The Reckoning

In reply to Jess Hill's Quarterly Essay, The Reckoning: How #MeToo is Changing Australia.


Response to Correspondence

Jess Hill

Before I respond to the correspondence, I’d like to apologise to ABC journalist Louise Milligan for an error I made in the essay. Milligan did not, as I wrote, contact the late Kate Thornton’s lawyer, Michael Bradley, after being tipped off by Kate’s friend Nick Ryan. She was given that information by another (confidential) source. Nick Ryan had nothing to do with Milligan discovering that Christian Porter was the subject of these allegations.

The mood at the National Press Club on 9 February was tense and electric and anxious and generous. Journalist, advocates, politicians and – at every table – women who had survived sexual violence. Reckless hugging. Old comrades reunited.

We were gathered and waiting for an address from two young women, Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, who had fixed the nation’s attention on sexual violence, and the government’s failure to respond to it. Battle-hardened feminists were nervous for the two women in the green room upstairs giving their speeches one last read. Would Australia – a country run mostly by mates and blokes – really let these two young women define this cultural moment? Or would their words end up being twisted and misrepresented? Would this be the moment two victim-survivors set the agenda for this election year – and the years ahead – or would it set in train a silencing backlash?

Since I finished writing Quarterly Essay 84, something has shifted again. After a year of public reckoning over sexual violence – which the Morrison government presumed to be a temporary flashpoint best handled with spin and patience – the heat has not abated. In fact, the cultural power of victim-survivors has only grown. In January, when Tame had the audacity to show the prime minister how she felt about him – stony-faced and side-eyed at the Lodge, fulfilling her last duties as Australian of the Year – hers was the face that launched a thousand columns. It wasn’t “civil,” it wasn’t “nice,” she was doing what women had been warned against for millennia, she was a feminist hero – within hours, she went from a public figure to an icon, photoshopped onto five-dollar notes as Australia’s larrikin queen.

This is a new kind of power – and an unprecedented change, I believe, in the way Western societies have traditionally regarded victim-survivors of sexual violence. If I was to get carried away (if I had a column to write, let’s say), I might look at this cultural transformation and see in it a historic paradigmatic shift – one that is seeing some victim-survivors imbued for the first time with power, wisdom and expertise. I can’t name a time in the history of Western civilisation in which this has been the case; for millennia, victim-survivors have been pitied (at best), blamed, shamed, pathologised and ostracised. Even in Greek mythology, rape survivors are expected to accept their lot. It’s in Indigenous stories that we find historical examples of this “new” paradigm: “The Tale of the Raped Maiden,” for example, in which a twenty-year-old Ojibwe woman is, in the wake of being abducted and raped by a warring tribe, welcomed back by her own people as a wise and powerful woman who becomes both a medicine woman and a warrior.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to take a bird’s-eye view of this cultural moment, to place it in a historical context and assess what it may portend. But it’s easy to get carried away and disconnect our analysis from the real lives of the people we’re writing about. The more important point to make – and perhaps what is central to her appeal – is that Tame herself is not the property of a single movement, she is not angling to be an icon and she is not ideological. As she tweeted in response to the Australian of the Year furore, “What I did wasn’t an act of martyrdom in the gender culture war. It’s true that many women are sick of being told to smile, often by men, for the benefit of men. But it’s not just women who are conditioned to smile and conform to the visibly rotting status quo. It’s all of us.”

When Tame stood behind the lectern at the National Press Club in February, she said a lot, and with such presence and conviction that it was almost impossible to look away. What I jotted down, while I still had the presence of mind to take notes, were not the lines that ended up dominating headlines later that day. They were lines in her speech that spoke directly to a marginalised cohort of people watching at home; lines that may offer us a chance to find common ground, and to stop sexual violence being described reductively as a “women’s issue.” She was standing there not as a victim of sexual assault, “which is a distinctly gendered issue,” but as a target of child sexual abuse.

“I am not just an advocate for women,” she said. “I am an advocate for all survivors of child sexual abuse, many of whom are male.” The need to preserve the distinction between sexual assault (which predominantly affects women) and child sexual abuse (which disproportionately affects girls, but also affects a significant percentage of boys) was crucial, she continued. “We cannot forget our boys, and we cannot forget our men, not only as welcome, equal participants in this ongoing conversation, and without ignoring many negative patriarchal customs, we cannot forget our boys and men who are fellow survivors of abuse.”

Tame was throwing down the gauntlet to the women’s movement: Can we broaden this conversation to include the boys and men who have been subjected to sexual violence and abuse? Domestic abuse, sexual violence and child sexual abuse differ in important ways, but, as Tame said, they are all about abuse of power. “Men are not the enemy,” she said. “Abuse of power is the enemy.” Men make up the overwhelming majority of perpetrators, especially of sexual violence, but this resistance to advocating for survivor boys and men must be overcome. The target of the feminist movement made more precise: abusers of power, upholders of patriarchy.

Since Rosie Batty was made Australian of the Year in 2015, we’ve spent years as a nation interrogating the nature of abuse and violence, and have dramatically recalibrated our attitudes to, and beliefs about, victim-survivors. In this conversation, however – still – the perpetrators are largely invisible, and often misunderstood. This issue remains, as Kieran Pender writes in his correspondence, “perhaps the most difficult piece in this jigsaw puzzle [of solutions].” What do we do with the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of men who harass, abuse, coerce and control? When will people truly internalise the reality that the men who do the most damage aren’t just those who commit the obvious dastardly acts – the Harvey Weinsteins and Dyson Heydons – but “our fathers, brothers, friends . . . The typical perpetrator is not a bogeyman. It is you, or me.” That is a paradigm shift which is yet to take root in this country. That’s understandable: the idea that the men we love and treasure could be behaving in ways we find repugnant is deeply unsettling. But if we don’t grapple with this – while taking care not to demonise men in general – we will continue to misdiagnose both the problem and the solutions.

In his thought-provoking response, Pender also highlights the need to reconceive what constitutes the greater harm when it comes to sexual harassment. We are, as a society, preoccupied with blockbuster incidents, and find it much harder to comprehend the extreme harm done through objectification and degradation. “What of the grey areas – the sexual joke in the elevator, the possibly suggestive text from a boss to their staff member, the colleague leaning in for an unreciprocated kiss at after-work drinks? In these contexts, right and wrong are not always so clearly distinguished – subtle cues, power dynamics and subjective interpretation can be everything . . . If the #MeToo movement is to succeed, in Australia and elsewhere, it must address these everyday experiences of sexual harassment.” My own experience of sexual harassment, which I detailed in the essay, was not a headline-making incident – it was a blunt kind of sexual objectification. And yet, more than fifteen years later, writing about it brought back such powerful feelings of worthlessness that I was left sobbing at my desk.

I won’t speak for women of previous generations, but I can say that I believe my response was heavily influenced by the fact that I didn’t grow up with any sense that my gender would affect – let alone define – the way I would be treated in the workplace. In fact, although I was disturbed as a teenager by the way women were talked down to in fashion magazines, it took me another decade to realise that this was symptomatic of the broader system of gender inequality. So when, in my early twenties, I was sexually objectified by my boss (several decades my senior), it shattered the innate sense I had of being entitled to equal treatment. It initiated me into a world I had no idea existed.

Since The Reckoning was published, three young former associates sexually harassed by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon finally received their settlement, reported to be a six-figure sum, from the Morrison government. Asked by Laura Tingle on 7.30 if she had anything she’d like to tell Heydon, one of those associates, Alex Eggerking, summed up with cold fury and precision the life-altering harm of being coerced and sexually objectified by one of the country’s most senior judges. “Dyson, you ruined my career. You destroyed my love for the law . . . You made me feel viscerally unsafe on my third day of working for you. You made me feel worthless. You treated me like I was an object that you could use when you wanted to with impunity.” She went on: “What I also want to say is that you didn’t get away with it. Strong, courageous, vulnerable, bloody determined women stood up and said, ‘That’s enough. This is what happened to me and you won’t get away with it.’” The fury and indignation of women like Eggerking (and so many others whose names we have learnt since 2017), who were raised to expect equality, is the lifeblood of #MeToo and this powerful era of modern feminism.

Apparently, however, Janet Albrechtsen doesn’t share their indignation. Having said that, it’s unclear whether Albrechtsen read the whole essay. She is a culture warrior, first and foremost, which tends to preclude close engagement on issues within the battlelines. When she says “not all women are powerless patsies in the workplace,” it’s unclear to whom she is referring. Are the women who were involuntarily conscripted into #MeToo in Australia, simply through making a complaint, “powerless patsies”? Are women who don’t complain, by extension, powerful and independent? Should women just cop it and not make a fuss? Does Albrechtsen consider sexual harassment an unavoidable (albeit unfortunate) feature of working life for women? The mind boggles.

For this essay, I wrote 40,000 words in seven weeks (with the invaluable assistance of David Hollier and Kristine Ziwica), and I readily concede that I could not do justice to every aspect of the #MeToo movement. But nowhere on my list of subjects to include did I have the “messy, wondrous complexities of men and women and their sexual relationships.” My subject was #MeToo, which is concerned with sexual violence. I took it as given that readers know the difference between complex relationships and patterns of sexual harassment, coercion, assault and rape. Of course, the lines are not always precise, but my essay is concerned with behaviour that falls well outside the spectrum of “wondrous” and crosses over into “traumatising” and “illegal.” If Albrechtsen is suggesting that more analysis is needed of the grey areas regarding consent, I would direct her to chapter two, in which the Aziz Ansari case illustrates just that. In fact, clarifying these boundaries makes “wondrous” relationships more likely, not less.

Albrechtsen also suggests that the essay “would have benefited from more curiosity, perhaps even bravery, to explore how the #MeToo movement has ensnared – and been co-opted by – many people for purposes beyond abuse and male power.” I’m curious: which cases would exemplify this? Who has co-opted the movement? Albrechtsen is not explicit – or should I say, she does not appear curious enough herself here to give examples. In my work on gendered violence, I err towards challenging the status quo – for example, the accepted wisdom that gender inequality is at the root of domestic abuse (and is therefore an effective way to address it). I have never shied away from tipping a sacred cow on its head and examining its parts. But aside from analysing this as a hypothetical, I genuinely do not know what Albrechtsen would have me analyse – what credible example of #MeToo being co-opted or abused I would single out as a reflection of a broader dynamic. I don’t see how, on the evidence, #MeToo has led to a pattern of men being ensnared by false allegations.

It would be nice if Albrechtsen at some point acknowledged Australia’s endemic and, by international standards, very high rates of serious abuse of power in the forms of sexual harassment, assault and rape in workplaces and elsewhere. In fact, in Australia’s legal profession – to which Albrechtsen claims membership – harassment and abuse are so common they have long been accepted as part of the culture, a rite of passage for many. I wonder if Albrechtsen considers sexual harassment an inevitable, even normal, part of career advancement for women.

I am grateful for the cool-headed analysis of my journalistic peers, particularly Gina Rushton, Hannah Ryan and Amber Schultz. Rushton and Ryan are right to carve up my optimistic conclusion into quantifiable chunks: Exactly how can we tell if we are winning this war? Can we see actual change in how allegations are received? Whether sexual harassment has diminished? Aside from relaying anecdotal evidence, it’s impossible to answer these questions with any confidence. Journalist and survivor advocate Nina Funnell has cautioned against overblown optimism, particularly that which centred on the Women’s March in 2021. Momentum that is not bedded down in real reform can easily be lost, and to paraphrase the great Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman, “trauma wants to be forgotten.” Perhaps rather than try to assess change through the shorter lens of the immediate past, it’s more helpful to zoom out, to see how similarly powerful movements have brought about historic change – the kind of change we now take for granted. Here, I defer to the correspondence of feminist and author Sara Dowse, who has had a front-row seat to many of the changes that preceded #MeToo, to give us a sense of what is possible.

Yet, of all the seismic changes we have seen since Dowse was a young woman, what we have not seen elevated in this movement is the equal inclusion of Indigenous women and women of colour. This was made painfully clear in the wake of the government’s hastily organised apology to those who had experienced sexual harassment, assault or bullying while working in federal parliament – an occasion to which the government did not deem it necessary to invite any of the women it was apologising to. Instead, a small number of survivors and advocates was hastily invited at the last minute, thanks to the intervention of independent MP Zali Steggall. There were several there, such as Chanel Contos, who had not worked in the parliament, and yet still, however, nobody thought to invite women of colour such as Dhanya Mani, a former NSW Liberal political staffer who went public with her allegations of sexual assault by a colleague, or Tessa Sullivan, who was the first political staffer to have their allegations made public after #MeToo, as readers of the essay will recall. Mani’s objections to this ongoing erasure were read out in parliament by Queensland Greens MP Larissa Waters:

“Even now in 2022, after the lessons of #MeToo, politicians and the mainstream media almost solely centre the stories of cisgender, able-bodied and conventionally attractive white women at the expense of all other voices. But this cultural moment of reckoning in Australian politics and feminism is built on the sacrifice, advocacy and unpaid labour of women of colour like me. Like Tessa. We came first.”

Nareen Young highlights this inexcusable disparity in her correspondence, citing a comment that speaks to the necessity of this change: “As a feminist of both Aboriginal and culturally diverse descent, I agree with Tracy Westerman’s succinct tweet of 27 January 2022 that ‘I want to see #MeToo champion Aboriginal victims, particularly given its Black origins & the invisibility of Aboriginal victims.’”

We need to shift the dial on this, and quickly, lest we embed just another archetype of the “ideal victim.”

We are living through one of those peak times, when, as Dowse writes, the “justice of the cause” has become “so bleedingly obvious” – but perhaps for the first time not just to women, but also to a growing number of men. There is something quite astonishing about the appeal of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame to a growing number of men who are impressed by their chutzpah and do not feel excluded by their rhetoric. It is clear who attracts their ire: those who abuse power. As Higgins made so devastatingly clear in her address to the National Press Club: “I did not want his sympathy as a father; I wanted him to use his power as prime minister.” These are appeals not to empathy and compassion, but to a clarity of ethics and leadership. This is a message that is resonating with a growing cohort of men, who can see a shared vision in their words. So how can supportive men become part of the change they want to see in the world?

This is addressed somewhat in Malcolm Knox’s genuine and heartfelt response. I hand the mic over here to my partner, psychotherapist David Hollier, who co-wrote the essay’s chapter on men:

“Malcom Knox’s response plumbs the exact position of this essay on men’s response to the demands of #MeToo: listen, understand, stay engaged, work together. As a psychotherapist, I have worked with many men grappling with problems rooted in their experiences of being male; I can attest that Knox is not alone in feeling that ‘silence and submission’ is the smartest response to #MeToo. Faced with social media that so readily distort and weaponise even well-intentioned, considered contributions, too many men fall into the passivity that Knox rightly identifies as collusion. Every man must ask himself how it is that women need a movement to demand, to plead with us not to harass, assault and rape them. Start by facing the absurd notion that this is, still, apparently, an unrealistic request.

“As one of three men who along with sixty-odd women participated in UNSW’s inaugural gender studies class in 1995, I’ve long since thought feminism has as much, and in the long run more, to offer men than women; but for men to shed the skin of patriarchal, power-over masculinity requires a far more threatening metamorphosis, one that requires trust, the courage to let one’s guard down long enough to connect on terms of shared power. I have found that simply discussing this with men draws a threat response from many, a reaction that is more deeply embedded, more primal, more rapidly aroused, than anything in our cognition – men’s mistrust of men. Most feel a loss of control and fear before they can reach the relief of discovering they can let their guard down and still be okay. Just writing these words, I brace for the onslaught of reactive defensiveness, the excuses that invariably follow the offer of connection. Here is where men must encourage and support each other, shed the defences.

“As a therapist, I challenge men in the safety of a confidential closed room, men who have chosen to ask questions about their masculinity and the damaging effects it has on their lives – their families and friends. From this private space, I thank Knox and the many other men who have risked men’s – and some women’s – opprobrium when they have dared to publicly challenge the old-world masculinity and privilege so stubbornly abiding in Australia. May such voices proliferate.”

Finally, although the apology – snuck in the day before the address by Tame and Higgins to the National Press Club – was another impeccably designed PR disaster, I’m interested in what it says about the loose ends Morrison perceives as a threat to his re-election – it’s not enough just to play the buffoon to the blokes and the patient women who love them. The “issues” that women have with men’s violence may not decide the election, but they are clearly enough of a worry to see the government now give priority to the response – both to the internal Jenkins report and, theatrically, with the apology. Being faced with a slew of mostly female independents in marginal seats must also have sharpened the Coalition’s attention. It seems women may be sufficiently disgusted by this government to change their vote. How many women? We’ll have the answer by the time the next Quarterly Essay is published.

Jess Hill



Nareen Young

Jess Hill’s essay is a necessary, if at times exhausting, retelling and analysis of the recent post-#MeToo years. I agree with her conclusion that while some battles are being lost, the war is being won. I see this as a long-term project – there is so much more to be done.

As a feminist of both Aboriginal and culturally diverse descent, I agree with Tracy Westerman’s succinct tweet of 27 January 2022: “I want to see #MeToo champion Aboriginal victims, particularly given its black origins & the invisibility of Aboriginal victims.” My characterisation of the Australian version of #MeToo as an individualist, white, corporate feminist–centred problem lacking focus on structural reform is well known, as Hill recounts, but that’s not to say that I think we should cease our efforts to create much-needed change.

Having been a workplace legal practitioner for many years, I feel the next big battle is placing a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. This is “unfinished business.” This critical recommendation from Kate Jenkins’ work cannot be lost if we are to make real progress in the workplace.

The statistics on harassment in the workplace are both shocking and unsurprising, given the lived experience of so many women. As a former director of the NSW Working Women’s Centre, I am intimately familiar with this lived experience. Finishing off the “unfinished business” should involve the proper funding of referral pathways, especially the Working Women’s Centres (also a recommendation of the Jenkins review).

Nearly five years on from #MeToo going viral, it is a sad reflection of the very slow pace of progress that we are only now getting such basic change and support for victims. The Morrison government has just announced that sexual harassment will be added to 1800Respect’s remit, but it is still unclear if the Working Women’s Centres will be properly resourced to deal with the influx. We know growing awareness of different forms of gendered violence always leads to more “help seeking,” and it would be a scandal of a different order if the Morrison government raised victims’ hopes that help is there, only to disappoint them.

All this is to illustrate that there are so many issues and changes we need to track and continue to fight for collectively. And that’s long after the mainstream media band moves on, or white corporate feminists who claim “the movement” as their own, then gate-keep and co-opt it for their own ends (activism is collective, not part of anyone’s “brand”), lose interest.

Anyone who thinks changing a few HR policies will bring true change is kidding themselves. I’m sorry to say that in so many cases, I have observed HR to be the friend of the company, not of the victim of harassment. It is too often the case that making a complaint actually makes the situation worse. A positive duty to prevent harassment would be a legal obligation producing more immediate and effective change than a thousand HR policies.

Whatever the outcome of the next election, the next government needs to be held to account to ensure full implementation of Kate Jenkins’ recommendations.

Nareen Young



Sara Dowse

Two pages into the introduction of Jess Hill’s Quarterly Essay is a sentence that jumped off the page at me: “But then things get dark.” She was referring to what happened after Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed in a highly emotional statement to the press gallery that, despite his dissembling and shelving of the issue for weeks, he had come to learn what it’s been like for women, throughout Australia and in the very building where he was standing.

First, a few remarks about Morrison’s statement. It came after months of mounting anger as the #MeToo wave had crashed with full force into Parliament House – the centre, as is often said, of Australian democracy. On the Ides of March, women all over the country had spilled into the streets in a March 4 Justice and in Canberra they rallied on the Parliament House lawn. Putting it mildly, parliamentary workplace behaviour had been found wanting. A woman had been allegedly raped in the defence minister’s office, only a few feet from Morrison’s own. A male staffer had been photographed by his mates while jerking off onto a female MP’s desk. The attorney-general had outed himself as the accused in a historical case of alleged rape. Morrison seemed to have finally grasped that a deep-seated misogyny runs through our nation, finding its most horrific expression in what can only be called a scourge of sexual violence.

#MeToo has reminded us that misogyny – or sexism, as we termed it in the 1970s – operates systemically. At the milder end of the spectrum are the putdowns, the mansplaining, the crude remarks. Then come the unwanted sexual advances that can morph into outright harassment. But then things get dark – the endgame being sexual assault and all too often murder.

In the corporate world at least, strides have been made to lessen the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace, which is illegal under the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act. In this respect, as Hill proceeds to skilfully outline, parliament is an egregious outlier, a world unto its own. For all Morrison’s histrionics at the press conference – about how the women in his life constitute its centre, and that because of them he was going to do something – the prime minister reverted to form. To the suggestion from a News Corp reporter that he might have lost control of his staff, the PM lashed back with an insinuation about an incident alleged to have occurred in a Sky News toilet. As Hill explains, there was no such incident. It is this “mask-dropping”, coded retort that Hill alludes to with her But then things get dark.

I’m not here to repeat what Hill explains about this gaffe and what it reveals about Morrison. For me, her simple five-word sentence has far greater resonance. It encapsulates the dismayingly cyclical nature of what one prescient writer in the ’70s called “the longest revolution.” Feminism’s progress – and it is progress – has been glacially slow. Now and then it gathers swift momentum, until it lands like a meteorite on the body politic. Such was the force of the suffragist movement. Then it was left to simmer, buried under the post-war patriarchal resurgence of the 1950s, until it burst out again. And each time it bursts out, as it did again in the 1970s, the women caught up in it experience a thrillingly cathartic exhilaration, as the justice of the cause becomes so bleedingly obvious.

And then things get dark.

I’m talking about backlash. It’s not surprising that Hill ends her magnificent essay by confronting it. “A century from now, women will be holding signs,” she affirms, “just as they did at the March 4 Justice – that say ‘I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit.’” She even suggests that, as successful as it has been in effecting cultural change through exposing and rooting out misogyny in the entertainment and legal worlds, #MeToo appears to have triggered its own backlash. Writing this on the brink of a federal election, after all that’s been shown to be morally threadbare in Morrison’s idea of governance, I find this cause for concern. From what we know about him now, he will not be pitching for votes from feminists or our supporters, but from those in whom our own special brand of Australian misogyny has been left to fester and ominously sprout.

Yet there’s another way of looking at it. In the 1970s, when feminism’s second wave reached us here in Australia, we women found enough homegrown grievances to make the movement our own. Where to begin? Jobs advertised along gender lines. “Public” bars closed to women. Unequal pay inscribed in industry awards and cemented in a basic minimum wage. Childcare was scarce and substandard. There was a luxury tax on contraceptives; abortion was illegal and highly dangerous. There were no women bus drivers, let alone pilots. We scarcely made an appearance in the law faculties, not to mention the High Court. Not a single woman occupied a seat in the House of Representatives. You never heard or saw a woman reading the news or providing commentary. With staggeringly few exceptions, all positions of authority were reserved for males, for underpinning it all was the pervasive, peculiarly Australian patriarchal culture that effectively consigned half the adult population to second-class citizenship. It’s hard even for women (like me) who were alive back then to grasp how we were treated, and unimaginable to my daughters and granddaughters. But for all that, it could be said we were lucky, because feminism’s resurgence coincided with the 1972 election of a federal government prepared to put energy and resources into improving the situation. And it was a shift in the hitherto conservative women’s vote that put them there.

In the three tumultuous years that Whitlam was allowed to govern, the changes to Australian society were both remarkable and long-lasting. That doesn’t mean that no one resisted them or that reform came easily. But if the momentum slowed after the 1975 Dismissal, it picked up again after 1983, when Labor was returned. It was only with the Coalition’s election under Howard in 1996 that women took a slide, and things became steadily darker. Women in politics were more visible than they had been, a female MP was no longer an oddity, there were women in the ministry, a few made it into cabinet. But Howard’s brand of conservatism was marked by a nostalgic yearning for the 1950s, and key measures of his government, such as the family tax benefit part B and Costello’s baby bonus, were imbued with it. This was the “post-feminist” era. Women were induced to become “homemakers” again, and what feminism remained was narrowly interpreted as “leaning in,” or middle-class career advancement, or abstruse academic theory. The cost of childcare rocketed; the effective marginal tax rate on married women lowered the female participation rate, leaving many older women today with insufficient superannuation to fund their retirements. Correspondingly, cuts to women’s refuges and associated services left women unacceptably vulnerable.

Yet throughout this, the “post-feminist” claptrap and Howard’s social conservatism, one crucial change from those earlier, heady reformist years survived. Enough of what we second-wave feminists had achieved had rubbed off on younger women – even those who shunned the designation. Greater education opportunity had a part in it. For all Howard’s efforts, women had wider aspirations for themselves and were bound to be enraged when thwarted, meeting up with glass ceilings, sexual harassment and violence. Here was a classic case of approach-suppression – the kind that makes for revolutions.

It’s possible that, after the decades of backlash, the hideous treatment dished out to our one female prime minister and worse to countless other women, and the whittling away of essential government services, women will prove crucial in voting out a government that has shown itself particularly impervious to our concerns. Could it be time – once again?

Maybe it should come as no surprise that at the time of writing eight out of the eleven independents seeking to win previously safe Coalition seats in the coming election happen to be women. I live in Warringah, where we are bracing ourselves for what the Liberals will unleash in attempting to wrest the seat back. They were as dirty as hell in 2019 trying to stop Zali Steggall from getting elected. We’re not complacent, we know the tricks the Liberals are capable of. But the signs are that Steggall will be re-elected. She’s proved an intelligent, hardworking and responsive member, and the issues she’s fought for, in the 2019 campaign and subsequently in parliament, are of increasing urgency in the electorate. Climate change is one, integrity another. Feminism is another. At one event I attended back in 2019, the moderator, Layne Beachley, asked what had prompted Steggall to run. Steggall didn’t hesitate with an answer. It was seeing how the Liberals treated Julie Bishop in the spill that elected Morrison, she said, dropping Bishop off early in the ballot in favour of a man – any man. And needless to say, Steggall is no fan of Morrison.

The election this year is expected to be the most important in a generation – on the order of 1972’s – though even if history does repeat itself, the script is never quite the same. The overriding issue in the 1970s was our involvement in Vietnam, and Labor had promised to withdraw our troops. (Imagine how it would be wedged on something comparable today.) For women, the “mandate” included opening the case for equal pay and funding for preschools (though not for childcare). The Women’s Electoral Lobby’s questionnaire was significant in raising awareness of what were called “women’s issues” and exposing how ignorant of them some of the candidates were, most notably the sitting prime minister, Billy McMahon.

We’ve yet to see if the #MeToo groundswell will translate into enough votes for the female independents to gain the balance of power in the forty-seventh parliament, or if the women’s vote per se will be the deciding factor in a Labor victory, as it was in 1972. Certainly the incompetence, “soft” corruption and generally vacuous management of Morrison and his ministers provide reason enough for their losing women’s votes.

Hill rightly ends her essay on a note of cautious optimism. “We are winning the war,” she writes. Yet she also warns that the success of #MeToo, this latest iteration in feminism’s “longest revolution,” has set off its own backlash, one resulting in a deepening electoral gender divide, at the centre of which could be climate change – already deemed by some to be a “feminine” issue. And if Omicron peters out by election day, Morrison’s infuriating stunts playing to his toxic male “base” could just possibly save him. That said, I wouldn’t put my money on it. Things have got far too dark.

Sara Dowse



Kieran Pender

The Reckoning is contemporary history – the first account of seismic developments that will continue to be dissected for decades to come. The essay does an excellent job of explaining and assessing. But understandably, it only begins the task of answering the critical question: what do we do about it? It is this question I want to consider. It is an urgent one, because, as Hill acknowledges, “consciousness-raising movements have for fifty years revealed the ubiquity of sexual harassment.” We should not be so naive as to think that change is inevitable, or that we will inevitably succeed where our predecessors failed. If we want a society in which sexual harassment is vanishingly rare, not drearily commonplace, in which women feel safe and respected, not coerced, abused and harassed, we must address Australia’s harassment epidemic.

The first, trite thing to say is that there is no panacea. Sexual harassment in the workplace, in education and in social life generally is a complex phenomenon, as is its twin, domestic and family abuse. It is no wonder that the [email protected] report is 932 pages long and contains fifty-five recommendations. Preventing and addressing sexual harassment in all spheres of life will take a blend of education, law reform, funding and initiatives ranging from innovative to mundane, from governments and non-government stakeholders alike.

It has been heartening to see increasingly sophisticated public discourse around these issues, and Labor’s promise to implement the outstanding [email protected] recommendations if elected. However, much media attention has focused on particular recommendations, such as the proposed positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to prevent workplace sexual harassment. We should be wary of fixating on single solutions. I share the optimism of both Hill and Josh Bornstein, who variously describe the proposal – championed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins – as “revolutionary” and “potentially game-changing.” But a new legislative provision alone will not cause cultural change.

Focusing on particular interventions is tempting but undesirable because cultural change is messy. We progress and we regress; it is not always possible to identify what causes change and what contributes to resistance. We cannot A/B test efforts to address deep-seated social problems. Placing a positive duty on employers and adopting Jenkins’ other suggestions for funding and reform are necessary, but not sufficient, components of change. They are the start, not the end, of the journey.

Perhaps the most difficult piece in this jigsaw puzzle is the role of men. As Hill rightly observes, these are issues not of women’s safety, but of men’s violence. To effectively address the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment in Australian life, we have to fix men. This point has a few dimensions.

It is a necessary corollary that if sexual harassment is rife in Australian society, then so too are sexual harassers. My 2019 research for the International Bar Association, the peak global body for the legal profession, found that one in three female lawyers had been sexually harassed at work (the number in Australia was even higher). As we know from the Australian Human Rights Commission, cited by Hill, a similar proportion of Australians has been sexually harassed across all workplaces within the past five years.

Most interested observers will be aware of these or similar figures. But what we have not fully confronted is the consequence: that a similar percentage of male lawyers, and Australian men, have committed sexual harassment at work. I say “similar,” not “the same,” because there are no doubt serial perpetrators who harass many times. Even so, hundreds of thousands of Australian men have committed sexual harassment. That is not a wild aspersion, but a clear statistical inference. There are over 13 million Australians in the workforce, and, according to the AHRC, over four million of those have been sexually harassed in the past five years. Consider, as a rough estimate, that the average perpetrator harassed four people in that time: this would mean one million Australians have perpetrated sexual harassment in recent years. One million sexual harassers. Almost all are men.

The second point is that many, probably most, of those one million harassers are not the archetypal perpetrator. They are not Harvey Weinstein or Dyson Heydon – unrepentant wrongdoers who deserve opprobrium, but who are also easy fallguys for wider social sins. Instead, they are all around us: our fathers, brothers, friends.

Most sexual harassment is not of the kind committed by Weinstein and Heydon. The AHRC’s most recent national prevalence survey found that sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about a person’s private life and inappropriate staring were the most common forms of workplace sexual harassment. Inappropriate physical conduct was less frequent (experienced by 9 per cent of survey respondents), while just 1 per cent had experienced sexual assault.

I say this not to minimise those other forms of conduct, which can have an equally significant negative impact on the target of the harassment – whether as an individual incident or pattern of behaviour. All sexual harassment is wrong and unlawful; some is also criminal. But by focusing on the high-profile cases – at the more severe end of the spectrum of conduct – we risk obscuring the pervasive, everyday and, dare I say, “ordinary” sexual harassment. We make it too easy for the million-odd perpetrators to think: “I’m not Harvey Weinstein, I’m not the problem.” The typical perpetrator is not a bogeyman. It is you, or me.

If the #MeToo movement is to succeed, in Australia and elsewhere, it must address these everyday experiences of sexual harassment. This is no easy task. In individual workplaces, and in civil and criminal law, clear accountability mechanisms exist for serious forms of sexual harassment (even if too many workplaces still wish to conceal rather than address incidents). But what of the grey areas – the sexual joke in the elevator, the possibly suggestive text from a boss to their staff member, the colleague leaning in for an unreciprocated kiss at after-work drinks? In these contexts, right and wrong are not always as clearly distinguished – subtle cues, power dynamics and subjective interpretation can be everything.

It is in these contexts that the million Australian perpetrators can mainly be found – not committing Weinstein-esque behaviour, but making inappropriate comments, or being “too friendly”. It is still sexual harassment, but it is not the type that will be addressed by blunt legislative instruments. We can improve sexual harassment laws, fund more and better support, and require employers to take preventative and responsive action. But addressing such “ordinary,” everyday harassment requires cultural change: it requires us to fix men.

How? I don’t claim to have all the answers. Education – starting in kindergarten or earlier – has a big role to play. Above all, cultural change requires pragmatism. It necessitates constructive engagement with half of the population. Some men – the Weinsteins – might never change. For them, we need accountability. But for the rest, we need engagement, conversations, patience and space.

I appreciate that it is easy for a man to say this. I have never been sexually harassed. I understand the righteous anger. It should not be up to women to fix men. While anger is helpful in driving accountability, we need more than anger to ensure enduring change. I thought Hill’s passage about Richie Hardcore, a New Zealand martial arts champion engaging with men to address misogyny, was instructive: “What use is being ‘right’ if we end up alienating the very men we want to listen to us, and change?”

This is the paradox of #MeToo. The movement represented a seismic opportunity for women to break decades of silence; to finally speak their truth and be heard. But we need to engage men in the conversation if we are to move from consciousness-raising to cultural change. Engaging men does not mean taking power away from women. It does not mean handing over the microphone. But it does mean speaking, and listening, in safe spaces, accepting that people come with different perspectives and different language, and might be at different places on the learning curve.

That might sound unpalatable: it should be enough that men listen and then change their ways. Yet it is not. It is therefore unpalatable, but necessary, for both women and men to engage men on these issues. Men have a special responsibility – to call out poor behaviour, to educate one another, to be good allies. But, however frustrating, we cannot rely on men alone to fix men. It may be tempting, not unreasonably so in the face of millennia of patriarchal oppression, to be righteous. We will achieve change by being pragmatic.

The final page of The Reckoning makes for sobering reading. Hill quotes Faludi: “Declaring war is thrilling. Nation-building isn’t.” Hill then adds: “But the job will never be done . . . There is no utopia waiting for us. We make the gains while we can, we celebrate the advances, and then we get back to work.” This is a sentiment I have tried to impart many times during my work campaigning to address harassment in the legal profession. This is a campaign like no other, because there is no finish line. We will never get to harassment zero. But that does not mean we should not try.

Everyone has a right to feel safe, supported and respected, at all times and in all spaces. To go some way towards achieving that, we must get back to work. This is a task in which every single Australian has a role to play, men especially.

Kieran Pender



Janet Albrechtsen

The Reckoning is, on many levels, a terrific analysis of the #MeToo movement in this country and elsewhere. Jess Hill lays down an excellent timeline of how #MeToo started with waves of rage and retribution in October 2017, radiating from a hashtag to where it landed in Australia at the clumsy feet of Scott Morrison by the end of 2021. In between, Hill covers the disaster of the early days of #MeToo in Australia when Tracey Spicer made “impossible promises” of a “triage service” to help women. Hill also offers sensible analysis of the need to focus on the long game of embedding cultural change to protect all women from abuse, rather than just the Whack-a-Mole wins against high-profile men.

What’s missing from Hill’s essay is a greater understanding of why many have been frustrated by and disappointed with the exploitation of the #MeToo movement. For example, Hill regards the sceptical reaction of Germaine Greer and other older feminists to #MeToo as a “surprising twist.”

Why surprising? Not every claim under the #MeToo banner deserved, or deserves, to be taken seriously. Not all women are powerless patsies in the workplace.

Hill’s essay would have been more compelling if the messy, wondrous complexities of men and women and their sexual relationships got a run. Instead, it repeats the #MeToo pattern of treating us as simpletons, unable to agree to cultural change unless women are seen as powerless victims and masculinity as inherently bad, a road that takes our boys to confusion, misogyny and abuse.

