or better by regulation than they can achieve by ownership and direct control.

However, Denniss has a particular beef about electricity that is worth exploring a little further. He claims that electricity privatisation has “cost Australian energy users billions of dollars” as “a privately owned monopoly [is] willing to spend millions of dollars to bamboozle the regulator.” The chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Rod Sims, also agrees that “Australians are paying considerably more for electricity than they should.” However, in its recent exhaustive review, the ACCC never mentioned privatisation, and Sims in a press conference made it clear that privatisation was not a cause of high electricity prices. The most damaging criticism made by Sims was that “some states, with the excellent exception of Victoria, often privatised generation and retail assets without an eye to competition, and mainly to maximise sale proceeds.” Furthermore, the one period when electricity prices did stabilise was between 1993 and 2000, and this was when much of the privatisation actually occurred and when competition policy was introduced. In fact, as the Productivity Commission established in a review of the impact of National Competition Policy, “Before NCP and related reforms, it was widely recognised that electricity production and distribution activities were working well below best practice.” So competition policy and privatisation did realise major productivity gains that were passed on in lower prices, although these were largely one-off gains and cannot be repeated. Finally, I think experience suggests that the public providers find it easier to raise capital for dubious investments; for example, if the Liddell power station were still in public hands, does anyone think the present government would agree to close it when it becomes uneconomic in a couple of years?

Privatisation was not always carried out well, but neither has it proved to be the disaster that many of its critics assert it to be.

I have already mentioned the limits placed on competition by some states as they tried to maximise the proceeds from sale of their electricity assets. Similarly, Denniss rightly criticises the restrictions on competition that accompanied the sale of the ports in New South Wales, but those restrictions would never have been endorsed if neoliberal policies had been followed. On the other hand, the major privatisations carried out by the Australian government – airlines, telecommunications and banking – did first establish a competitive environment before the sale, even though this then depressed the sale price.

My major criticism of deregulation and privatisation is that too often the required new regulatory regime was insufficiently thought through in advance. For example, it was only after the almost-failure of a major bank in the 1991 recession that the prudential regulation system was appropriately tightened up. Similarly, in the case of vocational education and training, significant gains were made in efficiency and in moving to a more responsive system for disadvantaged people by allowing them greater choice. Yet too often the quality of the vocational education and training was very unsatisfactory because insufficient effort was made to restrict access to public funding to only those private providers who had a track record of quality.

The case for and against contracting out is similar to privatisation. For example, a long time ago – well before the advent of neoliberalism – governments started contracting out construction activity, such as road building – and this seems to have received community-wide acceptance. Similarly, the community has long supported the system whereby medical services are mostly provided by private doctors who are then reimbursed totally or partially by the state. What may be more controversial is the contracting out of decisions that in the end affect the nature of government programs. For example, the Keating government in its One Nation package of assistance to long-term unemployed people decided to contract out the provision of employment and training advice and assistance. The reason was that although the former Commonwealth Employment Service had a reasonable record of assisting the typical job seeker, its culture was built around the provision of the same uniform service to all its clients, whereas long-term unemployed people required more individual assistance, which non-government providers were better at delivering.

However, I question the increasing contracting out of the analytical and advisory functions of the public service. Evaluation of policies and programs should be the foundation for much policy advice, and if the public service contracts out this function, then it is no wonder that its capacity to provide sound policy advice has atrophied. In addition, too often the use of a commercial consultancy firm results in the government getting the sort of analysis and advice that it wants to receive rather than frank and fearless advice, as the consultant wants to please in order to gain another contract.

Has neoliberalism changed the nature of politics?

Denniss’s critique of neoliberalism is broader than the issues discussed so far. He decries what he sees as “the trick of neoliberalism”: “to convince the public that it is the economic dimension of big issues that we must always focus on.” In his view, neoliberalism “has been the ideal cloak behind which to conceal enormous shifts in Australia’s wealth and culture. It has provided powerful people with the perfect language in which to dress up their self-interest as the national interest”; “it has radically altered the way we see the role of government”; and in relation to health care, “it has also hardened the hearts of average Australians towards those most in need.”