Many women hold power in the workplace. Some abuse it. Women can manipulate men sexually and emotionally. Women can choose to have sexual relationships with powerful bosses without a scintilla of regret. Some will do it deliberately to climb the career ladder. In some cases, it’s the thundering power of love between two people who happen to work in the same place. Sometimes the love is uneven, and when there is no marriage proposal, all hell breaks loose into claims of abuse. Who holds the power in that scenario?

Hill’s Quarterly Essay would have benefited from more curiosity, perhaps even bravery, to explore how the #MeToo movement has ensnared – and been co-opted by – many people for purposes beyond abuse and male power.

Take the front-page headline in London’s Daily Mail about Meghan Markle on 7 January 2022: “‘Bullying’ is word used to harm career women, says Meghan’s lawyer.” Maybe sometimes. The word does get thrown around a lot when women fall out with colleagues. But not always. Women can be terrible bullies, as data from the latest report into the federal parliament’s culture shows.

If we are serious about cultural change, honesty is the best policy. That means recognising the good, the bad and the ugly in men and women.

Janet Albrechtsen

This response was first published in The Australian on 7 January 2022.



Malcolm Knox

Jess Hill’s Quarterly Essay is, like all her work, a powerful example of how anger can be artfully harnessed to thorough, evidence-based, utterly convincing argument. Even if you already accepted the sentiment and thought you knew the facts, Hill’s essay renews the energy for change.

In her final pages, she raises the most urgent questions for men who hold themselves innocent of harassing, abusing, raping, objectifying and coercing: men who are also angry, without having been direct victims themselves, yet tentative about entering the debate and who do not quite know how to help. Hill asks: “What right do men have to talk about #MeToo? Do we as women really want them in this conversation? Should we only accept men with spotless records as allies? Can we trust heterosexual men to speak honestly, and not just use the movement as cover? Do we, ultimately, believe it’s possible for them to change?”

These are pressing questions for men who have inherited the privileges of structural injustice while claiming the “spotless record.” My instinctive response, in the face of white-hot female rage, is silence and submission. If my time’s up, the floor is yours. I am quick to shut up. If I am irredeemably implicated by my advantages, and the willingness to change is not the same as the capacity to change, then I am the first to get out of the way.

Yet if Hill and others believed an effective way forward is for all men to move aside and STFU, then she would have said so. Instead, she promotes the idea that for change to be ongoing, coalitions must be built and maintained.

Many years ago, I met Nina Funnell when she was in the early days of her work to expose and end sexual abuse on university campuses. I offered help. If I have dedicated my writing career to the defeat of a single adversary (never underestimate the importance of revenge in a writer’s motivations), my nemesis can be portrayed succinctly – and Jess Hill does so at the heart of her essay – as my personal Christian Porter. Through satire, extended analysis in fiction and nonfiction, every means possible. I have given a life to exposing such men, in the somewhat optimistic hope of bringing about some kind of self-recognition and reflection. If you like, Funnell and I had the same target in our sights.

Of course, she didn’t need my help. She had the testimony of thousands of women who had their own young Christian Porters. And while I was, I hoped, holding such men to account for their subtler abuses and their blind habitation of their glittering burrows, Funnell was potentially uncovering actual crimes. As a male observing toxic masculinity, as someone whose sufferings were relatively minor, I could only go so far.

So should the male voice, with his privileges and impending decrepitude, simply box up his good intentions and vanish? In many ways, it would be a relief. It has never been as easy as it is now to be misunderstood, and when you are misread and anathematised by your friends and allies, the overwhelming temptation is to curl up in a ball and be silent.

Yet shutting up and submitting, being too humble, not challenging forceful personalities, yielding the floor – this was what my kind did in the first place. It was our part in letting our Christian Porters do what they did. Fear of confrontation, fear of power and fear of ridicule lay behind our complicity in their acts. Silence and withdrawal by the many is what enables crimes by the few. Male passivity doesn’t get as much coverage as active violence, but is one of the (in)actions that got us here.

Hill co-wrote her final chapter with her husband, David Hollier. She accepts Josh Bornstein’s first-person plural pronoun when he asks, “Are we winning?” This ought to clarify the message for men who consider themselves innocent and yet still guilty, who wonder if the best thing they can do is to be silent. The “unceasing” battle that Hill describes in her conclusion can be fought in many ways, but she suggests that it can only be won by working together.

Malcolm Knox



Amber Schultz

“Turning incuriosity into performance art”: this is the line that stood out to me from Jess Hill’s The Reckoning. Hill was referring to how, when Scott Morrison received an unsigned police statement alleging that, as a teenager, his right-hand man, Christian Porter, had raped a young girl named Kate, he hadn’t even bothered to look at it. (Porter denies the allegation.)

The phrase perfectly encapsulates why the #MeToo movement was so powerful. Every woman knows a woman who has experienced sexual violence, but few men claim to know perpetrators. Why? Sheer incuriosity and utter disbelief that their friend, their mate, their bro could commit something so vile.

Or perhaps, when it came to Morrison’s ministry and those on the other side of the political spectrum, it was something darker: if one could fall, so too could others. The Big Swinging Dicks club had to be protected at all costs.

When I first saw Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo tweet trending, I was highly sceptical. Surely everyone knew harassment was rife? Society’s tolerance for it was incredibly high. But women sharing examples and tales of abuse struck a chord. Yes, the prevalence of harassment was well known among women – but not, as I had assumed, among men. Or maybe I assumed men knew but didn’t care, which, again as Hill notes, wasn’t true.

As more and more stories were shared, memories – frustrating and frequent examples of harassment and abuse, which we had either pushed to the dark recesses of our brains or convinced ourselves we’d somehow caused – emerged and were reframed as what they really were.

Each shared individual experience was a small piece of the puzzle that, when joined together, helped us see the all-encompassing and pervasive culture of power, sexism and discrimination.

Such documentation is the heart of the #MeToo movement, as founder Tarana Burke intended it. Not necessarily finger-pointing – though, as Hill observes, this has added fire to the movement – but documenting abuse and harassment, however big and however small.

But once the puzzle was laid bare, not everyone wanted to look at it – especially those in parliament. So, when Brittany Higgins woke up half-naked on a couch in Parliament House, the room was deep-cleaned and the incident swept under the rug. When thousands of women and allies rallied outside parliament demanding action on sexual violence, they were ignored and told to be grateful they hadn’t been shot. When the rape allegation against Porter emerged, he was an “innocent man” in Morrison’s eyes.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

I truly believe Morrison thought all the issues that came to light across 2020 might just ebb away, like many of his other public gaffes. But Australia had reached a tipping point. The silence simply made us louder, angrier and more driven. The Morrison government faced a dilemma: by the time Morrison began to address women’s anger, he had already lost control of the narrative.

The progression in how Morrison talks about sexual violence has been morbidly fascinating to watch. If it weren’t so rage-inducing, it would be comic – how frequently he got things wrong, squirmed as he tried to respond to difficult questions with spin to make himself look good, and made remarks he thought were clever but that showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue.

His rhetoric has improved: no longer does he evoke fatherhood or sympathy for “Jenny and the girls,” refusing to acknowledge women as autonomous beings outside of their relationship to men. Now he tells women he gets it, he understands: sexual violence is bad.

But Morrison missed the starting gun – something palpably painful for him. He always tries to stay ahead of the narrative. When Morrison fields journalists’ questions, he is in control. He’ll avoid hosting press conferences when prickly issues emerge, telling journalists there’ll be “another time” for answering their questions. There never is.

This is why, when sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Set the Standard report dropped, Morrison hosted a press conference fifteen minutes after it was published and two hours before Jenkins hosted her own conference. He took the opportunity to pat himself on the back, stressing how much he had learnt from his one-hour training on gendered violence. He didn’t specify what had been so revelatory.

When former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian resigned, he quickly primed her for a federal seat, proudly announcing she had “a lot more to contribute” to politics. He was trying to use her as a political pawn, shoehorning her into a position she didn’t want. When he faced criticism, he played the victim.

“People can’t have it both ways,” he said. “They can’t say, why aren’t you getting more women into parliament, and when I try and get women into parliament, and when it doesn’t happen, they attack me.”

Or like when former Liberal MP Julia Banks decided she would step down, unable to tolerate Morrison and his “menacing controlling wallpaper” presence. She agreed to not speak to the media for twenty-four hours, thinking she was being collegial – only to find out Morrison’s office had started to background journalists about her, painting her as everything from a “weak petal” to a “bully.”

But when it comes to the #MeToo movement, Morrison has lost control of the narrative. He tries to stay ahead of it, appointing himself as the keynote speaker of the Women’s Safety Summit and dragging the Minister for Women, Linda Reynolds – who rarely speaks for more than a few minutes – to every press conference relating to gender.

But his attempts are too little, too late.

This is why Hill’s essay is so powerful. It lays down the narrative, without spin but with deep analysis, adding perspective to two years of anger and inaction.

It displays the entire puzzle in a clear light for all to see.

Amber Schultz



Hannah Ryan & Gina Rushton

What comes after the story? #MeToo relies on the idea that storytelling is revolutionary, but the ability of the movement to deliver accountability has always hinged on what follows the accounts of harassment that it demands people divulge.

Adrienne Rich wrote that when a woman tells the truth, she creates “the possibility for more truth around her.” The victories of the movement have been won in these truthful spaces excavated by each disclosure. It is through stories that we unearth not just sexual harassment and violence, but the lengths to which institutions go in minimising, justifying, excusing, denying and hiding it.

Jess Hill records how the #MeToo movement has always derived power from storytelling – a chorus of survivors speaking together to testify that this harm is common, but unacceptable. The essay maps the courage and tenacity of the survivors who have spoken up, spoken out and spoken back over the past five years.

Telling these stories has not been easy, in part because of our stifling defamation laws and the legal caution exacerbated by the recklessness of the Daily Telegraph’s Geoffrey Rush story. But some survivors, and the frontline service providers and advocates who fight for them, were also let down by the way the #MeToo movement initially unfolded here – as covered by our reporting, which Hill references in her essay. Our investigation documented the formation of NOW Australia, the local version of Time’s Up, co-founded by Tracey Spicer, who became the face of the nation’s #MeToo movement in October 2017 when she asked people to bring her their stories following the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

By September 2019, Spicer claimed she had more than 2500 disclosures, and we found some had not been responded to. Amelia, a woman who disclosed to Spicer for the first time her harassment by a media figure, told us she gave up expecting a reply and assumed what happened to her wasn’t “violent” enough to warrant one.

“Women sending information will be offered counselling and any support they need,” Spicer told a newspaper, later publicly claiming to have connected “every person who has disclosed to me” to lawyers or counsellors.

The danger of a single person taking carriage of so many disclosures was further exposed in our subsequent series with Nina Funnell and, in which we revealed the violation of survivors’ privacy in a documentary, starring Spicer, about the #MeToo movement in Australia. An early version, which included the real names, faces and personal stories of rape and domestic violence victims, was circulated to media without the survivors’ knowledge or consent. They had no knowledge their confidential disclosures had been shared with a film crew, and one woman told Funnell: “I didn’t consent and she hasn’t told me she would use my information in this way.”

This is an egregious example, but how many times have we watched survivors lose control of their own stories as they are co-opted by media or political interests? After actor Eryn Jean Norvill’s private complaint became tabloid fodder and she was dragged through a defamation trial, she stood outside the courtroom and said: “As you all know, I never wanted these issues to be dealt with by a court.” When Catherine Marriott’s report of sexual misconduct by Barnaby Joyce was leaked to the press, she said all her control had been “taken away.” When journalist Ashleigh Raper’s allegations of sexual harassment by the former NSW Labor leader were aired under parliamentary privilege by a political rival, she said it had happened without her “involvement or consent.”

Does this loss of autonomy and control not reinscribe the same dynamic of disregarding someone’s consent? As Hill acknowledges, people are denied the ability to tell their stories on their own terms, and even when they can, they risk public scrutiny and legal retaliation. If the movement is going to continue to gain muscle and momentum from survivors presenting their trauma so as to repeatedly prove the endemic nature of harassment and violence, we need to get better at protecting them. It is from storytelling that the movement has always drawn its power and it is the storytelling that exposes survivors to further harm. A public disclosure cannot be the template for driving reform when it comes to sexual harm. What comes after the story?

Last year’s Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, found a trauma-informed and empathetic journalist in Funnell and, with other survivors, they campaigned to overturn gag laws preventing survivors from publicly identifying themselves. This is arguably an example of a story delivering material change – but even here, a young survivor of child sexual abuse has had to repeatedly retell her story at great personal cost. As Tame tells Hill, she was recently in the ER and lives “constantly on the precipice of a shame state from the retraumatisation.” She helped overturn laws so that survivors could tell their story, not to insist they should.

Hill ends her essay by asking whether we are “winning” this war. We can take stock in many ways: In 2022, is a woman who tells her story of abuse or harassment in a different position than those who did so in 2017? Is she more likely to be heard and believed? Is justice more within her reach? Does she have greater access to help and healing? Does this access still differ based on her race, sexuality, disability or socioeconomic status? Most importantly, is a woman any less likely to have such a story? In other words, is sexual abuse and harassment any less prevalent because of #MeToo? (The statistics would say no.)

Glowing media coverage of NOW promised a triage service that would direct survivors to legal support, counselling and journalists as tensions ran high between Spicer and board members over what they could realistically achieve. The organisation folded in 2020 and became a cautionary tale – not only in how a well-intentioned group lacking infrastructure and experience can collapse under the weight of its own expectations, but also in the effects of over-promising and under-delivering to survivors of sexual violence. The irony was that if NOW had come through, it might have connected the hashtag to “the work,” as Tarana Burke requested and Hill summarised as “grassroots activism, actual expertise in dealing with sexual violence, and the mission of structural change.” If it had been better funded, if it had addressed the genuine concerns about diversity and the needs of women outside the arts, if it had spent time consulting with the sector about how to support people after their disclosures, if it had garnered political will and funding to deliver that, it might have been able to offer something material to survivors.

Success should continue to be measured by what we offer those who have stories to tell – whether or not they want to tell them. Instead of leaning towards the ears of survivors and saying, as our prime minister did to Tame, “Well, gee, I bet it felt good to get that out,” we might have listened closer that day when she said, and as many survivors express, “Lived experience informs structural and social change.”

Hannah Ryan & Gina Rushton


Response to Correspondence

Lech Blaine

In September, I felt the country beginning to splinter as Clive Palmer’s anti-lockdown propaganda kicked into overdrive. I know lots of people in regional Queensland with zero history of vaccine hesitancy who were becoming gripped by conspiracy theories. If they felt so ferociously about lockdowns, what would the mood be like in Western Sydney and Melbourne, as a high baseline of distrust in government combined with a genuine sense of economic threat?

The answer came during the so-called tradie protests. Riot police were girt by high-vis construction workers who wanted to hit Dictator Dan where it hurt: by losing work, and potentially infecting each other with Covid.

Outside the CFMEU offices, the angry mob bombarded John Setka with accusations of betrayal. On the West Gate Bridge, the protestors sang “The Horses” by Daryl Braithwaite. That’s the way it’s gonna be, little daaarlin’! The next day, fake tradies and makeshift nationalists converged on the war memorial to shotgun pre-mixed liquor, snort Class A drugs, and chant “Advance Australia Fair”.

Reports surfaced that the workers had been infiltrated by neo-Nazis. Counter-reports maintained that true-blue CFMEU members were mostly responsible. Either way, it was a grimly familiar spectacle in Australian history: larrikins suffering from an inarticulate nihilism groped around for the charade of mateship and patriotism to justify their self-destructiveness.

The protestors evoked the textbook larrikins described by David Hunt in his characteristically witty correspondence to Top Blokes:

While most nineteenth-century larrikins had “working-class” backgrounds … they loathed the labour movement, and the emerging trade unions loathed them in return. Larrikins disrupted union parades and pickets, hurling abuse and rotten food at the marching or striking workers. Causing mayhem at union picnics was a favourite larrikin sport.

Hunt takes issue with the historical fidelity of the larrikin in my essay, and I don’t blame him. As a historian, I’m not fit to shine David’s shoes. I’m more interested in the myth of larrikinism that Australian politics has inherited than the literal inner-city larrikins of the 1800s.

My point wasn’t that Paterson and Lawson were bona fide larrikins, but that they played a pivotal role in disseminating the myths we still cling to. Likewise, nobody would sanctify Scott Morrison as a bona fide larrikin, partly because he has zero sense of humour. But his ScoMo persona is heavily influenced by the myths of larrikinism. Larrikins such as my brother John immediately see and hear a fellow traveller. Morrison conveys to a certain cohort of voters that he will fight against the political correctness Sky News believes is killing our national hero.

Not long after the tradie riots, John Elliott died. Figures from the right and left united to describe him as a “larrikin,” a euphemism often wheeled out on the death of disgraced businessmen. In the 1980s, Elliott belonged to a coterie of right-wing white-collar mavericks that included John Singleton and Alan Bond. They loved sport and beer, and made politically incorrect faux pas about women. This made them seem like mates, rather than vulture capitalists.

Increasingly, I’ve noticed the figure of the larrikin highlighted by culture warriors on the right as a defence against political correctness. This reactionary larrikin bears little resemblance to Hunt’s textbook larrikin, or the egalitarian larrikins – of both genders – celebrated by Alison Pennington. The myth-makers link a series of contradictory figures whose common feature is that they hearken back to an idealised – and less socially progressive – time in Australia’s history. It also happens to be a time when the transgressions of men went unchallenged.

In hindsight, I could have done a better job of clarifying these competing larrikins at the outset, although I reckon Shannon Burns is probably right: the business of determining exactly who is and isn’t a “real” larrikin might be a fool’s errand. Flicking somewhat flippantly between historical scenes was meant to convey the mess of Australian national identity, and the way we frequently use the same descriptions and categories for people who are spiritually and politically opposed. I definitely should have provided a more succinct definition of what it means to be a larrikin, then and now, especially in a positive sense.

Burns does a stellar job of pinpointing charismatic aspects of a larrikin:

The larrikin catches your eye because his dynamism and outsized personality makes him unpredictable. He knows how to have fun and invites you along for the ride. A larrikin is playful when she is serious and serious when she is playful. He winks at you while earnestly declaring that he is a wholly honest man on serious business. The larrikin is a “character” who is capable of seducing and persuading without seeming desperate or superior.

I wish I’d written this. Burns could be describing my father. Dad was a Grade Eight drop-out who once upon a time worked at an abattoir while belonging to a gang of bodgies in hardscrabble Ipswich. After a serious workplace injury, he moved through various jobs, including professional gambling, dalmatian breeding and driving taxis, always hustling for money. He maintained a deep mischievous streak after becoming a publican. But there was always a warmth to his piss-takes, and he was consistently the target of his own scorn. The open advertisement of personal imperfections invited others to loosen up.

In her correspondence, former state Labor MP Rachel Nolan fleshes out the rich tradition of labourism in my father’s hometown of Ipswich:

in 1888, Australia’s first Labor MP emerged from Ipswich when Thomas Glassey, a coalmining unionist [described] himself as “independent Labor” … From 1915 to 1948, the workers of Ipswich were represented by Frank Cooper, an eight-hour-day campaigner who became treasurer in the reforming government of William Forgan Smith. Elected in 1932, that government rejected the austerity of the Premiers’ Plan, rebuilt Queensland in Art Deco style and entrenched the state as the highest-wage, highest-taxing jurisdiction in the country.

This atmosphere provided the sincerely egalitarian side of my father’s larrikinism. The son of a trade unionist, he was a foster parent for almost thirty years. He also must’ve been one of the only publicans in the country who waged personal war against WorkChoices, because he believed that the government should protect the penalty rates of his employees and customers. And – along with former Ipswich Jets coach Tommy Raudonikis – he had a profound influence on the nefarious tendencies of his nephew Allan Langer, who would become widely beloved as Queensland’s number one public larrikin.

Growing up, I worshipped larrikin athletes such as Langer and Shane Warne for the same reason my father preferred Doug Walters to Don Bradman. It wasn’t just their athletic prowess that enchanted. They sounded like me, a bogan with a thick Australian drawl. There were increasingly few areas of public life where I saw my identity represented unironically, or where I could look without feeling in some way substandard by comparison.

I was delighted to receive Pennington’s erudite attention to gaps in my essay, and her personal identification with some of my experiences:

As a working-class woman straddling worlds, “suffocating from class consciousness,” still filtering out hardwired profanities on respected media platforms, I’ve identified a fellow traveller.

My brother John and I aren’t biologically related, but we are cut from the same cloth. His shame caused him to identify with John Howard, who appealed to people sick of feeling like they weren’t enough. As a teenager in country Queensland, my shame caused me to identify with urban elites, although I had much more in common with John on most matters except politics.

I’ve long since made peace with my bogan roots. Still, one of my missions as an essayist is to capture the perspective of self-identifying outsiders like John. Not because I agree with everything that he believes, but because John’s beliefs are extremely popular. He isn’t really an outsider. There are more of him than me. Bri Lee writes about the geographic distance between Australia’s media class and the cohort of unseen voters now known as Scott Morrison’s Quiet Australians, highlighted by the 2019 election:

Everyone was acting shocked by the results coming out of Queensland, but it had been a long time since anyone actually asked Queenslanders what they wanted and stuck around to listen to the answers … It’s rare to see anyone from Cairns, Townsville, Bundaberg or Rockhampton on the ABC, and certainly not on The Drum, where everyone sat, apparently confounded that they didn’t know their compatriots.

The great irony – which I perhaps didn’t explore for fear of being self-absorbed – is that by pursuing a career in writing and journalism, I’m at great risk of squandering my father’s class advancements. Indeed, my brother John earns significantly more money than me, and nobody would accuse him of being an elite. I ain’t complaining, because I knew what I was getting into.

But Vivian Gerrand does have a point in her correspondence:

It would have been even more compelling had he engaged with what precarity has meant for different sectors – and, indeed, for the intelligentsia itself. In contemporary Australia, plumbers earn more than most professors. The “culture war” on so-called elites, many of whom are living on casual wages despite their many qualifications, has produced a new underclass.

I’ve been incredibly lucky since publishing Top Blokes to generate positive feedback and vehement disagreement, frequently within the same breath. Some have asked why I care if Morrison is a fraud. The best politicians are bullshit artists, and all human beings are inauthentic to some extent. It is impossible to be the same person all the time, and social media has allowed human beings to be several different people at once. As Elizabeth Flux notes:

Sometimes it is impossible to know when something is genuine and when it is performance, but I’d argue that a lot of the time it doesn’t matter. I don’t like inauthenticity, but if it leads to a net good, then who cares?

My memoir, Car Crash, analysed the several different identities I oscillated between as a teenager. The epiphany wasn’t picking just one but becoming comfortable with my contradictions. So why do I care so much about ScoMo’s? Principally, I think his reinvention is interesting on a human level. It also explains something fundamental about our national identity and the changing voting bases of the major parties. Tom Lee somewhat interprets the bee in my bonnet:

Morrison’s greater crime might be that he is at best naive to the extent of his own hardship. This is Blaine’s broader point concerning authenticity: if you’ve always done alright for money, just admit it or try to have some perspective. If you’ve decided to be a Sharks fan because you want people to like you, fair play, but be straight about it.

I wouldn’t have such an issue with Morrison’s careerist reinvention as a suburban rugby league fan if he didn’t frequently seek to force Australians to conform to a narrow version of Australian identity, or to exclude people who don’t from political debates. Anyone who disagrees with the government from the left, especially on climate change, is likely to be labelled as an inner-city elite. But there are no more powerful “inner-city elites” than the ones Morrison used to rub shoulders with at rugby union games or Liberal Party fundraisers. And if you seek to police public debate with stringent identity markers, you should expect your own carefully focus-grouped identity to be scrutinised.

At the same time, I didn’t want the essay simply to be a critique of Scott Morrison and Coalition voters. It takes two to tango. The reason so many Australians find ScoMo’s unpretentiousness appealing is because they generally feel contempt emanating from members of the media and political classes, especially progressives. Morrison embraces them unconditionally.

It remains to be seen whether a Johnny-come-lately love of beer and rugby league can save Morrison from the wrath of battlers in 2022. The prime minister has lost support among female voters, probably owing to his mishandling of the Brittany Higgins affair. This explained his puzzling appearance at the height of the Higgins cover-up to chug a beer in the dressing sheds of the Parramatta Eels, a rugby league team that he doesn’t even support. Morrison wants to compensate for the loss of women by attracting blokes anxious about woke feminists.

The Coalition’s game plan for the 2022 election will be similar to the last one. Morrison needs his incompetence to be eclipsed by infighting between voters who should be economic allies. At the eleventh hour, the main person responsible for the fear and loathing will present himself as a down-to-earth bloke who can unify the nation, deliver economic stability and defend larrikins from political correctness. And there is still every chance that this will work. Although I do think that “Albo” is much savvier than many pundits give him credit for, and not just because he’s a South Sydney Rabbitohs fan.

Lech Blaine



Vivian Gerrand

Top Blokes powerfully elucidates how, under successive Australian governments, the super-wealthy have been aided to feather their nests, while inequality and precarity have quietly grown to encompass new sectors of society.

Blaine’s illumination of how class operates in Australia is compelling. It would have been even more compelling had he engaged with what precarity has meant for different sectors – and, indeed, for the intelligentsia itself.

In contemporary Australia, plumbers earn more than most professors. The “culture war” on so-called elites, many of whom are living on casual wages despite their many qualifications, has produced a new underclass. Previously secure arenas of employment – schools and universities – have become increasingly insecure. This has coincided with the precipitous rise identified in Blaine’s essay in the cost of housing, unmatched by wage growth.

Reflecting upon the Labor Party’s loss of the past three federal elections, Blaine memorably writes: “The terrible truth is that the cosmopolitans can afford to lose. Many make a living from faking outrage at the Establishment that by and large they belong to. The right do whatever is necessary to gain and hold power, while the left prefer virtuous defeats to imperfect victories.”

While this may be true in select quarters, it obscures the diabolical impacts of precarious work and unaffordable housing on my highly educated generation, many of whom have PhDs. Education, as was pointed out by Tanya Plibersek in her response to Quarterly Essay 82, has been devalued in this country. The asymmetry between the cosmopolitans and the mythologised battler class that Blaine vividly depicts has shifted with the advent of these conditions.

This has only intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison deliberately excluding universities and the arts from the Job Keeper scheme in 2020. Fragmentation and decimation of academic and arts communities have been the predictable result. That same year, instead of tackling the housing crisis, HomeBuilder grants allocated taxpayer funds to a reno-ready demographic, bolstering support for construction – one of the few industries that has been largely unaffected by lockdowns. The expansion of homelessness is yet another predictable consequence of this policy failure.

Just last week, my university announced a further round of redundancies. A friend now needs to reapply for his job, knowing that he is up against his colleague. One of them will be the loser. The levels of stress that my generation continues to experience from job insecurity and housing unaffordability get in the way of attempts to redress injustice more broadly. In my area of research, we focus on ever-urgent issues to do with social inclusion. The fact that many of us face barriers to such inclusion, including personal precarity, reduces our capacity to act in solidarity with the broader cause.

In the next election, as in the last one, cosmopolitans cannot afford to lose.

Vivian Gerrand



Tom Lee

Lech Blaine’s essay is a welcome provocation to think in more nuanced ways about the complexity of Australian culture and character. Archetypes abound in the essay: the eponymous larrikin, in particular, though the bogan, aristocrat (I suppose we have them in Australia, bizarro versions like Kerry Packer), silvertail, fibro, tradie, miner, squatter, snob, cosmopolitan and parochial all get a look-in.

Blaine’s greater instinct, however, is for paradox and complication, rather than settled, generic images of the nation and its constituents. As Bruce, one of his dad’s best mates from Ipswich, says at one point: “I wish politicians would stop talking so much about tradies and miners … Some of us blokes are on a coupla hundred grand. We’re doing just fine. When was the last time you heard any politicians kick up a stink about the single mum cleaning the shitters at a nursing home? Or the bloke delivering Uber Eats on a bicycle for $5 a pop. That’s the real working class, mate.” Can you imagine the iconic, oversized thermal backpacks used by food delivery workers as the new high-vis? Matt Canavan, Bill Shorten or ScoMo donning one for a photo op on a street corner while shaking hands and getting to know the folk who wear them daily? Seems unlikely.

Cultural and financial conditions can change a lot over the generations, but off-the-shelf categories persist, shaping the stories told about the past, the analysis of the present and aspirations for the future. The metonyms “blue-” or “white-collar” capture a fragment of the worlds to which they refer in name; the more recent “laptop class” and “lentil belt” do the same. But how effective are these proxies at capturing what’s important about what people do and want in Australia?

Blaine’s essay shows how important political, sporting and business figures in Australia, largely men, mould themselves and in turn mould the categories that are used to define Australian aspirations and antagonisms. The end result: an unholy motley of chameleons, charlatans and spruikers, always slipping through and warping archetypes.

This raises an open question, which Blaine addresses impressionistically, without being dogmatic: what ingredients do we want to make up the important figures of the future? The journey away from deprivation to relative prosperity is for many Australian families the story of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But now, so-called upward mobility is looking increasingly challenging for younger Australians who don’t come from home-owning families. Much change has taken place even within one generation.

This is the case for Blaine and many of his interlocutors, including Terri Butler, the member for Griffith, and Joel Thompson, a retired rugby league player of Indigenous descent and founder of The Mindset Project. Both Butler and Thompson have direct and compelling ways of describing class distinctions relevant to their upbringing. Butler describes the lives of her cousins in North Queensland as ranging from “just tough” to “really fucking tough.” Thompson observes that growing up he didn’t know anybody who owned their own home, making him a tad different in material circumstances from Morrison, who in 2018, according to Blaine, described himself as starting out “very, very small” on entering the property market, when in truth, “small” meant owning two houses in Bronte.

That Morrison might be perceived by the public to share common ground with the likes of Butler and Thompson on the basis of culture, largely via rugby league and a cultivated lack of pretension, could matter more in the end than whether or not he shares a common origin. The relationship between the authenticity of origins, a relatively recently acquired yet nonetheless genuine symbolic solidarity with the working class, and a strategic misleading of the public – this is the very tricky-to-map and ultimately unresolved mess that Blaine traces.

I’ve got to dig deep to connect with anything like “tough” or “really fucking tough.” Yet like many Australians, I’m a bastard form with mixed trimmings, able to select which parts of my history to brandish, a luxury in itself. I came from Protestantism (Dad) and Catholicism (Mum), private school (Dad) and public school (Mum), the upper-middle class (Dad) and the lower-middle-to-middle class (Mum). Far from the most heady of contrasts, but enough to create some tensions.

I prized the rugby league heritage on Mum’s side in my teens while attending a rich, all-boys boarding school in Sydney, taking perverse delight in being on the outer. But it was hardly the outer: State of Origin was the only weeknight of the year that we didn’t have to do enforced prep after dinner. Everyone loved it.

The performance of a particularly rugged version of masculinity was the norm at the school: speaking in the harsh, monosyllabic drawl most likely learnt from farm workers, wearing shearers’ singlets, smoking rollies, cutting the toes and backs off our joggers to make a sort of thong (nicknamed “Shane and Waynes”). The greatest aspiration of many was to own a B&S-ready ute with all the roo-shooting, circle-working trimmings. Stupidity was certainly the currency, rather than sensitivity or intellect. A peculiar mix of cowboy and bogan commanded, on balance, more respect than the yachtsman, the preppy, the skater or, certainly, the hipster. Everyone tended to gravitate towards larrikin types who were a bit rough around the edges. There were niches for most, although it was certainly not the happiest time for all.

I felt immense relief when I spent my gap year working at an equally elite boarding school in the United Kingdom, a co-ed school where art, music, drama and a greater level of emotional sensitivity were the norm among students. It seemed like heaven. Though perhaps I was seeing everything through the romance of my own newfound freedom and the novelty of travel.

As for ScoMo, Blaine makes a lot of the love of rugby league he seems to have developed relatively late in life (as late as 2012) and brandished as part of his political self-image. There is something cringe-worthy about the idea that Morrison is just supporting the Sharks because he knows it will play well with a section of the electorate. But perhaps we should entertain the idea that he has come to love league, like his God, and while it might be politically convenient for him to do so, he’s going to games in the same way he’s going to church – a good Christian, buying the hat and the scarf.

Morrison’s greater crime might be that he is at best naive to the extent of his own hardship. This is Blaine’s broader point concerning authenticity: if you’ve always done alright for money, just admit it or try to have some perspective. If you’ve decided to be a Sharks fan because you want people to like you, fair play, but be straight about it. Perhaps this is terrible advice from a political perspective, but I like the sound of it.

Climate change looms in Blaine’s essay as a complex and divisive issue concerning class and perceived cosmopolitan elitism in Australia – a government-killer, since Abbott at least. It reminded me of a story I heard from my dad …

Dad is driving along one of the gravel roads at home and encounters a local lad, let’s call him Morgan, chopping wood by the side of the road. Morgan is an old primary school friend of mine, from Cumnock town, not the landed elite, who has returned to the district as an adult. Morgan certainly had an upbringing that was challenging compared to my own. I lost touch with him when I went away to boarding school, as I did with many of my local friends.

Dad, who’s become something of a local climate-change advocate, warns Morgan that he is breaking the law, that fallen branches are valuable habitat and provide soil nutrients. Morgan obediently packs up his kit and probably goes to get his wood somewhere else on the side of the road.

Whenever I remind Dad of this story, it presents him with a moral difficulty. A robust family argument tends to ensue. Dad and my brother chop firewood on our land and it’s legal to do so; sometimes people ask if they can come onto the property and do the same, and permission tends to be granted. But if lots more people started asking, Dad would certainly start saying no. Our family has access and rights to a massive portion of the countryside and all the work and leisure that affords, largely because of the time my ancestors arrived in the country, as well as other rolls of the dice and, no doubt, a fair amount of sacrifice, skulduggery and nous on their part – it would be churlish of me to imagine they were without ingenuity.

But how must this feel for Morgan, less well-off, prevented from chopping the wood he needs over winter in the name of biodiversity? I know Dad feels this as a profound moral quandary. Not so Mum, who isn’t from the landed gentry despite now owning the land. She doesn’t feel the class guilt that Dad does, and even though Mum’s arguably less of an advocate for biodiversity (despite doing plenty of practical work), she appears less conflicted laying down the law, hypothetically, to Morgan chopping wood by the side of the road.

This story is a parable because it so neatly illustrates the relationship between key progressive issues of the day, including climate change and class. Is it fair that those with existing privileges accrue more capital, both social and financial, when politics demands a shift in the trajectory of industry and the economy? How can we ensure people like Morgan have equitable access to a comfortable life without having long-lasting detrimental effects on the environment? Is it fair that some are forced to commit crimes against the environment in full view, while others can do the same things, at scale, inconspicuously and often to their financial advantage? And alternatively, should class guilt impact moral authority?

No answers from me here, merely a story to help frame the problem. This is also the value of Blaine’s similarly personal but far more expansive essay. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a touchstone in the current political climate.

Tom Lee



Elizabeth Flux

What’s your favourite Scott Morrison nonsense phrase? Mine’s “if you have a go, you get a go.” To me, this sums up everything that Morrison is. It sounds catchy in passing, and if you don’t interrogate them, the words seem potentially profound. But dig a bit deeper and all you find is a half-baked idea that is removed from reality.

He’s saying try and you’ll succeed.

He’s saying if you don’t succeed, it’s your fault.

He’s saying responsibility lies with individuals, not society, not government and definitely not leaders.

The problem, as Lech Blaine lays out in his essay, is that for Morrison this mantra has been true, and he therefore thinks it’s universal. If you grow up thinking you’re the underdog who made good, it is hard to believe anyone else has had it harder. Those worse off either don’t exist or just aren’t trying hard enough.

Morrison does get a go every time he has a go. He’s failed up at every stage of his career. Now he’s the prime minister, and he feels he deserves to be there – a prospect that is truly concerning because he has no insight into the reality or lived experience of the bulk of people he is supposed to represent. As Blaine summarises, “It is one thing to be lucky, and another to dedicate your life to hoarding luck from those who need some.”

A leader doesn’t need to have lived the lives of everyone in their constituency, but they do need to be able to see that their experience isn’t the norm, that what worked for them might not work for others. It’s only then that they can actually do their job – by seeing what in society needs fixing or bolstering or changing. Our government is supposed to make society work for the people, not make individuals change to fit society.

But we knew this about Morrison already. Blaine’s essay underscored for me just how cynical and gross Morrison’s cosplay as “ScoMo” is in light of how far removed he is from the character he is playing. After I had waded through my disgust, it also raised a lot of other questions. What does the fact that our leaders put on these costumes to curry favour with the voting public say about us?

Morrison is only the most recent – and blatant – example of politicians wearing masks. As the essay explores, it’s something that happens on both sides of politics: people pretending to be something they’re not … for what reason, though? To appeal to voters, sure, but in some cases it seems to speak to something deeper.

Blaine paints a picture in which Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison are almost pretending to be each other – “ScoMo” has adopted Albo’s passions and even the form of his nickname, while Albanese (though perhaps more through social pressure than anything else) has progressively grown into the expected “image” of a politician the higher up he’s got. Further back, “Hawke was desperate to be regarded as the most macho man in the country, and Keating as the smartest.” Is this a grass is always greener thing? Is it about being what you are not? Is it that the public mood changed?

The essay forced me to fight against my own impressions, obtained by osmosis over the years and, until now, not interrogated or dissected. It turns out many things I thought I knew about our “top blokes” were all just surface level. What is a person’s true character, then? Are politicians just amplified versions of us all, presenting our most palatable selves with more baldness and calculation? Or are our leaders’ personalities produced by committee, representing a strange everyman that reflects the nation’s wants at the time?

It comes back to what lies at the core of the act. Is it insecurity, or is it all a ploy to get votes and stay in power? Naturally, different people, different leaders, will fall on different parts of the spectrum. In Bob Hawke’s case, it seems that his mask amplified what was already underneath, while in Morrison’s, it seems he built “ScoMo” from scratch. The latter is far more frightening. What comes next for “ScoMo”? Will he just keep morphing to get what he wants?

Sometimes it is impossible to know when something is genuine and when it is performance, but I’d argue that a lot of the time it doesn’t matter. I don’t like inauthenticity, but if it leads to a net good, then who cares? When the act is a barrier to knowing what someone truly stands for – or whether they in fact stand for anything at all – it’s a problem.

Almost everyone has an outside that differs from what’s on the inside, at least a little bit. If politicians are putting on an act so they can get in power to make something happen, that’s one thing. But if they’re putting on an act so they can get in power just for power’s sake, that’s another.

As Liberal and Labor start to homogenise their policies, when they barely represent different ideologies, the parties themselves cannot represent what people want or need – this is why I think individual politicians cosplay. In theory, the leader of a party would be the embodiment of its ideals. When there are no clear ideals, the leader morphs into whoever is likely to win votes while remaining palatable to the party’s base.

The scariest part of Blaine’s essay is that it reveals how much rests on the charisma or personality of politicians, on people’s affection for them – and that this is only getting worse. The light shines so brightly that people don’t see what, if anything, lies beneath the costume. This is how we end up with hollow men with hollow promises, politicians who have personality and no policy. This is how we end up with leaders who say and believe things such as “if you have a go, you get a go,” while the country burns in more ways than one.

Elizabeth Flux



Shannon Burns

After reading Lech Blaine’s excellent and illuminating essay, I found myself thinking about notions of authenticity, impersonation and larrikinism as they apply to the so-called working class. Of course, some working-class people embody every cliché about working-class life, and there are others who are barely recognisable as working class to those who haven’t been exposed to its diverse manifestations. As with any group, some of its members are easy to read because their personas have been predigested, while some are almost unreadable because they represent a departure from the norm and others actively reject the obvious costumes and mannerisms because contrarianism is a common impulse. Working-class people put on many uniforms and speak in many tongues.

Blaine documents the political appropriation of well-worn working-class traits or tropes and the way they are employed in the pursuit of power, and he accuses Scott Morrison of a particularly cynical and artless variety of this common act of plagiarism. “Scott Morrison’s ScoMo persona was a focus-grouped act of identity theft,” Blaine argues, but I’m inclined to counter that identity is always performative and that mimicry is not theft. Blaine’s point is that Morrison is not authentic; part of his political strategy is to conceal his true face because his true face is not electable. He adds: “The closest that Morrison came to battling – or being a larrikin, for that matter – was getting cast as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!” It’s a killer line, but I’m not sure that it’s a killer blow. Here is a prime minister who releases images of himself making (or pretending to make) curries while listening (or pretending to listen) to a playlist entitled “Desi Hits.” His theatrical impersonations, the willingness to transparently perform a role, seems more significant than the particular material he works with. That Morrison played such a lively and seductive part in a school musical suggests that overt theatricality is one of his organic traits, that when Morrison puts on a mask he is being his authentic self.

“Bogan Bingo” features actors who perform the role of a lower-class bingo caller. I’ve been to at least three performances in the past decade, all of them in the inner suburbs of Adelaide. The bingo callers pretend to be promiscuous and stupid, most of their dialogue is sexually suggestive and the action centres on the grotesque, revelling in transgression. The audience is expected to dress down as bogans and participate in various activities. This typically produces a few smoking-while-pregnant teenagers, a lot of flannel shirts and ragged jeans, ugg boots, beanies, football apparel, Iron Maiden T-shirts, mullets, references to lower-class suburbs, V8s and fast food. I’ve attended versions of this performance at sports clubs and schools, and in each case the audience has been primarily white-collar middle class.

It is uncomfortable to see the broad outlines of people you grew up with transformed into figures of fun – family members who did smoke as pregnant teenagers (like my mother and stepsister), who wore those clothes and exhibited that kind of rough and rowdy behaviour (like my younger self), people who retrospectively seem to have lived their whole lives in what others perceive as amusing costumes. That they are so easy to mimic, that the outward signs of a social group’s singularity can be catalogued and repurposed with so little effort and that strangers who do not share their backgrounds or experiences can wield those signs however they like – all this is a little hard to stomach. But it is a fact worth digesting.

Part of the discomfort has to do with our relationship to the surface of things. It feels as though the people I knew and loved are being worn at Bogan Bingo, that the spectacle is a ghoulish possession of real bodies. But of course, they aren’t part of the performance at all; their inner lives and personal histories are not attached to the cheap reproduction of those superficial traits, just as a soul is not attached to the image of a person in a photograph. It is hard to get beyond the image, to accept that imitation is not extractive and to acknowledge that the original is not diminished by insensitive reproduction just because it feels that way. But I am inclined to make the effort instead of giving in to the illusion. Nothing real is being “stolen” in these performances, and this kind of impersonation is not identity theft.

A complicating factor with Bogan Bingo is that its caricatures of lower-class and uneducated people are explicitly associated with liberation and fun. You dress down to behave in impolite and transgressive ways, to be openly unpalatable and superficial, to dance, shout and run amok and thereby taste a kind of freedom that is not usually available to you. There is an implied envy at work, a repressed desire to be a different kind of person, to strip away those middle-class masks and restraints, and become something more “real.” This is not to say that those who enjoy Bogan Bingo are free of ugly beliefs or motives. Contempt for the poor and uneducated is one of the last great pleasures for inner-city progressives and conservatives alike, and I half-appreciate the openness of it all. Because this kind of “appropriation” is not yet subject to serious scrutiny or censure, we are still permitted to have fun with it, if only for now. It allows us to see how people behave before one of their tendencies becomes morally indefensible – before they learn a new set of manners and develop ways of concealing or repressing yet another impulse.

I was born into the underclass, migrated into the working class as a teenager and then settled into the middle class (via university and marriage) when I was close to thirty. I don’t regard myself as an underclass or working-class writer or critic because, for me, the material conditions that people endure in the present and the social worlds they inhabit are the best guide to their class status. This belief probably says more about my origins than about the world I live in now, a world in which the “working class” is the subject of writerly analysis and political discourse instead of daily experience. “Identity” in this particular context – a context that produces things such as Quarterly Essays and the reactions they provoke – is primarily a symbolic affair, and I wonder if Blaine’s strong reaction against Morrison’s theatrics is a simple extension of the well-educated, middle-class sensitivity to symbols. Or to put it differently: is our hostility to Morrison’s blatant imitations a sign that we don’t know how to bring a lasting focus to bear on material concerns?

To my eye, Scott Morrison poses as a middle-class suburban dad. Such men drink beer, watch sport and cook food while wearing aprons. Many change personas effortlessly. One moment they are standing near the barbeque with other men talking about sport or films or women while punctuating every sentence with “fucking”; the next they are sitting down with their wives and daughters, making dad jokes while using soft gestures and polite language. The same men go to work and deploy similarly branching personas in different contexts, just as their wives present one face to their mother or siblings and other faces to their friends, neighbours, employers or employees. This morphing of character is not uncommon. In fact, it is a sign of basic social competence.

You might even say that changeability and the confident willingness to perform disparate roles is an “authentic” trait of the suburban middle class, so the question of exactly who is being impersonated when Morrison dons the supposed garments of working-class life – rugby league and beer – is tricky to determine. If middle-class people have been performing in exactly this way for decades, and if the adaptability that comes with performative prowess is one of the many sources of their confidence and success, isn’t Morrison really impersonating, and thereby flattering, the middle class?

I suspect that Morrison’s costumes appeal to the broader suburban middle-class more than anyone. A more interesting question, perhaps, is who does it repel? The answer, I think, is that a solid portion of intellectuals, writers and artsy types – people such as me – are viscerally repulsed by images of Morrison drinking beer at league games, almost as much as they are repelled by his hulking male blokeyness. Morrison doesn’t bother to flatter us with imitation, perhaps because he would lose more votes than he gained. “ScoMo the typical bloke” is a steady reminder of our political irrelevance.

Blaine argues that larrikinism has its origin in forms of performance and impersonation – that Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson were partly masking their own effeminacy or high status when they developed the anti-authoritarian larrikin figure. This is as contestable as any biographical analysis, but if we go along with it and accept that larrikinism is partly founded on deception or masking and that the “authenticity” we associate with a robust larrikin persona is an effect rather than a reality, then the business of determining exactly who is and isn’t a “real” larrikin is a fool’s errand.

I grew up in such safe Labor seats that voting seemed almost redundant. Even so, federal Labor victories were registered with a collective sigh of relief, and federal Labor losses had a profoundly depressing effect. The adults in my life liked Bob Hawke because he was a “character” – his larrikinism won their affection – but they also saw that he was a bullshit artist. Hawke was not one of them, and they never thought he was, yet his persona suggested that he would not regard them with contempt either, and he was prepared to tell a story and put on a show that included them in his audience. Keating left them cold.

I think that Blaine undervalues one of the most powerful qualities of the larrikin. Anti-authoritarianism and hardnosed tenacity are not the whole story. The larrikin catches your eye because his dynamism and outsized personality makes him unpredictable. He knows how to have fun and invites you along for the ride. A larrikin is playful when she is serious and serious when she is playful. He winks at you while earnestly declaring that he is a wholly honest man on serious business. The larrikin is a “character” who is capable of seducing and persuading without seeming desperate or superior. These are fundamental skills that politicians need to possess if they want to be elected, so it’s not surprising that larrikinism and politics continually converge. They are made for each other.

Shannon Burns



Alison Pennington

Lech Blaine tells a convincing story about how big business and conservative politicians co-opt and thieve working-class culture. But that culture first had to be built and exist in order to be stolen. Who made it? The substance of “larrikinism” is never really defined. It is apparently simultaneously anti-establishment, egalitarian, republican, collectivist, racist, hypermasculine and drunk. Now, my brain, hardwired for materialism, says cultural traditions are most powerfully understood as the fruits of people’s economic foundations. It means that the way people think, talk and understand themselves is shaped by their access to what they need for a secure, good life: jobs, incomes, housing, essential services.

Egalitarianism, the fair go and “taking the piss” didn’t emerge spontaneously. These cultural forms relied on redistributive collectivist institutions such as centralised wage-setting and unionism – countervailing powers to employers and powerful coercive government. These institutions were built through enormous struggles against convict transportation, the nineteenth-century Master and Servant Acts and 120 years of punitive laws funnelling cheap labour to lazy businessmen for easy profits. By confronting the hostile, disciplinary colonial state, workers over time received a fair wage for the value they created on the job – a fairer share of the pie. The coverage of egalitarian legislation such as the awards was patchy and often excluded Aboriginal people, women and migrant workers. Social movements, particularly from the late 1960s, started setting that right, achieving welfare-state expansion on the way. Aboriginal people had, of course, resisted colonial administration for much longer. We can find the basis for “Australianisms” here.

Larrikinism is a cultural artefact of a population that won sufficient jobs, income to buy beer, time to drink it and a welfare safety net. It’s distinctly working-class. We got here because life in Australia made collectivism critical to survival, and collectivism makes vibrant culture. By working, joining unions, participating in community groups, sports and churches, working people create shared language, flair, humour and a strong sense of self.

Convict roots

This year, Cricket Australia announced it would drop the promotion of “Australia Day” from its upcoming Big Bash League. Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded by recasting his ancestral convict roots to discredit Aboriginal justice. It was shocking new terrain for conservatives in modern Australian colonial politics. Convict history is traditionally the terrain of collective politics.

Tony Moore’s Death or Liberty documents the history of political prisoners sent as convicts to Australia. It’s an authoritative account that supports Australia’s title as one of the oldest democracies in the world. By the eighteenth century, British prisons were bursting at the seams with political dissidents, peasants and workers resisting enclosures and occupation, and advocating for workers’ suffrage and unionism. Thousands were locked up for crimes of theft, treason, riot, incitement, seditious libel and more. Many crimes were punishable by death. But with mass democratic movements and political independence in full swing, the British preferred transportation to creating martyrs. So they sent them to Australia. Convict resistance imbued the labour movement with the ideals of radical democracy and republicanism. These political programs would in turn foster Australian egalitarian, anti-establishment values. Australian democracy was only ever partial until Aboriginal peoples obtained basic civil rights, and the pursuit of justice and self-determination continues.

Real Australian history has been erased time and again. Scott Morrison tried to reconstitute Australia as classic American entrepreneurial republicanism: convicts were actually free settlers of the New World “having a go, getting a go.” But of course, Australia was established as a giant prison for the British Empire on stolen land. A dark organ of discipline. We may no longer hold dominion status, but the government’s penchant for violent imprisonment remains today. Aboriginal people are incarcerated at a higher rate than black South Africans were during apartheid. We lock up children as young as ten in juvenile prisons, most of them Aboriginal and a majority yet to be convicted of any crime; refugees are locked up in private offshore prisons. Serco is like a modern-day East India Company.

The purpose of uncovering our submerged history isn’t to stoke oppression complexes but to best understand who we are (and aren’t). As workers increasingly defect to right-wing populism (as we’ve seen in the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom and now parts of Australia), celebrating world-leading traditions of resistance, against all odds, can support the rebuilding of something broader and better.

Women make history

Top Blokes tells a story of larrikinism made by men and dismantled by men. It’s in the title, after all. But who makes our working-class history? Women have made tremendous contributions to Australia’s egalitarian cultural traditions – in unions, social movements and civil society organisations. If we don’t acknowledge that our collectivist history was made by all people – men, women, First Nations people and migrants – we miss a great deal. Historian Clare Wright’s work is scattered throughout Blaine’s essay, though her call to (re)interpret history with attention to the agency of women and other marginalised groups isn’t observed. For instance, Blaine says that since Victoria has “no convict stain,” the prevalence of larrikinism there is due to “testosterone more than political ideology.” Wright’s work, along with that of many other writers and activists, shows that when it comes to forging proud collectivist traditions of mateship, solidarity, sacrifice and service, women played leading roles. They were never bystanders. In Beyond the Ladies Lounge, Wright documents women’s dominance and visibility in Australian hotel-keeping, especially in Victoria; pubs are playgrounds for larrikinism.

Far from a purely masculine display of bravado, larrikinism and egalitarian culture exist in Victoria because the trade union movement has historically been strongest there. It still is. A related and regrettable omission from Blaine’s essay is women’s leading role in union revitalisation. Surely the top candidate for Australia’s bona fide flag-bearer of anti-establishment larrikinism is the ACTU’s secretary, Sally McManus – a straight talker with a mullet, who in her first national media interview said bad laws should be broken. It shocked small-l liberal respectability and sent the political class, business lobbyists and technocrats into meltdown. It was a hat tip to the larrikin. It is important to note that the average union member today is a middle-aged woman working in health care. If unions were obstructed by the Accords and enterprise bargaining (by plenty of Top Blokes in leadership), then independent unionism is now being painstakingly remade by women in increasingly feminised services sectors.

Allow me to peer behind another gendered depiction of history, this time on personal terrain. My middle name is Kelly. I was raised with music and poems about one of Australia’s most potent, captivating characters. The working class in Adelaide’s west I grew up with embraced Ned’s tragic and inspiring story. But it wasn’t just Ned. It was all the Kellys. And the Kellys were a matriarchal family – headed by Ellen. Kate, Ned’s little sister, rode as decoy for the Kelly Gang and campaigned with thousands to spare Ned’s life. Ned advocated for the economically deprived underclass, the downtrodden of north-eastern Victoria – many Irish-Catholics of convict stock – but it was the impossibility of delivering economic security for his mum and siblings that led him to collective conclusions. The centrality of familial women in Ned’s egalitarian convictions is a big reason Peter Carey was criticised for fabricating a love interest in the literary masterpiece The True History of the Kelly Gang. In short, Neddy isn’t everything.

Who dismantled it?

Having toured some of the historical terrain that made egalitarianism, we might now ask who dismantled it. Working people take pride in the hard work of creating culture and distinctly Australian cultural forms (rather than merely transplanting high art from overseas). Entry to this exciting world doesn’t depend on your capacity to buy into it. In contrast, higher income classes don’t need collectivism to survive. Culture for the rich is more akin to consumption choices. Accordingly, John Howard and Scott Morrison are of an ilk that doesn’t generate culture but consumes it. And it’s exactly what they’ve done. Howard most powerfully reconstituted working-class identity. Mateship was no longer about unionism, but something diggers did while fighting imperial wars for our freedoms. “Battlers” worked hard, head down, and accepted stagnant wages, insecure work and longer working hours as their lot in life. House prices doubled, and that’s gotta be good, right? It’s startling, really: what began as an independent, republican national pulse was coopted by ardent monarchists.

But cultural dissolution started long before Howard. Blaine’s attention to the Hawke–Keating years is his strongest work. What allowed Bob Hawke to pursue his larger-than-life larrikin persona? Over 50 per cent unionisation. That’s a mighty force of validation, and an organ to communicate your politics. Unions – the “industrial wing” of the ALP – were a ballast against rising individualisation in political leadership, observed increasingly in places such as the United States. But the unions were severely damaged by the Accords. In many respects, Hawke struck one of the most effective and powerful blows to egalitarian culture. The whip-smart, beer-sculling Rhodes scholar gave workers a false sense of security. The welfare state was retrenched, financial powers deregulated and the capacity of unions to hold Hawke accountable curtailed. Union militancy was partly cashed out for some decent reforms, such as Medicare and superannuation. But they didn’t compensate for what was lost in wage-setting power. Hawke’s incomes policies reduced the capacity of unions, which helped workers think and act for themselves. Consequently, workers became less discerning and more defenceless – university-educated professionals working sixty-hour weeks included. Our 1980s hangover is long-lasting.

As Blaine documents, individualist frames, rather than parties and policies, became the substance of our politics, as seen very clearly in the 2019 election. Bill Shorten was dripping with pro-worker policies, but the breakdown of the union infrastructure needed to communicate them and foster trust in the parliamentary process left him wide open to personality smear campaigns. Morrison’s infrastructure? He’s got the Pentecostal Church, business lobby groups and the Murdoch media to boot.

Hawke appealed to the fruits of working-class power (leisure time, mateship) while setting in motion forces that led to their eventual dismantling. In that sense, Hawke’s economic policies paved the way for Morrison. Mass cultural forms stopped evolving. Instead, working-class Australian culture became stagnant – especially white working-class culture, which was forged around plentiful work, rising wages and solidarity. That cultural rump was left festering and vulnerable to manipulation by those with real economic power. The “radical larrikin” was extinguished by the “aesthetic larrikin.” And that started long before #ScottyFromMarketing.

What are we salvaging?

Mass economic disempowerment has certainly degraded Australian cultural forms. Of course, our culture is full of less desirable facets, Australians’ penchant for excessive drinking being one. (Though for this we can largely thank forty-odd decades of “wartime morality” achieved by prohibitionists, which forced pubs to close at 6 p.m., entrenching heavy-drinking sessions among workers from 5 to 6 p.m.) Beyond drinking, Blaine’s depiction of working-class culture cannot be called universal. Gambling certainly isn’t uniform. Nor sports. I had to write down the difference between rugby league (working-class) and union (upper-class), and refer back to my notes at least twice while reading the essay. In our other glorious national sport (Australian Rules), players from private and public schools, city and country, battle on the same field, although even that inclusiveness is narrowing. Anti-intellectualism isn’t universal either. Nor is New South Wales’ fondness for darkened windows in pubs (is the intention to elicit shame in patrons for all the pokies inside?). Pubs in southern states? Glorious, homely temples.

See what I’m getting at here? Where you live in Australia matters. And working-class culture isn’t homogenous. Blaine’s account of workers’ decline rests on distinctly eastern-state economic and political trends. It mirrors the terrain of Australian federal politics, which has become increasingly centred on New South Wales and Queensland. But states have diverged considerably in recent decades. For instance, Blaine accounts for rising right-wing political conservatism in regional New South Wales and Queensland by pointing to deindustrialisation. But that doesn’t explain why manufacturing job losses in southern states didn’t create a reactionary political base.

But what underpins celebratory drinking is working people’s success in winning leisure time to drink. Victories include the eight-hour day, paid holiday leave and penalty rates for unsociable hours of work. If Australians haven’t discovered yet who we are or what we’re about, beyond time to booze, then we clearly need more time, income and resources to do that. But we’re hamstrung. Since the 1980s, bipartisan policies have reduced wage growth, stifled economic democracy, increased inequality and killed “good jobs.” In fact, research from the Centre for Future Work shows that those with a good job – that is, full-time work, with standard holiday and sick-pay entitlements – are now the minority of Australians. The mechanisms for elevating workers’ voices, from the ground up to the suits, have been weakened.

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as Clare Wright reminds us, we should identify the elements we want to salvage and build upon in creating a new future of collectivist politics. Revitalising culture means expanding economic security for all: plenty of good, meaningful jobs (including for artists), decent pay and strong public investment in income support and other necessities of life, such as housing, health care and education. Thankfully, underlying support for the social contract of good work and fair taxation is still strong in Australia. The 2021 Australia Talks survey shows 88 per cent of Australians believe job security is a problem for the country, and 63 per cent think the minimum wage should be higher. Research by the Australia Institute shows the majority want to fund more social services by collecting more tax, especially from big business and higher-income earners. If one thing is clear as day in Blaine’s essay, it is this: progressives can’t win on culture, and ought to get firmly back on economic terrain.

Bridging divides

Many have been bedazzled by Morrison’s “everyman” performance. It’s viewed as political mastery because decades of neoliberal economic policies have increased inequality and stratified society. We can’t see each other fully anymore. We work different jobs (if working at all). Our runaway housing market geographically separates people by income. If those empowered with the resources and education to speak could actually see the bottom half of Australia, they’d have known Morrison was a shallow charade from day one. Instead, the precarious working poor, the low-paid welfare class, are viewed as policy problems, not as people with agency and an acute awareness that successive governments are failing them. It’s worth recalling that the 1930s Depression only meant crushing poverty and destitution for people at the bottom. Most middle- and higher-income Australians continued their lives relatively unscathed.

To respond to our immediate challenges, save ourselves and our environment, and heal historical wounds, Australians must be able to answer the questions “Who are we?” and “What can we be proud of?” Australian values belong to the anti-establishment, ground-up democracy of everyday people. It is the only way we have ever made progress and the only path forward today.

Blaine’s essay is one of the most engaging analyses I’ve read of Australian contemporary class relations. As a working-class woman straddling worlds, “suffocating from class consciousness,” still filtering out hardwired profanities on respected media platforms, I’ve identified a fellow traveller. I’m thankful for Blaine’s brave articulations and his bold and provocative style – one could say, a style firmly within Australia’s traditions of fierce, democratic, egalitarian cultural expression and worthy of keeping alive. Here’s to many more contributions to a stumbling nation reconciling with itself.

Alison Pennington



David Hunt

Scott Morrison is a dingo in sheep’s clothing. Lech Blaine’s Quarterly Essay leaves us in no doubt that the chickens of the PM’s self-publicised coop should be wary whenever their jailer ambles towards them with a carefully curated bowl of kitchen scraps – and not just on curry night.

On this subject, Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power presents nothing new. Politicians pretend their way to power? Who’d have thunk it? While Morrison’s masquerading as “a typical Aussie bloke” who loves a beer at the Sharkies’ game is disingenuous – and coming up with his own nickname (after road-testing it with a focus group of men in shiny vests) is just plain sad – these deceptions pale in comparison to those of some of Australia’s early Labor leaders.

In 1886, Chris Watson left New Zealand for Sydney, where he found work mucking out Government House’s stables. Seventeen years later, with an intuitive understanding of the connection between government and shovelling shit, he became prime minister of Australia and the world’s first Labor/Labour national leader. Watson didn’t just give himself a new nickname – he manufactured a whole new identity. No one knew that Kiwi Chris Watson was really Chilean John Tanck until after his death. Tanck, who had a non-British father and had never applied for British citizenship, would have known he was constitutionally ineligible to sit in the Australian parliament, let alone serve as prime minister.

King O’Malley, Labor’s minister for home affairs in the 1910 Fisher government, was another proto-Barnaby. This is, of course, a reference to O’Malley’s foreign citizenship excluding him from the Australian parliament and is in no way intended to imply that Barnaby had home affairs (he appears to have used his workplace and discreet motels). O’Malley, the man responsible for constructing the national capital in a frozen sheep paddock, pretended to be a respectable British Canadian, rather than an insurance salesman from Kansas.

Thomas Walker was a Labor man who actually did come to Australia from Canada … to escape a manslaughter charge. A coronial inquiry found the young medium had killed a combustible seance attendee who’d come into contact with the phosphorous he used to make “spiritual lights.” In 1877, Walker fled to Melbourne, where he delivered the first of a series of Australian spiritualist lectures, during which he claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, cosmologist and occultist burned at the stake in 1600 for saying sacramental wine was not the blood of Christ and Mary was not a virgin. In 1892, while a NSW member of parliament, he was charged with shooting and wounding a clergyman while drunk. None of this stopped Thomas Walker serving as a West Australian Labor attorney-general and minister for justice and education.

Politicians who lied about their name or nationality, or claimed to be an undead Italian heretic, make Morrison’s frauds on the Australian public seem milder than one of his chicken curries. But the falsehoods of these early MPs were essentially personal in nature and didn’t interfere with their policy platforms.

Some other early Australian leaders abandoned ideology and jettisoned principle for political gain. Joseph Cook, the first leader of the NSW parliamentary Labor Party, ditched the silent “e” in his name as an ostentation unbefitting a working man. He then ditched being a working man, joining, and later leading, the Free Trade Party; becoming prime minister as leader of the anti-Labor and anti–free trade Liberal Party; and again turning coat to serve as deputy prime minister in the Nationalist government of Billy Hughes.

Hughes, another Labor man turned political weathervane, represented six parties during his parliamentary career, leading five of them. Prime Minister Robert Menzies once commented that Hughes had been a member of every political party, at which point Arthur Fadden interjected he’d never joined his Country Party. Hughes, showing that what he lacked in political consistency he made up for with a sense of humour, retorted, “I had to draw the line somewhere, didn’t I?”

I reference these Labor men (and they were all men for a long while) not to attack their party or ideology, or to pump the wheels of the Coalition bus, but to make the point that Morrison is merely at the tail of a conga line of suckholes of all political stripes.

Politicians should not be criticised for changing their views over time or in response to altered circumstances, but Cook and Hughes arguably ditched their core political beliefs for personal political gain. In fairness to Morrison, he can’t be accused of ditching his core political beliefs, because he’s never held any. No Australian politician, even one-armed Peter Lalor, has had Morrison’s facility for not holding things. His capacity to say one thing and then declare the opposite, while unashamedly maintaining his position has never changed, is unrivalled in Australian political history. While another conservative leader was not for turning, Morrison is not for sticking. He is human Teflon.

Many Australians recognise this. The question is: why do they put up with it? Lech Blaine is right in laying the blame, at least in part, on “the identity crisis at the heart of Australia,” although he over-eggs the larrikin pudding.

One of the issues I have with Blaine’s eminently readable and enjoyable essay is that while he accuses Morrison, Hawke and other powerful people of hijacking the larrikin for personal gain, Blaine also appropriates the larrikin. He projects aspects of the current larrikin image (egalitarianism and disregard for convention) back in time and suggests larrikins shared a strong affinity with the working class and labour movement. A reader of Blaine’s essay would be left with the impression that striking shearers, bush poets such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, bushranger Ned Kelly, writer Miles (aka Stella) Franklin and feminist Vida Goldstein were all larrikins.

The term “larrikin” first appeared in print in Melbourne in 1870. Larrikins were not knockabout blokes who called a spade a spade – they were disaffected young people who formed loose gangs, known as “forties” and then “pushes”. The larrikin was a “yob” – that is, a boy in the back slang of the English costermongers (mobile grocers with attitude) whom the larrikins modelled themselves on. “Yob” came to mean a lout or hooligan, because that is what larrikins were. Following the 1886 sexual assault of Mary Jane Hicks by members of the Waterloo Push, and a series of similar offences, they were popularly perceived as gang rapists.

While most nineteenth-century larrikins had “working-class” backgrounds, they were generally unskilled labourers – tuppenny capitalists who disdained those who’d learnt a trade. They loathed the labour movement, and the emerging trade unions loathed them in return. Larrikins disrupted union parades and pickets, hurling abuse and rotten food at the marching or striking workers. Causing mayhem at union picnics was a favourite larrikin sport.

The nihilism at the heart of larrikin culture drew them to the legend of Ned Kelly, a man whose charisma and showmanship elevated him from being a poor, horse-thieving, police-murdering terrorist with a penchant for cast-iron fetish wear into Australia’s answer to Robin Hood. The “larrikin class was strongly represented” at the 5 November 1880 Melbourne rally that called for the government to commute the bushranger’s death sentence, but Kelly was in no way a larrikin. He was country, while the larrikins were very much city.

Bushmen were not larrikins. The striking shearers did not see larrikins as co-revolutionaries in the war between labour and capital but as self-indulgent, antisocial townies. Banjo Paterson painted larrikins as vicious urban thugs in “Uncle Bill: The Larrikin’s Lament”, with Henry Lawson doing likewise in “The Captain of the Push.” Larrikins, like many other Australians, were drawn to the professional sports that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular boxing and Australian Rules football, and later rugby league. Lawson saw the Australian obsession with sport over the arts as a blight, writing in “A Song of Southern Writers”:

In the land where sport is sacred, where the lab’rer is a god, You must pander to the people, make a hero of a clod!

Lawson was in no way a larrikin. Neither was his protégé and fellow writer Miles Franklin. Franklin was a deep thinker and keen social observer, while larrikins cultivated an air of insular anti-intellectualism. Vida Goldstein, like Franklin, was a feminist – a charge that could never be levelled at larrikins, who the popular press accused of demeaning and assaulting their “donahs” or “tarts”, as women who inhabited the edges of larrikin society were known. Goldstein was unabashedly intellectual and passionate about politics and improving Australian society, again areas into which larrikins rarely strayed.

Nobody liked a larrikin, not even other larrikins, with the most vicious larrikin assaults reserved for members of rival pushes. Strangely, it was the arts, not sport, that began the rehabilitation of the larrikin image, first with music-hall larrikin acts in the late nineteenth century, then with the writing of C.J. Dennis, whose Sentimental Bloke and Ginger Mick were uncomplicated working-class blokes with hearts, dreams and aspirations. World War I gave rise to the larrikin digger trope, an irreverent bloke whose dishevelled dress showed his disrespect for the British officers he served under. As larrikins stopped their street brawls and shooting each other in the late 1920s, the larrikin menace faded, and the larrikin mantle settled on the shoulders of the knockabout anti-authoritarian male.

Blaine’s historical larrikin is myth, as is his story of the foundation of the Australian Labor Party, a fable nurtured by generations of Labor men and women, most of whom undoubtedly believe it to be true. Blaine traces the ALP back to the 1891 striking shearers who gathered in the Queensland town of Barcaldine – and the shearers’ 1891 May Day march and reading of the Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party to a gathering of workers under the Barcaldine ghost gum on 9 September 1892 – undoubtedly key moments in the history of the Australian labour movement.

However, this myth ignores the NSW origin story, which traces the birth of the party to quarryman Charles Hart convening the first Labour Electoral League meeting at Balmain’s Unity Hall Hotel on 4 April 1891. South Australians, by contrast, insist they founded the Labor Party, when the United Trades and Labor Council met on 7 January 1891 (almost certainly at a far creepier location than a pub or a tree) to form the United Labor Party of South Australia. All and none of these foundation stories are true. There was no angelic trumpet, or even the drunken cry of a striking shearer tripping over an unshorn sheep, to herald Labor’s birth. There were instead a number of meetings of unionists, socialists and radicals, held across the colonies, where it was agreed that industrial action, in the absence of political representation, was no longer sufficient to advance workers’ rights.

The fact is the Queensland origin story is more romantic – and it has a tree in it, a key element in many origin myths. Labor even named the ghost gum “The Tree of Knowledge,” a blatant biblical rip-off. The Queensland story was a deliberate attempt by Labor’s founding fathers to link the party to the biggest Australian myth of all – the bush legend – a myth so powerful that it made citizens of the most urbanised society on earth (if you ignored First Nations people) build a common identity around the idealised bushman, his stoic wife and their golden-haired, ruddy-cheeked children, a myth with the power to make a mild-mannered Sydney accountant who owned an Akubra think he was the Man from Snowy River.

The emerging labour movement latched onto the bush legend like a blowfly to a jumbuck’s jacksy, hoping that a little of its magic would rub off. As acknowledged by William Guthrie Spence, foundation president of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia and a founding father of Labor:

Labor … is a political as well as a propagandist movement. Its leaders realise that before we can have social reform the people must be educated to demand and carry out … reforms … It is slow work getting the right ideas knocked into the masses. They are mostly so mentally lazy that they take their views ready-made from a misleading press.

Blaine’s essay identifies a number of other key Australian myths, in particular that Australians are naturally anti-authoritarian, a myth closely tied to that of the larrikin. Australians, as acknowledged by Blaine, are one of the most law-abiding people on earth. From the foundation of the convict colony of New South Wales, government provided services that were delivered by churches, charities, friendly societies or private enterprise in other societies. Despite these services, and the administrations and budgets that grew to provide them, the residents of the Australian colonies paid no direct taxes until Victoria introduced a modest land tax in 1877. The Australian colonies led the world in establishing the modern secret ballot, postal voting, full women’s suffrage, independent electoral bodies and a host of other reforms that increased public confidence in government and its institutions. Most Australians have accordingly been historically trusting of the state, its institutions and, sometimes regrettably, its politicians.