This critique of neoliberalism has been made by others as well, although not always so eloquently. However, there is quite a lot of exaggeration in the evidence provided; and where the evidence is correct, the analysis does not really establish cause and effect, and alternative explanations are more probable.

Exaggerated evidence

For reasons of space, I will only give one example of exaggerated evidence, but there are others. Denniss says that all children with cancer should receive high-quality treatment, and then implies that our health system is too cruel to guarantee this. But this is quite false – these children do receive high-quality treatment, irrespective of their parents’ means. Furthermore, every other week more very expensive drugs are added to the pharmaceutical benefits list once they have been assessed as safe and effective, and, while the amount of co-payments may be debatable, I am yet to see the evidence that anyone who is seriously ill (say, with cancer) is missing out on necessary treatment.

More generally in his discussion of access to health care, Denniss provides no evidence allowing us to make a proper comparison with the past, but he nevertheless concludes that there has been a massive deterioration. Thus, he cites approvingly Menzies’ support for universal health care, but no one had more time to introduce such a system than Menzies, and he didn’t. Of course, the reality is that the original system of universal health insurance was introduced by the Labor Whitlam government, then abandoned by the conservative Fraser government, which had nothing to do with neoliberalism, while the present Medicare system was introduced by the Hawke government, which was also responsible for embracing the policies that are cited as representing neoliberalism.

Denniss also fails to mention that Australia today has a world-class health system, which the Harvard-based health research institution the Commonwealth Fund has ranked second of eleven first-world countries. I agree with Denniss that there could be improvements to the effectiveness and equity of health care in Australia, but typically more could always be spent on almost all public and private services if the money were available. A more balanced assessment would have acknowledged that the rate of bulk-billing has been maintained, and over the last two decades public expenditure on health has increased faster than GDP.

The logic of cause and effect

Inequality has increased since the early 1980s in almost all the advanced economies, although rather less in Australia than most others. Interestingly, according to OECD data the biggest increases in inequality between 1985 and 2014 have been in Sweden and the United States, followed by New Zealand, Finland and Germany – and of course Sweden, Finland and Germany are not notable for their embrace of neoliberal policies. Instead, there is widespread agreement that the major cause of increasing inequality has been technological change, which has “hollowed out” middle-level jobs and has also tended to be skill-biased. In short, the adoption of neoliberal policies, to the extent that it has occurred, has little or nothing to do with the increase in inequality.

Similarly, it is not hard to think of a host of other reasons why we are more individualistic and have less trust in government, instead of adopting Denniss’s hypothesis that these changes are all the fault of neoliberalism. Society has become more individualistic, which predates neoliberal policies. Key drivers are increased education, which has helped create citizens who are more critical of authority, but also more tolerant of individual differences; women have more independence; the car, television and the internet have increased people’s choices and people now feel they have the capacity to live as they choose and the right to do so. Well before the advent of neoliberalism, increasing living standards and modern technologies were also changing lifestyles; marriage break-up has become much more common, most of us no longer travel together on public transport, and our leisure time is more likely to be spent watching TV or a video, or using the internet, rather than engaging in community activities or even group activities in the home. With fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact with other people, it is not surprising that we have become more individualistic.

The loss of trust in government is also not a new phenomenon; many writers analysed it more than twenty years ago. According to Jane Mansbridge, it is the incapacity of governments to meet the different and typically incompatible expectations of different groups of citizens over a wide range of issues that are inherently insoluble that is most responsible for the decline in trust in government. In addition, in this century economic stagnation has meant that governments no longer meet the popular expectation that living standards will improve over time. Many people feel that they and their government have lost control over their destiny, and with that there is a tendency for governments to lose authority and trust. Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who feel most disempowered are those who have fallen behind economically. But whether these disempowered people have lost faith in government or faith in the elites whom they see as dominating government is a moot point.


Denniss states the curious opinion that “there has been no obsession among the political elite with the neoliberal goals of reducing government spending, regulation or tax collection over the past three decades.” But I don’t think that neoliberalism demands adherence to specific goals. Denniss also writes that “Paul Keating and former NSW premier Bob Carr were two prominent examples of a generation of ALP figures who passionately embraced some of the key tenets of neoliberalism, albeit in parallel with a strong welfare safety net and social wage.” As someone who worked closely with Paul Keating when he was prime minister, I have no doubt that he remained totally committed to traditional Labor goals, but he recognised that the best means of achieving them had to change with the times.