Australians’ willingness to embrace myths have allowed them to reinvent themselves. Their desire to rinse the convict stain from the moral fabric of the nation, which remained strong until the late 1970s, led them to fabricate their own family histories, replacing ancestral handkerchief thieves with sturdy farmers, adventurers and down-on-their luck aristocrats. They pushed the inconvenient truths of the dispossession and frontier murder of First Nations people, and of White Australia, to the back of their collective consciousness and conscience, embracing John Howard’s 1996 “Bex, a cuppa and a good lie down” mantra that we should feel “comfortable and relaxed about our past, as the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement.”

Blaine cites Clare Wright, one of Australia’s most compelling and insightful historians, as arguing that Labor can’t “consistently win federal government until it tells a coherent story that links back to deeper myths about Australian identity.” I respectfully disagree. My view is that we Australians and the politicians that serve us should not attach ourselves to myths, but to truth.

Our susceptibility to myth-making allows us to accept the bush and larrikin legends, and their appropriation by elites. It allows us to embrace the myth of anti-authoritarianism, without asking difficult questions of those in authority. It allows us to look inwards on our own self-created realities, as we lock out the world from Fortress Australia, lock out the “new foreigners” of the other Australian states from our resurrected parochial fiefdoms and lock out the disadvantaged and the dispossessed from our McMansions.

Blaine cites Russel Ward’s 1958 The Australian Legend, which concluded that the “typical Australian” “believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better.” Sixty-three years later, it’s now, “I’m alright, Jack.”

Until we Australians look beyond our own self-interest, discard myths for truths and accept our past in all its beauty and its terror, we will be condemned to a stunted present and an even more diminished future. We will turn a deaf ear to the lies of politicians such as Morrison as long as they comfort us with platitudes about being at the front of the queue and being the best people in the world. We get the politicians we deserve.

David Hunt



Bri Lee

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about universities in Australia, the various roles they play and why they are so loved by some and loathed by others. In my latest book, I refer to this as the “chimera of the campus.” Some see a hotbed of Marxist hippies in the making, others see a funnelling of wealth and power to the same narrow elite political class. Somewhere between the two are the champagne socialists, latte-sipping lefties, the stealth conservatives and the bulk of the upwardly mobile middle class. The current federal Liberal Party appears to be doing what it can to eviscerate the tertiary sector, yet the Young Liberals in most states meet and recruit in those very quads under those very sandstone towers.

Lech’s brother, John, tells Lech how people talk down to him when they find out that he and his friends don’t have uni degrees and that he sends his kids to the local public school. “‘Labor became a party for people who went to uni,’ says John, ‘As people get more educated, they get more opinionated. But even if what you’re saying is factually true, it doesn’t mean that I need to agree with you.’” Lech surmises that the contempt John “feels emanating from progressives isn’t an anecdotal anomaly.” And, thanks to the wonders of compulsory voting, “every three years, John gets the chance to prove that his opinion has equal weight to those of our university-educated brother and sister who vote for the Greens.”

The rich and complex legacy of Enlightenment ideals flows through universities and presents itself as the baseline ideology from which anything else is an aberration. When a “highly educated” person hears someone such as John reject factual evidence in favour of his own opinion, they immediately translate this as a kind of fundamental idiocy. Anyone who denies climate change is a moron, and only the thick-skulled opposed marriage equality, and if you believe a woman’s place is mothering and home-keeping you are simply an idiot. When the highly educated disagree with someone, their automatic response is to discredit their opponent, often in language that attempts to suggest they are less intelligent somehow. The “bogan” judgement is a part of this, as a lower level or “quality” of education has become tellingly synonymous with those outside of major cities and with less money. In doing all this, the highly educated person’s own value system is invisible to them and hyper-visible to those they are speaking down to. John could afford to send his daughters to a fancy private school but doesn’t, because he would rather they grow up knowing that “hard work and being a good person” are what make you successful in life. Lech is right in writing that “contempt” towards people such as John “emanates” from progressives. We progressives like to think that our derision is only ever reactionary – that the “bogans” do the “bad things” first, and then we try to teach them how to think and do things the “right way.” But the uncomfortable question that John’s story raises is just how much us insufferably opinionated progressives are driving the rest of the country further to the right.

In the aftermath of the last federal election, I moved from Queensland to New South Wales and felt a pretty big difference in the response and attitudes on the ground. In Brisbane, I had the sense that the metropolitan lefties were the minority of the state. In Sydney, everyone was incredulous and outraged that a small bunch of rednecks up north had somehow managed to ruin everything for everyone else. I was invited onto ABC’s The Drum to discuss the result, and tried (in vain) to explain in a soundbite what Lech Blaine achieves spectacularly in Top Blokes: progressives can be so excruciatingly condescending. Everyone was acting shocked by the results coming out of Queensland, but it had been a long time since anyone actually asked Queenslanders what they wanted and stuck around to listen to the answers. Queensland is a string of large satellite cities, each with its own identity and needs. It’s rare to see anyone from Cairns, Townsville, Bundaberg or Rockhampton on the ABC, and certainly not on The Drum, where everyone sat, apparently confounded that they didn’t know their compatriots. Young progressives took to social media, exploding with outrage and disappointment and exhaustion, cursing the “bogans.”

The split Lech documents among his own siblings is, I believe, extraordinarily representative of a large cross-section of Australians. Many of us experience a version of it when we go home for Christmas with our own families. There are ABC articles with titles such as “How to Deal with a Racist Uncle at Christmas,” and when I see them being shared online I have the impression they are being read by people with degrees in preparation for difficult conversations with those without them. This makes for an often impossible balance of goals and ideals: people of colour have no obligation to debate with racists and no duty to try to “convince” someone they are their equal. Similarly, it is not fair that women asking for equality in the home and workplace need to tread on eggshells around the hurt feelings of the conservatives, and in no way would I ever suggest that the LGBTQIA+ community aren’t “doing enough” to bridge the gap between their future and the people who like the prejudiced past. But Lech’s essay gave me the immense satisfaction of having articulated something I’d been fumbling around and towards for a long time: just because people on the left have ideas that move us towards a better collective future does not mean our superiority complex is justified or useful. If we don’t pull our heads in and find better methods, we drive away the people we must bring with us. White progressives must talk to other white people about racial equality, the straights need to take more of the load on issues of gender and sexuality, and men must step the fuck up and talk to other men about women.

I believe that we need to treat global warming as the emergency it is. I believe children under the age of five have the right to free and universal care and education. I believe we could and should take ten times the number of refugees that we currently do, and that we’d be better for it. Death to kings and tax the rich. All of it. But if we, the progressive left, continue to belittle people who think differently, we will remain doomed, perpetually in opposition in both government and life.

Having spent the last three years researching the role the education system plays in our ideas of intelligence and worth, I see where the left–right split often calcifies: between those who attended university and those who didn’t. One of the best things about the Enlightenment was the wrangling of power away from the church. A failing of the Enlightenment’s contemporary followers is their presumption that their own capacity for “reason” is inherently superior. The data prove the almighty correlation between level of educational attainment and voting behaviour. What the left often don’t want to acknowledge is how we use this as shorthand evidence for the stupidity and wholesale inferiority of the right.

Bri Lee



Rachel Nolan

In Top Blokes, Lech Blaine applies his intellect and kind-hearted curiosity to an essential current of Australian identity, the myth of the larrikin: the anti-establishment figure (invariably male) who employs a “reckless collectivism,” bringing mates together in the face of injustice.

Lech is from Toowoomba, but that’s a conservative, uninteresting place. His worldview arises from the cultural identity of Ipswich, the working-class city his late parents came from and of which Lech’s cousin Allan Langer remains the most celebrated son.

I’m from Ipswich, and as no one’s written about the city since the now ageing poet Thomas Shapcott, Lech’s interest in the place makes my heart sing. The story of Ipswich is the story of class, identity and labourism in Australia.

The Labor Party was born in Barcaldine in 1891, but before that, in 1888, Australia’s first Labor MP emerged from Ipswich when Thomas Glassey, a coalmining unionist describing himself as “independent Labor,” won the seat of Bundamba in the Queensland parliament.

In 1899, the region contributed members to the world’s first Labor government, that of Queensland premier Anderson Dawson.

From 1915 to 1948, the workers of Ipswich were represented by Frank Cooper, an eight-hour-day campaigner who became treasurer in the reforming government of William Forgan Smith. Elected in 1932, that government rejected the austerity of the Premiers’ Plan, rebuilt Queensland in Art Deco style and entrenched the state as the highest wage, highest-taxing jurisdiction in the country. As premier himself in 1942, Cooper stood by Labor prime minister John Curtin through World War II.

Ipswich produced Queensland’s first Labor woman MP when Vi Jordan was elected member for Ipswich West in 1966. She was backed by mining and rail unions, all-male workforces. Years after her death, Vi Jordan’s son told me about the atmosphere of the times, how Gough Whitlam would stay with the family when visiting the city as federal Opposition leader, and how the house would be filled with excited and erudite conversation as unionists, directly influenced by the more radical British socialist movement, envisaged a program of industrial relations reform, free public health and free tertiary education.

In 1977, Bill Hayden, a working-class policeman from Ipswich, became leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Hayden had already built the structure of Medicare as health minister before seeking to salvage economic policy as Whitlam’s last treasurer. As Opposition leader, Bill Hayden built the foundations of the modern Labor Party, socially progressive but economically robust. He was replaced by Bob Hawke on the day writs were issued for the 1983 poll, with Hawke winning the election Hayden himself said “a drover’s dog” could have won.

The Hawke and Keating years coincided with, but didn’t cause, Ipswich’s deindustrialisation. From the 1970s, coalmining moved to the Bowen Basin, and electric trains didn’t require local workshops employing 3000 men. Ipswich people resented economic liberalisation and were suss on Paul Keating’s Zegna suits. The politics of class shifted from economic to cultural identity.

After Hayden’s preferred successor, a working-class boy and Rhodes scholar named David Hamill, missed out on federal preselection in a shonky factional stitch-up, the ALP lost the Ipswich-based seat of Oxley to Pauline Hanson in 1996.

She remains our gift to the nation.

By the 2000s, unionism in Ipswich had collapsed. The Labour Day march was a shadow of its former self, and the Trades Hall, the original building with its wrought-iron verandahs having been replaced by a jerry-built concrete block in the 1980s, gradually became empty.

With the city becoming a commuter satellite of Brisbane and its working-class identity adrift, the political void was filled by populism. The new mayor, Paul Pisasale, developed a classic larrikin persona, taking the longstanding resentment of class and directing it towards an “other” defined by geography rather than income. Pisasale’s schtick was that Ipswich people should be proud of where they came from, sticking it to sneering outsiders, including those from Brisbane. He was making Ipswich great again.

As a member of the ALP, Pisasale neutralised Ipswich’s only potential source of organised political opposition, but did little for the city or working people. As his cult of personality grew, Pisasale was re-elected with as much as 87 per cent of the vote, making him the most popular politician in Australia. Under his mayoralty, property development became Ipswich’s boom industry, the city sprawled and the CBD became derelict. He’s now serving seven years for official corruption related to taking cash from developers and for sexual assault.

While Pisasale’s populist cult is an extreme example, the truth is that every one of Australia’s large former industrial cities has seen some kind of scandal combining elements of populism, sex, property developers and/or larrikins.

In Wollongong, a sex-for-development-approval scandal contributed to the downfall of the last state Labor government. The Newcastle mayor, a property developer, resigned after he was caught funnelling secret donations to Liberal MPs, and Geelong Council has just emerged from administration after the council, dominated by a former paparazzo turned larrikin, was sacked for bullying and failing to provide good government.

Once, the local politics of these places would have been defined by class, with an active civic culture characterised by unions and Labor activists on one side and chambers of commerce and service clubs on the other. Lech is right to say Australia’s working-class towns have held together better than Trump’s Pennsylvania or the Brexit-voting north of England, but it’s a near-run thing. There is, as the councils have shown, a constant vulnerability to shysters.

Lech Blaine’s thesis is a simple one: that Anthony Albanese, with his working-class authenticity, may neutralise the culture wars through which conservatives separate educated Labor representatives from their working-class base. Perhaps, he says, by staying mum on coal and Instagramming photos of tinned peas and corn on his plate, the dinky-di Albo can defeat ScoMo, an entirely confected character whose feigned interest in rugby league disguises a puritanical rah-rah from the Eastern Suburbs.

I hope, of course, that Lech is right. Surely Labor can defeat a government that has systematically suppressed wages while delivering tax cuts that most benefit the rich, that has endangered our economy and security by stirring up China while dropping the ball on critical relationships in Southeast Asia, and that caused half the country to be needlessly locked down for months through its incompetent management of the vaccine rollout?

Not having a crystal ball, I don’t know if it can. What I do know, having spent a good part of my working life representing Ipswich, is that the cultural markers as they’re currently defined are hard to cut through. I was never so shameless as to feign passionate interest in rugby league, but my earnest commitment to social justice and good economic policy was no competition for the vacuous identity politics of the uber-larrikin Pisasale. A solid voting record on IR reform, public education and public health is harder to sell when there’s no sense that class is an economic phenomenon and justice can only be achieved through collective action. The term I decided I didn’t want to run again was the term I bought an Alfa.

It must be possible for Australia to get beyond the mindless and divisive identity wars that lure working Australians to vote against their own economic interests and for a smaller, meaner country. We can do so either by seeking, as Albanese has, to neutralise the most shallow of cultural markers or by elevating the elements of cultural identity that unite us in an expansive vision: the Olympic team, an affinity with the landscape, the music of Paul Kelly.

That musician is, in my view, the great storyteller and unifier of Australian popular culture. In 1998, as John Howard was turning his back on Aboriginal reconciliation, Kelly wrote “Little Kings,” a song about how power is exercised, how lies told as history can alter our sense of identity and about how, everywhere, warning bells ring out across the lucky country:

In the land of the little kings, justice doesn’t mean a thing and everywhere the little kings are getting away with murder.

Rachel Nolan


Response to Correspondence

George Megalogenis

In the three weeks between the final edit of my Quarterly Essay on 7 June and its publication on 28 June, a limousine driver in Sydney caught the Delta strain of Covid-19. Among his regular passengers were the crews of international airlines, which placed him on the front line of the NSW quarantine system. His positive test result was announced on 16 June, by which time the virus was already spreading across the city’s eastern suburbs. Asked the following day why he had not been vaccinated, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian explained that there were “literally tens of thousands of people involved in our hotel quarantine system.”

“People who are employed directly by police or NSW Health have all been vaccinated, but we also have to appreciate there are new people coming in every day to the system,” she told reporters at her daily press briefing. “We’ve vaccinated all the permanent employees and those in the system [for] a while, but every day there are new people, subcontractors of subcontractors, coming into the system.”

It was the type of loophole I might have had in mind when I wrote that “Covid-19 has demonstrated a wicked genius for exploiting the gaps in the old model, most notably in the management of hotel quarantine for returned travellers, and in aged care, where the lines between private and public, and between the federal and state governments, were blurred.” But I have to admit that I was surprised by this particular breach. New South Wales had a very clear self-interest in avoiding a repetition of the Victorian experience of 2020, when leaks from its hotel quarantine system unleased a deadly second wave of the virus. Even a cursory check of the NSW system would have identified the flaw. But New South Wales assumed it had nothing to learn from its southern neighbour and rival.

What happened next was even harder to weave into a narrative of public policy competence. The loophole remained in place for a further week and half while NSW Police investigated the Bondi man, and the NSW government resisted pressure to lock down Sydney. Once it was clear that he had broken no laws, and the virus was running ahead, the government turned its mind to catch-up. Private drivers who picked up overseas arrivals were added to the list of essential workers required to wear masks and be vaccinated. On 26 June, the NSW premier announced a lockdown for Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast and Wollongong. It was meant to last for just two weeks, but she had already left it too late.

New South Wales had prided itself on managing the virus without closing its economy. Now it was about to learn what Victoria had shown us in 2020: the longer you wait to lock down, the longer the lockdown. Even Scott Morrison, who had framed lockdown as a policy failure when Labor states applied it, now conceded this fundamental point. “The lockdown comes to an end with the lockdown working,” the prime minister said in July. “There’s not an easy way to bring the cases down, and it’s the lockdown that does that work.”

At the time of writing, Berejiklian’s lockdown has stretched to two months, has been extended to cover the entire state and has no end point in sight. She warned that “September and October will be difficult.”

Unlike the Victorian wave, which was largely confined to my hometown of Melbourne, this outbreak has been national in scale and consequence. Up to half the country has been in some form of lockdown as the virus crossed state boundaries. As I write, Melbourne and Canberra are in the middle of what we hope will be four-week lockdowns.

I am mindful that everyone who replied to my essay faced the same challenge that I had in researching and writing it. As Dennis Altman notes, current events “change faster than it takes to produce and circulate an essay.”

My essay did not pretend to anticipate subsequent events. Rather, it offered a framework for understanding them. My one big regret is that I underestimated the risk of a double-dip recession in the second half of 2021. I wrote that “a third wave of the coronavirus, requiring another extended lockdown, would test the electorate’s patience. Either way, Australia is once again in danger of snatching mediocrity from the jaws of achievement.” On reflection, I should have said that it “would test the electorate’s patience and could even send the economy back into recession.”

Each correspondent has given me something to think about. Jennifer Rayner is correct to say that the power shift to the states predated the pandemic and reflected their collective exasperation with the policy gridlock of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. “Looked at this way, what we’ve seen during the Covid crisis is not an aberration – it’s a window into an alternative way to govern the country as we emerge from the pandemic.” She notes, for example, that all the states “have signed up to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.”

Richard Denniss was disappointed that I didn’t offer a lot more “on possible exit strategies and the political forces that will determine which options are placed on the democratic menu and, ultimately, which dish is selected.” I offer my humble apology, but a policy document was beyond the scope of this essay. And the question of which dish is selected from the democratic menu will depend on whether there is a change of government.

I deliberately avoided any speculation on the election once it became clear that the prime minister had abandoned his plan for an early poll in October or November. But I will indulge a short prediction here, to test Dennis Altman’s observation that Labor “could easily win government if the five metropolitan areas of Australia voted similarly to Melbourne.”

Let’s start with the electoral map. The Coalition will enter the next campaign with a notional majority of one – seventy-six seats out of 151 in the House of Representatives – following the redistribution of boundaries to account for population shifts, which added an extra seat for Labor in Melbourne and removed a Liberal seat in Perth. Labor will have sixty-nine seats, while the remaining six are independents or minor parties.

Now the rub for the Opposition. Labor needs a two-party-preferred vote of 51.8 per cent to secure a majority of one. The bar is unusually high because the Coalition has very few ultra-marginal seats on offer to the Opposition. Labor needs a uniform swing of 3.3 per cent to secure the seven seats it requires to govern in its own right. And that’s assuming Labor loses no seats of its own to the government. Labor happens to have eight seats on margins of less than 2 per cent.

The government’s seven most marginal seats comprise three that the Australian Electoral Commission classify as “inner metropolitan” in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, one “outer metropolitan” in Adelaide, two “provincial” in Tasmania and Queensland, and one “rural” in Tasmania.

Labor’s eight most marginal seats, on the other hand, comprise four provincial seats – two in New South Wales and one each in Victoria and Queensland – another rural seat in New South Wales, as well as two inner metropolitan seats in Brisbane and an outer metropolitan seat in Perth. This map favours the Coalition so long as it can pick off Labor seats outside the cities and force the Opposition to target safer Liberal metropolitan seats.

The Sydney outbreak flips that equation because of its potential to unite voters in the capitals and the regions in common resentment of the Morrison government. Here’s how it might play out. Let’s assume the Sydney lockdown continues through the spring and into the summer, while other capitals move in and out of lockdown. The national economy will likely contract in both the September and December quarters, meeting the media and political definitions of a recession. That news would be revealed in the national accounts in March next year. Morrison will be reluctant to gamble on a summer election. But nor will he want to wait until the May budget, when the cost of the third wave of the pandemic will be counted in a much larger budget deficit.

It’s still too early to say, of course. But the question posed in the subtitle of the essay, “politics after the pandemic,” has taken on a different meaning. Of the four scenarios at the next election – the Coalition winning another term in its own right, Labor taking power, or either side forming a minority government – a majority Coalition government is now the least likely.


I am grateful that a number of correspondents took time to discuss higher education policy. I’ll bounce off their replies, rather than repeat my argument.

Andrew Norton is right when he says that JobKeeper “was never the solution to the problems universities face.” The jobs it would have protected would have become unviable at some point, as the economy recovered but international students did not immediately return to their pre-Covid numbers.

Even after the borders eventually reopen in mid-2022, there will be a revenue gap for years to come. “Someone who is not a first-year student in 2021 will not be a second-year student in 2022, and so on. It will take years to rebuild total numbers and fee income.”

For Norton, the main concern is the absence of additional assistance for research in 2022, “likely to be the peak year of the Covid crisis in higher education. That was a significant omission in the May 2021 budget.” I agree.

One small quibble. Norton seems to think that I “see something wrong with funding private schools.” I’m sorry if he read that into my analysis. It isn’t my view. My interest was in exploring the political reasons why Coalition governments going back to John Howard tilted the playing field towards private schools, at the expense of universities.

Norton is right that there is blame on both sides for the difficult relationship between the Coalition and the universities, and I share his desire that the next few years will see “fewer avoidable policy and political mistakes than the past few years.”

It may depend on Labor’s platform. Tanya Plibersek flags an ambitious agenda for universities and TAFE in her reply. If the Morrison government goes into the next election as the underdog, I suspect that the Coalition will swallow its pride and join the bidding war. That was the experience in 2007, when the Howard government tried to counter the electoral appeal of Kevin Rudd’s so-called education revolution.

As Michael Wesley points out, the university sector faces further job losses if the Coalition maintains its present course of attrition. “Just as other countries are doubling down on education and research-driven transformations of their economies, Australia will see the atrophy of its knowledge economy.”

Travers McLeod reminded me that the Morrison government had more or less declared mission accomplished on the pandemic in May this year, when it wound up the work of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission. “We have moved past the emergency phase of the Covid-19 response and are now on the path of economic recovery,” the prime minister said.

It beggars belief, McLeod writes, that the commission “was told to down tools early,” given the Delta strain of the virus was already menacing our region, and Australia was at the bottom of the ladder for vaccinations. Whatever the NCCC was doing, he writes, “it does not appear to have war-gamed different strategies on quarantine hubs or vaccination rollouts, or to have tested various tactics to keep Australia one step ahead of the virus.”

Rachel Withers identifies a pattern in Morrison’s response to setbacks: the absence of vision. If he admits to any failing at all, it is that he couldn’t foresee the future. “We all want to believe that our leaders could be better, and Australia’s initial success in dealing with the pandemic and its economic shocks was reason to hope that this one actually could. Unfortunately, that hope has proven to be short-lived – not unlike the golden window of summer freedom Australians experienced before the winter of discontent.”

As Andrew Wear notes, that winter could see Australia left behind when the rest of the world is reopening. “While our 2020 recession wasn’t as deep, other countries – with higher vaccination rates and more open economies – are recovering faster. As the pandemic has progressed, the importance of the health response to the economy has only become clearer.”

At the time of writing, Australia continues to boast one of the lowest death rates from the coronavirus of the thirty-eight nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The twist is that Australia has also endured the third-toughest restrictions in the OECD over the first eighteen months of the pandemic. To date, the price has been worth paying. But I fear it is exhausting us as a nation.

George Megalogenis



Andrew Wear

Reading George Megalogenis’s eloquent and thoroughly researched essay on Australia’s recent political economy, it’s hard not to relive the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanied the onset of the pandemic in Australia. His essay recalls the pride in Australia’s collective response, the sense of security that came with a system of government that functioned when it needed to, enabling us to get on top of the virus and respond appropriately to the economic challenge. There were the trials and quiet traumas of long lockdowns, accompanied by the guilt that came with the knowledge that what we were suffering did not compare with the devastation experienced in places such as the United States or the United Kingdom. And finally, there is our present bewilderment at Australia’s lack of any obvious pathway out of the crisis, even as other nations are opening up.

Megalogenis’s central insight – that lessons from past recessions informed our economic response to the pandemic – is an important one. It points to the method we might deploy as we shape our approach to recovery, once we finally figure out how to emerge from the shadow of the pandemic: lessons from past crises have the potential to shape the recovery that remains ahead of us.

Megalogenis shows us that the transfer of insight from the global financial crisis to the present was largely by virtue of the personal experience of Treasury officials. While this demonstrates the value of this type of policy transfer, it also reveals that Australia’s approach to learning across time and from other jurisdictions is somewhat ad hoc and perhaps Anglocentric. Other nations, such as Singapore, embed policy transfer deeply into the fabric of their public sectors, regularly sending public servants on learning missions abroad, where they seek to absorb knowledge from the world’s best. Australia has room for improvement here.

It must have been challenging for Megalogenis to land a piece like this in the midst of an evolving crisis; the pandemic has yielded a steady supply of plot twists. I am writing this response just as Melbourne enters its sixth lockdown and, with Sydney showing no signs of being able to rein in the virus, it’s clear that Australia’s response is not quite so textbook as it may have seemed when Megalogenis completed his essay. With the pandemic having a way to run, it’s now clear that the depth of the 2020 recession is an inadequate – and overly simplistic – way to assess Australia’s economic performance. More important will be where Australia finds itself when the pandemic is over. In May – before Australia’s latest Delta-driven wave – the OECD was forecasting that Australia would be back to its pre-pandemic GDP per capita by the first quarter of 2022 (surely now an optimistic assessment), meaning we would have experienced two years of lost growth. That puts us tenth among the G20 countries – mid-pack. While our 2020 recession wasn’t as deep, other countries – with higher vaccination rates and more open economies – are recovering faster. As the pandemic has progressed, the importance of the health response to the economy has only become clearer.

While the essay is subtitled “Politics after the Pandemic,” its focus is predominantly on politics during – and in the years before – the pandemic. The promise of an exploration of what comes next remains largely unfulfilled. Yet there are enough insights to point us to a method with which to approach the challenges that await. While Australia responded well to the GFC, it squandered the recovery, experiencing a decade of stagnant economic growth, negligible improvements to productivity and median incomes that went backwards. An effective tactical response to the crisis won’t be enough if we forgo the opportunity the crisis presents.

Following the Spanish Flu in 1918–19, the United States boomed through the Roaring Twenties, fuelled by new technology and social change. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt’s New Deal inspired the confidence that pulled the country out of the Great Depression, with enhanced social security, labour protections and infrastructure investment. Germany and South Korea boomed in the decades after World War II and the Korean War, driven by a determined focus on education and industry policy; both countries pulling themselves out of misery to emerge as among the world’s most advanced economies.

What is common to successful recovery from a crisis is a big ambition for what the nation might become, and a preparedness to plan and deliver over the medium to long term. What might such an agenda look like for Australia? Most obviously, fiscal stimulus must flow for as long as it takes to build economic momentum. The opportunity now is to fashion that stimulus into an agenda that fuels long-term economic growth, ideally while tackling legacy challenges at the same time. Megalogenis is right to point to climate change as the obvious candidate here, and there are no shortages of projects that deliver on this dual objective. Large amounts of private-sector capital are poised and ready to be spent on decarbonisation projects. To unlock this potential, it’s critical that governments provide policy certainty. This will involve a fast-tracked transformation of energy supply towards renewable sources and investment in infrastructure such as energy storage and transmission. Germany, for example, is investing more than €50 billion of its stimulus on initiatives such as electric vehicle–charging infrastructure and the establishment of a green hydrogen sector, a next-generation export industry that will enable it to store and sell surplus renewable energy. South Korea’s “Green New Deal” involves a US$62 billion investment in advanced technology to create jobs – in areas such as renewable electricity, electric vehicles and the circular economy.

The central message that the study of past crises yields, though, is that they do not have to leave a long-term legacy of harm. Places recovering from devastation can create prosperous, exciting futures. People living in New York, Aceh or South Korea now enjoy a quality of life that far exceeds what existed before their crisis. In many instances, such places have not merely recovered, they have gone on to lead the world. It will soon be time – if it’s not already – for Australia to craft a similarly suitable ambition for the decade ahead.

Recovery is not guaranteed. History is also strewn with examples of places that failed to recover. They withdrew economic stimulus too early, or held too tight to their pre-crisis world view. As Megalogenis demonstrates, it’s important that we approach our future in a considered fashion, learning the lessons of the past. While the Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest crisis of a generation, our recovery also represents an enormous opportunity.

Andrew Wear



Rachel Withers

If there was any hope lingering at the end of George Megalogenis’s essay that Scott Morrison could take on the lessons of the pandemic and start actively governing; that he might become the ambitious leader we so clearly need him to be, tackling the challenges of the future head-on; or that he could refrain from returning to the “passive and aggressive leader” he was before all this, then the events of winter 2021 have fully extinguished it.

To be fair, Megalogenis doesn’t leave us with much optimism – what little there was already trending downwards in the final paragraphs. But like any good Quarterly Essay, Exit Strategy ponders a better way forward. “Can Australia restore faith in good government?” Megalogenis asks in the opening chapter. “Will the visceral experience of the pandemic allow us to reconceive the political economy of the nation?” If the 2020 recession does create a reckoning for neoliberalism, as it has in other Western nations, “will Scott Morrison’s government have the imagination for the job?” At times, the answer seems to be potentially?

Morrison and his government did show remarkable adaptability, responsiveness and, yes, imagination in the immediate crisis of the pandemic. They listened to experts, put ideology to one side and did what was needed. Morrison may, in fact, have been “the right man to be leading the country in 2020,” what with his lack of ideological rigour – Megalogenis clearly shudders, as should we all, at the thought of what might have happened if Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were still at the helm. Leaders nationwide have been rewarded for Australia’s successes with renewed faith in government.

But while Morrison clearly learned a great deal “between the fires and the plague” about crisis management, and while the sidelining of ideology and the elevation of experts was admirable, the prognosis for long-term change is bleak. Morrison, Megalogenis tells us, “has no political interest in talking about the future” and clearly “assumes the old model will reassert itself once the pandemic is over.” He remained intentionally passive in many elements of the pandemic. He doesn’t seem to be picking up what other leaders are putting down on climate change. He looks mighty ready to exploit once more the electoral divisions he stoked for his “miracle” win in 2019.

The events of June and July have put to rest any promise of a permanently improved politics. In the weeks since this essay was written and published, things have deteriorated dramatically (just as our forward-looking essayist anticipated they might, suggesting that “a third wave of the coronavirus, requiring another extended lockdown, would test the electorate’s patience”). Of course, the situation may have improved dramatically by the time you read this – a month is an eternity in politics. But July saw enough poor policy and petty politics to terminate the idea that Morrison could be the man to steer us out of the pandemic and build back for a better future.

The missteps that have dogged the vaccine rollout that was “not a race” have come back to haunt the government, with a major outbreak sending a widely unvaccinated Sydney into an extended lockdown, as well as seeding outbreaks and lockdowns in other states around the country.

But rather than admit fault or take responsibility for his obvious errors, the prime minister has deflected and blamed whoever he can, whether the premiers, global supply chains, hindsight, the virus or even his own health department secretary. We’ve seen him denigrate the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation for cautious AstraZeneca advice, which he himself was responsible for incautiously communicating to the public, and we’ve seen him – intentionally or not – change his government’s position on who could access the vaccine without first communicating it to the premiers or chief health officers. We’ve seen him lie about the rollout timeline, papering over what was promised or even possible, then lie about coming to the rescue with doses that were already coming. We’ve seen him accuse the Opposition of “playing politics” whenever it poses questions or criticism, after it went easy on him for twelve months. We’ve not seen him when things go sideways, with the prime minister pulling the sort of disappearing act he surely should have learned by now doesn’t appease the public, resurfacing only when polls get really dire.

Throughout this bleak winter crisis, Morrison has not been the collaborative, pragmatic leader who emerged in March 2020. He has been the prime minister Australians recall from the Black Summer bushfires: defensive, thin-skinned, irritable, indignant. Any change we saw in him was temporary, any growth gone; whatever faith in the federal government was rebuilt over the past year is plummeting, with polls again showing a major decline in confidence and trust.

Though the Coalition surprised many in March 2020 by ditching its anti-interventionist principles and introducing JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement, this time around it has had to be pressured (or shamed, as the Victorian government put it) into providing every last bit of insubstantial support, even though many people are in the same situation they were in last year. After repeatedly refusing to reintroduce income assistance (so as not to “incentivise” lockdowns), Morrison offered limited, selective, conditional payments to those who had lost work, only to have to boost them, twice, all while refusing to bring back JobKeeper. The age of intervention, to paraphrase Hockey, is over.

This reluctance to provide proper support in the face of lengthy lockdowns should dash hopes that Morrison might have the imagination to join the post-pandemic shift away from neoliberalism.

His denigration of experts does not bode well for the challenges Megalogenis raises around climate change.

The nasty politicking is once again destroying Australia’s faith in good government.

It’s clear the prime minister will never admit that he was wrong not to bet on several vaccine candidates, to refuse funding for purpose-built quarantine facilities and to push back against lockdowns, even as he rapidly retreats from many of these positions.

But his dismissal of the idea that he could or should have seen any of this coming – accusing people of being critical “in hindsight,” admitting only that he failed to “foresee the future” – has highlighted his total lack of foresight or vision, proving once and for all that Morrison is not equipped to face (or even think about) the future.

We all want to believe that our leaders could be better, and Australia’s initial success in dealing with the pandemic and its economic shocks was reason to hope that this one actually could. Unfortunately, that hope has proven to be short-lived – not unlike the golden window of summer freedom Australians experienced before the winter of discontent.

Rachel Withers



Travers McLeod

Reading Exit Strategy as most of Australia went back into lockdown with one of the world’s worst vaccination rates made me wonder whether the title was an oxymoron.

When historians examine Australia’s response to Covid-19, the absence of a clear strategy to steer Australia beyond a pandemic into a brighter future may well be the most mystifying part of the whole episode. Our inability to plan and implement a response to a known systemic risk could be one of the biggest own goals in our nation’s history. If repeated on climate change, we are doomed to fail.

None of this discounts George Megalogenis’s essay, which offers a dose of history on how Australia has tackled systemic shocks, the latest of which is Covid-19. His story of the distinctive values and culture of Australia’s public services and the widespread acceptance that they should be able to offer frank professional advice without fear of losing their jobs provided a ray of light in an otherwise grim time, as did his snapshot of the new lease of life in Joe Biden’s America, where strengthened social infrastructure and a US$450 billion investment in early childhood development are central tenets of the response.

Australian policymakers have known about the devastating regularity of pandemics for some time, and they were warned about the risk of coronaviruses specifically nearly a decade ago. A Senate Estimates hearing in federal parliament way back in June 2013 was told the possibility of a “novel coronavirus” was “very scary.” Among the participants in that exchange was Jane Halton, then secretary of the Department of Health, who was appointed to the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) in March 2020 and was a key adviser as Australia explored suitable vaccines.

When the prime minister established the NCCC, he said it would “coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.” This was, he said, “about mobilising a whole-of-society and whole-of-economy effort.” The NCCC sounded like a “red team” for Covid-19, and it should have been, yet by 3 May 2021 its work had concluded. “We have moved past the emergency phase of the Covid-19 response and are now on the path of economic recovery,” said the prime minister. “Australia’s strong health and economic circumstances and our strong outlook make it the right time for the Board to conclude its work.” With Australia then at the bottom of global vaccination rates, and the Delta strain having just been used to justify a ban on Australians returning from India, it beggars belief the NCCC was told to down tools early. One wonders what it actually did, or whether it offered nothing other than smoke and mirrors. Whatever the NCCC spent time on, it does not appear to have war-gamed different strategies on quarantine hubs or vaccination rollouts, or to have tested various tactics to keep Australia one step ahead of the virus.

The grim short story of Covid for Australia is that we were caught napping at the start and have been reactive throughout. While some of our responses have been inspired, overall we have lacked the courage and creativity to use the crisis to imagine a better future for Australians and our region. The initial flurry of national collaboration that we saw at the beginning of the outbreak has been replaced by a fractured federation. According to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker, Australia now has some of the most stringent restrictions among OECD countries. That is a predictable consequence of sticking with last year’s strategy, not chasing and securing multiple vaccines, being too slow to add new technologies to our arsenal, such as rapid lateral flow tests, and not preparing effectively for the inevitable future waves and variants.

Megalogenis is spot-on about Australians placing their faith in government being the story of the pandemic. I am willing to believe the desire Australians have for more active government was growing before Covid-19. Two years ago, in the Quarterly Essay Australia Fair, Rebecca Huntley wrote that Australia is a nation of democrats. The Centre for Policy Development’s research on public attitudes reinforced this, revealing that, as Australians, we share a unique resolve to make democracy work, solve big problems and improve the lives of others. The 2019 federal election did not disprove Huntley’s thesis. The twin crises since, the bushfires and pandemic, have put it firmly back in the frame. When CPD asked Australians in June 2020 what the main purpose of their democracy is, the answer three times more popular than any other was ensuring all people are treated fairly and equally, including the most vulnerable. This answer was chosen by 45 per cent of respondents, up from 36 per cent in 2018, far ahead of other answers, such as ensuring people are free to decide how to live (15 per cent) or electing representatives to make decisions (13 per cent).

The other key takeaway from this attitudes research was how voters across the political spectrum are at the end of their tether with the contracting-out services. On this, Australians are united. Ninety per cent now think it is important for government to maintain the capability and skills to deliver services directly, instead of paying others to do it. This is up from 75 per cent in 2018. In a sign of the times, Coalition voters are now the strongest supporters of rebuilding an active role for government in service delivery. The failure of private contractors to efficiently roll out Covid-19 vaccines will only reinforce this view. Let’s not kid ourselves: when lives are on the line, you want someone to take responsibility, not outsource it.

Megalogenis nails this issue, although I wish he had given us more on the central question he poses: can Australia restore faith in good government? His essay dares to dream that Australia can adapt its model of governing and delivering services “to the new consensus for a more active government” and “reconceive the political economy of the nation.” I agree that the answer lies in reconnecting with communities, just as Lynelle Briggs found in the aged-care royal commission, and that one part of the answer is a more effective approach by the Commonwealth to partnering with (and funding) state and local governments to deliver services in communities. But I want to suggest the challenge is more profound, for at least two reasons.

First, the how is not for the faint-hearted. As Megalogenis writes, “The gaps in the safety net which the coronavirus exploited will become poverty traps in recovery if the government continues to defer to the market.” A new approach requires a reorganisation of government and a commitment to regional and community deals involving levels of government alongside business and the community. That’s very difficult with anaemic public-sector capability and depleted memory at the national level, especially in social policy. Even if it prefers to fund than to deliver, the Commonwealth will need, and the community will expect, more feet on the ground. Digital delivery helps but is no substitute for interpersonal relationships and knowing what it takes to run things well at neighbourhood level, whether this is in early childhood development, aged care, disability or employment services. Each of these service systems faces acute challenges. Take employment as one example. As of 30 June 2021, there were 1,013,452 Australians on the employment services case load. Around three-quarters have been there for over twelve months. More than a third have been there for more than two years. We have been asleep at the wheel.

Second, this century demands a richer understanding of what a sustainable economy looks like over the long term. Unless we change tack, it will be impossible to disentangle Australia’s strategy to exit the pandemic from our future approaches to care, climate change and growth. In each, we see danger signs of the old model: reactive, not proactive, policy development that is based on events, not on evidence and foresight; the government not valuing or nurturing work in the “caring and brain economies” for Australians young and old; and a fossilised approach to boosting economic and social participation in communities in desperate need of new energy and fresh horizons.

Since Megalogenis wrote his essay, the federal government has published its Intergenerational Report, with rosy projections for productivity growth. But at the same time, we have seen a drain of international students and skilled migrants, and a stubborn lack of national planning for carbon transition. Optimistic forecasts are no substitute for an exit strategy.

This future has caught up with us. It demands that Australia change now or be steamrolled. In the run-up to a federal election, the prime minister and Opposition leader need to answer the questions Megalogenis poses. Otherwise, to use a word deployed by the prime minister during the current lockdowns, we will “squander” the natural advantages and opportunities already open to Australia and be on a road from which there is no exit.

Travers McLeod



Michael Wesley

Exit Strategy amply demonstrates why George Megalogenis sits at the top of Australia’s small group of must-read columnists. Deep historical knowledge, sharp statistical analysis and an eye for the telling detail are woven elegantly together in a searching critique of the Australian political system’s response to the Covid pandemic.

Covid has highlighted many hitherto vaguely apparent features of modern Australia, but perhaps none so starkly as the deep antipathy of many Australians towards universities. Megalogenis points this out when he says, “Perhaps the better question is not what motivated the rough treatment of higher education in a pandemic, but why the government doesn’t fear a community backlash from a policy that appears to be based on prejudice, not evidence.” The answer to that question is that the government is very aware that large parts of the electorate share its antipathy towards the universities.

Megalogenis’s views on why this antipathy exists are interesting and possibly part of the answer, but do not go anywhere near providing a complete explanation. One of his views is that it is a generational issue: the government has channelled money away from universities towards private schools, because private-school parents are more likely to be Coalition voters, whereas uni students are more likely to vote Labor. The other is that it is a geographic issue: Melbourne, the “nominal capital of our universities and research institutions,” is no longer as central in deciding elections as it was in Menzies’ day.

Clues to more profoundly important reasons for anti-university attitudes are sprinkled through Megalogenis’s account. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg tells him that when the pandemic hit, universities “had become very corporatised. They had relied very heavily on international students so they had shifted their business model over time. We were willing to provide very significant support for the universities, but they also had to adjust as other businesses did.” This is a remarkable statement from a Liberal treasurer who holds Menzies’ old seat. Megalogenis points out forensically that government funding for universities has fallen steadily for over twenty years, even as more Australians have accessed university education each year. The “business model” adopted by Australian universities has allowed them to provide world-class education to greater numbers of Australians while relying less and less on the taxpayer. “Ordinarily,” observes Megalogenis, “a conservative government would applaud the initiative and congratulate itself on the market response it had engineered. But … that success made the Coalition envious.”

Many in the university sector are genuinely flummoxed as to why their success in raising export revenue is a problem, whereas miners’ and farmers’ export successes are lauded as a source of pride and national prosperity. It would be a huge missed opportunity if Australia’s universities simply shake their heads and assume it’s all about ideology. There are big questions to ask here. Why does a sector that is so economically important, that directly touches the lives of millions of Australians and that punches so far above our national weight in international rankings, have so few defenders beyond its campuses? Why this resentment, rather than admiration or gratitude or even respect? I suspect that while other similar countries have their anti-university voices, and many more invest heavily in universities as keys to future success, Australia is unique in the depth and breadth of its antipathy towards its universities.

But there are big questions for the government and the country also. Megalogenis points out that budget forecasts will see an absolute fall in university funding up to 2023–24. With borders remaining closed until mid-2022, international student revenues will fall as well. Meanwhile, demand for university education among Australians is surging. Unless the government puts aside its resentment and thinks clearly about the consequences, the “adjustment” Frydenberg called for must come in one or more of three areas. Most likely, more university job cuts will come. Australian students alarmed at increasing class sizes ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Or our world-class research capabilities will see their resources dwindle. Just as other countries are doubling down on education and research-driven transformations of their economies, Australia will see the atrophy of its knowledge economy. Or taxpayers will be hit to support the teaching of greater numbers of Australians. Perhaps Frydenberg and education minister Alan Tudge can explain to the country which part of this business model is in the national interest.

Michael Wesley



Andrew Norton

Since Australia’s borders closed in March 2020, preventing new international students from enrolling onshore in Australian universities, the government has made higher education policy errors. At this high level of generality, I agree with George Megalogenis in Exit Strategy. But I would like to present a different analysis of events since, and to share the blame more broadly.

Like many in the higher education sector, George Megalogenis argues that “denying” universities access to JobKeeper was a mistake. But JobKeeper was never the solution to the problems universities face. The program suited businesses that could recover swiftly once Covid restrictions lifted, taking back their old workforces to serve customers newly freed from home detention. It wasn’t right for universities, which face a prolonged decline before a slow recovery.

The first Covid lockdowns created an immediate cashflow problem for many Australian businesses. Financial problems developed more slowly for universities. After a fast move to online teaching, they delivered most of their scheduled classes to most of their expected first-semester 2020 students. Direct travel from China stopped on 1 February, stranding some Chinese students overseas, but fortunately many of them studied online. With a few exceptions, first-semester international students from other countries arrived before all routine international travel ended in the second half of March. But with the borders still closed, midyear international student intakes fell well below previous years.

Financial results in university annual reports confirm that 2020 revenue declines were contained. For the thirty-five universities with published 2020 annual reports as of late July 2021, total revenue was down 5.3 per cent on 2019 levels. A slight increase in government grant and HELP student-loan income partly offset reduced fee income.

The federal government did tighten university JobKeeper criteria to make universities less likely to qualify. But university annual reports suggest that few would have satisfied the rules applying to other organisations. Their loss of revenue just wasn’t large enough.

Rather than the quick dip and rapid recovery envisaged by JobKeeper, universities face accumulating financial problems caused by long-term border closures. As of May 2021, commencing international enrolments were a third lower than those of the same period in 2019. Although that may sound better than expected, the enrollees are students who were already in Australia. As time goes on, the number of potential international students who arrived before March 2020 will dwindle.

Losses against pre-Covid revenue projections will continue growing past mid-2022, when borders are expected to reopen. Someone who is not a first-year student in 2021 will not be a second-year student in 2022, and so on. It will take years to rebuild total numbers and fee income.

Under this scenario, a JobKeeper-style policy to keep all employees and employers together is not feasible. It would mean keeping staff on the payroll to teach students who won’t be back for years, and whose enrolments are not vulnerable only to Covid-19 or Australian border policies. China might stop its citizens studying here, changes to visa rules may deter prospective Indian students, or our competitors could gain lasting market shares while Australia remains a hermit nation.

Some jobs could be preserved by teaching more domestic students, and the government allocated $550 million in temporary funding for additional domestic student places, mostly in short graduate-certificate courses. But the unmet demand for domestic student places is well below the numbers of lost international students.

The university business model means that retrenchments reach way beyond staff directly involved in international education. Profits on international students have financed many otherwise unaffordable university activities. On my estimates, these profits funded at least $3.3 billion of the $12 billion that universities spent on research in 2018, and quite possibly much more.

Although the 21st-century university research boom is clearly over, an orderly phase-down of research activity would avoid projects being closed prior to completion, with all the waste that would involve. It only gets a passing sentence in Exit Strategy, but the government did provide an additional $1 billion in research funding for 2021.

The problem is that no additional research money, and only a small amount of temporary student-places funding, will continue into 2022, which is likely to be the peak year of the Covid crisis in higher education. That was a significant omission in the May 2021 budget.

In explaining these and other absent dollars, Exit Strategy pursues two arguments, around educational spending priorities and voting patterns.

According to Exit Strategy’s account, since John Howard’s term as prime minister, Coalition governments have pursued a dubious long-term strategy to preference private-school funding over public-university funding. The essay says that the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments never considered giving more money to private schools than universities.

At one level, it would not be surprising if private-school funding surpassed university funding, as private-school enrolments exceed domestic higher education student numbers by more than 200,000. But the poor presentation of higher education assistance in Budget Paper No. 1, which looks like the source of Exit Strategy’s numbers, obscures much of the Commonwealth’s funding.

According to Budget Paper No. 1, non-government school funding in 2021–22 is $14.7 billion, while higher education funding is put at $10.6 billion. The budget documents don’t explain this, but the $10.6 billion consists of grants authorised by the Higher Education Support Act 2003. It omits funding from the annual appropriations bill, along with money authorised under separate legislation for the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. It doesn’t include higher education student income support or HELP student loans. The budget papers do not itemise all funding sources according to sector, but I estimate that total Commonwealth cash outlays for higher education purposes will be approximately $22 billion in 2021–22. HELP repayments will probably be around $4 billion, leaving $18 billion in net cash outlays – more than the Budget Paper No. 1 figure for non-government schools.

University and private-school funding are similar in the ways they fit into the Australian system of funding social services. Both mix public and private funding; private schools have done so since the late 1960s, and universities have always done so, although there were no domestic higher education student tuition charges between 1974 and 1988. In both sectors, the government means-tests public contributions, although in novel ways, using parental income for schools and graduate income for higher education students via the HELP repayment system.

Despite the similarities in their funding models, their political circumstances differ. Like George Megalogenis in Exit Strategy, many people who support more funding for public universities see something wrong with funding private schools. The Coalition, on the other hand, sees a bigger and more sympathetic constituency in private schools than universities. Neither major political party believes that many votes turn on higher education policy.

Despite this political calculation, public universities, overall, did as well or better than private schools in the government’s Covid response. Both were excluded from the JobKeeper registered-charity category, and were therefore required to demonstrate a revenue decline of at least 30 rather than 15 per cent to qualify for payments. The fact that both sectors receive significant Commonwealth funding already is the common factor, meaning that sector-specific mechanisms of support already existed, if needed. Some private schools did nevertheless qualify for JobKeeper. No public university received JobKeeper in its own right, although thirteen had subsidiaries that did.

Private schools could receive their government grants early, forgoing future income, while public universities could keep their teaching grant money, even if their domestic enrolments fell. Universities could retain previously budgeted HELP student-loan revenue, to be repaid between 2022 and 2029 if not matched by student borrowing. Private schools could also benefit from modest cash payments available for small businesses and not-for-profits, but there was nothing like the extra $1 billion in university research funding for private schools. But nor should there have been, as this money responded to a problem unique to universities.

We are left trying to explain why this research money does not continue into 2022. Limited and fractured advocacy from the sector itself may be a factor. Throughout the Covid crisis, it has, at least in public, offered few specific suggestions about how the government should respond. This may reflect the sector’s diversity of interests. The research money mostly helped the research-intensive sandstone universities, and outside the Group of Eight lobby group, support for another year of it may have been lukewarm.

On the government’s side, it may feel that it did not get a political dividend for its first $1 billion. This was partly its own fault; it revealed the funding in the very busy October 2020 budget rather than announcing it in the preceding weeks. But while the higher education interest groups acknowledge the significance of the funding, the broader higher education community reaction matches Exit Strategy’s. The additional money might be mentioned briefly, only to be reframed as a cut when future funding drops back to previously announced levels, before returning the discussion to grievances about JobKeeper, an unsuitable scheme now closed to everyone.

Higher education is never going win votes for the Liberal Party, but this does not mean the party won’t respond to persuasive analyses of policy issues in the sector. There was a significant Covid response, albeit with the major elements of that response announced late in 2020 and finishing too early. The Job-Ready Graduates policy, released in June 2020, which was unrelated to Covid issues, jeopardises courses and campuses with reduced per-student funding in some disciplines, and needlessly adds many years to HELP repayment times for some students. But Job-Ready Graduates should deliver more student places for the “Costello baby boom” cohort, who will reach university age in the mid-2020s.

On both sides, the government and the higher education community, there is room for more engagement, so that the next few years have fewer avoidable policy and political mistakes than the past few years.

Andrew Norton



Tanya Plibersek

George Megalogenis’s central argument in Exit Strategy feels particularly prescient this week, as I work from home and argue with my kids about their remote learning. It’s hard to disagree that, while Australia might have handled the original Covid-19 crisis well, we’re badly fumbling our transition out of it.

When we needed federal leadership to secure and deliver vaccines, our prime minister was slow and stubborn. When we needed national coordination to fix our quarantine system, he stuck his head in the sand. Now, eighteen months into the pandemic, we’re all paying for his complacency.

But the failure of leadership goes beyond the immediate situation. It is impossible to discern Mr Morrison’s plan for social and economic recovery after the pandemic. Indeed, instead of planning for a better normal after Covid-19, the Morrison government seems content to snap back to low wages, insecure work and growing inequality. And it is using Covid-19 as a cover to settle old scores.

The most obvious and destructive example is universities. As Megalogenis writes, “given the gargantuan sums being borrowed and spent on the safety net, no one needed to be worse off. Yet the Morrison government chose to exclude universities from JobKeeper.” And just to make clear this wasn’t an accident, Scott Morrison changed the JobKeeper rules three times to ensure unis were left out.

This decision has led to tens of thousands of jobs being lost – in our cities, in our suburbs and in our regional areas. It’s led to the University of Western Australia closing its sociology and anthropology schools. It’s led to the ANU almost dissolving its neuroscience department. It’s led to Swinburne University discontinuing all foreign language courses and the University of Newcastle cancelling more than 500 courses and degrees in engineering, creative industries and computer science. It’s led to campuses closing in Biloela and Yeppoon, and it’s led to significant job losses. More than 30,000 jobs have been lost across Sydney, Melbourne, Bendigo, Geelong, Rockhampton, Adelaide and Perth.

At first glance, this might look puzzling. When the pandemic began, higher education was Australia’s fourth-largest export industry. It was almost double the size of the next largest services export – tourism – which did receive JobKeeper and much-needed additional assistance. Universities employ more than 200,000 Australians across a spectrum of jobs: professors, scientists, librarians, cafeteria workers, cleaners, admin assistants and gardeners.

Universities are teaching the nurses, doctors, scientists and epidemiologists who will fight the next pandemic. The world-class research conducted in universities will help us sequence the next virus genome, discover the next vaccine and solve the public health conundrum of vaccine hesitancy. Academics – our scientists, social scientists and many others – have been on television every night helping us interpret the scientific, public health, economic and workplace impacts of the pandemic.

So why sabotage such a source of national wealth and safety?

As an anonymous government figure admits in the essay, “It’s not that complicated. The government hates universities.” And that’s what we’re dealing with here: an irrational, ideological crusade against higher education in Australia. It’s not about costs and benefits – it’s about enemies and vengeance.

We should be building a better integrated higher education system, in which people can mix and match the qualifications they need from an equitable, world-class system of universities and TAFEs, and in which both universities and TAFE are supported, promoted and funded to expand their complex, specialised work. Instead the government wants to drive a wedge between vocational and university education – to pretend that university is for the “latte-sipping elites” and that real, salt-of-the-earth Australians go to TAFE.

Thankfully, most Australians don’t share the modern conservative antipathy towards universities. The Liberals’ lazy stereotypes don’t stand up to reality, partly because democratising access to university was a big success. We’re not talking about a small and exclusive club here. In Australia, over 40 per cent of people aged twenty-five to forty now hold a bachelor’s degree. Working-class parents, like mine, certainly don’t resent their kids going to university. They take pride in it.

The only people who do resent universities – who want Australians to be split into warring camps, supporting either university or TAFE – are the Liberal politicians trying to engineer a cheap culture war. (Of course, that never stopped them going to university themselves. Every single Liberal Party cabinet minister responsible for withholding JobKeeper was a university graduate, and the minister who doubled the cost of humanities courses holds three separate humanities degrees.)

The simple fact is if you’re building a bridge, you need an architect and an engineer, as well as a concrete formworker and a plumber. And you may just need a humanities graduate to deal with community concerns about increased traffic, or to model who may benefit from new infrastructure and who may miss out. Our economy needs strong and excellent universities, just as it needs a strong and excellent TAFE system.

Supporting universities is a matter of rewarding individual aspiration. There remains a “graduate premium” on earning. Over their lifetimes, men with a degree earn $800,000 more on average. Women earn $600,000 more. Why would any government want to deny that opportunity to its citizens?

But the benefit of a university education goes well beyond the individual. For every dollar spent on higher education, there is a 200 to 300 per cent public return on investment for the whole community. The drop in Australian university exports during Covid has seen the Australian economy lose an estimated $18 billion, in one year alone. The failure of the federal government to invest properly in universities and research over the coming years will cost the Australian economy more still.

We know that productivity growth in Australia has been pathetic in recent years. Our economy needs highly skilled graduates, just as it needs the discoveries of our world-class researchers. The Australian economy has a worryingly narrow base. In global rankings of economic complexity, we’re languishing in the eighty-seventh spot. That puts us between Uganda and Burkina Faso – and dead last in the OECD. With most of our eggs in a handful of export baskets, we’re more vulnerable to changes in commodity prices or to a trading partner turning its back on us suddenly.

We need world-class university research to help diversify our economy, to generate new local industries and to drive long-term growth. All international evidence points in the same direction: the more skilled and educated a country is, the more prosperous it will be. This makes the government’s decision to trash our universities all the more baffling – and all the more infuriating.

Luckily, there’s a different model available to us. Past leaders have chosen to invest in our education system, particularly in moments of crisis.

A lot of attention has been given this year to Australia’s reconstruction policies after World War II. John Curtin and Ben Chifley’s ambitious program, built around full employment and mass housing, shines like a beacon for our own recovery. Their Labor governments managed to defeat the immediate threat of the war, while building something better for the future.

What might be less known is the role that universities played in post-war reconstruction. The war was a complex operation, which taught our federal leaders the important lesson that we desperately needed more skilled graduates and more technical expertise in Australia.

Our leaders responded with an unprecedented expansion of Commonwealth investment in universities. They built the Australian National University. They doubled Commonwealth research grants. They wrote a new act for the CSIRO. They established the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, Australia’s version of the American GI Bill, which paid the tuition of 60,000 returned servicemen and women.

Robert Menzies was also one of the fathers of higher education in Australia. Along with Curtin and Chifley, he helped build the modern university system – and set it on its first steps towards democratisation. Funnily enough, Menzies’ only hesitation was bringing technical subjects into the traditional university. “We must never forget,” he insisted, “that the university’s function was to educate individuals in culture and learning and not to create technical experts.”

It was Labor that argued for the inclusion of technical degrees such as engineering in the university system. It was Labor, led by Gough Whitlam, that opened up universities, seeing working-class people, including many women, obtain degrees for the first time. It was Labor, led by Bob Hawke, that helped establish technology universities such as UTS and RMIT.

This is the agenda we should be replicating and modernising, geared to the needs of a post-pandemic world. Young Australians who are prepared to study hard after their year (or years) from hell as remote-learning students should be rewarded with a place at university or TAFE that will help them win the job of their dreams. Mature-age students wanting to advance in their career, or change their career altogether, should have the chance to do that too. Price should never shut people out of an education.

Employers should be able to find the qualified staff they need in Australia, especially in a world where international borders remain uncertain. We should be able to take Australian inventiveness and build businesses from our discoveries and innovation, creating jobs and diversifying our economy. We should put our best minds to work on solving problems for the benefit of humanity.

As I wrote in my book Upturn last year, “In a democracy, government is a vehicle for collective problem-solving. If we can’t solve the social and economic problems facing us today, we will see a continuing decline in people’s faith in democracy itself.”

We have no shortage of problems to solve together, and universities have a critical role to play in finding those solutions. The government’s overt hostility to higher education can only be explained by a determination to hoard the benefits of education and deny the utility of learning, research, discovery, innovation, question and challenge. We will all be poorer for it.

Tanya Plibersek



Dennis Altman

The difficulty with writing about current events is that they change faster than it takes to produce and circulate an essay. I am writing this during Sydney’s Covid-induced lockdown, which has shattered the myth that the New South Wales government could manage the epidemic more successfully than the other states, even as it reinforces George’s argument about the fracturing of the federation.

Where George’s essay is strongest is in its assessment of the shifting political landscape of party loyalties and the Coalition’s hostility to universities, which he sees as connected. He is correct that state allegiances have changed, particularly that of Victoria, once the jewel in Menzies’ Liberal Party and now the strongest Labor state. But there seems to be some confusion in his argument, which shifts between suggesting that political fault lines lie along state lines and that there is a city–country divide.

Massive swings against Labor in regional Queensland at the last election certainly reflected perceptions that Labor is hostile to coalmining, but this hardly explains Labor’s failure to win back seats in suburban areas of the capital cities. While Labor seems obsessed with winning back coastal Queensland seats, it could easily win government if the five metropolitan areas of Australia voted similarly to Melbourne. Of the ten most marginal government seats following the last election, all but three are in the capital cities, and those three include electorates in Cairns and Launceston, neither of which depends on mining.

Only in Melbourne and Adelaide does Labor hold a clear majority of seats; Sydney, once reliably Labor south of the harbour, is now fairly equally divided. That Sydney has become much more culturally conservative than Melbourne is suggested by the results of the plebiscite on marriage equality in 2019. Of the ten electorates that recorded the highest “no” vote, eight were in Sydney, with only one (Maranoa) in rural Australia.

George suggests that the Coalition’s hostility to universities is closely related to Morrison’s apparent disregard for Victoria. Yes, the major export industry of Victoria has become higher education, while New South Wales’ is coal, but it is unlikely that this is a major factor explaining votes in metropolitan Sydney. Josh Frydenberg claims universities are victims of their own success, citing their willingness to embrace a corporate model, but he saw no problem in allowing major corporations to access JobKeeper and JobSaver programs, which were denied to universities. Given there are well over a million local university students in Australia, one would have thought the electoral calculus alone would encourage governments to be more supportive.

The consequences of declining financial support for universities are severe, not only for staff who lose jobs and students who can expect declining support. After the University of Western Australia, one of the richest universities in the country, embarked on a round of midyear cuts, Professor Mark Beeson pointed out that the cuts would drastically reduce the number of people working in the areas of international affairs and the politics and societies of the Indo-Pacific, with Asian Studies becoming further marginalised, Other universities have seen major cutbacks in language programs, including major Asian language programs.

Governments of both persuasions are obsessed with the need for more science and technology students, but in a complex and threatening global environment there is an equal need to increase competencies in disciplines associated with international studies. If, as the Morrison government believes, China presents a major long-term threat to Australia’s security, there should be a greater emphasis on building deep ties with the countries of Southeast Asia and expanding Australia’s diplomatic footprint, which is smaller than that of other countries of comparable wealth. One detects in Morrison something of an echo of Tony Abbott’s obsession with “the Anglosphere,” and a failure to recognise the long-term damage of successive cuts in foreign assistance to regions other than the Pacific.

The key question is whether either side of politics has the skills and vision to guide Australia into a post-pandemic world. One of the consequences of the pandemic has been an emphasis on the role of government; the neoliberal panacea of letting the market rip is no longer attractive, as George indicates. Sadly, the lack of a vision for the future is largely bipartisan; having been scared off by the reaction to Shorten’s mild suggestions for correcting some of the rorts within our taxation system, the current Labor Party finds itself unable to argue for the increased government commitments needed to improve our health, education and welfare systems. At a moment that calls for radical innovation, Labor risks missing the opportunity to offer a genuine alternative to the lack of imagination which George so accurately points to in the Morrison government.

Dennis Altman



Richard Denniss

Like most people, I do judge books by their covers, and so I was excited to read George Megalogenis’s Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic. Like many, I have been thinking a lot about “Where to from here?” when it comes to policy, politics and democracy itself.

In the introduction, I was excited to read that the essay’s “aim is to identify those parts of the old model that are irredeemably broken and to provide a new answer to the question of what government should be responsible for in the twenty-first century.”

Alas, while I learned a lot about the ideological shifts of recent decades and a lot about the machinations of the National Cabinet, Treasury and the Treasurer, I feel I missed out on what was promised on the cover. I wanted a lot more on possible exit strategies and the political forces that will determine which options are placed on the democratic menu and, ultimately, which dish is selected.

But now that I’m hungry for such answers, let me try to fill the void I created for myself. Let’s start with the big picture. The Australian economy didn’t “snap back” from the devastation of Covid-19, it was dragged back to safety by an enormous injection of welfare spending, resuscitated with a huge dose of public-sector infrastructure spending, industry assistance and cheap credit from the Reserve Bank. It remains on life support today, thanks to forecast budget deficits of over $50 billion per year for all of the out-years in the federal budget. Remember when Tony Abbott thought a budget deficit of $18 billion constituted a “budget emergency”? And remember when the media and business took him seriously?

The parts of the old model that are “irredeemably broken” are the ideas that the Liberals have an aversion to budget deficits and, more significantly, that the size of the budget deficit is a meaningful indicator of economic management. The “policy elite” in Australia has fetishised budget surpluses for decades, but this fetish is almost exclusively Australian. The last US president to deliver a budget surplus was Bill Clinton and the last UK prime minister to do so was Tony Blair. I hope this crisis will kill off an idea that thirty years of data from nearly 200 countries has been unable to euthanise.

Relatedly, it’s important to note that Australia’s economic recovery wasn’t gas-led, investment-led or private sector–led – it was entirely led by government spending. And it worked. For decades, Australians have been told not only that budget deficits are bad, but also that government spending is both inherently inefficient and a poor way to boost an economy heading into recession. George quotes former Treasury secretary Ken Henry saying this hostility to government spending “was not something that the Australian Treasury had dreamt up … The academic consensus around fiscal policy was basically: ‘It’s too hard to use’ … the best thing to do is sit on your hands and let the private sector work it out.”

What utter crap. No such academic consensus ever existed, and it’s not at all clear from the essay whether George believes it did. But what is clear – if we are considering the irredeemably broken aspects of the old model – is the tendency in Australia for powerful people to source advice, economic or otherwise, from those they agree with. It is simply absurd to suggest that Ken Henry or his successor Martin Parkinson, who was also interviewed for the essay, could not find academic economists who thought that activist fiscal policy was a good idea. They simply didn’t think those economists were worth talking to. Luckily for millions of Australians who benefited from JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement, the current secretary of Treasury, Steven Kennedy, who wasn’t interviewed for the essay, has clearly paid a lot more attention to the diversity of opinion among the world’s economists. But despite the radical, and desirable, shift in Treasury’s views about fiscal policy, few, if any, of our “policy elite” have owned up to the enormity of their errors over the past thirty years. It’s a pity the essay treats them all so gently.

Also broken irredeemably by Covid-19 was the idea that the success of the private sector is separable from the effectiveness of the public sector. While Treasury, the Coalition and neoliberal policy elite talk about public spending “crowding out” private-sector activity, the opposite has just been shown to be the case. Without the (second-rate) publicly owned NBN to help businesses pivot rapidly to online services, and without the publicly owned Australia Post to deliver more than 2 million parcels a day, the “free market” could not have received or dispatched most of its orders. Does anyone think that a privatised Australia Post would have doubled its parcel capacity during the crisis? Or would the private owners have simply trebled their prices?

But imagine if our NBN weren’t crap. And imagine if Australia Post hadn’t been scaling back its services in regional areas for years. A bigger, better public sector would have helped both Australian businesses and Australian communities get through the Covid crisis in even better shape. Ironically, while there’s no evidence that income tax cuts to those earning $200,000 “trickle down” to help small business and regional Australia, there’s overwhelming evidence that high-quality public services do. Evidence that Treasury and the academics they preferred to talk to systematically ignored.

But let’s take it further. Imagine if more kids in low-income households had laptops to use for their home schooling because Kevin Rudd’s free laptop program had been maintained. And imagine if our run-down and privatised aged-care system wasn’t (under)staffed by hard working casuals who are often under-trained, under-supported and have to work across multiple sites to earn a living wage? We could have got through the Covid crisis more productively and more safely if our public sector had been bigger and better. Public spending is not inherently inefficient and wasteful – when it is well targeted, it has huge positives, but when it is used to reward friends and buy votes, it delivers inequality.

The fact that far more people died in privatised aged care than in publicly run centres should irredeemably break the idea that outsourced and privatised services are more efficient than publicly run ones, but it probably won’t. I wish George had spent more time considering why that is the case. Even before Covid-19 hit, the royal commissions into aged care, disability care and the banks had made a mockery of Treasury’s delusional view that privatisation and deregulation would drive efficiency and productivity growth while providing higher-quality care to vulnerable Australians.

Let me now turn to the second part of George’s question: what lessons from the past can guide us in the future?

The lengthy restatement of the failings of the Rudd government’s pink batts scheme is a useful reminder that when a government “outsources” the delivery of a service it can and should be held responsible for the results. But why, ten years after the abolition of the scheme that tragically cost four lives, does it remain the media’s go-to example of government failure?

The Coalition is currently spending $10,000 per day per asylum seeker detained by private contractors on Nauru, and Australia is estimated to have spent more than $7 billion on offshore detention since 2012. If the very fact of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability isn’t shocking enough, the evidence it heard should be enough to shame someone into resignation for “overseeing” the creation of our “deregulated” system. But it hasn’t, and nor has the harrowing evidence the commission heard, including the tragic case of Ms Ann-Marie Smith, who “lived with cerebral palsy and at the time of her death was found to be suffering, among other things, septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure sores and malnutrition.”

Just read that again and ask yourself how “efficient” the market is in providing care to vulnerable Australians.

Sure, the pink batts scheme was poorly designed and implemented, but unlike our outsourced and privatised “care” of asylum seekers, the disabled and the elderly, with all of its expensive horrors, the pink batts scheme was scrapped. No one is talking about scrapping the private provision of care for the vulnerable in Australia. The same bureaucracy that oversaw the “disaster” of the pink batts scheme had no qualms about pretending quality would be high and rorting would be low when it designed the outsourced and privatised National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In the section of his essay entitled “Slow Learners,” George applauds Treasury for eventually learning that Keynesian economics both exists and is effective, but he is silent on the fact that it is yet to admit that its preference for privatised service delivery has killed a lot of people, ruined a lot of lives and wasted a mountain of money. Even the chair of the ACCC is now calling for a halt to privatisations if governments can’t figure out how to regulate the private monopolies they keep selling off.

While George doesn’t answer the question of what government should do in the remaining three-quarters of the twenty-first century, I think stopping publicly funded but privately owned companies from ripping off the most vulnerable Australians should be at the top of the list. But what other problems should our national state turn its mind to, now that Treasury and the rest of us know that budget deficits aren’t scary, that public-sector infrastructure allows private-sector innovation to occur, and that outsourcing is more likely to increase fraud than efficiency?

Here’s a start:

How can governments protect our privacy in the age of big data?

How can governments protect freedom of speech and diversity of opinion as social media and traditional media merge into a form of power that was unimaginable just twenty years ago?

As the UK renationalises its rail system after its failed privatisation, what assets might the Australian government renationalise?

If we can spend $10 billion each year subsidising fossil fuels, why can’t we spend $10 billion each year on renewable energy?

If Telstra can make all calls from pay phones free, what other services might Australian governments provide for free in Australia? Wi-fi? Drinking water? Air-conditioned workspaces to help people study and work from home? Public housing?

While George’s essay has a considered analysis of climate change, it doesn’t discuss which bits of the old model climate change has broken (including the pretence that Liberals prefer market-based solutions) or how it will reshape the role of the public sector. Who will insure houses in disaster-prone regions? Where will poor people go to escape extreme heat?

We now know that the benefits of low wages, low taxes and low job security don’t trickle down to the poor – instead they literally get blasted off into space. So what will we in “the land of the fair go” do about wealth and income inequality, now that even the IMF and World Bank admit that income inequality is a brake on economic growth?

While neoliberalism led the Australian policy elite to make lots of mistakes in the way they handled recessions, the way they worried about government spending and the way they privatised so many services and business, the biggest mistake that flows from neoliberalism isn’t how small it makes our government, but how small it makes our imaginations.

When our self-anointed policy elite believe that “market forces” will fix all of our problems, they absolve themselves of the hard task of fixing anything. Indeed, they spend their time fighting people like me, who think that government might be able to make some people’s lives bigger and better. And while they obsess over the cost of being a bit nicer to the unemployed, they turn a blind eye to spending $7 billion to be a lot nastier to asylum seekers.

The saddest, most embarrassing part of the Australian policy debate over the past thirty years isn’t that it took so long to realise that no one else in the world cared about our budget surplus, or that so many of Australia’s policy elite still hark back to the “golden years” of the 1980s and 1990s when looking for a “reform agenda”; it’s that, even now, Australia – the fourteenth-biggest economy in the world, a member of the OECD, the G20 and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – is waiting to hear from overseas thinkers and politicians what its post-Covid future might look like. How pathetic.