Denniss’s critique of neoliberalism presumes that it is some sort of government objective, in its own right. If that were true, it might be possible to argue that neoliberalism is to at least some extent responsible for the outcomes achieved. However, neoliberalism was never an objective of policy, nor strategy. Instead, improving markets is seen as a means to better achieve traditional government objectives.

Most importantly, policies described as neoliberal have aimed to improve the competitiveness and flexibility of Australian markets, and thanks to their success in this regard, Australia has managed to experience twenty-seven years of unbroken economic growth, something that Denniss fails to acknowledge in his critique. And although Denniss is no fan of improvements in material living standards, many Australian families say that they are struggling to meet their costs of living, and without this long period of growth, unemployment would be significantly higher.

Nor do I think that neoliberalism has had any major unintended consequences for our values. Australia remains a most egalitarian country. Our tax-transfer system is so highly targeted that it achieves more distribution than any other country in the world. It is true that conservatives support less redistribution than Labor, but that has always been the case, and even the conservatives have never radically changed the amount of redistribution achieved.

The so-called reform agenda of the current government and its business supporters, with its focus on tax cuts and reducing protections for workers, is not at all new. In fact, the acts of parliament covering taxation and industrial relations are the two most-amended pieces of legislation since Federation. What we are really seeing is the traditional conflict between labour and capital being played out in not very different ways.

Although it is easy to be critical of the present government’s agenda, or more accurately its lack of any agenda, that cannot realistically be attributed to neoliberalism. Instead, this government has allowed itself to become beholden to a very traditional set of conservative interests. These interests have nothing to do with neoliberal policies; indeed, these backwoods conservatives are usually opposed to any liberal policies and are only interested in promoting their own vested interests and finding scapegoats for anything that goes wrong.

Michael Keating



Damien Freeman

One curious feature of Richard Denniss’s critique of “neoliberalism” is that it seems to be calling for a decidedly conservative response. Denniss is concerned by the loss of trust in institutions, which he attributes to neoliberalism. It is interesting to identify the conservative nature of some of his concerns, and why a better understanding of conservative thought might shed some light on aspects of his critique.

Denniss suggests that the significance of the economic rationalists in the 1980s was that they “were putting a wider range of policies on the policy menu” but that, over time, “ideas of neoliberalism have been used to push all other options off that menu.”

If one reads the account in Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty, what one finds is that the 1980s was more about responding to specific challenges than it was about creating a range of policy options. John Howard was prepared to support Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in addressing those specific challenges. It is true that this involved Howard’s coming to identify himself increasingly as an economic liberal. But Denniss seems to forget that when Howard reflected on his political thought, he tended to say that he was both an economic liberal and a social conservative.

What Howard meant by labelling himself a social conservative was that he was committed to Edmund Burke’s conception of society as formed by institutions: the constitution, parliament, the monarchy, the family, marriage, and organised (albeit not established) religion. Burkeans such as Howard say that society is possible because of the institutions through which people come together to affirm their shared values. These institutions enable people to form bonds of trust with other members of the institutions, precisely because they share their values, and to trust the institutions themselves because they affirm the shared values of a tradition. It is the loss of this trust that is one of the central themes of Denniss’s analysis.

Denniss says that “one of the great ironies of neoliberalism is that even though it was supported by many conservative Christians … it rendered many Christians unable to live by traditional Christian values.” Denniss’s conception of “neoliberalism” may well be inconsistent with traditional Christian values, but that does not mean that every form of economic liberalism is incompatible with traditional morality.

Howard’s two claims – that he was a social conservative and an economic liberal – were compatible because one could be committed to addressing the economic challenges of the 1980s through market reforms while retaining a commitment to the centrality of institutions for society. If “neoliberalism” is incompatible with a commitment to the central place of institutions in society, then Howard is evidently the kind of economic liberal who is not a “neoliberal.”

British MP, minister and author of Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why it Matters Jesse Norman was in Sydney earlier this year to deliver the second P.M. Glynn Lecture on Religion, Law and Public Life. Norman explained that Adam Smith gives us the idea of commercial society, and that capitalism emerges as one version of commercial society. Capitalism is not the only form that commercial society can take, and the excesses of an extreme form of capitalism, to which the global financial crisis was witness, are an invitation to return to its roots in commercial society, and to consider what form of commercial society might be best for society today.

Norman points out that although some recent versions of capitalism might have abandoned any notion of morality, this is not true of commercial society. Smith understood commercial society to be predicated upon moral institutions, and Norman urges us to embrace forms of commercial society that take seriously the role of moral, social and political institutions, rather than some debased form of capitalism that sees no place for such institutions in our life in common.

One of the hallmarks of neoliberalism, according to Denniss, is that it gives primacy to the need “to ‘grow our economy’ some more” rather than the need “to rebuild trust in our institutions and confidence in our country.” The obsession with economic growth seems to plague politicians on both sides of the political divide in Australia at the moment, so if this is a legacy of neoliberalism, it seems to have been bequeathed equally among the political class. However, the idea that the only way in which it is rational to discuss politics is in economic terms is not shared by all politicians.

It is particularly instructive to examine the way Tony Abbott writes about the Howard ministry’s achievements and, indeed, its weaknesses. As I explain in my book Abbott’s Right, Abbott maintained that, whatever the Howard ministry’s successes were (and he was in no doubt about these), there had been a failure of communication – at least in its dying days. The leaders, he conceded, had failed to explain to the people that the economic policy they were advocating was directed towards social ends, rather than merely an economic end. Abbott is very clear that ultimately economic policy must be justified in terms of social outcomes. If neoliberals succumb to the fallacy that the only rational way to discuss public policy is in terms of economics, then Abbott’s analysis is not neoliberal.

Denniss argues that neoliberalism has “stripped public debate of its intimate, personal and intangible characteristics.” Any cursory reading of Jesse Norman’s previous book, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, will see that such “neoliberalism” bears no relation whatsoever to Burke’s understanding of the role of emotion – or temper – in statesmanship. More than that, the politicians whom Denniss seems to identify most closely with neoliberalism are in fact better understood in the mould of Burkean political thought: in his heyday, no one doubted that Howard understood the temper of the Australian people and was responsive to their intimate, personal and intangible characteristics.

Denniss also writes that “according to the neoliberal view of the world, fear, like greed, is good,” and cites Abbott’s approach to unemployment as an example of the use that can be made of fear in policy-making. This entirely misrepresents Abbott’s understanding of the dignity of work. He has a deep commitment to the importance of work, and this involves having regard for emotions such as fear and pride. Abbott believes that it is right that people take pride in providing for themselves and their families through the fruit of their labours, and it is natural that they should be afraid of losing this capacity. Burke tells us that leaders need to understand the way pride and fear operate among the people, if they want to be effective leaders of those people. This is not to glorify the role of fear in public life. It is to adopt an approach to public policy that is sensitive to the sources of fear and pride in people’s working lives. It is not to glorify fear as a political tool.

By the end of the essay, it is still not clear what neoliberalism is, and so it is not clear whether this category is intended to capture all forms of commercial society, or only certain extreme versions of capitalism. Consequently, it is not clear who in the Australian political landscape is captured by Denniss’s “neoliberalism.” Whoever they are, they are not people who share Burke’s commitment to social institutions or Smith’s commitment to commercial society. There may be reasons to reject the politics of Howard and Abbott, but it is not because they are neoliberals. Indeed, they share some of the concerns that seem to motivate Denniss’s critique of neoliberalism.

Denniss is dead right to warn us of the threat that a loss of trust in institutions poses for society. Implicit in his argument is that if we are concerned about what comes next, we need to return to the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke, which extols the importance of institutions, values and trust for society, and to Adam Smith’s commercial society predicated on moral institutions, rather than squabbling about whether the responses to the economic challenges of the 1980s have left us with an unhelpful approach that might – with some difficulty – be classified as “neoliberal.”