Australia was once at the forefront of so many important reforms. No, I don’t mean Paul Keating selling the Commonwealth Bank, or John Howard’s big shift from sales tax to the GST – I mean women’s suffrage, electing the world’s first labour government and the creation of a system of centralised wage-fixing.

When Australia was much smaller, much poorer and much more tied to Mother England, our leaders showed far more independence, creativity and resolve than they do today. But perhaps that was neoliberalism’s best trick: convincing Australians that “the world” and “the market” would shape our destiny, not our own ideas, courage and determination.

My favourite sentence in George’s essay is: “The power of neoliberalism was never in its observance by conservatives but its effect on the other party.” In my Quarterly Essay, Dead Right, I tried to argue the other side of the same coin: that those on the right never really took neoliberalism seriously, but rather used it as a rhetorical excuse to cut spending on their enemies and cut taxes on their friends.

George quotes the magical words that John Howard allegedly shared with Josh Frydenberg at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis: “In times of crisis there are no ideological constraints.” But unfortunately, like nearly everyone, he misses the joke. There never are, and never have been, “ideological constraints” on the ability of the Liberal Party to spend other people’s money on their friends. The IMF said that Peter Costello was the most profligate treasurer in Australian history, and Tony Abbott’s hysteria about a “budget emergency” didn’t stop him introducing income tax cuts.

I think there is a way out of neoliberalism’s disaster zones. I know there must be, as most countries don’t have them. I think the Covid crisis provides a unique opportunity to begin that search, but unfortunately, while I learned a lot reading George’s essay, I didn’t find the exit strategy I was looking for.

Richard Denniss



Jennifer Rayner

One of the more interesting parts of the Covid-19 era has been observing the ways people can and can’t imagine our world will be different after this once-in-a-century crisis. Apparently cities, with their crowded CBDs and coop-like apartments, are over; the logistics and supply chains we’ve relied on for half a century will be radically reshaped; and the frontline work of carers will finally be valued in line with its social contribution (if only). But in George Megalogenis’s Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic, something that is not questioned is the primacy of the federal government in setting the direction for Australia’s recovery and beyond – whether by commission or omission.

This is puzzling because, as Megalogenis notes, the story of the pandemic is the story of a federal government being absent when leadership was needed, slow and hesitant when speed and decisiveness were essential. Late in the essay he observes, “Morrison’s approach has posed a question no one thought to ask before the pandemic: who actually runs the country? The answer in this crisis was the national cabinet, with the premiers claiming their greatest share of power in the federation since Whitlam commenced the long march of centralisation in the 1970s.”

The essay treats this as a temporary state, with Megalogenis’s thoughtful counsel being addressed to a federal government that is assumed to be back in the driver’s seat. But there is another way to see it. Arguably, what the pandemic has really done is lay bare a progressive shift in power between levels of government that has been taking place since the fractious start of the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison government. Looked at this way, what we’ve seen during the Covid crisis is not an aberration – it’s a window into an alternative way to govern this country as we emerge from the pandemic.

As Megalogenis points out, in September 2021 the government will mark eight years in office, with the first five years being, “on its own admission, wasted.” The rapid burn of leaders has prevented any policy idea or agenda from sticking for too long. Party-room dynamics and the scarring experience of the 2014 budget have tempered any appetite for complex reform. Pretty much the only flag all parts of the party have consistently been able to rally around is the idea of getting the federal budget back to surplus, necessitating a smallness of ambition and a reduced scope for government action in the name of “budget repair.”

All this has created a vacuum: of ideas, of reform, of a willingness to face up to the hard challenges confronting Australia and actually do something about them. This vacuum is one that states and territories have increasingly been stepping into over the past eight years.

Australia lags the world on climate action, doesn’t it? The federal government has refused to join other advanced economies in pursuing genuine emissions reduction, but it’s happening anyway – because of the states and territories. In the past few years, all jurisdictions have signed up to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and are getting on with the hard change needed to achieve this. That includes both Labor and Liberal governments, which have realised that the window to act is closing and we can’t keep playing politics while the world literally burns.

Today’s politicians lack the guts to deliver real economy-shaping tax reform, don’t they? Someone must have forgotten to tell that to Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, which are all in the process of delivering road-user charging reforms that will address the long-term structural decline in federal fuel excise revenue, while helping to tackle emissions and congestion all in one handy tax. Or the ACT, which is well advanced in getting rid of stamp duty – a reform that the Henry Tax Review and approximately 4000 other experts believe is essential to improve productivity and equity in the housing market.

The states and territories have even demonstrated that near-national tax reform can be achieved through coordinated action. The introduction of point-of-consumption gaming taxes, capturing offshore betting operators, is a notable recent example, led by the South Australian government in 2017. All jurisdictions except the Northern Territory now have point-of-consumption taxes in place, tightening the tax net for an age of digital service delivery. The approach to developing these particular taxes was a case study in collaborative yet competitive federalism, with jurisdictions agreeing to create a broadly common tax base but leaving room to compete on the rate.

Australia is bound for gridlock and lost growth because we’ve failed to invest in infrastructure, right? Infrastructure Partnerships Australia tracks the Coalition’s infrastructure spend since coming to office in 2014 at $50.2 billion, an average of about $7 billion a year. Over the same period, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland alone spent $217 billion, or around four times as much per year. In fact, in every year of the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison government, New South Wales alone has invested more in infrastructure than the federal government has across the entire country. To give credit where it’s due, the Morrison government’s last two budgets have significantly stepped up infrastructure spending, with a little over $40 billion earmarked for the next three years to 2024. But that investment is entirely dwarfed by the $140 billion that Australia’s three largest states plan to spend on making their cities and regions more connected, efficient and productive over the same period.

All this is by way of demonstrating that the federal government’s wasted years have been anything but for the states and territories. There are many more examples of these jurisdictions rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job while Australia’s media and commentariat have been preoccupied with the Coalition’s successive unravellings and rebuildings. Important lessons have been learned in these years about how the states and territories can go it alone, together.

For example, they are increasingly working together through channels and forums that are completely independent of the federal government. This is a distinct operating shift from the hub-and-spoke model that dominated during the Rudd–Gillard government, where all roads led to Canberra. An important example of this is the Board of Treasurers, which exclusively comprises state and territory representatives. It was established by the NSW Liberal treasurer Dominic Perrottet as a forum for jurisdictions to debate and pursue economic reform. It has proven to be a welcome circuit-breaker on the interminable lemniscate conversations within the Commonwealth-controlled Council of Federal Financial Relations.

The strengthening of direct ties has also opened new opportunities for healthily competitive collaboration. This has seen states and territories learning from one another while also jockeying for position. On issues as diverse as tax, industry development, zero emissions transition, waste, mental health, hospitals, skills and energy, jurisdictions are looking over each other’s fences for ideas and to benefit from the experience of governments that have tackled hard things first. While the federal government seems afraid to stick its neck out too far on anything at all, states and territories are increasingly making it a point of pride to be the first out of the gates and have other jurisdictions follow their example.

At the same time, the capability of the states and territories has been significantly boosted by an inflow of former federal public servants and advisers who believe in the power of government and want to wield it to drive real change. Regardless of your political persuasion, the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison years have been an uninspiring time to work in government – dominated by messy and politicised decision-making processes, frequent policy reversals and a reticence to act on problems even when all the indicator lights are flashing red. Many workers have simply made the choice to take their skills elsewhere, strengthening state and territory governments with their knowledge, networks and larger frame of reference.

All this meant that Australia arguably entered the Covid-19 pandemic with the strongest states and territories and the weakest federal government for several decades. The collective action on display when premiers demanded a seat around the table at crisis HQ didn’t materialise overnight. It was an expression of existing relationships and power dynamics six years in the making. The possibility that Megalogenis’s essay missed is: what if we were to go forward like this, not back to the old world of centralised federal control?

This alternative would see the federal government take on the role of partner, not paterfamilias, to the states and territories. Vertical fiscal imbalance and the benefits of a national perspective will mean the federal government always has some role to play in guiding our collective future. But there’s no reason the federal government needs to be the pre-eminent decision-maker on the post-pandemic economy and policy agenda. Jurisdictions would no doubt welcome an approach in which ends were collaboratively agreed, but each had more autonomy to decide on the means. While national consistency in policy has its merits, its pursuit has often also led to gridlock and paralysis, or lowest-common-denominator outcomes that don’t end up moving the dial much. Being closer to communities, the states and territories may also choose to put different issues on the policy agenda than those the federal government has prioritised in recent years. It could only strengthen our democracy for citizens to feel that their concerns are being heard and acted upon.

In some ways this would mark a return to an earlier phase of the Australian federation, when the colonial states regularly muscled up to the nascent Commonwealth. But at the same time, it represents the kind of dispersed and flexible governance that is increasingly seen as necessary to meet the challenges of a world that is becoming more plural, more complex, and is demanding more innovation and experimentation.

If Australia ever gets around to having a credible national climate policy, it will need to be built around frameworks that are already in place and working across the states and territories. The next tax-reform agenda won’t look like the last one, because the up-to-date expertise in designing and delivering complex reform sits in state treasuries and revenue offices, not a Commonwealth Treasury exhausted from the vast effort of keeping the economy together through Covid. More coordination on infrastructure, service delivery and post-recovery program design will be essential to avoid a repeat of the gaps and inefficiencies that the pandemic put up in lights.

The question, then, really is: will future federal governments go with the flow and share more power with states and territories that have shown themselves capable of wielding it well? Or will the coming decade be a fight by the feds to take back all the ground given away since 2014? These are not just questions for Scott Morrison’s Coalition; federal Labor, too, will need to decide what sort of role it wants to play when its next prime minister fronts the premiers. With such a strong cast of experienced and popular state Labor leaders, it would be bold to think Anthony Albanese or anyone else could easily slip back into the old federal role.

Early in his essay, Megalogenis notes that “Covid-19 has demonstrated a wicked genius for exploiting gaps in the old model.” He was talking about the economic model, but in fact the pandemic has laid bare gaps and fractures right across our society – including in how we are governed. The relationship of levels of Australian government may be a rare instance in which what has been exposed is actually an improvement on how we believed things were. We shouldn’t therefore assume that the only way forward is back – back to centralised federal control, back to states and territories as the second tier by design and by function. To do so would be to miss an important opportunity to build a better system of government for our post-pandemic future.

Jennifer Rayner


Response to Correspondence

Alan Finkel

There is such a broad and overlapping range of views in the commentaries that it seems sensible to respond in categories.

Natural gas in electricity generation

The important role of gas-fired electricity in supporting rapid deployment of solar and wind continues to be underappreciated. The key issue is that electricity is an essential service, and interruptions of supply have huge economic, personal and political ramifications. There is no other commodity for which supply interruptions in the vicinity of seconds and minutes are even noticed, let alone damaging. Electricity is unique.

As coal-fired generators retire, we must build solar and wind electricity generators to compensate. However, solar and wind electricity sources are variable, and without alternative storage or generation to back them up – a process known as “firming” – the electricity system will be unreliable.

Batteries will increasingly contribute to the firming role, but we need enough of them, and we need to set aside some of the solar and wind electricity to charge them. Batteries are getting cheaper and more plentiful, but it is not clear that we could deploy them at the rate that will be needed if coal-fired generators continue to close down earlier than anticipated.

Natural gas-fired generators are already in the system. They can provide the firming that is needed. They have the added benefit over batteries that they can run not only for minutes and hours but for days and weeks. These long-duration needs are real: there are occasions in winter where the wind can average less than 10 per cent of normal for a week at a time.

The key question is, do we need new gas-fired generators? The answer depends on two important considerations: distribution and peak power.

On distribution, the challenge is to have the firming generators where they are needed. The transmission grid is not sufficiently dense to support perfect utilisation of any given generator across the National Electricity Market, which stretches 5000 kilometres from Port Douglas in Queensland to Port Lincoln in South Australia.1 And for cost and local environmental impact reasons, it never will be. Therefore, generators need to be spread out and occasionally new ones might be needed to fill gaps.

On peak power, even if the natural gas generators do not get used much during the year, when they are called upon to meet peak demand you might need them all. That is, if there is a week-long lull in wind during the winter months across a large state that needs to meet a peak power shortfall of 5 gigawatts, if natural gas generation is called upon we need 5 gigawatts worth of generators all running at the same time.

Put differently, a single generator that on average operates 4000 hours per year is not nearly as useful as ten generators that on average operate 400 hours per year. It may be, as Hugh Saddler says, that the total volume of gas required for electricity generation across the system might not increase, but as coal-fired generators close down, we will occasionally need more gas generators operating simultaneously, infrequently, to ensure that we can meet the instantaneous peak demands of the system.

Another consideration is that coal-fired generators typically operate for 5000 hours per year, whereas a gas generator used for firming will typically operate fewer than 500 hours per year. And each of those hours produces electricity at a significantly lower emissions level than electricity from coal-fired generators. Thus, the emissions from a gas-fired generator used for firming are very small, even if the nameplate capacity in megawatts is quite high.

Take the most recent example, the gas generator to be built at Kurri Kuri in the Hunter Valley. It is expected to operate 2 per cent of the time, or 175 hours per year.2 This is a tiny fraction of the soon to-be-closed Liddell coal-fired power station 80 kilometres away, which during the last five years operated an average of 52 per cent of the time, or about 4550 hours per year.3 And the Kurri Kurri generator only has about a third of the output power of the Liddell station. All up, its annual generation is miniscule in comparison to that of the Liddell coal plant, but its role to support the solar and wind electricity that will replace the bulk of the output from Liddell will occasionally be crucially important.

In summary, the Kurri Kurri gas-fired generator is in no conceivable way intended to replace the output from the Liddell coal-fired station. Instead, it will firm up solar and wind to prevent blackouts and higher prices after the power station closes at the end of the summer in 2023.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has been quoted as saying that no new natural gas generators should be built. That is not correct. What the IEA said is that there is no need for new oil and gas fields to be developed in its net-zero model.4 Also, and perhaps surprisingly, the IEA model shows natural gas generation increasing for the next five years, with a decline after that. This is consistent with a shift towards natural gas generation playing more of a firming role and less of a replacement role.5 Whether or not new natural gas generators should be built is a different question, the answer to which depends both on how fast coal-fired generators retire and on our ability to meet peak demand. The faster that coal-fired generators retire, the more we might need to call on natural gas generators to firm the solar and wind electricity that replaces the coal generation.

And yes, if new generators are built, they should certainly be installed with the intention of eventually running them on hydrogen, initially blended in at low percentages, but eventually operating on 100 per cent hydrogen.


Around the world, not just in Australia, forward-looking countries such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Japan are looking to develop hydrogen as a clean fuel alternative to coal, oil and natural gas. Not in all applications – electricity from solar, wind and hydroelectricity will be the main replacement fuel – but hydrogen will be used in those applications where a high-density energy carrier is required, and in some cases where an alternative industrial chemical feedstock is required. Richie Merzian says that in the briefing called Hydrogen for Australia’s Future, my colleagues and I overstated that potential. To the contrary, the growing interest since then indicates that we were conservative. Through the lens of his personal experience, Ben Wilson confirms the potential for hydrogen to help us decarbonise our building heating and hot water energy needs by replacing natural gas in our distribution system with hydrogen. Just two months after my Quarterly Essay was published, Ben’s company welcomed the future when it flicked the switch to connect 700 houses in Adelaide to a 5 per cent hydrogen blend in their gas supply.

The vast majority of clean hydrogen will be produced by using renewable electricity to crack water, but some in future might be produced using fossil fuels with carbon capture and permanent storage (CCS). Whether or not that occurs will depend on economics. The hydrogen so produced will be subject to a certification process to verify the emissions. Hydrogen produced by electrolysis will be subject to the same certification process. CCS for a zero-emissions future is strongly supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IEA and the Biden administration.6


The key reason for reducing emissions to net zero is fairness to current and future generations. For fairness, the transition to a net-zero energy system must also ensure that the cost of the future energy supply is low and that the supply is available to all. In my essay, I argued that the way to achieve this is through driving the cost of new and emerging low-emissions technologies down to the tipping point at which they become cheaper than the high-emissions incumbent technologies. Cheap, clean, reliable energy will not emerge from a focus on “environmental justice, racism and class disparities,” as argued by Ketan Joshi. Instead, these important equity outcomes will be supported by the efficient delivery of the technological change.

Scott Ludlam makes the point that rather than maintaining our energy-profligate society, we should choose a path of lower impact and take into consideration land rights, regenerative economics and circular design principles. Equivalently, Ian Lowe quite rightly points to the need to improve the efficiency with which we use energy. Yes, we should, and it is important to have policies in place to encourage high-efficiency technologies and practices. Uptake of these high-efficiency solutions by the majority of the population will then depend on personal economics and policy guidance from social scientists.

Science and policy

The scientific evidence for global warming and climate change is overwhelming. I am glad that most commentators acknowledged the strength of my description of the fundamentals. The question then becomes the role, not the fact, of the scientific evidence.

No one point of view will ever, realistically, determine political and even practical outcomes. The coronavirus pandemic provides an example. We saw in Australia that health and scientific advice was taken into account by authorities to an unprecedented degree. The Rapid Research Information Forum that I convened and chaired provided up-to-the-minute expert advice to ministers, and of course the state, territory and federal chief medical officers had the dominant advisory role. And they were listened to, by the prime minister, premiers, first ministers and health ministers, and by the public. But if decisions had been made solely on the basis of the health advice, we would have faced an economic disaster. Instead, the government leaders also listened to the advice of state, territory and federal treasuries and other economic experts. The net health and economic outcome in Australia was among the best in the world.

Similarly, when it comes to responding to the threat of climate change, we have to listen to the scientists. But we also have to listen to the economists, and the engineers who operate our energy networks, and the farmers and industrial workers. We need to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible while ensuring ongoing economic prosperity. To choose one need over the other would be irresponsible. As Boris Johnson said at Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate in April, the goal is “cake, have, eat.”7

When Tim Flannery makes the argument that we have to shut down coal-fired generation immediately because the science says so, this ambition has to be reconciled with the reality that more than 60 per cent of our electricity generation comes from coal. Shutting it down immediately is not an option. Instead, we have to make coal-fired electricity obsolete by replacing it with a clean, firm, cheap and abundant alternative. This alternative will be a complex mixture of solar, wind, batteries, software, long-distance transmission lines, responsive loads, overbuilding of solar and wind generation, and in some cases infrequently used natural gas generation.

Yes, as Rebecca Huntley says, we need policy to drive technological change. That policy is constantly evolving and under challenge. My goal in writing the Quarterly Essay was to show that technology can deliver if policy is supportive. I agree with Nick Rowley that technology does not live in a policy vacuum, but for the reasons he outlines in his commentary, I believe that I can maximise my effectiveness as an adviser on getting to zero by focusing on the key technologies that will make it possible.

Ross Garnaut raises the importance of reducing methane emissions. I couldn’t agree more, and I am overjoyed that scientific research is delivering potential solutions to the enteric fermentation in cattle and sheep that globally contributes most of the methane emissions. There are also technologies that can be applied to reduce fugitive emissions, but the best way to eliminate fugitive emissions is to replace oil, coal and gas with renewable alternatives.

Garnaut (in passing) and Ian McAuley (in detail) mention the role that a carbon tax can have in driving the exit from high-emissions technologies. Whether a carbon tax is referred to as a tax, a price or a trading scheme, it has complex consequences beyond driving the exit from high-emissions technologies. For me to have entered that debate in my Quarterly Essay would have undermined my ability to convey my main message, which is that through investing in new and emerging zero-emissions technologies we can build the scale that will enable newcomers to match the price of the high-emissions incumbents, at which point we will benefit from a tipping point and all rational users will purchase the zero-emissions alternative.

Bill Gates describes this strategy as eliminating the “Green Premium.”8 Early adopters are happy to pay a Green Premium, but the majority of the population will not. The ultimate goal that I aspire to is to convert the cost disparity into a “Green Discount.”

Alan Finkel


1 Australian Energy Market Commission, “National Electricity Market”, AEMC website,, accessed 1 June 2021.

2 Jacobs Group, “Hunter Power Project: Environmental Impact Statement”, report, 22 April 2021.

3 Wikipedia, “Liddell Power Station”, 24 March 2021,

4 International Energy Agency, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector”, special report, May 2021,

5 Ibid.

6 Daniel Gros, “The Green Art of the Possible”, The Business Times, 7 May 2021.

7 Fiona Harvey, “Boris Johnson Urges Leaders to ‘Get Serious’ at Climate Summit”, The Guardian, 23 April 2021.

8 Bill Gates introduced the term “Green Premium” in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.



Ian Lowe

Dr Finkel correctly warns of the complexity and formidable challenges involved in achieving the target of zero emissions. As a former chief scientist, he is understandably reluctant to comment on the political climate and the extent to which elected politicians represent an obstacle to progress, but we must be realistic. While better technologies are more likely to succeed, we don’t live in a world of technological determinism. Policy decisions by governments have a critical impact on the scale and rate of progress.

There are some technical issues on which I believe the essay is unhelpfully optimistic. It is not sensible to talk about “zero-emissions” nuclear energy. It would be equally misleading to talk about “zero-emissions” solar or wind energy. In each of those cases, carbon-based fuels are not burned to produce the delivered electricity, but significant amounts of emissions are required to fabricate solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear power stations. Overall, they produce much less emissions than burning fossil fuels, but they are not zero-emissions technologies. That label implies we can cheerfully scale them up to meet any improbable level of demand.

The essay also refers to “carbon capture and permanent storage.” The promise of CCS has been used repeatedly as a get-out-of-jail-free card by those who want to keep using fossil fuels. Don’t worry, they argue, the carbon will be captured and permanently stored. There are three problems. First, it has not been convincingly demonstrated that carbon dioxide, liquefied and injected into geological layers, will stay there forever. Secondly, the process of capturing and liquefying carbon dioxide uses considerable quantities of energy (and costs a lot of money). Thirdly, while there may be some niche operations that use this technology because there are suitable strata near the site producing the carbon dioxide, it is simply not credible to envisage it being scaled up to manage the global problem. The volume of carbon dioxide that would be produced if we captured and liquefied the gas from the world’s coal-fired power stations would be comparable with that handled by the world’s entire oil industry. That volume would need to be transported and stored in suitable geological strata every year. It just can’t happen.

On the other hand, I think the essay understates the pace of change in the global electricity industry. After noting that solar and wind accounted for almost all new generating capacity in recent years in Australia, it states, “In the rest of the world, the comparable figure is a bit over half, because natural gas and coal-fired generators continue to be built.” In 2019, the world installed about 170 gigawatts of new renewables and about 70 gigawatts of fossil-fuel generators. So “the comparable figure” wasn’t “a bit over half” but about 70 per cent. The International Energy Agency’s 2020 figures are even stronger: 107 gigawatts of solar, 65 gigawatts of wind and 18 gigawatts of hydro, giving a total of 190 gigawatts of new renewable capacity. New gas? About 40 gigawatts. Coal? Zero. In fact, the closures slightly exceeded new capacity, making 2020 the first year in living memory in which coal capacity declined. So last year, renewables were over 80 per cent of new capacity globally. What about nuclear power? IEA estimated 8 gigawatts of new capacity coming on line but 5 gigawatts being decommissioned, giving a net gain of 3 gigawatts, compared with 190 gigawatts of renewables. It is clear which way the world as a whole is going.

The editor of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, Mycle Schneider, recently gave figures for the changes in the average prices of power from different supply sources in the last decade. Coal-fired electricity went up slightly, from 11.1 to 11.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, while nuclear power increased from 12.3 cents to 16.3. By contrast, the average price of wind power came down from 13.5 cents to 4.0, while solar improved from 35.9 cents a decade ago to an average of 3.7 cents a kilowatt-hour in 2020, with one new installation in Portugal delivering energy for 1.1 cents. That change in the economics is breathtaking. Ten years ago, solar power cost about three times as much as nuclear power, on average, while wind was slightly more expensive than nuclear. Now, nuclear power is more than four times the average price of either solar or wind power.

The economics is driving change in the way existing capacity is being used. The International Energy Agency’s figures for the absolute changes in delivered electricity between 2019 and 2020 are startling: renewables about 400 terawatt-hours more, coal about 500 terawatt-hours less, gas about 130 terawatt-hours less, nuclear about 100 terawatt-hours less.

I was disappointed by the essay’s lack of emphasis on the need to improve the efficiency of using energy. There is a statement that says it all: “If our use of energy were more efficient, we would not have to produce nearly as much.” Quite. People don’t want energy, they want hot showers, cold beer and the ability to get around. But the discussion of supply needs implicitly assumes we will continue to waste massive amounts of energy through inefficiency. The National Framework for Energy Efficiency, presented to the Howard government in 2003, estimated we could reduce our emissions by 30 per cent using cost-effective existing technology, with payback times of less than four years. Almost nothing has been done in the eighteen years since to implement these recommendations, or to utilise the subsequent improvements in technology. Our electrical appliances, our vehicles and our buildings are very inefficient, wasting money as well as energy. Solar hot water makes economic sense almost everywhere but is still not encouraged by the national government. Rather than introducing efficiency standards to entice motorists to buy smaller vehicles, we have encouraged the move to large SUVs, while the retreat from sensible urban planning and the lack of public transport has condemned thousands of people living on the edges of our cities to long commutes by car. We could live at the same level of material comfort using half the energy we now do. That would make more sense than continuing to invest in ever-increasing amounts of supply.

Dr Finkel’s optimistic closing vision of a net-zero-emissions future is one I would dearly like to see. We should be moving urgently in that direction. But we need to be realistic – and angry – about the formidable obstacle that is the bitterly divided Coalition government. I recently talked with farmers who were apoplectic about the National Party’s failure to recognise the damage climate change is doing to rural Australia. “Haven’t they noticed we are having one-in-a-hundred-year events every bloody year?” one said. Apart from stupidly waving a lump of coal around in parliament before he displaced Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison has restricted himself to baseless claims that we will meet “in a canter” our inadequate Paris target. Josh Frydenberg, while Turnbull’s energy and environment minister, attacked South Australia’s Weatherill government for investing in solar, wind and battery storage. It was a nakedly political attack; there has been no criticism of South Australia’s current Coalition government for doubling down on that successful strategy since it was elected. While the modest carbon price set by the Gillard government clearly reduced emissions, it was demonised by the Coalition as a great big tax on everything, with ridiculous claims it would make a lamb roast cost $100 and reduce Whyalla to a ghost town. Everyone from right-wing economists to leftish environmentalists would support a price on greenhouse gas emissions, but that is ruled out on ideological grounds. The election of Zali Steggall and the recent support of her climate initiative by other crossbenchers should be a warning to the government. Once the dust has settled from the pandemic and the toxic patriarchal culture in Parliament House, the big challenge for our politics will be responding to climate change. Tony Abbott will not be the last casualty if the government continues to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Ian Lowe



Ketan Joshi

Alan Finkel closes the introduction of his recent Quarterly Essay with a quote from the Borg, a fictitious species from Star Trek: The Next Generation: “resistance is futile.” Finkel’s plea: stop “cave dwelling” and accept the unavoidable technological carbon revolution.

The Borg are not meant to be inspirational: they are cybernetic life forms, assimilating individuals from other species into “drones.” They are an emotionless hive, obsessed with technology and with no care for individuality, emotion, passion or morals. Finkel does not quote the Borg’s chilling declaration in full: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.” Like so much science fiction, the Borg represent a real-world threat – technology for technology’s sake, single-minded and cold, with culture, community and the welfare of life left out of the equation.

While technology is a necessary component of climate action, it is insufficient. Fossil fuels have sunk deep into our way of life, and removing them as fast as possible will require significant political, cultural and corporate shifts. Climate action must be restorative and curative, imbued with justice and fairness and the righting of wrongs, so that it is demanded, rather than merely tolerated, by people.

And it must be fast: every day wasted sees more megatons of greenhouse gases produced, and consequently, more heating of Earth’s habitats. The quantity of greenhouse gases our species can release before we know for sure the planet will overshoot 1.5°C of warming is now vanishingly small, thanks to decades of delay. That means moving as fast as possible is the only response.

The “possible” in “fast as possible” changes depending whom you ask. If you ask Australia’s government, anything faster than dangerously slow is unthinkable heresy. At the time of writing, the prime minister cannot even commit to net zero by 2050, a basic step most countries took some time ago. Targets, carbon budgets, short-term plans and ambitious policy are not only non-existent but publicly derided.

On Network Ten’s The Project in September 2020, Finkel was pressed on the urgency and highlighted the wording of the Paris Agreement, in which signatories must achieve net-zero emissions “within the second half of this century.”

He said: “It could be 2099. It’s important that people don’t feel there’s only one way to achieve an ambition. There could be multiple ways.”

This is not accurate. The longer the delay, the more emissions and the worse the climate impacts. Wealthy, emissions-intensive countries are bound by the Paris Agreement’s equity considerations to put their backs into this. Australia has historically emitted far more than its fair share, and should therefore cut emissions more steeply than countries in the Global South. That means reaching net zero well before 2050.

The approach adopted by Finkel and by the Australian government – “we’ll get there when we get there” – has already had dire consequences. The latest projections show that with existing policies, Australia’s emissions will be around 22 per cent below their 2005 levels in 2030 – well above the 26 per cent Paris target, even accounting for the growth in renewables. Australia needs a reduction of between 66 per cent and 80 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero between 2035 and 2045, to support a global 1.5°C climate target.

That means a full phase-out of coal power before 2030 and all fossil fuels before 2035. That means aggressive government policy to incentivise zero-carbon transport (public transport, cycling, walking and electric vehicles) along with dates for combustion-engine sales bans. That means a plan to phase out fossil fuels from heating and industry over the next two decades. That means a safety net for every fossil-fuel worker. Australia is a full-scale failure on every single point. In short, it means rapid, immediate action, rather than a plea to sit back and wait for a contrived technological deus ex machina in the final act of this half-century.

Australia could have been comfortably on the pathway to 1.5°C-aligned emissions cuts if the government had begun when the Paris Agreement was signed. In that case, cuts of around 21 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2-e) each year would be required. In 2020, that is now 30 MtCO2-e. With another five years of delay, it’ll be 47 MtCO2-e. The government’s most recent projections predict an annual fall of between 1 and 6 MtCO2-e per year before 2030. Why don’t these numbers feature in Finkel’s essay?

A laid back, non-interventionist “tech’ll fix it” approach dooms Australia to a significantly slower transition, and significantly worse emissions, alongside the continued enrichment of the fossil-fuel industry. It is a vision of false comfort and real climate impacts. Those emissions will hurt human beings and erode the natural world. Resistance is not futile – it is everywhere, and it is dangerous.

Finkel’s essay is at its best when it is outlining the history of fossil fuels, or explaining the fascinating science behind climate solutions. It is at its worst – and most consequential – when it works to justify the slow, incremental and dangerous approach to the climate threat being deployed by Australia’s government. To treat climate as a crisis is decried as “perfectionism,” and the only calm, level-headed approach is to go with the free-market technological flow.

Part of this go-slow approach manifests as a desire to ensure climate action is undetectable – something that requires no change to Australian life. Big, comfortable, energy-intensive and inefficient, the classic Australian lifestyle can stay that way even as Australia’s energy system is swapped out with “low-carbon” alternatives. The change is purely under the hood (in some sectors, literally).

Part of this logic stems from the false assumption that climate deniers abound in society and would be alienated by aggressive climate action. “Thus, even those who are not convinced about the threat posed by climate change should be enthusiastic about the transformations that are underway,” said Finkel.

This was best illustrated in an interview with the 7am podcast, in which Finkel said, “I don’t think that the alternatives to changing our lifestyles, such as global population control or behavioural change so that we all ride bicycles instead of cars, are likely,” and even went so far as to assert that active transport like cycling doesn’t make a “substantial difference” to emissions.

Aside from being demonstrably untrue, it’s a cop-out. “Behavioural change” is treated like a millstone around the neck, whereas in its best manifestation it is an empowering tool for citizen participation. Finkel rightly dismisses ecofascist appeals to depopulation, but wrongly dismisses cultural change as risky and unacceptable. It is a cold, unambitious view that excludes the possibility that Australians might actually prefer to be participants in the greatest transformation in history. And when discussing decarbonising aviation, for instance, he doesn’t mention the simple possibility of flying less – either through cutting down on business travel, or by means of remote meetings and land-based electric transport.

Around the world, it has become startlingly clear that the fastest way to decarbonise transport (and most other sectors) is through a suite of changes that consider environmental justice, racism and class disparities. Greater access to public transport, active transport and electrified vehicles work in unison, enabled through activism, effort, politics and community. Social and cultural lifestyle change can feed into personal divestment from fossil fuels, and political and corporate pressure. This parody of rapid climate harm reduction as “sacrifice and loss” is outdated and irrelevant, now serving only as a rhetorical tool to protect declining revenues for the fossil-fuel industry.

At the core of Finkel’s essay is the argument that a fast transition is impossible. It’s common for techno-optimists to be wildly pessimistic about massive, rapid social change. Finkel repeats a trope used frequently by the fossil-fuel industry: “we can’t shut off fossil fuels overnight.” Somehow, the fact that a 100 per cent cut in emissions can’t be made in twelve hours proves the impossibility of a reasonably fast transition – such as one aligned with a 1.5°C target over the next ten to twenty years. Of course it is possible – if we go beyond metal and money, and consider activism, effort and cultural change, along with massive political efforts to phase out fossil-fuel burning and extraction swiftly.

The frequently repeated warning of the danger of reducing emissions too fast echoes big climate names, such as Bill Gates and Vaclav Smil, who likely inspire Finkel’s claim that “the notion that we can suddenly reverse the slope of emissions is implausible.” Of course, Australia is far from being anywhere close to altering that slope. At the current rate of reduction projected between 2020 and 2030, Australia will fall to zero emissions somewhere around 2294. But nobody said this would be easy, and if we’re dismissing effortful action then we’re permanently doomed.

Another key justification for reducing emissions far slower than possible is an appeal to “technology neutrality.” It’s meant to signify a calm, level-headed and very serious objectivity; a capability to assess machines on their engineering and scientific merits, and to remain unclouded by the emotions of activists and environmentalists. Finkel laments being asked to reduce emissions quickly without nuclear, fossil hydrogen and carbon capture: a “litany of proscribed approaches.”

Finkel is proud of being “the only genuinely technology-neutral person in the room.” But climate centrism is toxic, because it presupposes that a single view of what is “feasible” is the logical, adult and final one, rather than something which shifts over time and is subject to democratic and social processes.

In practice, what this means is ignorance of how the promise of future technology is used by fossil-fuel companies and politicians as a reason to delay. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the perfect example; “clean coal” and CCS have been promised as the saviours of climate for decades. “There is no reason why by 2020 we can’t be putting a quarter of our emissions from coal and gas back into the ground, and no reason why by 2030 it wouldn’t be about half,” said chief executive of the Australian Coal Association (now the Minerals Council) Mark O’Neill in The Australian in 2006.

In 2019, Australia released around 411 megatons of fossil carbon dioxide emissions. About 3 megatons were captured that year in Western Australia’s Gorgon facility. For the same year, the world released 36,440 megatons of fossil-origin carbon dioxide. The total carbon capture capacity in that year was 40 megatons, most dedicated to “enhanced oil recovery,” in which captured carbon is used to extract and sell more oil. No, that is not a quarter. It’s 0.1 per cent. What’s the “neutral” verdict on that?

In Victoria, a plan to produce hydrogen using the state’s massive reserves of coal – among the most climate-damaging on Earth – comes bundled with a pinky promise to implement a carbon capture system nearly double that of Australia’s existing capacity (by my calculations). This promise, the Victorian government’s “CarbonNet” carbon storage project, is more than a decade old now, and isn’t likely to capture a single molecule any time in the coming years. “Start-up is planned for between 2015 and 2019,” wrote Norwegian energy technology site Zero, in 2012. We know the service CCS provides. It is a rhetorical and political service, not a technological one.