Damien Freeman



Danielle Wood

Richard Denniss’s Dead Right offers a burning critique of neoliberalism and a call to arms for our leaders to focus on making the country – and not just the economy – better. The essay lands some powerful punches, but at times I was left wondering what it was that Richard was actually fighting. As an argument for demoting the central role of economics in policy debate and design, the essay does not convince. But as a case for reforming institutions to curb the worst excesses of vested interest influence over policy, it is compelling indeed.

Richard defines neoliberalism as “all things small government” and the idea that “market forces are superior to government decision-making.” But he also slips in a very different concept: “the idea that’s what’s good for business is good for the country.”

Richard’s first definition of neoliberalism is all about competition and rugged individualism. It’s an Ayn Randesque world where private firms duke it out in a Darwinian battle for survival and governments “get out of the way” by reducing taxes and regulation. His second definition is crony capitalism writ large, with firms extracting special deals from government and profits growing ever larger at the expense of workers, consumers and taxpayers. But the first doesn’t have to imply the second.

He also draws out neoliberalism’s human toll: less time for barbeques and netball games, more time at the office. Less money for helping kids with cancer but more for maintaining subsidies for the fossil-fuel industries. The reader might be forgiven for thinking that Richard has fallen into the well-worn trap of using “neoliberalism” to mean “anything I don’t like.” Certainly, it would be difficult to find anyone rushing proudly to declare themselves a neoliberal under Richard’s broader definition.

But I – and I suspect many others – would be willing to be outed as what might be called “neoliberal lites.” (“Social liberalism” might be another term for this position but, like “neoliberalism,” it’s used too vaguely to be helpful, meaning all things to all people.)

We lites generally favour competition and markets. Competition among private providers is in most cases the best way to deliver better and more innovative products, and lower prices for consumers. Richard concedes that markets generally work better than central allocation – even for him, the idea of a fixed supply of public servant baristas pulling middling cappuccinos is a bridge too far.

Certainly, our heavily regulated world before the market-based reforms of the 1980s and 1990s was no consumer paradise. People sometimes waited weeks for the Telecom monopoly to connect the phone. Unmarried women couldn’t get home loans. Supermarkets closed by 4pm Monday to Friday and at noon on Saturdays.

But embracing competition is not the same as blind faith in market solutions or believing that we should “let the market rip” in all cases. The economist Oliver Hart won the Nobel Prize for highlighting the risks of “quality shading” when governments outsource public services. Private-sector operators might be more entrepreneurial, but some of their entrepreneurial spirit will be channelled into finding ways to cut costs and quality while remaining within the strict letter of their contract with government.

Neoliberal lites recognise that the risks of outsourcing to the private sector are much higher for services like aged care and child protection, where customers are vulnerable and it is difficult to specify and enforce service quality. Government or not-for-profit provision is almost always the right answer in sectors where poor service can risk lives or dignity and where monitoring costs are prohibitive. That a blind “private sector is best” mentality can lead to the terrible outcomes Richard compellingly documents would be no surprise to most economists.

Other markets require careful regulatory oversight. The privatisation of electricity poles and wires substantially lowered prices by reducing the gold plating and cost padding that occurred under government ownership. But flaws in the way the regulatory system was designed (including generous appeal rights and a naive Competition Tribunal) later saw prices head in the wrong direction. Ironically, the government-owned Queensland and NSW network providers proved the most rapacious exploiters of the system – a worthwhile reminder that government ownership is no panacea without well-designed regulation.

Richard’s essay provides little insight into how we should decide when government provision is best and when and how to regulate.

Lites also believe that incentives matter in policy design. That doesn’t mean we want to deny sick people health care or leave the jobless beneath the poverty line, as Richard claims. But it does mean recognising that all government decisions involve trade-offs. Governments can of course increase taxes to pay for more spending. But there’s no way around the fact that increasing most taxes comes at a cost. Higher taxes mean people work less or save and invest less. Free lunches are not always as delicious as they might seem. The reason so many economists drone on about tax reform is because we want to raise money to pay for social services in the way that creates the smallest drag on the economy.

Neoliberal lites embrace a proper analysis of costs and benefits. Richard is right that we shouldn’t ask technocrats to answer values questions. The size of government, how much we should redistribute income and the weight given to the interests of future generations are all issues for citizens and their elected representatives. But these values debates should not take place in an information vacuum.

The government is entitled to build inland rail or move the Pesticides and Veterinary Management Authority to Armidale, but surely citizens are entitled to know how much extra everyone else is paying for the promise of regional jobs in the (former) deputy prime minister’s electorate. Cost-benefit analysis works as a policy-maker’s Google Maps: it gives guidance on the best way to reach a destination and, importantly, the costs of deviating from the preferred route.

Richard claims that economic frameworks and language have narrowed the policy debate. Certainly, the constant (and sometimes content-free) calls to boost productivity are tiresome even for an economist. But the claim that economic reform advocates have convinced the media and the public that other debates are a distraction doesn’t ring true. Social policy reformers have chalked up a number of recent wins: the Victorian government legalised voluntary euthanasia, the NSW government legalised medical marijuana, and the Commonwealth government legislated for same-sex marriage after 62 per cent of Australians voted “yes” in a postal ballot. All of these took place against the backdrop of a wide-ranging (and generally constructive) public debate.

The economic language and tools that Richard derides are probably the most useful defence against the very real public policy concerns he articulates in his essay. Lites would be in furious agreement about the corrosive effects on policy when vested interests run roughshod over the national interest.

Economists have long warned of the danger of crony capitalism and the wastefulness of rent-seeking where firms channel their efforts into pushing for special favours from government rather than providing better service to their customers. Richard’s examples of coffee-cart-stifling cafe owners, militant pharmacists and overzealous patent protectors are but a few of the many business groups putting up their hands for more regulation where it suits their interests.

The Australian political system has proved a fertile ecosystem for rent-seekers. Australian political parties rely more heavily on private donations than those in most other developed nations. Lobby groups can pluck former ministers and their staff straight from office without any sanction. Outside of New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT, the public has no visibility over who meets with their elected representatives. While public servants can’t accept so much as a cup of coffee from a business because of the perceived risk of a conflict of interest, most of our elected representatives are free to accept as many overseas trips or tickets to major sporting events as they wish.

It’s no wonder Australians are cynical. More than half agree that government is run for a few big interests. And, according to the Australian Election Study 1987–2016, an alarming 74 per cent believe that people in government look after themselves. Richard is right that these perceptions of a rotten core contribute to a lack of trust in politicians and our system of government.

We can do more to blunt the power of vested interests in the political debate. A federal anti-corruption watchdog would help. So would restricting political expenditure to end the donations arms race, publishing ministerial diaries and enforcing waiting periods for ministers who want to move into lobbying roles. Boosting the advocacy capacity of smaller interest groups would reduce the undue influence of concentrated interests in much policy formation.

Ultimately, Richard’s essay doesn’t convince me that we need to throw the neoliberal market baby out with the crony capitalist bathwater. Promoting competition and harnessing market forces have generally served Australia well. Blind faith in markets and giving priority to vested interests over the national interest have not. By conflating the two, Richard misses the opportunity to show us how we can do economic policy better. And we need more economists of Richard’s calibre doing just that.

Danielle Wood



Adam Creighton

“If Australia was ever a workers’ paradise, it isn’t anymore.” Richard Denniss is among the nation’s more thoughtful commentators, and his essay Dead Right entertainingly skewers some of the cant and hypocrisy that pervades public policy debate. But it exaggerates economic problems and offers tired solutions that would make inequality worse.

“Neoliberalism,” which he defines as “the catch-all term for all things small government,” has progressively seeped into every crevice of society over the past thirty years, Dennis contends, enriching corporate interests at the expense of public services.

But it hasn’t: if anything, government spending and regulation have increased. If “neoliberalism” is to mean anything more than gouging, greed or “something we don’t like,” then it’s a lack of it that is eroding confidence in the status quo.

As Denniss contends, free markets are a tool to lower prices and increase quality. When they work, they are brilliant: think food or cars. When they don’t, rent-seeking ensues.

Denniss’s essay makes several terrific points about how the simplistic application of free-market ideas, dressed up as a quest for “competitiveness” alongside tendentious “modelling,” has sometimes led to poor outcomes for consumers. These points are marred, however, by a snarky style that seems to cast advocates of