Finkel shrugs off the hazards of CCS false promises by declaring that no market will exist for high-emissions hydrogen. That is dangerously naive. Right now, the world’s fossil-gas producers are engaging in a massive marketing campaign to promote “carbon-neutral LNG,” the same old fossil fuels paired with highly suspect carbon offset schemes. Finkel is badly underestimating how good the fossil-fuel industry is at obfuscation, public relations and regulatory capture.

There will be a massive market for high-emissions fossil hydrogen, and it will be realised through the existing global machine of marketing and deception used by fossil-fuel companies to stave off their demise by decades. Ditto for a hydrogen climate impact “certification scheme,” something almost certain to bow to fossil industry pressure and become a massive global greenwashing project.

Finkel’s support for gas in Australia’s energy system – both as a fuel for home heating and cooking and grid-level “emergency” backup – shows a similar naivety. The gas industry will happily and successfully go far beyond providing a few hours of emergency backup – the current government is planning to build a 660-megawatt fossil-gas plant in New South Wales, despite the grid operator insisting it is absolutely not needed for grid reliability.

Of course, the government has also literally called its COVID-19 response package a “gas-fired recovery.” Will companies start aggressively blending hydrogen into the pipelines feeding fossil gas into Australian homes, or will they decarbonise in literally microscopic increments over decades, while pleading they’re acting on climate? The fossil-gas industry is already publishing studies attacking electrification and promoting pathways that protect the value of pipelines and processing plants, despite those pathways resulting in far greater cumulative emissions due to going slower.

Climate centrism serves the fossil-fuel industry. “Technology neutrality” creates a playground for fossil companies to maximise profits at the cost of direct harm to human life. In Finkel’s essay, anything outside the middle of the road is “perfectionism” or climate denial, and both are dismissed accordingly. In reality, the planet will continue to warm for as long as net greenhouse gas emissions are greater than zero, and any plea to go slower than as fast as possible comes packaged with an implicit acceptance of worsening climate harm.

Finkel’s essay ends by painting a picture of a net-zero world that is essentially the same as today’s, sans greenhouse gas molecules. Australia is wealthy, comfortable and energy-intensive. But there is no due date for this vision, creating room for a go-slow on climate action – breathing room for the fossil-fuel industry at the cost of public health and safety.

It is a dangerous thing to present climate action as inevitable. It is the speed of climate action that determines how much harm we will experience – the debate on whether to act has come and gone. Delay is the main game for fossil industries now, enacted through the rhetoric of false technological promises and greenwashed climate plans.

As the summer of 2020 showed, Australia will experience the consequences of delay directly. A gentle slope to reduce emissions may have been possible in the 1990s, but the hour is now late. There are only two choices: bloated delay and worsened climate impacts, or rapid action and lesser climate impacts. Our efforts now should go towards figuring out how to ensure that rapid action is fair, fast and furious.

It is demonstrably untrue that “resistance is futile.” Australia’s fossil-fuel industry has manufactured a situation in which there is a broad political, social and cultural blindness to the nerve-racking urgency of emissions reductions. Resistance to climate action is everywhere – Australia is drowning in it, and burning and boiling too. Decarbonisation is indeed inevitable. But empty technological promises, a hostility towards hard climate targets and a refusal to take any short-term action mean the decline of the fossil-fuel industry is so shallow that it’s essentially a straight line. Resistance is profitable, and that is the problem Australia’s former chief scientist ought to be addressing.

Ketan Joshi



Hugh Saddler

Alan Finkel’s essay opens with an excellent, brief account of how atmospheric carbon dioxide affects climate and how the facts show precisely why those who reject this science are wrong. The remainder of the essay sets out his assessment of which technologies will most effectively enable Australia to transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Finkel is a very good technology writer. The text is consistently readable, while almost always achieving the difficult feat of being simultaneously precise, accurate and concise. To summarise it, the pathway to the zero-emissions energy supply system that Finkel advocates consists of three major components. The first is 100 per cent renewable electricity generation (he correctly considers nuclear generation to be a “non-starter” for Australia), supported by a combination of battery, pumped hydro and hydrogen-based storage. The second is a combination of electrical technologies and hydrogen for all thermal energy requirements. The third is a combination of battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell power for transport and other mobile equipment. Most well-informed commentators would broadly agree with this pathway.

Finkel’s account, of course, goes into far more detail about energy supply technologies than my summary suggests. One way he achieves readability is to present a single narrative, seldom acknowledging the existence of differing views and current debates about some of the particular technology choices he advocates. As well as achieving readability, the single narrative is probably a necessary consequence of his overall approach of focusing on “the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine.” Unfortunately, the separation between technology choices and policy choices is not as distinct as his words imply, which creates problems for the essay.

The essay is certainly political, in the broadest sense, because of the way Finkel goes about the entirely appropriate task of persuading his readers. Unfortunately, at several points, it degenerates into what is best described as heavy-handed debating tactics. For example, early in the essay Finkel states, in an apparent attempt to be positive and encouraging about the coming energy system transition, that “the good news is that there is momentum. From 2005 to 2018, the OECD countries cut emissions by an average of 9 per cent, Australia by 13 per cent.” Australian emissions did indeed fall, but entirely because of dramatic reductions from the land sector. Energy combustion emissions increased by 6 per cent from 2005 to 2016, before levelling off in 2017 and 2018. As a share of Australia’s total emissions, they increased from 58 per cent in 2005 to 71 per cent in 2018. If, as Finkel states, emissions are the only really important performance indicator for the energy transition (an absolutely correct assessment), Australia has, as yet, no momentum at all. (Energy emissions fell in 2019–20, but almost entirely because of the dramatic negative impact of the pandemic lockdowns on consumption of petroleum fuels for road transport and aviation.)

A little further on, Finkel seeks to present himself as holding the reasonable middle ground between “some at one end of the debate who want no change at all, and others at the other end who want to move faster than is feasible.” This grossly oversimplifies the diverse array of positions advanced by participants in Australia’s energy emissions policy debate.

Finkel later singles out for explicit criticism one group of debate participants as being, by implication, part of the faster-than-feasible cohort. The group in question comprised twenty-five scientists who wrote him an open letter taking issue with his public support for gas generation. (I was one of the twenty-five.) However, what they objected to was not the use of gas itself, but Finkel’s failure to explain that its use would be limited, which would have required him to simply indicate the volume of gas he believes will be required – a failure repeated in this essay.

Finkel argues that “natural gas will be a part of Australia’s energy mix for many years to come” because of its important role in providing “firming” for renewable generators. There is wide support for this position from, among other respected sources, the Integrated System Plan prepared by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and, most recently, a Grattan Institute report (an earlier Grattan report is highly critical of the government’s “gas-led recovery” proposals). However, both AEMO and Grattan say that the volume of gas required will be very small and will certainly not require any increase in gas-fired generation capacity. In all of the scenarios modelled by AEMO for the Integrated System Plan, the share of gas generation in total electricity supply will be significantly lower than its current level, which is already low (about 5 per cent per year in the National Electricity Market). By failing to state that the share of gas generation needed will be small and transitional, or to reference the AEMO plan, Finkel (perhaps inadvertently) allows his words to be used by the government to advocate building new gas-fired power stations and increasing, rather than decreasing, the share of gas generation.

This may seem a rather nitpicking criticism, but the key point is that Australia, and almost all other countries, have already delayed acting decisively to reduce emissions for far too long. We cannot afford to make any investments, such as new gas-fuelled generators, which will lock emissions at higher than absolutely necessary levels for years to come.

When I reached the end of the essay, having read what Finkel himself calls a “gloomy forecast” in the section on climate change, the very last words came as a shock: “be patient.” The rationale for this injunction is the time it will take for the new energy-supply technologies, most especially hydrogen, to reach technological maturity. But this argument reflects that the essay is largely written from the supply-side perspective, as it is called in energy policy terminology. While only some forms of energy are sources of greenhouse gases, those gases are only emitted to the atmosphere when that energy is used, in relevant types of equipment, to deliver energy services for consumers. The energy system consists not only of energy-supply technologies and equipment, which are where fossil carbon originates, but also energy-using technologies and equipment, from which fossil carbon is emitted as fossil carbon dioxide. Energy-using or demand-side technologies are no less important, though less exciting, than supply-side technologies, when thinking about energy-system transition. The energy used to deliver transport and thermal processes (heat) is currently supplied almost entirely by petroleum products, gas and coal, and it accounts for about half of Australia’s total energy combustion emissions. Replacing these fuels with electricity and hydrogen means completely replacing existing equipment with new equipment that uses electricity and hydrogen.

As Finkel explains, transitioning the energy supply to renewable electricity and hydrogen will require investments of many billions of dollars, but the investment decisions themselves will be made by a relatively small cohort of executives – certainly far fewer than a million, if passive corporate shareholders are excluded. By contrast, there are over 4 million householders and small-business owners with gas connections to their dwellings or business premises, almost all of whom use gas for space heating, water heating or both. Gas heaters typically have an operational life of at least twenty years. How long will it take to replace them all with reverse-cycle air conditioners and heat-pump or electric-resistance water heaters (often a sensible choice for buildings with rooftop solar generation)? Unless decisive action to drive the changeover is introduced very soon, state governments will be unable to meet their net-zero emissions targets by 2050, except by mandating the scrapping and replacement of serviceable gas appliances and providing appropriate compensation to hundreds of thousands – or millions – of appliance owners. We cannot afford to be patient about starting this transition.

Nor can we be patient about road transport emissions. The number of registered passenger and light commercial motor vehicles in 2020 was about 18 million, according to ABS statistics. The number of individual owners is not known, but is likely to be over 10 million. New vehicle sales each year are equal to about 7 per cent of the total registered fleet, and the average age of registered passenger and light commercial vehicles is about ten years. It is certainly the case that older vehicles travel less distance than newer ones; in 2019–20, vehicles that were fifteen or more years old accounted for about 26 per cent of registered vehicles but only 17 per cent of the total distance travelled. Nevertheless, unless far more aggressive policies to support the uptake of electric vehicles are introduced in the near future, a target of zero-emissions road transport by 2050 will be unattainable.

It is obvious that the issues I have raised combine technology with policy, and that is why the attempt to separate the two creates problems. I suspect that Finkel may share my view that announcing emission-reduction targets without providing some details of the policy program by which the target will be achieved is like announcing an aspiration or a hope and is actually quite useless as a way of “getting to zero.” However, a carefully compiled and skilfully written menu of new technologies is also useless by itself, irrespective of how much more attractive the new technologies may be than old emissions-intensive technologies, on the basis of either performance or cost. The menu must be accompanied by an account of how the technologies will be rolled out on the scale needed to get to zero. The perceived need to separate “technology” from “policy” seems to be yet another manifestation of how the poisonous politics surrounding the climate change challenge in Australia continue to impede real progress on planning for deep emissions reduction.

Hugh Saddler



Ian McAuley

“My approach stems partly from my background as an engineer,” Alan Finkel writes. While his last official position was chief scientist, his first degree and his PhD were in electrical engineering. Wherever our subsequent work and study may take us, our education in our formative years tends to shape our way of thinking. His approach to the issue – how to reduce our energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions – is that of an engineer.

Once the problem or opportunity is defined, the engineer has two tasks. One is to apply science to achieve practical outcomes; the other is to communicate with those who have the authority to implement his or her ideas. In a democracy, that means reaching out not only to the lawmakers and budget-holders in executive government, but also to the public that votes them into office. That is difficult in any area involving disruptive change, and it is particularly difficult in dealing with climate change, because to most people the threat does not appear to be imminent, and because much of our material prosperity has been based on a carbon-intensive economy. It is too easy for the issue to be framed as the false dichotomy of “economy” versus “environment.”

Although he starts with some facts about global warming – a short and clear summary of the science of climate change, just in case anyone needs convincing – he soon moves on to describe how Australia’s energy sector can be transformed to contribute to a clean-energy future. This is Finkel the engineer writing, explaining in clear terms the technologies that can decarbonise the sector, from the basics of how electrons carry energy, to the reasons wind turbines always have three blades.

While many analysts take a sector-by-sector approach to emissions reduction, Finkel centres his case on electricity. He says, don’t stop at decarbonising electricity: expand low-cost electricity generated from sunlight and wind to electrify transport and to develop a hydrogen economy, reaching into other sectors such as steel.

With a little editing – if he replaced his personal anecdotes with the language of bureaucracy, for instance – this essay could serve as the government’s green paper on “Australia’s Energy Transition” – that is, if our government were willing to engage with the public on difficult public policy problems through the traditional green paper/white paper process.

Of course public servants preparing a green paper would always be aware of the demands of their masters and guided by political sensitivities: we see this in Defence, where “climate change” is on a list of forbidden terms. Although Finkel is no longer chief scientist, he has been appointed a special adviser to the government on low-emissions technology, and his essay displays the caution of a public servant. He does have a couple of digs at politicians – at Senator Malcolm Roberts, for misunderstanding trend data, and at Scott Morrison, indirectly, for his silly comments on electric vehicles in the 2019 election campaign. But these are minor criticisms, and for the most part he goes along with the Commonwealth’s agenda on energy and climate – to the extent that a set of talking points lacking any coherent principles could be described as an “agenda.”

Finkel’s political sensitivity shows in two areas of his essay: one is the omission of discussion about the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gases. The essay includes time-series data on temperature trends, electricity production and energy consumption, presented in clear graphic form. As one turns the pages, it would be reasonable to expect a similar graph showing the energy sector’s contribution to greenhouse gases – the essential theme of his essay – but the graph isn’t there. So, drawing on Australian government data, I include my own graph opposite.

Had Finkel included such a graph, he could hardly have avoided explaining why emissions declined from 2012 to 2014 – the period when there was a price on carbon – and subsequently resumed their growth. He only mentions carbon pricing once, and that is in the specific context of generating electricity from biomass (it’s too expensive). In a document of this nature, it is reasonable to concentrate on technologies and costs – without considering funding. But Finkel makes clear his support for market forces, and what could be a clearer use of market forces than placing a price on carbon? Carbon pricing goes some way towards accounting for the externalities in burning fossil fuels: it is essentially a cost of production. (The government’s mantra is about “technology, not taxes,” but even if carbon pricing were collected by the ATO as a payment for resource use, it would no more be a “tax” than a road toll is a “tax.”)

The other way Finkel shows deference to the government’s agenda is by retreating into bureaucratic vagueness about the role of natural gas, which he sees as playing a “firming” role in electricity supply – that is, it could supply electricity when there is a shortfall in wind and solar electricity.

No one denies the need for firming. In any electricity system, when there is a sudden change in supply or demand, there has to be a mechanism to stop the voltage and frequency from running out of control. Power-system managers have always had to be nimble enough to cope with unexpected outages of power lines or sudden demands by big users. But why does Finkel seem to assume gas has to play that role? The need for firming can be reduced somewhat if we invest in high-voltage transmission lines to connect the widely dispersed renewable energy zones identified in the Integrated System Plan prepared by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). The wind can be blowing in North Queensland when a high-pressure system becalms Victoria under a heavy fog; the sun can still be shining on the west coast of South Australia while it is setting in Sydney, and peak demand for electricity is building up on the east coast. Transmission lines are expensive, but they will still be operating when gas pipelines have become stranded assets.

Also, Finkel tends to focus on the supply side of firming, making only passing reference to demand-side firming, which involves temporarily reducing the load on the grid when its supply side is stressed. Internet-based technologies, combined with wise market design, can do a great deal of demand-side firming – for example, by turning on people’s water heaters during periods when there is a temporary surge in rooftop-generated solar electricity.

Figure 1: Emissions from energy sector, Australia, September 2001 to September 2020

Australian emissions graph

Source: Data source: Australian Government, Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, September 2020

While a diversified spread of renewable resources can ease the need for firming, there are means of effectively storing electricity to cope with sudden changes in demand or supply. Pumped hydro systems have been with us ever since the Tumut power stations in the Snowy Mountains Scheme were completed in 1973, and there are old open-pit mine sites and other places that are suitable to be developed for pumped hydro, albeit with major investments in earthworks, generators and transmission lines. Batteries, however, are changing the way we go about firming. There is nothing new about using batteries to store electricity – remote farms and other settlements were using 32-volt battery systems seventy years ago. But over the past few years, they have become bigger and more affordable. Most importantly, unlike pumped hydro systems, which take years to develop and have their own environmental costs, batteries can be installed with short lead times.

Initially the role of big batteries, such as the Hornsdale battery in South Australia, was to provide very short-term stabilisation of the electricity grid, but increasingly they are being used for longer-term storage. The other developments emerging are electric cars (“batteries on wheels”) – which are stationary most of the time and can help balance supply and demand – and affordable domestic storage batteries, “behind the meter.”

Finkel covers these technological developments in his essay, but he seems to have a very conservative view on their potential for firming; instead, he sees natural gas as filling this role for some time to come. He suggests there would be “negligible” emissions from gas, because it would be used on only a few occasions over a year, and he asserts that “market forces will ensure that the use of natural gas is minimised.” That’s not unreasonable: it’s similar to the way an environmentally conscious remote community that is off the grid would be wise to have a diesel generator as an insurance policy.

But if we need so little capacity, why does Finkel not rule out the idea that gas-fired power plants should be built to serve this purpose, even though the AEMO, working on conservative assumptions, calculates that for gas to be economically viable, the long-run price would need to be as low as $4 a gigajoule, and charging costs would need to be high. Although gas is plentiful, it is becoming very expensive to extract. Is he perhaps taking it for granted that the government will go ahead with a highly subsidised gas-fired power station, regardless of the cost–benefit economics?

In this part of the essay, Finkel departs from his otherwise clear style: it appears he has slipped into the role of the public servant who avoids going against expert advice but still gives his or her political master enough wriggle room to implement their preferred policies. This is more than a matter of semantics, because a great deal is at stake – a vast amount of public money, a large and expensive stranded asset and possible retaliatory trade measures against Australia if we continue to lag on decarbonising our economy. If there is excess capacity in a gas-fired power station, that capacity will be used: even if its owners cannot cover full costs, they will dump electricity at marginal cost, worsening emissions.

Finkel could have rewritten the section on firming to suggest a way for the government to save face while backing down from its proposals to build a 1000-megawatt gas-fired power station to replace Liddell, and to develop new coal-seam gas fields in Narrabri and the Beetaloo Basin. There is already plenty of gas available to run peaking gas generators: as he says, these generators would operate only for a “small number of hours.” But he bypasses this opportunity to rescue the government from its economic folly.

Nevertheless, Finkel’s essay is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the industrial transformation involved in moving to a decarbonised energy sector. To his credit, Finkel dismisses the idea that dealing effectively with climate change will be accompanied by a hit to our economy: this is “flawed thinking,” he writes. Finkel trusts the Australian people to understand the science and engineering of that transformation. Our politicians, particularly those in executive government, seem to think the public do not need to know about the technicalities of energy. Finkel’s essay is the green paper the government should have produced before jumping into its “gas-fired recovery.”

Ian McAuley



Ben Wilson

I have had the privilege to work with Alan Finkel as part of the advisory panel for the National Hydrogen Strategy and, more recently, as a member of the ministerial council for the Technology Investment Roadmap, which Alan chairs.

Dr Finkel’s article is a first-class discussion of the challenges and opportunities presented by Australia’s energy transition. I recommend it to anyone looking to cut through the mixed-quality debate on this topic.

We all bring a personal perspective to the challenges of climate change and humankind’s response to it. I grew up as a voracious reader of science fiction – “hard SF,” the kind where the laws of physics are obeyed – and in particular the works of the great twentieth-century sci-fi authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. In their books, humankind has often migrated throughout the solar system or across the galaxy. The future is mostly utopian: many of the social problems of contemporary society seem no longer to exist. The advance of technology has continued to transform lives, almost always for the better. Sometimes the future Earth is portrayed as a kind of nature reserve: with a small human population and returned to its former natural glory. Climate change, of course, is almost never mentioned; it was not a focus before the late twentieth century. My childhood reading and scientific education left me with a core belief that technology, innovation and the application of human endeavour and ingenuity is the best way to solve our problems, including the pressing need to decarbonise our energy system and achieve net zero.

In 2015, I moved to Australia from the United Kingdom, where I was a senior executive at UK Power Networks, the country’s largest electricity distributor. I came to run Australian Gas Networks, now known as the Australian Gas Infrastructure Group, which is Australia’s largest owner of natural gas distribution networks. There are many similarities between running an electricity grid in the United Kingdom and a gas grid in Australia, so it was the differences that struck me most. Most importantly: what was the plan to stay in business? We distribute fossil fuel in a world that is moving towards net zero. For electricity distribution, the energy transition comes under the category of an interesting challenge: renewables penetration is disrupting the operation of the electricity system, but no one really thinks we will do without electricity networks in the future. For a natural gas network, however, the threat is existential: to use the metaphor of former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, we sit on a “burning platform.” If we don’t find a way to decarbonise, then customers will find alternative solutions, potentially well before 2050.

In 2015, the threat didn’t seem quite so urgent, but I could see that it would come soon enough, and so I looked around for a solution. At that time, our UK sister company, Northern Gas Networks, was working on a project called H21 Leeds. The study looked at the feasibility of converting the natural gas network of the city of Leeds, in northern England, to run entirely on zero-carbon hydrogen. Almost immediately, I could see that this provided the answer we were looking for. In principle, there is no reason why we cannot deliver hydrogen through gas networks for customers to use as they use natural gas today. Burning hydrogen produces only water vapour, and if it is produced from electrolysis of water, using renewable electricity (green hydrogen), or from methane, with carbon capture and storage (blue hydrogen), then there are no carbon dioxide emissions from production.

We moved quickly to turn this idea into reality. This started with “Gas Vision 2050,” a report published in 2017. It laid out an ambitious plan for the gas sector with three stages: first, studies and pilot projects (“make hydrogen a thing”); second, large-scale blending of green hydrogen into existing natural gas networks (“make hydrogen plan A”); and, third, full-scale conversion of the gas networks to green and blue hydrogen (“make hydrogen business-as-usual”). Stage one is complete, and stage two is now the focus, to be completed this decade. We aim to achieve stage three, full system conversion, by 2040.

When you have a burning platform, you need to work fast, and we certainly have. Pilot projects are now in operation across Australia, including our own hydrogen park, a 1.25 megawatt electrolyser (Australia’s largest), which is blending green hydrogen into the local gas network and supplying pure green hydrogen to industrial customers. It seems as if a new hydrogen project is announced every week, and some of our largest industrial companies are mobilising behind this emerging economic sector. Dr Finkel’s work and communication skills have been absolutely key in building the momentum we now see for hydrogen.

The rapid growth of interest in hydrogen in Australia, from almost nothing five years ago, is just one example of the fundamental force I referred to earlier: human ingenuity, which will drive the technological change that can solve our problems. Technological advances, combined with our natural competitive advantages in Australia, including abundant solar and wind resources, allow us to meet the challenges of climate change and create new national opportunities. One example is green hydrogen, which offers us a way to store and transport our renewable power, and could make us an exporting superpower of renewable energy in a decade or two, in the way we are today with natural gas, coking coal and iron ore.

More than two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus forecast that the clash between constant population growth and limited food production would lead to disaster. Technological advances have deferred this scenario, but our ever-growing energy consumption and the earth’s finite ability to cope with atmospheric carbon dioxide is another Malthusian trap. But as with food production, human ingenuity can harness technological change to avoid catastrophe.

Unlike the authors I read growing up, twenty-first-century science fiction writers do address climate change. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312, humans have spread throughout the solar system and are pushing on to the stars. Earth is at least two degrees hotter, but the damage stopped years ago, and attempts at repair are underway. In Robinson’s book, the first half of our century is referred to as “the Dithering,” and future generations wonder what took us so long to fix the problem!

Until Elon Musk and others like him can transport us through the solar system, this planet is all we have. We need to take care of it. I am convinced that technology, human ingenuity in action, will enable us to make the energy transition to net zero – by 2050 or before. This will create new and exciting opportunities for Australia.

Ben Wilson



Richie Merzian

In responding to this essay, I feel the best place to start is where Professor Finkel ended: “be ambitious; be patient.” After accompanying Professor Finkel on a long and well-structured journey through the complexities, pitfalls and opportunities of climate change, we are told to cool our jets. Or, in the Australian vernacular, that she’ll be right.

It left me conflicted. This year, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are predicted to rise by 1.5 billion tonnes – the second-largest increase in history. We do not have the luxury of time, or, as the United States’ Special Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry, put it recently, to be “willy-nilly” with the next ten years of the “gargantuan” climate fight. Not long after this essay was published, the United States and China, the world’s two largest polluters, committed to tackling the climate crisis “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.” The overwhelming global narrative is “urgency.” With our oversized carbon footprint, we are in the top 10 per cent of countries for high emissions and the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world. The question has to be asked: where the bloody hell is Australia? Right now, the Australian government does not treat climate change urgently – or seriously. While other countries are sprinting, Prime Minister Morrison is being dragged towards committing to a net-zero time frame. Australia’s “long-term emissions reduction strategy” remains wholly elusive. All we know from the prime minister is that the path won’t be linear, meaning the majority of climate action will be pushed to the 2040s. And so it is worrying that in this essay we have an “energy transition” without a time frame or trajectory.

Professor Finkel goes to great lengths to frame himself as both technologically and politically agnostic. Setting the scene early, he defines himself in quick succession as “technology-neutral,” as centrist in the “fast” and “slow” transition debate, and then for good measure he scatters a handful of “green” credentials into the mix: co-founder of a green lifestyle magazine, investor in low-emissions technology stocks and electric vehicle owner (he owns two, actually). But let’s be clear: Professor Finkel works for the federal government. His new position as a “special adviser” on low-emissions (not zero-emissions) technologies continues much of the advocacy of his last public-sector job, as chief scientist.

That role elevated Professor Finkel to the national stage. In fact Morrison went a step further and elevated him to the international stage, mentioning Professor Finkel by name at President Joe Biden’s climate summit on 22 April 2021. His credibility comes with the lab coat: “chief scientist” suggests he is independent and will fearlessly deliver robust, peer-reviewed advice. The same people sceptical of Scott Morrison’s strident fossil-fuel evangelism could be forgiven for picking up Finkel’s essay and interpreting it as a rational, independent argument for a gas-led recovery.

The problem is that the role of chief scientist has never been independent. It is a contract position with no statutory underpinnings and a history of controversy related to conflicts of interest and impartiality. Various calls to make it a statutory position have failed (including a 2004 Senate inquiry into the management of conflicts of interest, which was pretty much ignored).

In 2004, Professor Robin Batterham, then Australia’s chief scientist, came under scrutiny for concurrently occupying the role of chief technologist for Rio Tinto. Professor Batterham’s publicly funded office was administered out of his Rio Tinto office, with exactly the same staff (Rio Tinto was reimbursed for the costs of providing staff for that support). I doubt this is news to Professor Finkel, given it appears from the acknowledgments that Professor Batterham reviewed and commented on his essay.

In 2011, just halfway through a five-year appointment as chief scientist, Professor Penny Sackett resigned from the post amid reports that innovation minister Kim Carr found her “too outspoken and opinionated, and felt she did not give sufficient regard to Labor’s agenda and the processes of government.” These reports were denied by Carr.

Since he was appointed chief scientist, Finkel has been widely criticised for his support of gas, and in this essay he responds to a public rebuke on this issue by twenty-five leading scientists. If Finkel were still chief scientist, the essay – an endorsement of the government’s technology roadmap, hydrogen plan and gas-led recovery – would make a lot more sense. Instead, we have a clever and subtle piece of political writing about the positive role of fossil fuels in solving Australia’s energy and emissions problems – overtly, with references to gas, and covertly, with arguments for “blue” hydrogen, a Trojan horse for gas and coal, premised on the magic of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The arguments against gas have been well ventilated by the Australia Institute in other forums, and so I will focus here on hydrogen and CCS. Professor Finkel has been called an “evangelist” for hydrogen since 2018, when he led the development of an enthusiastic sixty-page briefing called Hydrogen for Australia’s Future, which promoted hydrogen as Australia’s “next big export.” This led to an official National Hydrogen Strategy and a rush to develop Australia’s hydrogen industry with a $300 million fund.

The Australia Institute found that the National Hydrogen Strategy dramatically overestimated the global demand for hydrogen by implying that demand from the two largest markets, Japan and South Korea, was significantly higher (in one case by a factor of eleven) than their official targets. Professor Finkel admits in the essay that Japanese demand for imported hydrogen was quite modest when the strategy was agreed upon. But with these inflated numbers in view, the rush was on to service the prospective markets. And the cheapest and most widely available way to do so was with hydrogen made from fossil fuels. Currently, most hydrogen produced globally is generated with fossil fuels, producing around 830 million tonnes of emissions per year (the equivalent of the combined emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia), and there is nothing clean about it.

While hydrogen does have potential as a zero-emissions fuel, this is the case only when it is produced from water using electrolysis. What is problematic – and highly misleading – is using the term “clean hydrogen,” as Professor Finkel does, to collectively describe hydrogen produced from water (green hydrogen) and hydrogen produced from fossil fuels (blue hydrogen).

Professor Finkel should have recognised Senator Matt Canavan’s strong support for his National Hydrogen Strategy as a red flag, not a glowing endorsement. Canavan is an enthusiastic proponent of fossil fuels in any form. If a politician who calls himself “Mr Coal” and happily co-opts the Black Lives Matter movement with a “Black Coal Matters” bumper sticker shows affection for your “low-emissions” technology, be wary.

Professor Finkel claims emissions generated from the production of hydrogen using fossil fuels can be captured and buried underground by CCS. While CCS is mentioned several times in the essay, the actual process and history of CCS is glossed over. The technology was originally pioneered by (you guessed it) the fossil fuel industry as a way of enhancing oil extraction by pumping carbon dioxide into depleted wells to recover more oil. Another component was added to the process to help address climate change: the wells or any other geological storage are plugged so as to keep the carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The proponents of “clean hydrogen” worldwide are trying to resurrect the corpse of the long-dead and long-ago debunked idea of “clean coal.” Clean coal is a myth that has been propagated by (yep, you guessed it again) the fossil-fuel industry for decades, whereby the carbon emissions from burning coal are captured before they are released into the atmosphere and buried underground. Despite decades of support, including more than $1.3 billion from Australian governments since 2003, there isn’t a single commercial CCS facility for coal. Even the coal companies themselves have moved on. In 2017, the then CEO of US-based coalmining company American Consolidated Natural Resources admitted that the whole idea of “clean coal” was a fallacy, and the CCS industry fund, COAL21, has in recent years shifted spending from research and development into advertising, including the infamous “little black rock” campaign.

Professor Finkel’s faith in CCS to clean hydrogen is idealistic, given it has failed to clean coal. As he explains, there are only nineteen large-scale operational CCS facilities worldwide. The only local example is Chevron’s Gorgon gas project in Western Australia, which is still not fully operational. The project was only approved on the condition that CCS would be used to bury 40 per cent of the project’s carbon emissions over a five-year period, but storage did not start until 2019 – three years after production began. Even now, the $3.1 billion system is not working properly, and it has resulted in millions of tonnes of emissions being released – roughly equivalent to the emissions from a year’s worth of domestic flights in Australia. While the project received more than $60 million in government funding, Chevron has not faced any penalty for breaching the terms of its approval. Despite the collective failure of all CCS projects in Australia, in April 2021 the federal government announced $539.2 million of further investment in clean hydrogen and CCS.

It seems that CCS does not have to prove itself to benefit from unwavering government support. Of all possible technologies available and forthcoming to address climate change, CCS was elevated to the top five in the federal government’s Low Emissions Technology Investment Roadmap, which Professor Finkel led. Was it elevated because of the potential emission reductions from CCS over the next twenty years? Not according to the Department of Energy. It admitted during Senate Estimates that it does not expect any emissions reductions from CCS between now and 2040. And yet this is the technology Professor Finkel deems necessary for our hydrogen future.

On closer inspection, Professor Finkel doesn’t really have any good reason to push fossil-fuel hydrogen. He claims an “in-principle” concern for fuel diversity (which sounds eerily like energy minister Angus Taylor’s claim that “we need more horses in the race”, as long as those horses are fossil fuels). He claims producing renewable hydrogen is “inherently inefficient” compared to using fossil fuels. This seems ridiculous, given that fossil-fuel hydrogen with CCS requires burying commercial levels of carbon dioxide underground forever, an impossible task in Australia to date.

He claims the “cost of capturing the carbon dioxide is essentially free, such as hydrogen production from fossil fuels.” Nowhere does he explain how it is “essentially free,” and all experience to date tells us that it is prohibitively expensive to permanently store high levels of captured carbon. And who is obligated to ensure the gas is stored permanently and safely, given the federal and state governments have agreed to take on liability for the Gorgon CCS project after fifteen years?

In the end, Professor Finkel admits that CCS has not been proven to be commercially viable. Investing in unproven technology is a luxury you can afford only when time is of no concern. Without a clear deadline for Australia’s transition to net-zero emissions, we continue to fund failed technologies repeatedly.

Professor Finkel calls on all to “be ambitious, be patient.” But his essay is not ambitious, and science shows we cannot afford to be patient. Professor Finkel has provided an eloquent and engaging sales pitch. But he is selling a failed product: the technologies deemed acceptable by a government that lacks credibility on climate action. And in this decisive decade, we can’t afford to back the wrong horse.

Richie Merzian



Nick Rowley

For anyone who has endured what passes for debate on climate change and emissions reduction in Australia, Alan Finkel’s forward-looking, largely optimistic and rigorous presentation of the elements of Australia’s required transition to a net-zero energy economy is a refreshing and at times exciting read.

How nice to now understand how and why wind turbines require three blades, and the various methods whereby electric vehicles can be charged slowly, quickly or – if you are lucky – very quickly. And who could fail to be thrilled at the prospects for a country not only so richly endowed with wind and solar resources crying out to be harnessed, but also now potentially on the cusp of developing a whole new zero-or low-emissions industry based on hydrogen?

Alan is more than across the technical detail. He is genuinely enthused by the challenges of climate change and marshalling the forces required to address them. The task of achieving net zero is indeed immense. It is something no economy has ever achieved or tried to achieve. It means overhauling existing energy, industry, agriculture and transport systems, which are established, employ people and largely add to emissions. But Finkel does not let the magnitude of the task dissuade him from understanding the technologies required to achieve it.

Yet it will take more than “technology to solve technology’s problems.” Finkel’s hero, Buckminster Fuller, can no doubt teach us much, but we must beware magic-pudding thinking. No technology emerges in a vacuum. Much of it relies on public policy, public funding and a suite of additional incentives. Achieving net zero within the required time frame must involve policies that deliver a “just measure of pain” to the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure that is intensifying the climate problem. To ignore this, as Finkel does, is to neglect much of the challenge we face.

And yet I am with Alan in his frustration with those who wish achieving net-zero emissions were somehow straightforward. Climate advocates who argue that Australia must reach this target by 2035 are, sadly, whistling in the wind – or “dreamin’,” as the Michael Caton character said in the classic Australian film The Castle. If you are serious about achieving a net-zero economy, you must be at ease with the complexity of achieving change that goes to the heart of our political economy and replacing the high-carbon infrastructure on which we all rely.

The job of chief scientist, which Finkel occupied for five years until last November, is hard at the best of times. Where science meets policy will always be a place of tension. Politics is concerned not with positive questions, but with collective decisions and action: not “What is true?” but “What shall we do?” Because many of the questions most relevant to policy decisions may not or cannot have scientifically informed answers, politics challenges science. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw chief medical officers Brendan Murphy and Paul Kelly standing side by side with Scott Morrison, but even in response to the pandemic, Murphy and Kelly could only inform, not make, what are rightly political decisions.

An effective chief scientist can be a powerful scientific voice in policy debates. But they must walk a fine line, disentangling policy debate into clear questions and establishing which of these relate to scientific knowledge and which to our values, hopes and political principles. This is particularly hard when it comes to climate change. The link between carbon emissions, our existing means of generating energy and Australia’s clear vulnerability to the smorgasbord of climate risks – physical, environmental, economic and social – makes it particularly hard for even the most disciplined scientist not to spell out the all too human (and political) implications of failing to develop and implement effective climate policy.

During my time at the Downing Street Policy Directorate between 2004 and 2006, I worked closely with Sir David King, then the United Kingdom’s chief scientist. I was charged with advising Prime Minister Tony Blair and guiding UK efforts on climate change in the lead-up to the 2005 G8 summit: the first time a leader had made climate change a key priority for heads of state. In my policy work, I could get ambition, adjectives and rhetoric from any climate advocate on any day of the week. What King and scientists such as Sir John Houghton (who advised Margaret Thatcher, established the Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services, and led efforts to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) could deliver were numbers – the specific emissions reductions required to reduce climate risk, domestically and globally – which allowed the government to develop and argue for more ambitious policies and legislation.

King was respected. He had been integral to the government response to the vicious outbreak of mad cow disease three years earlier. But just two months before I started work in the office above Number 10’s black door, he damagingly overstepped the mark on climate change, commenting that it was “a more serious threat to the world than terrorism.” Climate advocates might have been pleased by the chief scientist’s bravura, but so soon after the 9/11 attacks, Washington was deeply offended. King was persona non grata in the US capital, and his insensitivity stunted Blair’s efforts to argue for progressive climate policy with President George W. Bush. It took months of diplomatic effort with Bush and those around him for the White House even to countenance serious discussion of how to strengthen the international climate response.

In contrast, King’s immediate predecessor in the role, the Australian scientist (and champion of the now famous “R number” so useful in understanding the spread of infectious disease) Lord Robert May, played a powerfully supportive role: using science to strengthen diplomatic effort. As president of the Royal Society, May led and orchestrated the first joint statement from the G8 science academies on the need for a more effective response to the climate problem. Their concise statement cut through: diplomats seeking to play down climate risk could be reminded, publicly or behind closed doors, of the statement signed by the president of their own leading science academy. This was science powerfully helping to build political and policy ambition.

For Finkel, there is only distraction to be had in looking backwards, but plenty to inspire us looking forwards. His concern is the future. Each page of his essay brings reasoned hope that achieving net-zero emissions is both possible and highly desirable. Surely our path needs more go signs and fewer stop signs. But, sadly, if we – as Finkel does – see climate response in the coming decade as having the potential to be every bit as exciting as space exploration in the 1960s, we ignore the key missing ingredient: political will.

Much as I would like to believe that Finkel is right, his optimism is naively blind to Australia’s current domestic politics. Our future is affected by our past. Look back and we can see the political and policy mess of the past fifteen years. Depressingly, Australia’s current climate-policy confusion goes beyond the position of the Morrison government. We are now at a point where both major parties favour a so-called “gas-led recovery” and will not rule out new coal-fired power stations. Any statements from our political leaders on the need to achieve a net-zero economy are meaningless if they continue to support new fossil-fuel infrastructure. They might as well tout the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise while ordering the double burger, large chips and a super-sized sugary drink.

The excitement of space exploration in the 1960s was founded on political leadership driving national purpose. Although NASA was created in 1958, it was President John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go the moon” speech in September 1962 that led to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. This was no “sentence or two” in a speech as a means to avoid international criticism, it was an unequivocal national priority backed by institutions, policy and money. With the average age of those employed on Apollo being just twenty-six, a whole generation was enthused. Between 1964 and 1966, public investment in NASA’s work amounted to around 4 per cent of the federal budget. When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, the moment was televised live, alongside that key quote from Kennedy’s speech.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson may have little in common, but Johnson has made achieving net zero a core priority for the United Kingdom, influencing economic decisions and the diplomatic positioning of “global Britain” after Brexit. Contrast Scott Morrison’s tokenistic words with the serious political and policy commitment of his UK counterpart. The Johnson government has just laid an order before parliament to enshrine a new carbon target in law by the end of June 2021. The United Kingdom’s existing target of a 68 per cent reduction of 1990 emissions levels by 2030 is the highest set by any country under the Paris Agreement. Now under the new laws it will aim to achieve a 78 per cent reduction by 2035, while also incorporating the carbon emissions contributed by the United Kingdom’s international aviation and shipping. Our prime minister might not believe in targets, but Johnson clearly does. The British prime minister is also willing to be legally bound by them, and supports them with policy informed by the independent Climate Change Committee, together with an ambitious ten-point plan to achieve net zero.

The development of technology does not and can never occur in a policy vacuum. As the economist Mariana Mazzucato shows so brilliantly, smartphones were not solely dreamed up by entrepreneurial tech wizards in garages. They were the result of government decisions in the form of focused public investment and subsidy. And we can thank the CSIRO – Australia’s own publicly funded scientific research institution – for the development of the wi-fi that the world has relied on to stay connected through the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as I would like to purchase an electric vehicle – as I am sure many other Australians would – I cannot afford any of the comparatively few cars available here. The paucity of options has everything to do with politics and the resulting lack of policy. It has nothing to do with technology. UK consumers receive a generous grant of £2500 ($4500) towards the price of a new electric car. This year, Volkswagen plans to sell around 450,000 electric vehicles globally, not one of which will be in Australia.

In his current role as adviser to the government on low emissions, Finkel cannot absent himself from the politics of climate change, even though he might like to. Rather than using his rigorous scientific, engineering and technological know-how to help build a more effective political and policy response, Finkel’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for technological solutions to the climate crisis runs the risk of supporting and legitimising the very rhetoric and politics that got Australia into its current woeful climate position.

Being deaf to the politics of climate change does not mean you can remove yourself from it. Bolstering the likes of Senator Matt Canavan and energy minister Angus Taylor sadly serves to legitimise their – weak at best, hostile at worst – stance on the net-zero outcome Finkel is so enthusiastic about delivering. That Finkel quotes the prime minister’s recent half-hearted rhetoric on reaching “net-zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050” leaves the reader confused. The 2019 National Hydrogen Strategy and the 2020 Low Emissions Technology Statement might serve to give the current “emperor” some policy “clothes,” but Finkel must realise that the economic transition required to achieve a national energy switch of this scale demands far more than funding for research into new technologies (vital though that is). Context is everything, and as uplifting as technology optimism can be, it must not be blind to it.

Finkel is, perhaps, the Anthony Fauci of Australian domestic energy and climate policy. Amid the noise – lumps of coal being brandished in parliament, prime ministers being “rolled,” and statements likening the promotion of electric vehicles to a “war on the weekend” – he has remained calm, considered and committed to the job at hand.

Part of what stultifies our climate politics is a lack of optimism and imagination. Some of that Finkel brings in spades. No one person can be everything: negotiating internal and external politics, contributing to policy, and appreciating and promoting the technologies that must be brought to bear at scale. I recall Robert May once sharing with me that almost everything he knew about being chief scientist and advising the government on scientific matters he learned from playing chess. I don’t know if Alan Finkel plays the game. But if he does, my sense is he plays it well.

Nick Rowley



Rebecca Huntley

Alan Finkel has written a comprehensive account of how Australia can transition to renewable energy while still keeping the lights on and standards of living high. His timing is impeccable, as we have seen momentum build for such a vision, despite the pandemic, in all parts of Australian society. Recent research shows 81 per cent of Australians support the Morrison government adopting a net-zero emissions target by 2050, and 87 per cent say they would support accelerating the development of new industries and jobs powered by renewable energy. For anyone, including me, who has learned in piecemeal fashion about the technological and industrial aspects of the shift to renewable technology, this essay provides a must-read, clear and compelling summary of how things work and what’s at stake. “The task ahead is, quite simply, immense,” Finkel writes. He shows us this mountain to climb and rightly so – I sometimes find it too easy, given my focus on climate change communication and activism, and my sense of the urgency of the task, to forget the scale of the challenge. As my consulting work with people in hard-to-abate industries reminds me, creating a zero-emissions brewery poses different challenges to decarbonising an aluminium smelter.

Finkel also touches on a concern often raised in focus groups I conduct: how can we expand renewables while also protecting our natural environment? “If flooding a valley to build a hydroelectric dam that allows us to close several coal-fired power stations displaces local animals and plants, is that a trade-off that we should favourably consider?” These apparent tensions can be resolved without too much compromise, but the dual challenges of building more renewable infrastructure and preserving our natural environment should always be kept front of mind.

However, as one of the many, many people in what Finkel calls the “fast transition” camp, I am disappointed by the missed opportunity this essay represents. Finkel states that he is an engineer and has written an engineer’s essay. But he is being modest. He is far more than that. He has been a senior figure, leader, thinker and public servant in the middle of some of the most important government and policy decisions about energy in Australia over the last decade. He remains a key influencer.

His essay opens with a moving admission that his vision of a net-zero future is inspired by concern for his great-grandchildren, that they might “grow up in a planet just as magnificent as it was when I was young.” I empathise. A similar concern led to my current professional and personal commitment to climate change activism. But it’s not my great-grandchildren I worry about. It’s my children and their peers. Also, to be frank, I worry about myself and my generation. Everyone living in Australia today. The impacts of climate change are being felt now, in extreme weather events, in high temperatures in outer suburbs, in the shrinking islands of the Torres Strait and in the increasingly difficult growing conditions for our farming communities. In recent research into public attitudes, we found that what distinguishes people who are genuinely alarmed and active on the issue of climate change (and Finkel would be among this group) from those who are merely concerned is their response to the question, “How important is climate change to you personally?” Climate change is a real and present danger to people living today. Distancing yourself from that allows you to delay action on the issue. And we all know that delay is the new denial. I would add that if we are too timid and drag our feet in this transition, Finkel may not have any great-grandchildren to worry about, given the level of anxiety among younger generations about bringing kids into a world of runaway climate change.

Finkel must know that he will frustrate many by not criticising the lack of consistency and vision shown by politicians and industry leaders on both energy and climate policy. Only Malcolm Roberts gets a serve. Finkel provides a short but swift demolition of the tired but still stubborn arguments of climate change deniers and minimisers. It should be written on cards and handed out on street corners, it’s so clear and elegant. And yet he would surely know that these attitudes live on in the conservative parties and even in parts of the ALP. And that such attitudes are why Australia is an international laggard. He wants us to be leading, not “jostling with the hangers-on or mingling with the coalition of the unwilling.” But that’s exactly where we are – not because of Malcolm Roberts, but because of politicians in mainstream parties. Politicians who continue to be tethered to industries and technologies that no longer serve our national interest. “This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine.” Finkel is a leader and a former high-ranking public servant, not a High Court judge. He must have some views on what good policy means for technological advancement and innovation, and how a lack of good policy has frustrated both.

Finkel’s essay is full of techno-optimism: “Technology to solve technology’s problems.” It’s certainly the case that participants in my qualitative research get excited when they learn about green steel, battery storage, new developments in solar and, of course, renewable hydrogen – the scale of the decarbonisation project seems less challenging. However, there are limits to technological solutions, which Finkel hints at but doesn’t delve into, perhaps because he is not a social scientist. Only policy can drive technological change in the time frame that climate science requires. Furthermore, behavioural change is an important part of the zero-emission goal. We can pursue the dual goals of decarbonisation and prosperity, but a different version of prosperity might be forced upon us, given the level of warming we’ve already reached and the trajectory we are on. Things have been lost and will continue to be lost. I would have loved some reflection by Finkel on how we might learn to live in a world that’s been damaged by climate change and will continue to be.

Given my research has recently focused on public attitudes to gas, I was particularly interested in Finkel’s commentary on this area. The concern I have is that his position could be framed as an argument that we need a greater supply of gas, which would involve more expensive infrastructure and opening up new gas basins – even to continue the damaging practice of fracking, which has been opposed by environmentalists and farmers in coalition. Of course, this framing is not entirely under Finkel’s control. Those who are determined to keep the fossil-fuel industries alive at any cost will misrepresent any commentary from such an esteemed expert to argue for gas’s ongoing role. Finkel has, in his essay and in his commentary generally, focused on gas for peaking. But this is strategically ignored by those arguing for “a gas-led transition” or that new gas is essential to the expansion of renewables. There are more than a few sober commentators on energy transition in this country who are prepared to argue that Australia doesn’t need new gas. Finkel’s position risks capture and manipulation by those who seek to prolong our dependence on a polluting energy source that we cannot rely on to secure our nation’s economic future.

Despite my criticisms, there is no doubt Finkel’s personal vision for a future net-zero-emissions society is one that many can share. He asks us to be ambitious and patient. Seventy-two per cent of Australians agree with the statement “Climate change is something we need to act on now.” In the focus groups I conduct there is a sense of impatience and frustration across the board that the world seems to be moving and we are being left behind. It is a time for ambition. The time for patience has passed.

Rebecca Huntley



Ross Garnaut

Alan Finkel has his critics on climate change in the scientific and policy communities. They argue that his prescriptions would do too little, too late, and provide cover for vested interests influencing policy to continue in old ways.

This response provides another context for Alan’s work on climate change as chief scientist from 2015 to 2020 and now as our prime minister’s special adviser on climate and the energy transition. The latter role is of national significance, through the series of demanding heads-of-government conferences in which Scott Morrison participates as a member or observer. The meetings commenced with President Biden’s virtual Climate Summit in April 2021, and will continue through the G7 in London and the G20 in Rome, to the Glasgow conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change hosted by UK prime minister Boris Johnson in December.

We should be under no illusion about what is at risk through these international meetings: Australia’s reputation as a nation that pulls its weight as a member of the international community of democratic countries. We should be under no illusion that our national interest is at risk, as the country which stands to lose most from failure on global climate change mitigation and to gain most economically from full participation in success.

Australians who understand what is at stake can be glad that Alan Finkel has the ear of senior figures in a government that in its early years had resisted scientific reality and set out to remove effective instruments for reducing Australian emissions. In Superpower: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, I said that the prospects of building Australia’s prosperity by embracing the world’s movement to zero net emissions is the bridge over which the Morrison government can walk across the chasm, from the spoiling side of climate action to constructive participation. Alan points out to government that stepping onto this bridge is necessary and safe.

But we have to make sure that the bridge, which has scientific, engineering and economic components, goes all the way to the other side. In Getting to Zero, Alan describes himself as an engineer. The engineering design is in good hands. We must make sure the scientific and economic components are soundly built as well.

The engineering

Getting to Zero presents a fascinating description of how the chief scientist and Australian governments became committed to major use of hydrogen in the transition. Alan calls hydrogen the hero of the story and describes its many potential roles. He expects it to play a big role in the future Australian economy. He is probably right, in a time frame that will allow him to see the fruits of his work.

Getting to Zero provides background on the development of the 2020 First Low Emissions Technology Statement – or Roadmap. It says a little about the selection of five technologies that will have higher priority than others for government support: clean hydrogen; energy storage; carbon capture and storage in geological structures; low-emissions steel and aluminium; and soil carbon. In the absence of a carbon price, government fiscal support is the main policy instrument for promoting the application of new technologies. Priorities guide government allocation decisions. All technologies on the list will have a role in a future zero-emissions economy. Others have strong claims. I hope that they are not neglected. Alan says that they can be added later.

Alan tells an interesting story of his involvement in the review of Australian energy institutions after the blackout in South Australia in 2016. Political partisans blamed the blackout on the high proportion of renewable energy. Alan explains that the problem was the National Electricity Market’s operation and design, and not an excess of renewables. As the system operators have gained experience, “it is now clear that it will be possible to achieve the ultimate goal of a zero-emissions electricity system.” Alan has contributed to that learning from experience.

The science

Getting to Zero describes the scientific basis of climate change and the need for climate action in a simple and compelling way. Alan and I, engineer and economist, both absorb the realities of atmospheric physics from specialists in the field. Alan presents the scientific reality faithfully: theory tells us that increased carbon dioxide and methane, and to a lesser extent other greenhouse gases, raise the average temperature and reduce variations in the temperature of the atmosphere, and also of the land and sea; human activity over the past century or so has already lifted average global temperatures by around 1.2 degrees (1.4 degrees on average in Australia); increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases destabilise the climate upon which established patterns of life on Earth depend; damage has already been done, and increases with each increment of emissions. We have to get to net zero by about the middle of the century. There is no reasonable cause for doubt; denial is irrational. We can be glad that our federal leaders have been exposed to such clear expression of important truth.

Alan ends his discussion of the science by saying that “zero” really means low or very low; that low really means less than 10 per cent from where we started. My reading of the physics raises questions about that reinterpretation of zero. Ten per cent of where Australia started, or where the world started? Ten per cent of Australia in 2005 is an amount per person that is around half of where the world was in 2005, or about the whole of where India was. Would India think it reasonable to stay at Australia’s 10 per cent, or the world’s? Which of these would be fair? Which of these would be acceptable?

Be that as it may, my reading of the physics says that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the trend in global temperatures will continue to rise while net emissions exceed zero. Absolute zero, not 10 per cent of an old number. The Summary for Policy Makers in the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C says that to hold temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, we have to have net-zero CO2 for the world as a whole by 2050. Malte Meinhausen, professor of climate science at the University of Melbourne and adviser to the IPCC, suggests that we think of a range from 2047 to 2055. Start late or slowly and we have to finish fast and early.

Hold emissions at one-tenth of current levels and we fail to stabilise average global temperatures and end up higher – eventually much higher – than 1.5 degrees. If we continued after 2050 with emissions of 3.7 GtCO2 per annum, equal to one-tenth of the present, temperature after fifty years would exceed 1.5 by 0.3 degrees (Professor Meinhausen suggests a range of 0.19 to 0.43 degrees, with about 0.3 degrees extra for every subsequent half-century).

Of course, it matters what happens to methane and other gases that have a relatively short life in the atmosphere. Alan says that New Zealand has excluded agriculture, with its large methane emissions, from its “net zero” target. Methane has an average life in the atmosphere of about a dozen years, compared with hundreds of years for carbon dioxide. Methane emissions are net zero if we hold them steady at the levels of a dozen or so years ago: as many molecules are being removed from the atmosphere each year as are being added. Reduce absolute methane emissions to zero and atmospheric concentrations will fall gradually to zero during those dozen years. There are relatively straightforward ways to reduce methane emissions. Unlike carbon dioxide, reduction of methane is a source of negative emissions. Far from excluding agriculture from the net-zero objective, New Zealand is seeking to measure its impact scientifically.

Getting to Zero clears up one point of dispute with a number of environmental scientists. In his presentation to the National Press Club on 12 February 2020, Alan argued that gas had a large role to play in balancing intermittent renewable energy – providing power when the sun is not shining and the wind not blowing. Pumped hydro storage and batteries could do the job and eventually would, but gas had a substantial transition role for many decades. Twenty-five people, several of them eminently qualified in atmospheric physics, published a letter in a scholarly journal later in the year, saying that the proposed reliance on gas was inconsistent with holding temperature increases within the 1.5 degree objective. They said that the time had passed for building any new fossil-energy infrastructure, including for power generation from gas.

At the National Press Club, Alan was silent on whether new gas infrastructure should be built. At one point in his address, he said he was aware that building new natural gas generators may be seen as problematic, and that he would come back to that. He didn’t come back to it. But he has done so in Getting to Zero. Gas has purely a peaking and transitional role. In the quantities implied by that role, there is ample existing gas processing, transportation and power generation infrastructure in place now. Alan has implicitly made the case against investment in new gas infrastructure. The twenty-five scientists should be pleased.

One quibble about language. Alan doesn’t like calling carbon dioxide a pollutant, because in moderate concentrations it makes our kind of life possible. Many substances that he would be happy to call pollutants do no harm and some good in suitably low concentrations. I understand that undergraduate engineers are taught that the solution to pollution is dilution. Pollution is the introduction into the environment of a substance which has damaging or unpleasant effects. No doubt about carbon dioxide in concentrations not much higher than they are now! US courts had to adjudicate on the matter about a decade ago, and concluded that carbon dioxide was a pollutant, and therefore subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The economics and policy

Alan’s essay is “about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine.” He notes that governments have “to balance competing priorities across economic growth, scientific advice and community values.”

True. But the choice of policy instruments affects how far we can get towards each of several competing objectives. For example, if there were a conflict between economic growth and climate stability, superior policies would give us more of both.

There is no trade-off with scientific and engineering advice; that is what it is, to be understood or not; to be accepted or ignored. Within constraints defined by science and technology, superior policy allows us to eat more cake (economic growth) and to have more left (climate stability).

Laws of economics are as unforgiving as science and technology. Breach them, and the community suffers loss. But much of economics is about optimisation of community value in the light of scientific and technological realities. In the end, some choices among alternative community preferences must be made by political leaders – in our fortunate case, through democratic processes. Australians will do well if we accept the scientific reality as a foundation for choices on climate change mitigation, accept the technological reality to define various paths to emissions reduction, accept the economic realities defining lowest-cost paths to reducing emissions, and in the process clarify any irremovable choices between fundamental objectives. The irreducible choices will mainly involve the distribution of the costs and benefits of change across the community.

There are many advantages in using market exchange to allocate resources across competing uses, wherever conditions exist for effective market competition. That was essential to the victory of Western market over centrally planned economies in the systemic competition through the second half of the twentieth century. But for the optimal supply of public goods – including the electricity transmission networks discussed by Alan – markets don’t work and planning is necessary. And they don’t work if one firm’s activities impose costs or confer benefits on others that are not carried or received by those causing them. This was subject to close analysis in my climate change review, presented to all of Australia’s heads of government – federal, state and territory – in 2008.

Networks need to be in public hands, or else their investment and pricing need to be regulated by public authorities. Australia has been slow to learn what is necessary. Getting to Zero tells us about the path we have travelled, at least to a position where we can see what needs to be done.

Two kinds of imperfections, in the way costs and benefits of market exchange to society are reflected in private benefits, are important to the transition to zero emissions. Correcting them both with taxes and subsidies or regulation will allow market exchange to drive economic development while achieving required emissions reductions at the lowest possible cost.

One imperfection is that raw market exchange does not value the damage that greenhouse gas emissions from activity impose on others. A tax on emissions, or a subsidy to low-emissions alternatives to established ways of doing things, can reconcile the profit-maximising decisions of businesspeople and the welfare-maximising decisions of citizens with the public interest. In the end, subsidies are paid for by taxes, so the difference is not as great as it may seem at first sight.

After the abolition of the carbon price in 2014, we retained the Renewable Energy Target. Alan notes that it was so successful it led to the costs of solar and wind falling below those of fossil energy, so that it was no longer necessary. Unnecessary in what sense? A new tranche or stronger target would have led to a higher level of output, and lower emissions. Modelling done for the Coalition’s own 2014 Warburton review showed that it would have led to lower electricity prices. Unnecessary? Maybe in some sense, but extension of the policy would have led to more cake eaten and more left behind.

The second imperfection is that market exchange does not lead to socially desirable levels of technological and business innovation in the absence of public support. The pioneer produces knowledge that is valuable across the whole of society that she cannot capture for herself. Market exchange without public support does not produce enough innovation. This is especially important when circumstances require rapid technological development – as they do now with climate change.

Correct the market imperfection from greenhouse gas emissions with a carbon price and we can enjoy the magic of markets finding the best trade-offs between cost and emissions reduction. Correct the innovation imperfection with judicious allocation of fiscal subsidies across activities in proportion to the expected value of social benefits and we see an optimal rate of introduction of new ways of doing things.

Our awful history of climate change discussion has ruled out market-based approaches to reducing emissions for the time being. That history carries a high price. There will be a large reward to our standard of living if and when history lifts its veto.

In the meantime, we have to get as far as we can by relying on correcting the imperfections related to innovation. That can be a long way. In some circumstances, the underlying scientific and technological realities mean that deployment of new zero-emissions technology at scale takes costs below those of the old, high-emissions processes. That has happened with solar and wind, and may happen with battery and pumped hydro storage in competition with peaking gas generation. It has happened with supply of electricity for aluminium smelting and may happen for use of zero-emissions hydrogen. But whether or not it happens in any particular case is in the hands of the technological gods.

In some important cases it can never happen. In the words of a song I used to play our grandchildren on a long car journey: “Science is real; you’ll never see a unicorn, but you can see a rainbow.” No matter what the subsidy for geological capture and storage, it will never be cheaper than releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Large-scale deployment requires a carbon price or economically equivalent regulation. Public expenditure on technological development is wasted unless it is accompanied or followed by a carbon price or by regulation mandating its use.

In our public discussion at the release in Melbourne of Getting to Zero, Alan said that other countries’ requirements plus some private companies’ preferences for zero-emissions inputs will provide the incentives for deployment of CCS. That requires other governments accepting Australia’s free-riding on their carbon price or regulation, or some companies being prepared to accept competitors securing advantage by failing to take similar actions themselves. This is thin ground on which to build a transition strategy.

Larger fiscal subsidies are more likely to push the costs of a new, low-emissions technology below those of the established alternatives. Our subsidies are tiny compared with those of other developed countries. Add up all of the support for low-emissions technologies in the 2021 budget and it may amount to several hundred millions of dollars per year. By contrast, the energy and climate transition subsidies embodied in President Biden’s infrastructure package presented to the US Congress in February are proportionally about one hundred times the Australian amount. Other developed countries are closer to the US than the Australian position.

Getting to Zero concludes with an exhortation to “be ambitious, be patient.” Be more ambitious and less patient on reducing emissions, and we are more likely to prosper as the energy superpower of the low-carbon world economy.

Ross Garnaut



Scott Ludlum

Alan Finkel’s forceful review of what “getting to zero” could actually look like is at once bracing, daunting and cautionary.

It is bracing because it is confirmation – from someone who should know – that there are no significant engineering barriers to a near-zero carbon economy. As chief scientist, Dr Finkel has worked at the highest level for successive governments; he has an unusual combination of scientific credentials and political survival skills, earned in the toxic swamp of national energy debates.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was left largely to civil society organisations such as Greenpeace and Beyond Zero Emissions to make the case that we could ramp down fossil combustion while keeping the lights on. That was important work: it moved the debate forward and gave confidence to the non-technical among us that we weren’t asking the impossible. But it meant pushing against the heavy headwinds of the establishment, with the terms of debate set by industry incumbents. Even if such a transition were necessary, they insisted it could only be done with nuclear power, ‘clean’ coal or some Star Trek invention that didn’t exist yet.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate just how far we’ve come. The way is clear for a zero-emissions electricity grid powered by the sun and wind, and distributed backup in the form of batteries and pumped hydro. Sector by sector, the future is here; now it’s just a question of scaling it up. As for the sacred cows of coal and gas exports, Dr Finkel takes direct aim at them, illuminating the writing on the wall in capital letters ten feet high: it’s over. We can build export industries of hydrogen, green steel and direct electricity supplies to our neighbours, or we can watch coal, gas and uranium revenues collapse as the rest of the world moves ahead without us. These are political questions we’re grappling with, not technical ones. For those who’ve spent years – or decades – at this coalface, this is an affirmation, from the heart of the establishment, that we’ve been on the right track all along.

Dr Finkel’s essay is daunting as well, because it doesn’t shy away from just how much work we have left to do, the scale of the proposed build and the consequences of further delay. It’s useful to fill in some of the blanks here: the reason we’re so late to this isn’t the fault of technologists or people working in the clean-energy sector. It’s because energy multinationals and their allied media platforms have thoroughly poisoned our politics over the course of three decades. The peak bodies for mining, oil and gas spent millions brutally dispatching the Rudd and Gillard governments, and installing the greasily compliant Abbott and Morrison, with a pause along the way to cancel the Turnbull experiment. Those powerful lobbyists won’t back down just because the former chief scientist declares them obsolete; their grip on state and federal politics now approaches a level that in other countries would be considered a form of state capture.

This is a fight that won’t be resolved through reasoned argument alone: if that were possible, those reports by Greenpeace and Beyond Zero would have concluded the debate years ago. Instead, we’re forced to conduct it in the teeth of megafires and rising seas. For Dr Finkel’s blueprint to take physical form in the time we may have left, it will take a full-scale rebellion, encompassing everything from shareholder activism and electoral upsets to mass-occupations of corporate headquarters and mine sites.

That’s where the cautionary aspect of the essay comes into sharpest relief. As an engineer, Dr Finkel is tasked with optimising a technology mix to drive emissions down as rapidly as possible. He covers a huge amount of ground in a short space – from power stations to private cars, agriculture to aluminium smelters – so it’s not a criticism to note that wider social and historical imperatives are beyond the essay’s scope. But some of this context matters. Finkel proposes replacing fossil generators and exporters with renewable ones, while leaving the rest of society much as it is. Over a thirty-year build, it is estimated that a high-end solar field would occupy an astonishing 20,000 square kilometres of land. Clearly this is not on the same scale of apocalyptic destruction as longwall coal-mining or gas fracking, but on whose land will these new clean energy projects be built? Where will the rare earths come from? Will access agreements be imposed on traditional owners, using the unforgivably coercive framework of native title, or will we at last discuss sovereignty and land rights?

It’s also worth reflecting on the conclusion reached by the International Energy Agency in 2018 that 40 per cent of the world’s energy use could be eliminated through humble efficiency retrofits and improvements to building and product designs. Finkel only glances at this potential; while such measures are less glamorous than a new offshore wind farm, that’s an astonishing amount of electricity we can choose not to use at all. Rather than relying on brute-force generation to power everything from seawater desalination to air conditioning in poorly designed building stock, we could shift our focus to low-impact design.

A similarly unglamorous approach to transport is needed. There’s every reason to be excited about the proliferation of electric cars heralding the long-delayed extinction of the internal combustion engine. But there’s not enough lithium – or car parking – for everyone to own a two-tonne electric SUV, even if we wanted to deploy enough photovoltaic solar energy to power them. Older disciplines of public transport, compact, transit-oriented urban design and truly accessible cities can help to inform our decisions if we broaden our horizons beyond trying to replace coal and gas with the equivalent installation of solar and wind.

None of this is to say I disagree with the essay’s basic premise: the renewable future is here if we’re ready to seize it. But in accepting this premise, a whole range of options and possible futures opens up. One option is to try to maintain our energy-profligate, infinite-growth society through a massive deployment of solar, wind and storage. Another option is to choose a path of lower impact; to embed the energy agenda within the wider ambition of land rights, regenerative economics and circular design principles. With our current government so manifestly unfit to even initiate this conversation, it’s up to the rest of us to make it happen. Then the engineers and the technologists can really get to work.

Scott Ludlam



Tim Flannery

Dr Alan Finkel was Australia’s eighth chief scientist, serving from January 2016 until he was succeeded by Dr Cathy Foley in 2021. Finkel describes himself as an engineer (the field in which he trained), and he has held many illustrious positions, including president of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. The approach Finkel takes in Getting to Zero stems from his engineering background. Notably, it builds on a speech he gave to the National Press Club on 12 February 2020 and indeed recycles much of his Press Club text verbatim.

At the time Finkel addressed the National Press Club, he was speaking as Australia’s chief scientist and representing Australian science. Yet his words so concerned twenty-five of Australia’s top climate scientists that they penned a letter in response. While welcoming Finkel’s role in helping to expand renewable energy, the scientists expressed concern “about the scale and speed of the decarbonisation challenge required to meet the Paris Agreement and, in particular, [Finkel’s] support for the use of gas as a transition fuel over ‘many decades.’” They concluded that Finkel’s approach was inconsistent with a safe climate, and they found no evidence that Australia needs an expanded gas industry in order to transition to renewables.

How could the chief scientist give a major address so out of kilter with the country’s most eminent scientists? The answer, I think, can be read between the lines in Getting to Zero, which is essentially an assessment of the technologies required to achieve deep emissions cuts in the eight sectors of the Australian economy that produce greenhouse gases.

The first and largest of these sectors is electricity generation, and Finkel does a great job outlining the scale of the transition required for it to reach net zero. To convert Australia’s electricity supply to solar and wind, he says, we would need to increase the current electricity production from wind and solar sevenfold. But if we hope to electrify the entire economy (including transport and industry), we’d need to do that three times over and to store energy on an unprecedented scale at the same time. Finkel’s analysis here is masterly, and his analysis would meet with agreement from the nation’s scientists.

But it’s the role of gas in achieving net zero that is contested. Energy minister Angus Taylor has called for a gas-led economic recovery, and in the past Finkel has echoed the minister’s view that we need more gas. In Getting to Zero, Finkel soft-pedals on the issue, saying only that “it is not clear at this time whether existing gas generators will be sufficient to provide firming services.” Notably, he also backs away from his previous openness to nuclear power, saying that the cost of electricity from conventional nuclear is “too high,” while leaving the door open to smaller nuclear reactors that are not yet developed.

In his Press Club address, Finkel talked up the virtue of making hydrogen from coal and gas, arguing that carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be economical in sequestering the carbon dioxide generated in the process. In Getting to Zero, he says, “The main criticism directed at producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is that it will proceed without carbon capture and storage. Wrong.” Yet this is exactly what is happening right now at Australia’s first coal-to-hydrogen plant (in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley). While the plant claims to be “carbon capture–ready,” right now it’s venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the rate of around 88 kilograms for every kilogram of hydrogen created. If CCS is as economical as Finkel suggests, why isn’t it being used by the industry from the outset?

Finkel also outlines an interesting synergy between hydrogen and gas, pointing out that generators running on gas can easily be converted to hydrogen, as can many pipelines. The effect of this claim is to blunt opposition to new gas infrastructure. In light of Finkel’s claim regarding fossil fuels, CCS and hydrogen, I’m sceptical that the conversion to hydrogen will occur in a timely manner.

Finkel’s detailed assessment of what remains to be done to reach net-zero emissions makes it clear that the nation faces an immense task. On this all agree. The real question is how quickly it must be done, and on this point Finkel is largely silent, focusing instead on how long it would take given current economic and technological constraints. The thing climate scientists know, but which Finkel does not fully acknowledge, is that the time we have to achieve the task will be determined by the Earth’s system. If we trigger one or more of Earth’s nine climate tipping points, we may find ourselves irrevocably sliding towards catastrophic climate change. If that happens, nothing we do with our energy systems will alter our fate. So the key question becomes: how quickly do we need to decarbonise our economy to give us a fair chance (a 66 per cent chance, say) of avoiding catastrophic change? Scientists are currently working on an answer, and their early findings suggest that by 2050 it will be too late.

As with all transitions, the closer a deadline looms, the more expensive it is to achieve: long before it becomes impossible, it becomes extremely costly. For argument’s sake, let’s examine the implications of needing to reach net zero by 2035. Australia would need to close all of its coal in the next eight and a half years and build seven times more wind-and solar-powered energy systems than we’ve built to date. But that would only be the start. Australia would need to repeat the exercise more than twice over to electrify transport and industrial energy completely. We’d need to retire hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of assets, including steel mills, aluminium plants, coalmines and power plants, and of course almost every vehicle in the country. Given the technological obstacles, and the lack of incentive in our current economic model, this would not be achievable in the Australia of today. The only way to reach net zero would be to put the nation on a war footing, as Australia did in 1939 (and again in 2020 when confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic). When a nation is in a struggle for its very existence, nobody counts the cost. The imperative is to win regardless.

Finkel refuses to countenance this possibility, saying that “it is simply unrealistic to think that with political will we can immediately reverse course.” He adds: “No trade-off, no dichotomy. Prosperity and low emissions. It is my firm belief we can have both.” Before the year is out, scientists are likely to publish their analysis on when we need to reach net-zero emissions. I would be interested in speaking to Finkel at this point, to see what he makes of it.

Finkel uses several ruses to respond to those who want action commensurate with the scale and immediacy of the threat. For example, he puts up the straw man that we cannot immediately shut down coal. And, although he is no longer chief scientist, he steers clear of discussing the role of government and the impacts of policy. Finkel is a good engineer, saying that “the first step in developing a solution is to identify the problem.” Yet in Getting to Zero, he tragically fails to do that: the real problem, as climate scientists know, is that unless we take timely action and view cost as a secondary consideration, we seem destined to precipitate a new, dangerous climate that will threaten our global civilisation.

Tim Flannery


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 par